06/08/2015 11:55 AM


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William Vermily Toffey III, Army! my!, Army!,



Learning more.."World War II and Private Toffey"

I had a little portable radio that had been given me as a going-away present and I turned it on.  The only station I could get was playing, of all things, the mournful and "Blues in the Night."  I still get a shiver when I hear that tune.  I turn it off and went to sleep. 

"Carpentry Detail"

The next day we were moved to the barracks and issued uniforms. Then we were lined up. I did something I had been warned not to do.  "In the army you never volunteer for anything,"  I had been warned.  They like to play tricks on rookies.  "Are there any carpenters here?" the sergeant asked.  Two men raise their hands.  "Are there any one who can use a hammer and saw?" The added.  I raised my hand and thus became a member of the eight men carpentry detail assigned to build coal bins.  Since there were only enough tools for half of  us to use at one time, the assignment wasn't onerous. 

The next morning my name was on the list for KP.  I sought out the sergeant.  "I am on the carpentry detail," I told him.  He scratched my name off the list.  My luck was holding. 

A few mornings later, at 4:00 AM, at corporal burst into the room.  "Everybody out, we have freight cars to unload."  "I'm on the carpentry detail," I told him, and went back to sleep.

My mother and father took the train down to Fort Dix for a visit.  Little did I know that it would be almost two years before I would see them again.  (I was in California a year later when I was eligible for a week's furlough.  Air fare would have been too costly and train travel would have taken up most of the week.)

 Obviously no one was going to tell us when and where we would take off, so it wasn't until the fifth day that we got a signal: we were given training in how to board a railroad car.  We climbed on and off the mock-up car until the NCO's were satisfied we could do it without screwing up.  The whole thing seemed ridiculous at the time, but I guess that there would have been a lot of confusion and wasted time if we had done it on our own.

The next day the real thing was waiting for us.  I boarded, along with 300 other rookies, and we were off for who knows where.

It turned out to be a long journey.  As the days passed, the conductor professed not to know where we were headed.  For security reasons, he said, the routing was being changed constantly and he couldn't tell where we were going.  There was a rumor, which proved to be true, that the mess staff had been ordered to load up enough food for seven days.

Finally on the morning of the sixth day the conductor said, "I think I can tell from where we're heading, that we are going to Camp Cooke, a new camp on the coast at Lompoc, California."

The conductor was right, and that day I became a member of H Company, 46 Armored Infantry Regiment, Fifth Armored Division.  (Armored divisions were later re-organized and the unit became B Company, 46 Armored Infantry Battalion.)   Although I spent most of the army career on special assignment away from that company, I was on its rolls for the next 3 ½ years.

Our company commander was a husky, bulldog-faced lieutenant with a determination to make his company the best in the regiment no matter what it might cost us in blood and sweat.  In civilian life, rumor had it, he was school principal.  Our first sergeant was a wiry little career soldier who was more than happy to help the lieutenant achieve his goal.

Every draftee I've talked with began his army service at a training camp before being assigned to a regular unit.  We weren't. The Fifth Armored Division had formed in Fort Knox, the army command headquarters, as a cadre of officers and noncommissioned officers who were then sent to Camp Cooke.  The same men who gave us our basic training would be the ones who would lead us in combat.

Being located on the West Coast proved unfortunate.  Since there was nothing but an ocean between us and Japan, we were on alert basis throughout the time we were there.  Thus we were allowed only one evening passed every two weeks, one 3 day pass every 13 weeks, and no furloughs for the first year.  Also, we couldn't buy a drink anywhere after 10:00 PM.

As soon as I finished my three-month basic training, I apply for Officers Training School. I was accepted by the review board, only to learn that I had flunked the medical examination. Chronic bronchitis, I was told.  "But that doesn't affect your status as an enlisted man," the surgeon said.  I didn't have the vaguest idea what chronic bronchitis was, but had to take the Army's word for it.  I wrote home with the news.

