Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Finger of Fate

Yesterday I ran into Steve Krysko, one of the veterans I interviewed many years ago. Steve isn't the veteran in the picture; that's Hilding Freeberg, whose widow, Alyce, let me scan pictures from Hilding's photo album after he passed away.

It was kind of sad seeing Steve. He was outside in front of the high rise where he lives on the upper West Side of Manhattan, with a walker, getting a bit of exercise. I asked him how old he is now and he said 90. He said he has a lot of things wrong with him now and that he's nearing the end of his life. He seemed depressed, and complained that while the cost of everything is going up, his income hasn't gone up in five years. He has a pension and Social Security. He worked for American Express after the war until he retired. He said he didn't know what he would do without the excellent health coverage that he got when he retired; I assumed he meant some kind of retiree health coverage from American Express but I didn't ask him to elaborate. He did say he had skin cancer on his head and showed me a scar where it had been removed, and he said they gave him a salve to apply, I think he said the price was $900 for a three-month supply, which was covered. But that and some other medications he's taking, he could never afford otherwise.

He said he was in the hospital recently, and that his defibrillator -- he has one of those implanted -- was acting up. And he said there was a young man in the hospital, he couldn't have been more than 20 or 22, and he had no hands and no legs, and he said imagine having to spend your whole life having somebody dress you and wipe your rear end when you go to the bathroom. He didn't use the words "rear end."

Steve was a rough and tumble kid from Scranton who moved to New York City and then Bridgeport, Connecticut, before he was drafted. I said earlier that I interviewed him but I didn't really interview him; when I showed up to conduct the interview he said he thought about it and he didn't want to talk, but in place of the interview he had written an account of his experiences, and he handed me a manuscript that was 15 to 20 pages. Like a dummy I had my tape recorder with me but I didn't turn it on. And as I looked at the manuscript I would read a short passage from it and he would elaborate. I wish I'd gotten that elaboration on tape but I didn't.

After seeing him yesterday I re-read his story, which he titled "The Finger of Fate." Only half to two-thirds is up on the site, and the rest of the manuscript is, hopefully, in a filing cabinet or a box of papers in my apartment somewhere.

About ten years ago the producers of "The Color of War," a documentary that was on the History Channel, used some passages from my original web site,, having actors read the passages to illustrate original footage from World War II. They needed pictures and consent forms, so I contacted Steve and he gave me the following pictures:

Steve Krysko

Here's a link to Steve's story, "The Finger of Fate." The language is a little salty, but like I said, before World War II, Steve was a rough and tumble kid from Scranton, not the kindly old gentleman I used to see feeding the squirrels in the grassy areas outside the building where he was a neighbor of mine.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

July 3rd, 1944: A Tank Battalion's First Day in Combat

Reprinted from "Tanks for the Memories: Expanded 2nd Edition," which will is now be available in an amazon Kindle edition.
(c) 2011 Aaron Elson

Tony D’Arpino

You were talking about the first day in action. I remember that day, because I was trying to make a little joke about it. All this training you had, like I was the assistant driver, and an assistant driver in the States, his job was to go back and open up the engine compartment and stand there with a fire extinguisher before the driver started the tank. So that first day in action I said, “Do you want me to open the engine compartment?”

Lieutenant Lombardi said, “Forget all that shit.”

Now we aren’t in action, I don’t know, three hours and we hear Sergeant Schmidt in the second platoon, the tank commander’s killed. They told him, “Don’t ride the turret.” And he was like sitting on top of the turret. Sniped right between the eyes. He was the first casualty in the company.

I don’t know if it was the next day or the day after, Captain Cary, who was our company commander, he used to tell us, “Watch out for booby traps.” He opened a gate or something, it was booby trapped and he got wounded.

But I remember that first day of action. Then you started saying, “Hey, they’re playing for real, this is no more games now.” And you’re saying to yourself, “I wonder who’s gonna be next.” And you look around. It could be any one of us. Who knows?

Jim Cary

We arrived in Normandy 20 days after D-Day, and were immediately attached to the 90th Infantry Division, and our first operation was set up for July 3rd.

When we jumped off, our tanks made contact with the infantry and moved out. They hit a strong point. I was in a halftrack, coming right along behind. There was a firefight in a ditch, or a sunken road. The tanks came around and there was a German machine gun nest there. They shot that up, and the Germans pulled back.

I came upon that scene right in behind the tanks, and there were Germans trying to surrender or they were on the ground, wounded, and there was a GI lying on the ground in front of them, also wounded, and he starts shouting at me, he wanted help. There was a brush barrier there. So without thinking I run over, put one hand on that brush barrier and try to vault over it. It was booby trapped and the thing went off. I thought that most of it went over in back of me and maybe it did, but it knocked me flat as a pancake, and knocked me a little bit cuckoo for a while.

I took part of the blow in my left side. When I recovered enough to get up, I pulled up my shirt and I was skinned a little bit, but there didn’t seem to be any damage. And the back end of my raincoat was all blown to pieces. We got up and went on, and later in the day we had another firefight. I was in my tank by this time. We went out on a road junction and fired at the basement of a house where the infantry thought the Germans were holed up as they made an attack. We poured fire in there and that attack went pretty well, they made a little progress.

We never found out if there was anybody in there or not. It’s bothered me a little bit, there could very well have been Frenchmen in there for all I know, but this was a situation where you had to go along with what they wanted you to do.

Then my tank started having a lot of trouble with the engine. It was fairly late in the day. I was also starting to have some trouble walking.

I went back to the company bivouac area, and the next morning I was having a lot of trouble walking. I could feel liquid running down my back, and I was sore, so I went into an aid station and that’s when I found out I had a penetration wound in the left thigh. I had cuts across the back, not too deep. One of them was fairly deep, but superficial type cuts. And the doctor said – no, I was dealing with a ward boy, an enlisted man – he said, “You’ll have to go back. They can’t handle that thigh wound here.”

I said, “Well, I’m not going to,” something to the effect that I couldn’t do that. And I started to leave.

He went and got a doctor, an officer, and the officer came over to me and said, “You have to go back. That has to be taken care of.”

He led me to believe it could be done in a few days and I’d come right back. I’m not trying to paint myself in heroic terms here, but that was what I thought was going to happen. I didn’t think I was hurt that badly. But the doctor said, “You could lose that leg if you don’t get that slug out of there.”

I went and told Colonel Randolph, and went back, and they evacuated me, and instead of being operated on in a field hospital they sent me back to a much larger medical establishment further back.

As soon as I found out what was going on I tried to call Colonel Randolph. I spent four or five hours trying to get through to him, but never was able to get through. You had these wet-noodle lines, the field telephones, and you get so far and then the call disappears.

They opened up the leg and took out a rock that had been blown in, and I had all kinds of dirt blown into the wounds in my back. They were festered up.

I didn’t get back to the outfit until September.

Bob Hagerty

Bob Hagerty, of Cincinnati, was one of 14 battalion members who received battlefield commissions.

It’s funny, you remember not the tragic things, like when you see somebody who just died, because no matter how much you mourn him you’re not going to bring him back. What you tend to think of is the goofy things. Like the time, I think Big Andy [Bob Anderson] was my tank driver, and we were supporting the infantry. We came across a little clearing, and we came to some small trees, and I had to urinate. We didn’t see anything out in front of us. I said, “Andy, hold it right here, I’m gonna get out a minute,” and I jumped out and started to urinate right by the tracks.

A couple of the other guys decided to get out of the tank as well. And we all were about half-finished when we heard some small arms fire. There were Germans, we hadn’t seen them. Whatever we were doing, the process stopped right there. We jumped onto the back of the turret, and we had the turret between us and them, we were able to duck inside the tank. You know, that’s so many years ago, but I still remember that.

Or a time right after we’d been committed in France, I think it was even before the first person in the battalion was killed, and our tanks were being brought up to a certain place in support of the 82nd Airborne Division. They were dug in, and they fancied themselves as super soldiers. They had these distinctive outfits, they carried grenades hooked onto their uniform legs, and they had big knives, they said they killed quietly rather than shooting, so it all sounded very grizzly.

We were supposed to take our platoon of tanks – Ed Forrest was our platoon leader – into position just slightly behind where the infantry would be. That meant we had to go up a little dirt road and make a turn onto a smaller dirt road and that would bring us into position.

Forrest went first, then the No. 2 tank, the No. 3, and I was No. 4, I was the platoon sergeant. Somebody had told Forrest, “When you go up this road and you take the right turn, hit the gas, don’t worry about sliding around the turn or maybe running into some small saplings, hit the gas because there’s a German gun that’s trained on the road.

