886th SIGNAL COMPANY (DEPOT, AVN)



Ex-CBI Roundup
May 2000 Issue

By David S. Rotbart

Our Company was formed at the New Orleans AAB of men from training schools and replacement depots from all over the country. It was mid-1942, and we came from almost every state with names like Talkewlcz, Hruskocy, Campbell, Petru, Tape, Miller, Parsons, DIPaolls, Tselekls, Taylor, Murphy, Schmidt, Urban, Rubln, Blumenthal, Shrapkewicz, Zartmann, Etter, Day, Furry, Ryba, Baumgartner and Van Ormer, many more from all walks of life, facing an uncertain future. The C.O. was Capt. Lee Jones as I recall, and two other officers I can remember were a stocky Lt. Malone and a Lt. Raymond Eick from California. Not sure, but there may have been another officer aboard.

(Ed: From Mr. Bill Cook: The other officer was Lt. Frank Cook from New York City)

And we trained and did forced marches with full field packs and we trained and did a bivouac in the swamps of Slidell, Alabama, across Lake Ponchartrain. We taught each other and learned from each other. We took passes and rode the streetcar named Desire to the old French quarter for refreshments at Marty Burke's or to dance at the Monteleone or to dine at the Jung Hotel. Weather generally hot and humid - tough on sun tans - rushing to get back to base before curfew - or not. So, here we were, ready to go to war - no one knew where or when.

Around mid-November it seems, with the T.O. filled, the 886th left by train for Camp Anza, California, and then on to San Pedro to board the S. S. Uruguay, a converted luxury liner, along with what seemed to be a couple of thousand other troops. Misery loves company, we fortunately were quartered on the "B" deck, twelve to a snug cabin. It could have been a lot worse - this was no honeymoon cruise. The ship could cruise at 20 knots, so we were unescorted, assumedly could outrun a sub, and we didn't run over any either and after several weeks of endless sea we docked briefly at Hobart, Tasmania, and were allowed a few hours of shore leave. This brought our introduction to steak and eggs and warm beer. I doubt that much of these commodities were left when we sailed next morning.

Our next stop a few days later was Perth and Freemantle on Australia's west coast for more wonderful Aussie food and hospitality. When we once again set out, we were joined by a welcome Dutch destroyer that stayed off our flank the remainder of the voyage to Bombay.

Now, two activities (aside from card games) came into being. One was the study of a booklet that was intended to inform us of the way of life in India and to teach us a few words of Hindustani. The other was the cold forming of silver rings made from Australian silver coins. These were peened using mess kit spoons as hammers and deck stanchions as anvils - necessity!

The culture shock that was Bombay lasted only for a day as we immediately boarded a train for Calcutta and another adventure in adapting to sleeping on tiers of narrow wooden shelves sized for a much smaller passenger, or perhaps a shoe box. We stopped at meal times to be treated to rations supplied by our British allies. There was mutton - and mutton - and tinned butter called ghee for the white bread - dabal rotee - and tinned jam and hot tea made from water heated somewhere internal to the locomotive. This was war! And war indeed is hell.

We pull into the station at Calcutta, New Year's Eve 1943 and are trucked to our new quarters at Barrackpore. We find the usual rows of thatched roofed bashas to house about 30 G.I. bunks with the ubiquitous mosquito nets each. There are rows of shallow trenches between these buildings, in case of air raids. The whole city of bashas surrounded by a wall, guarded by Ghurka guards who had almost no sense of humor.

Our purpose for being there - to set up 4th echelon repair shops at another compound across the Hooghly River from Barrackpore. This compound had the unlikely name of "The Presidency." As equipment arrived, we set up our work benches and warehouses and got busy. We also operated a 3d echelon shop at the landing strip servicing "Flying Tiger" aircraft.

Work days - and weeks, driving down the river, across the bridge, back up the river to the shops. Soon there was an airboat in place cutting transportation time. The river was tidal and things were often seen floating in it. We weren't used to this sort of thing. The routine was punctuated with visits to the fine CNAC Depot at Dum Dum field. Some weekends yielded passes to Calcutta for seven-course dinners at the Grand (?) Hotel on Chowringhee, or dances a the Red Cross club or an evening a the Wintergarden to listen to Kitty Walker sing our favorite songs, or a visit to Princes Bar to wind up singing "Wait for the wagon and we'll all take a ride." Parsons could sure sing that one!

As a break, some of us volunteered (a bad word) for train guard. We would accompany materiel bound for Assam, the terminus for the Ledo-Burma Road. Highlighting this duty was the tipsy train ferry across the Irrawaddy and observing the transhipping of goods from wide to narrow gauge freight cars. This work was "handled," literally, by Indian Labor Troops. We did have some moments of concern as we watched 500 lb. bombs being craned one at a time between gondola cars. These bombs were not fused of course, but we were not ordnance experts either. A couple of weeks in a caboose living on K rations was usually enough to make us more content to the luxury of living like Rajahs in Barrackpore. In that March of 1943, the author turned 20.

