Armie Hill—A Final Chapter

Left: Armie met Eini Seppa on while on leave in Chicago after his return from Europe. The two became engaged and soon after married in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on August 13, 1944. This is their wedding portrait.

Right: Armie and Eini enjoy a warm day at Spectacle Lake in Phelps, Wisconsin, October 1999. Armie died in April 2000.

On this site I’ve posted most of the war interview material I recorded with my father, Armie Hill. This last account covers the time he spent at the end of the war as a guard at the Port of Embarkation in New York City.

This portion of the interview picks up where “Escape—Armie Hill’s First Account” ends. The recording was done in 1976.

To New York City

After the 30 days I reported to Fort Sheridan. It was like going back into basic training again. I had to fill out all of my papers because they had been lost. And I had to have all my shots again and take some basic training.

As I was trained as an army engineer, they looked for an engineering unit that I could be assigned to. Finally the sergeant in charge said that I would be assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There I was to report to the 325th Engineer Battalion. They were called the 100th Division. Many of the fellows there hadn’t had much training. A few of them had had overseas training. I was in Company A. When I reported in at the camp it was a Sunday and a lieutenant was in charge.

He asked me, “Which outfit were you with before you went overseas?”

“Well,” I answered, “I went overseas with the 19th Engineers.”

He looked at me and said, “19th Engineers? Why, I was with the 19th Engineers before they went overseas.”

He asked me which company I was with, and I said, “Company D.”

“I was with Company D!” he said.

He had been a sergeant in the 19th Engineers. Just before Pearl Harbor he went to OTS—Officers Training School—and he didn’t report back.

He told the captain, “The 19th Engineers—there was a real engineering outfit!”

We were a corps of engineers—a regiment. We had a large amount of equipment that a battalion didn’t carry with them. A battalion was in charge of just a division. The Corps of Engineers covered the whole West Coast. The man I talked with was Lieutenant Denton. He wanted me with his company.

He asked the captain, “May I have him in my company?”

The captain gave his permission. So we talked. He asked me what had become of some of the men we both knew. I got along very well with him. They were going to go overseas in the fall. I had to take all of the basic training. And I had to give talks on landing and minefields and other practical experiences.

By fall I was ready to go overseas. I had all my shots, I had all my equipment marked and packed up, and I had to send out form letters to my family.

The day before the company left, Lieutenant Denton said, “We got special orders. You can’t be sent overseas. A prisoner-of-war can’t be sent back to the same field. We have to send you someplace else. We’re sending you to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. We’re getting orders printed out. Get all of your stuff and get ready to move.”

I had to unpack, turn in all my supplies, and just keep my clothing. That same day I took a bus to Fayetteville, North Carolina. At Fayetteville, I caught a bus to Camp Kilmer. That was the way the army worked. You never knew from one minute to the next what would happen. At Camp Kilmer I had to answer questions, fill out papers, and be interrogated to find out what I could do.

Finally they told me, “You are being sent to New York City now. You will be stationed with the guard detachment 5Dy7 in the New York Port of Embarkation. I took a train to New York City, and from there I took a bus to Pier 90.

The arial photograph on this WW II era postcard shows lower Manhattan, with the piers along the North River in the foreground.

There they told me, “You’ll will be in charge. This is highly secret work and you have been specially picked for this mission. You will be working with the British Intelligence and the American Intelligence. What you see here and what you do you can’t report to anyone. You will be working on the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary, among other ships. This is the world’s largest port of embarkation.

You cannot disclose any information. The enemy would love to know what times the ships leave or what times they are to arrive.”

A navy ship, the Normandy, had been burned at Pier 88, right next to our pier, and they thought it was sabotage. The bulk of the ship was still sunk in the water where it had burned. The Queen Mary would dock on one side of the pier and the Queen Elizabeth on the other. Sometimes only one would be in at a time, other times both were in at the same time. The pier was over a quarter of a mile long, and the ships were almost as long as the pier.

We loaded as many as 15,000 men on each ship. We had a lot of responsibility, but also a lot of authority. Our word went very far. Rank meant nothing. Regardless of what rank a person held, he still had to obey us. There was the New York Police and the AMP—Auxiliary Military Police—and we made up the Security Guard. The Security Guard ranked above all the others.

When the ships came in, I was the first one aboard the ship when the gangplank was lowered. I would first post a guard on the gangplank and then walk aboard. I went to the master of the ship in the wheelhouse with orders that he had to sign turning the ship over to the Port of Embarkation. After he signed the orders, he didn’t have anything to say about the ship until just before the ship left, when I gave him a release. He signed that also. Then the responsibility went back to him again.

