By Herb Peppard
One of my worst experiences happened in November, 1943. It was a few days before we went into our first action during the Second World War.
A couple of weeks before this we had sailed from Newport News, Virginia, to North Africa. The ship we sailed on was the Empress of Scotland. It was not a pleasant trip for me because I got sea-sick every time I was at sea.
We landed in Casablanca where I searched in vain for Hollywood star Humphrey Bogart, who starred in the movie of the same name the previous year. Surprise, he was nowhere in sight!
We were taken to a hill a short distance away overlooking the city. It was there we pitched our tents. Sitting outside my tent as the sun went down and looking at the scene below I felt very blessed, for it was a marvelous sight to see. The buildings were all white and they gleamed in the setting sun.
Suddenly something flashed into my mind that I never realized before. Casablanca must be named because of all the white buildings. Sometimes it takes quite a while for me to comprehend these things but afterwards they’re imprinted on our memory for all time.
Sadly, this beautiful setting was short-lived. We were ordered to pack up, taken to a railway station and loaded onboard. Where we were going, we didn’t have a clue.
We soon found out that this was not a plush passenger train with soft, cushiony seats. This was a train with box-cars, made to move cattle. In fact, outside was this sobering sign – ‘eight horses or 40 men.’
It was not a pleasant experience. I don’t remember how long the trip across North Africa was, but I think we were aboard two or three days. It was very uncomfortable. I didn’t mind this as much as I did the ‘pit stops.’ The train would stop every so often to allow us to relieve ourselves. Where and when we stopped we had no control over. Sometimes it was devoid of people. On other occasions it could be in the center of a small village. This was very embarrassing.
Eventually we reached our destination, the port of Oran on the Mediterranean coast. It was then my former vision of Africa was really shattered. I’d always visualized Africa as a land of jungle and desert. However, I was amazed to see how lush and fertile and green this portion of Africa was that bordered on the Mediterranean Sea.
When we went route marching we saw acres and acres of olive trees. The fruit was not ripe yet but we plucked the berries and threw them at each other. Oh, the joys of youth!
Finally we set sail for Naples, Italy. As we neared our destination we passed by a beautiful island. An announcement came over the loud speaker: “Off to our right is the beautiful island of Capri.” Instantly, most of us burst out singing: “Twas on the isle of Capri that I met her!”
We docked at Naples on the beautiful bay that rimmed the harbour. A short distance away we could see the imposing historic sight of Mount Vesuvius with smoke pouring out of its cone.
We were assigned to a camp a short distance away in a place called Santa Maria. The next couple of days we went up in the hills to check out our weapons, and make sure we were ready for action. I was in a mortar crew. The caliber of our mortar was 60mm.
Some of our men were assigned to learn about operating a new piece of equipment. It was an anti-tank weapon carried by the infantry nicknamed the ‘bazooka.’ It was about five-feet long and looked like a stove pipe. On its side were a trigger and a battery. It was operated by two men. One man loaded the gun and hooked the wires up. The he slapped his buddy on the shoulder to let him know it was ready to fire.
Our mortar crew was about 150 yards from the bazooka crew so we didn’t know what happened. However, a very good friend of mine, George Wright, was in charge of the bazooka crew. This is what he told me happened:
“My officer ordered my crew to fire the bazooka. The gun was loaded, wires hooked up and the trigger pulled. Nothing happened.
“I then ordered the men to lay the weapon down and step away from it until experts could examine it. This is what we were ordered to do in case of a misfire.
“However, our officer, a captain, was not satisfied. He ordered me to get my men to fire the weapon again. I refused, but I feared the result. It was the first time I ever refused a direct order from a superior before, but I was thinking of the safety of my men. The officer was very upset and I was sure he would have me up on the carpet as soon as he could.
“The officer then ordered two men from another platoon to fire the bazooka. They obeyed the order, picked up the weapon and pulled the trigger. There was a terrific explosion as the gun exploded in their hands. One of the men was killed instantly, the other lived for a few minutes.”
Being about 150 yards away, I did not know the story leading up to the explosion. However, I certainly heard the thunderous explosion.
Then I heard a thud on the ground close to me and I went over to investigate. It was a jagged piece of metal, and I soon realized it was a small fragment of a helmet. I picked it up, and later wished I had not done so for inside it was part of a human skull with a few threads of hair on it. I then realized this had been part of a human being. A young healthy soldier who had been laughing and joking only minutes before.
Major Becket, who was in charge of your regiment, later told us this tragic tale. He rushed over to the bazooka crew just after the explosion. He saw one was dead, the other near death. The major could scarcely control himself and he kept saying: “He was just a boy, he was just a boy.”
The young soldier kept saying: “My bum is cold: my bum is cold!”
To comfort him and reassure him, the major said: “You will be going home soon, son. You will be going home soon, son.”
“Will I see my mother? Will I see my mother?”
“You certainly will son. You certainly will.”
Then the boy was gone.
War is hell!
Herb Peppard is a decorated veteran of the Second World War. He lives in Truro.