Written by Todd DePastino
In 2009, when the VBC was just beginning, I visited a retirement community just east of Pittsburgh and met a man who called himself “Big George.” Big George carried clippings from Stars & Stripes and Yank Magazine, yellow brittle rectangles of folded paper that left behind flakes wherever they went.
Big George told me a story he hadn’t told anyone until 50 years after the war. It was a secret he had pledged to keep literally on the penalty of death.
George remembers taking a troop train for days and days after basic training. No one knew where they were heading. They used the moon’s position to try to figure out their direction. The troops also learned that if they asked where the conductors were getting off, they could narrow the list of possible destinations.
They guessed they were being taken to Wyoming to join the Air Corps
George and his comrades were wrong.
The train ended up in Mississippi, where the men were made part of the Signal Corps.
After training, George was placed in a headquarters battalion and sent to England.
He wasn’t happy about it. “Chickenshit” summed up his situation where officers used the promise of sergeant’s stripes to bribe him into taking a job as mailman. He never got the stripes. By spring 1944, his job had devolved to operating the headquarter’s mimeograph machine at SHAEF HQ.
[Quick digression: For readers too young to remember, the mimeograph was the precursor of the photocopy and was used for decades from the early twentieth century through the 1970s. Mimeograph technology involved forcing blue ink–always blue, as far as I know–through a stencil attached to a drum. In elementary school in the 1970s, I vividly recall the teacher passing out mimeographed worksheets and tests–we called them “dittos.” The first thing everyone did was to bring the warm and slightly damp paper to their noses and take a deep whiff of the fragrant, almost intoxicating ink aroma.]
No one seemed able to get this particular mimeograph machine to work except George. So, the unit kept him on mimeographs.
One day–in fact, it was probably the 1st of June, 1944–some important men came in and requisitioned the mimeograph machine, taking it off to a secret location. Soon, a call came in to Signal Corps headquarters.
“We can’t get this machine to work! Anyone there know how to operate it?”
Headquarters sent Big George, who passed through several buildings and increasing levels of security before finally being escorted into a room with the mimeograph machine.
An officer handed George a ream of paper.
“There are 500 sheets of paper in this ream,” he said sternly. “When you print all these out, there had better be 500 copies. Nothing is to leave this building with you.”
Before getting to work, George had to put up his right hand and swear that he would not reveal the content of the message he was to mimeograph. The penalty for violating this oath was clear.
As George began running off copies, his eyes boggled wide. These were the invasion orders for D- Day, which was then scheduled for June 5.
The orders included the order of battle, that is, the specific military units to be deployed for the invasion.
George quickly scanned the list. To his horror, he saw his own Signal Corps headquarters battalion slated to accompany the invasion. “This is ridiculous,” he thought. “There must be a mistake. The Signal Corps comes in after the invasion to set up communications. There’ll be nothing for us to do that first day.”
After George returned to headquarters, he approached a major in charge. He found a way to suggest indirectly to the major that perhaps he should look into making sure that the battalion was not included in the order of battle for the universally anticipated invasion.
When D-Day happened on June 6, George’s Signal Corps battalion was not part of it. His unit had indeed been scrapped from the order of battle.
George never said a word about his D-Day secret for the next fifty years. He had been sworn to silence and probably feared the consequences of breaking his oath. Sometime in the 1990s, he relented. I’m glad he did.