PHIL MAY - My World War II Experiences

My name is Philip Stockton May, Jr. I was born June 5, 1925 in old St. Vincent's Hospital and spent all my early years of life in a bungalow in Arden near Avondale, here in Jacksonville, Florida. I went through grammar school at Fishweir Elementary, then to John Gorrie Jr. High School, and finally graduating from Robert E. Lee Senior High School in June, 1943.

After graduation, I spent a couple of weeks in the mountains of western North Carolina, where I had gone almost every summer for many years. In September I volunteered for service.

From the downtown recruiting center, I was bussed to Camp Blanding along with a load of similarly destined young men. We were examined, tested, interviewed, and told what we might expect. I didn't see a soul I knew but made some nice, new friends.

I was hoping to qualify for the Navy V-12 Program, but because of wearing glasses, they wouldn't take me. Instead, I was offered the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) which, we were told, was designed to be a twin of V-12. This sounded like my best choice and so I signed on.

After a few days at Camp Blanding, a half dozen or so of us were bused back to Jacksonville and put on a train for Columbus, Georgia. Families came to the terminal to see us off.

We were headed for the Infantry School at Ft. Benning to go through basic training, said to be the best in the world. About all I can remember is that it was tough, especially for a spoiled city kid such as I. I particularly remember that it was mighty cold out on bivouac in late November! Anyhow, I graduated and was allowed to go home in time for Christmas.

Next, our group went by train to Raleigh, North Carolina, where we started courses in engineering at North Carolina State University. We would sing loudly as we passed the civilian dorms to be sure they didn't sleep too late. We got cat calls and a few thrown objects for our trouble.

About the end of January, we were told that the ASTP was being phased out and that we would be assigned either to the Infantry or the Paratroops. We later realized that everything was being organized for the invasion of Europe and they would be more in need of troops than engineers.

Given a choice, I opted for the Infantry, not being wild about the idea of jumping out of airplanes, and wound up with the 87th Infantry Division at Ft. Jackson outside of Columbia, South Carolina.

The 87th was operating as a replacement training center for divisions in the field. The reality was that we went through basic training again, notwithstanding our stint at Ft. Benning. So back to drilling, K.P., guard duty, long marches, rifle range, and more cold bivouacs. Our gentle leader, Sgt. Isen, was a soldier of the old school and we "colicky kids" needed shaping up, which he pursued with great vigor.

All good things must come to an end, so in early August of '44 a group of us were entrained to Ft. Mead, outside of Washington, where we were given time for sightseeing — I hadn't been to the capitol since I was a small child. From there to the Hudson River piers, where we boarded the British steamship Mauritania II.

The voyage to Liverpool, England took about five days, and we were blessed with absolutely perfect weather. Virtually everyone had a shipboard job. I was part of a group that worked nights hauling cartons of soft drinks to the five or six Post Exchanges in various parts of the ship. It only took a couple of hours after supper each night, and we were free the rest of the time to read, wander the ship, and watch the schools of flying fish, which seemed to accompany us all the way to England. We were not in a convoy, so it was full speed ahead in a zigzag course, but there were no reports of submarines.

Landing at Liverpool, we were trucked to a replacement camp near the town of Cheltenham, somewhere south of Chester. We trained, drilled, etc., for about ten days at the camp. The town was charming with a beautiful little Anglican church where they had bell ringing practice two or three evenings — delightful. One evening a supply truck was making a run to Chester and a friendly sergeant invited a couple of us along for the ride. We had about half an hour to roam the city and had great fun running through the long corridors around the cathedral.

Next was a truck convoy to Dover. We marched aboard an LCI, and crossed the Channel to Omaha Beach. Much debris from the June landing still littered the beach, and we could imagine how violent and deadly it must have been. We marched up the same steep path they had, with our hundred pound backpacks, thankful we weren't being shot at. We bivouacked in an area about a mile behind the beach.

A couple of days later, we went by train to an area in Belgium near the German border. We bivouacked overnight, and then assembled in groups to be sent to units at the front. In the evening melee, my glasses were knocked off and crushed. You weren't allowed to go into combat without a spare pair, so I was pulled out until a spare pair could be supplied. I was temporarily assigned to an administration unit in the suburb town of Verviers.

It took about two weeks for the replacement specs to arrive, so I acted as a sort of a company runner/gofer during the period. I slept on a mat in the office area and had a good bit of free time. I even saw an old Clark Gable, Jean Harlow movie: "China Seas," I think, with dubbing in English. The guy doing Clark Gable had a high, squeaky voice, and I couldn't help laughing most of the way through. One night on a company errand, hearing the sound of airplane engines, I looked up to see two fighters in combat, right over the city.

