Can you be more specific with regard to your Army assignment?
I would rather give you my information, first, about the American Field Service. That's a lot more interesting, I think.
After Pearl Harbor, everybody was floundering around trying to figure out what to do. I wanted to get into it. I couldn't get in the Air Force because my eyes weren't good enough; I couldn't get into the Navy program called V-12 because I had only two years of college, and then I heard about the organization called the American Field Service, which was a private organization that collected funds and bought ambulances, which were stationed with the armies that were fighting. In this case, they were first with the French before the French collapsed, and then they went with the British Armies. Volunteers were recruited from folks in America. If you were enlisted (so to speak), you bought your own dress uniforms. To begin with, we didn't get paid anything at all. That was the situation that I was in as of June 1942.
On that date, I was given my instructions to report to a place in New York. There were twelve of us in the same position, and we all went aboard a Dutch freighter called the Liredam, which was going to take us to Egypt. We sailed on the 23rd of June, and the next morning-I should say that this was the height of the German submarine menace on the East Coast-we woke up on the morning of 24th and little planes-Civil Air Patrol Planes-were flying around dropping smoke bombs. And small, probably modified private craft, were dropping depth charges, which we could feel against the hull. All of this was at a time when you could virtually swim to the Jersey Shore.
We went down the east coast of the United States, and every night-by that time we were in a convoy-every night the convoy put into a harbor, or if there was not a protected harbor, we went into a place that was guarded by submarine nets. We eventually ended up in Trinidad, where we spent a day or two, as I can best recall it. After that we left Trinidad, and the ship that I was on, which as I said was Dutch freighter, went all by itself across the south Atlantic, and we arrived in Capetown. We spent a few days there. We reboarded and went up the east coast of Africa, through the Gulf of Madagascar, and then into the Red Sea, and eventually disembarked at what I believe was called Port Tufic, outside of Cairo. This entire voyage, from the time we left New York, took eighty-three days.
When we arrived in Egypt, we disembarked and were taken to some sort of a camp where there were other American Field Service people. We were indoctrinated; we were given British field uniforms; we received a little more instruction in things like map reading, though we were given this on the ship. And then one day, not long after, volunteers were needed, so a buddy of mine and I raised our hands, and we jumped in an ambulance, and we were off to our first assignment, which was carrying sick soldiers from one place to another. We ended up in blackout, having never been on the road before, and having little or no idea where we were going. He walked in front waving a white handkerchief, and drove very slowly until we arrived at where we were supposed to leave these passengers off.
AFS Stretcher Bearers and Ambulances in Africa, 1942
Things began to get exciting on the 23rd of October, which was the Battle of El Alamein. The British Army had been kicked up and down the coast there, two times before, and at this particular point, they were with their backs to Cairo-literally within less than 100 miles, and Rommel and his people were knocking on the door. There was a story that the Egyptian folks were not very friendly. A club there had a big sign, and they were ready to change the sign to the Messerschmitt Club the minute the Germans came in.
Map of the Second Battle of El Alamein, October 1942
Author: Noclador (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Battle_of_El_Alamein)
However, things changed on the night of the 23rd when this gigantic bombardment opened up, and the horizon was alight almost all night long with British guns. And that was the beginning of the move west, along the coast: through Egypt, through Libya, and into Tunisia, where the Germans finally surrendered. The specific date, I don't remember.
That was close to the end of my one-year enlistment period in the Field Service. At that particular point, I had been in love with the woman who has been my wife for sixty-three years, and I was very anxious to get back to her. We went aboard-those of us whose enlistment was up-we went aboard an Indian hospital ship, in Tunis. Some fellas who were arriving in the American Field Service were getting off that ship, and we asked then, "How was the food?" And they answered, "Ah, well, not very good." We got on that ship, and we found that we were dining at a table that had white linen, silver, and Indian waiters. The food was mostly curry, and as far as we were concerned, it was absolutely the most delicious meal we'd had in six, or eight, or nine months.
I recall we slept on deck overnight, and we arrived…probably in Alexandria. After a little while, we picked up a ship, which went back down the Red Sea, back down to Capetown, where we changed ships, and back to New York. The voyage was a lot less than eighty-three days, I have to tell you!
That's right. You didn't have to go back down the east coast of Africa this time.
Exactly, exactly. When we got back, the first thing I really wanted to do was see this girl who had been writing to me religiously, thank heaven. So I think I spent one night with my family in New York, and then went out to Connecticut to visit this girl at her family's house.
