Sunday, December 31, 2017

The saddest story I ever heard

Paul Swofford in 2009, with a photo of his son

   Way back in 1999, before they invented bucket lists, if I had had a bucket list at the time it would have included getting lost in every state in America. I got lost in Illinois once, looking for Russell Loop, a veteran of my father's tank battalion. I drove past miles and miles of farmland, corn fields if I remember correctly, and his instructions were to look for a store in the center of town -- the town being Indianola, Illinois, follow a state road to the end, then turn right. Only I followed the wrong state road and it didn't end, and it was dusk, and my car was low on gas. After several miles the road ended and I turned right and saw a house, so I knocked on the door and a young woman holding a baby answered and she never heard of Russell Loop and I wasn't in Indianola anymore. So I doubled back to the store and took the other road and eventually found his house. I got lost in a parking lot in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky once. In my defense it was the parking lot of the Drawbridge Inn, which is like a corn maze without the corn. But O.J. Brock, one of the youngest of the battalion's veterans, in his early seventies at the time, had brought his Harley-Davidson to the reunion on a trailer and wanted to put it in a storage facility, and asked if he could follow me out of the parking lot. That was pretty embarrassing, but I eventually found the exit.
   Florida, well, I could have crossed that one off a few times. I almost never met Paul Swofford, one of a number of veterans of the ill-fated Kassel Mission of Sept. 27, 1944, on my interviewing trip in 1999. He lived in Lakeland. There was a brand new road called the Polk Expressway and I got off at the wrong exit and drove around an airfield called Drane Field at least two times. GPS was a relatively new phenomenon and the closest thing to a cell phone was Maxwell Smart's shoe. Again it was getting dark and I finally pulled into a strip mall, found a phone booth and called Paul. Turns out the entrance to the development he lived in was an easily missed road off the new expressway's service road, but I finally did find it, and we talked for more than two hours.

Lt. Paul Swofford, rear, and his navigator, bombardier and co-pilot.
    That's Paul Swofford with the long face in the picture while three members of his crew are celebrating after a mission was scrubbed. The way he explained it, that would have brought him one more mission closer to completing the 35-mission requirement. Plus the responsibility for his crew as the pilot weighed heavily upon him.
   Thanks to the efforts of veterans like George Collar and his son Doug, and Bill Dewey and his daughter Linda, and Walter Hassenpflug in Germany and a young Belgian, Luc Dewez, the Kassel Mission is slowly taking its place in the annals of history, where it previously was relegated to little more than a footnote: biggest one-day loss for a single bomb group in 8th Air Force history. Thirty-five B-24 Liberators of the 445th Bomb Group flew off course and lost their fighter protection that day, and were ambushed by 100 to 150 German fighter planes. In a battle that lasted by most accounts about six minutes, 25 bombers and many German fighters were shot out of the sky before the American P-51s and P-47s, responding to a flurry of Mayday calls, arrived and the German planes skedaddled.
   All of the surviving bombers were damaged, some of them heavily. Three crash-landed in Allied-occupied territory. Two reached an emergency landing field in Manston, England. One was forced to overshoot the 445th's base at Tibenham, England, because there was construction equipment on the runway, and crash-landed five miles away. Four planes made it back to Tibenham.
   Paul Swofford was the pilot of one of those four. Shells from a Fokke-Wulf 190 had shattered his windshield and both Paul and his co-pilot had shards of glass in their face. One of the Liberator's four engines was shot out. The hydraulics didn't work. As he approached the base, Paul had his engineer fire flares to signal there was a wounded man on board. In response, the personnel on the ground fired red flares, denying him permission to land, because he was approaching a taxiway rather than the runway. The engineer would have to hand-crank the landing gear up and Paul would have to climb to 500 feet, and he didn't think that was  possible. But the engineer succeeded, Paul circled the airport and landed successfully.
   Paul kept his anger at the ground personnel inside all those years -- 45 of them -- and he remained angry until the day he died, but talking about it in an interview for the first time kind of opened up the floodgates. He bought a new computer and got onto the Internet and began downloading pictures of all sorts of airplanes that he put in a scrapbook. He spoke to Bill Dewey, who piloted one of the planes that reached Manston, and he even came to an 8th Air Force reunion at which the 445th had a hospitality room.
   In his house in Florida, Paul had a small room set aside for his memorabilia from 24 years in the Air Force, from which he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1966. He had an embroidered B-24 that he picked up somewhere mounted on a wall. He had certificates for flying so many thousand hours in different aircraft. He had served in the Strategic Air Command.
   In the memorabilia room, I noticed a figure, a doll really, of the ventroliquist's puppet Mortimer Snerd holding a baseball glove. I asked Paul about it.
   That was his son's baseball glove, he said, and Mortimer Snerd, who along with Charlie McCarthy was part of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's act, was his son's favorite character. His son was killed in an automobile accident when he was 19. Paul and Sybil didn't have any other children.
   I think that's what created a bond between Paul and me, unlike my relationships with other veterans I've interviewed, although I often visited Dorothy Cooney, the girlfriend of my father's buddy who was killed and who never married.
   Over the next few years I visited Paul on a number of occasions.He and Sybil, Baptists, were very religious. It was the embrace of religion that kept their marriage from falling apart after their son was killed, Paul said. Sybil, god bless her, eventually stopped trying to help me find Jesus, but I don't think she ever gave up hope.
   I posted several of my interviews with veterans of the Kassel Mission, including Paul, on my web site. One day Paul and Sybil were in church and his pastor read aloud a portion of Paul's account of the battle that he downloaded. He didn't say whose account it was. When he reached the end, he asked Paul to stand up.
   A Congressman was in church that day. A few weeks later, in a ceremony at the church, Paul was awarded the Silver Star.

