Friday, May 24, 2013

Memorial Day 2013: Pine Valley Bynum

Quentin "Pine Valley" Bynum

   My fellow Stuyvesant High School alum Mitch Corrado asked if he could post a brief excerpt from "The Armored Fist" on his Facebook status. I told him I'd be honored.
   The selection he chose was about the reaction of Quentin "Pine Valley" Bynum's father to his son's death in combat.
   This got me to thinking about Quentin Bynum with Memorial Day only a couple of days away, not that I don't think about him often. At the very first reunion of the 712th Tank Battalion I went to, in 1987, I met Jule Braatz, the sergeant to whom my father, a replacement lieutenant, reported, and Braatz told me a story about Bynum giving my dad a lift to the front in the "bog," or bow gunner's seat, of his tank.
   The story was third hand, Braatz said, because Bynum was later killed. So Bynum had told Braatz and Braatz was relating the story to me. That seems like it would be secondhand, whereas me relating the story now would be third hand.
   Upon arriving at the front, late in July of 1944, Bynum's platoon came to a halt and my father, to the best of my knowledge, wanted to get out of the tank to look for the platoon to which he was assigned, which Braatz, the platoon sergeant, had led into the battle.
   Bynum told Braatz he urged my dad not to get out of the tank because there was still artillery or mortar shells coming in, but my father insisted on getting out of the tank and was wounded almost right away. He never did find the platoon, and Braatz would later receive a battlefield commission. My father would not return until November.
   Shortly after launching my original web site,, I received an email from Chris Bynum, Quentin's nephew. Chris inherited his uncle's dogtags and grew up with Quentin as his hero. I emailed Chris back and asked if any of Quentin's siblings were still alive. As a result, I went to Springfield, Missouri, and interviewed James Bynum, who was about five years younger than Quentin.
   When I was a kid I wanted to grow up to be a detective, and when I did grow up and started working for a newspaper, I wanted to be an investigative reporter. Neither of those things happened, but I seem to have always had that "follow the evidence, connect the dots" instinct, not that I  was very good at connecting the dots in game books when I was a kid.
   Which brings me back to Quentin Bynum, and an image I'll never get out of my head but that I didn't include in the book because I never was able to corroborate it. If a movie is ever made based on "The Armored Fist," I'll suggest basing a scene on this particular image; or if "The Armored Fist" were fiction, there's no doubt it would be the climax of a chapter. But the two people who could corroborate the image -- the two crew members, that is, who survived the incident in which Bynum was killed -- are deceased. Still, a couple of the facts support the possibility that the image might have been real.
   One of the first stories James Bynum told me was about how his brother Quentin died when he was an infant. James said Quentin had diphtheria, although it occurred around the time of the great influenza pandemic of 1918 so it might have been the flu, but either way, the doctor pronounced Quentin dead. Quentin's mother, however, who had, according to James, "the mouth of a muleskinner," refused to let the doctor leave, so he suggested "warming the baby by the fire of the cookstove," and Quentin came back to life.
   James surmised that during Quentin's brief brush with death as an infant, he may have suffered from a lack of oxygen to the brain, resulting in a diminished mental capacity. James' evidence of this was that Quentin grew up loving to do chores on the farm and eventually dropped out of school, whereas his older brothers, and James too, all favored intellectual pursuits.
   Because he enjoyed farm work so much, Quentin became especially strong. James described how one winter when Quentin was walking home from school with James and one of his sisters, both of the younger children were crying from the cold, and Quentin picked them both up and carried them the rest of the way home. Another time Quentin challenged his older brother Hugh to a contest to see which one could pull a sprayer -- a feat best managed by a team of Clydesdales -- the farthest. Quentin took one side and Hugh the other. James didn't remember who won, but it illustrated the extent to which Quentin's strength had developed.
   My research, such as it is, is not linear. I interviewed James Bynum in 1997. I interviewed Dess Tibbitts, who, like Quentin Bynum, was a tank driver in A Company, in 1995. I interviewed Bob "Big Andy" Anderson in 1993. (Bynum was killed on Jan. 14, 1945, in the Battle of the Bulge, along with two members of his five-man crew, Lt. Wallace Lippincott Jr. and Frank Shagonabe.)

