Honoring Our Veteran Ancestors: We will never forget.

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Childhood memories of my grandfather, Robert “Bob” Welch are vivid – mostly of hiking and outdoors, but later of using telescopes and spying at boats in the Puget Sound from his cement house on a hill. One of the items I inherited was binoculars. However it wasn’t until about 10 years ago when I began to appreciate the stories of his time in the Army, specifically recounting the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

My grandfather passed away quite a few years ago from complications of Alzheimer’s. Much of what he remembered near the end of his life was about his time in the war. Each year around Veteran’s Day I pull out the memoir he wrote about his time at Pearl Harbor and Europe. I’m thankful that he took the time to share his memories and am honored to pass those to my children, which I recently had the pleasure of showing his Bronze Star Medal to.

Veteran’s Day is a day to reflect on the lives of those who risked theirs to protect us. This day mean’s so much more than a thanks, it’s an opportunity to reflect and learn. In this spirit, following is my grandfather’s account of his time in the Army.
— Heather Ainardi

My Military History

By Robert Lee Welch

Soon after my 21st birthday, November 7, 1940, instead of registering for the draft, I went down to Oneonta, NY. There I enlisted at a recruiting office for service in the Army in Hawaii.

I was sent by bus to Albany, then down along the Hudson River to a point just north or New York City where I headed east to the shore of Long Island Bay near the Connecticut border. There I rode a ferry out to a barrack on an island in the sound, north of Rhode Island. It was Fort Slocum, a World War I relic. There I received housing and basic training while waiting for a ship to transport us to Hawaii. We enjoyed flocks of seagulls catching bits of bread thrown from upstairs before they reached the ground.

In late February we boarded a military transport ship that had been captured in World War I and converted from a cattle boat to a military transport. The former holds now contained rows of double-decker bunks, in which several hundred slept.

In late February 1941 our shipload of recruits boarded the U.S. Army transport ship, Republic. The ship had to push its way through a floating mass of thin cakes of frozen ice all the way out of Long Island Sound. Off the coast of the Carolinas we encountered a storm with rough seas past Cape Hatteras. Most everyone on board became very seasick, which lasted almost until we reached Panama.

We enjoyed a pleasant trip through the canal, watching small boats loaded with bananas moving across Gatun Lake on their way to being loaded aboard ships for transport to the northeastern U.S. markets. Near the Pacific end of the canal, we were allowed to go ashore and walk up a hill to look down on a city on the west coast. We entered the Pacific Ocean in pleasant weather and enjoyed the rest of our ride to Honolulu.

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The group of which I was part, were hauled aboard a narrow gauge railway up to Schofield barracks near the center of the Island of Oahu. Schofield barracks are two story affairs, arranged in quadrangles around parade grounds with roadways through the corners and around the inside of the square. Various military units of different designations, infantry, artillery, chemical warfare, etc. occupied separate quadrangles.

I was assigned to Battery C of the 13th Field Artillery Battalion. We lived by the bugle. Different calls announced meal time, lights out at night, assembly, retreat, alert, etc. Our sleeping quarters, showers and storage lockers were on the second floor. A broad deck, supported by concrete columns, was outside our sleeping quarters, giving access to a broad stairway to the street level. Our supply room containing weapons, etc. and our mess hall kitchen were down on street level.

About a quarter mile north of the barracks was our motor park, containing 75 millimeter artillery guns on two wheeled trailers that were towed by trucks that carried the gun crews. Batterys A, B. & C, each had four guns and gun crews that stayed in separate buildings. We trained in all positions at different times, becoming familiar with all phases of controlling and using the guns to hit various types of targets on a firing range on the mountains to the west, as well as direct fire at targets towed on long lines behind destroyers off the west coast.

I became efficient at surveying in the location of forward observations posts and the position of guns on maps coordinates, using telescopes with directional bases mounted on tripods as well as range finders and other surveying equipment.

Schofield is near the center of the island of Oahu about four miles west of the village of Waiamia on the King Cumamaya Highway connecting Honolulu with the north shore at Halava. Wheeler Air Force Base is a few miles to the south where the P-40’s are based. Hickman Air Force Base where the bombers are based, is adjacent to Pearl Harbor near Honolulu.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Sunday, we were eating breakfast in the lower level of our barrack when we hear the explosions of several bombs. “What is the Air Force practicing on a Sunday morning for?”

Finishing eating, I stepped outside the mess hall under the canopy that is supported by several concrete columns. Several strange looking aircraft were flying over from north to south. The rising sun was prominent under the wings. One dipped in my direction. Upon seeing the machine guns flashing on the wings, I stepped behind one of the concrete columns. That turned out to be a very prudent move.

Realizing that we were under attack, I went to the supply room next door and awakened the supply sergeant. He found his keys and opened the locked boxes of ammunition.

I knew that in the event of an alert, my assignment was to take and old 1932 Dodge truck from the motor park, pick up a crew of four men at the barrack and go to a warehouse near Wheeler Air Force Base about four miles away to have my crew load the 75 millimeter ammunition into my single rear axle truck.

I got my 30-06 rifle and ammunition from the supply sergeant, went up to our sleeping quarters and got my full field pack off the end of my bunk and my shelter half and blanket rolled up under an arm and headed for the motor park to get my truck. Halfway to the motor park I finally hear a bugle sound alert. When I drove back to the barrack my four-man crew was waiting for me.

