William Callison: My WWII Service in the U.S. Army

By WILLIAM CALLISON

As told to Mary Louis

“Every night we were strafed by the Germans. I was scared to death. The troops had Garand semi-automatic rifles but all I had to defend myself was my carbine.” — William Callison

Early Years

I was born in June of 1926 in San Leandro, California. My dad left in 1929 so my mother moved me in with my grandmother in Fairfax so she could go to work in the canneries in Oakland.  Gran always had a soft spot in her heart for me. This new place to live was in San Anselmo (Marin County).

My grandmother was an independent person and soon took a job as a housekeeper for one of my aunt and uncle’s friends, a man by the name of Joe Casey. Joe had two sons, Lloyd and Kenny, who always treated me as one of the family. We all lived in Fairfax, California. This situation continued on until Gran saved enough money to move to her own place in Fairfax.

When I started school in Fairfax I had to tell what my grandmother did so I told the truth, “She’s a bootlegger.” Grandma and I moved around during my early years to avoid trouble with the law.

Gran being Gran soon found out where raw alcohol could be purchased and we were back in the booze business. Gran found a supplier for raw alcohol at $25 for five gallons. Gran knew about hydrometers and would cut the pure stuff down to 80 proof and color this mixture with her own secret recipe to give it that classical whiskey color. The only requirements were her patrons had to supply their own bottles. A half pint was 50 cents and a pint was $1.

Her business was conducted out of the back door of our rented house in Fairfax, a small house on the edge of town. Gran was a teetotaler and never allowed liquor to be consumed at our house. This situation continued on from 1930 till 1936, and then we were asked by Capt. Parry to leave town.

Around 1935, Gran had gone with her young lady friends to a function where a large number of soldiers from Fort Baker were also invited. Gran met a soldier who was soon getting out of the service and the two hit it off to such a degree that they soon married and I had a new granpop. We didn’t hit it off from the beginning. He didn’t like me and I certainly didn’t like him!

We moved from Marin County in 1941 and I was in my sophomore year at Tamalpais High. I had to enroll in McClymonds High in Oakland and the school was such a departure from a well-orchestrated school, “Tam”, to chaos at McClymonds. I soon became a high-school dropout and since jobs could be had everywhere, I went to work at Moore Dry Dock at 95 cents an hour building liberty ships.

Meanwhile my mother re-married and had two boys and three girls. Two sisters are still living.

A buddy of mine told me about a job working at Cowell Ranch near Davis. That sounded good to me so I worked there from January through June of 1944 herding cattle on horseback. I was a real cowboy! But at the age of 17, I knew would soon be drafted.

Military ID issued for driving mail truck regularly to Munich

Drafted

Uncle Sam came calling on September 14, 1944. I was drafted in Oakland and then sent to San Francisco for processing. From there I was sent to Monterey for a physical, aptitude test and lots of shots and then on to Oklahoma by train for basic training for six weeks and artillery training for 10 weeks.

I didn’t even know how to drive a car but they had me driving a 13-ton International “Prime Mover” tractor pulling a 155 Howitzer. A 155mm Howitzer weighs approximately five tons and fires a 95-pound projectile.

Deployment

In January 1945, we were transferred to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey for deployment. We left New York on the Queen Elizabeth.

I had heard that the ship could carry 16,000 troops. I was on “A” deck in stateroom 92, but every other night we had to rotate with the guys compelled to sleep on the promenade deck. Fair is fair, I guess. The ship travelled at 30 knots and the thinking was the German subs would have a difficult time intercepting us.

It only took five days to arrive in Glasgow, Scotland. We immediately boarded a troop train to Southampton, England, then boarded a ship to Le Havre, France.

The ship being English suffered a shortage of food and what there was, was really bad by our standards. It took us two days to cross the channel and we had to wait our turn to disembark.

We had a little hike to Camp Chesterfield, a “replacement” camp made up of eleven-man pyramidal tents. (All the camps were named after cigarettes.)

As we marched French civilians would run up along our column and sell us some concoction in a bottle so they could have money for food. But we were warned that if we drank much of it we would go blind.