Sybil and Paul at the Silver Star ceremony.

   Although I talked to him on the phone from time to time since then, the last time I visited Paul was in 2009. I brought my tape recorder -- my DVR, that is, having switched to a digital voice recorder a few years before -- because Paul was always reluctant to talk about the Great Depression and Sybil would always prod him to tell me how he loved flying and always wanted to be a pilot, but couldn't afford lessons, and about how poor his family was, which turned out to be a good thing for reasons I'll get to, but it was when she told me Paul was so poor that he took a cow with him to college so he could sell the milk, I said I've got to get this down on tape.
   "I want you to tell me a little bit about growing up in the Depression," I said.
   "Well, I was living on a farm," Paul said, "and I was in the third grade at school when it started in 1929, but I didn't know anything about what is going on here. I am about eight years old. We noticed it in what we were able to go to the store and buy. I was aware that my folks didn't have any money coming in, and we didn't have biscuits for breakfast any more. We didn't have any biscuits to take to lunch to school. Since we lived on a farm we raised corn, so we had cornbread three times a day. That was one of the things that we noticed. But being a young person like that, I wasn't aware of what all my folks went through.
   "My mother and father had 16 children. One of them was born in 1914 and he died after three weeks, but there were 15 that lived, so one of 15 is the way I grew up. I had older brothers in school. Most of the girls came along after me, but to start with there was one girl and seven boys. I was the eighth one, and then the girls finally overtook us, some of them even after I left home.
   "The farm was in western North Carolina, in McDowell County, that's where I was born, near Marion, and we later moved to Mitchell County. That's where Spruce Pine was the largest town, so we children went to school at Spruce Pine, and that's where I got my high school diploma in 1937, and if you start counting, you'll see that if I started in 1927 and graduated in 1937 is only ten years there, so when we changed school I conveniently skipped a grade, so all through high school I was the youngest one in school. And when I started college, I was the youngest one in my freshman class.
   "Appalachin State Teachers College was close to us at Boone, about 50 miles away, and I had two brothers that were also going to school there. Incidentally, in spite of the Depression and the fact that we didn't have any money at home and so many children, before me there were three of them that got a college education, and so it was just natural when I finished high school that I would also go to college and that's where I met my wife. Sybil says that the greatest thing ever happened to me was that when I came up to my senior year, I dropped out.
   "Well, the reason I dropped out is I didn't have any dollars to go to school, and I realized that my senior year I would have to do practice teaching. That means a couple suits of clothes. I didn't have a suit of clothes, and I didn't even have enough money to register, so I dropped out for a year, went out West, at 19, 20 years old, and worked for a year. I came back in '41 before Pearl Harbor and started back in, and about the first day of school Sybil and I met each other, first day of school. I was a senior and she was a freshman, just coming in. And Sybil says the greatest thing ever happened to me was I didn't have any money, had to drop out of school, because I'd never have met her. And that made a lot of sense.
   "When I went out West, I ended up working down in California on a ranch that raised sugar beets and aspara -- well, yeah, they had asparagus but mostly it was sugar beets, and my job was to work on a rain machine. They didn't have much rain in the summertime in central California around Sacramento, so we had to lay these water lines, get water out of the canals and pump them with a tractor to put pressure there, and they call them rain machines, the whirling two streams of water. So we'd let that soak for an hour or so and then shut her down, move it over about 50 feet, and set up shop again. That's what I did for about six months out there in the summertime.
   "I held onto everything I made and came back and even lived, that's the first time I'd ever lived in a dormitory. In my previous years I had to work for my room and board. It only cost me $25 to register at school. I never did have any textbooks, couldn't afford 'em. I'd go to the library and read their copies but I'd have to turn 'em back in at the end of the hour. I didn't have any problem remembering in those days, like you do when you get a few years on you, sometimes you don't remember what you went to the bathroom for.
   "In the dormitory I had a roommate who was about four years older than me but we were both seniors that year, and so I did practice teaching. That was a wonderful experience. Here I was 20 years old and I was doing practice teaching. I was doing practice teaching at the time of Pearl Harbor, in December of '41, and so I graduated in the spring, got a bachelor's degree, and then I went right -- I had told my father and mother all along that I wanted to be a pilot. That's before we were in the war. And my dad would say, 'I'm not gonna sign it for you,' because I was under age. The requirement was to be 21 and have at least two years of college, that was in 1941. But my dad would say, 'I'm not gonna sign it.' But his sly way of telling a joke, I guess, was never to laugh about it but he would say, 'I wouldn't mind flying an airplane at all, so long as I could keep one foot on the ground.' That was his kind of humor. But when I did graduate that year, after Pearl Harbor, they lowered the Selective Service age. That's the ones that signed up for the draft. But a month or two after Pearl Harbor they lowered the age to 20. So I was 20. I signed up in February, I've got the draft card right here with me. From February to my graduation I was on pins and needles because I was afraid I was gonna get drafted before I could get a chance to finish college before I was 21. I knew that the day I was 21 I headed to Charlotte and signed up for the Aviation Cadets. I took the test, of course such things as mathematics and so forth, here I'm just a brand new college graduate, it was no problem to pass the written exam and the physical exam, so I passed, and, well, the rest is history. I did become a pilot for the next 24 years."
   It was at this point that I asked Paul about the cow.
   "What was it that Sybil was telling me last time I was here with the cows," I said, "that you and your brother took a cow with you across a mountain?"
   "Well, we did," Paul said. "Since I skipped a grade, it put me up just one class behind my brother who was two years older, and originally was two classes ahead of me in school. Well, I jumped up, I always thought there's a little bit of resentment there. Of course he isn't alive anymore so I can say that maybe  he had a little bit of resentment that his kid brother was nipping at his heels just a grade back of him. But he had married when he was a sophomore in college. At 18 he got married, married this lady who was a senior in college. So he took a cow that was his at home, put it, a neighbor had a truck, and hauled that cow to Boone. And he found a place there to feed the cow and stake it out, and graze the grass, so my junior year, that was the year that was, we'll say 1939 and '40, we had a room in a place that had a bathroom outside and had a shower outside, and he'd milk the cow and sell about half of the milk, he sold it for ten cents a quart, at least half of the milk and we drank the rest of it. So that was the cow. He did most of the business with the cow, he did all the milking and all the selling and all of that. I was just a young squirt to him."

