WWII Camp Shanks, New York: And a Visit by Archbishop Spellman

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Camp Shanks was located in Orangeburg, New York, about 30 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. It served as a staging area to equip United States (US) military units in preparation for their embarkation to the European Theater of Operations in WWII.

US Army bombardment groups, infantry divisions, armoured divisions, medical groups, and other military units passed through Camp Shanks. The average stay was 12 days. It is estimated that 75% of those who took part in the Normandy, France, D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, had been billeted there.  One unit that was in transit at Camp Shanks was the 101st Airborne Division, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, E (Easy) Company.  Easy Company later became well-known in the Stephen E. Ambrose book Band of Brothers and a HBO miniseries by the same name.

Camp Shanks, nicknamed “Last Stop, USA,” was a large military installation that had its own newspaper, orchestra, and baseball team. Celebrities of the time, Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny, the Andrews Sisters, and Jimmy Durante were among those who entertained the troops there.

One visitor to Camp Shanks was Archbishop Francis J. Spellman.  He had been named Vicar for the US Armed Forces by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939. On one of the Archbishop’s visits there in 1943,  a young US Army nurse, Lieutenant Josephine Pescatore, was in the audience.

Lieutenant Pescatore remembers the audience, of about 1,000 people, included individuals from various religious denominations. She says there was an atmosphere of apprehension in the air as those in attendance prepared for war and did not know if they would return home someday.

Archbishop Spellman gave everyone a prayer, the Act of Contrition, that he said was specially written for those in wartime.*  There were many questions from those attending the gathering, such as “What do I do if I am wounded and dying and there is no priest there to say the prayer for me?” The Archbishop told them that someone other than a priest could say it for them, or they could say it themselves. 

On June 12, 1944, Lieutenant Josephine Pescatore landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, as a nurse with the US Army 24th Evacuation Hospital. The evacuation hospital treated and cared for the wounded and dying as it followed the troops through Europe. As a nurse, it was important to Lieutenant Pescatore to let dying men know they were not alone. When she knew a man was dying, she would go to his bedside, touch him gently, and say the Act of Contrition for him.  She once told me … she didn’t know if a dying man had been able to say the prayer for himself, so she said it for him.

Act of Contrition

Forgive me my sins, O Lord, forgive me my sins; the sins of my youth, the sins of my age, the sins of my soul, the sins of my body; my idle sins, my serious voluntary sins, the sins I know, the sins I do not know; the sins I have concealed so long, and which are now hidden from my memory.  I am truly sorry for every sin, mortal and venial, for all the sins of my childhood up to the present hour.  I know my sins have wounded Thy tender Heart.  O my Saviour, let me be freed from the bonds of evil through the most bitter Passion of my Redeemer.  Amen

O my Jesus, forget and forgive what I have been.

Nihil Obstat:–Arthur J. Scanlan, S.T.D.

Imprimatur:–Francis J. Spellman, D.D.

April 8, 1941

 

* The Act of Contrition is a prayer to make peace with God.

Story as told to me by Lieutenant Josephine Pescatore Reaves.  For her service in WWII, she was awarded the Bronze Star with Battle Citations for Normandy, Northern France, the Rhineland, and Central Europe.

The US Army 24th Evacuation Hospital admitted and treated 19,313 patients in WWII.  The survival rate at the evacuation hospital was 98.39%.

 

In the future there will be more stories about the US Army 24th Evacuation Hospital and its people. 

Odd Man (Bear) Out: Corporal Wojtek, Polish II Corps WWII

Wojtek with Polish Soldier
Wojtek with a Polish Soldier

 

In September 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and divided Poland.  Approximately two million Polish citizens were deported by the Soviets to labor camps or imprisoned.  After Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, with the subsequent Sikorski-Mayski Agreement of July 30, 1941, and the Polish-Soviet Military Agreement of August 14, 1941,  the Soviets released  thousands of Poles to fight with the Allies. Under the command of General Wladyslaw Anders, the Poles left the Soviet Union and made their way to the Middle East.  Once there, the Poles formed the Polish II Corps and fought under British command.

A brown bear first became part of Polish WWII history in 1942. When the Poles reached Persia (Iran), they met a young boy who sold them a orphaned bear cub. The bear became a mascot for the Polish II Corps.   The Polish soldiers named him Wojtek (Voytek in English). As the bear grew he became more than a mascot and fit very well into army life. He learned how to smoke, enjoy a beer, wrestle and relax with his fellow soldiers, eat army food, go on guard duty, salute, nod his head when addressed, and liked riding in trucks. Wojtek and his fellow soldiers developed a camaraderie that would last a lifetime.

