Monday, September 30, 2013

Mother Knows Best: A story from The Hospitality Room

Walter "Red" Rose

     The hospitality room at a reunion of my father's tank battalion from World War II  turned me into an oral historian. I entered in the middle of a story Wayne Hissong was telling about the hardest thing he had to do in the whole war: after returning home to the small town of Argos, Indiana, he had to face the mother of a buddy who entered the service with him and was killed. Wayne may not have known it but he struck upon one of the great issues of World War II or any other war: dealing with emotions. Was facing his friend's mother more difficult than driving an ammunition truck for 11 months in combat, or being ambushed, wounded and captured near the end of the war by starving German soldiers looking for food and cigarettes? I never asked him. Years later, though, I would learn that his buddy, a tank driver, was decapitated by an armor piercing shell on the battalion's first day in combat. How do you face a friend's mother knowing you know what happened but there's no way in hell you're going to tell her those details?
During the 1990s, as I sat around those circular tables in the hospitality room often with two or three of the veterans and some of their wives, companions or friends, munching on Chex Mix and premium peanut free mixed nuts from Sam's club or homemade zucchini bread from one of the veterans' wives, sipping on soda or beer or nursing something stronger, I would plunk my little Sony Recording Walkman or Radio Shack knockoff in the middle of the table. The result was a unique bit of history, casual conversations that ranged from who was in the hospital and who had a new grandchild to intense accounts of combat in the European Theater of Operations.
In junior high school – what would now be called middle school – my class took typing. I got pretty good at it, and as the cassettes piled up I tried my best to transcribe them. Those thousands of pages of transcripts have provided material for my books and blogs, but much of it has never escaped the confines of my hard drive.
The 712th had some great storytellers – Wayne, Ed Stuever, Jim Flowers, Forrest Dixon, Dan Diel, Joe Fetsch, Clifford Merrill, Walter Galbraith, Dale Albee, Ellsworth Howard, not to mention some of the wives, like Helen Grottola, Evelyn Knapp, Jeannie Roland – and when they entered the hospitality room it seemed as if the men checked their post traumatic stress at the door and relived the war in the company of those who lived it with them.
These are some of the stories from The Hospitality Room.

Mother Knows Best

When the battalion veterans began retiring and either spending the winter in Florida or moving there permanently, the idea of having a casual get-together, in addition to the regular reunion, was tossed around. Sam Adair, a veteran of the Headquarters Company assault gun platoon, organized the first one in the 1980s. Then Jack Roland, also of Headquarters Company, moved to Bradenton after his health forced him to retire from the photography studio he ran in upstate New York. He was elected mayor of Bradenton, and was able to secure a good deal for the battalion at a Days Inn on Route 41. The battalion could supply their own hospitality room, and could take over the kitchen for the Saturday dinner so that Major Clegg "Doc" Caffery, who owned a plantation and a shrimp boat in Louisiana, could cook up a batch of crawfish etouffe.
The 1993 mini-reunion, late in January, was the first mini-reunion I attended. This is one of the many stories I recorded, as Walter “Red” Rose of Ahoskie, North Carolina, a corporal in Headquarters Company; Doc Caffery -- who was not a doctor but had been the battalion G3, or operations officer -- and I sat at one of those circular tables.
"It was right at the very beginning of the war [the battalion's first day of combat was July 3, 1944]," Rose said. "Not all the outfits had been committed, but we sent some tanks out to support the 82nd [Airborne Division]. We lost a couple of tanks. And Dickie [Forrest Dixon] was attached to Service Company.
"He came in one evening and he says, 'Captain Laing, we've lost two tanks. We've lost contact with them, and if they're knocked out, I've got to requisition two more from ordnance in the morning.'
"This is only the beginning. You're learning. He said, 'I've got to get to 'em and see that they're knocked out.'
"Laing said, 'Get the jeep, Rose.'
"I said, 'Captain Laing, this is not our duty. We're going someplace we don't have no business.'
"It was in the evening, and we were going down this old dirt road. I could see the terrain begin to rise. I remember this just like it was yesterday. We come to an area, and there wasn't nobody, no vehicles, no nothing. Everything just as quiet as it is right here. We come to a little crossroad, and there laid some infantry, down in a ditch, with their guns stuck across.
"Dixon starts to say something to them.
"'Get the hell out of here, you sonofabitch!' one of them says. 'You're gonna draw fire. Get that damn jeep out of here!' And they began to holler all the way down that line.
"Dixon said, 'Straight on.' I just went straight on, got about a hundred and fifty feet, and by god looked out, and if you've ever seen rain on a mill pond, that's what it reminded me of. Before I could get out of my jeep, those mortars were falling, bup-bup-bup-bup, and I hit the ditch. The jeep had no emergency brake, and I was out of that thing, it was still going. I hit the ditch and I lay there, and I could feel the shrapnel. Now there was some infantry on ahead of us, because the line, the wires, were laying in the ditch, and I could feel them  jerk when the shrapnel was coming down the banks.
"Finally it lifted. And when it did, Laing said, 'Get the jeep, Rose'”
"I got in that jeep and I put it in gear and we took off. And them infantry was just a cussin' us.
"We got back and I said, 'Captain Laing, I'll take you anywhere you want to go. But where there's no business of mine, I'm gonna let you do the driving from now on.'
"My mother told me, 'Son, if you go looking for trouble, you'll always find trouble.'
"We came on back, and that night we're setting there, we couldn't have lights. 'Well,' Dickie says to Laing, 'I've got to go. I don't know whether I'll ever make it back or not, but I've got to find them tanks.' Now, you remember he had an old trenchcoat?
"Yes," Caffery said. I remember he had an old trenchcoat. He wore it all the time."
"The next morning," Rose said, "now he told this, and I don't think Dixon would lie, he said, 'I got in the ditch, crawling to them tanks,' and he said the Germans seen him, and he said that he had bullet holes across that trenchcoat, by god, I know I've seen it, and he told Captain Laing and us  – now this was in the very beginning of the war, so I can remember a lot of this – he said, 'I was crawling up this ditch, and I looked ahead and there lay a German ahead of me.' And he said, 'I stopped. I guess I laid about thirty minutes. He never moved and I didn't either.' He said, 'I pulled my pistol out and started crawling. Well, I had to go over the top of him. The ditch was shallow. if I stood up I'd get shot.' He said, 'I crawled on up and laid my hand on the top of his head, and it was cold, and I went right over the top, and I went on.'”

(Walter "Red" Rose passed away in 2009 at the age of 86)

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