The 99th Infantry Division was activated Nov 16, 1942, at Camp Van Dorn, Miss., and when raw recruits arrived in early December, the picture they viewed was far from rosy. Camp Van Dorn, hastily built as the Army mushroomed in every direction, was a tar paper shanty town sprawled across the red mud of Southern Mississippi.
Men of the division, most of whom came from northern states, not only faced basic training but one of the most miserable winters in years. Both service clubs burned down by Christmas; there was only one small theater for 20,000 men; any town of more than 2000 population was 50 miles distant; besides, there were no busses. Then men had to help dig ditches to drain the camp, build walks, paint signs, and ready the camp for training, which began Jan 4, 1943. The early spring produced more than green grass and blue skies. Men of the 99th began to look like soldiers, to feel the bond that springs from the Checkerboard shoulder patch. Originally planned as a Pennsylvania outfit, the 99th had taken its checkerboard insignia from the city of Pittsburgh’s coat of arms.
Meanwhile, the division underwent the various growing pains of an outfit destined for combat. Prior to its departure for Louisiana Maneuvers in the fall of 1943, Gen. Lauer assumed command.
After giving a good account of itself during maneuvers, the 99th moved to Camp Maxey, six miles north of Paris, Texas, and within weekend range of Dallas. Here, Checkerboarders spent nearly a year in putting on the final polish. Brig. Gen. Hugh T. Mayberry, Peekskill, N.Y., who organized and served as the first commandant of the Camp Hood Tank Destroyer School, joined the 99th as an assistant division commander in February 1944. The following month division strength was boosted by the arrival of more than 3000 men released by the Army Specialized Training Program. These men trained as a provisional regiment until absorbed by the 99th three months later in time to take part in the hasty box-building program that began in August.
There was sea spray in the Texas dust and the division entrained for Camp Miles Standish near Boston the second week in September. After two weeks of final preparations, Checkerboarders boarded ships including the Army transport, Gary W. Goethals; the ex-freighter, Explorer, and the one-time luxury liner, Argentina, and sailed for England, Sept. 29.
Arriving at a number of English ports, the division assembled at Dorsetshire near the city of Dorchester where three weeks were spent in hikes and calisthenics while the job of final staging with its myriad supply problems and last-minute checks was carried on.
Forty-eight hour passes, most of them to London but some to points as far as Scotland, were the rule rather than the exception. There were company and battalion parties at which English girls enjoyed the fresh doughnuts and hot chocolate.
The Checkerboard Division saw war’s ravages the first time at Le Havre, France, where it landed on D plus 5 months, between Nov. 3 and 7 1944. The voyage from Southampton was made in various types of craft. Everybody who could drove trucks and jeeps during the motor march across northwestern France and southwestern Belgium. The destination was Aubel, a small farm town north of Verviers in the easternmost portion of Belgium near the Liege-Aachen Military Highway No.3.
There were no delays now. With little sleep and few hot meals, elements of the division moved south from the assembly area into the line. Names like Monchau, Elsenborn, and Honsfeld meant little to the Checkerboarders in those first few days. But all new as they marched into the Ardennes that the biggest chapter in their lives was about to be written.