Saturday, July 28, 2012

General Patton at the Crossroads

Suella and Russell Loop

   In my Oral History Audio CD "Encounters With General Patton," I included an anecdote related by Russell Loop when I interviewed him at his home in Indianola, Illinois, on Oct. 24, 1993.
   I might note that I almost didn't get to interview Loop, who, in his mid 70s at the time, was a farmer. I have somehow managed to get lost in almost every state in the nation. I even got lost in a parking lot, but if you've ever been to the Drawbridge Estate in Fort Mitchell, Ky., you might not be judgmental. And once in my travels when I was visiting my brother in Minneapolis and proceeded to visit a cousin in Madison, Wisconsin, I got off the highway to get a cup of coffee and managed to get back on headed west. The first few times I saw signs telling me how many miles it was to St. Paul, I thought, gee, I didn't know there was a St. Paul in Wisconsin.
   I can't think of a time, however, when I've been more lost than when I was on my way to visit Russell Loop and hs wife, Suella.
   He told me to get off the highway, look for a certain convenience store, take a road all the way to the end, make a right, and take that road to the end.
   This was farm country, and somehow the first road I took didn't end until I was probably in the next county, but what did I know, there was the end of the road and I made my right and drove for several miles until I finally came to a house with the number of Russell's house, and it's not like there were any streets signs along the way. I rang the buzzer, and a young couple with a baby came to the door. This must be Russell's son or daughter and grandchild, I thought. Except they had no idea who I was talking about. But they explained that Indianola was back the way I came, so I doubled back to the convenience store and called Russell, and this time I got it right.
   All that, of course, is not on the CD. What is on the CD is the part that follows my asking Russell "Did you ever see Patton, up close?"
   "Yes," he said. "Real close. We had just pulled up on a four-way crossroad, which was a hard road, and pretty nice roads for back that time. And we had not met any resistance there. But we had just pulled off and was waiting for further orders, and here comes Patton and his jeep, and his driver, and he just more or less walked by the officers and went around and shook hands and talked with nearly every one of the enlisted men. And while he was there, there was a German plane that strafed that crossroads both ways, twice. And he just looked up and said 'They must know I'm here.'
   "That's all he said, about that. But what he wanted to know was, 'Are you getting plenty to eat? Are you getting enough ammunition and gasoline? And is there anything that I can do to make it better?'
   "And of course we all said 'Yes, send us home.'" -- Russell kind of laughed when he said that -- "But I did, I got to shake hands with him on the front line.
   "He was I suppose by far the best officer we had. He got the job done. He didn't give them time to get set up and ready for us. He kept them out of bounds. And I think that was the whole deal, really, myself. I think that's the reason we got as far as we did as quick as we did. Of course, we were clear across Germany and Czechoslovakia when the war was over."

