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.
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
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.