With the new glasses, I was put on a truck with some other replacements late one afternoon, headed for the front. An hour or so later we stopped on a ridge overlooking the front lines, two to three miles away. As far as you could see from left to right were the constant flashes of artillery firing. Hundreds of guns belching flame, seemingly without pause. It was the most awesome sight I'd ever witnessed! We then started marching forward in a column of twos. As we got closer to the front, German artillery shells were coming in on a fairly regular basis, evidently zeroed in on certain areas. We learned to hit the ditches as we heard the sound of "incoming." One errant round hit our embankment about ten feet to my left, but fortunately it was a dud.

Finally we reached headquarters of the 18th Infantry Regiment of the First Division. We were quickly assigned to companies and sent to forward positions. I was paired with another replacement and given a spot to dig in. The ground was hard shale which made for tough progress. We finally got deep enough to get our bodies below ground level and thought that would do. However, a short time later shells began to land much closer to us, and we were suddenly inspired to dig a bit deeper, with added vigor, and soon had a pretty decent foxhole.

Almost immediately a large shell impacted several feet in front of us, but thanks to the good Lord it also was a dud. Since we were on the back slope of a hill the shell literally plowed through the rim of our foxhole and went slithering on down the hill, leaving us buried under shale and dirt, but very much alive.  

By the next morning the shelling had stopped and the company commander assigned us to a platoon. The platoon sergeant was a non-oriental named Wang - a very nice guy. We were told that we were in the Hurtgen Forest, part of the Ardennes, close to the German border. Our company was off the line for a couple of days, so we built some nice shelters, and tried to stay warm. By now it was early November.

With the rest ended, our company moved back in the "line," but there was not much to see and no firing. My first assignment was a scouting patrol with a corporal and another doggie. Being the newest and most expendable, I was the lead man. We moved out in a wide circle for about twenty minutes, seeing nothing but more trees. The company then moved forward along a ridge paralleling a paved road which bordered farmland in a long valley about half a mile wide. There was another ridge across the valley occupied by the Germans.

We began to run into opposition as we moved along the ridge, and one afternoon as I was looking down at the road I saw a German soldier walking along. It would have been an easy shot, but Sgt. Wang whispered to hold my fire. It turned out to have been my only real chance to "fire in anger." At night we were always well dug in, often with a few inches of mud at the bottom. Germans would often infiltrate at night, firing bursts from their wicked sounding Schmeisser machine pistols — sort of psychological warfare.

One day, actually the day after Thanksgiving, our squad was sent on patrol back down the road to clear out the farm villages along the valley. It was a bright, clear day and evidently we were readily visible to the Germans on the opposite ridge. As we moved back along the road, they fired at us with machine guns and mortars, but the range was too far to be very effective — just unnerving!

We went through every building in half a dozen farm compounds, each about a quarter of a mile apart. After leaving the second or third village I looked around for Frank, my foxhole buddy from the night before, and was told that a mortar shell had gotten him at the last farm. Going through a house in the next group I carefully opened the cellar door and saw an unarmed German soldier at the bottom of the steps. He held up his hands, saying "kamerad," obviously ready to give up his part of the war. I still have a couple of souvenirs he gave me, his eating utensil and his belt buckle. We took him on down the road with us to battalion headquarters and turned him in to the MPs. Headquarters still had turkey left over from yesterday and this helped make up for not having any food all day Thanksgiving.

On getting back to the company, we found they had been in a firefight and my friend Sgt. Wang had been wounded in the shoulder. As they were taking him off on a stretcher, he told me goodbye and handed me a Walther 7.5 mm automatic he had taken from a captured German officer. I was somehow able to smuggle it back to the states and kept it for many years.

We were told to dig in for the night, so my new buddy and I proceeded to construct a fine bunker dugout with logs and rocks. Just as we were putting on the finishing touches, the company was told to move back up the hill a couple of hundred feet. The captain had decided we were too close to the road exposed to possible tank attack.

As we were milling around further up the hill, the Germans on the parallel ridge, evidently having observed the move, proceeded to lay down a barrage of 88 shells. One hit about ten feet in front of me, knocking down the GI right in front of me and sending a fair sized shell fragment through my right thigh just above the knee, breaking the femur bone. I was knocked back into a hole dazed but conscious. When the shock wore off I began to feel pain, but within a few minutes a medic appeared, put a field dressing on the wound and gave me a shot of morphine.

