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Frank R. Trowbridge    11 October 2007 01:00 | Macon, GA
MEMORIES OF THE 255TH INFANTRY ORCHESTRA

GREAT MUSIC FROM A GANG OF MISFITS

BY

FRANK R. TROWBRIDGE

Revised November 1994





FOREWORD:

A group of "survivors" from this illustrious unit met together in Northampton, MA. on June 22, 1994 and a grand time of reminiscing was had by one and all. The author was requested to write this journal for all concerned so that a record of the adventures of this gang of army misfits could be preserved for posterity (not that anyone would really care). After transcribing his recollections of conversations at the reunion, he submitted his efforts to the group for their comments. After receiving their feed-back, the author revised the original document to reflect the input of all concerned. Also included are recollections of Bob Kutscher, contacted by telephone, who was unable to attend.



BEGINNING:

Some time in late 1943, the 63rd Division, consisting of the 253rd, 254th, and 255th Infantry Regiments was being brought up to combat strength for action in either the Pacific or European Theaters of WWII. The division was authorized as a result of the conference at Casablanca, North Africa during January 1943 with Brigadier General Louis B. ("Mess-kit Louie") Hibbs, commander. It was activated June 15, 1943 at Camp Blandin, Fl. but was moved to its permanent base at Camp Van Dorn, MS. in late August 1943.

Mississippi at that time had more than it's share of worn-out farm land, piney woods and swamps and was generally inaccessible to the civilized world, so this was an ideal spot to train the division. Much diligent and careful planning must have gone in to the selection of the location, for Camp Van Dorn was the ultimate in possible hell-hole sites. It was tar paper shack-type camp, located at Centreville, MS. which, in turn, is located almost exactly half-way between McComb, MS. on the northeast and Baton Rouge, LA. on the southwest. There were no paved roads either in or out of the camp and Centreville was little more than a rail siding. You had to look fast from a slow moving train to even know that a town was there. Obviously this was an ideal training center where soldiers could be trained without the distractions of a nearby city.

At the same time, the war in Europe was heating up in preparation for D-Day. Massive numbers of men were being called up to fill various units. The draft age was lowered to eighteen years and many men straight out of high school or those whose deferment had run out were drafted. The entire junior class of those colleges and universities which had an advanced ROTC program were called to active duty and were enrolled in Office Candidate Schools for the various arms. The Army Air Corps vastly expanded it's training facilities and schools for pilots and navigators. For the more intelligent draftees in the eighteen year group, the Army started a school called Army Specialized Training Program. Naturally, there was a certain amount of overkill in each of these programs. Consequently, the various schools were badly overcrowded and the Army began to release these men on the flimsiest of excuses and sent them, without further consideration, to the various combat Divisions. Naturally, among these there were quite a few young men who were physically fit for combat, but who were not so emotionally. Somehow the word got out that the 63rd Division was the place to send these misfits and so the division began to swell with these poor unhappy souls. Many of these men had been in some service branch such as Signal Corps, Personnel, Quartermaster Corps, Medics, Financial, Judge Advocate General; some were transferred without prejudice from the Air Corps, Office Candidate Schools, Army Specialized Training Program or countless other units which contained more men than the army had openings. Needless to say, some had never seen a rifle, much less fired on and others, like the author, had fired every type of weapon the Infantry possessed, so the whole Division engaged in a program of intense basic and advanced Infantry training. Those poor unfortunates who had never qualified on the basic Infantry weapons daily marched to one of the ranges or assault courses.

Those others who had already qualified on these weapons, including the author, had various alternate duties. The included the somewhat dubious "honor" of serving as K.P. and riding the mess trucks out to the various ranges to bring meals to the field. It was demeaning work but it beat hiking under the broiling Mississippi sun and baking in its blistering heat for hours. Others who had qualified on the Infantry weapons, and who had a musical background, were enrolled in "Bugle School" under the leadership of Pfc Marlin Merrill ("Pops"). Marlin had been at school music teacher in civilian life so, for once, the army assigned the right man for the job. Among those who were in this school were Justing D'Alessandro and Paul Evans.

