As a combat engineer, Chuck Hurlbut was among the first troops ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Ithaca, N.Y., Sept. 26, 1998
©2000, 2009 Aaron Elson
Chuck Hurlbut: I was born in New York City. I lived there until I was about seven. Then my mother died. In the Depression, my dad got laid off and he couldnt find work, so he thought he would come back to upstate New York where he was from. He was more familiar with the area, he had relatives and friends, and he thought maybe his luck would be better up there. So he returned to Auburn, New York. But the Depression was everyplace. Auburn was no better than anyplace else. He had two very demanding kids, and he was frustrated. He couldnt find work. So he resorted to his parents my grandparents and they suggested that we go out and live with them.
They had a farm not far from Auburn. We went to the farm, and thats really where I spent my growing-up years. I was seven or eight years old, and I stayed there until I graduated from high school. I was 16.
So actually, my boyhood was spent on a farm. But I knew I could never be a farmer. It was beautiful and I loved the greenery, but something told me that was not my thing.
When I graduated from high school, I made the big decision that I had to go find something else. So I left the farm, with a lot of sadness, but they condoned it. My grandparents wished me well.
I went to the nearby city of Auburn and got a job. I was only 16. I had to get working papers. I played the clarinet, and joined the Auburn community band. I was on a bowling team and a softball team. I met a few girls. Everything was going great. Then all of a sudden Pearl Harbor hit.
Meanwhile, ever since high school I had heard about Hitler and all this stuff in Europe. It was getting to me. But I never realized how deeply it was going to affect me until Pearl Harbor. Whenever you talked about Hitler and Europe, that was their war, dont get involved. Pearl Harbor turned everyone around. They were so united, so determined. I dont think therell ever be a time again when this country is so unified.
Aaron Elson: And you were what, 17?
Chuck Hurlbut: Sixteen.
Aaron Elson: How did you graduate high school?
Chuck Hurlbut: Well, way back when, some teachers thought, "Hey, this is an exceptional student, lets skip a grade." I skipped third or fourth grade. That always put me a grade ahead, which was good and bad. I was always the smallest guy in the class, and always the youngest.
Aaron Elson: Did you get picked on because of that?
Chuck Hurlbut: Not that much. I was a pretty congenial guy. I think I got along pretty good with everybody. I ended up class president my senior year. And I graduated at 16.
So Im in Auburn now, and I had to get working papers, but I got a job, and then Pearl Harbor hit, and now Im 17. I never wanted to be a soldier; that was the farthest thing from my mind. But when something like Pearl Harbor happens, you get a feeling. "Im supposed to do something." I got overwhelmed, and I couldnt wait to become 18 so I could be drafted. I wanted to do my part. So when I hit 18, within days I was down at the draft board, registered. In three months I was called, went for my physical, passed. Then you wait around until they call you.
I got the announcement, "You are to report to the Greyhound bus station on such and such a date." This is in Auburn, New York. So we went down there, and heres 60 or 70 guys, all in this draft group. I think this is true: It was the largest draft contingent ever to come out of Auburn. And the mothers and fathers and sweethearts, brothers and sisters were there. It was quite a congregation.
Finally they put us on a bus and sent us to Fort Niagara, which was the big gathering center for this area of New York State. And most of us guys knew each other. We had gone to school together, worked together, dated the same girls; there was a real strong camaraderie there. And you said, "Well, guys, this cant last. Youre gonna go here, Im gonna go there. Were gonna be all split up."
When the announcement came, about 90 percent of us stayed together. We couldnt believe it. We were going to be combat engineers. We couldnt care less. The idea were all together was the big point. We dont care what were gonna be.
So they put us on a train and they sent us to Camp White, Oregon, where they activated the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion. We are the original members of the 299th. And we went through basic training.
The first few weeks were basic military skills: close order drills, marches, hikes, how to clean a rifle, what is a machine gun? And then you were introduced to the specialties of an engineer: the bridge building, the mine detection. We were combat engineers. We had specific things that we did that the big engineering groups didnt do. Engineers are always thought of as building these enormous bridges. The combat engineers do the same thing on a minor scale in a quicker fashion, under fire. We learned how to throw a treadway or a pathway across a river. How to ford a river. How to blow up a bridge. How to wire a bridge. How to build a Bailey bridge. We became pretty good at it.