So he goes up and gets around there, and he goes over where this infantry position is, and No. 2 goes up, and No. 3 goes up, and then I went up. And as I made the turn, I heard this loud metallic sound, but the tank kept moving, so I thought, “We haven’t been hit?” Then the No. 5 tank came along behind me.

When we got up behind the infantry, and we got out to see if anything had happened, there was a big hole in an apparatus on the back end of the tank that was useful for a tank that was discharged into the water, it redirected your exhaust portals. The German had fired as I rounded that corner, and his shell went through this shield. We were a millisecond away from him penetrating our tank.

People who knew said, “Oh, that was an 88.” You could tell by the size of the hole. Well, an 88 was big enough to knock out our tanks any day in the week.

After that, the guys in the company who hadn’t yet been exposed to battle, you know, they didn’t have any war stories – they were gonna have damn shortly, but they didn’t have them then – they could say, “Look at Hagerty’s tank, look at that hole.”

George Bussell

We still had those big shrouds on the tanks from landing in the water. Hagerty was the tank commander and I was his driver. We were coming down this road, we stopped at this crossroad, and boy, one came in close. Because they had everything zeroed in.

I said to Bob, “We’d better move.” So we moved on up to a hedgerow, and backed around so we could get a shot at anything coming.

I got out of the tank, and went back and was eating a sandwich. I leaned over on the tank with my hand, and in that shroud that comes up, just below the end of the tank, there was a big hole. That 88 went clear through it. I said to Bob, “That’s pretty damn close, ain’t it.”

And we were carrying Bangalore torpedoes on the back of the tank. They came in two pieces, and you could hook them together. Then instead of blowing up, they blew down. You could use them to blow a hole through a hedgerow. I saw that hole, it was inches from those Bangalore torpedoes. I said to Hagerty, “Look at that. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting rid of these torpedoes.” I threw ‘em over the hedgerow. That was too close for comfort.

Dess Tibbitts

Phil Schromm and I enlisted about the same time. We both went to the horse cavalry back in Fort Riley and took our training, and we ended up in Camp Lockett.

I played a dirty trick on Phil when we got to Camp Lockett. On the way out we said, “Now we’re not gonna get in that stable gang.”

Well, there was an old sergeant, he said, “If you get in the stable gang, you’ve got it made. You eat ahead of everybody, you get everything you want and you don’t have to stand any duties.” So when we were walking down there that morning I said, “Phil, remember now, we’re not gonna get into the stable gang.”

First thing, one of the officers said, “Anybody want to join the stable gang?”

And my hand shot up.

Phil said, “You rotten bastard.”

I’m the only one that raised his hand.

Schromm always said, from Day One, he used to say, “I’m gonna be the first one killed in action.”

“No,” I said, “you’re not, Schromm.” We used to kid one another all the time. By god, he was serious about it, and he damn sure was the first one.

I forget the officers he was with, and maybe I didn’t even know them. See, we jumped off with the 82nd Airborne when we left, there was just a small front there when we went in. And he was walking with these officers up there in the front somewhere, they said the shell hit right out in front of him. And then shortly after that, Lieutenant [George] Tarr got killed.

Jim Flowers

On the morning of July 3rd, 1944, the 712th Tank Battalion, being attached to the 90th Infantry Division [two line companies of the 712th were attached to the 90th, and one to the 82nd Airborne], was making an assault toward Hill 122.

My first platoon, Company C, had been assigned to work with the 1st Battalion of the 359th Infantry Regiment. Company A was assigned to work with the 82nd Airborne Division.

The day before, Colonel Paul Hamilton, the battalion commander from the 359, and I were planning how to make this attack in our little sector, and we had gone out and climbed up a tree so we had better observation. We were looking down a slight hill toward a creek. In the morning, after the artillery lifted, Colonel Hamilton took two companies and jumped off toward the village of Pretot going down the hill, across the creek, and up the other side to the village, which was probably a mile in front of us. We were off on the left hand side of the road going toward the village, but I couldn’t take my tanks down to the creek and cross it because the banks were too steep.

After Hamilton took his two companies into the attack, they hadn’t been gone very long until somebody said that Hamilton had been wounded by a treeburst artillery shell.

About the time Hamilton was moving out to make the attack, I heard some tanks coming down the road. I was about 50 yards off the road. I ran out to the road and looked, and here comes a column of five tanks, and George Tarr from A Company is in the lead tank.

He stopped, and said he’s looking for where he’s supposed to be.

The people with the mine detectors had already come by and were maybe 300 yards down the road in front of us. Tarr continued on down the road and stopped when he got even with the engineers. He got out of the tank and was talking with the lieutenant of the engineers. And this infantry lieutenant might have said, “Get those tanks out of here, fella, you’re bringing fire in on us.” And Tarr turned around, went back over to his tank and started climbing up over the side of it – you put your foot up on a bogey wheel, and then up on the track – and he thought of something else and he turned around, and he went back to the lieutenant. After the lieutenant answered his question, Tarr turned around and started to climb back up on the tank, and a shell landed on the road right beside the tank and right behind George, and that was the end of it for him.

They dragged George over in the ditch beside the road. I can still see him, he’s over there in the ditch, leaning back, doing what George did best of all, taking a nap.

Jule Braatz was the platoon sergeant. I guess he got in Tarr’s tank, the lead tank, and went on down the road, and he hadn’t gone very far until he hit a mine. In a few minutes, Braatz came walking back up the road and he looked like a zombie, he was pretty upset. He stopped, and I asked him what had happened. He said that Tarr got killed, and that he had taken the tanks on down and had hit this mine, and he’s going back for some help. I said I’d get on the radio and call back to battalion and tell them what had happened.

Jule Braatz

Lt. Jule Braatz, of Beaver Dam, Wis., was the first of 14 sergeants in the battalion to receive a battlefield commission.

When we landed in France, we hadn’t see or even heard a German yet, and George Tarr was killed.

We landed in the dark of night. We went down a road and we pulled into a field alongside some 155 Howitzers, Long Toms, and they were shelling. We took off our waterproofing, and the next morning, it’s raining and drizzling, and we were supposed to report to either a regimental or battalion headquarters of the 82nd Airborne. So we’re going down a road, a little old farm lane if you want to call it. My crew at that point was Pete Charapko, Elvin Wilder, L.E. Stahl and Mike DePippo.

We’re going down this road. I’m in the fourth tank and I can’t see what’s going on up at the head of the column. It’s raining and muddy and slippery, and all of a sudden over the radio comes [John] Pellettiere, who was the gunner in Tarr’s tank at that time, hollering for me. He says Tarr has been hit.

I got out of the tank and walked down this road and I couldn’t see anybody. There was a blacktop road that came through, and he had taken that. I went over to his tank, and Tarr was dead.

The infantry outfit wanted the tanks in a hurry, so I took over Tarr’s tank. There are five tanks in a platoon, but now I only had two, that tank and another one, because the third tank got stuck, and my regular tank and the fifth tank couldn’t get around it.

So I take over those two tanks, and I was supposed to go up to the road to meet these 82nd Airborne people. Right ahead there’s a crossroad, and there’s a building up ahead on one of the roads. The infantry officer said, “We’re receiving fire from there, can you shoot into it?”

I asked the officer, “Has that road been cleared of mines?”

“Oh, yes.”

We advanced down the road, and I told Pellettiere to fire when he could see the building, and I thought he had fired, because when you’re sitting with your head out of the turret and that gun fires there’s a backblast. Then all of a sudden these guys are trying to push me out of the turret.

What happened is we hit a mine. And underneath the tanks we had an escape hatch supposedly which just had a little bitty ridge around it to keep it from going up. When the mine went off, it blew the escape hatch right up into the ceiling of the tank. Russ Levengood was the assistant driver and Percy Bowers was the driver. It killed Levengood. In fact, we all went out in the ditch and I said, “Where’s Levengood?”

Percy said, “He’s coming out of the escape hatch.”

Well, what he had seen was the escape hatch blowing open. When I went over, Levengood was dead.

Wayne Hissong

Sgt. Wayne Hissong, of Argos, Ind., was an ammunition truck driver in Service Company, and was assigned mostly to A Company.

When I went into the service, there were four of us who went in together. One of the fellows, John Charles Mitchell, he and I graduated from high school together. He was in B Company, and I was in Service Company. We went through everything, we got overseas, and he was one of the first ones in the battalion to get killed.

