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  The 583rd Signal Depot
  Company Goes To War


RADAR Meets The Silver Foxhole


SCR-584 RADARIn June of 2013 we took you on a typical tour of duty that a WWII Signaleer might have lived. In that article we followed an EM and a Signal Officer from the 56th Signal Battalion through their training and then on to their tour in Europe (more accurately, the European Theater of Operations or ETO). The article was Part II of a three part series we penned on how a nation’s determination to win a war can often be seen in how the military structures a fighting soldier’s tour of duty. Even though the article was written to look at how war is fought, it was still fun to follow a typical soldier through his tour of duty, seeing what he encountered along the way and what his life was like.

In this article we want to look again at what it was like to be a Signal soldier in WWII, but this time we’ll look less at the philosophy behind war and more at the personal side of what a typical Signaleer’s life was really like. This time we will look at what the Officers and men of the  583rd Signal Depot Company did as they prepared for war and then embraced it.

Most of us have heard of Signal Depot Companies, without having any idea what they were or what they did. For most Signal Depot units of WWII their mission was:

1. To receive, store, issue and provide company, battalion or echelon level maintenance for signal equipment issued to the forces they supported. For the 583rd that meant supplying the fighting and occupation forces of the European Command, including the equipment required to carry out special missions that might be charged to the Chief Signal Officer of the Army they served with… such as Patton’s 3rd.

2. To operate signal field procurement teams for the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, and to procure along the route of battle signal equipment that might be useful to the fighting and, later, occupation effort.

3. To rehabilitate all equipment and items retaining at least 35% of their original value. Efforts like this typically required the troops to rebuild, repair, clean, preserve, package, properly mark, identify, and classify every item they ran across, in order to assure that all items were ready for reuse as either a Class "A" and "B" status item.

In the 583rd’s case their specialty was RADAR, primarily the SCR-584, including the trucks that carried them. But their work was not just limited to depot maintenance on these units, it also included setting up and operating RADAR matrix in the field, in support of combat conditions. That is, in addition to performing depot duties on field RADAR systems, the 583rd also set up and operated typical three truck RADAR arrays in support of the units they travelled with.

To prepare for the battles they were headed towards, the  583rd Signal Depot Company trained at Camp Crowder, Missouri, before, as with many Signal Companies they trained with at Crowder, heading off to Europe. Like the rest, their route took them via boat to Scotland and then overland to England, where they expected that they would settle in to prepare for war. However, when they arrived in England what they found was that rather than practicing their communicating skills prior to the invasion of the continent, they instead became part of the support effort aimed at preparing for that invasion.

More particularly, what many Signal Corps men today fail to appreciate was that back in WWII the Signal Corps served several masters, which caused units like the 583rd Signal Depot Company to do double duty.

First, the Signal Corps as a branch was a supply service provider to its sister services. Second, it provided technical services in support of command and communication, as well as the communication and other technical services themselves, and third, the Signal Corps was a combat arm. The net result of this was that the duties a particular Company within the Signal Corps performed frequently differed based on where you ran across it and at what stage the war was in at that location. That was the case for the  583rd. While it started out training to provide radar services, by the time its men arrived in England they were heading towards providing support services. Part of the reason had to do with bad timing. The U.S. and its British and other allies had been building up men and equipment to invade the European continent from day one, when the U.S. joined the war on December 7, 1941. Unfortunately, because of Churchill’s demands that North Africa be invaded first, before France, in late 1942, all of these efforts were for naught… as far as Europe was concerned.

Victory over PanzersThis made it necessary for the Allies to start all over again to build up a continental fighting force; and of course this in turn meant that it was necessary to reestablish the depot and supply systems required to support the new buildup—a Signal Corps function. Add to this the need to rebuild the communication systems that had previously been used to support the North Africa invasion force while it was training in England (which for the most part was dismantled and taken with the troops when they departed for Africa), and one can see that units like the 583rd found themselves needing to do double duty: keep their war skills sharp while tackling all sorts of support work when they first arrived.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Let us first look at how most men ended up in the  583rd. 

During World War II the Signal Corps did all it could to recruit technically inclined men, preferably with some college experience if not an actual college degree. Men with Bachelors of Science in Business Administration, science, mathematics, engineering or any other school of thought that required discipline and an ability to process thoughts based on logic were in great demand. If a college Camp Crowder - Graduation Daydegree wasn’t available, being able to show that one was technically inclined might do too. Those who practiced amateur radio (HAMS), liked flying or gliding, or otherwise showed that they were part of the elite world of advancing technology fit in well with what the U.S. Army Signal Corps was looking for. Once inducted or incented to join the Signal Corps such men were often sent off to the Army Signal Corps Radio School. Several of these were set up around the country, with one of the more prominent being in Boston, Massachusetts.    

Many of the men who ended up being assigned to the 583rd Signal Depot Company followed this exact route. After induction and basic was over they were sent off to Boston, where they sat through six months of training. From there they went on to Camp Crowder, in Neosho, Missouri, for the final phase of their basic training.

