EDWIN T. ELLIOTT
Lieutenant Colonel | Field Artillery
Photo Credit: KYNG eMuseum
For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war, and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all. Without fuel they were nothing. They'd built a house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped. Their leaders talked and talked and talked. But nothing could stem the avalanche.
-- Mad Max
“Goddamn, nothing stops teatime!” Captain Elliott stood with a hand on one hip and rubbed his jaw with the other, observing dockworkers break abruptly for their afternoon tea. His exclamations were dragged out by a rural Kentucky accent. “Shit, if that thing falls,” he chuckled, “We’ve had it!” He imagined the full weight of a 2 ½ ton truck plummeting into the deck of the land craft if the line snapped. It twirled lazily, suspended from the boom of a crane above the ship. They had over twenty trucks to load for the 3878th Gas Supply Company, but the rest would wait while the Brits sipped tea. The port near Land’s End was bustling with activity as men prepared to sail across the English Channel for the invasion of France. They had not yet heard through an official announcement, but they knew this was no exercise. Edwin had been summoned on very short notice from the opposite end of England.
“What day is this staff meeting?” Elliott asked upon picking up the receiver.
“You’ve gotta be kidding…you do realize I’m in Liverpool?” His words were drawn out. It was a full days drive through countryside to reach Land’s End.
“Well, just come down here as soon as you can.” The reply seemed helpless.
“What happened to all them gasoline supply companies that left the desert and went to Amphib School?” Elliott had never trained for an assault landing. “All I done was stay out there in that desert and furnish gas to those armored divisions.”
“Well, we asked Col. Caffey. We told him what we wanted to have,” the officer on the other end explained. “We told him all of them had been to amphib school but your unit, and the Colonel said he wanted ‘that one out in the desert,’ since you all had distinguished yourselves, so it’s pretty much decided, sir.”
Before his federal service, Edwin served with his younger brother, Virgil, as supply sergeant for the Kentucky National Guard’s 192d Tank Battalion. He had been reluctant to attend Officer Candidate School, as he was earning $1.00 more per month with the rank of First Sergeant than he would as a Second Lieutenant. Plus, he had his clothes furnished as an enlisted man. As an officer, Edwin could make a career out of the Army, but at the time he did not see that as his future. He became slightly bitter once his former battalion left for the Philippines where he imagined his buddies eating bananas, coconuts, and playing golf while he went to Fort Knox to get commissioned and, as he figured, sent to Europe to get shot at.
After all trucks, trailers, soldiers, and thousands of gallons of gasoline were loaded onto the ships crowded thickly together in the port, they pulled out of the dock and sat at anchor for the rest of the day. The hours crept by slowly and the anticipation of invasion was excruciating as men killed time with gambling, reading, smoking and conversation. They had packed into nearly seven thousand vessels for the voyage across the channel, filling every port and harbor in southern coast.
Night fell and the fleet raised anchors and slipped away in the darkness beneath an amber moon. This is it, Elliott thought, it’s praying time. Through the Channel, U-boats slinked under the surface, harassing ships when the opportunity presented itself. Elliott stood along the rail of the transport ship with his executive officer, looking over the edge into the black waters that lapped at the gray hull beneath them. No one dared light a cigarette, imagining that somewhere there were watchful German eyes waiting for the flare of a match or lighter to identify a target. Captain Elliot and his XO played out a number of hypothetical scenarios in their minds as they peered across moonlit ripples in the channel. The only noise came from humming engines and the bow slapping against the current. Suddenly, like the sound of a rivet gun in quick succession, bullets struck the hull barely a foot beneath the two officers. Without hesitation the, two officers decided it was time to go below deck.
Swift winds carried from the North Sea cooled the air as the company clambered down rope nets into landing craft bobbing underneath them. They were eager to reach dry land following a fitful night of rest after a depth charge detonated and rocked the hold, waking those who had managed to fall asleep. Imagining the worst, they had rushed the ladder in a panic, trying to avoid becoming trapped in a flooding cabin. After much yelling and reassurance from Edwin and the other officers, they calmed down, realizing the ship was still floating safely and it was typical activity during a night on a warship. Regardless, soldiers were not meant to be over water and yearned for dirt under their boots.
Photo Credit: Naval Historical Center
Photo Credit: Signal Corps
The invasion force was unbelievably monumental, filling the sea as far as Elliott could see with vessels of all types. Utah Beach was still a mile away and hardly visible when all officers and men boarded and the lead craft took off. It bucked against the motion of choppy seas and spewed water over the passengers who struggled to keep their balance in the boat. Those with weak stomachs struggled to keep their breakfast down, and some could do nothing to prevent from vomiting on the boots of the man next to him.
Frothy surf rolled over sand and smooth pebbles of the beach in the mid-afternoon, carrying debris and equipment in its tide. Hours after the initial landings, obstacles and entanglements of barbed wire littered the beachhead. Damaged vehicles had been hastily pushed aside to clear areas for unloading troops and supplies. The shore had been liberally shelled and still smoldering in some areas, fueling a heavy haze drifting overhead that lingered with the smell of cordite. Muffled booms from the Navy guns miles offshore sounded occasionally as they received a target inland.
