I suppose it’s OK to tell you, right off, that in the fall of 1943 we GIs on the troop ship, “USS Argentina“, made it safely through the dangerous waters of our trans-Atlantic crossing.
After those 12 days and nights of apprehension, wondering whether we’d be torpedoed or not, we finally arrived in England – Liverpool, to be exact. But, in 1943 that was top secret. A soldier’s whereabouts was a P.O. box, and, according to the Army, that was where he was. The Army post office knew, and, of course, “Kilroy” knew, because “he was there”. (“Kilroy was here,” alongside a drawing of a long-nosed, bald fellow peering over a fence, was a rallying emblem during WWII signifying that wherever you were as a GI, he had already been there.)
My Uncle Al, a GI already in England, knew when I arrived and sent me two pounds Sterling. During my whole stay in England and France, I was never very far away from him, and we visited many times in both countries.
After my arrival in Liverpool, I boarded a smelly, coal-fired train to Thatcham, Berkshire. There I would spend the next 10 months getting ready for the planned invasion and liberation of Western Europe.
When I say I’ll never forget that train ride, I refer to the food. The Red Cross served us donuts and coffee, and the Salvation Army introduced us to meat pies, which I ate with relish (pun intended), until English friends later told me, “Do you know what’s probably in’em? Ears, snouts, and Lord knows what else.” All the same, they tasted pretty good with a “cuppa” tea.
Finally arriving at Thatcham, we were trucked to a huge expanse of undeveloped land, dotted with a few Quonset huts. There, we were assigned to, and fell into, our bunks for a good night’s sleep. In the morning we were told that we would be building a depot for the storage and issuing of vehicles, and were handed picks and shovels. We loaded a never-ending series of dump trucks which headed back to our newly designated depot. There, another crew would spread the gravel to make the area suitable for storing a huge number of GI vehicles.
The kinds of vehicles we were to store were Jeeps, GMC “Jimmys”, cargo and weapons carriers, shop trucks and even Ducks, which were amphibious vehicles. Combat vehicles were stored in a similar depot further south and closer to the Channel. Our little depot then acquired a name – “Sub depot O641”
There were three towns within our normal pass limits: Thatcham, Newbury and Reading, the latter being the largest of the three. On longer leaves, we could go into London and other places of interest.
After the vehicles were received, including those of other Allies, as well, they were made ready, entailing the removal of Cosmoline, a heavy, dark grease packed around all the moving parts to protect them from the salt water aboard the ship. Once serviced by the light Maintenance Company, attached to us, vehicles were set in place, ready to be picked up by the units to which they were assigned. Although the troops and vehicles came over on different ships, I can’t remember a time when either the vehicles or the units did not survive the crossing.
We were housed in the Quonset huts (like metal drums cut through the center and placed on the ground with the round side up). In the middle of each hut was a coal-burning potbelly stove, which broiled you if you were close, and which you barely noticed if you were a few feet away. The odor of burning coal – whatever that chemical formula is – was always in our noses and throats, but we got used to it after a time. As my Uncle Ernest in San Francisco was prone to say, “You can get used to anything … even hanging.”
The latrine and mess hall were down the road, as were the office and work buildings, and across from the depot was a massive piece of land filled with huge empty wooden crates. These were the shipping containers holding gliders the 87th and 101st Glider Troops would use during the invasion. When empty these glider boxes were the size of a very large room and were often used as shelter by local civilians. We came to call these folks “Glider box Annies.”
The name of the airfield, which would later play a dramatic part in the invasion of Europe, and less spectacularly, in my own future, was Greenham Common. It was the site of row after row after row of gliders and C-47 troop carrier planes. The drone created by the practice takeoffs and landings was sometimes deafening, but as mentioned before, we became used to it.
Our location in Thatcham was far enough away from London to be safe from bombing, however, toward the end of our stay, we did experience the V-1 rockets which the Germans sent across the Channel with just enough fuel to reach London. Our fear was that the fuel would run out and it would fall short of its destination. This did happen occasionally in the countryside, but, fortunately, not on us. Yet whenever we got a weekend pass, we headed straight for London, where we could expect to be in an air raid.
We found that the famous expression,“When in Rome … ” applied to being in London. We saw that the English, as difficult as it was to do so, brushed off the raids and only became more determined, so we followed suit. After the first few raids, when we panicked and sought refuge in bomb shelters, we, too, became hardened and, somewhat nervously, laughed them off.
For example, on my first pass to London, I was having a beer in the hotel bar, when the air raid sirens went off. I was scared out of my wits and didn’t know what to do so I asked the barkeep where I could find the nearest bomb shelter. He looked me straight in the eye and with an upward nod of his head and a sweep of one finger, said, “Tha’ll ghao awahy”, meaning, “Don’t worry, it’s not the first time, and I’m still here.”
Speaking of passes to London, there were times when I met Uncle Al in that city and we met other G.I.s and friends and family either by prior arrangement or just happenstance. One day on Oxford Street along came Elwyin Briones, a former neighbor whose father was the manager of the boys department at Stockton Dry Goods.
We did, however, visit some air-raid shelters, which were terrible, but necessary. However, the underground tube stations were appalling sights. Those tunnels, with no sanitation beyond the most basic, were home to countless bombed-out victims, who, having lost everything but their lives, were now sharing the only thing left to them, their privacy.
Even though these unfortunate victims of vicious and indiscriminate bombings had to rely on others for their day-to-day existence, they didn’t lose their pride or resolve. They were Brits, the folks who would become known as the nation that would not bow down.
Many of the folks I met in Thatcham had come there when their homes were destroyed by the bombing in the East End of London – the section which, until the Nazi bombings, had been heavily populated by London’s Jewish population.
