Interview with Lester Bell, Company B, 439th Signal Construction Battalion
Interviewer: Jack Sigler
Date: March 2003
Bell: After being inducted, I was sent to Fort McClellan, Alabama, which happened to be a basic infantry, I guess area or fort or whatever they taught there. But that was basic infantry and you had your eight weeks of training and when your time was up you were put on a list to be transferred out. And in my case, they shipped me to South Carolina, Georgetown, where I was put into a Signal Corps battalion, which didn’t bother me at all, you never know where you’re going to go in the Army. And there I was taught how to climb telephone poles and do whatever Signal Corps people had to do.
Sigler: What was the unit?
Bell: 439th Signal Heavy Construction Battalion -- had a long name. Basically what it would do is, government would instruct Signal Corps to put in a telephone pole, put the cross on it, and then either build a line or repair the old lines that were there. Well, we didn’t stay in the States too long. We were transferred up to Fort Dix in New Jersey and, before you knew it, we realized that we were going overseas and this was right after being trained. We were already slated to go over!
Sigler: And this was what, late in ‘42 then?
Bell: This was in April of ‘42 that we got to Fort Dix. This was right after we got out of basic training. Well, lo and behold, by June we were told to get ready and we went to Brooklyn, New York, and got put on a ship. Well, we rendezvoused, from what I can remember, up around Newfoundland, up around Canada. We went up into that area and joined the convoy and took off for England, not that we knew we were going to England. At the time, everything was militarily secret, but at the end of June, I think it was June 30, they finally told us that we were going to land in England. And sure enough we did on July 11 (I’m guessing on these dates one day more or less, I don’t know). We landed in England. Now, we were shipped from one place to another, didn’t do any real work there, but just were waiting. And summer went by and the last town I can remember being in was High Wycombe, England. That was the last camp we were in. And then we were shipped somewhere else from High Wycombe, but then we were told that we were going to invade Norway. And they issued us parkas, high boots, everything was fur to keep you warm. And we were told to get the trucks ready, going on boats, landing in water. And eventually we got to Liverpool, they shipped us from there to Liverpool, and we got on a boat, and I don’t remember the name of that boat, that was an English boat, oh yeah, HMS Mooltan. And they moved us out offshore after we were loaded. We were half English troops and half American troops. And we took off. One day everything began to move. Our ship was part of the defense, it had a huge eight inch cannon mounted on the rear. It was fixed. You couldn’t move the cannon, you could turn the ship. [laughing] Once a day the British Royal Marines, or whoever they were, would fire that damn thing and clean it! But we went not in an enviable position. What we realized after being out a day or two was it didn’t seem to take that long to go from England to Norway, and also it wasn’t getting colder. Well, I don’t remember how many more days out we were, maybe eight or nine, and they finally broke down and said they we were part of a huge invasion to Africa. And we weren’t going to Norway and to turn in all your heavy supplies. They issued us khaki pants, light stuff that you would wear in much warmer climate. And it didn’t take more than a couple of days and we were off the coast of Africa. And, of course, we didn’t know what the whole makeup was, that a convoy was also coming from the United States. And we landed in Morocco. We went from Morocco to Algeria to Tunis. Well, we landed on day one of the invasion and I’m trying to think of the name of the city, I can’t remember the name of it. From Morocco as the Americans were pushing the German army back we were going from Morocco through Algeria and wound up in Tunis and the war ended in Tunis.
Sigler: Now, what was your battalion doing all this time?
Bell: Telephone work. And sometimes they were laying cable, underground cable. I guess just to keep us busy or at least we felt that way because there wasn’t too much telephone line work to repair or replace. That’s what we were doing all the time. Well, of course now the war ended in Tunis.
Sigler: At this point, did you have a specialty or were you general purpose?
Bell: No, general purpose. I was climbing telephone poles. One time I had volunteered to be a cook, they needed a cook in the kitchen, and I did cooking a while. Of course the war was over now in African and I don’t know how much time we spent there, but before we knew it we were fixing up the trucks again for another invasion. [laughing] We had no idea where we were going or what we were going to do, but the main thing was where we were going. We wound up invading Sicily. And again went through the entire Sicilian campaign.
