County Historical Commission
Interviewer: Jane Purtle
Riley. Interviewed by Jane Purtle, March 28, 1994, in Gallatin, Texas for
the Cherokee County Historical Commission, County Veterans Oral History
Riley Tidwell (b. 1923), a retired truck driver, is a veteran of the U.S. Army and saw service in World War II.
He grew up in Fairfield, Texas, and joined the army in 1939 after working on a ranch in Centerville, Texas for twenty-five cents a day, plus room and board. The army paid $21 a month. He trained at Camp Bowie in Brownwood, Texas, and was there when the war was declared.
He also trained at Camp Blanding (Starks, Florida) and Camp Edwards, Massachusetts. There he renewed his friendship with Captain Henry Waskow. He became company runner for Captain Waskow, whom he saw as a father figure. He debarked from New York for North Africa where his company did more training.
On September 9, 1943, his company made an amphibious landing on the coast of Italy.
After gaining a foothold on the coast, they continued to Naples. Tidwell recounts his memory of eating Thanksgiving dinner on the field and his problem with frozen feet. His company took Hill 1205, overlooking the Rapido River, and were maintaining their position by taking supplies to the top of the hill by mule train. Captain Waskow was shot and killed near the top of the mountain. Tidwell moved his body to a position where it could be picked up by the wagons and then went back down the mountain to have his feet treated. That night he met and talked with Ernie Pyle, telling him of Captain Waskow's death and his deep feeling for his captain.
After three days, when Captain Waskows's body had still not come down the mountain, he told Pyle that he was going up that night to get the body. He did, though he was wounded during the attempt. He was in the hospital in Naples, Sicily, and North Africa where he was treated for his wounds and trench foot.
Unable to rejoin his company, Tidwell went briefly AWOL in order to get back to Italy and the front lines. After rejoining his company, he marched with them into Rome where he was camped behind the Vatican on D-Day. He was again wounded and went to the hospital in Naples. In 1944 he was shipped to Norfolk, Virginia, and later to Ft. Bliss at El Paso. He had a number of assignments at various bases in the U.S. Because of his relationship to Captain Waskow and his meeting with Ernie Pyle, he was involved in the movie made about G.I. Joe. After his discharge in 1945, he toured with Robert Mitchum and the movie cast. The movie tells Captain Waskow's story in which Ernie Pyle pictures Tidwell as G.I. Joe.
expresses his feelings about the war and its effect upon his life. He
briefly recounts a recent reunion of members of his company.
WORLD WAR II EXPERIENCES
JP: Riley, what's the weather like today?
RT: Nice, real nice.
JP: Yes, it's a good day.
RT: The sun is shining.
JP: As I said, this is March 28, 1994, and I'm Jane Purtle, and I'm here in Gallatin interviewing Mr. Riley Tidwell. Riley, I'm going to start by asking you something about your early life. We are not going to spend a lot of time on this because mostly we want to hear about your war experiences. Tell me where you were born and when and who your parents were.
RT: My parents were Mr. and Mrs. H. L. Tidwell. My mother died real early and I wasn't at home very much after that. I was taken in by some people in Fairfield, Texas the Ridder family. I lived with them until I joined the service, and I joined the service in 1939. 1 joined B Company of the 143rd Infantry, First Batallion, 36th Infantry Division.
JP: We had gotten that information earlier. You were in the National Guard?
RT: National Guard, yes, ma'am.
JP: Then you told me the National Guard was mobilized.
RT: Mobilized in 1940.
JP: That's what really started your service.
RT: That's what started it.
JP: Going back just a little bit into your history, why did you decide to join the service? Tell me how that happened.
RT: Main reason was money. It was $21 a month, and I wanted that money. That's the main reason I joined it. And, it seemed like everybody else was trying to get in it. Before that I tried to join the tree army.
JP: The what?
RT: The tree army. They called it the tree army. The CCC [ed. note: Civilian Conservation Corps] is what it was. Back there they called it the tree army. I tried to join that but they wouldn't have me because I was too young. I had a brother in that so I tried to join, but they wouldn't let me join. That even paid more money; I believe that was $30 a month. I tried to join and they wouldn't let me.
JP: You were telling me that during the Depression you were working for somebody . . .
RT: I was working on a ranch in between times. I was working on a farm down in Fairfield with the folks, my foster parents. They weren't really my foster parents, they were just someone that took me in. I was working there, then when I would catch up there, I would go to another town, Centerville, Texas, and work on a ranch down there. I'd ride fence. We used to get on a horse and go all the way around the whole place and watch for bad places in the fence and fix them, and stray cows and so forth. I was doing that and was being paid twenty-five cents a day and my room and board.
JP: We were talking about what salaries were like back during the Depression. Twenty-five cents a day and room and board. But you said the room and board amounted to quite a little bit.
RT: The board amounted to a whole lot. I ate a whole lot at that time.
JP: Mr. Tidwell is a good-sized fellow and I'm sure at 16 or 13, 14 he was eating quite a bit.
RT: Sure was eating a lot.
