Thursday, September 19, 2013

Interview With a Tank Driver

An Oral History "Mini Book"

   Ever since I published my first book, "Tanks for the Memories," I've been experimenting with the presentation of oral history. I've got 600 hours of interviews on audiotape, and probably a few thousand pages of transcripts -- my interview with Dale Albee alone filled 104 pages, single-spaced.
   As I've experimented with audio and print books, the publishing landscape has changed. Whereas publishing a print book once required a press run of at least 1,000 copies to make it cost-effective, print-on-demand has lowered that requirement to a press run of one copy, although batches of five or ten copies save on the postage.
   "Big Andy" is the first in a series of Oral History "Mini Books" in which I present the transcript of an interview. In some cases an audio CD will be available to accompany the booklet, although I have not yet edited the audio for Bob Anderson.
   Big Andy was a tank driver in the 712th Tank Battalion. He earned three Bronze Stars. I interviewed him in 1993 at his home in Prophetstown, Illinois.
   "Don't put the whole interview up on the Internet," a friend said the other day. "Nobody will buy the book."
   I don't believe that, so I'm posting about half the interview and will post the rest in my next entry while I work on similar "Mini Books," as well as a longer collection of interviews.
   Actually, I do believe that a little. I'm sure when I posted the full text of my first four books on my web site at I might have sold more copies if I only posted a chapter or two. But then people like George Bussell's niece, googling her uncle's name, might never have found his story. Bussell had an older sister, who became estranged from her stepmother after her mother died and their father remarried. His niece never met George and he had since passed away. After reading his interview, she thanked me for "introducing" her to her late uncle.
   Bussell, like Big Andy, and Tony D'Arpino, who's featured in my book "A Mile in Their Shoes," was a tank driver. As you'll see from this interview, tank drivers were a special breed of warrior.

Bob Anderson
Prophetstown, Illinois
Oct. 24, 1993

 Aaron Elson: This is Bob Anderson, also known as Big Andy. When did you go into the Army?

 Bob Anderson: I went in February 21st, 1941, into the 11th Cavalry.

Aaron Elson: You go back to the cavalry?

 Bob Anderson: Oh, yes. I was a horse shoer in the cavalry. I’ll show you some pictures back here. My daughter and grandson made a plaque. I went in in ’41. I never took basic training because I got in there, and they put a sign on the bulletin board, “Who wants to join the stable gang?” And I was a farmer before I went in. I really wanted to be in the coast artillery. When they asked me at Fort Sheridan what branch of service you’d like, I told them the coast artillery, and I ended up in the horse cavalry. That’s how things went back in them days.
     I went down there and I was in the stable gang for about, oh, I’m gonna say a couple of weeks or so, and then they wanted to know who wanted to be a horse shoer. And a boy from Chetack, Wisconsin, by the name of Percy Bowers and myself signed up for horse shoeing. Well, instead of going to school we just picked it up right there. Then there was a flip of a coin for who was to be what they called the first horse shoer. It didn’t make any difference, we both made shoes – but he was the first horse shoer and I was the second horse shoer.
     We got a rating in those days of what we called first-third. That was one stripe down and four turned up. And we were getting paid more than what a buck sergeant was. Of course, we went in at $18 a month, but after we got our rating, we were getting $38 a month, where a sergeant was only getting $36 a month. Then when I came home for my granddad’s funeral in October of ’41, “Man, look at what a rating he has.” Hell, I’m nothing but a Pfc.
     I was in the 11th Horse Cavalry. Then the 11th Horse Cavalry and the Third Horse Battalion formed the 10th Armored Division.

Aaron Elson: Clear me up on this, because Forrest Dixon just told me. He said the 11th Cavalry was supposed to go to Australia or to the Philippines. Were you supposed to go to Australia?

Bob Anderson: That’s when – see, we were at Campo, California, on the Mexican border, and I didn’t know it until later, but when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor they blew boots and saddles and we went down on the Mexican border and sat.

Aaron Elson: Explain to me what it means to blow boots and saddles.

Bob Anderson: Well, that’s just a different way of, they didn’t yell, they had a bugler, and in the morning he’d blow reveille. And then they’d blow mess call. And there were different calls on the bugle that went out on the air. When they blew boots and saddles, that meant for everybody to run and get ready and go down and saddle your horses, and get ready to ride away.

Aaron Elson: That was immediately? Did you know about Pearl Harbor then, or you just heard boots and saddles?

Bob Anderson: Oh, no. We didn’t know. In fact, when Pearl Harbor was bombed, there was a boy named Bud Perkins and myself, and a boy from Wisconsin, Greeley, we had our clothes in the car all ready to come home on a furlough. And before we even got out of camp they blew boots and saddles, and we were confined to camp.

