The following are some excerpts from the story of U.S. Army signalman Norton Hubbard's chapter in The Hero Next DoorTM Returns.
It was a thin line that tied the American troops together in World War II a line literally no thicker than a telephone wire. And, Norton Hubbard of Middleton, Wis., was among the men responsible for stringing it.
Hubbard was part of a small, unattached Army signal battalion whose job it was to lay and repair thousands of miles of communication wire between headquarters and the field units from Northern Africa through Italy. It was a job he did amidst artillery, sniper fire, cold, hunger and homesickness in some of the hardest fought battles of the European Theatera tale he nearly didn't make it home to tell after stepping on a mine a few weeks shy of Germany's surrender.
Hubbard got his first taste of the hardships of war when the troop ship landed in Casablanca, Morocco, on the western coast of North Africa, in late spring of 1943.
"Desert climate was a challenge. The thermometers our medics had went up to 110 and broke the first day so I don't know how hot it got. We also learned the first night in the desert not to take our boots off. I woke up in the morning and grabbed my boots. I put my foot in one and, in the second one, I had a 20-30 inch snake! I shook that snake out and threw the boot in the air. Someone threw my boot back at me. I never took my boots off again, other than to change my socks, while I was in Africa."
In addition, a signalman's task was complicated by land mines, snipers and poor rations. "I was shot at by a sniper near Mateur. I was on a telegraph pole and he hit the insulator about a foot from my head on the other side of the pole. I dropped to the ground and went through a railroad tunnel and didn't go back."
It wasn't all work, though. Boys, after all, will be boys. "One day, we were going along this road south of Tunis and I had a bunch of wild boys in the back that were up to having fun. We met a convoy with big deuces all loaded with boxes of rations. They called to our driver and said 'get over next to that one!' So, we were six to eight inches apart when we met this truck. They had a hay bale hook and hooked a case off the back. Then we got down the road a ways and opened the case. You know what they had? Six #10 cans of sauerkraut for their efforts! Not to be outdone, we 12-13 fellows sat down and ate all that kraut up. I didn't even want to be in the same country with them after that!"
Little did the Signal Corps know how good sauerkraut would seem when food became as scarce as rain in North Africa, once most supplies headed toward fighting in Italya new battleground Hubbard would soon join.
"We didn't know where we were going (when we left Bizerte, Africa) then but we stayed topside because we found we didn't get as seasick. When we hit a storm on the LST, that flat-bottomed boat rolled like a cork, as did its passengers."
The unit lost its most loyal member to the stormy ride. "We lost our pet dog, Doubletime, when he was washed overboard on the way to Salerno. He'd been picked up by somebody at Camp Atterbury; they found him as a puppy in some abandoned farm buildings and came in with him tucked in their shirt one day. He got special treatment; everybody took care of Doubletime. We smuggled him aboard the train and the ship; we smuggled him all the way across Africa. He was illegal as all get out but we managed to get Doubletime over there. Then he was on deck with us when the ship was rolling and he went overboard. He was sort of mongrel beagle but he was friends with any GI. He was a great dog."
Despite all the rolling, the LST made it to the invasion of Salerno in southern Italy (at the top of the instep of the boot-shaped country).
It was the first time Hubbard had experienced real combat. "It was like your first time at the circus. It's all here and it's noisy and you can't see it all. Every one moved fast until they found a place to hide from the fire from the Kraut O.P. (observation point). Everything and anything was a target. From Jeeps to trucks, any machine or man was eligible."
Though he was certainly concerned in combat, Hubbard was sure he'd find a way though hellin places like Anzio, Monte Cassino and Naplesand back home again.
"I never had that feeling I was going to die; I always felt 'I'm going to make it through this.' It's an inner sense that says you're somehow going to make it."
Most of the time, Hubbard just concentrated on the job he had to do.
"We built open wire lines like we do here, all built to Bell standards. Field wires we tied to whatever we could find. We didn't fix it; we just strung new wire. It was amazing how fast we could build wire lines. With the whole platoon we could probably build 10 miles in a daypole crews, wire crews, test crews. We could put in 50-60 miles of field wire in a matter of hours. Each crew would drop off a wire terminal and leave somebody there to splice lines together and the next crew would pick him up and they'd just leap frog up the road.