She worked for the draft board in Greenwich, CT, which is where I was registered, and I was hot to trot. I went down to the draft board the next day and said, "I want to go." And the fellow who was in charge said, "No, you don't really want to. The next draft is next week. You want to wait a month." My wife told me afterward that she had sort of arranged this, for which I was eternally grateful.
So, I went into the Army in October of 1943. I went up to Ft. Devens, which was sort of an induction point. Then I got on a troop train with all the curtains closed, and we traveled for possibly three days. When the blinds went up, we stepped out, lo and behold, into palm trees and a lot of sand. And I had been in a lot of sand for the past year. I just shook my head and grinned.
I found out that where we were, was Camp Blanding, FL, which was the largest-maybe the only-infantry replacement training center. There were thousands and thousands and thousands of men there who were training to be infantry replacements.
Photos of Sykes Scherman and Trudy Achelis near the time of their engagement, June 1944
I'm sorry, what was the name of the camp, again?
Camp Blanding. It was located in Stark, FL, which I think is the site of Florida's electric chair.
I went through the training cycle there, in what was to be my only company affiliation. It was Company B, 209th Infantry Training Battalion of the 65th Infantry Training Regiment. This was a company that trained men to be heavy weapons operators, which is to say, 30 caliber water-cooled machineguns and 81 mm mortars. The training cycle was seventeen weeks.
During that cycle, I might say, I was a nine day wonder because in…at the end of 1943, there really wasn't anybody in the service who had come back from being overseas, as I had. I had a few stories I could tell about the time we found-in Africa-we found wooden bullets in a German encampment. I was pulled out of rank, at Camp Blanding, any number of times as a trainee to tell that story to virtually incredulous senior officers.
At the end of my training cycle, I fully expected to be sent back overseas, but I was retained as training cadre. So, come the next cycle, I'm the low man on the instructor pole. Pretty soon I'm a corporal; pretty soon I'm a sergeant; pretty soon I'm a staff sergeant; pretty soon I'm a tech. sergeant. And, toward the end… The most interesting anecdote I can recall out of that was, during my own training cycle, we went out in the field, and the sergeant said, "Alright, we're going to dig foxholes." I looked at him and I said, "Sergeant, this is what I've been doing for the past…" He said, "You go ahead and dig 'em anyway!"
So, that, in effect, is a short summary of what went on in my service.
Well, there's quite a bit to talk about here. I think where I'd like to start is, you said that in 1942 you joined the American Field Service. Is that correct?
So, that's not even fully a year after Pearl Harbor.
No, it was about six months.
Right. So what had you been doing at the time prior to that?
The time prior to that, I had been at the University of Virginia for two years, and I had left after my second year because I didn't feel I was getting enough out of the University at that time. I could see that the war was coming, and I went to work in the insurance business in New York City.
What were you studying at UVA?
I thought I was going to be studying economics, which was really-as I look back on it-would have been a tremendous mistake for me. I probably should have been studying English or possibly history, but not economics.
What is your family background? Where are you from in the United States?
I am from New York and Connecticut.
So, you're very much a transplant.
Well, yes, except that I can say that I went to the University.
So, after you left UVA, what month did you join the American Field Service?
I joined in June of '42.
So you had fully completed your second year and made up your mind not to go back. Were you working at all in New York at the time?
Yes, I worked in the insurance business. I was living in Connecticut and commuting to lower Manhattan everyday, six days a week.
You said you could see war on the horizon…
Well war was already going on it Europe. It was only a matter of time before we got into it.
You said you joined the American Field Service, and mentioned reasons for not joining the Air Force and the Navy. Did you not consider the Army initially?
No, because I really wanted to get over there, and I knew if I joined the American Field Service, I would be over there in just a matter of months.
So how did you find out about the American Field Service?
Where we lived at that particular time, which was Greenwich, CT, there was sort of a little hot bed of supporters of the American Field Service, and the word was out. I really can't tell you specifically how; I can't recall exactly how I heard about it.
Right. And how did you go about enlisting?
Well what you do is, their headquarters was at 60 Beaver Street, and you just go down and talk to them. They said, "Swell! Come on! Sign here."
So they definitely needed people.
Were there any requirements for that other than having to buy your own uniforms?
No. You had to be reasonably physically fit, but other than that, no. There were guys there who were older than I was, guys with glasses. I don't think there was anybody there with crutches, but, no, there were no requirements.
Did you enlist with any who you knew prior to joining?