Part of the march was at night but when daylight dawned, a friend of mine looked at me and saw that my face was covered in spots. I was quarantined for five days for German measles. The joke was that the Germans would get you one way or another.

I was sent by train at night from Camp Chesterfield to Verviers, Belgium. After I was released to return to duty, they didn’t know what to do with me because I was part of the “replacement” troops (men sent to replace those who were severely injured or killed) so they had me peeling potatoes for five days. I was so bored I volunteered for combat. I didn’t care where they sent me, I just wanted out of KP duty.

Winter in Germany

The next day I was on one of two 6×6 GMC troop transport truck with ten other guys heading in the direction of Germany. One of the trucks didn’t have a canopy and since it was winter I remember it was a miserable, cold trip. I was the only replacement on board. The rest of the guys were RTUs (“return to unit”). They had all been wounded (most of them in the hedgerow fighting) and were returning to their units. All were coming from hospitals in England.

Since I was only 18 and looked 14 and weighed only 138 pounds, I was immediately dubbed “Junior.”

One of the guys was a young squad leader not much older than me. He had been in a hole big enough for two when a German jumped down between the two guys and demanded that they surrender. They both got off a round at the German, killing him, but before he died, he got off a round, hitting the young man in the upper left arm. The doctors concluded from the looks of the wound that it must have been a wooden bullet: The scar in his upper left arm radiated in all directions. That type of ammunition was known as “harassment fire.”

Another guy, a full-blooded Indian, estimated he had been in combat for about an hour when he was hit in the heel.  All the guys were armed with the weapons they were used to. Most were M1 Garand rifles, but since I was artillery, I carried a brand-new carbine. All of the infantry guys looked down their noses at my spotlessly clean carbine. One of the guys, Bill, told me that as soon as we got somewhere that had a supply room he would get me a Garand.

Every night we were strafed by the Germans. I was scared to death. The troops had Garand semi-automatic rifles but all I had to defend myself was my carbine. At night our troop bunked in pup tents.

I figured the tents, which had to be pitched in the open, were easy targets for the Germans. I hid in a ditch until two friends took me into their tent which was pitched in the protection of the trees.

The other two men had the typical “mummy” insulated bags but mine was a wool sleeping bag with a blanket to cover myself. It was not nearly as warm my companions so they put me in the middle between them for warmth and security.

‘Gooney birds’

The U.S. employed Douglas C-47 Skytrain planes towing gliders, or “gooney birds”.  The gliders would detach near a drop zone for paratroopers.

Unfortunately the gliders not only carried troops but also equipment such as a pack 75mm Howitzer which shifted forward during their crash landings, killing the pilots.

Journey to the Rhine

The country appeared to be pleasant enough, rolling hills all around, but that soon changed when we came upon an area where a tank battle had occurred.

There were 10 or more Sherman tanks that were in various stages of destruction, tracks laying out of the ground, turrets blown off, gaping holes to be seen and also evidence of much fire and no German tanks or enemy weapons. In another area there was an American glider that appeared to have landed safely even though it was tilted over on one wing tip.

Having been involved with horses from an early age, it was very painful to see all the dead horses, not only the animals we would see that had been killed by strafing aircraft while pulling various pieces of military equipment used by the Germans, but also animals deliberately killed by the Germans to keep them from falling into our hands, even though we were fully mechanized.

We stopped at one such place on our way to the Rhine. The town was fairly large with a huge barn located on the edge. Every stall held a dead horse and in the corral were more dead and wounded horses all killed by the Germans before their hasty departure. Sad.

On our journey to the Rhine I heard the guys saying this must be Aachen or Saarlautern, or another time, Saarbrücken. We passed through many towns, all with the signature sheets displayed from the second story windows indicating surrender, and then on to the Rhine.

We crossed the Rhine River at Worms, Germany on a pontoon bridge. Once across the Rhine, we moved onto Bad Kissingen, Germany.

Bad Kissengen

In Bad Kissingen, we stopped at a transient camp set up for trucks going to and from the combat zone. The camp had several large mess tents and the food was hot and welcome.

