684th AAA Machine Gun Battery (Airborne)

Part I

CBIVA Sound-off
Summer 1994 Issue

By Harold G. Russell, Jr.

(The following unit history is about one verse short of the Bible in length, but, in our judgement, the experiences recounted were very interesting and, in many ways, so similar to those of most readers that we felt many would find the account very nostalgic reading. We will continue from issue to issue until concluded. - Ed.)


The Author Then

The 684th AAA Battery was activated at Camp Stewart, Georgia, during September 1942. It was one of six (682nd, 683rd, 684th, 685th, 686th and 687th) activated at the same time. The officers were volunteers, young, and for the most part, unmarried. For myself, I graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1941, and had earned an ROTC Commission. After going through Anti-aircraft Artillery School at Fort Monroe, Virginia, I was assigned to the 204th AAA Regiment at Camp Hulen, Texas, where I was on December 7th.

The 204th moved to San Diego in mid-December. In mid-July 1942, I was promoted to First Lieutenant and transferred to a 40mm gun battery at Fort Bliss, Texas. From there, I attended the 40mm Bofors school at Camp Davis, North Carolina. I was then assigned to Camp Stewart, Georgia, as Battery Commander, Headquarters Battery of a 40mm Gun Battalion.

The problem was that there were three captains, each of whom had understood that he would become Battalion Executive Officer (Major). That was a situation that no Junior first lieutenant would like to be in. As soon as the call went out for volunteers for the AAA Batteries, I did.

The enlisted men came from several sources. Part from a deactivated 40mm gun battalion; part from men who had previously served as gun crews on freighters, many who had life-boat time; and the rest direct from basic training. At the time of activation, we had our shipping APO numbers, though we had no idea where we were going. The officers of the 684th were: Capt. Clyde Adkins, myself, 1st Lt. Charles Largay, 1st Lt. Charles Zerzan, and 2nd Lt. Alexander Kevorkian. There were 85 enlisted men including one First Sergeant, one Battery Clerk, three Platoon Sergeants, three Medics, one Armorer, one Supply Sergeant, one Mess Sergeant, and two Cooks. The 684th was equipped with 12 water-cooled .50 caliber machine guns, two Jeeps, and two Jeep trailers.

Training Continued

At Camp Stewart, we organized, drew our equipment, learned about loading C-47 troop carrier aircraft, fired on anti-aircraft and anti-mechanized ranges, took long marches (which I ducked whenever I could) trained hard, and played hard. In the evenings, many visited the Officers Club where we held "Prayer Meetings" (gathering around a piano and singing risque "barracks ballads."

I remember one practice maneuver where the 684th flew to an airfield in South Carolina and set up our anti-aircraft defense. We discovered a number of wild pigs running loose. Several were "tommy-gunned." Capt. Adkins sent a party Into town and expended some Battery funds for beer. We had an excellent Battery barbeque that evening. Breakfast the next morning was not so good. All we had to eat was cold canned salmon. The flight back to Hunter Air Field (serving Camp Stewart) was very bumpy. It was one of the few times that I almost became airsick.

Corporal Kobani on .50 Caliber Machine Gun

After a formal inspection, we were able to get rid of one misfit. In mid-November, there was an Officer's Call. A Major, from Camp Stewart Plans and Training, told us in his thick Arkansas drawl, that we were ready. He knew where we were going, but he couldn't tell us. We wouldn't like it, but we would never forget it. How right he was!

The six separate AAA Batteries loaded up a troop train, and we set out for the West Coast. We later learned that the Officer's Club at Camp Stewart burned down the night after we left.

Lt. Zerzan

In New Orleans, Lt. Zerzan and Staff Sgt. Ramsey got off the train to buy cigarettes and candy for the men, and got left behind. They caught up with us in about 50 miles down the road as they were fortunate in being able to catch a fast train which overhauled us.

I was Train Mess Officer, and was able to arrange for a Thanksgiving turkey dinner with all the trimmings to be served to the men when we passed through El Paso, courtesy of Fort Bliss. On to Camp Stoneman, California, where we rechecked all of our gear, got all kinds of shots (Why don't they equip our arms with Zerk fittings?), and waited for the word from the San Francisco Port of Embarkation.

We Board Troopship

On 8 December 1942, we sailed from San Francisco on the He De France. (See Fall 1993 issue, CBIVA Sound-Off article "Troopship He De France" by Hugo Schramm; and Winter Issue letter, "More on the He De France" by Frank Hofstatter). Capt. Adkins was able to get one of our machine guns mounted on deck. This permitted our men to get more deck time than would otherwise have been permitted. In the evenings, many of us who had participated in the Camp Stewart "Prayer Meetings" continued the practice on deck.

I recall that we passed through some heavy weather between New Zealand and Australia. The He De France took green water over the bow. I escaped the sea-sickness which overtook all too many. I also recall the comfort afforded by a cruiser and destroyer which escorted us as we passed south of the Dutch East Indies. We arrived in Bombay on 15 January 1943.

The six AAA Batteries embarked on a troop train for the trip across India. It was a slow trip, and, as I recall, took over a week. We had the option of keeping the windows closed and sweltering, or opening the windows and breathing the coal smoke from the engine. Kitchen field ranges were set up In a freight car. The train stopped at meal time and we lined up and received our chow. Somewhere near Calcutta, the 686th and the 687th AAA Batteries were detached and sent to the Dacca area. The rest of us continued toward Assam.

