By Kevin Potterton
Until very recently, nothing could have been farther from my mind than
the lives of my grandparents. This was especially true of my grandpa,
John Marsh, who passed away some twelve years before I was even born.
However, as I soon discovered by sitting down with my grandma for an
afternoon this past December, I was missing out on a great story and a
big part of my family’s history.
The Duck Pond at Haverford College
|My grandparents first met in high school, my grandma attending Chaffee
High School in Windsor, Connecticut, and my grandpa attending Loomis,
the all-male school affiliated with Chaffee. After high school, they
went their separate ways. My grandma moved to Boston to attend an
occupational therapy school while my grandpa went off to Haverford
College in Haverford, PA. Grandma eventually landed a job in Cromwell,
Connecticut at Cromwell Hall, a sanitarium for mild mental care.
Meanwhile, my grandpa was majoring in English at Haverford. He saw my
grandma a few times each year when she came down to visit.
|Grandpa enlisted in the US army in 1942. Enlistment was a difficult
decision for him. He was essentially a pacifist, especially given his
Quaker faith, and did not want to kill anybody. However, he did not
consider himself a conscientious objector, and decided that he wanted
to fight for everything the US stood for.
My grandpa accelerated his class schedule, as did most of his
classmates who had also enlisted, in order to graduate from Haverford
before being called up for service. He graduated on January 30th, 1943.
My grandma and grandpa had decided to get married that Christmas.
However, my great grandma, warned them against this, seeing as she had
married Gramp on December 24th. Coupled with Christmas, this would be
too extensive a list of special occasions to celebrate all at once.
They ended up marrying on February 6th, 1943. It was fortunate that
they did, because after a nine-day honeymoon in New York and four days
back in Windsor, Connecticut, Grandpa was sent off to basic training.
Boot Camp through Deployment
In 1943 my grandpa shipped out to Camp Upton. Located in central
Suffolk County, New York, the camp served as a traditional site for
introduction for new recruits. From there he was sent to Camp Wheeler,
in Macon Georgia. While there, he and my grandma began a daily
correspondence of letters.
After visiting the camp in April, my grandma decided to join him there.
She returned to Windsor, packed a large bag, and set off for Georgia as
a camp follower. She only returned for two weeks to give her full two
weeks notice to her boss back in Windsor. She stayed at Camp Wheeler
throughout the duration of my grandpa’s basic training. In
September, he was sent to Alabama for a period of two weeks, and then
up to the University of Connecticut in the ASTP (Army Specialized
Training Program) unit. He was supposed to be training to be an
This fortunate move landed the young couple near home. My grandpa would
bum a ride up to Windsor every weekend for the six months that he was
at UConn to see my grandmother. From there he was shipped to
Blackstone, Virginia. While there, they lived with Captain Sam and
Dorothy Stein. Grandma worked at the Blackstone Army Airbase. While at
Blackstone, several planes crashed during training missions, because
disgruntled pilots had put sand in the engine.
and Grandma Mudge in Blackstone, Virginia 1943
|Word eventually got around that Grandpa’s group was going to be
shipped out, so they traveled to Laurel, Maryland. Grandma and her
friend Bernice Stoner, who also had a husband in the service waited
together in Maryland for their husbands on the night of their
deployment. If they didn’t meet their husbands in Maryland, they
had instructions from them to go to New York City and wait at
Grandpa’s father’s apartment for them. If they showed up in
NYC, it meant that they were bound for Europe and not the Pacific.
Grandpa and John Stoner did not show up in Maryland, so Grandma and
Bernice went to New York City, and, sure enough, there they met their
two husbands. They were all extremely grateful that they were going to
Europe and not Japan. It turned out that Grandpa and John had bummed a
ride from a mail truck down from where they were stationed (up the
Hudson somewhere). They met their wives in the city on six separate
nights. Grandma would not see Grandpa again until after the war.
Grandma only found out later that he had been deployed on September 11,
1944, and landed in Belgium on September 22, 1944. Grandpa had tried to
tell her this in one of his letters, by referring to his parents’
birthdays (the letters were censored, so he could not come right out
and say the dates), but she did not immediately understand the
My grandpa never divulged much about his combat during the war. As I
mentioned before, he was not fond of fighting, and swore before the war
that he would not kill anybody. In fact, he only told the story of his
combat to his family once. However, some information is known regarding
his experience in Europe.
My grandpa was in the First Division. This was the common name for the
1st Infantry Division. A division as old as the United Sates itself, it
had once been called the Provincial Company of Artillery of the Colony
of New York, and was commanded by none other than Alexander Hamilton
(SEP). The First Division was considered by many to be the archetypal
modern infantry unit, with an almost mythical reputation as a flawless
machine (SEP). They fought in North Africa and Sicily before traveling
to England to participate in D-Day.
