Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas in Kirschnaumen and other holiday stories

A card from Lt. Fred Lemm, 712th Tank Bn., to his wife.

   Ira Weinstein of the 445th Bomb Group volunteered to fly a mission on Yom Kippur in 1944. It would have been his final mission, and he would be home in time for his wife's birthday on Christmas Day. Instead his B-24 was shot down over Kassel, Germany, and he became a prisoner of war. He did make it home for Christmas ... in 1945.
   Tank driver Tony D'Arpino celebrated Christmas during the Battle of the Bulge by stringing machine gun bullets around a scrawny tree.
   Bob Rossi, the loader in Tony's tank, recalled eating Thanksgiving dinner in the rain.
   Far from home, holidays were especially poignant for the men and women fighting World War II. These are some holiday-themed audio clips from my World War II oral history interviews.

track 1 Major Forrest Dixon, 712th Tank Battalion, recalls Christmas shopping in Luxembourg.

track 2  Pfc. Bob Rossi recalls Thanksgiving of 1944.
track 3 Sarah and Jim Schaen get married on Christmas Day.

track 4 Bob Rossi and Lt. Jim Gifford recall Christmas in Kirschnaumen (France).

track 5 Ex-POW Jim Koerner recalls a Christmas Eve service in 1944.

track 6 B-24 bombardier Ira Weinstein is shot down on Yom Kippur in 1944.

track 7 Karnig Thomasian grows an Easter lily in a Japanese prison camp.

track 8 Corporal Jim Rothschadl, 712th Tank Battalion, recalls his father's love for the 4th of July.

track 9 Forrest Dixon's Christmas dinner is interrupted by an order from General Patton.

track10 T-4 Tony D'Arpino decorates a tree for Christmas.

track 11 Orlando Brigano and Paul Wannemacher recalls a Christmas Eve tragedy

track 12 More on the Christmas Eve tragedy.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

On Veterans Day, 2014

Marines withdrawing from the Chosin Reservoir

   A couple of entries ago I posted a poem from "A Rose Blooms Once," a book of poetry by Kester Hearn, who was a U.S. Navy chaplain with the 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division in the Korean War. With the exception of four of the poems, the work is mostly light-hearted, spiritual, amusing, like this paean to a feline:

A Cat and Her Tailor

As I stooped to pet my kitty
   this thought came pouncing upon me
What a lovely coat she's wearing
   it fits her to a T.
It fit her as a kitten
   it fits her now she's grown.
It is a seamless coat of beauty
   her Tailor is well known.
Super Artist with His colors
   no two coats are just the same.
Every coat is flawless fashion
   chic is she with Royalty.
And when I quit my petting
   my pet cat purred to me.
"Don't you wish you had my Tailor?
   You could be
A well dressed cat like me."

   So it seemed terribly incongruous, among Hearn's poems about the Korean War, to see in his comment following one of poems, written 33 years after the war, the use by this longtime Methodist minister of a pejorative word for a fallen enemy soldier.
   In my earlier post I reprinted Hearn's poem "The Home-Coming" along with his comment following the poem. Today I'll present his three other poems about the war, which perhaps illustrate how for so many veterans, the images they've seen never really go away.

War Is Such a Lovely Thing

(My experience as a chaplain in the Korean War -- 1950-52.)

He gazed at me with glassy eye
As my battalion and I passed by. In that clobbered town he sat
With burned legs crossed, and leaning back
Following a napalm bomb attack.
Dead and swollen there he sat
Naked -- roasted -- bloody-- black
His buddies nearby in a stack
A gruesome scene, intense the stink,
Autumn trees lay among the foes
Wisps of smoke still slowly rose.

Somewhere back home this word would go
"It is with regret that we report
Your son -- your husband --,
Daddy Ling his ID says,
Was killed in action ten days ago."
His children do not understand
Why they'll never see their Dad again.
Thirty-three years have passed that day
Yet memory forbids him go away.
Ling still sits there by that tree
His glassy eyes still fixed on me.
To militarism the world must cling
War is such a lovely thing.

Hearn's comment following this poem: "Just after breakfast, August 9, 1985, I was thinking about the Korean War. As the First Battalion, 7th Regiment, First Marine Division, of which I was chaplain (Padre, they called me), was moving north, we came to the third hydro-electric power plant south of the Chosin Reservoir. Here we passed through a devastated town; and here I saw the burned, blackened and swollen North Korean or Chinese soldier sitting on folded legs, slightly leaning back. His glassy eyes were fixed on me and all who passed by. I was thinking of this gruesome scene when the thought came to me, "War is such a lovely thing." And this last line of the poem became its beginning and its title. Finished August 11, 1986. Written 33 years after the War.