   Another time I got lost was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, looking for the home of Lex Obrient. Come to think of it, this one may even beat my search for Russell Loop, because I never did find Obrient's home; he lived in a cul de sac in one of the communities that seem to ring Albuquerque, and I drove around for a couple of hours before finally abandoning my quest. This, too, was in 1992 or 1993. I did keep in touch with Obrient's son, however, and in 1999 when I went out to Albuquerque to interview Vincent "Mike" McKinney, whose interview is included in my audiobook "The D-Day Tapes" and my Kindle book "Conversations With D-Day Veterans," I finally found Obrient's house.
   It wasn't until today, however, 13 years after that interview, while reviewing material for my forthcoming book "The Armoured Fist," which will be published by Fonthill Media, that I realized that Lieutenant Obrient (he later was a colonel with an engineering unit in Korea) was Loop's platoon leader for a while. Obrient was in D Company, the 712th Tank Battalion's so-called "light tank" company, while Loop was in C Company and my principal reason for interviewing him was because he was one of the tankers involved in the battle at Pfaffenheck, Germany, on March 16, 1945. But Loop started out as a gunner in D Company and later transferred to C Company's second platoon.
   As in many of my interviews, the subject of General Patton came up, and Obrient related one of the many colorful anecdotes I've been fortunate about front line encounters with Patton.
   "At Mortain," Obrient said, "my platoon was right there at the crossroads at Mortain. Lieutenant Godfrey's platoon went around where the cross-section was and he went down that way, and then Harry Coe (Eugene Godfrey and Coe were the other D Company platoon leaders at the time) went down even further. So we're sitting there, and just playing a flank guard for anything that was coming because they were getting ready to move the 2nd Armored, I was told, the 2nd Armored Division was getting ready to come through. But before that, here comes Patton down the road with his whole staff of officers, and three or four jeeps behind him. So he’s coming my way, and when I got up there and I reported to him, he returned it and said hi, and shook hands real quick, but he didn’t want to talk to me. He wanted to talk to my sergeants with the other tanks. And what he wanted to know was if they really understood what was going on. And he was very satisfied with what he heard. I mean, they told him, we’re here, and this is what we’re here for, and this is what we’re doing. He immediately left and I called on the radio and I told Gene about this. I said, 'Gene, you’re about to have some very special company. It won’t be more than two or three minutes.'
   And he said 'Thanks.'
   Sure enough, Patton went on down there, he talked to Gene, and he went down and talked to Coe, as I remember. But then we saw him come back. And then a funny thing happened. We got strafed. I don’t know how the Germans would have found this out, but I kind of feel like somebody had tipped them off that hey, I guess you couldn’t miss it, I mean gee, Patton with his brilliant, shiny helmet and dressed to perfection. Okay, that’s the second time I met Patton. I’m glad you brought that up. That’s what happened. Did Andy (Schiffler) tell you anything about that?"
   "No," I said. "You know who told me about that? Russell Loop. Do you remember him? He transferred to C Company, but he said that once Patton came up and spoke to the enlisted men. He was a sergeant, and you know, he bypassed the officers. So that would have to be the same, because he started out in D Company."
   "Russell Loop?" Obrient said.
   "Loop," I said, "From Indianola, Illinois."
   "Ah, yes, I remember him," Obrient said. "But you know something else that I don't know if Andy told you about, there was a woman there with her children in a house close by. And of course, this is one thing Patton insisted on, "Don’t you take any food from any of these people. You have what you need. Leave it alone." So I felt real sorry for this woman and her children. And we had fruit, we had some apples and we had oranges, and those children, they hadn’t seen any candy at all. Well of course all the candy we had was that D-bar, that highly concentrated chocolate, so I tried to tell her, listen, these are for your children, because I knew they hadn’t had any food there, I was told that they hadn’t had any oranges or apples, they didn’t know anything about any of that. And above all, they hadn’t had any chocolate. So I think Andy was one of them that gave her the chocolate.
   "So you know what she did? She was so grateful, she went and killed a couple of chickens, and boy, I thought, no ma’am, don’t do that, uh-uh. But she did anyway, and they came out there, and this is just before Patton showed up. So what we did, they had it on one of these oblong plates and cut up, I said 'Jesus Christ, we’re all gonna be in trouble.' So we took it, and thank God he didn’t get close enough to notice it, but we pushed it in under the bogey wheels and the track and covered it with jackets and so forth. Of course he wasn’t there long. Thank God he wasn’t. He just was in and out. So when he got out of there, I took that chicken and said, "Ma’am, please, for God sake, take that back, don’t do that." So we made her take it back. But if he’d have found out, I hate to think what would have happened. But he was real fast. He came up, and I bet he was gone in less than a minute and a half. But that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to talk to the sergeants and the other enlisted men that he could talk to.
   "So that’s the second time I saw General Patton, right there. The first time was on the hills in England, and then the second time I saw him was there. And then we saw him again up in the Battle of the Bulge, but I didn’t really get to say anything to him. I just saw him, and he went right on. It was fast. And then the last time I saw him, the war was over and we were in the theater at Amberg, and he came around and he talked oh, maybe ten, fifteen minutes, with as many troopers as could get in that theater. That was the last time I saw him, of course you know what happened to him after that at Mainz. No. Yeah, Mainz, that’s where it was [actually near Mannheim]. He was in his staff car and he was waiting for a train to go by, and these guys had been drinking, and they drove a two and a half ton truck into the back of him and broke his neck. You know that part, I’m sure."

   Watch for more information about and excerpts from my forthcoming book, "The Armoured Fist," from Fonthill Media. That's Armour with a "u" because Fonthill is a British publisher, besides, I do seem to have a small following in England and Australia, although I have no idea how Australians spell armor.
   My original Oral History Audiobook "The D-Day Tapes" is available from for download or on CD from eBay, and "Conversations With Veterans of D-Day" is available for Amazon Kindle.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

A tragic sense of deja vu

Christina Taylor Green
   I was terribly upset by the story of the young aspiring sportscaster who was killed in the Aurora, Colo., Dark Knight Rises massacre, and at the same time had a strong sense of deja vu. There was a similar tragic coincidence, but where?
  Then I found it. Nine year old Christina Green, who died in the Gabby Giffords shooting in Arizona, was born on 9/11.
   I tried to think if there were anything in my oral histories of a similar nature. I received an email once many years ago from the son of a member of the battalion who was killed near the end of the war, and he said his father had been on the USS West Virginia when Pearl Harbor was attacked, later transferring to the Army. But when I looked at a roster of the West Virginia that seemed to have the name of every sailor who served on it, I couldn't find the fellow's name, so I won't mention it here.
   I did, however, find one interesting item from my interviews. Dan Diel, a sergeant who received one of the battalion's 14 battlefield commissions, mentioned that when he was in the horse cavalry in 1941, they trained in San Ysidro, California. And he asked me if I knew what San Ysidro was famous for.
   Ironically, or perhaps coincidentally, perhaps even by design, the McDonald's massacre took place on July 18, 1984, the anniversary falling barely a day before the Dark Knight Rises killings. At first I thought San Ysidro was the first such massacre, but then I remembered Charles Whitman and the Texas tower shooting, which took place in 1966.
    Here is a portion of my interview with Dan Diel, in which he mentions San Ysidro:

