Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Return to Normandy

Dave and Boots Tolan in 1996
   I received a phone call recently from a member of the Daughters of WW2, a Dallas-based organization that had sponsored a trip to Normandy for several World War II veterans, one of whom, David Tolan, was a member of the 712th Tank Battalion.
   Upon their return, the Dallas affiliate of CBS recorded interviews with some of the veterans. Dave's interview can be seen by clicking the following link.

   After the interview, the woman from the group told me, David came by and wanted to talk. The trip had revived many memories of events that happened almost 70 years before.
   At first I didn't recall David, as I heard his last name as Collins (must have been that Texas accent), but then when I realized it was Tolan, which I had misspelled as Toland, I remembered I'd met him at one reunion and possibly another. He attended the 1996 "mini-reunion" of the battalion in Bradenton, Fla., and I think he came back the following year.
   In 1996, when I learned he was a veteran of C Company, from whose members I'd heard many stories, I wanted to get his point of view on some of the incidents, so I conducted an all too brief interview with him.
   Following is an edited transcript of that interview, with some parenthetical names and remarks.

   Dave Tolan: I went to Paris in November [of 1944], I remember that. The reason I remember is because it was the first bath I’d had, I mean, Up Front with Mauldin, so if you can imagine, the Grand Hotel in Paris, and here come these guys that are covered with mud, and these old dirty bedrolls, and they put them down in front of the desk, and all these people were standing around, and very formal. The contrast must have really been something.

   So I go to my room, and my French wasn’t very good. Then I heard they had trouble getting coal. Well, I’m going to take a bath, that was the first thing, I’ve got my own bathtub. So I turn the water on, and I don’t know which is hot and which is cold, and the one I thought was hot was coming out cold, they don’t have any coal, I’ll take a cold bath. So I take the cold bath, and when I’m all through doing as my mother taught me, I’m cleaning out the tub, and I’m rinsing it with this cold water that all of a sudden turned hot. I fill up the tub again, and I take another bath.

   Aaron Elson: Who did you go into Paris with?

   Dave Tolan: There were only three of us from the 712th, and I didn’t know the others, they were from different companies. Then we joined some guys from the 90th Division. But Paris had only been liberated like three weeks. Does that tie in with November?

   Aaron Elson: What did you do to earn a trip to Paris?

   Dave Tolan: We drew straws. We were up all night putting connectors on the tank, Patton wanted those duck things on there, so that you would get better float, and we were up all night. When they finished, I guess C Company got an opportunity, and they said, we’ll draw straws to see who goes to Paris. And I won.

   Aaron Elson: Oh, the other guys must have been pissed.

   Dave Tolan: No they weren’t. You know, get me this and get me that. I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I went to Paris, I never even saw the Eiffel Tower. I never got out of the first three blocks.

   Aaron Elson: One of them wasn’t George Bussell [from A Company], was he?

   Dave Tolan: Oh, I don’t know.

   Aaron Elson: He said he went into Paris with $500 on a three-day pass and came back with 50 cents.

   Dave Tolan: He had a better time than I did. Oh, I was just enjoying the relaxing.

   Aaron Elson: You went from July to November without a bath?

   Dave Tolan: Yeah. When we first started, when clothes got dirtied you threw them away, and you got new. Boy, you know I used to think about all those coveralls I threw away, afterwards, “Boy, I wish I’d kept those.” There were times you’d wash just out of the helmet. We did everything in that helmet. We also made good coffee.

   Aaron Elson: How would you make coffee?

   Dave Tolan: Pour in the grounds, pour in the water, and you just put it over the fire. And just hang the helmet over the fire. It was when I came back from that that I was in [Sgt. Jack] Green’s tank. I wasn’t when I left, but when I came back. They were looters. Boy, you’d pull into a town and they were off looting.

   Aaron Elson: Was one of them named Aaron Brown?

   Dave Tolan: Yes, Aaron Brown, I remember him.

