Howard H. Kirst can tell you exactly how many gallons of gasoline the quartermaster company he served with provided during training maneuvers for the 4th Armored Division while they were in Tennessee preparing for war.
“We pumped three million gallons of gasoline from rail tank cars and tank trucks into 5-gallon gas cans for those maneuvers back in 1942,” said the 94-year-old Kirst.
Several months later, when the 4th Armored Division packed up and headed to the European Theater of World War II, the Army brass proved forgetful.
Everyone went except for Kirst’s unit, the 3874th Quartermaster Gasoline Supply Company.
“We didn’t receive orders to go, and it was about six months later that the Army found us,” he said. “We should have been in the same boats with the 4th Armored Division.”
As it turns out, it was a voyage Kirst says he was happy he missed.
The 4th Armored Division, in time, participated in one of the most brutal fights of the war in Europe, the Battle of the Bulge, fought in heavy snows and record-breaking cold.
“I knew men who slept in their sleeping bags with snow piled on top to prevent them from freezing,” Kirst said.
And though the gasoline supply company had slipped through the bureaucratic cracks once, it did not happen a second time. By October 1943, the company was on its way to WWII’s Pacific Theater, where Kirst discovered the flip side of extreme cold, sweltering days in which the mercury hiked past 100 degrees.
Settled in New Guinea for a spell, the company maintained a gasoline supply depot. Now you might think that kind of job relatively safe in a war zone that saw thousands of GIs slaughtered as they charged onto the beaches of various Pacific islands on the way to Japan.
But consider this: The quartermaster company handled thousands of gallons of gasoline stored in 55-gallon drums, and that made them a choice target for Japanese fighter planes. If the fuel was blown up, that would cripple the Allied Forces.
“At dusk for months we had ‘Wash-Machine Charlie’ flying over us to drop his bombs. We called him ‘Wash Machine’ because his plane’s engine sounded like a washing machine. One night he dropped his bomb in a coconut grove behind us, and it killed two officers in their tent.
“Shortly after that, the machine gunners on off-shore islands hit Charlie’s plane, and it exploded behind a cloud. The next morning debris washed ashore,” Kirst said.
Another story Kirst recalls demonstrates the absolute brutality of war.
“When our troops were in a battle for the New Guinea island of Noemfoor, the Japanese were cornered and ran out of food. They started cutting flesh from wounded and dead Americans and eating it. I did some research on this years later and found newspaper stories in Australia that detailed it,” Kirst said, adding that he landed on Noemfoor and had personally heard the horror stories after the island had been taken.
As the Allied forces continued to move north in the Pacific Ocean, Kirst participated in the battle for the Philippines and recalled how the infantry was moving so fast that its vehicles ran out of fuel.
“Our company was the first non-combat unit sent into Manila to refuel the troops and the fighting was still going on. Manila was more devastated than any city in the world except Warsaw in the war,” Kirst said, adding that he was startled at the devastation he witnessed. “There was nothing there.”
Children who had lost their parents, he said, would come up to the troops with tin cans “and wait until we finished eating and beg us for scraps that were left in our mess kits.”
Even today, Kirst says, he can remember the faces of those hungry children.
“They were living in garbage dumps.”
In 1945, after a year in the Philippines, he returned home and joined the family business of wholesale tobacco and candy sales. The career change from Army to civilian, he said, was a natural fit.
“As the supply sergeant for my company, I provided all of the cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco for the men. So I have been a pusher of tobacco all my life, though not a user,” he wryly explained.
On a not so wry note, Kirst said that for 29 years his quartermaster company met annually, “but today there are only three of us left.”
And the reunions are no more.