JP: So at sixteen you went into the service?
RT: Went into the service. I got in the service because I knew some people there, and I had an uncle who was in that also, and I had a cousin who was in there. So, they told me they thought I could get in if I told them I was seventeen. So, I went up and walked in the office and told them my name and they said, "How old are you?" I said, "Seventeen." And they said, "How many kids you got?" So they signed me up.
JP: And you didn't have to show your birth certificate?
RT: No. I didn't have to show anything. All I had to do was sign on the dotted line and I was in and if they found any clothes to fit me. So that's how I got in.
JP: Go ahead and tell about your training your boot camp.
RT: Well, at boot camp we trained for quite some time in Mexia, Texas, around the city. We did a lot of that. We left there and went to Camp Bowie, Texas, in Brownwood, Texas, and we trained there for a long, long time.
JP: This would be before the war actually started?
RT: Before the war started. In fact, we were in Camp Bowie when they bombed Pearl Harbor. I was in Mexia on a pass at that time on that Sunday morning when it was bombed there, but we didn't think anything, or too much, about it because we didn't figure we were going to have anything to do with that anyway; it would be over before long. We went on to camp and then we started really training. We went in for, it seems like it was one year we signed up for, then after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it was a year plus the duration or something like that; the duration plus one, I think it was, or something like that. So, we trained there in Camp Bowie, Texas, for a long, long time, and from there we went to Louisiana maneuvers. We trained there for quite some time, came back to Bowie, then I got my first train ride. My first train I'd ever been on in my life I got on it at Brownwood, Texas, and rode it to Florida to Starks, Florida, to Camp Blanding. (They discuss spelling of the name of the camp.) We stayed there for some time, did a lot of walking and training, and then we went to Fort Benning, Georgia. We trained there a while. From there we went on to North Carolina maneuvers. We trained more. We were well-trained. I was in an accident there. I was in a truck that turned over and threw me out of the truck. They sent me to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, hospital. I didn't stay long there until I went on to Camp Edwards, Massachusetts. We stayed in Camp Edwards that winter and trained more. That's where this man came into play (pointing at a picture) Captain Waskow.
JP: Tell about Captain Waskow.
RT: I met him back in Camp Bowie, Texas. I was on camp guard and he was Corporal of the Guard. I met him there and he was a very young man, too, but he was older than me. Then I didn't see him again until Camp Edwards, Massachusetts. He had gone into Officer Candidates' School and become an officer, and he joined our company at that time as a commanding officer and got his captain's bars there. He stayed with us until his death in Italy.
JP: You were really bonded with him?
RT: I was. I was never assigned to a platoon; I was always up in the company headquarters and I was the company commander's runner, or the company runner. I stayed with him wherever he went. If he wanted the platoons to know anything, I would have to go to headquarters or something like that, and I acted as his radio operator also. He had a radio, or the company did, that was connected with the battalion and I operated that. So I was with him and was real close to him all the time. As I said, I didn't have any parents and he was kinda like my father. He kept real close to me and lined me up and kept me straight. And he did that. So I was real close to him right up until he died.
JP: Well get the story of that experience in a few minutes. You were about ready to debark. Why don't you tell us about your port of debarkation?
RT: We left Massachusetts, went to New York, got on the ship in Staton Island. When you got on the ship, they assigned so many people with red tags. These people are taken on the ship early and taught how to go all over the ship so they can take messages from one place to the other and go to the officer's quarters and back. That's what I did. I got on early and got that job. We got on the ship and we left there going we didn't know where. Much later we found out we were going to North Africa. On the way to North Africa it was fourteen days on the ship, and maybe seven or eight days out we were fed some food that night for supper. I don't know what it was; I believe it was turkey. I didn't like turkey anyway still don't. Anyway, we were given that whatever it was to eat and it made us all sick. We were deathly sick with diarrhea and everything you could think of.
JP: A lot of the soldiers got sick?
RT: It wasn't only one; it was everybody on the ship. We were all in bad shape. We finally landed in Oran, North Africa.
JP: We have a book here on the 36th Division so we'll look these spellings up in a minute, but we'll just keep going. Did you, when you landed there, know where you were?
RT: Oh, yes. We landed at night, and we were told several days out that we were going to North Africa. So we knew we were on our way to Europe later, maybe. So we went to North Africa and we did more training thereamphibious traininggetting on and off ships and this type of thing. We did some beach guard on the beaches. We had been told the Germans were going to counterattack there, and we were guarding the beaches and everything along the beaches, but that never happened. So then after all the training, we got ready to get on the boats and go to they told us later Italy.
JP: What was your exact title as far as your work was concerned? You told me you did the radio.
RT: I was the runner. I was company runner.
JP: Which means, in a way, that you were just kind of a jack-of-all trades.
RT: No, I actually just did . . .
JP: What he told you to do.
RT: If he had a message to deliver, I did that. There was one company runner to a company and then there were four other runners that were up there with me, one from each platoon. We had four platoons in a company, so each one of those platoons would send a runner up, and I would tell them what to do.
