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Chaos at Kasserine Pass

Wounded and Seeing Bob Hope


Aerial Artillery Observer


John Vessey goes by Jack. His father was John and his son is named John and his grandson is named Jack. They all alternate names. Vessey grew up in a small town in south central Minnesota. His father was a World War 1 veteran in the Rainbow Division [Annotators Note: the 42nd Division] and married his mother after World War 1. His father worked for the railroad and farmed on the side. Vessey had four sisters and two brothers. They lived on the edge of town. During the Depression Vessey's father had several jobs. They moved to Minneapolis when Vessey was in high school. They worked hard and lived simply. His first real suit was his graduation suit from high school and he worked hard to pay for it. During high school, he worked with the bridge builders on the railroad during the summer and with the heater crew in the winter. Vessey's high school years were fun. He worked during the winter time at night but not every night. He slept in school some during the day which did not help his academics. He was on the school swimming team. Vessey met his wife in the chemistry class at the school and felt the best chemistry in the class was between them. There were 600 kids in his graduating class. Almost all of the males in his class marched off to World War 2. Vessey also recalled that there were 65 married couples in his class, including he and his wife. Vessey joined the Minnesota National Guard because he was promised he could ride a motorcycle and he wanted to do that. They were mobilized in 1941 and spent that year on maneuvers in Texas and Louisiana. They were stationed at Camp Claiborne outside of Alexandria. His outfit was assigned to do some experimental work in the Carolina maneuvers in the fall of 1941 with the First Provisional Tank Destroyer Group. They returned to Camp Claiborne the night before Pearl Harbor. The next day they were ordered to move down to the Gulf of Mexico to repel a Japanese invasion which was not likely and did not happen. Their battery commander was a wise man and had a hunch they would go off to war early. He sent half of the battery on leave just before Christmas of 1941 then sent the other half, including Vessey, right after Christmas. Vessey had purchased tickets to take his girlfriend to a New Year's Eve party in Minneapolis the day before he got a telegram telling him to report back immediately. He had 40 bucks tied up in the tickets so he decided that he would leave immediately the morning of 1 January instead of 31 December. He took the train back to Alexandria and then took a cab to Camp Claiborne. The battery street was empty and the men were gone. Some guy was sweeping up and told Vessey that the battery was loading a train on a siding at Oakdale, Louisiana. He used the last of his cash to get to the train station at Oakdale. Vessey heard about the Pearl Harbor attack on the radio. They read the paper sometimes while on maneuver but they did not have personal radios at that time. It was a surprise that Pearl Harbor was attacked. Vessey thought they were at war and the general atmosphere of the country was that they would go to war. This was also the general atmosphere of his outfit. They thought they would go to war against Germany because of the Lend Lease program going on and the reports of ships being sunk in the Atlantic by German submarines. It was not a surprise that they would be at war but it was a surprise that the Japanese could execute such a brilliant attack on the American installations on Oahu.


