CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
James A. Kane was born in South Plainfield, New Jersey in August, 1916. In April 1936, when he was employed by Merck & Company’s Purchasing Department at the company’s Rahway, New Jersey offices, a co-worker urged Kane to join the New Jersey National Guard’s 102nd Cavalry Regiment. The co-worker made the point that membership in the cavalry outfit, which had an armory at Westfield, New Jersey, would provide an opportunity to ride horses and impress girls. Kane’s friend referred to the unit as “a poor man’s riding club.” Once troopers reached the noncommissioned rank of corporal, they, and their guests, were allowed to ride unit horses for pleasure along the Plainfield Riding Club trails on weekends. Kane found he enjoyed riding and soon joined the gymkhana [a riding sport with events that require skills useful for a cavalryman] and trick riding teams.
The 102nd conducted annual training exercises at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania and Canton, New York while Kane was a member of the unit prior to World War II. National Guard training included dismounted marksmanship with the Model 1903 Springfield .30 caliber bolt action rifle and mounted marksmanship with the 1911A1 .45 automatic pistol, which was fired at targets while riding at a canter. Kane recalled that the Canton training area was poorly sited in a marshy area, and that rain turned the regiment’s campground into a sea of mud. The troopers of the 102nd, under the direction of regular army engineers, had to cut down trees and lumber to build a corduroy road in order to move supplies in through the muck.
The 102nd was federalized in early 1941 for one year’s service and assigned for further training to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Kane liked South Carolina and remembered the people as being friendly to soldiers, who they took into their homes as guests during brief weekend leave periods. He was staying with a family for a weekend after some maneuvers in North Carolina when he heard over the radio about the attack on Pearl Harbor. His host said that he thought Kane and his comrades were now “in for the duration” and broke out some whiskey for a good luck toast.
By the end of 1941 the 102nd had exchanged its horses for jeeps, armored cars and light tanks, but remained a cavalry unit designed for a reconnaissance role in combat. The regiment left for England in 1942, and Kane shipped out on the Dempo, a Dutch ship under British control. He had no preconceived ideas of what would happen, but looked on the war as “a great big adventure.” The Dempo was armed with a deck gun, and men from the 102nd were trained to assist the British gun crew.
The Dempo made port at the Mersey River docks in Liverpool. The 102nd’s advance party boarded trains for the Cotswolds, a rural area of gently rolling hills and quaint villages, where they established camp on an estate. The rest of the regiment eventually joined them. The enlisted men lived in Quonset huts erected on the estate, and the officers resided in the manor house. Some of the officers, in imitation of their British peers, made “swagger sticks” by disassembling .30 caliber cartridges and joining case and bullet with a foot long dowel.
Since the 102nd was short of all sorts of equipment, Kane said, initial training was limited to long hikes through the Cotswold Hills. As new equipment arrived, the men began to familiarize themselves with light tanks [M-5 “Stuarts”] and 75-millimeter Assault Guns. Kane recalled that many of the men of the 102nd, used to being in a mounted unit, were unfamiliar with the new vehicles they were issued, and that they needed truck driving instruction in addition to tank driving instruction. He said that the light tanks issued to the unit had radial engines, which required a lot of up and down shifting, and the inexperienced drivers from the 102nd ruined a few transmissions during their familiarization training. The training area around the regimental camp was not large, and tanks driving on the narrow roads winding through the old villages of the Cotswolds often clipped the corners off houses, which were built out to the curbs.
Kane was assigned to the assault gun troop, which made a road march to Oak Hampton, a British army artillery range in the southwest of England. The assault guns were artillery pieces mounted on tank chassis. The men of the 102nd had received no training on these weapons in the US and were limited to line of sight shooting. Eventually an artillery officer was attached to the unit to teach the cavalrymen how to fire the guns properly and adjust their fire in indirect fire situations. Eventually Kane got good enough with his gun to hit a moving target, which he destroyed, ending practice for the day, as there were no other targets available. The assault gun vehicles were also armed with .50 caliber machine guns for antiaircraft defense. Target practice with these weapons involved shooting at a long sleeve towed by an airplane. On one occasion an officer from the 102nd shot down the tow plane by accident. As the invasion of Europe approached, the Jersey Guardsmen were moved to other camps, ending up at Exeter in a World War I era British army camp. During this period General Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the unit. Kane remembered Eisenhower as a “great guy” who “instilled a lot of confidence” in the troops.
Life in England was not all training exercises. While awaiting the inevitable invasion of France, the men of the 102nd had the opportunity to see several USO shows, including performances from such top name entertainers of the era as Bob Hope, Jerry Colonna and Frances Langford. The Red Cross provided soldiers with coffee and donuts as well.
The 102nd was reorganized while it was in England. One squadron was detached and sent to North Africa, where it was eventually re-designated as the 117th Cavalry Squadron. The remaining two squadrons of the 102nd were re-designated as the 102nd Cavalry Group, and the Thirty-eighth Cavalry Squadron, composed mostly of Midwestern soldiers, was attached to the 102nd to replace the 117th. A number of officers and non-commissioned officers, including Sergeant Kane, were transferred to the Thirty-eighth, where Kane became a first sergeant.
