Women at War in WWII
People tend to think that the dirty business of war in the front lines of combat is a world devoid of females. In WWII the women of the American Red Cross proved every day that such was not the case.
Read this description by a gallant young lady who is still going strong in the year 2000. This story came forth because of a chance meeting in Cortona, Italy where Jill was participating in the continuing education program of the University of Illiois.
The story of Margaret Francis Pitts in WWII as told by herself using her nickname of Jill and her married name of Knappenberger.
Among the many stories of WWII that involve personal family connections, few are as unusual as that told by Jill Pitts Knapenberger, born in 1918. She was a twin to a brother named Jack because his father was John Joseph Pitts II and John III had to have a nickname. Because their mother had no experience with pregnancy, she was not aware that she was carrying twins until she visited a doctor in Chicago. Her father sent word back to Bloomington, IL to tell family that “Jack arrived first and Jill came tumbling after!”
What makes the story so very unusual is that these twins met in Europe at the time of the German battle to take Bastogne. The ‘battle of the bulge’ claimed many lives including that of her brother Jack, whom she had seen only hours before his death following the usual separation that the war produced when family went in different directions. This note of sadness, however, represented only a small portion of what this young woman experienced as a result of her volunteering for the U.S. Red Cross in 1943. With two brothers already in the service of their country, it must have taken a lot of dedication for her parents to have let her go into a service that put her on the front lines of the battle to free the world of the scourge of Adolph Hitler and the German Nazi socialist party.
Keep in mind that Jill lost a sister to cancer just as she volunteered and that slowed her entry into the Red Cross by several months. Still she lost little time, once in place with a graduation that featured an inspirational message from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She wrote the following story in 1950 and showed a remarkable ability to remember dates and places.
We are pleased to publish the story here. It is untitled because Jill probably thinks of it as just her personal diary of sorts...it might have been called “Miss Jill goes to War” via the American Red Cross.
Here are her words:
After personal interviews at the Midwestern area headquartersin St. Louis, innumerable references and correspondence I entered the employ of the American National Red Cross as a recreation worker, and November first, 1943 entered their two weeks training school at the American University in Washington D.C. The first week we learned about the history of the founding and development of Red Cross, and it’s many different branches and functions. The second week was spent in absorbing some of the details concerned with the operations and procedures connected with the specific branch that we would enter. I had volunteered -- for the duration and six months -- for over- duty as a Clubmobile operator. Clubmobile girls operated mobile kitchens and served coffee and doughnuts to the combat troops. They also carried with them State registers, that we very popular, home town news-papers, cigarettes candy, chewing gum, Life-Savers, and records that were played on the built- in phonographs and amplified over the public address system. But most important of all was the fact that the crews were made up of three (on the Continent) or four to six girls (in England) that were from the States and brought a ‘bit of home’ to the often isolated troops that were fighting ‘to keep the world safe for democracy and protect the American way of life.’
The two weeks in Washington were very interesting and informative. We would hop into big army trucks after classes and be taken to the Pentagon for innumerable shots -- the same as the Army -- and other military clearing, including fittings for gas masks, drills, fittings for our summer and winter Red Cross uniforms, etc. While awaiting transportation to over-seas areas - at that time we did not know where we would be sent - we worked in the service men’s clubs in and around Washington. All assignments were made within four hours travel distance from Washington, as we would have to clear on very brief notice. I was stationed in Washington and in the middle of December left for the port of embarkation at New York City. Over 400 Red Cross workers, including Field Directors, Assistants, girls who would work in hospitals, fleet clubs, Aero clubs, and Clubmobile operators, were sent at this time to the St. George hotel in Brooklyn, which was our port of embarkation.
Here we went through more processing, were issued bed rolls, sleeping bags, first aid kits, and mess kits and a canteen which were carried on our pistol belts (also government issue), helmets, and received the rest of our shots. Here we also packed our foot lockers for the last time we would see them until after we reached our destination. Because we were sent to this port of embarkation, we guessed that we would be sent to the European Theater of Operations. At this time, all Atlantic crossings,except those made by the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary which were fast ships, were made convoy. Our convoy was scheduled to leave December 17th, but the enemy had learned about it thru their agents in the States, so it was postponed until after Christmas. It was difficult spending so many days in New York City when we could not notify any of our friends or relatives of our whereabouts, but we were kept busy working in the local service centers and checking back at our headquarters every hour to see if we were alerted for departure.