   Aaron Elson: Souvenir Brown was his nickname.

   Dave Tolan: Souvenir Brown, yeah, I can remember him. But they were bringing this stuff back, and I’d throw it off the other side, and nobody asked about where is this or that, they didn’t know what they were doing. It was ridiculous.

   Aaron Elson: What kind of stuff would they bring back?

   Dave Tolan: Oh, junk. I don’t know. Satchels of stuff. The town wasn’t even taken, these guys were out running around, looting.

   Aaron Elson: So that was in November that you came back from Paris?

   Dave Tolan: See, it all kind of comes together. I can’t even remember when, after Green we brought in this Lieutenant Monroe. They pulled us back for a couple of days, and he joined us. I was to be his gunner, and he comes up to me, he says, “Before we leave, you better check the gyro stabilizer.” And I said, “If you want to do that, you’d better go back to the beach at Normandy because that’s where we left it.”
   “Oh,” he said.

   Aaron Elson: Monroe didn’t last long, did he?

   Dave Tolan: No. I was with them for a little while. I can’t remember why I left them, and that’s when I went to [Sgt. Max] Gibson’s platoon, with Young. Ewell Young. I know they tried to get him to come to a couple of reunions, and he wanted no part of it. The reunion was right in his hometown. Some guys, Thompson was the same way. He wanted no part of it.

   Aaron Elson: Gibson at that point was still a sergeant or he was a lieutenant?

   Dave Tolan: He was acting as a lieutenant, and somewhere in there they gave him a commission. He he was acting quite a while. But it was right after that that this Monroe, there was something wrong with the gun on one of the tanks or something, as I understand it, and he got out of the tank and went over to see what was the matter, and that’s when he got killed. And I thought, geez, I hope I didn’t do anything to that gun. Because I used to clean it out, every time we pulled back I would re-sight, re-clean, I’d find myself a twig about a thousand feet away and see if I could hit it with a three-inch shell. You know, you put the crosshairs on there, you set it right up with that thing. Then of course you fire and everybody would come running out, what was that? But then, I’m trying to think, the last part with Young. But those other battles, those are the ones that I get all mixed up.

   Aaron Elson: You were with them when they crossed the Saar River into Dillingen?

   Dave Tolan: Oh, yes. The tank in front of us was going across on a ferry, they wouldn’t build a bridge, so we had this ferry. And the water is racing down there and this tank in front of us gets on the ferry and he gets halfway across, and the darn boat conks out. And down the river goes the tank. Oh gosh. And they managed to get the boat started. We had ammunition all over the back deck of the tank, and so we’re next. I said, uh-oh. I’m coming up to that turret if we start going down the river. Well, anyway, we got across all right. That was part of the Siegfried Line there, and we backed up the tanks against this bank, and the guy says, “They can see you from over there,” because it’s night, now. “You’d better stay in the tank.” So we spent the whole night in the tank, and this shell came in and hit, it didn’t miss that ammunition by two feet. It went right into the bank, right behind the tank. Of course we’re all beat up, tired. “What was that?” But when you got up in the morning, there’s the hole, right there in the wall. We were just lucky they didn’t keep on that azimuth.
   And we went down there, and [Sgt. Burl] Rudd had to go up into the line, he and another tank were up there. I don’t want any part of that.

   Aaron Elson: So at this point you’re in Rudd’s platoon?

   Dave Tolan: Yeah.

   Aaron Elson: Now was Jack Green in that platoon also?

   Dave Tolan: Jack, yeah, he had the No. 5.

   Aaron Elson: He had to destroy a tank there, didn’t he? Somebody said he accidentally put a can of water instead of a can of gas in the gas tank. But your platoon had to leave one tank behind when you went back across the river?

   Dave Tolan: They may have, I don’t remember.

   Aaron Elson: I think Jack Green stayed behind and destroyed it because they couldn’t get it to start.

   Dave Tolan: When we crossed the Rhine we only had eight tanks.

