ENTER THE 99TH RECON
On 15 November 1942 by General Order Number One, Headquarters 99th Infantry Division, Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi, the 99th Reconnaissance Troop was officially activated. Yet it was a Saturday almost exactly a year after Pearl Harbor on December 5, 1942, that Privates Owen M Whitehead, Herber M. Cargile, Daniel N Ray, and Charles Littlefield arrived at the troop area, Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi.
Awaiting them were 19 enlisted-men cadre from the Cavalry of the Seventh Infantry Division, who helped them learn how to put up beds the following day in the new tar paper barracks. Yes, they learned “this is the Army, Misters Whitehad, Ray, Cargile and Littlefield” but quick the easy way while working as house-maids and bed movers on their first Army Sunday. The mess sergeant was Carl Daubenspeck. That seemed more important to them then, but they soon learned who the “top kick” was - 1Sgt William H Bryant. Supply was handled by S/Sgt Clare D Cromer and soon had a big share in their worries. The platoon sergeants were Mason, Roberts, Suggs, Crawford and Schlueter of Headquarters, Pioneer and Demolition, 1st, 2nd and 3rd in that order. Communication sergeant was Willmarth, Motor sergeant was Knowles, while Whitaker was Troop Clerk and Moss was radio maintenance repairman and Halstead a dtiver. Working under Knowles in motor maintenance were Brown, Calhoun and Hanson. In the kitchen as cooks the KP’s will remember Day and Helmberger. Johnson and Rosenthal were radio operators. In charge over the cadre were 2nd Lts Yenny, Honeck, Von Burg, Staley and Hallett of Headquarters, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Platoons respestively. In supply was 2nd Lt Deyo; in motors 2nd Lt Lamkin; in communications 2nd Lt Worley while 2nd Lt Yenny served as Executive Officer as well. At the top of all this was Cpt Roy C Lueders fresh from the 107th Cavalry. All the other officers had been recruited from the Cavalry Replacement Training Center, Fort Riley, Kansas, except for him. It looked like a sad day to the new rookies, four men against twenty-seven, four men against more stripes and bars than they could count, it almost looked like four men against the world. Slowly but surely their attitude changed until one day they were to see it as 140 troop-mates on a well-knit combat team working with the civilized world, for the world.
At first as more troop-mates arrived fresh from induction stations all over America (but chiefly from PA and Ohio) they breathed a sigh of relief and looked important as “veterans”. They volunteered information to the new “recruits” (more raw by some 24 hours or so) on this or that or whatever else, did not matter and even started a rumor or so as soon as they had found out where the latrine was located. Perhaps they even volunteered more than information and learned the old army game the hard way.
By and large they were an average bunch of green guys with one distinction that has stuck with them ever since - they were members of the 99th Reconnaissance Troop, selected as such and sworn to make it stick.
As Geibel, Chaney, Minor and others arrived and settled during the next two weeks, they may have been more impressed with their platoon leaders “high shiny boots” and resonant “troop Atten-hut” than they were with the bloody battles for Henderson Field and Hill 610 at Guadalcanal going on on the other side of the globe. Fulton, R S Fleig, Whitney, Rusnak, Pappy Davis, Ray P Young and Noval Casteel arrived and looked at each other and the rest of headquarters platoon a bit askance, but they soon found themselves like the rest joining as buddies and gangs as they began life anew in the big tar paper barracks that they were to come to call home (now and then and at that only by accident, mind you). Under the supervision of S/Sgt Clare Cromer, Sgts Tommy Willmarth and Melvin Roberts, Cpl Rosenthal and T/4 Moss; Maloney, Wendel, Stump, Moss, Ruhl, Miller, Connelly, Petriquin, Osterkamp, Levo, Mason, Gross, Jordan, White, Wurzel, Barberian, Tournay, Sigman, Orvis, Beir, Guevayan, T Lewis, and the above mentioned seven: Fulton, Fleig, Whitney, Rusnak, Davis, Young, Casteel; all formed the first contingent of headquarters platoon and “inhabited one barracks complete”.
Some of these men were to leave each other sooner than they then knew. Some were to be taken by death, some by transfers, some by illness, and some a long way off - by war. Thus it was with all the Troop. December 13, 1942, will ever remain the “unlucky lucky day” for Mulder, Zarecky, Slama, Hawkins and Kopan. It did not take any of them long though to learn the first mark of an army man, “how to gripe”. With the rest they complained about the holes in the tarpaper barracks and the wind that blew through them, and the doors that the wind blew open at each end of the barracks, all of which in turn went to prove their original contention that the two coal stoves at either end of the barracks were not hot enough (or did the for guys who slept down there claim they were too hot?). When it got hot outside they still complained about the wind because it bore the not too pleasant odor of Centerville to their sensitive civilian nostrils. Then of course there was too much mud, after that not enough rain. The PX had no milk for nearly a month and for almost two months was without beer or ice cream (these being the hottest months of course). Besides, why did they all “volunteer” in the first place? Had not their uncle or their cousin, the Colonel or their buddy in the Air Corps, or some other intimate told them of a great “deal” for them? The draft board had told them it would defer them longer but they had felt their country needed them right away. And who did these sergeants think they were anyhow? But there was one thing that they all could agree on from the cadre down to the latrine orderly, since they all had come from different parts of the US. “Mississippi was a helluva state”. No one could figure out how it had gotten into the forty-eight.
