Robert J. Hutchings was working in the office of a Bloomsburg, Columbia County, hosiery mill when he joined the Army in 1942. Skilled at typing and taking shorthand, he became a GI stenographer -- a job that connected him to some of the leading figures of World War II.
Today Hutchings, who is 86 and lives in Breinigsville, remembers his experiences working at Allied headquarters. His story, taken from interviews and his own written account, begins with his arrival in England in the fall of 1942.
After testing my shorthand and typing, Lt. Col. Dan Gilmer ''hired'' me and set me to work at my first real job in the Army -- in Grosvenor Square, London. This was the beginning of Allied Force Headquarters.
My first task was typing a list of vessels that were to take part in the invasion of North Africa scarcely three weeks thereafter. I felt important as heck!
The buttons really began popping when I learned that I was working with Brig. Gen. Walter B. Smith, chief of staff to Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of Allied Force Headquarters.
I'd see Eisenhower in the hallway, but I dealt with Smith. Everybody except the subordinates called him ''Beetle.'' He was very upright Army. He doled out all the stuff that didn't have to go on up to Ike.
We had a lot of work right up to the North Africa invasion, which was Nov. 8, 1942. One day I was bent over my desk, working busily, when Maj. Gen. Mark Clark walked in. There were a half-dozen other people in the room, and they immediately jumped to attention. And there I sat, still busy with the paperwork in front of me.
Col. Gilmer bellowed, ''Attention!'' and I sprang off my chair.
When the general left, the colonel called me over. He sat there, his face covered with the scowl that I was to see many times, and said, with emphasis on each word, ''Hutchings, don'tÂ everÂ doÂ thatÂ again.''
Allied Force Headquarters moved to North Africa after the invasion, but a handful of us were left behind to tie up the loose ends. Finally, on my 21st birthday, Dec. 20, 1942, Majs. Moore and Burgess and I headed for North Africa to join the main headquarters.
So now, we're in Algiers, and I'll be there for the next 13 months while they're finishing the North Africa campaign against Gen. Erwin Rommel. We were billeted in a convent overlooking the harbor.
The offices at the new headquarters in the St. George Hotel were in a row: Eisenhower's office, then the chief of staff, and then our office, the secretary general staff.
In January 1943, my friend Maj. Burgess very secretly took me aside and told me to pack my things. I said, ''Where are we going?'' And he said, ''I can't tell you.'' The next morning, he and a British officer, Maj. Gault, and I got on a plane for the hush-hush destination.
It was the Casablanca Conference -- President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and all the combined chiefs of staff from England and America making plans for what they were going to do.
The majors and I were augmented by a force of several [Women's Army Corps] officers and one more enlisted man. We partitioned off a little office in the Anfa Hotel lobby and turned out minutes of the meetings. The big brass had their meetings all day long, and then we'd do all the paperwork at night.
Maj. Burgess was a big band fan, like I was. We would sit in the office in the wee hours of the morning, after the minutes were finished, and we'd do tunes we both knew with pencils on the lampshades, desks, ink wells, floorboards, mimeograph machine. He broke about a dozen lead pencils on Benny Goodman's ''Sing Sing Sing.''
One night I got a call to come over to the president's villa to take some dictation. Roosevelt was in a sheik's palace -- mosaic tile floors, white bearskin rugs, white grand piano. The Secret Service men were at all the doors, watching everything.
Roosevelt's personal adviser, Harry Hopkins, needed to give some dictation to go back to Washington. He dictated some letters and I typed them up for him. Most of those guys knew what they wanted to say, they said it, and you better be listening and keep up with them.
The conference ended on Jan. 24. Our little crew stayed on a couple of days to close up shop and departed for Algiers in Eisenhower's own B-17.
My friend Johnny Farr arrived in March to be Eisenhower's mess sergeant at the general's villa outside Algiers. One day he said, ''The general's going to the front for a couple of days. Come on over and I'll fix you a nice meal.'' So he fixed me a steak, fresh eggs, fresh milk.
I asked him where he got the milk.
