Friday, January 15, 2016

The Hospitality Room, Part 1

Arlene and Grayson La Mar, circa 1993

Did you ever wish you were a fly on the wall at a reunion of World War II veterans? You probably wouldn't wish that if the reunion were of the 712th Tank Battalion, where a veteran might say "Look, there's a fly on the wall," and the next thing you know there's a 75-millimeter high-explosive shell coming in your direction. No more fly. No more wall. No more room next door either.
But that's what I was at reunions of the 712th, with which my father served as a replacement lieutenant. Not a fly on the wall but a son of a veteran with a little Sony recording Walkman and a keen interest in hearing the stories they shared among themselves.
My New Year's resolution -- the only one I made this year and the first I have yet to break in all my 66 years -- was to go back through my early recordings and transcribe the interviews I never got around to, and review the transcripts of interviews and conversations I hadn't looked at in more than a decade. So while I cobble together a unique collection of conversations and interviews, I'll be posting some of them here, starting with a brief interview with Grayson La Mar at the 1993 reunion in Orlando, Florida. I was especially struck by one line, a description Grayson made of the battle for Maizieres les Metz, France, in November of 1944.
Grayson was a driver in C Company of the 712th. He said his platoon spent two weeks (three, according to some other accounts) in a house in Maizieres prior to the first crossing of the Moselle River.
"They had this thing zeroed in," he said of the house where his crew was staying,  "and you couldn't stick your nose out the side of the building, they'd trim it off."
I thought that was such a neat description so I posted it on my Facebook page. Among the comments was one from Cindy Sink, Grayson's daughter, who I met at many reunions which she attended with her father, mother and sister Judy, who was born while Grayson was overseas. "I would love to have that," she wrote. "Miss him. Would love to tell my children." And one of Grayson's grandchildren commented "My Pops!!!"
So, without further ado, here's the first excerpt from "The Hospitality Room"

Orlando reunion

Grayson C. La Mar


You were in Lieutenant Lombardi's platoon?

   Yes, I drove for Lombardi for a while. They shifted. When I first got over there, we lost a lot of boys and we had a lot of replacements coming in, killed or hurt. They might take you out of one platoon and put you in another, if there was a new arrival, so you knew what you were doing, and the other guys, because a lot of them hadn't had the training that we had.

   I drove for a fellow called Sagabiel for a while, and he got killed. Then I drove for Sergeant Holmes, then I was Holmes' gunner for a while.

Were you in the tank when Holmes was wounded?

   I was in the platoon. Holmes was the platoon leader. We were on top of this hill, we were taking orders from a 90th Infantry Division lieutenant, and we didn't run into anything. So we were supposed to take up positions the next morning, and since we didn't run into anything he wanted to go on down to the bottom of the hill, in the valley, and stay down there. So by daybreak, it just, all of a sudden all hell broke loose. We had four tanks and a tank destroyer. They threw a shell in the tank destroyer, killed all of them. And one boy, we could see, they broke his leg or something, he just tried to climb out, then they threw another round in there and finished him off.

   Then they got the second tank I believe it was. So when they got that, that left three tanks. Sergeant Gibson, he didn't know what the rest were gonna do but he's gonna get the hell out of there and he's the only one that got out.

   When he left, Holmes followed him, I automatically backed up, and followed Holmes. When I got to the top of the hill, his tank was sitting in the middle of the road burning. I couldn't get around, so I had to go off into a field, and when I did my back end blew up. The shell came in there and that set me on fire.

   It took three tries to get the hatch open. See, the hatch would hit the gun barrel. The gunner was killed, and nobody could operate the gun to get the barrel out of the way, so finally, on the third try, I slipped by. If the gun was over a quarter-inch more I'd never have got out.

   The concussion from the shell blew my helmet off.

   When I got out, there were blazes all around and I had to keep my eyes shut, so naturally I was in the dark.

