Posted in 30th Infantry Division, History, WWII

Frank and Mary Towers – A WWII Love Story

In October my husband and I drove down to Camp Blanding to talk to Frank Towers, a 98-year-old World War II veteran of the 30th Infantry Division. Of the many stories he told us one of the most interesting was in answer to my question of how he met his wife.Frank Towers at Graduation

In December, 1940, Frank Towers said “Good-bye” to his girl friend and boarded a train  to travel from his home in Vermont to Florida as part of Company K 172nd Infantry Regiment  43rd Infantry Division. The 43rd Infantry Division, consisting of the Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine National Guard, had been federalized and sent to Camp Blanding, Florida, for training.Mary Olive Thomas Towers June 1944

I’ll let Frank continue the story in his own words.  (From Frank’s memoirs which is a work in progress.)

 

“During the preceding months, the local social organizations and churches, wishing to show the hospitality of these local organizations, extended invitations to every unit on the Post, particularly those of the 43rd Division, with “the boys” so far away from home, they wanted to make life as bearable as possible, and prevent some from getting homesick.

Basically, each Company would receive so many invitations, and they were issued out on some unknown basis. Trucks would be at a designated pick-up point on Saturday evening and take the men to these sites from which the invitations had originated. Once inside of the building, there was no going outside, until the truck came for the return trip to Camp shortly after midnight. If one met a girl, and he wished to date her again, he would have to get her name and address and phone, number and from that point onwards, they were on their own.

Many of the guys resented this ‘Censorship” and declined any further invitations, because they could not take the ladies outside and go to other places on their own and probably drink beer. Unthinkable in a religious town like Jacksonville.

No! We were not to lead these innocent young ladies to any such immoral establishments. However, many long lasting romances resulted from these meetings.

After a few weeks of refusal to attend these functions, it was determined that the invitations would be issued on a “volunteer” basis, and if not enough men volunteered, “you were assigned” this as a duty.

The “boys” were all pretty frisky when it came to Saturday night, and they wanted to go where beer was dispensed, not to a “dry bar” of soda-pop and cookies !!

As it turned out, I was “volunteered” to go to one of these social affairs, and I went rather reluctantly, but “it was my duty !! During the course of the evening, I met one young lady that looked rather appealing, and I asked her for a dance. We danced and chatted about home and family, and had a relatively nice evening. The outcome was, I had to have her name and address, so that we could meet again, probably at her home, and meet her family.

After a week or two and some correspondence, I made the solo trip to Jacksonville, to meet this young lady, Mary-Olive Thomas, and her family, all of which went well. After one or two more such excursions, we began to get to know each other better, and enjoyed being together. On the next proposed visit, I found her not at home, but in the hospital. A few days previous, she had been struck by a speeding car, and severely injured with some broken bones, scrapes and bruises. So with a handful of roses, I trekked to the hospital and soon a “bedside romance” began to bud. So with continued occasional correspondence, we kept up our relationship.

In early February we got our “priority” shipping orders to go to Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, Miss., to do some advanced training and some marksman training there, then to proceed to Fort Ord, Calif., and await embarkation to the Pacific Theater, to become embroiled in the battles that faced the 43rd Division. This I thought, would end my relationship, with Mary-Olive Thomas, so I forgot about her.

In March, while still at Camp Shelby, Miss., I was called in for an interview by my former C.O., Maj. Tudhope and the Regimental Commander, Col Buzzell, and others, acting as a Review Board, to interview prospective applicants to go to the Officer’s Candidate School at Ft. Benning, GA. Here we were to take further advanced infantry tactics and weapons training, and to become a commissioned officer. I never really got any basic infantry tactical training, and precious little weapons instruction, although I did fire all weapons and qualified with each one, as a Sharpshooter. I was selected and shipped off to Ft. Benning, GA to upgrade my status in life and to become a commissioned officer.

Upon graduation, I became a 2nd Lieutenant, a 90 Day Wonder, and much to my disappointment at the time, I was assigned to Camp Wheeler, GA as a Basic Training Instructor of draftees, just coming into the military for 12 week basic training cycles. Many of my graduating classmates were assigned directly to the 1st Infantry Division, which was preparing to pull off the invasion in North-Africa. That is where I wanted to be at the time! “We’d” win this war and get it over with in a few months. Little did we know of the heartbreak and suffering to come in the next many, many months.”

 

(During these months of training Frank received a “Dear John” letter from his girlfriend in Vermont breaking up with him.)

 

“Now from the time that we left Camp Blanding, I wrote very little to Miss Mary – there was nothing serious going on, and I was just too busy with my new academics at Ft. Benning, GA, and I just didn’t have time, and neither one of us felt any obligation to write. I really didn’t have time to do much letter writing, as having become a Platoon Leader in M Company of the 13th Training Battalion at Camp Wheeler, I had to do a lot of homework in preparation for the next days’ session of instruction. But, as time went on, I began to feel lonesome, and perhaps homesick, and started writing to her again. As time went on, I made 2 or 3 trips down to Jacksonville to see her.

While at Camp Wheeler, GA, I received my promotion to 1st Lieutenant, and then I asked Miss Mary-Olive to come up to Camp Wheeler to celebrate New Year’s Eve, 1942-1943. I gave her an engagement ring at midnight that night, and we were married there in a military wedding on 1 March 1943. To this girl that I had met in Jacksonville, FL, (Mary Olive Thomas) while I was at Camp Blanding. Here it is 72+ years later, and we are still hanging around together!!”

