Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"You Could Build 88s, Why Couldn't You Kill Lice?"

Walter "Red" Rose
   Back in the 1990s, I would take my Sony Walkman style tape recorder with me to reunions and mini-reunions of the 712th Tank Battalion. Sometimes a group of veterans would be sitting around a table in the hospitality room, and I would record the conversation.

   When I wrote my first book, "Tanks for the Memories: An Oral History of the 712th Tank Battalion," I transcribed many of those recordings, as well as tapes of individual interviews. There was a lot of background noise on some of the hospitality room recordings, which rendered them difficult to use in an audiobook until a better sound engineer than I processes them, so the transcriptions pretty much languished in a series of computer files, along with backups of most of them in various places. Some of the backups are on floppy disks, that's how old they are.

   I spent the summer writing two books. The first, "Conversations With Veterans of D-Day," is available for Amazon's Kindle, but I'll probably withdraw it soon to rewrite the introduction and add some more photos I found, and then release it in a print version as well. The second, "Inside the Turret: The 712th Tank Battalion in World War II," will be published by a prestigious British firm, "Fonthill Media," in the near future.

   Much of the research for both books involved reviewing the transcripts of my interviews and hospitality room sessions, some of which I hadn't looked at in years. Over the next few blog posts I plan to include some excerpts of those conversations, which, if my own reaction is any indication, make for great reading.

   Here's an excerpt from a conversation I recorded on Jan. 26, 1995, at the battalion's "mini-reunion" in Bradenton, Fla. Every year the 712th would hold a formal reunion, usually somewhere in the Midwest because a large portion of its personnel came from the central states. But as the veterans began to retire, with many of them moving to Florida or spending the winter there, a small group of them got together and held a less-formal mini-reunion. Jack Roland, a veteran of Headquarters Company whom I never met because he passed away before I started doing this, moved to Bradenton for health reasons and soon became the mayor of Bradenton. Sam Adair, another veteran I never had the fortune of meeting, organized the first mini or two elsewhere in Florida, but Roland was able to get the group a good deal at a local Days Inn on Route 41, and the minis were held there until the motel changed hands and the perks evaporated. But because their time in the battalion was so special to so many veterans, some of them would come from all over the country -- Forrest Dixon from Munith, Mich., Jim Flowers from Richardson, Texas -- so they could be with the other veterans two weekends a year instead of just one.

   Walter "Red" Rose, who was a sergeant in Service Company, would drive down from Ahoskie, N.C., with his wife Dorothy and stay in a camper in the parking lot.  Clegg "Doc" Caffery, who wasn't a doctor but owned a plantation in Louisiana, was descended from a Caffery who went down the Cumberland River with Andrew Jackson, and took over the kitchen at the motel to make a big pot of shrimp etouffe for the Saturday night dinner, was another.

   There will be more in future posts, but here is an excerpt from a conversation I recorded at the 1995 mini. It begins with Red Rose relating a conversation he had during a trip to Germany:

   Red Rose: I talked with some of the Germans up there, and they all say that they weren't guilty, it was another organization. See, they had so many organizations over there, each one wants to blame it on the other one, all the atrocities. There's an old fellow living there in Freiburg, Germany, and I'm sitting there talking to him. He was a prisoner of war in Ahoskie. I said, "Let me ask you, why did you Germans let Hitler get ahold of you, and the Nazi party, like you did? You're smart people. Why?"
   He said, "Rose. I can remember as an 11- or 12-year-old, I was hungry." He said, "When you get hungry, you're gonna follow anything." And he said, "I remember seeing those boxes coming down with bouillion." And they said "If you join our party, here's what you will have." Well, they were against the Jews, they were against the communists, they were against anything if you wasn't pure German. And they just kept going. Finally they got ahold of him. And he said he was a great believer in the beginning. But he said, "It was like this. Once they got you by the throat," he said one day, he closed his fingers like that, "you couldn't get out. And you didn't want to talk to nobody. Even your best friend, if you didn't like what was going on, they're like to come and get you tomorrow night." And he said, "We lived under a noose, a complete noose, regardless of whether we wanted to or not."

   Doc Caffery: Everybody was afraid.

