Ten Lessons I Learned from Dad’s War Service Part 2: “The Long Road to Europe”

19420523 temporary second lieutenant commission smaller

This short series provides glimpses into the war service of my father, 1st Lieutenant Robert J. DeGray, one of the 100 million soldiers who served (on both sides) during World War 2.

My father, Robert J. DeGray served in the Army of the United States from December 10, 1940 to January 24, 1946, with continuing service in the reserves until December 1953. During this time he rose in rank from Private to Captain, served in many roles including as a tank commander in Italy, and received a purple heart. This series of articles will document a few of the key moments in his service career, and attempt to document a few lessons we can learn from his experience.

Lesson 4. “The President has appointed and commissioned you.” (Do the next thing)

Dad’s war service followed an arc that was both ordinary and exceptional. Ordinary in the sense that he rose through the ranks and served in various mundane jobs. Exceptional in that fewer than one in ten enlisted men ever became commissioned officers and fewer than one in ten soldiers ever saw serious combat. Here is my best reconstruction of the chronology of Dad’s service: (most of these documents are shown in the gallery at the bottom of this post)

December 10, 1940 – joins the Connecticut National Guard
February 3, 1941 – Company D, 191st Tank Battalion departs for Fort George Meade
March 5, 1941 – Becomes a Corporal
June 20, 1941 – Requests service in the Post Finance Department (note that his letter to Mr. McCormick, featured in the last post, was dated June 24th, 1941)
December 7, 1941 – America enters the war
February 18, 1942 – Enters Officer Candidate School
May 23, 1942 – Commissioned as a ‘temporary’ 2nd Lieutenant
May 23, 1942 – serves with 80th Armored regiment, 8th Armored Division
July 2, 1942 – serves with 14th Armored regiment, 9th Armored Division
November 21, 1942 – promoted to 1st Lieutenant
January 19th, 1943 – completes communication course, which, as we’ll see below, he considered a bit of a thorn in his side.
March 3, 1943 – requests transfer to a combat unit
March, 1943 to March 1944 – Instructor and supply officer at the Armored Forces School
July 15, 1943 – Completes Teacher Training
July 15, 1944 – Completes Advanced Officer Training (Tanks)
July 21, 1944 – Cancellation of leave and assignment to a combat unit
October 18, 1944 – Arrival in Italy
December 19, 1944 – Executive Officer, Company F, 81st Calvary Reconnaissance Squadron, First Armored Division
April 14th, 1945 – Beginning of Apennines offensive, wounded and tank destroyed at Vergato, Italy on this date.
June 8, 1945 – Personnel officer, still in Italy
December 1, 1945 – accepted into active reserve
December 26, 1945 – receives promotion to Captain
January 24, 1946 – second honorable discharge
November 12, 1952 – changed to inactive reserve
December 8, 1953 – third honorable discharge

What is the lesson in this? I think it can be summarized in the words of a letter from the man who had been my dad’s boss in civilian life: “Do the job assigned to you in a way that will receive the commendation of your superior officer and give you satisfaction when it is completed.” In other words, do the next thing. Or in the words of the Apostle, Paul “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” (Colossians 3:23)

Lesson 5. “The desire to serve in a combat unit.” (Take initiative)

And yet, for all the work he did, my father was not, apparently, satisfied with his role in the Army. We find him repeatedly and consistently pushing for something more. The first instance of this in the record is when he applied for duty at the Post Finance Department while a corporal at Fort George Meade. He petitioned his superiors for this transfer, though there is no indication it ever came

19410620 special dute in the post finance office detail

In early 1942 he entered Officers Candidate School, at the end of which he received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. Still at Fort Knox, Kentucky, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and then apparently assigned to Communication School. At the end of this three month course he was assigned to be a teacher in the Communication school. He must have done well, but he saw this assignment as derailing his apparent hopes of serving in a combat unit.

Less than three months after completing the course he requested reassignment:

19430303 request for reassignment detail 1

He listed five reasons why he should be transferred back to the 14th Armored Regiment Division, including the fact that he had been transferred out over his commander’s objection. He apparently wrote to that commander who said:

19430308 the desire to serve in combat smaller

The desire to serve in a combat unit is in my opinion a commendable attitude on the part of any soldier and the fact that you apparently wish to perform that service in the 14th speaks well for the Regiment. Your here was performed in an excellent manner and I would be very glad to have you back; we cannot disregard the requirements of other military activities. The School must have good instructors regardless of the personal advancement and preferences of those concerned. . . . . If you apply for reassignment to the Regiment and the application is referred to me, I certainly will recommend approval.

He also, apparently voiced his complaint in a letter to Mr. McCormick, who wrote back with the words quoted at the end of the previous section: “Do the job assigned to you in a way that will receive the commendation of your superior officer and give you satisfaction when it is completed.”
Unfortunately, the request was turned down, with a trace of bitterness:

19430308 second endorsement negative detail

I imagine the training department had more requests of this type than they could politely respond to. In any event, Dad stayed on at the Armored Force school for more than a year while many of his friends and peers went off to combat assignments.

And yet the lesson I learn from all this is ‘take initiative.’ It’s true that someone might say ‘no,’ but it’s better to have asked, respectfully, than not to have tried at all.

Lesson 6. “Leave Revoked” (Eventually you get what you ask for)

And yet Dad did get the opportunity to serve in a combat unit. After completing an advanced officer training course in tanks, he was released to the available officer pool, awaiting assignment to a unit in the field. He was home on leave in Connecticut when he got the following telegram:

19440721 telegram cancellation of leave

This assignment was to the 13th Armored Division in Camp Bowie, Texas. I do not know what duties he performed there, but by October he was on a troop transport, apparently with other replacement officers and men. One of the few things he ever told me about his war service was of the miserable sea-sickness he experienced on that crossing. Yet he received one of the two letters of commendation I have in my possession for his service as the Executive Officer aboard transport:

19441108 letter of commendation troop transport detail

Eventually he was assigned to his combat unit, company “F” of the 81st Calvary Reconnaissance Squadron. But more on that in my next post.

The lesson learned? Eventually, if you are persistent, you get what you’ve been asking for.

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