The Military Career of Lt. Col. James B. Loonan


This is history of the early training, the active duty service during World War II, the transfer to the army reserve and finally the retirement of Lt. Col. James B. Loonan. Since this is primarily about my experiences I find it is more convenient to use the first person in the presentation. It has been over fifty years since I started my military career and served on active duty but I have presented it as I remember it with the aid of records and various histories of the war. I have tried to write about the everyday military life, the training of the military personnel and the planning for and conducting the various campaigns. I have tried to stay away from the killing and horrible experiences that goes with warfare, though there were plenty of those.

Chapter I

Early Training

My introduction to the military started when I enrolled at Iowa State College in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State was a land grant college. When the U.S. Government gave land to the states for state colleges the colleges had to agree to give all able bodied male students two years of military training. I was issued an army uniform complete with shirt, cap, necktie, belt and various brass items. I had to buy my own shoes. The uniform had to be kept clean and pressed, the brass polished and the shoes polished at all times.

I was assigned to the field artillery unit. We had 75 millimeter guns from World War I.  They were pulled by six pairs of horses.  A soldier rode on one horse and drove the horse beside him.  The cannoneers that operated the guns rode on the caissons that carried the ammunition.  Officers rode on single mounts.  The college was happy to have the horse drawn artillery as they used the horses for their polo teams.  see Figure1 for a typical horse drawn artillery unit.

  • When students complete the mandatory two years of military training, they may apply for two additional years of training.  If they complete the additional training, they are commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the Army Reserve.  I was accepted in that program and received 65 cents a day subsistence and an officers uniform complete with riding boots as we had to ride horses.  I received my commission as  2nd Lt. in December 1940.
  • I graduated from Iowa State in March 1941.  World War II had started.  Hitler had captured most of Europe.  It was only a matter of time until we would be involved in the war.  The draft was started and many young men were called into service.  I had my commission in the Army Reserve and now I would be subject to called to active duty at anytime.

    Chapter II

    The Call To Active Duty

    August 10, 1941 I received my letter from Uncle sam to report to Camp Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa for a physical.  I passed the physical and was assigned to the 34th Division.  The 34th Division was a national guard division with troops from North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.  The Division was inducted into Federal Service in February, 1991 and sent to Camp Clairborne in Louisiana.  When I reported to the 34th Division in August, 1941 they were on maneuvers consisting of many thousands of men from all over the U.S. I reported to the Division Field Headquarters and they sent me to the Field Artillery Headquarters.  They assigned me to the 185th Field Artillery Regiment.  Everyone was dressed in battle clothes.  The First Sergeant took me and my car to Camp Claiborne and issued me army shirts, pants, a steel helmet, canvas leggings army shoes, a backpack with mess kit and a revolver with holster.  When the commander found out I was a graduate engineer, he put me on his staff as the survey officer. I had taken a course in surveying but knew nothing about the survey for an artillery unit.  As we moved to new positions every day or two, I learned to locate the units very quickly.  The commander said I was the best survey officer he ever had.

    The 1941 maneuvers was a make-believe battle between the red army and the blue army.  They moved around over the states of Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. Of course we did not use any "live" ammunition.  If we fired our artillery at a group of infantry, the umpires would assess them as many casualties.  If an infantry unit surprised another unit they could take them prisoners.

    The sad thing about the army was the equipment they had.  The infantry was to have new MI rifles.  They had 03 rifles from World War I.  They didn't have any machine guns so they used broom sticks.  Anti tank units used wood poles for guns.  The light artillery were to have 105 millimeter guns.  They had 75 millimeter guns from World War I with rubber tires added.  The helmets we wore were also from World War I with a wide brim.  My unit, the 185th FAA. had 155 millimeter guns from World War I. also.  See Figure 3.  This gun fires a shell approximately 6 inch in diameter and weighing 94 pounds.  the maximum range is 12,000 yards or about 7 miles.  It was pulled by a 4 ton 6x6 truck.

