This is going to be a different article from my usual political rant. I want to use this installment to honor my father, Maynard A. “Red” DeGroff, whose birthday was May 14. He would have been 108. During WWII, he served in Patton’s 3rd Army, and made a somewhat unusual contribution. I probably could have waited until Veteran’s Day, but that’s not until November. Since my Dad’s birthday was this month, I feel it’s appropriate to honor another member of the Greatest Generation. Since we’re losing so many of that group, any opportunity to document their service is more than justified.
Dad was 35 when he was drafted in 1943. Granted, that was a bit older than a lot of the service personnel then, but he was a baker and that occupation was needed in the military at that time. After basic training at Fort Lee in Virginia, he was assigned to the 3022nd Baking Company, 4th Armored Division of the 3rd Army, and was a Sergeant. It was in November of 1944 while stationed near Nancy, France that he was approached about the possibility of baking a birthday cake for General Patton.
I’ve heard this story for years when I was a kid, but my Dad’s own words tell it best.
“We were baking bread on the morning of November 10th, 1944,” he said. “This colonel came in and wanted to know if anybody could bake a cake. Everybody started laughing because they were all coal miners, they didn’t know anything about it. The other T3, my buddy Paul Koch, also a baker, said to me, ‘D., you know about baking cakes, don’t you?”
“I don’t have any eggs,” Dad said. “All we have is egg powder, and that doesn’t work for a cake.”
The colonel asked how many were needed and Dad said two dozen. The colonel left in his jeep and returned about two hours later with five dozen he got from some French farmers. Dad told him that was more than enough, but he needed powdered sugar, which he also didn’t have. The colonel left again and returned with sugar he got from the Red Cross, which was only about two miles away.
“I got some chocolate flavored cocoa from our mess sergeant,” Dad said. “The cake should have been made out of regular cake flour, but I had to use what had for bread. I had to cut it bit so it would be more like cake flour. I used baking powder and baking soda to do this. It made a pretty good cake flour.”
Using the pans they had for bread, Dad was able to put together a two-layer cake, with chocolate icing. He then had to figure out a way to decorate it. “We had no decorating tools,” he said. “So I took a milk can and a pair of tin shears, cut a piece of tin and folded it into a tube. I made it in a star fashion and put that all around the cake and then put four stars in the middle. I should have put his name on it, but I didn’t. They wanted it for November 11, his birthday, for dinner that evening.”
After the colonel came back for the cake, Dad thought that would be the end of it. His unit did receive a memo thanking them for the cake a few days later. But wait, there’s more.
“After the cake, they came back and wanted to know if we could bake anything like pies or cookies. I made two Dutch Apples pies and then they wanted more for the next day.
“They came back shortly after that and said they were taking some of the boys on a trip on Hitler’s private yacht on the Rhine River (which had been captured by Allied forces earlier) and they’d like to have some cookies. I made eight dozen-peanut or oatmeal, I can’t remember — and delivered them to the yacht. I got to go on Hitler’s yacht twice.”
Dad also told me another baking related war story. In early 1945, his unit was in a field somewhere in France, baking bread as usual. A fifteen-year-old German soldier who had gotten separated from his unit and was hiding out in the woods hadn’t eaten for days. He could no longer stand the smell of fresh bread. He walked out of the woods and surrendered so he could eat. He gave his rifle to Dad’s aforementioned friend, Paul Koch and gave my dad his helmet in exchange for two loaves of bread. I still have that helmet.
The whole cake episode meant a great deal to my father. Until his dying day, he carried a small, dog eared photo of General Patton’s cake in his wallet. While this may seem like an almost insignificant contribution to WWII, think of it this way. America was a far different place in the 1940s. “Pulling together” and “doing your part” weren’t just catch phrases. No matter what your background or occupation, what you had was needed. And millions of Americans just like my dad came forward to contribute. My father’s skill as a baker was what he offered, and he had a right to be proud of Patton’s Cake. I’m proud that he was my father and I get to share this story.
Thanks for your indulgence…and always remember the contributions of The Greatest Generation.
Images: LTG George Smith Patton, Jr. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Smith_Patton_-_1944.jpg; Patton’s Cake and Sgt. Maynard A. “Red” DeGroff courtesy of John DeGroff.