JP: So, that was a pretty critical kind of job you had.
RT: You had to watch what you were doing and be sure you got the message right.
JP: The man who was working with you or always overseeing you was Captain Waskow?
RT: No, I had a sergeant over me. He was the communications sergeant.
JP: So, you were really in communications?
RT: Right. Wherever the company commander went, if he went up to see some other officers somewhere, I went with him. I was with him everywhere he went, kinda like if you want to call it, a bodyguard.
JP: This is new to me. Of course, I never have been in a war or in the service.
RT: I hope you never have to go to a war.
JP: I hope I don't either. Probably now I am past that place in my life that I could. But I don't always know all the different kinds of jobs. It is like life a lot. You have to have all the different kinds of functions like you have to have in the normal society.
RT: You have to go through one to get to the top. Just like you do the President. You have to go find someone to let you in to see the President. Well, if you want to see the company commander, you had to go through channels. If you were a private or a private first class you had to get permission from your sergeant, which is your platoon sergeant. Then he would give you permission to see the first sergeant. Then if the first sergeant thought it was okay, you might could see the captain.
JP: And you were part of the doorway into the . . .
RT: Well, I never had to get any permission, I just went anyway, but that was the chain of command that you had to go through. If you were in the position I was, I always had access to him; I could always go in any time I wanted to and talk to him. Or he would call me for some reason or the other. It was good job I liked it. Wherever he went, if he was leading the platoon or the company into wherever we were going, he was the first man and behind him was me. Behind me was the first sergeant and right on down. So, if he was walking along a cliff somewhere at night in a blackout, and he fell off the cliff, I'd go with him because I was right behind him. In fact, I kept a white rag tied on the back of his pack so I could hold on to him and wouldn't lose him because if I happened to lose this man, I'm leading the platoon. So, they were all following me. I didn't want this to happen. If he was going to go off somewhere by himself, I was going with him. And the next man was the sergeant behind me who would be leading the company.
JP: Would that be a thing that would normally be done to tie a white rag like that?
JP: You thought of that yourself?
RT: It was my own little deal. I didn't want to lose him.
JP: You were going to tell us something about your experiences when you went into combat. Start when you landed in Italy.
RT: We landed in Italy on September 9 and it was early morning. Our first objective was a highway up the coast there. We landed and were being pushed back later on during the day. We got up to the road but then the Germans counterattacked and were going to push us back.
JP: The Germans and Italians? Or just Germans?
RT: No, the Italians had surrendered beforehand. They had surrendered on our way over.
JP: This was 1943 then?
RT: Yes. They came up on the loud speaker on the ship on September 6 and announced that the Italians had surrendered, so we weren't going to have to worry about having to fight the Italians. We'd only have to worry about the Germans, so we figured it was going to be an easy deal. But it wasn't that easy. They had everything pointed at us all the tanks and anti-aircraft guns.
JP: Was this an amphibious landing?
RT: Ours was, yes. We got on little amphibious boats off the main ship.
JP: That's a dangerous way to have to go in.
RT: A dangerous way, and the man who drove my boat that took me ashore was from right here in Texas. Used to be the light-heavyweight champion of the world boxing champion. His name was Lou Jenkins. You might have heard of him a long time ago; a lot of people knew Lou Jenkins. He was the one driving my boat off the main ship taking me ashore. There was a lot of strafing and a lot of bombing by the Germans.
JP: Were you on the ship with Captain Waskow?
RT: Oh, yes. I was on the boat with him.
JP: You had to be one of the first men on the beach?
RT: Of the company. Not necessarily on the beach because there was already people landed ahead of us. We landed on Red Beach. Later I can show you a map.
JP: How did that battle go?
RT: It went bad for us for a few days, then we got reinforcements. We lost a lot of people on that beach. We got a lot of people wounded and a lot of people dead, some people captured. It went real bad for us for a while, then paratroopers jumped in, came in.
JP: So you had some air support?
RT: A little at that time. We got a little air support late that evening after the first day. On the first day late in the evening we got some air support. Later on, we got a foothold after the paratroopers landed. They had part of the paratroopers I didn't see them, but they told me landing in the water. We didn't have that much land, so they landed and helped us out and we got a foothold and we went right on. From there we went, battling all the time, right on up to Naples, Italy.
JP: How far is Naples from where you landed?
RT: I'll have to look at that map to tell you. I don't really know how far it was. It seemed like it was a long way, but it wasn't all that far, I don't think.
JP: It took you . . .
RT: Several days.
JP: Several days to make it up there to Naples. Tell about your experience, the one that has really made you famous, with Captain Waskow. How soon did that take place after this landing?
RT: Well, we were taking high ground. This was after we had taken Naples and we had gone farther on up. We were going on up on the front line. This was some time in November, and I remember eating Thanksgiving Dinner right out in front of, maybe a couple of hundred yards in front of me, seeing a lot of dead Germans. It was such a fierce battle. Anyway, we went on and we were supposed to take this hill, 1205. This would be high ground overlooking Cassino and the Rapido River. We took this hill and a few days later my particular company was kind of back in reserve and there were mule trains that came up from the bottom of the mountain to the top of the mountain.