Dan Diel

   We didn't necessarily get THE first, but we got amongst the first draftees of the war, in February of '41. We had guys that were sent back to some of the big cities like Chicago or Milwaukee, or Cleveland or New York, and escorted these guys back to the cavalry in California. At the time that they came in, I was going to horseshoeing school, and was working in the stable gang and learning to become a horseshoer.
   Later, I was in a machine gun troop. We had the old water-cooled heavy 30-caliber machine guns and we had an area where we set up and stayed there, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for two weeks. It was right outside of San Ysidro. I don't know if that name brings up anything to you or not. That's where the McDonald's was that had the big massacre several years ago and they tore the building down and they made a monument. That's where we were stationed. The border patrol would come along and pick up a couple of us and take us into the high school to take showers.
   They were getting us ready, theoretically they were going to ship us to the South Pacific, and we were being issued new equipment and being inoculated for different things, and the yellow jaundice came from yellow fever shots. I don’t know how many of them got sick, whether it was half of the regiment, there was a huge number, and if you went on sick call they told you, "Go back and just take it easy and eat light foods, salads and stuff," and that's about as stupid as you can answer somebody when you eat what they put out in the mess hall and you've got no choice.
   But we had one man that died from the yellow jaundice, his name was Lemke. I can't remember his first name. And there were a lot of others that were sick. I was sick for a few days from it, but it wasn't anything life-threatening, it was just that you were uncomfortable as hell.
   But I don't remember how many of them in the regiment that was bad enough to be hospitalized or anything, I just remember that this one guy that was in our troop that died.

The San Ysidro Monument

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bonnie and Clyde and the Tank Battalion

Bonnie and Clyde's death car
   The pistols used by Bonnie and Clyde are up for auction and expected to fetch quite a price. Which reminds me of a story. Two, actually.
    Lieutenant Jim Flowers of the 712th Tank Battalion lost both of his legs in the battle for Hill 122 in Normandy, and spent three years in hospitals. He was married and had a daughter when he went into the service, and at about midpoint in his recuperation, he spent a couple of days in a hospital at Love Field in Dallas before being transferred to Percy Jones General Hospital in Battle Creek, Mich.
When he arrived at Love Field, someone from the hospital sent for Jim's family, as they lived in Dallas. However, his wife and daughter were at the movies.
   Someone, it may have been Jim's mother, or maybe it was Jeanette's mother, asked the manager of the theater to interrupt the film so that Jim's wife and daughter could be brought to the hospital to see him. The manager refused.
     Jim's family was on friendly terms with the sheriff, and when he intervened, the theater manager interrupted the movie, and as Jim put it, I'm quoting from memory here, "My wife and daughter and sister and loudmouth neighbor came to see me. Imagine asking, 'Did you kill any Germans?'" And then, as was his manner, he said he was really pleased that they had come to see him, even the neighbor.
    Actually it was Jeanette who told me about the movie being interrupted, and when she mentioned the sheriff she also said his name, which was Smoot Schmid.
    As seems to be a habit with me, I thought nothing of it until years later, when I was listening to the tape of one of my conversations with Jim and Jeanette Flowers, and I thought, "Smoot Schmid, what an odd name." And when I googled it, up on my screen popped a picture of Dallas Sheriff Smoot Schmid standing in front of a table full of guns, and a story about Schmid's role in the pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde (he was responsible for a failed ambush, before they were finally killed by a posse of Texas Rangers).
    But there is another connection between the battalion and the infamous bandits. At the first reunion I attended, in 1987, I met a young woman who was there with her mother. This was their second reunion; they attended the reunion the year before because it was in New Orleans, and they lived in Shreveport, La.
    The mother, Lillian Howell, was a widow whose husband, Richard Howell, was killed, I would later learn, on the battalion's first day in combat. The daughter, Wanda O'Kelley, grew up without a father. The two of them had such a good time at the New Orleans reunion in 1986, and even met some of the men who remembered Wanda's father, that they came to several reunions after that.
    At one of the reunions I conducted a brief interview with Lillian, and she mentioned that she grew up in Gibland, Louisiana. I imagine it was she who said that Gibland is where Bonnie and Clyde were killed. She said that she saw the car after the ambush -- they were not still in it, but the bullet-riddled car was still there.
    Here, from my archives, is the transcript of my interview with Lillian Howell, at the Orlando reunion of the battalion in 1993:

Orlando Reunion
Sept. 12, 1993

Lillian Howell
   I was 21 when Richard and I got married. I was older than him. I was 14 months older than him.
   He lived about 80 miles from me, in Montgomery, Louisiana. He was in the service, he was in a CC camp, and so he got stationed close to Arcadia, and that's where I met him. Of course, 80 miles from Gibland where we lived. But anyway, we got acquainted when he was in the service and stationed in Arcadia.
   We got married in 1940. Wanda was born in 1941. And then in '42, November the 30th of '42 is when he got drafted in service.
   Before that, there was a shell plant, an ammunition plant, over at (?), that's where he worked. And that plant's still operating there yet.
   He never should have been called. He got a bad deal. But he got called. He went in the armored, to Fort Benning, Georgia, I think is where he was stationed. And then he was stationed in South Carolina for a while, that camp in South Carolina, Fort Jackson.
   Then while he was stationed there, I paid him a visit. I stayed a couple of weeks there. I left Wanda behind, she was small, see, I had to travel on the bus, it was hard to travel with a child that small. So I didn't take her. She stayed with my mother.
   But he was shipped out. I was there when he was shipped out. And he sent me a telegram to come see him, that was just before he was shipped out.
   I guess were were together a couple of weeks before he was shipped out. I never did see him again. That was in, he didn't serve too long overseas because he was killed. I believe that was in February that I went to see him.
   Then it was on July the Third that he lost his life.
   I got a telegram when he got killed that he was missing in service. They didn't say he got killed, they reported him missing.
   Then, every once in a while they'd report that he was still missing, they never did declare him dead till a year was up. I wonder why they did that.
   After a year was up, the War Department wrote me a letter explaining that they had to pronounce him dead, since a year had gone by and nothing had shown up to indicate that he was living. But I don't understand it, when they knew that tank was shot. I don't think that was hardly fair.
   That was in Normandy, France. It happened not long after D-Day, I believe. The others all got out, but some of them was hurt. One of them was hurt real bad. It's a mighty bad experience.