John Vessey and his unit headed to Fort Dix to prepare to go overseas. They were supposed to go on a French ship but it caught on fire in New York harbor so they were delayed. The first part of the division leftt in January and were the first troops to go to the British Isles after Pearl Harbor. Vessey's outfit went a month later on the Aquitania with a huge convoy. They had an American battleship and a couple of cruisers that went as far as Iceland. Then they were picked up by British ships in Iceland. A number of ships in the convoy were sunk. The Aquitania had depth charges dropped so close to it that it sprung some plates. The ship developed a leak that caused it to take on water and list a little. They slept in shifts with half of the troops sleeping in the daytime and half at night. It was an exciting introduction to overseas service. Vessey was with Headquarters Battery, Division Artillery, 34th Infantry Division. The whole division got together in Ireland and trained through spring and summer [Annotators Note: of 1942]. Vessey felt it was harder to train there than in places like the United States because there was not as much terrain to use and the firing range was constricted. They had plenty of opportunity for personal training, physical training, marksmanship training and chemical warfare training but getting infantry units together to attack under artillery preparations was difficult. At the time, it seemed very vigorous to Vessey but he felt it was not particularly good in preparing them for the enemy that they met in North Africa. Vessey got promoted pretty fast. He was a buck sergeant when they left Camp Claiborne then was promoted to staff sergeant while they were waiting to get on the ship. They lost a number of NCOs [Annotators Note: non commissioned officers] who were picked to go to OCS [Annotators Note: officer candidate school]. Vessey was one of those selected for OCS but his battery commander kept him from going because he needed him. He told Vessey that he did not want to go to war with a bunch of strangers, he would rather be with his friends. Vessey agreed with him and on 1 September 1942 he was promoted to First Sergeant. One of the army papers in North Ireland suggested he was probably the youngest First Sergeant in the US Army. It was a great day because he got a two rank promotion. First Sergeants wore the same rank as technical sergeants up until 1 September 1942. After that, First Sergeants became master sergeants. Vessey went from 72 bucks a month to 120. Vessey did not remember knowing of what was coming while they were in Ireland. He recalls that a third of the division went ashore during Operation Torch [Annotators Note: the invasion of North Africa] but his unit did not. They all went over to Inveraray, Scotland and took some amphibious training there. One regimental combat team landed at Algiers and the rest landed in Oran about a month later. Vessey was stationed in the town of Omagh in Northern Ireland. He was never treated better as a soldier than he was there. Despite the troubles in Northern Ireland the people in the town were very kind to them and even gave them a farewell party when they did not even know they were going anywhere. They used their rations to throw the soldiers a Christmas party in the summer of 1942. After going to Scotland they went down to England between Manchester and Liverpool to a camp that had five barbed wire fences around it to keep the soldiers in and other people out. They loaded on ships in Liverpool and took a long circuitous ride through the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean. Again, the convoy was attacked several times. Vessey is sure the Germans knew where they were going. They were not pleasant rides. The ocean was stirred up by storms and the food was lousy as it was British. The Empire Trooper was the ship Vessey traveled on. It was built to be a troop transport. The bread was good but one of the guys in his outfit noticed that what they thought were seeds in the bread were actually insects. Someone reported that to the medics who realized the bugs were in the flour so they could not get any more bread. The guy was lucky he did not get thrown overboard.


John Vessey landed in Oran and went immediately to [Annotators Note: unsure of town he says], 50 miles or more out of Oran, to a French Army post belonging to a cavalry outfit. Then they marched to Tunisia. They spent one night at Sidi Bel Abbes where the French Foreign Legion was located. They got into Tunisia in January of 1943 and were assigned to the French 19th Corps. [Annotators Note: Vessey mentions Rick Atkinson’s book An Army at Dawn and how clearly Atkinson lays out the miserable command arrangements with the American divisions being split up and spread out across the front and not acting as divisions.] They had one regiment the 168th [Annotators Note: 168th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division] that was attached to the 1st Armored Division. The rest of the division was attached to the French 19th Corps, except for another artillery battalion that was off supporting a British Force. Vessey had some minor actions but the first major attack for them was when Rommel attacked at Sidi Bou Zid and the battle of Kasserine Pass. The battle of Kasserine Pass was organized chaos. They went from a fairly organized war to one where they were moving every night and desperately trying to make contact with flank units. They fought the Germans in fluid battles including engagements against tanks that had outflanked them or had gone through the infantry positions. Vessey was First Sergeant of the Headquarters Battery and was sent to communicate with a French GPF Battery, which was a French 155mm long range artillery outfit. They called the 155 Long Toms in the American Army. Vessey was sent out to find the observation post of this