    When the maneuvers were over we returned to Camp Claiborne.  I requested all the army manuals on field artillery survey and operations of the fire direction center.  The survey section was busy running surveys every day.  We had no calculators or computers to do our calculations.  The engineer slide rule was not accurate enough.  A very small error in the survey or calculation would mean we would miss our target some 5 or 6 miles away.  I decided to use 6 place logarithms to do all calculations.  I had to run schools to teach the members of the survey crew how to use them.

    During the maneuvers, the army found that they must streamline the units to compete in the modern warfare.  The old divisions were considered square divisions of 20,000 men and had 4 infantry regiments, 3 light artillery regiments and one medium (155 MM) artillery regiment plus miscellaneous troops.  They changed the division to a triangular division of three infantry regiments with a battalion of light artillery attached to it to form a combat team which could operate independently or as part of the division.  The medium (155 MM) artillery regiment with 24 guns was reduced to a battalion with 12 guns.   The 185th thus was known as the 185th Field Artillery Battalion.  A commander was selected and told to select any officers and units he wanted from the regiment.  I was selected as the survey officer and kept the same survey crew and continued their training.

    Chapter III

    The Declaration Of War

    The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor changed all our lives.  I think we all thought we would be in the war sooner or later but it was still quite a shock to be in it so suddenly.  That night all troops were confined to camp so we decided to go to a movie.  Every 5 minutes they stopped the movie and told different units to report back to their areas.  They were shipped out immediately.  Many men had families or maybe a car in the parking lot but had to leave anyway.  My commander called me in and said I would lead a convoy of about 300 trucks loaded with infantry to New Orleans to guard the docks and other vital installations.  They didn't know if the Germans would try to sabotage them.  We started out and after about two hours we had to make a pee stop. With several thousand men, we couldn't stop at a filling station, so we just closed the trucks up behind each other and everyone got out and went in the ditch.  Cars going by would honk.  Governor Huey Long had built a super highway so we didn't have to go through any cities or towns.  When we got to the city limits of New Orleans the police met us and drove us through the city with sirens blaring. People were cheering along the streets.  We delivered the infantry to an army camp.  Some of my drivers had never been to New Orleans before and wanted to go into town.  I told them to go but stay out of trouble, be back by midnight and be ready to leave by 7:00 in the morning.  I saw the camp commander and asked him to gas up the 300 trucks.  He said he didn't have the gas for that.  I told him to get it someway as we had to return to camp in the morning.  Remember this was two days after Pearl Harbor and things were not organized yet.  We returned to camp and continued our training as we waited for orders to move out as we were sure they would come.

    Finally we received our orders in late December to move to Fort Dix, New Jersey.  We loaded our guns and trucks on flat railroad cars for shipment to Fort Dix.  They dug up some old wooden Pullman cars for us to ride in.  They hadn't been used for years.  Captains, Majors and LT. colonels were to sleep in the upper bunk and 2nd Lts. had to sleep in the lower bunks.  This was before we had homosexuals.  There were no porters, and each person had to take his mess kit there to get food.  By the time we reached Chicago, it was very cold and there was very little heat in the cars.  The 34th Division was selected to be part of the first troops to be sent to Europe or they had been in training for over a year and they were made up of mostly men from the middle west and were generally larger and more physical than some of the men from other areas.  We were scheduled to sail on a large French liner that had escaped from France when the Germans moved in.  It was being converted to a troop ship when it caught fire, burned and turned over on its side in the New York harbor.  They didn't know whether it was sabotage or an accident.  We had to wait for several months for another ship.  We had not had time to build ships and most of the ships the U.S. had were being used in the Pacific.  The British furnished most of the troop ships in the Atlantic.  We continued our training while waiting.  I got to return home to Iowa for a visit.  I remember as I said good bye to my grandfather I had a feeling I wouldn't see him again and I think he had the same feeling.  He passed away soon after I arrived overseas.

    Chapter IV

    North Ireland

    Finally we received word that a British troop ship was in the New York harbor waiting for us.  The name of the ship was the Acquitania.  It was a ship built by the German Kaiser before World War I.  He had planned to tour the world after he won World War I.  It was very fancy with polished walnut trim all over.  The British went all out for the war effort.  All passenger ships were converted to troop ships.  U.S. troop ships were all used in the Pacific.  The British are very rank conscious.  The officers were all quartered above deck and the troops were below deck.  The cargo holds were converted to house the troops.  Canvas hammocks were installed about three or four high for the troops to sleep on.  I was assigned to a cabin built for two but there were six of us in the cabin.  We ate in the dining room.  The troops had mess halls below.