They figured they had seen their most dismal Christmas go by. Training was about to begin but not until they had planted and replanted a few more pine trees around the area. For them these pine trees became an object lesson on the military - that the army had a greater capacity for making things die than for keeping them alive. (At the end of their stay at Van Dorn only two of these same forty odd trees were still surviving and rumors had it these two were in for a transfer by higher headquarters to a better area.) Outdoor classes on infantry drill regulations, nomenclature, interior guard, chemical warfare, weapons, on saluting and on going through channels, military law, sex and hygiene, first aid and sanitation, military dress and decorum and what have you left under Article of War 96, filled in the six weeks of training and made them pass quicker as well as bring on a storm of questions by budding guardhouse lawyers and “spit and polish” experts. Neal, Brenneman, Milligan, Beir, Hinkle and Nick under the able tutelage of Cpl Halstead were making names for themselves aboard the motorcycles. (Scout cars and half-tracks were also used.)
By the end of basic training Hawkins, Nelson, Shoemaker and Williams had rocketed to Pfc’s along with the cooks and at least 23 others. Halstead came to succeed Schlueter as third platoon sergeant while Nelson was to soon succeed Crawford. Mess sergeants changed: Daubenspeck was replaced by Smith who later gave way to Birdsong. Jack Wendel wangled the first furlough on the basis of his urgent business with Mr Stork.
Spring had rolled by. Summer was slipping away fast. Roberts and the original cadre could look longingly back on those first few weeks during which they had planted the first few dying pines and otherwise beautified the area with gravel walks and the “beautiful pine bridge” close to the orderly room. They regretfully remembered as their red letter day the time the Captain had told them he did not object to their gambling but had had to remind them he had “not prescribed it twenty-four hours a day”.
The troop went to De Soto National Forest on it’s first Division mission. Lt’s Staley and Worley had umpired maneuvers up there previously and had found the mapography inadequate. Since D series maneuvers were slated to be there, Division headquarters had taken this advance G-2 of the Recon officers and decided to correct the map situation. They wanted good, accurate maps. They needed an outfit to get them for Headquarters. Thus Recon with the Engineers attached moved up there for two weeks. To some it seemed of no more importance than the prodigious number of watermelons consumed in the course of “operations” included a midnight patrol organized by Cromer and Frank Miller to locate some watermelons they had previously cached far too successfully. The Troop used all it’s vehicles to good purpose: radio equipped vehicles checked the actual routes against the poor contemporary maps and radioed corrections in to the Engineers at the CP while jeeps, etc, brought in detailed reports, double checks, and accurate changes in a continual stream of reports. The fact that it was decided to hold D series maneuvers in the Artillery impact area in Van Dorn as a last-minute change in plans was one of those turns of chance in things of war that, while it made all the hard work of less value to the Division, as later was to occur at Norf and Derikum, Germany, yet the accurate maps which were made meant another lasting improvement to American military mapography.
Although the maps, as has been pointed out, were not as directly useful to the troop as had been originally hoped, they were of first class calibre and became part of military graphology and even necessity to the Engineer Corps. More important at the same time, the problems run and the excellent radio communications maintained had really given the troop it’s sea legs as a unit.
They had, it is true, traveled a long way on the bitter course of heartbreaks and change that mature and make a military combat unit. Already death and injury had entered their midst - Sgt Tommy Willmarth had been killed and Sgt Russell Mason had lost his left leg in an automobile accident near Natchez, Mississippi, in a civilian car while on pass. Rosenthal and Moss had been the first witnesses on the scene after the crash and had the grim job of remembering all the details.
A softball and a baseball team had already been formed earlier that spring and performed admirably to the extent of upsetting the 395th Infantry on their return from D series maneuvers and becoming Division Champs. Men were beginning to learn their jobs and get proficient at them. Rosenthal was now communications Sgt, Halstead was platoon Sgt in charge of the third platoon. Nelson was platoon Sgt in the second, Suggs was to stay on with the first. Roberts, the Pioneer and Demolition platoon having been dropped, was in charge of headquarters. Lt Hallett, having led the way for the Recon men in the post basic training tests by winning the 300 yard dash and the wire crawling contest, had left the troop. By this time, characters and comedy situations had come and gone. The scout cars (11 out of 13 of them) had all gotten stuck and had to be winched out on their first mass display of roadability one Sunday. Stump and Barberian had become the perpetual “reluctant Dragons” at reveille and “eager beavers” at all other events, essentially non GI.
