Above photo at Tabor Academy being U. S. Army Lientenent in Fresnes en
inspected.(Circa 1949) Woevre, France.(Circa 1958).
Wall damage in WWI (2-21-1916)
Battle of Verdun.
Verdun, 60 years ago, & Hank’s Military Start
In February 21, 2016 the Sunday New York Times article entitled “What Was the Point of Verdun?” by Paul Jankowski caught my eye. The setting of his article was, “One hundred year ago, on Feb. 21, 1916, 1,200 German artillery pieces began firing on French positions around Verdun, the ancient fortress town on the Meuse River in Eastern France. . . . That day the Germans dropped a million shells onto the forts, forests and ravines around Verdun, and in the 10 months that followed, 60 million more would fall in the area. . . . and 300,000 men had died.”
Pat and I lived near Verdun, in the village of Fresnes en Woevre in 1957 and ’58—almost 60 years ago. We spent many weekends walking around this area and saw the specially-constructed building, called ‘The Ossuary” where the remains of 130,000 dead soldiers were buried and visible through a window. We became friends with the Mayor of Verdun and his wife, who invited us to a dinner-party at their home. They told us much about the history of Verdun, Etain, and Fresnes en Woevre.
What were we doing in that part of France?
I was a second lieutenant in the U. S. Army, stationed in Etain and was commanding officer of the Buzy Petroleum Depot (located nearby). I lived for six months in Verdun and, when Pat and I were married, we rented the top floor of an old house in Fresnes en Woevre. Verdun, Etain, and Fresnes en Woevre were all pivotal towns in the great battle of Verdun in 1916 in World War I.
I took Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) at Bowdoin College. My father served in the navy in both WWI and WWII and his stories about those experiences motivated me to be interested in a military career. I went to Tabor Academy for my high school years. Tabor was a quasi-naval academy at the time. We wore uniforms and marched with simulated guns. At one point, I was in a Tabor honor guard and loved it.
The Korean War was ending as I entered Bowdoin in 1952 and ROTC would enable me to serve in the military as an officer. I enjoyed the military training at this liberal arts college and spent one summer in the ROTC basic-training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I graduated Bowdoin with a second lieutenant’s commission in the U. S. Army and headed to Fort Lee, Virginia for the fourteen-week Quartermaster Corps Basic Officer’s Course in November 1956. My life was about to change forever—in two distinct ways!
I was entering what I imagined might be a career in the military as an army officer and on November 5, 1956, I met a student nurse named Patricia Peacock. Pat and her friend, Marjorie Noble, were student nurses from Atlanta’s St. Joseph’s School of Nursing and affiliating with the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, VA—just up the road from Fort Lee in Petersburg, VA. Marj was dating another Bowdoin classmate and they fixed me up with a ‘blind-date.’ I had always wanted to date a nurse (more on that in another blog) and these two nurses were adorable. Pat was a little shy at first and Marj kept the conversation alive as we went to movies, restaurants, etc. the next few weeks. We were falling in love!
Pat Peacock and I announced our engagement in April of 1957, just before I headed to Metz, France for my army assignment after graduating from the Fort Lee officer’s course. We considered marrying but Pat wanted to finish nursing school and we both agreed not to rush things. I also believe Pat wanted to be sure her intended was really serious about an army career and wondered what other careers I might pursue. One thing I emphatically told her was, “I do not intend going into the family textile business.”
Pat finished at Saint Joseph’s Nursing School in Atlanta. She worked in the ER at St. Josephs—located in downtown Atlanta—to earn money as we started planning our wedding in late November, 1957.
I flew to Europe in April of 1957. On the flight to Frankfurt, I met another Bowdoin classmate, Dave Gardner, who was headed to Verdun, France. I was assigned to Metz, France so we boarded the train to Eastern France. I got off in Metz and Dave went on to Verdun. This was barely twelve years since the end of World War II. Our train was old and dirty and reminded me of pictures I’d seen of the WWII trains. The German and French cities and villages we trained through still showed scars of this horrible war and I wondered what I was headed for?