Aachen, Germany after the Battle of Aachen
After bypassing Paris, the Division turned its sites on Aachen,
Germany. After breaking through the Siegfried Line German defense, they
spread out and contained Aachen on all four sides. The fighting in
Aachen is where my grandpa joined the Division, which had suffered
heavy casualties and was in need of reinforcements (SEP). The Battle
for Aachen was a significant battle, both pragmatically and
symbolically. The town of Aachen was the birthplace of Charlemagne and
the seat of the Holy Roman Empire (Wik). The Holy Roman Empire is
considered the first of the Reichs, of which Hitler was trying to
institute the third. Also, Aachen was the first major German town to
face capture from the Allies (Wik). Hitler was personally adamant about
defending Aachen (Wik).
Indeed, the Germans fought ferociously to defend Aachen. But the 18th
regiment managed to repel a heavy German counterattack as well as win a
decisive battle for Crucifix Hill (SEP). Company I of the 16th Regiment
managed to throw back a second counterattack as well (SEP). Eventually
Aachen was taken by two battalions moving through the gutted buildings
of the city, while other forces held the perimeter (SEP).
Under a new General, General Andrus, the First moved on to the
Hürtgen forest, where an extremely bloody battle took place (SEP).
It was here, in the Hürtgen forest on November 29th that grandpa
John was wounded. He was shot through the leg, leaving a large gash,
but fortunately missing all important arteries (though some by only
centimeters). He may be considered luck by some accounts, seeing as
most of his battalion was either killed or captured.
However, my grandmother did not readily receive this information. On
December 17th she received a postcard informing her of the wound. The
card had numerous injuries listed, and somebody had punched a hole
through a box signifying an eye injury. The card also stated that
further information would follow. This information came from
grandpa’s father’s girlfriend, Carolyn Flanders, who
happened to be the head of the Red Cross in New York City. She found
that my grandpa actually had a 9-inch long bullet wound starting right
above the knee. He had only bruised his femoral artery, but the bullet
had gone to pieces inside his leg. He was flown to Belgium and then Oxford,
England to recuperate.
Europe and the Journey Home
There were some problems getting Grandpa John home. Usually, if a
soldier was going to be off duty for more than three months, they were
sent back to the States. Grandpa John was in the hospital for eleven
months. It was here in Oxford, however, where he was able to indulge
his passion for literature. As soon as he was able to walk on crutches,
he would catch rides into town to visit the library.
After Oxford, he was sent to Maison la Fette near Paris. There he
had the unpleasant and mundane job of sorting mail on the nightshift.
For a little bit of fun, he borrowed a bike, rode into Paris and
tracked down the apartment of Gertrude Stein. He met with her there and
was invited back for tea, but was unable to oblige before being sent
home. He also found the home of his aunt who had lived in Paris during
the early 1900’s.
He also traveled to Switzerland while being stationed in Paris, leaving
with four chocolate bars and two packs of cigarettes, he managed to
trade for Movado watches for he and his wife. When the war finally
ended he still found himself in Europe. Making the most of it, he moved
to London and attended the Central School of Speech and Drama, where
Laurence Olivier was studying at the time. It was this experience that
made him certain of his future in acting and theatre.
The wait to come home was a long one. There was a point system back
then based on time on the service and a variety of other things. He had
lots of points but the Wheaton Victory, the ship that was to take him
home, took seven weeks to arrive in Belgium. From there he departed,
arriving at the Brooklyn Navy Yard some time later, and reuniting with
my grandma a short time thereafter.
For my grandpa, the war came into his life at a pivotal young age, when
he would normally be starting a family and a career. In some ways,
given his dislike for killing and violence, the war was a major
challenge. A battlefield in Europe was a very different atmosphere from
the peaceful wooded campus of Haverford College. However, in Europe he
was able to nourish his love of literature and acting, going places and
doing things that he never would have otherwise. It was in London that
he first knew for certain that he wanted to pursue drama. And after the
passing of sixty years, my grandma still vividly remembers this
exciting chapter of their lives.
The author's rendering of his grandpa.
Interview with Mudge Marsh, December 2005.
Photos courtesy of my mother, Muffy Potterton.
"Battle of Aachen." Wikipedia. 30 Sep. 2005. 7 Nov. 2005 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Aachen>.
Macdonald, John. Great Battles of World War II. Edison, New Jersey: Marshall books, 1986.
Willmott, H.P. and Robin Cross and Charles Messenger. World War II. New York: DK, 2004. 232.
Small, Collie. "The Big Red 1 Wrote the Book." Saturday Evening Post. 2 Feb. 1946. 94-96
Haverford.edu. 14 Jan. 2005 <http://www.haverford.edu/physicalplant/physicalplantservman/pondwithgeese>.
Pike, John. "The Rhneland Campaign, 1944." Globalsecurity.org.
27-04-2005. 14 Sep. 2005