Fighting pitted wool against khaki — 1st ID


Special Forces
Rest In Peace
Jul 16, 2008
Seattle, Puget Sound — PNW
Fighting pitted wool against khaki
Roy Parker

In war, not all the fighting is with the enemy. There are also epic fights inside your own camp.

Such was the melee which came to be called “The Second Battle of Oran.”

It happened in the Algerian port city of Oran just before Allied forces embarked from North Africa for the 1943 invasion of Sicily in World War II.

It is vividly described by Rick Atkinson in “The Day of Battle,” his majestic history of the U.S. Army in the European Theater of Operations.

The antagonists in the fight were the men of the “Big Red One,” the 1st Infantry Division, fighting against everybody else they could find who wore the Army uniform.

The reputation of the 1st ID was well described by a general of another division, who complained: “The division seems to think the U.S. Army consists of the division and eleven million replacements.”

The atmosphere wasn’t improved when the 1st’s assistant division commander, the legendary Brig. Gen. Ted Roosevelt Jr., sardonically replied: “Well, doesn’t it?”

Atkinson describes the scenario: “Toxic rumors that the division would be sent home from Africa, regimental bookies offered bets that they would be back in the states by Aug. 1, simply fueled resentment when (Gen. George S.) Patton requisitioned the Big Red One for his Sicilian spearhead.

“Grievances large and small accumulated: kept in filthy if durable wool combat uniforms when rear-echelon troops were switched to cooler khaki, seeing men who had never heard a shot fired in anger sport new brown-and-green African Campaign ribbons, at service troops hoarding Camels and Lucky Strikes, while sending inferior cigarettes to the frontline units.

“Patton’s taunting helped not at all. ‘Those sons of bitches don’t need khakis,’ most of the troops would ‘likely be killed trying to invade Sicily.’

“By late May, when the division bivouacked in a shadeless camp outside Oran, not far from the invasion beaches of 1942, the troops agreed that the city should be liberated again.

“Swaggering eight abreast down Oran’s sidewalks, they shoved the khaki-clad into the gutters, and ripped campaign ribbons from khaki blouses.

“One group slapped three months pay on the bar of the Florida Club and told the barkeep, ‘let us know when this is up.’

“A division memo decried ‘excessive drunkenness’ and the troops' ‘disheveled appearance,’ brass knuckles and contraband Lugers were confiscated, and a 5 p.m. curfew put on the city’s taverns.

“Still, ‘the second battle of Oran,’ raged on, featuring ‘lively brawls in which sides were chosen by the cloth worn.'

“An 18th Infantry soldier noted: ‘Truckloads of gun-toting GIs and cocky junior officers take over Oran ... scaring civilians indoors and bringing M.P.s’

Atkinson’s device of pausing in the narrative of a great military endeavor (the invasion of Sicily involved as many U.S. troops as the Normandy D-Day invasion a year later) to inject this scenario of a family brawl is a storytelling method that makes the big picture even more compelling and rich.

This kaleidoscopic method of military story-telling has won Pulitzer Prizes for the 57-year-old Atkinson. His is the kind of writing that makes an old ordinary scrivener like me green with envy.

His latest book is his story of his months as the “embedded” reporter with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. Atkinson, by the way, is a graduate of East Carolina University. He is longtime reporter-editor with the Washington Post.

The family fuss at Oran is a reminder that wartime has millions of moments, not all of them noble or patriotic or decent.

Nor was the 1st ID the only unit with a reputation for unruly behavior in its own household.

In 1943, men of the 82nd Airborne Division were also bivouacked in sweltering camps in Algeria, also with an eye to suppressing their rowdy instincts and keeping them from brawling with anybody who didn’t wear jump boots.

Of course, the Big Red One division went on with its history as a premier unit in the Army’s order of battle, as did the 82nd Airborne.

My connection with the 1st ID is through my old buddy Neal Creighton, who played infield “pepper” with the Chapel Hill High School baseball team when I was the scorekeeper.

Neal was the son of an Army officer, and when he grew up he became a major general and commanded the division.

In retirement he was a Chicago business mogul who spent the millions with the McCormick Foundation, which owned the Chicago Tribune. It was named for Col. Robert R. McCormick, who as an artillery officer in World War I and fought with the Big Red One when it captured the French town of Cantigny.

Neal’s foundation headquarters on the edge of Chicago included its elegant 1st Division Museum, which made my mouth water when I saw it during the early days of planning the Airborne and Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville. I’m proud to say the ASOM is a fittingly elegant cousin of the 1st ID museum, and cost probably half as much.

Neal also spent a couple of elementary-grade years at prewar Fort Bragg when his dad commanded Pope Field and the balloon squadron.

To top off the Bragg connection with the 1st Infantry Division, the post’s most famous commander, Brig. Gen. A.J. Bowley, came from the 5th Field Artillery Regiment, a unit in the World War I division.

For much of the 1920s and 1930s, the 5th Field was the major unit on the artillery post in the Carolina sandhills that later became Home of the Airborne.