Babe’s last letter appears to be his last from basic training at Camp Wheeler, where thousands of young men were prepared as replacements for troops overseas. In that letter, he writes that he expected “to be out of here in two or three days.” He wrote that letter on June 4, 1943.
The next few letters are from his next two stops before he went overseas himself, to North Africa. But the letters themselves are opaque about his whereabouts. They have no postmark, they are censored, and he’s apparently not allowed to write about where he went.
Only later — in a letter from the War Department to my grandmother on Oct. 8, 1946 — did she learn that her son left Camp Wheeler for training in Transfer, Pa. That’s the location of what was called the Shenango Personnel Replacement Depot. The site was also known as Camp Reynolds, according to one Pennsylvania history site:
Needing a central camp for replacement soldiers heading for Europe, the federal government chose the site because of the proximity of two major railroads, and purchased thirty-five farms totaling more than 3,300 acres. An army of civilian workers then descended on the site and began erecting wooden barracks, headquarters, hospitals, warehouses, and other related structures. Designed to last only three years, the buildings housed more than a million soldiers en route to East Coast ports; most troops were at the camp for a week or less.
…the largest point of embarkation for soldiers headed for the front lines in North Africa and Europe during World War II, including the landing forces for the D-Day invasion. Opened in 1942, Camp Shanks contained 1,500 barracks, mess halls, theaters, a hospital, and other buildings where some 1.5 million G.I.s (approximately 40,000 a month) were issued combat equipment and underwent final inspections before shipping overseas. Most soldiers spent eight to 12 days at the self supporting complex dubbed “Last Stop, U.S.A.”
But the truth is, I have no idea where Babe set sail. (UPDATE: New information on this post). Babe’s last stateside letter appears to have been written on July 7, 1943, as you will see. The War Department letter to my grandmother says Babe left the United States on July 14, 1943, and arrived in North Africa seven days later. He never got a pass to visit home before going overseas, so the last time he saw his family, I presume, was the day he reported for duty on Feb. 26, 1943.
We can guesstimate that he spent his last 38 days in the United States riding trains between Camp Wheeler and Transfer, Pa.; riding trains from Transfer to his port of departure; and biding his time at two camps in between. It was light duty, apparently. In a letter he writes on June 19, 1943, he says “this place is a soldiers’ haven for rest.” That was nearly a month before he sailed for North Africa, so I’m guessing he wrote those words from Shenango.
Babe narrowly missed being present for some national news at the Shenango Personnel Replacement Depot. On July 11, three days before Babe left the country, a race riot of some sort occurred at the camp that resulted in the death of one black soldier and left six others wounded. According to an early Associated Press account in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph:
One Negro soldier was killed and six others were wounded in an encounter between white and Negro soldiers at Camp Shenango last night, the Army press relations office announced today. A statement said: “Friction between white and colored troops which developed at Shenango Personnel Replacement Depot Sunday evening resulted in the death of one colored soldier and the wounding of six others. All the men are being treated at the station hospital.”
The article placed the blame at the time at the feet of the black soldiers, but noted that a board of inquiry had been appointed. The article used words such as “row” and “encounter.” Later accounts refer to it as a “riot,” and it was apparently not the only one during that period as black and white soldiers confronted the inequities between them based on their race. I may try to explore this topic in more detail later.