He kept the mail moving for anxious GIs at war
Merle Kibbey has lived his entire life in Pittsfield.
Except for the time between Dec. 5, 1942 and the end of World War II.
Those three years were spent in the service of the U.S. Army, as a supply clerk state-side and then as a mail clerk during a tour of duty in the European Theatre of operations.
Kibbey, now 92 years old, was born about half a mile from his current home on Davey Hill Road.
“I didn’t get very far,” he joked.
A 1939 graduate of Youngsville High School, Kibbey said that he spent his childhood working on his parents’ dairy farm. One of several children, “I was the last one. I helped my dad,” he said.
Still in the dairy business in 1942, Kibbey was “pedaling milk” for a business out of Youngsville. During a run into Warren, someone asked him why he didn’t just stay on the farm and avoid the war.
As the last child helping care for the farm, he could have made a case to avoid the service.
“A lot of people did that,” Kibbey said. “How would I have felt? Three months after I went in, my best friend went in. My brother Len went in one year later. (It) never would have felt right.”
So when his draft number was called, Kibbey reported for duty and was inducted at New Cumberland, Pa. on Dec. 5, 1942.
“I didn’t enlist,” he said. “I never wanted to volunteer for anything. I could have stayed out.” He explained that he was in the 20-44 age range of the draft. “We had guys over there that was 44 years old. Another was 38.”
While he felt a duty to answer the call, it doesn’t mean the decision was easy. “I never saw my Dad cry until I had to go to the army,” Kibbey said.
“I sent my carton of cigarettes home that the draft board give me,” he recalled. “(We) got lots of shots the day before we shipped out. (A) shot in each arm. (They) loaded us into a train. There was no wise crackin’ for a couple days” because of the shots.
“We ended up in camp in Van Dorn, Mississippi,” he said. “We took basic training; (then) I got a furlough home. I had three (furloughs) before I went overseas. Then we went out on maneuvers in Louisiana (and) ended up in Camp Maxey, Texas.”
Texas then became home for many months before he sailed for Europe.
“I don’t know why we was there so long; we should have been overseas,” he said, but noted he “didn’t go out hitchhiking to get over there without the people I knew.”
Kibbey and his unit left Texas on September 13, 1944.
“While we was in Camp Maxey, Texas, I was assigned to the Service Company, 394th infantry, 99th division,” he said. “(I was) assigned to the regimental supply office. (We) furnished all the food and the clothing for the regiments, about 3,000 people.”
While the work may seem tedious, Kibbey didn’t think so.
“I liked it. It was like a job to home,” he said. “(The Army) issued me an M-1 rifle. I had it the whole time I was a soldier.”
And as a corporal he even got to throw a lieutenant in the back of the truck.
“Before we left for overseas, we was on maneuvers. We got new second lieutenants. We had to go to a town and pick up the supplies,” he explained. “The one lieutenant come and said ‘can I ride to town with you?’ We got to town. They were loading the truck. I come back and the lieutenant is sitting with the truck driver in my seat.” He then told the lieutenant to get in the back.
And he did.
From Texas, his unit moved to Boston to ship out, leaving for England on the 29th of September. “(We) slept four to five high,” he said of the ship. “I couldn’t turn over at night. I would hit the guy above me.”
And it wasn’t until just before he left that he knew where he was going.
“We knew we was going to Europe,” he said. “They didn’t tell us anything.”
Kibbey spent approximately a month and a half in England.
And when it came time to go to the mainland, he was informed that he needed $10,000 in insurance.
He had $5,000.
“One Saturday morning, the ones that didn’t have it, (they) individually had us in an isolation booth,” Kibbey explained. “The major, he said ‘Corporal, why don’t you have $10,000 insurance?” I said “Major sir, since I was 17 years old, I’ve been making money. Up until no SOB has told me how to spend it.”
He went to the mainland with $5,000 insurance.
The 394th moved to Mergen, Belgium “and everything was quiet for a time when we got in action. (There) was buzz bombs going over, never anything close,” he explained. “We was living in a house.”
“I got to be a mail clerk when we went overseas,” said Kibbey. “We was supposed to be safe. We had guys captured.”
“That mail was important to people,” he added. “When we got mail, you could hear voices all over…. My mother wrote to us everyday, my brother and I. She’d be telling us things that Dad did.”
Things stayed quiet until the middle of December.
Then German dictator Adolf Hitler launched one last-ditch effort to thwart the American advance.
The Battle of the Bulge ensued.
“It was noisy that morning,” he said of December 16th, the first day of the battle. “A lot of big shells, we could hear them. The next day we had a chaplain and a chaplain’s assistant, the assistant had been in our company. (There) was a German outside. These two was killed immediately.
“Then we started to move. There was no planes from the 16th to the 22nd. That morning (the 22nd) the sky was full of planes. At night they come back. From that time on our part was pretty much over. We moved forward all different places our fighting men were in. We moved about every five to six days.”
And at that point, with the Bulge thwarted, many Germans were looking to surrender.
