Saturday, October 27, 2012

Two veterans talking tanks: Walter Galbraith, Part 2

I don't have a picture of Walter Galbraith. Dale Albee, above, was his tank commander and platoon leader.

   Here's the second half of my conversation with Walter Galbraith and Cesar Tucci, two veterans of D Company of the 712th Tank Battalion, back in 1991 or perhaps 1992 at the battalion's annual Florida mini-reunion in Bradenton. The first part was in my previous entry.

Aaron Elson: Where were you from?

Walter Galbraith: Boston. I was in the 101st Engineers, with my brother and some buddies, and then I got out because I had two kids. Then the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. I got out, and my brother had to go overseas, so I joined the Army, and I got in the 10th Armored Division. Then the 10th Armored Division became the 712th Tank Battalion [the 712th was broken out of the 10th Armored as an independent tank battalion], so that's how I got into it

Aaron Elson: What happened to your brother?

Walter Galbraith: He got malaria, but outside of that he was okay. I was glad that I joined, because I wouldn't feel right, with him being over there. I had two kids, but I couldn't help it, I just felt I had to go. As a matter of fact, I tried to get drafted and they wouldn't draft me. They even brought my wife up, and they said, "Do you love your wife?" And I said, "Of course I love my wife." Then I said, "But I want to go in." Then they said, "Well, we won't put you in this draft, but we'll put you in the next one," and I couldn't wait, so I volunteered.

Aaron Elson: What was it like inside the light tank?

Walter Galbraith: It was hot. That's why you had that helmet on. If you ever forget, sometimes you would lean your face and just bump it, and you'd never take your helmet off again. And I always wore my helmet up this way, I couldn't stand it over my ears, so I've got pictures of me, no matter where I was, I looked like a Viking. But they were fast, and they were cold in the wintertime.

Aaron Elson: What was it like your first day in combat?

Walter Galbraith: Oh, God. The first day that we went across, we had just landed and I was talking to a lieutenant. We saw some dead GIs, and then some dead horses and cows, they were all puffed up like a balloon. I was more ascared of the dead Germans than I was of the live ones. You'd see them with their eyes, grotesque looking. So I'm talking to the lieutenant, he's dead now, Lieutenant Coe. He was my tank commander, and we're standing talking, and phwee, a bullet went by us, so we both went down. And then one night, the German plane came over, we called it Bedcheck Charlie, and when the tracer would go up, it was like it was raining upside down. So I'm on my tank, and we slept in our tank, and I'm watching these infantry guys. They dug a hole this way and that way, a slit trench, and they put hay down there. I thought, they've got it made. So they moved out, and when they did, I jumped out of my tank and went down there, and it was so nice, for about two minutes, when our artillery let go. The whole ground vibrated, and I jumped out of that gosh darn trench and went back around on the other side of my tank.

Aaron Elson: Going back to the first day in combat...