His mother wrote me two or three letters overseas and wanted me to detail to her what happened. But your letters were censored. And I really couldn’t tell her too much anyway.

Orval Williams

Pfc. Orval Williams, of Macalester, Okla., was a loader in B Company. He was wounded on the battalion’s first day in combat.

Sergeant Diel was our tank commander, and when we got to St. Jores, somehow he got us separated from the rest of the platoon. When we got knocked out and I got out of that tank I couldn’t see another tank anywhere. And when they got us on a jeep and started back with us, the other tanks were way down north of us. There was a railroad overpass there and the men were gathered up under that overpass talking. Sergeant [Tullio] Micaloni and a bunch of others waved and hollered when we went by. But they were way back there. We had gone way up ahead and were broadsided across the road right at a curve.

The first shot that tank fired at us missed us. I heard it and I pulled my periscope left. I told Sergeant Diel, “Someone took a shot at us from the right side.” I turned my periscope around, and I’m looking right down the tube of the gun on a German tank, just about a half a block from us. And about that time they let her fly again. I was in the tank when two shells came through it. The first shot killed John Mitchell, my driver. I could see him, he was right in front of me. Just about half his head was gone.

Mitchell was a big guy, he probably weighed about 220, 6 feet tall, and just pleasant to be around. That first shot killed him. The first shot also got me, knocked me off my seat, tore three inches of little bones out of my left hand. They told me when they went to operate on me at the evacuation hospital that they might have to take the hand off – my arm was paralyzed up to my shoulder. They put me to sleep about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and at 4 o’clock the next morning the nurse woke me up, and when she woke me up I didn’t know whether my hand was on or not. But I reached over and my hand was still there.

Dan Diel

Williams was the loader in my tank the first day that we saw action. We went out at daylight and I don’t remember how long we lasted, but I think it was somewhere around 10 o’clock. We confronted a German tank that had the drop on us, and he got us before we could get him.

We’d been sitting there for quite a while. But the German tank came around the corner. They knew where we were, and they came around and had us before we could get a shot off. Our gun was facing in the wrong direction. I looked up and saw the tank coming and I hollered “Tank!” I had a master control to bring the gun around.

When I hollered “Tank!” we had a high explosive shell in the breech and it was automatic that you opened it up and removed the high explosive shell and put in an armor piercing shell. And that was the wrong thing to do. It was the right thing for the way we were trained, but it was the wrong thing for the circumstances, because while he was unloading and reloading, they got the shot in. And if we’d have hit them with the high explosive, even though it wouldn’t have hurt them it might have stunned them enough or slowed them down from the debris and the smoke that we could have got another shot in. But it didn’t happen that way.

The first shot killed the driver, John Mitchell. Zygmund Kaminski was the bow gunner, and as I recall, he got out of the tank without a scratch and then got shot. And Williams, I think he got shot in the wrist, I don’t know whether he’s ever been able to use his arm since then. Vernetti was the gunner, and it seems to me like he got hit in the foot. And I got hit in the leg. I was the tank commander up in the turret, and when I went out of the tank I went over the side and went right on over to the ditch, because there’d been an infantry officer killed right beside the tank that was trying to talk to me, while he was talking to me he got shot. And every time I’d stick my head out of the turret, they’d spray across there with a machine gun and I couldn’t get the machine gun located. But eventually what happened, by our being there and drawing some fire and returning some, we drew enough fire off of the infantry that we got a company out of there. So our mission was accomplished even if it cost us a tank and a driver.

I don’t know where the other four tanks in the platoon were. We had gotten separated. And we were firing until we were disabled. When the tank was disabled, we evacuated, damn quick.

I went out the top of the tank, and there was a machine gun firing at us. I didn’t know where the machine gun was at, but on the hatch that closes, I had one side open and it had a little foam rubber padding on it so you wouldn’t bounce your head against the metal, and that was riddled with machine gun fire. I didn’t dare stay there so when I went out I went right on over a hedgerow and hoped that I was out of the line of fire, and I waited for the other people to come to me. And nobody ever came. They went in the other direction. When I got to the aid station, Kaminski came in, and he’d been shot in the thigh I think with a sniper bullet. And I was surprised, I thought he got killed when Mitchell did, because I could see Mitchell from where I was but I couldn’t see Kaminski, and then they hit the tank four times. After they’d done the first damage they hit it three more times and eventually it burned and blew up. So there wasn’t any fighting or any return fire or anything after that first round went in, we were through.

Cleo Coleman

Cpl. Cleo Coleman, of Phelps, Ky., was a gunner in B Company.

I was in Sergeant Vink’s tank in combat. We were following Sergeant Diel’s tank that first day. The front tank was knocked out, too.

I was a loader at that time, and right at the side of me there was a mine explosion. They said a jeep blew up. I couldn’t see it. And the front tank was hit by an 88.

The night before, they had gone out on reconnaissance, and they said, “You’re not going to face heavy arms.” All small arms. Then we ran into roadside guns, and the front tank was knocked out, Sergeant Diel’s tank was knocked out. I don’t remember at all who was the tank commander in the front tank.

We spotted an ammunition dump in front of us so Vink said to fire on the ammunition dump. We opened up, and to our right there was an 88 that opened up on us, and Sergeant Vink said, “Get the hell out of here.” He said to back up under cover. The tank driver started to back up and we bogged down, and Vink gave the order to abandon tank. We all got out, and I lost my helmet. Louis Gruntz was the assistant driver. He was scared – we all were scared – and he left his gun. He grabbed mine out of my hand and said, “Coleman, you have to go back there for your helmet. You pick my gun up.”

I said, “No way.”

Freddy Bieber was the driver. He always told me, “Coleman, if we ever get in a tight spot, we’ll stick together,” because he could see more when he was driving than I could. I got out of the tank and he said, “Follow me.” We went to a ditch, and I was going toward some Germans, and he said, “Hey, Coleman, this way.” They were shelling the place terrible. So I followed him. Machine gun fire was cutting twigs out over my back. I had to get as low as I could. Him and me both. We crawled, pulling with our arms, but we got over to our doughboys, and then they were shelling the place terrible and they were trying to dig in.

One of the boys saw that I didn’t have a helmet or a gun and he said, “One of our boys is laying over there, he doesn’t need it. Why don’t you go over and get his?”

I said, “No way! That’s out in the open.”

He’d been in combat for a few days probably. So he said, “I’ll get it for you,” and he ran over to get it. The boy had a death grip on the gun. He forced it out of his hand and got his helmet. There was blood all over it. I took some leaves and wiped it off, and put that helmet on my head, and he said, “We’ll go behind the lines.” I didn’t know where I was going. He didn’t either. But we went back, evidently, where the Germans had been knocked out. We saw our vehicles were burning. Finally we got to a new outfit of our own, they had just arrived, and they asked us how it was up there.

“Oh,” I said, “I’m too scared to tell you. It is rough.”

And they said, “Well, here’s a shovel. Dig in.” We dug in. I didn’t sleep any all night. I was scared. I was all to pieces. And this was my first day in combat.

The next morning they got hold of our company and trucked us back to our outfit, so the next day we were right back in combat. It was 53 days I believe before we got the first break.

Andy Schiffler

One of our men got killed by one of our own guns. I wouldn’t say the name of the guy, it was all an accident. We were all waiting to go, they were supposed to go up on a hill, in order to mount up. I’m talking to him, and he’s right in front of the gun where the assistant driver is. The assistant driver jumped in and he didn’t have the safety on. I’d just moved away and he shot the guy right in the back.

I was talking to him. We were resting and talking. And the gun is right behind him. But when they said “Mount up,” I got up and moved a little, and in the meantime when the assistant driver jumped in, the machine gun went off.

Caesar Tucci

Sgt. Caesar Tucci, of Tonawanda, N.Y., was a member of D Company.

We had just moved into the hedgerows, and we were waiting for our first combat assignment. Sergeant [Harold] Heckler, one of the tank commanders, was called to receive some combat orders. He received them, and then he went back to his tank to tell his tank crew about what they had to do. And his tank crew was preparing the tank for combat. The machine guns were loaded and ready to go, and the bow gunner, I don’t remember his name, was turning to get on his knees to check the ammunition stowed behind his seat in the bow position. Just as he did that, he reached back and leaned on the back plate and handle and trigger of the bow machine gun. And at that time Sergeant Heckler reached up and grabbed the 37 cannon and started to mount the tank, like it was customary to do. He grabbed the tank and started up. And just as he did that and got up there, the bow gunner accidentally set off a burst of machine gun fire, and caught Sergeant Heckler right across the middle. He was the first casualty of our company. He was killed before we ever got into action, and was killed by his own man in the tank.

