Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Angel of Bastogne

Renee Lemaire
   With Memorial Day and June 6th just around the corner, I've added a thirteenth interview to my collection "The D-Day Dozen: Conversations With Veterans of the Longest Day, the Huertgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge."
   The interview is with Dr. John T. "Jack" Prior, whom I met while I was teaching journalism during a one-semester fellowship at Syracuse University in 2005.
   The book is currently available for Kindle and will soon be available in a print edition.
   It also includes a new preface.

Preface to the D-Day Dozen: Conversations With Veterans of the Longest Day, the Huertgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge

   “You’d think we were going on a three-day pass,” Chuck Hurlbut said. “Guys start shaving, combing their hair. One guy’s putting on cologne. I and a lot of my buddies had a goatee, so we spent several minutes making sure that was just right.”
   The men of the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion were not going on a three-day pass. They were getting ready to be sent down the cargo netting draped over the side of the Princess Maude, a converted channel steamer, into landing crafts destined for Omaha Beach in the predawn hours of June 6, 1944.
   Hurlbut, a young Pfc. from upstate Auburn, New York, took out some photographs of his family and looked at them. And he re-read General Eisenhower’s letter to the troops, the one that begins “You are about to embark on the Great Crusade.”
   “I’m looking at this stuff,” Hurlbut said, “and my buddy comes up behind me. He had on the ugliest, gaudiest, most outlandish necktie I ever saw in my life, and he was going to wear it on D-Day. We chuckled a bit, and we thought about all the things we went through, and what we’re gonna go through together. We planned a trip, what we’re gonna do when we hit Paris.”

   Jack Prior was a 28-year-old battalion surgeon in the 10th Armored Division. When the Battle of the Bulge broke out, he was in Noville, Luxembourg, about five miles northeast of Bastogne.
   “It was like an old-time Western,” he said when I interviewed him in Manlius, New York, in 2005. “They were fighting in the streets. All of a sudden I began to see head wounds, I saw belly wounds, chest wounds, lots of fractures. We were overwhelmed with casualties. I began sending them back, but all of a sudden we had no transportation. My halftrack was hit, so I had no way to get people back to the hospital. And the casualties kept increasing. They blew the second story off the building. We were crawling on the floor to treat the patients.”
   Soon the 101st Airborne Division arrived in trucks, rather than by parachute, and they were able to get Dr. Prior and his staff, along with the wounded, into Bastogne.
   Prior set up an aid station in a garage, but was unable to heat it during the brutal cold of the European winter.
   “I kept getting casualties,” he said, “so I went to a three-story building. I had maybe 80 patients. I took two buildings. In one building I had the most severely injured cases, and in the other I had the walking wounded, the fractures, and the psycho cases, which we called combat fatigue in those days. And at this time, I’ve told the story many times, two Belgian nurses appeared. They were in their twenties, and they asked if they could help. And I want to tell you, we needed help. They were welcomed. One was Renee Lemaire, and the other was Augusta Chiwy.”

   “My dear good Ewald,” the letter begins, “It is Friday morning, half past eight. I want to hurry and write you a nice letter. I received your dear letter yesterday and was very happy to hear from you my love, and to have heard what you did Easter Day. But now I know that you have seen the great lovers on the screen and yet you didn’t mention a bit about love in your letter. What do you do in your visits to the movies? Do you sleep while the picture is on? With whom do you usually go out, or do you go out alone? Dear Ewald, when you write, please don’t complain about your food openly. Just because your officers receive better food than you do, remember, you’re the dumb one when you start to get hotheaded. Therefore, my sweetheart, don’t write about these matters openly. ...”
   The letter was found in a German gun emplacement during a trip to Cherbourg by the captain of the USS Butler, a destroyer that took part in the D-Day invasion. It was translated by a member of the Butler’s crew and a copy was given to Felix Podolak of Garfield, New Jersey, one of the veterans I interviewed in 1994.

   As the C-47 carrying 18 members of Company I of the 101st Airborne Division’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment droned toward the coast of Normandy, Pfc. Leonard Goodgal looked out the open door. “I could see the coast,” he said as we sat in the Heritage Diner in Hackensack, N.J., where we talked for more than two hours amid the clinking of coffee cups one afternoon in 1994. “It was a beautiful night. We went over the coast. All of a sudden, Christ, all hell broke loose. There was anti-aircraft fire, and fire. We could see it on the ground, in the air. And the plane got hit. It got hit in the tail and went into a dive. I just stood there hanging onto my static line thinking I was gonna get killed. And it pulled out.”
   The plane was hit again, and one of its wings was on fire. Goodgal was one of only four men to make it out of the plane before it plummeted to the ground and crashed. Two of the four men  landed on top of the cliffs. Of those two, one was captured and spent ten months as a prisoner of war; the other, a lieutenant, was injured but eventually made it back to the 101st and was evacuated. Goodgal and Raymond Crouch of Richmond, Virginia, landed in the water.
   “I started to swim, but when I stood up I was in less than a foot of water,” Goodgal said. “The other guy was calling me, he was saying ‘Is that you, Sam?’ Samuel is my middle name. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’
   “He said, ‘Where are we at?’
   “I said ‘I hope this is the White Cliffs of Dover,’ because I saw those cliffs.”
   Goodgal and Crouch were not at the White Cliffs of Dover. They were at the base of Pointe du Hoc.
   All night long, Goodgal recalled, “the bombers were dropping 2,000-pound bombs on the cliffs. And the Navy was shelling the cliffs.”
   As dawn began to break, he said, “we see these boats coming along the cliffs. I said, ‘Hey, maybe they’ll come in and get us.’”

