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):

No comments:

Post a Comment