When I woke up, I could hear machine guns. It scared me to death’

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Percy Strothers talks about his experience as a soldier in World War II.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[05/27/02]A lot of the people to whom Percy Strothers delivered mail during his 27 years with the U.S. Postal Service might be surprised to know that as a youth he sailed to England aboard the famed Queen Elizabeth.

He did but as a member of the U.S. Army during World War II, and all because someone in his unit got the whole outfit branded troublemakers.

As a high school graduate, Strothers enlisted in April 1943, fudging a bit on his age, 17, because recruiters at the time weren’t checking too closely. This Memorial Day he’s 76 and retired, officially away from the Postal Service since 1990.

Although the Army was technically racially integrated, many black-dominated units were assigned to roles in cooking, driving and cleaning. Strothers had his first training with the 714th Medical Sanitary Company at Camp Pickett, Va.

“When I left Camp Pickett, they sent me to Fort Juachuca, Ariz., he said.

But when the time came for his medical unit to leave for overseas, Strothers was in the hospital and got left behind. That is when he was transferred to the 775th Military Police Battalion and was sent to Sioux City, Neb., to guard an ammunition depot supposedly for the rest of the war.

It was during that time, however, that Strothers said there was trouble involving a member of his company. They were all called troublemakers and shipped out. He said his unit was told, “We want to send you overseas and tell them to put you on the front lines because you want to fight.”

They were packed off to Camp Kilmer, N.J., the huge military debarkation post on the East Coast. Strothers left there on the Queen Elizabeth, the most pristine of many luxury ships that had been refitted to ferry soldiers. Strothers said there were thousands aboard.

After landing in Scotland and taking the train to England, Strothers and his military police unit received additional training.

“They trained us for the work we were going to do with SS troops and regular troops German prisoners of war,” he said.

That meant he stayed in England on D-Day, June 6, 1944, wearing a helmet with the initials “SG” for security guard. Several days before June 20, the unit was taken to the channel. They loaded onto a ship June 20 for the trip across to France.

“They carried us to the beach and the landed barge opened up and we all went up on the beach. The invasion was on the 6th, so we were in pretty good shape,” he recalled.

They were told to dig in, Strothers said. Since he saw no evidence of German troops, he soon went to sleep.

“When I woke up, I could hear machine guns. It scared me to death. I started to praying and everything,” he said.

The next day, Strothers and his unit moved up to near St. Lo, France.

“On our way up there, German planes came over, shooting up our trucks about dusk dark. Some of my unit got shot, some of them didn’t,” he said.

After staying there about three weeks, Gen. George Patton’s army arrived followed by the famous Red Ball Express, the huge logistics operation that carried supplies from the Normandy beachhead to the front lines.

“They put two of us, two SGs were assigned to each truck,” he said. “When we got up there, they unloaded the ammunition. You see the Infantry couldn’t handle prisoners of war, so they put the prisoners of war on the trucks and we brought the prisoners of war back to the MPs at the beach,” he said.

Strothers said another of his unit’s assignments was checking trucks returning from the front. They had been told German soldiers had put on American uniforms and were trying to slip through the lines.

The war in Europe ended in early 1945 and Strothers was eventually shipped back home precipitating another bad experience. The trip over on the Queen Elizabeth was smooth, even with having to detour to Scotland because of rumors the ship was being trailed by a German submarine. The trip back on the Rollins Victory, far smaller, was a different story. Five or six days out of the port in Southern France a violent storm hit.

Strothers’ sail to war was smooth. The trip home was not.

“That little ship would go up with the waves and fall back into the ocean. I started praying again,” he said.