Saturday, March 23, 2013

An excerpt from "The Armored Fist"

Capt. Jim Cary, left, a former company commander,
and Sgt. Joe Fetsch, a gasoline truck driver, at
a reunion of the 712th Tank Battalion.

Lt. Dale Albee on a ridge overlooking the Rhine River.

   My new book, "The Armored Fist," is now available. It is the story of the 712th Tank Battalion, with which my father served in World War II. Following are the preface and first chapter.

From "The Armored Fist," by Aaron Elson
Published by Fonthill Media, Ltd.
Copyright © Aaron Elson, 2013
Joe Blow from Breeze

   In 1938, Dale Albee, a skinny nineteen-year-old kid from Independence, Oregon, tried to join the Navy, but failed to pass the eye test. He therefore memorised the eye chart. The next day, he joined the Army. ‘E-FP-TOZ, even the big E was fuzzy,’ Albee, who became a sergeant in the horse cavalry and received two Purple Hearts and a battlefield commission with the 712th Tank Battalion, recalled decades later.
   In 1942, Ed Forrest, a thirty-two-year-old rail-thin graduate of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, applied for officers candidate school, but was rejected as he was colour blind. He returned to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he lived in the parish house of St Paul’s Episcopal Church, and had his friend Dave Braman help him memorise the test. He passed on the second attempt.
   Clifford Merrill enlisted in the Army in 1936 to get away from an abusive father and the abject poverty in which his large family lived in Springfield, Maine. Army pay was not much, but he managed to send his mother enough money to buy a washing machine. Merrill graduated with the first armored officers candidate class at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where Col Tom Chamberlain, who later would be his commanding officer in the 10th Armored Division, was a member of the staff. ‘I got caught shooting crap one night,’ Merrill said when interviewed in 1992. ‘We were making a lot of noise in the wooden barracks and the officer of the day made a big deal out of it. In the morning I had to report to the day room. There was a Colonel Calais, his left hand had three fingers cut off from a tank. He had his hand on the edge of the turret when the tank hit a tree and the hatch cover came down. He still had his thumb and his index finger and when he talked to you he would point with the one finger. I had to report to three of them – Chamberlain, Calais and Colonel Morrill. Chamberlain was the first one to talk.
   ‘“And what were you doing?” he said.
   ‘“I was trying to make a hard ten,” I said.
   ‘“Did you make it?”
   ‘“Yes, Sir.”
   Merrill went on to become the first of several company commanders in A Company of the 712th Tank Battalion. His executive officer was Ellsworth Howard. Howard grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and volunteered for the draft in 1941. After basic training at Fort Knox, he was assigned to the 5th Armored Division where he was sent to a motorcycle school. ‘I hate motorcycles with a passion,’ Howard said in the hospitality room during a reunion of the 712th. ‘I struggled with that thing for thirteen weeks and unfortunately there was a colonel there who apparently took a liking to me because no matter what I did he thought it was a big joke and wouldn’t let me go. I graduated and I thought, “I’ll get out of this now.” He had me reassigned to be an instructor in the motorcycle school. So one day, they put a notice on the bulletin board that they needed candidates for officers candidate school.’
   Ed Stuever, a maintenance sergeant in the 712th, grew up in Breeze, Illinois. People kidded him about his Uncle Joe Blow from Breeze. But when he was eighty-eight and living in Chicago, Stuever returned to Breeze and helped a group of local history buffs find the site of the one-room schoolhouse where he received his education and where he learned the Song of Illinois. It was such a beautiful song, he told the group’s guide, that if children performed it at their graduation – he pronounced it ‘gradjy-ation’ – all the elderly folks in the audience would ‘...jump up out of their wheelchairs in exuberance.’
   Billy Wolfe was the fifth of seven children born to Hobert and Anna Wolfe in the hamlet of Edinburg, Virginia, on the north fork of the Shenandoah River. A sensitive, vibrant, fresh-faced kid of seventeen, he could hardly wait to be drafted after his older brother Hubert went into the service. Hubert Wolfe was in Europe with the 78th Infantry Division when Billy was drafted early in 1945. Billy reported to Fort Meade, Maryland, for basic training and was sent to Fort Knox to be trained as a tanker. Army food agreed with him and he gained fifteen pounds at Fort Knox.
   Bob Rossi, about 5 foot 6 inches and 110 lbs ‘soaking wet,’ grew up so poor in Jersey City that he and his brother John would play football using rolled-up newspapers. Reuben Goldstein of Dorchester, Massachusetts, was not much better off. He and his brother would stand on an overpass and throw rocks on the back of coal trucks as they left the rail yards and then gather up the coal that the rocks displaced. Tony D’Arpino, who would drive the tank in which Rossi was the loader, worked in a foundry in Whitman, Massachusetts, before the war, making eight dollars a week. His father worked in the same foundry. Tony did not say anything when he reported for the draft, and with two weeks to get his affairs in order, he stopped going to work. The foreman called his father aside and said, ‘What’s the matter? Is Tony shacking up?’
   Jim Rothschadl and Jim Flowers spent two days and nights in no man’s land. Flowers was wounded so seriously he would lose both of his legs and Rothschadl badly burned during the battle for Hill 122 in Normandy. They never saw each other after they were rescued. But Flowers suggested I interview Rothschadl and said he was an Indian living in Waubun, Minnesota. What kind of an Indian name is Rothschadl, I wondered? But I looked up Waubun and there it was, smack dab in the middle of the White Earth Indian reservation. It turns out that Rothschadl’s father was a Czechoslovakian immigrant who dreamed of having his own farm. He was swindled into buying land at an inflated price from a company that in turn had swindled the land from the Indians with the help of an act of Congress. Between Jim’s father and uncle, they owned 300 acres.
   Quentin ‘Pine Valley’ Bynum was a tank driver in A Company. Bynum was a tall, husky young man with the rugged good looks of Li’l Abner and an almost superhuman strength. He was responsible for the battalion’s first taste of combat, initiating the first of several pillow fights in the barracks at Fort Benning in 1943.