   Aaron Elson: That probably was when the two platoons combined [after a battle in Pfaffenheck, Germany, when two tanks were lost, with the end of the war in sight, the second and third platoons were merged into one. Each platoon would have had five tanks at full strength]?

   Dave Tolan: Yeah.

   Aaron Elson: That was yours and Snuffy’s [Lt. Francis “Snuffy” Fuller, who got his nickname, according to veteran Otha Martin, when a member of his platoon “done imbibed him some” and told Lt. Fuller, who was a bit older than most of the men in the platoon, that he “looked like Snuffy Smith in the comics”.]

   Dave Tolan: Yeah. Gibson and Snuffy, that was the night that they went down to the CP. He said the Germans came in and they hid upstairs, and he says, they’re lying in the room, and he said there’s a German over there in the doorway talking to another one, and they’re lying here on the floor, and then he says, and Snuffy started to fart. [A day after crossing the Rhine River, Lts. Fuller and Gibson found themselves in a building taken over by Germans, who took the 90th Division officers there prisoner. Fuller and Gibson hid out overnight in an attic room.]

   Aaron Elson: Gibson said that?

   Dave Tolan: Yeah. Then he said, when they left the door, why then, they went up in the attic, they got up top of this water cooler and spent the night up on top of that water cooler, and in the morning, he said, the Germans were gone. That was kind of a wild night.

   Aaron Elson: Now, tell me about Putnam.

   Dave Tolan: Yeah, [Fred] Putnam. He’s the one that killed [Edwin Jarusz].

   Aaron Elson: Were you with them when that happened?

  Dave Tolan: Yeah, we had just joined them, and he was cleaning the gun ...

   Aaron Elson: It was a grease gun?

   Dave Tolan: Grease gun, and it, the end, all you had to do was just hit that thing into something, that bolt would come back and it would start firing. That killed more Americans than I think Germans, that grease gun.

   Paul Wanamacher [the Battalion Association president]: It was a very simplified weapon.

   Dave Tolan: Yes, it was.

   Aaron Elson: How would it misfire?

   Paul Wanamacher: All you’d do is have the door out. The door was the safety. You know what they look like? They’re about this long and have a tube. And on the top of it was a latch that was probably about that wide, and you just lifted it up. And when you lifted it up, it then allowed the bolt to go back and fire. When you closed it, there was a little protrusion on the inside of the latch which locked the bolt, and it couldn’t go back and forth, so it couldn’t fire. But if that latch was open and somebody hit the trigger, oh, that was it.

   Dave Tolan: That thing zzzips right out.

   Paul Wanamacher: And they were .45 slugs.

A World War 2 "grease gun"
   Dave Tolan: It wasn’t as fast as a burp gun. I never heard of a burp gun hitting a guy once. If it hit you once it hit you 15 times.

   Paul Wanamacher: Yeah, that’s the Schmeisser.

   Aaron Elson: So you had just joined them in Normandy, and that’s when that happened?

   Dave Tolan: Yeah. I didn’t even know the fellow that...

   Aaron Elson: His name was Jarusz. [Lt. James] Gifford said that he tried to calm the crew down, that they were very...

   Dave Tolan: Oh, they were very upset, everybody was, the whole outfit, the company was upset. But he’s the guy that when they moved [Sgt. William] Montoya from No. 2 behind [Lt. Leo] Hellman back to No. 5, because Hellman kept sending Rudd out and Rudd wanted a better tank to go with him, he didn’t want the weakest crew. So they moved us back there and they moved 5 up, and Putnam was sitting where I would have been sitting, and that shell went right through him. That’s when Tambaro got out, and he was just covered [with blood and flesh], I saw Tambaro running across that field and I said, “Tambaro’s been hit.” But it wasn’t him at all, it was Putnam [T-4 Ralph Tambaro was the driver, who would have been sitting next to Putnam in the tank].

   Aaron Elson: Who did you say that to?