Sigler: Now, what day did your battalion land? In Africa, it was D-Day plus one; in Sicily?
Bell: It would be about the same because they were all successful invasions. So, once the combat troops pushed in far enough off we would go, but we were not combat troops, we were support. Well, the Sicilian campaign ended and I don’t think we spent too much time in Sicily. And on boats we got again and we invaded Italy, got off at Salerno. In Italy, the first day or two we didn’t move anywhere because there was heavy fighting up ahead, but eventually from Salerno we went above Naples and we went to a town called Murano. And we stood there more than a few months because I (and I think about thirty-five men, from Murano) was shipped. We had no reason of why or where we were going, [laughing] but they then invaded Anzio Beachhead. So, my group, they was just a small unit, got off in Anzio. I was there about twenty-eight or twenty-nine days.
Sigler: When it was still the beachhead?
Bell: Yeah. Well, you couldn’t move. We were stuck on the bottom there. There was always some arguments between the generals who claimed that our general who took the invasion didn’t go far enough because we weren’t too far from Rome. And there was an argument that he was told to invade, but not to advance. General Clark was the commanding general who oversaw the invasion of Anzio beachhead. But I’m not an expert on that. I know nothing about what they spoke.
Sigler: At Anzio the army was pinned down in a beachhead for several weeks, wasn’t it?
Bell: Well, that’s us. I was there. Now, I wasn’t there for the whole four months until they broke through. I was there just ... they rotated our group who did nothing. We couldn’t do a damn thing! [laughing] You couldn’t repair telephone poles. The Germans would blow them up with artillery at night. We really did nothing. We just hung around and they rotated us.
Sigler: Your detachment and other detachments?
Bell: That’s right. They’d send up six guys and six guys would go back to Naples. So, we eventually, well the army eventually, actually what was holding them up was the Germans held a high position and we never could break through. We had English troops up there, New Zealanders, Polish Free Army.
Sigler: Was that Monte Cassino?
Bell: Yeah, that sounds right. That’s what held the army up from advancing up Italy. So, what they did was bypass that by hitting Anzio beachhead. And that forced the Germans to leave Monte Cassino, otherwise they’d eventually be trapped. We went once the breakthrough came, but I wasn’t up there at the break through time. We advanced north of Naples to above Rome, right below Pisa.
Sigler: Okay. You’re getting up in fairly northern Italy now.
Bell: Yes. So, now we’re moving up, but that’s where we stood. And we eventually saw that big cannon that used to fly at us at night, called Anzio Annie.
Sigler: The Germans had pulled it out?
Bell: It was a huge railroad gun and that’s why they couldn’t find it in the day time. They would roll it out at night to fire down on the beachhead.
Sigler: What did they do, run it in the railroad tunnel at night?
Bell: Yeah, at night they’d hide it in the tunnel. Actually, that cannon is on display now, down in Maryland. I forgot the fort it’s at.
Bell: Yeah, Aberdeen. It’s down there now. The Germans when they left had blown up the muzzle, but they’ve got it repaired now and it’s a souvenir. I never got a chance to go look at it. The English were there too and Canadians, the beachhead was split. And the British and Canadian on one side and the Americans held the other side. Anzio, and I think it was [??], that was the other city.
Sigler: Did you ever work in support of the British or Canadian troops?
Bell: We did one time. We did some work for them at Monte Cassino. They didn’t have the same heavy equipment that we did. So, we laid some telephone lines by coming up there and we just built the line. We never hooked it up. We just completed it from A to wherever it had to end.
Sigler: Yeah, and let their signalmen do the connections.
Bell: We never knew why it was built, but we just built it.
Sigler: Were most of your lines on poles or did you bury a lot of cable?
Bell: No, no, this was no cable. This was lines on poles. Put the poles in, put the cross on, the brackets, and whatever they told us to do we did it.
Sigler: Did they ship all that, those telephone poles from the States?
