As told to Joy Conklin
This is the story of my service in the United States Army during World War II, as part of the 793rd Military Police Battalion, Company B. I served in Europe from Utah Beach through France to Antwerp, Belgium. I’m proud of what I did to fight back the Germans.
In January 1943, I graduated from high school and two weeks later Uncle Sam had me. I’d turned 18 in August, just a kid who didn’t know much about anything outside the Jamestown area where I grew up in Tuolumne County, California. I’d had a little experience working for my Dad farming vegetables on his ranch, but as far as what the world was like or what I wanted to do when I grew up, I’d never even given it a thought.
I had two older brothers, Adolf and Albert. One was in the South Pacific, one was in the Coast Guard, and that gave me some sort of an idea where I was headed. In 1943, even in school we were pretty much focused on the war. The government ran a scrap metal program we got extra credits for – I went to classes in the morning and in the afternoon, me and my buddies went out and collected all kinds of metal scrap. Woodwork, shop and mechanics were my favorite classes, so this suited me just fine.
People would call the school and we’d go out with a truck and a blow torch and cut up their old car or whatever it was they had and bring it back to the school where it would be collected in big trucks. I got enough extra credits that way to graduate a semester early.
So when I got my notice from Uncle Sam in February, it wasn’t a big surprise. In Tuolumne County it was the president of the Bank of America who had the list and picked who was drafted and who stayed home. Why it was me and eight or 10 other guys from my graduating class of about 80 kids who were called first, and not the others, that I don’t know, but I was one of the first in my class to be called.
I remember the day we got on the bus in Sonora, heading for physicals in Sacramento. We were all young ’uns, worried and a little scared.
A week or two later I took another ride to Sacramento. That trip I got most of my hair cut off and lots of shots and uniforms and then I was a soldier. The army sent us to Camp Maxey, Texas, where right off they lined us all up and counted us off to fill up different quotas. So many here, so many there to fill up each outfit. That’s how I got into the 793rd Military Police Battalion. I didn’t choose it and I had nothing to say about it. Those guys I got grouped with that day were the guys I’d spend my war years with, and we became good friends.
Basic training at Camp Maxey lasted about 13 weeks. We did rope courses over water and marches out onto the prairie, six or eight miles. One time we were on a forced march and there was a big prairie fire coming right at us. We had to take our jackets off and fight fire or get burned out. We burned our jackets up, but we put the fire out.
In the mornings we’d have inspections where you’d lay out all your gear in the sand. We’d stand there for hour after hour and the wind would blow and make a mess out of your gear lying there. Then the big captain would come along and gig everybody because of the sand all over everything. That would mean we’d have to take everything outside the barracks and scrub the floors and latrines on our hands and knees.
The sergeants I remember as being good to us. Sergeant Kootnz, Sergeant Bonemow, I remember them still today. They were just doing their duty. They lived with us in the barracks and they weren’t ornery. We just took it day by day and we learned to follow orders and do as we were told.
From Texas the Army sent us to Camp Claiborne, Louisiana for about six months. Camp Claiborne was a prisoner-of-war camp and we guarded German prisoners there. There were about 15,000 of them. Our biggest problem in Louisiana, though, was mosquitoes, not the Germans. We had mosquitoes there that were at least an inch or longer, endless mosquitoes coming out of the bayous.
The Germans seemed to be content enough to be in the camp. Except for the mosquitoes, their living conditions were pretty good. They ate the same kind of food we did and lived in the same kind of tents covered in mosquito netting. Some spoke English, and we had translators. We took them to movies and we took them swimming. They were safer in Louisiana than on the front lines in Europe. They weren’t dangerous. In fact, we had a rifle with just one bullet in the chamber and it was a no-no to even put your finger in the trigger guard.
From Louisiana we got orders to head for New York and be on our way to Europe. One day the commanding officer got us all together and said, “This is gonna go. Load up.” We didn’t get any written orders. But we knew what he was talking about and we loaded up and headed for New York in a long convoy, lines of Army trucks with all us guys sitting on wooden benches along the sides. Not too comfortable, and cold, too. We would stop every four hours or so at a wide place in the road and everybody would get out to do their duty, and then we would load up and head on for another four hours. At night we would camp along the road.
We got to New York a few weeks before Christmas. It was 1943 and all the guys wanted to get home for Christmas before they shipped out, but they couldn’t get off because they had duty to pull. There were about 12 of us from the coast who couldn’t get home anyway, so we doubled up and took turns so the others could go home and see their parents.
Me and my buddies did manage to get a four-hour leave to do the town before we left New York, and three of us took a cab to a big theatre. There were people lined up for a couple of blocks trying to get in and the theatre was full.
But then a cab pulled up and Kate Smith got out, and she heard me say to my buddies, “We’ll never get in to see the show.” And she said, “You soldiers want to get in to see the show? ” She grabbed me by the arm and my buddy too, and said, “You’ll have to sit on the floor.” I said we didn’t care, and so she took us in the back door and we sat on the floor and watched the show. Then we got back in a cab, and came back to camp and the next day we sailed for England.