We left New York City December 27th,1943 in the largest convoy that had crossed the Atlantic up to that time. Along with the many troop ships were battle-ships, three air-craft carriers, submarine chasers, etc. It appeared to me as if it be almost the entire Navy as there were ships of all kinds and descriptions as far as the eye could see. The ship that I was on with about fifty other Red Cross workers and over 6000 troops, was the ‘Brazil’ which had been converted into a troop ship. Our convoy took the Northern route and went up to Boston where we picked up some more ships for the convoy, then on North and East to Greenland and then South and East to Scotland. All the time we were traveling a zig-zag route to avoid submarine attacks, and,of course, under very rigid black-out conditions as soon as the sun set.
After ten days on the ocean, we sighted the Northern tip of Ireland and on the twelfth day landed at Grenock and Gourock (twin cities) on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. During the crossing, we had daily life-boat drills, and constantly wore (or carried) our Mae West’s, or life preservers, as the probability of a submarine attack was ever present. We ate in three shifts in the dining room for officers and the enlisted personnel went thru chow lines. We published a daily newspaper with news from the States and accounts of the fighting in Europe and the South Pacific.
The train that took us to London - Red Cross Headquarters in the E. T. 0. at that time - was a typical British train made up of many small coaches that were divided into compartments - At night we traveled under strict black-out conditions. At Crewe, one of the main switching yards between Glasgow and London, we stopped for tea. Regular station attendants brought it to us in wagons and served us right at the train. Here we got our first experience with British currency, which we used entirely as long as we were in the British Isles. In fact, we did not use American money until we returned to the States and dollars, dimes, and even pennies looked very welcome after the months of using pounds, shillings, sixpences, thrupenny bits, francs and marks.
We arrived in London about 2 a.m. in the middle of an air-raid--our first, but far from our last encounter with Gerry, the German night raider. We rode in large G. I. trucks from the train to our billets which were in different Red Cross clubs throughout the city. Our first impressions of this largest city in the world were many. Some of them were that there we tall buildings - just miles and miles of buildings 3, 4, 5, 6 stories tall -, the amazing ability of people to drive and get around in the city in the complete black-out, the amount of destruction that we could see from the lights of the flares and fires from the bombs, the constant feeling that we were on the wrong side of the streets (left-hand drive in England), the calmness and efficiency of the air-raid wardens and fire fighters, and the number of large barrage balloons over the city. These were anchored in different parts of the city as a menace to the raiders. The G. I. joke that persisted for was that the British Isles would sink if it were not for so many barrage balloons holding up the island.
We had a few days in London in which to get acquainted with our new and strange home-land for many months and for clearing assignments in the E. T. 0. My assignment took me back to Grenock and Gourock where I was one of a crew of twenty American girls who worked with as many volunteer Scots women in serving all the new troops that were brought into Scotland. After the men were taken off the ships and were on trains on their way to their new locations, we served them coffee and doughnuts - made in huge kitchens by scores of civilian workers - and sweet trays including candy, gum and cigarettes. I worked here a week, the was sent to Liverpool where I continued “Dock Operations”, before being called back to London where I got my regular assignment which was to go to Glatton - the largest and newest 13-17 base in England. It was in the midlands about 80 miles north of London. Here I joined a crew of three other American girls - one from Youngstown, Ohio, one from Long Island, and the third from Evanston, Illinois — our British driver.
Thru Lend-Lease arrangements, many of the London city buses were converted into mobile kitchens and lounges for use by the Red Cross as long as they were in England. Part of the arrangement have a British driver who would drive them, make any necessary repairs and maintenance, and help with the heavier work. Our driver, John Hawes from London, was a very kind and strong man and a great favorite with the G. I.’s. He held checker tournaments with the boys at the different bases. He would pick us up in the Clubmobile at our house - three miles from the base - and return us after our day’s work was through.
I might mention a little about our home and town. Glatton, three miles from the base, consisted of 14 houses surrounding an old Norman church over 600 years old. Our home 200 years before had been two thatched roof cottages that were eventually joined to make one L shaped house. It still had parts of the original thatch in the roof. Just outside our front door was the church which was surrounded by the burial ground. The landlord who owned most of the town thought that electricity was too modern, so there was none in the town. We used candles and kerosene lamps, and the fireplace in the dining room,converted into a lounge, was the only heat. In winter the day-light hours were very short and we would leave for work in the pitch black of night and return after dark. Most of our week-ends were spent in London where we reveled in the luxury of electric lights and central heating. But during the summer there were just as few hours of darkness. I have a snapshot taken outside an Inn in Scotland, where I went on leave in June, that was taken at 10 P.M., and it is as bright as if it were taken at noon.