Prior to the Normandy invasion the 102nd Cavalry Group joined the massive force concentrating in the south of England. Sergeant Kane recalled that soldiers and vehicles were packed in fields and yards as far as he could see, and that roads were choked with bumper to bumper vehicles. The Thirty-eighth boarded a troop transport a week before D-Day, joining hundreds of vessels in the English Channel, and landed in France on D-Day+2. Kane remembered that there was random artillery firing, but that the beachhead had been secured. The squadron moved inland quickly, where it deployed in combat formation, with space between vehicles. Over the next few days the unit passed Malcolm Forbes’ estate, Balleroy, but “no one was home.”
The Thirty-eighth’s first real combat was the St. Lo Breakout, in late July 1944. Kane recalled that A Troop of the Thirty-eighth was badly hit around 4:30 or 5:00 PM of the first day’s fighting [July 25?] and had to be replaced by A Troop of the 102nd in the line. He remembered the Germans as “good soldiers, well trained, and with terrific equipment.” He noted that the German eighty-eight millimeter artillery piece, which was used as an anti-tank, anti-personnel and anti-aircraft weapon, was superior to any similar gun fielded by the American army. He remembered seeing, from his vantage on the side of a road, a high velocity eighty-eight round pass by like a “streak of lightning” to hit and totally destroy an American jeep. German Tiger tanks were equipped with “eighty-eights” and were much more formidable than the American tanks.
From the date of its initial enemy contact, the 102nd Cavalry Group spent ninety-two consecutive days on the front line. As a cavalry unit, its job was to screen the V Corps flanks and front and keep in contact with the enemy, capturing prisoners so that higher headquarters could determine the enemy order of battle. Kane described cavalry action as “hit and run” tactics.
The Thirty-eighth crossed the Marne River on a pontoon bridge one moonlit night and drove up the slope on the opposite side of the river. As the Americans crested the hill, Kane looked to one side and saw a haunting scene, row upon row of white crosses – an American military cemetery from World War I. “And here we are again,” he thought.
At some point after Normandy, the Model 1911A1 .45 caliber pistols the men of the 102nd had been issued as cavalrymen were recalled, leaving them with only their rifles and carbines. Kane liked his .45 and was fortunate to find a packet of equipment parachuted to the resistance in Belgium but not recovered by them that included a Model 1911A1. He took it and would carry it for the rest of the war.
By December 1944 the Thirty-eighth was holding the front line in hilly terrain at Monchau, when the Germans launched the massive offensive that resulted in the Battle of the Bulge. Kane recalled the fighting during the Bulge as “one of the toughest times in the war.” The Thirty-eighth received emergency replacements from the Air Corps, who had to get a quick training session on firing tank guns. Some of these inexperienced men did not last long in combat. The cavalry held on until the American counteroffensive eventually routed the Germans, capturing thousands of them in fights like that for the Colmar Pocket. Sergeant Kane was fortunate to have a radio operator who spoke fluent German, a source of instant intelligence from captured German soldiers.
Kane thought that injured American soldiers got much better medical care than the Germans, who did not, at least at this stage of the war, appear to provide much care for their wounded. The Americans also usually had enough food. Units had a number of small Coleman stoves for individual cooking, but field kitchens usually kept up with the advance. He noted that some Iowa farm boys in the Thirty-eighth were expert butchers, and that cows and horses killed by artillery fire often ended up on the squadron menu. Kane recalled that cold weather clothing supplies were mostly adequate, although some soldiers suffered frostbite as the squadron slid forward over icy winter roads. He remembered morale during the Bulge as being quite high, despite the Germans and the weather, although he did note that two or three soldiers, desperate to get out of combat, suffered self-inflicted wounds.
The 102nd Cavalry Group ended the war in Czechoslovakia, camped in a field near a stream outside a small town near Pilsen, famed for its Pilsener beer. The soldiers shared their food with the local Czech population and raided a former German supply dump in Pilsen for tents and other equipment. Kane and his comrades also acquired wood from a local lumberyard to build a bridge across the stream and boxes to send home their souvenirs. They wrapped telephone wire, which was readily available, around the boxes to insure they were not tampered with. While in Czechoslovakia, Kane had a reunion with his brother, who was serving in a nearby engineer unit.
First Sergeant Kane, who had shipped out to England with the 102nd, had more “points” towards his discharge than most members of the Thirty-eighth, which had joined the 102nd when it was in England. He left the squadron behind, traveling by train to Marseilles, France, carrying his clothing, along with the .45 caliber 1911A1 pistol he had found in the Belgian forest, securely wrapped up in his poncho. His trip home from France, via a B-17 bomber converted to carry personnel, took him over the Mediterranean to Gibraltar, then across the Atlantic to the Azores, Bermuda, and Washington, D.C. He took a train from Washington to Ft. Dix, where his wife and father picked him and some buddies up. His father bought them all a round of beers.
When he thinks back now on the war, James Kane still feels badly about the men he served with who did not make it home, but reflects that the old 102nd Cavalry, New Jersey National Guard, was a good outfit to go to war with if one had to go. He expressed a wish that there should be more organizations around like the old 102nd of the 1930s, with the horses, rifle matches and polo games that made the unit not only a military organization, but a “great club.” He still visits his surviving old buddies, and attends reunions of the 102nd.
James A. Kane passed away on December 16, 2013.