Aaron Elson: Did the divisions have their own engineers?
Chuck Hurlbut: Its complicated. I think each division had their own engineer setup. I think each of the big engineering units constructed the permanent structures. The combat engineers are only battalions; theres only three companies. Maybe like 600 men.
Aaron Elson: Did you have your own headquarters and service units?
Chuck Hurlbut: Oh, yes. Theres an H-and-S company, headquarters and service, and then theres the line companies, A, B and C. So between the three companies plus a small H-and-S, thats it. And you found out youre called a bastard battalion because youre never really attached to any division. Youre used or put wherever they feel is necessary. Usually youre under a corps, thats where you get your directions from. They just put you wherever the situation calls for.
In Oregon we got our basic at Camp White, then they sent us out on Oregon maneuvers to the desert. I never knew such a desert existed, in eastern Oregon. It had scorpions.
Aaron Elson: Were there rattlesnakes?
Chuck Hurlbut: Rattlesnakes, scorpions, jackrabbits, you wouldnt believe. Burning hot all day, then you freeze to death all night. And youre on maneuvers; were like under combat conditions, so you couldnt have a fire. It was pretty rough.
Aaron Elson: Did you have any personal encounters with scorpions?
Chuck Hurlbut: Some guys got stung, but these are bad. These had a poisonous sting. So you were constantly on the lookout for scorpions.
Aaron Elson: What would you do when you saw one?
Chuck Hurlbut: Step on it quickly. And the sand, the sand was always there. It got in your eyes. It was rough. And they had tents. It was simulated combat conditions.
Aaron Elson: Do you think they were training you for North Africa?
Chuck Hurlbut: You would have thought so, or desert conditions. I think they just wanted you to endure the ruggedness. But we survived that pretty well; we got a lot of commendations for what we did.
Then they took us to Fort Lewis, Washington, which is one of the Armys oldest camps and one of the most beautiful. It was so good to have a hot shower and a change of clothes, and a bed. And we were allowed some passes.
We were issued furloughs while we were in Fort Lewis, so I got on the train, all the way back to New York State. It took about four days. But it was worth it. A funny thing you know, I was home on furlough, and everywhere Id go, I couldnt buy a drink. Wherever you went it was on the house. It was great.
I returned to Fort Lewis, and now we had a very hectic schedule. They were getting us all ready. And we thought we were going to Japan. All through it, I always wanted to go to Europe. I said Im probably going to combat someplace, and if I had my say, Id rather go to Europe.
Aaron Elson: Why was that?
Chuck Hurlbut: I couldnt see going to the Pacific. The jungle. The malaria. The savagery of those Japanese.
Aaron Elson: Were stories coming back where you had heard about how savage they were?
Chuck Hurlbut: Youd hear on the radio. The whole atmosphere was different. So of the two I preferred Europe. I thought, at least theyve got houses. At least they look like me. I think Ill get a better deal in Europe. I think theyll obey the Geneva Convention. These lunatics in the Pacific, kamikazes, savages, they dont obey anything. So my preference was to go to Europe. And it looks like were all set to go to Japan.
Then all of a sudden, were off to Florida. We had been selected to take amphibious training. Underwater demolition. Very few units were chosen; we felt pretty good, because hey, we were chosen out of all of those units to go for this training.
We went to Fort Pierce, Florida, which is a Naval training station for underwater demolition, assault boats, and they were the leaders of this particular stuff. Army units would be assigned to them, under their direction, but its a Navy base. Were the only Army unit on it. And we get the feeling that they resent us. No Army man can do what they can do. A sailor vs. soldier type of thing. But they told us what we had to do, all the drills and everything, and we did pretty good. Before long we were doing what they did, and in a lot of cases we were surpassing them. So their animosity lessened and they acknowledged us and accepted us. But its still a Navy base.
Aaron Elson: Did fights break out in the bars?
Chuck Hurlbut: Yeah; we would always go into town on passes, and it ended up with the Army MPs I was assigned many times. You had to be assigned to be an MP, and youd walk the beach with an SP, a sailor police. There were disturbances, disagreements here and there. And I hated it. Because heres your big buddy, 6 foot 3, hey, Ive got to take you in to the hoosegow? Hes my buddy. Jesus, I hated that.
Aaron Elson: Did you encounter any real barroom brawls?