They didn't go all the way to the top because the mules couldn't climb that far. They would bring the rations and water and ammunition up that far on mules and unload it, and then the soldiers themselves would take it on up to the top. Like I said, that was rations, ammunitions. On the way back down they would bring the dead people back down the mountain. They sent us up on a patrol. I had trench foot, which is frozen feet, and the captain had told me to go back to the aid station that morning, which wasn't very far from where we were and let them look at my feet because he didn't much want me to try to go on up the mountain.
JP: Would you say something about how you got frozen feet?
RT: The main reason was not having any change of socks, long periods of times without pulling your boots off, and then just staying out in the cold for so long.
JP: It was really cold?
RT: On top of that mountain it was really cold.
JP: Down in the 'teens?
RT: Probably. I'm sure it was. I don't know the temperature, but it was cold. The Germans had a habit they knew when we came out of our foxhole we stayed in our foxhole pretty well. They knew when we would come out of our foxhole to eat us a bite. They would shell us at that time of day every day. Well, you'd roll back off in the foxhole. By that time it was raining a lot, full of water, so you just got wet and cold. Stayed wet and cold all the time. We had gas cakes, we called them then, that was something to protect you from gas.
JP: Were they using gas any there?
RT: No, no. Nobody used any gas that I know of. But they gave us that, and it was folded up in a real small package. Once you got it unfolded, you never could get it back like that. But, anyway, it was folded up. When you'd undo that thing, you could put it down over your head and sit down and lean back against your pack and you could actually stay dry and sleep a little while if you wanted to. So we did that. We stayed up there quite a while, and that day he'd sent me back to the aid station to get my feet kind of wrapped. They just pulled my socks off, my boots off and wrapped my feet in gauze, just started making me socks out of that. It felt very good, made my feet give a little padding. I went on back up to the mountain where he was, that morning before his death. He loved coffee. I didn't care anything about coffee; I'd always give him my ration of coffee and I made it for him. I made him some toast. I had a piece of clothes hanger bent and I could set it on a little can of Sterno that we used for heating coffee and I'd make him a piece of toast, and he enjoyed it very well. That morning I made him his toast, and he sent me to the aid station. While I was gone, they got the orders to leave, to pull on up on the front. So I got there just in time to leave with them, and we got up to the top where we were supposed to be. We were on our way to our objective, and a shell came over. He was standing closer than you and I, five feet or closer. We were within arm's reach of each other. He pushed me because we heard this shell. He pushed me and said, "Hit the ground!" I did, I hit the ground, and the first sergeant with me, he hit the ground, but the captain didn't make it. A piece of shrapnel caught him right in the chest. It killed him right there. After that, as soon as that happened, I picked him up after I knew he was dead and carried him down to the mule trail. That night when the mules came up, they would pick him up and bring him down the mountain where he would get a burial. We lost all of our officers. We didn't even have any officers to command us. I went to the top of the mountain and told my battalion commander, who was Colonel Dave Frazier, and I told him that we didn't have any officers down there and he saw me crippled like I was, and he said, "I tell you what; you go back down the mountain, go by your company and tell one of the sergeants to take over until I can get somebody down there." "Then," he said, "after that, you go down the hill." I knew him very well, I made coffee for him. He said, "Go down to the foot of the hill and get treatment for your feet." So, I said okay and I went down the mountain going by my company and telling the sergeant there what was told to me. So I went on down the mountain and when I got to the foot of the mountain, I went in this little shack that was back up in the mountains and there was a lot of people sitting around and one man sitting in there with a note pad in his hand and a little fuzzy looking cap on his head. I didn't know who he was at that time, but in a few minutes I found out his name was Ernie Pyle, the correspondent.
JP: The famous war correspondent.
RT: We sat and talked for a long time, and I told him about my captain, and he told me, "Well, you must have really liked him." And I said, "I sure did, just like my dad, or even better to me than my dad, even." I said, "He'll be down tonight, they'll bring him down."
I stayed there three days and his body never came down. They missed him some way or the other, so I told Ernie that I was going up after him. He told me that my feet was too bad to make the trip, and I said, "I'll make it." So I went out in the olive grove out there and got one of those mules. I just confiscated him. I wasn't supposed to have him, but I got him. I went back up the mountain that night, and we had to lay out under a cliff that next day because if you showed yourself, they would shoot you. The Germans would spot you. So me and that mule laid down and when it got dark, I went over to where the captain was and picked him up.
JP: You found his body?
RT: Oh, yes, I knew where it was; I put him there, see? So I put him on the mule and brought him back down, and I got back down to the foot of the hill real early the next morning. Somebody down there in the hole down there said, "Here comes Riley" that's what they called me in the army "and he's got Captain Waskow." So a good many people came out of the shed and unlashed the captain from the mule and laid him down. There were several other bodies along there. They put him down. There was a good many came by and said something to him. I still stood there. A good many said something. Some of them would say a cuss word; some of them would say something kind of kind, and some of them would just walk by and look. They did that for quite a while, and then after everybody went by him, I just reached down and took some stuff out of his pockets and straightened the edge up around his shirt and coat and straightened his collar up and then I just left him there, and I just walked off and went off and got me some sleep then. But later he was buried over there. He's still there.