Tell me about Bonnie and Clyde's car...

   Well, it was pretty riddled up when it stopped in front of the schoolhouse in Gibland. And all of us kids, we ran out there to see if we could see 'em, but we couldn't see inside. Best I can remember, it was just plum riddled up with shots. I must have been about 14 years old.
   The people thought they were desperadoes. They didn't rob any banks before they came. They stopped at Arcadia, and I think that's where the law discovered them. It's been so long, I can't remember all that much about it, but I remember the riddled up car. They say they're gonna put that car in the museum in Arcadia now. I don't believe it's the same car.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Five D-Day Veterans Talkin' "Saving Private Ryan"

   Sometimes in an interview or conversation I'll get what might be called a little bit of ancillary history, one historical episode, that is, connecting with another.
   For instance, when I was transcribing my interview with James Finn, a veteran of the 294th Combat Engineer Battalion, I was somewhat agitated by the fact that Jim's wife was in the next room talking on the phone. And talking on the phone. And talking on the phone. And the tape recorder was picking it up as background noise, causing too great a distraction for me to use the interview in one of my original oral history audiobooks. To further exacerbate the situation, Jim's wife was not only talking on the phone through much of the interview, she had either a television or radio turned on.
   And then, during a lull in the interview, I could hear more clearly the sounds coming from the next room, and I realized that the TV or radio was broadcasting a basketball game. Not only that, but it was a New York Knicks playoff game. One minute while transcribing the tape I was frustrated as heck, and the next I was thinking, a Knicks playoff game, how cool is that!
   Or the time I was visiting Forrest Dixon at his home in Munith, Mich., around the time of his 80th birthday, and all over the television was the scene of a fallen Ranger being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, which upset Forrest terribly. And just by happenstance it was around the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that I interviewed Nick Paciullo, a 4th Marine Division veteran of Iwo Jima, and he spoke at length about the episode of post traumatic stress that anniversary brought about.
   When I interviewed a group of veterans of the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1998, "Saving Private Ryan" had recently been released. Sure enough, the subject came up in conversation.
Jim Burke: The actual D-Day scene was noisy, that’s all I can remember. I don’t remember anybody saying anything I could hear.

   Chuck Hurlbut: He tried to make it (“Saving Private Ryan”) that way because that’s the way it was.

   Jim Burke: That’s what I’m saying, it’s pretty typical. That’s what was so authentic about it, that’s all.

   Chuck Hurlbut: The first half hour. If anybody asks me I say the first half hour was true ...

   Tony DeTomaso: But the rest was all Hollywood after that.
   Chuck Hurlbut: I was so sad he got killed. I thought he’s a good egg. If it was a Hollywood film, he would have come home a hero.
   Jim Burke: Yeah, but did you notice, he had to put his captain’s bars on his helmet. That’s Hollywood too. Most guys took those emblems off real quick.

   Chuck Hurlbut: I remember seeing a lot of them.

   Jim Burke: Before the invasion or after? During the invasion you didn’t. They took them off.

   Bill Secaur: You know that Ryan, you remember, he’s from Syracuse, his cousin.

   Jim Burke: Tommy Niland. We had him at our 50th anniversary.

   Bill Secaur: That’s right. From Syracuse.

   Jim Burke: He was in the 101st Airborne and was a cousin of the real life Ryan.

   Jim DePalma: The real family was from Buffalo, right?

   Jim Burke: Tonawanda. And this guy was too. Tommy Niland was basketball coach at LeMoyne College for 25 years, maybe.

   Chuck Hurlbut: I thought it was so impressive, what really got me, it opens up in the cemetery with the old guy, then at the end, he becomes ...

   Jim Burke: That was pretty clever.

   Chuck Hurlbut: This is Private Ryan as an old man. Then at the end you saw the young guy. Now tell me, any of you guys ever hear Fubar?

   Jim Burke: No.

   Chuck Hurlbut: Fouled up beyond all recognition. They used it in the movie.

   Jim Burke: Maybe the Rangers had it.

   Chuck Hurlbut: I can’t find a guy that ever heard it. I never heard it. We had snafu. You heard that every ten minutes.

   Tony DeTomaso: What was the name, fubar?

   Jim Burke: F-U-B-A-R

   Tony DeTomaso: Yeah, but that’s just the initials. Well, you know what they were saying, don’t you? He just told you.