Since it was getting dark, the GIs on my truck began pitching their pup tents. Since all of them had mostly paired up it was no problem, except for me. I was the only loner in the group and had no way to pitch a tent. I just got in my sleeping bag and wrapped my shelter half around me and settled in for the night until the shooting started.

The Allies owned the air in the daylight hours but the Germans were able to put up a sizeable number of aircraft at night. These were always labeled “Bed-Check Charlies.” They were mostly trying to disrupt the flow of motor traffic on the highways.

We were situated in a dense forest several hundred yards from the main road but it didn’t matter to me; I was scared. Since there were several holes near me, I jumped in one, planning to spend the night. But Bill, my friend from San Francisco, came and found me crouched in that hole and talked me into putting my gear next to their pup tent, which I did.

We moved onto Bamberg where we stayed in a German training facility for tanks. The bombing set the railroad marshalling yard on fire. It became a reference point for both the Allies and the Germans so they could tell where they were for the night strafing.

We had access to Crème de Menthe (scavenged from a railroad car) there but not a lot of water. My socks needed washing so I put a little water in a bucket and then added Crème de Menthe to give myself enough liquid to wash out the socks. When I pulled the socks out of the “wash” the next morning they were all stuck together.

After ruining my socks I don’t know how I got by without them, but guard duty does have its perks at times. Example? In one of our guard duty stints we were guarding a warehouse somewhere in Bavaria. Whilst prowling around on my rounds, I came upon bins and bins of article of clothing. There was a large amount of clothing destined for the German military, among which were hand-knitted socks made for German troops by women for their fighting men. From that time till I mustered out at Camp Beale I never had to worry about socks again.

Segregation

In World War II in the European Theater of Operations the military was mostly segregated. There were a few combat units of African Americans. They did a great job keeping Patton supplied with fuel, allowing his tanks to perform unbelievable feats in combat. There probably is not enough written about the role played by African Americans in World War II.

Dachau

We proceeded deeper into Germany, ending near Munich. The war was over with the signing of a treaty on May 5, 1945, officially May 8, 1945.

On that date we were camped in a field outside Dachau. Some of the troops could see smoke from the ovens there and we saw the bodies of naked men, stacked like firewood.

It was the first time I had seen a dead person, much less emaciated and naked. Some buddies took pictures documenting the horror but I did not linger at the sight.

Instead I diverted my gaze by looking for German cars (Opals) and lugers. I was a scavenger at heart.

SS Barracks

From Dachau, we moved onward to Berchtesgaden, which had been the headquarters for the Third Reich and then became the headquarters for the Allied Forces where I was put into the 601st B—attalion, Headquarters Battery.

We stayed in the SS barracks, nice accommodations. I was posted to guard duty for the displaced persons (DPs). We had four hours on and eight hours off.

One of the duties of the 601st was to spray the DPs with DDT dust to rid them of vermin. I never had to do that because that was not my job, which was guarding the DPs. I just observed the process. From Berchtesgaden our next occupation site was Salzburg. My guard duty was at the hospital pharmacy. I saved a postcard from Salzburg.

We returned to Munich and stayed in a shoe factory near the Glockenspiel clock tower. This time we stayed in Munich for several months. Eventually, the 601st was disbanded as the post-war activities drew to a close.

We were transferred to the 602nd in Moosach, a village in upper Bavaria. We stayed at a large military facility in the Munich area, a camp for DPs. In late July 1945, we about starved there as we prepared to receive new equipment in preparation to fight the Japanese. We did not receive sufficient rations for all the troops so we dug potatoes out of the fields at night and traded our cigarettes for eggs.

Once while I was on guard duty there, Gen. Eisenhower and Gen. Patton came through the camp to see that the DPs were being treated well. That was a highlight for me.

Warning Shot

In Moosach, a village in the middle of nowhere, we were awaiting our turn to leave Germany. A lot of men were receiving discharge orders. Discharge home was on the point system, according to how much combat a soldier saw. Some of the men in the 602nd had over 100 points for length of duty in combat. I only had 28 points when I was finally discharged.

While staying in Munich, a buddy of mine, Jack Layte, and I were off duty and wanted to enjoy being in town so we set out. On the way we were accosted by some Hitler youth. I had a small gun, a 32 caliber automatic, and Jack told me not to shoot the boys so I fired over their heads and they disbanded.

