Keep Them Rolling: World War II letters from Louis Solberg

COLFAX — Louis Solberg, who passed away in 2008, grew up in Albertville, owned a farm north of Colfax and later on farmed on the Rusk Prairie. He and his wife, Alda (also known as Sweetie Pie), operated the farm in the Town of Otter Creek during the 1940s and 1950s.

Alda passed away in 2006.

Last year, the Colfax Messenger published portions of a hand-written manuscript Louis wrote about his life entitled “Sweetie Pie and I” or “From Scratch.” Louis also wrote a book about Albertville and a book titled, “Keep Them Rolling” (Company 314) (A World War II Story 1941-1945).

“Keep Them Rolling” is based on a collection of letters that Louis wrote to Alda while he was serving in World War II, and Louis’s family has graciously given permission for the Colfax Messenger to print portions of “Keep Them Rolling.”

In honor of Veterans Day 2012, the Messenger will be printing excerpts from  “Keep Them Rolling” for the next several months.

Here is the first installment of Louis Solberg’s World War II book:

Preface: This book was written, after more than 40 years, to describe my experience and that of a company of men, who formed the 314th Ordnance Company Base Depot of the 9th U.S. Army, some of their accomplishments, together with an account of the places we had been during the years 1941 to 1945.

Acknowledgements: My thanks go out to my wife, Alda, for saving all the letters I wrote to her, without which this book would not have been possible. Also, for the help she gave me in writing my story. Also to my sister, Irene, for typing my book for me.

Chapter 1

Having left my old home near Old Albertville, Wisconsin, in January of 1935, at the age of twenty-one, I spent two months cutting logs near Eau Claire. Next I got work in a chicken hatchery near Rock Falls. I worked there two springs and one summer.

The summer of 1936 was about the driest on record in our part of the country.

I worked at odd jobs that summer and in the fall got a farm job. I hired out for one month, which lasted over four years. Times were hard and wages were low. It was here I met the girl who was to become my wife nine years later.

Things went along at a very normal pace until the fall of 1940, when all young men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five had to register for the draft. The same Fall, the National Guard from Menomonie left for a year’s training in Louisiana. For a time the quota was filled by volunteers.

The draft

I drew a lucky number and on March 9, 1941, left Menomonie with the first bunch of men drafted from Dunn County for what was to be one year of training in the army.

We left about noon on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, and after a short stop in Madison, we arrived in Milwaukee that evening, after dark. They unloaded the train and herded us up the street, like a bunch of cattle, to one of the hotels.

The next day, they processed us and after dark we climbed aboard another train and got to Camp Grant, Illinois, close to midnight. The first thing they did was run us into a mess hall and fed us. Then they took us into a large building where they had all different kinds of clothes, just like a big clothing store.

They lined us all up in single file and we all had to strip naked. We picked up all our civilian clothes under our arm and started down the line. The first stop we got underwear; we put this all on as we got it. The next guy threw us a shirt, and the next guy a pair of pants, then socks and shoes, a blouse and tie, cap and overcoat, and raincoat. When we got to the end of the line, we were all dressed for the outside.

We also got what they called “fatigue clothes,” blue denim, bibless overalls and jackets, a denim hat with brim all around, a razor, toothbrush, towels, handkerchiefs, and wool gloves.

We chucked all our old clothes in our suitcase and sent it home.

Barracks

They took us to a barracks and assigned us each a cot. We slept awhile, then they got us up for breakfast (and got) us out in a kind of formation. There we stood with those overseas caps on top of our heads. The wind was blowing, and there was snow in the air, so we started to turn the sides down over our ears. The sergeant in charge yelled, “Get those caps turned up.” I can’t remember, but I suppose they tried to teach us a little about marching.

Soon we were back in the barracks, and they started calling out names to go to a fort in Wyoming. I don’t remember the name of it. Everyone I knew from Dunn County went there.

The next bunch they called, I was in. Thus began an experience I will never forget.

I wouldn’t take a million dollars for my experience, but I don’t think I could go through it again for another million.

We had to ship out in just a short while, and I didn’t have time to pack my things. The guy who had the cot next to me helped me as he hadn’t been called yet.

Each of us had been given a barrack bag. This was made of blue denim with a drawstring on the top. I suppose it was as big as a bushel basket. My new friend held the bag, and I poured everything I had into it. I had a bottle of hair oil that went with the rest of the stuff; this broke on the trip, so I got part of my things oiled up in good shape. As I remember, my raincoat got the worst of it. I know the first chance I got, I put it on and got into the shower to wash it off.

Troop train

At ten a.m. on March 12, 1941, we got on the troop train and started for Camp Lee, Virginia. A bunch of strange young men, together for what was to be one year of military training. Each day we counted how many days were left.

That was the longest year I can remember.

March 13 we arrived at Camp Lee after riding on the train for twenty-eight hours. The scenery wasn’t much the first day. Just flat land. When we awoke in the morning, we were going through mountains in West Virginia. The scenery was fantastic. Beautiful mountains covered with evergreen trees and in the hollows were the shacks the people lived in, set on posts on one side, and the other on the ground.

The fields were so steep that nothing but a man and a mule could work there.

In three days, we had gone from winter to spring as we were so much farther south here.

Camp Lee

We were in a new camp. The first troops beat us by only two days.

They brought us to camp and unloaded us in front of a big building, a truck load at a time. There we stood with our barracks bag at our side and wondered what was going to happen in this building.

