Letter in a Battle
Stories often wind up in the trash. But this one begins there, with letters I found in a Tempe alley two years ago.
They were dumped among heaps of books, files and envelopes stuffed with bills and receipts. The discards were too dated to be those of a college roomie who'd just left town. There were Time magazines from the 1940s, and old family scrapbooks, photo albums and manila folders filled with commendations and awards. There were two boxes bulging with 1940s radio scripts -- mostly in Spanish -- from the Voice of America's show The March of Time. Yet it was the 6-cent air-mail stamps on some of the letters that finally proved irresistible.
The letters -- dozens of them -- were in several bundles wrapped with light blue paper and wound loosely with a strand of rotting cotton string. They were what remained of a lengthy correspondence between an American soldier from Phoenix and his family during World War II.
They chronicled nearly three years that carried James Creasman away from his wife, small daughter, family and friends in Arizona to boot camp and other Army assignments in Texas, Maryland, Oklahoma and, finally, Europe.
"It was as though all my connections with the world I have known were being cut off," he wrote aboard a troop ship, a few days after leaving New York in the first week of 1945. "And it is strange to be sailing at top speed across the ocean without ever knowing where you are going . . ."
Most of the letters I read as I crouched over the piles in the alley were from Creasman. But several dozen others were scribbled and typed by friends and loved ones in Phoenix.
They covered wide slices of Army and home life, and were filled, as one would expect, with the longings and fears accompanying the war.
"Wish you were here right now," his wife, Dorothy, wrote to him while he was stationed in Oklahoma. "I just finished washing and drying the dinner dishes and Martha Dee is asleep. I am writing on the little blue and white card table in my room where I can see your new pictures. Wish they could start talking."
Her letters recounted the latest doings of their little girl, who wasn't yet 2 years old when Creasman went into the Army.
The war shadowed just about every pleasantry.
"Jimmy, what do you think about the way things are going in Europe?" his wife wrote in one. "Do you think everything is as favorable as the news (radio) gives it?"
The letters bolstered the view -- handed down through two generations now -- that the war was worth its price in tragedy and grief. Yet they also aired the anxieties and blues -- rarely heard these days -- that agonized families left behind, waiting to hear.
Some of the frets and more personal expressions of love and isolation probably weren't intended to be read by anyone but the person receiving them. But lengthy passages describing events and scenes at the front were meant to be shared among family and friends.
"I promised to tell you about the sights along the roads," Creasman wrote home from somewhere in Germany late in the war. "Refugees, liberated slave laborers throng the roads day and night. I have passed thousands of them -- Russians, Poles, Yugoslavs, French, Italians, Greeks, and many others. They carry all they own on their backs or on carts and other vehicles which run the whole gamut of wheeled contraptions known to man."
These candid, fresh, personal accounts -- more meaningful than news reports -- told not just tales of war, but of the foreign places and people that the war brought Creasman, and many other soldiers, in touch with.
The letters from home opened a window on Phoenix during the war that histories of the day rarely do. They told how families adapted to the absence of young men. How they doubled up to save money. How they pitched in to look after youngsters whose mothers had gone to work to supplement the low military wages. The letters charted the separate paths at home and at war -- paths that left nearly everyone wondering, with mixtures of guilt and sadness and confusion, which life was the more real, the more necessary.
The letters didn't belong in the trash. But they also didn't belong to me. I gathered them up and took them home to track down the Creasmans.
They were a Tempe couple with deep roots in the Valley. I knew Jimmy Creasman was associated with ASU. He led the successful drive in 1958 to change the school's name from Arizona State College to Arizona State University. And he was the stadium voice of Sun Devils football.
The letters and other documents in the alley indicated that his wife had been a music and first-grade teacher in the late 1930s and during the war. Jimmy had been a well-known broadcaster at KTAR, and in 1942 had gone off to New York with his family to work for the Voice of America, broadcasting to Latin America.
His friends and correspondents -- represented in the letters -- included Howard Pyle, a colleague of Creasman's at KTAR in the 1930s and 1940s, who became Arizona's governor in the early 1950s. There was also a letter from Myrtle Murdock, wife of John R. Murdock, Arizona's sole congressman at the time. Both Creasmans had studied under Murdock at Arizona State College before he was elected to Congress in 1936.
I wasn't able to reach the Creasmans by phone. But the next morning, back at the trash pile in the alley, my luck improved.
When Jimmy Creasman stepped into the alley through a narrow gateway from his shaded yard that morning in December 1998, he seemed smaller than the man I'd imagined in the letters. Slightly stooped, and in his 80s, he wore khaki pants and a thin white tee shirt. He looked chagrined. But I couldn't tell whether that was due to having been caught discarding his life, or to having to shake the hand of a stranger who had rummaged through it.
He was glad to get the letters back. His voice still had a hint of the "golden throat" he was known for during his radio career. He said he had boxed the letters in storage years ago and didn't know they were among the things he was throwing away. We talked a while about the war. He jotted down his phone number on an old business card he picked out of the dirt, and invited me back another time.
But he became ill before that second visit could occur. He died last August at age 85.
Several months ago, the Creasman family invited me to revisit the letters and the story I'd gleaned from them. It is a story about how one war can be so different for two families, and how the loyalties in Creasman's circle of friends made the small world of Phoenix seem even smaller. It is a story about how one man's fate can alter the course of others.
