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.