The shelling had stopped, probably due to the return of American fire, and in about 15 minutes stretcher bearers arrived. They carried me down the hill to a waiting jeep which took me to a nearby field hospital. After treatment there, I was taken to a hospital which had been set up in an old German cavalry school. There I was sedated most of the time, but do remember a kind lady writing a letter home for me — they hadn't heard from me since early November and this was now early December. I did have a nice view out of a large window and a couple of times saw fighter planes mixing it up fairly close by.

About the second week in December, I was transferred by ambulance to the American Hospital in Paris and placed in a large ward with a fine view of the Eiffel Tower out of the end window. I was encased in what is referred to as a Spica cast. This covered me from just above my waist, all the way down my right leg, and to just above the knee on my left leg. A piece of wood connected the two leg sections for stability. The wound was treated every day and I was told by a couple of doctors that the quickest way to heal would be to have the leg amputated at the point of the break, just above the knee. One doctor, however, told me not to go that route and to "just keep wiggling those toes." I'm very thankful to him.

While I was in the Paris hospital, the Battle of the Bulge started, and there were rumors that German parachutists were being dropped into Paris, but they were strictly rumors.

Early in January, I was flown to a hospital near Oxford, England. They loaded me on a dependable old C 47, which had no side door — removed for convenience of loading and unloading. This was fine except for the fact that my left calf was uncovered and was found to have become frostbitten. In later years this has caused more problems than the original wound.

In England, I was placed in a hospital near Oxford which was set up in temporary type buildings. For the first time, I was out of a cast and rigged up in traction for my right leg, so the wound could be treated more easily and my right knee could be exercised. Just before I was to be flown back to the states, another surgical procedure was done and my air priority was lost. Therefore, I was put back in a cast, shipped by train to Glasgow, and put aboard the Queen Elizabeth.

I was settled on a cot in a large dining room with blacked out windows. We were well fed, even had fresh (frozen) milk (the first since leaving the USA), and we were well cared for. About the third night out the ship was hit by a fierce north Atlantic storm. Even flat on my back I could feel the violent motion. Those coming in from the deck said the waves ranged up to ninety feet.

We docked at New York on April 12th, the day FDR died. I was put on a train, having lost my air priority, headed for Finney General Hospital outside of Thomasville, Georgia. The trip took two, maybe three, days — the weather was warm and there was no air conditioning. Finally getting to Finney, my cast was cut off, after almost two weeks. I was put into a traction bed in a large ward with about fifteen other wounded.

It soon became apparent that a massive infection had developed while I was in the cast, involving the whole length of my right femur. In an operation the leg was opened from just above the knee all the way to the hip. They treated me with massive doses of anti-biotic and put me on a special bed called a Stryker Turning Frame. It was very much like the metal framed pallet used on ships. There was a twin frame which they would bolt on top of me, then both frames would be rotated and the one now on the top would be removed so they could treat the large infection area. I would be rotated about twice a day but slept on my back.

I had no appetite and rapidly lost weight. My mother came over from Jacksonville several times and tried to bring food that would tempt me, but nothing appealed. They estimated that I weighed about 85 pounds. Finally, in desperation, the doctors prescribed a shot or two of liquor every day to help stimulate my appetite. I was the envy of the ward. While they were eating the standard hospital fare, I was sipping my bourbon and nibbling on a few snacks — the only food that seemed to taste good.

Finally the infection began to subside and I began to eat a bit. It was during this period that Helen Keller and her companion visited the hospital. She came to our ward and sat by my bed for a few moments talking with me. I can't remember what she said but I was totally awed and do remember a feeling of total empathy.

There was a family named Mason, living on one of the beautiful plantations outside of Thomasville, who were cousins of my sister's husband. Mrs. Mason came out to see me many times, bringing all sorts of good things to eat as my appetite improved. Sometime later, when I finally became mobile, I visited the Masons in their beautiful home.

In early December 1945 Finney General was turned into a psychiatric facility and I was sent by train to Oliver General Hospital in Augusta, Georgia. It was a converted early twenties era resort hotel called the Forest Hills, complete with a marvelous golf course, which the doctors loved. Cary Middlekauf was one of the army dentists at Oliver General and he was known to spend a good deal of time on the course.

The leg was beginning to heal and I became pretty mobile in a wheelchair. These were light weight metal jobs, which could be speedily propelled, backwards, by using my good foot as a pusher. Several of us roared through the halls during the day, often being reprimanded. During quieter times in the ward, four of us would have all day bridge playing sessions. On Sundays, we'd jointly tackle the NY Times crossword puzzle. I don't think we ever finished one. There was a plentiful supply of good books, and the staff was wonderful. I still keep in touch with one of the nurses and two of my fellow patients.