FLEEING GERMAN SUBS
We sailed for England on the RMS Queen Elizabeth. They had us packed in there like sardines, six or eight bunks high, and we were all sick. They fed us lamb three times a day and it all went over the side.
We were sick and scared, too, because when we pulled out of New York Harbor and were finally out in the open ocean with our whole convoy of troops and ships, two German subs came after us trying to blow us up. The captain came on the loudspeaker and said, “We got a sub after us and we’re going to get out of here,” and away we went. We were in a whole convoy of ships, but we took off and left them behind. We were scared and we were sick, so mostly we just huddled on our bunks. German subs couldn’t move as fast as the Queen Elizabeth, though, and we got away.
Six and a half days later we wound up in South Wales and then went clear back to Liverpool traveling in a convoy. In Liverpool we stayed in big apartments and townspeople’s extra rooms. People were nice. They put in bunks for us. The Army put up kitchens nearby, and that’s where we ate.
RED BALL HIGHWAY
Trucks and everything were already over there in Liverpool. A big part of our job as military police was to get everything ready to load up for the big push of D-Day. We also patrolled the towns and made sure our troops behaved, but a very large part of our job was to get all the different outfits lined up into convoys and get them to the front of the port.
In the port there were ships already lined up in convoys and we would load the soldiers on the boats and then go back and get another truck convoy ready to load. We used motorcycles and jeeps and traveled in front of and behind the convoys. I drove a jeep and carried gas cans to keep refueling the motorcycles and everybody else.
After we got everyone else loaded up for D-Day, our battalion landed on Utah Beach three weeks later.
Once over there in France, our main job was to patrol and guard the supply lines and keep them moving. We made sure supplies were loaded off the boats and onto convoys, and that the convoys all got through to the front. That supply line was called the Red Ball Highway and it went from the beach all the way through France.
The Germans did whatever they could to stop supplies from getting through. As we pushed the Germans back, they would blow up the bridges to slow down the war and keep American troops from getting at them. In the meantime, American engineers would punch in new pontoon bridges to bypass the blown-up bridges and keep things moving.
Our job was to keep traffic moving and direct our troops to the new bridges. We took turns and did that day and night. We kept moving all the time. We may have stayed in one place two, three days or a week, then another company would come in and take our place, and we would move on. We used our jeeps and motorcycles and kept working our way up through France.
It was wet and cold. At night, for camouflage, we camped under the trees in apple orchards so spy planes couldn’t figure out where we were going. We slept in tents and it rained a lot, so we usually camped in mud. Up ahead, maybe six or eight miles, was the front where our soldiers were fighting the Germans, pushing them back. I never got to the front, and I never saw any Germans but we had some scary times anyway. “Midnight Charlie” was what we called the German planes that would fly over in the middle of the night. They spied on us to try to find out exactly what we were up to.
GUARDING EISENHOWER AND CHURCHILL
As we made our way up through France, we stayed for a month or so in Saint-Lô, France. There it was our job to guard Eisenhower and Churchill and other generals who were camped there in a big tent city with a road through the middle. All the generals – Ike, General Lee, General Lord, Montgomery, Churchill – would meet there in a tent to discuss what was going on further up the line, deciding what they were going to do, how they would continue on and this and that. And we would be there guarding.
One day I was changing the guard and this soldier had this Tommy gun, a machine gun that he was supposed to hand off to me. But he threw it at me. I caught it, but it went off, 20 rounds right between the two rows of tents. I was standing right in front of Eisenhower’s tent when it happened. A colored boy was sitting there polishing Ike’s shoes on a little stool teeterin’ back and forth. He got so scared he fell backwards, and he said, “Lord a me, lord a me, the Germans are here, the Germans are here.”
And Ike, he came outta there and said, “What’s going on, what’s going on?” I was scared. I thought they were going to shoot me right there. But I got off pretty easy. My commanding officer just chewed my fanny out pretty good, so I thought I got off pretty easy even though it wasn’t my fault.
When you give someone a gun, you’re supposed to hand it to him, not throw it at him. And besides, that soldier had the gun opened up so much he had the safety trigger unlatched. When I caught it, it just went off.
One of the ugliest things I saw in the war happened around Saint-Lô.
There was a lot of fighting around Saint-Lô before I got there. It was a big town that our troops had a tough time getting the Germans out of, and the city was blown to hell.
While the battle for Saint-Lô was going on, some American paratroopers got the wrong signal. They were supposed to drop back this side of Saint-Lô but someone gave them the wrong information. They landed on the other side where the Germans were. The Germans just sat there and killed hundreds of them before they even hit the ground.