Driving the Brass

Next we moved onward to Wasserburg am Inn. I learned to drive a command car, courtesy of my friend Pete. We lived in a school house. I started collecting 1st Lt. Rice from his quarters in town and driving him to the school house. I also had to drive to Munich twice a week for mail. I drove a Jeep with “Head Boy” painted across the hood.

I was chosen by Captain Baker to drive him into the British zone, crossing the Rhine in Cologne. The command car was riddled with shrapnel holes but the Captain preferred to travel in it. I drove Colonel Seaburn to the Russian Zone (Leipzig), but I never made it to Berlin. I also drove other officers for various tasks.

We used a 6×6 GMC truck to collect coal for the officers’ quarters. I became Colonel Seaburn’s driver. He always made sure I was well fed.  I also drove Lt. Rice: One of the places I drove him to was Oberammergau for the Passion Play and several times to Garmisch, a resort town. I learned to drive in the snow because I had to drive all over Germany in the winter.  We were told to load our belongings onto a train in Wasserburg am Inn so we knew the end of our deployment was near.

We were near the 1936 Winter Olympics site. Colonel Seaburn had me drive him in jeeps. I drove him to Oberstdorf, a resort area, where we stayed at the Sonn Hauffen Hotel for several months. I was in room 1. From my balcony I could see the Winter Olympics ski jump and cable car system.

I moved from Oberstdorf to Kaufbeuren, a large town 50 miles south of Munich, and was absorbed into the 84th Field Artillery, 9th Division.

I was in Europe for 16 months. I received a Battle Star for my duty in Europe.

Discharge

With our belongings already on a train, the 602nd boarded a truck for Munich. We took a train to Frankfurt and then another train on to Bremerhaven, the American supply harbor for Germany. In July, 1946 we boarded the SS Franklin at Bremerhaven a large German seaport. It took 13 days to cross the Atlantic this time.

We docked at Shanks, New Jersey. It was a liberty ship which may have accounted for it being a “slow boat to China.” The liberty ships were not able to compete with the larger ships in speed or equipment. They were medium sized ships to accommodate troops and equipment. We had 1000 troops aboard.

President Franklin Roosevelt called them the “ugly ducklings.” I served on KP so I could eat better. I loved “S.O.S.”!

I remember sailing by Lady Liberty in New York en route to New Jersey. We were bussed back to New York where we boarded a westbound train that had the mess car hooked behind the car I was in. That meant I had quicker access to meals. Eventually our train arrived at Camp Beale near Marysville where I was discharged after one year, 10 months and 19 days after my enlistment.

My WWII Life, Day to Day

As far as work was concerned most of my duty was guard duty, four hours on, eight hours off. During my off hours I found various pursuits to occupy my time.

Like I said earlier, my greatest pastime was scavenging so wherever possible I plied my trade. I found a chrome German helmet, which was intended for some officer. I also found a German telescope, a German gun (an older odd weapon called a “broom handle”—which was a 9mm Mauser and was the least desirable gun).

My friend John Bruling gave me two P38 Walther handguns, but I traded them for other goods. John also made me holsters for the two guns.

We also listened to Armed Forces Radio: “Luncheon in Munchen” and “Midnight in Munich.”

I played cards some but never got into the gambling that some of the guys did.

In Wasserburg there were some bands that played “big band” music after lunch and dinner. They played for food.

When camped out in forests sometimes there would be German airplanes that had run out of fuel were parked, called revetments. For fun we would throw German grenades into the cockpits. One type was called a “potato masher” because that is what it looked like. And other grenades looked like ours called an “ink well”. The older “potato mashers” would just start a small fire but did no real damage. But the “ink well” could split a plane in half.

I watched John Bruling repair cars and learned how to repair them too.

We had some formal entertainment too. In Verviers we saw a stage play, “Three Men on a Horse.” In Nuremberg after the war we saw Bob Hope with Jerry Colonna and Frances Langford.

Civilian Life

I came home to Grandma’s rooming house in West Oakland at 718 Jefferson Street. Grandma gave me all of my bonds (23 of them) that she had collected while was in the Army. I cashed them in for an Indian motorcycle.