Later on, there was a replacement made. Sergeant [Everett] McNulty took over his tank, and they were on a mission, and their tank was hit, and the whole tank crew was killed. Sergeant Heckler was our first casualty. That kind of hit hard, you know, this is for real. A great guy, a redhead.

Lex Obrient

I was standing right there. I had just finished talking to him, and Lord, I don’t remember what I had said. I don’t remember that part. But whatever we had been talking about, I turned around and I went back to my tank, and then I heard a burst, about two or three rounds, I don’t know how many. But I turned around and I looked, and there he is lying on the ground. I’ll tell you, I felt awful about that.

Andy [Schiffler] was there too. We were just getting ready to move out. Here’s what happened: The man who was the bow gunner on that tank was getting into the hatch and his foot hit the machine gun, the .30-caliber. I guess if I hadn’t turned around and was in the process of walking away, who knows, maybe it would have been me, but it was not. It was all just a big accident. But when I turned around I was in a state of shock, I mean there he is, I had just been talking to him, and then to see him there, the bullets caught him in the abdomen or the groin, because he reached down, I do remember that, and then after that he was dead.

Dale Albee

Harold Heckler was one of the nicest people you’d want to know. And a good cavalry man. He went up the line real quick. He was one of the men who were brought in from Chicago. He was just one of those people that never gave you any trouble, and was so easy with his crew, his crew worked as a team.

They had had their briefing and were getting ready to move out, and you didn’t clear your guns until you knew that you were gonna come back into the company area and part of the time you were very careful. But for him to clear the gun he would have had to lift the breech, remove the belt, and then you operated the operating handle one time. But he got in and somehow or other with an open trigger, he kicked the machine gun and fired a three-round burst, which meant that the belt was still in the weapon. It hit Heckler in the groin. I don’t know how long he lived, but I think he was dead before they evacuated him.

For something like that to happen, it would be the same as shooting your brother, because that’s what the crew is, it’s a family. You work and you train and everybody is dependent on the other, because if one screws up it’s gonna hurt the whole group. And it becomes so automatic that you do things without ever having to give orders. And that’s what Heckler’s crew was, it was just a team, because instead of saying “You do this, you do this, you do this and that,” he could just say, “All right, we’re going to clean the tank. We’re gonna clean the guns.”

I think Ezerskis was the driver, Jezuit was the bow gunner, so Jezuit may have been the one that kicked the gun and shot Heckler. But that whole crew, Ezerskis, Jezuit and Roselle, was the crew with McNulty, that same crew, McNulty took over after Heckler was killed.

Mike Anderson

Sgt. Mike Anderson was a tank driver in the Headquarters Company assault gun platoon

We were on a hardtop road, and we came by a farmhouse. I was in the first tank, and they let us go through. The second tank got hit and burned. That’s the one in which Richard Howell was killed.

After we passed the farmhouse, we got into the orchard, and we were weaving back and forth around the trees. There was a German tank in the corner. He shot at us a couple of times. The first one hit the ground, and the second one knocked our track off. We fired back, and our first round went over it. Our gunner dropped the barrel as far as he could and let the next round go, and it caught that German tank right under the big gun, right above where the driver was sitting.

After we got squared away, we walked over and looked at this tank. The driver was still in it, he was dead. The rest of the crew had jumped out and gone back. But they had another round in the gun, and that breech was almost closed completely. If they’d have closed it, I think that’s the one that would have gotten us before we got them.

Bob Atnip

Cpl. Robert Atnip was a gunner in Headquarters Company.

We went up to go around a road, at the edge of an apple orchard. The Navy was going to fire a couple of smoke shells from a ship, to lay down a screen for cover. They fired two shells, but the wind blew the smoke away, and we didn’t have any cover. They said “Go,” so we went. We were just exposed.

There were three tanks in the assault gun platoon. I was the gunner in the third one. I don’t know why, but I happened to be looking at the second tank, which was 75 or 100 feet away, when the first round hit it. They hit it twice. Sergeant Shelton was the tank commander. Herman Hall was the gunner. Richard Howell was the loader. Philip Morgan was the driver and Olen Rowell was the assistant driver.

The first round seemed to jar the tank, and then when the second shot hit it flames flew up, they just mushroomed out in a matter of seconds. I saw Shelton come out of the tank, carrying Hall by the shirt collar. Shelton was a very strong person, and he literally flung Hall out of the tank and onto the ground with one hand. I didn’t see anybody else come out of the tank, and it was burning fiercely.

After the tank had burned for quite a while, I saw the 90th Division infantrymen bringing Morgan to an old house, and I hollered at them, “Where are you taking this man?” Morgan was blind at that time, the skin around his eyes was swollen together and he couldn’t see. So an infantryman said, “Do you know this man?”

I said, “Sure! He’s out of that tank there.” He had an odd-looking helmet, and the infantrymen thought he was German. So he said, “I’ll take him to the medics, then.”

Rowell just got killed in an automobile accident in the last year or so. He lived in Mississippi, down in Meridian. The [tank] driver and the assistant driver went out the front hatches, and they got around where this old building was, where just moments before the Germans were occupying but they took off when all this action started. This infantryman went on around, and that’s where he came out with Morgan, thinking he was a German.

And I never did see Howell.

We sat there all night, since the first tank had been damaged and ours was the only tank left. The infantry said “Just hold it, don’t move. If we’ll be needing you we’ll tell you, because when you come up here, all you’re doing is drawing mortar fire on us.” We sat there all night, and the next day our maintenance crew came up there with a tank and pulled the old hull that was left off of that pile of ashes, and we sifted through all that. We couldn’t find any fragment of bone or body. The only thing we found was some little brass buttons, like they had on the Army fatigue. Everything else was just cremated. So I always thought the driver and assistant driver went out and I didn’t see the assistant driver until a few minutes later, maybe somehow Howell got out that way too, but he was the loader.

We went up the next day and looked at the gun I’m sure that did the damage. It was an old tripod mounted 88-millimeter German gun. I think what they must have done is left one man on it, he knocked out our tanks, and then just went off and left the gun.

Ed Stuever

On one of our missions we had to go in and pick up a tank that had a 105 on it. It was disabled, but it had disabled a German Mark IV tank back in the corner of this orchard.

There were a bunch of disabled tanks, German and American. But this one particular German tank, that Mark IV back in the corner, the body of this man driving was still in there, and this portfolio that he had had in his coat pocket, or his uniform, was laying on his lap. I looked at it, and it had the pictures of his wife and children in it. He was a very handsome man. He looked like he had been a movie star or something, that’s the expression that one of the other guys said, “He must have been a movie star.”

As the war went on, maybe months later, we were somewhere in Germany, and they told me that there’s a room upstairs in this building that you can spend the night in, because they always told me where to bed down. I never had time. I always had work. When I went up into this house, I saw this man’s picture.

I said, “Who is that?”

“That’s my husband.”

I couldn’t sleep in that house. It was just like what we saw in that portfolio, with the two kids and the wife, and the picture of him. I called some of the guys’ attention to it. I think Wallace was one of them that remembered it, and Patsy Barchetta recalled the incident. That was a choking time.

Fred Steers

Sgt. Fred Steers, of The Dalles, Ore., was a member of Headquarters Company.

The first day in combat Phil Schromm got killed. That scared the bejeebers out of the whole bunch of us in the reconnaissance platoon. They told me they thought he had a direct hit with a mortar. He was right there alongside the tank, he couldn’t hear anything coming in, and they figure he got just about a direct hit. And about that time I was talking to a paratrooper who’d been in there for about three weeks. I said to him, “You lucky sonofagun. You’ve been here three weeks.” And I didn’t expect to see the sun go down that night.

Forrest Dixon

Colonel Randolph called me up about midnight, and he said, “How many tanks have we got?”

I said, “We’ve lost half of them. We’re good for one more day.”

“No,” he said. “We lost half of what we started with today. Tomorrow if we lost half of what we have left, and if the next day we lose half, we’re good for several days.”

“But,” he said, “how many of them are battle casualties?”

I told him, “We’ll have most of those tanks back in operation in another 24 hours.” Part of our problem was just getting them out of the mud, or getting them hanging up on a hedge. Or replacing a section of track.”

I had a good crew. Sergeant Mazure had two crews, and each one could replace a motor in three and a half hours.

