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The Quartermaster Corps

by Ernie Pyle
Reprinted with the generous permission of the Scripps Howard Foundation



WITH FIFTH ARMY BEACHHEAD FORCES IN ITALY, April 24, 1944 - Once on shore, our supplies for the Anzio beachhead are taken over by the Quartermaster Corps (food and clothing) and the Ordnance Department (ammunition).

The Quartermaster Corps is traditionally seldom in great danger. Up here on the beachhead they are blowing that tradition all to hell.

The Quartermaster Corps has been under fire ever since the beachhead was established, and still is. Its casualties from enemy action have been relatively high.

Around seventy percent of the Quartermaster troops on the beachhead are colored boys. They help unload ships right at the dock. They drive trucks. They man the supply dumps. Hardly a day goes by without casualties among them. But they take this bombing and shelling bravely. They make an awful lot of funny remarks about it, but they take it.

We drove out to one of the ration dumps where wooden boxes of rations are stacked head-high in piles for hundreds of yards, as in a lumber yard. Trucks from the waterfront add continually to the stock, and other trucks from the various outfits continually haul it away.

Our ration dumps are not at all immune from shellfire. This single one has had more than a hundred shells in it. Many of the soldier workmen have been killed or wounded.

Ration dumps seldom burn, because you can't burn C-rations. But early in the beachhead's existence they hit a dump of cigarets and millions of them went up in smoke.

Our local dumps of ammunition, food, and equipment of a thousand kinds are now so numerous that a German artilleryman could shut his eyes and fire in our general direction and be almost bound to hit something.

Our dumps do get hit; but the fires are put out quickly, the losses are immediately replaced, and the reserve grows bigger and bigger.

The boss of the Quartermaster troops is a former newspaper man - Lt. Col. Cornelius Holcomb of Seattle. He worked on the Seattle Times for twelve years before going into the Army. He is a heavily built, smiling, fast-talking, cigar-smoking man who takes terrific pride in the job his colored boys have done. He said there's one thing about having colored troops - you always eat like a king. If you need a cook you just say, "Company, halt! Any cooks in this outfit?" And then pick out whoever looks best.

The colonel himself has had many close squeaks up here. Just before I saw him, a bomb had landed outside his bivouac door. It blew in one wall, and hurt several men.

Another time he was standing in a doorway on the Anzio waterfront talking to a lieutenant. Stone steps led from the doorway down into a basement behind him.

As they talked, the colonel heard a bomb whistle. He dropped down on the steps and yelled to the lieutenant, "Hit the deck!"

The bomb hit smack in front of the door and the lieutenant came tumbling down on top of him. "Are you hurt?" Colonel Holcomb asked. The lieutenant didn't answer. Holcomb nosed back to see what was the matter. The lieutenant's head was lying over in a corner.

Soon a medical man came and asked the blood-covered colonel if he was hurt. Colonel Holcomb said no. "Are you sure?" the doctor asked. "I don't think I am," the colonel said.

"Well, you better drink this anyway," the doctor said. And poured him a water glass full of rum which had him in the clouds all day.

In the Quartermaster Corps they've begun a system of sending the key men away after about six weeks on the beachhead and giving them a week's rest at some nice place like Sorrento.

A man who goes day and night on an urgent job under the constant strain of danger finally begins to feel a little punchy or "slugbutt," as the saying goes. In other words, he has the beginnings of "Anzio anxiety," without even knowing it.

But after a week's rest he comes back to the job in high gear, full of good spirits, and big and brave. It's too bad all forms of war can't be fought that way.

Ernie Pyle