Wojtek moved with the soldiers from Persia, to Palestine, to Iraq, and then to Egypt. When the Poles were preparing to sail from Egypt to Italy, a problem arose. The ship would only transport soldiers and supplies. It is said by some that General Anders officially “enlisted” Wojtek into the Polish Army at that time. Corporal Wojtek was listed as a soldier and left for Italy.

In Italy the Poles fought with other Allied countries in the famous Battle of Monte Cassino.  In the fourth battle to capture the Benedictine monastery, the Poles reached the top of the mountain and raised the Polish flag on May 18, 1944.

Among the Polish units at Monte Cassino was the 22nd Transport Company. It was their responsibility to transport and distribute munitions, food, and fuel to the heavy artillery regiments. During the battle, one of the soldiers carrying munition boxes was Corporal Wojtek. Wojtek carrying a shell became the emblem of the company.

85px-The_badge_of_the_22nd_Artillery_Support_Company_of_the_2nd_Polish_Corps

After WWII ended, the Polish II Corps sailed from Italy to Scotland and was demobilized. WWII had ended, but Poland was not an independent, free country again. Many Poles felt they were left homeless and chose not to return to Poland after the war.

But what would become of Corporal Wojtek?

It was decided to send Wojtek to the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. He had a new home, but like the Poles he was not free. There are stories of Poles who visited Wojtek at the zoo, threw him cigarettes which he ate, and proclaimed he still understood Polish. A touching story is told of a man who brought a violin to the zoo and played a Polish mazurka for Wojtek. It is said Wojtek “danced” with the music. Wojtek had the look of a bear but, indeed, had the heart of a Pole.

Wojtek was a popular resident at the Edinburgh Zoo but never again had his freedom or the camaraderie of his Polish friends. Wojtek died at the zoo on December 2, 1963.  He was about 21 years old.

In a newspaper Letters to the Editor section after Wojtek died, a Londoner, Michael George Olizar wrote, “He left his bones, like many other Polish veterans, on British soil.”

 

Wojtek, the soldier bear, is still remembered and celebrated today. His story has been told in books, a BBC documentary, and there are statues and plaques dedicated in his memory around the world.

 

In Memory Of … Flavio Terenzoni

Flavio Terenzoni with Maria Cecchini
Flavio Terenzoni with Maria Cecchini

 

On August 17, 1944, Italian partisans killed 16 German soldiers who had been in the area of San Terenzo, Italy, requisitioning food from the local populace. The Germans ordered civilian reprisals which were carried out by the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division  between August 17 and August 19, 1944.  One hundred and fifty-nine Italian civilian men, women, and children from the San Terenzo Monti, Bardine, and Valla area were killed.*

In 2012 I went on a tour, “World War II in the Mediterranean: The Italian and French Campaigns,” which was sponsored by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.  One of the locales we visited was the San Terenzo area of Tuscany.

At the Historical Museum Massacre of San Terenzo and Bardine, we saw pictures on the wall of many of the victims.  I was drawn to the picture of a baby named Flavio Terenzoni.  His happy, laughing face, before tragedy struck, touched my heart.  Flavio died on August 19, 1944, as did Maria Cecchini, the young woman in the picture with him.  Flavio would have been two years old on August 28, 1944.

While we were at the museum, Italians from the local area joined us and shared the stories of what happened.  They worried that the world would forget about the tragedy that occurred there.

For this story, I chose Flavio Terenzoni to represent all the lives and innocence lost as seen in the “pictures on the wall.”

To the people of San Terenzo, your story has not been forgotten.

 

Another WWII story from this part of Italy:  

The United States (US) 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed mostly of second generation Japanese Americans, fought along the Gothic Line in the area of Colle Musatello, a ridge near San Terenzo.  One of the officers in that unit was Lieutenant Daniel Inouye. He was seriously wounded in the battle for the ridge and lost his right arm.  For his extraordinary heroism on April 21, 1945, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC).

 In 1963 Daniel Inouye became a US Senator from Hawaii. 

Senator Inouye’s award of the DSC was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

 

*SS Major Walter Reder of the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division was tried for war crimes in an Italian military court in Bologna, Italy, and sentenced to life in prison in 1951. He was released in 1985.

The number of Germans and Italian civilians killed may vary depending on different  accounts of the incident.