Just days before Babe enlisted in in the army and made his first stop at Camp Upton on Long Island, something rather momentous was happening in Northern Africa that would ultimately affect my uncle. It probably explains why, in part, Babe’s second stop was Camp Wheeler in Georgia.
In February 1943, members of the 34th Infantry Division, the “Red Bull” division, were overrun by the army of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Without going into too much detail, hundreds were killed or captured in the battles. It was a significant defeat for the Allied forces — perhaps one of the first major defeats.
In the course of my original research to learn more about Babe’s life, I found the names of dozens of members of the unit he ultimately served: the Antitank Company, 168th Infantry, 34th Division. I wrote 80 letters and was blessed to receive more than 25 replies. Many said the same thing as this one from Lee Wilcox in Iowa:
I was Anti-Tank commander of the company, but was captured in N. Africa around February 1943. All of my company was captured at that time except for a very few who escaped. I know the company was reformed as was the 168th regiment and was in the Italian conflict. I was a P.O.W. during the time that Mauro was in service. I am 83 and wish I could help you.
That letter arrived 17 years ago. There was also this one from Carl Hircok of Des Moines:
I was a member of antitank company, but I was captured by the Germans at Faid Pass N. Africa along with about 90 percent of the company. The company was reformed with new recruits and then were in the invasion of Italy…. I understand that the few fellows of the original company were either killed or very badly wounded. So I can’t give you any help.
The War Department re-established Camp Wheeler the day before Babe’s 16th birthday to be a replacement center, and it was destined to be the place the army trained troops to replace those that were killed or captured in the war. According to this Army Corps of Engineers document (PDF):
Rather than being used to train entire units, the camp was an Infantry Replacement Training Center where new recruits received basic and advanced individual training to replace combat casualties…. At the height of the training effort, the camp contained 17,000 trainees and 3,000 cadre personnel.
So, Babe’s arrival at Camp Wheeler was the beginning of his mission to fulfill what the first recruits to his company could not, because they were prisoners of war.