No, but waiting around…this June 23rd date was actually the date we sailed. We, in effect, were associated with the American Field Service for several months before that, and in the process there were other volunteers from other parts of the country who were brought in and bunked with people in Greenwich who were waiting to get on the ship, just like I was.
Okay. So you sailed on the 23rd. Other than the extreme length of that voyage and your submarine fears, what were the conditions like aboard that ship?
They were wonderful! This was a Dutch freighter, and the food was really pretty good. There were two of us to a little cabin, and there were only the thirteen of us and one Canadian Naval Lieutenant who was aboard, so there were really only fourteen of us who were not concerned with the operation of the ship. It was great. It was on that voyage that I learned to cheerfully eat weevils in cookies.
That is a unique answer to that question, by a long shot. You hear horror stories of these GIs on troop transports, and it doesn't sound like very much fun.
That was the best of all the voyages that I was on. Of the three that I was on, that was the best one. I remember another incident when we were approaching Trinidad, and we were told that there was a food shortage on the island, so we were given sandwiches. All the sandwiches went into a pillowcase, and I got to carry the pillowcase. All of us made a b-line for what was called the Queens Park Hotel. We went into the bar at about eleven o'clock in the morning and began drinking Cuba Libres. It turned out that there was really no necessity for the sandwiches in the pillowcase, but we did eat them.
Other than your initial U-boat encounters off the Jersey shore and then subsequently down the East Coast, were there any problems once you left the northern Atlantic?
No. To keep us busy aboard the freighter, we were all assigned to submarine watch. We had binoculars, and we would stand an hour on-daily-so we kept a sharp eye, but we never had any problems; we were never threatened. There was no activity at all.
Where there any other instances where you were given the opportunity to go ashore?Capetown. In Capetown there were-say, I had been for two years in Charlottesville, VA in 1938-39-40-when I went ashore in Capetown, I was absolutely appalled at the Apartheid. I really could believe it. It was so much more than anything that I had seen in the United States, and in some reports, uh, we weren't prepared. Nobody told us that when you go ashore, you're going to find a lot of stuff you've never seen before. But, that made a tremendous impact on me, as did, I remember, a lovely South African girl with whom I went out to dinner one night.
What specifically about those conditions? I'm familiar with the Apartheid, and my fiancé just got back from Capetown, so I hear stories, but…
Well, I don't know. It was the signs. It was the fact that we very quickly learned that a black and white didn't walk down the street together. The whole impression was just sort of overwhelming.
And how long were you there?
Probably four, or three days.
From there you reboarded…
From there we reboarded…same ship, and went all the way up and never went ashore until we got to Egypt.
You mentioned that you had done some training aboard the ship.
Well we did. We learned map reading, and we learned some first aid, and uh…first aid, map reading, calisthenics to keep us a little bit fit: that's about all we did.
Was there an officer structure that was similar to the Army?
The officer structure was: it was just one of us. It was somebody in the American Field Service who was thought to be more senior. There was one man, whose name escapes me at the moment, who was in charge of our unit of thirteen people. When we got to Africa, there was a more, a much more elevated hierarchy of people. I ended up at some particular point as a, I think they called them section leaders, where I had six ambulances under my command.
We were…what the American Field Service did over there, the American Field Service ambulances were assigned to what I seem to recall was called a Light Field Ambulance, and I think we were with the 14th Light Field Ambulance. The American ambulances took the place of what had been British ambulances, and we drove Dodge vehicles. We pretty much had service always taken care of mostly by British mechanics.
So you were basically a supplementary force to what the armies, at the time, were able to provide?
Well, in effect, we freed up the British from having to provide x-teen ambulances and drivers…
So the British weren't supplying ambulances, really at all?
I think mostly…I can't say that the American Field Service provided all the ambulances for the British 8th Army. I doubt that we did, but we provided quite a few, in the number of probably fifty or sixty to the British 8th Army.
You mentioned first aid. Did you ever have to provide care?
No, we didn't. The way these light field ambulance units worked was that casualties were brought back from what you might call-well, where the casualties were incurred-I think they were called casualty-clearing stations. Then they were brought back to where we were (there were medical facilities there, too), and after the casualties were checked, we transferred them to our ambulances, and took them back farther still to more extensive medical care.
Did you have any…you mentioned, obviously being involved in the Battle of El Alamein. The British sustained a fair number of casualties in most of the time before that, as my memory serves. So, would you say that was when you were still being introduced to this way of life, or was El Alamein your first bit of action?
