Probably the only place a news story ever began, and ended with final editing five months later, is The Daily Cardinal copy desk.
Soon after Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 someone came into the Cardinal news room with a release and I took it at the copy desk where I was copy editor. Mindful of an approaching front page deadline, I read the release before passing it to the news editor, in case it might have some special import.
It was about recruiting non-combatant unpaid volunteers to drive ambulances for the American Field Service with the British army in Egypt. An application form was attached. Prof. Sam Rogers of the university French department was listed as a contact. He apparently was in France during World War I with the AFS, a group of American students who volunteered to drive army ambulances as a gesture of friendship for the French. The AFS continued as a foreign student exchange program after the war until reactivated in 1939 for military service, again with the French. After Dunkirk and the French defeat, the newly established AFS military service of World War II was accepted by the British army.
Three things immediately came to mind as I read the release: driving an ambulance sounded exciting; I had read that in the Egyptian campaign of Napoleon Bonaparte, his cannoneers shot the nose off the Sphinx and I wanted to see it, and I would be in service sooner or later and this was an opportunity to somewhat control my destiny.
The application I filled out was accepted and in April of 1942 I reported to New York for embarkation. All volunteers provided their own uniforms and equipment (including toilet paper). After getting outfitted and issued International Geneva Convention Red Cross identity cards, we waited a week or so for our ship. The word came; it was to sail from Philadelphia where we proceeded and waited several days. Some additional inoculations were required. A needle broke off in my arm, possibly a harbinger of what was to come.
Early one morning we finally boarded an English chartered Swedish freighter, the diesel MS Agra, and sailed due east, a crew of 33 and seven AFS volunteers including James Atkins, Jake Vollrath and myself from UW.
There was no anti-submarine protection along the U.S. eastern seaboard then and U-boats wreaked havoc on coastal shipping, hence our endeavor to get 300 miles quickly into the Atlantic. Our cargo was said to be beer and heavy machinery; our defenses, the captain's .45 automatic and another hand gun "to shoot fish".
About 3 p.m. the second day out, Peter Brooks, my watch partner, and I were told to stand down after one hour of a two-hour stint on the bridge, looking for the telltale "feather" of a submarine periscope. We were supposedly far enough east on our sixteen-thousand mile journey, by way of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, to be relatively safe.
Pete and I decided to continue a chess match on the starboard second deck. I was two games behind. We were in full uniform and wearing trench coats from our watch stint. The others, in rolled up shirt sleeves, were playing cards in the dining salon.
Two and one-half hours after our watch, at 5:30 p.m., without warning, a torpedo slammed into our port side amidships. It sounded like someone whacking an overturned dishpan with a bass drumstick.
I watched stupefied momentarily as a beautiful, orange-red wall of flame fingered its way a hundred feet up a curtain of blue sky. Then I ran for my lifejacket, reposing in my cabin because we "were out of the sub belt," and a precaution-packed musette bag of emergency items, then dashed for my lifeboat being launched. I left my typewriter and camera.
Only one of our two 22-foot lifeboats each accommodating 20 persons could be launched, along with three rafts, one of which was afire. The ship slid under the water stern first in three and one-half minutes in a sea of blazing diesel fuel.
The sub surfaced. It had an Italian crew. Its captain secured pertinent information supplied by our third mate, all in perfect English, and submerged. Five sailors, the steward, the captain and his dog from our ship didn't make it.
After a miserable stormy night of driving rain, shifting cold winds, mountainous waves, 26 men in the lifeboat and seven on a raft used as a sea anchor to keep us into the wind, a ship was sighted at about 5:30 a.m. Flares were fired.
Fifteen hours after being sunk, we were picked up by a chartered Norwegian freighter and taken to Bermuda. Five days later along with essential torpedoed ships' engineers and captains we were flown to New York on a Pan Am Clipper.
As soon as possible I headed for a Western Union office and after calling the Cardinal, dispatched a press-collect account. It may be the longest press-collect news story the Cardinal copy desk ever edited.
I resumed my journey in June, arriving in Cairo in September in time for the October battle at El Alamein, and spent three years in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy, and with the French army in France and Germany, much of it as officer in charge of public relations and editor of the overseas service magazine.
Andrew Geer. Mercy in Hell. An American Ambulance Driver with the Eighth Army. MaGraw Hill, New York 1943.
A week after I reached Damascus I was offered the command of a new company to be formed on the arrival of another large group of AFS men from the United States. There is no denying I was eager to have a command of my own, but there were several serious objections. My volunteer term of service was nearly over; most of the first-unit men were going back, and the air was filled with talk of home---home for Christmas. If I accepted the job, it meant that I should have to stay longer than anticipated. It also meant a tremendous amount of work. The new company was to be formed and sent directly to the front. (Chapter 12)
At the conclusion of the first meeting I asked Bayard Tuckerman, Grafton Fay, and James Ullman to my tent. These men had been in charge of units on the way over.
"I hope you gentlemen will understand the need for asking you to step down from command of your units?"
"We do," Tuckerman replied heartily. "We should be foolish, indeed, if we didn't." Ullman and Fay nodded agreement. It was as simple as that. From that day on they gave me the fullest cooperation. Tuckerman, an older man and a former Massachusetts state assemblyman, was well known in society and business circles of Boston. In the following days he earned my admiration; he played baseball with his platoon team, and no task was ever too difficult for him. He left the desert on my insistence only after he had been suffering from dysentery for many days. (Chapter 12)
Company headquarters was being efficiently run by Wayne MacMeekan with the help of our company clerk, Carl Adam, and Pat Fiero. Fiero was a veteran of the last war; he had left a family on the Philadelphia "Main Line" to do this job. (Chapter 12)
George Rock. Chapter 5, History of the American Field Service, 1920-1955. New York 1956:
That night at 21:40 (9:40 P.M.) a mammoth artillery barrage opened the Battle of El Alamein. Between 23 October and 4 November the fighting passed through three stages---called the Break-in, the Dog Fight, and the Break-out.
Rock. Chapter 5, idem:
As the chase slowed down, work did also, and there were administrative changes all around. A few who had extended their enlistments in order to partake in the joys of the pursuit, including Geer, McMeekan, and Thomas, chose the end of November as the time for their repatriation, and by Thanksgiving 15 Company had a new command: Captain Howe as Company Commander was assisted by Lt. C. S. Snead as Adjutant and Lts. D. G. Atwood and J. R. Ullman as officers of Platoons 1 and 2 respectively. C. P. Larrowe and C. M. Field were appointed their platoon sergeants, respectively, and E. A. Fiero became Company sergeant-major.
Rock. Chapter 4, idem:
At the end of November, C. H. Adam was brought from 15 Company, where he had been Company Clerk, to take over the Bulletin, which he managed until the lack of printing facilities forced him to stop publication in early 1944. Associate editors and photographers were appointed in each company, and the HQ PR officer collected the contributions, made the book up, and saw to printing and distribution. The initial group selected by Lt. Adam consisted of T. M. Allen, L. B. Cuddy, E. A. Fiero, and W. P. Powning, who functioned as much as authors as editors, sending in stories of the groups they were with, as, for example, Powning for Syria and the Fighting French. Later, however, Company editors were appointed, who if they wrote remained anonymous, and pieces were got from a large number of men in the field. A. J. Foley and later W. B. Lovelace performed this service for 485 Company and J. D. Leinbach for 567.
Carl H. Adams, editor at work:
Offbeat Tales of WWII
Diary, Jan.-1 April 17, 1943.
AFS News Bulletin No. 6, Feb. '43.
AFS Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 3, Sept. '43
AFS Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 4, Oct.-Nov. '43
AFS Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 5, Dec. '43- Jan '44
Rock. Chapter 9, idem:
Lt. C. H. Adam, who for a year and a half had worked most industriously on the AFS Bulletin and Public Relations, went to 485 Company as an ambulance driver and Company PR representative. He was succeeded briefly by Lt. T. D. Durrance, who was followed on 10 July by Lt. R. W. Beek.
W.H. Perry. A Short History of 485 Company of the American Field Service. August 30-1942-May 2, 1945.
In the enemy's stand at AREZZO in early July, the Company won fresh laurels for its performance in the battle that raged for ten days. On the 16th he withdrew toward the ARNO, powerless to impede the victorious march. Less than a month later FLORENCE fell and he withdrew to his GOTHIC line high in the APPENINES. Members of the Company were amongst the first troops into FLORENCE, some entering in advance of infantry patrols.
The capture of FLORENCE brought no pause. Eighth Army pursued him relentlessly and by early winter had succeeded in driving him out of his aerie.
This ushered in new and changed experiences for the Company. The winter was a bitter one and the mountainous roads presented some of the most difficult driving conditions ever experienced. The members of the Company gave their best efforts under excruciating conditions and the fact that their performance during that hard winter was never below their customary high level is a testament to the Company's devotion.
The enemy was to remain on his line east of BOLOGNA along Highway 9 east to FAENZA and thence north to RAVENNA until Spring. However, in the mighty offensive of March/April he was given his final thrashing in best fashion and the ensuing rout was a fitting preface to his unconditional surrender on 2nd May 1945.
The Company served in the final battle and in the final victorious pursuit.