   These are a few of the people you will meet in the pages of this book. Some will live. Some will die. Many will be wounded. At full strength, there were 765 men in the 712th Tank Battalion. With replacements, 1,165 men passed through its ranks. Some, like my father, 2nd Lt Maurice Elson, a replacement, were there for a cup of coffee and a couple of Purple Hearts. Others, like Dan Diel, a sharecropper’s son from Kansas, and Jule Braatz, the sergeant whose platoon my father was assigned to lead, were together for as long as five years, from their days in the horse cavalry in California to their time as occupation troops in Amberg, Germany.
Chapter 1
   As dawn broke on Easter Sunday, 1 April 1945, nineteen-year-old tank driver Dick Bengoechea of Boise, Idaho, stood guard outside his M4A3 Sherman tank in a village in Germany whose name he could not remember fifty years later. An enemy soldier emerged from the woods with his hands laced over his head. ‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’ The German prisoner who spoke fairly good English told Bengoechea that an ‘88’ – a weapon universally feared by tankers – was located in a nearby clearing and that it had the intersection Bengoechea was guarding zeroed in.
   As the day wore on, the thought weighed heavily on Bengoechea’s mind that all the time he stood guard, a simple decision to fire that 88 at a preset target would have turned him into one of the countless bodies his tank had rolled past and, on occasion, over. Just a couple of days before, his tank stopped in the rain beside a hastily-made burial ground where the earth was washed away and the bodies of several German soldiers were partially exposed. Rigor mortis had set in and one of them, Bengoechea recalled, had his arm stretched up in the air. One of the members of his platoon, Budd Squires, fired a burst from his Thompson submachine gun into the makeshift grave. Just then, a jeep appeared and the company executive officer, Lt Edward L. Forrest, scolded Squires for wasting ammunition. ‘And Forrest had just returned from a firing demonstration. Talk about wasting ammunition,’ Bengoechea said with a laugh as he recounted the incident at a reunion of the 712th Tank Battalion. Later that day as Bengoechea went to shift gears, his knees began to tremble. Soon they shook uncontrollably. In retrospect, he said, that might have been a premonition.
   Two days later, the battalion’s A Company, of which Bengoechea was a member, was approaching the village of Heimboldshausen, Germany, on the west bank of the Werra River. There was a firefight on the outskirts of town. Soon, the German fighters, including die-hard SS troops, faded from the town. The tanks and infantry followed in pursuit and the service personnel moved in for the night. Ed Forrest, the executive officer, selected a three-story house with a concrete foundation near a small railroad depot and set up his headquarters in the basement. Two tanks that needed repairs – one of them Bengoechea’s – were parked outside. A petrol truck was parked nearby. Its driver was Pfc Joseph Fetsch of Baltimore. Fetsch was scheduled to drive a truckload of ammunition to the front, but at the last minute switched assignments with Harry Moody of Asheville, North Carolina. The parked truck held 300 jerry cans, each filled with five gallons of fuel. Fetsch was proud of the way he stacked the cans on the truck, which was only meant to carry 250 cans. On the front of the truck there was a ring-mounted .50-calibre machine gun.
   By 6 p.m., the support personnel of A Company – thirty-two maintenance, kitchen and supply people, including the crews of the disabled tanks – were beginning to settle in for the evening. Ervin Ulrich, a German-born cook who grew up in Wyoming, was preparing a rare hot meal for the tankers, some of whom only a few days before had their first bath in six weeks. A hot meal. A bath. The end of the war in the European Theatre of Operations was definitely in sight. Three thousand miles away in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the Rev. Edmund Randolph Laine, an Episcopalian minister who raised Ed Forrest from the time he was fourteen, was already preparing his sermon for VE Day.
   Several railroad cars were parked on a siding at the depot in Heimboldshausen, but no one had inspected them. One boxcar, it would later be learned, contained linens and clothing that the people of the village hoped to liberate just as soon as the ‘Amis’ – as the American troops were called, even by enemy soldiers – departed. Another car was filled with bags of black powder intended for use in artillery. There were several empty ore cars for hauling potash from a nearby mine. And there were two gasoline tanker cars which, although empty, were filled with fumes. On the other side of the railroad tracks was a large open field. Off in the distance was an oval-shaped copse of woods on a hill created by slag from the mine. Bengoechea stood on the running board of the fuel truck with a can of oil in his right hand, trying to free up the .50-calibre machine gun that had failed to swivel the day before as it was rusted in place. Suddenly, his buddy Fred Hostler, who was standing nearby, pointed his .45 calibre pistol in the air and began firing. Then someone shouted, ‘Plane!’
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If you would like to order a signed copy directly from me, please send a check or money order for $29.00, which includes shipping (add $3 for priority shipping) to:
   Aaron Elson
   12 Washington Street
   Unit 55
   New Britain, CT 06051

You can also order a signed copy from Amazon by going to the listings for new and used copies, and looking for the listing that says directly from me; in that case Amazon processes the payment, sends me the order, and I ship the book. Go figure!
Connecticut residents please add 6 percent sales tax. Be sure to include your address! And let me know to whom you would like the copy inscribed if it's to be a gift. A slight discount is available if you'd like to order more than one copy.
To speed up your order, you can call 888-711-TANK  (8265) or send me an email and I'll get your copy in the mail right away.
The book can also be pre-ordered from or directly from the publisher. For orders in the U.K., I'd suggest ordering directly from London-based Fonthill Media; if you'd like a signed copy, it would require international shipping, which would add several dollars to the order.
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