Training for the Polar Bears continued at Camp Shelby until the fall of 1942 when Colonel Stroh accepted an assignment to another division. In his place, Colonel Paul J. Vevia took command and the regimental training took on a new urgency and intensity not felt before. Vevia was a taskmaster, "tough as nails" who followed the Army regimen to the letter. He was as hard on his officers as he was his men. Vevia told them that toughness and discipline would prepare the regiment for combat and he was right. For years after the close of World War II, veterans of the 339th Infantry regarded his firmness and skills in giving the 339th Infantry the training it need to face the confusion and terror of combat.
The Polar Bears left Shelby for the battalion maneuvers in nearby DeSoto National Forest that fall and many would not see a roof over their heads for months to follow. The training was tough with night marches, day-long tactical problems, moving camp and digging hole after hole after hole. While the infantry trained, the 310th Engineers worked on bridges, roads, and river crossing problems. Slowly but surely, the 339th Infantry and supporting arms were becoming a team.
It was soon after the end of the Louisiana Maneuvers in the spring of 1943 that the 85th Infantry Division was transferred to the Desert Training Center at Camp Pilot Knob, California. In the heat of the arid California summer of 1943, training was difficult and the conditions rugged. Obviously the Polar Bears felt out of place in the 110 degree heat of a southern California desert, but the training proved worthwhile. The regiment completed the desert warfare training in mid-September in Arizona and showed off their expertise to visiting officials with a live fire exercise highlighted by following a rolling barrage across the desert.
In October of that year the division was shipped by rail to Fort Dix, New Jersey prior to assignment overseas. All three regiments of the division went through final personnel changes, the biggest shock coming to the 339th Infantry when Colonel Vevia was relieved of command and replaced by Colonel James Matthews, a career Army officer who saw service in World War I. Though the aged Matthews was sincere in his role as the new CO, a sense of shock rolled through the ranks of the regiment. Along with their old equipment, they had traded off the one officer who had guided the regiment into the fighting unit that it was. By December the regiment was at Camp Patrick Henry near Norfolk and on December 24, 1943, the GI's of 339th Infantry climbed aboard the USS General Alexander E. Anderson at the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation and sailed into the Atlantic bound for North Africa.
North Africa, 1944
The General Anderson docked in Casablanca, North Africa on January 6, 1944. From there, the Polar Bears were shipped by train featuring the old French "40 and 8" boxcars to a bivouac at St. Denis du Sig in Algeria. The remainder of the division eventually consolidated here before beginning training in the Atlas Mountains. The Algerian Mountains were cold during the nights and the raining was rugged. There were no amenities at this remote camp and Arab natives followed the GI's everywhere they went. "You could not go into a hole to relieve yourself," one Polar Bear remembered, "without looking up and seeing four or five of them looking down at you."
On February 7th, the 339th Infantry arrived at the Invasion Training Center at Port Aux Poules, Algeria for amphibious training. Amphibious landings on the African coast proved to be a new and difficult experience. The soldiers trained in climbing down cargo nets burdened with up to 80 pounds of equipment on their backs and weapons lung over their shoulders. The first real landing exercise began with calm seas that quickly turned rough with a gusty wind that rocked the small assault boats and whipped men on the sides of the ships as they descended the cargo nets. Several GI's hands were so badly battered that they were pulled from the landing crafts. The first landing crafts near the shore struck a sand bar and men foundered in the rough surf. A following wave of men, some wearing bulky overcoats against the frigid winds, also foundered and young men began calling for help. Polar Bears already ashore stripped off equipment and clothing to dive into the surf to rescue their buddies. The exercise ground to a dismal conclusion with many lessons learned. Luckily the next landing exercise went more smoothly and in much calmer waters. Concluding the three weeks at Port Aux Poules, the 339th Infantry had returned to St. Denis du Sig and prepared to return to mountain training when orders arrived March 6th for immediate movement to Oran. The 339th Infantry was headed for Italy.