   Dave Tolan: The guys, we were in our tank. Everybody, we were lined up, 1,2,3,4,5, right across the ridge there. That’s when Hellman jumped out and says “Fire at any range” and took off. And the next one was the one that got hit. We were up there, and we’re firing 400 yards straight down and we’re hitting that tank right where the turret meets the hull and that shell’s bouncing up in the air, that’s awful discouraging. I mean, you hit that thing square, and the shell just bounces up in the air. It’s time to take another tack on this. Go somewhere else.

   Aaron Elson: Was that the tank that hit...

   Dave Tolan: Oh, there were tanks all over. And then we got around, and I remember, we pulled around and started up this road, and I’m down inside, because I’m throwing these shells up, so I’m not seeing everything other than what I could see through the periscope...

   Aaron Elson: You were the loader at the time?

   Dave Tolan: No, I was the assistant driver at the time. I think McDonough was the loader, and Raymond Vuksich, he was the gunner, and Montoya was the tank commander. But I remember looking out, and they hit this one tank in the back, and it blew up. And I remember seeing this guy way, I mean up over the trees flying through the air, and landed way down there somewhere. Because I guess the suction right at the hatch when that thing blew, just like a rifle, shot him right out of there.

   Aaron Elson: This was an American tank?

   Dave Tolan: No, this was a German tank. We got one in the rear. We got another one down in the sponson where the tracks were. Then we got four halftracks full of infantry came over, and we got those. That’s just from our tank, I don’t know what the other guys got...

   Aaron Elson: When you say you got those, did the infantry get out, or were they still inside them when you...

   Dave Tolan: Oh, I don’t know. The 90th was all around, and they took care of all the...We just kill them, we don’t handle them. We knock ’em out, they handle them. I mean, what do we got ’em there for?

   Aaron Elson: Now, how did that night start? You were under the tank?

   Dave Tolan: I was under the tank, having my nice full night’s sleep that I earned.

   Aaron Elson: How did that work, with the guard duty?

   Dave Tolan: It depended where we stayed. Every night we thought it was pretty easy, why, one guy got to sleep all night, and the others were on four, off four. This was my night to sleep and we’re backing in this pine woods, with those nice pine branches down there, I’m gonna sleep like a baby. And that’s when these guys come through in the middle of the night.

   Paul Wanamacher: Where was this?

  Dave Tolan: This was that battle that he’s got outlined there.

   Paul Wanamacher: What, Mairy?

   Dave Tolan: Yeah. He didn’t know that there was an airplane in there too, one of those observation airplanes came down and landed and they backed that thing in. Those two guys, they got in a jeep and took off. They left the airplane there.

   Aaron Elson: What was it that woke you up?

   Dave Tolan: I heard ’em, talk, they were spread out across the field.

   Aaron Elson: You heard them talking German?

   Dave Tolan: They weren’t talking English. That was my first clue, that there’s something wrong. They’re not coming to wake me up for guard.
  Aaron Elson: So there you are sleeping under the tank, you heard them talking German. What did you do?

   Dave Tolan: When they backed the tank in, they bent these trees down, and I couldn’t get out the back. I had to go out the front. So these Germans were out in the front and I didn’t want to go out the front. I waited until they got by and then I slipped out the front. But my biggest worry was they were going to start this thing up, whether I was in it or not, they were gonna take off, and I’m underneath it. So I got out, I got in, the rest is history, I guess.

   Aaron Elson: So you got in the tank, and then did they start it up, or when did the firing break out?

   Dave Tolan: When they went through, that’s when we pulled out on this road and we ran into all the, we pulled up on this hill, that’s when all the other jazz went ...

   Aaron Elson: Now Putnam, was he a bow gunner?

   Dave Tolan: He was an assistant driver.

   Aaron Elson: Oh, he was an assistant driver [actually, the assistant driver was also called the bow gunner]. So he was in the same seat you would have been.