The story begins not with Jimmy Creasman, but with David Murdock, son of the congressman. Creasman's letters contained numerous references to the Murdocks, and to David, who also served in the war. They hinted at a fateful link between the two men's wartime experiences, and between the Murdocks and Howard Pyle -- historical tidbits that seemed worth pursuing.
David Murdock felt the full brunt of America's early fighting in the war in North Africa and Europe. Jimmy Creasman witnessed the war's conclusion in Germany. This week, New Times looks at Murdock's experience.
I'd met the Murdock family several years earlier, and knew something of their family's history. But I didn't know that they, too, had kept many of their family's war letters -- bundles of them. David Murdock's sister, Rachael Ellis, and niece, Janie, pulled them from drawers and closets in their Scottsdale home. David's brother -- John Ben Murdock, whom the family called Ben to distinguish him from his father -- sent more letters from his home in Pennsylvania.
Murdock and Creasman were both born in 1914. They were older than the average recruit when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war in December 1941. By then, Murdock had been in the Army for four months. Creasman's work as a broadcaster had earned him a temporary deferment from duty.
Both men knew each other from a distance. Creasman had grown up in Mesa, where his father ran the Gate City Ice Company. Yet he became prominent as president of the student body at Tempe while Murdock's father was still teaching there.
Like Creasman, David Murdock had also notched some local prominence. He was one of Arizona's champion divers in the early 1930s, when just about all of the state's large swimming events were held at the Olympic pool in Tempe Beach Park.
For a time, he belonged to a trio of tumblers -- including Forest Stroup and Bert Goodrich, who later became Mr. America -- who performed in parks around the Valley.
In his early 20s, he had established himself as a talented musician and composer, and wrote a suite of music based on life in the desert, called "Scenes From the Southwest."
Instead of studying at Tempe, he went off to the University of Arizona in Tucson to continue studying music with Madame Elenore Altman, a pianist from Poland, who had begun tutoring him as a child. He played football for the university.
"Madame Altman was always telling David to quit the football team down there," his sister Rachael, now 90, recalls, "because he was constantly injuring his hands. But every Saturday she'd be there in the stands, rooting him on."
Back in Phoenix in the late 1930s, with a master's degree in music, Murdock taught music at Glendale and Tolleson high schools, directed choirs and led the Orpheus Club, a local men's choral society.
In those days before the war, says Rachael, Murdock would sometimes wander the strip of desert that the Ellises had on Cattle Track in Scottsdale, playing what he called "growing tunes" on a flute. Like millions of others in the civilian army, fighting a war was about the last thing he wanted to do.
When he was drafted into the Army on August 11, 1941, he hoped that his musical experience would land him a spot in the Army band. But he wound up in basic training at Camp Wolters, Texas.
Midway through the training, he wrote to his mother in Washington that he didn't mind the miles and miles of maneuvers "thru brush and hills and sand. No gripe, I can take it as well as any and better than most, but it all seems so pointless, a muddled up mess & no [one] knew where we were going nor what they were supposed to do . . .
"I wouldn't give a dime for our chances against an organized enemy, yet the Generals in the critique this morning say we 'did a fine job' and I ask, What job? I never did see a job to be done. And we're supposed to be the best division in the country. O Boy. . . ."
Murdock's sister recalls that boot camp was a real jolt to her brother's independent and opinionated nature. "Once he saw what that was about, he knew the only possibility for him was to go for officers training."
He applied for officers training and got lieutenant's stripes the following spring, at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was graduated near the top of his class.
That summer, he joined the Army's 3rd Division, 7th Infantry Regiment at Fort Ord, California, as commander of an infantry platoon.
Along with millions of other soldiers and their families, the Murdocks spent the late summer and early fall of 1942 wondering where the Army would send him. His brother, Ben, was already working in the Army's Signal Corps as a radar specialist watching the waters off the end of Long Island.
At the time, there was considerable speculation about where Americans would land to begin their attack on Europe. A likely target was North Africa, along the Mediterranean, where the British were fighting German forces in the deserts of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.
David Murdock's regiment maneuvered in coastal mountains around Fort Ord, where the terrain and climate were similar to parts of North Africa. At one point, he was given a desk job at the regimental headquarters. But it was a temporary post.
The silence about where he might eventually wind up fed feelings of isolation and helplessness among his family at home.
"Gosh, it seems ages since anyone has written," Rachael wrote to her parents that fall. "I've almost decided the whole family has been shipped out.
"It gets harder and harder for me to figure things out or realize what's going on, you know sitting out here on the desert day after day with nary a change for years. I get all balled up thinking about the war, where it is, David and Ben, where they are, war policies in Washington etc. I'm just not in the picture somehow."
Her husband, George Ellis, was the civil engineer at Williams Field. He left every morning at 6:20 to start the 40-mile drive from Scottsdale. He returned exhausted after 5 each evening.
"He's going to have three passengers after this week," Rachael went on, "and that will help since it costs him $1.50 per day now to go and come. I think when they get the laboratory set up he'll take a cot over and stay over night part of the time. There are so many things to do here -- and he's too tired to do much -- and he only has Sundays off . . .
"I think mostly about David and Ben these days. I know you do too. I'm thankful they are both strong -- mentally and physically -- and hope to heaven they're lucky. They're super guys and I just can't think that fate would let them down. . . . Wish we could all ship out with the 3rd Division and help look after him, don't you?"
Murdock's regiment moved east to Camp Pickett, Virginia, outside Richmond, not far from the embarkation ports of Norfolk, Hampton Roads and Newport News, in October. It shipped from Norfolk with the Army's 3rd Division later that month to join the Anglo-American invasion of French Morocco and Algeria in early November.
