Sunday, October 17, 2010

A tale of two uncles

The Saar River at Dillingen, December 1944. Photo by
Robert Pitts, 150th Engineer Combat Battalion.
On Oct. 6th I received an e-mail from Patricia Robison, asking if, in my interviews with veterans of the 712th Tank Battalion, I came across any information about her uncle, Lee Miller, who she said was killed on Feb. 27, 1945. The name rang a bell -- well, I mean it really rang a bell, like ding-ding-ding-ding-ding -- but I was uncertain just where in the dozens of interviews I've done with veterans of the 712th, the unit with which my late father served, I'd heard his name.

I knew he was in B Company, so I forwarded the e-mail to Lou Gruntz Jr., the B Company historian. The reason I remembered Miller's name was because his company commander, Jim Cary, once told me he put Miller in for a silver star -- which he was awarded -- for volunteering to disable a tank that had to be abandoned when the battalion retreated across the Saar River in December of 1944.

The battalion didn't really "retreat" across the river, the way the Germans retreated from Stalingrad or Napoleon from Moscow. Rather, it was a strategic withdrawal, effected after the 712th and its attached 90th Infantry Division (I know, I know, it was the other way around) fought for and captured the city of Dillingen, where my father was wounded for the second time. Dillingen was about 100 miles south of Luxembourg, where the Battle of the Bulge had begun. The 3rd Army was needed to break the siege of Bastogne, although according to one account I heard, there was some concern that the German juggernaut might turn south and overrun the 90th Division.

At any rate, the division pulled back across the Saar and the 712th tanks went across first on a pontoon bridge, and when that was destroyed by German artillery, on a ferry. Two tanks, one in C Company and one in B Company, were inoperable and had to be left behind.

Lee Miller stayed to destroy the B Company tank, most likely by pouring a five-gallon can of gasoline into the hatch and then dropping in a hand grenade. He was given a set of coordinates and was to meet two infantrymen, who would escort him across the river in a boat.

When he arrived at the meeting point, there were no infantrymen and no boat. So he swam across the Saar River, in the middle of an exceptionally cold December.

Cary was wounded during the Battle of the Bulge and never did learn of Miller's fate until he spoke with some B Company veterans at the 1993 mini-reunion of the 712th in Bradenton, Florida.

It was there that I interviewed Juel Winfrey, a B Company veteran, who spoke about Miller. A search of the B Company interviews in my files turned up this passage:

Juel Winfrey: "I recall an incident, and here again, this was further in -- well, it was after -- the next real thing I remember was Dillingen, Germany, where we had to cross the Saar River. We crossed on pontoon bridges. And I was on a tank at that time with a young fellow as a tank commander named Lee Miller. Lee was another boy from Oklahoma, where I'm from. However, I didn't know him before. But the Sixth Cavalry had made arrangements with the 712th Tank Battalion to get one company -- not one company but one platoon -- of tanks in an area to support them. And they sent this lieutenant back to pick us up.

"Well, this lieutenant came back and he led us by jeep, with the tanks following, to an area that was supposed to be secured. And when we got up there, our platoon leader, Lieutenant Gaggett, he said, 'Now you guys, one tank of you get your mess kits and your rations and go in this house back here, and make an evening meal.' He said, 'Now the other two tanks, you keep a loader and a gunner in the tank just as an outpost, and the other three of you go.' Well, we climbed out of our tank, got out in front of it, and we had a German ammunition..."

Here, the 45-minute side of the tape ran out, and some of what Winfrey said was lost before I could flip the cassette. So I'll interject a little supposition. The trip on the pontoon bridge was the aforementioned withdrawal, and the incident where the platoon was supporting the 6th Cavalry is the one where Miller was killed some two months later, when the battalion would have been in the Siegfried Line.

Once again, Juel Winfrey: "Five of us got out, and you know how wide the front of a tank is, we were lined up, me right in the middle, and Lee Miller on my right side, and I can't remember who the assistant driver was, but he was on the other side. Aaron Craig, who was the loader, was over here on my left side, and then the other member of the crew was over here. And all at once, we heard the German shell come. And Lee Miller said 'Look out!' And that's the last words the man ever spoke. The shell caught him right, the shrapnel, caught him right in the back, and it killed him like that. Standing right here at my shoulder. Aaron Craig over on this side, he was badly wounded, and they had to get the medics to take him back to the hospital. And the other three of us didn't get scratched once. Now that's one of those close calls that make you think the Good Lord's with you, too.

"But this Lee Miller had been with, I was also in a tank crew with him when we went across the Saar River. And when we crossed the Saar we went into Dillingen. The town had been completely vacated, there wasn't a handful of civilians left. And we sat there for a few days waiting for the infantry to cross and catch up with us. Which they never did. Or at that time at least. Because that's when they started the Bulge. And they gave us orders to pull out.

"And we had one tank that had been mired down in the mud, and they wanted a volunteer to stay behind and blow up that tank after the rest of us got back across the river. We were going back across that pontoon bridge. Well, he was to meet a couple of infantry guys and the three of them would come back together, because the infantry guys had a bunch of ammunition they had to blow up.

"And when Lee got back to this designated place that he was supposed to meet the two infantry men, they never did show up. This is in December.

"He stayed and blew up the tank, and came back to the place to meet these two guys and they weren't there. He swam that Saar River, that December night, cold as the dickens, and I don't remember the exact date, but it must have been a week or ten days before he was able to find our unit, to catch up with us. And after all of that, he was the one that was killed later in this situation that I just described."

I'll admit it. I patted myself on the back and said to myself, "Damn you're good!" But the truth is I get many requests like Patricia's and am only able to provide such valuable information for a few of them. I haven't heard yet from Lou Gruntz Jr. but with his extensive knowledge of B Company's history -- he traveled to Europe with his father and they retraced the company's battle route, and Lou chronicled the company's history in an excellent, yet unpublished, book -- I imagine he could send Patricia even more information about her uncle.

'The Flower That Never Blossomed'

One other recent incident, however, also deserves a proverbial pat on the back. I was formatting my book "A Mile in Their Shoes" for the Amazon Kindle e-book reader -- when I say formatting, I mean retyping, because the original document was lost with the demise of a computer several years ago. And it's a good thing I retyped it, because I discovered about two dozen misspellings of names and places that were easy to verify on the Internet today; not so easy in 1996. But I digress.

One of the dozen veterans whose edited interview transcript I used in "A Mile" was Ed Boccafogli, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division who jumped into Normandy. Ed's was one of the first interviews I posted on my World War 2 Oral History web site @, and it has served as source material in a couple of books, properly credited, that I know of, and some or all of it has been re-posted on a couple of other sites.

John Daum
I thought it would be a good touch for the Kindle edition to add the date of Ed's death, so I went to the Internet in search of an obituary. I didn't find one, but I did find the date that he died, and added it to the book.

I also found, at a web site for the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, an account written by Thomas Stumpner of Fox Lake, Wisconsin, who is the nephew of Johnny Daum, about whom Ed told a story. The story, about a premonition Daum had that he would be killed on D-Day, was picked up and used by the author John McManus in a book called “The Americans at D-Day.”