    As we sailed out of New York harbor and past the Statue of Liberty, I wondered when, if ever, I would see her again.  We joined other ships in a convoy.  The troop and cargo ships were in the middle and surrounded by navy war ships.  We had been sending many cargo ships to England and many were sunk by German U-boats.  We sailed up the coast to Nova Scotia where we picked up some Canadian Troops.  We headed east toward Europe.  We would travel along and at a certain signal, the ships would turn to the left.  Later they would all turn to the right.  We zigged zagged all across the ocean.  The navy didn't have the fancy radar to pick up submarines.  Every now and then they would drop depth charges to blow up possible submarines.  This would shake our entire ship.  We dropped off some troops in Iceland and then sailed on for Europe.  One time we were caught in a very dense fog.  When the fog cleared we could not see any ships.  We were all alone and a perfect target for U-boats.  We radioed ahead and they told us they would give us two hours to catch up or they would go on without us.  Our ship applied full power and the whole ship just shuddered but we did catch up and sailed on with the convoy.  We sailed around the tip of Ireland and as we approached Ireland you could see the bright green fields with the hedge rows separating the fields and the small houses with their thatched roofs.  I could see why they called it the Emerald Isle.  We landed at Belfast.  They wanted us to march into the city to show them we had arrived to help them.  After two weeks at sea, we had our sea legs and trying to walk on the cobble stone pavement we didn't look very good.  When we got into the city and saw all the bombed out buildings we saw the effects of the war for the first time.  They had volunteers standing on the roofs of the tallest buildings.  They had no radar.  These spotters they are called, were up there 24 hours a day.  If they spotted a plane they sounded a warning and everyone would get in air raid shelters.  If the planes flew on they would warn the cities ahead that they were coming.

    We arrived at Coleraine where the British Army had taken over a golf club and installed steel Nissen huts.  They had bunks to sleep on and a pot bellied stove in the center for heat.  If you were near the stove you were too hot and if you were at the end of the building, you froze.  They had no coal to burn so we got a load of peat.  The Irish would cut this in the peat bogs and let it dry so it would burn.  One Nissen hut was set up as a toilet.  There was a long bench on each side with a hole about every three feet and a bucket, called a honey bucket under each hole.  A man with a horse and wagon with a tank on the wagon would come around and empty the honey buckets.

    The British troops were all pulled out of Ireland and station on the last coast of England to defend against a German invasion.  The U.S. troops were sent to Ireland to defend it if the Germans tried to invade by an air lift.  The old equipment we had from World War I did not prepare us for combat.  The first thing I discovered, all the maps were in the metric system and at a scale of 1-25000.  We would run our survey and then have to convert it to the metric system.  This was very slow and led to possible errors.  I finally located a steel tape and equipment in the metric system and did all calculations in the metric system.  After we had been in Ireland about four months an officer came around and asked the enlisted men if they would like to go back to the U.S. and go to officers candidate school.  All the sergeants and about one half of my survey crew left.  I had to train a whole new crew again.  They weren't doing very good so I made a form where all they had to do was fill in the blanks.  This speeded up the calculations, cut down on errors and made it easy to check the calculations.

    A high ranking General from Washington came over to inspect the U.S. troops.  He asked one of the men on the guns how many rounds he had fired.  The man told him he had never seen the gun fired.  He had been in the unit for two years and they had never fired the guns.  The General ordered our division artillery commander to find a range where we could fire our guns.  The artillery commander said as long as we were firing the artillery we should take the standard artillery test.  In this test the unit had to run a survey, do the calculations, move the guns into position after dark and be ready to fire at day break. Firing at a target about 5 or 6 miles away they had to come within 50 yards of the target to pass the test.  The 185th Artillery passed the test.  In fact we were the only artillery unit that passed.  The General was so mad he had all the other units run the test again.  Even then some of the units failed the second time.  Shortly thereafter a British officer came around and asked for volunteers to join the British Commandos.  It sounded like it might be fun so I volunteered.  When our General saw my name he crossed it off saying I was the only survey officer who knew what he was doing and he wasn't going to let me go.  He did me a favor as I found out later the commandos made a raid on the coast of France and none of the commandos got out alive.

