|THE CITADEL | PUBLIC AFFAIRS OFFICE||
Charles O. Fortsonís Diary:
A glimpse into the life of a 1939 alumnus during World War II
Mary B. Kegley
On June 6, 1944, Capt. Charles O. Fortson, of Augusta, Ga., wrote in his World War II diary that he “would place this book in the hands of a most sincere friend for his safekeeping until such time as I can have him send it to me, or upon absolute proof that I won’t be back, he will send this to my beloved wife.” How the diary of The Citadel 1939 graduate arrived at an antique mall in Wythe County, Va., is a puzzle not yet solved.
The diary, begun on July 5, 1942, in Iceland, is 80 pages long and has many references to Citadel graduates who were stationed in various places there in the early stages of the war. The blank leather-bound diary was a gift from his wife, Marjorie (nicknamed Punk or Punkin), “the most adorable, most thoughtful, and . . . the most precious one in this whole wide world.”
In the summer of 2004, my friend Beverly Repass Hoch of Wytheville, Va., purchased the diary and realized that this document was special. But who was Fortson and where might we find more information?
Research began in the Augusta public library which reported that Forston had died from a stroke in Los Gatos, Calif., Feb. 9, 1993. With the help of the alumni office at The Citadel, and Internet listings, his wife, Marjorie, and a son, Randolph, were found to be living in Oregon in 2004. Conversations and e-mail followed. The family had never heard of the diary, probably because like so many World War II veterans who did not talk of their experiences, Fortson never mentioned it. After the war he moved to San Jose, Calif., to join IBM as an engineer where he worked for 25 years before retirement.
As a stranger reading the diary, it was apparent that he loved and respected his wife. He was a man of character. In recalling events prior to receiving the diary, Fortson noted that his wife’s birthday was May 8, 1942, and on that day he received the sad news that their “twin sons were born on April 4 and lived only 15 hours.” To him that was quite a shock but he was “so thankful that she is OK.”
Although he was fascinated by the Icelandic girls and how they danced (especially when “the American officers taught them the Little Apple and other boogie woogie steps”), Fortson was quick to add that he had not danced with any, and “I don’t plan to.” Some of the married men had affairs with the local girls and this prompted Fortson to add that he was thankful for his “Mother and Dad,” and I “thank God that I love my wife and cherish her love for me above all else.”
Fortson also recognized The Citadel officers who joined him. “There are quite a few Citadel men here and every now & then we get together for a bull session & fight between the Infantry and Artillery clans,” he wrote. They were “strongly considering forming an Icelandic Citadel Club,” but there was no mention of this actually happening. He listed the following with their rank and outfit and their year of graduation:
On Dec. 31, 1942, Fortson noted that Maj. J. S. Albergetti, ’24, “is now exec of 61st” and was “really waking up everybody.” On March 1, 1943, Lt. Col. Wannamaker, “yet another citadel man class of ’24,” joined them and Lt. Snow, ’40, was also present. In April 1944 after moving to England, Fortson heard that Owens, ’41, was in England and that his “old roommate Snoz David” was there in the Air Force flying a B-17. He also saw Jake Burrows, his best man. It was clear he was proud of his Citadel comrades.
One he specifically mentioned was Lt. Jet Miller, ’37. On June 27, 1943, he claimed that “my very good buddie Jet Miller relieved me at the General Operations Room” and had been promoted to captain, a promotion Fortson had not yet received. However he always reported the promotions of others and would add such comments as “Happy Day!” or “good going fellows.” Finally, he became a captain February 1, 1944. On June 20, 1944, while still in England but expecting to go to France at any time, he reported that he would then begin to receive a major’s pay, realizing it would help out at home.
Fortson described Iceland and its people at length:
He also described the road and transportation system. To him the roads were “terrible, being very narrow and very bumpy.” Perhaps because of his background as an engineer, he noted that the place was “truly a place of great opportunity for a road builder, or highway contractor.”
Although cars were second hand and scarce, there were new trucks hauling everything “from rock to people.” There was a cab fitted into the bed of the truck which carried about 15 people. They drove on the left-hand side of the road, having adopted that system from the British who established the military presence there in 1939. There were no railroads and no streetcars, but a “wonderful bus service & taxi service.”