JP: He's buried in Italy?
RT: He never did come home. Later on, they sent me on to the hospital after that, and I had trench foot, as I said, and I had got wounded on the way back down that night with this mule and him. I got hit here in the wrist and hit right beside the head right there, and I got hit across the back. It wasn't bad; none of it was bad; it didn't slow me down, but I was pretty bloody when I got down to the foot of the hill. They sent me to the field hospital and they sewed this up, fifteen stitches in my ear; this wasn't bothering me too badly, it just stayed that way. I got all right, but I went back to the hospital, and I stayed in the hospital a long time. This was on December 13 when he got killed. I went back to the hospital in Naples and stayed there a while, and then they flew me to Sicily, and from Sicily I went back to North Africa to a hospital. I was in the hospital there for a long, long time. During that time, they got real bad weather, and they had another force go up and invade at Anzio in Italy. There were ships all tied up and I couldn't get transportation back to North Africa, so I tried to figure out a way to get back to my outfit. At the time, they were sending people out of where I was. After I got well and went to this recuperation center, they were sending people back to the States.
RT: . . . would have been if I'd have stayed there. I would have been sent through England back to the States and then been sent to the South Pacific. That's what they had mentioned to us. I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to leave my outfit. I had joined this outfit years earlier, and all my friends were in there. Here on 1205, a thing I failed to mention was that we went up there with something like 186 men originally, and out of that original bunch that went up there, there was only twenty-one of us came down. Now, they weren't all killed; they were wounded some of them killed; some of them wounded. But, anyway, the law of averages was kind of catching up with me, but I wanted to get back to my outfit anyway from North Africa, but I couldn't figure out a way to do it, so one day I got a pass to go to town, and I went into this bar, or pub, or whatever you want to call it in North Africa it was some sort of beer joint. The beer tasted real good, even to me. I was sitting there talking to a captain of the Air Force, and he was a very nice man, and he was from Texas. He told me during the conversation that he was going to fly to Naples, Italy, the next morning. I said, "How about me hitching a ride with you?" He said, "Do you have a pass?" I said, "Nope, I'll be traveling AWOL." He said, "If you can be down here at 4:00 in the morning, you can get on the plane if we can find a place to put you." I said, "I'll be there." I told a friend of mine that was with me about it, and he decided he would go with me. So we went back to camp and stayed a while, and then we left and went to the airport, not taking anything with us. All we had was the clothes on our backs. We went to the airport, and the only place we could get in was in the belly of the plane. We had to lay down in it because the plane was loaded. We got in the belly, and we landed in Naples, Italy. From there I spent a few days in Naples.
JP: That's where your company was?
RT: No, my company was still here above where the captain had gotten killed. All this time they had spent in there. They were getting ready to cross the Rapido. I stayed there in Naples for three days, I believe it was, till Friday evening anyway. Friday I decided I would turn myself in to the MPs to keep from getting in more trouble than I could get out of. I went down to the MP headquarters, and there was a big red-headed sergeant sitting there. He was huge. Stripes from here down.
JP: You were just about nineteen weren't you? Just a young fellow?
RT: Yes. He asked me my name and I told him and I said, "I'm AWOL." And he said, "From where?" I said, "From North Africa." And he said, "What are you doing here in Italy?" I said, "Well, I caught a plane over here, and I want to get back to the front lines." He said, "You gotta be crazy!" I said, "Maybe I am, but that's where I want to go." And I handed him my dogtags off my neck, and it turned out that his name was Tidwell, and he was from Alabama. So I got lucky. They didn't do anything to me. They put me in a truck and let me be guard all through the weekend, and we patrolled the beach in Naples. Sunday evening he sent me out to the stockade and told me to stay out there that night and load up a bunch of people that had gone AWOL and take them back to the front lines. These were soldiers that came in on a pass and got loop-legged and couldn't make it home make it back to their camp, so they locked them up in the brig, and then it was my job that morning to get a truckload of them and guard them and take them back to their outfits. So I did that, and I got back to my outfit, and I had a new commander by that time, and I knew him very well, and he knew me. I didn't get court-martialed for going AWOL. Nothing happened. They were all glad to see me, anyway. I had been gone quite a while. But nothing was ever done about it, and I was real happy about that. We went on through there as far as we could go, and then we pulled back out of that particular part of the battle, and we went around up to Anzio ourselves. We went up that way and made a landing there and stayed there for quite some time until these people from Anzio from over here at the Rapido River came up, and we joined, and then we made our push into Rome. We walked all the way from there to Rome.
JP: How far was that?
RT: I know the whole trip which we went on to Florence was something like 240 miles. We walked all of it. We spent the night one night behind the Vatican.