"We're right smack in the middle of the Atlantic," Murdock wrote to his family November 1. "The ship is darkened as it is each nite, and I have to use a flashlight to write by. We've been at sea for a week and a day and it's been a glorious pleasure cruise -- calm sea, sunny days, with big clouds and blue water, moonlight nights, starlight nights, some a little cloudy, none cold. One guy said the other day, 'When the war's over and I get married I'm going on a honeymoon over all the country I've traveled since I've been in the Army.' And I think he's got a good idea. They have taken us for some nice rides.
"We're just beginning to feel a little tension in the air. For a week now, no one has acted as tho we were heading for a war. All relaxed. Guys sleeping around all over the deck. Card games at nite. Song sessions. Conferences on enemy intelligence (they've given us reams of information, maps, photos, etc.; hope it's accurate) and plans for the attack (it's all been very carefully planned tho I've grown suspicious of anything that's planned -- so seldom works out). But the whole atmosphere has been very pleasant and easy. I suspect that this next week will see a great change.
"We are in submarine territory, and we hear rumors daily of sighted submarines and unidentified aircraft, tho nothing definite as yet, and no trouble. I don't see how we can get by without some sort of attack before we reach our destination, but we'll see. It will be some excitement. They take every precaution. Cruisers and destroyers patrolling front, flanks and rear of the convoy. A zigzag course and changing pace. Patrols of carrier-based planes. No lights, no smoking from dusk to dawn. No radio broadcast and no reception except by the special ships radios which are anti-detection (or something).
"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 . . .
"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.
"Better get my stuff on and get up and take a last look at my maps. I'll censor this and leave it aboard. It may get to you in time for a 'MERRY XMAS and a Happy Noo Year.'"
Ten days later, Murdock detailed the invasion to his brother:
"I wrote you a note aboard ship at midnight before we landed. Get it? We went over the side at [CENSORED] scheduled to land in the fifth wave at [CENSORED]. We had just heard the President's message to the Free French so we knew they would be alert for us. First wave was to hit the beach at [CENSORED]. But as I feared the best laid plans didn't work out perfectly. Our wave was late starting for shore in the first place and about halfway in, the motor of my landing boat froze up and stopped (they -- Navy -- forgot to water it). The rest of the wave went on in. Our last two boats waited till the skipper got the motor going and then found that no one knew the way to our beach. It was just turning light and all Hell was popping ashore, rifle, machine guns, artillery, and then the ships in our fleet opened up on the shore batteries at [CENSORED].
"I took stock of the personnel in the two boats. I was the only officer (besides our chaplain). I finally argued the Navy kids that were piloting the [CENSORED] that the only thing to do was to get ashore anywhere and then we'd find the rest of our units. We finally landed on a rocky reef and waded, floundered and swam on in. Each man had from 50 to 70 pounds of equipment and ammunition on him and when we hit shore we found that a lot of it had been dropped including all our m.g. ammo and the tripod mount for the gun.
"It was colder'n Hell and we were all alone on the coast of [CENSORED] Africa with 5 and 10 inch shells whistling over our heads. (Our battleships were shelling a French Marine garrison just inland from us.) About then there appeared on the horizon, on a sand dune, on horseback with a cloak flowing in the morning breeze, a lone Arab horseman (just like the movies). I was about to quit and swim back to Arizona. I had visions of hordes of Tuareg tribesmen riding down on us with rifles, but nothing happened. I suppose he was just a curious native wondering what was going on.
"I had the men wring out their clothes (we had all been in water over our heads) and clean up the guns, and the m.g. sergeant and I went down to the reef, stripped, and went diving for the tripod and ammunition (funny sight in the early morning). We found the tripod and two boxes of ammunition and managed to get ourselves stuck plenty by the marine thorns growing down under the rocks.
"We hauled back our finds and dressed and then I saw an excited Frenchman running toward me over the rocks so I grabbed my gun and gave him, 'Arretez! Haute les mains' [Stop! Hands up!]. He was scared half to death but was friendly. He took me around some big rocks to his family who were huddled there, driven from their home earlier by the naval shelling. I gave them a wet chocolate bar and a pack of cigarettes and everyone relaxed. Anyway, he could tell me where we were and I knew the country well enough from map study to see that we were some two and one-half miles away from our beach, clear out of the Division zone of action. By then the sun was up and the men were drying and the shelling had quit, so we started out to find our various outfits. On the way we found other scattered units. The First Aid men patched up a few wounded soldiers -- we had none in our group -- and by 2 o'clock they were all back where they belonged and I found the [CENSORED] Battalion and was able to take first word from it to the Regimental C.P. even though it was 7 hours late. The Regimental group was [CENSORED] hours late landing so everything was O.K.
"On our way up the coast line we ran into no fighting. But the firing was still in progress down toward [CENSORED] and there was lots of artillery fire and plane strafing down on the beaches where we should have landed. Most of the casualties were on that beach. After a terrific bombardment and some hand to hand fighting [CENSORED] surrendered about [CENSORED]. I drove in à la jeep about an hour later.
"Quite a sight, a beautiful little resort city all shot up. Made a tour of their harbor defenses and, take it from me, they were plenty strong. The taking of [CENSORED] was a damn good job by the American Army (with naval support). Most of the fighting had been done by a single Battalion from [CENSORED] regiment -- and our losses weren't so very heavy.