Our schedule included getting to the base about 8 A. M., connecting the Clubmobile to power and starting to make thousands of doughnuts - with a mix from the States - on the machine in the bus and then serving the hot coffee, also made on the Clubmobile, to different groups in the afternoon. On days that missions were flown from our base, we always served the returning crews as soon as they returned to the operations hut before interrogation. Other days we would serve the hangar crews, bomb loading crews, parachute shops, ordnance outfits, engineers, base hospital, etc We always knew when the missions should return and were set up in the hut where they returned their parachutes, oxygen masks,and other flying gear,and served them before they were interrogated by the intelligence officers concerning their bombing runs. Thru this procedure they were more relaxed and the interrogation was more successful. Of course, some days the crews were late in returning and many anxious hours and minutes would pass while we on the ground “Sweat out” their return.
Once, after a bad raid over the enemy territory, and bad weather in England, none of our ships returned until twenty-four hours later. The ones that had managed to get back to England had landed at the first field they came to Southeast of London. Those that did return were pretty much shot up and dropped flares before landing. The different colors told that they either had engine or ship trouble and it would be a difficult landing and alerted the fire—fighting and emergency landing crews, or that they had wounded or dead aboard the ship. I have seen all colors of flares dropped from the B-17’s before they landed.
Three days a week we served our home base of Glatton; on Mondays we served Polebrook (also a B-17 base) which was the Oldest base in England and from which the Eagle Squadron used to fly; on Thursdays we served Deanthorpe, another B-17 base about 15 miles distant; and the sixth day we served a General Hospital in the vicinity. Later this hospital was taken off our schedule and put on the schedule of another Clubmobile crew. We then served an 0. S.S. station adjoining Glatton base. This was under the most strict security and we were allowed to serve only after each one of us had been thoroughly investigated by the F.B.I. and sworn to secrecy concerning anything we saw or heard on this base. Our visits there were most welcome as the personnel was not allowed to leave the base under any conditions except as they flew material and personnel into occupied France to the Underground before D-Day.
In the Spring of ‘44 we knew that terrific preparations were being made for D-Day and our schedules were fuller than ever. Each of us went to London for a ten day driving course in which we learned how to drive the GMC 2 1/2 ton trucks which would be our clubmobiles on the Continent. We also learned first echelon maintenance, and how to change the 55 lb. tires. Those of us who wanted to go to the Continent volunteered to do so and were issued small patches to wear on our left shoulders of our uniforms which indicated that we would go to Zone 5 - the Continent - after D-Day. Later, I was called back to London to teach the new girls arriving how to drive the Army vehicles which included 1/2 tons (jeeps), 3/4 ton trucks, ton and a half trucks, and the 2 1/2 ton trucks. I was there two weeks and it was at this time that the enemy started using the flying or buzz-bombs, or pilotless planes as they were called at first. They are the V-l bombs that came over day and night. At first we did not pay too much attention to them as we figured that they would either get us or we would not be hit, but after a week of the constant nervous tension they caused - as you could
see and hear them in the sky until the motor shut off one
minute before they hit and exploded - everyone became jittery, and lost weight and sleep.
The last of May I went to Bournemouth, South west of London
on the Coast, to serve the 29th Inf. Div. along with other girls of specially selected crews to give this division - one that made the D-Day assault - extra Red Cross Clubmobiles. We lived there and worked day and night in the shifts to serve all of the men before D-Day.Then I returned to London, and joined 31 other girls to make up one of the first groups to go to the Continent. We shipped out of Southampton, took an L. S. T. across the Channel and landed at Utah beach the middle of July about 3 A. M., again in complete black-out. I drove our 2 1/2 ton Clubmobile - the “Cheyenne” - what seemed fifty miles instead of only five miles to reach the transit area where we spent the remainder of the night. The next day our group joined 8th Corps at Mt. Martin Sur-Mur, a little, old town in Normandy. As soon as we were on the Continent we were attached to 8th Corps and went out to the divisions that were with corps. We moved with them thru the Hedgerows of Normandy and on into Brittany. There were eight clubmobiles with crews of three each that went out on detached service to the divisions that were in Corps. Our crew served among others, the 29th, 27th, 5th Rangers, 8th Divisions, and field hospital and replacement groups in Brittany. We were stationed at Morlaix for some time and would leave daily to serve the troops that were taking Brest. Late in September we packed our entire convoy and drove by way of Paris to Bastogne, Belgium arriving there on October first, 1944. This was a four-day 600 mile convoy across France and Belgium and our Red Cross Clubmobile, trucks, jeeps, etc., were a part of a 135 vehicle military convoy. Each night we bivouacked around, under and in our vehicles. It rained during the entire trip.!!
