Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hill 122

I plan to spend New Year's Eve with two of my favorite ghosts, Jim and Jeanette Flowers.

I've finished digitizing my interview with Jim Rothschadl, Jim Flowers' gunner and companion for those two fateful nights after their tank was destroyed. I used to go back and forth about whether Flowers should have gotten the Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle for Hill 122. The 90th Infantry Division recommended Flowers for the Medal of Honor, and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military honor.

After listening to Rothschadl's interview, I no longer have any doubt that Flowers should have received the MoH. Even though Jim's daughter, Judy Rothschadl, once told me that her father was always conflicted because Flowers saved his life, but it was Flowers' decision to continue the attack after reaching their objective that almost got Rothschadl killed in the first place.

Thanks to the Military Times web site (http://www.militarytimes/), I was able to find Flowers' DSC citation. It has a couple of inconsistencies, such as the date -- Flowers' assault to the top of Hill 122 and back down took place on July 10, not July 11; he spent not one but two nights waiting to be rescued; and Jim Rothschadl was with him in addition to the mortally wounded infantryman, but I'm sure that inconsistencies such as those are common in such citations, many of which were written up well after the fact. Without further ado, Flowers' DSC citation:

"Awarded for actions during the World War II

"The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to First Lieutenant (Infantry), [then Second Lieutenant] James F. Flowers, Jr. (ASN: 0-1017690), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while Commanding a platoon of Company C, 712th Tank Battalion, in action against enemy forces on 11 July 1944, at the Foret de Mont Castre (Hill 122) in Normandy, France.

" Lieutenant Flowers led a combined tank and infantry assault to relieve a battalion surrounded by a strong force of enemy paratroopers. Again attacking on his own initiative, under heavy enemy mortar and artillery bombardment, he led his force against a strong hostile position. Suddenly they came under deadly anti-tank fire. With flames leaping from the turret, despite the loss of his right foot from gunfire, he assisted the crew members from his tank and, to meet the new German assault, quickly organized a defense with the surviving tankmen, using rifles, carbines, knives, and fists to drive off the foe.

"After the repulse of the attack, he ordered all men not too badly wounded to withdraw, while he remained with a seriously injured infantryman. The following day, with their area under a heavy bombardment of artillery fire, an exploding shell destroyed his second foot and again severely wounded his companion. Redressing their grave wounds as best he could, he struggled desperately to maintain hope and life for his comrade and himself, until friendly infantry drove off the Germans and again took the position.

"Lieutenant Flowers' courageous leadership, heroic conduct, and devotion to his comrades are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army."

Service: Army

Rank: Second Lieutenant

War Department, General Orders No. 147 (December 9, 1946)