Camp Crowder was constructed in 1941 to serve as a training center for the Army Signal Corps. It was one of the largest Army installations in the Midwest and was named for Enoch Crowder, a Missouri general who as provost marshal implemented and administrated the Selective Service Act during World War I.

Camp Crowder - Aerial ViewAs early as 1942 men began arriving at Crowder for training where, as the war progressed, they underwent schooling in one or more of over forty different military communication specialties involving everything from radio, RADAR and telephone operation to plain old maintenance. Aside from the Signal-Corps training, the post also trained medical-corps soldiers and ground-force troops. It also operated an Officer Candidate Preparatory School, the first school of its kind in any Army installation. The graduates of this preparatory school were sent on to the OCS program at Fort Monmouth.

At its peak just short of 47,000 troops were stationed at Camp Crowder. Then later, as these men went on to war and their barracks became empty (between December 1942 and May of 1946) their bunks were filled with more than 10,000 German and Italian POWs. In part because the Camp had a training mentality, and in part because that’s how Americans were back then, the POWs held at Crowder were given the option of learning trade skills such as butchering, auto mechanics, baking, and laundering. It’s kind of strange to think in terms of the U.S. military training its enemy, in the middle of a war, to be better civilians, but that’s the way America was in those days. The enemy was the enemy for only as long as he was on the field of battle. Once he surrendered we did all we could to instill in him the values we treasured most, hoping that he would bring those values back to his own country and change the way his countrymen saw the world.

Shortly after the war ended, Crowder was closed as a basic training site and eventually, in 1958, it was completely deactivated.

At the time our typical Signaleer went through Camp Crowder the most advanced schools dealt with radio devices and RADAR. If our Signaleer was a college graduate when he arrived at Crowder it was likely that he ended up being assigned to the tougher of the two: RADAR training. Depending on when he arrived he was likely to be assigned to the 583rd Signal Depot Company, a newly constituted unit.

Interestingly, if at the time he was assigned to the 583rd it was found that he had more than one degree, or was exceptionally experienced in advanced technologies, he might also find himself being sent on to Camp Murphy, in Florida, for 6 months of specialized training in RADAR, rather than the more fundamental training that was being offered at Crowder. If so, when his training was over in Florida he would be returned to his unit at Crowder for unit posting to a theater of war. And of course, if he showed leadership skills, he might be lucky enough to be pulled from the RADAR training program completely and sent through Crowder’s OCS Preparatory School before being dispatched off to Fort Monmouth. From there, there was no telling where he might end up… but wherever it would be, unless he washed out, it would be in as an Officer in the Signal Corps.

As for the 583rd itself, it was activated at Camp Crowder on January 12, 1944. As originally constituted the Company consisted of 1 Officer and 20 Enlisted Men. By March 30, 1944, it had expanded to 9 Officers and 182 Enlisted Men, its intended complement. Reading many of the personal memoirs and stories written by 583rd men it is clear that the unit took pride in itself. Comments abound about the men being proud to be in an actual fighting unit, versus a support unit, as well as the quality of the equipment they were assigned to work with… equipment whose technology exceeded that found in the civilian sphere of life.

SCR - 268 RADARAs our readers will remember from an earlier article we penned on RADAR [Part 4: America Between The Wars – RADAR Blooms], development of RADAR was headed by Colonel William Blair, director of the Signal Corps laboratories at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Signal Corps RADAR research began in the 1930s with the production of two RADAR sets: the (Signal Corps Radio) SCR-268 and the SCR-270. The SCR-268 was a short-range fixed base radar system principally used to control searchlights and antiaircraft guns. The SCR-270 was mobile and had a range of 120 miles. Because of this it tended to be used to look for incoming aircraft. Later, the SCR-271 was invented. Fixed like the SCR-270, it tended to be used for coastal defense.

Training for these devices took place in two locations, Crowder and Murphy, with, as said earlier, Murphy offering more advanced instruction. As to what Camp Murphy was like, it was activated in 1942, just shortly after Crowder was up and running. A stand alone facility named after Lieutenant Colonel William Herbert Murphy, who in turn was instrumental in the development of radio beams and military aircraft equipment, it served as the Southern Signal Corps School for RADAR operation.

Located on 11,364 acres, the Camp was considered far enough away from prying eyes to be secure. One wonders however if the 854 officers and 5,752 enlisted men that populated it didn’t make enough noise on their own to, if not the enemy, at least let every girl in Florida know that they were there. A huge facility, the Camp held nearly 1,000 buildings, as well as a bank, movie theatre, church and bowling alley. Like Crowder, it was decommissioned when the war was over (1944). Later the land was returned to the State of Florida, where in 1950 it eventually ended up being designated as Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

War  Brides - WWIITo keep with our story and add color to it, we must recognize that while our Signaleer was now a member of the 583rd, he still had a personal life of his own. If he was anything like the millions of other soldiers passing through the Army at that time he had a girl. Being headed for war, more likely than not our man and his lady used his time in training as an opportunity to get married. Wartime marriages were more than common in the U. S. at that time. In fact, they were hot, with more than a million (20% above pre-war levels) taking place between 1940 and 1943. And if our Signaleer couldn't find a girl at home before he left, he was sure to find one when he arrived in Europe.

