My Grandfather was a Major in the U.S. Army during WWII. He was stationed with the 5th Army in Northern Africa and Italy from Jan 1943 to Jan 1945. One of his main roles was to write stories about what was going on; a war correspondent. He left these stories, typed on there original tissue paper thin pages. All told there are about twelve stories that have never been published – at least not that I could find.
As I read these stories, I was fascinated by the scale, complexity and daily routines that would be considered amazing feats on any level most of us would use to measure such things today.
In addition to articles written for public consumption found in this collection, were memos, transfer orders, a transcript of a Patton speech, letters to home as well as good natured notes between Army buddies and numerous original and professional photographs. These images depict everything from troops behind the scenes to media members such as Eric Sevareid broadcasting from the crater of an erupting Mt. Vesuvius, the only active volcano on the European continent. Essentially, a two-year time capsule of first-hand accounts of combat and everyday life on the front line of the largest conflict in history.
This makes for a great book topic which I have begun. Each chapter is built around one of my Grandfather’s articles. His writings were anecdotal in nature, so I have kept the same feel for the book. I am releasing a chapter in this post in its present state. I will push along with the rest of the book employing feedback from readers for editing.
I hope you enjoy this as much as I have putting it together.
Chapter 6 – The Dermatome – Naples – March 25, 1944
“This is not a war of ammunition, tanks, guns and trucks alone. It is as much a war of replenishing spare parts to keep them in combat as it is a war of major equipment. A thousand tanks or a thousand motor trucks are as good as no tanks or no trucks if the butterfly valve, no larger than a quarter, is missing from the carburetor of each of them. The gasket that leaks, the fan belt that breaks, the nut that is lost, the distributor point that fails, or the bearing that burns out, will delay GI Joe on the road to Berlin, just as much as if he didn’t have a vehicle in which to start.”
~ Ernie Pyle
An Army of hundreds of thousands using every imaginable resource, both natural and created, plus those for war specific needs means lots of stuff. These things require supply, logistics, design, manufacturing and maintenance; both routine and attributable to the harshness of a battle environment. In addition to the principle function of distributing weaponry and ammunition, maintenance of all things functional, from tank turrets to personal wrist watches, the Army Ordnance Corps were capable of keeping the war machine operational with unscripted methods in non-purposeful and makeshift factories. They were mostly tradespeople in civilian life driven to volunteer their services when the war broke-out They now had to ply their trade in war zones on foreign soil while in constant motion and with the ever present threat of getting blown-up without warning. It’s one thing to be an expert at a craft. It’s a whole lot different to do so without the proper tools and with a bomb shelter as a work shop.
This is a story about such endeavors. About a seemingly impossible need fulfilled by equally insufficient materials and facilities to do so. The resolve to do this was the ingenuity of men. The men of the Peninsular Base Section, Shop #1 “built” in Naples Italy. Dubbed “Little Detroit“, this shop was assigned to support the 5th Army in Southern Italy as they made slow progress towards the Winter Line (aka “Gustav Line”) towards de-occupying Rome from a persistent German foe. A mission achieved, yet at a costly ten-month slog in the mud and ice. This represented the major part of the Italian campaign, using 1000’s of vehicles, millions of tons of weapons and ammunition while suffering over 110,000 American casualties.
The deployment of the Ordnance Forces from Tunisia, fresh off the North African campaign, was part of Operation AVALANCHE designed to bring Allied forces into Italy via the Salerno bay in the vicinity of Naples. This was thought and planned to be a walk on the beach due to the ouster of Benito Mussolini on July 26, 1943. His successor, Marshal Pietro Bagdoglio, immediately made overtures to the Allied command that Italy would be disengaging from the Axis and getting out of the war, leaving the Germans to defend the occupied country without local support. Given these events, more extensive planning took place to optimize the landing.