“For as long as I can remember," Stumpner wrote in April of 2008 in a story he posted on the 508th PIR web site, "my mother always had two pictures of my Uncle 'Bud' hanging on the wall. The first was a group picture of Company D, 71st Battalion, at Camp Robinson, Arkansas. The other was an 8-by-10 of him in his paratrooper uniform.

“As a child I would occasionally ask questions about him. She would usually just answer that he died in the war. That he stayed back to guard the camp and was killed by a sniper. The Army even reported that he was killed 6/23/44 when the actual date is listed as 6/8/44. After I moved from home I would think of Bud but never really followed through with more questions. When I was very young, I told her that I would go to Europe and find out about him. At the time I don’t know if she (or for that matter, even myself) believed that I would follow through with my actions.

“In 1994, the 50th anniversary, my interest piqued again about my Uncle Bud. I remember seeing stories about the invasion on the 'Today' show with the veterans at Normandy. It was at that time I realized what battle my uncle was in and that he may have been killed on D-Day. I remember a fishing trip at the time with my brother Chuck, who served in Vietnam. We talked about the jump and what Bud may have gone through. Little did I know of the things he went through that night. My sister Virginia had a friend that had visited the Normandy American Cemetery at this time. She took a picture of his cross and brought back booklets of the cemetery.

“Then, when the show 'Band of Brothers' came out in 2001, it really started to make me think about Bud. I really wanted to find out about him. I started thinking, 'How do I start? Who and how do I contact somebody?' What compounded the problem is that I did not know my Uncle’s name. All I ever knew him by was Bud. I always assumed, wrongly, that he was named after his father, Paul. It was not until my mother took ill in 2006 that I found out my uncle’s name was John A. Daum.

“I did a search for him on the computer and found out that he was with the 508th PIR of the 82nd Airborne. I have found out a lot about him through the help of Dick O’Donnell and his web site, With this information I have decided to tell everyone about my Uncle Bud.

“John Daum was born on April 24, 1924, to Paul and Frances Daum in Marathon County, Wisconsin. He was the third child of four. He had three sisters, Helen, Marcella and Rosella. He received his education at St. John’s Parochial School. He later worked for a farmer near Nasonville, Wis. From October 1942 to April 1943 he worked at the Weinbrenner Shoe Factory in Marshfield, Wis.

“In April 1943, he entered the military service. He served basic training at Camp Robinson, Ark. From there he was to go to Fort Sheridan, Texas, but instead he joined the paratroopers.

“In August he went to Fort Benning where he started his paratrooper training. At this time he was with Company H of the 541st. During the next two months he trained to become a paratrooper. He stated how they trained, that they would run everyplace and did a lot of exercises all day. He claims to have had fun doing five- and ten-mile runs, which does not sound like fun to me. He learned how to pack his chute, jump from towers and finally from a plane. In a letter that he wrote to my mother, Helen, he told her to tell my father that 'a lot of fellows were getting sick' but he didn’t and he didn’t even have to 'clean his shorts.' He also wrote to his father after one of the runs. He said that it was 'really hot and a lot of soldiers were getting sick,' but he didn’t and he kept going. 'That Daum blood kept me going,' he wrote. It paid to have a sense of humor going through training.

“On Oct. 2, 1943, he received his wings. From there he went to Camp Mackall and joined the 508th. He wrote his mother and said 'the 508th is a good company to be in and they will be going overseas in three or four months. I am proud to be in the 508th.' Sometime at the end of October he came home for the last time. In returning to camp, he recalled of him and a fellow trooper from Illinois having trouble making the train because of a flat tire on the bus, but they both made it okay.

“At the end of 1943 John and the rest of the 508th went to Northern Ireland and then to Nottingham, England. It was there that Sergeant Walter Barrett had told me of his contact with John. 'I knew him personally. I was closely associated with him while we were stationed in Nottingham. We trained at this location preparing for the D-Day invasion of France. John was a good-looking airborne soldier – with a full head of blond hair. He could have easily impersonated a German soldier. One thing I remember about our brief association was that John and I, along with the guidance of an old regular Army sergeant named John Petric, would practice ‘The Manual of Arms’ (precise movements in handling of a weapon during a drill or ceremony). We became pretty good at it. I was proud to have entered combat with John.'

“In his letters home from England John said there was not much to do in England but to train and to go into town. He compared Nottingham to Marshfield and mentioned the English girls as being nice. In his last letter home on May 10th he mentioned the training and receiving a package from home. He enjoyed the candy and was wondering if in the next package his mother could send some socks. He also told everyone not to worry and that he hoped to be home in a year. In almost all the letters he sent home he would sign them 'Good luck and love, Bud.' In hindsight, it was they who should have wished him good luck.

“On June 6th the invasion of France was on. In the book 'The Americans at D-Day' by John McManus there was a story by Ed Boccafogli of my uncle the day before. The story goes as follows: 'Some could not escape the terrifying, depressing feeling that they were witnessing their last sunset. Not far away from where Sergeant Brewer sat writing to his father, Private Ed Boccafogli, the B Company trooper who was so disappointed at the previous day’s postponement, noticed one of his buddies, Private Johnny Daum, standing outside the tent, ‘like a statue looking into space.’ The skinny, towheaded Daum barely looked a day over sixteen. Boccafogli had never known him to act so morose. He was a few years older than Daum and thought of him as a little brother. He walked over to him. ‘Hey, Johnny, what’s the matter?’

“ 'Daum hardly even replied. He just stood there in a kind of stupor. Boccafogli was really concerned now. ‘What the hell’s the matter with you?’

“ 'Daum finally replied in a matter-of-fact tone, ‘I’m gonna die tomorrow.’

“Boccafogli tried to cheer him up: ‘Ahh, come on. Some of us will, some of us won’t, but you ain’t gonna be one.’

“ 'Daum could not be dissuaded. He insisted on the imminence of his death. Eerily enough, he was right. He got killed on D-Day. Boccafogli never forgot him. ‘These things stay with you the rest of your life.’ ”

“Today John is laid to rest at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. His grave is Plot F, Row 23, Grave 42.

“In a conversation that my niece, Gayle, had with my mother she explained why Bud was never returned to the States. “My mother did not bring him home because a neighbor had brought her son home for burial and it was like losing him all over again and she did not want to go through that again. Plus Bud was resting where they had buried him.”

“So that is the story of my Uncle Bud at this time. What I have learned was that my uncle was not a very big man, probably about 5-4 and maybe 140 pounds. My mother once told my niece that my uncle “was not very big, was quiet, and enjoyed to smile and laugh.” In the past my mother always told me that her mother said that “Bud was the flower that never blossomed.” I think today she would not find this to be true at all. As Walter Barrett had e-mailed me, “I am proud to have known him – John A. Daum – a great American and a brave trooper.”