Where People Used to Live

How lovely the celestial sight
With all its peaceful spheres so bright,
Except that small terrestrial ball
Where people used to live.

But ever since that mushroom day
When great white clouds blew man away
A shroud enfolds that scorched land
Where people used to live.

No ships arrive; no one's in sight
The traffic's dead, all days are night
Vast heaps of desolation lie
Where people used to live.

The earth still turns, sustains its blow
The tides, twice daily, ebb and flow
When Winter's done and sky is clear
Then joyful Spring will come again.

The earth will heal, life will resume
The birds will sing and roses bloom
On this old scarred and peaceful earth
Where people used to live.

Dumb Smoking Steel Monster

Dumb, smoking, steel monster --
   It's done!
It knows not what's done, nor cares.
The recoil returns, the smoke
   curls down.
Beyond a mountain a flash is seen
Fifteen seconds counted -- three miles away
   It's done!

Words cannot tell but
   It's done!
God's choicest handiwork who breathed
Loved and were loved lie scattered on
   the ground.
Load in charges "six and seven," reach out
Ten thousand yards away the thunder says
   again it's done!

When will God's will reach out and
   be done
Beyond the mountains and every sea?
And the smoke cease curling from this thing's
   unfeeling throat
And men rise above their ancient ways
To Christ -- and loving wisdom in every heart
   be done?

Hearn's comment: I began this poem, Dumb, Smoking, Steel Monster, while resting in the 121st Army Evacuation Hospital at Hungnam, Korea, on November 7, 1950. It reflects what I saw and experienced on November 4. We had moved a few miles north of the third water power station from the Chosin Reservoir, and spent the night in a G--- mud hut. Our artillery was nearby and fired all night, shaking dirt from the ceiling. The water in our canteens froze solid that night. The "Dumb, Smoking Steel Monsters" were our own 105 Howitzers. After each firing, as the barrel of the 105 slowly slid back to position, the smoke -- lazily -- idiotically -- curled out the muzzle and down the muzzle. It appeared so dumb and unutterably stupid! From flashtime to report time and multiplying by 1,100 feet I roughly knew the distance shot. Charges "six and seven" meant the weight of powder used, and distance shot. This is my first poem; and I worked on it many hours aboard ship while I was coming back to the States.

   Kester Hearn died on Dec. 6, 1997. I don't think it would be a reach for me to assume that he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Every veteran has his own way of dealing with the after-effects of war. For Kester Hearn, I imagine it was a combination of religion and poetry. The section of his book immediately following the four poems about the Korean War is a group of limericks.

"By George, I'll Wait"

There was an old man named Bumper
He was the world champion jumper
   When he saw the Royal Gorge
   He said, "By George,
I think I'll wait till next summer."

The Big Pitch

A world-famous cowboy named Newt
Rode Midnight out of the chute
   Who pitched him so high
   His head bumped the sky
He returned to earth by parachute

- - -

With that, I'll say thank you to all the veterans who've kept our country safe at so often a terrible cost.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

And here's to you, Joe DiMaggio

Joe DiMaggio
         Lately I've been researching the Korean War, in particular the Breakout from the Chosin Reservoir, for a book John Caruso and I are writing about John's brother, Marine Sergeant Mathew Caruso.
   In an online version of "Combat!" magazine, I found an article by Korean War veteran Stanley Modrak in which he described receiving the last rites from Father Griffin, the chaplain whose Life Mathew saved at the cost of his own.
   I found a listing for Modrak in California, and reached his wife, who said he was in the hospital but that he would be happy to speak with me. A few hours later, while his wife was visiting, he called me back.
During our conversation, he mentioned that he wrote a book about his experiences in Korea. The book is called "Hostage of the Mind: A Korean War Marine's Saga of War's Trauma and the Battle That Followed Him Home."

