Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Iron Cross and a Three-Day Pass

From left, Ed Spahr, Jim Gifford, Tony D'Arpino, Bob Rossi

   In 1991, at the annual reunion of the 712th Tank Battalion, I conducted an impromptu interview with Ed Spahr of Carlisle, Pa. I wasn't as familiar with the history of World War II as I am today, and the interview comprised mostly generic questions: Were you scared? How was the food? Were you wounded?
   That last question brought an interesting answer. It was during the Battle of the Bulge, his tank was knocked out, and his lieutenant was wounded. In fact, the bullet, most likely from a machine gun, was still sticking out of his head near one of his eyes. The lieutenant didn't know how badly he was injured/ When the crew abandoned tank and reached the relative safety of the other side of the tank, the lieutenant, Jim Gifford, handed Spahr a camera and said "Take my picture."
   It was while he was holding the camera up to take the picture that he felt something like a bee sting on the fleshy inside part of his arm.
   "I didn't even miss a day," he said.
   A year later, at the 1992 reunion in Harrisburg, Pa., I got quite a surprise. I was in the hospitality room when Lieutenant James Gifford entered. Wide-eyed, I blurted, "You're Lieutenant Gifford!"
   Spahr was at that same reunion, as was Tony D'Arpino, the tank driver that day, and Bob Rossi, the loader. The only missing member of the crew was Stanley Klapkowski, the gunner.
   At that reunion, I sat down with the four crew members and they reconstructed the events of that day, and spoke of some of their experiences before and after the tank was knocked out. I had already interviewed Spahr and Rossi, and in the ensuing months I visited Gifford in the used-car lot he owned in Yonkers, N.Y., and D'Arpino at his home in Milton, Mass. Some time later I even visited Klapkowski in McKees Rocks, Pa., to get his version of the events.
   All of those interviews make up my audiobook "Once Upon a Tank in the Battle of the Bulge," and a narrative version of the events comprise a chapter in my new book, "The Armored Fist," due out in April from the prestigious British publishing house Fonthill Media.
   Here is an excerpt from that 1992 group conversation:

October, 1992, Harrisburg, Pa.:

James Gifford: I was a lieutenant at the time, a first lieutenant. When I left the service I was a captain in the Ninth Armored Group.

Bob Rossi: I was a loader in Lieutenant Gifford’s tank. I was a private first class. I got out of the service in January 1946.

Ed Spahr:  I think I’d better be classed as a utility man with all of C Company because I served in every platoon. I think I spent more time in the front than a lot of other ones did, because if that platoon wasn’t there, I was with another one.

Tony Darpino: I was a driver, first tank, third platoon, and towards the end I was a tank commander for a very short period when the end was in sight. I was discharged in ’45.

Aaron Elson: Where did you come together as a unit?

Bob Rossi: Just prior to the Battle of the Bulge, Jim was brought in as our new tank commander.

Tony D’Arpino: He was our platoon leader.

Bob Rossi: We were in the No. 1 tank. We wound up in the town of Kirschnaumen in Belgium. I can recall so vividly how we wondered where Lieutenant Gifford was all day. We were in a hayloft, and he came up the ladder, it was a footladder, he said, “Come here, I want to show you something.” He had draped the tank in white sheets. They weren’t whitewashing the tanks at that time. There was snow all over the ground. So he scrounged these white sheets from all over and he draped our tank so we’d have camouflage.
   That same night, he had gotten a package from home, and he had some canned chicken. He shared his package with all of us.
   We were talking about home, and he said to us, “You know, I’d rather lose an arm or a leg than lose my eyesight.” He said, “There’s too much to see in this world.” And the next day when he got hit, he got hit in the eye.
   It was a hairy situation because we had gone into a pocket to flush out the Germans, and as fate had it, our left track was knocked off.

Tony D’Arpino: Wasn’t that the time that we just took one section of the tanks, just us and the second tank? We were almost ready to eat supper when we had to go out.