It seemed strange to me that just a few months earlier I had been in the lowest position—I couldn’t speak a word in my own defense. Now I was in command of the world’s largest ships and I carried a huge responsibility. I had as many as 300 men under me—men that I was in charge of.

I sometime thought to myself, “Here I am, from a small town, with just a grade school education from a country school. Wouldn’t you think that they would have men who were specially trained for positions like this?” But, again, that was the way the army worked and it always seemed to work out well.

All the while I was working on the pier there was no trouble. There were some small fires where welding or braising was going on, and we had to call the fire department for those, but we didn’t lose a single ship and we didn’t lose any men. We loaded and unloaded millions of men while I was there. While the invasion of Normandy was going on we put in long hours. Everything had to be punctual—things had to be done at the right time.

One strange thing happened around the time of the invasion of Normandy. We were loading troops, and I was on the ship from four o’clock in the afternoon until midnight. I was on duty inspecting the guard, standing by the gangplank and watching the troops load. It was about 11:30 at night.

There was a long line of men entering the ship. They were being checked as they loaded. It was the Queen Elizabeth that they were boarding.
Someone hollered, “Hey!”

I didn’t generally pay attention to men hollering, because when you are loading 15,000 troops a night you can’t talk to every single man, because they are always asking questions—“Where are we going?”—“What ship are we going on?”

We could hardly tell them anything anyhow. But this one fellow attracted my attention. He had his helmet over his eyes. He had his pack and his rifle. I walked over to him.

He said, “Aren’t you from Wisconsin?”

I said, “Yes, I am.” I kind of wondered why he mentioned that.

He said, “Aren’t you from Phelps?”

And I said “Yeah!”

I looked closer and still didn’t know who he was.

And he said, “Aren’t you Armie Hill?”

I said, “Sure!”

“Well,” he said, “I’m Matt Pennala.”

The Red Cross gave each of the men doughnuts and a small container of milk. Matt had these and he was so excited that when he took a drink it spilled all over the front of his clothes. We talked for a little while. It was a miracle to see someone from Phelps—a dot on the nation—in the port at New York. Finally I told him, “I’m going to be off duty in a few minutes. I have to go check another gangplank, but I’ll come back and talk with you again.”

I went down to check the lower level to make sure the upcoming relief would replace the guard there. When I got back, I looked for Matt but he was gone. He had gone on the ship already. I thought I could possibly go onto the ship and look for him but I was going off duty right away.

I could go anywhere I wanted to. I was very familiar with the ships. I knew every crook and staircase. I had walked them for many days.

Matt and I still laugh and talk about that experience to this day.

After the Germans surrendered, I was technically eligible for a discharge because they started relieving the men according to points. But because my job was so vital and the men were still coming back from overseas, they wouldn’t let me go. I would have needed only about 59 points to get out of service and I had over 98. I didn’t complain. I was happy to be of service. They relaxed quite a few of the rules. One day there were photographers from Life magazine on the pier. They wanted to take pictures of both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, which were both in port. The sergeant that I relieved told me photographers would be taking pictures of the ships.

“But,” he said, “Don’t let them get on the ships until they get special orders.”

They insisted on getting on, but I told them they would have to get special orders from headquarters, which was on the same pier. They returned with written orders and I let them aboard. I still have the pictures that appeared in that Life magazine.

Among other ships that docked at the Port of Embarkation was the Ille de France. There were also Swedish ships. Some of the men on the Swedish ships talked Finn. I stood on the side and listened to what they said. They would sometimes even talk about me—the guard—as I just stood by smiling. A little later I’d say hello in Finn—and did they looked at me! Then we’d talk a little. They wondered how I learned to speak Finnish.

I told an officer once that I didn’t understand why I was chosen for the job at the port.

He said, “Well, when we look at all your experiences we know if you are the man we need. You should be proud you’ve been picked. You are an expert shot. You know some Italian and you speak Finn. You have worked with the French and the British, and have been with Arabs, Italians, and Germans. All that is important.”

They wanted me to stay on when my time was up. I could have signed up for another six months, but it was nearly fall and I was anxious to get some hunting done at home. I wanted to get out before winter set in. I had been in the service almost five years when I put in for my discharge. My wife Eini was with me in New York at the time. We were living with my sister. Our daughter was born in New York. It was crowded there, and I was anxious to get back home and find a place for us to stay.

After my army career I didn’t have any regrets. The first year was the longest. The rest of the time went by fast. I felt it was a great experience—serving the country and meeting all the types of men I met during those years.

Note: George Hautala (who was in my division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina—and was an attendant at Eini’s and my wedding) later told me Lieutenant Ramon E. Denton (Company A, 325th Engineer Combat Battalion, 100th Infantry Division), who had me assigned to his division after I returned from overseas, stepped on a mine in Germany and was killed.