Beating the Curfew with Military Honors
My father, E. Reynold Thomas, was attending Atlantic City High School when he turned 18 on November 4, 1917. Two months later he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Eighteen-year-old E. Reynold Thomas at Parris Island in 1918.
In April 1918, after recruit training at Parris Island, he boarded a ship for France. He was assigned to the 55th Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment and saw combat at Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood, Soissons and Blanc Mont.
I remember him talking about Lucy-le-Bocage, a village at the edge of Belleau Wood. Lucy was a friend from home and he referred to her name in a letter home, to hint to his mother where he was. Giving any battle location was not permitted. He really did not want to upset his mother with the horrors of battle, but in one letter written “sometime in June, somewhere in France” he wrote, “I was in the middle of the 5th day of the battle and the Boche has been shelling a most ungodly storm of everything every day and night. Oh, God, they are worse than mad Hell in darkness… After things quieted down a bit, I crawled into my dug-out and began to think.” He pulled her photo from his pocket: “I was suddenly conscious of your photo being blurred, and finally I could not see at all. The tears were coming and I burst out crying loudly and souly. I was homesick, homesick for the first time in my life.”
In a letter dated September 18th, he wrote, “I have just come safely through another battle. I had a couple of close shaves, but God is with us … so I am safe again, and for good.”
In October he was transferred to the Marine Detachment at 2nd Division headquarters as a statistical clerk in the Adjutant General’s office. “I feel kind of uneasy being indoors so much and I feel uneasy too, at a husky fellow like myself doing such a baby job.”
On November 4th he told his mother, “We just got another official report from the front; wish I was allowed to write all about it but you’ll hear in a few days. Oh boy! It’s great! With Austria out of the game we’ll get where we are going and home before you know it.”
The Armistice was signed a week later and on the 17th my father’s division was assigned to the Army of Occupation and started the long trek into Germany. They marched in a single column 60 miles through Belgium and Luxembourg. On the 23rd, he wrote to a friend, “I am now on the greatest march in history. The people of France, Belgium and Luxembourg treat us royally. They cannot do enough; they give us food (they have little for themselves) and a bed to sleep in and mend our clothes and they will not take a cent for it. You can’t coax them to.”
Now my father has turned 19, arrived in Neuwied, and I turn the story over to him:
Seeing Tina Home
The Army of Occupation
Neuwied, Germany 1919
When the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, which ended this war we were fighting, and which was exactly one week after my 19th birthday, my buddy Lou McCorkle and I had already been transferred out of the Fifth Regiment Marines, with whom we had fought from Belleau Wood through the attack on Mont Blanc, and had been assigned to the Marine Detachment, Second Division headquarters, as clerks in the Adjutant General’s office.
By the end of November we had marched, in Packard trucks, from somewhere in France into Germany to the small town of Neuwied on the Rhine River about twenty miles north of Coblenz. Here the Second Division became part of the Army of Occupation, which would police Germany until a treaty of peace was signed.
In Neuwied the Second Division had commandeered a big stone schoolhouse for the Adjutant General’s offices (I bet the kids loved this!) and General Lejeune, division commander, had taken over a beautiful medieval castle on the riverfront for his headquarters. The Marine Detachment personnel had been quartered in a large farmhouse on the far edge of town. A few men, through, without the consent of their officers, rented rooms from civilians closer to the office in order to avoid the long, cold walk back to the schoolhouse.
Lou McCorkle (“Mac”) and Reynold Thomas in Neuwied, Germany, December 1918. McCorkle was a buddy from home who joined at the same time as Thomas.
Mac and I had taken advantage of this to get away from that farmhouse after only two weeks in Germany. Mac could speak German pretty well (I think). Anyhow, he made a deal with a German civilian for us to have a room in their house for a loaf of white bread a week. Not a bad deal, considering the small amount of dough, as Mac loved to put it to me frequently!
