Letter in a Battle

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

"We all felt good and started out that night moving up on [CENSORED] 16 miles away. Not much excitement that nite nor most of the day -- sleep a few hours in a trench, then march a few miles, run a few of my 'messenger-boy-missions,' etc. But about 5:30 that day (Monday) the guns from [CENSORED] found our Command Post and laid shells all over us. We all learned that high explosive artillery shell isn't bad so long as you stay down in a trench and it didn't take long to learn to dig. I dug mine with a trench knife and a helmet plenty fast.

Lieutenant David Murdock in Washington, D.C., 1942.
courtesy of Rachael Ellis
Lieutenant David Murdock in Washington, D.C., 1942.
Lieutenant David Murdock, coat in hand, and the 7th Infantry bivouacked in a cork forest in French Morocco during the winter of 1942-43.
courtesy of Rachael Ellis
Lieutenant David Murdock, coat in hand, and the 7th Infantry bivouacked in a cork forest in French Morocco during the winter of 1942-43.

"The artillery fire followed us all night, everywhere we moved. They must have had telephone spotters from the houses around [CENSORED]. The fire was too accurate for guess work. But we never lost a man (from our Command Post group, I mean). At 3 A.M. on the outskirts of [CENSORED] our two assault Battalions ran into a trap and got out only with considerable loss. I had to run a message to the 2nd Battalion at 9:00 A.M. and got into some excitement myself but it wasn't bad, though I did have a shell explode only a few yards from me when I wasn't looking and wasn't down. It took one fellow's leg nearly off. "The rest of that day (Tuesday) we organized the Infantry and bombed and shelled the dock area. Early the next morning before our big push on the city we had news of the armistice. "I was most scared on the rocks that first morning. After that I got used to noise. At least we all know a little bit now what battle conditions are like so when we have another one to go through we'll do even a better job. As for my opinion of how this job was handled I'll have the chance to discuss that with you one of these days." By November 16, Murdock and the American forces had reached "a very nice little city about the size of Phoenix, architecture mostly very modern," he wrote to Rachael. "Most of the larger buildings and apartment houses are of Paris World Fair flavor, many of them incomplete, due to the war. Wide streets, funny mixture of people, few cars, many bicycles. I can't get used to seeing some well-dressed woman, fancy coiffeur, screw-ball Paris hat, etc., etc. pedaling down the boulevard. We have a little bit of gentle rain most every day. Otherwise the climate is wonderful, like southern California without the fog. "Don't know how long it will be till we have mail from home, but I think of home a lot. What a funny feeling that night in a barn in Africa when I found my foot locker and opened it and there was my picture gallery of you and George and little David and Janie and Mom and Pop and John -- just the same as before. "Word has come in that it's O.K. to give our location so -- Casablanca it is. We landed at Fedela and came here in the next two days. "I'm having fun parley-vooing French but would give my kingdom for a piano." He went looking for one at the music conservatory in town. "No luck -- but it did remind me of the old days with Mrs. Quaid. Rooms full of laborious scales, sour-faced kids & stern-faced mammas & irritated teachers. Music, the universal language . . ." The winter of 1942-43 was one of training and waiting for the 7th Infantry. Elsewhere in North Africa, things weren't going as well as the Allies had planned. The German army had reversed some early American advances in Tunisia, miring American and British forces in a stalemate there that wouldn't be broken until spring. There was talk, wrote Murdock, that his regiment might be shipped to the front, sent home or kept in place. They did the latter, spending the first part of the winter bivouacked in a cork forest along the Spanish Moroccan border, outside Rabat, where they could keep an eye on the Mediterranean supply route through the Strait of Gibraltar. "I was with the advance detail that came ahead to lay out the area for bivouac two days ago," Murdock wrote home. "We had a swell time, just like scout camp. No 'rank' around to heckle us and at night we built up a roaring fire of cork bark & had a regular picnic. Too bad we can't have bon fires when the troops are in. It's a great morale booster. About 1:30 in the morning I was awakened by a pack of jackals screaming back in the woods -- really gave me the shivers-shivveres-shakes. Had my tommy gun all set but they never came around. "Hard to imagine being here burning cork, hearing jackals, etc. Lot of Arab natives around, but Hell, they're just like Apache Indians. Do get a jolt now and then when I see them plowing with a team of oxen or one horse and one camel (they say that the camel is strong but too dumb to follow a furrow) . . . "Been nearly two months now since I saw you and lots can happen in that time. I just hope that worrying about me before my first word came wasn't too hard . . . you can rest all worries now for a while. I'm having a swell time . . ." Nothing pleased him more, he told Rachael, than her long stories about her children, David and Janie: "I think of them so often