   The tank commander, he was hanging over the side, he said "Help me." He got his heel blown off.
   I dragged him off into the snow and I just fell into about ten inches of snow. I drove my head in the snow. And Holmes, he was laying out there in the field. A jeep came up there and got him and got me, and that other guy. Carried us back there in some kind of cave or something, a tent, or some kind of cave. They put some kind of powder on us. Then Holmes got in an ambulance and went back, to a field hospital or something, and they put stuff on us, it smelled like axle grease, they put that all over our head, where we were burnt. And they put him in one ambulance and me in another. I remember them giving me a carton of cigarettes. He says, "Take these. It might be a long time before you get one."
   So they got me to the hospital, they put me in a chair, kind of like a barber chair, I remember that, and put some more of that stuff, and done me up like a mummy, just wrapped gauze all over my head and I wore them for 18 days, they just cut holes for my nose and mouth and my eyes. Got a shot every four hours, man, I never had saw so many needles in my life. Stayed in bed, and stayed there 18 days. When they took it off, it was just like you stuck your head in some ice water. A lot of my skin came off. I didn't have no beard or eyelashes or nothing. In fact, I can wash my face now with a rough washrag and roll the skin up on my face, it's just been that way ever since. When I wash I don't bear down, I just rub lightly. It makes my face raw to rub it hard.
   But I had orders there to go by some bivouac area and pick up another tank, and they showed me where to go to find my platoon, I didn't even go back to the company, I went on back out on line. Right from the hospital.

Who was the gunner who was killed that day?
   I'm trying to think. My assistant driver was a fellow named Whiteheart, he lived at Winston-Salem. Well, I thought he had got killed. But see, under where he was sitting he had a trap door, all he had to do was throw a switch and the thing would fall out. About fifteen years after the war I reckon it was, or maybe longer, not much longer, he came walking around my house one day after we got home, and that really give me a shock because I thought he got killed. He got burned, but nothing seriously. We visited a couple of times, he lived in the next town, about twenty miles away. He worked for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. And his wife left him while he was gone, but he got married again after that.

His wife left him during the war?
   Yeah, and run off with somebody else.

Were you in the tank that ran over a mine in Normandy, with Cardis Sawyer?

   No, I never did hit no mines. I just lost one tank is all I ever lost.

Was Klapkowski ever your gunner?
   He was the gunner for Lombardi when I was the driver. See, I was the first platoon then, and Klapkowski was the gunner, Lombardi was the tank commander, Whiteheart was the assistant driver, and I don't remember who the, I'd know the boy if I could see him but I can't recall his name. As far as I know, let's see, Lockhart, he drove the fourth tank, he got killed, that was the one that Hardee was in and Lupe, Guadalupe. Guadalupe lives in Topeka, Kansas, he was a little Mexican, and Hardee, he lives up close to me, when we're by there we'll go down to see him.

Was Lockhart killed the same time that Hardee was wounded?
   Yes, Lockhart was his tank commander. And later on, after the shelling and all, you know, the fighting eased down, we had gone as far as we could go up that street, where there was a river on one side of us, and a kind of a wedge type thing, and Lombardi had told me go down there and bring his tank up there. See, the Germans had gone, got killed or captured or whatever. I went down there to get his tank, and Lockhart was laying on the side of the road aside of his tank, and a big old hog had walked up there and started to chewing on him. Another boy shot the hog. I guess the animals eat everything they can get ahold of. That's ridiculous. I didn't have a gun on me myself, I never did carry one. I did have a .32, a little bitty one, I got it off a German officer, but you could look at that thing and it'd go off. And I had it in my belt, and I come out of my tank one day and that thing went off, I threw that thing as far as I could throw it, down across the wood. Man, that thing'd ruin me. And I had the purtiest dagger you ever laid eyes on, you could shave with that thing, it was about two feet long.
    It was a short sword, and it had the handpieces on, it looked like gold, and a handle that looked like blue marble, it was a beautiful thing, and I carried that all the way through the war, and when we came to catch the boat back home, we stayed in tents, and they said, "Lay everything out on your bunk," and somebody stole it. There wasn't supposed to be nobody in there, but somebody knew I had that thing. That's the only thing I wanted to bring home. I loved that little sword so.

What was Klapkowski like?
   He was Polish. He'd run his mouth, you've heard of a motormouth. That's about the way he was all the time. And he'd stay high on something all the time. Drink everything he could get his hands on. And it made no difference who it was, if they got in front of him, he shot them. I was telling you about him shooting that woman with a .50 caliber machine gun, he shot her in the legs.