My letter arrived home when Aunt Helen Toffey was visiting there.  An army widow, she had been in Washington having a checkup at the Army's Walter Reed hospital there.  She had found she had a "kissing acquaintance" with most of the Army brass there.  Shortly afterwards I was called out of the line at morning call and handed a telegram. It was from on Aunt Helen.  "Washington advises apply for a waiver," it said.  I took the telegram to the regimental surgeon. "You can't wave chronic bronchitis," he said.  I wrote home mentioning that. Then I received a call to report to the chief of staff, the division's second highest ranking officer. Aunt Helen, not knowing anyone in our area, had contacted a general at Fort Lewis, Washington, who in turn contacted our division.  The chief of staff said he had talked with the division surgeon, who said that the camp radiologist had been reading some odd things in his X-rays. He said since it was now on the record, I should wait six months and then applied again. I did. I reapplied and had passed both the board and medical exam. But by that time the Army had stopped accepting OCS candidates from our division.  So I ended up wearing my private first class single stripe for the rest of the war.

Brother Akin later pointed out that I was lucky because by the time I would've completed my officer training, all OCS graduates were sent off as replacements for combat casualties.

Following the three months of training, the Division was sent to the Mojave Desert for maneuvers.  A detachment was left behind to handle housekeeping duties at the camp and, because I could type, I was left behind. As it turned out, the detachment found it didn't need a typist after all, and I served as a mail clerk until the division returned.

I had told the company commander that I wanted to go along on the maneuvers, believing that I would be going to OCS and wanted the experience.  However, being left behind proved to be extremely fortuitous, not only in gaining an interesting assignment, but in keeping me out of active combat as well.

While distributing the mail, I met a sergeant who was with the special services office, a unit responsible for all morale activities such as entertainments, dances, juke boxes, sports, etc.  The sergeant, a newspaper man, was responsible for collecting and writing news about the Division for the campground newspaper He was left behind because he was on his way to OCS.  He promised to recommend me for the job.  "There's three stars for you," he claimed.

When the division returned from maneuvers I reported to the major in command of the Special Services Office and he said he would take care of things.  He did.  He placed me on special duty with his office, so that I continued to be quartered with my infantry company and be required to take part in special training sessions.  I enjoyed the job but began to realize as time went on that the major had no intention of adding me to his staff. 

This left me with an uncertain status.  When the division left Camp Cooke after more than a year there and was shipped across country for maneuvers in Tennessee, I was returned to the light infantry company  Maneuvers over, we moved north to Pine Camp at Watertown, New York (since renamed Camp Drum).  There it was decided that the division should have a public relations unit and a lieutenant Gangware, a young newspaperman from Sandusky, Ohio, was put in charge. Once again I was on special duty handling news.

Winter comes early in northern New York, and we were getting snow and ice when they began winterizing the vehicles and issuing us heavy clothing and fleeced-lined sleeping bags. A team of  mountain troops arrived to train us to cope with winter life.

Then in early December all the special heavy winter gear was recalled and we were off to Indiantown Gap, a military reservation in Pennsylvania, part of the Port of Embarkation system.  There preparations were made for shipment overseas.

On February 10, 1944

On February 10, 1944, in the dead of night, we were loaded onto a darkened train, transferred to a darkened ferry boat, then discharged at a darkened pier.  Stepping in from the darkness, the interior of the huge pier was ablaze with light.  A band was playing and Red Cross women were handing out coffee and doughnuts.  High on one wall was a black opening and a steady stream of soldiers were filing up a rampant and disappearing into it. Finally it was my turn.  I walked up the ramp, onto the ship, and on my way to war.

Our ship was part of the largest convoy to cross the Atlantic during the war.  The trip, happily, was uneventful.  I was fortunate in drawing a bunk. Some of the fellows drew hammocks, which had to be removed and stored away during the day because they were suspended over the dining tables.  The ship was British and the food was lousy.  Breakfast the first morning out consisted of liver and bacon swimming in grease.  I enjoyed it, but I felt sorry for the fellows who were already queasy. Breakfast after that was generally hot dogs or fried bologna. Evening dessert was always tapioca pudding with a variety of flavors.  The final night it was just plain vanilla pudding.  After we landed, I went back to the Special Services Office where I found the staff, who had been on an American ship, talking about the chicken they had had and the ice cream for dessert.