   Chuck Hurlbut: Fouled up beyond all recognition. Like a snafu. Situation normal all fouled up.

   Jim Burke: That’s why they had that little clerk guy running around trying to find, he’s an interpreter for Germany, he says “I never heard a German word like fubar.”

   Chuck Hurlbut: I never heard it.

   Jim Burke: Nobody did. It might have been a Ranger thing.

   Chuck Hurlbut: Now another thing about it. One of the guys gets hit. He’s laying out there and they’re all putting sulfa on him. Then they take the canteens and they wash it all off.

   Jim Burke: Getting the blood off.

   Chuck Hurlbut: Why wouldn’t that wash the sulfa off? I couldn’t understand that.

   Jim Burke: It probably did.

   Chuck Hurlbut: Every five minutes, washing him off and putting sulfa. I can’t understand that.

   Jim Burke: It was dramatic, wasn’t it? That’s the idea.

   Chuck Hurlbut: Yeah, but it seems so foolish, put the sulfa then wash it.

   Jim Burke: Yeah, but when you’re trying to simulate combat it’s all screwed up.

   Chuck Hurlbut: I guess.

   Jim Burke: Everybody’s excited.

   Bill Secaur: Actually, what we took off the boat, it never showed them taking little boats off the landing barges either in that movie.

   Chuck Hurlbut: Well, they couldn’t do everything.

   Jim Burke: You didn’t see any engineers, though, either. Did you notice, those obstacles were up in the water pretty good. This is after the tide’s come in. Quite a bit later. this is the third or fourth wave.

   Bill Secaur: You know what I can’t understand? Why they give the combat infantry badge just to the infantry. You know, we did a lot of infantry work.

   Chuck Hurlbut: We should have that. Or its equivalent. The medics got it.

   Aaron Elson: I can’t imagine the combat engineers not getting combat infantry badges.

   Jim Burke: I don’t think we should, though.

   Tony DeTomaso: Why?

   Jim Burke: You can’t compare your little infantry stint with a guy who’s been there for 30 days in a ...

   Tony DeTomaso: We didn’t get the credit we should be getting.

   Jim Burke: You don’t deserve a combat infantry badge either. That’s their thing.

   Chuck Hurlbut: When the infantry guy in the rear echelon back in Paris gets it ...

   Jim Burke: That’s their problem.

   Chuck Hurlbut: I want it.

   Tony DeTomaso: Look at the glider pilots. They didn’t get no jump ...

   Jim Burke: No, but they got a pin. There’s a combat engineer’s badge, probably. I don’t know.

   Chuck Hurlbut: There should be. There is none to my knowledge, but there should be.

   Tony DeTomaso: We did a lot of infantry work.

   Jim Burke: What, a day, two days?

   Bill Secaur: Regardless, you’ve got to build bridges and be the last one out and blow them up, too.

   Chuck Hurlbut: How about the Prum River? We’re down putting the damn footbridge, the infantry’s lolling up on the bank waiting for us. They’re all getting the combat infantry badge. I’m not.

   Jim Burke: No they’re not, not for that. Thirty days on the line. You talk to the guys up there at Aachen, when they can’t talk straight, their eyes are bugging out of their head, they’re so damn tired and disgusted, they’re the guys that deserve the combat infantry badge.

    Tony DeTomaso: They deserve it, no question about it, but so do we.

   Jim Burke: You know what happened to us up at Aachen? They were posting signs, one mile, two miles, six miles. All of a sudden these guys stopped us. They were the 1st Division. That’s their blockade. Their roadblock. They said “You can’t go in there.”

   I said “Why?”

   They said “We haven’t taken it yet.” And we’ve got signs, we’re supposed to go down in the middle of town and then start out.

   Bill Secaur: That movie with Telly Savalas where he was a tank guy, the guy was dressed like an American soldier and he was German, and all of a sudden they asked him a question, and right away Telly Savalas, he knew darn well the guy was lying. And he changed the signs around.
   Jim Burke: They said “You can go in there if you want to, but until they come back, we don’t know what’s down there. And those guys were excited, those infantry men are terribly distraught. I couldn’t get any sense of them.

   Tony DeTomaso: Most of them are replacements.

   Jim Burke: And they’re just like the cartoons, grizzly and dirty and they haven’t been anyplace except in that friggin line, and they’re sick. They’re really sick. It’s a wonder they don’t shoot each other.

   The full conversation, and several others is available in my new book, "Conversations With Veterans of D-Day," which is currently available in a Kindle edition only. I hope to have a print edition soon.

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

'Who Needs It More, Him or Me?"

The Landsberg concentration camp memorial

Here is the story from my new book, "Conversations With Veterans of D-day," to which I referred in my previous post. Len Goodgal is a 101st Airborne Division veteran of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, whose I Company often fought near or alongside the fabled Easy Company of "Band of Brothers" fame. There but for a couple of letters you might have seen this story on HBO or read it in a bestseller.

I've included a little more of the interview. As I mentioned in the previous post, on D-Day Len landed in the water near the base of Pointe du Hoc and scaled the cliffs with the Rangers. This story occurs much later in the war.
Aaron Elson: You mentioned Landsberg Prison.