   Dave Tolan: We just happened to move the tanks a couple of days before. It wasn’t very long.

   Aaron Elson: And what were the circumstances of the switching of the tanks?

   Dave Tolan: That was, well, Hellman, every time they had a duty to run, they sent Rudd out. He wouldn’t take his part of the platoon, he’d send Rudd and some other tank. And Rudd says, “If I’m gonna do all the work, then I want a better tank to go with.” Montoya had a better tank, so they pulled him out. I don’t even remember, Tambaro would, because he was in that tank.

  Aaron Elson: What happened in the Falaise Gap? Was it in the Falaise Gap that Hellman left the tank?

   Dave Tolan: Well, everybody left that tank. That was when he left [Rex] Smallwood laying there in the ditch, he said he was dead, when he wasn’t dead. But we were in a tank right behind him, and  that tank got hit five times. Five times they hit that thing, and they split the barrel of that 75 right down. You couldn’t see that till the next morning when you came back, that tank was orange when we came back the next morning, it was that hot. That’s when we came back the next morning, and Smallwood was still alive in the ditch.

   Aaron Elson: [Don] Knapp said that he found Smallwood and he was still...

   Dave Tolan: Yeah, when he was still alive, he’d been there all night. If they had brought him back he would have lived.

   Aaron Elson: Smallwood was the driver? No, [T-4 Sidney] Henderson was the driver.

   Dave Tolan: Henderson was the driver. He’s the one we never found.

   Aaron Elson: And he was the driver of that tank, of Hellman’s tank?

   Dave Tolan: Yeah.

   Aaron Elson: And Smallwood was what?

   Dave Tolan: Smallwood was either a loader or assistant driver. He was not the gunner. But those guys all, boy, you just watched and the fire was up higher than the tree, and you see these guys jumping out of this tank...

   Aaron Elson: Did they jump out after the first hit?

   Dave Tolan: Oh, during. They just kept hitting that.

   Aaron Elson: What kind of gun was it that hit them, was it a tank?

   Dave Tolan: Couldn’t see. They were very clever, they put that little fire on one side of the woods and let the smoke blow across the road, and you went through that real carefully, and it cleared up. Then they had another one. They were behind the second one. On both sides of the road, I assume, from what we saw being hauled up down through the valley there that it was some sort of antitank, drawn gun, horses or jeeps or whatever. They sure had a lot of horses down in there. And they just pulled up in the front, you’d fire into that woods and it would blow up. And then the second day, it looked like the Oklahoma rush. I mean, they all started at once, right across the field, they took off. And we’re sitting there, we can’t fire fast enough. And the British of course on the other side. After we went through all that, I remember we finally went down in there and got over to the British, they said, “Where ya been, Yank?” I told them we’d been sitting on the beach for two months. “Where ya been, Yank?” I was at sea.

   Aaron Elson: This happened before or after the thing with Smallwood?

   Dave Tolan: After. That was the whole deal, we were coming up to the valley, and it was just getting dark about that time. The next morning we came and we saw the vehicles taking off. As we were coming down the road. And of course we came out in the valley and there they were. We sat out there in the open for two days firing, and then finally somebody comes from the rear and says, “You shouldn’t have any tanks out here. Put them back in the woods.” As soon as we put them back in the woods they started shooting at us. And we were sitting out there for two days. That’s when they brought the mess sergeant, that the cooks hated, everybody hated him, and he came up to see, because they told him that nobody was firing; well, when he came up they started firing at him, and he got wounded. And then they go back to the cooks and they told them he was wounded, and they said, “Serious?”
   “No, but enough to send him to England.”
   “Hooray!” Everybody was cheering. I can’t remember his name. One of those cooks, I took a plaque back for one of those cooks. They had a plaque to present to the next of kin. The guy I guess was never married or whatever, so I took it to his sister down in Texas. He was one of them, and I’m trying to remember his name. I can’t do like [Ray] Griffin did, Griffin knew names, places, dates. He spent a lot of effort in that.