“About the only thing left to say is: 'Good luck and love.' ”

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A remarkable voice of World War 2

The most unique literary voice to come out of World War 2 that I've encountered belonged to Morse Johnson, a veteran of A Company of the 712th Tank Battalion. Morse was a Harvard educated lawyer from the ritzy Far Hills section of Cincinnati and could have had a cushy desk job during the war; instead he allowed himself to be drafted, became a sergeant in the horse cavalry at Fort Riley, and was one of 14 members of the battalion to earn a battlefield commission.

When the war in Europe ended and the battalion was stationed at Amberg, Germany, as occupation troops, the 712th was given an opportunity to write its unit history. Every original copy that I've seen has had its cover worn off and its pages tattered from being read and shown about so much. And although there is no clear indication of who wrote what, it's clear from the eloquence of the prose that only one person could have written it.

Today I opened the unit history, titled "Well Done," to a random paragraph. This is how it goes:

"October was a month of nibbling -- at the Metz bastion -- and waiting -- for more gas, for more ammo, for warmer clothing. Fall weather had set in and with it incessant rain. The roads became mucky; the fields in which the tankers did their indirect firing became big seas of mud. Firing used up 24 hours a day and all crew members became experts with the Azimuth Indicators and Gunner's Quadrants which though inexact did not prevent one gunner from putting a shell through a window when the forward observer called for it. Ingenuity was at a premium as the tankers dug caves in the mud and built elaborate houses -- even mess halls -- with the crating slats and cardboard shell cases. In the north the 1st Army fought and won the battle for Aachen and Germany proper was at last penetrated. In the relatively quiet 3rd Army sector Metz still stood, taunting and fearsome. And as the month closed the 712th knew that it was destined to be once again involved in one of the vital campaigns of the whole war."

I don't know about you, but I get choked up when I read stuff like this; but when I first read it, more than two decades ago, I had no idea who Morse Johnson was. I even interviewed him in 1992 and still didn't know he was the author of the unit history, and the subject never came up. We talked about his youth, his time in the horse cavalry, his experiences in combat, and especially about Oberwampach, where he was a platoon leader when his tanks and infantrymen from the 90th Division withstood nine German counterattacks. Nor did I know it then but he was already exhibiting early signs of the Alzheimer's disease which would claim his life a few years later.

Morse is probably the only veteran of the 712th Tank Battalion who has a statue named after him. I was unable to find a picture of it on the Internet although I know there was one a few years ago when I first discovered it. It isn't your typical soldier on a horse with his sabre held high; in fact, you'd never know he'd been in combat, or that the statue even represented a person. In other words, it's kind of abstract. Morse, you see, was a patron of the arts, and the Morse Johnson Statue stands in front of the Playhouse in the Park in Cincinnati's artsy Mount Adams section.

After the war, when he was a prominent Cincinnati lawyer, Morse dedicated much of his time to a group called the Shakespeare Oxford Society, which is dedicated to proving that William Shakespeare didn't exist. "Founded in 1957," the society's mission statement says, "Founded in 1957, "the Shakespeare Oxford Society is a non-profit, educational organization dedicated to exploring the Shakespeare authorship question and researching the evidence that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550 – 1604) is the true author of the poems and plays of “William Shakespeare.”

Morse Johnson
Morse Johnson was rather passionate on this subject and was probably one of the founders of the society. But it was a collection of his letters that his mother and sister saved -- his father died when Morse was young, 16 if I recall correctly -- that led to the realization that not only did Morse write the eloquent text of the unit history, but that he had one of the most unique literary voices to come out of World War II.

There are excerpts from 20 letters in the collection, which is posted at my original web site, Here are two of them (I suspect that in the second one, his mention of the "umpteenth counterattack," is a reference to Oberwampach):

* * *
We were in the process of taking a fair-sized town in which we had found little resistance. Oh, there was an occasional sniper from a window which forced us to throw several rounds into some of the houses and we spotted a Heine column of some 20 infantrymen retreating over a hill in the distance. But nothing else. Our tanks clanked through the streets, with the infantrymen riding on them. I noticed the door of a house begin to open and the face of a young man appeared. Instantly he beamed and turned with a beckoning gesture to his rear. At once, a little waif of a young woman – say 22 years – came out. She was thin and had an impish face which obviously never concealed emotions. The man pointed to our tank and the girl stared unbelievingly at us for a few seconds. She suddenly screamed "Viva! Viva!" clasped her hands together and then threw them outstretched heavenward. She babbled and punctuated each new burst of emotion by throwing her arms around the young man. Then started the frenzied throwing of kisses and mad dancing around like Ophelia, as we moved past and out of sight. Whether she was French or Polish or, perhaps, a German Jew, I do not know but it made me tingle all over to know that I had assisted in liberating her.

* * *
I don’t believe I ever told you about "Brooklyn." At one of our tight spots, we shared a room with an infantry squad, all of the members of which we got to know quite well. One was "Brooklyn," obviously from Brooklyn. One night he mentioned having written a song for his C.O. and with little urging sang it for us, with a song plugger’s voice and style – like Irving Berlin or even Eddie Cantor.

"Good," I applauded and it really was, "let’s hear some more of your stuff."

Here was an extrovert of the first order and for a half-hour he stood in the middle of a Heine kitchen singing his songs and telling the story behind each with a smart vaudevillian patter. I began to doubt whether all these songs were his and told him so. At once he asked me the name of my girl – which I faked – and my home town. Not five seconds later, he was singing a catchy ditty about me, the girl, Cincinnati, etcetera.

I told him to do the same for Mac, my driver, and he had just started when the guard rushed in and we had to rush out to repel the umpteenth counterattack. We worked a lot with those boys and Oley’s and my crew were always happy to see them.

The other day "Brooklyn" rode on my tank and I coaxed him to write a song for us. At once he burst out with a really dandy tune, the first words of which were: "There will be no more falling arches, there’s no more walking Yank; going to hitch a ride, going to hop inside, going to Berlin on a tank." The tank stopped and "Brooklyn" was just about to write it all down for me when his squad was called to clean out a slight pocket.

We tanks were in close support but the terrain did not permit us to be right with them. I guess I heard the shots – there were a lot of them – but I didn’t see him get it. I did see him, however, and fortunately he had died instantly.

* * *

Thursday, July 22, 2010

No Way to Treat a Widow Lady

Late in June, Sarah Schaen Naugher, the widow of Lt. Jim Schaen, traveled from her home in Pontatoc, Mississippi, to visit the grave of her husband. Sarah is 87 years old. Lt. Schaen was killed on the ill-fated Kassel Mission bombing raid of Sept. 27, 1944, and is buried at Arlington Cemetery.

Despite trying for two days, Sarah was unable to reach her husband's grave. Upon returning to Pontatoc, she described her experiences in a letter that she sent to President Obama. If you are as outraged as I am by this, I hope you will forward her letter to anyone you think would be interested in reading it. This is what she wrote to the president:

To Anyone Who Cares:

"For quite a number of years, I have been saving in anticipation of making one last trip to Arlington National Cemetery to visit my dear husband's grave for one last time. As I will soon be 88 years old, I must face that reality. A nearby Travel Service announced that they would be going to Washington, D.C., for six days on June 20, 2010. I immediately saw my chance to get back to visit Jim's grave for my last time.