Aaron Elson: Do you remember what kind of car it was?

Bob Anderson: It was a 1939 Ford. I have some pictures of it somewhere. We were going to come home on furlough, but we didn’t even get out of camp. Then all the men, and the first horse shoer, they all went down and they had to sleep out and bivouac. Lucky for me, I was the second horse shoer. “You stay back in camp and take care of the stable and feed the horses and take care of them,” so I didn’t have to go down there and sleep on the ground and all that.

Aaron Elson: Because you lost that coin toss?

Bob Anderson: Well, it’s just because I was a very lucky man that I got to stay back in camp. There were about four or five guys got to stay back, and we took care of the horses that were left there. You had 150 men in the troop, and there would be about 180 horses, so there were 30 horses left back there. And then of course at that time we had some sick horses. So I was one of the fortunate ones that didn’t have to go down there. But later I did learn, after this, that there was a boat sitting out in the harbor at San Diego that the 11th Cavalry was supposed to go on with their horses and everything and get on this boat, and be in the war, and I wonder how far we’d have gotten fighting the war with the horses in those days. But as luck would have it, in May of ’42, well, I’d have to get my book, there was a black unit came in and took over our horses and the white boys were sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, and the 3rd Horse Cavalry, which was stationed up around Washington, D.C., came to Fort Benning and we all formed the 10th Armored Division.

Aaron Elson: Going back to the cavalry, Forrest Dixon said there was something about a yellow fever vaccination, where a lot of men came down with jaundice.

Bob Anderson: I came down with spinal meningitis. I had yellow jaundice before, when I was in high school. The only thing I remember about it was when I had this spinal meningitis, they quarantined the camp for a few days. But anyway, I was sent up to a naval base.

Aaron Elson: One other question about the cavalry. Was there a horse named Old Buck? Does that ring a bell?

Bob Anderson: There were several horses. We had different names for different things. We had Johnson Bar. Yes, I suppose there was.

Aaron Elson: Ed Stuever said there was a horse there that rode in the campaign against Pancho Villa, and it was out to pasture and given special treatment.

Bob Anderson: It could have been. I can’t tell you anything like that. There were special horses the lieutenants had, or I wouldn’t say the lieutenants, the officers had their horses and we had to treat them like, well, let’s say gold or silver, a little bit better, and they rode with saddles, where we had the old McCulloch saddle they got to ride with the English saddle. And then they had their dogrobbers who took care of their stuff, where we had to take care of our own. But I really enjoyed the cavalry. One thing I will say about the outfit I was in, we grew up as a group of men that stayed together. I can list several of us that stayed together and went through the 10th Armored, and went to the 712th Tank Battalion, we fought together and we came home together. And there’s a lot of boys that did that. Earl Apgar lives up here in Rockford. Jule Braatz lives up here in Beaver Dam. And there were several boys out of Chicago I can name, and we all stayed together after we got out. We became brothers, like you said this Quentin Bynum, shucks, him and I we fought and had one heck of a good time. This Percy Bowers from Chetack, Wisconsin, who was killed overseas, we were the best of buddies. I will say I went all the way through the service, I got three Bronze Stars, had tanks knocked out. With my luck I never got a Purple Heart. That kind of, it just gets you, now.
     After we left the horse cavalry we formed the 10th Armored Division. From the 10th Armored Division we went onto the Tennessee maneuvers. Then we came back to Fort Benning and we were busted away from the 10th Armored Division to the 712th Tank Battalion. From there we went to Camp Gordon, Georgia.

Aaron Elson: At what point did you become a driver?

Bob Anderson: You want a good story there. When I was a horse shoer back in the cavalry, we had a stable sergeant whose name was Seeney. We were way down here, probably a half a mile from the barracks, and the only way you could get a pass to go into town was to be in uniform. Well, the stable gang, they got to eat breakfast at 5 in the morning, 11 o’clock at noon, and 5 o’clock in the evening. And then an hour later the company came. Well, this was one Saturday noon, we came up and ate dinner. And I went into the orderly room to get a pass to go to town, this Percy Bowers and I wanted to come to town and buy a car. Well, Sergeant Chin was in charge of quarters, and him and I was razzin’, going at each other. Chin says, “You know you’ve got to be in uniform.”
     I says, “Sergeant Chin, how can I get down there and get in uniform and come back up and get a pass before the rest of the company comes in and gets their passes?”
     We were just having a lot of fun. Well, in walked – when we first went in Sergeant Gaines was our first sergeant, he was a heck of a good man. After Pearl Harbor he left and went to OCS school and became a captain in the MPs. A Sergeant Moseley took over who had been back at Fort Riley, Kansas, an officers’ school, and got to be first sergeant. Well, Moseley walked in the orderly room while Chin and I was at it, and he just says, “You know the orders around here.” You know, being he was the top soldier. And I hauled off and hit him one. So the next day it was Pfc. Third Class Specialist Robert E. Anderson was busted to a grade of Pfc. returned to duty. In other words, I was kicked out of the stable and sent back there.