JP: How were your feet by then?
RT: They were better. They were still pretty sore, but I had been in the hospital, and they had gotten well. In the hospital they took us around to see what happened to people who got their feet frozen, and they would have to take their toes off, and I saw a lot of that.
JP: You tried to take care of them?
RT: I went to rubbing my toes and trying to get the feeling back in them, and now my toes are like this and I walk on them.
JP: He is showing that they are drawn up.
RT: I walk on my toenails. Since then they've taken my toenails off.
JP: Then, did you serve anywhere else besides Italy?
RT: Yes, I was going to tell you. We went on to Florence, Italy, from there and we got relieved in Florence, Italy, and we pulled back to Naples, Italy. From there we loaded on little boats and made an Anzio Beach landing well, they'd already had a landing there but there wasn't much to go on, and we went on to Rome as I said and on into Florence, and then we pulled back and went into Southern France. When they made the Normandy landing the night we spent the night behind the Vatican they made that; I believe it was January 20 [Mr. Tidwell corrected transcript to read "June 6."] or something like that in France. They were coming down, and we went into Southern France and hooked up with them there. By that time I had got wounded again. They tried to send me back to the hospital in Naples, and I went back there and stayed a while. The wounds again didn't bother me too much. I got a bullet in each leg, but it didn't bother me much. I stayed there quite some time at what they call the race track.
JP: A race track?
RT: It used to be a horse race track there and they had made it into a deportation place. They would send you there when you were getting ready to go home. So I had got well, and I stayed there until they finally loaded us on boats, and we came home. I got back in the United States in Norfolk, Virginia, and went to Camp Patrick Henry.
JP: When was that?
RT: That was in '43. [Mr. Tidwell corrected transcript to read " '44."]
JP: So that other battle was really '42, then? It would have to be.
RT: No, it was '44 when I got back.
JP: Then what did you do while you were over here?
RT: The next day or so I left Camp Patrick Henry by train and went to El Paso, Texas, to Fort Bliss. I only stayed there a couple of days until they sent me to Miami Beach, Florida, with a 30-day delay in route in my home in Teague. I went to my grandfather's house there. I stayed there, and he died while I was there. He was 90 some-odd years old, and he died. From there I went on into Florida. I had a 14-day leave in Florida. We stayed in a hotel; the government put us up in a hotel, and we didn't have to do anything but eat and sleep. That's all we had to do. It was real nice. From there they reassigned me to Camp Lee, Virginia. That was in St. Petersburg, Virginia. I stayed there a while and actually my first wife came up there, and we were married there. I took malaria, and I was in the hospital from November until June of the next year getting well. I got a furlough to come home, and I came back home for a few days. Maybe it was 30 days or something like that. I went back there, and I got reassigned to a hospital unit in Babylon, Long Island.
JP: And you had continued to work in communications?
RT: No, no, all that time I wasn't doing anything. I wasn't assigned to do nothing. All this time I didn't have a thing to do. It seemed like they did assign me to the boiler room maybe for a while in Camp Lee, Virginia, after I got out of the hospital. I didn't do anything; I was just down there. Then they assigned me as an ambulance driver in Long Island for the hospital there. This hospital took in patients that had been shell shocked, which is stress, I guess, or whatever you want to call it. They were in real bad shape. They would bring them to this mental hospital there and treat them. And I was assigned to drive an ambulance. Take an ambulance and go to the ship, pick some of these patients up, and bring them back out there. But I lost my combat pay. They were paying me so much for combat pay when I was overseas, and I kept drawing that after I got back, but if you're assigned to a medical unit, you don't get it. So they had cut that out, and I'd asked for a reassignment or transfer so I wouldn't lose my pay. My pay at the time, with that, wasn't but about $76 a month. So, if I lose $5 or $6, it's a lot of money. Anyway, they assigned me to a place where did I go? I believe I went to Fort Dix, New Jersey. Right away after I got there, they reassigned me to Governor's Island, New York.
JP: Were you wanting to go back across?
RT: No, not at that time, I didn't.
JP: But you just wanted to be in a combat unit?
RT: I wanted to be assigned out of a medical unit. Any other unit besides medical, it didn't matter. I had points. You got discharged on points at that time. If you had enough points built up, then you were able to get a discharge, which I didn't have enough points at that time, but I did have them back overseas, but they would have had to write to the company commander there and get this paperwork all sent back. So they assigned me to Governor's Island, and I did that. I would take a truck and go out and take civilian people and pick up clothing all over the streets of New York that people were throwing away and donating, and they would put it on a boat and send it to Russia at that time. I did that for a while and then came graduation time at West Point, and I was assigned to that.
JP: You had a number of interesting assignments, didn't you?
