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: