Shooks Men in the Military - Versal Shooks's Story

As I was shingling the new barn roof in October of 1942, a few days after my 21st birthday, my brother Marv came up and informed me that I had received a letter from the Government requesting that I report to Fort Custer (near Battle Creek), Michigan in mid-November. I left Bellaire by train with 31 other men. Henry Heeres and I were put in charge of these men. One of us stayed at the back of the train car and the other stayed at the front of the train car, and were instructed not to let anyone off. We must have looked reliable.

We arrived in Grand Rapids and another car, just like ours, was hooked to the train. It also carried troops headed for Fort Custer. We arrived in Battle Creek early in the morning and had had no sleep all night. The train was no place to sleep.

We were unloaded from the train and put in trucks, which took us to our barracks. We gave up all of our civilian clothes and were given our uniforms.
This involved standing in line after line as each item of our uniform was selected. We were not sized; we just guessed at what size we might be.

After 3 or 4 days we headed by train to Camp Claybourne, LA, which is located 60 miles north of New Orleans, near the Mississippi River. We became the 103 Infantry Division. (A division consists of 6000 men.) This Infantry Division had been active in WWI, but we were the troops who reactivated it for WWII. Because of the lack of officers and superiors, rank could be easily obtained by “keeping your nose clean."  Thus I became Sgt. Shooks. 

As a Sergeant, I was allowed to stay in Louisiana and train troops who were then sent to Europe to replace soldiers who had been killed. The first group that I helped train were the men who had arrived with us at Camp Claybourne. The second group I trained were men who had tried to get into Officer's Training School but had not passed the test. These men were really quite bright and a pleasure to train.

As the war in the Pacific improved and the fear that Japan was going to attack the west coast of the United States lessened, many of the troops who had been sent to the west coast in case of a Japanese invasions were sent to Camp Claybourne to be retrained for war in Europe. This was the next group of people we were able to train, and these were the people I eventually went to Europe with.

In the fall of 1943  I went from Camp Claybourne to Camp Howze in Texas. We went on 3 weeks of maneuvers. We slept in tents and traveled all the time. I had an experience that I will never forget while at Camp Howze: I rode in a glider. Gliders were used when the Siegfried Line was invaded and crossed, and we were trained to fly in those gliders. We were taken up in the air in a pile of 2 X 4s and cardboard. We sailed high into the air and then the mother plane let us go free. This was not the most relaxing experience of my life, but it certainly was loud and thrilling. The noise as the plane traveled with its nose down was deafening, but as the pilot pushed the nose up the noise stopped. It’s not a ride I would ever sign up for again.

While in Texas each division had a Director of Entertainment, much like the USO. Certain celebrities visited each division (ours was Marlene Dietrich). The division also had a talent show, and if you signed up to be in the talent show you got relieved of duty for the time it took to practice, so I signed up. First, they wanted me to sing a solo entitled “I’m So Lonely” and then they wanted me to DANCE with it, too. As it turned out, I ended up singing in a group, didn’t have to DANCE, and didn’t have duty for 3 weeks as they practiced.

My commander really liked me and one day asked if I could think of anything to do to spruce up the grounds on a particular side hill on the base. He wanted something that would let people know who we were. I made a rock area on the grass of our Logo, Emblem, and a sign that said “H Company”. Unfortunately the Base Commander came by, took one look at my work and said,  “Who did this? This has to come down right away! Don’t you people know we are at war?  This gives our position away to anyone who flies over."  The rock garden disappeared. 

We left the U.S. in November of 1943 from New York and had no idea where we were going. (It wasn’t until we saw the Rock of Gibraltar that we knew were we going to be in Europe.) The trip across the Atlantic took 15 days. Our ship, the Montacella, was an Italian luxury liner that had been seized during the war. It was 600 ft. long--much longer than the other 20 ships in our fleet, which were all 200 ft.-long Liberty ships. The Montacella had been converted into a troop carrier with 9 decks, each of which was stacked with bunks, 5-high, from floor to ceiling. Troops were allowed on deck for an hour every day in a rotating fashion, so that every day we could get some fresh air; otherwise we stayed in our bunks.

The trip across the Atlantic was a stormy one. We encountered high seas, which caused this Shooks stomach to rebel. I was sick for three days. Finally, on the third day, I had to eat something. As I headed down the hall to the galley I caught a whiff of the food they were serving and started to dry heave right there. Nothing would come up; there was nothing to come up.

I considered myself lucky to be on the big ship since we ran into a storm. We were able to ride the cresting waves 3 at a time. But the Liberty ships were too small to ride the waves; as they went up and down in the water, they would disappear from our view and then reappear as the water from the previous wave washed over them.

We arrived in Marseilles, France on November 20 at 5 p.m. We walked 13 miles to set up our camp, which consisted of a large group of tents. We stayed there for one week and each night would go to the coast and unload the boats that would arrive daily with our supplies.

It was during this time that I started to feel very sick. I had nausea, vomiting, and extreme fatigue. I went to sick call every morning at 7 a.m. This was located in a tent that was lit by one lantern since we were in France and following blackout restrictions. Everyday I was told they could find nothing wrong with me, but I knew something was very wrong. By this time my urine was dark brown. I was so sick that I was lying by the latrine one afternoon when two of my buddies saw me and said, “Shooks, you look really sick." I assured them that I was, and they took me to medical tent. Of course, in broad daylight the doctor could see my jaundice and put me immediately to bed.