   "As each November nears and northern California's blue skies and wind-blown clouds flee, surrendering to a glowering, gray overcast," Modrak's description of the battle at Sudong-ni begins, "I recall a bleak fall of 1950 in North Korea. Disquiet memories intrude; discordant bugles blaring, echoing from hill to hill high above; sudden shock and fear as fingers of death clutch; a shadowy figure hovering."
   Sudong-ni means "town by the river," Modrak said from his hospital bed when we spoke on the phone. He is recovering from heart problems at the age of 85.
   His battalion's commander, Colonel Homer Litzenberg, he wrote in his memoir,once said "The only Marines I want in my outfit are Purple Heart Marines."
   "As the crisp, darkening night air found the 7th Marines breaking out sleeping bags and preparing to sleep," his book continued, strains of 'Goodnight Irene' filtered through our bivouac area" via Armed Forces Radio Tokyo. "Meanwhile, unknown to the slumbering Marines, the Red Chinese 124th Infantry Division of General Sung's 42nd Field Army poised its 186th and 187th Regiments to hit Marine hill positions in a classic military double envelopment."
   "A double envelopment is usually pretty damn deadly," Modrak said on the phone. To make matters worse, he added, General Sung told his Red Chinese troops, "Kill these Marines as you would kill snakes in your homes." Despite decades of post traumatic stress, Modrak noted in his book with a sense of Marine pride that those snakes delivered a powerful bite.
   At 11:30 p.m., Modrak wrote, he was awakened by cries of "Here they come!"
   "We scrambled from our sleeping bags arming ourselves with M1 carbines and .45s. ... A blare of discordant bugles echoed eerily from hill to hill above. Soon shadowy forms rose from the murky darkness in the river bed to our left. As we let go with a fusillade of weaponry the forms faded into the deepening gloom. ... I marveled at the guts of our battalion officers as they stood tall in the valley's center, directing their Marines' defenses even though parachute flares exploding overhead bathed the tiny valley in a ghostly yellowish aura.
   "As mountain rivulets unleashed by a spring thaw form, multiply and then rush downhill following paths of least resistance, so too came the Red Chinese. Breaking past and veering around strong points, relentless bands of quilt-garbed Chinese infantry cascaded into, through and around Leatherneck hill positions intent on swarming into the valley floor battalion command posts."
   As the battle raged, a noncommissioned officer shouted "One of you, come with me!"
   "Marine discipline kicked in," he wrote, and he ran with the officer for 50 or 60 yards "that seemed like a hundred." as tracers lit up the night and the sound of gunfire was all around. "Miraculously" making it through the gauntlet of fire, Modrak "dove into the shadows behind a low stone wall."
   When the burst of three machine gun bullets struck, "slamming into my side and forearm," he wrote, "sound, feeling, disbelief all jumbled together in a disjointed sensation as I realized I was hit."
He tried to shout "Corpsman" but "only a murmur emerged. Marines nearby took up the call as I slumped  to the rocky earth. With consciousness rapidly fading, Colonel Litzenberg's words, 'Only Marines ... my outfit ... Purple Heart,' were my last thoughts.
   "Reviving sometime later in the still smothering darkness, I sensed a shadowy form hovering over me. Was it an enemy, a fellow Marine, or ...? Quiet, firmly enunciated words broke the chill night air: 'In nomine, Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus, Sancti, amen.' I then realized that the form must be our regimental chaplain, Father 'Connie' Griffin, pronouncing the Last Rites of the Catholic Church. Growing up through twelve years of Catholic schooling I knew full well their dire implications. 'Am I dying, Father?' I murmured. Passing out once again, I never heard any response. Awakening the next morning to daylight in a medical tent with other litter-bound wounded, it sure felt reassuring to be still among the living."
   "Waking to daylight," Modrak wrote, "I found myself ... in the 1st Marine Division Hospital in Hungnam, North Korea. ... For some days I was only conscious and alert intermittently.
   "Sometime in December, our hospital room had an unexpected and unusual pair of visitors. One afternoon two tall figures clad in heavy parkas and fur caps appeared. The famous baseball icon and New York Yankee superstar, Joe DiMaggio, known as the 'Yankee Clipper,' was at my bedside. Wow! Right in the middle of a “Hot War”; I couldn't believe my eyes. As a rabid baseball fan and admirer of DiMaggio, his appearance was a Korean War memory I'd never forget.
   "Joe was accompanied by 'Lefty' O'Doul, a baseball star in his own right and DiMaggio's friend and mentor going back to their San Francisco ball-playing days. Right here in North Korea and not too far from action, Joe and 'Lefty' were braving the bone-chilling North Korea winter to visit and cheer up American hospitalized military. This unselfish act greatly enhanced my admiration for Joe. I also knew that in the pantheon of Yankee greats only the 'Babe' ranked higher.
   "Asking how I felt, Joe handed me an authentic American League baseball autographed with his distinctive signature. Turning the ball over it read: 'To Stanley, best wishes – Joe DiMaggio.'
   "Overwhelmed, all I could do was murmur 'Gee. Thanks Joe.' After DiMaggio and O'Doul left, still not ambulatory, I gave the ball to our room corpsman to mail home for me to Pittsburgh. Big mistake! When I returned home some months later I learned that my wonderful trophy never arrived: What a disappointment! It probably was either stolen or lost in the wartime mail. As rabid baseball fans would understand, the loss bothered me for years after Korea. Having this uplifting experience in the midst of war and then the loss, I'm sure you can understand my feelings.
* * *
   "Forward to a sultry L.A. summer in 1991, now a 39-year civilian after Korea and Honorable Discharge. The loss of the DiMaggio baseball still caused regrets over the years as the “Clipper” would be in the news from time to time. His marriage to Marilyn Monroe was prominent, then his devotion to her memory as he placed flowers on her gravesite every year on their anniversary. The much-valued baseball and its loss seemed to be another layer of depression added to the other somber and regretful Korean War memories.
   "My wife , Roulti, knew the story of the “lost trophy.” I had referred to it over the years and she realized how much it troubled me. Near my birthday in July of 1991 I checked the mail, finding a few letters, a bill and a small, square box. Curious, I turned it over to find that it bore the return address of the Oakland Athletics Baseball Club. Wondering what it could be, I eagerly opened the intriguing package. It held an authentic American League baseball. Turning the ball over, autographed words read: 'To Stanley, a replacement – Best Wishes, Joe DiMaggio.” Wow! After 41 years – what a birthday present! Happily showing the prized ball to my wife, she smiled with a “knowing” grin, admitting that it was her doing.
  "A week earlier I had mentioned to her that DiMaggio was to be honored at an A's game celebrating his 56-game hitting streak in 1941 -- a record still intact. Remembering the “lost ball” story and unknown to me , she had phoned the Oakland A's offices and spoke to General Manager Sandy Alderson. As it turned out Alderson was also a former Marine so that coincidence along with my wife's feminine persuasion struck a responsive chord with Alderson – and DiMaggio.
   "The treasured memento represents a happy closure to a long-ago disappointment and now bears an honored niche in our home. We have a time-honored saying in the Corps: Once a Marine, always a Marine. It certainly rang true with Sandy Alderson – Semper Fi Sandy!"
- - -