Bob Rossi: We only had two tanks, us and [Sgt. Jim] Warren’s. There was concentrated machine gun fire. Lieutenant Gifford got hit in the right eye, the bullet lodged in his cheek. I thought he might jump out of the tank, and I yelled to him to keep down or they would blow his head off. He said, “I don’t want to jump out, I want Warren to come forward to help us.”
   Then he said to me, “Rossi, how bad am I hit?”
   And I lied, I said, “You don’t look bad, Lieutenant.” But he looked like somebody hit him in the face with a sledgehammer.

Tony D’Arpino: I remember something else about that, too. He was great for having a camera around your neck, right?

Bob Rossi: I’m gonna get to that. So he says to me, “Fire the smoke mortar.” And this is the joke. In my excitement, I forgot to knock the cap out of the top, and when I fired the first mortar it went like this [motioning straight up and down]. And then I fired some subsequent mortars to give a smokescreen.
   As we were abandoning tank, Lieutenant Gifford was firing his .45 and pulling Spahr out by one of his arms. Spahr’s leg was locked.

Ed Spahr: I had a little blood coming out, something had hit me, I went along with him back to the aid station.

Bob Rossi: Ed was the assistant driver. His machine gun was firing by itself it was so hot. And I said, “Twist the belt, twist the belt,” so he could stop the bullets from feeding into the machine gun. And Klapkowski, who was our gunner, he and I were running in a zigzag, we could see the snow being kicked up around us. As we were running, a recon truck came toward us, and Lieutenant Gifford said, “Fire that .50 and protect these boys!”
   And the guy yelled out, “It’s our last box!”
   He says, “Fire it anyway, you sonofabitch!” And that’s when they started firing the .50 to give us cover.
   As we got out of the line of fire, he handed his .45 to me, he says, “Hold this for me till I get back.”
   And with that, he says, “Take my picture.”
   I says, “Lieutenant, I can’t take your picture.”

Ed Spahr: I took it. That’s the only way I could have got hit, right here [on the inside part of the arm], when I was holding the camera up to take his picture. It felt like a bee sting.

Bob Rossi: And there he was, having his picture taken. He had gotten a Bronze Star that morning, he had the ribbon, his face was all puffed up, blood all over his combat jacket, he says, “Take my picture.”

Jim Gifford: I couldn’t see out of my right eye, but I didn’t know how bad it was. It’s a funny thing, I didn’t feel any pain when the bullet went in.

Tony D’Arpino: I can remember plain as day one thing about that night, that evening. We were about ready to eat our meal, whatever it was, and they said that there was a small pocket, it was holding the infantry down, they wanted the tanks to clean it out. You took two tanks. It was just supposed to be a small pocket. And it turned out to be a little more than that, I guess.

Jim Gifford: It was bad news.

Bob Rossi: After we were knocked out, Sergeant Warren’s tank came forward, and under Lieutenant Gifford’s orders, he set our tank on fire.

Tony D’Arpino: We had ruined the radio. We put a grenade in the gun barrel. We did everything we were supposed to do.

Bob Rossi: So the Germans couldn’t turn the gun around and fire on the town.

Jim Gifford: I had Warren shoot into the back of our tank because the Germans were stealing the tanks. They’d use them against us. The track was blown off so it was useless anyway.

Tony D’Arpino: But the gun was still good.

Jim Gifford: So we immobilized it by hitting it in the back.

Tony D’Arpino: We had the best working escape hatch of anybody in the platoon. I used to oil that thing up good, so that when you touched the lever it would really fall out. Sometimes that was the only way of escape. If you’re inside the tank and the hatches are down and the gun is traversed over your hatch, you can’t open it to get out, you have to go out the other way.
   I can remember always telling Klapkowski, he was the gunner in the tanks that I was in most of the time, and I always told him, “You sonofabitch, if we ever get knocked out, make sure that gun’s in the center, because if I can’t get out because you’ve got the gun traversed over my hatch,” I says, “I’ll haunt you. I’ll come and pull the sheets off of your bed.”

Jim Gifford: I’m sure there’s a few guys that aren’t here today because of that gun being over their hatch.

Tony D’Arpino: That used to be my biggest worry.

Bob Rossi: We subsequently got a new tank after that. Sergeant Holmes became our acting platoon leader. When Lieutenant Gifford was wounded and we were knocked out, that was January 10, 1945, Berle, Belgium — Luxembourg.