What were the circumstances of that?
   Well, we were making an attack on a town, you see, in formation, and I guess she, see, the Germans was in the town, and she was coming out of it and hiding in here. We come across this field, you know, attacking the town, and she got in the crossfire, and she jumped up and started running back towards the town, I guess to get behind a building or something.
   Lombardi chewed him out.
   Klapkowski's been to one reunion that I know of, and he got so drunk then they had to carry him out.

                                                                 Arlene La Mar
   I let him know that she was here (Grayson's daughter). We had to stay in the hospital two whole weeks, the doctor sent me and her home around the block, that's how far it was from the hospital but he wouldn't let me go, you know, with anybody driving the car.
   So, I tried to show her his picture at least once a day every day, and told her who he was, and where he was. And that one day he'd be home, and then we'd all get to have a lot of fun together. That was one of the main things I kept up was letting her see her daddy's picture, so when he did come home she went straight to him like he'd been there every day. She didn't even whimper, she just went with her little arms out just as hard as she could go. So she's been Daddy's baby ever since.
   One time she waved at a soldier downtown. He had on this uniform, and the windows on the car were down, and she stuck her head out and hollered, "Daddy!" loud enough for him to hear it. And so he turned around and waved at her, and then I had to try to explain to her that that wasn't him, but he'd be home before long. So this was a while before he came home, but she recognized the uniform, whatever, that he would be dressed that way.

How long before the war were you married?
   We got married on October 31st and you were inducted, what, about three, four weeks later?

                                                                Grayson La Mar
   I went to Benning, Fort Benning, Georgia, for training, and she come down there and stayed several weeks, in town, and I'd go back and forth, a lot of us guys did.

   One morning I come in and the company was out, and the first sergeant said one of the guys had the chicken pox, he said if we went in we wouldn't be allowed to go back to town. So we had the guy who had chicken pox throw us some more clothes out the window and we went on back to town.
   The same thing happened coming from maneuvers in Tennessee, we went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and she come down, well, she was living in Chester, South Carolina, with her daddy and mother, and I'd go up there on the weekends, the bus wasn't fifty miles. So I'd leave on Friday and come back Sunday night. The first sergeant put me on KP every weekend, so he caught me one morning, told me to check the bulletin board, I might be for something. So he put me down again for the weekend. So I went and told Captain Cary, he was our company commander then, I went in there and told him about my wife being in town, so he told the sergeant not to put me on KP no more, because my wife was there, and we were going overseas, and if I had a chance to be with her, to let me alone. Which I appreciated. And I never did pull KP no more after that. And the sergeant, he got shot in the knees the first day in action, he was standing up in a halftrack and a shell hit it.

Which sergeant was that?
   Spearman was the first sergeant.
   I know we had a lieutenant that busted me for not zeroing my gun in on something or other. I was a gunner at that time. There was shelling all the way around, and you've got to make a cross line in front of your barrel to zero the big gun in through the firing plug, and I wasn't going out there, with shells falling all around. You had to make a cross thing, it had a little notch there. So he busted me for that. So I was in Lombardi's tank. So Lombardi asked me what happened to my stripes, and I told him, and he said, "Well, he can't do that, you're working for me. Sew them back on." So I sewed them back on the next day.

You were a sergeant?
   No, I was a T-5. It's the same rank as a corporal.

When did you switch from being a gunner to a driver?
   When he busted me.

Did you ever sleep inside the tank?
   No, I fell asleep in front of one one time. When we was on a march, and we hadn't run into nothing, I forget now where we were going, but we were in a column. We stopped about two o'clock in the morning. Everybody got out, stretching around. Transmission area, you know, because it was warm, and I lay up against that thing, the next thing I know somebody was shaking me, "Get up, it's time to move out." I don't even remember falling asleep. See, you didn't have no lights. All you could see was the exhaust in front of you.

Do you remember the Saar crossing, into Dillingen?
   Yeah, we crossed the Saar and the Rhine. We'd build a bridge and the Germans would knock it out. Finally we got across. The Germans had the river, and the big towns, the railroad, zeroed in. You couldn't cross in the daytime. In fact, we was in one town, I don't remember the name of it, and there was a big railroad yard there, we got across that, and the Germans had an 88 zeroed in on the railroad, and we stayed there 14 days.