Interestingly, some of this appears to be rewritten from Flowers' own account of the episode, written from a hospital bed in 1946. Rothschadl said he submitted an affidavit but at the time of my interview with him his service officer was trying unsuccessfully to obtain a copy. I never followed through on that, but I would love to have seen it.
I'll post Flowers' written account in one of my next posts, but I want to address why I waffled over whether he should have gotten a Medal of Honor. Flowers himself would have said he was only doing his job and the medal would have meant far less to him than the lives of his men, the loss of which I believe haunted him throughout his life, whether he let on that it did or not.
There was an element in his account of impossibility. Otha Martin, who joined C Company as a replacement, once told me the reason many veterans didn't talk about the war. I quoted him in the introduction to my web site, In fact it's still there. This is how the quote went:
"A lot of people say veterans never talk to them. The reason they don't talk is they couldn't get the picture over to somebody that wasn't there. Somebody that wasn't there, he would think that you're making that story up."
I have a confession to make. While I didn't misquote Otha, I took his quote out of context. Way out of context because what he said next I didn't believe myself. He went on to tell a story about Jim Gifford, a veteran I would later interview at length. He said Gifford spent so much time on the front lines looking for action that one time a German soldier's head was blown off and Gifford caught it before it hit the ground.
I never doubted that Gifford was always looking for action and spent a lot of time on the front. I may have asked him once if that happened and I know that if I did he denied it, but if I did ask him I haven't got it on tape.
But back to Jim Flowers and the virtually impossible incident that convinced me he deserved the Medal of Honor. I should note that Flowers' account and Rothschadl's account differ on what happened, although Flowers had told the story hundreds of times and Rothschadl probably told it only when he was asked to write an affidavit in support of Flowers' MoH recommendation.
According to Flowers, after an armor-piercing shell from an anti-tank gun penetrated the turret of his tank and tore off his right forefoot, he reached down and pulled Rothschadl out before going to climb out of the turret himself, at which point he fell back into the burning tank yet was able to hoist himself out once again.
Rothschadl, however, said that when the tank was hit, with flames shooting out of the turret, he managed to pull himself halfway out, and he saw Flowers laying on the ground with blood spurting out of his foot. Rothschadl got as high as his shoulders and then fell back into the turret. Flowers, seeing that his gunner was still inside the tank, climbed back onto the tank, reached into the turret, pulled Rothschadl out, and they both fell to the ground.
That alone, in my opinion, should have qualified Flowers for the Medal of Honor.
There was a third occupant of the turret, loader Ed Dzienis of Fitchburg, Mass. Flowers wasn't sure how Dzienis got out of the turret, but Rothschadl said Dzienis went down into the driver's compartment and escaped through either the driver's hatch or the escape hatch on the bottom of the tank. Dzienis was captured.
Of the two occupants of the driver's compartment, driver Horace Gary and assistant driver/bow gunner Gerald Kiballa, Gary escaped unharmed. Kiballa, according to Rothschadl, made it halfway out of the hatch, probably the driver's hatch, and was struck by machine gun or small arms fire and fell back in, and burned in the tank. Flowers was always adamant that Kiballa escaped from the tank and was killed while trying to make his way back to the American lines. It's possible Flowers said this because he didn't want Kiballa's family to know he burned inside the tank.
I have my work cut out for me this New Year's Eve, and for some time after. But I'm looking forward to hearing the voices of Flowers and his wife, Jeanette. I interviewed them together on a few occasions, unfortunately always in a public place like a hotel lobby or a hospitality room, with considerable background noise. But I was surprised by how clear their voices came across on this particular tape, which I recorded at the 1993 reunion of the 90th Infantry Division, I think in San Antonio. As this blog develops, I'll be posting some audio clips, so I hope you'll keep checking for new entries.
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hill 122: Jim Rothschadl

I'm about to embark on my most ambitious audiobook yet, the story of Hill 122 as told by the survivors of Jim Flowers' platoon.

Some of you are familiar with Flowers. His three-CD interview is included in "The Tanker Tapes." Flowers was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on Hill 122 in Normandy. But he paid a terrible price: the lives of nine members of his platoon, and the loss of both of his legs.

Flowers and his wife, Jeanette, were two of my favorite people. I would see them at almost every reunion. Despite having two prostheses, he would drive from Dallas (excuse me, Jim, "Richardson, you know, that place where Dallas is a suburb of") to Bradenton, Fla., for the battalion's annual mini-reunion, or to whichever city in which the main reunion was held.

Flowers once said I should interview Jim Rothschadl, his gunner, who spent two days in no man's land with him. They never saw each other after the war. Flowers said Rothschadl was an American Indian, while a little voice inside my head said "Huh?"

When I looked up Rothschadl's home town of Waubun, Minn., there it was, smack dab in the middle of the White Earth Indian Reservation. When I called him, I asked how he was an Indian with a name like Rothschadl.

Oh no, he said, he was the son of a Czechoslovakian immigrant. His father was swindled into buying land at an inflated price from Indians who in turn were swindled into selling it for a couple of dollars an acre with the help of an act of Congress. He knew because he was a town official and had looked up the records.

Jim and Jeanette Flowers are both deceased now, as is Jim Rothschadl. There's no going back and asking them to clarify a point here and there. But I have their voices on tape, as well as the voices of Judd Wiley, one of the tank commanders in Flowers' platoon; and Louis Gerrard, who lost an eye on Hill 122; and Kenneth Titman, another tank commander; and Michael Vona, one of the crew members in Titman's tank; and Myron Kiballa, whose brother Gerald was killed in the battle; and Jack Sheppard, the company commander who filled in for one of the tank commanders in the tragic battle. I don't know about Vona or Kiballa, but all of the others are deceased.

Bob Levine, an infantryman who was wounded and captured in the battle and is a neighbor of mine, is very much alive, and I plan to include his voice in this audiobook as well.

I've already digitized my three-hour 1993 interview with Flowers, but I have several shorter interviews I hope to draw from for the audiobook. First I'm going to tackle my Oct. 21, 1993 interview with Rothschadl.
I'll keep you posted on the audiobook's progress and include sound clips here and there.

Thanks for reading!