Due to it's remote location, about all a soldier had to do in his spare time (such as it was) was to drink 3.2 beer at the Beer Garden, hang out at the Post Exchange or go to the Rec Hall and play ping pong or shoot pool. Occasionally, girls from McComb or Baton Rouge would be bussed in by U.S.O. for a dance. At first there were only records to dance by. Occasionally, the Division dance band would favor us with music for these dances but they were so busy that they couldn't offer the service needed. Consequently, some for the men who were enrolled in Merrill's "Bugle School" and who played musical instruments in civilian life got together at the Rec Hall, obtained musical instruments by one way or the other and began practicing or "jamming". Other men such as Danny Mendelsohn (Service Co.) who was a top notch musical arranger for big band leader Artie Shaw in civilian life, "Red" Spicer, a fine trumpet man who went to Division Band, Phil Sunkle and "Jackie" Parris (L Co.), guitarist and vocalist, joined in the activities and soon enough players were assembled to form a dance band. The Regimental Special Service Officer saw the therapeutic value of this pick-up band and endorsed the idea. Soon there were enough musicians to fill two "Big Bands". Not only did these bands play for dances at the Rec Hall, they were invited by the various U.S.O. organizations in Baton Rouge, Natchez, Vicksburg and even New Orleans to play for their Saturday Night dances. Danny "borrowed" one of the arrangements he made for Arie Shaw and called it "Natchez Ball" which the band naturally played at Natchez! Mind you, these units were not authorized by the Division Table of Organization; they were strictly volunteer groups who were fortunate to find a pleasant way to, momentarily at least, forget the hell-hole that was Camp Van Dorn. I guess we were the most outstanding misfits but we had a good time!

In mid-November 1944 the word went out that the outfit was going to be shipped overseas. We naturally assumed that we were going to the Pacific because we had trained extensively in jungle warfare. You can imagine our shock (and even joy) when we were issued winter clothing and were scheduled to be shipped to Camp Shanks, north of New York City, for deployment to the ETO. Packing assumed a frantic pace and the A and R officer, being a thrifty (and possibly foresighted) man who did not want to see all the musical instruments he had so assiduously obtained for the Regiment abandoned, quietly packed them, along with some personal instruments, as athletic equipment and along they went to Europe with us. this equipment sat out the war in a warehouse somewhere to await the war's end.



WAR'S END

About April 26, 1945, the 255th regiment was pulled out of combat near Landsberg, Germany. This was the location of the infamous prison where Hitler was imprisoned and where he wrote "Mein Kampf". During the war it served as a concentration camp where Allied Prisoners and those poor unfortunates from all over Europe were incarcerated under starvation conditions. The author witnessed the liberation of this camp and saw, first hand, some of the true horrors of the war. We were all glad to be redeployed back along the Neckar river (most famous for Heidelburg and Mannheim) in the vicinity of Adelsheim.

Several days later the Colonel told the A and R officer to break out the athletic equipment so that the troops could engage in physical relaxation and give them an outlet for the emotions denied by the current no-fraternization-with-the-Germans edict. Naturally, the musical instruments were discovered and reported to the Colonel. He thought it would be excellent therapy if the troops could have some entertainment so he ordered all the surviving regimental musicians plus some replacements who could play or sing to be assembled at Mosbach for the purpose of entertaining the troops.

Accordingly, we were reassigned to Regimental Headquarters Co. and billeted in a three story villa which belonged to the local beer baron in Mosbach. Somehow there was a piano on each floor; whether they were there originally or were brought in is not known. Out of the approximately twenty four original orchestra members who left Camp Van Dorn, only eight of us were located. The others were either casualties or had been transferred out of the Regiment. Those located were; Marlin Merrill, leader, (Anti-Tank Co.), Max Cramer, trumpet, (G Co.), Bob Kutscher, alto sax, (A Co.), Bob Colton, tenor sax, (A Co.), Justin D'Alessandro, tenor sax, (1st Bn.Hq.Co.), George Duley, trombone (Cannon Co.). Joining us at Mosbach were William M. (Bill) Coffill, drums, (G Co.), who joined the 255th just as we left for Camp Shanks and Anthony Benedetto (Tony Bennett) (a.k.a. "Joe Barry'), vocalist (G Co.), who joined the unit as a replacement during combat. Surprisingly, fifty years later, only two of this original group are unaccounted for, namely Bill Kendall and Bob Colton. The rest have been located and appear to be in good health. (How's that for surviving?)

