A Dad Shares His WW II Experience -- From Onions to USS Wasp

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I’m in my late 60s, the son of a World War II veteran. Virtually all of those wonderful veterans are gone now and my generation is the last generation with a direct connection to the people who actually served in that war. My dad, PFC Abraham Feinstein, was in the 338th Field Artillery Battalion, in the 5th Army, in Italy. I find that there is a huge difference in general world outlook and life experience between people who have a direct relationship to World War II vets and those who don’t. That seems true even if their parents were alive during the war but were too young to serve. It’s just not the same. Having actual blood relatives who fought in World War II is a life-defining factor.

My dad entered the war in 1943, first through North Africa, then he went to Sicily, then on to Italy. The 338th FAB participated in the entire Italian Campaign, culminating in the crossing of the Po River in Northern Italy, about 30 miles from the Swiss border.

He saw a lot of combat action, both behind the front lines and right in the thick of the mayhem. Being in artillery, they were stationed behind the front, but not that far behind. The 338th used 105mm howitzers (short-barreled cannons) that had a maximum firing range of approximately seven miles. Seven miles from the front is the proverbial “stone’s throw.”

Forward observeres were high-priority targets

Much of the time he was in service, my dad was a Forward Observer (FO). A small group of soldiers would go right to the hot front, try as best they could to find a suitable hiding place and then observe exactly where their cannon shells were landing on the German positions. They would then radio back corrective instructions to the gun batteries so they could adjust their range and direction accordingly in order to hit their targets with even more effective lethal precision.

The Germans hated the FOs, obviously, and made them high-priority targets. One day my dad and his crew were holed up in an abandoned house nestled behind some trees, high up on a hill. They had a perfect vantage point of the battlefield. Somehow, the Germans spotted them. Perhaps it was a glint of sunlight reflecting off a set of binoculars. Who knows? In any event, the Germans saw them and trained their own guns on the house. With a furious barrage, they leveled the house, destroying the FO outpost and causing a lot of American casualties. My dad was hit in the head by a falling structural beam as the house collapsed, seriously wounding him. The survivors managed to get back to their home base and my dad was rushed into emergency surgery.

He recovered without any lingering effects, luckily (save for the steel plate used to repair his skull that would later set off airport metal detectors for the rest of his life whenever he and my mom would fly somewhere on vacation!). His Injury was so severe that he could have flown home and been discharged from the Army, had he wanted to. He didn’t. His first thought was, “When can I get back to my outfit and see my buddies?” That was so typical of the fighting attitude and camaraderie exhibited by the American armed forces in World War II. They were fiercely loyal to each other, their cause and their country. The Greatest Generation, indeed.

WW II veterans stingy with stories

My dad told me that story once. Once. I was probably about 11 when I heard it, but I hung on every word. I knew as I was hearing it that this would be the only time he’d tell me this, so I made sure not to miss even the smallest detail, to note the inflection in his voice, the look in his eyes, his body language. There would be no follow-up questioning from me. This wasn’t a post-game press conference. There wouldn’t be any “Did you ever hesitate about going for it on 4th-and-one on that last play?” Like a lot of men of that generation, deep, emotional, revealing disclosures didn’t come easily to my father. My dad could speak freely on many subjects — sports, his surveying business, cars, playing in the bridge club with my mom, etc. — but this conversation was so profound and intense, I knew it was a pivotal, once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. It happened 55 years ago but the immediacy and impact was such that it might as well have taken place yesterday.

However … my dad was the absolutely quintessential “glass-half-full” person, the eternal optimist. He could see the silver lining in almost any situation. One of his favorite expressions was, “How bad can it be?” which he’d invariably say when things didn’t look good. He always felt the situation would turn around, that the disappointment would end up being less than you feared, that somehow, everything would work out.

And so it was also with his wartime experiences. My dad obviously saw and lived through things that no one should ever have to see and live through. But the things he spoke about from the war were the fun things that happened to him and his mates, the smile-inducing jaunts and the eyebrow-raising shenanigans.

Tales from the front:

Although I’ll never match the joie-de-vivre of my Dad’s storytelling, here are a few of his most memorable tales:

Onions, K-rations and C-rations
Aside from simply staying alive, there was probably nothing more important to the soldier in the field than food. Unlike aviators or administrative people who were stationed behind the front lines and had a permanent base and mess hall, the soldiers in the field were on their own and had to provide for themselves. Most of them carried some quantity of C-rations or K-rations. These were pre-packaged meals, either dry or canned, that provided the soldier with the requisite caloric and protein counts needed for survival. Needless to say, these rations were hardly paragons of taste or sensory appeal, especially given the technology of the time.