Well, it turned out that we wound up with the nicest bunch of enemies a soldier ever had. Their name was Veibahn. There were four of them: Papa, head man, and the one who made the deal with Mac, always friendly but cautiously reserved; Frau Mama Veibahn, the real boss of the household and mother to us all; Daughter Minnie, a 17 or 18 year-old hefty, but sweet and likeable fraulein and Herman, a ten-year old terror, who believed that the louder he yelled at us in German the sooner we would understand whatever it was he was trying to tell us. We got along with him fine, anyhow.
Then there were the neighbors. They weren’t hard to take either, especially sweet Frau Remy and her pretty teenage daughter, Elsa. They lived in the house next to us on the alleyway. They dropped in frequently and to us they seemed like part of the family.
This was true also of that gorgeous, tall, blue-eyed effervescent blond who bounced in and out of the billet two or three times a week to jabber a blue streak with her friend Minne. Boy, I loved to watch her talk, even though I couldn’t understand a word of it. Her name was Tina and she lived with her family in the castle that General Lejeune had commandeered for his headquarters.
In fact, it was that living situation that practically ruined Minnie’s birthday party and nearly put Tina in jail for the night. It could have been a very regrettable predicament for Tina and her family had it not been for us — The Rover Boys! The terrible things that could have happened to us in the way of disciplinary action were beside the point. But, anyway you look at it, this was a much nicer war than the one we had just left. We don’t shoot at them and they don’t shoot at us. We don’t talk to them and they don’t talk to us (in public). To talk in public would have been to “fraternize with the enemy” and both sides had stringent regulations prohibiting that. For German civilians, punishment was immediate arrest, then a tour of public street cleaning before being released. For us it was some kind of military punishment.
Now, at Christmas time, we had different kinds of war problems than we had in France. For instance, in Germany it was not, “Shall I dig this foxhole deeper?” Or, “Shall I open this can of monkey-meat now or wait and see if our relief comes through?” In Germany they were such critical problems as “What shall we buy Frau Veibahn, Frau Remy, and the girls for Christmas?” Or “Where shall we do our shopping?” and “I wonder if we can find a turkey?”
Being resourceful young Marines, we soon had the situation well in hand for everything – except the turkey. Our lovely enemies took care of that. They cooked a goose and we hardly knew the difference. Everyone had a “Merry Christmas.”
We had scarcely recovered from this gastronomical Christmas celebration when another occasion hovered in sight. We learned that there would be a birthday in the family on January 17th. Minnie would be 17 or 18 years old. At least so they told me. (Not letting me know exactly how old she was had become a neighborhood game. They never knew that little Herman had shown me her age long ago by a series of vertical lines. She would be 19.)
Anyhow, this meant another Christmas-like party, another shopping trip for me, a fun time for all. Tina couldn’t make the Christmas party but maybe she would come to a birthday party for her friend Minnie.
A couple of days before he event, I called division garage on the pretense of some official business, and requested that they supply the Adjutant General’s office with a motorcycle sidecar and driver to take a messenger to Coblenz the next morning.
So, about nine-thirty the following morning, I left for Coblenz and by three o’ clock that afternoon was back at the office with all “official business” plus our birthday shopping completed. Because Third Army headquarters was stationed there, Coblenz had a really good commissary where a soldier could buy the minor necessities of life, such as familiar brands of cigars, cigarettes, candy, soap, shaving gear, and so forth.
Minnie and Frau Veibahn were excited and delighted with the fancy box of high smelling French perfumed soap we gave them at Christmas. The cigars I got for Papa Veibahn seemed to please him too, at least he smiled and said,” Danke schon, Kleiner.” The box of Hershey bars we got for little Herman didn’t last very long, but he sure gobbled them down.
So, for the birthday party, I just reordered the same presents for the same people, plus a few extra boxes of that fancy soap and more cigars for Papa Veibahn and Mac, and large cake of Naptha soap for Mama Veibahn.
One person present at the party that I did not count on was George, General Lejeune’s chauffeur. He had delivered the General to some Masonic function in town and had a few hours to wait, so he crashed our party. He was really an all right guy though, and he knew everybody there. In fact, I hated to think what would have happened had he not dropped in.
