McCutchan at War, part 1: The Military Experience

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Recordkeeping sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it?  We tend to think about it primarily in terms of financial matters, tasks that must be done.  In the broader context of keeping a record of one’s daily activities, however, it’s a different matter.  Keeping a journal, for instance, is recordkeeping.  Historians certainly appreciate the value of good records when they are doing research.  One man who excelled at this was Ken McCutchan.

Kenneth Peva McCutchan (1913-2002) was a historian at heart.  His family was part of the early history of Evansville and Vanderburgh County, and the section of northern Vanderburgh County called McCutchanville is named for his family.  Ken McCutchan had ample reason to appreciate history and value of good recordkeeping.  This is demonstrated by his World War II journals and a scrapbook of his time serving overseas.  The journals begin with this entry on July 15, 1942: 

“Off to the Army today on the noon train for Fort Benjamin Harrison.  Had lunch at the Red Cross Canteen at the L & N depot before leaving.  At Vincennes we picked up more draftees, and at Indianapolis, 5 carloads coming in from Ohio, Virginia, and points East.”       

He continues with daily entries until November 15, 1945:

“Arrived at the local airport shortly before noon and as the plane taxied up the runway I could see Mother standing there waiting—all dressed up in her Paris hat.  It is good to be home again.  Everything looks just the same as when I left, and I know that in a short time, as I look back upon the past years, it will be hard to realize that it really happened.”  After some 8 months of training in various locations, McCutchan embarked on duty overseas in March 1943.  In addition to his journal entries, he recorded his time overseas in an incredible scrapbook (185 pages!) he entitled 959 Days Overseas.  He kept notes and completed this when he finally returned home as he could not have carried something this large with him.  Those notes were very detailed—he names the soldier in a picture, says where his hometown was, and tells something about him.  He provides information such as background or history of the locations.  In his preface to this scrapbook, he admits to a bit of misbehavior: “Back in the spring of 1943 cameras were forbidden to soldiers going overseas.  I owned a little inexpensive Brownie that I had purchased at the PX at Fort Leonard Wood the autumn before.  I wanted very much to take it with me.  If it was confiscated, I thought, there won’t be much lost, so I decided upon taking the chance of smuggling it across, with five rolls of film as a starter, in the toe of my overshoes.  Had it not been for that little camera, the picture record of my experiences which follows in this book would never have been made.” 

UASC MSS 004-0217, the Kenneth McCutchan Collection

McCutchan served as Company Clerk with the 335th Engineer Regiment.  He was ‘behind the lines,’ i.e., arriving in a location after the Germans had been defeated and the location at least somewhat secured.  He and his fellow soldiers arrived in North Africa April 13, 1943, and spent most of the time through January 7, 1944 in Tunisia.  He was as interested in the local area and peoples as he was in the military experience, and frequently commented on how eager the children were to be around the soldiers.  Whenever the unit stopped for lunch, they gathered around to get the leftovers from C rations: sugar cubes, hard candies, and little packets of soluble coffee.  No matter how desolate the area appeared, the children always appeared, seemingly from out of the bushes and rocks. This photograph of an old shepherd demonstrates that it was not only the children who took advantage of the soldiers’ largesse—if you look closely, you will see that he is wearing GI shoes! 

MSS 004-0889

As the summer turned into fall in Tunisia, the unit continued its work of repairing roads, maintaining hospitals, and working on the docks.  Back in camp, there were housekeeping chores such as the weekly laundry.  While the quality of this photograph isn’t ideal, you can see the men scrubbing the clothing on a makeshift table, and in the background, getting ready to boil it to remove any germs, etc. 

As 1943 drew to a close, the men felt certain they would be leaving Africa soon, probably headed for Italy. The Allies were beginning a difficult push to Rome, and losses were heavy as judged by the ships full of wounded coming into the port of Bizerte, Tunisia.  Heading to Italy wasn’t a pleasant prospect. After packing up and crating their equipment, they went aboard LSTs on January 8.  Not until they were out at sea did they learn that they were headed instead to the island of Corsica. 

On January 11 the unit landed at the capital of Corsica, Ajaccio.  McCutchan noted that the city was “pleasant looking with palm lined boulevards, gay flowers, and a lovely backdrop of mountains.  The most unforgettable thing about … Corsica is the smell which wafts delicately out to the boat before you have ever actually set foot on land—the mixed fragrance of the maquis, mimosa, and eucalyptus.”  The unit remained on Corsica until August 17, at various locations.  The men spent a lot of time on roadwork, in particular rebuilding a road that local defenders had blown up to prevent the Germans from reaching the interior of the island. For the last 5 months on Corsica they built and operated a sawmill to supply lumber for needs at the airport, to build props for coal mines in Sardinia, and to build up a stockpile to be used whenever the invasion of southern France got underway.