"Our tour group planned to go to Arlington, as a group, on Wednesday, June 23rd, where we were told that we would take a Tourmobile and could get off at any point and catch a later one when it stopped. Wonderful. I could get off near Jim's grave and stay with him as long as I desired.

"It didn't happen. The Tourmobile driver said that they didn't go to the Section 8 part of the cemetery. After taking two tours, I got off and returned to the Visitors Center. I went to the information booth and talked with the person in charge. She told me that I would have to call a taxi and by using my Pass to Arlington, I could give the driver the section number and the grave site and he would take me to it. She told me the telephone number to call. As it was too late to call on Wednesday, I revised my schedule and decided to come back to Arlington on Thursday.

"On Thursday, my bus driver brought me back to the main entrance to Arlington and put me in a taxi to take me to the Visitors Center. As this driver didn't know anything about Arlington, I had him to let me out at the Visitors Center Information Booth where I had been the day before. I had them check the telephone number and they assured me that it was correct and that this was what I must do to go to my husband's grave.

"I told the telephone operator who answered that I needed someone who spoke English; someone who was familiar with Arlington Cemetery; and someone who could take me to the Comfort Inn in Fairfax, Va., when I was ready to go. She told me that she was sending an Arlington yellow cab and that it would be there in 15 or 20 minutes. As I was told to do, I waited at the main entrance for 35 minutes. No taxi. I went to the person who was directing traffic and told her what I was waiting on and that at my advanced age, I couldn't stand in the heat and wait longer. She said she would check with the taxis that were in line, which she did. None spoke English and were not waiting for me. Soon a red-top taxi drove up and she asked him and he said he was to pick up Naugher and I knew that it was for me. I gave him my Pass and told him to put it in front of him on the dash, which he did.

"He could barely speak English but I could understand him. As he knew nothing about Arlington Cemetery, I directed him to turn left on Eisenhower, and then a right on Patton Drive, which he did. As there was no Section 8 sign (I had given him a map of the cemetery and showed him Section 8), I told him to stop. As many new tombstones had been added since my last visit, I couldn't climb up the steep hill to look for Jim's grave, and the taxi driver was no help at all.

"After looking as much as I was able, I told him the address of the Comfort Inn in Fairfax, Va., and told him to take me there. I had spent two days at the cemetery and four days on the trip and had not yet visited my husband's grave.

"James Schaen of Des Moines, Iowa, was drafted in the first draft in the Spring of 1941. He did not volunteer but went willingly when called. He became an Air Force pilot on a B-24. He left me in Topeka, KS, on June 6, 1944, to fly across the Atlantic Ocean with his crew. He was stationed in Tibenham in England and was on his 15th mission when he was shot down by German fighters who attacked the 445th Bomb Group and shot down 25 B-24s within five minutes in the deadliest mission of the Eighth Air Force of WWII. I got the message that he was missing on October 14, 1944, but was not told that he had been killed when he was shot down until Jan. 25, 1945. During the winter of 1945 I was pregnant with our daughter, and did not know whether I was a wife3 or a widow. Our daughter, Jima Carter Schaen, was born in February, 1945.

"As his plane was shot down in East Germany near Gerstungen, Jim's remains and those of six other airmen were buried by the German citizens in the city cemetery. They were not exhumed until 1950 and Jim was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on January 31, 1951.

"I have been able to return to his gravesite five times over the years but failed on this last attempt. I called the Arlington National Cemetery telephone and asked if there was anything that I could have done that I didn't do and was told that I did everything right. I have grieved for my precious husband for 66 years and yet I couldn't get to his grave to tell him goodbye. He gave his life for America -- he never saw his daughter who just had her 65th birthday; nor has he seen his three grandchildren; nor has he seen his six great grandchildren.

"Is this the way a loving widow is to be treated? One who is trying to visit her husband's grave in the National Cemetery. Is this the appreciation America shows to those who have given their life for their country?

"With all my heart, Sarah Carter Schaen Naughter."

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Middle of Hell

   A word about nicknames. Some of the nicknames given in World War II were anything but politically correct. The 712th Tank Battalion had a cook named Harry Speier. Speier was a German Jew who came to America in the 1930s. When I heard one veteran say that the men called him Gestapo, I edited it from the tape, but later Michael Vona, a veteran of Company C and a survivor of the battle on Hill 122, called him "Gesund." When Koon Leong Moy, from New York's Chinatown, joined the battalion as a replacement, a sergeant gave him the nickname "Chop Chop" and tried to have Moy transferred to his crew "so he could cook for him," according to Bob Rossi.

   The battalion had several Native Americans, more than one of whom was nicknamed "Chief," and one of the only two surviving crew members of a tank that was knocked out in the Battle of the Bulge was nicknamed Frenchy, only I'm not sure which -- Roy R. La Pish or Hilton Chiasson, of Thibodaux, Louisiana.

   Edward Dzienis, the loader in Lieutenant Jim Flowers' tank, was nicknamed "Mother" because he never drank when he accompanied his friends to Columbus, Georgia, or Phenix City, Alabama, and while his buddies were trying to get drunk or pick up girls, he would shop for sheets or pillowcases and other items to send home to his sisters. And Wes Harrell, an assistant driver in the first platoon of Company C and later a driver, was a little "broad in the beam," which led his gunner, Donald Knapp, to tell him he had a "butt like a Wac," and thus he was christened "Corporal Wac."

    When Michael Vona, the assistant driver in Sergeant Kenneth Titman's tank, referred to his tank commander as "Titless Tittie from Salt Lake City," I was sure he was kidding. But Clarence Morrison, the tank's driver, also mentioned that the crew called Titman "Tittie." Behind his back, I hope.

 Lieutenant Francis A. Fuller, who took over the second platoon shortly before the Battle of the Bulge, was in his mid to late twenties and might have been older than the men in his platoon, but I'm sure it was an exaggeration when an enlisted man named Wes Haines, who had "done imbibed him some," according to Otha Martin, a tank commander in the platoon, said Fuller "looked like Snuffy Smith in the comics." Henceforth he was was known as Snuffy Fuller.

    These were the men of the 712th Tank Battalion, some of whom you'll meet in "The Middle of Hell," my most ambitious oral history audiobook yet. It tells the story, in the voices of the veterans involved in the battle, of the events on Hill 122 in Normandy that led to the destruction of the first platoon, Company C.

   The 712th landed in Normandy on June 28, three weeks after D-Day, and entered combat on July 3. The battalion suffered heavy losses during its first week of combat but the first platoon of Company C, led by Lieutenant Jim Flowers, was relatively unscathed despite several close scrapes that left some members of the platoon on edge.

   On July 11, 1944, the platoon, with five tanks still at full strength, was called on to go to the aid of a battalion of the 90th Infantry Division on a plateau atop Hill 122. The battalion was surrounded by elite German paratroopers. One of the tanks experienced a transmission problem -- the tank hung in reverse -- and was unable to accompany the others to the staging area.