   Big Andy, who, like Bynum, was a farmboy, was talking about food when he mentioned Pine Valley.
   "On the front of these tanks we'd put a plank," he said, "and then we'd put things up there. And we had eggs, you could fry eggs. Then in the chimneys of a lot of places you'd find hams hanging up in there. And then of course a lot of people would catch chickens and kill them and cook themselves a meal.
   "Generally when you were up on the line all you got to eat was what we called C rations, but when you got back for a ten-day rest you'd do most anything. There was one time a bunch of us guys was having fun; we'd throw these hand grenades in the creek, they'd go off under water and we'd get fish. Then we got crazy enough we were taking and unscrewing the cap and knocking all the powder out, and then we'd pull the pin and toss them over to somebody. They wouldn't go off. I did that to one kid whose name was Bynum. I said, 'Here, Quentin Bynum,' well, I didn't have all the powder off so the thing exploded. It didn't have strength enough, but that made us quit doing that stuff. He could have got hit in the face."
   Two years after my interview with Big Andy, I mentioned this to Dess Tibbitts.
   "Big Andy said one day he and Pine Valley were playing catch with hand grenades that they would take the powder out of," I said.
   "Yeah," Tibbitts said, "and he forgot to get all the powder out of one. One time old Pine got after him with a pitchfork and I think Pine would have stuck that pitchfork in him if he'd have caught old Andy. They got plum mad down there one time fighting in the cavalry. Pine had a hell of a temper, you didn't want to fool with him.
   "I felt sorry for poor old Pine," Tibbitts said, "because when we got ready to go to tank school they took all us tank drivers and sent us to Fort Knox for three months of tank training, and poor old Pine didn't get to go and I didn't find out till afterwards that he couldn't pass the IQ. They never sent him. And he resented it. Even when we went overseas he resented it. He just hated the fact that we went to school and he hadn't. Him and I were the best of friends before we went to school, and when I came back I tried to bring back the friendship again. And I wondered what the problem was, and this was the problem. They wouldn't send him to school because he didn't have IQ enough. He wasn't too well educated. But he was a hell of a tank driver and a good one."
   Big Andy was in the first platoon, whereas Bynum was in the second platoon of A Company. When I interviewed him in 1993, Anderson described hearing on the radio the exchange preceding Bynum's death.
   "This Lippincott," Andy said, referring to Lieutenant Wallace Lippincott, "I heard it all over the intercom. They were in this forest, and the Germans were laying artillery, and the shrapnel was coming down and hitting the tank. And this Lippincott said, 'Abandon tank.'
   "And Bynum said, 'No, Lieutenant, that's just shrapnel. Just sit still.'
   "'I said abandon tank.'"
   And they all abandoned tank but one man, his name was Shagonabe, he was an Indian, he stayed in the tank, and he's the only live boy out of that crew [actually, Shagonabe was killed, and two other crew members, Hilton Chiasson and Roy R. La Pish, survived]. Bynum -- I don't know why Bynum obeyed -- but this Lippincott, if he would have listened to an older man [that is, someone who'd been in combat for a much longer time, as Bynum had], they all might have been alive today."
   The next time I would hear about the incident in which Bynum was killed, all five members of the crew would be killed. It wasn't until I interviewed Charles Voorhis, who gave me a firsthand account of the engagement, that, except for the one haunting image, I got a much clearer picture of what actually happened, and learned that two of the five crew members survived.
   On Jan. 14, 1945, in Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge, Voorhis said, "we had just three tanks" operable in the five-tank platoon, "MacFarland's [Voorhis was Sam MacFarland's driver], Lippincott's tank and another tank in the second section. We were at a farmhouse and we got orders that the infantry wanted us to go over the top of a hill. From where we were at we saw a German tank about every day come down, but they couldn't see us because of the building, and we'd try to get the tank out there to shoot at him, but by the time you turned that motor over, 52 revolutions to get all the oil pumped out, he'd be gone.
   So we started out. The lieutenant was in the lead, MacFarland in the middle and the other tank behind us. We get over the crest of the hill, and there's a big woods, and MacFarland says, 'I can see the sun shining on faces over in the woods.'
   "And Lippincott says, 'Put a round over the heads. See if you draw fire.'
   "We put a round over their heads. Nothing happened. So we went on out to this farmhouse where the infantry was, and they said they didn't order any tanks. So he starts back again, now Lippincott's in the rear tank," because they were going in reverse.
