Tuesday, February 25, 2014

My Monuments Men, Part 2

The 712th Tank Bn. entering Malybor, Czechoslovakia

 (My Monuments Men, Part 1)
   Harlo J. "Jack" Sheppard was the company commander of C Company, 712th Tank Battalion, from Normandy until the end of the war in Europe. Following is an excerpt from my 1993 interview with Sheppard in which he talks about the Merkers salt mine, among other things. The battalion was assigned to guard the salt mine, which is depicted in the movie "Monuments Men," following its discovery on April 4, 1945.
   The guarding of the mine, incidentally, was sandwiched between two other major events in the battalion's history: the explosion that demolished the A Company headquarters on April 3rd, killing five members of the battalion, including Lt. Edward L. Forrest; and the liberation of the Flossenburg concentration camp by the 90th Infantry Division, to which the 712th was attached, on April 23rd.
   Part of my interview with Sheppard consisted of me reading from a narrative he wrote for his children and grandchildren, with occasional comments he made elaborating on what he wrote.
   I have not yet finished transcribing the interview, having stopped about halfway through to move on to complete writing a book in which I used a narrative drawn from that first half of the interview. I recently made an audiobook of the full interview, "Reflections of a Tank Company Commander." Following is a transcription of Track 39 from that audiobook:

   Aaron Elson (reading from Jack Sheppard's book: "On 4 April near Ettenhausen, first platoon lost one tank to a panzerfaust ..."

   Jack Sheppard: Do you know what a panzerfaust is?

   Aaron Elson: Yes.

   Jack Sheppard: Okay, it's not a bazooka.

   Aaron Elson: It's a self-propelled ...

   Jack Sheppard: It has a charge in it, and it goes about 100 feet at the most. You stand up and you push the trigger and it goes. It's like a football coming at you. It's about the size of a football, with a stick out the back of it, and the stick is a tube that has the propellant in it. They come out of cellar windows, second story windows, haystacks, foxholes. If they hit the side of a tank it penetrates. If you're lucky it would hit down around the track. In Berlin they had Hitler jugend, Hitler youths, and that's all they had, every one of them, to give their life for one tank, that's what was expected of them, when the Russians came in. Fourteen years old, ten years old.

   Aaron Elson: (reading) "After the one tank was lost to a panzerfaust, second platoon lost two tanks to panzerfausts. No wounded. Seventeen prisoners were taken. Merkers. C Company and 357 were busy guarding a salt mine found by a German-speaking MP who overheard some women talking about a salt mine loaded with money. Gold, silver, priceless paintings, etc. Every brass officer from Eisenhower on down came to look. The GIs were used to bring the stuff to the surface and truck it away. Officers were used as guards ..."

   Jack Sheppard: To keep the enlisted men from stealing it.

   Aaron Elson: What do you remember about that?

   Jack Sheppard: Well, there was one battalion of infantry and my tank company left there to guard that. I don't remember a whole lot about it because they didn't bother the company commanders, but everybody and their brother went down in that mine to look at the stuff. I don't know of anybody that got away with anything, although one tank crewman, I can't remember who it was, later said some infantryman said to him, "Hey, Mac, can you give me a ride with this bag of gold? It's getting awful heavy." But the paintings, oh my goodness, all kinds of famous paintings. And money. They had everything there, from counterfeit English pounds and counterfeit American money, real American money, real English money, German money, silver coins. That was their main stockpile. That took several days, and it was kind of a vacation because nobody was shooting at you."

   Aaron Elson: (reading) "On 16 April we arrived at Grafenthal and a distance of 100 miles. Next day 20 miles. Next 12 miles, next 25 miles ..." You were moving.

   Jack Sheppard: Yes.

   Aaron Elson: Where was it that C Company liberated the prisoners from the 106th Infantry Division from the Bulge? Do you remember that?

   Jack Sheppard: No. The 90th ran into one of the extermination camps. I never saw it. All I saw was two men on the side of the road, and they looked like they couldn't hardly make it. So we stopped and we heard about this stuff when we stopped, and gave them some food and told them not to eat it too fast or it would make them sick. And they told a little story of two Germans they saw beaten to death. One of them was a sergeant in charge of the dogs and the other one was the first sergeant of the camp, and the prisoners beat them to death. And they said that they hated to admit it, but those two guys stood there at attention until they were knocked to the ground. Didn't cower and didn't ask for mercy, nothing. They knew they were gonna die, evidently.

   Aaron Elson: (reading) "4 May. C Company together with 357 in Corps reserve. 5 May crossed border into Czechoslovakia." When was VE Day?

   Jack Sheppard: A little later on.

   Aaron Elson: (reading): "Forty miles. Next day 20 miles, next 25 miles. 8 May holding in place at Malybor where C Company released from 357 as the war was over. At Malybor you never saw such happy people. They gave us a flag which is now in storage at the Patton Museum at Fort Knox. The flag said in Czech "Thank you for our liberation, Malybor." The volunteer fire department helped wash our tanks with hoses. A dance with music was held that night. The town was small, one or two hundred people. In a few days the order was given for us to move to Amberg, Germany." At Malybor I think Rossi said they put up a Maypole?

   Jack Sheppard: I've got a picture of it. At the entrance to the town they had an archway with flowers and leaves, and there was one girl in that town the men couldn't keep their eye off, she was always coming down to the river to wash clothes. She was a gorgeous blonde. The men hadn't seen a gorgeous blonde in a long time. She attracted attention. But those people were most happy. As soon as we got there they started digging up arms and ammunition that they had buried in case they ever needed them, and they were overjoyed. They couldn't do enough for us. They baked a cake for us, and they didn't have anything to bake cakes with. They said they were glad the Americans were there. They said the Germans, when they ride down the street they kill chickens, and ducks, and pigs, but the Americans, they look out for the animals, they wouldn't run over them. When they found out the Russians were coming in, they hated Russians worse than the Germans I think. They didn't want the Russians. No way. They were pleading.

   Aaron Elson: (reading) "In a few days the order was given for us to move to Amberg, Germany as the Russians were to take over Czechoslovakia. People were most unhappy. 15 May, moved to Amberg in two battalion columns, distance 130 miles." In one day you covered 130 miles?

   Jack Sheppard: Yes.

   Aaron Elson: (reading) "C Company arrived with all vehicles. Some were on their last legs..."0

   Jack Sheppard: I'm talking about blowing tread off the bogeys.

  Aaron Elson: (reading) "...and some were limping along, but C Company pulled into the tank park parking area complete. On long marches the rubber or steel tracks, we had both, generated so much heat the rubber tread of the road wheels would explode and come off of the steel wheels. Now to sweat out Japan for division. POWs evacuated, 81,088; tanks destroyed, 501; self-propelled guns destroyed, 195."
   And here are some excerpts from my interviews with other veterans of the 712th:
   Big Andy (Bob Anderson, tank driver, A Company): The most important thing that I remember after the Battle of the Bulge was when we took this Merkers mine. I was the first tank in there; I won't say the infantry wasn't, but I was the first tank in there, driving the first tank. And as we pulled in there there was a train leaving. And my gunner, Ted Duskin, of course the train was going fast, so we started running alongside and trying to catch it, and Duskin put a shell right in the engine and blew it up. Well, we pulled back to the mine and we sat there until I don't know how long or what. Not knowing what was in it. We didn't know for two or three days after how wealthy some of us could have been.

   Bob Rossi (loader, C Company): When we captured the salt mine at Merkers, I was on guard duty there, just before dusk, and these German planes were coming in to strafe. And I'm up on the turret there and I'm on the .50, and I'm firing, in fact they taught us in basic training you took a five to seven-plane lead ahead, so the plane's here, you're firing there, so that by the time the bullet gets there the plane would be there. And I'm firing away and I knew damn well I was gonna hit him, the damn round jumped out of the webbed belt. And by the time I could recover to reload, he was gone. I used to complain to the guys that brought our ammo, "I don't want the webbed belts, I want the metallic link," the metallic link held the round in there, but that webbed belt, the constant vibration of the tanks moving would loosen the ammo.

