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.' ”

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