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Our War: East St. Louis man took part in D-Day, kept troops supplied with ammo

Staff Sgt. Marvin Wright posed on this motorcycle in 1944 during training in Wyoming for D-Day.
Staff Sgt. Marvin Wright posed on this motorcycle in 1944 during training in Wyoming for D-Day.

Marvin Wright listened to his mother, gave up life as a swing band drummer and returned to college in 1940.

Uncle Sam interrupted and sent the musician in a different direction. The detour took him up the beach on D-Day, on back roads to get ammo to the troops in Bastogne and showed him what it meant to be a teacher and leader.

"At Fort Leonard Wood, the captain found out I had a year or so of college. A bunch of guys couldn't read or write, so the captain had me explain the laws of the Army to them. Several nights a week I'd teach those knuckleheads," Wright said. "The same thing happened in Cheyenne at Fort Warren. There were a bunch of guys from Louisiana, and 90 percent of them had not been to high school."

Those barracks lessons helped Wright shape his future. He couldn't catch on to the new be-bop craze that replaced swing, plus had not drummed in more than four years thanks to the Army, so after the war he finished college and became a teacher and principal in East St. Louis.

World War II started for Wright not long after Pearl Harbor was bombed. He was inducted in February 1942 and spent more than two years stateside -- first at Fort Leonard Wood and then at Fort Warren, where the training got specific for Staff Sgt. Wright and the 3109th Quartermaster Service Co.

"I knew we were a special unit. Black troops were few and far between on D-Day. That's what we were trained for and why the brass was always around observing us," Wright said.

The unit left Southampton on a troop ship June 5 and it stormed all night. On June 6 they climbed down rope ladders and had to time their drop with the swells or they would be crushed between the ship and Higgins landing boats.

"Some fellows did die that way."

He said it was raining, and they were wet. When they reached Omaha Beach late in the afternoon on D-Day, there was desolation and disabled tanks and bodies in the water.

"It was scary. I got off that boat and thought it was my last day. It sounded like a thousand Fourth of Julys," he said. "That first day our job was to get off the beach so others could get on it. We were to find cover and survive."

It took about an hour to get the 200 scared members of the unit together, then they hiked about four or five miles up the beach and two or three miles inland to woods near a little town called Villedieu. That night was the only night of the war that Wright spent in a foxhole.

The next day, his big supply tent was up, and for nearly two months he lived in it with the three white officers who commanded the segregated unit. The rest of the soldiers kept sleeping in foxholes.

"As soon as my tent was up, here they would come. We all slept together in this enormous tent."

They remained in Villedieu until the allies broke through the German lines at St. Lo in late July. Wright's company drove truck convoys to Cherbourg to pick up food, ammo and other supplies.

"One time we stopped and asked a little boy, 'Where is the city?' He pointed to three or four houses that were bombed out and said that was it. I always wondered what he was doing there all by himself."

Then, after the St. Lo breakthrough, Wright's unit was attached to Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army and they raced across France. They bypassed Paris during the liberation and made their base at Verdun.

Wright was in charge of the convoys -- the officers never went -- and he rode in the lead truck. They lost about five members to truck crashes and mines in the road.

"Several were injured, several were killed, but none by bullets. If we hit a mine, the first thing we'd do is notify our superiors -- you don't try to take charge in the Army. You'd see what the second lieutenant wanted you to do.

"There were no phones, so we'd send the Jeep that was covering our rear."

The trucks would get supplies from the ammo and supply dumps to the front. He said the front wasn't a line of trenches like in World War I.

"The front varied. When you passed a lot of men in foxholes, that was the front."

Then on Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans rolled across allied lines with a counteroffensive -- the Battle of the Bulge.

He said the popular account of the 101st Airborne being surrounded in Bastogne wasn't exactly true. Wright said they were holding Bastogne and were not quite surrounded.

"We could get supplies in there. The Germans had them mostly surrounded, but we held a few roads."

The battle was when Wright heard the most weapons fire, but none of his men were shot.

When the allies again drove into Germany, Wright and the convoy were there supplying the offensive. They set up in Bamberg, Germany. He said the German civilians were friendly, just like the French had been, especially if cigarettes or chocolate were available.

"The officers sent out notice that we were to stop fraternizing with the Germans, but it didn't do any good," he said. "The soldiers would load up whatever they had gathered or stolen and trade it for booze, etc."

Wright best remembers the good things, including leaves to Munich, Brussels and Paris. He never saw the Eiffel Tower, but remembers a Paris nightclub with a jazz combo.

"The guys told me, 'You used to be a drummer. Ask to sit in.' I made a fool of myself. I hadn't played for years and wasn't used to the music they were playing. It was swing with a French beat."

As the war ended, the officers in Wright's company wanted him to re-enlist and go to officer training school.

"I politely refused," he said. "I'd had enough of the Army. I wanted to go back to civilian life and East St. Louis and nightclubs and everything."

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