The work with the Special Service Office was pleasant, but I was facing the prospect of returning to my infantry when we went outfit when we into action.   Then one day, Lieutenant Gangware contacted me. He wanted to give me a driving test. Why?  It seems that General Patton, in whose Third Army we were assigned, had issued orders that every division under his command must set up a public relations unit of at least one officer and one enlisted man. Patton failed to provide for a rating for the PR EM but, but not being anxious to become a hero, I was more than happy not to be fighting the war as an infantry rifleman.

The division was assigned to two British camps on the Salisbury Plain.  And there we await the call to action.  It was a big day for me when I won a drawing for a pass to London. I boarded the train wondering just where I would go and what I would do when I reach the city.  As I stepped off the train at the London station, an MP stopped me and ask what I was doing. I showed him my pass.  "Wasn't your division notified?" he asked.  "Notified of what?"  I asked. "All travel has been forbidden," he said, " It's D-day."  I got his permission to go find a glass of beer and promised I'd be on the next train back to the campground.

 Our division had been called to the coast to handle the housekeeping for the invading troops, much to the annoyance of our commanding general that wanted to use the time to give his men special training. When the division returned to camp he had only two weeks to get in the training before we got orders across the channel.

France at last

We drove to Southhampton on July 22, where we waited along the streets until they were ready to board us.  Then a detachment of black soldiers, serving as stevedores, loaded us onto a freighter for the trip.  As we neared the French Coast a landing craft drew alongside, and we had to do the unloading ourselves. I had to climb down into the hold and position my jeep, scramble onto the deck and down into the landing craft to position my vehicle there.  Then we completed the journey, sailing around ships that have been deliberately sunk to serve as a breakwater, and arrived at a pier where we drove off in our vehicles.  We were in France at last.

And there we sat, in a pleasantly wooded area, wondering how the troops that had landed back at the June 6 D-day were faring. Of course, no one told us what was going on up there in what we presumed to be the "front lines."

Finally, on August 3 we moved out. Our column moved along country roads in the pitch darkness. We were "climbing a hill" and neared the top when an MP ordered us to turn off our lights. We reached the top and before us lay a small town completely engulfed in flames. We made our way around the town and climbed another hill that was lined with dead horses which the Germans apparently had been using in an attempt to escape.

Curiously, this proved to be the most spectacular scene I was to witness throughout the entire war.

Our division was divided into three fully-contained Combat Commands. The division headquarters column would follow one of these commands and the lieutenant and I, in our jeep, would be along near the tail end of the column. We were, therefore, fairly far back from most of the action.

The mission of the armored divisions was to slice through enemy territory as fast as possible, disrupting communications and hitting enemy installations before they knew what hit them.

It worked so well that I saw little destruction as we drove through town after town that had been newly liberated. That doesn't mean that there wasn't a lot of furious fighting going on, but I felt reasonably safe figuring that our combat units were taking care of things while I was tending to my job back at the campgrounds. Of course it didn't reassure me when I learned that there was an infantry division fighting a bitter battle 90 miles behind us.

I'm not going to try to detail the 5th Armored Division's combat history because I was in no position to know where we were or what was happening most of the time. So I'll stick to the highlights that stick in my mind.

At the end of August 1944 after logging more than 400 miles, the division arrived on the outskirts of Paris There we stopped. The French Armored Division, an outfit that had been trained and outfitted in Britain, had been traveling parallel to us and was given the honor of taking Paris while we waited outside the city.

We had just been transferred to the First Army, which had set up headquarters in Paris, so my lieutenant happily found it necessary to check in with the public relations section of the First Army. So, two days after it was liberated we visited Paris The only thing to indicate that something big had happened there was the hordes of bicyclists crowding the streets. It was explained to us that during the occupation people had hidden their cycles from the Germans. Now they were enjoying their cycles to the fullest. Also we noted that remnants of the French Armored division were scattered around the city. Apparently the conquerors were celebrating with relatives and friends. I have often wondered whether the French Armored Division ever was reassembled.

Two days later, on September 2, our division moved out. Our column traveled through the center of Paris As we neared the Arc de Triomphe, Sgt. Al Germ, a skilled accordionist who was riding in a half track behind my jeep, drew out his big squeeze box and, pulling out all stops, thundered out with the "Marseillaise" for the benefit of the crowds that lined the boulevard.

