It's one thing to laugh at your own jokes, which I've been guilty of more times than I care to admit. It's another to read for perhaps the hundredth time the preface to a book you wrote, and still get choked up. Such is the case with my preface to the Kindle edition of "Tanks for the Memories." So for anyone who hasn't read it ...
Preface (Tanks for the Memories, Kindle Edition)
When I was a child, I loved listening to my father’s stories about the war. He made the act of getting wounded sound funny. “I had never been in a battle,” he said, “so I stuck my head up to see what was going on.”
Among other things, he said, a bullet penetrated his helmet and some tissue paper wadded inside saved his life.
He was wounded on July 28, 1944, in Normandy, and again on December 10, in Germany. I was born five years later to the day, on December 10, 1949, the second of his five children.
Maurice Elson died of a heart attack in 1980. In 1987 I found a newsletter addressed to him from the 712th Tank Battalion Association. It chronicled the ordinary, but hardly mundane, lives of the battalion’s veterans. There were grandchildren, impending retirements, visits, surgeries, recollections of battles fought and buddies lost, and a reminder that nobody was growing any younger.
I wrote to the newsletter’s editor, Ray Griffin of Aurora, Neb., informing him that my father passed away and asking him to put a notice in the next newsletter saying that if anyone remembered Lieutenant Elson would they please contact me.
Ray called Sam MacFarland, a veteran of A Company. Sam wrote and said my father was in his company and while he didn’t remember my dad, the battalion was having a reunion in Niagara Falls in a couple of weeks. If I came, he would take me around and see what we could find.
I went, and I met three people – Jule Braatz, Charlie Vinson and Ellsworth Howard – who remembered my dad. The stories I only vaguely remembered – a name here, a place there – suddenly came back to life. Not only that, but because I was my father’s son, and my father had been one of them, the veterans welcomed me as if I were a part of a large, extended family.
I missed the 1988 reunion, at which the battalion’s monument was dedicated at Fort Knox, but I went to the 1989 reunion with a tape recorder.
Some of the stories I recorded over the next two decades are presented in this book. I never was in the military, and have never been shot at, so except for some brief introductions and explanations I chose to let the veterans tell their stories in their own words. The stories are presented both chronologically and thematically, with a chapter about food, for example, sandwiched between chapters about two different battles.
The 712th Tank Battalion landed in Normandy on June 28, 1944, three weeks after D-Day, and was on the front lines in France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia for 11 months. Although it was an independent tank battalion, it was attached almost exclusively to the 90th “Texas-Oklahoma” Infantry Division, which suffered the third-highest rate of casualties of any division in the European Theater of Operations.
The 712th fought in the hedgerows of Normandy and the breakout at St. Lo. It helped encircle the German 7th Army at the Falaise Gap. It dashed across France with General George S. Patton’s vaunted 3rd Army. It crossed a flooded Moselle River in November of 1944 and the Saar in December, and the Moselle again and then the Rhine in March of 1945. It fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the Siegfried Line. It guarded the treasures of the Merkers Salt Mine and liberated the Flossenburg concentration camp.
Of the 1,235 men who passed through the battalion’s ranks, 101 were killed in action. Its members were awarded one Legion of Honor, three Distinguished Service Crosses, eight Croixs de Guerre, 56 Silver Stars, 362 Bronze Stars, two Presidential Unit Citations, and 498 Purple Hearts. And of the medals for valor, those were only the incidents that were witnessed and properly written up.
As I am interviewing Bob Hagerty in a hallway at the Harrisburg, Pa., Sheraton during the battalion’s 1992 reunion, one of the tankers’ wives emerges from the hospitality room, with its well-stocked bar, and passes by. She leans toward the microphone and says a little giddily, “Every year they fight the war all over again, and every year it comes out the same.”
Now, as its youngest surviving members approach 90, the battalion no longer holds reunions. But when it did, for a few days twice a year, these veterans did indeed fight the war all over again, clambering in Sherman and Stuart tanks over fields and crossing rivers on pontoon bridges, sliding precariously along ice-slicked mountain roads, and bringing back to life, for a few flickering moments, the memories of buddies who are buried in the cemeteries of France and Holland and Belgium, or whose remains were repatriated into cemeteries all across America, or whose ashes remain in the fields and orchards where they burned inside their tanks.
Shortly after I began writing “Tanks for the Memories” nearly two decades ago, I visited the battalion’s monument in the memorial garden of the Patton Museum. It was a sobering moment. I had interviewed so many tankers and heard so many stories that I thought I knew a lot about the history of the 712th. But when I started going through the names on two bronze plaques of the battalion members killed in action, I recognized less than half of them.