Discussions were held at the command level as to how best to proceed with operation AVALANCHE intended to invade the Italian coast as close to Rome as possible. Given recent events including Mussolini’s demise, a sense of urgency took a back seat to planning and strategy. Two forces were to make landfall at two separate locations bisected by the Sele and Calore rivers. As a result, the operation commenced 40 days later than hoped. On September 2, prior to the launch, General George S. Patton, serving as a reserve commander to General Mark Clark, commander of the Fifth Army while on “hiatus” from his soldier slapping incident, foresaw in his diary: “As sure as God lives, the Germans will attack down that river”. The extended planning time allowed the German forces to move resistance into the Bay of Salerno and made the walk on the beach more of a high wire act without a net verifying Patton’s prediction.
The objective was achieved, but the Ordnance folks responsible for bringing pretty much everything the Army needed to work in a neat and tidy preplanned fashion had to improvise; something they were getting very good at doing. So, slow progress was made north of Naples, on dry land up Rtes. 6 and 7 along with an amphibious assault on the Anzio Beachhead and across the rivers Volturno and Rivero culminating with a difficult and costly battle at Monte Cassino. A battle still viewed as controversial because of the Allied Command belief that Germans were building defenses in the ancient Benedictine Abbey. The Monastery, built in 529 AD, was destroyed by Allied bombs and artillery shells but did little to weaken the German resistance; actually it created a ready-made bunkered defensive position. Despite the slow and arduous progress on this hellish path to Rome, the Ordnance Corps made the difficult standard, the improbable normal and the never-been-done-before, routine.
During the grueling movements of the 5th Army, vehicle mechanics as well as Army trained specialists in weaponry, bomb disposal and materiel all worked in concert. The two men, responsible for making a Dermatome for the field hospital from old Artillery casings and a busted instrument were just as important (and creative) as the folks repairing the Caterpillar bull dozers to fix roads, thus allowing an entire mechanized troop to continue on their assigned path or ensuring M-1’s and BARs of the “doughboys” were kept in working order. Freshly volunteered Machinists, Electricians, Plumbers, Carpenters, of the Ordnance Corps were a critical element in the Allied victories in Italy and ultimately the entire war. this is a story exemplifying why.
The hand written scrawl at the top of the original typed drafts says, “Uncorrected for typo errors”. This is transcribed, verbatim, from the original:
NAPLES – March 25, 1944
It was just a few weeks ago that the surgeons in one the Army’s big base hospitals here asked for the impossible….and got it.
The impossible was a Dermatome – a delicate precision instrument which slices living human tissue for skin grafts in tissue-thin layers of pre-determined thickness. The surgeons needed it urgently. To cable the States and wait for its arrival – even by air – meant the loss of time; time precious to the speedy healing of the burned and scarred American soldiers.
There are no Dermatomes to be bought or borrowed. If one were to be had at all, it must be made, and quickly. And it was. With a worn-out instrument for a model and brass from a shell case as raw material, Lieutenant Thomas R. Vermillion of Williamsburg, VA and T/5 Joe Watkins of Swannanoe, N.C., deftly designed and machined out a finished instrument in a matter of hours.
And, because he saw certain faults in the original, Lieutenant Veermillion made several basic improvements that may become standard from here on.
Neither Vermillion nor Watkins had ever seen, or even heard of a Dermatome before, but they made it in keeping with the tradition of their outfit – “It couldn’t be done ‘till we did it.”
At present, this outfit is sprawled all over several acres of ground on the outskirts of this city. It goes by the Army name of Base Ordnance Shop #1, Peninsular Base Section, Army Service Forces. But wide-eyed visitors sat it may be better called “Little Detroit”.
Little Detroit is a wonderland, a house of magic, a busy testament on foreign soil to the driving ingenuity at war.
It was born last fall amid the rubble of a bomb-blasted Italian Factory to the tune of German shell-fire and it has thrived like something fed on Italian “boom food”.
In through its guarded gates, day and night, stream all matter of war-torn arms and equipment – guns, tanks, vehicles, instruments – all of the gear that keeps an army rolling and shooting, but broken and useless now.
And bending the other way, through the main gate, go other columns of trucks and tanks and guns and equipment; bright, clean and new – ready for action once more.
Inside the plant, more than 1,000 mechanics swarm over 250,000 square feet of floor space crammed with lathes, forges, power hammers, drill-presses, arc-welders, grinders, and all manner of precision tools and implements. Overhead roll powerful traveling cranes, shifting huge gun barrels, or tank engines, or jeeps.
It’s a place right out of Detroit, or Pittsburgh, or Birmingham, or any other center of industry in the States; so much so that a visitor feels a pang of nostalgia, but the front lines are only 65 miles distant and Nazi bombers still come over and all those men in green coveralls are not only mechanics, they’re soldiers.
No one word can describe Little Detroit. It’s an arsenal, a super-garage, a tire re-treading plant, a giant machine shop, an upholstery factory, an instrument laboratory, and more – all rolled into one. It can machine tiny chronometer parts or make a giant boom for a tank recovery truck, with equal efficiency, it can recover the seats in a general’s staff car or cut gears for a gun mount.
Down in the giant bays, machines of all descriptions whir and pound. Foundries – home-made by the crews – make metal shapes of brass, aluminum and iron. Lines of molds put heavy new rubber over shell-torn tire treads. Mechanical hones grind new faces on cylinders of truck engines. Here they rebuild bent and broken springs and axels; there they test reconstructed transmissions and transfer cases. Big guns are dismounted and worked over, while the small-arms crews busy themselves on Tommy guns or Garands or BARs. Up on the side gallery, out of the noise and dust, quiet, serious technicians explore and adjust the innards of “mechanical brains” that compute the azimuth, direction, speed and height of enemy planes in a fraction of a second for the ack-ack batteries, Here too, specialists recalibrate binoculars and range finders and repair watches, chronometers and tank periscopes. It was in this instrument shop that T. S. Watkins made the Dermatome.
Another walled-in space houses a contraption that recalls some of Rube Goldberg’s better efforts. But this one has a serious job. It tests rebuilt gyroscopic stabilizers. These keep the guns of our tanks on target no matter how the tank heaves and lurches.
Outside in a yard of arsenal acres, tanks waddle around, getting the feel of their new treads or engines, while across the road, reconditioned rifles, machine guns and 75’s bang their bullets into a hillside.
The men who made Little Detroit are different than the general run of GI’s. In the first place, except for a few replacements, they are volunteers, specially recruited by the National Automobile Dealers’ Association at the request of the War Department in 1941. They are hand-picked, for the most part, for their mechanical experience and skill.
For example, the ultra-modern machine shop is run by Staff Sargent Frank Wales, 227 Catalpa Street, Knoxville, Tenn., a cracker-jack machinist in civilian life. In charge of small arms repair is Sargent Joseph L. Freeman, 1017 Denver Blvd, San Antonio, Texas, who did the same job back home in the Army arsenal in San Antonio. Sargent Freeman’s assistant, T/4 George Koons, of Ossian, Indiana, was a gunsmith before he signed up for the duration.
Running the tire molds is Sargent Oliver McClain, 36 Iowa Street, Uniontown, Pa., who has his own tire store there, while the instrument section is looked after by Sargent C. H. Thompson, 501 Boultree Square, Anderson, S.C., graduate of the Army’s instrument courses at Aberdeen, and an old oil plant executive in civilian life.
These are just a few – there are hundreds more. And the thread of mechanical skill and training runs through the ranks of the officers.
Most of the crew at Little Detroit are Southerners – soft-spoken boys who like their jobs and love their outfit. They have been together from the start and had ample prestige for their present tasks in Casablanca during the North African Campaign.
When the Italian show started, they loaded their equipment and shoved off direct for Naples. For thirty-five days their vessel cruised about, dodging enemy submarines and planes, waiting for the flash that Naples had fallen and they could move in. They did just that and wasted no time. While the unloading of equipment was going forward, a small group of officers scouted the city and its environs, looking for an operating site.
They found it in a bomb-wrecked Italian plant, windowless and roofless with huge gaps in the main walls and floors feet deep in rubble.
Then followed days and weeks of back-breaking work. Actual ordnance maintenance operations began almost at once – they had to, the Army was on the move
As fast as floor space was cleared, equipment was set up and placed in service. Holes in the floor were boarded over. Corrugated iron sheets put a roof over the main bay, while salvaged Italian cement tile roofed in the side wings.
Italian labor was recruited for masonry work and soon new walls arose. Squads of mechanics scoured Naples for usable machinery and equipment to supplement their own.
Meanwhile, as the army moved northward and supply lines lengthened, worked poured in in an ever-increasing volume. Shot-up, burned, wrecked and worn-out gear of all varieties arrived all day and night. And, to their eternal credit, the base shop crews kept it moving out – back into the line.
They slaved and cursed and scrounged and improvised. They got the wrecked power crane running; the elevators too. They built new staircases, re-rigged lighting circuits, and fixed the water lines and plumbing—in short, they carried out to the last letter, their official mission; the heavy repair and maintenance of ordnance equipment.
Heavy maintenance over here means jobs which are too tough to be handled by the forward units for lack of time, parts, equipment or manpower. And ordnance, in addition to all types of weapons means anything that moves on wheels or tracks and, in addition, take in all sorts of miscellaneous equipment – such as stoves, instruments, air-compressors and pumps – to name a few.
A tank engine pierced by a shell, the charred and shrapnel riddled wreck of a big truck; an armored car that ran over a land-mine; a 155 Howitzer twisted by a direct hit; small arms red with rust; or artillery instruments with lens and prisms shattered by bombs – these are some of the heavy maintenance jobs dumped into the capable hands of the men at Little Detroit.
Then, of course, there are extra-curricular tasks – the crews call them “Tiffany Jobs” – things that are not in the book, like the dermatome. But that was only one. Base Sop # 1 has made many other instruments for the Army Medical Corps, including an autoclave and a special sterilizer for the mess kits of patients with venereal disease. The railway operating battalions, running Italian engines, often call upon Little Detroit to turn out a strange new part for the running gear of an Italian locomotive.
Now and then, when the occasion arises, the shop turns out military athletic trophies for the Army Special Services section or for the American Red Cross.
The French forces are using all American equipment and, naturally, they too turn to Little Detroit for maintenance and replacement. Italian civilian cars, requisitioned by Allied Military Government or the Allied Control Commission are a constant headache to the shop repair crews.
New material from the States arrives over here knocked down for the most part. Many times, a crate or a case containing one of the components has been lost and, as a result, assembly is impossible. Just that these happened to be a shipment of tank shrouds. These are metal shields fastened to the tanks for amphibious operations, enabling them to wallow through the water five feet deep without stalling. The shrouds arrived from the States without one of the basic pieces – a large and complicated section of welded sheet iron. Using an old part for a model, the base shop boys cut, bent and welded a sufficient number to permit the “shrouding” of a good many tanks. These are the tanks went ashore at Anzio.
There are scores of similar incidents – the casting of flywheels for new air-compressors; manufacture of missing carburetor parts; bilge pump parts for the versatile “ducks” – now seeing heavy service at the beachhead.
Could they see it, the way Little Detroit takes what appear to be hopelessly damaged tire casings and make them almost as new would gladden the hearts of OPA’s rubber conservation back in Washington and tell a pointed story to American motorists. Bullet-stripped and shrapnel-torn tires from all sorts of vehicles are piled high on the plant floor. Holes three inches and more through and through are common. The tire crew takes hold, neatly trims the deepest spots and, in the latest type molds, presses on a new carcass section. Worn treads are re-capped, just like they are at home, but with heavy-duty camelback, of course.
There is no waiting at Little Detroit. A unit bringing in a wrecked jeep or bettered gun gets a new one in a matter of minutes. The old one goes to its proper “disassembly” line and is torn down for repair. Broken or badly worn parts are replaced, the equipment is reassembled, inspected, tested and painted. The, back on the line- another replacement ready for service. The testing of rebuilt equipment is thorough. Transmissions and transfer cases get two hour runs. And, incidentally, the shop mechanics have rigged up an “in line” tester that keeps eight transmissions going at once from one engine. “Nothing like that, even in Detroit”, declared Lt. Col. James A. Black, former Dodge dealer of Lawton, Okla., and now plant chief of Little Detroit.
Rebuilt truck and tank engines are run-in on blocks for five hours before being installed. Every gun that passes through the plant, from .22 caliber practice rifles to giant 240 mm howitzers, undergo test
firing. At little Detroit proper, nothing bigger than a 75 mm tank gun is tested, the larger stuff being taken to a distant proving range out of consideration for the windows of nearby Naples.
Little Detroit is run by GI’s – the enlisted men. Certainly, there are officers, and extremely capable they are. But they never stop singing the praises of their men. Hard-boiled Major A. F. Zitzowitz, of Chicago, in civil life the president of Mid-Continent Metal Products, and now chief maintenance officer for the entire Peninsular Base Section, just beams as he talks about “the boys”.
“That fellow there,” he says, pointing to Staff Sargent Frank Weiss, 227 Catalpa Street, Knoxville, “is one of the best machinists in the business – and I know machinists. And there’s another good boy” – indicating PFC Frank K. Maruda of Honolulu, an American of Japanese descent – “he’s new here, not new to his lathe. Look at him work…..Hell, they’re all terrific. Uncle Sam’s plain lucky here.”
Always around – day or night – is Major Lee Minter, who was an oil engineer back in Bradford, Pa. Major Minter is the mechanical superintendent – the man the experts come to when they’re stuck. No one knows when he sleeps. He’s on hand at noon and midnight and any hour in between,” just helping out he says.
Italian civilian labor is employed extensively at Little Detroit and more are being added and trained every week. At first, only laborers and masons were needed. Soon, however, as the pressure of work grew greater, artisans of all kinds were recruited. Today, some sections of the plant are manned almost entirely by Italians with GI “foremen”.
Training in the use of American tools and methods is necessary in some cases, but in many others – such as blacksmithing, carpentry, upholstery and foundry work – the Italians are highly skilled and self-operating from the start. This civilian labor is operating for the first time under American labor policies. There is an eight-hour work day and time-and-a-half for overtime. Wage scales, while not comparable with those paid in the United States are in keeping with these being paid the artisan class in liberated Italy.
Along with everything else, Little Detroit is a military installation. Its good mechanics are also good soldiers. In their military capacity they are charged with the defense of an entire sector surrounding their plant. On demand, they change their green coveralls for their dress uniforms; their wrenches for their Garands, and, spic, span, and spotless, stand a formal retreat in one of Naples’ spacious public squares.
Great place, Little Detroit. A chunk right out of America. It’s Naples now. Next home? Vienna? Berlin? That’s anybody’s guess. All that’s needed is a big wrecked plant and guts and savvy. The first won’t be hard to find anywhere over here. And as for the last two – well you answer that one, America.
The Dermatome story is just one of a long list of these types of goings-on taking place at Peninsular Base #1 by the first Ordnance Division. It was also the first ever to operate in a combat arena. The Dermatome and other non-routine undertakings were referred to as “Tiffany Jobs” because they fell in line with the skills and precision of a Jeweler and not a machinist or bulldozer operator. Most of the “routine” tasks of weapons and ammunition disbursements, vehicle maintenance or diffusing explosives occupied their time and tested their skills when the demand for the design and manufacture of precision devices were not needed.
The men and woman volunteering their expertise to the efforts of building and providing the necessary tools for battle had historically been based in a converted factory in the States. Factories across the U. S. altered their manufacturing base for war time purposes from manufacturing Erector Sets to making parachutes in New Haven, CT or Hollywood studios halting movie productions to make propaganda films. Places like the Clark St. Cadillac plant in Detroit converted from making automobiles to M-5 Tanks in Feb, 1942, just 55 days after halting production of automobiles. This incredibly short time perhaps facilitated by the selection of twin Cadillac V-8 engines to power the M-5.
The Army Ordnance Corp was established as an official service division during the War of 1812 when the Secretary of War recognized “a need for distinct branch to manage the procurement, research and maintenance of Ordnance materiel.” This did not only recognize the necessity of such a function, but also distinguished the Ordnance Corp as one of the oldest in the history of the U.S. Army. WWII Ordnance management continued to be a huge operation in charge of not just procuring and supplying weapons and ammunition in the right quantity to the right place at the right time, it also had to keep all the motorized vehicles including tanks, jeeps, earth moving equipment and troop trucks in proper working condition. The logistics of doing all this on a such a large scale were daunting.
The Aberdeen Proving Ground built for the Ordnance Corps. in Aberdeen Maryland is the oldest active service base of operation in the Army. From here, tradesmen practitioners cum Army volunteers were trained for service in the Army without undermining their purpose as experts in their craft. At the peak of WWII, the APG was home to 27,000 Army personnel. It is from this special place that all things Ordnance found their rightful place in a rear area coordinating ammo supply or near the front lines patching tanks and guns together for the intended purpose of uninterrupted ordnance service.
To put the size and scope of the amount of stuff the Ordnance Corps was responsible for during WWII in perspective, The Table of Basic Allowance for an armored division calls for: 13,000 small arms weapons, 500 artillery pieces, 900 combat vehicles and 1800 other vehicles. This equipment weighed 24,000 tons.
Ok, that’s just the stuff they started with for one of about six major Divisions. Throw in resupply and fixing things bound to break on a regular basis while maneuvering through mine fields, mountains, over rivers and bomb cratered fields in the pouring rain and frigid winter and you get the idea.
The Italian Campaign Ordnance Corps under Colonel Urban Niblo, specifically those assigned to the 5th Army led by Colonel Rose, initiated not-by-the-book procedures to allow for the transfer of services to flow smoothly from one Ordnance company and location to the next as the Allied forces made their slow advance toward the Winter Line. In a tactical move ideated by Niblo and implemented by Rose, was to assign an Ordnance support team for each forward combat unit. This concept did not meet with total recognition of the War Department, yet was still initiated. This allowed the specific needs of each company be met including surges and lulls in combat activity. This proved to be very effective but eventually ran into a significant problem. The Ordnance battalions assigned to each unit were not as fast and nimble as the troops they supported. This yielded a further improvisation in accordance with the Niblo doctrine of “uninterrupted ordnance service”. The revision placed all the forward battalions under the guidance of a new central Ordnance command group, specifically the 6694th Ordnance Group (Provisional). Again, this move did not have full recognized status by the War Department at the time of implementation. The Group, as created and tweaked/renamed over the course of the campaign, was roughly the size of a Brigade; a distinction it would earn after the war.
Under this structure, the support of combat troops passed from one Ordnance support team to the next so as not to impede the forward push. This made communications even more critical so the that each field unit would know what was done previously and what was needed to ensure a smooth transition going forward; uninterrupted ordnance service. This became known as the “envelop system” of passing on accurate information. Recognizing this, Colonel Rose dispatched daily top secret bulletins with tactical situations, troop locations and anticipated Ordnance activity with no fewer than thirty copies going to every Ordnance Officer, Base Operations, Divisions and Headquarters. Because the distribution of these memoranda were carbon copies, they became known as “purple blurbs” and Col. Rose was dubbed “Poop Sheet Pappy.”
So, the war machine kept moving in large part thanks to a service arm of the United Sates army, The Ordnance Corp. Making it all happen were captains of industry, the most creative engineers available and the finest trades people the world has ever seen who kept guns firing, vehicles operational, bombs disarmed and even field hospitals in supply of unique instruments like the Dermatome.