My dad would tell me how they were constantly on the lookout for fresh food. The Italian campaign was hardly a static affair. The Allies were constantly on the move as their offense gained new ground, pushing the Germans back. One time as they moved to a new location, the 338th came upon an abandoned farm. There was an onion field on the farm and plenty of fresh, ripe onions for the taking. My dad hated onions. But the excitement that ran through the outfit as they unearthed those beautiful onions was palpable. Men were grabbing them, peeling them and eating them as if they were apples. Smiling, laughing, fresh onion juice running down their chins, it proved irresistible to my dad. He picked one up and ate it. He said it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever tasted and from then on, he always loved onions.

The U.S.S. Wasp and the ride home
When the war ended, the U.S. military was faced with the logistical nightmare of transporting millions of GIs back to the States. It was obviously too expensive and inefficient to attempt to fly the bulk of the personnel home, so the majority came home by sea, onboard a ship. Troop transports, merchant ships, naval warships, you name it — everything was used. The Wasp was an aircraft carrier. In the small “Welcome Aboard” pamphlet given to the soldiers upon arrival, was the greeting, “Congratulations: You are on board an aircraft carrier, the fastest type of ship in the U.S. Navy. Other than flying, we will get you home faster than any other way.”

The deck immediately below the big flight deck is called the hanger deck. This is a big, wide-open space where all the ship’s airplanes are kept and transported to the top surface so they can take off and land on the flight deck. Aircraft storage, refueling, arming and repairs were all performed on the hanger deck.

For purposes of troop transport, this deck was cleared of planes and thousands of cots were set up for the soldiers. Given that this deck was approximately the length of three football fields, one can imagine the number of men who’d fit there.

The first thing the soldiers loved about being on the ship was the great food. Carriers — like all naval vessels — have extensive on-board food preparation capacity. Being the largest ships, they have to feed thousands of sailors multiple meals, every day. The soldiers went wild. They consumed such immense quantities of freshly baked bread and butter that after only a few days, the ship had to ration the quantity served.

Leaving Italy, the voyage on the Mediterranean Sea was calm and uneventful. Living it up on the Wasp, life was good for the returning men. The expansive flight deck accommodated three games of touch football at once. Occasionally, a ball bounced into the ocean, but amazingly enough, a replacement always seemed to materialize. Soaking up the sun and joking around with the Wasp’s crew, the men of the 338th were on top of the world. Unbeknownst to the soldiers, the waters of the Mediterranean are smooth, like a pane of glass. They had no idea what they were about to experience.

The Wasp passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, leaving the Mediterranean behind and entering the Atlantic Ocean phase of the journey. Things changed in a hurry. Unlike the smooth-as-silk Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean was incredibly rough and choppy. The Wasp was tossed around and hammered by high winds and cresting waves. Certainly nothing the ship couldn’t handle, but the luxury cruise aspect of the trip was now a thing of the past. As night fell, the men retreated to their bunks on the hanger deck. The “ceiling” above them was the flight deck, the top surface of the ship. As one brutal storm wave after another shook the vessel, the soldiers watched in stunned horror as they began to see the nighttime sky from their beds on the hanger deck! The flight deck above them was breaking apart, cracking under the stress of the storm.

“Oh my G-D! We made it through the war, we survived everything the Germans threw against us, now we’re headed home and the f-ing ship is breaking up right out from under us! What a way to die!”

The Wasp’s crew nearby heard the soldiers’ cries and the sailors rolled on the floor with laughter. Tears were streaming down their faces from their hysterical reactions. The ship wasn’t “breaking apart.” Far from it. Just the opposite, in fact. The Wasp had expansion joints built into the flight deck for exactly this scenario, to absorb the hit of rough weather and roll with the punches, so to speak, so the ship didn’t sustain any damage. The soldiers wouldn’t have known this, of course, but as my dad recalled the story, it was quite an amusing moment.

U.S.S. Wasp in 1945

There were countless other fun stories — the wild, unauthorized jeep drives, the Coleman stove, the Italian-Army dagger, the steer and the carbine, the women’s shoes, and on and on. I remember them all and perhaps I shall recount them at some future date. They are stories that could only have happened during that time in history, when there was such unanimity of feeling and purpose, when circumstances made possible such strong interpersonal bonds between men who’d been total strangers mere days before.

I feel unbelievably privileged to have been told of these experiences first-hand, by someone who actually lived it. My telling them to a succeeding younger generation dilutes them by an order of magnitude, but at least it preserves them for the record. My dad — the eternal glass-half-full person that he was — would have said, “Hey, not so bad.”

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