"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.
"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."
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.
"I've learned a couple of Scot marching songs and one filthy ballad. They get a heluva bang out of singing them. They gripe like we do, and fuss at superiors, like we do, so I guess the two armies aren't so unlike, and the men themselves have much in common, except the speech. . . . I always enjoy hearing them talk. Some of the Scots especially. One said yesterday, 'Say, you chaps have some bloody fine expressions. One that I think is particularly delightful is "I'm gonna wise you guys up."' . . . They have some funny ideas of America. But then I guess we had some funny ideas of Britain . . .
"It's hot and dry here -- just like home, feels just like June 8 on the strip. I get plenty homesick, but the nights are cool and beautiful, and fine sleeping under 2 blankets, and I've long ceased to mind a bumpy ground bed. The Britons can't understand why we don't have cots . . .
"As I told mother, my only consolation in going back to the company is the hope of a pile of mail. I hope it's there. This has been such a swell vacation that I shouldn't worry much about going back. The rest of those poor officers in the Co. have been harassed straight through.
"Send me some more pictures of the kids & you & Geo. . . . God, I wish I wuz home."
Back with his company, in Bizerte, Tunisia, about 20 miles northwest of Tunis -- a direct line across the Mediterranean from Sicily -- he thinned out the pile of belongings and mail he'd accumulated since the Moroccan landing. He sorted and burned many letters from home, keeping only ones he could carry in his sack.
"I felt awful sorry when I got your last letter," he wrote Rachael in early July. "I should never have worried you by mail with my sore feet and general troubles. Anyway, all the hard work is over now and we've been having a breather -- the proverbial calm, I suppose. But we have had a little time for the past few days to look after our own affairs. I'm sending home a bunch of excess stuff in footlocker. Can't send any letters so I was sorting out my letter collection -- followed your correspondence from last November up to date & realized again how much it has meant to me. Mom is the faithfulest writer in the world, but I'm afraid that yours are always my most prized. We always seem to see things the same way and get the same laffs and your letters are just like you. It's fun to read through 2 dozen letters and watch the kids grow up while your daily worries stay about the same -- to go thru appendicitis operations, planted gardens, cold weather to early desert spring; kittens, hot weather and excess squash. And thru it all you worry about me.
"Remember this, the United States Army does EVERYTHING for its men. With all the hard work and lack of freedom we don't lack for anything that we really need (except a few days at home). So cut out the worry warting and relax. There's only one thing that I worry about -- that you folks worry about me. So if I know that's out. I'm a free man . . .
"Tonite is hot. The days have been all hot and dusty but this is the first hot nite -- our first Sirrocco or hot wind from the south. The general said it was a good omen. To me it was just reminiscent of the hot dry wind across our desert. You must have it every nite. Remember the hot wind on your face as you drive across the desert to the coast? Same dry heat, but really feels good to me.
"And quit trying to fight the war. Can't help matters to fidget. You run your home, raise the kids & don't worry about 'thwarting someone' & don't feel guilty about any comfort you have. Remember that the only sense any of us can see in this is that it makes it possible for you to do just that. I know that people there are putting out plenty. The kind of stuff that's been pouring in to us doesn't just grow. Tell George to forget about joining the Army. To join the Army isn't going to get him over here into the fight any more than my wanting to get home gets me home. And he's due for harassment any time he deals with the Army -- only when he's in uniform it gets much worse.
"There's really nothing I can write except I hope you replace all the letters I have to burn up now."
In early July, Murdock and his regiment were positioned in Tunisia for the July 10 invasion of Sicily, which involved more divisions of British, Canadian and American troops than the D-Day landings in France would a year later.
"When I left camp in the dark the other nite," he wrote to Rachael July 8, "I left my letters to be mailed, and stuffed all other papers in my bag. Now I find your letter still here, so I'll add to it and leave it aboard -- also a copy of Dirty Gertie (Stella's only rival) and a load of love.
"Tomorrow nite in the wee hours we hit Sicily with a bang and get set to give 'Musso' a hot foot. I know there won't be time to write tomorrow -- it will take plenty time and effort to tie up the loose ends and get this outfit of mine ashore -- don't know how I'll ever get them where we gotta go but I betcha we get there and shoot up Italians on the way.
"The General said, 'You picture it all in your minds, but no one can say how it will be. It may be a thousand times easier than anyone had imagined.' Me? I'm ready for anything but betting on the 'thousand times easier' -- with all the air power I've seen overhead. (They've been coming back in all evening), a sea full of ships -- and plans, plans, plans -- Hell, we can't miss! Anyway you'll know what happened long before you get this note. We had an air raid the other night that was the prettiest sight I ever hope to see, but I'll write Ben about that. Time's short."
Later that evening, he wrote Ben, "We are just now getting underway to dodge across the sea & hit -- hard. We've been aboard several days & dodging around from port to port to heckle the Jerry, I suppose. Now we are picking up steam for the big jump.
"We had an air raid the other nite . . . that was a real show. Just like the movies. Was awakened by the racket and went up on deck. The sky was full of searchlights and tracer bullets floating up to the point of a cone where I couldn't see anything. Then they picked him up in the lights. He tried to get out, like a fly in a web, but about 20 beams had him crossed, and the whole country side started spouting fire (we were anchored well out in the harbor & the plane was right overhead). And there were big tracers from 40 mm AA and heavy flashes from 5-inch guns. And then he got it, wobbled first, pulled out, then smoke came out the tail. Climbed, stalled, fell into a spin, leaving a trail of smoke, and landed with a terrific flash about 300 yards from our boat. The lights followed him all the way down. The fire burned on the water for 20 minutes. Boy, what a sight.