Len Goodgal: Yes, they liberated Landsberg Prison. I didn’t see the prison. I saw the prisoners. I’ve got an interesting story about that, because when we liberated Landsberg I was right outside the town. We were in a machine gun position with Eddie Austin, and we had three of these refugees with the stripes, you know what they looked like. They were Russian I think. I don’t know whether they were Jews or not, but they looked horrible. I mean, they looked nightmarish. And us guys, we were trying to feed them something. We had D-ration bars we were putting into our canteens and heating them with water, and we had some pickled eggs we used to find in the basement, and some bread that we grabbed from someplace, and a couple of things, I don’t know what the hell we had there, we’d find stuff in cellars.
These guys wanted something to eat, which we were trying to feed them, some of the cocoa. And this guy was shaking. Eddie Austin took his coat off and gave it to one of these guys. And Jesus, I almost flipped. I said, “Are you out of your mind? What are you doing? Giving away your overcoat?”
He said, “I can’t not give it to him.”
I said, “What do you mean you can’t? They’ll bust your balls for that.”
He said, “Who needs it more, him or me?” He or I. Him or me. “Who needs it more, he or I?” is correct. He said, “Who needs it more, him or me?” Eddie Austin was a superintendent of schools in California later on, but that’s besides the point. He knew what he was saying, “Who needs it more, him or me?”
“I don’t know, Eddie,” I said. “They’re gonna bust your balls.” Until my dying day I’ll never forgive myself for not giving the other guy my coat, but they weren’t shivering. This guy was really shivering. I didn’t feel bad. I said, “I think you’re out of your mind.” I said, “Eddie, what’s it gonna do for him? Put him in a house someplace and build a fire.” We had a fire going there. We fed them. They couldn’t eat the stuff, it was too rich for them. The Red Cross got ahold of these guys and took care of them. In fact, the Red Cross MPs came in to most of these camps. At Dachau they got in right away. They didn’t let us in. We went right past Dachau. I didn’t see them. I mean, they didn’t let them out of there. You would see guys roaming around if they did. We picked up a guy going through Germany, and he went all the way to Berchtesgaden with us, and the cook took care of him. Maurice. I don’t know what his last name is. He spoke about five languages. He’d been in a concentration camp for years. He was a skinny guy like that. And he had a horse and wagon, and anything he could steal he put in there. He and the cook were, I don’t know if they were chopping people’s rings, I don’t know what the hell they were doing, but they were getting enough loot to live for the rest of their lives. I mean, Maurice was helping him. And the cook used to carry a .45 pistol on him, I remember, all the time. And he was a pretty good guy, just gung-ho. Till he became the cook. How he got to be our cook, we had a guy named Feoli who was a cook and he shot his dick off in Holland because he fired his pistol while he was cleaning it. Feoli. He lives in New York State someplace. His .45 went off and it shot his dick off. I remember that, and oh, we laughed about that. Well, you know. What is it, pathos or something, I don’t know what the hell you call it. It’s funny as hell but when you think about it, in other words it’s not funny. Oh, it was brutal. We’d look at each other and laugh. “Don’t give me no pistol.” We used to pick up pistols, P-38s and Lugers and all different kind of weapons, Schmeissers and stuff. Most of them disappeared or we traded them along the way.
Some of the guys came back with them. Most of the guys didn’t even come back with a pistol, on account they were afraid they’d use them. Some of them just didn’t want to have them around. Weapons didn’t mean anything anymore. Glad it was over. But I remember us being in Solfelden, and they had horses there and we were horseback riding, German horses, and we used to go horseback riding in the afternoon or in the morning. They had guys that knew about horses taking care of them. To me it was a novelty. It was recreation. I was there from May, the war was over May 8th, I was there from May till September, and hey, it was a walk in the sun being a soldier. Just imagine how we felt over there. Anything you wanted to do. If you wanted to fraternize, and you weren’t supposed to fraternize with the Germans – everybody had a girlfriend someplace. Everybody. I can tell you an interesting story. I read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, I don’t know if you’ve read it. You’ve got to read it. It’s brutal reading. You’ve got to read that book. And in it he talks about them returning slave laborers, women, back to Russia, and the Russians  sent them to Siberia. When I was in Berchtesgaden, we used to use them, they were working as cooks and stuff for us because, hey, the Germans don’t want them anymore, they got captured, were working in the fields at home, in the hotels, hey, so the government took care of them. Then one day they came along, they took them all, put them on trains and sent them back to Russia. Solzhenitsyn talked about them, taking those people and putting them in Siberia. And I didn’t know. I thought they were going home. And they didn’t really want to go home, a lot of them, because, hey, when you see Russia, what it was about, and you see what Germany was like in Bavaria, even with the work that went on. Hey, it was a better life in a lot of ways, and some of them lived with German guys.
We had thousands of troops surrender to us coming off the Russian front. They wanted us to turn around and fight the Russians. They came in with all their equipment, ready to fight. They would turn around and they were gonna fight with us. They put them in camps. We did not abuse them. They talk about starving them to death. Eisenhower did not do that. Whoever wrote that stuff is a brutal liar. We did not brutalize the Germans, although there was high unemployment among them, there was not work and all that. We did not starve them or brutalize them. We weren’t allowed to do that.