This was an auspicious start of what proved to be a 16-hour push through enemy territory.  It was one of the few times that I was shot at.  We were not long on our way when a disgruntled German lobbed a mortar shell at us. The only casualty was a fellow in the half-track ahead of me who suffered a scratch with enough blood to qualify him for a Purple Heart.

During this push General Oliver kept ordering his men to move faster. After eight hours he gave up trying, then moved up in front and personally led the division for the next eight hours. He ran into trouble only once. He was about to cross a bridge when he saw an enemy tank pointing toward him.  He called for artillery and the tank was demolished. (I had been amazed to learn that, no matter how fast the division traveled, artillery batteries leapfrogged one another and there was always a battery in place.)  I have often wondered how the general's aide and driver felt about their general's bravado.

Seven days later the division had fought its way into the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. There a short, somewhat pudgy man in a British uniform arrived at division headquarters. He proved to be Prince Felix, prince consort to Grand Duchess Charlotte, the country's ruling monarch.  As the headquarters column moved out, I turned my jeep in behind that of the prince.

We were well on our way when the column was halted by fire from enemy tanks somewhere on the other side of a hill. An angry General Oliver demanded action from the brigadier general in charge of the combat command. The brigadier, in turn, was chewing out the artillery spotter, a young lieutenant who was perched on top of his tank, trying to get a fix from the spotter airplane.

Everyone else had taken refuge in a ditch with the exception of some black soldiers from ordinance who were calmly refueling the tanks. I found myself sitting next to the prince, who very kindly loaned me his field glasses so I could see some enemy soldiers who were futilely firing their rifles from a distant steel plant. By the time the enemy tanks were dealt with it was too late for a triumphant entry into Luxembourg City and we returned to our encampment.

Next morning we set out again. This time the city had been secured. From the outskirts on into the city huge crowds lined the street. No one recognized the prince. It was believed he was in Canada with the Grand Duchess. Captain Davidson, the general's aide, couldn't stand it any longer. When an old woman approached his jeep wearing a button depicting the royal family, he pointed to the prince's picture and then to the jeep behind him. "The prince," the woman screamed. With that the crowd surged forward, swept the prince from his jeep and carried him around on their shoulders. It was a while before the crowd could be induced to return the prince to his jeep. "Did you have to do that?" the general asked Davidson, but it was obvious that he got a kick out of the whole thing.

Everyone who could find a space piled aboard our jeeps. I had to guide my jeep by looking between two bodies on my hood to see the knee of a woman perched on the back of the prince's jeep.
At the city square I parked my jeep in front of the city hall while the royal party entered the building and appeared on the balcony The mayor gave a speech of greeting, the prince spoke for himself and the duchess, and General Oliver also spoke briefly. "The welcome you have given us brings tears to my eyes," he said. Being a very sentimental person, he did shed some tears.

The prince and the mayor took off for the royal mansion, the general went back to our encampment, Lieutenant Gangware disappeared into the city hall and I found myself the only GI in a huge crowd of celebrating humanity. Many in the crowd spoke English, so I chatted with those around me.

Suddenly there came the boom boom of distant artillery fire and at that point an armored car came racing past the square. Almost as suddenly the square emptied out, and I found myself the only living thing in that huge square. Feeling highly uncomfortable with my exposed position, I made tracks for a concrete bandstand and stayed behind it until the lieutenant, utterly unaware of what had been going on, emerged from the city hall and we got out of there. Back at the encampment we learned that the artillery bursts had been mere expressions of annoyance on the part of the departing Germans and that the armored car was just rushing back with the happy news that the entire Duchy had been liberated.

The next day a reconnaissance patrol crossed the border into Germany and found itself in the midst of the Siegfried Line, the vaunted underground fortress that was intended to repel Germany's enemies. A woman emerged from one of the houses, offered the soldiers a pie and pointed out which buildings were actually pillboxes. They were all unmanned, but that was not for long. The Germans began infiltrating the next day.

The division moved up to the border and awaited orders to move on into Germany -- orders that never came. The Top Brass had decided that the border breakthrough was to take place to the north at Aachen and that preparation had to be made for that attack.  While the Germans rushed in defensive forces, our tanks and half-tracks became sitting ducks for the enemy artillery, and the underground tunnels of the Siegfried Line allowed soldiers to infiltrate behind our lines.

