Preparing for War

Benjamin B. Ferencz

My brief sojourn in London was not a happy one. I wandered around the rainy streets trying to identify landmarks described in a little guidebook I carried in my pocket. I visited the criminal court, but the judges and bailiffs, in contrast to the bellowing heard in New York tribunals, spoke in such a whisper and such a strange tongue that I understood practically nothing. A brief trip to see the nearby beach at Brighton was even more depressing. The beach was completely covered with barbed wire and steel barricades designed to thwart any possible German invasion. When I bounced a ball back to a little girl playing near the strand, her mother pulled her away quickly. I guess she feared I was a German spy. If I approached a young lady with a request for directions, she reacted as though she was being targeted for an imminent attack. I finally found shelter in a building run by the Red Cross where I was allowed to sleep on a blanket on the floor of a crowded gymnasium. After my London sojourn, I was almost eager to get back to the greater hospitality of my barren stones at Stonehenge.

The men of the 115th were assembled on the Salisbury Plain, and a General explained our mission. We would hit the beach after the engineers had cleared the mines and barriers under the water. A battery of men would go ashore with barrage balloons that would be released with hanging cables to intercept low flying enemy craft. Our battalion would go ashore and set up its guns to shoot down high flying German airplanes that were expected to attack the men on the beach. Not to worry. Our secret radar would see the planes coming and our new remote control devices would automatically fire and destroy all enemy aircraft as soon as they came within range. In fact, as we later discovered, it didn’t quite work out that way. The Germans had better radar, and they dropped aluminum foil and silver covered pigeons from their incoming planes to blur detection by our radar and targeting by our guns. Those on the beach were like sitting ducks. But that was to be known only later. Sorry about that, boys.

The 115th was designated as a “mobile” battalion. Within 15 minutes, the whole outfit, guns and all, had to be able to start rolling. We frequently moved from one staging area to another, closer to our planned point of embarkation. This gave me an opportunity to see different parts of England, since I could explain that I needed to travel to a distant depot to pick up battalion supplies. (Which was usually true.) Since I had to drive on the wrong side of the road (as was the British practice), and all road signs had been removed to foil invaders, it was always a hazardous undertaking for me. Occasionally, I must admit, in the course of my duties I would go astray. Attribute this to my poor sense of direction.

One day, my former roommate at Harvard, who had become an Ensign in the Navy, got word to me that he wanted me as his best man. His wedding was to take place in a few days in the port city of Plymouth. How could I refuse the request of a naval officer about to go off to war? Of course, I got lost along the way. When I asked for directions, the typical response was, “Oh, that’s simple. You go to the turnabout at the bottom of the hill till you see an elm tree next to a big oak, and then you turn two miles before the church. You can’t miss it!” They underestimated me. When I finally reached Portsmouth, my buddy had already been wed and was called back to his ship in the harbor. I didn’t miss much. His bride was a beauty who, it soon turned out, wanted either a widow’s pension or a passport to America. He survived the war and they were promptly divorced in New York. The beauteous bride went off to Hollywood as she had planned. My roommate was one of many soldiers who learned to their sorrow that marriage in heat or haste can be a hazard of war.

It was not that I neglected my official duties as a supply sergeant to go sight-seeing around England—quite the contrary. I was known as a guy who could always get the job done. When, for example, practically all of the battalion field stoves failed to function, I discovered that it was usually only one particular part that was defective. The manufacturer, no doubt with connections to his congressman, was located near Kentucky. All broken stoves had to be shipped back there for repairs. It was estimated that it might take six months. I tracked down the freight cars full of broken field stoves waiting on a siding in England. With the use of a screwdriver, I quickly cannibalized the broken stoves, collected bags full of useable replacement parts, and returned to base in triumph. Without a functioning stove there could have been no hot meals on the battlefield. To think—they didn’t even give me a medal.

My most heroic achievement was when I was responsible for “wiping out” a whole battalion. It is not modesty but delicacy that gives me pause in telling the story. Since we were ready to invade France, and that was on the other side of the English Channel, the army figured out that we would have to cross a body of water. Being very meticulous and cautious planners, they concluded that all needed supplies had to be sealed in waterproof containers. That was done. There was no problem until we ran out of vital supplies and we were still on shore. In short, when the invasion was delayed, we desperately needed toilet paper. But it was all safely packed up, sealed, and stored in the bottom of the boats waiting in the harbors. What to do?

Calls to all the warehouses and supply depots in England were to no avail. No toilet paper on hand anywhere. Even the Stars and Stripes, the army newspaper (not the flag, thank God), were all gone down the clogged drains. The situation called for creative imagination. My superior officers told me a thousand times that I was not supposed to think. They insisted that I was in the army. All I had to do was to obey. Nevertheless, the evolutionary urge to use my little gray cells could no longer be repressed. This was urgent, this was an emergency, this was WAR!

From my vast army experience as an unskilled typist, I knew that the army would never run out of typing paper. The second sheets, disguised under the name of “manifold,” were used for carbon copies. Their thin and delicate texture was also suitable for other purposes. There were plenty of manifolds around and I raced out to get them. Then I found a butcher company that had big cleavers. I persuaded a few husky butchers to demonstrate their skill and they hacked each pack of manifolds into four squares with two strong whacks of a meat cleaver. With a truckload of improved toilet tissue, I returned to base in triumph. My whole battalion was saved from a fate worse than death. My rank wasn’t high enough for me to qualify for any special commendation.

Gradually we moved closer to the beach. At the very tip of England, at a place called Land’s End, our battalion was standing by for the long awaited invasion. I recall the early morning hours of June 6, 1944 that would become famous as D Day. I was on guard duty, as usual. I watched the sky turn black with planes. Many of them dragged one or two gliders behind them. I knew that the ships that I had seen clogging the harbors all along the British coast had set sail for the beaches of France. The tension of the waiting, the excitement of what was happening, and the knowledge that we were finally engaging a hated enemy caused a surprising sensation to rise in my breast. I let out a loud cheer. I wanted to be with the invading force.