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Monday, 03 November 2008

Tales of the 903rd Signal Co.

By Mort Reichek of Octogenarian

I have belonged to or been associated over the years with all sorts of organizations - a college fraternity, professional societies, alumni associations, a religious congregation, social groups, and the corporations for which I worked.

More than half a century ago, I was part of a very special organization for nearly two years during one of the most important periods of my life. It was the military unit with which I served during World War II in India, the 903rd Signal Co. Depot (Aviation).

Even after all these decades, I can still remember names, faces and experiences associated with the 903rd Signal Co. more vividly than I can with organizations with which I have had more recent and much longer connections.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Ben Bradlee, the retired executive editor of the Washington Post, wrote about his World War II combat experiences on a Navy destroyer in the South Pacific:

"It may sound trite to modern ears, but those really were years when you could get involved in something beyond yourself - something that connected you to your times in ways that no longer seem so natural, or expected."

My military experiences were nowhere near as dramatic and violent as Bradlee's, for the 903rd Signal Co. was never in combat. Far more eloquently than I can, however, he expressed my own sentiments about the intimate emotional link I developed with my Army outfit that remains with me today.

The 903rd Signal Co. was composed of 175 men. This is a photo of the company's headquarters personnel.

903rd Signal Co.

It was taken in the summer of 1945 outside our "orderly room" (Army jargon for company headquarters) at an Army base near the village of Titagarh in Bengal province, about 60 miles north of Calcutta. (The base had formerly been a giant jute mill known as Kharda Mills.)

I am the soldier second from the left in the upper row. I was 20 years old, a staff sergeant and the company clerk. To my right is "Moon" Mullins, who was my assistant and the company's mail clerk. He came from a small town in upstate New York.

To my left is Owen Crenshaw, the outfit's first sergeant and highest-ranking NCO. Crenshaw, a Texan who was at least a decade older than me, joined the 903rd with me in early 1944 after our arrival in India. The man on his left is named Evers. I remember only that he came from Cincinnati; I cannot recall his first name or what his job was.

Kneeling in the front row on the left is Steve Cancro, the motor sergeant, who was in charge of our small fleet of trucks, jeeps and weapons carriers. The supply sergeant, Kryn Oudendyk, is on Cancro's left. To confirm my recollection that Oudendyk hailed from a Michigan town that was really named Holland, I entered the town's name in Google.

I came up with a web site confirming that there was indeed such a town. The site was published by Holland's chamber of commerce, extolling the town's tourist attractions. There was a "contact" box on the site, and I emailed a message inquiring whether a Kryn Oudendyk still resided in Holland.

I received a response informing me that he lived in nearby Grand Rapids, Mich. and that he was 89 years old. His address and phone number were shown. When I called, Kryn's wife answered and sadly informed me that he had died two years ago. She was excited to hear from me. During their 53 years of marriage, she said, he had constantly reminisced about India and the 903rd Signal Co. I have sent her a copy of the photo, which she said her daughter and grandchild would cherish.

Mrs. Oudendyk told me that was actually Kryn's second wife. He was married before he was inducted into the Army, a fact that I had forgotten. Upon his return home, he learned that his wife had been unfaithful during his absence. They were soon divorced.

Like me, Steve Cancro, the motor sergeant, hailed from the Bronx, a factor that I guess created a special relationship between us. Virtually everyone else in the outfit came from small towns. Prior to my induction into the Army, I did not know how to drive, nor had I ever even known anyone who owned a car. Steve was determined to teach me how to drive.

Early one evening, he took me out for a driving lesson on a weapons carrier, which was a small truck. The lesson took place on a narrow jungle road outside our base. The lesson went very well until a water buffalo, hauling a peasant sitting on a cart, suddenly crossed a path in front of us. I panicked and hit the accelerator rather than the brake, smashing into the water buffalo. Fortunately, the animal was not seriously injured. But our base commander made a modest payment to the peasant, and I was never allowed to take driving lessons again while I was a member of the 903rd Signal Co.

I also had a problem with another type of vehicle. Our table of organization and equipment authorized me, as the company clerk, to have a bicycle. Sadly, I was as incapable of riding a bike as I was driving a motor vehicle. The Bronx street on which I played as a boy was a very steep hill. Because of the hill, bike riding did not figure in our playing habits and none of my friends owned bicycles.