Albert Kopan had watched a radio stripped from stem to stern in front of him by repairmen, hunting to locate the mysterious “trouble” in it, while all the time Kopan was sitting on what they were looking for, since he had either misplaced his posterior on the mike button or misplaced the mike at the wrong end of himself. At any rate it was a case of “ hips on shoulder place, hips on buttons place, hips down”. All the while, Ray P Young had been conducting a lone campaign of general-jolting with quite some measure of success. As orderly of the latrine he had found a mighty bastion from which even two star generals came out abashed. Yes, the troop was taking form. On all sides it was beginning to have a personality and, best of all, character.
D series maneuvers bore out the Captains’ choice of the De Soto National Forest problems for a preliminary warm-up and Recon went wild. Maybe it was because of that particular De Soto National Forest problem where the first platoon had taken the bit in it’s teeth and shoved recklessly on for a quick look at the Gulf Coast that now made the first platoon again lead the way in this D series maneuvers. The troop changed command three times as Captain Lueders became assistant G-2 and Lts Yenny and Worley took turns at umpire and executive officer. In fact with all the shifts of officers and umpires, S/Sgt Suggs ended up in charge of the first platoon for at least one problem and showed what he would later do in Louisiana. In itself, Recon swept the field. The first platoon started off by capturing and demoralizing the 395th Infantry in March formation (double file on each side of the highway). The doughs’ only comeback was to throw sticks and stones at the fast moving, victorious Recon vehicles. Lt Honeck and S/Sgt Suggs, although captured, escaped one night with Lt Honeck posing as Officer of the Guard of the opposing forces and giving them a truly rough inspection and double-checking their password! This was just seconded for it’s value (in military information obtained of vital importance on the enemy) only by the story brought in by Nelson and Lyons, who were captured, escaped, and captured twice more and then liberated by the first platoon (at that time still leaderless). These four evacuees (Lt Honeck, Suggs, Lyons and Nelson) from behind enemy lines set the stage for plans of a decisive attack through the excellence of their reports to G-2. Among the maneuvers high spots were: Cpl Hawkins and three men breaking into an infantry bivouac at night capturing the guards, and setting all hell loose with smoke grenades and blank rounds; an infantry kitchen unit that was taken intact; a Commanding Officer, executive officer and two Lieutenants grabbed in another haul; “Spurgeon” Blackburn’s capture of a liaison plane and loudly protesting pilot; the false but soul-shattering report by G-2 to Lt Worley (who was then CO, Cpt Lueders being assistant G-2 and Lt Yenny an umpire) that a “large enemy force was preparing to attack and from the same coordinates as the 99th Reconnaissance bivouac area”. But the enemy was to have no such luck. Their glories were limited to using a special infantry road patrol as a task force against the marauding Recon and in a blinding rain finally capturing two jeeps and a scout car of the second platoon, which were being used as a covering force. The Recon boys came off the maneuvers highly successful, took the Division baseball championship after 11 innings, in the same stride, slept one night in the troop area and expectantly got ready to shove off for the now nationally famous Louisiana Maneuvers.
That one night in the barracks caught a bivouac-happy Perkins getting out of bed, taking a few conservative steps from his area to that of Virgil McKinney, and commencing to answer the urgent call of nature as even a good house trained would be ashamed to do. The medics got themselves into a dangerous love triangle, a wild scramble, and a little free business when Doc Olsen tried to protect his fellow aid man’s, Yankovic’s , girl with a flurry of fists and a boomerang victory that night in town. That Romeo’s have friends was formally proven to the battling medic the next day when a couple of the loser’s buddies persuaded him to “lay down and rest awhile and think it over”. This he was unconsciously still doing as the troop prepared to leave, but in the nick of time he was found and rode to Louisiana maneuvers as a preliminary casualty. The only explanation to all this is that war brings out the beast in man. (It may be this event that persuaded the umpires later to always make Olsen a casualty to the extent of calling him dead, Suggs then calling him dead thereafter a few more times for good measure).
Louisiana maneuvers went to prove that a woman is a dangerous saboteur and soldier. For the third consecutive time a shiny black Buick revealed it’s presence of Grover Sirmon’s wife in the maneuver area well before the G-2 specialists, the Recon Troop, had arrived. A little further scouting around brought to light the presence also for the third consecutive time of 1Sgt Bryants wife and Pfc Floyd E Davidson’s somewhere in the “confidential” zone. Flag maneuvers commenced as a preliminary as the Checkerboard Division (the 99th), the Cactus Division (the 103rd), the Woodchoppers (84th) and the 102nd Divisions pulled in to complete the combat team complement of the maneuvers.