   Stephen Ambrose once wrote that he almost thought he developed PTSD from interviewing so many veterans of World War II. When I read that, my reaction was "Phshaw!" But over the course of hundreds of hours of interviews with men and women of the so-called Greatest Generation, I've rethought my reaction to Ambrose's remark. And while I wouldn't say I've come close to post traumatic stress disorder, I've seen many grown men cry, and shed many tears myself, and I've shed them in spades. First I get choked up while the veteran is telling me a particularly sad, or tragic, or poignant story. Then the tears start flowing while I transcribe the tape, or the digital file. I get choked up again when I transfer the file to a CD and again when I play it for patrons at the Reading World War II Weekend, and again when I relate the story to a friend or acquaintance. Next to the veteran who relives the story every day of his life, I probably replay some of the stories more than anybody else.  But don't cry for me Argentina, I didn't live through any of these experiences, and am little more than a conduit to bring the stories to a wider audience.
    I asked Paul if there were still a lot of Swoffords in Spruce Pine.
   "No," he said. "In my family, we went to the four winds, you might say, because of World War II, or I guess you'd have to go on back to the Depression, because I had two brothers to drop out of school before they graduated from high school and they went out to, quote, "seek their fortune." I don't know why they did it, but they left home when they finished about the eighth or ninth grade. One of those now is 93 years old. There's three boys that we have left in the family with the Swofford name, but, you know, Sybil and I, we lost our son when he was 19, in 1963. He had just completed his sophomore year at the University of North Carolina at chapel Hill. That was on June the 6th, so we were just saying yesterday, I was putting a new calendar for the month of June, I said on Saturday is the fateful day. It was just 19 years after D-Day that he lost his life. He'd just finished his second year at the University of North Carolina and was home for the summer, and I was on temporary duty, we called it TDY, out to California, to Merced, checking out in what we call the KC-135 tanker airplane. Incidentally, later, when I came back I was the commander of the KC-135 squadron. I was the commander of the field maintenance portion of the KC-135 wing, which was a tanker wing. That airplane was originally the DC-9 that the airlines used. Douglass built that DC-9."
   "So you were overseas when your son was born?" I asked.
   "No," Paul said. "I went overseas in '44. It took about a year to go through flight training, and then nearly another year to train on the B-24 to go to combat. So it took about two years to get ready to go to combat. So I went over, I left at the end of June of 1944, it's just in the same month as D-Day was the 6th of June of '44. So we were given an airplane. From our training camp we went to Topeka to pick up an airplane. They gave us a brand new airplane. I had a crew of ten on that airplane, and we flew it across the northern route, up through eastern Canada and Greenland and Iceland, to the British Isles, and we became part of the 8th Air Force."
   "When was your son born?" I interrupted.
   "Our son was born in '43, about a year after we were married. He had his first birthday, well, just about the time of the Kassel Mission. There's only a couple of us on the crew who were married. It wasn't always easy for the other members to understand what being married meant, how the two of us who were married and had children, we knew how to communicate with each other, you might say, easier than it was with the other fellows. The other crew member who was married was Joe Waller. He was my ball turret man, but we got to England, and the first thing they said, 'Give us this airplane, we're gonna send it somewhere and take the ball turret off of it.' Well, when we got to our combat group they says, 'You've got to eliminate one of your men since we don't have a ball turret.' So we discussed it with my co-pilot and my crew chief, because those are the ones I'd always consult on matters like that, and I said, 'Well, what do we do?' And it was unanimous among us three that we eliminate one of the others and keep Joe Waller and put him in another position, because we didn't want to lose him. We made him the tail turret gunner. He was the first one to see the enemy on my aircraft on the Kassel Mission because he could see them coming in from the rear. He had one definite kill and one probable. And my engineer manned the upper turret all the time. Normally the engineer would be standing up between the two pilots, and we'd talk about the functioning of the airplane, the functioning of the engines and so forth, so we had to have him there to talk to us. But when we would get into enemy territory, he would man the upper turret. He had a probable, we had one kill and two probables assigned to my crew."