The party marched on. All the neighbors were there and a few more besides. Tina was there and gushed all over the place about her fragrant French soap. We ate platters of rich German food, drank wine and everybody was happy, except Herman. He got slapped for getting chocolate on the tablecloth and all over the furniture. Of course, I had no idea what everyone was talking about, but had just as much fun as though I had.
Thomas and McCorkle in front of the Neuwied schoolhouse that served as office for the Adjutant General.
Suddenly I was conscious of a quiet in the room. Minnie, Tina and Frau Veibahn had left the room. So had the old man. The laughing had stopped and what talking there was was subdued and earnest. No one was eating except George. He never stopped. I heard Papa Veibahn’s voice from another room. He seemed to be saying “Nein” in no uncertain terms about something.
Then Frau Veibahn and Minnie came back into the room with Tina between them. Tina had her overcoat on and I could see that all three of them had been crying. Off to one side Frau Veibahn and Frau Remy talked quietly but earnestly together.
I turned to Mac and barked quietly, “What the hell is going on? Is Tina sick? What’s wrong?”
“Tina is not sick, she has over-stayed curfew. She is scared to death. Curfew has passed, her parents don’t know where she is, and there is no way she can get in touch with them. She wants to try and sneak back home, but the others don’t want her to take the risk. They point out the shame and humiliation it would bring on her and the family if she were arrested. They say she can’t possibly approach the castle after curfew without being challenged and I can’t help but agree with them.”
The others kept talking quietly to her, trying to convince her to stay there and not take that horrible risk. Tina was not convinced. She stilled wanted to try to make it home. I looked around the table and I noticed against that not a soul was eating, naturally not, for everybody was too concerned about that poor girl to think of food, except George. Just as I looked over at him, he was packing his mouth with another big hunk of cake.
Seeing him gave me an idea! I whispered my idea to Mac. He replied, “Maybe we can.” Then I put it to George.
“Hey George, this girl has missed curfew. If we stow her in the back of the General’s car, couldn’t you drive her to headquarters, dump her out, then come on back to the party? I’ll go with you.”
George gave a muffled grunt, through a freshly inserted mouthful of cake, which could have meant most anything. But as he did so he nodded his head back and forth — affirmative!
“Good. All right, George, let’s go. Bring that car exactly opposite the front door. I’ll meet you there. No, I’ll meet you out back and ride around with you.”
I turned to Mac. “Put my long green non-com coat and my campaign hat on Tina. When she walks across the sidewalk in this dim light of dusk, she’ll look like an officer entering the limousine. Tell her to shove her hair well up into the hat so no hair will show and to fix her dress so that it won’t show below the coat. After George gets the limousine opposite the front door, I’ll give you a nod when the coast is clear of pedestrians and traffic. Tell her then to walk slowly across the sidewalk to the rear door of the car. I’ll be holding it open for her. I’ll give her a salute as she enters the car and sits upright in the middle of the back seat. It is almost dark now and it will be even darker by the time we get to headquarters. Just before we get to the motor entrance of the castle, we’ll have her lie down out of sight.”
Then I noticed everyone looking at us. “Mac, do they know what we are saying? Do they know what we are going to do?”
“Certainly not, but they’d like to know. When you shut up, shove off, and go with George to get the car, I’ll tell them all about it.” As we started for the door he called after me, “Tommy, where is your green overcoat?” I called back, “I don’t know, ask Frau Veibahn.”
I shoved off to meet George out back where the car was parked. By the time we pulled up to the curb opposite the front door, Mac and “General Tina” were standing just inside of the entrance hall ready to go. I gave Mac the nod.
She walked smartly across the sidewalk, my campaign hat cocked jauntily toward the right eye with a masculine stride that my favorite real General would have envied. Mac had done a good job.
I stood at attention holding the door open as she approached the limousine and as she bent over to enter, gave her a snappy salute (resisting an urge to pat her gently on the fanny.) When she was firmly ensconced in the middle of the back seat, I closed the door and joined George up front.