Monday, October 27, 2014

The best $15.69 I ever spent

   Lately I've been thinking about Eric Segal's opening line in "Love Story": "What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died?" I mean, what's the point of reading the book if you know she's going to die? On the other hand, everybody knows 15 minutes can save you 15 percent on car insurance, but who knew Pinocchio was a lousy motivational speaker? I mention this because I've been working on the story of Mathew Caruso, a young Marine sergeant who died saving the life of his chaplain in the Korean War. Everybody knows that, or at least they will before they open the book.
   My research has taken me in many directions. Just the other night on YouTube I watched "Retreat, Hell!" in its entirety. It's a movie about the Chosin Reservoir campaign, made while the war was still in progress, like many of those great and patriotic World War II flicks that were made in 1943 and '44, some of them even in '42.
   "Retreat, Hell!" touched many of the bases I've learned about in my research. It stars a young Russ Tamblyn as a 17 year old whose father gave him permission to enlist but had a heck of a time persuading his mother. He was a character much like Mathew, from a family with deep roots in the Marines. Tamblyn's character had a brother who was killed on Iwo Jima and another brother who was already in Korea. After freezing from fright in his first battle, he doesn't feel as if he's earned the right to visit his brother, who is in a nearby unit. Then he performs heroically in his second battle, and asks permission to visit his brother. Permission granted. He goes to the nearby headquarters and asks a gruff sergeant where his brother is. The sergeant says "Who wants to know?" Then he says the brother is around the corner. Tamblyn goes around the corner and there's a row of body bags.
   The movie also has a scene where the young Marines jubilantly spread the word that they're going to be home by Christmas. And it has the trumpet blowing human wave attacks and the dead bodies of the Communist Chinese piling up on the hillsides just like in the firsthand accounts of the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir, perhaps the most epic battle in Marine Corps history.
   The Russ Tamblyn character -- he's best known for his role in "West Side Story" -- reminded me very much of Mathew Caruso. But the movie missed one base which has been pertinent to my research: There was no scene with a chaplain.
   In studying many accounts of the Chosin breakout, I've learned that there were three Navy chaplains attached to the 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division. At least there were three at the beginning of the campaign, at Inchon and Wonsan and Sudong-ni, where Mathew's 7th Regiment was the first Marine unit to do battle with the Communist Chinese who had entered the war. Those three chaplains were Father Cornelius "Connie" Griffin, the Catholic chaplain with whom Mathew worked as his clerk and, in combat, his bodyguard; John H. Craven, a Southern Baptist who was the regimental chaplain; and Kester M. Hearn, a Methodist minister. All three of them had been in World War II, although Griffin was not a chaplain then.
   By the time the Marines were breaking out of the Chinese entrapment, at places like Hagaru-ri and Koto-ri, there were only two chaplains with the regiment. And despite numerous accounts including an exhaustive U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps history and a history of the 7th Regiment that I was able to find online, there is no mention of what happened to the third, Kester Hearn.
   And then Mister Google informed me that one Kester M. Hearn had written a book.
   With all the newspaper interviews with Father Griffin and an extensive Chaplain Corps oral history of John Craven, I thought wow, I've hit the trifecta!
   But was Hearn's book in Google Books? No.
   Was it in Amazon's vast "marketplace" of used books? No.
   Was it listed at Alibris?
   Yowza Yowza, there was one copy listed! And it was only $11.70, plus $3.99 shipping. And that was it, except for five copies at various libraries in Texas.
   So for $15.69 I ordered virtually the only copy of this book available anywhere on earth.
   And then the book arrived.
   It was a book of poetry. Children's poetry. Religious poetry. Cat poetry. Limericks. I daresay I was disappointed, and placed it on the back seat of my car.
   A day later, I opened it up again. Maybe I overlooked something. And there it was, on Page 33, a section titled "War -- Absurd! Absurd!"
   Kester M. Hearn -- the M. was for Maurice, which was my father's name; coincidence? I don't think so -- was born in 1908, which would have made him 42 years old in 1950 during the Chosin campaign. He received his Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1943 from Southern Methodist University. He served as a Navy chaplain in World War II and as a Navy chaplain with the Marines in the Korean War, after which he spent 32 years as a minister of the United Methodist Church before retiring in Fort Worth, Texas. He published his book of poems in 1993, and passed away in 1996.
   There are four poems in the "War" section of the book. The first one I read was the second in the series. It's titled "The Home-Coming." It isn't for the faint of heart.