Additional musicians began arriving almost daily. Bob Bennett, piano, (2nd Bn.Hq. Co.), Tom Malan, trumpet, (A Co.), Manning "Manny" Hamilton, trumpet and Paul Evans, bugle and librarian, (Service Co.), arrived. We were in Mosbach on VE Day but a short time later we were moved to Kunzelsau where Regimental Headquarters was located. We were billeted in a house across the street from Headquarters. The old man who owned the house had a nice vegetable garden and a hen house with several laying hens. Every time we heard a hen cackle, there was a mad foot-race to see who got the egg! The old man was concerned that we might kill his "huhne" but we valued those fresh eggs far more than the prospect of cooking a touch old hen! The fresh greens from his garden were also a pleasant addition to our army "chow". Many pleasant hours were spent basking in the sun in that neat back yard garden.

Additional musicians to arrive at Kunzelsau were Bill Kent, trumpet, (Co. unknown) , Ralph Marcovecchio, trumpet, (G Co.), Frank O. ("Tex, Radar") McCullough, trombone, (G.Co.) , Abe Gerstman, alto sax, (Reg. Hq and Hq. Co.). Ralph Marcovecchio moved on and Jose Vasques., trumpet, (F Co.) took his place. Tony Bennett transferred to Seventh Army Special Services and Ken Kellog, (A Co.), took over the job of vocalist.

The months of June and July were halcyon days. We spent our days at Kunzelsau practicing, jamming, loafing, swimming in the Neckar river, ogling the pretty German Frauleins which were off-limits to us and otherwise just goofing off. Occasionally, we had to play for a parade in order to keep the brass off our necks but after they saw the mess we made of "trooping the line" the band was allowed to play from the sidelines.

Our nights were an entirely different story. Almost every night we would load a piano on the back of a 2 ton truck, pile in after it and off we would go, singing dirty limericks furnished by the brother of one of our members who shall forever remain anonymous. Incidentally this brother is now an Episcopalian Priest!! We would perform for a different unit in the field ("Messkit Louie" insisted that the unit maintain the highest state of readiness for the war in the Pacific so all units were required to camp in tents.) or at an officers club. Some on in each unit would always furnish us all the refreshments needed and since there were two bass players, one of us would act as barkeeper while the other one played. It was a sweet deal for all concerned!

The war in the Pacific was a continuing specter during this otherwise idyllic period and rumors flew daily about the 63rd being redeployed to the Pacific. Being the true misfits that we were and considering the sort of deal we had, none of us wanted any part of the Pacific war. Intensive backstage maneuvering began to get the band transferred to Seventh Army Special Service. We were billeted in Seckenheim, a suburb of Mannheim, located about half-way between Mannheim and Heidelberg. The army had moved all the civilians out and had renamed the village "Special Service City". It had a wonderful transient mess hall which was on a par with most good restaurants of the time. It had cloth tablecloths and napkins and we were served by very properly dressed German waitresses. It was an open mess; that is, both enlisted and officers at in the same room. Most nights, following serving hours, the dining hall turned into a place where massive "Jam Sessions" were held. These sessions lasted far into the night until the MPs ran us out at closing time, whenever that was!! We were really in the BIG TIME!! Somewhere there must have been an officer who was nominally in charge of the band but who he was is lost to history. He was never around long enough for any of us to see, much less meet him. We left all those mundane sort of things to our "Fearless" leader, Marlin "Pops" Merrill. Again, our days were spent pretty much without any direct supervision but every night a truck would pull up in front of our quarters and off we would go, to play at this NCO Club, that Officers Club, the newly-opened Stardust Club for enlisted men in Heidelberg, etc. We actually got paid for playing the "O" Clubs and NCO Clubs.