Aaron Elson: You hit him?

Bob Anderson: Yeah, I hit him. I was mad. So about a week later he was shipped out and  Sergeant Seeney, who was the stable sergeant, was next in rank, he got to be first sergeant, so I got to go back down to the stable. We were known as Seeney’s boys. Seeney went with us to the 10th Armored Division, and everybody who was down in the stable gang, they got to be tank drivers. So that’s how we did. Bowers, Bynum, [Lano] O’Conner, [Dess] Tibbetts, all of us got to be tank drivers. Of course, a tank driver, they didn’t have to stand guard duty or do KP, they had to take care of the tanks. So we were known as Seeney’s boys.

Aaron Elson: Your rank as a tank driver was a corporal?

Bob Anderson: No, my rank, see, I drove what they call the three, I was in the third platoon and drove the third tank. So the one that was in each platoon that drove the No. 1 tank, they drove the lieutenant. I drove the staff sergeant’s tank, so I was in the third platoon driving the third tank. So each driver there got what they call a T-4 rating. The other drivers were a T-5 or a corporal rating. There were two sergeant drivers and two corporal drivers.

Aaron Elson: The platoon leader was a lieutenant. The platoon sergeant...

Bob Anderson: Was a staff sergeant.

Aaron Elson: Okay, was in the fourth tank?

Bob Anderson: Yes. They were supposed to, if you go into combat – when we went into combat you threw the book away. Three tanks were supposed to go up, and then these two tanks were supposed to advance, and then ... but when we went into action we threw the book away. I’ll get to that story a little later. But anyway, after we went to Camp Gordon, we got sent up to Myles Standish, that’s where we shipped out for England. Then when we were in England, we did a lot of training, and there was a boy by the name [L.E.] Stahl, he was a sergeant tank driver like I was. We were welding on the tanks one night and got the dickens for doing that because we were lighting the sky, you know how a welder will light it up. We were working on our tanks one night. The Germans weren’t flying over but if they had been flying over they’d have seen us. Well, we got there, and then we stayed there for quite a while, and then we went down to the port of Southampton and went across to Omaha Beach. And I had this sergeant by the name Charles Fowler from California, and he was a soldier in the States. A well-built man and that. But when he got into action, he was scared. And he admitted it. Finally, he’d tell me not to start the tank. Gunner don’t load your gun. This and that. Finally, I went to the company commander and told him what was going on. Fowler was busted to a grade of a private or a Pfc, I don’t know which, and shipped back to the States. But he admitted he was scared, which was a good thing, you know, he was more dangerous to his men being scared.

Aaron Elson: Ruby Goldstein told me there was something where Fowler said there were branches in the turret.

Bob Anderson: Well, you didn’t know what. Reuben Goldstein was in the same platoon, and he was in the tank back of us. In fact, his driver was Ringwalski from Minnesota. He was in the tank behind us, and him and this Charlie Bahrke got the first award issued in our outfit. Charlie Bahrke was the gunner and Goldstein was the tank commander and they each got a Silver Star. The way they did it is, I don’t know, did they tell you about a hedgerow?

Aaron Elson: He described a hedgerow, but he never said he got the Silver Star for that.

Bob Anderson: Oh yeah, he got, anyway, when you come up over these here hedgerows – we didn’t know it, we did after the first one – but anyway, we was coming through this field and we come up over a hedgerow like that and we just dropped. Probably about, oh, I’d say six, eight feet deep. And here he was sitting right in here. And then I had to maneuver and all of us drivers had to maneuver our tanks, jockey them around to get headed down the road.

Aaron Elson: Goldstein’s tank had fallen over the hedgerow?

Bob Anderson: Yes. But Goldstein got jockeyed around, and they went down the road a short distance, and they was hit with an anti-tank gun. The crew evacuated the tank, and then Goldstein and Bahrk crawled back with the protection of the tank, and we’ve got a hatch in the bottom of the tank, they crawled back up in there, and got the anti-tank gun that was down at the end of the road. And that’s how they got the Silver Star.

"Big Andy" is also available at in both print and Kindle editions

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