Aaron Elson: Back to Landsberg, was that a concentration camp?

Len Goodgal: Yes, it was a concentration camp there and a prison. Landsberg Prison is where Hitler got his start, I think, one of those places. They had the putsches there. Beautiful area. Berchtesgaden, and that area through there, is probably one of the most beautiful parts of the world. You have to go to see it to see, July and August, where’s it’s warm and sunny and the fields are growing, there’s snow on top of the mountains and it would melt and we’d come the next day and clouds would go over, there’d be snow on the mountains. A gorgeous, gorgeous countryside. And they kept it nice, too. The Germans are meticulous. Clean. You can’t believe that these people were Nazis, and how brutal they were. Committed all these brutal acts. When you know the people. Germany was a country of kinder, kirche, kuchen. Children, church and cooking, that’s what a woman’s job was. Children he made, women and children for the Reich, screw the church, and fuck the soldiers, you know. Hooray for Germany. Blond and blue-eyed, Hitler was a brown-eyed, black-haired sonofabitch, who the hell is he kidding? Blond hair and blue eyes? I mean, let’s face it, did he have blond hair? Did he have blue eyes? He had brown eyes and black hair. It was ridiculous. It was so ridiculous that you wonder how they put over what they did. And they put it over. They did it. They captivated the state, captured the times. They were in a Great Depression, saw no way out, were looking to blame somebody and anybody they could put their hands on, it was their fault. Never my fault whatever happens to me, it’s your fault. You’re to blame. Not me. If I want to believe it, I can believe it. People can always believe anything. That’s what happened in Germany. The Depression. They lost contact with the reality of what kind of people they were. They thought of themselves as Saxons, not Anglos. Their image was the Prussian. And that was sad because they’re not that way, they were churchgoing people. Martin Luther came out of Germany.

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The new book, "Conversations With Veterans of D-Day," is not yet available in print -- I still have to iron out some glitches in the header/footer/page numbering/table of contents departments, but it is available in Amazon's Kindle store. Don't have a Kindle? You can get a free Kindle app for your computer or smartphone.

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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Preface to Conversations With D-Day Veterans

A so-called "short snorter" signed by members of the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion. Many of the signers would be killed or wounded on D-Day. Photo credit:

Following is the tentative preface to my forthcoming book "Conversations With D-Day Veterans (not to mention the Huertgen Forest and Battle of the Bulge)":