I met my commanding officer, Major Kirby, in Metz at the U. S. Army compound in this historical city—known as the place where General Patton had run out of gas in WWII. In John Nelson Rickard’s book, “Patton at Bay, the Lorraine Campaign (1944), he wrote:
Think of General George S. Patton, and images of aggression and bold maneuver come to mind. He was the author of the high-speed drive on Messina during the Sicily campaign, the exhilarating end-run of Operation Cobra in July 1944 and the relentless pursuit of the defeated Germans across northern France. And yet, hidden in his successful résumé lies the great anomaly: the Lorraine campaign. It was a hard slog in rough terrain and rotten weather against a tough German foe fighting from prepared positions. In the end, it took Patton three full months to reduce resistance in the area between the Moselle and Saar rivers, an advance of only 46 miles. It was a campaign filled with personal and professional frustration for the general, and even the fall of Metz in early December, with its paltry haul of just 6,000 prisoners, did nothing to lighten the mood. In other words, Lorraine found Patton completely out of his element. If flexibility is an attribute of all great generals, then Metz was an interesting test case for Patton. How does a general built for speed, a "master-motivator and prodigious ass-kicker," behave when things slow down?
The answer, according to John Nelson Rickard’s Patton at Bay: not very well. Getting stuck in front of the Moselle River was not Patton’s fault. He ran out of gas, a result of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision in the tricky area of fuel allocation.
As a result of the above, after WWII, the US convinced France to let us build a series of petroleum depots across their country. Located just to the east of Etain, France, was a POL Depot named BUZY. President DeGaulle would ask the US forces to leave in 1958.
Major Kirby welcomed me to France with the following:
"Hello Lieutenant, I’ll be your commanding officer while you’re here. You are being assigned as commanding officer of the Buzy POL Depot, located about an hour’s drive from here. A first lieutenant from West Point is due here in 30 days and he will take over your position. You are replacing a Captain B. and will report for duty next week Monday. Since you are single, we’ve made arrangements with a bachelor’s officer’s quarters in Verdun. Verdun is located twelve miles from Etain, where your office will be located. The Buzy POL Depot is out in the country, so the 50 plus men in your unit are billeted in Etain, together with a Transportation Corps Unit. Oh yes, there is a unit of Polish Guards that guard the Buzy POL Depot 24 hours, seven days a week. You’ll also be responsible for that unit of about 24 men plus their own Polish officer. They are also billeted in Etain. I know you expected to be a supply officer here in Metz, but this Buzy assignment will give you great leadership experience and that West Point officer will replace you in 30 days. Any questions?"
Wow. In less than six months, I was both engaged to a beautiful girl from Atlanta and becoming commanding officer of an army unit of 75 men located out in the boon-docks of Eastern France. I was 24 years old.
Two days later, a jeep drove me to Verdun where I checked into my BOQ room, down the hall from my Bowdoin friend, Dave Gardner. I was to be there for six months. Dave and I ate dinner together at the officer’s club across the street, where I was later reported to an army colonel “for having bad table manners.” (I never found out what I was doing wrong, Pat said, “probably gulping down your food.”).
The weekend before I reported to Etain and Buzy, I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom I shared with the fellow officer next door. He introduced himself as a 1st. Lt. ordnance officer and asked me what I would be doing? I said, “I’m taking over command of a petroleum depot tomorrow morning.” He replied, “Not Buzy, I hope!”
I tried to stay calm and asked him what he knew about Buzy. He said, “Lt. Haskell, let’s go have breakfast together, and I’ll tell you more.”
He (I don’t remember his name) proceeded to tell me the following:
"You are taking over one of the hottest spots in France, lieutenant. An old captain named Brockert has run that unit for about two or three years as his personal fiefdom. Capt. B. is retiring and the unit has just been reassigned to the Quartermaster Command in Metz with Major Kirby in charge, who I guess, has assigned you to take Buzy over. They have about ten 2 ½ ton trucks that have been neglected for years plus a jeep and a couple of smaller trucks. I know all about this as I’m the ordnance officer here in Verdun and have been trying to get Capt. Brockert to let us service his vehicles, which he has refused to do as he wants his replacement to be responsible—and that’s you!
My advice to you, lieutenant, is to call your commanding officer and tell him about this conversation. When you report for duty, tell Capt. B. that you understand his equipment has not been well-maintained and that you’ve requested an ordnance inspection of all vehicles before you’ll sign for responsibility. Urge Major Kirby to meet you and the Captain in Buzy tomorrow morning to arrange this ordnance inspection, and don’t sign anything!
Holy mackerel! What to do? (more to come on this later)