My dad, George Sazama, served in the Army in World War II. His brother Ed served as a medic in Europe and brother Tom was in the Navy and fought in the Pacific Theater. All are deceased.
On cold winter nights in South Dakota (before computers and video games), my dad might play his accordion. He also taught my three younger sisters and me Army songs and then persuaded us to perform. We sang ditties such as, “They say the food in the Army is mighty fine. It’s good for cuts and bruises and tastes like iodine. Gee mom, I want to go, but they won’t let me go, gee mom I want to go home.”
Growing up, Dad used to smoke in our house and the car and said he started when he was in London and the Germans were bombing the city. He’d talk about the explosions and the noise and how an Army pal gave him a cigarette and told him it would calm his nerves. (A habit he kept for 30 years.)
As kids, you aren’t terribly interested in your parents and what they have done, because they are your parents – and become “people” only later.
As I struggled in my 20s and 30s to find out who I was and my place in the world, I could have asked my dad more about his early life and his service, but I didn’t because I was self-involved.
He died in 1988, but had started to write “Army Stories 1942-1946,” which I’ve read every Veterans Day since then. It’s only 12 typewritten pages, and the incomplete document ends with “Invited by two girls to eat in a Holland home. . .
Dad was one of seven children (four boys, three girls) born to Agnes and Tom Sazama, who lived on a farm outside of a small town, Mission, in South Dakota. English was a second language, Bohemian (Czechoslovakia) was spoken in the home.
He wrote that in 1940, Hitler continued to conquer Europe and all men between the ages of 17-45 were called to defend the United States. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, December 1941, it becomes official: “We are at war.”
A farm boy, my father was deferred to August 1, but wrote “all my buddies are already going.” He enlisted in July 27, 1942 and was tested by the Army and deemed that he should be put in the signal corps, 827 Division.
After Pearl Harbor, the signal corps was in disarray because it lacked people to fill various roles and lacked equipment. According an Army military history, “Good radio men are more precious than nuggets in this Army. They are diamonds, rated No. 1 on the list of 181 shortages.” (Visit: history.army.mil › html › books › CMH_Pub_10-17.)
While still in South Dakota, Dad learned radio repair and started to study Morse code, before being moved to California in March 1943 to Camp Kohler.
“At Camp, we learned code,” he said, and then “I’m called to the office on August 28 and was told ‘You guys have a furlough to visit your folks and then you get a long journey [overseas].’”
He had no money to get back to South Dakota, but a “nice couple in Sacramento loaned me some.” He rode the train home and had 10 days leave before returning to California. Then he and the 30 men in his group were sent to Camp Shenango, Pennsylvania.
“We spend six weeks there and on October 12, they loaded us into trucks, and we went to New York City by the Statue of Liberty.” The plan was to ship overseas.
As they started to load the British ship, Cynthia, which could hold 5,000, but was jammed with 8,000 men, “I heard noise behind me,” Dad wrote. “Some of our soldiers were going AWOL, they didn’t want to go overseas. There were soldiers behind those guys with guns, so they would get on the boat.”
My dad said he looked forward to going overseas, but aboard the ship was not calm. “We were in a ship convoy, seven troop ships, four destroyers, four aircraft and three submarines. We were going 2,800 miles across the Atlantic, which was mined with German explosives.
“The ocean is rough, many of the soldiers are sick, throwing up all over. It’s a real mess. We get out about 1,700 miles and the air raid alert is on. We are told to get our life jackets on, and the aircraft takes off after German planes and turns them back.”
The men were fed twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. My dad said he didn’t eat a few mornings because “We had boiled liver, it looked wicked – thin gravy covering it. I bought 24 Hershey bars with almonds from the English PX on board,” he said. “I had buddies up the ear.”
In the Army, my dad was making the most money he had ever made, $50 a month, and an additional $20 for going overseas. (During 1934-1935, when the “grasshoppers ate everything, even the paint off the buildings,” my dad worked for the state for a dollar a day, using a hand scythe, cutting and burning thistle because “that was all that grew.”)
Once the ship landed in Bristol, my dad and eight fellow radio operators went to Stratford on Avon to set up a small transmitter station to send messages. “At Shakespeare’s hometown, we were in communication with Africa, Washington, D.C. and South America and other stations we picked up in other countries,” he wrote.
My dad wrote they heard propaganda, “The Germans have Axis Sally on their radio, and she would say, ‘You nice American boys, don’t you wish you were home eating hamburgers with your favorite girl?’”
He said that four of the men stayed in an English Castle, which had thick walls and 18 or more holes in the walls so that “the King could listen if any of his aides were spies and get rid of them.”
The men ate at local homes, and the Army paid for it. “I ate at Mrs. Amy Radcliffe’s home. She was nice and I learned to eat Brussels Sprouts—they were really good.”
The group was transferred in January to Crockham Hill and then to Swanley (General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed commander of Operation Overlord in January 1944). “We had two cooks, three radio repair men and the rest of us send message via code,” my dad wrote, but noted that “we couldn’t decipher the messages, as we had men trained for that.”
About D-Day, he wrote, “Two days before the invasion of France, we were really checked out by our General and authorities so everything would be in order.”
According to the Army history, “In the months and weeks before D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Allies carried out a massive deception operation intended to make the Germans think the main invasion target was Pas-de-Calais (the narrowest point between Britain and France) rather than Normandy. Many tactics were used to carry out the deception, including fake equipment; a phantom army commanded by George Patton and supposedly based in England, across from Pas-de-Calais; double agents; and fraudulent radio transmissions.”
My dad wrote, “Yes, 36 hours later, our bombers left England. What a noisy sky, 3:30 p.m. headed for France. He noted that infantry and artillery were loaded on boats. “Many of our men failed to return.”
According to Army.Mil, “More than 5,000 Ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies gained a foot-hold in Continental Europe. The cost in lives on D-Day was high. More than 9,000 Allied Soldiers were killed or wounded. (Visit: army.mil/d-day/)
My dad wrote: “Our bombers were going over earlier. Of the 36 planes in a group, maybe only 12 would return. As time went on that number would increase and we knew were getting them, when finally, all 36 would come back.”
After the successful D-Day operation, my father’s division was sent to Reims, France and he would not return home until 1946 — but that’s a story for another day.
A beautiful tribute and a thoughtful history. My thanks to your father for his service.
Thank you and thanks to your father…
Thank you so much for sharing your dad’s experiences. I got chills for most of the read. Considering today’s ugly treatment of immigrants, we need only think of your father and his brothers, true-blue Americans, risking their lives for our country, and speaking Bohemian at home. My dad, Maxwell Hillary ‘Sonny’ Salter also served, stateside only. But, he lost two beloved cousins overseas – both about 22 years old. Cheers to the heroes, who kept us safe. And, here’s to a different president, who understands who we are.