On to France

Fifth in a Series

Toddington Manor House as seen in 2005 prior to a 2006 renovation. Photo: Dave Bushell

The next week, after returning from Tidworth, where Sgt. Griffen and I had closed out Ordinance Depot, O641, we received orders to go to Toddington Manor House, near Cheltenham, a rundown but magnificent place similar to “Downton Abbey” of TV fame. We enlisted men, of course, lived outside in Quonset huts behind the building.

One memorable evening while stationed there, I arrived back at the depot from a pass in town, and debated whether to stop in at the office where the after hours crew, known as Charge of Quarters (CQs), were minding the store and shoot the breeze for a while or go right to my quarters. Have you ever felt that you should do just the opposite of what you felt compelled to do? I did on that night but went all the same to the office, where, after a few minutes, a truck pulled up with an officer and several soldiers. The officer came into the office and in a frenzied voice, shouted, “I have orders to pick up 5 weapons carriers to load with Howitzer shells up at the Weapons Dump and drive to the docks and over to the beaches. However, I’m short one guy who went AWOL last night, so I’m commandeering one of your men to take his place.”

Who do you think was the only eligible person there— not on duty? It was I who had made the classic error of not paying attention to my better judgment.

I sent word immediately to Sergeant Griffin that I was being hijacked, but he was not to be found, and the next thing I knew, I was driving one of those pieces of equipment which I had before always received and issued, but had never driven.

It was a longer drive than usual, with all the thoughts racing through my head – mostly fear and recrimination for having stopped at the office against my better judgment.

I lay awake all night contemplating my fate. Morning light brought me back to the reality of the moment. Although I didn’t have a great appetite at breakfast, I ate like the proverbial condemned man.

Just as I finished the last bite, into the mess hall bounced Griffen in his usual, “cool” manner, announcing, “Hey Corren, I got the guy who’s supposed to drive that weapons carrier across, so get up and let’s get going back to the depot.” (Or words to that effect). He had located the AWOL guy and had brought him all the way up there to take my place. I could have kissed him, but it probably would not have gone over very well.

To say, I was relieved in more ways than one, is an understatement. This reprieve allowed me to live and ‘fight’ another day.

Toddington Manor Hours and Cheltenham in the upper left as related to London in lower left. Photo: Google Maps

After arriving back at the depot things got back to normal. Shortly afterward, I visited the Cheltenham Fair where I entered a booth to check out the wares. From out of the blue, I heard, “Hi, Yank, may I help you find something to send home to your girlfriend?” When I looked up there stood this lovely village lass clad in ruffles and bows, the typical county garb.

After regaining my composure, I offered her a stick of Spearmint gum and replied, “Yes, you may, but it’s for something to send home to my mother.” With that, she seemed to become a bit more interested. As an opening, I asked, “Do you work in this shop?”

She laughed and answered, “No, I just wanted to start a conversation, because I just love the way you Americans murder our language.”  

As it was/is with youngsters on a summer’s day, we began to feel comfortable with one another and after a bit, she asked, “Would you like to come out to my house for supper? I’m sure my parents would be pleased to meet you since they have relatives in New York and Boston.” 

It was a lovely invitation, but since it was growing late I thought better of it. I replied, “Thank you so much for the invitation but since it’s growing late and I have to get back to camp, could we postpone it until the following weekend when I’ll sign out for a longer pass?”

She agreed and we parted, in anticipation of meeting again the following weekend. But, as fate would have it, it did. In camp the next day a TWX (Army telegram) arrived for me.

A TWX was – and may still be, for all I know – a military telegram with orders usually for a group or even a whole company. But when I opened it I saw where there would typically be a list of many names, only mine. This order commanded me to move on. So, lamenting the lost weekend and wondering what the lovely Gloucestershire Lass and her family would think of the Yank who didn’t show up, I bid farewell to my garrison equipment. The next morning I proceeded by Jeep and driver to a designated railhead where I waited for a train which would take me to an undisclosed destination.

The train finally arrived and took a group of us, 105 enlisted men and 35 officers, to a place I recognized as Greenham Common Air Base, the same field from which all those planes and gliders of the 101st and 428th Airbornetook off from, as part of the D-Day invasion of Europe, just 60 days before.  

At Greenham, we de-trained and walked – I don’t believe in any sort of formation – until we arrived on the tarmac of the airport. We then lined up to exchange our British pounds into a currency called Invasion Money and received a little booklet telling us how to behave in France. Soon after we assembled into a huge formation that broke up into smaller alphabetic sub-units. Then the head honcho, a general and many lesser-ranked officers. began reading out the information on the general order and calling off names.

After what seemed like hours, all the names, but mine, were read off. When the officer asked if anyone had been left off I raised my hand and, when recognized, said, “My name is Private Melvin H. Corren 19190349 and my name was not called out.” I was then ordered up to the front, where I showed him my TWX. He couldn’t believe it because he didn’t have a copy.

He then asked me if I wanted to go along with them, a rhetorical question to which I answered, “Yes, sir”, mostly because I had no real choice, and also because I had already exchanged my money and given away all my fancy garrison equipment.

Douglas C-47, the predecessor to the civilian DC-3.

I had never before flown in an airplane and, although it wasn’t exactly first class, it was far better than a landing craft. We sat just like the paratroopers, in rows on each side of a C-47 (the predecessor of the civilian DC-3).

It was exciting and overwhelming to see the English Channel completely covered with ships and boats of every type. From the air, it seemed as if a person could walk from boat to boat across the Channel as easily as crossing a very wide bridge. On the French coast it looked like a huge floating dock.

We landed at a little airstrip near Valognes where we were immediately trucked to a bivouac – a field covered with tents. This would be our home for several weeks during which, while awaiting the liberation of Paris, we formed a headquarters that would ultimately be the Communication Zone Services of Supply Headquarters of the European Theatre of Operations in the Seine Section. 

My good fortune was later revealed when the brochure, which was later printed, indicated there were just 32 officers and 105 enlisted men in our detachment which flew to Cherbourg to begin this headquarters cadre.

Considering I was one of merely 105 G.I.s selected to be stationed in Paris, and participate in this incredible experience, I have often wondered, incredulously: what were the odds?

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