We turned and headed down Heddesdorfestrasse for the river road. As we turned right onto the river road I noticed two civil police standing on the corner. They paid us no heed, but I was certainly glad that Tina was in the car at that moment under our protection, however illegal, instead of trying to walk past them on the street.
The police incident must have given us a false sense of security, for we were in no way prepared for what happened next.
As we slowly turned off the river road and up the street leading to the main car entrance of the castle, a Marine sentry stopped, faced in our direction and was saluting us with his rifle at “present arms.”
George grasped the significance immediately and groaned aloud, “My God, the flags. We forgot to remove the General’s identification flags.”
“What to you mean we forgot? You forgot. You were too damn busy feeding your face! I’ve been looking at them all the way here. I thought they were meant to be there. You’re the expert on this crate!”
My less experienced perception of these matters did not realize the full impact of our predicament until a few moments later, when the sentry changed his rifle to “port arms” and yelled at the top of his voice (loud and clear, the drill manual calls it). “Turn out the guard. Commanding General. Turn out the guard.”
That yell killed any thought of having Tina lie down out of sight as we approached the gate.
MajGen John A. Lejeune and members of his staff weren’t aware of the unscheduled use of the general’s automobile.
This whole fiasco was over before I learned that the two pretty little blue flags with two white stars flying from each front fender of our car indicated that a “Major General” is present in the car whenever they fly. The flags are removed the moment the General leaves the car.
The guard this sentry was calling for consisted of two squads of Marines — sixteen men, a couple of sergeants, and an officer, all armed to the hilt with loaded rifles, bayonets, side arms, and one saber. What they might do with all this hardware was nerve-racking to contemplate, if they should discover that instead of a “Major General” being present in the car, as the two little flags indicated, there was a female enemy, however pretty, sitting there impersonating such an officer, and doing it in my uniform.
Even before we reached the entrance gate, we could clearly hear from the car and over the wall, the commands being shouted to the men in forming the guard, “Guard detail, fall in.” “Fall in, on the double.” “Right dress, steady.” “Front.” “Attention.”
It began to sound more like — and I began to feel more like it was — the formation of a firing squad we were hearing. Honor guard or firing squad, it’s too late now, we had to face them.
We turned through the gate and George headed steadily toward the guard to pass twenty feet in front at the prescribed pace. I kept my mouth tightly shut so the guard wouldn’t hear my teeth clicking.
When we were almost abreast of them, the officer of the guard commanded, “Present, arms.” All eighteen of them did, with a loud slap. The officer snapped the hilt of his sword to his chin in salute. I hope they don’t find out who they are saluting while we are still within reach! I winced and George just kept rolling along.
All this time I was looking straight ahead, but as we passed that officer, I was conscious of a reflection of movement in the windshield. It was Tina. She slowly raised her right hand and touched the rim of her hat with the top of her fingers, held a moment, then lowered it to her lap. A form of salute any General might have used. This one though, besides returning the salute of the guard, served the additional advantage of covering her face at the right moment.
What I didn’t know then was that Tina had witnessed this guard ceremony many times from her own castle window.
Well, we made it this far, but it would sure be a blessed relief when we got beyond reach of this honor guard. The blessing came a few moments later when the voice of that officer of the guard trumpeted up from behind us, saying loud and clear, “Order, arms!” “Guard detail, dismissed!”
George continued across the parade ground, pulled the car alongside of a big porch and stopped. I jumped out to open the door for Tina. My knees worked pretty well, but I held onto the car door anyhow. Tina stepped out holding my hat and coat on one arm. She put the other arm around me, bent down and gave me a big smacker on the cheek as she said quietly, “Danke schon, liebchen.” She disappeared across the porch and into the house. As I’ve said before, Tina is the loveliest enemy a soldier ever had.
The best of that Merry Christmas was the moment when, late in the afternoon, while we enemies were still swapping Christmas presents, the music of Christmas carols was heard coming from the street. Our Germans ran to the windows, flung them open and leaned out. They didn’t seem to be quite as startled by this sudden burst of carols as we were. We learned later that this was an annual custom, but one they had not expected that year.