    We were located in North Ireland, which is a part of the British Empire.  The Irish Free State which is located in South Ireland never got into the war.  They had a lot of German spies located there spying on the British shipping.  We decided to invade South Ireland and were already to go when they called it off.  They said they wanted to use us somewhere else.

    In Late December, 1993 we moved to the east coast of Ireland.  One night we crossed the Irish Sea to Scotland.  We boarded a train to Chester, England located just outside Liverpool.

    Chapter V

    Africa Campaign

    We spent several days in Chester.  On Christmas Eve we boarded a ship, the Empress of Australia.  This is a large ocean liner and could carry more than 30,000 troops.  When we got aboard, they took our overcoats and overshoes away from us.  We guessed we must be going to a warm climate.  On Christmas morning we sailed out of Liverpool and joined a British convoy and sailed southwest.  On New Year's eve we found ourselves outside of the Straits of Gibraltar.  The British own and control the Straits.  Spain owns the land south of the Straits and were not in the war.  The British installed a heavy chain fence across the Straits to keep the German U-boats from going through.  At a certain signal the British dropped the fence and we shot through the Straits.  We joined a British convoy and sailed east.  We zigged zagged to avoid the German U-boats that were operating in the Mediterranean.  We sailed toward the port city of Oran, North Africa.  That night we zigged and the ship next to us zagged and hit us broadside in the middle of our ship.  They punched a large hole in the side.  Water rushed. in and flooded the engines and all lights went out.  We were in danger of sinking with over 30,000 troops aboard.  They flooded the ballast tanks on the opposite side and tipped the hole out of the water.  We were towed to the docks in Oran and were glad to get off the ship.  We marched out south of Oran and set up camps.  There was snow on the ground.  We sure could have used those overcoats and overshoes they took away from us in Liverpool.

    The attack on North Africa was the greatest armada in history, 800 ships took part.  Troops from the U.S. landed at Casablanca on the west coast of Africa.  U.S. troops landed at Oran on the north coast.  U.S. and British troops from Ireland and England landed at Algiers on the north coast and east of Oran.  All landings were successful.  The toughest was at Algiers where there were many French troops stationed at the French African Headquarters.  After a couple of days fighting the French were convinced to stop fighting and to join the U.S. and British in driving the Germans out of North Africa.

    The North Africa Coast ran 2000 miles from Casablanca on the West to Bizerte and Tunis on the East.  The Germans used the ports at Bizerte and Tunis to bring in supplies from Sicily, Italy.  The North Africa terrain was constituted of areas with many mountains and valleys.  The main roads went through the valleys and the Germans would set up defenses at these points, Other parts of North Africa, mainly east of Algiers, were flat almost like a desert.  In the winter there were periods of snow.  Other times there was heavy rainfall.  There were many deep ditches, called wadis,  to take the rainfall.  These ditches were good places to hide artillery and vehicles in the flat desert like terrain.  There were very few paved roads.  During the rainy season the roads were almost impossible.

    The U.S. troops, especially those that came from Ireland and England, had a very outdated equipment.  They had left the U.S.  a couple of months after Pearl Harbor.  The light artillery were to have 105 MM guns.  The had none.  The British gave them some 25 pounders.  We, the 185th Artillery, were the medium artillery.  We had the same 155 MM howitzers
    used in World War I with rubber tires added.  The U.S. tanks had the 75 MM gun mounted in the body of the tank.  They had to rotate the whole tank to change direction of fire. The Germans had high velocity 88 MM guns mounted in a turret.  I saw 12 U.S. tanks attack 2 German tanks in one battle.  The German tanks knocked out all 12 U.S. tanks.  The anti-tank guns we had were useless against the German armor.  We had no anti-aircraft guns.  The German "Stukas" could strafe and bomb us at will.  My battalion was to have 32 jeeps.  We had two.  As the campaigns went on, six or eight months later we received more modern tanks, some anti-aircraft guns and some air support.