   Red Rose: Everybody was afraid. And he said you didn't have no friends. You couldn't go to a friend and say, "Let's do something." You didn't know who you was talking to. You didn't know whether you was talking to a Gestapo agent, or what. That's the way he put it. He said "I never fired..."
   Doc Caffery: They didn't want to trust anybody.

   Red Rose: No. And he said, "I'll tell you something else. The happiest day was when I got captured." And he said, "I'll tell you something else. When you all invaded Normandy, I never fired a gun." And he said, "I didn't fear all the shells near as bad as I did the lice." He said, "Hell, I was eat up with lice. We couldn't control it. We was down in there being eat up." And he said, just to get out from underneath was ... Isn't that something, the lice?

   I said, "You could build 88s, why couldn't you kill lice?"

   He said, "That's what I don't know. We could build some of the best guns, but we couldn't kill lice." He said they had leather shoes, and leather coats, and when they got damp, that created those lice.

   Doc Caffery: And they didn't have insecticide, no DDT or anything like that.

   Red Rose: No. He said, "A lot of times I thought about just running out the top, letting one of these shells hit me."

   Doc Caffery: Because he was so full of lice (laughing). That was a condition to get into, huh?

   Forrest Dixon: Doc, how are you? [While Clegg "Doc" Caffery wasn't a doctor, Jack "Doc" Reiff was: He was one of the battalion's two medical officers. He was born in Muskogie, Okla., but was retired and living in Lady Lake, Fla.]

   Doc Caffery: Doc Reiff.

   Doc Reiff: Okay.
(Some of the tape was not transcribed, probably due to excessive background noise, but here the conversation, which picks up in mid-sentence, has shifted to the voyage across the Atlantic aboard the SS Exchequer)

   Red Rose: ...after it went off, he started spewing...

   Aaron Elson: Who was this, Captain Laing?

   Red Rose: Captain Laing. That's what we went through over there.

   Aaron Elson: In the middle of a speech?

   Red Rose: Yeah, he was telling us what we should do if we got captured. I thought I was gonna do real good, I was standing on the deck, and here comes up out of the kitchen a big tub of chitlins. And I was trying my best to keep from getting sick. He started dumping them overboard and I seen 'em fly, and from that day on I was sick, too. Chitlins. Can you imagine dumping right beside an old seasick boy. Ohh, lord. Somebody said "Sink this sonofabitch, I don't care!"

   I said, "Well, buddy, I feel about like you do, but I don't want to go down right now." That was Joseph Hopper. He was the one that hollered, I'll never forget those words, here I am, sick as a dog, and he said "Sink this sonofabitch, I don't care."

   Doc Reiff: The ship was pitching end to end and tossing straight up and down, and the captain said, "But it'll never break apart in the middle like those Liberty ships." And I thought, oh shit.

   Joe Fetsch: I took heat on that boat. The Exchequer was built in Baltimore. And everybody said, "Christ, you come from there, look at this lousy ship."

   Aaron Elson: Was that a Liberty ship?

   Doc Reiff: No, it wasn't. But that fellow, he was really proud of it.

   Joe Fetsch: The sister ship was ahead of us, and he was doing this and that and everything else in that water.

   Doc Reiff: The captain was really proud of the ship. He said it would never break apart in the middle -- we'd never thought about that (laughing) -- like Liberty ships. Something else to worry about. But talk about being sick. I don't know where the Army got the idea, but they had to have that short-arm physical inspection, and here I was, looking at guy's mouth, skin, seeing if he had a skin rash, or any discharge. And the ship was going all this way and that. (laughing).

- - -

Got Kindle? All of my books are available for Amazon's Kindle at greatly reduced prices. Amazon also has a free Kindle "app" that you can download to your computer, tablet or smart phone so as to be able to order Kindle books. And if you're a fan, I sure could use some reader reviews!

Tanks for the Memories

A Mile in Their Shoes

Conversations With Veterans of D-Day

Nine Lives

They Were All Young Kids


Love Company, by John Khoury (edited by Aaron Elson)

Follies of a Navy Chaplain, by Connell J. Maguire (published by Aaron Elson)

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