Bell: I couldn’t answer that. I don’t know. I know they were there when we needed them. [laughing] I couldn’t tell you how they got there or where they came from. With the war ending, let’s see, the war might have been over a couple of months. They already now invaded from England to Normandy, we were still in Italy then. And then we were brought all the way down from where we were above Rome back down to Naples and got on ships there. And that invasion, everybody seemed to know where we were going, southern France. [laughing] That was a well kept secret. All the Italians knew it, we didn’t know it. That was the only secret, I always said, that the enemy knew. And we did invade southern France. We went with this huge convoy and I mean you could see ships as far as you wanted. And we arrived off the French Rivera and invaded southern France and after the invasion went on there was no enemy really down there. The Germans had retreated north. We kept coming until we got up to Nancy, France. And we were in a little town called Nouves Maison, that was the village, which might have been eight or ten miles from Nancy proper. And there we stood until they, let’s see we followed the army into Germany. I can’t think of that town on the border between France and Germany, but we entered Germany. Of course the American army, the invasion was many months before we moved out of France. I can’t remember the first town, Frankfurt, I can’t remember where we were when the war ended. Of course, after the war ended I came back home in September of ‘45. And I was discharged September 16, 1945.
Sigler: You got out fairly quickly, but then you’d gone in very early too.
Bell: Well, I’ll tell you, they were looking for men, at that time they were looking for volunteers to fight the Japanese. That war wasn’t over yet. After three and a half years overseas, I wasn’t going to go volunteering for anything! So, they got us back from Germany to, I guess Le Havre, wherever they shipped from. And I got home, I think it was about the tenth or eleventh we landed in New York. Went over to Jersey, went up to Fort Dix where I got my honorable discharge 16 September ‘45. That’s the entire history of World War II for me.
Sigler: Okay, within all of that, what was the most interesting thing that ever happened to you? What comes first to mind?
Bell: Oh, just getting back home. Well, I’ll tell you it was tougher on my folks. I had a younger brother and he was drafted. That’s all they had was two children and having them both in the service, that wasn’t easy on them I’m sure. And he wound up all right. He spent all of the time of the war in the United States. He started out, he tried flight school, but he didn’t have enough education. So, they took him into flight school, but then he flunked out. Then they sent him to radio school and by the time he became a radio operator they didn’t need him. So, they put him in armor school, those people who load the airplanes with bombs. And the war was over in Europe, but he was part of their Twentieth Air Force. They had dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, he was stationed out in Washington state. Still, they put them all on boats and sen them to the island of Guam to sit down for six months and then took him back home. [laughing] They gave you all the beer you wanted, but the war was already over in Japan as well, so he didn’t have it bad. I can’t think of anything exciting, except to say that I was all part of it and slightly glad to get back.
Sigler: Now, your unit would tend to stay in one location for some time because you were supporting a big area?
Bell: Yes. It’s a supporting unit. I mean, if they had work we had about 180 men in the company, Company B. At the end of the war, they transferred me into headquarters about, oh maybe a month before I went home, because they needed a mail clerk. All you had to do was get up and go over to the post office and pick up the mail for the battalion and then divide it up, headquarters, Company A, and Company B. And then deliver it, give Company B their packages. Company A would come by and pick up their packages and headquarters was right there.
Sigler: There were only two companies in the battalion?
Bell: Yeah. Two companies and then a headquarters unit.
Sigler: And were you basically, you had trucks you said . . .?
Bell: Oh, yeah, you had a full line of vehicles that dug your holes and then you had the two ton trucks and you had the smaller units, which was something like a Hummvee is today, the three quarter ton. And you had jeeps. They’d drive the sergeants around. I can’t tell you anything else about the army because the times were pretty good, although a couple of times I guess you was in trouble when they pushed through and hit Bastion and they were wondering if the German army was going to break through and we would have to go up and help them, which we weren’t looking forward to. [laughing] But nothing happened, we didn’t have any trouble.
(This interview is compliments of the Reichelt Oral History Program, Florida State University).