Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rest and Recreation in Oujda

“About the only respite from the grinding training schedule were the occasional passes that were given out so that eventually everyone was able to take in the sights of nearby Oujda. Usually one such trip was enough. The few bars that were there featured ‘wine coolers’ as the best they could offer, and a single look at the one ‘maison de tolerance’ was enough to discourage even the most hardy. Other women were just non-existent. Perhaps the one thing that was of interest was the chance to see and talk to members of the famous French Foreign Legion which had a unit stationed nearby.” Source: Allen Langdon Ready 1986 p. 14

A Chance at Playing Casey Jones

Bill used to tell a story about these French Legionnaires. On R&R trips into Oujda he used to stop by the French Foreign Legion’s base where they maintained a nearby railway station. The station was a real draw for many troopers. It was a chance to fulfill a cherished boyhood dream to play at being the great railway engineer and American folk hero, John Luther ("Casey") Jones. Before cars and airplanes, in the age of railroads, Jones’ passenger train the Cannonball Express slammed into a stationary freight train on a wet night with low visibility in April 1900. Miraculously, Jones was the only fatality. His actions in attempting to avoid the accident won him fame across America and indeed the world. He was assured immortality in a popular ballad written in his honor as well as many subsequent works by musicians and poets to the present day.

Like most young men his age, Bill had grown up with the legend of Casey Jones. To every boy of the era he was the greatest railroad engineer of all time. During summers Bill played with his brothers taking turns imagining they were the hero Casey Jones in the dangerous job of railway engineer at the controls of the Cannonball Express.

With this background, the Oujda train engines became a natural target for the little leisure time the 505ers were allotted. During encounters with the French, the currency of most value in North Africa was the American cigarette. Bill said the quality of the French cigarettes was poor and the Frenchmen didn’t have many of them. The engineers at the railway station would readily exchange a pack of American smokes for turn at the controls of their locomotives.  He said the engineers would let the troopers drive the trains at a thrilling full speed up and down the tracks around Oujda. Bill thought it was a steal since he didn’t smoke.


CaseyJonesStamp American Railway Engineer Casey Jones (1863–1900) depicted on a 3-cent US postage stamp

(Image Source Wikipedia)

Home Cooked Chicken Dinner

Despite the tensions reported in the last post “We Trained in a Fiery Furnace” not all encounters with the Moroccan locals were negative – at least not in the beginning.  Many were initiated by locals with the best of intentions. Often paratroopers on R&R would find themselves invited to home cooked dinner by local men grateful to the Americans for their part in the liberation of Morocco from Axis enslavement. 

One of these lucky troopers was Pvt. Howard Tiedemann who served with Bill in Service Company. While in Casablanca Howard and one of his buddies were approached by a well to do (by Casablanca standards) local businessman. The man, implored the two troopers to come to his house for a dinner of succulent roast chicken with all the trimmings.  Believing a home cooked meal would be far superior than the standard Army fare served by the 505 cooks, the troopers readily accepted the man’s kind offer. Howard envisaged a delicious chicken roasted to perfection, surrounded by tender vegetables infused with the bird’s natural juices and a side of rich gravy – a meal just like his mother made back in the States. Indeed, that’s all he could think about for the entire day leading up to the event. Back at base he told anyone would care to listen (and there were plenty of men who did care) all about their upcoming feast. Jealously hanging on Howard’s every word, each trooper schemed on how he could land a similar invite.

Howard and his buddy arrived right on time at their host’s residence with excited anticipation. They were treated like kings by the man’s wife and children who met them at the door and eagerly ushered the men through a humble well kempt dwelling to the kitchen table. Waiting for them in the kitchen doorway stood the man offering a warm appreciative welcome. After exchanging pleasantries, he turned the guest’s attention to the table where their eyes were accosted by a most unsightly, yet well presented meal. Dead center of the table surrounded by the expected tableware was a skinny bloated chicken, overly blackened by the hot flames which had roasted it. Howard’s lungs involuntarily pushed air out as his nose revolted against a putrid and unaccustomed stench.  The odor was so bad he had to cover his mouth and nose with his sleeve to keep from vomiting.  Before their hosts could begin to register something was amiss Howard saw the cause of the smell.  “Holy Moses!”, he exclaimed.  “The bird’s been cooked with its guts intact!”

Howard fought a natural urge to turn around and leave. Quickly conversing, he and his buddy decided to stay and avoid insulting their appreciative host who obviously had gone out of his way to treat them. During the meal, they avoided all offers to partake of the chicken; eating instead a few of the vegetables. Puzzled as to why they didn’t want the chicken, Howard told the man that the children needed it more than they did – which was true given their scrawny undernourished bodies. They left a couple of hours later with bellies hungrily looking forward to the usual tiresome breakfast of powdered eggs and Spam awaiting them at reveille.   Story courtesy of Mrs. Howard Tiedemann.

Hitching a Ride to Base (with Colonel James M. Gavin)

On the way back to base from one of his R&R trips to Oujda, Bill and his best friend saw a jeep coming along the road. It was a typical Moroccan day with the temperature soaring. In a half hearted effort, not expecting the vehicle to stop, they tried flagging it down. To their surprise and relief the jeep did stop. Sliding the gears into neutral the driver looked over to them and facetiously asked “How would you boys like a ride?”

“Hell, yes. I mean YES SIR!” Bill replied noticing the driver’s superior badge of rank and AA insignia of the 82nd Airborne on his left shoulder.

In the passenger’s seat on the other side of the driver another man sat quietly. Bill and his friend climbed into the back of the jeep and the passenger turned around and welcomed them aboard.

They both did double takes as their minds boggled in registration the passenger’s identity. It was none other than Colonel James Gavin himself. Bill and his friend were stunned into silence. Noticing their trepidation at riding with their commanding officer, the future General of the 82nd Airborne (in typical Gavin style) made the men feel at ease asking them where they were from and how they were finding the North African conditions and the training schedule.

Bill was most impressed with his encounter with Gavin and afterwards he always held him in very high regard. Bill was impressed because he never expected any commanding officer to stop and give an enlisted man like himself a ride. But this type of thing was typical of Gavin and his men loved him for it.


James_M._Gavin General James M. Gavin

Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

Next post I’ll talk more about General Gavin and tell another story Bill told about his favorite leader.

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