Mike ArslanianIn 1942, Mike Arslanian was drafted into the army at the age of twenty. Before the army, Mike was working at the Watertown Arsenal in Watertown, MA. Mike felt that it was his duty to join the war and enlist but he didn’t want to hurt his mother because his brother was already a POW in Okinawa, Japan.
by Matthew Bejian
It was a Sunday morning when Mike first heard the news about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He ran to the baseball field where he always met his friends and they talked for hours about what was happening overseas. Eight months later Mike was drafted with other young men that lived in Watertown. “We paraded and the high school band played for us” as Mike and the others marched to the trolley cars which would take them to the railroad station. Later, Mike boarded the train to Fort Devens, MA where he was issued his own uniform along with two duffle bags that were full of clothes and equipment. Mike was in the army accompanied by his good friends, Johnny Ester, Loui Barsam, and Johnny Chicos. Mike then stayed in Fort Devens for three days takings many written exams and IQ tests. On the third day Mike Arslanian was back on the train with his two bags saying goodbye to his friends that were drafted with him. Mike remembers, “They said goodbye and I shook hands with them through the window of the train”. Once Mike Arslanian got on that train he had no idea where he was going or what the future held for him. He did not know if he was going in the Army or the Air Force.
This is the enlisted roster of the 79th infantry division. This shows everybody who was drafted into the 79th infantry division. They show their last name, first initial, and where they came from in alphabetical order. There are 104 people who were drafted into the 79th division around America and with each division they have around ten officers.
Back in Tennessee, the commander told Mike’s division that they were going to Arizona to start desert maneuvers. They arrived in the Arizona desert in early October. They had to wake at six in the morning and endure the Arizona heat. Everyone was scared of the rattle snakes, scorpions, and tarantulas in the desert, especially when sleeping at night. There, Mike and his division had to dig trenches like they were in combat. He loved the Southerners because they always knew what to do. “They could grab a chicken and pluck them. We kids from the North did not know anything about those things!”
Mike Arslanian then traveled with his division from the Arizona desert to Kansas. He stayed in Kansas for three months. Next to the army base there was the air force base and one of his friends in Watertown named Zeke Safer, who was in the Air Force, came over and enjoyed a steak dinner for a dollar and a half with Mike. While they were having dinner, Zeke showed him a picture of a B-29 which was a plane that was built to bomb Japan. The B-29 was a large bomber that carried over 20,000 pounds of explosives. Zeke also told Mike not to tell anyone about this, he was not even supposed to have a picture of it. Mike stayed in Kansas for three months and everyone was freezing. Mike loved Kansas and said that the people there were very friendly and nice and when they left Kansas they put up a sign that said home of the 79th division.
Next, Mike repacked everything and got on the train that headed to Boston, MA. Mike was on that train for three days and every 200 miles the train would stop off in a little town and there would be townspeople offering them food and cheering for them. Then he arrived at a camp at Cape Cod, MA where the troops learned about the parts of a ship before they had to sail overseas. His captain was Captain Donaldson who coincidentally was a Watertown boy just like him and told Mike that he could go home every day to Watertown to his family but had to sleep overnight at the base. Mike would go home every day telling his family, ‘If I’m not back the next day I will be gone”. He went home three more times.
The whistle blew, he packed up and Mike was driven to Boston Harbor where he boarded the S.S. Explorer. From there, the S.S. Explorer brought Mike and the other soldiers to New York Harbor to join the convoy. When he arrived in New York Harbor he was stunned because, “I had never seen so many ships in my life. There were over 700 ships!”
The next morning, April 6th 1943, he departed with the convoy and was seasick the entire voyage until they arrived at a port in Gorrick, Scotland on April 18th. After disembarking, Mike boarded another train to England. When Mike got off the train in Newtown-le-Willows, he marched with his division and everyone was cheering for them. He then reached a golf course setting up five men tents for a week stay and Mike was issued into artillery. It rained all week and Mike’s division was called back. Each division had three regiments of infantry and four battalions of artillery. He was there for 3 weeks and Mike and his friends made very good friends with a police officer. The cop asked if they would like to have dinner with him but before they reached England on the ship they told Mike and the soldiers that you should never accept food in England because food was scarce and it would be a sacrifice for the civilians. While in England however, Mike and the soldiers were sent to a rally in London to listen to General George Patten speak. To this day Mike dislikes him stating, “You wouldn’t believe the language that came out of his mouth!”
During the morning of June 1st in England, Mike and his division got a marching order so they packed everything up, loaded the trucks, water proofed everything like trucks, jeeps, and cannons and the next day drove to the Channel.