French artillery. He had a few maps but they were very primitive. He was to connect a telephone wire from the French unit to his command post so they could take advantage of the GPF battery fire. Vessey was sent out to find the observation post. It was an exciting night. They ran into German reconnaissance units during the night and had to make their way around those. They finally got to the French observation post the next morning. His high school French was not very good and he suspected that the high school English of one of the French soldiers was not very good but they made do. Vessey was told that they had an excellent view of the 1st Armored Division in a battle the day before. Vessey asked the French artillery observer if they did any firing. They had not because they did not have any communication with their battery. These men had chickens and were having fresh eggs for breakfast but they had no communications with their battery. Vessey laid wire from the French location to his command post which was a useless exercise since they still did not have communication with their own battery. That was a sample of what things were like. Vessey remembers being introduced to German air [Annotators Note: German air power]. He was not able to see any air superiority on the Allied part of North Africa. When they heard a plane fly over they did not even look up because they knew it would have crosses on it and if it could see them it would shoot at them. Vessey was confident that the Allies would win because they had God on their side but he could not see any other evidence to support that for a while. Fortunately, after Kasserine when the American units were put together as solid divisions, things looked up considerably. The 34th Infantry Division got caught in a couple of attacks at Fondouk Pass. The Division did not get good marks for its conduct there but Vessey feels the soldiers of the division fought well. The airplanes did not come when they needed them. He feels the history book treatment of the division there was not born out of the conduct of the troops on the ground. They moved up north at the end of the war [Annotators Note: at the end of the fighting in North Africa]. The most important battle for the division then was Hill 609. This was the last defenses for Tunis and Bizerte.


[Annotators Note: John Vessey served in the army as the First Sergeant of Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, Division Artillery, 34th Infantry Division.] The day before the attack on Hill 609 the troops were given their first doses of Atabrine and instructed to take a large dose. This resulted in a high percentage of troops bing sick on the morning of the attack at Hill 609. The attack on Hill 609 was a difficult operation against a well trained and fairly desperate enemy. History books treat Hill 609 as a redeeming fight for the 34th Infantry Division. Earlier actions on the ground showed that the troops were capable, brave and ready to fight. Vessey looks back on it with some 40 years of military service and recognizes how miserable the logistics system was. He recalls leaving the barracks bags back at La Kef which was bombed by the Germans and all their gear was lost. They went through the Tunisian campaign with what was in their packs and bedrolls. There was no clothing replacement or bath units. Water was 60 to 100 miles away so they were filthy and their clothes were worn out. After Kasserine they were to put on a demonstration for General Patton on the affects of American weapons against German and Italian armored vehicles. They lined up several German and Italian tanks and armored personnel carriers. They had all of their weapons with them. They were armed with British 25 pounders [Annotators Note: British artillery was sometimes identified by the weight of the projectile fired by the weapon] during the North Africa Campaign. Their medium artillery battalion had World War 1 Schneider’s but they also had 37mm antitank guns, the new 2.75 inch rocket launcher [Annotators Note: also known as the bazooka] which had just arrived after the battle, and .50 caliber machineguns. They had all of these weapons displayed. Patton drove up and the 34th Division commander, Doc Ryder [Annotators Note: Major General Charles W. Ryder], was there with one of the regimental commanders. Patton saw this crew that had not had its clothes cleaned or changed in a couple of months. Apparently, the army had gotten the word to wear their insignia on their helmets or caps. That had not reached the 34th Infantry Division and so the officers did not have that. Patton drove up in his shiny jeep with shiny boots and with stars on his helmet. Patton got out and General Ryder reported to him. Patton took one look around and said that they were the worst disciplined troops he have ever seen in his life. Then he got back in his jeep and rode away. They never did get to put on the demonstration. Within a few days they got instructions from Patton on how to wear their uniform, ties and leggings. This was difficult for them as they had not received any clothing supplies and did not know where the supply chain was that was to provide them. Vessey recalls the screwed up command arrangements before the battle of Sidi bou Zid. Fredendall [Annotators Note: Lieutenant General Lloyd R. Fredenhall] was relieved afterward. The 34th Division was not under the corps at that time as they were under the French 19th Corps. Eisenhower had been up there the night before the battle in their position. Vessey does not know how much territory Eisenhower covered but he knows he covered most of the American units the night before that battle. He wondered why he did not make any changes but as he got older he realized that he could not have made any changes that night and was stuck with what Fredendall, the French commander and British commander had done.