"We saw them shoot down three that nite. And the few bombs that did fall hit nothing. Next day German news: 'Allied base bombed, half the invasion barges there destroyed -- and all our craft returned safely.' What bunk. That's the kind of stuff that makes us know we'll kick the hell out of them in the next few days.
"All evening I've been going over navigation plans with the skipper; he's a good guy. The Navy seems to realize this time that its job is to get us ashore where & when we're supposed to get there, a good sign. All plans are good and I honestly think they will work.
"It's fun to be a C.O and in the know. I never was before. I saw the battle order for the whole Allied invasion force. It's gigantic. The General said, 'Hell, they couldn't even think up things as big as this to heckle us with at General Staff school a few years ago . . .'
"It's going to be a big show. I wish you could see it, honest . . . but I'll tell you about it and I know that in a few days we'll all wish we were somewhere else.
"There's so damn much more work to getting a company checked up, instructed & ready to go. My officers are good guys, but I guess there isn't any soldier as lazy as an officer. They're always playing cards or asleep, and I have to keep kicking them to get the job done. Found today that a lot of the explosives we have aboard are without caps and fuses -- because I didn't check on it. So I got an idea. We'll detonate them with hand grenades; use a 15-yard cord to pull the safety pin. It's gotta work. But for the most part we're all set. And tomorrow nite about now I'll be 'Crapari los panto' or else be too worried about getting 140 other guys ashore to notice it . . ."
Murdock's 7th Infantry went into Sicily near Licata, midway along the island's southern coast. It secured the coast for an infusion of supplies and more troops, then advanced across the island's mountainous hide and took Palermo, on the north coast, July 22.
"Yesterday was a good day," he wrote his mother in Washington on July 20. "Ten weary days in Sicily and then we actually spent a whole day in one place, got clean underwear from our baggage, got mail from home and a good B ration supper -- now were fittin' for fightin' again."
Five days later in Palermo, Murdock was sick with malaria, and at one point was hospitalized with a 103 degree fever. His company was guarding the city's central railroad station.
". . . and you can imagine the chaos in a city after weeks of terrible bombings, hunger, etc. then sudden turnover of military power, the chance to loot Fascist stores (the R.R. station was a Fascist headquarters.) Refugees coming back home, people going back to work, suspected soldiers/civilians, fear for abandoned munition and explosive dumps . . .
"As for this big story of the landing, the news has told it pretty straight. I won't repeat. A few unpublicized difficulties might be interesting.
"The day before the landing was a rough day. Wind blew all the barrage balloons off the tank transports and the L. C. I.'s (Infantry) rolled and jumped and tossed all day. Everyone was dead sick. I stayed on my feet all day because I thought I had to, but damned if I could get anyone else up. And there were so many little details that weren't finished and at 4:00 the next morning we had to fight our way ashore -- imagine the feeling. However, the sea calmed at midnite and when we saw the searchlights, shell flashes and machine guns everyone roused out and the details took care of themselves in a hurry. Artillery landed around us and m.g. bullets sprayed the boat once on the way in. No one hurt, and on the beach we had no fire at all. I can't understand it either. Had trouble landing, as usual. Lost a ramp from the boat. Skipper was a little nervous and got us 300 yards off the beach and on some rocks, waves were too high to use the rubber emergency boats so we swam, floundered and crawled in just like the last time, but never lost a man and but very little equipment. We had two small skirmishes, caught a few prisoners and were five miles inland on our objective by noon.
"We fought, maneuvered, moved and defended for over a week, rested two days and then swooooosh -- across the island; found out why they'd been hiking the feet off of us for three months (though I still think they over-did it.) Did 85 miles in two days, took three cities and hundreds of prisoners -- and more than half of it was done afoot -- and the mountains of Sicily are the worst in the world.
"Our company has been under fire several times -- each time we maneuvered and took our position. We (myself included) killed and wounded our share of the enemy, and the company took over 1500 prisoners by actual count, which is nothing to brag about, because the Italians just didn't want to fight. And the whole affair wasn't too dangerous. We had only three casualties, but we were luckier than most.
"I saw the effect of all-out American bombings on cities and civilians. Believe me, it isn't pleasant. I picked up an Italian born boy for an orderly and kept him with me all thru for an interpreter. We were talking to some civilians in the city when there was roar of bombers over head. I looked up with a question. They said, 'Don't worry -- those are American planes. We know the sound of the motors by now.' It was a while before I realized just what that meant, yet they seemed genuinely friendly to us, for all their misery. Why, because they think we bring food and because they know we are fighting H. and M., both of whom they hate violently. The worst of this bombing business is the Americans bomb a city until they get it and then the Jerries start the bombings all over again. But Jerry bombings aren't so terrible any more. I've seen several. Funny thing, the whole spectacle, while always interesting, didn't affect me emotionally at all, thank God. I've always been afraid I'd be terrified. I think I've gotten numb physically and emotionally in the past three months, which is the only way to get and stay alive.
"But here's what happened. A big pile of mail caught up with me just after the big push, while we were settled in a lemon grove outside the big city and I had to grab my mail and beat it back into the trees where I could read it and weep. Oh, the mail was wonderful, but it was the first thought of home I'd had for a long, long time . . .