I was taken to the town of Aix, to a hospital that had been a TB sanitarium, but was converted into a regular hospital after the war started. There I spent 3 months flat on my back. The first doctor who saw me said, “Soldier, if you want to live, lie on your back and don’t move, don’t even roll over." I was put on a strict diet of beefsteak and candy. A Red Cross nurse would sneak in candy bars for me. 

Slowly my diet was increased to normal and I was allowed out of bed. I even got a job of sorts in February. The head nurse asked me if I would escort one of her nurses home each night at 10:30. She had to walk a half mile to her barracks, and it was not through the best part of the town. So each night I would escort this nurse to a certain point in her travel and then she would continue into the area that was restricted to GIs.

While in the hospital, I carried a letter with me at all times that was written by my Commander. It said: “To Whom It May Concern--This man is to return to his company as he is a very valuable NCO.” When I was discharged from the hospital I set out to find my company. They were located 500 miles to the north, so I took a train north to the area that they were reportedly located at and found them a day later.

I stayed with my company for 2 nights and then got sick again. They took me to the hospital immediately thinking that my hepatitis had flared up again but couldn’t decide what was going on. They decided to open me up and find out what was going on. I was in an operating room with two other patients. One of the men had been shot in the head and they were doing some kind of head surgery while the other guy was having surgery for a gunshot wound to the leg. The surgeon came over and asked how I was feeling and how much pain I had. I told him I wasn’t having any pain, so he decided not to open me up and wait until morning. A nurse checked on me every hour through the night and by morning I was feeling fine. They decided that I was cured from whatever the problem was, but years later, in 1969, I had my appendix removed. This is what the doctors thought caused my last episode of nausea in the Army.

The worst experience that I had in the service has to be associated with the time that I was sick. While I was gone for three months from my unit I was replaced by a 1st gunner. While trying to hook a gun up to the back of a Jeep he ran over a landmine and was killed. I always have felt that that could have been me. I consider myself very fortunate. He was the only person to have been killed in the war in our unit. 

We were involved in the Battle of the Bulge. Our troops were spread very thin as we crossed the Siegfried Line. We rode on the front of tanks and manned the guns. We were moving at fair speed because the Germans were retreating so rapidly. At one point we encountered a horse-drawn artillery unit. The horses were not moving fast enough, so we were ordered to shoot them and then push them out of the way with our tanks. This was a sad scene. I saw dead horses hanging from trees in the ravine below us.  We also collected prisoners along the way. Our company collected 1000 and caught up with two other groups who had each also collected 1000. So there we sat with 3000 German POWS. We set machine guns on each of the four corners and told the POWs not to move. Finally trucks came to take them away.

On May 4 we were driving into Innsbruck, Austria when all of a sudden, on this foggy dark day, all the lights of the city came on.  I remember that we did the same with all of our vehicles--and at that point, for us, the war was over. We had met up with the 5th Army coming from Italy and the Russian Army coming from Hungary and Bulgaria. The Peace Treaty was signed on May 8.

In Innsbruck, we took over a guest house, which was what we were told to do as we moved through these towns. Since we never had a kitchen with us we had to be creative as to how to get our food. We soon learned that every farmhouse had a stairway to the second floor and that there were always 90-degree turns in those stairs. At the 90-degree turn there was a steel door. Behind the steel door was where the farmer kept all of the smoked meats. Between this and the eggs from chickens, along with the chickens and rabbits we were able to butcher, we were able to eat. I was again fortunate that I had grown up on a farm because I was able to butcher and clean most of the small game we were able to get our hands on. 

We moved to Volders, a small town that is a little bigger than Eastport. Again we were able to find a guest house to stay in. We stayed here from May to August of 1944, when we shipped out.

We were originally being trained to be deployed to Japan because the war was still going on there, but as soon as the first atomic bomb was dropped we were told we were going home. While we waited to be sent home we stayed in "cigarette camps."  These were so called because all of the camps were named after cigarette brands. I stayed in Camp Phillip Morris and Wes and Tony Shooks were in Camp Lucky Strike.

We shipped out on the Aquatania, which was a 906-ft. long luxury liner. After arriving back in the U.S., I was given a 30-day furlough and was able to go home. Then we were all given an extra 15 days, because so many people were coming home at the same time, they didn’t know what to do with all of us. 

On November 13 I had to report to Camp Grant, Ill. I called my brother Marv that night. He was heading up to the U.P. on the 14th to go deer hunting. I was sure I had enough points for discharge and didn’t want him to leave for the U.P. without me. As it turned out I had 72 points and only needed 70 for discharge so they paid me my $62.50 and discharged me. I arrived home on the train in Bellaire at 5 p.m. and was on the way to Munising at 6 p.m. Unfortunately, Chris was working at the canning factory in Ellsworth and wasn’t able to get off to see me before I headed north. It was a good month before I was forgiven for that one!

Thanks to Cindy Ruis, Versal Shooks's daughter, for recording and submitting this story.