Here I go again – War Maneuvers 1939
By Bill Shepard
It is September and I remember! There has never been a September that I didn’t remember! How could I forget? The memories of that time long ago are forever etched in my mind! I see faces before me that have long disappeared from the planet, and I hear voices that have long been silent. They are present, locked in my memory, the place where time stands still. The time was September 1939.
The seventeen-year-old stares at me from the 2 x 3 inch frame sitting on my desk. He is dressed in a khaki uniform, black tie, and army hat. He is a member of the Battery F, 178th Field Artillery, a National Guard Unit housed in Darlington, S.C. He is as proud as a peacock in a barnyard!
I have written on this subject more than enough, and each time, I say that this is the last time. So, here I go for the last time!
Names like McGinnis, Vaughn, Smoot, Berry, Lambert, Bradshaw, and many others, pass through my mind as I write. The youth in the picture frame seems to be saying, “Remember me!” I look at him and say, “How could I forget?”
There is nothing new in this story; there is nothing new to tell I have told it over and over again, and I have relived it more times that I can count. I have searched for others to share my memories with; so far, I have found none! Many of the names that appear in this story are engraved in stone at the cemetery in Darlington. On occasions, when visiting, I see them and when I do, I pause for a moment and remember.
Battery F was under command of Captain McGinnis, Lt. Vaughn, and First Sgt. Buster Smoot. James Rogers was a Supply Sgt. And Harry Lee Lambert was “Mess Sergeant”. Their faces are before me as I write.
In September of 1939, a weeklong maneuver was planned, the longest peacetime maneuver ever held in America at that time. The 178th Field Artillery was to take part, and that meant Battery F, the Darlington unit, would take part. For this writer, someone who had never been far from the mill village where he had been for all of his seventeen years, this would be an exciting three weeks. The very thought of seeing places like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, was unbelievable. I could hardly wait for it to happen! Most would travel by train to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, and be joined there by those traveling by trucks bringing the howitzers (155 millimeter cannons we trained with).
On a bright sunny September afternoon, the troop train pulled in to the station at the west end of Darlington. There was a large crowd gathered to see their loved ones off. I shall never forget that moment! When everyone was loaded, the train moved slowly along the track and the crowd and the station faded behind. We were on our way! It was the beginning of an experience that has lived until this day.
I have written in detail of the events of those three weeks, they are printed on the pages of my book, Mill Village Boy. I will not bother to do so in this writing, though the temptation is hard to resist.
We arrived back in Darlington after three long weeks. No happier bunch had ever set foot on Darlington soil. I recall one man, Jessie Lee, saying he could use the Darlington sand to sweeten his coffee! Needless to say, the seventeen year old in the picture on my desk, was glad to be home also.
Names and faces of the one hundred plus men are on a page in front of me as I write. They made up the Battery F of the 178th Field Artillery. Some were my schoolmates at St. John’s School. Some worked at the old cotton mill. Some were merchants in the town of Darlington. All were true Darlingtonians! All live in my memories of that September of long ago.
Note: Battery F was mobilized into the regular army at the beginning of World War II, and saw action in North Africa. In a recent letter received, I read that the average age of World War II veterans is ninety-three years, and fifteen thousand die each month.
Mr. Shepard is a native of Darlington, S.C., and a current resident of Piedmont, S.C. and author of “Mill Town Boy” and “Bruised”. He has been sharing his tales of growing up in Darlington for decades, and we are delighted to share them each week. His mailing address for cards and letters is: Bill Shepard 324 Sunny Lane, Piedmont, S.C., 29673