Still, while love might be blooming, the call to war was never ending in 1943–1944, and so it was just a matter of time before our man was finished with his training and headed for a transport ship to take him to the ETO. For the  583rd Signal Depot Company that ship was the HMT Arundel Castle (aka HMT F1). It set sail for the European Theater on April 5, 1944.

Full of new troops nervous about what they would find when they arrived in Europe, the ship’s company attempted to quiet their nerves by piping music and news through the loud speakers. Having barely cleared New York harbor the ship's Captain broadcast Gabriel Heatter, an American radio commentator whose World War II-era sign-on, "There's good news tonight", became both his catchphrase and his caricature. Known across the country, his news broadcasts were eagerly awaited. However, on this fateful night, as the men of the 583rd set sail for the ETO, Heatter adjusted his normal sign on and instead began with the phrase “There’s bad news tonight.” From there he went on to talk of how a German U-boat sank an Allied supply ship off the Irish coast. Up and down the decks white faces could be seen… many wondering for the first time since joining the Army what they had got themselves into. Few of the 583rd slept soundly that night.

While the Arundel Castle was a converted steamship liner, the conversion process didn’t make it any too comfortable. Most of the 583rd found themselves bunked on A-Deck. Having been told while on their way to board the vessel that they would be on A-Deck, most believed that they would be at the top of the ship, sunning themselves all the way to England.

Not so. As it turns out, on most steam ships, deck numbering begins at the bottom and moves up as the decks get closer to the top of the ship. And so the boys of the 583rd found themselves several levels below the water line, where not only was it damp and chilly, but they could hear the sea streaming past as they slept. For a unit so newly introduced to the reality of submarine warfare, this proved more than many could handle.

HMT Arundel CastleTo make matters worse, the ship being as small as it was, there simply wasn’t enough space for bunks for everyone. To solve this problem men were assigned two to a bunk, with one sleeping in the bunk one night while the other slept on the deck beside the bunk; this routine being reversed the next night. With the fear of being torpedoed and a cold hard deck to sleep on half of the time it was to be expected that during the day many made their way topside in search of a niche where they could sleep above the water line. 

Eventually the troops made it to Scotland where they docked at Glasgow on April 17. From Glasgow the 583rd made its way by convoy to a holding depot in Herefordshire. There, along with other U.S. fighting men that were arriving at the same time, units were reassembled and dispatched throughout southern England in something that was called Operation Bolero.

At the time “Bolero" was the code name used in official communications to stand for the "United Kingdom," especially when describing activities within the U.K. theater of operations, or troop movements around the country. Because of this, at the time of the 583rd’s troop movements the term was applied to the effort to beef up forces and materials for an as yet unspecified invasion of Europe. To be more accurate, the term Operation Bolero represented those plans relating to the first stage of the troop and material buildup in Great Britain, in preparation for what was planned as the initial cross-channel invasion plan. This plan was known as Operation Roundup, and it was scheduled to be implemented in mid-1943 if all was ready and things progressed smoothly. However, if progress was slow in building up for a full invasion, then instead of Operation Roundup another lesser contingency known as Operation Sledgehammer would go forward. And if so, then this would happen sometime in the fall of 1942, but only in the event of German setbacks and/or to ease Axis pressure on the Eastern Front.

And if that is not confusing enough, as plans for the invasion moved forward the term Operation Bolero was redefined to refer more exclusively not to the early stage general effort to bring troops and materials to England, but solely to Hap Arnold’s program to buildup a strategic air force in Great Britain (again in preparation for Operation Roundup). The change in designation of the purpose of Operation Bolero from being related to a general buildup to only that associated with Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Henry H. Arnold came about because when General George C. Marshall approved Hap Arnold’s request for a buildup of his own (April 12, 1942) he also set in motion an even bigger program to bring men and material to England for an even more expanded effort that would presage the actual invasion of continental Europe. And so with that decision all of the other operations except Operation Bolero (which now referred solely to General Arnold’s buildup of planes and pilots) became history, with the new one General Marshall approved receiving the name Operation Overlord.

Regardless of all of this, as far as our men from the 583rd Signal Depot Company were concerned, they were part of Operation Bolero. As to what they were really thinking, the only thing that mattered was that they had arrived safely and had not been torpedoed en route. Now, at last, finally in England, they could add their effort to the increase in strength that was taking place, from approximately 774,000 troops at the beginning of 1944 to 1,537,000 that were there for the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.

Thinking they would be set to work either building RADAR sites or preparing for the invasion, the men of the 583rd were surprised when they found themselves assigned to supply duties. A core responsibility of the Signal Corps, while playing with RADARS might be nice, the truth was that hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were arriving in England and someone had to supply, support and assist them. And so the 583rd found itself accepting a first mission to operate the Signal Supply Section General Depot (G-22), in Herefordshire.