RT: I sure did. I went there, and I was there for the graduation of General Eisenhower's son, John Eisenhower. That's why I was there, to haul the officers wherever they wanted to go. I drove the staff car. One night I picked up an officer, they told me to go pick up this officer, and he was a three-star general. I picked him up there where he wanted me to pick him up, and he said, "Take me to New York to Grand Central Station." I told him, "Fine." I let him in, and I got in and got out on the road, and I said, "General, I'm sorry about this, but I don't know where to go." He said, "Don't worry, son, I'll show you what to do." A very nice man. He took me right in, and I told him I had just gotten married and told him where my wife was. When we got to New York, he gave me $20 and he said, "You take this car and go to wherever your wife is out there in Long Island, and you put the car around behind the house and you stay there three days, and you meet me back here at a certain time." So I did. I went there and stayed three days, and I came back and picked him up and took him back.
JP: What was his name? Do you remember?
RT: I can't remember what his name was. I wish I did. It was some experience. So I left there and went back to Fort Dix, and I was outside on the camp grounds picking up cigarette butts, cleaning up the area a little bit several of us were, when a sergeant came up and called my name and said I was wanted in headquarters. He took me to the headquarters, and that's when I got assigned to the G.I. Joe story when they were doing the movie of G. I. Joe. So, I got my traveling orders. I was to go to New York to Radio City Station in New York. I got my travel pay, and I was to be gone, I think five days, it said. I got my travel pay, which I think at that time it amounted to I think the hotel bills were something like $3 a day or $6 a day. It wasn't very much money, anyway. And my eats so much a day for eats, something like that. And I went on into Radio City Station, and I talked to the folks there, and they told me about what was happening and what I was supposed to do, so they gave me a leave I think it was a couple of days leave to go back to Long Island. So I went back to Long Island and came back and reported back there, and then I got on a train and went to Indianapolis, Indiana. That's near the home town of Ernie Pyle, and I was to go there and do the Ed Sullivan Show, which was Vox Pop. The old Vox Pop Program that sold Alka Seltzer. Remember that?
JP: No, I don't really remember that, but of course, I know Ed Sullivan.
RT: It was a radio show; it wasn't t.v. It was a radio show, and it was Parks Hall and Ed Sullivan. Anyway, I went to Indianapolis and I was to report to some man I can't remember what his name was now BraCIOgg, I believe it was or something like that in this hotel the next day. I went inside the hotel, and the man asked me what I wanted. I was very dirty because I had been riding that train, and it was an old coal burner, and the cinders would come in. They didn't have air conditioning then. But it would come in and get on you, and my uniform was a mess. And I only had it and one more. I looked terrible, I'm sure, and the man at the desk asked what I wanted, and I said, "I want a room." He said, "What price room?" I said, "What price room does the Army pay for?" He turned his book around and told me to sign in. And I signed in. He looked at me and said, "Are you sure you are PFC R. M. Tidwell?" I said, "Yessir, I sure am." He said, "You don't need a room. You've got one here already." I had a beautiful room up there. I've never seen anything like it. The bathtub was iced down in beer. More beer than I've ever seen. So I spent the night in the bathroom. I stayed there that day and the next night; then they were going to have this program. During that day I went out to the movie of The Story of G.I. Joe. My part of it was played by another guy in the movie, and I was supposed to sit right between his mother and his uncle or his uncle and his aunt, whichever one. Anyway I was supposed to sit there and talk to them about Ernie. And I did, and I had a very good time out there at the Army base. Then we had the show that night, and they'd take money and just throw it out in the crowd off the stage, and they gave people a lot of clothing and stuff like that. So they held up a suit and said I was getting a discharge, and I didn't even know that. And I didn't either. And they held up a suit and said that was what they were giving me, but it didn't dawn on me that that was what I was going to wear.
JP: And you were discharged.
RT: I was discharged later. Finally I went on from there. I left that night and flew to it seems like I flew to Philadelphia I don't know. I left there then and went to Washington, D. C.
JP: You were really honored at this . . .
RT: Oh, yes. I didn't know anything about it hardly until I got back from overseas.
JP: But Pyle had he's the one that was responsible . . .
RT: Yes, it started with him, and when I got back, news people asked me about it. And I'd talk to them a little about it, not a whole lot, and I didn't know a whole lot about what was going on, and then they sent me to Washington, D. C., and I was to do the National Press Club there with Burgess Meredith. Burgess Meredith played the part of Ernie Pyle in the movie, and Dinah Shore was there, and the guys that raised the flag on Iwo Jima were also there. They were on a [war] bond-driving tour.
JP: You mean the soldiers that actually did it?
RT: The soldiers.
JP: But somebody else played it in the movie?