They took us in here, a few at a time, and started to question us all over again. What kind of work have you done before you came here? Can you build a fence? Can you drive a truck? I signed up for “Field Artillery.” When this was finished we didn’t know anymore than we did before, but the man calls a Corporal, and he takes half a dozen of us, and we pick up our bags and follow him.

He took us to a new barracks, and we each found a cot upstairs. He told us we were in the Quartermaster Corp. Co. K., 3rd Bn., 8th Q.M. Regt. Now you have to bear in mind that I was pretty green. What is the Quartermaster and what do they do? I didn’t know. Also I got a title, “Private,” that, I also didn’t know until much later, was the best rank in the army as you weren’t expected to know anything.

Somewhere along the line, we acquired a knapsack, rifle belt, canteen cup, mess kit, knife and fork, and two blankets and a shelter half. Except for the blankets, the rest of the stuff we carried on our backs most everywhere we went, especially on hikes.

At the time we came here they had been building for about six months, averaging one building every ninety minutes. Each barrack held sixty-three men on two floors.

The days are filled with “close order drill” and picking up sticks, cigarette butts, etc. I think we were better at picking up sticks than drilling.

It was here I met Sgt. Jolly, a regular army man, a Platoon Sergeant even though he hadn’t gone to school more than the third grade.

On Sunday I went to church. I have been gone a week, only fifty-one more weeks left.

The days were full of “close order drill” and lectures. By this time we were good enough so we had a parade.

March 25 we got our rifles, 1903 Springfields. Now we had to learn how to handle them in a military manner.

Norman Simpson from Appleton, Wisconsin, bunked next to me. Here I also met Chuck DeGreive who bunked on the other side of me.

We all took our turn at K.P., usually from 5:45 a.m. until nearly ten at night.

New trucks

March 29, 1941, our company got thirteen new trucks.

One of our sergeants was on the way down to the Canteen to buy some beer. When it started to rain, he ducked into the nearest doorway to get out of the rain. It was a theater and the Catholics were using it for confession. The Chaplain took him by the arm and said he was glad he had come to confess his sins. The sergeant replied, “I didn’t come to confess, I just came in out of the rain.”

Monday, March 31, we started going to class to learn how to drive those big trucks.

Saturday, we got paid. After my insurance was taken out, I got $13.32. The captain was standing there and collected fifty cents from each man for the company fund, so that left me with a total of $12.82 for 21 days.

Everything we had was charged to us and if you lost anything or broke it, you were charged for it. If you didn’t have the money, you would have to stay and work it off. With trucks at $2,000 and wages at $21 a month, it didn’t sound too good.

When we started to drive, we would load up the back of each truck with men, and each man would have his turn driving with the sergeant by his side. We would drive a ways, then stop along the road, and the sergeant would give a lecture on care of the truck and driving.

One day he said that the army doesn’t carry insurance on these trucks, and if you wreck one, you have to pay for it. Norman Simpson spoke up and said, “Then I won’t drive.” The Sergeant answered back and said, “If I tell you to drive, you will drive, or I’ll have you court martialed.”

40 cents a day

Meals were not so good here. They fed the men on forty cents a day and most of the time, I never got enough. The first one to get the dish would help himself to what he wanted, and the last ones got very little. Many times all I got was bread without butter.

Weekends when a lot of the guys went to town and there was enough to go around, we ate like pigs.

It was April 11, 1941, when we started our driving lessons. It was great to get out of camp and into the countryside. Everything was so green and pretty.

We had a route we took most every day, about nine miles in a kind of circle. Everything was different from back home.

The ground was being made ready for some crop. Some of the fields had as many as eight teams of mules with walking plows and black men driving them.

There was a Federal Penitentiary Farm that we went by that had a beautiful herd of Holstein cows in the pasture.

Maps

About this time we started map reading. It was very interesting. Then I found out why the government had been doing all the surveying when we were kids at home.

The maps showed every road and fence, telephone line, railroads, how many tracks they had, every river, lake, creek, even the dry runs, every hill and how high it was, what kind of country you would find. Every building was marked, so it was very interesting to me.

April 17th we went on a hike down the road a couple of miles, then through the woods. The trees were so beautiful. This is where the Battle of Petersburg was fought during the Civil War. The woods were full of trenches and there were holes made by cannon balls.

The trenches were about four feet deep and four to five feet wide. It must have taken lots of shoveling.

There were big trees growing in them then, and the woods were so thick it would be hard to see a man in uniform at 100 yards.

Some of the men who didn’t live too far away would take off without leave and go home for a few days at a time; a few days extra K.P. would be the punishment for that.

April 19 we had a regimental parade. There must have been 3,000 men in it. They had a 9th Regiment Negro Band play for us. Ninth Regiment were colored, and we, being the 8th Regiment, they were next to us.

I enjoyed hearing them play. They had a rhythm to everything they did.

The meals have been good lately, and we now have plenty to eat. I guess they are better organized.

Wednesday, April 23, we were out on the road again as usual. I saw someone in the field with a Ford Ferguson tractor and plow. They were new then. It didn’t look too practical. It would go like everything for a ways, then the plow got too heavy, and it would stop and spin the wheels, then take off again.

Also, I saw a colored man with a team of mules out in the field. No problem with traction.

The trees and fields look real nice. There is a Crimson Clover in some fields that I have never seen before.

We went on field rations, about May first, so we now get enough to eat.

(Part 2 next week will begin with Louis’s first day on guard duty.)