There the 583rd was ordered to unload signal wire from freight cars shipped over by civilian U.S. companies. According to the official history of the 583rd, “The mission at G-22 proved to be one of the most difficult the company was to encounter. The volume of receipts and shipments, moderate at first, reached a peak just prior to the invasion of France which was almost beyond the physical endurance of the personnel involved.” The truth be told, the men of the 583rd were often required to work 24 to 30 hours a day. Reflecting back on how proud they were in training to think of themselves as combat men, or at least the guys that played around each day with the world’s most advanced technology—RADAR—now they were just glad to get some sleep... never mind that the vaunted 583rd didn’t even make it to the level of basic Signal Corps cable pullers. Tired, bedraggled cable un-loaders, that's what they were.

The strenuous duty the men of the 583rd were assigned played a part in how things unrolled for the unit as momentum gathered towards the D-Day invasion. What actually happened was that by the time the invasion was ready to proceed the men of the 583rd were exhausted and needed both a break and a quick retraining to ready them for their more normal duties of either working RADARS or repairing them. Many actually ended up being hospitalized with breathing infections from working inside the cargo ships they unloaded, which in turn took them out of retraining, forcing them to take up positions as RADAR truck drivers instead of radar operators. Strangely, those that were sent down this road had to, in addition to taking a U.S. Army test to obtain a military vehicle driver’s license, take a British government drivers test too.

For the others, retraining afforded a chance to observe how British RADAR techniques differed from those of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Comments in memoirs indicate that most felt that British RADAR operations were not as sophisticated as those of the U.S. Some commented that the British attached their RADAR to search lights, to improve their precision. This of course worked two ways. It also allowed German aircraft to quickly figure out that if they took out the searchlights they saw on the ground, British RADARs would cease operating. And of course, without either searchlights or RADAR British anti-air craft guns became... how shall we say... less accurate. Picking up on this, the 583rd put out directives that all RADAR units be moved considerable distances away from search lights… especially British ones.

While a few small squads from the 583rd made it into the initial D-Day invasion as advanced observers for the unit as a whole, most of the Company stayed behind for additional training. On July 8, a few days after D-Day, the 583rd moved 145 miles south from its Signal Supply Section General Depot (G-22) at Herefordshire to Frampton Court. There it received a refresher course in basic training, where two key subjects were taught. The first involved those topics long ago covered that were intended to keep a man alive in combat and the second consisted of a quick update on the lessons the 583rd’s observer squads that were part of the D-Day invasion had learned about German tactics and capabilities. Most importantly, these lessons included information on the best way to deploy RADAR in the French countryside... in pursuit of the Germans.

Captured Wuerzburg RADARThe refresher course completed, the 583rd was ready to join the Allied advance. On August 16, 1944, the 583rd Signal Depot Company landed on Utah beach and proceeded by truck to a bivouac in Transit Area 'B', near Sainte-Mere-Eglise. When it hit the beach the 583rd had exactly 9 Officers and 172 Enlisted Men standing on French soil.

As a newcomer to the battle, the 583rd was destined to travel... if only to catch up with the advancing front. For the most part the men moved in small units composed of one RADAR truck and the men associated with it, plus the material and additional vehicles needed to support that truck. Even so, because RADAR at that time tended to be deployed in clusters, one RADAR truck group was rarely far from another. Sleeping by the side of their trucks, the groups did all they could to implement the camouflage training they had received from the day they first joined the Army. Being new to the sound of war, most didn’t sleep well the first week or two after arrival. Eventually though, like all soldiers, the novelty of war wore off, routine set in and the men returned to feeling that they just might make it through this thing called war.  

In the early stages of the war traveling through Europe made maps an absolute necessity Without them the men were sure to get lost along the way. To help the 583rd navigate through the terrain they traversed the unit was given special maps that helped them not only assess how to get where they were going but also how to lay out an array of RADAR and make best use of the equipment they carried with them.

This additional need to be able to correlate their RADAR installations to achieve best practical effect meant that in addition to the normal topographic information a map contained the men of the 583rd needed to have information that would allow them to correlate their equipment with known landmarks, whose geographic coordinates could in turn be pinpointed. Information of this type was not contained on standard maps. To overcome this problem the Signal Corps sought out maps prepared by the Standard Oil Company, a U.S. business that had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars prior to the war to chart their own gas lines as they transited Europe. With excruciating detail, these maps not only told the 583rd what was going on around them in terms of landmarks and the like, but also underground… something they didn’t need to know, but made them feel more secure anyway. However you looked at it, thanks to Standard Oil the maps got the men where they needed to go, and helped them group their RADARs for best effect.