No, El Alamein was the first. El Alamein was the big kickoff. As far as I was concerned, and as far as the British 8th Army was concerned, that was the last time they had to go down the desert.
And how long had you been in Africa prior to the Battle of El Alamein?
Well, I could tell you exactly because I have a journal over there-almost 300 pages that I kept-uh, probably, a month…six weeks.
With as much detail as you would like to provide, what was the Battle of El Alamein like? I imagine that might have been pretty horrific.
Well, it was a great big…basically that desert warfare was a battle of tanks, and the Battle of El Alamein was-I can't give you the details-but the Alamein line ran between what was called the Qattara Depression, which was very very soft sand, and the coast. All the activity was in that space. It was just gigantic bombardments, and British forces moved forward and drove the Germans back. Along the way there, very shortly-because that was when the Italians were still in it-we saw hundreds, if not thousands of Italians just sitting on the desert floor waiting to be picked up because they had all surrendered.
What was the level of interaction that you had between yourselves-being part of the Field Service-and the British soldiers…other than transporting them.
Other than transporting them, we had pretty good interaction. Let me put it this way. We were close with the British soldiers who operated the facilities: the mechanics, particularly with the mess people, and some medical people. But mostly, our relationship was with ourselves, with the other Field Service people, because we were always bibwacked right around, close to the soldiers.
I do recall that on Halloween of 1942, my buddy and I-there were two of us to an ambulance-we decided that we would really like to have a drink, so we were not ranked as what the British called ORs, which is Other Ranks. We had, as Field Service people, a warrant officer rank, which gave us a little more privilege, so we were able to go to the officer's mess and asked to buy a bottle of Scotch. We said, "it's Halloween," and the man said, "by Jove, yes, all-hallows-eve." We bought the bottle of scotch, took it back to our ambulance, and I can only tell you that we didn't remember much of anything until the next morning when we were in the mess line and all the other guys were talking about that tremendous bombardment we had last night.
The following anecdote was related to me after my initial interview with Mr. Scherman, and he asked that I add it, as it has particular for the historical context and humor of his experience:
On the Christmas of 1942, Mr. Scherman and a few friends from the AFS were eating lunch on the ground near their camp. A British Brigadier General walked over and said that he wanted to say a few words to the "American chaps." It was obvious, Mr. Scherman added, that this General had had a few celebratory drinks that day. What he said was that after the war with Germany was won, the Germans would join the Allies in a war against Russia. In hindsight, that General was absolutely correct, and Mr. Scherman remembers thinking that he wished that man had worked for the foreign diplomatic service instead of the Army. Mr. Scherman also noted that when he left Africa and submitted his journal to the censors of the British Intelligence Service, that anecdote was blacked out.
So you were-were you living in the British campsite?
Oh yeah, we were attached.
So you were supplied and fed by the British?
Yeah, we were supplied and fed by the British.
So the American Field Service was primarily the organization that got you there…
Yes, it was the organization that got you there, and provided the ambulances.
But other than that, the American Field Service, at the time, was just kind of a name that you were attached to?
Yeah, we were little things on our shoulders that said were American Field Service, but we wore British uniforms. We were allowed to-if we wanted to-wear officer's caps. I remember walking through Cairo, before we ever went out into the desert, and passing by a British place with a sentry out front, and he snaps up this riffle salute, and I was completely taken off. I sort of kept on walking. I felt very small, because at that particular point, I hadn't yet gotten into the habit of saluting anything or anybody.
Certificate of Service for Sykes Scherman from the American Field Service, 24 May 1945
So by the time you got there, you were essentially just swept up into British military life.
Okay. I think I'll save the part for later when we talk about the similarities and differences between the two, because that is something I'd like to hear about.
I'm not sure there's any comment I can make on it.
No. Between what?
Between the customs and pageantry of life in the American army versus the British army.
Well I didn't know-we didn't know anything about the pageantry. There wasn't any pageantry, I'll tell you that. Customs…
So no major differences?
No, no major differences, except for maybe in the quality of the food, for example. I mean, we ate what was called 'bully beef', from Argentina, until it came out our ears. (Which turned out to be span in the American army.) Every morning, they served fried toast, which was simply bread sliced up and boiled in grease until it comes out. We were on rations that were supposed to be a little bit more generous than what went to the average British Tommy. I have to tell you that a lot of us fell into the habit of following a meal with immediately smoking two cigarettes to get rid of the hunger pains.
So supplies, generally, were hard to come by?
No, it just wasn't that much to eat. We didn't starve-nobody starved-but the rations just weren't that generous.