 

In our discussion that day at Camp Blanding, Frank continued his story about he and Mary. He said that Mary’s parents didn’t particularly approve of the “Yankee” dating their southern daughter. It didn’t help that he was Catholic and they were Primitive Baptists. That’s why Mary came to Camp Wheeler for their wedding instead of having it in Jacksonville with her family.

Frank W Towers at Madgeburg Germany
Frank W Towers at Madgeburg Germany at the end of the war

At this time (October 2015) Frank Towers is 98 1/2 years old and his wife Mary is 96. They have been together since 1943. Congratulations to them both for their many years together. It is an honor for me to share their story.

 

 

 

Frank Towers at St Pellerin NormandyFrank Towers at Francorchamps Belgium

As a post script to Frank and Mary’s story, when Frank left Camp Wheeler he was assigned to the 30th Infantry Division and served with them in the European Theater until the end of the war.

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Posted in 30th Infantry Division, Historical Sites, History, Research, WWII

Camp Blanding And Its WWII History

Recently my husband and I drove down to Camp Blanding and toured the Camp Blanding Museum located just off Florida State Road 16 at the entrance to the base. Since it was a typically hot and humid Florida day, we spent most of our time inside the museum building. Before leaving we walked around viewing the monuments for each division that trained at Camp Blanding and looking at some of the WWII vintage equipment on display. We hope to return when it is cooler so that we can venture further and see more of the equipment including some more modern tanks, helicopters and planes.Barbara at Camp Blanding

Our original intent was to learn more about the 30th Infantry Division since we knew that Old Hickory had trained at Camp Blanding before going overseas. What we learned was that nine full divisions trained at Camp Blanding before it became a replacement training center.

Camp Blanding is situated in Clay County, Florida, near Starke. The 73,000 acre military reservation, which includes Kingsley Lake, is the training facility for the Florida National Guard as well as a Joint Training Facility for U.S. military, international forces and various other agencies. In 1939 Florida established the base for training the Florida National Guard. At the beginning of World War II the U.S. Army took it over to train the federalized national guard units as well as portions of the regular army.

Once under the control of the federal government, Camp Blanding rapidly expanded so that it could accommodate at least two divisions for training. Construction boomed, employing thousands. As the troops moved in the area soon grew to be the fourth largest city in Florida.

The first housing for the troops consisted of pyramid tents, to which wooden floors and walls were added. Due to the ankle-deep sand, wooden walk-ways were constructed and drills had to be conducted on the paved roads.31st Div at Camp Blanding

In the beginning, the 31st Infantry Division made Camp Blanding its home. The 31st, known as the Dixie Division, consisted of the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida National Guard. With capacity for two divisions to train, the 43rd Infantry Division moved to Camp Blanding. The 43rd, or Winged Victory Division, was made up of the Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island National Guard. Thus streets were named for the respective states, both north and south, and locations within those states. With units from the deep south and the northeast training at the same base, the old north-south rivalries emerged, but remained relatively good-natured.36th Div at Camp Blanding1st Div at Camp Blanding

When the 31st Division and the 43rd Division left Camp Blanding to eventually serve in the South Pacific, the 36th Infantry Division, made up of the Texas National Guard, moved in. They were soon joined by the First Infantry Division, the only Regular Army division to train at Camp Blanding. These two divisions ended up in North Africa, then Sicily and Normandy for the “Big Red One” and Italy for the Texans.IMG_1412

By August of 1942 the 79th Division, an Army Reserve unit, occupied Camp Blanding. And the 29th Infantry Division, also known as the “Blue and Gray” since it was made up of the Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and District of Columbia National Guard, arrived in the Florida camp.

It wasn’t until October 1942 that the 30th Infantry Division came to Camp Blanding for training. The North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee National Guard, all components of the 30th, remained in Florida until May of 1943. From Blanding Old Hickory participated in the Tennessee Maneuvers, then moved on to Indiana and Massachusetts where they shipped out for Europe in February 1944. A few days after D-Day the 30th landed in Normandy and fought almost continuously until they met up with the Russians in May 1945.IMG_1415

Two other U.S. Army Reserve Divisions also trained at Camp Blanding. The 66th Infantry Division, called the “Black Panthers,” was activated in April 1943 at Blanding. In June 1943 the 63rd Infantry Division was formed at Camp Blanding. They used the nickname “Blood & Fire.” Both went on to fight in Europe.

In 1943 the Florida base took on a new role as an infantry replacement training center, soon becoming the largest such training facility in the country. With the fighting going on in the Pacific, North Africa and Italy, it became clear that replacements were needed to fill the ranks depleted by casualties, so bases like Camp Blanding became vital to the war effort.  And with the capture of prisoners on the battlefields the need for Prisoner of War camps arose. So a portion of the military reservation was converted to a prison camp and eventually housed some 378,000 German POW’s.

The inauspicious Camp Blanding with its pine trees, sand and picturesque lake played a major role in training U.S. troops during World War II. An estimated 800,000 soldiers trained at the Florida base during the war.  Although now it has reverted back to its original purpose, we should not forget what the base contributed during the desperate years when the world struggled to defeat the Axis powers.Jeep Display at Camp Blanding

The Camp Blanding Museum pays tribute to all the divisions who trained here. Exhibits tell of each divisions training and combat experiences. Uniforms, weapons, medical gear, and much more provide the WWII amateur historian ample food for thought. To read more about Camp Blanding’s history, read the article by Jim Ashton on the 30th Infantry Website.Patches at Camp Blanding

In the book store I purchased a book about the 30th Division and another about Florida’s role in WWII. My husband got another “Old Hickory” hat. He loves wearing the 30th hat with their eye-catching insignia because it spurs so many comments and has started several long conversations on a subject he thoroughly enjoys.Pat at Camp Blanding