Jim Gifford: Outside of Bastogne. Bastogne was right over there, we were heading for it. We had to go down a defile with a lot of woods and they were dug in there, but we didn’t know that.

Bob Rossi: We were committed to the Bulge already. When Lieutenant Gifford was evacuated, we waited maybe several weeks for a replacement tank, and that’s when we got this new tank, and Sergeant Holmes became our acting platoon leader. He was the platoon sergeant. And on February 8, 1945, we were knocked out again, at Habscheid, Germany. We were in a wooded area. They called us during the night.

Tony D’Arpino: In high ground, no?

Bob Rossi: In high ground. And it seemed like the Germans were just waiting there for us.

Tony D’Arpino: They had it all zeroed in. They had three lines of machine gun fire. Some just grazed the ground, some came waist-high.

Bob Rossi: When light came, it seemed like everything opened up at one time. They knew we were there, in the woods, and they had mortars, artillery, machine gun fire, and all of a sudden Sergeant Holmes collapsed in the turret, and I was yelling, “Holmes! Holmes! are you hit?” And Spahr says to me, “Sure he’s hit.” And with that we picked him up, and put him behind the gun. Shrapnel had gone through his steel helmet. He was hit in several places. The towel that was around his neck, a bath towel, was sopping wet with blood.
   Later, after this happened, I noticed I had blood all over my left sleeve. And with that, I asked  D’Arpino, “Give me the first aid kit.” And with that, he can’t open it. The darn thing was rusted shut. So with a chisel he opened up the first aid kit, and I bandaged Sergeant Holmes as best as I could, and as he’s laying on the floor he called up Sergeant Gibson, he says, “Gib, I’m hit, I’m getting out of here.” And Gibson called back, he says, “We’re all getting out of here.” And with that, Gibson started up the hill, and this is when we found out that the Germans had the hill zeroed in. As Gibson stopped, they fired two rounds in front of him and missed him. He took off. We came up the hill, and Bang, we got hit. The 88 went through our engine compartment and landed between [Jim] Sessions’ —  he was the assistant driver — it landed between his legs.

Tony D’Arpino: He was a recruit.

Ed Spahr: First time up.

Bob Rossi: I think it was a day before or a day after his 18th or 19th birthday.

Tony D’Arpino: I was driving, and I knew there was another tank behind me to get out, so I tried pulling over to the right to give him room to get around me, and of course nothing was working. Sessions, the assistant driver, he was new, he grabbed the fire extinguisher, and I says, “Jump, you crazy bastard, jump!” Matter of fact, I didn’t even unplug the radio or nothing, I just got out.

Ed Spahr: He never did attempt to get out till I got ahold of him. I jumped back up on the tank and I grabbed him.

Bob Rossi: I neglected to say, one tank was already knocked out in the woods, their bogey wheels were knocked off, and we had taken two guys from that crew into our tank, so there were five of us in the turret when there should have been three. When we got hit, I was the last guy to get out. I was on my hands and knees waiting for the others to get out, and I no sooner got out of the turret than the ammo started to go.

Tony D’Arpino: It’s taking a while to tell this story, but it all happened within seconds, and when that thing hit and I saw that red projectile land beside Sessions’ foot —  it came right alongside by the transmission, the transmission was between the driver and the assistant driver — it was laying right down by his left foot.

Jim Gifford: The projectile, gets red hot.

Ed Spahr: Cherry red.

Tony D’Arpino: I didn’t even bother unplugging my helmet radio. I just put my hand outside, tried to pry myself up, and that tank was just as hot as a stove.

Ed Spahr: When they hit us, it just felt like it drove the tank ten feet forward.