   "Now we have to go up over this hill. Those old Wright radial engines, low gear was it going up a hill. So I'm going up there, and they put a round in and hit the tank in front of us. All it did was bust his track on one side. He was still able to navigate. We went up over the hill. The next round dug up snow between our tank and his tank. MacFarland said, 'Get out of here, Charlie.' So I started up over the hill, too. That left the lieutenant's tank behind.
   'We get to the top of the hill, and the lieutenant and his crew come by us on foot. Their tank took a hit. And we get down behind this building again, and here's his tank up there, smoke coming out of it, and all the guns are pointing right at us. So the gunner went back up, he's gonna pull the fire extinguisher, there's one right behind the driver. He got up on the side of the tank away from where the Germans were and leaned down in there to try to pull the extinguisher, and another round came in and took the top out of the 76-millimeter tube right above his head. So he got off, went around to the rear of the tank, pulled the extinguisher there, and the fire went out. What it was, there was an armor-piercing shell that went into the oil pan on the motor, and the phosphorous had set the oil on fire, and nothing else was burning yet.
   "That put the lieutenant's tank out of commission. He got another one and the next day, they wait until dusk, the infantry liked to wait until almost dark to pull an attack.
   "They waited until almost dusk, and then they pulled us out on the skyline, and the Germans opened up on us. MacFarland's tank was one of the old M4A1s, and the gun was worn out on it. When you tried to put a round in the chamber it would wobble, it had been used so much. So we got a pulled round, and we had to back up where they can't hit us, so the gunner could get out and run a ramrod through and clear the gun. And when we backed up, we could see Lippincott's tank. They were firing armor piercing rounds at it and they weren't hitting the tank. They were going over the top of it. So Mac, he called Lippincott on the radio and he said, 'They're firing AP at you.' That's the reason he gave the order to abandon tank when they took a hit.
   "They were hit with high-explosive, and like you said, the driver told him to sit still, it wasn't armor-piercing. But anyway, when they took the hit, he told them to abandon tank. Four guys got out. Three on one side, and one guy on the other. And just as they got out, they took another high-explosive hit, and it killed three of them. The other guy, we didn't know what happened to him."
   The crew of Quentin Bynum's tank that day comprised Lieutenant Lippincott, from Swarthmore, Pa.; Bynum, from Stonefort, Illinois, Frank Shagonabe, from Muskegon, Mich., Hilton Chiasson, from Thibodeaux, Louisiana; and Roy R. La Pish, from Pottsville, Pa.
   For Chiasson, that was the fifth tank he had knocked out. La Pish remained in the Army after the war and was killed in Vietnam.
   "Two or three days later," Big Andy said, "they asked me if I'd go back and identify Bynum. I would just say you could recognize the man. He was full of shrapnel, and laying in the snow."
   There sure are a lot of Chiassons in Thibodoux, Louisiana, but I was able to reach the widow of Hilton Chiasson. In a thick Cajun accent, she said her husband, whose nickname, naturally, was Frenchy, never spoke about the war. In 2009 an  article appeared in the Muskegon Chronicle about Frank Shagonabe. Frank's half-brother, Harlan Shagonabe, has since passed away.
   This is the passage from my book "The Armored Fist" that my friend Mitch Corrado posted on his Facebook status:
         "Your brother was killed in action. Do you need to go home?'
         'I don't have any money, Sir.'
'We'll take care of that.'
  We were trying to comfort our mother, and ignoring our father. He'd been an old cavalryman, himself. He took me back to catch the train and we were standing on the platform. We could hear the train way down in the distance, so I knew it was time to say goodbye.
 I said, 'Dad, take care of Mom, she's taking this very hard. And it's going to be rough on her.' And I looked over at him. And my father never cried. He never patted us. Now, me, I'm a crier. And I'm a hugger. I get that from my mom. And I looked over at him and I thought to myself, 'My G-d, how stupid can you be? Quentin was his son and he's hurting.' And I opened my arms and he walked into them, and we stood there and cried. That's the only time I ever saw my father cry.'"
   And then there's that image I was never able to verify, and can't recall who told it to me, but I know it was related by one of the veterans. As with so many things that occurred in the history of the 712th Tank Battalion, or any unit for that matter, eyewitness accounts differ, sometimes vividly, and secondhand accounts are sometimes distorted.
   But when James Bynum described his brother's strength, I recalled hearing one account in which, after abandoning the tank, a round came in and wounded both Lieutenant Lippincott and Frank Shagonabe. Whether Bynum was wounded as well I couldn't say, but whoever told me the story said that Bynum picked one of the wounded men up with each arm and was carrying them when another round came in and killed them all.


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