Monday, October 22, 2012

Walter Galbraith, Part I, "The Professor"

Lisa Keithley, left, and Dale Albee. Lisa's great-grandfather, Walter Galbraith, was Albee's gunner in World War II.
   My new book is finished, with a projected publication date of April 2013, so watch for an announcement. While writing it, I pored through transcripts of conversations I hadn't looked at in years.
   One of the first veterans I interviewed was Walter Galbraith, of Boston, probably in 1991 or '92. I think it was at the first Florida "mini-reunion" of the battalion I attended. I spoke with Walter and Caesar Tucci, both veterans of the battalion's D Company, which comprised the 17 1/2 ton "light" tanks.
   Walter passed away in 1994. It was not until the following year that I met Dale Albee, who'd been Walter's tank commander and platoon leader. Walter was the gunner in Albee's tank.
   In 2001 I received an email from Lisa Keithley, then 15 years old. Her great-grandmother had recently passed away and Lisa inherited the war memorabilia of her great-grandfather, Walter Galbraith.
   I immediately remembered how Albee told me how broken up he was when he learned that Galbraith, his gunner, passed away. So I wrote to Lisa and asked her if she'd like to get in touch with her great-grandfather's lieutenant. Albee had a daughter living in Vancouver and visited her during the Holidays. While there, he paid a visit to Lisa, who was doing a school project on her great-grandfather's experiences.
   I used a couple of Walter Galbraith's stories in my first book, "Tanks for the Memories," but as I read through the transcript I realized that there was so much more of his story to tell. Here, then, is my conversation with Walter and Caesar Tucci, circa 1991:
Walter Galbraith

   When we were in Germany, I forget what part of Germany it was in, but some of the houses only had just a wall up, so the GIs put their bedrolls against the walls. It was in wintertime, to keep the wind from ... anyway, the last man on guard, in the tank, had to make sure that you pulled the ammunition off the tank. So I climbed up on my tank in the morning, and my eye caught the brass. Who the hell did that? So I pulled it down. What I first went up there for was to check Little Joe. Little Joe is the motor that turns the turret. If you press your thumb on one side you start the machine gun, if you hit the other side you hit the cannon. So I got in and I saw that brass, I pulled it down and I cleaned out the chamber, I cleaned out the ammunition, and I threw it back in, and the breach came up. Now, if that fired, it comes back 18 inches. I had my hand on the guard, and if that had come back ... I remembered when I came in there it was to check on Little Joe, so I reached over and when I did my hand came up, and I hit the damn cannon. The periscope was in front of me, and I saw the road blow up. I blew the whole goddamn road up. And I thought, "Oh, my God, did I kill somebody?" That's the first thing I thought about. So I reached up, I raised my seat, and I looked out. I didn't see anybody walking around with no head on, and I felt good, I didn't care what they did to me, I hadn't killed anybody. And all of a sudden the company commander, the first sergeant, all the guys are walking up to that big hole that I made in the road, and I figured, well, I'd better go face the music. So I walked up there, and I was just gonna say, "Well, that's the way the cookie crumbles," and the first sergeant says, "Jesus. I drove over this road three times this morning and that goddamn mine didn't blow up."
   So Andy Schiffler says, "That was no goddamn mine," and I grabbed him by the back of the neck, I said, "You shut up."
   But anyway, what happened after that, at the same time, when the cannon flew out, some plaster from the side of the wall fell down on the poor guys who were laying there, and they thought the Germans had counterattacked, so they jumped up and they were scared like hell.
   Another thing that happened, while we were in basic training, we had to learn how to ride a motorcycle, the tank, cars, so after we got familiar with it, it was the old tank, and when you shift, that's with the rivets in them, you know, the old type, that was our practice, so you shift into first, second, third, fourth. By that time you're looking that way and the tank is going this way. The only directions that the driver would have is that the tank commander would press him on the shoulder, right shoulder turn right, left shoulder turn left. We had to go through this obstacle course with the tanks, and each had turns. I went through it, and then somebody else went through it.
   There were two huge trees, great big trees, with just enough room for a tank to go between them. When you're driving, they said don't stay in first all day, which some guys would do. As soon as that tachometer went so many thousand rpms, you had to shift.
   The instructor's sitting beside the bow gunner, and the driver's going, and so he'd tell you "Keep your eye on the tachometer."
   So my turn came and I went through the trees, and I'm looking through the periscope, it looks like the trees are moving. So I see these trees, and I come like that, and go right between them.
   Then this fellow got in, and we called him the Professor. I can't think of his name, but it was his turn, and he, if you asked him a question, he'd say, "Well, uh," it took him all day to tell you, but when he finally came up with an answer, he had a vocabulary that big. But anyway, it was his turn, so we get in the tank, and he's driving, and we're going, and the instructor said "Keep your eye on the tachometer."
   "Ow-kay." He talked like Mortimer Snerd, so he'd go like that, and again the instructor said "Keep your eye on the tachometer." So we went down through the course and we finally come to those two trees. I saw the tree move in front, and I thought at the last second he's gonna pull on the lever and go right between the trees. Then "Bang!" He hit that goddamn tree, and ruined the tank's transmission and everything, and all the tree's branches came down on top of us. I landed on top of the bow gunner, the tank commander landed on top of the driver, and everything got quiet for a second. And the instructor said something like "God damn you," I can't think of his name.
   And he said, "Well, you told me to keep my eye on the tachometer, didn't you?"
   That's about the funniest thing I can tell you, but those are the two things I can think of right now.
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From Oral History Audiobooks:
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(More of Walter Galbraith's interview coming soon)


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