They were doing a number of surgical procedures on my leg — the total was about 35 by the time I was discharged. The most interesting involved a pedicale graft to fill in the large flesh gap on the inside of my thigh just above the knee, caused by the shell fragment and the infection. For this they moved me up into the main building, closer to the operating rooms, into a four man room. I was away from my bridge playing buddies in the ward. I got so frustrated that I proceeded to teach my three good old country boy roommates. Mr. Goren might not have recognized our brand of bridge but we had a great time.

The pedical graft involved lifting a flap of skin from my stomach and attaching it to my left arm just above my wrist. The flap was about six inches square. It took about six weeks for the flap to be able to live off my wrist. The other end was then separated from my stomach and attached to the top edge of the wound opening. To keep the attachment secure, they put me in a cast which kept my left wrist close to the right knee. I was in that position for another six weeks while the flap learned to live off the right leg. I learned that you really can learn to sleep bent at the waist.

Finally the day arrived to sever the flap from my left arm and wrap it over the rest of the wound opening. Fortunately the infection was kept at bay and the flap healed nicely in its new location. I was a free man — no more cast.

That was about the end of 1946 and things were going well enough for me to go home for Christmas in a leg brace and on crutches. I could now drive again and had bought a '39 LaSalle 4 door sedan from an Augusta friend. I'm not sure how much of a friend he was since I had to have the engine rebuilt, but anyhow it was big and powerful (for those days). Being green, it was labeled The Green Monster and served me well for a number of years.

It also was involved in a misadventure. One evening I had been to a very nice party at the home of an Augusta friend, and had imbibed a bit of some very tasty bubbly. In driving back to the hospital I managed to pass a bit too close to an oncoming bus. The bus was hardly damaged but the left side of the LaSalle was a bit scraped and the rear tire was ripped. I was out busily trying to jack up the wheel when a policeman tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come with him. I ended up in a jail cell with two burglars and one fellow who said he was a desperado. I had made my one phone call to a respected local citizen and after a breakfast of fatback, fried grits, and coffee, I was allowed to leave with my very kind rescuer. No charges were ever filed.

In the spring of 1947 the last major operation was performed — a fusion of my right knee. The massive infection had destroyed the cartilage in the joint, leaving me with only slightly painful flexibility. The fusion went well, but pockets of infection continued to develop for several months, finally subsiding in the fall. By Christmas it was deemed I was as well off as could be expected, and in early January 1948 I was discharged from the hospital and the Army.

I continued to have flare-ups of the osteomyelitis infection for another ten years or so, and would go back into hospitals for treatment. My chief Army surgeon retired to Winston-Salem, and he would very kindly treat me in a hospital there. Since about 1960 the infection has been quiescent and I feel greatly blessed.

After my January release from the hospital and the Army I enrolled in the University of Florida as a second term junior, having been given credits for tests taken in the Army. I had applied to Princeton in the fall of '47 but did not expect to be admitted since I had barely graduated from high school. However, at the end of May an acceptance arrived from Princeton. The catch was I had to start as a freshman - but, thinking it over that seemed like the best way to go.

So my next four years were spent at the Old Nassau, graduating in June 1952 with some of the most interesting people I ever met. Through the help of my favorite history professor, Walter Phelps (Buzzer) Hall I had a job offer with The Macmillan Company, publishers of Gone With the Wind, as a college traveler with their textbooks division, starting in September. I lucked into a great summer job in East Hampton Long Island as a companion to a Yale student who had broken a leg and needed driving around and encouragement to catch up on his studies — a taste of high living!

I got down to work with Macmillan after Labor Day and started traveling for them about Thanksgiving. I visited Colleges in Georgia, Florida and Alabama, talking with professors who might use our books. It was a wonderful job but after four years of -constant travel I was ready to settle in one place. Macmillan offered me an editorial job in New York, but going back to Jacksonville had more appeal. Through a college friend in Savannah with Johnson Lane Space & Co, an investment firm, I got stated as a stockbroker in 1957. For about twenty-five years the investment business kept me going, but about 1980 I found a niche in my old love, the book business. A Jacksonville Company, Mumford Library Books, has been my business home ever since. I've slowed down a bit but still go to the office two days a week.

In 1965 I married a lovely navy widow with three children. Gloria and I had one of our own and now all four are married with homes of their own and seven children between them- life is good!