History of the 106th Port Marine Maintenance Company. By Louis Keefer; Nov 2000 email
I had the pleasure of serving with the 106th Port Marine Maintenance Company at Camp Gordon Johnston twice the first time before going overseas, the second time after returning from overseas. Readers are cautioned that dates and names and other information are based on my memory, not hard research.
The 106th was activated at Camp Plauche, New Orleans, LA, the Transportation Corps Replacement Training Center, in April, 1944. I joined the company that month, arriving as a private from the Army Special Training Program at West Virginia University. Though I had had the 13-week infantry basic training at Fort Benning prior to my ASTP assignment, I did a second, shorter basic with the 106th. Sometime during that training (I think), the company was moved to the New Orleans Army Air Base. About July or so, we were moved again to Camp Gordon Johnston. I don’t remember that much about the camp except for the single-story sand-floored barracks with duckwalks down the middle, and the screened-in outdoor latrines a hundred feet or so behind the barracks. We were near the center of the camp, because I remember we could easily walk to the main PX, to the movie theater, and to the recreation center. The only training I can recall consisted of calisthenics and marching on the asphalt streets. Of course, it was hotter than heck, but it didn’t bother me particularly, and it was fun to watch the afternoon thunderstorms form up out in the Gulf.
Our commanding officer throughout the training period was Captain Larson, whose first name now escapes me. He was an older guy, and some of us called him “Mother Larson.” I now remember one overnight bivouac exercise we had down near Carrabelle, we were to practice “water discipline.” Something like one full canteen for 24-hours. Eventually thirsty enough, several of us figured out that by sneaking away south through the underbrush we’d reach U.S. 90, where possibly we’d find water and snacks. We did so, gorged and stuffed ourselves, and returned to the bivouac area unnoticed. Neither “Mother Larson” nor his officers and noncoms would have been pleased!
Toward the end of August, I think, we went up to Camp Myles Standish, near Boston, and embarked on the liner Mariposa for Europe. A fast ship, we went unescorted and landed at Liverpool at dusk. Struggling down the gangplank with our A and B bags we then took a dimmed-out train to Southampton, and lived in a tent city there for about a month, many of us serving temporarily as MPs on the docks to keep both troops and civilians from stealing supplies before they could get to the fast-moving front where needed. During the time in Southampton I was promoted to the grand rank of Pfc.
In late September the company crossed the English Channel on three LCIs. We left in the early morning and landed somewhere on Utah Beach at just about midnight. For a time we were allowed topside, and I remember thinking how glorious the weather and how exciting the journey was. However, by mid-day the sea kicked up and we were order below. Finally, it blew up to a gale force, and everyone, including me, was sicker than h___. Our company included a large number of men who had worked on the docks of New York and others who had been around ships and their construction in the Newport News, VA area for most of their lives. As our LCI’s bow rose sharply under each wave, and then down to a shuddering halt smashing into the following wave, some of those smart guys scared the devil out of the rest of us by saying, “Hey, you know the skin of this thing is only quarter-inch steel. I sure hope the seam welds hold.” Needless to say they did.
As we moved onto the beach, we passed a single file stream of German POWs heading down to board the LCIs we’d just left. We marched inland a mile or two before the officers told us to drop in place and sleep on the ground, and NOT to wander off beyond the de-mined areas outlined by white tapes. To make a long story short, the next day we ended up camping in our pup tents in an apple orchard a few miles outside Montebourg. We remained there a month, doing absolutely nothing, before the Army in its wisdom assigned our company to Rouen, a port city midway between Le Havre and Paris which could accommodate ocean-going vessels. The company’s job, by the way, was to make various repairs on transport vessels while they were in port at Rouen (not to maintain the port, per se). So we had shipfitters, riggers, welders, machinists, painters, carpenters, divers, and even a blacksmith. These were experienced men, many of them in their late twenties and thirties. A small batch of us younger men had no skills at all, and performed ordinary labor, and eventually took over all KP and guard duty so that the experienced men could do their specialty without interruption.
