Many of us associate December and WWII with the famous Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. I was wondering what was going on the year before, in December 1943. We had been at war for two years at that point. Where were the people and units I’ve written about with Christmas 1943 approaching?
On December 19, 1943, my father-in-law, Dewey Paul Whitaker, and the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion boarded a special train at Fort Riley, Kansas, for the Tennessee Maneuver area in Middle Tennessee east of Nashville. They had been at Fort Riley for battalion tests after training in Camp Phillips, Kansas. They arrived at Gallatin, Tennessee and from there they moved to a bivouac area in a meadow near Hickman, Tennessee, where, in the pouring rain and mud, they celebrated Christmas 1943.
My Dad, Vernon R. Knight, arrived at Moore General Hospital near Asheville, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve. This was his first hospital post after completing training in rehabilitation therapy at Camp Grant, Illinois. From a letter to my mother dated December 24, 1943, (his birthday), he wrote of the loneliness and disappointment he felt at being away from home for Christmas.
My Uncle D. T. ( Boots) Knight was in Camp Roberts, California, where the 947th Field Artillery Battalion had been stationed since December, 1941. The battalion had originally been part of the National Guard activated in late 1940. After two years in California they spent Christmas 1943 preparing to ship out. On December 28, 1943, the 947th Field Artillery Battalion moved to Camp Stoneman to prepare for departure, and then, on January 9, 1944, the battalion sailed from San Francisco on the USAT Seaflasher, destination New Guinea.
My Dad’s cousin, Herman Connell, was working in Bowling Green, Kentucky, after dropping out of high school. No doubt he traveled by train down the line to his hometown of Paris, Tennessee, and spent Christmas 1943 with his family. He would turn eighteen the following spring and join the Army. In March, 1945, he was killed in Germany.
At Camp Atterbury, Indiana, Frank Towers had reported to the 30th Infantry Division. He and his bride, Mary, celebrated Christmas in Indiana as the division prepared for shipment overseas. Through final training at Camp Atterbury, the division coalesced into a fighting unit before moving to Camp Myles Standish near Boston in February, 1944. After a short stay in Boston, the division sailed for England.
Christmas 1943 was the second, and in some cases the third, Christmas away from home for many of our military after the United States entered the war in December 1941. Those I’ve written about here were finishing training and would soon depart for battlefields overseas. Some would be home for Christmas 1945, but some would not.
We should all remember those serving in the military all around the world this Christmas. Like their counterparts in World War II, they are lonely and missing their families back home during this holiday season. Pray for their safe return so they can spend future Christmas’s at home with their families.
I always love to hear the stories passed down in families about how their parents or grandparents met, fell in love and started a life together during World War II. These stories reflect the realities of the time. The country was at war. Men, from age 18 to 45, either volunteered to serve in the military or they were drafted. Young men and many young women left home either to go into the military or to go to work at a defense plant or to go into some type training, such as nursing. All across the country single men and women met and dated. Couples were separated and those already married struggled to maintain a marriage through separation. Often the wife followed her husband to wherever he was stationed. It was a time of great turmoil in our country. And I find it fascinating.
A member of the extended family of the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion shared one of those stories with me. Morris Irving Grayson served in Battery B of the 276th while my father-in-law served in Battery A. Irving’s daughter, Teresa Williams, agreed to let me share her parents’ story on my website as a way to keep the memories of the war alive and to let younger people know what soldiers and their families went through.
In 1941, Irving Grayson and Doris Smiley graduated from Childress High School in Childress, Texas. Although they went to the same school in the same town, they didn’t get to know each other until the next year when Doris noticed Irving at the local open air skating rink. Irving was a skilled skater and loved to show off. The two started dating.
Irving planned to enter the military in 1942 but he had appendicitis. His illness delayed his enlistment until April 27, 1943, when he signed up in Lubbock, Texas. He went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for basic training. Before completion of the course he volunteered to become a paratrooper and was transferred to Camp Tocca, Georgia. At that time it was more prestigious to be a paratrooper and they were paid more than regular soldiers.
While in paratrooper training in Georgia, Irving complained of the extreme heat, the humidity and the miles of daily marches carrying full packs. One night his sergeant came into the barracks and said, “If you don’t want to be here, we don’t want you here, there will be a bus out front tonight. Be on it.” Irving made sure he was on that bus even though he had no idea where the bus would take him.
The bus took Irving to a train station and the train took him to Camp Phillips, Kansas, where he was assigned to the 276th Armored Field Artillery. The 276th was originally a typical field artillery battalion with tow-behind artillery pieces. Irving began training for the field artillery.
