World War II veteran, Dave Wilkins of Danvers, credits two specific choices he made as a young man to the path his army career took; he was a drummer in the high school marching band and in his senior year of high school, Dave signed up for a course in Morse Code. Dave is one of North Shore Elder Services’ veterans who we have the privilege of providing services to in order to help him stay independent and living in his own apartment. During the month of November, we are reminded on the 11th day that our veterans bravely served our country for the freedoms we enjoy today. We asked Dave if he would share some of his war experiences to help us honor Veteran’s Day.
I questioned Dave about how he felt discussing the war. “When I got out, I never talked about the war but in the past couple of years, as the memories keep coming back, you want to get them out. As the years go by, you like to talk about your experience. After the war I felt people didn’t give a damn. I had the feeling people didn’t want to talk about it. Now I see that maybe people didn’t know if as a veteran, I was comfortable sharing stories. I think it’s too bad more of us didn’t share our stories.” Dave is quick to add that he was never bitter about not being able to share his stories, nor has he ever been bitter about having given up some of his formative years.
Dave was drafted at the age of eighteen. He remembers vividly that April day in 1944 when his father delivered him to the Danvers railway station not knowing what exactly was in store for him. The next few months were spent in training, first in Fort Devens and then at Camp Wheeler in Georgia for thirteen weeks of basic training. From there he received orders to report to Fort Benning in Georgia where he was involved in communication training, practicing Morse code for hours at a time. After a stint at Fort Meade in Maryland, Dave was loaded onto an army truck and sent to the piers in New York City. Along with 15,000 troops, he boarded the first Queen Mary on New Year’s Eve and shipped off to Scotland. The journey took eight days.
Dave travelled by troop train through Scotland and England enjoying seeing the countryside. They then were transported by landing shipping tanks to Le Havre in northern France. After only two nights there, they were loaded onto freight cars with 100 men in each car and no heat. “It was the middle of winter. We were two days on those freight trains. It was not easy. We would steal coal off the other trains in the train yard to throw in a barrel – the only thing we could use to keep warm.” Dave ended up suffering frostbite to his feet during that journey.
The next stop was in Givet, France, near the Belgian border, where Dave was selected to be tested in Morse code. “They knew I had had training in Morse code. We were very close to battle in Givet during the Battle of the Bulge. Morse code took me out of battle. Ironically, I was assigned to an armored car as a radio operator but not once did I actually need to use Morse code as we used voice transmission.”
“I was then sent to Bonneville, France where we were billeted in a building which was beside a French bakery and at 6:00 A.M. you would get this great aroma of bread. In addition, the owner would bring us bread and butter every morning.” Dave confirms he still has an affinity for French pastries!
Dave and his troop were joined with the 474th Infantry Regiment and after training sent east across France to catch up with Patton’s 3rd Army which they would be traveling through Belgium and Germany with. Dave remembers the long part of the journey through Germany when their convoy ran out of gas. “If the Germans had had any air force, we would have been sitting ducks. We waited for the Red Ball Express, the transport trucks bringing supplies and fuel to the Allies. We ended up near the Czech border in April/May and the war ended. In June we were split off from the 3rd Army, sent back to France and then loaded onto planes and flown to Norway. We had to stand guard over the Germans who were in camps there waiting to be transported back to Germany.”
In October, his regiment was sent to Bremerhaven, Germany. They were assigned to an Engineer Battalion with a Colonel who loved military bands. Dave was doing guard duty but once it was confirmed that he was a drummer he became part of the band – a much preferred duty to guarding German soldiers. Gradually the band was disbanded as members received discharge orders. Again Dave’s past skills came to good use. Dave was assigned to the Battalion’s main office because of his typing skills which he had fine-tuned learning Morse code.
Dave’s discharge came in May of 1946. After 14 long days on the Atlantic, he arrived back on American soil and waiting for him at Fort Devens to bring him home was his father. Dave was 21 years old.
Through the help of a neighbor in Danvers, Dave went into banking where he worked for forty years before retiring. Dave was not ready to stop working so became a tour guide and caretaker at Newbury’s Coffin House for four years. After that he went to work at Curran’s Flower shop for twenty years and at the age of seventy-five, officially retired from working. Dave stopped driving a few months ago and besides receiving home delivered meals, has a home health aide through North Shore Elder Services who does shopping, laundry and some light cleaning. “It takes the weight off me to do all that, especially without a car now. So far it is working well for me”
Dave is a proud veteran. He attends Veteran’s Day ceremonies at Thorpe School and attends the Memorial Day Parade in Danvers. He recalls the close friendships he made during his time overseas and the loss of many of those friends. He is grateful for his blessings because of their sacrifices. He remembers that he enjoyed many of his travels through Europe and would have loved to return to Norway. His memories are vivid and he is happy to share them. We are the lucky recipients of those stories.
Your donations to NSES help us continue to support veterans like Dave so that living in the communities they love is a dream met. If you would like to help in our mission with a monetary gift visit our website at www.nselder.org .