Only Oudendyk, the supply sergeant, was aware that there was a bicycle on the premises. It was hidden in the company's store room. I made several attempts late at night when everyone else was asleep trying to master bike-riding. I was as unsuccessful as I was with Steve Cancro's weapons carrier. The result was that Oudendyk appropriated the bike for his own use. Perhaps that's why I also had a special relationship with him.

The 903rd Signal Co. was composed of four platoons:

  • The operations platoon, manned by radio and Teletype operators and cryptographers, ran a military message center for the region.

  • The engineering platoon repaired airborne electronics equipment--radios, radar apparatus and other aircraft instruments--for the 10th Air Force based in eastern India and Burma, the 14th Air Force in China, and the Air Transport Command which flew cargo planes over "the Hump" (the Himalaya Mountains) to supply the Chinese army.

  • The construction platoon built and maintained telephone lines, including a portion of line being installed from Calcutta to China via the famed Burma-Ledo Road.

  • The supply platoon operated a huge warehouse from which airborne electronics supplies were shipped throughout the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations.

Compared to how so many others in the U.S. armed forces were serving on World War II battlefields, the activities of the 903rd Signal Co. appear mundane. But in addition to being radio operators, telephone linesmen, truck drivers, mechanics, and clerks, we were also soldiers who had been trained to fight.

I and a few others were equipped with Thompson sub-machine guns, and most of the other men had carbines. The weapons were usually kept in the company's armory. Periodically they were taken out so that each man could maintain his gun and refresh his familiarity with the weapon.

I actually needed my Tommy gun while on duty a couple of times. Before my promotion to sergeant and appointment as company clerk, I was occasionally assigned as an armed guard on shipments of supplies to U.S. air bases in Assam and Burma. On one occasion, I also flew over the Hump to Kunming and Chengtu in China. My mission was to guard the plane on the ground until the supplies were unloaded.

The 903rd Signal Co.'s non-combatant service was not unusual. The vast majority of those in the armed forces during World War II were support troops who never saw combat. (In Iraq, unfortunately, support troops are being exposed to combat and are suffering heavy casualties because we are engaged in what is essentially a guerrilla war.)

Our wartime roles were determined by fate. But I know that the men of the 903rd Signal Co., only a handful of whom are probably still alive, loyally performed what they were called upon to do. I like to think that we contributed significantly to the American victory during World War II.

This story was published on my blog nearly two years ago.

I was astonished and saddened last week to receive an e-mail from a man in Miami Beach, Florida, identifying himself as the grandson of Owen Crenshaw, one of the six soldiers shown in the photo above.

"My grandfather passed away two days ago at age 92 in a San Antonio, Texas hospital," the grandson wrote. "Until he suffered a severe stroke three weeks ago, he continued to live 100% independently, including driving himself to breakfast every morning from the house he built for his retirement in 1975."

Out of curiosity, I assume, the grandson Googled his grandfather's name and came up with a reference to my blog piece about the 903rd Signal Co. Unfortunately, when he downloaded the story, all that came up were the first several paragraphs in which his grandfather's name was mentioned. The group photo also failed to appear. The blog archives had evidently blocked this material.

The grandson asked whether I could send him a copy of the picture and the full text of the blog piece. "I would love to know if there is anything you remember about [my grandfather]," he added.

I am not very computer-literate, but after considerable effort, I was able to extract both the full text of the two-year old blog piece and the photo from the bowels of my computer. I succeeded in emailing them to the grandson. He was delighted to receive them and told me that the photo would be displayed at an upcoming memorial to his grandfather.

I am now in my Florida winter home, not far from the grandson's residence. We are planning to meet soon so that I can tell him everything I can recall about Owen Crenshaw. I had not seen or spoken to Owen in 63 years. But I remember him well because of the intimate bond we had formed during two years of World War II Army service in India. The grandson emailed a photo to me of his grandfather taken shortly before his death. I could not recognize him.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


It is wonderful that your blogpost ended up being very helpful to someone whose relative was in the service with you. I have been amazed at how well some men remember the guys there were in the service with; almost more than they remember their family. It must be a a very intensive feeling.

I think the bond shared by men who were forced to spend long months and years away from home is sometimes stronger than that of their biological families.

They share an experience that no one else can understand. The Marines have a name for it - I think it's the bond of brothers.

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