MSS 004-2491

Corsicans speak French, and this gave McCutchan an advantage since he spoke the language—probably textbook French, but he had more knowledge of it than most.  In the village of Vivario, McCutchan was assigned as a liaison officer and billeted with a local family.  He was the first American to live there and so became known as ‘l’Americain.’  This is Grandmama Casanova, a “sweet old lady who had lived almost her whole life of 84 years in her own tiny world in and around Vivario.  Once, when she was young, she had visited Toulon in France.  There she had ridden in an elevator and that was the most thrilling experience of her whole life.  She always called me ‘mon Americain,’ and insisted on washing and darning socks for me, or making a cup of coffee when I would come in on a cold day.”


MSS 004-2510

By mid-August of 1944, France was being secured and the regiment sailed to southern France.  The coast had been fortified with the heavy concrete gun emplacements seen here.  McCutchan notes that “the weather was very hot, and the bodies of the German gunners lying inside these pill boxes had already started to bloat.  The stench was sickening.  Notice the clothing and equipment scattered over the ground, indicating the great haste in which these positions were evacuated.” They also came across an emergency hospital dug under the hill.  Inside the operating room lights were still on, unclean surgical instruments were lying around, and the operating table bore blood stains.  There were 2 wounded Germans dead in their beds. 

MSS 004-2575

By August 29 the unit moved on to Marseille.  The people there were hungry after suffering German occupation and gathered around any Army installation to salvage any edible food from garbage cans.  The unit made it a habit to set the kettles out after the men had been served so that the civilians could take what was left.  One of the scavengers was this little boy named Napoleon.  He was so small that he didn’t stand much of a chance getting anything in a crowd.  “But, when he stood by the wall with his gallon bucket, sucking his thumb, we always saw that he got filled with the best there was left—and often some candy for good measure.”

MSS 004-4745

The regiment was fortunate in being able to utilize residences for housing.  They were particularly lucky on December 18, 1944, when they took up residence in the Chateau Champ Renard.  It was built in the 1870s as a summer house but was no longer occupied by members of the original family.  Located on 20 acres, it had 3 stories and about 40 rooms.  There was a caretaker’s cottage with attached greenhouse, large barn, laundry, and pigeon cote.  The German army had occupied it and took with them some of the art treasures, including a $20,000 hand-made Chinese rug.  McCutchan and 2 others made their bedroom in an elaborate library, complete with walnut paneling, brocade wallpaper, and large oil paintings.  “The Army cots looked rather sad among all the splendor.”

MSS 004-2507
MSS 004-2535

By March 30, 1945, McCutchan’s unit had moved into Germany.  “The extent of the destruction was almost indescribable.  Every town and village seemed to be leveled.  Fields were pockmarked with bomb craters and the roadsides were littered with debris.  Few civilians were seen.  Now and then we would pass a family walking along the road dragging what was left of their belongings in a broken-down baby carriage.  Sometimes we would see them digging among the rubble of a bombed house.” The railyard seen here showed evidence of the hundreds of freight cars that had been loaded with every possible commodity.  “Many of the cars had been demolished by bombings and fire, but those that had not been destroyed had been pillaged by the armies and the liberated prisoners from forced labor camps in the vicinity—the armies looking for souvenirs, the liberated prisoners looking for food and clothing.”   On April 28th, the regiment crossed the Rhine into Mannheim.  “Once a lovely modern city of about 250,000 population, [it was now] a mass of ruins.  Miles and miles of its streets looked like this this.  Only the main streets were opened and free from rubble.  Most of the side streets were impassible.  It was a ghost city.  Almost nobody could be seen.”

McCutchan’s ‘959 Days Overseas’ was nearing an end.  His number finally came up for a return to the United States, and on October 8, 1945, he and other ‘home-bound boys’ headed to Holland and Belgium.  After hurricane-related weather delays, he was aboard the U.S. Merchant Marine Thomas Johnson, pulling out into the ocean on October 28.  The GREAT DAY came on November 10, 1945, when the ship neared Boston harbor.   “It was just twilight when the ship pulled into its berth at Boston docks.  All the whistles blew and a band was playing when we came down the gangplank.  The Red Cross ladies were on hand with pints of milk and doughnuts.  It was an all-out welcome. … A train was waiting to take us to Camp Miles Standish, where more welcoming committees were waiting, and a huge first-night-home dinner, with everything anyone could wish for in the way of good eats.  Yes, we were finally back in the U.S.A.  It was good!  And so ended my 959 days overseas.” 

After a trip to Camp Atterbury for a clothing check, physical, shots, and final pay settlement, his final discharge came at 2:15 pm on November 14, 1945.  “The next morning I flew home… Mother was waiting at the airport.  I was really home.”

There is far more to Kenneth McCutchan’s journals and scrapbook than can be explored here.  I’ve made no mention of his exploration of the places where he was stationed, two-week furlough to Paris, London, and Edinburgh, or his eight-week study at the Sorbonne in Paris, all of which will be covered in the next blog.  Read on!

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