World War II Oral History interview
Date: September 11, 2009
Veteran: John Carroll
US Army T/4, ETO
294th Engineer Battalion
Interviewer: Carol R. Fowler
Summarizer: Kelly Lidon
John Carroll was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in July 1924, into a family with a long tradition of military service. Carroll’s great-great-grandfather, Michael Gallagher of Jersey City, served as a lieutenant and captain in the Eighty-eighth New York Infantry, a regiment of the famed Irish Brigade, and then as a captain in the Second New Jersey Cavalry during the Civil War. Captured by Confederates while serving with the Second, Gallagher became a participant in the greatest POW escape in American history when he and 108 other Union officers broke out of Libby prison in Richmond, Virginia. Although he succeeded in reaching Union lines, Captain Gallagher was later killed in action fighting in Mississippi.
Family stories like Gallagher’s inspired Carroll’s own military service, which he contemplated after hearing the news of Pearl Harbor while listening to a football game on the radio on December 7, 1941. After high school he went to work as a trainman for the Long Island Railroad, and although nervous about the future, he decided to volunteer for military service rather than wait to get drafted. Carroll enlisted in the US Army in March, 1943. After being sworn into the service at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he was assigned to the Engineer Corps and sent to Camp Gordon, Georgia for basic training. He recalled that living in the South took a little getting used to, as he had never left his home in New Jersey. During basic training Carroll incurred his only war-related injury, when a bridge he was working on collapsed in the night and he landed on a stump, damaging his leg and producing a varicose vein condition that he is still afflicted with. The incident could have ended in a far worse manner, however, as he ended up in the water under the bridge and did not know how to swim. Fortunately, he was rescued by other soldiers.
Following basic training Carroll’s unit, the 294th Combat Engineer Battalion, engaged in maneuvers at Lookout Mountain Tennessee and was then transferred to Yuma, Arizona for desert training for possible deployment in North Africa. As the fighting in North Africa waned the unit’s assignment was changed, and the 294th was sent to Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Massachusetts, a debarkation camp. The battalion arrived in the middle of a snowstorm, and after nine days Carroll, assigned to the 294th’s Headquarters Company, and his comrades boarded the USS Excalibur and shipped out in a large convoy to Scotland. During the Atlantic crossing he signed up for submarine watch, mainly because soldiers assigned to that duty received extra food. He recalled that he was nervous about seeing a submarine, but more nervous about missing seeing one. After landing safely at Glasgow the men of the 294th took a train to Sherborne, England, where they trained to build and blow up bridges and lay and clear mines.
On March 20, 1944, the 294th’s Company C was decimated by a huge explosion that occurred while an anti-tank mine some men were working with was accidentally detonated when a truck backed over it and exploded a number of other mines. Company C lost twenty-nine men killed, who were quite literally blown to bits. Many years later survivors of the 294th Battalion placed a plaque in their memory near the Sherborne Abbey.
The 294th Engineer Battalion was attached to the Fourth Infantry Division for the invasion of France, and training intensified as D-Day approached. Carroll was a water purification specialist. His job, as part of a three man team, was to find a water supply and then use pumps and chlorine to clean the water so that it could be safely used by the troops for drinking, food preparation and washing. He was also cross-trained to work with mines and blow up bridges.
In preparation for the invasion the 294th moved to Wales, where it boarded the troop transport ship Susan B. Anthony. Carroll recalled being a part of a vast armada of ships filling the English Channel on its way to Normandy. As the Susan B. Anthony approached the beach on D-Day plus one, June 7, 1944, they hit two underwater German mines. The crew and soldier passengers controlled what could have been a dangerous panic, and the ship, now afire, was successfully evacuated without the loss of a single life, although the battalion’s baggage sank with the Susan B. Anthony. Following the rescue the 294th was landed on Utah Beach, which, as the infantry fighting had moved inland, was relatively calm. For two days the engineers had no supplies or equipment except that which they took from dead soldiers on the beach and from men being transported to hospitals who didn’t need it any more. At this point in his interview Carroll noted that when he traveled to France in 1993, he visited a D-Day museum where he accidentally tripped over an object on the floor. When he looked up he saw with shock and surprise that what he had tripped over was the Susan B. Anthony’s anchor.
Following the invasion, the 294th advanced across France and up to the German border, with Carroll and his team finding and purifying water all along the way, and adding to their rations whatever they found in local gardens and farms. The 294th built the second bridge across the Rhine River, and Carroll recalled that as the American army moved into Germany, all the cities they came across were piles of rubble. In Germany, Carroll’s unit liberated a forced labor camp, and he remembered that the prisoners were horribly emaciated.
With the end of the war, Carroll remained on occupation duty in Germany, since he did not have enough “points” to return home. He remembered that the news of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan totally surprised him, and that he could not, at the time, grasp the magnitude of the event, although it relieved him that he would no longer have to go, as he had been advised, to the China/Burma/India War Theatre. Following the Japanese surrender Carroll relaxed, and even won an army sponsored trip to the Riviera before he was sent home. He returned to the United States on the SS Croatian, which took a week to sail to New York. Ordered to report immediately to New Jersey’s Camp Kilmer, Carroll managed to stop home in Jersey City for a day before reporting to the camp. He was mustered out of the service at Camp Kilmer in December, 1945. Carroll’s brother served in the Marine Corps in the Pacific during the war, and the brothers were able to keep in contact by letter during the course of the conflict.
John M. Carroll was awarded the European, African and Middle Eastern service medal, the Good Conduct medal and the World War II Victory medal for his service. Following the war he attended college for two years, majoring in English Literature. Carroll then went to work in a bank, where he eventually became a vice president. He had no regrets regarding his service and has often discussed his experiences with his family and friends.