From Transit Area “B” the 583rd traveled to LeMans, France. There (on August 18, 1944), while preparing to lay out their RADAR truck matrix, they were approached by a member of the Force Française d’Interior (FFI), also known as “Fee Fees.”[1] As was to be expected, as American units advanced across France towards Germany, and the Germans slowly retreated, some German units found themselves cut off from their main body, holed up in a pocket or simply left behind. The French resistance, not one to leave an opportunity unfilled, sought these units out and brought them under fire, pinning them down until the Americans arrived. On August 18 the men of the 583rd found themselves in just such a situation. As they advanced they learned that a local FFI resistance group had cornered a group of German soldiers in a farm house. The FFI believed that with the “softening up” they had already given the Germans, if they caught site of American troops they would convince themselves to surrender rather than carry on fighting.

With a smile on their faces some of the 583rd’s men headed off towards the farmhouse, where just as planned fifteen enemy soldiers surrendered. The Signaleers returned to their RADAR trucks grinning from ear to ear, saying that the Germans “… thought Patton’s Third Army was right behind [us]…”.[2]

Patton's III ArmyReturning to their normal duties, a week later, on August 25, 1944, a detachment made up of 1 Officer and 11 Enlisted Men were dispatched to find a way to increase the flow of signal supplies to the U.S. units coming up behind them. One of these was in fact Patton’s Third Army, also known as “Hell on Wheels”.

For some reason it seemed that Patton’s Army used more signal supplies than any other Army marching through Europe. Because of this they were always calling for more cable, more telephones and more of just about everything. As the Third Army moved into the area the 583rd was in, the 583rd was assigned the task of keeping them supplied. When the squad that was sent to meet up with Patton’s Army moved to link up with it, they were told to find out what the problem was that was causing Patton to go through so many supplies.

Sure enough, when they arrived they saw firsthand that the Third Army was nearly out of light weight "assault wire." Because of the speed with which Patton advanced, the wire his people used tended to be types like W-130. W-130 weighed 30 pounds per mile, and allowed field phones to have a talking range of about 5 miles. Heavier cable pairs allowed longer talking distances, obviously because the resistance along the line decreased with the diameter of the copper wire.

EE-8 Field TelephoneAs cable like W-130 was laid, the reels mounted on the backpacks that were in turn mounted on the back of trucks and jeeps were simply tossed aside and left along the road. Regulations said they were to be collected and sent to the rear, but again, with the speed with which Patton’s Army moved it took more time to police the reels, load them and find where the rear actually was (since it was advancing along with the rest of the Army) than simply leaving them where they lay. And as to the worry that cable reels along the roadside signaled where Patton’s boys were, if the cable being laid was being used to support a current encampment then it didn’t matter, since Patton's men were there looking for Jerry anyway and would be happy if he stumbled upon a 3rd Army encampment, even if he found it by following a trail of empty cable reels. And if the Army had moved on, then it really didn't matter as far as Patton was concerned, since all the empty reels told the enemy was where they used to be.

Because of this both the cable, the reels they came on, the telephones that were connected to them, and nearly everything else associated with field communications was frequently simply abandoned when Patton’s tank engines roared to life and the beasts headed off to their next gun fight. Not every time, mind you, but often enough… especially when Patton’s scouts spotted Germans within engagement distance. In that case it was balls-to-the-wall to crank it up and head off to fix and finish the bastards before they knew what hit them. In those cases the signal support men that traveled with Patton grabbed what they could themselves and headed off in the direction of the thick pall of black smoke that signaled the rear of Patton’s gunfighters as they moved forward, in hot pursuit of the enemy.

When the 583rd caught up with the Third Army they learned about this tendency to simply abandon the signal equipment and move on, but found that there was nothing they could do about it. The reason was that to General Patton, fighting and winning the war was much more important than worrying about how many field telephones were operable or how many cable reels got left behind. If America wanted him to win the war, then it needed to supply him with what he needed. It was just as simple as that. And if it couldn’t, damned, he was going to win the war anyway.

Surprised as the 583rd was to find out what was driving Patton’s constant calls for more wire and phones, they were even more surprised to find out that the amount of cable Patton’s Army had gone through was far greater than that which it had abandoned when it left one encampment for another. Trying to calculate how much cable he had to be supplied with, and when, on the basis of what he had gone through as he advanced through Europe to date, left a shortfall of nearly 3 times the amount of cable being left behind each time General Patton’s troops packed up and moved on. What could be causing this?

Third Army Area of OperationsMore than just an academic question, the 583rd had to figure this out if they were to keep the 3rd Army supplied with the cable and phones they needed. After much searching one other fact came to light that explained it all. It seems that General Patton didn’t trust radio communications. He felt that while it worked well, the radio waves emitted by his transmitters left a signature that the enemy could pick up. Not wanting the Germans to know when he was sneaking up behind them—especially as his Army was advancing—he ordered near total radio silence. Not having radio as a means of communication, he ordered that even while his units were on the move that they be supplied with cable based field telephone service. The net result was that not only was wire strung when the units were in camp, but also along the roadways that they followed as they advanced. Since it was normal for there to be a forward contingent up close to the enemy, Patton ordered that field cable be strung from this forward location back to those who would be coming along over the next few days to reinforce the action on the front. And since he feared that cables too gave off radio waves, he further ordered that the cable strung along the route be buried in ditches. And further, that whenever possible these ditches be located on secondary, unmarked roads and trails, so that if the enemy stumbled across them they wouldn’t be able to immediately discern where his troops were.

