John Marsh
By Kevin Potterton



Click to hear Mudge Marsh tell her husband's story.




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.

Pre-War Years

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 engineer.
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.

Grandpa John 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 reference.


Combat


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.
Conclusion

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.

Bibliography
Primary Sources:                                                                                        
                                                                                                                 

Interview with Mudge Marsh, December 2005.                                  

Photos courtesy of my mother, Muffy Potterton.

Secondary Sources:                                                                              

"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

Images:

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 <http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/other/us-army_germany_1944-46_ch10.htm>.