“One time we saw a soldier bringing 200 German prisoners,” said Kibbey. “Another time we was in a building. All of a sudden, this German civilian come in and he wanted to see the captain. We got a hold of the captain. He started taking off his clothes. He was a German officer. He wanted to surrender. There was still people killed and all.”
Kibbey said that a special package came in the mail on the 18th. “All we had to wear was leather shoes,” he said, “and my mother sent my boots, hunting boots. And the first morning I had them on there was snow and I don’t know whether he was a general he not, he was a big shot, but he reached down and got a hold of one. Now I don’t know if he was figuring on taking them off or not, he said ‘Are these the new GI packs?’
“I said, ‘No sir these are the Pittsfield special.'”
And as vast as the war was, Kibbey said that “in Texas, I run into two guys from Youngsville. They were in different outfits. Over in Germany once, we was stopped and this truck was coming down another road. (It) had Sugar Grove, Pa. on the side. It didn’t stop (but) had to be somebody I might have known.”
While his work as a mail clerk kept him off of the front lines, his travels across Europe took him through areas that had recently been the site of intense combat.
In February 1945, his unit moved into a town and he remembered the “dead animals they had shot in this town. There was a half track. One of our half tracks that a German must have captured. He laid in front of the half track. Spring was muddy and everything. They pulled that right out over them. I saw four horses hitched to a gun and… they were still laying there harness on and everything.”
But it was more than animals.
“We had a guy attached to our company (who) went and picked up the ones that got killed. He had an assistant, reaching down inside there and getting their dog tags. (You) gotta get used to that. Their first application, they vomit and everything. We called him ‘Doc.’ We would see a six-by-six with a whole load of bodies. I’d ate supper. I came out, our cook was up on top that load of bodies. I didn’t want to go looking.”
Once into Germany, “we was at the Remagen bridge head. When we went across it the action was already done and everything. The war wasn’t quite over but everything was looking that way. We went out one night (with a soldier by the last name of Daggit from Erie), we called it checking. We found lodging. (We) was leavin’ the next morning to get back to camp. He was bitching all the time over something.”
But Kibbey found the silver lining for himself and his friend.
“What other guys could be walking across the Rhine River with some champagne, even if it was warm?”
Then came V-E Day.
“When the Germans surrendered, we had some champagne and cognac, even a day or two before then because it was showing up,” Kibbey said. “We had Russian prisoners that had been liberated (and) hadn’t been fed very good.”
But the celebration was muted with the war in the Pacific continuing to rage.
“They had me planned to go to Japan,” he said. “Because we had be in the states we didn’t have many points. We wasn’t getting out like some of them. I wasn’t looking forward to that. I had had enough of playing war but I was to get a 45-day furlough, then (to) go to Japan.
“When I was on the ship headed home, they dropped the bombs and that was the best news I have ever heard.”
“We just loaded and started for home,” he said. “Oh, that was a great day. I saw the Statue of Liberty and anything never looked any better than she did.”
While they didn’t disembark in New York, being taken to Boston before they could set foot on land, Kibbey still remembers his first meal in the states.
“We had a steak. The first meal was a steak.”
After his scheduled furlough, Kibbey went to an Army base in Missouri.
“I was there for must have been three weeks,” he said, “and it didn’t make sense. They’d call us out and give us lectures on if you got captured. (There was) probably… 400 people there. I got discharged the last of November, just before deer season.”
Then, after travel all over Europe, it was time for Corporal Kibbey to go home, for good.
When the train left him off in Warren, Kibbey hitch-hiked to Youngsville. “There was I guy I knew from Pittsfield (who) gave me a ride and took me right home.
“My mother was out to the barn talking to Dad. I went into the house without anybody seeing me. When she came in, I was there. It was all a surprise.”
His brother Len, who was drafted a year after Merle, also made it home safely. “He made it through,” Kibbey said of his brother, who served in the Navy in the Pacific. “He was closer to killing people than I was. He said they sunk some kind of ship. I didn’t want to go over to see Japan.”
Settling back into civilian life, Kibbey was married in 1949 and about the same time purchased the home in which he still resides for $7,000.
He and his wife had four children, one of which died at the age of three from leukemia.
He worked for himself, hauling lumber and working in the woods with horses.
“I ordered a truck right after I got out,” he said. “It took quite a while to get it then I finally got to hauling limber.” He then transported to a wholesale mill in Youngsville from many other smaller mills.
When he was 46, he went to work with Sylvania.
The Warren County Fair has also been an important part of Kibbey’s life. He said he has only missed two fairs, as a result of his service, since 1930. Two of the fairs during the war years actually fell during his furlough time.
He’s also been an avid hunter. “I’ve hunted every deer season until last year,” since returning from the service, said Kibbey.
While he was proud to serve and answer his country’s call in its time of need, Kibbey noted his service “was a great experience. I don’t think I’d want to do it again. I had a lot of fun. I never really got homesick. I knew I couldn’t come home anyways.”