John Vessey learned a lot from his 34th Infantry Division leaders. His experience in North Africa colored his outlook toward the army for the rest of his career. They had some top notch commanders and they had a few that were not all that great. He has great memories of the officers who were around the men and were determined to succeed. He realized that they had been trained for a war different than the one they were fighting and they worked to change things. If they were not fighting, they were training. The Division Artillery Officer, Fritz Peterson, was a World War 1 veteran. When they came into Tunisia they had a difficult time finding materials to build a bunkers. They built a bunker along the edge of a wadi for a fire direction center. Colonel Peterson came through the area to inspect them and asked if they thought it would protect them against German fire. Peterson said to take the two and a half ton truck and drive it on the bunker. They did and the bunker collapsed. They were cursing Colonel Peterson for several days but when the first German round came in and the new bunker survived a close hit they stopped. Their division commander was also a World War 1 veteran. Vessey spent the rest of his life and in his military career making sure that the troops under his command and in the Armed Forces as a whole would be trained as well as possible and continually looked for new and better ways to train soldiers. He also workd to assure that the quality of Americas antitank weapons, armor, artillery, and other equipment surpassed that of the enemy. Vessey was nicked during an air attack after the fight at Hill 609 when they moved to the outskirts of Bizerte. They got bombed one night and he was hit. The wound was enough to send him to the aid station and eventually the hospital. There, they found some other medical problems that they thought were more serious than the wound he had so he spent the summer in the hospital and convalescent camp outside of Algiers. During that time he got to see Bob Hope's first overseas show. They were trucked from the camp to the show. Some of the guys from his outfit found out where he was while the outfit was in Oran. They came to see him and told him that it looked like they were packing up to leave and if he did not get back soon he would lose his job as a First Sergeant. Vessey took a train from Algiers to Oran and reported back to the outfit. He was carried on the roles from the camp as a deserter and Absent Without Leave [Annotators Note: also referred to as AWOL]. Fortunately, his commander got it all straightened out and he was able to get back in time to go to Italy. The 36th Infantry Division made the initial invasion at Salerno. One of the battalions in Vessey's unit fought with the 36th Division at that time and saved the beachhead. The war in Italy went on until December 1945. By the start of Italy [Annotators Note: the start of combat operations in Italy] senior American commanders knew how to fight American units. They stayed together as a division. They crossed the Volturno River several times and had some tough fights from September to Christmas of 1943. In early December 1943 the 34th Division fought at Mount Pantano, north of Cassino. It was extremely difficult fighting. Several infantry battalion commanders were lost in that fight. Then they went from Venafro toward Cassino. They went through the 45th Infantry Division and had the 1st Special Forces [Annotators Note: 1st Special Service Force], a Canadian-American unit, on one flank. They wound up with the Italian Legnano Groupa on the other flank for a short period of time when they attacked Monte Lungo at a town called Mignano. There, he met an Alpene Second Lieutenant named Luigi Poli. Vessey gave them a little help. Poli was an artillery officer and Vessey was still Sergeant of the Battery but had been sent out to do some more observer work. Later on during the war they were both air observers and flew out of the same strip. They were forward observers with adjacent infantry companies in the Apennines. Through the years they both went up the ranks. When Poli became Vice-Chief of the Italian Army, Vessey became Vice-Chief of the American Army. They kept in touch loosely and exchanged visits. When Vessey became JCS Chairman [Annotators Note: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] in the United States, Poli became Chief of Staff of the Italian Army. Poli visited the United States and Vessey visited Italy. Vessey lead a group of veterans to the fortieth anniversary of the Fall of Rome and gave a speech. Poli was in charge of the ceremonies for that. At the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day, Poli was again in charge of the Italian Celebration and was then a Senator. Vessey experienced some difficult fighting in and around Cassino. By that time the war in Italy had taken second place to what was about to happen in Europe. The Battle of Cassino probably could have been won much earlier if Mark Clark had any reserves left to exploit the successes that were made. Vessey had a battalion that got behind the abbey which looked out