Ten days after they had crossed into Germany our troops were finally withdrawn into Luxembourg and were given time for maintenance and rev Pairs.

For the next month, the division Patrolled the German-Belgium border with several planned attacks called off because of bad weather. Then, beginning on November 24, the division was plunged into the bitter and costly fighting in and around the Hurtgen Forest. It was a month before our troops were finally moved out of the area and placed in reserve.

It was during this period that the division headquarters was set up on German soil. It was in a small town near the border. While we traveled through friendly territory we had to respect the needs of the civilian population. Even when shelter might have been available, General Oliver refused to permit any of his headquarters people to move indoors until all his fighting men had roofs over their heads. Now having crossed the border, I found myself provided with a bedroom in a commandeered house and, of all things, a feather bed. It was the first bed I had seen in more than six months. I climbed into the bed and sank into its softness but I finally climbed out, stretched out on the floor and slept soundly until morning.

For the next month the division was in reserve and we were set up in a Belgian rubber factory on the German border. The floors were clean and there were desks we could sleep under just in case the Germans should decide to bomb us. I opened my Christmas package from home -- a box full of novelties that my friends and I enjoyed. The division surgeon came by and was amused by one unique and somewhat vulgar item. He borrowed it to show it to the chief of staff. It was an "alarm clock" candle which when lighted was to be inserted in one's rear end.

Toward the end of January we were ordered to remove our shoulder Patches and cover up the division designations on our vehicles. Then we made a hush-hush trip north into Holland. It turned out that we had been reassigned from the First Army to the Ninth Army, all very top secret. Two days later a captured German army intelligence bulletin reported on the change.

It turned out that the change resulted in a major change in my operations. When the Fifth Armored started out with Patten's Third Army it was logical not to let the enemy know what they were being hit with. When our division was transferred to the First Army a month later its whereabouts were still not for publication. By the time the division was transferred to the Ninth Army, a serious morale problem had surfaced: Soldiers who had been through six and a half months of bitter, bloody fighting were receiving letters from home saying there had been no mention in the newspapers of the Fifth Armored Division and asking if it was expected to become involved in the fighting.

With our new affiliation with the Ninth Army there came changes.

Lieut. Gangware, the public relations officer, disappeared. There were rumors that he had gotten into an argument with the lieutenant colonel in charge of personnel (and second lieutenants just don't argue with colonels, especially the one in charge of personnel in our division). If so, it was surprising because Gangware was normally a rather timid individual. In his place I got Lieut. Joseph Burns, a Chicagoan who later became promotion manager for the Chicago Tribune. Being just the opposite of Gangware, Joe took full advantage of his job to go where he wanted and do what he wanted. In this he had a kindred spirit in Bob Hoylman, a Chicago artist he brought in as his driver. In addition, correspondents were appointed in each of the three combat commands. Previously, most of my work had consisted of gathering in the citations that accompanied the medals that were awarded, writing up stories about them and sending them on to the Army headquarters for forwarding to hometown papers. Now we could get stories that could go to the wire services and Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper

In early March the division began its drive through Germany, fighting the kind of war it fought best -- with quick thrusts that destroyed enemy communications and caught its troops off guard. At times the division overran the aerial photos provided by Army headquarters and had to rely on pictures taken by its own artillery spotter planes.

German civilian morale reached the point where upon entering a town our German-speaking intelligence officers would pick up a phone, call the next town, and arrange for it to surrender.

As we were nearing Berlin - and so were the Russians – we were invaded by hundreds of German anxious to surrender to us rather than to the Russians. We had no facilities for handling them, and all we could do was tell them to keep going.

The division was only 45 miles from Berlin when it reached the Elbe River. It was preparing to bridge the river when the orders carne to stop. The powers-that-be had given Berlin to the Russians. We also learned later that the Russians had been given the territory west of Berlin that we had captured -- and we were told to move out.