And what were your living quarters like?
HAHAHA! Living quarters? We used the ambulances, unless we…you might pull a stretcher out and sleep on the ground, and often times, depending on where we were, you might be sleeping next to a slit trench because the Germans would send harassing bombers from, I think it was Malta. They would cruise around all night, here and there, dropping bombs just to keep people from falling asleep. Many was the night when you would just roll out of your sleeping bag into a slit trench and hope that there weren't any tarantulas in it.
At the time, I can't imagine that would have been much of a local population making themselves…
Oh yeah, there was local population any time we camped. Out of the nowhere would come the Arabs. Most of time they were looking for something for free. On good occasions, they would produce one or two eggs, and we really fought over that. Usually, they wanted…they were quite happy to exchange eggs for Chai, which was their name for tea. That worked for quite a while, when somebody got the bright idea, "Why are we giving them fresh tea? Let's take the tea grounds, the dregs, and dry them out." Well, I have to tell you, the Arabs didn't take very long until they got onto that little trick. But there wasn't much, there was very little interaction with the native people.
And how long after…sorry. Your enlistment period was for a year. Was that from the time you joined?
No, from the time we sailed, apparently. I just went down to the safe deposit box and got my papers out. June 23rd was the day I sailed. So that was sort of the beginning point.
So June 23rd, obviously, was you final day. So you were in Africa for about six months after El Alamein?
Well, I was in until…more than that. Probably more like eight. I probably left there, left Africa, in about June or July. June or July of 1943. So, I got over there in September…so ten months. And that, most all of that, was in the desert. We never got any leave. We never went any place. We got accustomed to taking a shave and a virtual sponge bath out of a canteen of water. I think I had, maybe, two or three showers in all that time. I do recall, at a place I think was called El Hama, there were mineral baths that dated back to the time of the Romans, and they were running. We got to dunk in them for maybe a half hour or an hour, and the temperature was high. I tell you, when we got out of those baths, you sit-I couldn't hardly move for the rest of the day it was so…it just took everything right out of you.
So the British finished their campaign in Africa not too long after the battle of El Alamein.
No no no. It wasn't until the surrender in Tunisia, which was June or July sometime. The Battle of El Alamein was just the beginning; it was just the beginning of the whole thing.
So you were very much occupied driving ambulances for your entire time there.
Were you in Africa when the Germans surrendered?
Yeah, they surrendered in Tunisia.
What was the mood like when that happened?
That was perfectly wonderful. I remember we drove into Tunis, a day or so after the surrender, and there were still people in the street waving, telling us how great we are. There was still a blackout, and my buddy and I ended up with a couple of dates, a couple of gals. Since it was a blackout, we got into the light, and it turns out it was a mother and a daughter. So we said, "Thank you very much," we tried to use a little of our French, and we said good evening to them.
And how long after the Germans surrendered did you go home?
Just a matter of...weeks.
And during that time, after the surrender, did you have much work to do?
No, we just sat around. It seems to me that then we were in tents outside of Tunis. I remember that we were in tents, two or three of us to a tent. That was just, as far as we were concerned, a waiting period, standing around wondering how much longer it was going to be before we get transport back to Egypt.
Did the American Field Service continue to work for the British army after that point?
Yep. They were there; I could have gone on into Italy, if I had stayed on. I could have gone on into Europe. They also had units in Burma, I believe. What they do today I don't know, but after the war they transferred themselves into a student exchange program.
So they still do exist.
They do, yes.
But you were just as happy to get home.
I was. Believe me, I was. I was happy to get home.
Did you plan to enlist, or allow yourself to be drafted?
No, I was…I mean, I had a draft number before I went away…but no, I went up to see my gal and said, "Let's go down to the draft board. I want to get back in the thick of it."
I see. My question is, did you know that you wanted to go back overseas before you left Africa?
No, but I knew that when I left Africa, when I got back, I would be going into the Army.
So you were deferred, basically, because you...
I suppose, yeah. I guess it would have been a deferment, because after VJ Day, when the Army started assigning points for discharge, I was assigned a certain number of points for having been in the American Field Service. I never got to use them, because I got out on a…because I was sick.
Do you recall the name of the ship you sailed back on?
No, that was an Indian hospital ship in the Mediterranean, and I don't know. And then we got on another ship; I can't remember. The homeward voyage was two different ships. One was definitely fitted out as a troop carrier, and the other one was an American cargo ship that didn't have very many people on it, and I can't remember whether that was from Egypt to Capetown, or from Capetown to the U.S. I don't remember which ship it was, because I looked in the journal this morning, and lo and behold, I stopped keeping records after I got on the hospital ship. I have no journal about the voyage home.