All together these factors combined to cause Patton to go through nearly three times as much field cable as any other Army at the time. It also meant that the number of signal support men he needed was greater than anyone else’s, and the same too for the equipment needed to underwrite his orders. Thus Patton’s Army had more plows to bury lines than any other units, greater stocks of field telephones, and on, and on. Keeping Patton’s Army advancing on the enemy was difficult enough by itself. Supplying it with the type of communications it needed proved near impossible. It was because of this that as Patton’s Army approached the area the 583rd was in, the 583rd was dispatched to provide as much help as it could. What they found was that like everyone else striving to keep up with Patton, they too ended up getting lost on unmapped secondary roads, failing to find the ditches where cable had been buried, and generally seeing their own squads badly scattered in areas far from secure.

The reader might be interested to know that it was the difficulty Patton placed on the Signal Corps to supply him with everything from signal equipment to food and armament that eventually caused the Red Ball Express to be formed in August 1944. As all know today, the Red Ball Express was more than a trucking company. It was a supply system where soldiers would drive trucks carrying supplies to keep advancing armies, like Patton’s Third, fighting and on the move.[3]

Having strung itself out trying to support Patton, things began to get back to normal for the 583rd when on September 5, 1944, they moved to Reims, France. There they set up what was known as Signal Depot S-855-A. Sticking to its dual role of providing field RADAR support as well as depot communication repair and supply services, the 583rd set about inventorying spare parts and repairing equipment sent back to it from forward areas. More than a nicety, repairing equipment on the battlefield greatly increased the ability of the Allied army to fight the war, as while the number of actual devices being repaired was relatively small, they filled in the gaps in the supply system so that front line units were not as dependent on supplies coming over from America.

For the 583rd Reims proved to be a blessing, as it both brought them into close contact with the people of France and gave them the time to get to know them. Recently set free from German occupation, many French families reached out to local U.S. units like the 583rd to invite them into their homes… for a bottle of France’s world renowned, unexcelled but simple table wines, talks and even dinner. It was in this environment that many G.I.s—having so recently left the farm—not only first fell in love but had their first encounter with a sweet young girl. The result: more War Brides.

Steinfort, Belgium, railroad stationOn October 9, 1944, the Company picked up and moved on again. This time 121 miles further from Reims to Steinfort (Stengefort), Luxembourg, Belgium, to organize yet another repair depot for radios. Having lived on the road from the time they first arrived on Utah Beach in mid-August until now, some two months had passed since the men of the 583rd had taken a shower or properly washed their clothes. When they got to Steinfort this blessing fell upon them.

Interestingly, it fell upon them because of another blessing they received with their new posting to Steinfort… the ability to go on leave to Paris. As far as the commanders were concerned, if 3 day passes were going to be issued to the men of the 583rd for a little R&R in Paris, then the men were at the very least going to be clean when they arrived in Paris. As to getting from Steinfort to Paris, arrangements were made with a few local pilots such that men were shuttled between Steinfort and Paris for short but much needed three-day furloughs.

Not to be discounted, at that stage of the war a three-day pass to Paris was a big, big deal. The stories men told when they returned from Paris were amazing… the girls, the champagne, the wine, the supper clubs, the dancing, the lights, the raucous merriment of a city only recently released from bondage, the devil may care thirst and quest to live life to the fullest… to live life to its ever so fullest, since all knew that more than a cliché it was absolutely true... tomorrow might never come.

Place Blanche - Paris, FranceWhen released for a few days of freedom most of the men of the 583rd with a liberty pass headed straight for the Place Pigalle. At that time Place Pigalle was where the party was… prostitution was rampant... and every bar and club in the area offered more than a man could consume… in wine, women and song.

A story by itself, the entry of Americans into Paris transformed sexual commerce on the continent, making Paris the brothel of Europe. There being a war going on, it was only natural that the ability of the Paris city government to police the public and enforce French law and legal regulations suffered, and so previously underground activities like prostitution bubbled to the surface, then took command of the entire scene. The breakdown of normal law and order meant prostitution flourished. To be fair to the French government of the time, this was so not just because of the breakdown in French law, but also and more importantly because of the sharp increase in demand for… let’s call it… sexual labor. It was the old story of supply and demand. The demand was there and the French girls met it.

Moulin Rouge (Red Mill) - ParisToday, from this distance removed from World War II, we can see that while at the time all of this might have been fine, the consequences of American soldiers trampling across France seeking sex had an impact that has carried down to today. As the legal system broke down under the weight of the demand for prostitution, and the profession flourished, the practice became chaotic. What up until then had been a reserved calling lying just below the surface of French society, as the war progressed became instead a point of focus for every man alive, and worse, unprofessional in the extreme. The normal travails of war left many French women penniless, poor, without a place to live or sleep, and without regular food to eat. It was only natural then that many girls who found themselves in that situation turned to prostitution.