Johnny said Eisenhower had his own cow. He had a private that did nothing but take care of the cow's needs. Most of these generals had stomach problems, because those guys had to be under tension all the time. Eisenhower was not exempt from that. He drank the milk for his stomach.
One time I had a call to go out to the Maison Blanche Airport to pick up a very important package. So I got a .45, a staff car and a driver, and we waited at the airport for a special plane for the better part of an hour. A C-47 flew in from Oran, 500 miles away, with a crew of three and a package for General So-and-So.
The lieutenant on duty in the mailroom strapped on his .45 and jeeped out to meet the pilot and get the package. He returned with a locked mail pouch. It was heavy, so I thought: My gosh, that thing's got to be loaded with secret papers. The lieutenant unlocked it.
Out fell a package containing two cans of smoked ham that a base commander was sending to his boss.
A hunt for suspenders
In January 1944, I left Algiers and went back to London. About a week before D-Day, the forward headquarters moved down to Portsmouth, at the southern coast of England. It was just a small cadre of Eisenhower's personal staff and a few of us paper people.
The big guys had their conferences in a place called Southwick House, which was back from the coast a little bit.
Eisenhower himself had a trailer right down near the coast, and we had our tents around him. And he would rather be down there than up in that house, because he wanted to be alone a lot of the time. He smoked like a chimney and read Western novels.
For three months after D-Day, June 6, 1944, the big brass divided their time between the Bushy Park headquarters near London and the advanced headquarters outside of Portsmouth. I found myself being shuttled between the two places every couple of weeks.
I was in Paris for the victory parade after the city was liberated. It was wild! The troops went up the Champs Elysees. People were lined up half a dozen deep on each side of the street. And I had to laugh, because this one girl was on a six-foot step ladder trying to see over the crowd, and here comes this Frenchman with a camera and he's trying to take a picture under her skirt.
The headquarters moved to France in September, but I stayed behind in London in a small office on Bryanston Square, just off Hyde Park, with a WAC and an English lady chauffeur. There was a big seven-passenger Packard sedan at my disposal, primarily to meet VIPs at the airports, but sometimes for lesser tasks, such as the time I scoured all the men's shops for a pair of suspenders for my boss, Gen. Smith.
One day, an envelope from Eisenhower addressed to King George VI arrived, with a ''By Hand'' in one corner. I got into the palace but only as far as the king's private secretary.
Between October 1944 and March 1945, I was called over to the main headquarters in Versailles at least a half dozen times. I saw Gen. George Patton occasionally. He'd come in for his reprimands. I'd see him on his way to Ike's office, then they kept to themselves.
Then I closed the rear HQ office, but by the time I got to Versailles, part of the headquarters had moved on again, this time to Rheims. Once again I shuttled back and forth between the two places. These trips were made in little Piper Cub planes, and I always enjoyed hedgehopping that 100 miles.
On one trip from Rheims, an overnight hop to London, I delivered papers from Eisenhower to Churchill at 10 Downing St.
Rheims is where the surrender was signed in May at a red brick schoolhouse. After that, we picked up and moved to Frankfurt, which was leveled. We took over the I.G. Farben building.
That's where I had the closest contact I ever had with Eisenhower. I went around a corner and bumped into him in a hall one day. I said, ''I'm sorry, General,'' and he said, ''That's all right.''
For his work at the Casablanca Conference, Hutchings received letters of commendation from Roosevelt and four generals, including Patton and George C. Marshall. He got a Bronze Star for his wartime service and came home in November 1945.
He and his wife, Phyllis, came to Allentown in 1965 to work for Hess's department store and spent two decades there. They retired to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and after 21 years returned to the Lehigh Valley last year to be near their sons John and Jim and daughter Pat. The Hutchingses, who will mark their 50th anniversary in July, also have three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Hutchings, who played in a GI dance orchestra, today is an accomplished pianist.
''I fully realize that millions of the boys had it 100 times tougher than I did,'' he said, ''but in the Army, you go where they send you and use the weapons they furnish you. My weapons were a typewriter and a pen.''
VIDEO: Robert J. Hutchings talks about his service in World War II
TIMELINE: Key dates during Hutchings' service
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