RT: That part of it wasn't in the movie. To raise the flag on Iwo Jima was not in that movie. They were there on a [war] bond-driving tour. So I joined them, see. I knew every one of them by his first name at that time. So anyway, I got tired of that and decided I was going home. I went back to Fort Dix, got a train, and went back. I met Ernie Pyle there, back in Washington, and Dinah Shore, and a bunch of famous people W. Lee O'Daniels and his wife. He was the senator from Texas at that time. Lord and Lady Hallifax of Great Britain and a whole lot of people. This Lady Hallifax, I was in a line going through the lunch counter, and I was back there and they were behind me, and she called me by name and I answered, but I didn't know how she knew me, but she told me she knew more about me than I knew about myself and she did. She asked me how it felt to become a hero overnight, and I said I didn't know I was one. I said, "All the heroes are overseas dead, we left them over there, you know." Anyway I did that show with Burgess Meredith at the National Press Club, and then I went back to Fort Dix. They wanted me to go into radio at that time and be on the programs that they did for Army the Army rendition of the radio broadcasting. Whatever that meant. But anyhow, I was supposed to do that. Or they called me up and asked me to do that while I was there in Washington, and I didn't want to do it. 1 told them all I wanted to do was go home if I could get out of the Army. I didn't know I was going to get out that quick. But after I'd made that comment to them, by the time I got back to Fort Dix, I was ready to ship out. They were going to discharge me, so they sent me back to San Antonio, and I was discharged in July, '45.
JP: That was just before the war was over?
RT: Yes, just before. It wasn't long after that. So I came back home and right away after I got back home, I got a telegram to report back to Dallas in uniform and go to the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. So I put my uniform on, and I went back to Dallas. There I met Robert Mitchum, who played this man in the movie, and a lot of other people, of course. I was to go on tour with the movie. From there we went on tour, and we dramatized the thing several times on our way. Made six different shows in Belton and Temple. That's this man's home town. Then we went to Austin and did three more, and then we went to Houston and did some more, then we went to Austin [Mr. Tidwell corrected transcript to read "San Antonio."], and then we went back to Fort Worth, and then we went back to Dallas. I toured with that for quite some time before I finally got out of uniform.
JP: When he says, "this man," he means Captain Waskow, which, of course, the movie was principally about him.
RT: Based on him. It is based on Ernie Pyle's story. That's why they call it The Ernie Pyle Story of G. I. Joe. I became Ernie Pyle's G. I. Joe at that time. I still get the name.
Some of these right up here.
JP: We have some write ups we are going to put in the file about Riley's being the original G. I. Joe. He has pretty well told the story now so we can put all the parts together. How he met Ernie and then was able to tell the story of Captain Waskow, and then how Ernie picked up on that and made it into a real story that could later be made into a movie.
RT: Shortly after that, Ernie was sent to Japan, went to the Pacific and was shot himself. A sniper got him.
JP: The Iwo Jima story is another one he told.
RT: That's where he got killed. A sniper got him there. They were supposed to do a memorial thing for him some time in April. I was contacted by Bill Moyer.
JP: Some time this April they are supposed to have a documentary on that experience. I want to ask you a little bit about your feelings about your service and what you feel this gave you and what kind of from this vantage point of years, how do you feel about what happened?
RT: It was the only thing that could be done. We had to do it and we did it proudly. The greatest bunch of men that ever served anywhere was the Texas 36th Division as far as I'm concerned. Greatest bunch of boys there ever was. There was farm boys, every kind of old boy you could pick up. Like myself uneducated. Didn't know nothing. I got the greatest experience in the world.
JP: What kind of impact do you think it had on your life?
RT: It had a great impact on my life. It taught me a lot of things. As I said, I had never been on a train before; I got to do that. I had never been on a ship, and I was in battle, which was real bad, but I survived and I got back, although I got wounded and got shook up pretty bad, I got back. It still shows. I got it on my arm now.
JP: He is wearing a bracelet he says he will have to wear the rest of his life, if they don't come up with something better, all the way from his fingers up above his elbow because of the wound, and he really can't use his wrist.
RT: Or my arm, it won't turn this way. It has been operated on six times.
JP: That has been a real impact on your life what you could do. You drove a truck?
RT: I drove a truck after that. When I got out of service, I went to work in Houston as a truck driver and I drove a truck for thirty-five years.
JP: And you were able to do that pretty well with your arm?
RT: Well, my arm didn't give me that much trouble at that time. It started since I retired. I retired in 1980. It was beginning to give me a lot of trouble before but not that much, and I was able to take an early retirement. During my trucking years, the last twenty-six was for Union Carbide, Linde Division of Union Carbide. I hauled liquid oxygen and nitrogen and this kind of product, and before I left there I received an award from the National Safety Council in Washington, D. C., for two million safe miles at that time.
JP: That is some record. This has been really good, Riley. You have told me so many good things.
RT: Thank you.
JP: I appreciate the interview, and I know the Commission will appreciate having this. Your story is unique because of your meeting with Ernie Pyle, and of course that came because of your relationship with Captain Waskow. I really appreciate what you've told me. We will make you a copy of this.
JP: We're going to put just a tiny bit more. We have just a little bit of tape here. Tell about this reunion you went to recently.
RT: I attended a reunion Friday night and Saturday over in Mexia, Texas, which we have every year and I met three (men) I had not seen since 1942. One of them is the lowest ranking man in the company besides myself and that was the bugler. I got to see him and then two other people I had not seen since 1942.
JP: How many were there at the reunion?
RT: Twenty-two of them showed up this time. We have this every year and we are going to continue to have it. I've made every one since 1946. I haven't missed a one.
JP: That's a good record, too.
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