In the early part of the war we would get brand new motors. They called them Series 13 motors. Everything was on them, carburetors and everything. All you had to do was take the old motor out, put the new one in and hook it up.

By mistake we got a Series 11 motor and good God, that’s a 24-hour job. The carburetion and everything is off. But the Series 13, it’s just like when you buy a motor for your car. And every once in a while there’d be a package of cigarettes in the box the motor came in. Somebody back in the States would put a package of cigarettes in.


July 3, 1944, was the battalion’s first day of combat. The battalion would spend 311 days in combat.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memorial Day 2011: Tarr's Platoon

Lieutenant George B. Tarr of Newtown, Pa., was the first officer in A Company of the 712th Tank Battalion to be killed, on July 3, 1944. He was also the officer my father replaced, until he himself was wounded but a few days after joining the battalion.

Clifford Merrill was the A Company commander, although he, too, was wounded and evacuated before my father arrived on or around July 27th. Ellsworth Howard was the company executive officer and eventually took over as company commander until he was wounded in the Falaise Gap. Charlie Vinson was the company's first sergeant and, to the best of my knowledge, he didn't get wounded and even recalled my father reporting back to the battalion in early December after recovering from the wounds he sustained in Normandy.

In the second, expanded edition of my first book, "Tanks for the Memories," which I'm currently formatting for Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, I have a story about George Tarr. It was told by Cliff Merrill, and was about a train ride from Fort Gordon, S.C., to Camp Myles Standish outside of Boston, which was the battalion's port of embarcation for England and eventually France.

Tarr's wife, Dorothy, had recently given birth to a son, and Merrill wanted to keep Tarr's mind occupied on the train ride so he wouldn't worry about his wife and baby. I don't know if he was any more or less nervous than any other soldier who had just become a father -- several members of the battalion became fathers shortly before or after going overseas, including Sam MacFarland, a sergeant and later lieutenant in A Company who learned he had a daughter while his tank was in an apple orchard in Normandy, and who named his daughter Lucky. Grayson LaMar, a tank driver in C Company, married his wife, Arlene, while stationed at Fort Gordon but had a sergeant who kept putting him on KP instead of allowing him to take the bus to a nearby town where his wife was staying. Mrs. LaMar wrote a letter to Grayson's lieutenant, Jim Cary, explaining the situation and Cary made the sergeant stop putting Grayson on KP. The LaMars' eldest daughter, Judy, who was born while her father was overseas, once thanked Cary at a reunion and said that without his intervention, she wouldn't be here.

In order to keep Tarr busy on the train, Merrill asked him to count the soldiers on the train. "Go count noses," is the way he recalled the request. Tarr protested that he took a head count just a short while before, and Merrill reminded him that the battalion was about to go into combat and you never knew but one or more of the soldiers just might get a notion to jump off the train. Merrill couldn't recall whether he gave Tarr the assignment himself or had Ellsworth Howard tell Tarr to count noses, but the two of them shared a laugh while reminiscing at one of the battalion's reunions several decades later.

Clifford Merrill was wounded on July 13, 1944, spent almost a year in the hospital and wouldn't return until the war in Europe was over. As he was a career soldier, he was assigned to be part of a tribunal at the Dachau war crimes trials, and later served as a provost marshal, the equivalent of a chief of military police, at the compound where the prisoners were kept.

While he was in the hospital, his first sergeant, Vinson, would write to him to keep him abreast of developments in the platoon. The way he got around the censors, Merrill said, was that if a battalion member was killed, Vinson would write that he joined Tarr's platoon.

One day, Merrill's wife, Jan, gave me a copy of one of the letters he had saved in which Vinson made mention of Tarr's platoon.

"27 January 1945, Somewhere in Luxembourg

"Dear Captain,

"One of the members of the Battalion staff tells me that you say I owe you a letter with a little poop on our past actions. Well I might owe you a letter, but as yet I have had no reply from the last one I wrote you. It could be that the APO is screwing up, as our mail has come through very slowly.

"There is a lot that I would like to tell you about, but it would never get by the censors. We are still with the same division. And the outfit is really getting to be appreciated by the Infantry. Especially since our last big operation. The tankers really did themselves proud. The second and third platoons raised hell with the enemy armor. Sgt. Hagerty did all right with three Mark V’s and crippled a Mark VI. The second platoon accounted for six Mark V’s, a self-propelled gun and a prime mover. Then Lt. Forrest got himself a Mark V to finish things off. After that the enemy sort of got a little discouraged. The co-axials did a great amount of damage too. It is still a very wicked weapon.

"The company isn’t exactly the same as when you left, but there are still plenty of the original members left. Greener, Pacione, Koschen, Coburn, Hagerty and Lieutenant Forrest are all operating again. Schneider, MacFarland and Hagerty are in for commissions, and Braatz is in for first. Lt. Cozzens, the CO, is a new officer, but all the men think he is okay. He is doing a good job. Lt. Forrest is getting a much deserved rest now. He will be the exec and maintenance officer. He is one of the best all around officers going in my estimation.

"The men in the company are getting quite a few decorations. E.E. Crawford is back in the States on a furlough as is Sgt. Colton. Both men have been decorated twice. Each has the Silver and Bronze Stars. Bahrke has the Silver and Bronze Stars too. Pacione has the Silver Star and the Purple Heart with Cluster. Lt. Braatz, Tibbitts, MacFarland, Johnson, Ringwelski, Craven, Pellettiere, Hagerty, Bob Anderson, Bussell, Justice, and Borsenik have the Bronze Star Medals. Cameron has the Silver Star, and three new men whom you don’t know have the Bronze Star also. Shockley, who transferred to us from Headquarters Company, has the Bronze Star also. There are from 15 to 20 new awards pending for the men in the company. Pilz and Bynum, who are with Lt. Tarr, have been awarded the Bronze star too."

Now, what censor would question a letter like that? Edmund Pilz, a tank driver who spoke German, was killed in the Falaise Gap. The German 7th Army, trapped in the Gap, was trying to escape and A Company was in its way. Pilz's platoon, along with a company from the 90th Infantry Division, was in a field, and they could hear the Germans in the woods nearby. Pilz, according to Joe Bernardino, the loader in his tank, was calling in German for them to surrender. Some did, but many remained behind. Bernardino told Pilz to stop biting his fingernails because it was making him nervous, and they had an argument. Bernardino figured he would apologize in the morning, but shortly after daybreak the Germans began an artillery barrage. The first shell struck the tank, wounding Bernardino and killing Pilz.

Quentin "Pine Valley" Bynum, the other tanker who joined "Tarr's platoon," also was a driver. He was killed during the Battle of the Bulge. There was some question about how he got the nickname Pine Valley, but five decades after his death his buddies speculated it was from his hometown in the Ozarks. Only he was from Stonefort, Illinois, and there is no Pine Valley in the area.

There is, however, a Pine Valley in the mountains near Camp Lockett, where Bynum trained with the horse cavalry in 1942.
Of the others mentioned in the letter, Pete Borsenik, a mechanic, got the Bronze Star for repairing a tank under fire. Hank Schneider was killed by a sniper the day he received his battlefield commission, and Ed Forrest was killed in a freak explosion on April 3, 1945, barely five weeks before the end of the war in Europe. Chris Bynum, Quentin's nephew, inherited his uncle's dogtags and is one of my Facebook friends. I'm sure he's thinking about his uncle this Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Memorial Day CD

My mother, may she rest in peace, loved to knit. For some odd reason she never made me a sweater, although she made several for other members of my family. Maybe it's because I never asked. She passed away in 1992 at the age of 67. I have a couple of remnants of sweaters that she made for my siblings, one she never finished, the other has a couple of holes in it, they don't exactly fit, but I've always kept them as a reminder of her.

Jack Sheppard, the company commander of C Company in the 712th Tank Battalion, also loved to knit. He suffered what likely was a pretty nasty concussion during the battle for Hill 122 when a shell struck his tank while his head was sticking out. He had serious headaches for years, maybe decades after the war, until a doctor suggested he take up knitting. The concentration somehow helped immensely with the headaches.

Me, I weave. Not shawls or blankets, I'll leave those to the folksy artisans who populate craft fairs. I weave stories. Not just stories, but audio snippets of interviews I've done.

This year, for my third annual Memorial Day CD, I've woven, as best I could, the story of Pfaffenheck, using excerpts of interviews with the Wolfe twins -- Maxine Wolfe Zirkle and Madeline (pronounced Mah-de-lean) Wolfe Litten -- as well as with Otha Martin (with comments from Andy Rego), Bob Rossi, Russell Loop, Francis "Snuffy" Fuller and Wes Harrell.