"News from home always much the same, but then so is news from here I guess. This damn war could last another three months or three years, and with my present conception of time it would be all about the same. Doesn't seem possible that it's a year since I saw Rachael and George and the kids out on the desert. Boy, how I'd like to sneak a look at the kids now. Are the pictures on their way to me?
". . . I feel about leaving the hospital as I did about leaving the British Battle School (it was in Africa, by the way) -- chief reason for wanting to go back -- there may be mail for me back at the outfit. I'll drop V-mails from time to time, you all keep them coming.
"Pop, thanks for the note. I think we gave them Hell . . ."
David's mail was getting farther and farther behind what radio reports were daily telling his family about his regiment's actions at the front. His June letter describing the British battle school didn't reach Scottsdale until July 17.
"So out of date," Rachael replied to him July 18. "Even so reading a letter that was [from] you we all felt better and laughed at its Britisher jokes.
"The news continues good but I know the going is tough. It's very hard to imagine sitting out here with nothing more deadly than an occasional scorpion around. Stories and radio dramas paint the picture and one can get the idea -- a little -- for a short time but then it's gone again. People simply can't picture things they haven't experienced . . .
"We're just marking time, waiting to hear your angle."
She filled the letter with the stories he liked to hear about her children and the "normal" life at home.
"Mother writes that Daddy will be coming home soon. Congress has adjorned until September. It will be swell to see him -- wish Mother could come too. It's been over a year since we've seen her. In fact, you've seen her more recently than we have. That sounds crazy doesn't it.
"She says they can't both leave the office at the same time. She hasn't written since the Sicily invasion started."
Later that day, George Ellis typed a note of his own, describing his work at Williams Field, where he was in charge of maintaining the buildings, repairing runways and building some of the outlying posts, such as the gunnery ranges, targets and auxiliary fields in Yuma, Ajo and Tucson.
"I really love it for there is never a dull moment. As for satisfaction, well, when I see those planes taking off about every minute, see the traffic pattern full, and watch those '38's' (P-38s) doing their stuff and realize that I am having a little, though very little, responsibility for it, then I feel a little better. I do feel I should be right over there with you doing this thing from the real side of it, this home work some one else can do . . .
"According to the radio your dad has just called on the President to get him to straighten out the Japs in the Parker and Sacaton Internment Camps. It seems some of them were causing a little disturbance. . . . Believe it or not, the Italian prisoners from Tunisia are here in the valley cleaning ditches for the Water Users and as happy as they can be. And boy they really work. . . . Each morning I pass them on the way to work and always they are singing even in the hottest weather . . .
"You guys over there are sure doing a bang up job. I wish I were along to help, cause I would be scared to death but I sure would like it nohow -- godam . . .
"Well, Rachael just came in and said that on the Army Hour she just heard that your division was in the Sicily campaign. Give em hell kid and then a little more for me, the next one you get to pop tell him I asked you to do it, will you. Write to Rachael as often as you can for she keeps her ears glued to the radio and her eyes on the road for the postman. Yeh, we got a mailbox now . . ."
Murdock's malaria kept him hospitalized into early August -- a span during which Mussolini was toppled and Italian resistance all but vanished. But the German army was fighting a tough and effective retreat toward Messina, a port city on the northeast coast of Sicily, a short boat ride from the Italian mainland.
"I've tried twice to write a big letter full of Sicilian experiences," Murdock wrote his family from the hospital on July 30. "It's still unfinished. I seem to be busier now than I was after Casablanca. Anyway, there's a lot to tell and I hope to get it sent soon. Right now I am in the hospital taking the malaria cure, but they tell me I can get back to my company in a few days. It's really wonderful to be able to sleep all nite and all day on a cot, a rare luxury indeed. The Mussolini deal was a wow, wasn't it? The air is full of rumors, guesses, etc., etc. But no one knows just what lies ahead. I get more and more respect for the management of our army and armed forces! The big shots have done well by us. Casualties here were light. It could have been terrible, and it wasn't all because of low Italian morale either. Anyway, I've been right in the front of things all the way thru and saw the whole show and my company did its full share and we're still in good shape. I hope the worry strain there hasn't been too heavy."
He left the hospital "malaria cured, but weak as the duce," he wrote a friend. "I need several days of my own mess sergeant's chow and some exercise before I get back on my feet proper. As for Sicily it's not a particularly pretty place, people very unpicturesque and the villages are of colorless grey stone always built on top of a mountain. The mountains are terrific and would present some wonderful scenes if we didn't have to climb over them, that spoils the effect. All in all, I'd rather be in Arizona -- or D.C. -- or anywhere over there. Well, someday maybe, in the meantime, God bless you plenty."
By mid-August, radio was reporting that Murdock's 7th Infantry was 20 miles from Messina.
"So many times it all seems so fantastic," Rachael wrote August 15, "I can't get the picture all straight at all.
"Malaria must be awful, but if you can stay put long enough they should be able to fix it. Don't you have enough quinine to keep it warded off?
"I've been in a complete mental fog lately. Everything around here irritates me and I try to think of something else, but who can think of anything with two kids swarming . . ."
Summer rains had gushed down the washes east of Camelback Mountain and flooded the house. "It was a hellish week. . . . One night after the flood we all went to town to eat. Tried every place in Tempe and Phx, no luck, everything closed. So we bought a watermelon and came home at 9:30 PM and ate it. Found out it was meatless Thursday, everything closed up.