   "You had said Steve's first birthday was around the time of the Kassel Mission?" I asked.
   "Yes," Paul said. "He was born in October of '43 and that was in late September of '44, the Kassel Mission, so he was just short of his first birthday there."
   "And it was June 6th that the accident was?"
   "That's right. June 6th of 1963. Just about four months, a little more than four months short of his 20th birthday. He came home for the summer and as I say I was in California, and he he had come home for the summer and another young fellow there that he palled around with, we lived on the base, in base housing, and I was assigned out to California for that KC-135 school, and Sybil was there alone, and she went down to Chapel Hill and picked him up and brought him back home, and the two boys, our son and the other boy, the other boy had his father's car, and so they were out on the afternoon there, just before they were both going to have a job for the summer. And the boy, the driver, decided to pass another car and happened to be right on a rise. I don't know why, it would have been surprising because it was almost in front of the high school that both of them had attended. They were familiar with that road. He decided to pass on the rise. It went head on into another car. The other car was driven by an airman's, a sergeant's, wife, from Lockbourne Air Force Base where we were, in Columbus, Ohio, and the sergeant's wife was killed also in the accident. Head on. And our son was killed, and the driver, a young driver about the same age as our son, had a broken arm. That's, that was the end of our descendents, right then and there.
   "Well, it just so happened that particular day, the 6th of June, had long been my graduation day from KC-135 schooling in California. That was at Merced, it was Castle Air Force Base, and we graduated in the morning. Of course, being three hours later out there, by the time I started home from there, about noon, I started driving east. I had my own automobile out there, and so that was about 3 o'clock Eastern time, and about noon time out there that I started driving, and towards evening, it was approaching darkness, somewhere around Needles, just before I was to get into, I don't remember if I had come into Nevada or Arizona, they're both pretty close there, as I was approaching Needles I decided as it got dark that I would find a motel. So I saw one and I just drove right into the driveway, near the office, and I looked in my rearview mirror, and right on my rear bumper was a highway patrol. And I got out of my car and I says, 'Well, Officer, is there a problem?'
   "He asked me if I was Major Swofford. I was a major at the time. And he said, 'Call your command post.'
   "I'd never heard of such a thing, but apparently the authorities back at Lockbourne in Columbus had called, they had first contacted the military at Merced and they said I'd already left, heading east. And so, I don't know where they got information about the car, the policeman, the highway patrolman, had been alerted to, I think all of the patrol were alerted to look for me. And they said, 'Call your command post.' So I just, before I even checked in at the motel, I went over to find a place to call, and there was one pay phone in all of that little, it was just a village then, Needles, that's quite a while ago, and there was one pay phone that was available, and there was a long line there and so I had to get in line. I got in, and it was always arranged when we were away from the base that I could just put in a quarter and call and the number that I would call, they would return the quarter to me. And so I got the base number and called and talked to my commander, and the commander told me that my son had been killed that very day. And so, so then, I had, well, I had the commander to give me back the command post there, it was hard for me to talk, like it is now, really, after 46 years it's hard. But he gave me the command post that was on the base, and I asked them where I was. I says, and they told me, said you're just, I was 100 miles south of Nellis Air Base, which is in Las Vegas. And so I asked them while I was on the phone there, 'How about you making arrangements for me,' I says, 'I can drive up there but I don't know, you find,' I says, 'I have no way of knowing what airplanes are flying' and so forth. So the people at the command post got ahold of the airline out  in Las Vegas that was near that air base in Las Vegas, and they found out that that there was a plane heading east at a certain, about two hours from there. And they says, 'We told them if you didn't get there to hold it.'
   "Well, that was a pretty hard drive, you know, at night, a hundred miles, and I had to go across Boulder Dam, late in the evening, and Boulder Dam, strange territory, at night, by myself, without even knowing where I was, but I finally got to that airfield up there in Las Vegas, that's 100 miles away, and they were holding the airplane for me.