Except for the Wolfe sisters, all of the principals in this story have passed away, so there's no going back to the source for clarification. And even Maxine and Madeline, who are identical twins, I have difficulty telling which one is which. The interview with Otha Martin, which is pivotal to the story, was conducted rather informally in the hospitality room at a reunion of the 712th Tank Battalion in the mid-1990s, and the excessive background noise prevented me from using some of the audio. I hope that the audio I did use from that interview is understandable.

Pete DeVries, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division, told me he doesn't tell war stories because the stories that are told should be about those who never got the chance to come home. Billy Wolfe, Jack Mantell, Lloyd Heyward, Russell Harris are four such young men.

There is more about the battle at Pfaffenheck in my previous entry, and there will be more in future entries. I don't know if it is due to my shortcomings as a writer or to the fact that the written word is no substitute for the voice of the person who was there and who is telling the story. I leave that for you the reader/listener to decide.
Listen to an excerpt:

"So long kids, and if I never see you again, goodbye"

"I'm giving you a di-rect order!"

The story of Pfaffenheck, which I've chosen for this year's Memorial Day CD, is more than two hours long, and thus fills two audio CDs. For now it is only available in my eBay store. Or, in the immortal words of Lieutenant Francis "Snuffy" Fuller to Otha Martin, you can call 1-(888) 711-8265 and say "I'm giving you a di-rect order!" for this year's Memorial Day double CD, which, incidentally, costs $5.95. Mention you read about this in my blog or on my facebook page and receive the 2010 and 2009 Memorial CDs as a bonus.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Billy Wolfe
March 16, 1945. In less than two months the war in Europe would be over. Nine days earlier the famed bridge at Remagen was captured, and the Allies were crossing the Rhine and pouring into the heart of Germany.

The 90th Infantry Division and its attached 712th Tank Battalion were in the Rhine-Moselle Triangle just south of Coblenz. They had crossed the Moselle at Hatzenport under "artificial moonlight" -- giant searchlights bouncing off the clouds -- and were preparing to cross the Rhine at Mainz.

Waiting for them in the villages of Pfaffenheck and Udenhausen -- which, in a letter written decades later Sergeant Burl Rudd would call Edenhausen in referring to Billy Wolfe, who grew up in Edenburg, Va. -- elements of the German 6th SS Mountain Division North were digging in as best they could, setting up defenses in the houses, forest and fields for the attack they knew would be coming.

Pfaffenheck, Edenhausen and the surrounding area are picturesque, an area noted for the hunting in its forest. Even the principal road going through it has a picturesque name, the Hunzruck Hohenstrasse.

Estimates of the size of the German force vary wildly, from a few hundred men to six thousand. The German division spent two years fighting the Russians in Finland and then, when the Finns and Russians signed an armistice the Finns were under pressure to evict the German Lapland army. After marching 1,000 miles and leaving from the north of Finland, the 6th traveled by ship to the south of France, where they were deployed in Operation Northwind, a German counterattack in the Vosges Mountains that is sometimes referred to as the "other Battle of the Bulge." After fighting there, they were sent north to try and stop the unstoppable, and prevent the Allies from crossing the Rhine.

"If I were to be blind after today," Billy Wolfe wrote in a high school essay, "I would want to go off by myself in the mountain, climb to the highest cliff, and look out across the valley at the towns, farms and farmhouses."

It was an interesting assignment, because there was as much to see and love about the Shenandoah Valley, where Billy grew up thinning corn for spending money and picking up Indian arrowheads and Civil War bullets in the fields and among the black walnut trees, in an area as picturesque in its own way as that surrounding the Hunzruck Hohenstrasse where he would find himself with the Second Platoon of the 712th Tank Battalion's Company C, only a couple of years later.

"I would want to picture each native tree in my mind, the rough bark and the shapely green leaves," Billy wrote in the tenth- or eleventh-grade essay. In order to get to the one-room schoolhouse in nearby Palmyra, he often rowed across the north fork of the Shenandoah River and took a shortcut through the woods.

"I would want to see the squirrels running and leaping from one walnut tree to another, and the birds flying. I would like to see the deer run and jump swiftly and gracefully and leap across the fences, and lie in a tree that leans across the water and watch bass laying under the rocks and dart out after a fly.

"I would go through the house from one room to the other picturing each piece of furniture, every corner and everything, in my mind.

"I would like to see all my sisters, brother and parents together as we were, and picture each as they look for future reference.

"I would want to see all my friends and relatives so I would know what the person looked like when I would talk to them after being blind.

"I would want to go fishing and hunting and do the things I know I couldn't do after being blind."

Today is the 66th anniversary of the battle at Pfaffenheck, which Lieutenant Francis "Snuffy" Fuller said in a letter to Hubert Wolfe, written later in 1945, was his worst day in combat. Fuller, a Reserve officer from Buffalo, New York, who joined the battalion as a replacement in September, was a few years older than most of the men in his platoon.

Although I never met many of them, the second platoon of Company C had more than its share of rough and tumble, hard drinking characters. One of them, Wes Haines, "done imbibed him some" one day, according to Otha Martin, a tank commander in the platoon, and remarked that Fuller looked like Snuffy Smith in the comics, and the nickname stuck.

Snuffy Smith

Snuffy Fuller
Over the course of the many years that I recorded the stories of the 712th Tank Battalion, with which my father served, I even became a part of some of the stories its veterans liked to relate, even though I never was in the military and never saw a day of combat in my life.

One story, for instance, that Paul Wannemacher, the battalion association president, likes to tell, is about the time I was listening to Jim Flowers relate the events on Hill 122. It was a story I'd heard him tell many times. Jim spoke with a slow, almost syrupy Texas drawl, and often he would pause or stretch out a couple of syllables while he searched his memory for a detail. Once, as he was trying to recollect a piece of the story he likely had told a thousand times, I corrected him on a minor detail, having heard him tell it many times. I thought I was doing him a favor. Jim locked me with a stare from under his bushy eyebrows and said, angrily, "Who's telling this story, me or you?"

But Paul's favorite story that he likes to tell about me is when I was talking with Otha Martin in the hospitality room at one of the battalion's "mini-reunions" which were held in Bradenton, Fla., every January. The Wolfe twins were at the very first reunion I attended, which was their first reunion as well, as a result of which while I was learning about the death of George Tarr, who was the lieutenant my father replaced, they meeting Lieutenant Fuller and other members of the platoon who served with their brother, and the veterans of C Company were reconstructing the battle at Pfaffenheck, in which Billy Wolfe was killed.

I forget who told me that Otha Martin, a burly rancher from Oklahoma who worked as a guard at Macalester State Prison after the war, had been at Pfaffenheck, but about twenty minutes into the conversation I asked him, "Do you remember Pfaffenheck?"

Paul Wannemacher was standing nearby and loves to recount Otha's reaction: He suddenly stopped and got a dead serious look on his face, and he said, or rather announced, "Pfaffenheck." Then he said, slowly and deliberately, "March 16th, 1945. I was there." And he proceeded to name each of the five crew members in all of the five tanks that took part in the battle that day. Subsequent research proved him to be off on only a couple of the names, despite the passage of more than 45 years.

Four members of the second platoon were killed in Pfaffenheck: Billy Wolfe, Jack Mantell, Russell Harris and Lloyd Hayward.
(More on the battle at Pfaffenheck will be in my next entry)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Why I began recording veterans' stories

Alyce Freeberg

Often I'm asked  how I got started preserving the stories of America's World War 2 veterans.  Like some of the veterans I've interviewed, I have a standard response. However, while listening recently to a 1995 interview with Hilding and Alyce Freeberg, I discovered something a bit more candid and off the cuff.

Alyce Freeberg: This is wonderful (my book "Tanks for the Memories"). I'm very moved by all of this.

Aaron Elson: I think that, I started this, actually I got this little tape recorder when my dad was in the hospital, this very one. I said "I'm gonna go sit down with him and make him tell me his war stories."

Alyce Freeberg: Good.

Aaron Elson: I didn't. I left it home. I went to visit him in the hospital, and then he got out of the hospital, he didn't follow his diet, and then two weeks later he had a heart attack and passed away. But the tape recorder was in a drawer, and I took it with me, I got the newsletter, it was sent to him like five years after he passed away he was still getting it, and I found one and I wrote to Ray Griffin, and he wrote back and said why don't you come to a reunion, so I did. That's when I started doing this, I had the tape recorder, I found three people who remembered my dad. But at the same time, I couldn't believe the stories that I was hearing. And like Andy Schifler said, and this is something I've heard so many times, that they never tell these things to their kids.