Some will long remember these hectic nine weeks for the pignant memories of the alcoholic contents of Alexandria, Louisiana. It was not known as schnapps then, but it served the same purpose, to ease the combat nerves. Some will remember it as their first opportunity to serve under General Courtney Hodges and to begin a good job for him “to be finished in Germany”. Others will remember it for the night that Suggs and some of them attempted to capture a local fraulein and bring her to the bivouac area - their first lesson in learning “thou shall not fraternize”, or maybe the night James Shipley walked into the fire being on fire already with white lightning. Most will remember it in more detail as a great series of victories for Recon and a good confidence-course for battle. They will not soon forget the Sabian River and it’s crossing, for it was a preliminary to the Roer and the Rhine, the Ruhr, the Main, and the Danube, nor will supply sergeants forget it for a long time since technically on it’s bottom rests all the GI equipment that enlisted men could possibly dream of losing and writing off to “Wear and Tear”.
The inconvenience of the swamps and the dangers of the snakes were soon forgotten as Recon again went wild. Using all the experience they had gained on D series and using the tactical device of a dummy radio station, which stayed on the air with canned transmissions while the troop used the alternate frequency which remained unjammed for all it’s tactical transmissions, there was no stopping the Recon. On the first problem the second platoon infiltrated through the enemy lines, observed a main supply route and returned with fifty or sixty prisoners and a negro artillery outfit. It was right here that the indomitable “Bitchin’ Blackie” Blackburn made it clear to a captured chaplain that war is hell and that defeat knows no aristocracy. While the second platoon was upsetting the enemy applecart in one direction, the first platoon under Suggs (Lts Honeck and Yenny being umpires) was upsetting all precedents and penetrating unscathed behind the enemy lines to the extent that at the end of the maneuvers they were well across the Sabian River and inside of the enemy front line, only fifteen miles from the Corps CP. They had been back there three days, capturing a railroad station and main supply point of the opposition, when they ran out of gas and supplies. Maneuvers ended with Monty Crawford bringing food and gas over the Sabian to the same “phenomenal first” who were awaiting it in order to capture the enemy Corps CP. The third and headquarters platoon were holding off the 102nd Division by holding the road leading out of the town, which an infantry regiment of the 102nd had just taken. The 102nd was bringing two more regiments up to “break out”. The second platoon had just completed the most outstanding ruse of the entire maneuver by getting cut off then joining forces with a friendly Tank Destroyer reconnaissance outfit, managing to convince enemy MP’s of both of their sincerity and eagerness “to get at the enemy”. They were escorted to the front by MP’s. They came through a huge outlay of enemy armor preparing to attack. Upon escape, back to their own lines, they completely sabotaged the enemy tank attack by their timely G-2. They brought with them not only essential information but gas and oil they had “borrowed” en route from the enemy and a Lt Colonel and two Colonels as prisoners. However, with an hour and a half to go before the end of the maneuvers they were nearly all captured. “Sic Semper Tyrannis.”
While General Hodges commended the entire Division, General Bradley specifically commended the overlay maps made of the Sabian River for G-2 by the Recons (thanks to the De Soto National Forest experiences) and General McNair personally praised another G-2 report made by the Recons giving the exact position of the 395th Infantry Regiment. In spite of all this commendation for his unbroken works as Commanding Officer, Lt Worley suffered capture when the infantry CP he was with was taken intact, the commanding Colonel and all, including Whitney, Carl Lewis and Fulton.
Captain Lueders, being assistant G-2 officer, was unable to command his troop as it paid off in a big way on it’s previous, far-sighted training and new formed team spirit. Yet as the Recons are directly responsible to G-2 for their plans and operations, particularly and consistently so in maneuvers, Captain Lueders may well have stood in a good position to evaluate the quality of work his men were doing and the inestimable value of the information they were gathering, which in itself merited commendations from two General Officers. The maneuvers started with the Recons gathering tags to place on their sticks in order to facilitate their changing their dummy weapons faster. It will never be forgotten for the day Shoemaker put his head up too far and got technically killed by the enemy infantry, yet the umpire in the attendant flurry marked him as a casualty for sunstroke, and it was rightly concluded when Hinkle, following the troop back through Jasper, Texas, on a two hundred and fifty mile jaunt to Camp Maxey, Texas, drew blood when he hit and killed a steer with his scout car. This ended a large paragraph in the story of Reconnaissance.
They had formally entered the picture: first as individuals, next as an athletic team, and finally as a combat-conscious, commendable cavalry troop always being able to fight and win. “Always forward” had meant more than mere progress. It bespoke a position in relation to their objectives of action and quality.