Among these folks were Mr. and Mrs. Singer and their two children: 16- year-old Anita, and her 10-year-old brother and Ivan, who later proved to be the linchpin for our future relationships. Next door to the Singers were the Ethertons, (Mrs. Etherton was Mrs. Singer’s sister). The Ethertons had two children, Ivar and Evelyn, who were younger than the Singer children. (After the war they had another daughter, Judy, who I met many years later on a visit to London.) These folks were wonderful to me, and even communicated with my family concerning my wellbeing.
On occasion. when I could get away from the depot, I would help a little at the Notions Stall they had in the town market. I would sometimes spend the night in their upstairs loft on a wonderful feather bed and for breakfast eat sumptuous duck eggs.
When the war was over, both of these families returned to London, and because I no longer had an address for them, we lost touch. Fortunately, however, my parents saved an invitation they had received for the Bar Mitzvah of Ivan (the linchpin) on which the number of the synagogue was printed. Then, when Mom and Dad went to London in 1964, they showed it to the shamos (caretaker), who recognized the name and called Mrs. Singer. You can imagine how shocked she was that, after all those years, my parents would be practically at her doorstep.
After all, her daughter, Anita, about 16 years old when we met during the war, was now married to Gerry Abrahams and had a daughter, Gillian, and a son, David.
The reunion with my parents was later followed by my first revisit along with my wife and mother in 1969 when we visited our son, Howard, at Stanford in Britain. Since then our families have continued a friendship which now spans nearly 80 years and extends to our grand and our great-grandchildren.
Back to Army life; The only unpleasant experience I had during my entire Army tenure happened about three weeks after we arrived in England. One night after a few of the rougher guys returned from a night on the town, one of them came into our hut yelling, “Where’s that Jew? I want to beat the hell out of him!” Being the only one of that persuasion in the company, I was scared that the whole group might want to tear me to pieces. Instead, however, the others calmed him down and for the next few days froze him (didn’t talk to him). A few days later, he came up to me in the mess hall and said, “I’m sorry, Corren, I got a little drunk and really didn’t mean it.” I accepted his apology and was happy that the other guys took my part, when intolerance could have ruled the day.
It wasn’t long after that incident that a welcome and fortuitous opportunity arose out of the blue. It was a rather sunny day for England and one that proved even brighter for me and three of my buddies, because after roll call, four names were called out to step forward, mine among them, and, when the company was dismissed, we four were told that from then on we would be attached for temporary duty to the headquarters cadre, consisting of four noncommissioned officers. We were still assigned to the 478th Ordnance Tank Evacuation Company for administration, quarters and rations, but after that day we had very little to do with the company.
On the way over to our new office, Lt. Briggs, the administrative officer, told us, “You are four lucky guys, and it’s only because you are the only enlisted men in the company who have had any college experience, and that made it an easy choice for us.” What a break!
This turned out to be a really great turning point, since, after that morning we no longer had to stand in formation, but went directly to the depot, a very short distance from the barracks, and did whatever was called for during the day.
The four headquarters noncoms in the cadre – to whom we were now assigned, took their orders from the London headquarters and had specific duties: two administered the office, and the other two were in charge of the vehicle readying and maintenance operation located on the other side of the depot. The four of them lived in their own small Quonset hut just behind the office and were entirely responsible for themselves. They drew their rations (which they cooked themselves on a small camp stove in the hut) from the commissary at the larger quartermaster depot down the road, and were paid directly from London. In addition, an officer from that headquarters made the rounds of all the sub-depots similar to ours to inspect the operations. He also issued passes which could be used by the cadre folks at their discretion.
We, the “chosen few,” were not initially afforded all of these perks, but soon worked our way into this independent style of living, eventually inheriting the Quonset hut.
Shortly before D-Day, the 478th moved out, leaving only the four of us and Sergeant Griffin, with whom I was ordered to turn our records over to the main headquarters at Tidworth.
We left very early on the morning of June 5th, 1944. After a short drive, the road became so jammed with vehicles of every type that we had to drive the Jeep off-road. Finally, after a long and tedious drive, we arrived, completed our business and headed back toward our now-empty depot. En route we heard the loudest and most reverberating drone of airplane engines I believe anyone has ever heard.
Furthermore, it seemed that we could literally feel the weight of all those men and machines above us as they were making their way east. As it became darker, we could make out the little identification lights on the planes, making them look like swarms of fireflies ascending and gathering over the airfield.
With our radio in the Jeep we could hear the pilots bidding farewell and tallyho to the controllers. It was eerie to hear little snatches of personal information, couched in quasi-military terms, transmitted by the pilots who knew not what their own fate, nor that of their passengers, would be in the next few hours.
Of course, by then we were aware that this was D-Day, the day we had all hoped for … and dreaded: The promised Allied invasion of Western Europe which would be a horrendous battle with no guarantee of success, and at the cost of huge numbers of casualties.
Having heard on the radio what might have been some of the last words spoken by those we listened to that fateful night, we drove with heavy hearts over to a little knoll and continued to watch and listen until the early hours of the morning.
We then returned to the silence of our, now empty, O641 Depot.
Mel Corren was born in Stockton in 1924, attended local schools, served in Europe during World War II, and after returning home joined his family’s furniture business, M. Corren and Sons. In 1961 he and his brother Hillard opened The Brothers, a home furnishing/design studio, which ran until they both retired in 2000. Mel, his wife Harriet, their two sons, two grandchildren, along with their respective mates, make up their far-flung family. His literary accomplishments are the memoirs “I’ve Live It, I’ve Loved It” and “Schoolboy, Soldier Boy”, both on Amazon, as well as a collection of short stories. At 96, he remains active in civic affairs, including his ongoing advocacy for the revitalization of Stockton’s historic downtown district. Mel was honored as Stocktonian of the Year for 2015.