A few days after Berlin fell, a pair of the division's intelligence officers visited the city and returned to report that an infantry division had replaced the bridge over the Elbe and that the Russians had the city well under control. Some officers from the division commander's staff decided to check this for themselves. Somehow Joe Burns got us included in the party. So we all set out - the three lieutenant colonels, a major, lieutenant Burns, a sergeant who spoke German and was to be our interpreter, Corporal Bob Hoylman, and Private First Class Toffey. We toured the city, somewhat awed by the damage that had been done, and were just leaving when a Russian soldier stopped us and asked for our passes. We didn't have any  He called a captain, who called a commandant. The result was we were led to a house in the outskirts of the city. There our ranking colonel was taken to see the commandant in charge of Berlin.

We stood around outside and waited and waited.

Finally we were ushered inside where three Russian officers greeted us and brought out the cognac. Since neither side spoke the other's language, communication was a bit difficult. One of the officers brought out a balalaika and played. The three were most impressed with Bob Hoylman -- tall, blond and self-assured. None of us told them that, except for me, he was the lowest ranking man in our group. The Russians poured out the cognac by the water glass full and downed it. I modestly used a wine glass and was none too steady when we finally were told we could go. We got outside to find our ranking colonel had passed out cold.

The return trip was uneventful.

The division was called upon to clean out some pockets of resistance elsewhere before its guns were finally silenced April 23, 1945.

The next thing on everyone's mind was "When do we go home?"

The army set up a point system to determine who would be eligible for a discharge. Points were given for each month of service plus each month served overseas and an extra five points for any awards that might have been earned. A total of 85 points would get you a discharge when you got back to the States. My points added up to 80.  Priority on the transports went to those with low point scores because the war was still going on in the Pacifically and those men might be needed there.

Joe Burns apparently didn't have a high score because he was ordered back to the States before I was. I was Passing his room while he was packing and he called out "You have five more points."  He had written a very glowing recommendation for a Bronze Star medal for me and it had been approved. I had my 85 points, but it would be almost six months before I would stand on American soil again and receive that discharge.

It was October before we finally packed up, took off for France and there boarded a transport for home.

I don't remember much about the trip home other than Al Germ playing "Sentimental Journey" on his accordion.

The ship entered the New York harbor and docked at Staten Island. I had hoped that it would sail all the way up the harbor, but it didn't.

As it turned out, I was not disappointed. We filed off the ship and across the pier to a waiting ferry. As I was about to step on the ferry, the line was cut off, and I was directed to form a new line and ended up at the very front of the boat.

It was a brilliant, crisp October morning and the New York skyline glowed against a blue sky -- and there was the Statue of Liberty! The man next to me turned and said, "Do your eyes tickle?" And they did.

The ferry turned toward the Jersey City shore and pulled into the Exchange Place slip, across the street from my father's Commercial Trust Company office.

As we filed along the walkway between the ferry and the waiting train, the line stopped briefly. There were two policemen standing close by. I asked them to step across the street and tell my father that I was home. As it turned out, my father had stayed home that day, but the message got to him promptly anyway. That meant that I would not have to battle a long line for a phone when we got to Fort Dix and could wait until things calmed down to call.  An airmail letter I wrote to my parentss from France saying I was on my way home didn't arrive until two weeks later!

I resisted the temptation to dash home for a quick visit, because we were warned that, if we were not around when our names were posted on the discharge list, our names would be dropped to the end of the list. I was taking no chances.

Then, on October 15, 1945, after three and a half years as the Army's obedient servant, I became a civilian again.

And so, wearing my "ruptured duck" emblem, clutching my discharge and lugging my duffel bag, I boarded a train for Newark, then a bus for Jersey City, walked three blocks north, and I was at 145 Gifford Avenue where I was greeted by Mother, Dad, Aurelia, Betty and Scrappy, the dog.  I was home at last!

In the Army I was introduced to an expression, "took off like a ruptured duck," that was new to me. It meant "took off in a big hurry." Since there were a lot of farmers, and presumably duck hunters in our outfit, I assumed it was a colloquial expression. Therefore, I was surprised when, at the end of the war, a little gold-colored eagle-in-a-circle pin issued to all soldiers upon their discharge, was dubbed the "ruptured duck." The eagle depicted on the pin may or may not resemble a duck but who cared? It was the significance of the pin itself that counted.

"Dad; William Vermilye Toffey III"

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