|Paul Farrell, Harold Gentle, Eugene Tannler and Abe Taylor were four of the five crew members of a tank that was knocked out, going up in flames, on July 11, 1944, during the battle for Hill 122 in Normandy.|
The tombstone says "infantry" but the four crew members buried in a common grave in the Astoria section of Queens, N.Y., were members of the 712th Tank Battalion. Their tank was knocked out, going up in flames. The fifth crew member, Laverne Patton, was also killed.
Of the four tanks in Lt. Jim Flowers' platoon that were destroyed that day, this was the only one that lost its entire crew. Of the 20 crew members in the four tanks, nine were killed, several wounded, and two both wounded and captured.
Today being Memorial Day, a lot of people are enjoying barbecues. Me, I'm reminded of a line from a 1993 interview with Jim Flowers in his motel room in Bradenton, Fla., during one of the 712th Tank Battalion's "mini" reunions, which were held every January for the veterans who retired to or wintered in Florida, but the war was such an important part of some of the veterans' lives that they came to the mini-reunions from all over the country to spend a few extra days with their buddies. The "minis" were less formal than the annual battalion reunion, which drew a larger crowd and was usually held somewhere in the Midwest, as it seemed most battalion veterans came from somewhere in the central corridor of the country, stretching from Chicago to Texas and Louisiana.
Flowers was telling me the story of Hill 122, I had the tape recorder going, and Jeanette Flowers was also in the room. When Flowers' tank was hit, the shell that penetrated it tore off his right forefoot, an injury that would eventually lead to amputation of part of his leg. As he was climbing out of the tank, he said he fell back into the turret basket, and that he didn't know if it was because he "had nothing to climb with," or whether it was his loader, Edward Dzienis, climbing over his back to get out of the tank.
"You told him to abandon tank," Jeanette Flowers said.
"Well, don't drag me down into this barbecue pit," Flowers said.
Abe Taylor was the platoon sergeant, and normally would have been in a different tank. But Judd Wiley, the tank commander of that particular tank, was injured the day before when the hatch cover slammed down on his hand as the tank backed over a hedgerow. Jack Sheppard, the company commander, filled in, and Flowers wanted Sheppard in the No. 4 tank, which had a two-way radio, so he juggled the crews. It would be several months before Wiley, who was hospitalized, learned his entire crew had perished. "I only wish I could have died with my men," he said when I interviewed him at his home in Seal Beach, Calif., in 1994.
The threat of fire was a notoriously common danger in the Sherman tanks of World War II. I recently came upon a passage in the "original" Tanks for the Memories -- not the book I wrote in 1994 but the collection of stories put together by battalion veteran Ray Griffin -- in which he described the day his tank was knocked out during the battle of Mairy (See "Destruction of the 106th Panzer Brigade). Ray's tank was knocked out by a German tank and went up in Flames, but except for a few minor injuries, the entire crew made it out of the tank and to the relative safety of a nearby ditch.
While the tank was burning, Griffin saw his platoon sergeant, Frank Bores, run up and climb onto it so that he could see if anyone was still inside that he might assist. Griffin ran over to the tank and yelled to him that everyone was out, so Bores jumped off and joined the crew in the ditch.
Griffin wrote that he put Sergeant Bores in for a decoration -- probably a Bronze or Silver Star -- because it was a very brave act to climb onto a burning tank. He wrote that the decoration was turned down because there were no demonstrable results,
I hope you're having a good, somber Memorial Day. I heard on the radio that some general started a speech by saying people often say to him "Happy Memorial Day" and he wished they wouldn't do that because it isn't supposed to be a happy occasion. He's right, but on the other hand, I can't remember anybody ever saying to me "Happy Memorial Day."