Was that the town where the slag heap was, Maizieres?
   It could have been, I don't recall. Anyway, we had to sleep in that basement for 14 days and pull guard at the tank. I'd been setting up there with the 50-caliber machine gun, and I couldn't see my hand that close in front of me. When it's dark in Germany, it's dark. It's not like it is here. I guess it would be if there wasn't no lights. And the infantry would be coming by, they'd say "Don't fire on us, we're going to get our C rations."
   I know one of the infantry guys was out, it was in the daytime, he started running across the tracks with a box of C-rations, and a big shell hit him, and he just, like you spilled a cup of coffee out.
   They had this thing zeroed in, and you couldn't stick your nose out the side of the building, they'd trim it off. If they had any smart officers, with any sense, they'd have whipped us, two or three times. They just didn't have the maneuvers, and the fact they didn't know enough about German warfare to really get in a fight. See, we trained all the way through. In Germany, I don't think they trained like the Americans did. They drove us in the ground with that stuff. They knew what we had to do, you know. And we had some smart officers. And old Patton, he was one of them. We need a whole lot like him today.

What was he like. Did you ever see him in person?
   One time, close. We was overlooking this valley, and this column of Germans coming up the valley pulling artillery, all that stuff, you know. And you know, you've been on a high mountain, you know, and looking way down you see in the valley, and everybody's that deep in mud, it's been snow melting, and it's been raining and all that stuff. And he pulled up there and looked out down through there with his glasses, right beside of me, said "Let's back 'em up and move 'em out." And that's the first time I ever saw him and the last time. There's a lot of the other guys who got to see him.

Were you with the platoon when it liberated some prisoners from the 106th Infantry Division, who were captured at the Battle of the Bulge?
   We drove to, we got orders to go to the Battle of the Bulge. We left one evening about 2 or 3 o'clock. We drove all night long, got there the next morning about daybreak. And it was slick, ice, sleeting. You just touch your hand and that tank slid. You couldn't see, all you'd see when somebody'd let up on the gas, the backfire you'd see, that's the only light you had. And all the men in my tank I think were drunk, or asleep or something, I drove the whole way by myself, all night. And it'd sleet awhile, beating you in the face. You couldn't half see, you'd just have to feel your way around. And a lot of the roads over there was made out of brick, slate rock, and all that stuff, and with ice on them, we had plates and steel tracks, or rubber, either one, didn't have no effect. Of course, the thing weighed 44 tons, but it'd still slide.

You had the 44-ton tank?
   Yes, the last tank I picked up, it had a 76 gun, where the other was a 75.

Did you see much action in the Bulge?
   Not too much. They had done took it by the time we got there. See, all of us got there about the same time, but I think we drove the furthest anybody had to to get there. We were about 200 miles, I reckon, maybe when we got orders to go there.

                                                                     end of side
What was the most scared you were?
   After I got hit. All the boys carried tommy guns. I left my tank, I never did carry a gun. Of course, I may not go nowheres, just a couple of blocks, a little ways, but after I got hit -- before I got hit, mortar shell bursts, getting sprayed with machine guns, you know, I didn't pay no attention, no more than to popcorn popping. But after I got hit, I would flinch, which is natural. I'd always jump after that.

Do you remember the cold going up to the Bulge?
   You mean the weather. We pulled guard, your breath, you had your long johns on, I wore my o.d.'s, plus a combat suit and over that, and your breath would freeze, and your cap. Whatever you had put up over your face. That's cold weather. Of course, a lot of boys got their feet frostbite and all like that.

   Your bedroll and all that was tied on the side of the tank, which you never did get to use. I remember one time we had one guy, he got scared, that's when we was in the hedgerows, the hedgerows were about the worst thing we had going through. You'd be on one side and the Germans would be on the other side, and just a hedgerow between you.

   And those tanks, you hit a tree, a pretty good size tree, any type at all, it was like a matchstick. But you take a bunch of hedges and just locked, it's hard to knock something like that down. You could throw a track if you don't watch yourself, very easy. And some of the boys sleeping, or resting at the side of the tank, and this one guy, he got scared, he heard 'em, and throwed a hand grenade, hurt some of our own boys. Because he couldn't see. I guess he got scared. We hurt a lot of our own boys, got hurt by one another. Which was unnecessary. Of course, when we were going in formation, you've just got a 45-degree angle you could see through a little slit, and you'd run over people dead or wounded in the field, you couldn't tell if they was your men or who they was, you had to stay in formation, or then the other guy in the other tank would run into you. That was sad.

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