Landsberg Prison has a Facebook page. As of July 1, 2012, seven people “liked” it. Who knew. According to Wikipedia, Adolf Hitler was incarcerated there in 1924 following the “Beer Hall Putsch,” and while inside, he wrote “Mein Kampf.” And after the war, Landsberg Prison was used to hold high-ranking war criminals.
Len Goodgal had a story about Landsberg Prison during World War II.
His unit, the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, captured the town of Landsberg, in Bavaria, in April of 1945, near the end of the war in the European Theater. What Goodgal refers to as Landsberg Prison may actually have been a labor camp or concentration camp, as the subject came up when I asked him if he took part in the liberation of any concentration camps.
The story Len told was about the English language. About a soldier who gives his coat to a shivering inmate and says “Who needs it more, him or me?” when “he or I” would be grammatically correct. I won’t give away the ending of the story, which is only a few pages into this book, but it might be advisable to keep a handkerchief nearby.
Speaking of which, in 1994, when the media was focused on the 50th anniversary of D-Day – that, in fact, is the period during which many of these conversations were recorded – I watched a documentary on CBS about the invasion of Normandy. It was called “Normandy: The Great Crusade,” and in one segment Dan Rather interviews a D-Day veteran of Omaha Beach who tells a story that had me crying like a baby. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried, just as Sammy Trinca wasn’t ashamed to tell a newspaper reporter that he wet his pants on Omaha Beach, after which people in his hometown of Auburn, N.Y., would say, “You’re that guy who wet his pants.”
In 1997, to promote a book I wrote three years earlier full of stories about my father’s tank battalion, I launched the “World War II Oral History” web site @ Needless to say I spent a lot of time on the Internet. One day I was browsing through a forum in which someone asked a question about the Battle of the Bulge that involved the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion. There was a web site which no longer exists that had contact names for just about every organized veterans association, so I contacted the name on the list for the 299th Combat Engineers. It had a phone number, so I called Chuck Hurlbut, whose name was listed. Chuck came to the phone and all of a sudden I found myself talking to an Omaha Beach veteran of D-Day. I was like Wow! So I composed myself and asked if he knew anything about the question in the Internet forum. Chuck said I should talk to James Burke, who was the battalion’s historian and might know more about the Battle of the Bulge. Then Chuck invited me to come to Ithaca, N.Y., to interview him.
I can’t say for sure – it’s funny how I don’t trust my own memory, and I didn’t record my thoughts – but I think I may remember the original question on the forum. It involved some soldiers entering a house and discovering a group of German officers seated around a table as if they were having a meal, only all of them were dead, as if they were posed that way. Sounds like an episode made for CSI. But this questioner was looking for corroboration as to whether this scene were true. Oddly enough, many years later, when I interviewed a Marine Corps veteran who spent a year on the island of Tinian, he described how he and his buddies would take some of the corpses of Japanese soldiers that lay strewn about the island and set them up in various poses, so I can speculate that such events occurred elsewhere, but that hardly counts as corroboration. Nor could Burke, who was captured in the first few days of the Battle of the Bulge and went on to write a book about his experiences as a prisoner of war, “Funf Mann,” say he’d ever heard that story.
I can no longer find the original forum posting, if indeed I'm correct in remembering that there was one, but I did find a firsthand account that describes the incident for which the questioner was seeking corroboration. This might be the account he was trying to corroborate, or it might be the corroboration. Either way, it’s posted at the website of the 299thCombat Engineer Battalion which, if it existed at all, was only in its infancy back in 1998, and has grown exponentially thanks to the great work of Jeannie Tucker, the daughter of one of the battalion’s officers. Here is the account of Mike Accordino posted at the site:
After we regrouped at Malonne we moved on to Spa, Belgium where we guarded some bridges. It was very cold. I remember one bridge we were guarding, where we could hear the ice forming on the river. At nighttime it was so cold you could hear it cracking out there.
While we were there we met a family named Tedesco. The man of the house used to go out and measure the snowfall. He would come out in the morning and then later in the afternoon. He would take a couple of measurements a day. While we were in Spa a Buzz Bomb landed, a V-1, Vengeance Weapon and some of our men were injured when that bomb hit. From Spa we then went to Saint-Vith where we swept for mines. The roads were covered with snow and we had to make sure there were no mines so the roads could be plowed. While we were there we took some prisoners, some of them were just kids; they were 14 and 15 years old, German soldiers.
They would be next to us and crying. We tried to be consoling and to reassure them that nothing was going to happen and that everything would be alright. While we were sweeping for mines someone came along and said, "Go and look at this house down the road. You will see something very curious." So we went down to this house and looked in. You could see through the windows. I don't think we ever went in. But there were six to eight German officers sitting around a table. A big dining room table with high back chairs. It looked like a real nice home because it had such nice furniture in there. The table was set for dinner. Food was on the table. But the odd thing about it was these guys were all dead. They were sitting down having a meal, I don't know what happened to them but they all wound up dead. I didn't see any wounds on them. Perhaps their food or drinks were poisoned. The odd part about it was their pants were wide open with their privates showing. Every single one of them. That to me was the oddest day. Maybe someone may have heard of this. Maybe they know something about it.
Getting back to Chuck Hurlbut, we were about halfway into the interview when he began telling a story. As tends to happen in conversations, he digressed a bit, and the beginning of the story just became one memorable detail among many other memorable details. It was a story about a buddy’s tie, which was as loud as D-Day itself. And then when he came to the end of the story, instead of getting all choked up, I exclaimed “That was YOU?!!!” And I told him how seeing him tell the same story to Dan Rather left me crying like a baby. Only now when I was hearing the story from its original source, perhaps a burst of adrenalin overcame the tinge of sadness I feel almost every time I read Chuck’s words. The story is embedded in Chuck’s interview, so I won’t give away the ending. Since the book is not yet published, you can read the story at
At the end of the interview, Chuck said he had arranged for some of his buddies to meet us at a nearby mall. I followed him over, and waiting for us there were five other members of the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion. The interview took place at a table in the mall atrium, with a noisy waterfall in the background. And then we went to a Holiday Inn for lunch, and the tape recorder came with us (I’m glad it did, as it recorded one of the best food stories I’ve been fortunate to preserve), and after lunch we went into the lounge.
I always found other things to do rather than tackle a transcription of the group interview. I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with the individual voices to assure myself that I would even know who was saying what. But when the author Joe Balkoski contacted me and asked if I had any information on the 299th Combat Engineers because he was writing a book about D-Day, I put the audio from the interview on a pair of CDs and sent them to him. I later sent copies of the CDs to a documentarian in England who was working on a film for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Now, because it’s vital to this book, I’ve transcribed it as best I could. I apologize in advance if I matched any of the speakers to something another of them said, but I believe I got most of it right. The important thing is that of the five, Jim Burke and Tony DeTomaso landed on Utah Beach; Chuck Hurlbut, Sam Trinca and Bill Secaur landed on Omaha Beach, and Jim DePalma came ashore a week or two later.
 This is not a comprehensive book about D-Day. It is simply a collection of 11 interviews and conversations I’ve had with men who took part in one of the greatest invasions in history. When I was looking for a publisher for my first book, “Tanks for the Memories,” I sent a copy of the manuscript to a well-known author and asked him for advice. He wrote back and said this was the kind of material that authors like him “stole from.” What he meant was that those stories – like the interviews in this book – were source material. And he was right. The stories I've recorded have found their way into more than two dozen books and several documentaries, some of which have been shown on the History Channel, including “The Color of War” and “Patton 360.”
I’m just a photo section short of publishing a Kindle edition of “Conversations With D-Day Veterans,” with a print version to follow. In the meantime, part of Chuck Hurlbut’s story can be found at, while Sammy Trinca’s food story that I mentioned earlier is posted on this blog. Here are the links (I’ll post Len Goodgal’s story about Landsberg Prison in my next entry):