Mike Conte, Belgium, 1944
"It Wasn't All War"
December 15, 1994
Interviewer: Rheba Massey
'My Father Told Me Not to Go"
nineteen-year-old Mike Conte heard about Pearl Harbor he
was shocked. He was working in the Bethlehem Steel
shipyards in Staten Island, New York, and went to enlist
right away, but they weren't taking men his age yet. His
father ripped up the enlistment papers. "You don't
know what war is all about," the W.W.I veteran told
his son. A few months later, in the face of the draft,
his father relented, reasoning it was better to enlist in
one's preferred branch of the service. Mike and two
buddies wanted the Air Corps, but the recruiting officer
pushed the Signal Corps.
After training in various locations, including Fort
Dix, where he met his older brother, Mike was assigned to
Signal Repair and sent to England on the Queen Mary.
"England was Wonderful"
The ship docked at the Firth of Clyde in Scotland, and
the troops traveled by train to Taunton, England, where
preparations for receiving the troops were incomplete.
Mike's section stayed in a skittle alley (bowling alley.)
He was later stationed in Bath and Oxford . When the
company was reunited, thousands of men found themselves
in a "hell hole" of mud at Warminster. Then
good fortune smiled on Mike. His Signal Repair company
was sent to the Bristol area where they were quartered in
big tents at Norton Maurey Ward, an estate outside of
Whitchurch. It was at Whitchurch that Mike would meet
Victoria, his bride-to-be.
Even though he hadn't known how to drive before his
army training, Mike had received stateside training on a
two and a half ton truck -- up on blocks! He was assigned
to the motor pool and got to drive all over England,
which he describes as "really wonderful". He
had more freedom than the average soldier and was thus
able to court a young English woman he met at a dance. He
recalls leaving her home one night at 11 PM to walk back
to camp. He was only a mile away when "all hell
broke loose". The nearby seaport of Bristol was
being bombed. He ran back to her house, but the family
was not affected, having moved their sleeping quarters to
the basement of the house when the bombing of England
began. His wife-to-be had lost her brother at Salerno,
the month before she met Mike, and her family
"took" to the young American.
Mike enjoyed his job in the motor pool and the
opportunity to see much of England until he was one of
the many thousands sent to Salisbury Plains to marshal
for the D-Day invasion.
"The Day of the Invasion - I'll Never Forget it
as Long as I Live."
Mike got engaged before leaving the Whitchurch area.
Everyone knew the invasion was coming, but the Ordnance
Tank Outfit Mike was assigned to didn't leave for eleven
days, so his view of the invasion was from the English
side of the channel at Weymouth. He remembers the planes
flying over, H-hour, and afterwards the paratroopers and
gliders, and thinking "I got to remember this
because I'm going home." Mike was aware of how young
he was and that he'd never before been more than a few
miles from his home in Staten Island. "The planes
all had their lights on while they were over England so
the English and the soldiers wouldn't think it was
England which was being invaded. . . Then when they hit
the English Channel, the lights all went out. As far as
you could see that sky . . . I'll never forget that--I'll
never forget that."
When it was his time to go, he was on a LST, a Landing
Ship Transport, and landed at Utah Beach at 2 am.
"Utah Beach was the quietest of all the beaches
there. At one time they thought that would be the worst.
It wasn't. Omaha Beach was the worst for the
On the 11th day of the invasion, Mike waited until
daylight to cross the field and saw many of the vehicles
which had preceded him were stuck in holes, booby traps
that did not explode but slowed the tanks.
"The first town I went in was St. Mere Eglise,
and the other towns were Carentan, Isigny, and St. Lo.
St. Lo was demolished -- demolished! I got four flats
going through St. Lo."
At Brecy at 3:00 AM, Mike experienced his first actual
air raid and remembers he was "scared stiff."