"We'd tie wire onto anything. I remember in one town square, there was an accurate statue of a manas there were always statues in the town square. Well, this one still had its ... umm ... parts, so we just tied the wire right to that and kept going. There were soon dozens of wires tied to it."
Stringing aerial wiresso vehicles coming behind wouldn't tear it upwas probably the most dangerous.
"You'd go up a pole when under fire and have to tie the line to something. Normally, you have a safety belt you use, but we never put that belt on in the war. Instead, you just hooked one leg around the pole to hold on. That way, when you had to get down in a hurry, you just unhooked your leg and you were gone. Or, if the pole broke off, you could jump clear. I had three tip over with me on it while I was in Italy and I never got hurt.
In addition, "the Nazis were constantly tampering with the wire. What they'd do is run a needle through the twisted wire and short it out and then wait for whomever had to go up to pull the needle out and take them out. The snipers winged me in the ribs, which sent me tumbling over a bank where I twisted my knee.'"
Hubbard was all right after a whilefor a while. But, such narrow misses eventually caught up to him.
A FATEFUL MISSTEP
By April 27, 1945, with the end of the war was a few weeks away, "I got mixed up with a German shu mine and an Italian concussion grenade. We were in a field that looked like it had been plowed by a farmer because it had a creeping barrage go across it. The mine and grenade were hooked together and I happened to walk too close.
"I saw it and jerked my foot back but I was too close. It blew the whole end off of my climbing boots, which had a thick leather sole for climbing poles. ... The guys with me later said I flew 10-12 feet, got up and went back to look at where the mine was, but I don't remember that. I do remember I heard a noise and then everything got quiet because my eardrums had blown out. I remember looking down the hole and seeing smoke."
By the time Hubbard reached the evacuation hospital in Bologna, "I couldn't hold my head up any more. I remember I had to take a little step, about 4 inches high, to get into the building and couldn't raise my foot to do it. I was in tough shape, and the doctors knew they had to do something to save the body. I'd lost so much blood, they started pumping blood in me right away. ... At that time I didn't care if I lived or died. I really didn't, though I had no pain at all.
Hubbard was taken by ambulance to Florence the next morning. "They put four of us in an ambulance for a bumpy ride that was 'bump, pass out,' 'bump, pass out,' all the way there."
The general hospital was set up in an art museum on the riverbank in Florence. In between operations, splinters from the shoe mine were working their way out of Hubbard's body. "They counted 93 holes in my skin but most were just bits of wood. As they fell out, they healed. Every day the nurse would roll me over and sweep the sheets off."
That was hard to bear, but Hubbard was more concerned one day when he regained consciousness after an operation only to discover he had total amnesia.
"I couldn't remember anything, even who I was or where I came from. It's a very unusual feeling not have any referencesnot as frightening as it is confusing. My dog tag finally got me started to remembering again. The nurse read my serial number and then I knew my name, rank and serial number, 16129312."
In addition, Hubbard had gone blind from three pieces of shrapnel in the right eye and soon couldn't see out of his left eye either. "It was something they thought was a sympathetic reaction of the nerves but the doctor didn't know if it would ever come back.
"Then, one day, I thought I could see the outline of a window. I shut my eye and peaked again and I could see the whole window! It was a thrill to be able to see again!"
By coincidence, Hubbard's good sign came the same day America cheered the news that Germany had surrendered. "They came through and everybody was hooting. Then, I got bold and thought, 'if I can see maybe I can stand.' So, I swung my legs off the bed. The pain was so great that I passed out!"
Little by little, Hubbard improved physically and even started remembering things. However, his memory took years to "fully" recover. Even today, there are bits of his time in Italy and his boyhood that escape him.
Still, Hubbard was soon ready enough to re-join his unit in post-war service and eventually return home to Wisconsin. He was discharged in December of 1945 and put his service skills to work in a job with Bell Telephone. Together with his wife of 50 years Marie and their four children and 11 grandchildren, Hubbard has traveled extensively, throughout North America and from Northeast Alberta, Canada to Australia and Finland.
In his spare time, Hubbard built a quarter-mile toboggan run that takes him, his children and grandchildren through the woods and past the Middleton, Wis., house he designed and built himself. A collector of the unique and historical, Hubbard still has much of the tools of his W.W. II trade tucked awaylike his memoriesin his home's cherished corners.
Read more about Norton Hubbard the veteran featured on the cover of Kristin Gilpatrick's second book in his chapter in The Hero Next DoorTM Returns.