The Home-Coming

Ed's orders read, "You will report
   for active duty on August four."
He kissed his wife, his daughter, son
   and held them tightly one by one.
When time ran out he waved "Goodbye"
   as long and far as he could see.
His family's future was rosy, bright
   big things they'd planned after the fight.
With pack on back he boarded ship
   and sailed on his far distant trip

He disembarked on day sixteen
   in a foreign land he'd never seen.
He never had hunted or owned a gun
   now over his shoulder an M-1 slung.
He saddled up for the front line
   ignorant of all the hell he'd find.
Ed's hopes were high that Autumn day
   the War, he thought, would go his way
And very soon he would return
   to his family, his first concern.

Short hours before sunset that day
   on bloody soil the soldier lay
A shrapnel slug had zeroed in
   and blew away his face and brain.
From empty skull I hid my face
   savage, brutal, mankind's disgrace.
The patriots who ordered him to fight,
   ten thousand miles from this sight,
Dined in the Congressional Dining Hall
   on gourmet food before their Ball.

By dog-tag Ed was identified
   and by two pictures at his side
A picture of his precious Three
   the other, where he longed to be.
He returned home in a sealed casket
   with his headless body neatly in it.
Ed was met by broken hearts and streams
   of tears and shattered dreams.
A Chaplain prayed, then taps was heard
   "He gave his life??" Absurd! Absurd!

   The poem, as are some others in the book, is followed by a comment: "This poem comes from another gruesome personal experience of mine while I was serving as chaplain of the First Battalion of the 7th Regiment of the First Division of the U.S. Marines in the Korean War, 1950-52. I came upon this Marine (Ed) soon after he had been killed. All but a little of the back of his skull had been blown away. That sight still hurts me to this day. As chaplain it was my job to write to the next of kin. A sad job. I began this poem November 17, 1985; completed it April 15, 1988. No, he did not give his life. He wanted to live as much as anyone. It was violently taken from him."

Thank you, Chaplain Hearn.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

On the 70th anniversary of the Kassel Mission

On the 70th Anniversary of the Kassel Mission

Aaron Elson
President, Kassel Mission Historical Society
Sept. 27, 2014

Hard as it is to believe, today is the 70th anniversary of the Kassel Mission. Paul Swofford, one of a handful of pilots who brought his badly damaged B-24 back to England that day in 1944, left a message on my answering machine the other day. I could tell from the wavering in his voice how shaken he was by the memories, and yet he stressed how thankful he was that he had the opportunity to tell his story so that it would not be forgotten.
Every veteran of the Kassel Mission, every widow or sibling of a flier killed in the battle, has his or her own personal thoughts as the 70th anniversary of the battle approaches. Some family members of Kassel Mission veterans are in Germany where the annual wreath laying ceremony carries extra significance because of the 70th anniversary.
Thanks to the efforts of people like George Collar and Bill Dewey and Frank Bertram and Walter Hassenpflug, and the energy of the members of the Kassel Mission Historical Society, including Kassel survivors John Ray Lemons and Ira Weinstein, the sacrifice of the men lost on the Kassel Mission will be honored not only by the "next generation," but by the generation after that, as exemplified by social media wiz J.P. Bertram, and generations yet to come.
As for me, I don't have a familial connection to the mission. It was while visiting the village of Heimboldshausen where a buddy of my father's was killed in World War II, that I met Walter and became fascinated by the history of the mission, some of which I've helped to preserve through a series of informal oral history interviews.
So today I'm going to watch at least the beginning, and maybe a few scenes, of "12 O'Clock High," which to the survivors of the Kassel Mission is like "Patton" was to the veterans of my father's tank battalion, and I'll get all choked up when Dean Jagger sees that silly figure in the store window, and I'll listen for the drone of the returning B-24s. And I'll read the poem "High Flight," by John Gillespie Magee, a young Spitfire pilot who died in a training crash in 1941 at age 19, and and I'll remember George Collar telling me how disappointed he was as a youth because that was the War to End All Wars, and he feared he would never get the chance to be like his boyhood heroes.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless falls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor e'er eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