The ones along the Place Pigalle, while above the rest, were still poor and unprotected from the dangers of life on the street. Even so, because in part American G.I.s had morals and ethics, while they might engage in sex and even cheat on their wives back home, few were as brutal to the girls as were the German soldiers that had just been chased out of town. As a result, prostitution in Paris, which American G.I.s called the Silver Foxhole, began to take on a veneer of respectability. The girls made more money, less physical violence ensued, and the industry flourished even more… if such can be said about this sad occupation.

Nouvelle Athenes - ParisWhat was not envisioned however was the impact this trade between American men and French women would have on the psyche of the rest of the French people. By its nature, this new culture of public prostitution aimed at American soldiers brought with it its own language, geography and protective customs. This separated it from the rest of society… a society that, even in spite of its tendency to collaborate with its German occupiers, saw itself as above those other national societies that surrounded it: the British, Germans, people of the low countries, and certainly Spain.

The suppression that America brought to France via its overpowering the morals of so many French women caused the rest of French society to slowly begin to turn its nose up at all things American. For them, what America brought to France was not so much freedom from German oppression as a glaring light shined on a seedy sub culture... one that caused many French to feel that they had lost their respectability and honor as a high culture. The result was that as more and more French women took to the streets the French prostitute came to symbolize for the French a domination of their own culture by American wealth and power. And so it began… with wartime prostitution… and has continued down until today: resentment on the part of the French towards America… for the denigration of their culture.

- - - - -

Having had a brief respite from war, the 583rd soon found itself acting as a picket around Steinfort, looking for German units that might be enroute to join in the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944). The Battle of the Bulge began in earnest when on December 16, 1944, several German divisions launched a counter offensive against Allied forces in the Ardennes region. As this was taking place, the 583rd was scurrying to lay mine fields around Steinfort. The plan was that if Germans approached or tried to pass through the area the 583rd would engage them. If they were not able to hold their own or stop the advance, then the 583rd would fall back, southward, and regroup with Patton’s Third Army located in Metz, Luxembourg. The concern was that as a Signal Company with little actual combat experience, the front line was no place for the 583rd.

The Commanding Officer of the 583rd took an informal poll among his men as to whether they should stay and fight or fall back now. The consensus was that they ought to fall back and meet up with Patton’s Army. The C.O. however thought otherwise. He is reported to have given his men a stern talking to, saying that the 583rd was staying in Steinfort. His words have been captured in various memoirs as “We have come this far and nobody will back us up from here.  If we start retreating now, who knows when we will stop retreating?”

And with that the 583rd found itself opting to take a position on the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge.

While this was happening, on December 19, “Eisenhower met with his senior commanders in a cold, damp squad room…” as German tanks prepared to surround Bastogne. 

“Eisenhower walked in, looked disapprovingly at the downcast and boldly declared, ‘The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.’” As discussions about a counterattack began, General Patton quickly spoke up and offered a plan where his Third Army would attack the southern shoulder of the German advance. Patton said he would cut off the enemy supply lines and essentially destroy the enemy. “When Eisenhower asked him how long it would take for the Third Army to turn north and attack the German southern flank, Patton boldly replied, ‘Two days.’”

His peers openly laughed, but in fact Patton was already halfway into the movement as he was speaking. No fool, Patton knew what the meeting was about even before he left for it. And so as he was climbing into his jeep in Metz he ordered his staff to begin switching the attack line to the north. While we might think of Patton as brilliant for this, for the 583rd it was pure luck that they had stayed to fight; because if the 583rd had retreated to Metz as they had all wanted, they would have found only empty ground where Patton had once been, themselves outnumbered and surrounded by Germans, and on the very front lines that they had so desperately hoped to avoid.[4]

Back at Steinfort it didn’t take long for the Germans to realize that the resistance the 583rd offered was not as strong as it looked. And so on December 23, 1944, the repair depot at Steinfort found itself being strafed and bombed. The Signaleers inside jumped to it and manned the one anti-air craft gun they had at their disposal, but did little harm to the advancing German Luftwaffe. One can only surmise that it's one thing to operate a RADAR platform to track and shoot down incoming aircraft, and another to operate the gun doing the shooting, such that it hits them. As one inexperienced anti-aircraft Signal man said after the fight, “…it was so hard to shoot down those planes because they moved so fast”.

Yeah… really… that’s what they were supposed to be doing.

Overall the Christmas of 1944 proved to be one of the scariest and most serious of the unit’s entire campaign. Cold beyond measure, most men thought they would freeze to death. In fact it is rumored that it was a small fire that one of the men had lit to keep warm that was spotted by German aircraft that led to their being strafed and bombed. Finally, to add insult to injury, the Christmas packages that the men expected to receive any day… from home… never showed up. It turned out that concerns that the Germans might break through their encirclement in the Battle of the Bulge caused orders to be sent to Liege, Belgium, requiring that all 1944 Christmas packages being held in the post office at Liege be destroyed so that no benefit would go to the Germans if they made it that far.