Walter Galbraith: I remember going into an area, and Lieutenant Bellows getting out of there to find out where we were, because we never knew anything, all we knew is we're here. So he got out of the tank, and while he got out of the tank, he left us in a wide open space. I could see for miles. A hedgerow, you couldn't see from here to there, and all of a sudden we're in the open, and then the Germans started shelling us. So we stood there for a couple of seconds, with the shells coming over, and I said, "Let me get out of here!" So I said, what the hell platoon I am, "Third platoon, move out." I grabbed the mike. And we moved out, and down the road we met the lieutenant. He said, "What happened?"
   I said, "We were being shelled. We were wide open." And then I felt like I was being a coward or something. So anyway, we moved into an area, I guess it was the next day, we get in the area, there was a big ditch, and there was like a little bridge going across, and then we broke into this hedgerow, and went down this way. And when we were there for a while, we heard guys calling "Medics!" and guys kept seeing snipers. All of a sudden, my tank was the lead tank, so the shells start hitting all around our tank. So what I did was I took -- and I held myself down, I wouldn't go out -- the lieutenant was gone again, I wasn't about to leave this time because I felt that if I do, he'd probably say I'm chicken or something. So the shells come over and the tank would vibrate, and then I don't know why I did this, I reached outside the tank and I got my steel helmet, because we had the tank helmet, and on the inside of the helmet is a liner, and we had morphine (morphine syrettes were taped inside the helmet for use when someone was badly wounded). So I took the helmet, and I raised the breech of my gun to hold it; because the lieutenant was gone there was the open hatch, and I was always afraid of a shell coming in there. So I put that there and the shells would come over, and all of a sudden this shell came over, and I don't know whether it exploded on top of the deal there, anyway, I look at my finger and my finger's bleeding, and my helmet's on the floor. So I pick my helmet up, there's a big hole in the helmet, and it's like spaghetti, where the shrapnel had gone in and went maybe a thousand different ways, just like spaghetti, just shredded. So I climbed up on top of the tank, and the driver and assistant driver jumped out, and I climbed up on top, and another shell came over, and I went flying through the air and I landed on my back, and I was trying to catch my breath. I wasn't sure I was wounded because I felt this pang, like someone smacked me in the ass. I had o.d.'s [olive drab] on, and long underwear, the fatigues, and then this combat thing on, so there was a lot of stuff. So I found out that I couldn't move my butt, and they were hollering "Medics! Medics!" So they said try to get down the road a little. I was pulling myself on the ground, and then the lieutenant came back, and in the meantime the medics came by, and so he says, "Are you wounded?"
   I said, "I don't know." All I know is I couldn't move myself. So he started cutting, and cutting through all those different clothes. I was afraid he was gonna find nothing. So they opened it up and found I was wounded., I had shrapnel in me. But I also had some British coins, and I didn't know it until later, but it twisted the hell out of the coins. So the shrapnel had hit the coins. But anyway, they said "Get down the road as fast as you can."
   My tank was on fire, by the way, I forgot about that. Our tank caught on fire, so the lieutenant had to get onto another tank, and they went out through that hedgerow down a way. So while they were gone, I'm dragging myself along, to try to get down the road, and then the medics, the doctor came. So I looked over at the whole thing in the hedgerow, and how the hedgerow goes where I was, then this big mound, and then the road. And I said, "Oh, shit, I can't go over that." I was going to go down to where the tanks, the tanks took that fence down, they had to get out of there fast. So I looked up, and then more shells came over, and when they did I just flew up, and I landed on a couple of GIs, and I forget what the hell it was they said.
   I said, "I'm okay. I've got to get down the road." So I got down the road, and this jeep with places to put stretchers came, and they said "Hey, a guy's wounded here," so they picked me up, and they put me on this thing, and then after a while I couldn't hear any more fireworks. The first medics camp I came to was on fire, where a German shell had just hit it, and so I said "Oh, shit, what a hell of a place to be," but I was only there about fifteen minutes. Then I was on a jeep, and I went off, and the next thing I know they put me in a duck [an amphibious DUKW], and they took me across the channel.
   And over there they said, "Can you count to ten?" I said, well shit, I figured they were telling the truth, because we had guys who couldn't read or write. So anyway, they put me in a duck, and from there to a hospital ship, and I went to England, to a hospital.

Cesar Tucci: We had just moved into the hedgerows, and we were waiting for our first combat assignment, so Sergeant Heckler, one of the tank commanders, was called to receive some combat orders. He received them, and then he went back to his tank to tell his tank crew about what they had to do. And his tank crew was preparing the tank for combat, so the guns were loaded, the machine guns, the tank cannon made ready. The machine guns were loaded and ready to go, and the bow gunner, I don't remember his name, the bow gunner for Heckler...

 Walter Galbraith: He was killed later, too...

Cesar Tucci: Yeah. This all happened at once. The bow gunner was turning to get on his knees to check the ammunition stowed behind his seat in the bow position. Just as he did that, he reached back and leaned on the back plate and handle and trigger of the bow machine gun. And at that time Sergeant Heckler reached up and grabbed the 37 cannon and started to mount the tank, like it was customary to do. He grabbed the tank and started up. And just as he did that and got up there, the bow gunner accidentally set off a burst of machine gun fire, and caught Sergeant Heckler right across the middle, and he was the first casualty of our company. He was killed before we ever got into action, and was killed by his own man in the tank.
   Later on, there was a replacement made, Sergeant McNulty took over his tank, and they're on a mission, and went up a road, and they hit a mine, I think it was, and the whole tank crew was killed. It flipped the tank right over. [editor:s note: actually, Sergeant Everett McNulty and Harold Heckler's crew were killed in a different incident, when their tank was struck by an 88 and burst into flames]. Sergeant Heckler was our first casualty. That kind of hit hard, you know, this is for real. A great guy, a redhead, Harold Heckler.