For more information on the Kassel Mission, visit

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Guest post: It's a Small World is not just a ride at Disney World

by Louis G. Gruntz, Jr.
   In the 1980s comic science fiction trilogy "Back to the Future," the plot centers around lightning striking the clock tower of Hill Valley city hall on November 12, 1955. A date before which the main character, Marty McFly, is born but with which he is inexorably connected and his time travels to the past and future are associated. His friend, Doc Emmett Brown, says “the date might hold some special significance, being the temporal junction point for the entire space-time continuum! Other than that it could just be an amazing coincidence.”
   It seems I also have a date that occurred three years before I was born in a town 4,500 miles away to which I seem to be inexorably connected that has a special significance or it could be just an amazing coincidence. The date is July 26, 1944; the place, Périers, France, where my father found himself situated during World War II. My father, a tank gunner in B Company of the 712th Tank Battalion, along with the 359th Regiment of the 90th Infantry Division, liberated Périers during the hedgerow fighting in Normandy. When a town’s train station was captured, the town was considered liberated -- my father’s tank was the first to reach the Périers train station.
One of Dad’s good friends, Tullio Micaloni, was killed just outside of Perier as the Americans were advancing on Périers. The 359th sustained numerous casualties as well, including, Sgt. Arnold T. Marchand of G Company, from Minnesota, who was killed in action.
   As the ground troops were advancing on Périers, a squadron of P-47s was flying overhead providing aerial cover. One plane swooped down on a strafing run while the other maintained its flying elevation. When the diving plane returned to its flying elevation, tragedy occurred as both planes collided in mid-air. Both pilots, Ben Kitchens and Bert Espy, were killed. The planes crashed on a farm not far from Périers and the French farmers, the Cousins family, buried the bodies of both pilots.