   "And when I had talked to the commander earlier, he told me they couldn't, what time of day our son had lost his life had been about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, they couldn't find Sybil. Sybil had gone up to town and was spending the night in town somewhere, and they hadn't found her yet, so I heard the news before she did.
   "Well, before, when the commander told me that, there were people outside the phone booth there in Needles wanting to, they wanted the telephone, they were clamoring there for me to shut up and get out. And since they couldn't find Sybil there's no point in me calling her so I called Sybil's mother. Steve was the first grandson, he was the light of their life, and I started off by saying I'm out in the middle of the Mojave Desert in Needles, California, and she says, 'Well, how wonderful! How are you gettin' along?' And I says, 'I didn't call for that.' I says, 'Steve is dead.' And I know that shocked Sybil's family head to toe. But I got up there and got on that airplane, left my car there, parked there in the lot, and headed East, and the next morning I was at home in Columbus. And Sybil met me at the door as I came in. That's a tough time."
   "What sort of a kid was he?" I asked. "Was he like an Air Force brat?" As the words came out, it occurred to me that that wasn't the most sensitive thing to say. "Air Force brat," I tried to correct, "that's not ..."
   "I know what you mean," Paul said. "He didn't much like the idea of me being in the military. It didn't send him any at all. But he was a wonderful, wonderful, young fella. Look over your shoulder."
Paul holding the picture of his son that was on the wall.
   "Oh my goodness," I said. "He was a good looking kid."
   "That's made when he was 19," Paul said. "That's just ... missed him every day. And so has Sybil, but she's not as vocal about it I guess as I am. I'm the one in our household brings his name up all the time.'
   "Well, after that, I'd already had three tours overseas -- one tour in England in combat, later had a tour in, just at the end of the war, '46 to '48, in Okinawa for about a year and a half, and left them at home. And then in the mid-Fifties I was sent up to Thule in northern Greenland for a year and left them at home. And it came up to 1965 and I was approaching 24 years in the military. That's when I was the commander of my field maintenance squadron at the time. I was still on flying duty, and so I took a Gooney Bird, that's a C-47, took it to haul some Strategic Air Command personnel. We were part of the Strategic Air Command or SAC as we called it. I had to take some of their personnel to some of the outlying sites down in Oregon like stopping at Portland and so forth, and I learned by looking at my manifest that they were from the personnel section at headquarters Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha. So I turned the controls over to the co-pilot and I says I'm going back and talk to this chief of personnel back there. And when I saw him, I says, 'I've been stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base there in Columbus for eight years. I'm eligible for retirement. I says I've got 23 years, and I says, 'Do you have anything open down in Florida where I can spend my last years in the military?'
   "He says, 'You mean you've been stationed here for eight years? Why, you're hot to go to Vietnam.'
   Of course, the Vietnam business had just started a little bit before, and when I came back from the flight, I said to Sybil what happened there. She said, 'What time does the personnel office open tomorrow morning?' I didn't have to ask any questions. I knew what she meant. And I did it. I was there when they opened up the next morning. I says, 'I want to put in for retirement.' So I put in for retirement there, and I asks the personnel chief, I says, 'How safe is this now? If something happens after this, can it be called off??''
   He says, 'Negative.' He says, 'You put in for retirement and we accept it,' he says, 'you'll retire.'
   Well, that same personnel office, about ten days later, called me at my office and says, 'I've got a Twix [TWX] for you.' That was the military message, and he says, 'You need to come over to the personnel office and read it.'
   "Well, when I got over there and opened it up, it says, 'You have been reassigned to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam, in Saigon, and to report immediately and be the chief of maintenance there.' And I just laughed like I laugh right now, and I says, 'Well, Colonel,' I was a lieutenant colonel at the time also, I says, 'That's hilarious, isn't it?' I says, 'I'm safe, right?'
   "He says, 'You're safe."
   Because Sybil had said, 'I don't want you ever to leave me again.' She says I've been away too much, we lost our son, and she says, 'If you went over there, in the first place you may not come back, and the other is, we're gonna be apart.' So I retired in about six months then in January of 1966, got credit for 24 years service, pay wise that means 60 percent of base pay for retirement."