Days ran into weeks - and months -and as the year nearly ended, we received orders to move to a new air depot in eastern Assam, near Chabua. Severing ties with old familiar places was difficult. The transfer went off smoothly, the supply people and the motor pool did a great job. A large contingent of us moved by train, over the old tracks - train guard deja vu?

Our new location was close to Air Corps Headquarters in an open field next to a tea plantation. We were housed in four-man British style tents, the kind with a double top and a wooden floor. A shallow trench surrounded each tent and wooden duckboards connected everything together. Other buildings housed the Company Headquarters and the mess hall. Time and Yankee ingenuity prevailing, we soon had hot water showers, decent latrine facilities, electricity and later a movie theatre that was the envy of the area. Fair to say, we also operated the repair facility for the 16 mm. Bell and Howell sound projectors, two of which found a home in said movie theatre and unrepairable dynamotors found new life as ceiling fans in our muralled mess halls - aah wilderness!

Our shops were located in buildings normally used to process and store tea which grew in abundance as far as the eye could see. Work areas were set up alongside of heavy machinery idled by the war. Soon routine repair work began, repairing power plants, electronic devices of all descriptions: radio, radar, loran direction finders, I.F.F. Humidity greatly affected the reliability of our equipment. We devised a walk-in drying oven from a radio enclosure and brushed coating materials on the sensitive parts of sets. Part shortages were offset by salvaging parts from one set to repair several others. As an example, insulation failures caused a critical shortage of a transmitter used in control towers. Using plexiglass from Air Corps Supply, we devised a field modification that would relieve the necessity of transporting the heavy transmitter to the depot. This fix was so effective that the area signal officer, Major Goetz, sanctioned the modification to be made in place of all of these units in the Burma Theatre. A two-man team, consisting of T4 Jack Bennett and the author, outfitted a 6x6 machine vehicle for the task and in a three-month TOY covered all the airfields in Northern Burma. Leaving Ledo, we followed the Ledo-Burma Road through Tingkauksakan, Myitkyina, Lashio and Bhamo, staying at each base only long enough to modify all of the on-site base transmitters.

As a testament to our vehicle, the sole problem on the entire trip was a loosened starter cable. Jack disliked flying, so I was elected to periodically hitchhike on C-46s and C-47s back to Chabua to pick up our mail and a case or two of canned liquids. Praises to those intrepid Hump pilots, I never had to walk, not ever - remarkable memories.

On one return flight to Myitkyina, I was riding in the cargo hold of a C-46 laden with pipeline tubing which was well secured. I was not, however, so when the pilot abruptly decided to buzz the runway, I and my precious cases experienced weightlessness for a bit. Considering that I was not a paying passenger, no complaint!

The climate in Assam needs no illumination. During monsoon, it tended to rain continually for several days at a time. Our duckboards soon submerged and we found ourselves in the middle of a shallow lake. R and R's to Calcutta and Darjeeling broke the monotony of this isolated place and made good correspondents of all of us. It seemed as though the war would never end.

VE Day was followed in time by VJ Day. What a celebration! We were ordered to disassemble our shops and to destroy and bury tons of equipment and supplies. Sadly our company was sorted into groups according to points and given assignments. Our group of 25 or so was ordered to take 6x6 trucks and proceed to the recently vacated base at Jorhat. Our task was to move the revetted fuel supplies to a railhead nearby. Assisted by Indian Labor Forces, this took several weeks. The trucks ran very well on AV gas and we were in no mood to waste time! It was eerie living on the otherwise deserted base, in one basha by a mess hall. Our cook, however, was able to get fresh eggs and some pineapples from the village markets. Our first fresh eggs in over two years!

Returning to Chabua, we soon had orders to board C-54s to Karachi. It seemed that we scarcely had time for good-byes before boarding the big silver birds with the CBI shield on their noses. A few hasty good-byes and we were taxiing for take-off past row after row of vehicles parked bumper to bumper. Settling into the sandy base at Karachi, I felt as though I had been separated from my family. Only a few 886ers were still close by.

Our Navy troopship - what a welcome sight - sailed south past Ceylon and the Philippines, past Malaya and Singapore. We experienced beans for breakfast, a Navy tradition, but a welcome one!!! We were on our way home! Landed us at Seattle after what seemed a couple of weeks. Who was counting? Home Sweet Home!

A train ride back to San Pedro and Fort MacArthur where this saga began. Received my discharge February 1946, about one month before my 23d birthday!


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