At Grandma’s house I had a room in the front of the house. Before I went to sleep at night, I would tie a string around my toe and hang the string out the window. When my buddy from high school, Al Smith would come by for us to go riding motorcycles together, he would pull on the string and I would wake up, throw on some clothes and go riding with him.

We rode all over the Bay Area, having a great time. By day we returned to being cowboys at Cowell Ranch near Davis. I had to buy my horse back because my brother had failed to pay for feed while I was gone.

Gran passed away in 1954 and I lost the best friend I ever had or will ever have.

As a newly discharged serviceman, I received $20 for 52 weeks to look for work and get myself situated. I found work as a ranch hand at Greenville Horse Camp for tourist. I worked for Sport Fellingham in Livermore after that. He had 31,000 acres. While there I also went to school on the G.I. bill. I took Aero Technology at the Oakland Airport. I went with a friend to the Alameda Naval Air Rework Facility to take aptitude tests. I passed and became an apprentice aircraft mechanic. I moved back in with Grandma who had moved to 38th Avenue in East Oakland.

I stayed with the Alameda Naval station for 35 years until my retirement on January 3, 1985. During that time I raced motorcycles at Belmont Speedway, bought an airplane for $600 with my brother-in-law and married four times. My life has been quite full.

Marriage and Family

My first wife was Jackie. She was a cute girl but that marriage only lasted one year. She wanted to work in Hollywood and that’s not the life I wanted.

My second wife was Carol. That marriage lasted 20 years. We had four children. Her father was very well-to-do. He bought tires for my 1938 Buick Special and later bought me a 1965 VW after many breakdowns at night after my swing shift in Alameda.

He was tired of having to get up in the middle of night to drive me home (we lived on his ranch in the North Bay Area). Carol was used to living and partying with higher class people than I was so eventually we divorced.

My third wife was Emma. We lived in Oakdale and we had two daughters. We kept buying and selling ranch property in the Central Valley and Tuolumne County. We used the G.I. Bill to buy our home in the Soulsbyville area. We were also married 20 years.

Wife number four is Dorothy. We have been together since 1992. When my Soulsbyville home sold I was able to use the G.I. bill again for my current home.

With Dorothy on our wedding day, 1994

Retirement

After my retirement, I came up to Sonora and went to work with a friend in a gas station.

In August of 1988, I landed a job working for Tuolumne County Transit. We had four buses and one van. I not only drove but I also had to maintain the vehicles as well. This situation continued until it became too much for me. We were getting more and more buses and I couldn’t perform all the maintenance by myself so I asked if I might just go back to driving, which I did. I drove a route bus for a while and then I became a permanent Dial-A-Ride driver.

I stayed with Tuolumne County Transit April 18, 2006, when I was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer and retired again. I was with the transit 18 ½ years.

After getting the cancer in remission, I didn’t do much until August of 2011. I went to work for Thumbs Up driving mentally challenged clients to and from their various living quarters.

I am currently still working for Thumbs Up five days a week. Thumbs Up also operates a home clean-up program. One of my tasks is to maintain lawn mowers, weed eaters, chain saws, backpack blowers and hedge clippers, all gasoline driven. When not working in my garage I am on call to sit in with the clients. We have fourteen people in our program and we are all good friends.

My cancer has been in remission for 10 years. Currently I am not on any medication and medical professional describe my blood pressure as a teenager’s blood pressure. I just turned 90 years of age and luckily I have a good wife who takes good care of me.

On the weekends, Dorothy and I work around our home here in Sonora, stacking firewood. We are still physically active people. My sons and daughter are also very supportive and there for me, always!

At home in Sonora, August 2016

Looking Back

I have good feelings about my military service. They set me on an orderly track as far as taking care of myself.

I do not belong to any service connected organizations. Once I tried to have contact with an Army buddy of mine in Philadelphia but I never heard back from him.

My life has been so full here in California that I guess I have not had time to participate in other activities.

But I do not feel any ill will towards the military.

I wish we did not have to be at war at all but I guess there will always be war somewhere.

 

 

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