    Several days after we landed at Algiers we received our guns and vehicles and were sent to guard the Spanish Moroccan border.  Franco was a friend of Hitler and they thought he would bring Spain into the war on the side of the Germans.  After a week or so they told us to move east and join the British 1st Army.  The 1st Army was trying to drive the Germans east out of North Africa.  The British 8th Army was in Egypt and driving the Germans west.  We were assigned to the U.S. 2nd Corp. commanded by General George Patton.  It was about 900 miles to where the 1st Army was located.  Our convoy was strafed and bombed several times during the trip.

    When we joined the 1st Army, they were planning an attack the next morning.  We were assigned an area and went forward to pick out gun positions to move into that night.  I took my survey crew and completed the survey and calculations and waited in a cactus patch for the battalion to move in.  About 2 in the morning a jeep rushed up and told us the Germans were attacking and our battalion went into position about 25 miles behind us.  We realized we were about 15 miles behind the enemy lines and had to get out of there before daylight.  We had to go cross country and got out just before daylight.  The Germans attacked at daybreak with those big tanks followed by the infantry.  Our light artillery and anti-tank guns fired but the shells just bounced off the tanks.  We had larger artillery but did not have armor piercing shells.  Our shells had enough impact however to knock the tracks off the tanks and immobilize them.  The battle went on all day.  Our forward observers and gun crews had plenty of experience for the first day.  Later in the day, the Germans stopped the attack.  The German also attacked on our flank on the other side of the mountain.  We heard that they were in danger of breaking through the Allied lines.  That night they moved all our tanks and artillery, except the 185th, to help stop the other attack.  They told us to move back to a narrow valley and set up position there.   We were to either stop the German tanks or be run over.  The gun crews worked all night digging the guns in and digging deep fox holes for their own protection.   If you dig a deep, narrow foxhole, a tank can run over you and not hurt you.  I took my crew up the side of the mountain and established an observation post where I could watch the battle and help adjust the artillery on the attacking troops.  See figure 5.  When daylight came, we waited for the attack.  Nothing happened.  There were no Germans in sight.  Later our infantry sent out scouts to see what happened.  The Germans had repaired all tanks and moved back.  Eventually they moved over to help with the attack on the other side of the mountain.  The U.S. forces stopped the attack and the Germans moved back to new defensive positions.

    This part of Africa has many mountains.  The Germans were fighting a defensive warfare.  They would set up defenses in the mountain passes.  We would have to drive them out of the pass and they would drop back to the next pass.  You must remember that our troops were the first sent to Europe and Africa after Pearl Harbor.  The equipment we had was what was on hand when the war started.  General Patton's tanks were no match for Rommel's tiger tanks. I saw 12 U.S. tanks attack 2 german tanks in a cactus patch.  The Germans knocked out all 12 U.S. tanks.  Our light artillery had no guns.  They had to borrow some British guns.  The British were in the war for several years and had some better equipment.  They were good fighters also. The Germans had an eighty eight millimeter gun that had a muzzle velocity of 2800 feet per second.  The speed of sound in 1400 feet per second, so the shell would land near us and a few seconds later you would hear the gun go off. They used this gun for anti-tank, anti-aircraft and field artillery.  We had nothing to compare.  We had no anti-aircraft guns.  The Germans could bomb us with no resistance.  We also had no air support.

    As we moved east, we left the mountains and arrived in a flat plain almost like a desert.  There were large dry river beds called wadis.  They were wide and deep and we could hide our guns, vehicles and men in them.  When we fired our artillery guns the flash and smoke would fly out but the Germans had trouble judging distances in deserts.  The only problem when they had torrential rains, the ditches filled with water.  One day we planned a new attack.  We were to move our guns forward to support the attack.  We selected new positions in a large wadi.  That night we moved up to go into position.  The only problem it started to rain.  When we got to the wadi, it was full of water.  So we had all our guns and trucks and about 800 men halted on the road.  The five battalion commander met and sent me back to tell the c

    Chapter VI

    Italian Campaign

     [Col. Loonan passed away in a hospice unit in Denver Colorado in April 1998 before completing this story]