over the Liri Valley. It was an infantry battalion commanded by an artilleryman named Ken Burns who later commanded the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam when Vessey was serving in it. After some very tough fighting they were relieved by New Zealanders. Then they went to Anzio. Italy was an Allied effort. In the Mount Pantano area they fought next to Moroccan troops. They fought next to New Zealanders and Italians, and with British and Canadians in the 1st Special Forces Group. It was something that became common for them to do. When the first Brazilians came they spent some time with Vessey's outfit to get accustomed to the fighting. The first Brazilian casualty was about twenty feet from Vessey. The Brazilians were attached to the 34th Division for some time. The 34th had the 100th Battalion and later the 442nd Regimental Combat Team attached to them before they went to France and then after they came back to Italy. They had ample experience working with people from different countries. Vessey recalls being relieved by an Indian division one time. Today, when Americans are working with Iraqis or Afghan troops, it is not the first time that Americans have worked with people from other parts of the world. The weather was cold, wet, muddy, snowy and just crappy at Cassino and casualties were high. The Germans had their first parachute outfit in Cassino which was a top notch outfit. The Germans had decided to keep that place [Annotators Note: the abbey atop Monte Cassino] and had done some remarkable things to defend it. The German commander, von Senger und Etterlin [Annotators Note: Frido von Senger und Etterlin] of the 14th Panzer Korps, was one of the best in the German Army. The opposition was stout and the Americans were short of reserves. Had there been reserves to exploit the successes that were made, the front would have broken through much earlier.


[Annotators Note: John Vessey served in the army as the First Sergeant of Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, Division Artillery, 34th Infantry Division.] The Germans introduced the Americans to the nebelwerfer at Cassino. It was a multiple rocket launch system that covered a large area and had a frightening sound. While they were at Cassino the Anzio landing took place. Vessey remembered firing propaganda shells at the Germans. The translation to one of the leaflets they fired said you are surrounded and showed a map of where Americans had gone ashore at Anzio. The Americans ran into a buzz saw there as the Germans had forces ready to counterattack and did so immediately. A couple of days later German artillery shells burst over their position containing leaflets in English asking who is surrounded. They pointed out quite accurately that the Anzio Beachhead was in serious trouble. One of the artillery liaison officers was a guy named Tom Young. He was a friend of Vessey's and someone he admired greatly. Young was at an observation post in the second story of a house in Cassino. The Germans attacked and took over the ground floor. Fortunately, he had contact with an American tank that was down the street and was able to direct tank fire into the lower story of the house and was able to get the enemy out of there. That is the sort of fighting that went on in the town. The Germans had constructed armored pillboxes which had an axle on the top of it so that wheels could go on it and it could be pulled. It was a two man armored pillbox that they would put inside of a house so it was protected by the rubble of the house as well as the armor of the pillbox. They would usually put a machinegun and two soldiers in it. It was a tremendous defensive position for fighting in cities or road blocks. That sort of thing intensified the combat in Cassino and the area immediately around it. They took positions that were essentially not much more than defensive when they got to Anzio. Every night they got a lot of shell fire and some German planes would come over and drop bombs. They were well dug in so casualties were fairly light but steady. Vessey got replacements one day and one of the men looked like he was 13 or 14 years old. Vessey gave the replacements a briefing on how to stay alive and what their jobs would be then sent them to get something to eat. This kid turned around and in big letters on the back of his field jacket it said Homestead PA High School. A couple of days later they got tapped to send somebody to the Red Cross donut machine in the city of Nettuno. The Red Cross had an outfit there that made donuts and every once and a while they would get doughnuts for their outfit. Vessey was worried about this kid because he looked so young so he sent him. Vessey thought he was keeping the kid safe. About a week later a shell from the German 280 railroad gun [Annotators Note: Krupp K5 280 millimeter railroad gun] hit the doughnut machine. It did not explode but the kid was burned by hot oil and received a number of shrapnel wounds from aluminum fragments and spent a good part of the rest of the war in the hospital recovering from it. Vessey was commissioned while they were at Anzio.


During the breakout from the Anzio beachhead John Vessey was a forward observer with an infantry company. They were attached to the 1st Armored Division which provided tanks to pull armored sleds. There was no cover on top of them. Eight soldiers could lay down in the sled which was pulled behind a tank. The Germans put up a good fight and there were many attacks and counterattacks at key positions. There was a railroad cut that was difficult to get through and the Germans defended that very well. At that time a breakthrough had been made in the south and the German front was collapsing. After a tough fight in the Alban hills they went through Rome, which had to be the greatest day of the war up to then. They got kissed by hundreds of Italian women and thousands of Italian civilians with bottles of wine offered drinks to the troops. It was a joyous day. Then they were sent up the Terranian Coast after and went through Civitaveccia. It was there that they captured the 280s [Krupp K5 280 millimeter railroad guns]. They paused briefly in Civitaveccia and Vessey went to the beach and took a bath. He walked through a patch of sea urchins and got a bunch of sea urchin spines in his feet. They fought through a series of roadblocks from there to Livorno, or Leghorn. They then went to Pisa. There they fought some small skirmishes with the 14th Panzer Corps. Then they went into a rest camp for 30 days. They were relieved by antiaircraft battalions that had been converted to infantry overnight and they were left with tank battalions as their direct artillery support. They did not have any forward observers so Vessey and others rotated through those outfits and acted as artillery forward observers for the converted infantry. It did not take the Germans long to understand that they were fighting against amateurs there. It was exciting to be up there although the Germans did not make any major attacks because they would have had to cross the Volturno River but they had patrols into the rear areas quite regularly. They were on the beach in a place called Rosignano Solvay and there were many Italians refugees from Florence and Pisa there. There was a woman with her daughter that they met on the beach there. The daughter was attractive and her mother was protecting her from any Americans that wanted to get too close. It was fun talking to them. Vessey went through his rotation as a forward observer and she inquired about el torre di Pisa [the leaning tower of Pisa]. He told her it had been destroyed by artillery fire. She had an umbrella and he thought she was going to kill him with it. He tried to explain that he was only making a joke and the tower was still in good shape. Then they were to go through the British into Florence and Vessey was sent on reconnaissance to pick out an area for artillery. The Germans withdrew from Florence and blew down all the bridges except for Pointe de Vecchio. They moved up into the North Apennines and spent winter there. There were no big attacks there. The weather was bad and snowy. They were short of ammunition. They only had five rounds per gun per day for the light artillery and three rounds per gun per day for medium artillery. German air force was no longer a threat so in the artillery they took all of the air defense .50 caliber machineguns off the trucks and made a .50 caliber machinegun battalion. They had to develop new tactics for it. It was a long, difficult and uncomfortable winter. In the spring came the attack toward Bolognia for the 34th Infantry Division and a turn to the left up the Po Valley. Vessey spent the last part of the war as an air observer. Once they were approaching Milan and a guy named Joe Enos, who was the pilot, and Vessey were sent to Highway 63 to look for a German division that had been unaccounted for. They flew through the mountains and finally found them. There were German vehicles, tanks and trucks as far as the eye could see. They reported what they saw but there was nothing in range that could take them under fire. One of the battalions moved a field artillery battery to within range and were able to block the column from moving. It did not take the Germans long to bring up 20 millimeter antiaircraft guns to shoot at them but they did not have enough range and Vessey was able to continue adjusting the fire. Then they brought an 88 [Annotators Note: 88 millimeter antiaircraft gun] up but by that time they had run out of fuel. They called for someone to take their place but their replacements got erroneous instructions on the route to follow. They went down the wrong valley and the wrong road. Vessey and his pilot refueled and returned. By the time they returned the Germans had gotten some vehicles through to the next little village that straddled the highway. A reconnaissance platoon and a platoon of infantry were sent down to intercept the Germans. The Germans were coming with at least a division. Vessey had no communication with the troops on the ground but they could see what was going to happen so he dropped messages to a light tank in front. Vessey had some message containers with a long orange streamers. He could write messages and drop them to the Americans. He dropped the first one and it hit the tank and slid off. The tankers must have thought they were playing games. Vessey sent two more messages before they finally picked one up. The message was that there were thousands of German troops on the road, the head of the column is at this position about a mile and a half down the road and they occupy that town. The troops on the ground waved at Vessey and seemed to acknowledge the message but went right on into the town leading with the light tank. The Germans occupied the houses on either side of the road. They captured the tank then turned it around to shoot at who was coming. Eventually, that division surrendered and it turned out to be the German 34th Division surrendering to the American 34th Division. Both Enos and Vessey were sent to General Bolte's trailer and were supposed to give him a report on what they did. General Bolte gave them each a shot of whiskey and told them they would get Silver Stars for the work they had done. They never got them but did get the whiskey. Not long after that the war ended.