There were three of us Marines in the house at the time and we joined them at the windows. I squeezed in between Elsa and Minnie. What a sight! Gently falling snow and such beautiful sounds! A brass band of six or eight civilians played as it walked along in the middle of the street. An escort of four military police was on the far sidewalk with an escort of four civilian police on our side.
On both sides of the street, heads and shoulders of men, women, and children, along with more soldiers and Marines than I ever dreamed lived in the neighborhood, were popping out of windows to listen and gaze. The MPs just glanced up at these happy, illegal groups and with a half smile showing, continued on their way.
Suddenly the band struck up “Holy Night” (or “Heilage Nacht”, depending on your national origin). At first a few people could be heard humming the tune. Gradually a few more joined in and the sound was a little louder, until finally the whole street was singing at the top of their voices and the words came out distinctly in both German and English. I wished Tina could have been here to experience that, but of course she had to be with her family on Christmas.
What a delightful, happy, flagrant disregard of fraternizing with the enemy, but what divine evidence of the power of the Christmas spirit!
The Marines decamped by train from Neuwied in mid-July. My father wrote home, “We leave from this side by way of Brussels, so we will get a look at the English front.” They sailed from Brest to Newport News.
After he was discharged he moved to Harvey Cedars, NJ, a small town on Long Beach Island where he had spent childhood summers and where he now began to work for his Uncle, J.B. Kinsey, who had a business harvesting eel grass from the bay and drying it and shipping to various companies like Ford (to stuff seats) and United fruit (to pack bananas).
Eventually he had a disagreement with his uncle so moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and started his own eelgrass company. After a little over a year he sold it, took the money and traveled back to France and Germany, visiting the family he had boarded with in Neuwied. Next he decided to homestead in Utah with a war buddy, but eventually gave that up in order to go back East to be closer to his sick mother and to join the family firm in Manhattan.
He met my mother, Josephine Lehman, at the New York Public Library and that was it; she worked as editor and ghost writer for Lowell Thomas (no relation) and in 1931 they quietly got married at City Hall and settled on the upper west side. Eventually the family business succumbed to the Great Depression. They decided to go to Harvey Cedars, where they thought it would benefit his health. My mother wrote, “Reynold was very thin and jumpy from business worries and had been gassed during the war.” Doctors told him to live an outside life if he wanted to keep fit.
The uncle he had worked for a decade earlier gave them a house to live in for the summer and they drove the 100 miles south to Long Beach Island. My mother said they had just enough investment income to live on, but as the Depression deepened they lived “slimmer and slimmer”.
They never left.
After I was born, his uncle gave them some land on the Harvey Cedars bayfront and they built a small cottage. My father tried commercial fishing but failed. My mother wrote an article called “Fisherman’s Wife” and it was published in Scribner’s in 1933; the $500 she received sustained them for a year, and my mother decided she could make money writing. But instead she had two children. My father traded his boat for a dredge and by 1940 had the beginning of a successful business. When WW2 started he tried to rejoin the Marines, but was turned down for bad eyesight. (He complained “They didn’t care about that in 1918.”) He then joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary and went to work in a Camden shipyard.
It was in 1942 that I was first aware that my father had fought in the previous war. Nazi submarines were sinking tankers off the coast; we had blackouts every night and the Coast Guard patrolled the beach with threatening Doberman pinchers. My brother and I found our father’s gas mask in the attic and wanted to use it when we played war games. My mother said “No, that would upset Daddy.” It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized he had been gassed and suffered what was then called shell-shock and now termed PTSD.
After the war ended, his dredging business boomed; wealthy people wanted summer homes on the island, and my father filled in the bayside marshes with sand so the land was buildable. In the late 1940s he became a town commissioner, member of the school board, and was elected mayor in 1955. He remained mayor and a devoted public servant until he died in 1983. I found his letters and “Seeing Tina Home” after he died.
A version of this story was previously published in Marine Corps Gazette Magazine in 2008.
Citation to E. Reynold Thomas’s unit for their performance on July 18, 1918.