G. Sam Piatt
July 4, 2009
Harrison Brock Brockett, 89, who lives today in Portsmouths Hill View Retirement Center, graduated from Parish High School in upstate New York, 30 miles from Syracuse, and was working as a truck driver when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The very next day found the 21-year-old at the recruiting office hoping to enlist in the military.
It was so crowded with volunteers that they couldnt process them all. They told me to go home and come back after Christmas, Brockett said.
On Dec. 27 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, which by 1942 had changed its designation officially to the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF). It was, however, still referred to throughout World War II as corps by its members and the general public.
He reported first to Missouri for basic training, then went to Patterson Field in Dayton for training as a truck driver. He would wind up in the 10th Airport Depot Group that transported and repaired all the equipment and supplies for the Eighth Army Air Force in England and later for the Ninth Army Air Force as it battled its way across France, into Belgium, and on into Germany itself.
We were not a combat unit, but we were generally close enough to the fighting to hear the sounds of battle, he said.
While the MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units operated in the Korean War to treat wounded personnel, Brockett, in a sense, worked for such a unit in World War II, only it treated or salvaged crippled airplanes. The mobile depots in ground support for the air forces consisted of about 30 vehicles and 200 personnel. Each had a mechanics shop, welding shop, carpenter shop, and weapons installation and testing equipment. All had to be be moved from time to time to keep up with the fighter planes.
Throughout the war Brockett, whose military drivers license was good for driving any Army or Air Force vehicle except a tank, drove a giant C-2 Wrecker with a crane on the back capable of lifting a P-51 or P-47 fighter plane. The wrecker had a fifth-wheel connection that could pull a 40-foot trailer behind it to load the plane on and deliver it where it needed to go, either for repairs or for salvage of its reusable parts.
Brockett underwent training at Patterson until August 1942 when he and a couple of thousand other troops boarded the passenger liner, US America, bound for England.
In England, tons and tons of materials and supplies were arriving daily. Brocketts rig was vital to both the Brits and the U.S. in repair and supply squadrons. As D-Day approached, these huge amounts of stockpiled military material had to be moved slowly along Englands narrow roads and streets toward staging areas where ships would take them across the channel for the invasion at Normandy.
Life and the people of Great Britain took some getting used to for the Americans. Driving on the wrong side of the road was bad enough, but one time the fog along a road was so thick that Brocketts rig and a couple of trucks traveling with it lost their way. A motorist found out where they wanted to go, turned his taillights on, got in front, and yelled, Follow me, yanks.
Brocketts big rig had to roll over sidewalks to make some corners in narrow village streets.
Once there was a policeman bobby, they called them standing right where I wanted to go, Brockett said. I blew my horn at him. He just looked at me and said, P- off, you bloody yank!
Another time a convoy of trucks, some U.S. and some British, were transporting materials along a country road to staging areas where ships would take them to the beaches of Normandy when the time came. Brockett and his rig were leading his repair squad and following a British convoy. All of a sudden a string of British trucks pulled over to the side and the drivers got out, built a fire, and started brewing a pot of tea.
I got impatient, pulled out, and started to go around them, Brockett said. A British officer waved me over. He said, We dont pass convoys around here, you know. I sat there till they had their tea and crumpets. Then they pulled back out in front and we went on our way.
Brockett would often drive his big rig to the end of a rail line, use the hoist to move cargo on to the trailer, and then drive the rig and trailer back to wherever the load was needed.
The Germans were still bombing England at this time. Sometimes he would drive to a downed British or American fighter plane, load it on the trailer, and get it to a salvage operation. Sometimes this required removing the wings.
They were busy days, those days of preparing to drive Hitlers troops from the occupied territories. But there was time for Brockett and some of the others to enjoy long bike rides through the countryside, and always time for a practical joke or two.
Once we jacked the rear wheels on a sergeants Jeep up just enough to put a little block under them and raise them off the ground. Then we sat back to watch his reaction when he started the thing and spun his wheels trying to drive it off, Brockett said. Imagine our surprise when a major came out and climbed in the Jeep. We did not stick around to see the majors reaction.
As they were not a combat unit, Brocketts squad would not cross the channel to Normandy on D-Day, June 6, but would go over days later.
When it came time to board the British landing craft, they found that it had a hump designed into its front end that most vehicles could get across with no problem. However, Brocketts wrecker, crane and trailer could not. His squadron went on across the channel. He waited alongside the road for seven days, sleeping in the cab and bumming food from other units. Then he boarded a bigger landing craft, made the crossing, waited for low tide, and drove the C-2 down the ramp and onto the sand.
He and his depot group took care of Air Force planes and airmen all across France, Belgium and into Germany. They moved the whole depot five or six times, requiring four to five days to do so each time.
Some days Brockett drove back and forth non-stop.
He did have a few days furlough in liberated Paris before moving the depot on into Belgium.
I enjoyed seeing the sights of Paris very much, Brockett said.
He was inside Germany a little piece when VE Day was celebrated.
Among other citations, he was awarded the European Theater of Operations Ribbon with four combat stars attached.
He went through World War II and sustained no more than a flat tire on his big wrecker.
He was discharged in late August 1945, after Japans surrender had marked the end of the war.
His father had died and the home place in New York had burned while he was in the military. He came back briefly to Patterson Field in Dayton, where he met Mildred Vaughters of Portsmouth. She was working there.
She worked for the militarys Air Material Command. She said she kept seeing where a lot of material was run through England during the war by Wildfire. She wondered what the name stood for and I told her: It was my code name when I was moving stuff around for the Air Corps depot, Brockett said.
They were married and made Portsmouth their home, having one son, David, who lives now in South Webster; a couple of grandsons and several great-grandchildren.
She worked for the Portsmouth Daily Times in classified advertising until she retired about 1977. She died in 1998, just prior to his moving to Hill View.
Brockett worked for Ohio Paving Co. for 10 years and worked for several other construction firms, operating shovels, backhoes, tow trucks, derricks.
Sixty-eight years after that December day when he volunteered for the USAAF, Brockett is still volunteering his services. For 13 years he was in charge of the funeral detail at the James Dickey Post American Legion.
At Hill View, he sings and plays his accordion every Monday evening in the lounge of the nursing home. Every Friday morning hell be found in Wesley Village, where the lounge and the halls will be packed with people relishing a sing-along in their wheelchairs or beds that have been rolled into the halls.
Five days a week he takes a cart full of mail to the Health Care Building and delivers it to residents in assisted living or the nursing home.
This is a non-profit organization, and some residents may say they pay enough that they shouldnt be expected to volunteer for work, Brockett said. But if everyone takes time to do a little something to help somebody else, it makes life better for all of us.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at 740) 353-3101, ext. 236.