These are the three tracks from the interview in which Paul talks about his son:

Edgar Bergen and Mortimer Snerd, Steve Swofford's favorite character

(Paul Swofford passed away on April 20, 2016, eight days shy of his 95th birthday. Sybil Swofford lives in an assisted living facility in Florida.)

Sunday, October 8, 2017

widows and siblings

Elizabeth and Wally Lippincott, 1944

   One of the most moving scenes in the movie "We Were Soldiers," adapted from the book "We Were Soldiers Once and Young" by Joe Galloway and Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, about the battle of Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, is the scene of a taxi driver at Fort Benning delivering a telegram at Fort Benning to the wrong address.

   Fifty-eight thousand young Americans were killed in Vietnam, and more than 400,000 died in World War II. Add the number of Russians, Germans, other nationalities, civilians, and the figures boggle the mind. Every one of those 400,000 and all those others had a mother, a father, many had brothers, sisters, some had children. My sister Arleen had a friend from childhood whose father, several years ago, was in his nineties. "You should talk to him," my sister said. So I paid him a visit and asked about his brother. He declined to talk about him. All these years later the pain was still intense. 
   Tom Stumpner of Eagle Lake, Wisconsin, had an uncle who was killed in the war. He only knew him as "Uncle Bud." His mother would never talk about her brother. When she was near the end of her life, she gave Tom a chest with all of "Uncle Bud's" memorabilia: snapshots, letters, papers. Only then did Tom learn his uncle's real name, John Daum. Tom sent copies of the letters and photos to the web site of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, John's outfit, which posted them online as a way of keeping John's memory alive.
    Over the years, I've interviewed a number of women who lost their husband in World War II, as well as brothers and sisters who lost a sibling. I've taken eight of those conversations and turned them into my newest audiobook, "Widows and Siblings." 
   To say there is anything universal in eight conversations out of hundreds of thousands that could have been conducted would be a mistake. Even the eight differ greatly in their circumstances and the types of stories that are told. Although it would be safe to say that each of the deaths in combat deeply affected many people. That goes for victims of gun violence today, all you have to do is read news accounts. 
   And while there are moments of deep poignancy in the conversations, there are also moments of great humor. Like the time Erlyn Jensen was talking about a trip her mother took to see her son's grave in the cemetery at St. Avold, France. I got all choked up at one point in the story and Erlyn said, "If you're gonna cry now, just you wait!" I've always been touched by the humor in that warning. 
   Erlyn and Sarah Schaen Naugher, whose husband was killed in the same air battle as Erlyn's brother, were being stand-offish to each other at the 2008 reunion of the Kassel Mission Memorial Association. Sarah felt it was worse to lose a husband in the war than it was to lose a brother, but try telling that to someone who was 14 years old and whose big brother was her hero when he was killed. The two women have since made up and are great friends. 
   These are the people you'll meet in "Widows and Siblings": 
    James Bynum: James' older brother, Quentin "Pine Valley" Bynum, was the tank driver who gave my father a lift to the front in Normandy, and who later was killed during the Battle of the Bulge, 
   Elizabeth Pitner: Elizabeth and Wally Lippincott were married for only eight months, five of which he was overseas before he was killed at Bras, Luxembourg, on 14 January 1945. Mrs. Pitner remarried, but she never got over Wally and said she believed he would have wanted her to remarry.  
Elmer Forrest
   Elmer Forrest: The only name I remembered from my father's stories was that of Ed Forrest, a fellow lieutenant who was killed. Ed was from Stockbridge, Mass., so one day in 1994 I called information and asked if there were any Forrests in Stockbridge. I got the phone numbers of three Forrests in Lee, a neighboring town. Elmer was the first one I called. I asked if he was related to an Ed Forrest who was killed in World War II. After a moment's silence, he said, "He was my brother."
   Myron Kiballa: Myron had just gotten out of the hospital after being wounded in Italy when he learned in a letter from his family that his brother Jerry had been killed in Normandy. "It was like I was in the twilight zone," he recalled. "That was the worst letter I ever got." 
   Maxine Wolfe Zirkle and Madeline Wolfe Litten: The identical twin Wolfe sisters were 16 years old when their brother Billy Wolfe, 18, was killed in Pfaffenheck, Germany, on 16 March 1945. 
   Sarah Schaen Naugher: Sarah's husband, pilot Jim Schaen, was killed on the Kassel Mission of 27 September 1944. 
   Erlyn Jensen: Erlyn's brother Bill, who was known to the 445th Bomb Group as Major Don McCoy, was the command pilot on the Kassel Mission when his plane was shot down. 
   Kay Brainard Hutchins: Kay had one brother who was a prisoner of war and another who was missing in action, so she joined the Red Cross and went overseas as an air club hostess. Her brother Bill survived the war but Newell Brainard, a co-pilot on the ill-fated Kassel Mission, did not. 
   Some of these interviews are included in other sets, but this is the first time they've been together in one group, and several of the CDs are not in other sets.

   Check out my eBay listing for "Widows and Siblings" 

The telegram scene from "We Were Soldiers":

Thursday, July 20, 2017

"So long kids, and if I never see you again, goodbye."