On June 6th, 1944 at two in the morning, the cooks woke Mike up and they told his division that “It’s on! It’s on! The invasion is on!” Mike was relieved. On June 6th The British, US, and Canadian forces sent their fleet to the North West area of France and invaded the five Normandy beaches (Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah) because Germany had control over France for over four years. This was called the Invasion of Normandy or D-day and it was the largest sea assault in history. The Allies fought for land and pushed back the German forces out of France. On June 14th, Mike and his division crossed the English Channel on landing craft tanks arriving on Omaha beach in Normandy, France. Mike recollects that it was not a dramatic landing because the invasion started eight days prior and the land was clear for them without having to fight with the Germans. Mike estimated he saw 200 dead soldiers with canvases over them and their feet hanging out. “This was to get us in an angry mood”, Mike said, “They were all Americans from the 90th division.”
After landing on Omaha Beach, Mike Arslanian and the other soldiers in the 79th division captured Cherbourg, France on June 17, 1944. It was important because Cherbourg was a port and once they captured Cherbourg then ships could land in the port with supplies instead of on the Normandy beaches.
From Cherbourg, Mike then traveled through France and was given a new job as a foreword observer. “We all got into teams. There was the officer, the foreword observer, and the driver. My team of three was assigned to the 314 infantry regiment”. As a forward observer, Mike’s responsibility was to locate the highest spot that could be used as an observation post to look and report the position of the enemy. “Most of the time it was at the top of a Catholic church. We would use our binoculars to spot the German soldiers and sometimes we could see them on top of another church!” Mike and his team also had to carry and lay the telephone wire for two miles a day so when they traveled from place to place they would be able to communicate with the rest of the troops. Mike's worst memory was when he was laying telephone wire down with Willy Phillips near the rail road track using a hand wheel in Luneville, northern France. When they were coming back, one side of the bridge was knocked down and there were tons of officers underneath the bridge. At night while in Luneville, Mike and his friends were allowed to enter any house they wanted to sleep in, recalling, “The people had no choice but they were very warm about it”. When Mike traveled through big cities they all knew that the war was coming to an end because they were rolling though everything.
After traveling from town after town in France, they finally reached Belgium. Mike had planned to cross the Rhine River in the Jeep but they issued Mike into a “Weasel” for the crossing. The Weasel was built for water and Mike had 5 guys with him in the Jeep. Four of the soldiers that came with Mike wanted to cross the Rhine River in the Weasel but Mike was not sure about it and decided to stay in the Jeep. The “alligator” was a type of boat that towed the Weasels across the Rhine River. While the four other men crossed with the alligator toeing the Weasel the Weasel started to sink. Luckily everyone was alright but this was one of the most comical moments that Mike remembered during the war.
When the unit finally reached Germany, the German families had to give up their homes to provide housing for the Alied soldiers who were residing there. On one occasion when Mike and his patrol took over a house, the woman asked Mike if she could come back every day to tend to her garden. They agreed and after that she became like a mother, cooking and cleaning for them while they stayed there.
Finally in the summer of 1945 Mike was elated to hear that the war was over and he would be going home! At this time he was in Dortmund, Germany, but Mike could not go home because he was ordered to remain there and occupy Dortmund. One of Mike’s duties was to make sure that everyone was in their house by the 9:00pm curfew. One night a lady with a small child came to him and said, “I can’t get home in time, I live in the next town”. Mike called the captain and when his captain arrived he knocked on a neighbor’s door and told the family that the woman and her child would be spending the night with them.
Mike’s next assignment brought him to Czechoslovakia. After the war there were 136,000 German prisoners of war and they were treated very well. Mike recalls, “They were eating class A rations! Better than what we ate!” Mike and the other soldiers were ordered to guard the German prisoners and sometimes while doing so they would fall asleep. Mike remembers that when the officer would come by, the Germans would crawl under the fence and wake Mike and his friends up!
Every DP camp (displaced persons) that Mike passed he tried to find one Armenian soldier and while he was helping everybody he could not find any Armenians, there were mostly Russians. Mike also never went on sick leave in the Army but after the war ended Mike did not feel too good and he told the Captain. The Captain then ordered the jeep and as he was waiting, Mike pet a German Shepherd and he was reported for fraternizing with the enemy.
Mike and the whole division then traveled to Schweinfurt, Germany. He lived in the hotel at the train station and ate at the restaurant. Mike had four men under him and every day he checked passes that every German had to have to ride on the train. If Mike did not receive this assignment he would never have met his wife Charlotte. Charlotte was engaged to a German soldier who was killed while fighting in Italy. They went on 3 dates before Mike was sent home. Later, Mike and Charlotte were reunited in the US and got married, living happily for over 50 years.
Mike Arslanian served in the army for three years from April 1942 through December 1945. He married Charlotte on December 4 1948 and worked for 44 years at the Natick Army Labs in Natick, MA until his retirement. In 2009, his wife and long time companion, Charlotte, passed away. After completing this interview with Mike Arslanian, it is astonishing that at the age of 88 he is able to recollect the fine details and events that took place during his military service. Apparently, after 60 years, these events during World War II have had a lasting and dramatic effect on his life. After the war, Mike enjoyed the many reunions with his old war buddies that became like brothers to him during the war. He will never forget the places he went, the memories he created, and the good times that he shared with the 79th Infantry Division
Mike currently resides in Natick, MA.
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