Letter in a Battle

Rediscovered cache of castoff communiqués captures World War II and 1940s Phoenix

"At night it's quite a sight. After your eyes get used to the darkness, you can see the dark shapes of all those ships, always the same distance to sides, front and rear. Kind of spooky. You can hear and see the foaming water rushing by the sides of our transport, but those others never move: night or day, same place. And sometimes I get to thinking, at night especially, of those thousands of men on the other ships. All those eyes looking out in the dark, just like me, and everyone absolutely confident that somebody knows where we are going and knows enough about the sea and ships to get us there safely in spite of Hell and Hi Water (I mean that literally). Just think of those poor devils riding with Columbus. But then all they had to be afraid of was sea snakes and the end of the World.

"We get a daily mimeographed sheet of news via radio. . . . And each Saturday (or Sunday, rather) they put out a list of football scores. Seems impossible.

". . . I suddenly remembered the other day that next Tuesday (or is it the next?) will be the election. Well, Pop, you won't have any trouble . . . I still hope that this will be your last campaign. I still think you should go back to school teaching. After all, you've seen the inside of our government thru Depression, prosperity, peace and war. There's an awful lot of information you can give to students on what's right and what's wrong with the way we run our country . . .

David Murdock, right, handstanding at the Grand Canyon in the early 1930s.
courtesy of Rachael Ellis
David Murdock, right, handstanding at the Grand Canyon in the early 1930s.
Rachael Ellis walks her family's greyhounds on their desert property in Scottsdale, in the 1930s.
courtesy of Rachael Ellis
Rachael Ellis walks her family's greyhounds on their desert property in Scottsdale, in the 1930s.

"I get very homesick each day at sunset. You'd be surprised how much a sunset on the ocean is like a sunset on the desert. It's the only other place where you can see the sky from horizon to horizon. And again when a bunch of guys get out in the dark and start harmonizing, just like out on the strip. All we need is the smell of greasewood & barbecued hamburgers, and George & the guitar, and that laugh of Beryl's [a neighbor] . . .

"Was Officer of the Guard last nite. Some fun inspecting the guard all over the dark ship and down in the holds, but it was worth all the trouble when the moon came up at midnite. Beautiful! Just aft the center of the ship are two big towers about 70 feet up, with lookout posts atop, and two AA guns. It's a queer feeling at nite to look up and watch them sway with the rolling of the ship. They look so stiff. The whole outline of moving shadows is stiff. I keep thinking that they ought to bend a little, like trees. But boats aren't made that way. I climbed up on top of the tower the other day, view was wonderful. I could see the whole convoy. Got a sudden urge to dive off. The water looked so blue and inviting. Same urge you must have had, Rachael, on the edge of the big rock quarry at Iowa City . . .

"Hear the radio a little each evening. That's how I know we're going somewhere. The programs are changing from American to British, French and German. Have a feeling that I am in for a terrific education in the next few months -- from a lot of different angles."

On November 8, Murdock's 7th Infantry Regiment went ashore at the French Moroccan port of Fedala (often misspelled as Fedela by Murdock), on the Atlantic coast of North Africa. It was the only place in the war where American troops fought French troops, then commanded by the Nazi-run Vichy government of France.

"We've all been hanging on the radio, waiting for the papers," Rachael wrote her mother on November 8. "There must be millions doing the same thing. Doesn't it seem so unreal? I keep thinking -- our Davey is a part of it all. He's landing in Africa or watching the shore. Somewhere he's in on the biggest military adventure in history. I'm mad and proud and jittery and weepy and excited. At least for him there must be satisfaction to be part of the move of the hour. Gee, I hope the French cooperate. But we've all got lots of waiting and anxiety ahead of us. We can't poo out at the beginning. If thinking can help, I'm mine sweeping for Davey."

Before the invasion, Murdock dashed a note to his brother: "Well, Kid, This is it. We're in good shape and as far as I can tell it's a complete surprise -- no air or sub attacks all the way across. It's now 12 o'clock and the first men are going over the side. I go at 2:15. The night is dark. The waves very still. The sky is dark and everything looks perfect.

"Strange, no sensation of fear. I've often wondered, even figured how to say, 'I'm scared' in French -- 'J'ai crappy les pants.' All equipment complete. I'm a walking arsenal. You should see the men. Morale high. You'd think they were headed for a picnic. Wonder how we'll feel in 24 hours.

"The lights are all on in the town. We can see them 10 miles away so of course we're curious as to how much they know. We are prepared for any reaction from the defending population. Everything is planned to minutest detail.

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