"Ben is gone I guess. Mother sent his overseas address. I've been so busy worrying about you that I haven't worried much about poor Ben but the convoy lanes are relatively safe now. Mother thinks he went to England . . .
"Dad says he's really worried about our post-war policies. He thinks the Republicans will gain control and pull a repeat on isolationism Harding, Coolidge, etc. They hate Roosevelt so they'll be sure to adopt an opposite policy. George says the men in the armed forces won't allow it, but they won't be here to vote. Great god, wouldn't that be awful. Daddy says he's sure that a large percentage of people still believe we should never have gotten into the war -- and blame it on the administration.
"By gosh if we don't follow through on this war, we'd better begin by stringing up a few at home. I can't see how it could happen, but Dad says he's sure it will. I hope you fellows will make yourself heard from. We've simply got to cooperate in world affairs from now on . . .
"What can we send you in Xmas packages? We are allowed to send one a week per sender from Sept 15 to Oct 15 -- weight not more than 5 lbs. Do send word quick. This may be the last chance for a long time.
"I hope you're feeling well again when this gets there. Letter exchanges are so slow it's terrible thinking all the things that can happen in between letters. I keep hoping for a sudden collapse of Italy and Germany but I guess that's too much.
"Anyway, we're proud of you and I've got mental corns from hoofing it over Sicily . . ."
On August 17, Rachael heard that Murdock's 3rd Division had marched into Messina, and she received a letter he'd written in late July. In early September, with no recent word from him, Rachael wrote to him that war nerves, heat, mosquitoes and general bedlam were besting everyone:
"Since there's a lull in the battle news from Sicily, I hope you are getting a breathing spell -- and hope muchly that the malaria is stopped cold. I know it's a terrible thing in many cases and keeps coming back. People can stand an awful lot when they are well. But being sick in the battle zone must be as bad as it gets. I keep worrying about you. But I guess no need to go into that again . . .
"The political heat here is a terrible thing. Daddy is worried and mad a lot of the time. Everyone is yelling at the 'bureaucrats.' The Republicans claim everything is muddled and no good. Office of Price Administration can't handle inflation. The wrong people are getting the high wages etc. Of course there is a lot wrong, but almost everyone is mad only at the thing that hurts his business or pleasure.
"It seems so awful, when all the best young men in the country are fighting that we can't get together at home. The damned thing is just too big I guess . . .
"I'm enclosing a page from the last Life which mentioned 'Stella the Belle of Fedela.' Also a clipping from each the Republic and Gazette. Wouldn't people look funny if they could hear it sung?
"The Glendale paper had a full column about you. Daddy stopped in and talked with the man. Probably Ralph Hess [a friend of David's] will send it to you. He called me and read your August 1st v-mail, said the paper would print it. Said he about capsized when he read of that small group that landed behind German lines before the fall of Messina. The paper said they were the same group that had landed at Fedela. We were holding our breath over that too . . .
"Last night the invasion of Italy was announced. So far today the 7th Army has not been mentioned. So we're speculating on where you are and what will happen next. I hope it will be fast. There must be big doings afoot in several places. We're thinking about you every minute. Hope the victory announcement will come soon.
"George came in last night with the terrible news that Captain Adams (his best friend at Williams) . . . was killed yesterday in a plane crash near Ajo. He was not a flier -- had recently been made Major and commanding officer of the Ajo gunnery post. His pilot was a veteran of the Solomons campaign and an ace. No one knows what happened. There have been too many accidents lately. The pace is just too fast. But I should be telling you we need fliers. I guess there isn't anyone that appreciates an air umbrella more than infantry men, any way as long as they are in the air, huh?
"I still want to know what we can send in little packages . . ."
After taking Palermo, David Murdock's 7th Infantry regiment broke east along the coastal highway toward Messina.
"It's a P poor war, Ben," he wrote August 6, in a letter he never finished or sent. "We've been sitting here for 3 days doing absolutely nothing. They're shooting a lot of artillery about 6 miles up and we're alerted to move on 15 minutes notice but there seems to be little action -- don't know why the delay. We've got plenty for the job, but I guess somebody knows what's going on. In the meantime, we sit in the dirt & sleep & eat C rations -- thrilling . . ."
Soon after that, Murdock and his company began a week of almost round-the-clock fighting. Retreating German forces made the mountainous coastal terrain a part of their already formidable arsenal. They mined the dry river bottoms and gorges that cut through the hills below the towns, then trained their mortar, artillery and machine-gun fire on the narrow, difficult low ground between the hills.
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Pratt, who fought with the 7th Infantry through that part of Sicily, says that to advance troops and equipment along the coastal highway, which was tucked against the cliffs in spots and occasionally blown out by the Germans, the regiment had to sweep on foot through the overlooking mountains, fighting as they went.
To add to the misery, Pratt recalls, the Germans had a six-barrel mortar -- the one the Brits described to Murdock -- "with whistles on the fins that filled the air with screams that could be heard for miles . . . we hated it."
The morning of August 11, 1943, Murdock's company was ordered to follow a lead battalion's attack on the hills and towns of Malo, Pernicchia and Cresta di Naso, which lay slightly inland and south of the Cape of Orlando. Another battalion followed on the heels of Murdock's.
They had been fighting this way for days. One company would lead, then give way to a second, third and fourth, moving amoebalike across the rugged terrain, attacking and outflanking the retreating Germans.