At some point, we left the train and boarded a river boat and steamed north on the Brahmaputra River. Our next stop was at a British-operated camp where we left the boat and transferred to a narrow gauge railway for the rest of the trip to Northeastern Assam. At this camp we were warned to keep our mess kits covered as we passed through the chow line. Those who disregarded the warning were sorry. Birds (Kites?) dive-bombed and grabbed food right out of your kit.

The AAA Batteries were assigned to Forward Echelon, 10th Air Force, Headquartered at Dinjan. The staff officer for Antiaircraft Artillery (Major Meigs) made our assignments, allotted spaces at schools and rest camps, reviewed our reports, and helped us as best he could. There was no intermediate level of command. This was both a blessing and a hardship. We could demote and promote as necessary, cut individual travel orders, establish standards for wearing uniforms, set training schedules, and use our own ingenuity.

In fact, we could do everything a separate Battalion or Regiment could do. Additionally, we were seldom burdened with staff visits and inspections. On the other hand, a Captain's request for supplies and services did not carry the weight that would be given a request from a Major or Colonel. And - there was no room for officer promotion.

Tea Drying Shed

Chabua Assignment

The 684th AAA Battery was assigned to Chabua where we joined the 706th AAA Battery in the protection of the airfield. Chabua was located at the edge of several tea plantations. Tall trees with fine leaves shaded the tea bushes beneath. Indian women (usually with a baby on her back and one in her belly) picked tea leaves and carried baskets full to multi-storied drying sheds. These sheds were open and harbored all kinds of birds and other wild life. I guess that is why we use boiling water to brew tea!

We were quartered at the Chabua Polo Grounds for a few days, and then set up a tent camp closer to the airfield while bashas were built for us. Malaria was of concern and Battery orders were that all personnel were to sleep under mosquito bars. An inspection revealed that some did not, and several gun Corporals were demoted.

The 706th had been at Chabua for some time and had undergone a Jap strafing attack. (The function of the AAA Batteries was defense against strafing.) On 23 February 1943, while we were still in the tent camp, we were bombed by a high flying aircraft - much too high for us to do any good. One officer of the 706th was killed, but aside from that, little damage was done to the field or aircraft caught on the ground. On March 23rd, shortly after midnight, we were hit by a severe rain and hailstorm. We had one tent blown down, and the 706th had three tents and five bashas blown over. Then, on April 23rd, an aircraft crashed on landing and wiped out five other parked planes. From then on, we wondered what the 23rd of each month would bring forth.

Finally, our bashas were complete and we moved in. Capt. Adkins was very concerned about the proximity of the camp of the workmen who built our bashas. It was located across a rice paddy about 25 feet from our quarters, and could be a source of malaria and theft. He contacted the Burmese who was the contractor, and who promised to have camp removed within two days. The two days came and passed, and the camp was still there. The contractor was contacted again, and he promised that the men would be gone the next day. They weren't. The contractor was again contacted and told that unless the men were gone by afternoon, they would be burned out That afternoon, they were still there, so we got some gasoline and torches and burned them out. We posted a double guard that night, but there was no trouble.

Loved That Food

The food at Chabua was supplied by the British, and was terrible. We could count on canned corned beef six meals a week with corned mutton for the seventh. About 40 percent of the eggs, when we got them, were bad. Bread was sour, and sugar was coarse, but there was plenty of tea and rice. One item I did like was canned soya flour sausages. One day we received a truck load of live ducks, and we had roast duck for dinner. We bought chickens and raised them for eggs and food, and we also bought and raised a few pigs. There was plenty of garbage for them to eat. The night after the pigs were gelded, some men had a special treat, sweetbreads.

We had quite a problem keeping the jackals away from the chickens and pigs. Another treat that we had was frog legs. There was a lot of large frogs around, and the men gigged them at night. The legs were breaded and deep fried. They tasted just like chicken. One culinary effort was an utter disaster. Mangos, sliced, had the consistency of peaches. Would not a mango pie be a treat? It was not. More garbage for the pigs. And, then came SPAM! It was good when compared to the corned beef and corned mutton that we had been eating, but weeks, months, years of Spam was too much. I very much doubt that any CBI veteran has eaten one mouthful of Spam since the war.

For a change of pace, we would occasionally eat In the Chinese restaurant In Dibrugahr. The food was pretty good, and the place appeared to be clean. We occasionally saw a movie In the Dibrugahr theater, but most of movie watching, if you could stand the odor given off by some of our garlic-eating Chinese guests, was at the Chabua Polo Grounds recreation building.

Dibrugahr Street Scene

Dibrugahr Visited

Dibrugahr was our closest town. The road to Dibrugahr had, at one time been black-topped, but the military traffic had reduced the road to a series of potholes. Vehicle springs were in high demand. Parts of Dibrugahr were neat, clean, and flowered. There was a movie theater and an Angelican Church. Other parts were filthy, and smelled to high heaven. Cow dung was plastered to walls of huts. When dried it was used as fuel.

There were many strange sights. There was a truly holy roller there. He wouldn't walk, though he had no visible affliction. He rolled down the street through cow dung and everything, singing and shouting all the time. He was accompanied by a woman who held out a begging palm. There was a woman who I saw several times whose actions made me believe that she was crazy. She went naked to the shopkeepers of the bazaar and they gave her corn and other grains. Instead of eating them, she smeared them on her face. Looked filthy. There was a beggar with a horrible looking stump of a leg always asking for "bakshish," the most frequently used word in the Indian language. Occasionally one saw a fakir. The one I saw in Dibrugahr had long kinky hair, a burlap jacket, bells, and a snakelike curved stick. His body was smeared with ashes and mud.

Part II  >>>

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