Letter in a Battle

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

"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."

David Murdock tickles the keys of an organ for a chorus of soldiers.
courtesy of Rachael Ellis
David Murdock tickles the keys of an organ for a chorus of soldiers.
David Murdock was one of Arizona's champion divers in the early 1930s
courtesy of Rachael Ellis
David Murdock was one of Arizona's champion divers in the early 1930s

In mid-March, Murdock's division moved to the Arzew, Algeria, and began amphibious training and intensive infantry maneuvers preparing for the July 1943 invasion of Sicily.

Murdock was assigned to command one of four infantry companies in the 7th Regiment's 3rd Battalion. The maneuvers were boot camp revisited, but on a harsher level, closer to the nub. According to retired Lieutenant Colonel Sherman Pratt, historian for the 7th Infantry, a tough new commander, General Lucian Truscott, arrived and initiated his "Truscan Trot," when all troops had to move from training area to training area at a five-mile-per-hour clip.

Murdock wrote home, "Since getting command of the company, I haven't had any time since, except to take a bath out of my helmet at 11:30 P.M. or shave or change unders when things get just too dirty, and to rub down sore feet and crawl into bed at midnight and start going again at five. . . . We hiked 50 miles the first two days, incidental to 8 hours strenuous training. I never thought it was possible, lost a lot of men by the wayside, but we are all getting tough, and the only consolation is war and maybe if I can help make K Company a solid outfit we can help finish this misery a little quicker. Anyway there's no more time nor energy for long letters. Shame too. I had some excellent material. Save till after the war.

"Only did ten miles today to and from training. Have lots of extra time tonight, may not happen again. Anyway keep writing. It's wonderful to be reminded that there's more to life than aches.

"Say -- do you remember how we felt after that first walk down the Grand Canyon? My God -- "

In late April, Murdock was reassigned to command "I" Company after its commander was injured in an accident: "My God, what a life," he wrote to his mother. "And what a time to take over a company. It's such a terrific job to get to know 150 men. And you have to know them to really do the job. . . . I'll do my best, can't do more. And complain only to you. Hope nobody gets hurt on account of me . . ."

In May, his regiment moved farther east to Tunisia for more maneuvers. In June, Murdock attended a battle school sponsored by the British army, which had been fighting the Germans -- expected to play a strong hand in Sicily -- in North Africa far longer than the Americans.

"We've passed the middle of our little course," he told Rachael in early June, "and it's really been great fun. These Britishers beat me. I now have a great desire to go to London & Scotland, and there's always a possibility.

"When we go in to [CENSORED], the American officers have a mess in town & a very nice Red Cross hang out. The British nothing, so we always take a bunch of them with us -- eat, sit at the tables of the student cafe, drink wine, look at the women, and swap battle stories. And believe me they have a lot to tell. And they are so damn matter-of-fact about it. For instance, they tell us of a German mortar that throws six bombs at a time with a peculiar whirring noise as they come over, like 'Whoola-whoola-whool.' Well, this one chap said he was having a smoke & talking to a friend (on the Tunis front) when his pal interrupted him with, 'I say, old fellow, I don't want to seem awkward, but do you hear what I hear?' Whereupon they both dove for slit trenches (they call them doovers) while the Whoola bombs tore up the landscape. Then they crawled out, shook off the dust, lit pipes and went on with the conversation.

"And they're just that way about everything. They know what to expect, what not to expect and about what to do in either case and don't seem to get much perturbed. I figure if we can get some of that attitude the next few months won't be quite so hard on us.

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