Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Southbound Winnie and Southbound Peggy

The B-26 on which tail gunner John Sweren flew 58 missions.

   When Stephen Ambrose wrote that he felt like he developed post traumatic stress syndrome just by interviewing all the World War II veterans that he did, I thought, "What a crock." But I can understand where he was coming from, and I'm sure he was exaggerating a bit. And while I would never claim to have anything close to PTSD, some of the interviews I've done are veritable emotional roller coasters, going from laughing out loud to getting all choked up and vice versa.
   One such interview is the subject of my new Kindle publication, "Merry Christmas in July," an edited transcript of my conversation over two days in Mesa, Arizona, in 2009 with John Sweren.
   John's B-26 took a direct hit on July 28, 1944, and the tail section broke off with him in it. He managed to bail out, was captured and became a prisoner of war. One of the stories he told was how in Stalag Luft IV, he read a book called "Ordeal by Hunger," about the Donner party. Most of the other people in his room in the prison compound read it as well. When he was on the long POW march across Germany in February and March of 1945, he was so hungry one night that before going to sleep he told his buddy Lloyd Alexander that if Lloyd should wake up in the morning missing an arm or a leg, he'd know where it went. He meant it as a joke, but when he woke up his buddy was nowhere to be found, and he never saw him again. That should be humorous, but it always haunted John that his friend must have taken him seriously.
   John tells the story better than I do, which is why, when possible, I prefer to present the stories I record in the veterans' own voices or in their own words.
   The audio of John's interview is available from audible.com in a three-interview set titled "March Madness," and now the transcript is available from Amazon for its Kindle e-book reader.
   Here's an excerpt:

Aaron Elson: What about the first time you shot down a German fighter?

John Sweren: First time? I think it was an ME-109. They circled, and I opened fire before he did, and whether he fired or not I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you, there was so much debris in the air there when I hit it, and I didn’t know whether I hit it but they claimed I did, because in a box, you have six planes, three up here and three a little bit lower. So I’m not the only one that’s got a gun. Other people see the plane also. But that’s why I got a couple planes shot down and one probable. But when the plane was hit that I thought I hit, they claimed I hit it, and it just flipped over and down it went.

But, this is not my idea, on a .50-caliber machine gun there’s a buffer plate on the back with a cylinder on the buffer plate, probably two inches long or two and a half inches long, a Micarta disk, plastic kind of, so when the bolt would come back for the recoil – this was none of my idea but somebody said well, they put nickels in there. So I got some nickels from home, I sent for them. I put them in there, and every fifth bullet is a tracer, okay, when you shot, it looked like all tracers. The recoil was three times as fast with the nickels in there, because we’d come back sometimes, my boxes were almost empty.

Aaron Elson: So it would speed up the rate of fire?

John Sweren: Yes.

Aaron Elson: So the tracer was almost constant.

John Sweren: Yes. And I was, I don’t know who told me this, nobody followed up on it but I did, and my crew chief says, every time we came back he’d change the barrels, he says, it looks like a shotgun, no land and no grooves in there.

Aaron Elson: Because the heat was melting the ...

John Sweren: I didn’t know what it looked like too much in the daylight time, but one evening we had a late mission, and boy, I’ll tell you, in the dark, it looked like every bullet was a tracer. But that was my experience. Everybody didn’t do it but I did it, because somebody told me to put nickels in there, so I sent home to the United States and they sent me three rolls of nickels. I think I gave some to somebody else.

Aaron Elson: Would you have to replace the nickels?

John Sweren: They stayed in there all the time. The Micarta disk looked like kind of a rust color, about the same size as a nickel, but evidently there was some sponge there, give there, nickels, snap, snap, snap, so I know every mission the crew chief would check the barrels, wanted to know if I used it.

Aaron Elson: Now you had two kills and three probables, no?

John Sweren: No, I think two kills and one probable.

Aaron Elson: What was the second one like?

John Sweren: The second one was, we were, we always flew different boxes, had three boxes, you’d have a high box, a middle box and a lower box. The lower box was kind of a Purple Heart box. And I think the second one we were in the low box, and the plane kind of circled. I lost track of it, and it came up from kind of underneath and made a 90-degree turn and started firing. Of course my rapid fire I think got him, but he just, just a flash of light, that’s all, I couldn’t tell, I blew it up. But, uhh, but after that happened, I said a little prayer, God bless the guy, he was in the war just like I was, fighting for his country, and I felt sorry for what happened. It was either him or me. Or us.

Aaron Elson: Even though he was trying to kill you, you didn’t feel anger?

John Sweren: Well, I guess I felt anger at the time, but after it exploded, the anger went away and I felt sorry for him and his family, or loved ones. That was me mostly, I don’t know what the group that I was in, my acquaintances, my crew, and even other people that were on different aircraft, after the briefing, the woman pours drinks for you and then, at first I thought boy that’s got to be cocktail hour. They had a purpose for it, to loosen you up and you’d talk. But get to the barracks, and communications was very, we hardly ever talked about what happened. The people in my barracks, everybody kind of talked about something else. We played a little cards, we’d play on this guy’s bed, and we had some plastic cups there and we’d have a drink. Not everybody drank, but I did, quite a bit. Well, I came from a family that, we always had booze on the table and milk, nothing else, and my father said “Take your choice,” but I never drank anything until after the war. I didn’t know what liquor did to you but it does relax you. It put me to sleep a lot of times, because I’d have two or three drinks, and you could feel it, so I’d sleep pretty good. If I didn’t have anything to drink I’d toss all night, and dream about this and that.

Aaron Elson: You’d dream about the missions, in England?

John Sweren: Yes.

Aaron Elson: Now tell me about the time, Brett was telling me outside, that you had a couple of drinks and you fell asleep in a shelter and you woke up and the roof had collapsed on top of you, in London.

John Sweren: Well, it was not in a shelter, it was a house. This was in Rumford, England, probably around 75 kilometers from the base. I rode my bicycle that far. Seventy five kilometers is a guess on my part. So you’d see a sign in this yard, “room for rent.” I saw two of them and I saw this bigger house. I rang the doorbell or knocked, and they said yes, come on in. I introduced myself. Then I went kind of into Rumford, and I think into London maybe, London I think it was, and they had dog races. And all these guys up there, well, you’ve got to bet on so and so and so and so. I had a little paper there, a program, of the horses, I mean the dogs that were running, so I went up there. I already picked them out, Southbound Winnie and Southbound Peggy. I chose Southbound Winnie to come in first and Southbound Peggy to come in second, and it was just the opposite. They both came in. And, I don’t know, at that time the British pound was $4.05 US, so I had a whole sack full of money. They had a bar there, and of course I was drinking, and there was a flower shop. Before I got there I bought some flowers to take to the place where I was staying. There were two ladies there, a grandma and her daughter. So I bought flowers for them. Oh, they’ve got a tub there, I put the flowers in this tub. So after the race, I went to the counter and got my money, I don’t know how many pounds I had but quite a bit, maybe about four hundred dollars worth, so I got on this bus, and from the bus I got a cab, and I was pretty loaded.

I stumbled into the house there, and I brought the flowers in. On the way up the stairs, they had a beautiful vase, I knocked it down and broke it. And I said, “Ohhhh, I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay. That’s okay.”

So they took me into bed, brought me some tea and some little cookies, and I passed out. Boy, I’d drank quite a bit, or it hit me a lot. So morning came, and I felt like there was lead on top of me. I opened my eyes, and I see daylight through the roof. It was all plaster on me. A buzz bomb had exploded nearby. How I made it I’ll never know, but after it was all over, the two ladies, I think one was 72 and the daughter was fifty something, she’d lost her husband in the war, so they thought I was gone because when they escaped out of the house, well, after it was all over there’s a little blank there in my mind, but when they came back, she said, “Johnny, the vase would have been broken anyhow.” She said “I’d sooner have you break it than doggone it, the Krauts.”

   (With special thanks to Christian Levaufre and Brett Schomacher, both of whom made my interview with John Sweren possible)

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"Merry Christmas in July" is available in the Amazon Kindle store. If you order it, please think about leaving a review.
John Sweren, center, at the dedication of a monument in 2005 where his plane crashed in Fierville-Bray, France.

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veterans Day 2012

Karnig Thomasian

   The other day I spoke to a sixth-grade class at the elementary school from which I graduated some 51 years ago, in the class of '61. I was deeply impressed by the brightness and inquisitiveness of the youngsters in the class, and I witnessed only two yawns in the whole 45 minutes. That's a lot better than I can say for my average library presentation. I spoke to the kids about oral history, and they made a lot of comments and asked a lot of questions.
   And I learned a lot myself. I learned that no sixth grader, at least at Hunter College Elementary School, has ever heard of Studs Terkel. So I told them that when people think of oral history, Studs Terkel is the name that comes up most often, and that he wrote books like "Hard Times" in which he let people tell their stories about the Great Depression, and "The Good War," in which he interviewed veterans of World War II. I also told them there are many oral historians and that many good colleges have oral history programs.
   All of these kids take part in National  History Day, and I explained how whatever subject they choose for their presentation, if they google the subject and add "oral history" to the search, they're almost sure to find individual stories that will add depth to their project.
   But the most important thing I learned was that I shouldn't assume that readers of my blog, which I hope now includes a sixth-grader or two, may not know as much about the war as I do now. When I read my previous entry upon returning home, hoping it didn't have too many cuss words, I came upon a passage in which Walter Galbraith described reaching for his steel helmet and said that it had morphine inside. I thought, if I'm a sixth-grader and I'm reading this, assuming sixth-graders who don't know who Studs Terkel was do know what morphine is, they're going to think he got the helmet so he could use the morphine.
    So I opened the entry up and added a parenthetical explanation of why the morphine was there -- in case someone was wounded -- and then Walter went to to explain how he took his rifle and propped the helmet up in the hatch opening of his tank, and when a shell exploded above the tank it shredded the helmet so that it looked like spaghetti, but at least it kept most of the shrapnel from entering the tank.
   Which brings me to Veterans Day. I brought a set of audio samplers to give to the students, and left them with the teacher, Alvin Shields, to hand out after I left.
   In honor of Veterans Day, here are some of the audio excerpts on the sampler CD, which I usually hand out at air shows or when I give library talks. The excerpts are mostly taken from full-length audiobooks.

Karnig Thomasian

Karnig Thomasian was a gunner in a B-29 that exploded over Rangoon, Burma, and was a prisoner of the Japanese.

Pfc. Patsy J. Giacchi

Pfc. Patsy J. Giacchi, a quartermaster, was a survivor of the ill-fated Excercise Tiger, in which the LST 507 that he was on was torpedoed and sunk.

Ed Boccafogli
Ed Boccafogli, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, veteran of D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge

Erlyn Jensen, left, and Linda Dewey

Erlyn Jensen, Kassel Mission Historical Society. Erlyn's brother, Major Don McCoy, was the command pilot on the Kassel Mission bombing raid of Sept. 27, 1944. and was killed when his B-24 was one of 25 Liberators from the 445th Bomb Group that were shot down that day. Linda's father, Bill Dewey, was the pilot of a badly shot up B-24 that made it back to an emergency Royal Air Force landing field at Manston, England.

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