   In the highly charged political atmosphere of today, I recently remembered a quote from Erlyn Jensen.
   Erlyn is the kid sister of Don McCoy, who was a major in the 445th Bomb Group. Major McCoy was the command pilot on the ill-fated Kassel Mission bombing raid of 27 Sept. 1944, in which the 445th suffered the highest one-day losses for a single bomb group in 8th Air Force history.
   Erlyn said her mother blamed President Franklin Roosevelt for her son's death, because Roosevelt campaigned for reelection in 1940 on a promise that "our boys will not fight overseas."
   "That was his mistake," Erlyn said when I interviewed her in 2009, "ever making that promise."
   Myron Kiballa grew up in the coal mining town of Olyphant, Pennsylvania. After his father's death, his brother Gerry, five years his senior, became his father figure. Gerry "always had tough luck," Myron said when I interviewed him in 1996 for a book I was writing about Hill 122 in Normandy. "I remember I was just a kid, he's playing ball, and there was just a lot, and then the road. He hit a ball and he's running over first base, you couldn't stop, and sure enough, a car hit him, broke his leg. Then he got a trick knee. When I talked with Jim Rothschadl [the gunner in the tank in which Gerry Kiballa was the assistant driver], he told me, 'Did you know,' he said, 'your brother had a bad knee?'
   "I said, 'I certainly did.'
   "And he says, 'Boy, he struggled with it.' He said, 'You know that they wanted him to take a transfer out of the tank outfit and put him in the medical unit, and he said he wouldn't go. He said that if you want to release him altogether he'll go but he says he doesn't want to go to another outfit.'"
   Gerald Kiballa was one of nine crew members killed when four tanks of the 1st Platoon, C Company, of the 712th Tank Battalion ran into a group of concealed anti-tank guns after going to the rescue of an infantry battalion that was surrounded by elite German paratroopers on 10 July 1944.
   When Gerry was killed, Myron Kiballa was 19 and had just gotten out of the hospital in Italy after being wounded at Anzio.
   "When I got the letter from home," Myron said, "it was one of the most unpleasant letters of my life. Oh, gosh. It turned me into a person like if I was in the twilight zone. When I was reading that letter, it was a horrible letter. Gosh, I opened the letter and the first thing it says that your brother Gerry was killed. And going down the line they said that they haven't heard from my brother John for three months, they were afraid maybe something happened to him, too. He was in the Philippines with the infantry." (John, one of five Kiballa brothers who were in the service, survived the war, as did Myron's two other brothers.)
    "Now they've had it!" Newell Brainard, a co-pilot in the 445th Bomb Group, wrote in a letter to his mother and sisters upon learning that his brother Bill was a prisoner of war. "We'll go after those S-Bs and get Bill back with us. I just received Betty's letter in which she told me the good news. Of course it doesn't sound like good news to most people, but I'll settle for prisoner of war anytime. He will be treated all right, I am sure."
   On 27 Sept. 1944, the 35 B-24 Liberators of the 445th Bomb Group strayed off course and were ambushed by as many as 150 German fighter planes. In one of the most spectacular air battles of World War II, 25 bombers and many German fighters were shot out of the sky. Newell Brainard bailed out of his burning plane, but would never get the chance to become a prisoner of war. He landed in a labor camp, and was murdered by one of the guards.