   Leonard Lomell, a sergeant at the time, was in one of those boats, which were full of Rangers whose mission was to scale the 80-foot cliffs and silence the big guns that were supposed to be on the top, but which were actually some distance inland.
   As the Rangers began climbing the ropes that they fired to the top of the cliffs with grappling hooks, with Germans shooting down at them and tossing hand grenades over the side, they were joined by Goodgal and Crouch, who would fight with the Rangers for the next three days until the battle stabilized and they were able to look for their own unit. Lomell, meanwhile, and a fellow sergeant would lead a patrol that discovered four large coastal artillery guns, which they were able to sabotage with superheated thermite grenades while the gun crews were receiving instructions at the far edge of the field.
   Subsequently wounded, Lomell was in the hospital when he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest military honor. Goodgal said he had a hand-written note from the Rangers’ commander, James Rudder, recommending him for a Silver Star, but when he found his unit, his officer tore it up and asked him where the hell he’d been. In retrospect, Goodgal said, he couldn’t blame the officer because his company suffered heavy casualties in the first few days of the invasion.

   As Chuck Hurlbut stepped out of the landing craft, he took his rifle, aimed it at a pillbox overlooking Omaha Beach, and fired. It was the only shot he fired all day. He grabbed a rope attached to a rubber raft filled with explosives and began pulling it toward the beach. The explosives were to be used to demolish obstacles. As he pulled, the raft seemed to get heavier. He looked around, and saw three bodies on the raft, two of which he recognized as members of his company. He resumed pulling when suddenly there was an explosion that knocked him senseless. The raft had taken a direct hit. When he came to, probably no more than a few moments later, he saw a badly wounded member of his company, Joe Milkovic, laying on the beach, at risk of being overtaken by the incoming tide. Milkovic was bigger and heavier than Hurlbut, so he planted his feet in the sand, grabbed the wounded man by the shoulders – engineers know these things, after all – and pushed himself backward with his feet. He was making slow progress when he saw a tank on the beach. A tanker jumped off and helped him pull the wounded man to the relative safety of a dune.

   These are some of the people you’ll meet in the pages of this book as they tell their stories to me. Some of them you may be familiar with. Leonard Lomell was interviewed by Tom Brokaw in “The Greatest Generation.” Chuck Hurlbut was interviewed by Dan Rather for a documentary on CBS about D-Day. The Belgian nurse Renee Lemaire was portrayed in “Band of Brothers,” although in the mini-series she has a romantic attachment to a medic in the 101st Airborne Division when in actuality she was in the aid station of the 10th Armored Division, and she was already engaged. In an account of his experiences in Bastogne, Dr. Prior describes how when supplies were dropped by parachute, Renee would leave her duties and run into the back yard hoping to retrieve a parachute so she could use the silk to make her wedding dress, only to find that a soldier had beaten her to the prize. On Christmas Eve of 1944, a German plane bombed the building in which the two nurses were tending to the most severely wounded patients. Augusta Chiwy was blown through the plate glass of a window in the kitchen and survived. Renee ran into the basement and the building collapsed around her. After finding her body, Dr. Prior wrapped it in the white parachute she had hoped to use for a wedding dress.

   “I’ve made the dune now,” Hurlbut said. “I’m in one piece. And then you sit there and you look at all the chaos and the devastation. Guys floating in the surf, dead, wounded. The wounded screaming. And you’re sitting in the dune and you’re looking back at it, out into the water, and there are ships burning, smoking. This must be the day of doom, Armageddon. If this is war, I don’t like it. All the beautiful plans we had made and practiced, all gone for naught. All confused, chaos. This is not the way it was supposed to be, so you had no way of coping with it. This isn’t the way we trained, or scheduled. So that affected you. You didn’t know what to do. You had no leaders, no nothing. Just pure chaos. And then you see all these dead guys, buddies. That’s hard to cope with, the first time, to see death. I don’t care who you are. And when you’re a close personal friend, boy, it hurts. You thought you were tough, brave and gung-ho, boy, it gets you.
   “I said to myself, ‘I’m all alone now,’ at the dune. We may have been the first ones to have reached that far. There was nobody around. I had a hell of a time getting a medic for Joe. They were all out in the distance.
   “A lot of guys would be okay, then they’d see a wounded buddy, they’d run down in the tide, they’d get it. So once I got the medic and I felt he was taken care of, I said this is no good, I’ve got to try to find some of my people.
   “While I’m sitting there, about 60 yards away comes a guy staggering along the beach, staggering, foundering. His backpack is tattered, his clothes are in shreds. One arm is dangling. He turns and half his head is blown away. And something told me I know that guy, something about his stature, his walk, I know this guy. And he turned toward me and looked at me, and through all that gore and all that tattered clothing, I saw the tie.
   “I don’t think he knew who I was or anything. I wanted to cry out to him; I couldn’t. I didn’t have any voice. I was frozen. I couldn’t move out. He just staggered away.
   “Aw, Jesus. I never wanted to be a soldier. It was the last thing in my life I would have wanted to be. But like I told you, Pearl Harbor changed my opinion. It was a lot of fun, these exercises, these hikes. Hey, a great bunch of guys, having fun. I didn’t know what being a soldier was until that day.”

Order "The D-Day Dozen" for Kindle for only $2.99

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