   The four tanks broke through the German lines and reached the infantry. Flowers and the infantry commander, Colonel Jacob Bealke of Sullivan, Missouri, decided the tanks would lead one company down off the hill, and the rest of the battalion would follow.

    Despite an intense firefight, the tanks made it to the base of the hill, but the infantry company took 80 percent casualties. Its survivors dug in at a road at the bottom of the hill, and the tanks kept going forward, over one hedgerow, across a field, and over another hedgerow. One tank bogged down in the first field.

   Suddenly, well-concealed anti-tank guns opened up on the three tanks in the second field and all three burst into flames.

   "I like to dramatize this a little bit," Jim Flowers would say 49 years later, when I interviewed him in Bradenton, Florida, "by saying I'm now standing in the middle of Hell, with all this fire shooting up around me."

   These are the veterans you'll meet in "The Middle of Hell."

   Jim Flowers.  My full-length, three-CD interview with Jim Flowers is included in my first oral history audiobook, "The Tanker Tapes." I've excerpted a half-hour of that interview along with a brief interview with Claude Lovett, the infantry lieutenant who rescued Flowers after he lay in no man's land for two nights and three days.

    Jim Rothschadl, Flowers' gunner, lay out in the field with Flowers, both badly burned.

    Jack Sheppard was the company motor officer when, on the first day in combat, his company commander was injured by a booby trap. Sheppard became company commander and saw his first, and very nearly his last, combat in a tank when he took part in the assault on Hill 122, and a shell struck the turret of his tank about a foot from his head.

    Louis Gerrard was the gunner in the tank commanded by Sheppard that fateful day. Gerrard lost an eye in the battle and played dead while German soldiers removed his watch and tried to take a ring off his finger, then propped him up against a hedgerow so his body could be found.

    Earl Holman was the loader in Sheppard's tank. When the crew abandoned tank he, too, played dead while the Germans searched him for cigarettes.

    Kenneth Titman was the tank commander of one of the three tanks that burst into flames. His gunner and loader both died in the tank and Titman was wounded in the leg and captured.

    Michael Vona, the assistant driver of Titman's tank, was stunned by the explosion of a hand grenade and set upon by a German soldier who vaulted over the hedgerow. As they grappled the German put a luger to Vona's head and pulled the trigger. It clicked, but the gun was empty. The German was then shot, and Vona pulled him, still alive but moaning and in shock, on top of him to protect him from other Germans who were roaming the battlefield.

    Clarence Morrison, the driver, also escaped Titman's tank but was wounded and dazed. He and Vona shared a German foxhole until it was dark, and then they managed to escape.

    Jake Driskill, the company motor sergeant, repaired the transmission on Sergeant William Montoya's tank, and was among the men who inspected the damage after the battle was over.

    Donald Knapp was the gunner in Montoya's tank, and later became a tank commander when the company was reorganized.

    Myron Kiballa had just gotten out of the hospital after being wounded in Anzio when he learned that his brother Gerald, the assistant driver in Flowers' tank, had been killed.

    Cliff Flora, one of Sergeant Driskill's mechanics in Company C, was at mail call after the battle when a box addressed to Harold Gentle, the loader in Sergeant Abe Taylor's tank, arrived from Gentle's mother. Taylor's entire crew was killed. Among other things, the box contained cookies. After a brief discussion, the members of C Company passed the cookies around, but it always bothered Flora that there they were eating the cookies from Gentle's mother and she didn't even know yet that he'd been killed.

    Any one of these interviews gives a picture of what it was like in World War II. Together they paint a unique verbal portrait of the far-reaching and long-lasting effects of a battle.

    The entire set is 17 CDs, or about 17 hours, long. Here are some excerpts:

Order "The Middle of Hell ($25.95) from our eBay store!

Read more about the battle in the online version of "They Were All Young Kids"

Monday, May 31, 2010

D-Day and the Bulge

Pete De Vries doesn't tell war stories. The stories that are told should be about the young men who didn't get to come home, he said when I interviewed him in 1997. Well, De Vries, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division, the Rangers, and the 10th Special Forces in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and retired as a sergeant major, did tell one war story, somewhat reluctantly. And he told it not to bring any glory upon himself; in fact, he steadfastly declines to identify the hero of the story, and the only reason he told it in the first place was to illustrate a point.

He told the story in a letter to the editor of the "Static Line," a monthly newspaper for and about paratroopers. The letter was in response to an article by a Marine about the pride that the Marine had in his unit.

A lone GI with a bazooka was guarding a road during the Battle of the Bulge, Pete's story went, when several American soldiers, led by a lieutenant, emerged from the forest and asked the way to the American lines. The GI showed them the way, and the lieutenant said he'd better accompany them because they were being pursued by two German tanks.

At which point, the lone GI said, "You don't have a thing to worry about, Sir. I'm in the 82nd Airborne and this is as far as the bastards go."

A few years later, Pete was attending a dinner when he noticed a sketch on the wall of a paratrooper in full gear. Underneath him was the caption "I'm the 82nd Airborne and this is as far as the bastards go." A short while later, he said when telling me about this, he heard that someone at another table was claiming to have been the GI who originally made the statement. So he went over to the table and asked the veteran if he remembered who the lieutenant was who was looking for the American lines.

"How should he remember that?" I asked.

"I'll give you a hint," Pete said. "He had a famous father and was a senator."

I still had no idea, so Pete told me it was Will Rogers Jr. Actually, Rogers was a Congressman who resigned his seat to enlist.

I didn't do much homework in high school, but since I've become an oral historian I've become far more diligent. So the next day I called the Will Rogers Museum and the curator sent me copies of a few pages from "Gare la Bete," by Calvin Boykin, a book about the 7th Armored Division. The pages included an account of a reconnaissance platoon led by Rogers on Dec. 23, 1944, in the vicinity of St. Vith, being shot up before reaching the safety of the American lines.

Pete still declines to take credit for being that lone sentry, and at least one other veteran of the 82nd Airborne that I found on the Internet is given credit for the saying. Nevertheless, one of the citations Pete allowed me to read into the tape credits him with singlehandedly destroying one German tank and disabling another.

Pete's and several other interviews are included in "D-Day and the Bulge," an 11-hour collection of interviews that make up my newest audiobook.

Other veterans in the set include Len Lebenson, a sergeant in the headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division who went into Normandy in a glider that crashed into a shed; Maurice Tydor, a radio operator in division artillery of the 101st Airborne Division; Samuel Feiler, a dentist in the 101st; and a group interview with five veterans who talked about the siege of Bastogne; and Valentine Miele of the 1st Infantry Division. Also included is my 1994 interview with Leonard Lomell, the Ranger credited during the Normandy invasion with destroying five large German coastal guns that were supposed to be on Pointe du Hoc but were actually inland.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Memorial Day 2010

"The real heroes," a World War II veteran once told me, "are the ones who didn't come home." This second annual Memorial Day audio CD contains several stories, told in the veterans' own voices, about crew members, colleagues, even the enemy, who made the ultimate sacrifice while fighting for their country.

