Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Special Kind of Soldier - New Dispatches from Maine

                L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace!
                 – General George S. Patton quoting Frederick the Great

I thought about posting this a few days ago, on Father’s Day, but decided to wait until today which would have been my dad’s 91st birthday.  I have posted about him in the past, but being in Maine, I thought I would touch on his short time here, about the only thing I knew about the Pine Tree State until my first visit in 1988.  I have been a regular visitor, and now part time resident, ever since.

Dad was drafted into the US Army in April 1943, just a couple months shy of his 19th birthday. He left his native Michigan, having never traveled farther than northern Ohio, and completed his basic training at Fort Jackson, in Columbia, South Carolina.  From there he was sent to the University of Maine, in Orono, as part of the Army Specialized Training Program.  The ASTP was designed to single out specially qualified soldiers for their exceptional IQs and send them to various college campuses around the United States to learn special war skills.  The two-company detachment of over 500 soldiers assigned to the University of Maine in the summer of 1943 was designated as a “pre-radar” group to study electrical and civil engineering and other related disciplines that would be required for the eventual invasion of Japan.  Some were also enrolled in Officers Candidate School (OCS) to be trained for a specialized officers corps to serve as Army engineers as the war expanded in the European Theater.  The training program was intense.  The ASTP soldiers wore their uniforms bearing the ASTP patch emblazoned with the “Sword of Valor and the Lamp of Knowledge” and maintained strict military discipline while attending university courses.   They stood early morning reveille and marched to classes and the dining hall.  The war had not yet begun in earnest for these young men, but they all knew their time would come.  They were “soldiers first, students second.”  Still, they knew they were fortunate to attend college and I recall Dad telling me how much he enjoyed his time in Orono; the war was far away and life was good, even during the winter with all the snow and the sub-zero temperatures.

    Some Mothers have sons in the Army,
    Some Mothers have sons on the Sea,
    Take down your service flag, Mother,
    Your son's in the ASTP.

Unfortunately, it would not last.  In February 1944, during the third term of the ASTP at Orono, many of the soldiers enrolled in the basic part of the program, including my dad, were recalled to active combat duty.  Casualties were mounting rapidly and the entire ASTP was abandoned that March when the advanced OCS students were also recalled to active duty.  They did not realize the Sword of Valor would come so quickly.  The Army decided its need for infantry replacements was more pressing than the need for technical specialties.  The early group traveled by train to Tennessee to join the 104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry “Yankee” Division in the US Second Army’s spring maneuvers.  They were needed to bring the division up to strength before it was shipped to France in the wake of the D-Day invasion where it would join the US Third Army under General George Patton.  Originally consisting of personnel from the Massachusetts National Guard, the division was no longer the special pride of New England as its ranks swelled with men from all over the United States.  The ASTP soldiers would serve in the front ranks as combat infantry riflemen and knew from the beginning that their future looked grim.  Many who went never came back.

Thirty-four of the former ASTP soldiers at the University of Maine – their own special band of brothers – returned to Orono in September 2001 for a first reunion sponsored by the College of Engineering.  They returned not so much because of the short time they spent on campus, but because all of them were thrown into the war together.  These “special soldiers” came together again to honor the 52 members – 10% – of the ASTP detachment at the University of Maine who were killed in action during World War II and to place a bronze plaque inscribed with their names.  Since the university did not maintain records for the ASTP detachment assigned there, it is difficult to say if many more died during the war. Those who could be located and who attended the reunion believed there were many more.  Without original records, no one can be certain.  As many as 75% of the ASTP detachment was wounded in combat in northern France and across Germany in the final months of the war.  The plaque also includes the names of two soldiers who died in a dormitory fire on campus in February 1944.  I remember my dad telling me about the fire.  He was housed there and was lucky to get out.   Since this reunion, surviving ASTP members have located the names of several additional members who were killed in World War II and their names appear on a second plaque which hangs along side the first in the Class of 1944 Hall in the hope that those special student soldiers who died will not be forgotten again.

Dad did not attend the reunion; I doubt he even knew about it at the time.  He visited me here in Maine several years ago and I am quite certain it was his first time back since he left in 1944 on his way to Tennessee and the battlefields of Europe.  I asked him if he planned to go back to Orono to see if it had changed much.  He never did.  He pretty much put the war behind him when he returned home when so many did not.

If I have a chance, I hope to visit Orono this summer to have a look around and think of Dad and the good times he spent there as one of the US Army’s special kind of soldiers.

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

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