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.

"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.

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.

"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) . . .

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