There were all sorts of civilized amenities available in Heidelberg. Max Cramer and Paul Evans remember enrolling in a fencing class at the University under the supervision of the "Fencingmeister". Other pleasant memories are of the steam baths. One black musician, whose first name was Cornelius went to the bath. The German attendant had never seen a black man before and thought he had an exceptionally dirty white soldier. He kept scrubbing him and left him in the steam bath for so long that Cornelius remarked that he thought the man was trying to bleach him white!!

We never worried about getting paid by the army and we had the best sort of life one could imagine. To cap it off, the war with Japan ended on August 14, 1945 and, although our old friends in the 63rd (such as they were) had returned home, we didn't care because we were having such a high old time. We even cut a record for Armed Forces Radio!! Our piano man, Bob Bennett, was transferred and we got Freddie Katz, an excellent pianist, arranger and jazz cellist some time in September. Our performances hit an all time high with him and the fun continued.

Alas, the good times finally came to a screeching halt around the first of November with the advent of the U.S.O. show, PANAMA HATTIE. This was one of the more forgettable of Cole Porter's shows and was possibly a conglomeration of several of his works because some of the songs were definitley from other shows. The band was selected to be in the "Pit Band" for the show and all of us with the exception of piano man Katz and drummer, Bill Coffill and Kendall, the other bass player, went "on the road" with the show. The remaining trio got together with other musicians and formed an all-Army show called "Great Day". The group accompanying PANAMA HATTIE traveled over the entire U.S. Zone, playing in such cities as: Wiesbaden, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Ulm, Kassell, Bremen and Berlin. We usually stayed in one town about two days and played two shows per day. Generally, we had decent quarters but during our performance in Berlin our quarters were "not fit for dogs" and we refused to stay in them. Our "Fearless Leader", Pfc Marlin Merrill, stood up to the brass and told them that if we were to be treated this way, then we would refuse to play the show. As a result, a show was canceled and "Pops" was transferred out. This marked the end of the 255th band and by February 1946 we all got orders to go home under the "point system". Some of us who had more points, came home earlier, arriving in mid-January.



EPILOGUE:



Upon returning home, the author started sending Christmas cards to all of those buddies who had given him home addresses. One of them, Bill Coffill and the author have exchanged cards every year since then. Since Bill lives in metropolitan Boston area and continued playing in combos, he kept abreast of the music world and when Tony Bennett first hit the big time, Bill got in touch with him. For years Bill only knew the whereabouts of Tony and the author. The author also briefly exchanged letters with Bill Kendall but lost track of him in the early sixties when Bill was enrolled as a student at Arizona State University at Tempe, AZ. Since our reunion the author has tried without success to trace him through the Arizona State Alumni Association but Bill did not finish and they have no further record of him.

During the late eighties, Bob Kutscher retired to a retirement village near Hot Springs, AR and, quite by chance, discovered that Tom Malan had also retired to the same location. Naturally, they got their heads together and began to wonder about where everyone had gone. Bob knew a fellow musician who had played with Max Cramer in Chicago years before and they assumed that Max was still somewhere on the west coast. Bob's friend contacted all the musicians' locals in California and finally located Max. This apparently got Max started. He learned the whereabouts of Marlin Merrill who, in turn, knew where Paul Evans lived. Max located Bill Coffill in 1990 and Bill gave him the author's address. Max also located George Duley and Justin D'Alessandro.

At our recent reunion at the home of Paul Evans in Northapton, MA. all of us exchanged stories and tried to come up with some means for locating our lost members, notably, Bill Kendall, Bob Colton, Bob Bennett, as these were members of the "core" or "cadre" group who "survived" WWII. Their presence was sorely missed.

Seldom, if ever have such strong bonds of fellowship been forged in such a short time. When you consider the fact that our close association really started about May 1, 1945 and ended about February 1, 1946, a space of only eight months, it is really incredible. But then, war makes the incredible somehow attain credibility. The hardships we all endured during that terrible, confused time seem to have been the catalyst which fused us together. It was "a special time and we were a special bunch of guys", to quote Tony Bennett, when the author saw him about ten years ago.

"TAKE TEN"


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