John Vessey had just returned from a mission when he was told that a cease fire was going into effect and the war in Italy was over. Within 24 hours he was told his name had come up on the lottery to go back to the United States on leave. He loaded onto a truck and rode all the way back to Leghorn where the 34th Infantry Division rear was located. They were near Milan and it was a circuitous route because of the bridges that had been knocked out. It was a long ride in the back of the truck. When he got there he found out he had been assigned to take a shipload of German prisoners from Leghorn to Naples. The little ship held 400 or 500 German prisoners, a half dozen military policemen and Vessey. They took them down to Naples and turned them over to the provost marshal. Vessey was sent to a holding area for officers going home. There were hundreds there waiting for a ride home. Vessey volunteered to be a courier and went back to the United States as such. He went home and had orders to report to a replacement center in San Antonio. He reported in and was told that he would not go back to join the 34th Division but would become a replacement for the war in Japan. Then they looked at his record and saw that he was a battlefield commission and decided that he was not smart enough to go to the Pacific immediately. He was sent to a short course on field artillery to learn what he did not know. Before the course was over the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Vessey had gotten married in the meantime. They had left for the war right after Pearl Harbor. Vessey did not grasp the enormity of the effort of the American people. He was busy fighting the war. He never thought about who was making the ammunition, trucks, guns and airplanes because they just kept coming. His father died while he was on the ship on the way to North Africa, leaving his mother with six kids still in school, so Vessey sent most of his money home. He also put some money in savings. The first thing he wanted to do was buy a new car. It was joyous to be home. He had one brother off in the Pacific in the navy and his oldest sister was an army nurse that had been deployed to Europe. His mother was a nurse and had gone back to work. Vessey's girlfriend insisted they get married even though the prospect of his going to another war was still there. They got married that summer. Some friends gave them a car to use and people at their church gave them gas coupons so they could go on a honeymoon. Someone loaned them their vacation cabin for the honeymoon. Vessey could not go anywhere without being patted on the back and thanked. It was a great relief. He had not done anything but sleep on the ground for three years and get his coffee in an aluminum canteen cup. The battles shaped what he thought the American Army ought to do and did not think at the time that he would be involved with it the rest of his life. He never forgot the impressions after coming face to face with some of Rommel’s troops. The competence of the German armored forces in the battles starting at Sidi bou Zid, along with the quality of the equipment they had and the obvious close integration of air support and artillery support with the maneuver units, just said to the Americans that they did not know how to do it right. It was something that when he had the opportunity later on to make sure America did it right, the lessons from the early battles were on his mind. They were the only American troops that fought in the North African theater that fought against an enemy that had local air superiority. As an army guy, he wants the Air Force to be in a position to make sure that the enemy air does not interrupt ground operations. Certainly those lessons come from those early battles. Vessey was going to get out of the army and knew they were looking for regular officers to stay in the army afterward. He did not have the qualifications. He did not have a college education at the time. It was obviously no point in him applying for it. He had planned to get out but was assigned to a school troop at the Fort Sill field artillery school. It was a top notch outfit with a lot of people with experience in World War 2. One of them was a brigadier general who had been reduced lieutenant colonel. He had never commanded a battalion but was sent to command one. The soldiers they had were old regular army soldiers. It was a good outfit and Vessey enjoyed what he was doing. He and his wife had discussed it briefly. She had finished college during the war and gone off to be a