“Somebody should write a book about an outfit that was on the front lines for what, 298 of the 311 days it was in combat?” Andy Schiffler said when he called me in April of 1995. Andy was on the toll-free phone line I used to market the first edition of this book. He was unaware of the book, but saw the number in the newsletter and wanted to update Paul Wannemacher, the battalion association secretary, on his health.
Which wasn’t pretty. Andy said he went into the hospital for cancer surgery. Two hours after he came home, he said, his wife died. Then his doctors found a tumor in his head. They operated, and he lost his sight. Eventually, 28 percent of the sight came back.
I couldn’t take much more.
“What company were you in?” I interrupted.
“D Company,” he said.
“Were you in the horse cavalry?”
“Oh, yesss.” He sounded medicated, understandably. I asked him where he lived.
I asked if I could pay him a visit.
“Sure,” he said. “Call before you come, to make sure I’m still alive.”
When I visited him three weeks later, we spoke for six hours over two days, on May 6 and 7, 1995. He told me about the draft board that was convicted of taking bribes, and about learning to drive a truck while working for a moonshiner during Prohibition. He told me about the cavalry in the California desert, about the time Art Horn fell off his horse and accidentally shot the animal in the neck (the horse lived, but more about that later), about the light tank he drove in combat from Normandy to Czechoslovakia, about the Silver Star he was awarded for racing out under fire to his parked tank and driving it back to the house where his crew was staying. And he told me about the member of his platoon who was killed by friendly fire.
His son Andy Junior, who is about my age, came over with one of his two teenage sons. Andy Junior remarked that his father never told him a thing about the war.
In researching this book, if you can call listening wide-eyed to a bunch of old men – old men, hell, I’m almost as old now as they were when I started doing this – and women talk about a time when they were young and adventurous, if you can consider that research, I found that although some of the veterans were reluctant to talk, many opened up and told stories that were so detailed they might have happened yesterday instead of 45 to 60 years before.
Sometimes a veteran’s wife sat in on an interview, and heard things she never heard before. Such was the case with Joe Bernardino of Rochester, N.Y. I looked Joe up in 1994 because he figured in a story told by Sam Cropanese: It was early in the morning and Sam was outside his tank having coffee when an artillery shell suddenly burst in the air and rained shrapnel on him and several infantrymen. Sam wound up in a field hospital minus a piece of his jaw. Joe, who was inside the tank, was wounded in the same barrage and wound up in the same field hospital. Sam’s face was bandaged and his jaw wired shut, and Joe didn’t recognize him. Sam said “Jw-Jw-tsm-Sm!” – loosely translated, “Joe, Joe, it’s me, Sam!”
Five decades later Joe got choked up when he recalled how guilty he felt that it took him those few moments to recognize Sam, because as crewmates in a tank they were closer than brothers.
Sam and Joe were wounded in the Falaise Gap, a significant event in the battalion's history when the 90th Infantry Division, to which the battalion was attached, took part in the encirclement and destruction of a large part of the German 7th Army. While much of the battalion was on a ridge firing into the valley in which the Germans were trapped, the Sherman tanks of A Company were guarding a field through which the Germans might try to escape. During the night, the tankers could hear movement in the woods. Edmund Pilz, the driver of Sam and Joe’s tank, was biting his fingernails. Joe told him to stop because it was making him nervous. They had words, Joe recalled, and he decided he would apologize in the morning.
Shortly after 10 a.m., an armor-piercing shell penetrated the tank in front of the driver's compartment, killing Pilz instantly. Joe never got the chance to apologize.
"Those things stay with you," he said.
Joe Bernardino died on March 14, 1995, of pancreatic cancer. Otha Martin was going to send me the names and positions of all of the crew members in each of the five tanks that fought the 6th SS Mountain Division in the village of Pfaffenheck, Germany, on March 16, 1945; however, just before Christmas in 1994, he died of a stroke while working on his ranch in Macalester, Okla. Andy Schiffler died on March 5, 1996, barely 10 months after I interviewed him. Clifford Merrill, who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and who upon being wounded in Normandy handed his Thompson submachine gun to tank commander Morse Johnson and said “Take it into Berlin,” died peacefully at his home in Fort Collins, Colo., on June 10, 2008. He was 94 years old.
To paraphrase Sam MacFarland, who in 1987 introduced me to the 712th Tank Battalion and who died of cancer the following year, time is succeeding where Adolph Hitler failed.
I don't know what it's like to experience combat – the fear, the fatalism, the grief, the suspension of morality, the numbness of feelings of which I've often been told. Nor have I had any formal education as a historian. But I hope with this book to preserve a chapter of history that was headed for a hundred different graves. It is a chapter about young men who laughed and loved, who were cocky and feisty and spirited, who drank hard and fought harder – and that, some of them would tell you, was even before they met the enemy.