And what was your primary reason for keeping the journal? For posterity?
I just like to write.
Were you able to communicate with home at all, while you were overseas?
No, the only communication was by letter or by, I guess we called it v-mail.
But you did have access to mail service.
Oh yeah. When I was going over, on the first day on the ship, I started writing letters to this lady, and every time we came to port, they were dropped off. When I got to Egypt, it was the most wonderful thing that happened, because there were thirteen letters from her, and they all said that she loved me.
Sykes and Trudy Scherman on their wedding day, 30 December 1944, and in 2007.
Is there anything else you can think to tell me about the Field Service before we move on to your time in the Army?
There's probably dozens of things, but nothing really. It would just be little tiny anecdotes.
So, a much shorter voyage back to the United States…
Oh yeah. It was, believe me, you.
And you landed in New York?
And once you were back in the United States, you attachment with the American Field Service officially ended.
Yeah, it was over. It officially ended on August 16th, 1943. That was the day we went ashore. I can remember, we were taken off the ship, and we were taken to the headquarters at 60 Beaver Street in downtown New York. This was late in the afternoon, and I forget what day of the week it was, but my family was living up at 86th Street, and I went out and I couldn't find a cab; I couldn't find anything. So finally, I got on the phone and called my family, and my dad said, "Well, you stay there. I'll try to find a cab and come down and get you." That's what he did. He came down from 86th street to downtown and picked me up. It was very welcome, very welcome. Believe me…
So I imagine you were happy to be home.
Oh, I tell you. Really…
Was you family supportive of your decision to join the Field Service?
Oh sure. I mean, everybody was doing something. I say everybody; surely there must have been some slackers, but by and large, everybody-man, woman, and child-was involved in the war.
Did you have any siblings?
Yeah, I had a younger brother.
Did he serve at all?
Yeah, he went into the Seabees. He served in the Pacific.
And how long were you in the United States before you went in the Army-before you were drafted?
From August 16th to October 25th.
That's a pretty good leave.
Well, believe me, I had had nothing before that. Nothing at all. That, October 25th, was the next draft after I came home.
What were you impressions of the war effort in the United States during that time?
Everybody was in it, that's all I can tell you.
What kind of things, specifically, was your family doing at the time?
My father did a little air-raid warden stuff. My mother was mixed up, at one point, with Bundles for Britain. My to-be wife, with a girlfriend of hers, used to climb up into a tower and try to spot airplanes. And then she did work as a secretary for the local draft board, which was all volunteer stuff.
And you said that she arranged to keep you around…
Well, the next draft was something like three days from the time I got home. She didn't really arrange it, but her boss knew how she felt about me, so he had no problem. Who would send a guy right back out who had just spent a year overseas?
So, tell me about entering the Army. Where did you first go?
Ft. Devens. Well, we were probably inducted somewhere. I think we were sworn-in in New Haven, and then we all went up to Ft. Devens and we got our uniforms and our shots. And then we were parceled out to wherever it is that we were going to be, which as I said, in my case, was Camp Blanding, FL.
What was the reason for the secrecy on the train?
I don't know. The war was going on, and you just tried to prevent prying eyes-spies and whatnot-from finding out that here was a train all loaded with soldiers and they were going someplace. Same class with, "loose lips sink ships."
And you were attached to the infantry replacement…
Yeah, I went to the infantry replacement center to be trained myself, and then I was held over to be cadre.
Is that where you received all of your basic training? Camp Blanding? So everywhere you were before that was just physicals and assignments and things like that?
Yeah. Ft. Devens was just, I don't know, probably only a week or so.
And what was boot camp training like for you?
There was a lot of physical stuff going on. You know, I had a fair-sized idea of what was going to transpire, and I had every assumption that when I finish here I was going right back over again, so I trained harder than anybody I knew.
Do you feel like you were better prepared?
I was better prepared mentally, sure. And then when I came to be cadre, each one of us as cadre-there were three platoons to a company, and when you were assigned to a platoon, you stayed with that platoon all the way through the training cycle. I can see myself at the end of the day, particularly when the trainees hadn't been performing very well, standing up at five o'clock in the afternoon, when the trainees were ready to drop, chewing them out, telling them, "Look guys: six weeks, eight weeks, ten weeks-you're going to be on a troop ship, and you're going over!" I often wonder how many of them ever remembered what I said.