    Several months later, when the fighting had moved to eastern France, the U.S. Army sent several soldiers to recover the bodies of the downed pilots. One was a Colonel Moon, who led the operation, there was also an army photographer, Hugh Anderson, and a GI who spoke French to serve as an interpreter -- his name was Joachim Ordoyne.
   A 13-year-old boy named Henri Levaufre lived in Périers during this time. Always fascinated by the events affecting his town during WWII, he has become a noted historian in the area and is constantly seeking information surrounded Périers’ liberation.
   So how, you might ask, do all these events connect to a lawyer who born in New Orleans in 1947 two years after WWII ended? Well, in 2000, the association headed by Henri dedicated a monument depicting four soldiers to represent the hundreds of Americans killed during the liberation of Péeriers.  One of the soldiers depicted was Tullio Micaloni. My father, mother, and two of my children traveled to Périers on June 6, 2000 for the dedication ceremonies. Learning that I was doing research for the 712th Tank Battalion Association, Henri asked me to help him locate an American soldier. Henri had found Colonel Moon and the photographer, Hugh Anderson, who had come to Périers in 1944, but could not find the interpreter, Joachim Ordoyne. Since Ordoyne was from Louisiana, Henri enlisted my aid. I told him I couldn’t make any promises; while Ordoyne sounded like a familiar Cajun name in Louisiana, it was neither a common name nor an uncommon one.
   Henri stated, “But he speaks French.”
   I replied, “Henri, that only narrows it down to about half of Louisiana’s population.”
   Henri also provided several photographs in which Ordoyne was depicted
   In 2000 the internet was still somewhat in its infancy, and it was before the days of Facebook and Twitter. E-mail was just beginning to take hold as a popular way to communicate. When I returned home, I began an e-mail search and I located the e-mail address of a young lady named Ordoyne who was a student at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. She responded to my e-mail but indicated that she did not think the Joachim Ordoyne I was searching for was a member of her family. She did indicate that there were a large number of Ordoynes living in Houma, Louisiana, a town approximately 60 miles southwest of New Orleans.
            I next contacted the Houma Courier newspaper and asked that they print a short human interest blurb with my name and telephone number stating that I was searching for this American GI from WWII.
            Several weeks later I received a call from a Mrs. Joachim Ordoyne from Gretna, Louisiana, the seat of government for Jefferson Parish, my home parish, which is just across the Mississippi River from my house.  She indicated that her husband was an interpreter during the war.  I became very excited as I began to tell her the details of the mission to recover the bodies of the pilots but my excitement was soon dashed when I could hear his voice in the background, telling her that he did not participate in any mission to recover bodies.  She did, however, tell me that there were several Ordoyne families that moved to Ponchatoula, Louisiana, about 50 miles northwest of New Orleans.
   I immediately searched the telephone book for Ordoyne families in that locale and found two telephone numbers. I called both and was greeted by a telephone answering machine in each case. I left a brief message and asked the parties to return my call. That evening I received a call from a young lady who at that time was living in Virginia. She explained that she had returned home to Ponchatoula to celebrate her aunt’s 90th birthday, and my message was on her aunt’s answering machine. She indicated that her aunt was the last surviving member of their Ordoyne branch but the Joachim Ordoyne I described sounded like her late uncle. He was a fireman and he had died in the 1950s from a heart attack. I told her that I had photographs of the Joachim I was searching for. She said her aunt did not have a computer but if I could e-mail the photo to her friend who worked in downtown New Orleans, he could print it out and bring it to her in Ponchatoula. The next day she called back and said the Joachim in the photo was indeed her uncle who had passed away. I thanked her and was both happy and sad that I could report to Henri that I had located the interpreter he was looking for but that he was unfortunately deceased. The niece also indicated that Joachim’s son, Joachim Jr., would be back in town for the birthday; he had moved from Ponchatoula to North Carolina several years earlier. She indicated that she would have him call me when he was in town.
   The weekend came and went with no phone call from the son, but the next weekend I received a long distance call from North Carolina and the voice at the other end of the line identified himself as Joachim Ordoyne, Jr. As I thanked him for calling and immediately began relating the events of the mission to recover the bodies of the pilot, he interrupted me, saying, “Louis, you don’t remember me, do you? I go by my middle name Walter and you did some legal work for me about 20 years ago.”  As soon as he said his name was Walter I immediately remembered him and realized why the name of Ordoyne seemed familiar to me. I immediately renewed our acquaintance.
   I was now even more excited about contacting Henri with my information on Joachim Ordoyne.  Henri happened to be in the United States and was planning on traveling through North Carolina. I gave him Walter’s phone number and they were able to meet several days later to discuss Joachim Ordoyne, the American GI who was in Périers in 1944.
   My final connection was the Minnesota GI, Sgt. Arnold Marchand, who was killed on July 26, 1944. In researching my family genealogy, I discovered that one of my 10th great grandparents were Jakob Schiesser and Margreth Figi, both born about 1560 in Linthal, Canton Glarus. My mother was their 9th great granddaughter. Another of their 9th great grandchildren was Arnold T. Marchand, born in 1916 and died in 1944 in Périers, France, my 10th cousin once removed.
   "It’s a small world" is not just a ride in Disney World.

Lou Gruntz is the author of "A Tank Gunner's Story: Gunner Gruntz of the 712th Tank Battalion"

Friday, May 23, 2014

Aunt Libby and the Canteen

Elizabeth "Libby" Lippincott Pitner with Lt. Wallace Lippincott Jr.'s canteen.