Alyce Freeberg: No. He (Hilding) doesn't, either.

Hilding Freeberg: And the only reason my daughter has the stuff is because she was here a month ago or so, and we got talking about the Army, oh I know, what I heard on the radio, on TV, they said that all the people, all the Army personnel that were involved in D-Day are heroes, so I told her, hey, I'm a hero. I think it's D-Day 10, or 6, I don't remember, but I'm a hero, being I was there.

Alyce Freeberg:  Yeah. And that's how she wanted them. She's one of those really interested people, you know.

Hilding Freeberg: So she took it all. Then I had a book of, one of the infantry...

Aaron Elson: The 90th Infantry?

Hilding Freeberg: Well, it wasn't the 90th, the book I had on, but it showed all around where we went also. So she took that. We were attached to the 90th, but I don't have nothing about the 90th, not a thing.

Aaron Elson: But that's one thing that a lot of fellows who were there just don't...

Hilding Freeberg: No, they don't say nothing at all.

Aaron Elson: Even Forrest Dixon said, he's got three grown children, and he's very active, goes to all the reunions, he said one day he was talking with somebody and the other person referred to him as Major, and he said his son said, "Gee, Dad, I never knew you were a major."

Alyce Freeberg: He never mentioned that he was a major.

Aaron Elson: So that's why I started doing this, taking the tape recorder and putting some of this stuff down. Because I think in 25 years it will be good to have as complete as possible a look at one unit. I don't think anybody is doing anything like that from this perspective.

Hilding Freeberg: No, they're not.

How times have changed, a Valentine's Day story

Lou and Olga Putnoky, in 1994

   I should start calling this feature the "clip of the week," but I've been adjusting to a new job and experimenting with tapes I recorded in the hospitality room at reunions of the 712th Tank Battalion. Some of those tapes have considerable background noise and I'm hesitant to post excerpts until I've tested them on some unsuspecting listeners.

   In the meantime, with Valentine's Day fast approaching and a long overdue email newsletter to put out, I may not get to another clip of the day for a couple of millennia, so I've selected a love story for today's "clip of the (almost every) day."

   My full-length interview with Lou Putnoky, a veteran of the Coast Guard who served on the USS Bayfield during four invasions, including D-Day, is included in the "D-Day Tapes" collection. This story, excerpted from that interview, was told to me by his wife, Olga, while Lou was on the phone talking to a former shipmate about their upcoming reunion. The following clip is also included in my audiobook "Tales of Love, Food, Booze, Jumping Out of Airplanes, Meeting General Patton and Winning World War 2." A loose transcript follows.

Lou Putnoky: Normandy as I know it and Desert Storm as I've seen it on television, the one big factor sticks in my mind is press coverage. During the war, and many people, you had one hundred percent censorship. Now Desert Storm, you didn't have it, because it's a different world. And I've often said to myself, we could never... (phone rings)

Olga Putnoky: This has been so funny, because Lou has been getting calls from all over the United States. And it is cute because, the best part of it is, in 48 years I've never been able to get him to go to Las Vegas, I've been dying to go. And he's been getting calls from all over the United States, and the conversation will start out, "Are you that tall, skinny, curly headed kid?" And Lou will say "Are you the redhead that I pitched the football to and fell off the dock," and so forth. It's the nicest thing, it's wonderful.

Aaron Elson:  How did you and Lou meet?

Olga Putnoky: Lou and I lived in Carteret, and we belonged to the same church. I was, I think five years old and he was six, I was in the church play, and his mother and he were sitting in the first row, he said, "See that dark-haired girl? When she grows up I'm gonna marry her." And we went to different schools, I went to Woodbridge, and he went to Carteret. We started to date, nothing serious until after he got home from the service. We were friendly, and we did go to different schools, but we dated occasionally.

Aaron Elson:  And you have how many children?

Olga Putnoky: We have two children. We have Bruce, he's 44, and Diane who's 40. Our son was born in 1950. He lives in Holmdel, and our daughter lives in Carteret, nice and close by.

We'll be married 48 years in May. We just had four 50th anniversaries, our close friends. And our children were invited to all of them, they just could not get over it. Lou's parents were married over 70 years. His dad was 102 when he died. We had him for six years or so, taking care of him. Most of our friends have been married around the time we got married. Lou's buddy, his closest friend, his shipmate, he called this morning from Long Island, William Uhlendahl(?), we visit, we're godparents.

We do not live for just today, I think that's the thing of it. Today's youngsters live for today. I was at a checkout line of a supermarket a couple of years ago. There were two very pretty young girls, and one said to the checkout girl, "Well I hear you're getting married. What made you decide?"

She said, "Well, you know, if it doesn't work out, so I'll get rid of him." I was just shocked. I didn't say a word, I just listened, but what fools. Don't get married if you have that kind of an attitude. But, we've just been very lucky, very, very lucky in our relationship. I guess we picked the right friends.

Aaron Elson:  Did you work in a defense plant?

Olga Putnoky:  I worked in U.S. Metals, I was the first girl hired in personnel. They hired me in '41, and I stayed on until '49.

Aaron Elson: Did they make ammunition?

Olga Putnoky:  Oh yes, yes. They had, and our bosses used to go to New York, or North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, to recruit labor. You know, all the boys and the men from around here were in the war, in the service, so they were a very big copper industry. We had the war bond rallies, it was really nice, everybody's attitude was, most of the women in town worked there, because the men were in the service. I have some pictures of the women who worked there. They had such an attitude, these nice, quiet old ladies, even the elderly women came to work, and they just put their noses to the grindstone and they worked. We had a lot of women during the war. And then slowly as the men came back they were replaced.
- - -
Here are some clips from the audio CD "Food and War," which is included in the audiobook "Tales of Love, Food, Booze, Jumping Out of Airplanes, Meeting General Patton and Winning World War II."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Clip of the (almost every) Day: Ellsworth Howard

Ellsworth Howard

For my next oral history audiobook, I'm considering a collection of vignettes recorded in the hospitality room over the years at reunions of the 712th Tank Battalion, with which my father served.

Yes, there's background noise, and I'd like some feedback from listeners as to whether the background noise is too much of a distraction to make for a quality audiobook.

Today's audio clip is from the 1993 reunion. Ellsworth Howard was the executive officer of A Company, and became the company commander on July 13, 1944, when the original company commander, Clifford Merrill, was wounded. Howard himself was wounded a little more than a month later, on August 18 or 19, at Le Bourg St. Leonard, during the closing of the Falaise Gap.

Here is an audio clip of the conversation, along with a transcript to make listening a little easier:

Ellsworth Howard

Aaron Elson: Where were you wounded?

Ellsworth Howard: On my body, or ...

Aaron Elson: Both.

Ellsworth Howard: I got shot in the belly, a shell fragment in the belly, in the Falaise Gap. We were there when it first started, walked right into it. Courtesy of Jack Galvin.

Aaron Elson: What did Jack Galvin do?

Forrest Dixon: You got this on, or don't you?

Aaron Elson: It's on.

Ellsworth Howard: We were in relief, A Company was. Colonel Randolph had given us instructions, you're gonna be here for several days, so clean up your tanks and your guns and write letters. Before the day was out, why, he came over and said "I need you to send five tanks up there to Le Bourg," and I said, "I don't think I've got five tanks. We've got the engines out of the darn tanks and their guns are out and everything else."
He said, "Well, you're gonna have to do it."
I went back and told Szirony [maintenance sergeant Steve Szirony] "We've got to have five tanks right away." So they, after a round of obscenity, put together five tanks.
He [Colonel Randolph] said there's nothing going on up there, that B Company's been up there on guard duty for a while and there's nothing going on, they're just tired and need to be relieved. So they pulled out and we went there with five tanks and had to fight our way in there. And before the day was out, we had everything we had in there. Then I found out that Galvin and Dougherty were drunk up there, and Randolph pulled them out because they couldn't handle it. We just about lost our whole company in that deal. When I got shot we were down to six tanks. What was the number of that tank destroyer outfit [the 773rd]? Their medic picked me up and hauled me back, and there weren't any hospitals around there, because of the way the front was moving, the hospitals didn't know where to set up, and they took me over someplace, and the best I can remember there wasn't a darn thing there, but they let me lay on that ground there on a cot until they put up a tent, they called a hospital unit in there and I stayed there for a while, and I stayed there for a while, and then they took me into Chartres and flew me back to England.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Clip of the (almost every) day: Ocki Fleitman

Oscar "Ocki" Fleitman
When I began recording the stories of veterans of the 712th Tank Battalion, with which my father served, I would take my little Sony Walkman style recorder into the hospitality room. There, I would record the kind of reminiscences that make their way into few documentaries or popular history books. Sometimes the background noise would be prohibitive and I could only use a transcript of the conversation or the story. Other times the audio, with some background noise, would be sufficiently clear to put on a CD or post on the Internet.