as I see the little Frenchies here. The French seem to delight in dressing up their kids, and there are sure some cute ones. The morning of our triumphal entry into [CENSORED] one jubilant mother set her little girl up on the hood of our jeep as we were stopped for a minute with the crowd milling around and the little kid grabbed me around the neck & really planted a smacker. Everyone rides bicycles -- mamma, pappa & all the kids -- seen the babies riding on handlebars (your style) and also in the rear à la rumbleseat. One woman had a pair, front and rear. I'll be sending some French kid clothes one of these days . . ." To kill time between maneuvers and dull stints of writing citations for acts of bravery in the Fedala fighting, Murdock took excursions that came as close to tourism as army life permitted. He sang as often as he could with a local choral society in Rabat. He struck up friendships with local shopowners, one of whom provided -- under the counter -- needles for his company's record player. He bought leather and clothes and fabrics from others, and sent them home to Rachael. And once he went into surrounding mountains on a boar hunt with local muckamucks. Like most soldiers, he longed just to get the war over with and go home. "Funny what things one misses most when they're taken away," he wrote his family. "You should have heard the shout that went up when we had white bread for supper the other night. Usually it's C ration biscuit (a compressed graham cracker with the consistency of masonite). There is now a quartermaster bakery back at the supply base but they can't supply all the units at once. Anyway, we'll all love white bread when we get home -- and a lot of other things, too . . ." His company had two other soldiers from Arizona, Lieutenant Coy L. Morgan and Sergeant Thomas Kiernan. "I see them both every day," he told his mother. "Tom Kiernan is the Colonel's stenographer and works in the same office with me -- a plenty smart chap -- served in the Ariz state legislature, I hear. I thought it might be a nice thing, Mother if you sent a note to their folks in the state saying that their fellows are plenty OK. Lt. Morgan's wife lives in Prescott I believe . . . and Sgt. Kiernan's folks are in Winslow . . ." Mail lagged anywhere from three to seven weeks behind. Yet the one common event shared by both worlds was the lunar phase. "The full moon is around again," he wrote. "I tell you, you can't beat these nights anywhere. 'Moroccan Moonlight,' a good song title, huh? Which reminds me. A Lieutenant here had a brain storm, a one-verse ditty, 'STELLA THE BELLE O' FEDELA,' I compounded him a tune and the darn thing is growing into an epic. Two bits she becomes as famous as 'Mademoiselle from Armentaires . . .'" He wasn't far wrong. The tune, co-written in December 1942 with Lieutenant Tom Marnette, became the 7th Infantry's marching song during its early fighting in North Africa and Europe. He sent copies of the lyrics and score to his mother, who copyrighted it in his and Marnette's names. The big news that winter was a secret January meeting of Allied leaders in Casablanca. There, American and British leaders agreed that once the Axis forces were pushed out of North Africa, Allied armies would next target Sicily. "You asked about Roosevelt's visit," Murdock wrote his parents, "I think I told you, he visited us. The men had to hike out five miles to meet someone, and, of course, they were well rewarded for their effort. It was a thing to be remembered forever. The picture (newspaper) you sent of the Sergeant shaking hands with F.D.R., he is one of our men. Me, personally, I didn't get to see him. The Adjutant had to be present at the formation so I had to stay in charge at camp, I'm sorry to say. But everybody told of the terrific amount of protection, precaution, and secrecy that attended the whole thing. It was a wonderful thing. The civilians . . . were quite disturbed to think that he had come and gone and they didn't even know it. . . . As for the location of the actual meeting in Casablanca I've been there several times." Murdock organized singing groups that caroled from Christmas 'til Easter. He picked up a small flute in Rabat and often walked among the cork forest playing more of his "growing tunes" -- just as he had at home in the Arizona desert. He jumped at every musical experience he could. "I led the band yesterday for a 2-hour rehearsal," he wrote home in late spring. "I don't remember anything that has affected me quite like that. I couldn't get my feet on the ground for six hours. It's a dam good band and the W.O. band leader is a good guy, but a sad sack and the band only half plays for him. I think I got 'em going yesterday. I know that I got me going. We worked through some pretty tough things, and they were good! I know that when the session broke up we had a big audience of guys gathered around to listen in -- and as a rule nobody hangs around the band practice -- either the music was good or the sight of a Lieutenant waving a stick was a heluva novelty. Anyway, it was great fun. But after the elation wore off, I got pretty low and homesick (first time I've been that way), which I guess was natural enough. I figure that in the future, though, I'll be better off to stick to the military. "Days are getting hot now, afternoons swell to spend at Tempe Beach."

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