Bob Rossi: I automatically turned around when we were hit. I turned around to pull the extinguisher. We had an inside extinguisher. It didn’t do any good. The fire was so tremendous with all that gasoline.
   And right after we got hit, just before I got out of the tank, that’s when the other tank, which was just about on our left rear, they got hit. But they weren’t as fortunate as us in the sense that [Grayson] LaMar, who was the driver, he was burned pretty bad, I can remember when he took that stocking mask off his face he took the skin right off his face. And Whiteheart, who is now dead, the type of tank they had, they had ammo stacked in back of the assistant driver, it shifted, hit him right in the back.
   Van Landingham was the tank commander, part of his heel was torn off from the shrapnel.
Tony D’Arpino: I remember we got all the way down, we crawled all the way down that hill, got down to the bottom, and Van Landingham was missing, right? He’s still back up there. So I don’t know who the other guy was and myself, we grabbed a stretcher, we went back up — we crawled back up. They were shooting right over our heads. I thought that was my last day, out of all the —  I had three tanks knocked out from under me, and out of all of them, I thought that was it. I had it.
So we crawled up there with a stretcher to get Van Landingham, right? We finally get to him and he’s moaning and groaning, I’m looking for blood, you know, I don’t see nothing. He’s got them combat boots on. I look, and he goes, “Ohhh, ohhh,” real sharp, right, now he must have been hit someplace, I don’t know where. I couldn’t see any blood. We’re trying to get him on that stretcher, and we’re trying to crawl on our hands and knees with the stretcher, get him down over the crest where they couldn’t see us. They had that place zeroed in. And we’d go a few feet, and then, “Shooom!” We’d drop the stretcher. The third time the stretcher hit the solid ground, Van Landingham, “Oooooh,” he would groan, anyway, God willing, we got him down to the bottom, and I don’t know who that man is today, I’ve thought about this a million times, but somebody saw me and whoever else had that stretcher, and it was an officer, not in our company, it was an officer that was down there, and he took our names, he thought we should get the Silver Star for what we had done. And then I was told later on that this man was called back to England, he had to be a witness in a court martial. I don’t know who the officer was. He wasn’t in our outfit.
Ed Spahr: He was a captain in the infantry up there. You remember, we all got up in that bunker?

Bob Rossi: We were going from pillbox to pillbox.

Ed Spahr: I’ll never forget that day. The snipers were, you raised up a little up a bit and Ping!

Tony D’Arpino: Every time we’d hear “ping” we’d drop the stretcher and Van Landingham would hit and he’d groan.

Bob Rossi: You know what was ironic? We were running from pillbox to pillbox to get out of the line of fire after this all happened. And the infantry was dug in in foxholes, they said, “Don’t run on the road, it’s mined. Don’t run in the gully, it’s mined.” And we finally got to this one pillbox, and I think it was a major or a lieutenant colonel, he wanted American wounded put outside because he complained that they were in the way of him conducting business. And we were PO’d at him. I was so mad at the time, I was only a kid, but I was so mad I felt like shooting the German prisoners who were there because they did this to us.

Ed Spahr: I remember that one infantry boy, this captain said to this guy, he pointed to him, he said, “Get up there and get that sonofabitch!” And that infantry boy was sitting there, he handed him his M-1, he said, “Here, you get him.”

Tony D’Arpino: If you remember, that night, it was dark when the infantry moved us up there.
Bob Rossi: It was raining.

Tony D’Arpino: We argued about it. You move the tanks at night, Jesus, they make too much noise. But the infantry officer said, “I’m giving you an order.”

Bob Rossi: So Holmes says to me, “Rossi, get out.” He handed me his tank commander’s watch with the luminous hands, he said, “Lead the tank.” Now I’m running in front of the tank in the rain, holding it up as I’m running so D’Arpino can see the watch in the dark. And when we got knocked out the next morning, I said to myself, “Thank God my clothes were soaking wet. I think that’s what saved me from getting burned to death in the tank.” All my clothes were soaking wet.

Ed Spahr: We lost four tanks that day.

Bob Rossi: Three. Three out of the four.

Ed Spahr: That’s right. Gibson’s was the only tank that got out.

Bob Rossi: Two tank destroyers were lost. And we lost about a company of infantry. I mean, we took a beating.

Tony D’Arpino: When daybreak came and I looked around, I said, “Hooooly shit.” You could see for miles. I mean, we were really exposed. They had three lanes of machine gun fire.

Bob Rossi: You remember later on we were kidding, it was bad, but later on we kidded, “That German gun crew must have all got the Iron Cross and a three-day pass.”

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