On approaching the shoreline, the coxswain dropped the gate as he plowed into a sandbar. Elliott peered into the water below and held his men back.
“Pull it back!” He waved his arms and yelled at the pilot over the motor. “Back up, it’s still ten or twelve feet deep here!”
The second time the gate dropped, they were closer to land and Captain Elliott sloshed through waist deep water. The infantry was hours ahead and miles inland while the engineers were still working their way up the causeways clearing mines. Edwin could hardly imagine the grim situation on the neighboring Omaha beach where he had only heard brief reports of the carnage. The Germans had not defended the Utah beachhead as heavily, suspecting it was not as valuable an objective for the Allied invasion. It was, however, an ideal location for a supply route inland toward Cherbourg. Behind the beachhead, the paratroopers had cleared out all of the pillboxes except one, whose occupants shot occasionally at selected targets to pester the troops on the beach. They were desperately low on ammunition by now and hardly fired any shots as the company waded ashore.
Edwin was nearly 29 years old when he arrived on the French coast, but looked older, perhaps because of his sun-bleached hair and dark squinty eyes that accentuated determined features. He appeared especially stern under his steel helmet. Though his height gave him an almost slender appearance, beneath his combat jacket were firm features and rugged hands from years of work on the farm in Kentucky before joining the Army. His commanding stature was only softened when he spoke, and the heart of a country boy shone through.
Now he stood on French soil, almost as he has predicted, facing an arduous day that was only the beginning of months of insanely crucial work for the 3878th Gas Supply Company. When the tanks landed, the company would be responsible for supplying all fuel for an entire armored division. Coincidentally, this would be the 5th Armored Division, one of Elliott’s former units now under command of General Patton.
The 3878th is an example of a segregated, laborious, rear-echelon unit made up of 125 black soldiers led by three white officers. Elliott felt that his troops were ideal – all good southern boys who performed well at what they were doing. He was only there to supervise, and they all did quite well on their own, never disgracing their race, as he put it.
Gas supply units such as Elliott’s often operated continuously every day to fuel tens of thousands of vehicles – literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At all times during, the company kept a steady 1,000,000 gallons of material and maintained this figure despite guzzling over 100,000 gallons a day. Service in combat required high demands, and immediately after roll call they began unloading trucks and fuel from the ships. The company had a short window of time to unload all of their vehicles and equipment before moving up the beach to allow the next wave of men and supplies in. Edwin directed his men from landing craft along the beachfront and soon they had moved past the seawall. The whole operation was miraculously organized.
A long trail of vehicles and men, bumper to bumper and man to man, moved up the road flanked by shimmering sea grass, blemished by the occasional shell crater. Bodies of both Americans and Germans lay where they fell on the sides of the road, and a few limp paratroopers, heads slumped, dangled from their chutes tangled in the branches of chestnut trees. Graves registration had not had a chance to collect the bodies yet, and a number of the dead remained for several days before they could be cut down. For some it was disheartening, but, “It didn’t affect my morale,” Edwin recalled years later. “It put you to thinkin’, though…”
It was imperative to set up a bivouac as quickly as possible to begin resupplying units already miles inland. There was no time to set up a legitimate camp with full tentage, and they settled in an apple orchard situated on a bluff a couple miles from the shore. Armor and other vehicles would soon be desperate for fuel and the 3878th was one of few sources in the area yet. Edwin’s was included in the three gas supply companies and one regiment attached to the 1st Engineer Brigade for the summer of 1944. The brigade handled all logistics in the Utah area, so the few gas supply dumps were crucial in supplying astronomical amounts of fuel, oil and grease to units on the front. After a month, they were still working out of a bivouac rather than a fully built supply dump. They stacked the cans in long lines along the hedgerows, protected at least on that one side. Day after day they moved jerry cans by hand from ships at anchor onto trucks that drove to the depot in the orchard where they loaded were loaded onto trucks again to go to the front. Often a soldier would pick up a can and quickly realize it was empty. “Where there had been a dogfight up there with some airplanes the day before or something, some of them [jerry cans] would have a hole shot plumb through them where they probably was nose diving when they pulled the trigger or something. Maybe you'd find one every day or two, loading, you know, and what have you. And then you wouldn't find any for awhile.”
Close exposure to these volatile dumps was not desirable or very glorious duty in the middle of a war zone. On July 6, during a change in shifts just before 1700, a dogfight was occurring in the skies overhead and soon the men heard a faint whistling growing louder and closer.
“Hit the dirt!” Edwin hollered, dashing into his CP tent. “Hit the dirt!” He dove over his field desk as the bomb struck an apple tree and shredded a few more around it, vibrating the ground beneath them. The concussion blew Elliott’s young orderly off his feet, who was just a slight kid of barely 120 pounds. He had to wear his helmet backwards to keep it from dropping down on his eyes and he was hard of hearing. He had not the slightest idea that bomb had exploded just yards away and had been thrown between two field ranges in the mess tent. He immediately leapt up demanding to know who pushed him over.