   Aaron Elson: When they combined the two platoons, Snuffy’s and Gibson’s, you were in Gibson’s platoon at the time?

   Dave Tolan: Yeah, I think so. No, I was in Snuffy’s platoon.

   Aaron Elson: The one with the Chinese guy, Koon Moy, he was in that?

   Dave Tolan: Yeah, he was in there. In fact, he was in our room in Amberg after...

   Aaron Elson: Was he? He was burned, I thought. He was badly burned.

   Dave Tolan: This Chinese guy was, a short guy. He was telling us how to swear in Chinese. And I don’t know whose tank he was in, he wasn’t in our deal, but when the war ended and the company moved into the barracks, he was one of the guys, that’s my first recollection of him. And he was there for that summer.

   Aaron Elson: Had he been injured in a tank, had he been burned?

   Dave Tolan: I had no idea. If he did, it didn’t show.

   Aaron Elson: So were you with Gibson when the column of tanks got hit by a lot of panzerfausts going through a town, and I think Streeter, Dale Streeter, was he a driver?

   Dave Tolan: Yeah, Streeter was a driver. That was right near the end of the war, because I remember Lombardi had just come back from this rotation deal, and they told us what we were gonna, which I thought was too smart, anyway, but we started right down going about ten, fifteen miles an hour, they were apparently trying to get someplace by a certain time or whatever. So they had one tank going this way and the next one going this way, and they just fired all the way down, out through the woods, and then the lead tank got hit with that panzerfaust, 40 tons going down, they stopped it cold. All the ten-in-one rations and all this crap goes up in the air. Stopped it cold. And then they started firing into the woods and then some guy comes out and surrenders, I remember Lombardi taking him up through the middle, and I was just about to say they ought to shoot that a---, before I got the words out he shot him, right there.

   Aaron Elson: Who did?

   Dave Tolan: Lombardi.

   Aaron Elson: Really?

   Dave Tolan: Yeah. Right there. Well, he killed one of our, well, he killed his loader. That was that kid that was in, he’d only been in the Army six weeks. How the hell’d they get him over that fast? Well, he’d worked at the arsenal in Maryland, what is that big arsenal there? And he had worked on machine guns and he knew weapons, so they probably just skipped right over basic training and sent him out, and he came in as a replacement. And he was only with us about a week when this happened. And he was the only one in the tank that was hurt, and it killed him.

   Aaron Elson: Lombardi had just come back?

   Dave Tolan: Well, Lombardi had the third platoon, but he didn’t have it because Gibson had it then. But apparently, he was with the entourage in the front, it could have been Sheppard [Capt. Jack Shepard, the company commander] and Lombardi. And then, I never saw Lombardi again after that.

   Aaron Elson: And when was it, you said, they were firing panzerfausts from the trees?

   Dave Tolan: Oh, that was going towards Koblenz, when we did that deal up there. Those guys were all doped up. Any turkey gonna climb up a tree and start shooting with a bazooka, he doesn’t have too much going for him. Oh yeah, they were down, and they had these antiaircraft guns, and you’d hear them howling, yelling, they’d fire this thing up in the air and you’d see all these tracers going all over, well, they must be hitting it pretty hard. Then they’d come down and fire at you, it was kind of wild. And that was where we came up, and Gibson saw the first one, because I remember that he was up ahead of us, and he stopped, and he backed the tank up and he took a grenade and threw it in this hole, which had a guy in it. So then we started looking around, and that’s when we went over and we sprayed this hole, and this German was coming up, I mean this tank, he’s only ten feet away, and he’s coming up out of that hole with this panzerfaust, and I could see him as clear today as I did then, and I had no choice, I just moved my foot over and I fired a three-inch gun right down in that hole. Because it was seconds, I couldn’t take a chance on that coaxial.
   Then we went to the next hole and sprayed it, and a guy came up like that, he came up immediately. But those guys were nuts. Really.

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