He grabbed his crucifix and went for cover. "When it
all ended, a lot of the fellows in the tank outfit were
killed even though they were underneath their
tanks." Mike described the bomb that did so much
damage as "mother bombs." "The case would
hit the ground, open up, and these little things would
crawl along the ground, roll into a hole, and
Then Mike and the other drivers were assigned to move
their signal corps supplies down the "The Red Ball
Highway," so called because the troops were moving
so fast, the supplies couldn't keep up. They had five
different "dumps" or temporary warehouses of
supplies and trucked these in rotation until they were
"We Got the Flowers, but the Infantry Deserved
all the Credit"
Mike said he has always felt bad that the infantry who
actually liberated the towns didn't have time to enjoy
the accolades bestowed upon the supply and repair
divisions. "You felt kind of guilty because these
guys came first; but they didn't have time to stop. . . I
remember . . all the women jumping up on the truck,
giving you flowers and kissing you just like you see in
Mike especially liked Belgium, though he found the
road signs in several languages confusing. Before the
German occupation, the Belgians already had three
languages - French, Walloon and Flemish. Now the road
signs showed the German names: Luge for Leige and Aachen
for Aix-la-Chapelle. There were also names the U.S. army
supplied, like 'N-3'.
Just outside the beautiful little village of Leige,
Mike stopped at an ice cream parlor to enjoy a treat;
impulsively keeping the menu. He went on to deliver his
supplies up the hill to Verviers, and when he returned a
few hours later, the ice cream parlor was gone. It was
hit by a buzz bomb. He still has the menu.
"Friends in Belgium and the Battle of the
Mike spent several weeks in Neufchateau, Belgium, and
having more time to himself, he was able to make friends.
He made friends with the gendarme (policeman), the father
of nine children, who introduced Mike to crepes. A
butcher in Leige gave him a secure place to park his
truck of supplies, gave him clean Belgian underwear, and
a steak and potato dinner. Another family was raising a
big white rabbit for Christmas dinner and invited Mike to
share. Mike sometimes "liberated" supplies from
the mess hall to share with these friends; but as the
cans were all the same olive color and the contents
identified only by code, he never knew what he was
taking. But whether it was peaches or sauerkraut, the
families appreciated the American treats.
Mike's unit was not a fighting outfit; so during the
Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest, they were
sent back to France, then to Brussels where they had to
re-equip English tanks and communications with American
"stuff." This work helped turn the tide and
Mike's unit received a Presidential Unit Citation. After
the Battle of the Bulge, Mike got some R & R and was
able to return to his bride-to-be in England. When the
war ended, Mike was stationed in Jena which was going to
be in the Russian occupation zone. All of the drivers
were called back to move an important camera and lens
factory from Jena to Weimar in the American zone.
Fortunately the war ended before Mike's unit could be
sent to Japan. Mike's captain gave him unlimited furlough
to return to England to get married. Mike was on his
third week of honeymoon when he got a telegram that they
were to be shipped home.
Many of Mike's W.W.II reminiscences are pleasant:
seeing beautiful country, a five-day trip to Paris,
making friends so dear they'd correspond after the war, a
long honeymoon during the war, and a return trip to
England where he was remembered by name after 25 years.
There were also sad and frightening moments. In Le Havre,
France, the people threw rocks at his truck, blaming the
Americans for ruining the harbor. Once his unit delayed a
few moments and narrowly missed being hit by a buzz bomb.
Some nights were so cold, the clothes outside his blanket
froze solid. During the Battle of the Bulge, they shared
a cold, dark barn with cows while bombers passed
overhead. In the morning, soaked with cow urine, they
found dead Germans all around. He returned to Neufchateau
to learn one of the families he had become friends with
had lost a daughter from "friendly fire." And
he saw the concentration camp at Buchenwald.
Mike's saddest memory from this two years in the war
seems to be the loss of the little six year old Belgium
child. He lost his father while he was in Normandy; but
it was later after the war was past, that sitting in a
darkened movie theater, the loss of his father struck him
and he "cried like a little baby."
"My wife gets tired of me talking about the war.
My two daughters want to hear it."
"I was 19 when I went in . . these were your
courting years . . . you don't take things seriously, at
least I didn't. Mike and his English bride, Victoria,
were married on October 10, 1945, at St. Megellan church
outside of Bristol. "I still remember that. Her
parents used all their coupons to have a nice cake."
They honeymooned at a seashore resort; one they would
return to 45 years later.
Mike got home November 27, l945 and his wife followed
him in May, 1946 on a bright white "GI Bride
Ship." Even after using his GI bill to go to school,
Mike found jobs scarce after the war; but in 1950 he was
hired by Ford Motor Company in Metuchen, New Jersey and
worked there for 30 years. His daughters attended
Colorado colleges, and that is how Mike and Victoria came
to make their home in Fort Collins.