Bastogne was our base until we were driven back by the Germans during the “Battle of the Bulge”. We served different divisions that were in Corps, until November llth,when we began supplying doughnuts and personnel for running the 8th Corps Rest Center in Arlon. The cinemobile with our group worked at this task along with our clubmobiles. This work continued until the German breakthrough in December. Later we joined the 8th Inf. Div. at Wiltz and worked with them for four days when were replaced by the 28th Inf. Div. On November 20th, we had our first meal in an indoor mess hall since reaching the Continent Until this time - through the rainy season in October and November - we ate all meals out-of-doors with the G. I.’s of the 35th Special Service Company. The usual procedure was to balance the mess-kit and canteen-cup on the hood of a jeep or any other convenient spot. Then it was necessary to eat quickly as possible before the utensils became filled with rainwater!
At this time our crew had a five day leave and we went to Leige and Brussels, Belgium,and then on into Holland.
December 16th our assignment took us to the 106th Inf. Div., with headquarters at St. Vith. Our crew had lunch with the officers of 8th Corps Rear Hdqs. in Bastogne and left with our packed Clubmobile about 1 P. M. We stopped in Vielsalm, Germany, to buy decorations for our Xmas tree, and presents for one of crew members who was celebrating her birthday that day. It was at Vielsalm about 4 P. M. that some G. I.’s in the store told us that we should also buy some candles as the enemy had start a terrific shelling barrage in our area that morning and had knocked out most of the generators which supplied electricity. This was our first knowledge of the beginning of the “Battle of the Bulge”.
We arrived at our destination and were welcomed by officers and enlisted personnel who did not imagine that we would come. That night, and every night that we were there, we ate by candle light. It was late that afternoon that my twin brother, Jack, a Battery commander for one of the heavy field artillery battalions with the 106th was killed while trying to save some of his men. He was buried there in Germany until after the Bulge and the Americans retook that territory, when he was transferred to a military cemetery at Foy, Belgium. When this cemetery was closed in 1947, he was moved to the permanent cemetery at Hamm, Luxembourg.
The next morning we were completely surrounded by the enemy and with no communication or roads open for the passage of
supplies - which were very, very low as far as food and ammunition were concerned. We turned all of our supplies over to the Army and they used the doughnut flour to make pancakes. The coffee, too, was very welcome. We aided at a near-by hastily erected hospital by trying to cheer the wounded, passing out candy, gum, cigarettes and smiles. I remember one soldier who was brought in with 58 machine gun bullets in his body. Also of holding another soldier’s good hand while a surgeon extracted shrapnel from his other arm. December 20th, our crew of three girls, decided to have our Xmas, so opened the packages from the States that we had brought with us from Bastogne. We sang some carols and tried to be happy. Later that night we were told to pack our musettes (small shoulder bags) and prepare to crawl thru the lines under the protection of black-out. I put an incendiary bomb in the Clubmobile as we were not leaving our equipment and personal supplies for the enemy. We were alerted this way until the 23rd of December when the 82nd Airborne Division opened up one road for a few hours. Two officers and two enlisted men from 8th Corps had been in the area interrogating the German Prisoners of War and were to lead us out. They had a jeep with a 1/4 ton trailer and we were to follow them in our Clubmobile. We took the bomb out of the Clubmobile and left about 10 P. M. under the protection of the black-out and a thick fog. Our road was being shelled heavily and we could hear artillery and small-arms fire all around us, so the noise was terrific. Suddenly the tail lights on the trailer on the jeep ahead of us vanished. Because of the noise, nothing was heard, but we stopped and walked up the road a few feet to find that our escorts had rammed into a 2 1/2 ton GMC loaded with shells coming to the front. (These were some of the first shells that had come in since December 16th, and were badly needed). One officer and one soldier were unconscious on the road. The other two were only shaken and shocked. The jeep was demolished, so we hurriedly pushed it into the ditch and transferred their gear and trailer and the men to the Clubmobile, and proceeded on in the darkness as we could not block the only road of escape.
That night we stayed at the forward observation post of a new armored division that was being sent into the area. Enemy planes strafed us that night but there were no casualties. At 5 A. M. - still very dark outside — we were told to get out of there as fast as we could, as we had lost the only road block between us and Marchce, which was held by the Germans. We did not know where the 8th Corps was then as we had had no communication with anyone outside our own little area, but knew that Bastogne had fallen, so we wandered around France by asking all the American military personnel that we encountered, we finally learned that 8th Corps had retreated to Charleville - Mezieres, France.