The lead battalion began its attack on the hills approaching Malo around 6 a.m., bringing a hail of German mortar and machine-gun fire. Late that morning, Murdock's company began its own attack toward Malo, cleaning out German troops that had escaped the first American wave. At 11:50, an American spotter plane reported seeing a line of friendly troops 300 yards shy of Malo.
Sometime around noon, while scrambling through the dry, wash-cut hills around Malo -- exactly two years from the day he was inducted into the Army -- David Murdock was hit by machine-gun fire. The same fire wounded his company's first Lieutenant Charles Treadway, who refused evacuation and led Murdock's company ahead.
At 1:30 that afternoon, the battalion following Murdock's radioed the regiment that it wanted to immediately evacuate three bodies and 13 wounded men. Murdock was among the dead.
Word of his death didn't reach his father, who was still in Tempe on the congressional summer break, until September 8. That morning, a Western Union agent delivered a telegram confirming his death to Congressman Murdock's Tempe home on Van Ness Avenue, now part of the ASU campus. Murdock drove the nine miles to Scottsdale to tell Rachael the news in person. Rachael can't remember when or how her father told her mother. They sent word to Ben, in England.
"There's nothing new to say," Rachael wrote her mother the next day, "but millions of things to remember and repeat. We've all known for a long time how the cards were stacked, but even so it's terribly final not to hope anymore for a way out.
"David knew he wouldn't be back too and I'm sure he died with the complete satisfaction and self-respect of knowing he stood well up on the scale of men as men.
"He was always uncertain before. It's terrible to think he went back into battle in a weakened condition, but his last v-mail attested to his confidence and regard for the higher ups in this war.
"David always wanted to compete, under fair rules, with no favors shown, and I think he must be content with the results of his last competition.
"He had a job to do and I know without anyone's telling me that like the great guy he was he did a super job.
"I'm glad Ben's across -- it will be easier for him. He'll do his job too -- and extra super. And I'm just as sure the stack of chance favors him. Ben will come back to take the place of both boys and do the work of two. . . . The big job is only started. We need Ben & many others like him to make this world click after the firing's ceased.
"David died proud of his mother & dad, proud of his family and what it stood for, proud to die doing a job he couldn't quite understand but knew was right. As much as he loved us all, I'm sure the self respect with which he died made it all right. He'd done his share and surely felt no inferiority or regrets . . .
"There's no use being bitter. We've got to take up this battle where David left off and do a job that would make him proud. We can't do that and be bitter. Anyway, David would like it that way. He loved things to be smooth, cheerful, enthusiastic and worthwhile.
"I'm going to do a much better job raising my family and I know David will help. He'll help us all!
"And gosh, wasn't he a swell guy. I hope if souls are used over and over he'll wait for me and we'll be twins next time."
A week or so later, at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., Myrtle Murdock visited a soldier who had served in Murdock's company. He had been wounded on August 9 and evacuated to a hospital in Africa, where he met a buddy who was with Murdock's company on the 11th.
"As soon as I seen Buchanan wasn't going to die," he told her, "I says to myself, 'Now I can find out about my buddies as to who's left,' and let me tell you the first one I asked about was 'Bernie.'"
When Myrtle Murdock looked surprised, he said, "Of course you wouldn't call him 'Bernie' but all the fellows did. I don't know who that 'Bernie' was they named him after but it was some swell guy that could sing and make everybody happy. Whenever Lt. M. came on our field even in Africa [it] got around, 'Bernie's here, get the singin' gang together.'"
Murdock was also an admired leader, said the soldier, who "wore the skin off his feet" on the long marches right along with the rest of his company. "When we got home, do you think he dismissed us without any concern? Not him. He said, 'Fellows, you're great soldiers. It's gonna take men like you to win this war.'"
There was plenty of singing at the memorial service for Murdock. It was held the evening of September 19 at the First Methodist Church in Glendale where David had directed a choir. The long train trip across country prevented Murdock's parents from coming from Washington. But Rachael, George and 500 others were present. She wrote to her parents afterward:
"It is a picturesque church copied from one in Belgium," Rachael wrote to them, "made of brick, choir loft at the rear, high peaked ceiling, tall colored glass windows & ivy covered walls. . . . The light was beautiful, coming from a low sun through the colored glass. The church was filled to overflowing and it was terribly sad, but sweet."
She sat with George and family friends down front. "The Orpheus men sat facing the audience." The church choir was in the loft at the rear.
Some of Murdock's former students had made a lyre of flowers and put it alongside two other bouquets on the dais.
When the Orpheus men first started singing David's suite of music, "I thought I couldn't stand it," Rachael wrote, "and the 'Desert Night' was just a part of David there again. Those soft sweet little melodies in the piano accompaniment just tore me apart. They were so familiar. The men sang well, but as much as they loved David, they would have sung better if his gorgeous shoulders had been in front directing."
Howard Pyle, the KTAR broadcaster, gave the eulogy. He spoke for 16 minutes about, in his words, "Our David" -- the community's son, whose loss was more than just one family's.
"He prepared his words himself," Rachael told her parents, "and it was a masterpiece . . . I'm going to write him soon and try to tell him how fine it was."
The weekend after the service, Pyle gathered up information about Murdock's death and sent it along with a letter to Jimmy and Dorothy Creasman in New York.
"Even yet it seems unreal!" he wrote. "The assignment to handle a tribute to him hit me squarely in the middle of a very soft spot in my heart, but somehow I managed to get through it. . . . More could be said, but what good would it do."
Next week: Jimmy Creasman sees a very different side of war.
Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: email@example.com
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