From Soldier to Scholar…to Colonel

INTERVIEW OF DR. TOM DAVIS, PART 4

by Sharon Rondeau

The grade of “Colonel” in the U.S. Army is an “O-6” and is just below that of brigadier general

(Jan. 20, 2016) —  The following is a continuation from Part 3 of our interview with World War II veteran Dr. Tom Davis, who served in the China/Burma/India theater, as this writer’s father did.  Dr. Davis is 91 years old today. A retired dentist and writer, Davis is the author of three books, including an autobiography titled “Peregrinations,” which describes his upbringing in rural Oklahoma, his nearly-43 years in the U.S. military, extensive world travel, professional training and ultimate retirement from the Army as a Colonel in 1985.

The China/Burma/India (CBI) campaign is known as “the forgotten theater” of the war.  The endeavor was launched on March 3, 1942, which happens to have been this writer’s father’s 18th birthday.  Later that year, he voluntarily enlisted in the war effort.

LIFE Magazine covered the CBI theater in depth.  A memorial to CBI veterans states that “During World War II, over 14,000,000 men and women served in the armed forces of the United States. The services of many of these veterans in the European and Pacific Theater are well known and have often been memorialized. There was, however, a smaller contingent of about 260,000, who saw service in the far away lands of China, Burma and India. Few of today’s archivists or historians take note of their services but the knowledgeable ones that do, write and tell of the true dedicated service of those who served in the China Burma India Theater of Operations (CBI).”

In a September 11, 1944 issue of LIFE, chief correspondent Theodore White wrote of the Americans flying the dangerous Hump flights:

Such men as these and scores of others in big and little jobs have kept the Hump going. Yet the spirit of all the men is the most important thing. Some crack but most of them sweat it out, lean, homesick, malarial, tough. They have acquired a certain grace in the face of danger that comes from practice at keeping their heads when trouble shows. Theirs is the old, rugged strength of America’s early pioneers and, 12,000 miles from home, their spirit blazes in the deeds they do and the songs they sing.]

DR. DAVIS:  We got to Casablanca and stayed in a camp there – I forgot its name – and went across by troop train to Oran, and from there we boarded the Winchester Castle, then went to the Suez Canal and drag-shipped over to a ship called the Otranto and took that all the way to Bombay.  We took a troop train across to Calcutta, and about a week or so after we got there, we got into our own camp.  Our boats had arrived, and I became a captain of the tugboat.  I don’t mean it braggin’, but I was considered the top boat captain in the company.

This was in 1944.  The reason we got there as late as we did was that there was an ammunition ship that blew up in Bombay Harbor.  Bombay is now called Mumbai.  It blew up, so when we got there, they got us on the ship and marched us straight for a mile all the way to the railroad, and we boarded a train for Calcutta.

THE POST & EMAIL:  I’ve always wondered why India became strategic during the war.

DR. DAVIS:  The Japanese were trying to take over all of Asia.  They wanted some of the minerals and laborers who were in Burma, so they captured all of Burma and ended up attacking two towns in India.  They bombed the harbor in Calcutta – we got there just after all that happened, so it was kind-of a mess.  We hauled gasoline to a place called Gowando, which is the junction of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra Rivers in what was then Assam, or East Bengal.  That’s where we picked up gasoline in 99,000-gallon barges.  We went down the river into Dhaka, which is now the capital of Bangladesh, and unload them at the airbase there into barrels, and they’d be put on American cargo planes, C-46s and C47s, sometimes B29s or B17s, and hauled over the Hump, and that’s what your dad did.

They flew from there into Chungking.

THE POST & EMAIL:  Yes, he mentioned Chungking, and I know he was in Shanghai, too.

DR. DAVIS:  Shanghai was captured by the Japanese.  We reported to Dhaka, and they would unload the barrels, put them on the Army transport planes, and fly it over the Hump.  That was a dangerous route because they had to go very high, and the Japanese fighters would try to attack them. Fortunately, we had some mean-a** guys over there, so that took care of that.

I was going upriver on August 6, 1945, and we didn’t have any working radio for communication; we had a radio we could listen to from Stars & Stripes, and it said, “The Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.” We looked at each other and asked, “What is an atomic bomb?”  We didn’t know what it was.  Later on, they dropped one on Nagasaki.

Shortly after, the war was over, but I re-enlisted. I came back to the United States and spent a 90-day leave in Cut Bank, MT, got back on a train and stopped in on Ft. Snelling in Minnesota, which was a Japanese language school during the war.  I went on to the East Coast and got drunk one night in Washington, DC; there was nothing better to do. We got up the next morning, which was May 14th, went into the PX, and I spotted this little dark-haired gal, spitfire, who threw a milkshake at a guy when he’d give her a bad time; met her; asked her for a date.  She was the first woman I’d ever dated other than my high school prom…I dated her; big deal, I got to hold her hand all the way through.

I went back to camp and I said, “I’m not going to Germany with you guys. I’m staying right here and I’m going to marry Connie.”  And they said, “You’re full of cr**, Sarge.”  I was a staff sergeant. “You’re going to Germany with us; we’re going to find us a fraulein; we’re going to have a ball.”

And I said, “No, you’re wrong.” They were wrong.  I stayed there; I became a Catholic; I took lessons from a priest and learned to follow the rituals.

THE POST & EMAIL:  Because she was Catholic?

DR. DAVIS:  Yes, an Italian Catholic.  She was born in Italy; she was an immigrant.  If you tried to tell her that, she would say, “I’m an American.  I’m of Italian extraction, but I’m an American.”  She came over in 1930 when she was two years old.  I traced the ship she came over on, and wouldn’t you know it – her brother, who was a couple of years older, my age – were overseas from Hampton Roads, VA on the same ship.  Talk about coincidence.

They never thought I was good enough for her because they had no respect for morals of anyone in the Army, but I learned to speak Italian enough so I could correct their grammar.  They didn’t know I’d learned it, and my wife was in on it.  I went to Seton Hall University and took several courses in Italian and even today, I speak it.

So that took care of that part of it.

I got orders to go to Italy; my wife was pregnant at that time and couldn’t go with me.  So I said, “Let me get out.  I don’t want to go without you.”  They gave me a discharge, and I had to take a demotion from staff sergeant to private first class.  So I took a job, and she was pregnant, and her mother came to us and said, “You have to get out.  My son is coming from Italy.” She threw us out of the house, and I bought an old 1940 Dodge, and we drove cross-country.  My folks were living in Grand Junction, CO; we ended up there.

In 1948, I’d gone to Mesa College, and my younger brother went down to take the AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test), and he joined the Air Force.  He did very well on the AFQT, and I said, “Hell, I”m smarter than you; I can do better than that.”  I went down there, and I took the test.  The AFQT equates to your IQ; mine turned out to be 148, which is very high.  Well, they enlisted me to go to criminal investigation school in the military police.

I went to California, then cross-country to MP school in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.  Then my wife came and joined me with the baby.  I went in to camp the next morning, and they said, “Well, Davis, the whole school is moving to Camp Gordon, GA.”  I said, “Boy, you’ve put me in a bind.”  But I got the money and bought Trailways bus tickets, and we moved to Camp Gordon, GA.

I stayed in from then on until I got out in 1985, after I had progressed up the ranks from PFC to Colonel.  I don’t mean to brag, but I was a damn good officer.  I was a good soldier and a patriot, and this stuff going on in this country burns me up.  It just burns me up. 

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