John Sweren

Bob Cash

Order the Memorial Day 2010 CD from or eBay

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Reflections of a tank company commander

Harlo J. "Jack" Sheppard went overseas in World War II as the motor officer with the 712th Tank Battalion. When Captain James Cary was wounded by a booby trap on the battalion's first day in combat, Sheppard took his place as commanding officer of the battalion's Company C. The company had three platoons of five medium Sherman tanks, as well as its own maintenance section.

On his sixth day as company commander, July 10, 1944, Sheppard filled in for an injured tank commander during the battle for Hill 122 in Normandy. A shell struck his tank in the gunner's periscope two feet from where Sheppard stood with his head outside the turret. He was patched up in an aid station and made it through the rest of the battalion's 11 months in combat, minus a week in the hospital for "battle fatigue." He re-enlisted after the war, was in Germany during the Berlin airlift, and also served in Korea.

I interviewed Jack Sheppard in 1993, for my first book, "Tanks for the Memories: The 712th Tank Battalion in World War II."

A couple of years before I interviewed him, Jack began writing a memoir because his children kept asking him to put down the events of his life. Two weeks before the interview, he took the memoir out and began adding to it, working almost night and day.

During the interview, I read the memoir into my tape recorder, and Jack kept interrupting with  comments. Also, he showed me photographs and described them. I can't reproduce the pictures here, but I felt his explanations of what the pictures were were both descriptive and significant enough to include in the audio excerpts of the interview.

The interview spanned two days, and filled five 90-minute audiocassettes and about 20 minutes of a sixth. I transcribed the first two tapes in 1993, and I didn't even listen to the rest of the interview until recently.

My initial thought was to include the interview in an audiobook about the battle for Hill 122, which was the "bloody piece of French real estate" where Lieutenant Jim Flowers lost both of his legs. (Jim's dramatic account is included in my first audiobook, "The Tanker Tapes.") But because the interview contained so much information of a technical nature that would be valuable to any history buff -- for instance, Jack explained the various parts of a tank and the differences between the M4A1, M4A2 and M4A3, not to mention the M4A4 -- I decided instead to present Jack's interview as a separate, five-hour audiobook.

Jack passed away more than a decade ago, and his wife, Betty, died in 2005. A narrative drawn from the two tapes I transcribed is at my original web site, Here are some excerpts from the new audiobook, "Reflections of a Tank Company Commander."

Order "Reflections of a Tank Company Commander" from for $9.95 plus shipping.


Monday, April 5, 2010

Of Cars and Cigarettes

I'm working on the fifth tape of my 1993 interview with retired Colonel Harlo J. "Jack" Sheppard. When I transcribed the interview for my book "They were all young kids" almost 15 years ago, I stopped after two tapes.

This interview is different from many of my interviews in two ways. One, it's somewhat longer than most of my interviews, as I spent two days interviewing Jack in Bartow, Fla. And two, much of the interview is actually me reading a memoir Jack wrote into the tape recorder, while he made comments along the way. I'm not going to win any awards as a reader, so I hope you'll bear with my sometimes monotonous voice.

Today's sound clip, from the fourth 90-minute cassette of the interview, includes stories about two things that appear frequently in my conversations with World War II veterans: cars and cigarettes. Sheppard reenlisted after World War II and spent time as an officer with the occupation forces.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A mystery solved

Harlo J. "Jack" Shepard was one of the veterans I interviewed back in 1993, when I was writing "Tanks for the Memories." Trouble is, the interview filled six 90-minute cassettes over two days, and when I got around to transcribing it, I stopped after the second tape. That was 17 years ago. Jack and his wife, Betty, are both since deceased, and until a few days ago, I still hadn't listened to the third cassette.

I'm one of these people for whom stories go in one ear and out the other, so that when I listen to a tape -- especially after nearly two decades! -- it's like hearing the stories for the first time. Jack has already cleared up one mystery for me that I thought I'd never solve. It may not rank with what happened to Raoul Wallenberg, but to me it was a question I never thought would be answered: Why did Colonel Whitside Miller make his executive officer, Baxter Davis, doubletime in front of the whole battalion?

It was an episode that contributed greatly to Colonel Whitside, as he was known, being relieved of his command, and was described to me by several officers in the battalion. But none of them could remember just what it was Major Davis did that got him reprimanded in such a matter.

And then, there it was, right on tape 3 of my interview with Jack Sheppard.

Here are two sound clips -- this is, after all, an audo blog -- from my interview with Captain Jack. Although he went on to serve in the Korean War and retired as a colonel, he was a captain and company commander with the 712th Tank Battalion. In the first clip, he describes the incident with Whitside Miller. In the second, he talks about the Silver Star he was awarded with the battalion. The faint background music is provided by Jack's wife, Betty, who was listening to music in the next room during the interview.

Whitside Miller

Silver Star

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Love Story

I've spent the better part of March transcribing the interviews I conducted in February. One of those was with John Sweren of Mesa, Arizona. John was the tail gunner on a B-26 and flew 58 missions in Europe before his plane was shot down.

About five years ago a French aviation historian, Christian Levaufre, contacted John and told him that the village where his plane crashed, Fierville-Bray, was going to put up a monument and hold a ceremony. Although his pilot and co-pilot survived the crash, while the other three crew members were killed, John was the only surviving crew member to attend the monument's dedication in 2005.

Some time later, John was on an airplane and he found himself sitting next to Brett Schomacher, a history buff who became fascinated as John told him his story. He visited John on several occasions and recorded their conversations. He had the tapes transcribed, but the transcription service subsequently lost or threw away the original tapes.

After Brett sent me the transcript, I decided I'd like to interview John myself, and so I spent two days visiting him in Arizona on my recent trip.

What follows is a small portion of John's story, as he told it to me, and earlier to Brett:

"I used to call the west side of Longview, Washington, the blue chip neighborhood, because that's where the people who had more money and bigger houses lived. Most people had wood stoves, and some of them had sawdust burners, so they'd get sawdust hauled in, and they had doors that opened up but somebody had to shovel it into the basement. So I'd go around, and if I saw somebody with a pile of sawdust I'd knock on the door and ask if I could help them. That was my way of earning a couple of dollars. One place nobody was home, so I stacked all their wood before they even got home. Then I knocked on the door and said I stacked your wood up there.

" 'Thanks kid.' That happened a couple of times, when I didn't get paid, but I guess that's life.

"One day I saw a house with a pile of sawdust outside. I knocked on the door and a lady answered. I said, 'I hope you're not busy. I see you've got a load of sawdust out there. Would you like me to shovel it into your basement?'

"And she said, 'What's your name?'

"I told her.

" 'Do you live around here?'

"I said, 'No, I live all the way over on the east side.'

" 'Have you done this before?'

"I said, 'Yes, several times.'

"She said, 'Okay.' So she brought me a shovel and I shoveled it into the basement. Then I knocked on the door and asked her if she had a broom. I swept the driveway, and she looked and said, 'What a beautiful job you've done, Johnny.'