And how long was your training, when you thought you were going to be sent over?
Seventeen weeks. The cycle was seventeen weeks, then at some point, as the war progressed, they needed more men and the cycles were shortened to thirteen weeks, as I remember. And as time went on, the longer the war went on, the poorer the grade of trainee there was that came in. I had one platoon where-each platoon had like, four squads in it, and there were twelve men in a squad, and after the beginning of the training cycle, it was up to the platoon sergeant to designate somebody in each squad who was going to be a squad leader. I can well recall one cycle where the best guy that I could find to be a squad leader was a guy who couldn't read or write, but he was bright. He could look at a map. That cycle of men came from a place in Indiana called Camp Atterbury. We used to cringe when we heard that trainees were coming from Camp Atterbury, because they were low on the totem pole when it came to good possibilities.
And going back again to your training specifically, other than the physical training, were the kinds of training that you received similar to the training you got for the American Field Service? Map reading, or…?
Oh yeah, map reading, compass reading, but basically it was weapons training: how to take riffle apart, how to shoot it. I suppose fifty percent of it was physical conditioning, when I think back on it.
Was 'weapons training' new to you?
How did you adapt to that?
No problem at all. The most difficult part: at one point in the training cycle, you had to be able to recite the mechanical action of a machinegun from the time you pulled the trigger. I used to have a lot of trouble with that. I hated that. You pulled the trigger, and then so-and-so happens, and then so-and-so, and so-and so…
How did you come to be trained…how did you come to be selected as cadre?
I guess because I was such an outstanding student.
I remember at one point, well into…I had been cadre for quite some time, and one of the officers said to me, "Sergeant, why don't you apply for Ft. Benning?" "Thank you. No, sir." Because Ft. Benning was the school for training infantry officers.
Why didn't that appeal to you? Because you didn't want to go overseas?
I'd been there once. I didn't want to do it again unless I had to.
So, is if fair to say that you enjoyed your time as an instructor?
I suppose you could say it was a satisfying experience. But you bring that up: when I returned home from the American Field Service, the number of people who would come up to me and say, "Oh, it must have been a wonderful experience." And I would say, "Yes, it was." I mean, literally, it was an extraordinary experience. Absolutely extraordinary. Let's say that, in the Army, I was doing what I felt very comfortable doing; I was good at it.
How was Army life, being stationed-attached-to an Army base? I imagine that it was more comfortable.
Oh, yes, far more comfortable! When I got to be cadre, and my wife and I were married, she lived in a neighboring town, and we had quarters, we had an apartment in a neighboring town (as a matter of fact, we had lived several places in a neighboring town), and we had carpools. We used to carpool to get back to base at maybe 5:30 in the morning. That was grand when we could do that.
So when you were cadre, you didn't have to live on the base at all.
No, you could have permission to live off of the base.
So you lived with your wife.
Yeah. From January to July of 1945. We were married in December 1944. I remember we lived in one house that we shared with two other couples, one of whom was a mess sergeant, and that guy would bring home meat. He would fill up the tiny little freezer in the refrigerator with the meat the he bought, and nobody but him got a whack at it. Meat was rationed.
So all in all, your time at Camp Blanding was just restricted to your own training, and then training the recruits that came in after you. How many cycles did you run through with that?
I don't remember. I could add them up, but I couldn't tell you.
And at what point in this whole time as cadre did you get sick?
I must have gotten sick, I don't know, probably March of '45. I'm guessing, I really don't remember. The second time was July-the first part of July 1945-because I got out on the 23rd. But it's interesting, because after I got sick the first time, I received an order to report for a physical for overseas duty, which I did. When I was through with the physical, I asked the medical officer if it showed on my record that I had been in the base hospital. He said no, it didn't. So I said, "Well I was, sir." He made a note of that, and scurried around, and found that my record from the hospital, the first time, never got to battalion headquarters. It got lost somewhere. But they finally found it, and I was classified as 'unfit for overseas duty.' Then in July, I came down with it again, and that's finally when they tossed me out.
And they don't know what it was?
It was asthma. It got to the point where I literally couldn't breathe. I remember they used a drug; the doctor came in and shot me up with something call Aminophylin, which is, I guess, a drug that is not very much, if it all, used today. I talked to a doctor recently and he said that it's a drug really worthy of more study, because I had told him that I had this experience. They put the stuff in, and almost immediately, I could breathe better. Then I was in an oxygen tent for a couple of days I guess, and I got out of that. I got well enough to put on my clothes…
So you were discharged almost immediately after that.