Someone, I don’t know who, the French or maybe our guys, covered up all the bodies with tarps and dirt. American medics went in there three, four weeks after it happened, and got them all up, wrapped them in canvas and put them in an ambulance to send them home for proper burial. I was a guard, so I stood by and guarded and watched while they did it. The job took about a week. I didn’t have to dig them up, but I saw it all happening. It was ugly.
I had a photograph of those medics with the bodies, but I got rid of it, just cut it up. It bothered me then and it still bothers me today.
After we worked our way up through France, we got to Antwerp, Belgium in December 1944. We were stationed there about six months and lived in a large shelled-out university building without any windows.
Antwerp was a large port used by the Allies to bring supplies in for the troops. Our job was to guard the ships in the harbor and patrol the town. The harbor had a series of locks – three, if I remember right – on about five miles of canal. The Germans, who wanted to interrupt the supply line, would swim in from the ocean with demolition charges to blow up the locks. We carried concussion grenades and as we drove along patrolling, we’d now and then throw one in the canal and anybody swimming up the canal would get blown up. Mostly our duty was at night, and I never did see a German.
The Germans also had portable rockets that they shot into the harbor from Amsterdam, trying to blow up the ships coming in with supplies. When the first rocket landed in Antwerp everybody thought it was a mine. A whole block was gone.
One day we were patrolling and one of those rockets was coming right at us. We took off trying to get away from it. Then it changed direction and went out to sea. Most of them missed and landed in the ocean. Sometimes they’d run out of fuel, but when they dipped down there was enough in there to start them up again and they’d wind up in the ocean somewhere. That’s what happened to 90 percent of them, but when they did hit they’d level about a block square, just blow it all to pieces. Then we’d run as fast as we could goin’ nowhere.
In Antwerp we would see huge balloons that would float over from Holland or Germany. The Germans would raise balloons way up in the air so that planes couldn’t fly down low and bomb them. If a plane would fly into the cable of a balloon, then down they’d come, the airplane and the whole works. The Germans would use these balloons, hundreds of them, to protect a factory or something else. Maybe it would be a ball-bearing factory and they would try to keep the bombers from coming in low enough to blow up the factory. Sometimes they would do it just to interrupt the flow of air traffic.
But our bombers still got in there, and the balloons would get knocked loose and float our way. They were huge, as big as a house, and we would see them laying on the ground in Antwerp.
Our commanding officer ordered us to write letters home at least once a month, and I got letters from my family, too. The commanding officer would get after you if you didn’t write. They had to read everything you wrote to make sure you wouldn’t tell information that wasn’t supposed to get out.
While I was stationed in Antwerp, I got a letter from my sister, Sylvia. “Where are you?” she asked. I couldn’t tell, so that’s what I told her. But then I wrote, “By the way, how is Aunt Werp?”
She figured it out. She thought it was funny. So did I. But the commanding officer, he didn’t catch it. He read everybody’s mail and if something wasn’t right he scratched it out and told you to rewrite it or do something else. But he didn’t catch on to this one. I got away with it.
WAR IS OVER
One day in the spring of 1945 all the thousands of people of Antwerp rushed outdoors screaming “Hooray, hooray the war is over,” and they grabbed us and hugged us and kissed us. That’s the way we found out that the war was over.
But our work wasn’t done. Our battalion worked its way back down to Marseilles, France, where we were stationed for the next three or four months. Our job was to patrol the town and the train depot and get all our guys loaded up on boats to head back to the United States.
I remember there were about five or six big trucks loaded with Americans, privates and sergeants, and officers too. They were all headed for the United States to go to prison for raping and shooting and things like that. And there were guards to make sure they didn’t jump out. We had orders to shoot the first one that stuck their head up over the side of the truck.
When our work was done, I sailed for New York, too, and then headed for the West Coast and got discharged as a Corporal. Then I came home to Jimtown. I’ve spent the years since the war right here in Tuolumne County. My wife, Paulie, and I raised four kids, and I worked 35 years for Pickering Lumber.
I’m proud of what I did in the war. The 793rd was a hard-working battalion. We did what we were told to do and we all got on together. I know I was lucky to be in the military police and away from the front lines. I wouldn’t have liked shooting people. I never hated the Germans. I knew they were just taking orders from their generals, same as me and my buddies.
Just the same, I saw pictures of what the Germans did to the Jews. Our battalion photographer got them some way, I don’t know how really, snuck in maybe. Somebody got in there and got some photographs and got some out to show us in Antwerp. And when I looked at those pictures I knew it was a good thing to fight the Germans. Those pictures were of people, all dead, lined up like cordwood. And there were big trenches and bulldozers just pushing them over and burying them up. That’s the worst.
They did that to hundreds and hundreds of people. And they got them in those trains, you know, pushed them in there just like cattle and they gassed them.
How could humans do that?
Mr. Uvelli was interviewed in 2011 by volunteer Joy Conklin through the Tuolumne Veterans History Project, an all-volunteer effort to record Tuolumne County veterans’ memories of their wartime experience.