"And I said, 'Thank you.'

"And she said, 'Did you ever trim any shrubs?'

"I said, 'Yes. I worked for a landscaper and he showed me how.'

"And we spoke some more and she said, 'If you've got the time, I'd like to have you full time. I mow my lawn every week, and the shrubs I trim about every month, and sawdust I get,' I forget how often. 'And I get planer ends, too,' which she used for starting the fire in her wood stove.

"She kept me pretty busy, and she paid me some and kept track of everything. Then one day she said, 'I'd like to meet your mother and father.' She never did. She said, 'You seem like a nice boy. You were raised properly. I always wanted to have a boy, but I never did. The only boy I had was my husband, and he's gone.' And she'd go to the store and bring me cake and cookies out there, so I was just like part of the family.

"She went away for two weeks, and left the key to the garage with me so I could get the tools, because usually she brought the tools out to me. That's when I saw the Cord.

"When she came back she was so happy at all the things I did, and she said, 'How did things go, Johnny.?

"I said, 'Oh, fine, Mrs. Jacobs. But I fell in love while you were gone.'

" 'Oh,' she said. 'Who's the lucky girl?'

" 'It wasn't a girl,' I said. 'It's that car in your garage.'

"Then, after I talked to her, she said she would sell me the car and I could work it off. I think I worked for her until Pearl Harbor. She cheated herself, I know. She gave me the title to the car and said it was paid for.

" 'It can't be,' I said.

"She said, 'I kept track of everything.' So she gave me the keys and the title, and God, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

"I sold it when I went in the service, and got $1,750, which was a lot of money. But I went to the Barrett-Jackson car show in Scottsdale this year, that's one of the biggest collector car shows in the country, they have it every January, and they had a Cord for sale. It went for $575,000. And I didn't see it last year, but they said they sold one last year for $1.2 million."

A 1937 Cord (generic photo)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Gold Out of a Dollar

Recently a researcher from England contacted me. He's working on a documentary about Omaha Beach for the Discovery Channel. He said the author Joe Balkoski ("Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944") told him I might be able to give him some information about the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion.

Chuck Hurlbut, one of the veterans in my book "9 Lives," was an engineer with the 299th, whose job was to blow up the obstacles on Omaha Beach. Balkoski found Hurlbut's story on my original web site,, and wanted to know if I had more information on the battalion. I made a copy of a tape I recorded in 1998 and sent it to him.

It's not a tape I was especially proud of, as it was recorded in a mall atrium with a noisy waterfall in the background.

Chuck invited me to Ithaca, N.Y., to interview him in 1998. While I was there, he organized a group interview with four of his fellow veterans from the 299th. The original members of the battalion were all from upstate New York, towns like Auburn and Ithaca and Syracuse, Skaneateles and Buffalo. Yes, Virginia, there is a Skaneateles. These men grew up together, went to school together, were in the same outfit, and many still lived in the region.

We found a table in the mall and I planted my tape recorder in the middle.

After about an hour, the group headed to a nearby Holiday Inn for lunch, and I continued to record the conversation. One moment they would be talking about Omaha Beach, another about fallen comrades, another they would be gossiping about veterans who weren't there, then they would shift to the Battle of the Bulge. It was your typical conversation when a group of veterans get together.

Due to the excessive background noise and the fact that even though they introduced themselves, it would have required major concentration to identify who was speaking, I never transcribed the tape.

Now, 12 years later, Balkoski recommended to another researcher that he contact me about the tape. I told him I'd transfer it to CD and send it to him. While doing so, I listened to it, and discovered a gem of a story.

The story is kind of gross, so if you've a sensitive streak in you, you may want to skip the rest of this item. There was way too much background noise -- at least two conversations going on at once and some kind of singing group rehearsing loudly in the next room -- so I've chosen not to create an audio file, although the speaker, Sam Trinca, was very animated and I doubt that the written word can recapture that animation. And while some might doubt the veracity of the story, thinking perhaps Sam was slightly embellishing it, which he may have been, I've heard similar stories from combat veterans told in more somber and reflective settings.

At one point, the conversation turned to brothers. One of the 299th veterans had two brothers in the service during World War II, and one of them was killed. He remarked that he didn't learn of his brother's death until two months after the war in Europe was over.

At which point Chuck remarked, "Sammy, you met your brother over there, didn't you?"

"Speaking of brothers," Sam Trinca said, "now that you mention it, my brother was, oh, he had a job! He was in the SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force) headquarters. He was doing the payrolls of all us guys. That's how he found out where I was. By looking at the records, he found out that I was in Nuremburg.

"I was pulling guard duty at the house we were staying at. All of a sudden a jeep pulls up and my brother gets out. He's all dressed up, and here I am all dirty, like a bum. I look at him, he looks at me, I said, "What the hell, I must be dreaming." So we took pictures that day. And he asked the sergeant, "Could you let Sam go for a couple or three days?"

"Ahhhh," the sergeant says, "I don't know."

"Jeez," my brother says, "we haven't seen each other for three years."

"Wellll, go ahead, you can go," he says. "So I didn't even bother changing. I had the clothes I had on. I jumped in the jeep and we took off, and their headquarters is Salzburg, Austria. He took me down there. A guy comes out, opens the jeep, my brother walks right in the hotel, service with smiles. Now the guy looks at me as if to say, "What the hell's this guy doing?" He says, "Jesus, you need a bath."

"Thank you very much. What is a bath?"

So he took me up, I don't know if it was the second or third floor, the guy says, "Here's where you sleep."

I look at the place. It's a hotel. Sheets. Beautiful bed, clean bed.

"What?" I says. "Do I sleep here?"

"Yeah, that's your room."

At this point, Chuck interjected: "You died and went to heaven."

"I took a shower," Sam said. "Nice. They gave me some clean clothes. Then it was time for mess. So we all went downstairs. We went down to big tables, all sitting down, they're all eating, and the guys I was sitting down with, my brother's next to me, and all the rest of the guys were shooting the bull, this and that, and I took it all in. And all of a sudden they put the food on the table.

"'Jesus! Is that all we get? They give us the same old food all the time, god damn!' They're all bitching. "'What? Again we gotta eat this good food?' I mean, Food! FOOD! We ate our K rations and C rations, that was food! This was like giving you gold out of a dollar. I looked at that food, Wow! And these guys were all bitching. I says, "Why you..." I spoke up. "Why you rotten sonofabitches," just like that I told them, "You guys don't even know what the hell you're talking about." I says, "You're bitching about that food?" I says, "How would you like to eat on top of a dead body with maggots coming out of the body?" I says, "and eating C rations if you're lucky you got it." I just sat down, I says, "Thanks, fellas." I ate like a pig. "Thank you very much fellas, now get the hell outta here. I don't give a damn what you think." To me, that was food! For the first time in two years, man, chicken ... vegetables ... hot stuff. I'll tell you, I was in heaven."