In Rouen, we crammed into a “chateau” at the outskirts of town on the main to Paris. It had been slightly bomb-damaged and used (we were told) by the German SS in Rouen. In any case, there were still German name tags on the bedroom doors, and for years I kept a German, oversized marking pencil I found in a desk. I should add that we were the first American unit to be stationed in Rouen, the city having been liberated by British and Canadian troops. By this time, Captain Larson had been replaced as company commander by a non-entity who had been a used car salesman in Detroit. I could write a long story about our nearly ten months in Rouen, but suffice to say that the company worked hard (eventually earning a unit citation), remained safe and sound (a half dozen or so men were requisitioned to go fight in the Battle of the Bulge, including two other former ASTPers who urged me to volunteer and go with them. I wisely did not, but felt guilty about my decision for many years thereafter), and were shifted to Camp Lucky Strike in late June 1945. We spent two weeks on a slow Dutch freighter before debarking into Camp Patrick Henry at Norfolk in early July.
After thirty-day furloughs, we all returned to CGJ, still as the 106th. If a vote had been taken, I’m sure the overwhelming preference would be “anywhere but Camp Gordon Johnston!” We were assigned to barracks on the last street to the west nearest Carrabelle. We were told we would have a certain amount of retraining for the Pacific theatre, and I was assigned to electrician’s school. Thankfully, the atom bombs were dropped, and in December or so, the company was deactivated. I was transferred to San Francisco to the 345th Harbor Craft Company as the new company clerk (though I was still a Pfc).
During the post-war months at CGJ I remember a lot of things: firing the M-1 carbine on the range (we had carried carbines in France), watching movies outdoors under the stars at a makeshift location just big enough to seat about half the company, the stars absolutely the brightest I’ve ever seen in my whole life, lots of movies at the regular theater, drinking beer in the little outdoor garden behind the main PX, taking group swimming lessons at a freshwater lake about halfway to Carrabelle, learning to use the camp library, shooting pool at the recreation center. Discipline was lax and we did a lot of loafing, always dreaming of when we’d be discharged. None of us had that many points, and indeed I didn’t get out until April 16, 1946, but since the war was over and we knew we’d eventually get home in one piece it was a more or less happy time.
A real highlight was sailing over to Dog Island a few times. The deal was that EM’s could take out one of the Army longboats equipped with a center board, main and job sails, on a Sunday if any were free after claims by officers. A couple of my buddies had sailing experience and qualified, so five or six of us would take some food and drinks, and have a ball sailing across the five or six miles to Dog Island. There were lots of three to four foot sand sharks around and quite a few manta rays (skates). I remember one of our crew diving overboard for a swim one day. In seconds, he reappeared, only to scramble back on board ashen-faced. He’d come face to face with a big manta and it scared the h___ out of him! I know they were down there because the water was pretty shallow, the bottom clean, and you might see one if you watched patiently.
The best two friends I had in the 106th have died in the last two years: Elbert Mayo was a T/5 shipfitter who hailed from Napa, CA. After the war, he went back into the dairy business with his father, eventually owned the dairy with his brother Elbert and became very comfortably fixed (as they say). He died of complications following the removal of a cancerous prostate gland. Dorian LaRocque was from Valhalla, ND, and died of a sudden heart attack. Dorian was a heck of an athlete. We played some pretty rough touch football while back in the apple orchard in Normandy and he was a standout. We also played together on the 106th’s basketball team.
Our record was an awful 1-13 against other teams in the port area, but we had a lot of fun. Our best player (a former Air Cadet) quit after the first game; perhaps he could see where we were headed. Our first lieutenant coach also quit after the first game, so Dorian and I more or less coached and captained the team. Elbert and Dorian were both great guys. I also fondly remember the five Jews from New York City with whom I shared a six-man tent behind the chateau: Arthur Kaplan, Harold Bloom, Stan Heyanka, Paul Wisnieski, and Mort Elkind. Wisnieski was the company bugler, and when he slept in one morning so did the other five of us. We each drew a week’s company punishment for that little error. About six or eight tents housed the overflow from the chateau, which just couldn’t hold us all. As a West Virginia hillbilly WASP, I was unfamiliar with Jewish guys and especially such smart guys from New York, but it worked out very well. Some of my other friends were Jerry Odom, born in the Panama Canal Zone, last thought living in Mobile, AL; Carl Banks, a shipbuilder from Noank, CT; Tom Hayden, a farmer heavyweight Golden Gloves champ from New Orleans. At one time I had a lot of photos of 106th personnel and of Rouen.
They’ve mostly been lost over the years. I revisited Rouen with my wife in 1960 and found things much the same, though the chateau had been torn down, to be replaced by a filling station. I revisited by myself in 1975 or so, and by then new highways and buildings had drastically changed that part of town nearest the chateau. I could write at length about the 106th, CGJ, and Rouen, but this surely is enough to encourage somebody else to tell some of their stories.