As for his military activities in Iceland, he was assigned to the General Operations Room (GOR) at Camp Shelby. The Americans were there to take over the anti-aircraft defense of Iceland from the British and the Marines. They took over the GOR in about six weeks, and he reported that they had about “one hundred planes a day come thru…on their way to England…weather permitting.” These included B-17’s, P-38s, C-54s and C-47s.
The German Air Force made regular visits to Iceland and often spread false rumors about their successes. On one occasion they claimed that Iceland was “wiped from the face of the earth & 45,000 troops had been captured.” On August 14, the U.S. Air Corps brought down the first German plane in Iceland.
Fortson also mentioned pilot “Carrott Top” Cobb of South Carolina whose plane caught fire and who successfully bailed out near Reykjavik after having difficulty opening his chute.
On February 4, Col. Pierce placed Fortson in charge of the AA Command Post with the title of senior gun control officer. It wasn’t long until he reported that German pilot in a JU 88 “got away scot free.” In April they hit one of the German planes, Mac McNulty and Ingelito getting the credit. On May 17 he was transferred to E battery, and on May 29, he became battery commander. Their mission was to defend the Meeks and Patterson airdromes. On July 18, 1943, he left E in Keflavik and moved to Bunker Hill to take over HQ Battery, 2nd Battalion, and by August 1, he was aboard the Duchess of Richmond waiting to cross the North Atlantic.
On Sept. 6, 1943, Fortson’s unit left Hvakfjord, their Icelandic stop en route to Scotland, in a convoy accompanied by three transports and four destroyers. On the way, Fortson and friends, Phil Hartman and Jessie Miller, enjoyed a little rum topside.
After a 17-hour train ride, he arrived at Camp Heathfield in Devon, England. Shortly after, he took his first leave in two years. He was impressed with the countryside and the people. He found the English “gracious & kind and so cheerful.” He explored various locations in the country. Then he took a train to London and ran into Hal Totten and had dinner at the Junior Officer’s Mess. From there he traveled to Edinburgh and on to St. Andrews where he stayed at the Links Hotel, operated by Alex Mitchell, the golf pro, formerly of Cleveland. Mitchell let him borrow his clubs and so for four days he played golf on three different courses. On his return he stopped at New Castle and returned to London where he and Jervey Kelley enjoyed dinner and “did the town.”
In December, he was moved to Camp Blanford, Blandford, Dorset, where Gen. Timberlake, the eldest of three brothers who were all brigadier generals, was in command. There were smaller camps located there and many outfits represented. Shortly after the first of the year the new commanding officer, Col. G. G. McCaustland took over.
Fortson foresaw the invasion and knew “that beach is going to be a damn unhealthy place for about 72 hours after H hour of D day.” He was worried about the success of the operation. At the end of April he was put in command of an AAA Operations Detail of the 148th with the assignment “to equip it, train it and be ready for combat operations in a period of weeks.”
On June 6, 1944, he was in England listening to the news on four radio receivers, and saying “many silent prayers for those close friends” who were “fighting their hearts out.” He knew that somebody was “catching plu-perfect hell.”
As the diary came to an end June 20, 1944, Fortson was still in Blandford, England, observing the various units pulling out and expecting to follow them soon. He anticipated taking up writing again, but whether he continued to write about his Citadel comrades, his friends and events that followed is not known. The family knew that he had been sent to Paris as an artillery officer in charge of air defense after the liberation.
Charles Fortson, a Citadel man, wrote detailed accounts in his diary, although there were often long gaps between entries. In addition to his observations, he listed the more than 60 officers he had served with at the back of the diary. Also, many of his friends signed their autographs in three additional pages. His friend Miller inscribed his personal message “To Charlie my boy and Punk his girl my very best always.”
It is evident, though, that Fortson’s wartime thoughts were often of home, The Citadel and of his wife. Whether we will ever learn of the travels of his diary remains to be seen, but with so many names mentioned in the diary, perhaps someone will know how it reached us here in Virginia.
Mary B. Kegley lives in Wytheville, Va. She is an attorney, a historian and a researcher of families of Southwest Virginia. She is the author or coauthor of 42 books, and she has written 72 articles that have been published in various historical and genealogical journals both in the United States and Northern Ireland. She has also had 100 articles published in her local newspaper under the heading of “Kegley's Corner.” She can be reached at mbkegley@AOL.com.
*Editor’s note: Fortson is referring to Lt. Col. Thomas Nugent Courvoisie, former assistant commandant of cadets, who became famous with the publication of Pat Conroy’s (’67) book, The Boo.
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