In 1993, I recorded the following conversation in which Joe Fetsch and Wayne Hissong reminisced with a couple of other members of the battalion's Service Company. Fetsch was a gasoline truck driver, and Hissong drove a truck that delivered ammunition to the tanks.

I've broken the conversation into four clips.

Part 1
Part 2
part 3
part 4

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Clip of the Day: The first time ...

Forrest Dixon on his farm in Munith, Mich.

One of my favorite storytellers from the 712th Tank Battalion was Forrest Dixon, the battalion's maintenance officer. Of the many remarkable individual feats accomplished by members of the battalion, Forrest climbed into a tank whose engine was being repaired on the morning of Sept. 8, 1944, in the village of Mairy, France, and singlehandedly knocked out a German Mark IV tank that had broken through into the maintenance area.

In this excerpt, he talks about the first time he was fired on, in Normandy.

The first time

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Clip of the Day: Tonsillectomies

Art Horn at Camp Seeley, California

The inscription on the back of the photo, which Art sent to his girlfriend

In 1941, some 500 recruits from the Chicago area were sent to Camp Seeley, California, to fill out the ranks of the 11th Cavalry. Two of those recruits were Art Horn and Ed "Smoky" Stuever.

For some odd reason, Stuever in recent years came to dislike his nickname. Nevertheless, he always loved to tell how he got it. When he was working in the veterinary detachment, a horse was brought in with a thorn in its foot. Stuever's lieutenant had just become a father and passed out cigars, and Stuever went to remove the thorn from the horse's foot while the cigar, lit, was in his mouth. The horse shifted and its thigh came in contact with the business end of the cigar, and the next thing Stuever knew he was flying through the air. "There goes Smoky!" one of his colleagues shouted.

Interestingly, there was a popular comic strip at the time called "Smoky Stover," and I've often wondered if that didn't have something to do with his being given that nickname as well.

At one reunion, Stuever and Art Horn were reminiscing, Stuever about his days in the Civilian Conservation Corps and Horn about his time in the cavalry, when the subject of tonsils came up. Which leads me to today's "Clip of the Day." Be forewarned, however, this story is not for the faint of heart.

Clip of the Day: Tonsillectomies

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Clip of the day: Plaster Fried Chicken

Tony D'Arpino
You may have seen Tony D'Arpino, of Milton, Mass., on "Patton 360" on the History Channel. Tony was a tank driver in C Company of the 712th Tank Battalion.

Tony often spoke of his gunner, Stanley Klapkowski. In this excerpt, he describes a meal cooked by Klapkowski while his platoon occupied a house in Maizieres les Metz, where they spent three weeks. I guess the title gives it away a little bit, but it's one of my favorite stories anyway.

Plaster fried chicken

Friday, January 21, 2011

Introducing: The Clip of the Day

The Miner crew. Pilot Reg Miner is in the front row, second from the right.
This is, after all, an oral history blog, so beginning today, and hopefully every day, but knowing me more likely every couple of days, I'll be posting a "Clip of the Day" from my vast audio archives.

How vast are they? They're so vast, the Hubble Space Telescope would need glasses to find them. Would you believe they're so vast that six of them would fit on the head of a pin? At any rate, I have a lot of them.

Today's clip is from an interview with Reg Miner. Reg, who lives in the scenic Finger Lakes area of New York State, was the first stop on my Kassel Mission interviewing trip in 1999. I first learned the story of the Kassel Mission earlier that year when I took a trip to Germany to visit the village of Heimboldshausen, where a tragic incident involving the 712th Tank Battalion took place. But more of that anon. While there, I met the German historian Walter Hassenpflug, who has been instrumental in preserving the history of the Kassel Mission, on which 35 B-24s apparently flew off  course, lost their fighter escort, and were ambushed, by most estimates, by somewhere between 100 and 150 German fighter planes.

Miner's B-24 was shot down, and he became a prisoner of war. However, on a mission before Kassel, he encountered what he considered a more stressful situation, even though, thanks to his skill as a pilot, he managed to crash-land his plane in a field, with only one injury to a crew member.

Without further ado:

Reg Miner on crash-landing his B-24

Reg Miner in 1999

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Two funerals and a pile of cash

The first email came from Mike Simpson, the tireless force behind the 445th Bomb Group web site. It alerted me to the fact that John Harold "Robbie" Robinson had passed away at age 92. Robinson wrote one of the best memoirs I've read about World War II. I don't think that's just my opinion, because when, in 1999, I was able to find a copy of "A Reason to Live" on, it was in its sixth printing, I think by Crown Publishers. I say "I think" because I loaned my copy to Ed Hays, a former tail gunner and POW who traveled to Berlin to meet the German fighter pilot who shot down his B-17. Ed passed away several years ago without ever having returned the book, but that's okay.

I read "A Reason to Live" shortly after learning about the Kassel Mission of Sept. 27, 1944. Robinson wasn't on the Kassel Mission, having completed his 25 missions well before that took place, but his book, drawn from letters to his then new bride (his "reason to live") and I think a diary he kept, was like a descent into madness, chronicling the minutiaie of each mission, the little incidents that played upon a flier's mind, the brushes with death that seemed to take place with regularity.

I had the great fortune to meet Robinson at the 1999 reunion of the 8th Air Force Historical Society in Savannah. I didn't have a long conversation with him, but if memory serves me correctly, I think I asked him if his book would ever be made into a movie. He said some people wanted the movie rights but he turned them down because the movie "Memphis Belle" was so far from reality. I was amazed by this remark because when I saw "Memphis Belle" I was struck by how realistic it seemed. As I learned more about the experiences of fliers in B-24s, I came to realize how correct he was.

Of course I googled Robinson after learning of his passing, and I discovered two interesting things. Robinson lived in Memphis, and in 1999, the same year I met him but likely a few months later, a Memphis police officer named John Harold Robinson Jr. was killed when he was run off the road by two suspects he was pursuing. An article about the incident said the two suspects are now serving life sentences. Sure enough, when I found Robinson's obituary -- one of those paid obits, the Commercial Appeal didn't even give him a staff written obituary -- it mentioned that his son, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty in 1999.

The other item I found by googling Robinson was a post on a forum titled "Earl's Story." It's too long to quote extensively so I'll include a link. It was written by the nephew of Earl Doggett, a member of Robinson's crew who was killed while assigned temporarily to another crew.

Earl's Story"

One other note: Robinson is survived by his "reason to live," his wife of 68 years, Virginia.

The second passing in recent days was that of Major Dick Winters, the leader of "Easy Company" made famous in Stephen Ambrose's "Band of Brothers" and the mini-series of the same name.

I almost met Winters once. It was a year or two after "Band of Brothers" was a huge hit on HBO (mind you, I've still only seen the first two episodes. It was at the Lititz Library in Lititz, Pa., where I'd been invited to take part in a World War 2 program and was told I could display my books (this was in the days before I began producing my oral history audiobooks). I gave a short talk and then was given a table where I sat, mostly by my lonesome. I saw a line from another table, the line passed my table, went out the front door and snaked around the side of the library. It was then that I learned that the featured guest was Major Dick Winters. People on the line were carrying VHS tapes for him to sign, books for him to sign, pictures, they'd have him sign the back of their hand just to come in contact with such a famous piece of history.

Fact is Winters was one of those modest heroes, who would have been happy spending the rest of his life on a farm in rural Pennsylvania if Ambrose and Stephen Spielberg hadn't turned him into an icon.

Which brings me to the pile of cash. How's that for a transition? Today I received an email from Paul Belleperche.

"Dear Mr. Elson," the email began. "Could you please contact me. I found an interview that you did with Jerome Auman on the internet and my father was mentioned in the interview (Frenchy Belleperche). I am trying to gather information about my father, he died in 1970 when I was 16. I had heard parts of that story as a kid, but to read it coming from a third party was very shocking. Thank you in advance for your time and consideration."

Here's a link to the story, which involves a cigar box containing $13,800, the production and marketing of "torpedo juice," a spell in the brig, and is on my original web site: