- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The following stories are excerpts from a collection of life experiences written by Morton “Pete” Wood Jr. of Bethesda. He served with the U.S. Army in World War II, where he was awarded a Bronze Star, and in Korea, where he was awarded a Purple Heart.

A familiar face

Late one afternoon in 1945, we were in our platoon-headquarters chateau on line in the “Jim” positions, a label we used rather than “hill” or a similar designation. Things were relatively quiet that day, with only an occasional whirring artillery shell passing overhead.

Our phone back to the Company I command post had been dead for a while, and we wondered if the wire, which ran along a dirt road, had been severed by artillery fire. Or could it have been snipped by a German patrol? We considered sending our runner back to the command post but feared he might be intercepted by the patrol, if there was one.

While we sat there pondering, we heard footsteps behind the chateau and were sure Germans were out there. We decided on the old infantry maneuver of encirclement.

Sgt. Edward Buckley and I grabbed our weapons and snuck out the front door. Buck crept around to the right and I to left. In back of the chateau, we were much relieved to find a GI checking out our phone line. He identified himself as Sgt. Harold Hickson from the battalion communications platoon and said he had just fixed a break in our phone line.

We went back in and found the phone was working OK. Harold Hickson? Why did that name sound familiar? I asked him if by any chance we had been in the same grade at Fillmore Elementary School in Washington, D.C., back in the 1930s. He said maybe so because that’s when he was there.

I soon forgot about the incident, but some 50 years later, while looking through the 264th Infantry Regiment World War II publication, I came across the name and photo of Harold M. Hickson. I found his name and address in the Fairfax phone book and wrote him a note. He verified that he was, indeed, that person, and we began an exchange of memories and photos of school days, school kids, Army days and Army buddies.

His training and experiences in the war had led to a lifelong career with - what else? - the local telephone company.

Maneuver in a meadow

In early April 1945, our Company I, 264th Infantry, was in battalion reserve. Two lucky truckloads of us donned our cleanest uniforms and caps and took off for a day in Quimper, France, a quaint river town about a two-hour drive up a road paralleling the front lines. I was the unlucky one in charge of things, so I had to ride shotgun in the lead truck.

The trip up was peaceful enough except when we reached a free French army roadblock a mile or so into the drive. The drivers had made the trip many times and had the habit of racing right through. As we approached at full speed, I asked the driver, “Aren’t we gonna stop?” He said, “Nah. All they want is cigarettes.” So we tore on through as the French soldiers shouted and brandished their weapons. So much for my status as “convoy commander.”

The road crossed a couple of hills in full view of the German lines, which called for even more speed. We came to a village, where we took a couple of turns. No sweat. Scatter the chickens, hit the turns, skim paint off the corners of houses, and charge on to Quimper.

In town and turned loose, the guys did what soldiers always do: They headed for the bistros and other establishments of entertainment. Me? I did some sightseeing; beautiful bridges, churches, you know, like that. (Yeah, sure!)

At sundown, we regrouped, climbed aboard the trucks and headed back. Soon, the road began to look unfamiliar, narrower; then there were just tracks, then ruts and finally pure meadowland. I think the driver and I hollered at each other at the same time when we figured we were headed for the German lines. All decked out in our Sunday suits and no weapons. Yikes!

The other truck, which should have been following us, had long since disappeared. Our driver found a gap in the hedgerow, cut a 180 in the meadow and headed back through the French outpost, waved goodbye, found the village and got us home. The guys in the back of the truck never had a clue.

The battalion adjutant counted heads and said: “Where ya been? The other truck got here 15 minutes ago.” I mumbled something about how we had had to take a couple bathroom [Note] sted pee [/NOTE] breaks. He said OK, and that was that. The guys in the back of the truck never had a clue.

2nd Battalion battle patrol

It was a bright day near the middle of March 1945, and we were in our Jim positions on line. Except for the continuous artillery rounds whirring overhead in both directions, it was fairly quiet.

I was manning the phone at our 3rd Platoon command post when a whispered message from Jim 2 outpost came in: “We can see some Germans out there behind a hedgerow about 200 yards out. They keep peekin’ over the hedgerow. I think they’re gettin’ ready to attack us.” I said, “Keep watchin’; I’ll be right out.”

I grabbed my binoculars, headed out to Jim 2 and had a look. Sure enough, in a few minutes a helmeted head popped up. I thought it didn’t have the square shape of the German helmets, and when the guy pushed it back to use his own binoculars, a shock of bright red hair tumbled out. Well, I thought, this is gonna be interesting; I think I’ve seen that hair before.

A few weeks before, a batch of new West Point 2nd looies (2nd lieutenants) had been assigned to our 264th Regiment. Instead of being sent out to serve with the troops on line, they had stayed back at battalion headquarters and had taken over newly formed “battle patrols.” They were to relieve the line troops of some of their patrol duties. A great idea for us, anyway. When they reported in, they were taken around and introduced to the various platoon leaders. So that’s where I had seen the red hair before.

I was positive it was a friendly patrol that had gotten lost or maybe just turned around. We had to get word to them before something bad happened to them, and maybe us. Luckily, Communications Sgt. John Ryan, with his big backpack radio, was with us. He said he could reach the battalion network and, if they were tuned in, the patrol.

It worked. I told Sgt. Ryan to tell them they were headed for our lines and for their leader to stand up and wave and we would wave back. That happened, and we told them to follow the hedgerow over to the wooded area to their left, where they would be hidden from the Germans, and follow the path there, which would bring them in.

When they got in, the lieutenant was upset and accused us of being in the wrong place, according to his map. He finally realized he had had his map upside down and gave up. He thanked us for getting his patrol in safely and led his soldiers off down the road toward the rear.

The whole thing was sort of comical, and we felt good about getting the best of a West Pointer. But I did then, and still do admire all West Pointers, including that redhead, for being the backbone of the U.S. Army.

Who goes first?

In 1951, before to going to Korea, I served for a few months with the 3rd Infantry Regiment at Fort Myer, Va. in Arlington. The 3rd Regiment does ceremonial duties in and around Washington,D.C., including Arlington National Cemetery.

At 5 feet 8 inches, I felt like a dwarf among the giants who were selected for parades, walking post at the Tomb of the Unknowns, escorting National Cherry Blossom Festival [Note] filled in full name. mmg [/NOTE] princesses and conducting military funerals, among their often-demanding but sometimes very pleasant duties.

Nothing fancy like that for me, but I did have one or two exposures to public view, such as being platoon leader of the baseball platoon. We had a bunch of pretty famous just-drafted major-league players who led Fort Myer to an undefeated military-league season while we tried to give them and about 500 other infantry recruits basic training at a post with no training facilities. We spent more time in trucks bouncing up and down U.S. Route 1 to other camps than we did training. But that’s another story.

When Gen. Walton Walker was killed during the early stages of the Korean War, his body was shipped back for services and burial with full honors at Arlington Cemetery. My primary duty that day was to direct traffic around the approaches and crossroads at the Tomb of the Unknowns and the adjacent amphitheater where the funeral service was to be held. President Truman was to attend, along with hosts of other military and government VIPs.

One of our major directives was to make sure the funeral procession, which had started out from across the river in downtown Washington, was not held up by traffic when it arrived at the amphitheater.

The procession included the caisson pulled by white horses, one of which carried an empty saddle with boots symbolically turned backward in the stirrups.

Another directive was to make sure Mr. Truman’s motorcade, which was to arrive a bit earlier, was ushered through without delay. Tight security was the order of the day.

Everything went along nicely until it became evident that Mr. Truman’s sizable party, coming at flank speed with motorcycle escort, was late and was going to show up from a different direction at the amphitheater crossroads at the same moment as the caisson. Uh-oh! Who goes first, and who waits? And guess who gets the hatchet if the wrong one waits! [Note] sted ? — period seems incorrect, too. mmg [/NOTE]

My No. 1 sergeant, who was posted at the key intersection about 50 feet away from my position, waved at me as if to ask, “Which one?” I froze for a few seconds, then shouted something brilliant like, “The horses.” I figured, president or not, the funeral was the main show. So the caisson and all the attendant vehicles and slow-step marchers and drummers filed by as the president’s police escort sat there on their bikes, revving their motors and glaring at us with blood in their eyes.

Well, everything seemed to work out, and the ceremony started on time. Later, as we went through the process of getting all the vehicles sorted and on their way home, the major in charge of ceremony logistics whizzed by my post and gave me what I hoped was a “Well done!” signal. Or was it an “I want to see you in my office right away!” signal?

I didn’t hear any more about it but couldn’t help wondering if it had anything to do with my getting orders to Korea very shortly thereafter. I do believe, though, that Mr. Truman, secretly from his limousine, and Gen. Walker, silently from his casket, approved of my decision at that crossroads.

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