When the researcher called me, I told him I'd try and locate a couple of veterans of the 299th for him. I found a listing for a Santa Trinca in Auburn, N.Y., and left a message on the answering machine. I thought Santa might be an old-world name shortened to Sam. A short while later Santa Trinca called me back; it was Sam's widow. She told me Sam had died in 2007. She told me they were married after the war, but that they were married for, it might have been 59 years. She remarked on how close the veterans of the 299th were, they got together all the time, and how there were so few of them left. She provided me with the names and phone numbers of two who were still living, and I passed them on to the researcher.

The documentary will be on the Discovery Channel, I presume sometime around June 6th of this year. I'll be at the Reading (Pa.) World War II weekend that weekend. Hopefully, somebody will tape it for me.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

One morning in England

This is all still in my taped interview with John Sweren of Mesa, Arizona, which I have yet to play back or transcribe, so some of the details will be sketchy, but I wanted to share this story while I have some time before flying home this afternoon.

Sweren flew 58 bombing missions as a tail gunner before his B-26 was shot down in France late in July of 1944. He flew out of England, where he was stationed with the 9th Air Force. Whenever he got a pass, he would rent a room in a house owned by an elderly woman and her middle aged daughter. John was about 19 at the time.

One night he had a little too much to drink at a local pub and could barely stagger back to the house. As he climbed the outside stairs, he leaned on an expensive vase, knocked it over and shattered it.

The women of the house were very understanding and told him not to worry about the vase. They helped him up to his bed and tucked him in, and he promptly fell into a deep sleep.

During the night the air raid siren sounded, and the two women headed for a shelter, assumiing John had done the same. Only he was still asleep and didn't hear the siren. A "buzz bomb" slammed into the street nearby and the concussion caused part of the ceiling of the house to fall in. When the two women returned, they found John covered in debris and rubble, still asleep and thankfully, uninjured.

After they woke him and he shook off the plaster, one of the women remarked to John that she was so glad that he had broken their vase, and not the Germans.

More details will have to wait until I transcribe the interview, but I wanted to share that story, one of many poignant, humorous, sad, compelling anecdotes I was fortunate to record in the last four weeks.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On the Road Again

During the last three weeks, I drove 7,500 miles, interviewing World War II veterans in Florida, Dallas and Arizona, and making a stop at the Atlanta Armor Modeling and Preservation Society's annual show on my way back East.

It's been an emotional journey, never mind the 60 miles of icy slush in Maryland and the driving snow between Memphis and Little Rock, or the record snowfall in Dallas that greeted my arrival.

I don't have any sponsors, but I do feel a debt of gratitude to Hertz for providing me with a reliable car -- a relatively new Mazda 3 that got more than 35 miles to the gallon on the highway (okay, so I avoided the tempation to go 80 mph even when that was the posted speed limit in parts of Texas), and to McDonald's for their free wi-fi and senior coffee (I still can't bring myself to ask for a "senior coffee," but most of the kids they have working there recognize my antiquity).

Above all, I thank J.R. Lemons, a veteran of the Kassel Mission, for arranging a series of interviews for me in Dallas. J.R. is a member of the Happy Warriors, a group of mostly World War II veterans who gather on the fourth Friday of every month to share their experiences. I was unable to plan my trip so I could attend a meeting, but J.R. set up the interviews. One was with his pilot on the Kassel Mission, James Baynham. Another was with Louis Read, a survivor of the Bataan death march, and a third was with Bob Cash, who was the only survivor when his B-17 was shot down and told me of his experiences in Stalag Luft IV and the 90-day march across Europe. J.R. also set up an interview with a veteran who flew in a B-24 on the first Ploesti raid.

A prime reason I took this trip was to meet and interview John Sweren in Mesa, Arizona. John was a tail gunner in a B-26 that crashed in France. He was one of three survivors among the six-man crew, but other planes on the mission counted only two parachutes, so John's parents were informed that he was killed in action. He was sent to Stalag Luft IV and also took part in the 90-day march, and when the Red Cross helped him make a phone call to his family upon being liberated, his mother angrily asked who he was ... until he told her he couldn't wait to have some of her pierogis, upon hearing which she dropped the phone and fainted.

Now I'm faced with what I think a sound technician would call "white noise." Before I left, I started writing a book about the battle for Hill 122 in Normandy. I also began digitizing and editing an interview with Jack Sheppard, a former company commander in my father's tank battalion that stretches out over six 90-minute cassettes, for an audiobook to accompany the book on Hill 122. While in Florida I promised Sybil Swofford, the wife of a pilot on the Kassel Mission, that I would write a book about the mission; Sybil chastised me for taking so long because everybody in her church is waiting eagerly to buy a copy. Add to this the need to revise and update my web site, and all the changes coming to eBay, and I don't know where to turn first.

The conversations on this trip were recorded with my new Zoom H4, a digital recorder which produces a clearer sound than many of my earlier recordings. I plan to post excerpts from the new interviews at just as soon as I have them available.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Civil War in Tweets

Just thought of a great idea for a book: The Civil War in Tweets. Fer example:

Bull Run no picnic, was like Roll Over, Pamplona

Little Round Top, like WOW, didn't know my uncle was in the Civil War

Appomattox, didn't his great-grandson pitch for the Braves?

Your suggestions and contributions are welcome!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

We interrupt this blog . . .

. . . for a little terrorist humor.

One of the duties of a general is to give speeches. At the 1993 reunion of the 90th Infantry Division, my finger must have accidentally struck the "record" button of my tape recorder during the after dinner speeches at the Saturday night banquet. Yesterday I played the tape and discovered a speech by a general.

It's always a good idea to begin a speech with a joke or two, I think that's part of the Toastmasters' credo. So this particular general, whom I shall not name, told a somewhat self-deprecating joke at the beginning of his speech.

A little background is in order. It was still eight years and a few days before 9/11 and six months after the first bombing of the World Trade Center, in which six people were killed and 1,024 injured. But the tower didn't collapse after a large bomb was set off in its underground garage, the incident was downplayed and the true extent of damage, along with the bomb's near success, only became evident in retrospect after the twin towers were brought down. And while that was an act of terror, other incidents that would be considered terrorist today, such as the seizure of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, were mostly referred to as hijackings.

So this general begins his speech with, how shall I say it, a terrorist joke. I'm sure given the hindsight afforded by later events he would have substituted another bit of humor, like "How many generals does it take to change a lightbulb?" (Generals don't change lightbulbs. That's what colonels are for ... I made that up). So this is, roughly, how the terrorist joke went:

A private, a sergeant and a general are captured by terrorists, who hold a quick trial and rule that the trio must be executed. The terrorists tell the three they can have one last request.

The private goes first. "I'd like a Big Mac and a strawberry shake," he says. So the terrorists send one of their group to McDonald's to grant him his request. In the meantime, they ask the general for his last request.

"I'd like to give one more speech," he says.

While they're waiting for the general to begin his speech, the terrorists ask the sergeant what he would like for his last request.

The sergeant says, "I'd like you to shoot me now, before I have to listen to the general's speech."

I suppose the general could still use that joke today, only he'd have to change the word "terrorists" to the phrase "enemy combatants."