Signing up

Papa said, "Joey, now that our country is in the war, it will soon be over. If you don't go now, you'll probably never have another chance to go to war!" My father, a decorated veteran of World War I with the American Field Service, had the idea that I would follow in his footsteps. Since I was too young, the AFS was the right place for me. I must admit that living a life of adventure on the front lines was more appealing to me than sitting in a classroom. I jumped at the opportunity.

"Introduction." Joseph Desloge, Jr. Passport to Manhood. Self-published. 1995

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Sometimes [...] I'd get to thinking about moving around and seeing things for myself. At such times I was quite ready to rush off and do anything. So it happened that when an old friend of mine, back from various adventures with the British Ambulance Corps, wandered into the room on such a typical evening and announced his intention of sailing for Egypt with the American Field Service, I immediately took interest. Within four days I had resigned from college (leaving a few bills unpaid and several papers unwritten), received my family's blessings, and was more or less signed, sealed, and delivered into the hands of the A.F.S.

"Prologue." Evan Thomas. Ambulance in Africa. New York: Appleton. 1943.

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The desire to serve in this war was planted in me long before Germany marched into Poland; it was sown in 1914 when I saw my older brothers go to war with the Canadians. It became full-blown, ripe, on that early morning when I heard a tired, defeated old man declare war on Germany. From that hour I was possessed by a conscious and urgent need to serve. But I could not ask Jane to release me. One cannot put tongue to such thoughts; one cannot say to a wife, "Darling, there's a war going on in Europe---I want to go. Let's shelve our marriage for two or three years while I run off and join a foreign army."

But the desire was there. It brooded within me. The growth of it made me restless and fidgety. My writing seemed stuffy, meaningless. Through the months the tentacles of my desire sent out longer, stronger arms; it grew slowly and surely until it engulfed me.

Finally there came a day when I saw an announcement in the daily newspaper that the American Field Service was seeking volunteers to drive ambulances in the Middle East. Upon reading it I knew that this was it. I went to the Field Service Headquarters in San Francisco to learn something of its organization.

Its history went back to France in 1914. At that time funds were raised through public subscription, and when America entered the First World War the American Field Service had several thousand ambulances and thirty-five hundred men in the field. During the years of peace the Service had continued as an organization, granting scholarships to students who wished to study in France. It also aided in the reconstruction of war-torn cities.

Again in 1940 the Field Service was on duty in France. With the fall of France a number of its men were captured and all its ambulances lost. Now it was again organizing to send men and ambulances to the British Middle East forces. Ambulances are purchased with funds received through public subscription. The drivers are volunteers, serving without pay and furnishing their own uniforms.

Jane agreed that I should go. Forty-eight hours later I signed up for one year.

"Preface."Andrew Geer. Mercy in Hell. An American Ambulance Driver with the Eighth Army. MaGraw Hill, New York 1943.

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Military history was being made before my eyes, but my "first-hand" understanding of what was going on had been the impressionistic, indeed misleading, newsreels, movies, and Life, Time, Newsweek, Look articles. Realistic and informed reporting would come soon enough, and of the highest quality.

But there was something "first hand" in my Summer of '42 about getting a uniform and all kinds of shots in the arm, and completing other formalities, as called for by the Boston AFS Headquarters. I am somewhat amused now when I remember the trepidation I felt when I entered the Boston Field Service Office for the first time.

During World War I Boston had provided the National Headquarters for AFS, and Boston men its leadership. A majority of the volunteers had come from Massachusetts and the other New England States.

However, before the start of World War II (Sept. 3, 1939) AFS National Headquarters had been established in New York City, initially 120 Broadway then 60 Beaver Street not far from Wall Street. Then, at the outbreak of war a regional AFS office was established at Newbury Street, Boston led by William de Ford Bigelow and other distinguished Bostonians many of whom such as Mr. Bigelow had served, with AFS ambulance or transport units with the French in World War I. This office was highly successful in raising funds and in recruiting volunteers for service. Massachusetts, with a total of 223 was second only to New York's 434 in numbers of AFS Drivers in World War II.