Walter Galbraith: I'll tell you another one I just happened to think about. I was thinking about the funny ones, I just thought of this. This is in the Ardennes. We had come to this open, you could see for miles. And this is the forest over here, I could see these Krauts going back and forth. I was admiring them for a minute. All of a sudden they stopped. They were Germans, and they saw us. And so they started firing like hell at us. So the best thing for us to do was to get the hell out of there. So we come right around, we're still facing those guys, we had these panels on the back so you could see us for miles, our airplanes won't bomb us, we had these pink, orange. So we came around that forest like this and then we turned into the forest. In the meantime they're shooting at us and they're knocking the branches off the trees, and not hitting us. I guess they couldn't get down far enough. So we finally get in, and we lost a couple of tracks, and we had to stay there all night because our tanks wouldn't move. So that night, they kept shelling, and I heard tanks moving, and I said, "Well, we can't fight anybody in the dark, you know, some kid with a throwing stick [panzerfaust] could knock the hell out of you in the dark. And I said, "I can hear the medium tanks, I guess they're leaving." And all of a sudden I saw a flame go up. I said, "There's a tank on fire," and I says, "Shit, they hit one of our tanks."
   So we had turns sleeping, and I happened to be awake. Lieutenant Albee was sleeping, and I didn't know where the other guys were. So I'm looking out, and I see somebody run across in front of the tanks, a silhouette, and I said Jesus, and I looked again, and the Germans had a different helmet, there was something about the hook or something on the helmet that got my eye, and I said "Albee, Albee," and I woke him up. I said "I think those are Germans running across the flaming tank." And so he got his binoculars out, and in the meantime I got my turret turned facing right at that tank, and he said "Yah, they are." And so we started shooting. And I was firing the machine gun and the cannon, and he's firing the 50-caliber machine gun on top. And we heard, "For God's sake, stop firing, you're killing your own men!" And Jesus, my head shrank. I said oh my God. And then Albee got his binoculars out again, he said, "No, they're Heinies," and he started firing again. And I started shooting like hell at them. And even then they kept hollering, "No, you're killing your own men." And then all of a sudden we saw our pink tracer go this way, and then we saw a white tracer come back, and then we knew that that was the Germans. Because we had a pink tracer, and they had white ones. And when that came back, boy we just "bbbrrroom." Then everything was quiet for a while. I kept my machine gun ready for anybody who might come across. I'm in the tank, and someone starts climbing up the side of the tank. "Who's there?"
  He says, "Who's in charge here?"
  So I said Albee. I said, "Albee, wake up."
   So he says, "I'm Sergeant so-and-so." I wish I could remember his name. He said, "I just got out of the hospital. He said, "I'm not worth shit." That's how he talked. And he says, "You know what happened? You see that tank over there that's on fire? That's a German tank." I thought it was our tank that was knocked out. So he said, "You know how we are in the dark. You can't see shit." He said "I had to climb out of the tank," and he says, "This German tank is coming up the road. I had to tap the guy on the back to tell him to turn the turret," and then when he got lined up, through his eye, he just kept firing, and knocked the shit out of that tank.
   So that was over, and he got off. A few minutes later, somebody else started climbing up on the side of the tank. And I don't know what the hell, I was scared. Anyway, I'm ready to throw a hand grenade back or anything they had. I had it all in my mind what I was gonna do. Anyway, it was a colonel. Now goshdammit, he gave us his name, I'm Colonel So and So, I don't know today whether it was our colonel, Kadrovsky, or whether it was an infantry colonel. And he says, you know what happened, he said, had they gone by, he says this would have cut the whole advance. And that was it. And then he left. The next morning, we left the tank there I guess, and we got in a truck. The next day we got in another tank.