school teacher. He picked up some college credits but no degree. He had some job offers from friends of his father in Minnesota. They talked about getting out but stayed around for a couple of years. He was about to get out but told his wife how much he had enjoyed a day of field training with his battalion. She asked why he was getting out if he enjoyed it and he said he was getting out because he thought she wanted him to. She encouraged him to stay but even then he still did not meet the qualifications to become a regular army officer. About that time the test to be a regular army warrant officer came up. There were a number of certain skill tests and Vessey took the test to be a field artillery gunner instructor. He was one of two appointed. A year or so later the army went from two ranks of warrant officer to four. There were 1,500 warrant officers in the army at that time. Vessey was still serving as a first lieutenant reserve officer on active duty but was on the rolls as one of those warrant officers. The 1,500 warrant officers were put on a lineal promotion list according to rank. Vessey was number 1,496. Shortly after that there was a chance to compete for a regular army commission. He applied and was accepted as a regular army officer. By that time he had been an officer for six years but he was appointed a new second lieutenant so he went down the scale quite rapidly. Even though he was commissioned in 1944 he went behind the cadet classes of 1944 through 1949.


John Vessey feels there are enormous lessons, not only military and strategic, but political lessons that we as a nation need to learn about unifying the nation. It is frustrating to look at today’s atmosphere and recall the days after World War 2 when most politicians were veterans. Even though they had serious differences, foreign policy was largely bipartisan and there were statesmen on both sides of the isle. They got together to solve the nation’s problems. Most Americans are touched by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with only about one percent carrying the burden of the war. Our nation has not been asked to give anything to support it. It does not surprise him that there is great debate about the war and whether or not we should be in it. He feels those questions should be answered after reflective study on what the interests and values of the United States are. Vessey feels it is important to have museums like The National WWII Museum. He was on the design committee for the World War II Monument. For a long time he was opposed because he thought that World War 2 was too big an issue and clearly the defining event of the 20th Century. It shaped the modern world. He felt it was just too big to capture in a monument or something like that and museums can only focus on a facet of it. Now, he sees evidence that young people know little or nothing about World War 2 and the sacrifices and effort of the American people or the enormous cost by 70 million people killed during the war. There are enormous lessons to be learned from World War 2. [Annotators Note: There is a break for General Vessey to use the restroom] Vessey feels that this interview provides a cursory look at one guy who was a low ranking second lieutenant was only one-sixteenth millionth of the contribution of the armed forces. Vessey will probably think of a thousand things that he should have said but did not. He suspects it is not much different from other veterans his age. Vessey reiterates the importance of what the museum is doing in recording the events and lessons of World War 2 and the importance of the American people to undertake the colossal task of taking an army of 200,000 and making it an Army of ten million. Today, if Boeing wants to build something it takes five years. During the war they were building ships that had not even been thought of that were put out by the dozens and hundreds. Vessey recalls this month’s issue of the Minnesota Historical Society Journal with a photo on it of the all women crew at the Danube Iron Ore mine in Northern Minnesota. Inside the article itself there are pictures of the enormous machines and tons of iron ore that went out of that mine. There was not a man on that crew. The girls had their hair pinned up and coveralls on. Some were old enough to be mothers and grandmothers and there are possibly some mother daughter pairs in the picture. It is difficult to grasp that sort of effort. Vessey gives his best wishes to the museum and its efforts.

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