   Reuben "Ruby" Goldstein (tank commander, A Company):  Now, when we were at the mine, remember the Merkers salt mine? And we surrounded, all the tanks were around, there was an open field in the back, and McCarthy, from Connecticut, he worked in the kitchen crew, and he was put on guard duty. Now Alfonse Switer, he was the company cook, and he had to go to the bathroom. So he went. McCarthy thought the Germans were coming across the field. It's dark. I was upstairs in the mine building, on the third floor. I had my shoes off, I had my clothes on, I had my .45 and my submachine gun with me. And I hear shots. I come running, everybody, running like crazy, you know, you think something's happening. I come running down, and Al is hollering "Goldie, Goldie, help me, help me." And everything else is quiet. There's no more shots.
   McCarthy thought it was the Germans coming and he shot his carbine. In the leg. But he did not know that it was one of our own men. It was what you call friendly fire. Accidental. All right. So they took Al away, and nobody ever saw him again. And the reason they never saw him, because nobody knows what ever happened to him after that. Till the beginning of January of 1946. My brother and I, we bought a second-hand car, and my mother and I, and my brother Mel, he got out of the service after I did. My other brother came out after that. We picked up my aunt in New York and went to Florida.
   On the way back from Florida we stopped in Pennsylvania. We stopped at a gas station to gas up, and I said, "Why don't I call Al's house." He lived in Manionk. I was there in his house once, on my way back from a furlough I left a day earlier and went to the train station in Philly and Al's sister picked me up at the station. Al was supposed to meet me, but he wasn't there.
   I got to the train station, I'm looking around, I don't see anybody. A beautiful looking girl comes over to me, and she says, "Are you Goldie?"
   I said yes. I said "You must be Al's sister."
   She said, "Yes I am. I'm looking for you. He told me to bring you down."
   I said, "Bring me where?"
   She said, "He's waiting." And where was it? He was in a barroom, sitting at the bar, drinking. And another fellow, a friend of his, an insurance broker, with no legs. He had a little cart on the floor with wheels, just like with roller skates. And he was drinking. She left. And we had a few drinks. These guys were loaded.

   Now we're gonna go back to Al's house, he and I. This guy's gonna drive. This insurance fellow without the legs. But he had all the attachments. I says, "No way. I'll drive."
   "'You don't know...'"
   "I'm driving." I get them in the car and we drove to Al's house. He conked out in the car, the fellow without the legs, fell asleep, and I went up in Al's house, and we stayed there. The next day we had a ball, Al and I. We had a good time over in Conshohocken, at a Polish dance.
   But anyway, to get back to the story about when he got shot, and when I'm coming back from Florida, I get in the phone booth, and my mother and my aunt and my brother are sitting in the car. And I called up information, I get the number, and I don't know how to say it, to ask for him, I don't know if he's dead or alive. So I got the number, and I asked if this is the Switer residence, and this girl answered, and it was the same girl, his sister. So I told her, "Oh, my god," she says, "how nice to hear from you." You know, she sounded so happy. And all of a sudden, she said "Would you like to talk to Al?" Well, I nearly flipped. I never. He was there. I got on the phone, he says, "You S.B.," he says, "I thought you were dead." I says "I got news for you, I thought you were dead."
   I says "Nobody's ever heard from you." He was in so many hospitals, he had 26 operations, and his leg was gone all the way. Gangrene had set in. They made him artificial legs, and at first he was walking with the artificial legs with crutches, and then with a cane, and then he could walk on his own. I found that out, we went to a Polish dance one night, and he was dancing with an artificial leg as good as anybody.
   After I talked to him, that was the last I heard of him is when I talked to him on the phone. But he married this girl he was going with for fifteen years before he went in the service, and he finally married her when he came home. They had a home in Plymouth Meeting, in Pennsylvania, not far from Manionk.
   So I got married in 1949, and we went on our honeymoon to Atlantic City. We stayed eleven days, at the Senator Hotel at the time, it was the next street over from where the Resorts International is now. And I says to my wife, "Gee, let's go see if we can find Al." So what we do, and sure enough, I find out where he lives, I called the house where his folks live, and they told me where, and I went down to his house, and there was an open porch like a deck in front of the house. The two of us sat, it was hot as a sonofagun, it was toward the end of June. And they weren't home. They were both working. She worked in the offices of a coal company. And he worked for a clothing company, a very well-known name. He worked for them in the factory.
   Anyway, they came home, and the two of us were still waiting, I wasn't going to leave. They were so happy to see us. I'd met Mary before that, my wife hadn't met either of them. And we stayed, and he gave me his room.
   Anyway, he was a hot ticket. But always, anything, that's the way he was. Even in civilian life as well as in the service.

   (That last part doesn't have a heck of a lot to do with the Merkers salt mine other than that poor Alfonse Switer lost his leg after being wounded by friendly fire. I kept it in because Ruby Goldstein, who passed away a few years ago, was such a wonderful storyteller.)

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Jack Sheppard
Reuben Goldstein
Big Andy

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