Cesar Tucci: Around the first of December, we went out on the Saar River, the village of Dillingen, and they requested volunteers to man gun positions on the Saar River to kind of make a fake for the Germans, to make them feel that we were coming across in strength at that point. So there was a lot of firing to be built up at that point, and I volunteered to go down there. They said this would be a mission of two or three days. So I went down and manned a 50-caliber machine gun at that position.
   On the way down, a sergeant from I think headquarters company was in charge. We had 50-caliber machine guns and mortars that we were going to set up inside the houses and various areas on this side of the Saar River to fire across and fire at the forts of the Siegfried Line. So I volunteered for one of those positions. So we go down there, and to get there we had to reach the top of a hill, and then the halftrack had to make a mad dash to go down because it was exposed to direct fire from the Germans on the other side. And it was like going through a gauntlet. We went down there just as fast as we could go and they were firing at us, but we beat it, we got down into the town and then we were out of their view. When we were in the town, we were only subjected to mortar fire and machine gun fire.
   We set up our headquarters in a brick apartment building on the opposite side of the street from the river from where we had set out. My partner and I sandbagged the machine gun in a kitchen in a German home on a porcelain kitchen table and had it fixed to shoot out the back window of their kitchen across the river.
   These fire missions would be announced to us on the radio, start a fire mission, we would go, run across the street, put the back plate on the machine gun, we'd never leave the back plate there because patrols would come through the town, and when they gave us the word to fire, everybody, mortars, 50-calibers, everything they'd fire across that river, to give a real show of force. That would go on for four or five minutes, and the gun would get real hot, the barrel would, so when the fire mission stopped, I had to reach out with an asbestos glove, take the barrel off, ram an oil patch through it right away, and then take the back plate off the machine gun and beat it across the street back into the middle portion of that building. Our room was in the middle portion. It was built like a court, like, a square, and in the middle of that square were the outhouses, and we were in the middle portion of that. And as soon as we got back, the Germans would start returning fire with mortars and machine guns. And one of the mortar shells I remember hit the craphouse, right in that square it went right in and demolished that outhouse there. And I'd stand guard in the hall, it was a long hall, and they told us, watch for German patrols, they come through the town at night. I'd stand just inside the doorway where they couldn't see in but I could see out, and I'd see the German tracers coming across the river, and they'd be hitting high, because, there again, if the trajectory was high, they couldn't hit very low, but I could watch them way up in the building. I was doing that one night when this was happening, when all of a sudden we got that zhooom, a damn mortar hit, you know those outdoor cellar exits, it was beside the door, it hit down there, and the concussion of that damn thing pushed me all the way back ten feet in the door. But that's all it was, no shrapnel or anything but the concussion pushed me back there.

Walter Galbraith: At the time you're talking about, if you ever wanted to see anything so beautiful, the river was there, and our pink tracers was right across, and then you'd see the white phosphorous from the Germans, with all the beautiful colors and all. So anyway, we're coming down that road to get to the river, and they had these lights shining up against the clouds to give it a light effect, and all those beautiful lights would just shine up into the clouds so we could see where we were going.
   So anyway, we're not allowed to wear our helmet straps, because the concussion would break your neck, so we had to put the damn things around, and your helmet's going like this on your head. So every time a shell would come over as we were going down the road, we'd fall, we'd hit the ground, and our helmets would come off. It looked like spittoons bouncing all over the road. But the colors were so beautiful, the pink tracer, the red tracer coming back.

Cesar Tucci: That shelling that night was rough as I remember. It hadn't been that rough, but what it wound up being is this: We weren't there for three days. We got relieved from that position on my birthday, the 16th of December. But one time we had a fire mission, and I had to go through all the rigamarole, I got the barrel off, the back plate, and didn't make it in time. So the only thing I could figure out then, on one end of the living room of this German home, and they had all ultramodern furniture in there, mahogany tables and everything. So I took a wall from where the shelling was coming from, there was a buffet under there, I dove under that buffet and watched the shrapnel come bouncing in through the window while they were shelling. So right after that was all over, I got the hell back across the street, and got out of that.
   When we got out of that, we stayed in that area. Then we celebrated New Year's Eve there, and this French family baked a lot of sweet cakes, pastries, so they invited us to participate. We were sleeping in the schoolhouse on the floor, and the French family was upstairs in it also, they were living there as refugees. So they invited us, and we had a combination of Calvados and pastries, and boy, there were a lot of sick guys. I never in my life got drunk, but that night I got sicker than a dog. And I got through and I went to bed, I went to my blanket and lay down, and geez, I got woke by Joe Masser, he said "Tooch! Tooch! It's your turn, come on, get up!" I sat up like a zombie, oh, my God, I said, what an awful feeling. And I went out to stand guard, my head spinning, sick to my stomach, the longest three hours I ever spent. Oh, my God, I felt terrible.
   This is the time that our battalion was ordered to move up to the Bulge area. So everybody packed up and we started up that way. This was the worst trip of my life, honest to God. After that night, I had what they called the GI shits, and what I was wearing, I got my underwear, my o.d.'s, and on top of that I had my combat suit, you know, like a ski suit. So the convoy was so slow going up, it was bumper to bumper. So they'd stop periodically, and they'd have a few minutes, and every time they stopped I was out the back end of a truck heading for the side of the road, pulling all those clothes off I had to get rid of my problem. Unfortunately I couldn't go fast enough and the convoy would start up again and I was chasing after it trying to pull up my pants and everything else, it was a circus. Oh, it was an awful trip I had, I said never again would I do any kind of drinking like that. What a diarrhea case I had.

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