We delivered the two officers and enlisted men at 8th Corps forward Headquarters at Florenville, then went to Charleville, arriving there late in the afternoon of December - - Our group was billeted in an old F.F.I. barracks and we stayed there five days with no heat, no light and no windows. We did have straw mattresses. Charleville was bombed two nights in a row. Later we moved with the 35th Special Service Company of 8th Corps back across the Meuse River to Mont Laurent, France. At this time our Clubmobile operations were restricted by 8th Corps as all roads were too full of military vehicles.
January 7th, 1945 our entire Group F moved in convoy forward to Charleville, France. On the 9th, our crew, the ‘Cheyenne”, joined what was left of the 28th Inf. Div. (They, too had been caught in the Bulge). The 23rd we all moved to Neufchateau, Belgium, and the 7th of February we moved back to Bastogne, Belgium. This time staying in old Belgium Barracks which had been badly hit and leaked rainwater. Thou chateau just outside of Bastogne where we were billeted before the Bulge, was completely demolished, as was the major part of the town. The mud was so deep that transportation was impossible, so crew and the “Miami” crew opened a Doughnut Dugout at 8th Corps Headquarters and served everyone who appeared. February 17th, we joined the 6th Armored Div. for detached service. We moved with this division into Germany. Our first billet was very elegant in the fact that it was the only house in the town that still had running water, although little in the way of roof, windows, and of course no electricity. On March 15th we moved through the Siegfried Line fortification (the second time our crew had crossed it as we passed through it to join the 106th Inf. Div.) to Adneau, Germany, with 8th Corps. March 22nd, we joined the 28th Inf. Div. again on detached service, which we left March 25th and went directly to the 76th Inf. Div. With this division we crossed the Moselle River then the Rhine River on the pontoon bridge, just south of Coblenz. April first, which was Easter Sunday, we were in Idstien, Germany. We went to breakfast that morning with an odd and very amusing assortment of the finest in Easter millinery that the barracks and our ingenuity could conjure. One hat was an inverted bread-basket with ribbon and glass cocktail picks, another a wicker letter basket, and another a kitchen sieve with ribbons and artificial flowers. It was fun making them and everyone loved the touch of Americanism that these ‘chapeaux’ created.
April 10th, 1945 we moved with Corps to Eisenach, and the following day to Ordruff, where we saw the first Nazi atrocity camp taken over by the Americans. The horrors that we saw there were almost unbelievable.
On the 13th our crew joined the 8th Corps Engineers at Bad Berka. The 18th we moved to Zeulenroda. (Within ten miles of the Czechoslovakian border) The 21st of April we again joined the 6th Armored Division. On May 8th, GERMANY UNCONDITIONALLY SURRENDERED. Our only victory celebration consisted of removing the blackout curtains and looking at the vehicle headlights - a sight many of us had not seen in about two years.! May 16th, we moved back to Weimar, Germany, with 8th Corps Headquarters. The next day we visited Buchenwald Nazi Concentration Camp, about two miles from our headquarters. The 26th, 8th Corps held a magnificent Victory Ball at the Elephant House Hotel in Weimar, Germany. (Hitler had slept there).
About this time our crew took leave - the first battle of the Bulge and flew to Cannes and had a marvelous rest and vacation at the famous French Riviera. We also visited Nice (the enlisted men’s rest center), Grasse, where much of the French perfume is manufactured, St. Paul, an old Roman walled town, Monte Carlo and drove along the coast into Italy. I obtained an extended leave from my superior in Paris, so had about three weeks rest and vacation at Cannes.
When I returned to Weimar, I packed all my belongings and went to Paris to clear for the States. I was being sent home on a home-emergency leave due to the serious illness of my Father. While awaiting transportation back to the States, I operated a Clubmobile group at Mailly-le-Camp headquarters near Chalo (Marne) France. This camp was being used as a clearing area for the units returning to the States. I was billeted with a charming French family about two miles from the camp, and drove my jeep back and forth. The mother and father and two daughters (about my age) spoke some English, so we helped each other with our foreign languages. After six weeks here, I was called from Paris to finish clearing and proceed to Camp Phillip Morris (all the camps of embarkation carried the name of a famous brand cigarette) where I boarded the John Ericson (sister ship to the Gripsholm) and came back to the United States, arriving in New York City in mid-August, 1945. The next day I left by train for Chicago and home.
As I have said before, this was one of the most worth-while and exciting jobs that I have ever had, and I loved every minute of it, because we were working with and for the greatest people in the world - the American G. I.