They loaded my truck with the 75 millimeter ammunition. I left them there and headed north on the Kamaha Maya Highway through Waimaia. Driving north through miles of pineapple fields, I was following a truck loaded with Infantry men. They were all looking up at something behind me. Checking my rear view mirror, I saw a P-40 coming down in stair step fashion in flames. It crashed in the pineapples about 50 yards to the left of my truck. The pilot was slumped over the controls surrounded in flames. Of course we could only continue on our way.

Up near the north end of the island, I took a bare clay track up to the east into a Eucalyptus forest where the artillery was setting up cover any possible landing on north beaches. The artillery crews unloaded my truck and I went back down to the highway and got another load. This continued all day, all night, all the second day and half the second night, with no sleep and nothing to eat.

After the last load I tried to go on up the wet clay road to a motor park a couple hundred yards beyond the guns. As long as my truck was loaded, the single axle drive would go up. But empty, it soon spun out and slid over the side of a deep canyon, hanging up on a sampling. I grabbed my rifle, backpack and roll of blanket and shelter half, slid down the bank a few feet and straggled back up across the road to a pile of leaves near the gun position. About 3 o’clock in the night, I rolled up in my blanket and shelter half canvas on the pile of leaves and slept until daylight. Then I went up and told the gunnery sergeant where my truck was. He sent someone up to the motor park for a couple six by six trucks with front winches to gather my truck and haul it to the motor park.

I never drove it again. My assignment became part of the detail section establishing a forward observation post on a cliff overlooking the north shore, calculating firing data in the event of an invasion attempt which never happened.

A couple of months later we were issued some larger artillery, 105 millimeter, which we set up in a brushy canyon under camouflage nets in a sugar cane field much closer to the north beach. We scrounged up some lumber and constructed sleeping sheds hidden under trees in the canyon. A dirt road ran through the canyon. Since no further attacks occurred, a large number of us were promoted and sent back to the United States as a Cadre, a nucleus for a new outfit. We would be training draftees and preparing to join a war in Europe.

I no longer remember the date, but a shipload of us were sent to an island east of the golden gate bridge between San Francisco and Oakland called Treasure Island. We were housed in a barrack there for a few days until we could board a train to Camp Beal in northern California near Marysville.

We were there a few days until a train with sleeper accommodations could be available to transport us to camp McCoy in eastern Wisconsin. At that station we became a new outfit with draftees. I had become a staff sergeant in control of a details section in an artillery battery.

We trained there during the summer and were sent to North Dakota to harvest wheat and other grains in late August. We convoyed in our military trucks to Michigan City in North Dakota where our lieutenant worked with a county agricultural agent to schedule our help at various farms.

I had a driver and eight other men assigned to a farm where we followed the farmer’s advice on shocking the bundle grain. We worked on several farms until the grain was ready for threshing, then trucked it to the threshing machines. It was a very satisfying experience.

That winter we transferred to Camp Funston at Fort Riley in Kansas and trained through the winter.

The next spring we transferred to Fort Brag, North Carolina where we were issued the heaviest artillery that the army had, 240 millimeter howitzers. Projectiles weighed 90 pounds. Powder charges in 30, 60, and 90 pound lots were chosen according to the type of target and need for distance. The guns were transported in two parts on two separate trailers pulled by tracked vehicles similar to tanks with no turrets. A heavy crane was used to dig holes to set the base in and lift the barrel and recoil mechanism into position. A heavy gate was used to open and close the loading end of the barrel and a trough was set up to the gate so that a projectile could be slid up the trough into the breech by a crew pushing a long pole. Then the powder charges were pushed in behind the projectile and the breech was swung closed and locked. A primer consisting of a 30-06 shell with no lead was inserted in the center of the breech and set off with a trigger at the appropriate moment. Of course we did not load or fire the guns, but took them to New York and loaded aboard some freighter bound for England.

We boarded the Queen Elizabeth, which zigzagged across to Grenock, Scotland to avoid the U boats. We rode the little narrow gauge railroads down to the southwest England at Bodmin where we were allowed to use and empty British barrack while our crews visited the ports where the freighters unloaded the guns and their transporters.

We loaded our guns and equipment onboard LST’s and landed at Omaha Beach on the coast of France several days after the initial invasion. We caught up with the front near Verdu and took part in clearing Germans from several river crossings so the army engineers could build pontoon bridge crossings for our tanks. Then we could follow along and clear more river crossings. When the Bulge broke out in Belgium, we went into position near Trier at Luxemburg and interdicted fire on various crossings to deny the Germans access to fuel and other supplies.

In the following spring we built corduroy roads in Belgium where heave equipment had destroyed their thin asphalt coatings. Crews cut small logs to lay across the soft spots. I operated a jackhammer at a rock quarry breaking boulders into suitable sizes to use in the crusher supplied by the engineers. Trucks dumped the crushed rock on the small logs to construct corduroy roads.

The last action we took part in was near the border of Czechoslovakia. I remember the Russian prisoner’s climbing out of an air shaft at a salt mine where the Germans had held them imprisoned. By then we had several barbed wire enclosures holding German prisoners.

I got to explore Hitler’s Eagle Nest before heading for a ship back to the state for my discharge in Pennsylvania.

Sandra KowalskiComment