By early January things had settled down again and on January 9, 1945, the 583rd was taken off alert after the Allies turned back the German advance. Yet while their security improved the winter did its best to dog them. Cold weather made the early portion of 1945 miserable for the men of the 583rd. To keep their moral up, the Company’s Officers piled more and more work on the men. To begin with, they assigned even more patrol duty to the men, as well as more work preparing defenses in case the Germans regrouped and tried another counteroffensive. To add to this the unit was ordered to maintain high efficiency repairing radios and RADAR equipment. Efficiency in this case meant fixing radios and RADAR equipment and returning it to the field in increasingly shorter times. This was needed, they were told, to keep the Allied advance going at full speed… pushing the Germans back more and more each day, closer to Berlin. Adding to this drive to repair things faster came a new onslaught of higher volumes of broken gear. Intense front line fighting caused higher levels of material to be sent rearward for repair.

Steinfort railroad spurs built by 583rdTo handle this increased volume and the need for an increased throughput, the repair depot was expanded. This was done by constructing a series of railway spurs and loading platforms to the central railroad terminal in Steinfort (Gare de Steinfort). These were then coupled with more storage and warehouse space acquired from various buildings in town.

Work continued along these lines until late April, 1945, when the men of 583rd were sent to Nuremberg, Germany. While they expected to soon be setting up another depot maintenance facility, the truth was that they were being prepositioned in readiness for the end of the war in the ETO.

When the war ended in early May 1945, the 583rd Signal Depot Company held its celebration in the war-torn city of Nuremberg. Finding nothing in Nuremberg resembling a Silver Foxhole, the men were left to their own devices to find a way to let off steam and enjoy the fact that they had made it through the war.

A few took it upon themselves to set off a bunch of hand grenades to celebrate. But this was quickly nipped in the bud when the C.O. grimly reminded them that they would soon be wishing they had those hand grenades back when they hit the beaches of Japan in a month or so. It didn’t take long for the rumor to circulate around the Company that the 583rd was heading for the Pacific Theater. What they didn’t know of course was that the war against Japan would end in mid August 1945, sparing them the task of being one of the many Signal Corps Depot Companies slated to be part of the planned invasion of Japan.

In bits and pieces the men of the 583rd returned home from late 1945 to early 1946, and resumed their lives. To help the men get home sooner the  C.O. of the Company slowly transferred his men out, to the numerous Signal Service Battalions and Companies then coming in-country to mop up after the war. Units like the 3187th Signal Service Battalion, recently arrived, readily accepted men from the 583rd, 215th and other Signal Depot Companies. As the highest “point” people in these new units, the men were quickly rotated home. Thus the men of the 583rd found themselves being broken up, friends and buddies being left behind or sent off to units they had never heard of... all on their way home.

Most shipped out around the third week in October, enroute to America. The crossing usually took 11 days, after which the ships that brought them back would dock in New York. A quick train to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, would find the men either being discharged there or sent off to be discharged closer to home. By the time November 1945 rolled around almost all of the 583rd’s men were home… lost and disoriented in this peaceful new environment called America, nearly 3 years and 5 months from the time they had left.

In August 1946 all of the remaining Signal Depots in Europe were inactivated with the remaining equipment and supplies being shipped to the Signal Corps Depot at Hanau... at a rate of 200 tons per day. With that, the depot and repair facilities the 583rd had set up across Germany were shut down, and the Signal Depot Company 583rd’s trip to war formally ended.


Thank You 



[1] Force Française d'Interior (French Forces of the Interior, a.k.a. "FFI") Organized Resistance network throughout France, amalgamating MUR, ORA and FTP; under the command of Général Koenig, formed after February 1944. For more information and a fascinating historical treatise on French freedom fighters click here: FFI - FiFi  To return to your place in the text, click here: Return to text

[2] From the memoirs of Howard Peach, an Enlisted Man in the 583rd Signal Depot Company.  To return to your place in the text, click here: Return to text

[3] Seventy-five percent of the men who ran the Red Ball Express were African-Americans. To return to your place in the text, click here: Return to text

[4] Stephen Ambose, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997, page 199. To return to your place in the text, click here: Return to text

Additional Sources

Mary Louise Roberts; The Silver Foxhole: The GIs and Prostitution in Paris, 1944-1945.

Mary Louise Roberts; What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France.

Jillian Emma, Kurt Spear; Yours for Victory: The Wartime Story of Howard Peach; HIS 497, Professor Judy Barrett, Bryant University, Spring 2009.

R. J. Meiser; 583rd Signal Depot Co. History: Cp. Crowder-England, France-Belg., Lux.-Germany: Mo. 12 Jan. 44: C-22, C-25, C-40, C-16.

Private collection, Walter Elkins; Hanau Signal Depot Map, 1949

John Ellis, Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War, New York: Penguin Group, 1990.

Kathy Rae Coker, Signal Corps History, US Army Signal Center of Excellence.

 - Hooah!     

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This page originally posted 1 May 2014 


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