While at Camp Phillips, Doris joined Irving bringing along their new baby. Irving and Doris were married in Salina, Kansas, December 2, 1943. Housing was scarce around these new Army training camps. Irving and Doris rented a tiny apartment in what must have been an older apartment building or converted house. Doris later told her family that she found a rat in the baby’s crib one night and after that the baby slept in the bed with her.
At Camp Phillips Irving served as assistant to the supply sergeant. The sergeant left unexpectedly, probably reassigned, so Irving took over his duties. Although doing the sergeant’s job, Irving was not promoted as he thought he should have been. In early 1944 the 276th moved east to Tennessee for extensive maneuvers intended to simulate combat conditions. During these maneuvers, the Army decided to convert the 276th from a field artillery battalion to an “armored” field artillery battalion. They were pulled out of the maneuvers and sent to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, where they trained on the M-7 self-propelled, track-mounted 105 mm howitzer cannon. These track-mounted guns had proved to be more maneuverable in North Africa and the Army believed they would be able to keep up with the tanks after the Allies invaded Europe.
When Irving went to Tennessee, Doris and the baby went back to Childress. The couple began corresponding by letter. Doris sent him pictures of their son with notes about his progress. Irving came home on leave before he went overseas. Later Doris wrote to tell him she was expecting another child. Their second son was born while Irving was in Europe fighting the Germans. I can only imagine how difficult it was for Doris, with one baby and another on the way and her husband overseas in danger of being killed. She probably wrote cheerful letters with pictures of the babies to keep his spirits up.
Adding to the difficulty for this young mother was an especially disturbing letter she received from Irving. It had been intended for an English girl he met during his brief stay in England but the letter got switched with his letter to Doris. When Doris received the wrong letter, she of course assumed the worst, that he was cheating on her, and she did not write him for some time. Irving insisted the he and the English girl were just friends and eventually the trouble was resolved.
While in England, Irving became a jeep driver responsible for carrying messages between the battalion and headquarters. He also scouted for locations to set up the battery headquarters and drove damaged half-tracks and M7’s to the maintenance platoon for repairs. The 276th fought their way across France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany from September, 1944, until the German surrender on May 8, 1945.
On June 10, 1945, Corporal Irving Grayson was presented the bronze star for heroism by Brig. General John C. Lenz. In one of the ironies of war, Irving thought he received the medal for one action when in fact he received it for something different. He told his family this story —
As he lay in the street of a small German town, a heavy artillery shell went went over his head hitting a building in front of him and skidded along the side of the building but did not explode. Then another shell went over his head hitting the same building and again skidded along the without exploding. Irving realized you could tell where the gun firing on them might be located by the angle the shells were hitting and skidding. He crawled on his stomach a couple of blocks back to Battery B headquarters and told his commander what he had observed. The commander told a sergeant of the heavy artillery to follow Irving back to where he had seen the shells hitting the building. They crawled back and located the German gun. They crawled back to the heavy artillery and the sergeant directed his men where to fire. The German gun was hit and American lives were saved. All his commanders were congratulating Irving on what he had done, so he thought he received the bronze star for this. See the newspaper article for the account from the Bronze Star citation.
The 276th AFA returned to the states in July, 1945, as part of the experienced combat troops who were redeployed for the invasion of Japan. The men received leave to visit their families before reporting for additional training for the invasion. During this leave another child was conceived and that child, Teresa, was born in 1946. The war ended in August, 1945, after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.
Irving returned to his old job in a packing plant in Childress, Texas, and a fourth child arrived in 1947. He later trained to be a machinist, probably using the GI Bill, and in 1951 the family moved to Dallas. In 1953 the couple’s fifth child made her appearance making three boys and two girls.
Irving and Doris raised their five children and, after twenty-one years of marriage, they divorced. Both remarried and they remained close to their children.
You might say that Irving and Doris didn’t have the “typical” WWII romance. But their experiences were typical for the time. A hasty marriage with the strains of separation, fear and anxiety. Doris didn’t know if Irving would return to her, didn’t know how long he would be gone. And Irving longed for his wife and babies. He missed the birth of his second son and the experience of seeing both sons early life. He could only write censored letters and hope his parents and hers were helping his young wife and children through this difficult time. Their love, loyalty and determination brought them through the war and the years of adjustment afterwards, like so many other couples of that time.
If you want to share a family story about World War II, please send it to me along with any pictures you have. I would love to hear your stories and share them here on my website.