In 1971 I spent nine months in Paris. A buddy of mine from college was there, too. He was going to be the next Hemingway and I was going to be the next Fitzgerald. It didn't work out that way, but I have no regrets. Whenever my friend got upset with a Frenchman, he'd say "My uncle liberated you!"
While I was in Paris I courted a young woman of a different nationality. Wanting to appear worldly I suggested that we go to the Louvre. So we're walking from gallery to gallery and there are all these famous paintings. All of a sudden there I am standing face to face with the Mona Lisa.
"Wow," I said. "It's much smaller than I imagined."
"Oh, you Americans," the young lady said. "You think everything is as big as Texas."
For our next date, hoping to rehabilitate my knowledge of art, I suggested we go to the Rodin Museum.
We walk through the first gallery and out into the yard, and there in front of us is a working model of the Thinker. It's only about two feet tall. And I thought, gee, that's much smaller than I imagined it would be. I didn't say a word.
Which brings me to earlier this month, when I drove from New Britain to Canonsburg, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh, to see an artifact from World War II, which I imagined would be much bigger than it actually was. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Last December, I called Vern Schmidt, a veteran of the 90th Infantry Division who's in one of my books. I needed some information about his brother, who was a prisoner of war, for another project I was working on. We talked for half an hour and I was about to hang up when Vern said "By the way..."
By the way, Vern and his wife had been to Europe where they have a friend named Norbert Morbe. Norbert is an avid collector of World War II artifacts. You can find him on Facebook, where his page is like a virtual museum. A few years ago he found a canteen in the woods with a name, "Lippincott, Wal," and a serial number etched into its side. Lieutenant Wallace Lippincott was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, but Norbert's efforts to find anyone in his family so he could return the canteen proved fruitless. So he asked Vern to take the canteen home to Fresno, Calif., and see what he could find. He, too, wasn't having any luck.
Lieutenant Lippincott's Canteen
 My father didn't know Lieutenant Lippincott, but they were both in A Company of the 712th Tank Battalion. I had researched the incident in which Lippincott and two members of his crew were killed on Jan. 14, 1945, near Sonlez, Luxembourg.
Lippincott's widow married a Navy veteran and became Libby Pitner; hence the difficulty in locating her. About ten years ago the lieutenant's  great-nephew, Ted Nobles, was researching his family's genealogy and  contacted me. I sent him some information. I still had his email, but it was no longer active. Then I found Ted on Facebook.
Vern sent Ted the canteen. Columnist Dan Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer covered the story -- the Lippincotts had lived in Swarthmore, Pa. -- and Ted said he met Mrs. Pitner many years ago but didn't remember her last name or even know if she was still alive. At the end of the article, he said, "Aunt Libby, where are you."
Libby Pitner had three children by her second marriage, to Craton Pitner, who has since passed away. The day the article came out, she answered the telephone and heard "Grandma, you're on the front page of the Inquirer."
Ted Nobles planned to drive the canteen out to his great Aunt Libby, but the harsh winter and car trouble kept him from making the trip from Delaware, so he finally FedExed it. Vern Schmidt decided to fly from Fresno to Pittsburgh so he could meet Aunt Libby and see her with the canteen, so I agreed to drive out and meet them as well.
I met Mrs. Pitner in the lobby of the assisted living facility where she lives, and we went up to her room to talk. There on the bed was what seemed to me to be a pretty small box, about the size an iPad or a hardcover book might come in.
"That's the canteen?" I said. "I imagined it would be bigger."
Nevertheless, there was no putting a size on the amount of closure touching the canteen brought to Elizabeth Pitner. She and Wally were only married for 11 months, but she never got over his loss. She had never received any of his effects.
Libby and I talked for almost four hours. She had an album with photos from their courtship and marriage -- they spent their honeymoon in Atlantic City during a nor'easter that tore the canvas top off their Fort Phaeton. She attended a reunion of the tank battalion in 1998, when the unit's monument was dedicated, containing her husband's name and those of 97 others who were killed in action -- two more have since been added. Sam MacFarland, who was her husband's platoon sergeant, sent her a blow-up of a photo showing Wally's head sticking out of his hatch. The picture was taken in Bavigne, Luxembourg, a few days before he was killed.
Lt. Wallace Lippincott, Jr. (top)
Lt. Lippincott's tank (front) going into the Battle of the Bulge.

She also kept every letter Wally wrote, and read to me from a few of them, removing them randomly from their envelopes. Wally was a Quaker, and in the letters he addressed her as "thee." I wondered if he spoke that way with his crew, but I doubt it.
"Today I saw a peculiar sight," he wrote from England, "and that was two white English girls walking down the street with two Negroes. There is no racial discrimination whatsoever over here, and the blacks are accepted. Some of the Southern officers almost blow their tops when they see this, but all have been warned by higher command to do nothing about it."
"By the way," the letter concluded, "happy 11th anniversary."
"Only 11 months," Libby interjected.
"And just think, soon it will be one year," the letter continued. "I sure wish I could be home for it. Never before have I been homesick, but I sure have a case of it for thee now. Hoping to see thee soon. Lots of love and kisses, thy husband, Wallace."

In a letter dated Jan. 6, 1945, Wally wrote: "It is a good feeling to know that we are building up a little nest egg in the bank for after the war. I can think of no greater pleasure than that of buying a place of our own and going round furnishing the house.. Dreams such as these make this mess seem worthwhile. If I didn't have something to come home to, this war would seem pointless to me. I suppose that is a selfish attitude to take but I almost consider it a personal fight against those who have deprived me of doing the things a man deserves most: having a home and a family to provide for. ... Lots of love and kisses, thy loving husband Wallace."
Wally was killed eight days later. "That may be a letter I got after he died," Libby said.
Libby had another photo which is prominent in the battalion's history. It shows tank driver Bob "Big Andy" Anderson, a farmboy from Illinois,  butchering a cow and handing out steaks.
My ears almost popped out of my head when Libby read a passage from a letter written Jan. 4.
"Another day has gone by without much of importance happening," Wally wrote, "with the exception that I am so full of steak I can hardly maneuver."
Big Andy butchers a cow.