Chuck Hurlbut: There were a few. There usually was a Navy-Army mixture, so the Navy guys would sort out their guys and the Army guys would sort out their guys, and wed all go to the same brig. But its tough duty; I hated being assigned to that, because its your buddies. The night before you were in the same damn condition they were.
But eventually they realized that in a couple of days theyll be doing the same damn thing to somebody else, so it all settled down.
We took all our training, and then we went out in the ocean and came in on rubber rafts, learned demolition, hand to hand combat, the whole business. A lot of the big brass this was in December 1943 came down to watch us, and we put on a big show. I guess we got pretty good credentials, because we were commended. I guess right then they decided we can use this unit in an invasion; thats the feeling we got.
And we realized that were no longer just a combat engineer unit, were a specialized group now; were specialists in invasion techniques, beach assault techniques. And some of the guys thought, "Hey, piece of cake. Were so good."
But a lot of guys thought, "Hey, wherever we go, its gonna be a suicide mission."
Aaron Elson: What was your feeling?
Chuck Hurlbut: Piece of cake. Hey, I know all this stuff, and were so good. We can do it. Hey, Im 18 years old. I just had my 18th birthday. And when youre 18, nothing bothers you. Youre gung-ho. Im on top of the world. That was a big attitude, but a lot of the guys were a little more serious than I was. They had these feelings. So a lot of guys went AWOL. I think it was because of what they saw coming. But they were picked up and returned, and our commanding officer made damn sure that they were part of the invasion.
Okay. So were pretty well accredited now. We knew that we were gonna hit a beachhead someplace. We didnt know where.
We went up to Camp Pickett, Virginia. We were only there a few weeks. We took some more infantry tests. And thats where I saw my first POWs, German POWs. All KP was done by German prisoners. And I never saw a happier group of guys. They had it made. They were sent to America.
Aaron Elson: Did you talk with any of them?
Chuck Hurlbut: No. But as you went through the line, they always had a big smile. They would ask you, "Do you want more?"
We saw a lot, thousands and thousands more later on, but of them all I never saw a happier group than that group at Camp Pickett.
We werent there very long. Then we went up to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, and by then we knew things were getting pretty serious. We were getting ready to leave. They gave us some more drills, and a lot of paperwork, whos your beneficiary and all this gobbledygook.
Aaron Elson: Was insurance mandatory at that point or was it optional? The $10,000.
Chuck Hurlbut: I think it was mandatory. Im pretty sure.
Aaron Elson: And who was your beneficiary?
Chuck Hurlbut: Probably my father. Its kind of a cloudy area. But I remember I had the insurance, because wed talk about it over there. "Well, at least somebodys gonna get ten thousand."
At Camp Kilmer, we were quarantined, we couldnt go anywhere. Very restricted. From Camp Kilmer we go into New York, on the Hudson River, on the piers, and heres this big ugly boat waiting, and we get on the dock, we all line up. And we go up the gangplank. Each of us has a great big barracks bag. Oh, just prior to that, the Red Cross was there, and they gave us all a little sewing kit. Free. Its the last thing I ever got from the Red Cross. From then on everything they charged for. They gave me a free sewing kit, a needle, a thimble, and a little ball of thread. And they were nice girls, but thats all they had. Then we went up the gangplank, and there was a band there that played. The S.S. Exchequer was the name of the boat.
Aaron Elson: The Exchequer?!
Chuck Hurlbut: Does that ring a bell?
Aaron Elson: [My fathers] tank battalion went over on the Exchequer!
Chuck Hurlbut: Wow! This would be
Aaron Elson: February?
Chuck Hurlbut: April.
Aaron Elson: This is unbelievable.
Chuck Hurlbut: Well, were only a battalion. There were a lot of other units and divisions.
Aaron Elson: It was formerly a United States Lines ship. It wasnt a Liberty ship.
Chuck Hurlbut: It was no Queen Mary.
Aaron Elson: I wonder if the tank battalion was on the same trip.
Chuck Hurlbut: Well, we got on the boat in late March, because during the voyage we celebrated Easter. When we leave, the bands playing, the Red Cross girls are waving goodbye, we trudge up the gangplank, get on this boat. I think we stayed there overnight, and the next morning we took off. We saw the Statue of Liberty. And we go out a ways, then we meet a lot of other ships converging to make a convoy. And there were some destroyers, and a big battleship up ahead.