I was discharged right from the hospital, yeah.
Were you slated to be discharged? Or were you discharged because…
Oh no, I was discharged because of that.
And this was after VE Day.
After VE Day, yeah. The 23rd of July.
And by what process did you leave the Army? Were you just discharged and separated right from the hospital, or did you have to go anywhere else?
Right there, right from the hospital. I got all my pay and all the stuff. I had discharge papers that said how much pay I was entitled to, and a traveling allowance. I remember when we got out of the-my wife was driving the car; it was a Plymouth-we hadn't gotten more than just a few miles up in northern Florida or southern Georgia, and we looked at one tire, and this great big balloon had come out on the side wall. This was late in the afternoon and we had to scurry around until we found a ration board. I flashed all my papers and explained why were driving back to Connecticut, and I needed to have a new tire. So they gave me a certificate for a new tire, and we found a gas station that had a tire. They put it on and we gave them the papers for the tire. We went on our way, and I tell you that after the flatlands of Florida, I was delighted to get up to the, sort of, rolling country.
Technical Sergeant Sykes Scherman's Discharge Papers from U.S. Army, 1945.
Alright. So what did you do after WWII?
After WWII, by the time I recovered and got my health back it was a couple of months, probably. Then I went back to my old job in the insurance business, which, the companies were required to hold a job for you if you had left, so I went back to my old insurance company. I had about six months of working with automobile insurance applications and I said, "This is not for me!" I had a couple of buddies who were in the advertising business, and I thought that was a greener field, so I tried that.
How long did you stay there?
I stayed in advertising until 1962.
And from there?
From there, we had a mutual parting of the ways, and after six months of looking, I said, "I don't want to go back to this business." My wife and I agreed that what I would like to do is try to work with my hands. I didn't know if that was going to be sculpting, or if that was going to be crafts, or what. She said, "Go for it." So I did. I went down into my cellar and I started making things that looked like art to me, and a gallery or two showed them, and [that] bought me some good pipe tobacco.
And you've been doing that since?
I haven't done it in some time. I have a piece downstairs that's supposed to be a pelican, and I started working on it November before last and lost interest. I figure I really ought to get down-it's made of brass and wires and stuff-and I figure I really ought to get down and try to do some more on it.
I guess we'll take the Field Service first: how would you assess that experience? Positively? Negatively?
Is there anything you would have liked to change about it?
No. No. If you're in a war, you're in a war; you don't have an option about what to change.
Did you keep in touch with any of your…?
No. The buddy I spent most of my time with, who was co-driver, if you will; he turned out to be sort of a conman. The last time I ever heard from him was probably six or seven years after the war. He wrote me a letter claiming he was in the leper camp at Molokai in Hawaii. But what he really wanted to do was get his hands on my journal, because he had a contract for a movie for it. Well I knew very well that this was one of his little con games, so as I recall, I never replied to him. I never heard from him after that. I suspect he probably had a bad end somewhere.
Did you maintain any contact with the Field Service afterward?
No, no contact with the Field Service. I did maintain contact with two fellas from the Army, and they are unfortunately…have both departed this we world. We were on a Christmas card basis-no, I take it back, one guy is still alive, but the other departed-and we exchange Christmas cards to this day. He was here-the fellow who survived-he was here with his wife, maybe fifteen years ago and spent the weekend with us.
Did you join any veteran's organizations?
No, I contribute, but I'm really not a joiner. I went to my fiftieth reunion at the University, and the only guy that I recognized was a guy who was walking around with a glass full of whiskey in his pocket. I knew nobody else, and nobody else was there from my class. I've never been back, and I really have no interested in going back.
Fair enough. Is there anything else that you'd like to add? I feel like we've covered a lot of ground here. Is there anything blatant that you think I'm missing that I should know?
No, not really. I think you're doing a wonderful job. It's just interesting that last night, one of my grandsons and his lady friend were over here for dinner. He's a favorite of mine (they're all favorites, but he is a favorite) and he said, "Grandpa, you never talk about the war. We'd like to know about it." I said that I was having an interview with you. He said, "Will we be able to see it or hear it?" I said, "I don't know." So if there's something that comes out that he can hear, or he can read, I'm sure that Franz will be delighted.
Absolutely, you'll have both. Be sure to let him know.
Well in that case, I think I'll turn it off. Thank you very much for talking to me.
Great pleasure, you did a wonderful job.