I should have known that the Boston office had to be on Newbury Street, not Tremont Street, or Boylston Street, or any old street. Newbury Street has that certain aura about it that Bostonians love, and besides when you work at Newbury Street you can nip over for a quick one at the Ritz. Newbury Street is the Street in Boston for fashion.

Newbury Street is lined with the proper kind of converted brownstone apartment house with a slow elevator run by a buxom Negro lady because there is no racial prejudice in Boston. And the Boston HQ of an outfit (AFS) which made news-print for the Society Section of the Boston Herald, whose Commanding Officer in the field was a Boston (Milton) Man, and whose ranks were filled (in part) by scions of the best families, would have to be in a converted brownstone apartment house on Newbury Street.

Yes, I should have known that.

And I should have known, also, that I would be welcomed with the genial nonchalance that comes with good breeding. Especially because one of the men who ran things at the Office (something to do for the war effort) knew me when I had been a student at Bowdoin College.

He gave me a hearty slap on the back and shoved me into a comfortable leather chair beside a filing cabinet and a desk with papers on it that made it look very busy.

"Let me see, Edwards, aren't you? Letter man on the old track team. I know you. I know what you stand for because I know what the old College stands for. You're just the man for the job, just the man."

He plumped my hand, and puffed on a half burnt-out cigarette: "Wish I was going with you myself, kidney trouble you know, got a bad kidney. Not that I don't swim a mile every day, back up in Maine in the old College pool. It's a great outfit, AFS, a great old outfit. I can remember back there in France. Doesn't seem so long ago at that..." Somehow, that last war had a habit of creeping in, in conversations in '42. It seems odd that getting mixed up in a big brand new war would be one way to drag the other one out of the ashes.

"I know what you stand for, all right. And that's good enough for me." The old grad AFS 1918 was continuing: "but just for form's sake we want three references. Here's the blank form. Better look it over and make sure it's all clear." It was the sort of form where you fill in the name of your Minister, the Dean of your College, a reputable Boston lawyer.

My genial inquisitor and Bowdoin friend continued: "And this blue sheet here, merely a formality you know, that's for the British. It says you are supposed to shave every day. And this pink one, that's the British Army Disciplinary Act --- not that it will ever apply to you. Just get your Dad to witness it. Your Dad, Bowdoin '00, great Bowdoin Man. Look, I've got all the sheets together, one-two-three, white-pink-blue." He stuck a, pin, deftly, through the assembled forms, binding them together. I was thankful AFS didn't have to use red, white and blue forms.

He answered all my questions, bang, bang, bang. He really knew the Field Service, all right; there was no doubt about it. After all, he'd been through the show before. "Yep, you wont be sailing until you're all set. Yep, this list of equipment is just what you will need on the desert. Just mention Field Service at Roger's Peet and Richard's uniforms. We've got a special arrangement with them. You can get those thermotabs and that diazole at the Ritz drug-store just across the street. Better stock up at the bar, too, while you have the chance...."

I consumed two thermotabs while on the desert. I lost (or was relieved of) my diazole, my compass, my belly-bands, my money-belt, my folding bucket, my boy-scout knife, and my deluxe flash-light in the water-proof case before HMS Aquitania reached Suez. Oddly enough, the British Army had a Quartermaster Corps which supplied all the important things we needed.

"By the way, can you drive?"

The unexpected abruptness of this critical question, perhaps the most important one for a person about to join an Ambulance Car Company with the British 8th Army, cut across clouds of my tobacco smoke induced fantasies (about saving lives, being a hero, driving "hell-bent for election" over those battle-fields pictured in Life, Time, Newsweek, Look) that had begun to drift across my brain.

I often wondered what my friend would have done if I had said "No!". But then, he knew "what I stood for."

"My Summer of '42." Charles P. Edwards. An AFS Driver Remembers.. [draft] New York: AFS, 2002.