“You better get him over there to the medics and tell them he can’t hear nothin’, because he’s gonna get killed,” Elliott told the First Sergeant. A month later they received a letter from the boy in Houston.
Photo Credit: 300thcombatengineersinwwii.com
The bomb dropped into the company area came from an undetermined aircraft (said to be “unquestionably allied”), which was probably jettisoned when the pilot realized the other plane in the dogfight had an advantage of agility. One Private Howard Anderson was killed and twelve others wounded, but the flammable dump was spared damage. These casualties were tragic for men who did not otherwise witness the terrors of the campaign in Northern France.
Eventually, the company was able to build a more permanent supply dump from where they would set up satellite filling stations at intervals along roads. All petrol moved in 5-gallon jerry cans rather than from vending pumps or bulk storage because of continual movement and the wide front all units were responsible for covering. Captain Elliott needed to maintain such a strict schedule under combat conditions to keep convoys fueled. Between the metal fields of gas cans, he worked constantly with his men in a shimmering mirage of fumes escaping into the hot summer atmosphere.
At the end of July, the Americans were pushing through Saint-Lô, twenty or thirty miles from his position, Edwin estimated. In the early morning, about daylight, the company was having breakfast when they heard a growing roar. They looked up to see the sky thick with airplanes. “It was like a constant swarm of birds, all day long. We wondered how many they were going to send over.” By dinnertime, it seemed there were just as many aircraft overhead as there had been that morning.
“They blew it right off the map!” Elliott was astonished at the destruction of the town as he moved through nearly a week later. Saint-Lô had been reduced to rubble. It was the first time he had been through the area since landing, only having moved between the orchard and the beach since June. The city was rated to be 90% destroyed, and only a few buildings remained untouched by some phenomenon.
Photo Credit: NARA and Signal Corps
The clock starts as soon as the troops are on the ground. You wouldn’t believe how fast they consume what they’re carrying, and then … if I don’t get them more, if I don’t find them more … they die.
--Henry V. O’Neil
At Camp Drake, north of Tokyo, Edwin and Leona were celebrating their first year together in Japan when they heard through the radio that the North Koreans had attacked south across the border. It seemed that Supreme Headquarters in Tokyo were not too concerned, but for the men of the 1st Cavalry – the line units – they were worried. Within days, they were mobilizing for war in the Korean peninsula and were preparing for an amphibious landing. No one knew if any ports would even be open over there.
The first typhoon of the season chased the Division to the east coast of Korea, where they landed, unopposed, in the first amphibious landing since World War II. Division Headquarters rushed to disembark behind the 8th Cavalry on July 18, barely evading the incoming storm. The mouth of the LST opened to a long causeway that curled into the harbor of the small fishing village of P’ohang-dong. Long lines of troopers snaked through the packed dirt streets, perhaps some of the first westerners to ever set foot in the ancient land. The only way to determine what century they were in, it seemed, were the utility poles lining the streets with wires strung between them. Beyond the town lay low mountains dotted with scrub and ragged trees – the Japanese had cut most of the lumber across the country in their years of occupation.
Edwin had gained some weight since his previous war service – his cheeks fuller, neck thicker, and the buttons of his shirt pulled taught. His spirit was not dampened and he knew he had years of experience that many officers heading to Korea did not. He was capable, reliable, and the 1st Cavalry Division was lucky to have the Captain as their Assistant Supply and Evacuation Officer (G-4).
Headquarters set up in a schoolhouse in Kumch’on after relieving the 24th Division, and the men of the 1st Cavalry found there was no true front line in this war. Between sharp hills and mountains lay flat valleys of rice paddies and scrub. Few narrow trees dotted the landscape, and the smell of manure hung over the land.
Photo Credit: Toby Tyler
Photo Credit: Associated Press
(1) United States. War Department. Adjutant General's Office. WWII European Theater Army Records. N.p.: n.p., 1947. Print. Utah Beach.
(2) "Fueling up for D-Day - Quartermaster Gasoline Supply." Fueling up for D-Day, Quartermaster Gasoline Supply. U.S. Army Quartermaster Foundation, n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
(3) "QM Gasoline Supply Company." Wwiini.org. WWII Northern Ireland, n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
(4) "1st Cavalry Division History - Korean War, 1950 - 1951." 1st Cavalry Division History - Korean War, 1950 - 1951. Cavalry Outpost Publications, 1996. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
(5) "Interview with Edwin Elliott, January 17, 1986." Kentucky Digital Library. Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries, 2012. Web. 26 June 2016.
A very special thanks to:
Toby Tyler, nephew of Edwin Elliott for providing photos and correspondence.
Jason LeMay and the wonderful staff at the Kentucky National Guard eMuseum for providing photos.