Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Letters Home: "through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea"

The time finally came when my dad finished basic training at Fort Campbell. Still a teenager, he went off to Europe as part of the 141st Tank Battalion in the US 3rd Army to help oppose Russian troops that had deployed along the Iron Curtain. 

Back then, interstate troop transport meant trains because there was still plenty of WW II troop transport rolling stock. He left Fort Campbell headed for New Orleans to embark on a troop transport ship to Europe--he and about 4,000 others:
July 22nd, 1952
Fort Campbell, KY

Dear Mom, Dad and all,

By the time you get this letter I will be on my way.  We are leaving thur. noon for New Orleans and will get there about 10:00 Fri. morning (by Pullman). [1]
Friday afternoon at 4:30 we are leaving New Orleans for Paris. [2] From France we are going to Bremershaven Germany. From there someplace in Germany. We will be on the boat 18 days. 2 Bn. of Air Force are getting off in Paris. [3]

I got the $10.00 Sunday morning. You can take it out of my next check.
I suppose Jr. is out of the Army now.
I got and sent back that form from the Motor Vehicle Dept., so the licence should be coming. [4] You can put them in my box because I won’t need them.
I can write on the ship if I ain’t too sick. I don’t think it will affect me any. I guess this is all for now.


[1]  At the time, troops travelled by special Pullman cars on overnight trains. Given Appalachian geography, it's likely that he first headed west to Memphis and then linked up with or transferred to a train heading south along the Mississippi flood plain to New Orleans.

I am reminded of the Steve Goodman song The City Of New Orleans (made famous by Arlo Guthrie):
Night time on The City of New Orleans,
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.
Half way home, we'll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling down to the sea.
[2] Apparently he didn't realize that Paris wasn't a seaport. :)

[3] One battalion is approximately a thousand men. Unlike the Army, the US Air Force was based in France during that stage of the Cold War. A NATO directive stipulated that all air bases be located west of the Rhine, out of the zone of occupation, for strategic reasons (link).  American air power also had a long historical connection with France dating from the First World War. Lafayette Escadrille was a squadron of American volunteers during WW I. Race car driver-turned flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker flew French-made airplanes like Nieuports and SPAD VIIIs (pictured below).

[4] He lost his billfold as described back here


  1. Great to see your post that invokes Arlo Guthrie's version of Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans." Goodman often doesn't get his due. You might be interested in my 800-page biography, "Steve Goodman: Facing the Music." The book delves deeply into the genesis and effects of "City of New Orleans," and Arlo Guthrie is a key source among my 1,050 interviewees and even contributed the foreword.

    You can find out more at my Internet site (below). Amazingly, the book's first printing sold out in just eight months, all 5,000 copies, and a second printing of 5,000 is available now. The second printing includes hundreds of little updates and additions, including 30 more photos for a total of 575. It won a 2008 IPPY (Independent Publishers Association) silver medal for biography.

    If you're not already familiar with the book, I hope you find it of interest. 'Nuff said.

    Clay Eals
    1728 California Ave. S.W. #301
    Seattle, WA 98116-1958

    (206) 935-7515 home
    (206) 484-8008 cell

  2. Sounds interesting Mr. Eals. I will try to check it out. BTW, what was Goodman's connection to the Chicago Cubs and how did that start?

  3. I love these letters-from-home posts, especially this one. After having driven through Memphis and headed south from there, I feel I may have paralleled just a small portion of your father's journey nearly 60 years ago.

    Plus, I've always enjoyed this song. Good to see Mr. Eals has made contact with you about Mr. Goodman.