   Quentin Bynum's mother, Mabel Claire Murphy Bynum, had a "tongue that could rival that of a mule skinner," said Quentin's younger brother James Bynum. The Bynums lived in Stonefort, Illinois, in the heart of the Ozarks. When Quentin was a few months old he came down with what most likely was diphtheria, of which there was an epidemic in 1919, following the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. The local doctor pronounced him dead, but Quentin's mother, Mabel Claire Murphy Bynum, didn't mince words and barred the door when the doctor tried to leave, said James, relating family lore, as he had not been born yet. The doctor told Mrs. Bynum to warm the baby by the fire of the cookstove, and soon, Quentin came back from the dead.
   In 1987 I went to a reunion of my father's tank battalion from World War II. I found three veterans who remembered my dad, 2nd Lt. Maurice Elson, who died of a heart attack in 1980, and all the stories he told when I was a kid came back to life. One of the three, Jule Braatz, was the sergeant my father reported to as a replacement lieutenant.
   "We were in this field surrounded by hedgerows," Braatz said. "Usually battalion headquarters would assign replacements to a company, and I guess at that time I was the only one that had lost an officer, so they assigned him to my platoon.
   "Lieutenant [Ellsworth] Howard brought him over and introduced him to me and said, 'This is your new lieutenant,' and your dad was very candid and said, 'Hell,' he says, 'I don't belong here. I'm an infantry officer. I don't know anything about tanks.' And I says, 'Well, I'm gonna start to teach you.' So we got up on a tank and we got inside and I showed him this and that, and we got out, and we walked down the front of the tank, and I says, 'Now, be careful when you jump off of these things, because you don't have a flat space, and you could jump off and twist your ankle.' And so help me God he did. So then, we took him to the medics.
   "I have no idea how long it was, but in that length of time we got orders to move out, so we moved out. From there on, it's more or less hearsay, or second hand information, in that  he came back and we were gone, and instead of maybe waiting, he was anxious to get up there. So about that time the first platoon got orders to move, and he went with the first platoon tanks because he figured he'd be up somewheres where we are, and then he could join us.
   "He rode in what they called the bog, or the assistant driver's seat down front. The driver was Pine Valley Bynum, who later was killed. And the story is, your father wanted to get out of the tank, and Bynum kept telling him no, because they were getting a lot of mortar fire, but he insisted. So he got out. Bynum says he hardly was out and Bang! A round came in and hit him. And that's the last we heard of your father. The next I heard about him was that he had come back to the battalion sometime in December."
   Quentin Bynum's fellow tank drivers -- Bob "Big Andy" Anderson, Dess Tibbitts -- said he got the nickname Pine Valley from the area in the Ozarks where he grew up. But James Bynum said there was no Pine Valley in that area. The long-running soap opera "All My Children" took place in the fictional town of Pine Valley, Pennsylvania, but Pine Valley's buddies would have needed a time machine to pin a nickname on him from a soap opera that was launched in 1970. Stranger things have happened, but the likelihood is that when Bynum was in the horse cavalry at Camp Lockett, California, he might sneak off on occasion to the nearby resort town of Pine Valley, California, for a romantic assignation.
   Identical twins Maxine Wolfe Zirkle and Madaline Wolfe Litten show me a snapshot when I interview them at one of their homes in Quicksburg, Virginia, in 1993. Maxine and Madaline were 16 years old at the time the photo was taken, and their brother Billy Wolfe was 18.
   "This was the last time he was home, January 30th, 1945," Madeline says. Maybe it's Maxine who says it. For the life of me, when I listen to the tape, I don't know which one is talking, so in transcribing the tape I just alternate, it's the best I can do.
   "We didn't have any transportation, and we walked him to the Greyhound bus, up Route 11," Madaline continues, "and when he said goodbye to us he said, "So long, kids, and if I never see you again, goodbye." And he waved all the way down the road.
   "Going out that road, that mile," Maxine says, "he walked between us and there was snow on the ground, I'll never forget. And that snow laid for it seemed like weeks. And every day, when we went to school, we would walk in his tracks. That's how sentimental we were."
   Billy was assigned as a replacement in Company C of the 712th Tank Battalion on the first or second of March 1945, shortly before the battalion crossed the Moselle River for the second time. On 16 March 1945 the five tanks of Billy's platoon were called on to assist a company of the 90th Infantry Division that was taking heavy casualties in an engagement with elements of the 6th SS Mountain Division in the village of Pfaffenheck, Germany. In the ensuing battle the platoon lost two tanks with four crew members killed. One of those was Billy Wolfe.
   Three months later, following inquiries from Billy's family, several survivors of the battle made statements about what happened. One of them was written by Otha Martin, the gunner in another tank in the platoon.
   "8 June, 1945," Otha's statement begins. "I, Corporal Otha Martin, was a member of the Second Platoon of Company C, 712th Tank Battalion, when the platoon entered the town of Pfaffenheck, Germany, on the morning of 16 March, 1945. During the engagement with the enemy in the town, I saw the No. 2 tank of our platoon receive a hit by an antitank gun and saw the tank burst into flames. This tank was commanded by Sergeant Hayward, with Corporal Clingerman as gunner, Private Billy Wolfe as Cannoneer [loader], Private [Koon L.] Moy as assistant driver and T-4 [Wes] Harrell as driver. The tank continued to burn all that day, and during the burning all the ammunition exploded. The next morning, 17 March 1945, I went over to look into the tank. The interior of the tank was completely burned, and the exploding ammunition had turned the interior into a shambles. The only remains that I could see of Private Wolfe were what looked to be three rib bones, and these were burned so completely that upon touching them they turned to ashes. Staff S. Otha A. Martin."

   Over the years, I've interviewed a number of brothers, sisters and widows of men who were killed in World War II. The individual stories vary, but there is one constant: that a death in combat doesn't end with a rifle in the ground. Although Billy Wolfe was eventually declared killed in actions, his remains were never found, and his mother continued to write notes to him and hide them. Newell Brainard's mother eventually committed suicide. Don McCoy's mother joined the support group Gold Star Mothers. When she told the group she was going to France to see her son's grave in the American cemetery at St. Avold, another Gold Star mother said she would never be able to go to France and would Don's mother place some flowers at her son's grave as well.
   "Now if you're gonna cry now just you wait," Erlyn said as she related the story. I love that spot in the tape of our interview. It illustrates how even the saddest of moments can be tinged with humor.
   "There are thousands and thousands of those white crosses at St. Avold," Erlyn said. The cemetery guide left Major McCoy's mother at his grave, gave her a whistle and told her to blow it when she was ready to leave. Awhile later she blew the whistle and the guide returned. She showed him the number of the other Gold Star mother's son's grave. The tour guide pointed out that it was right across the walkway from her own son's grave. "And she was able to tell the other mother and your son and my son are neighbors."

   One of the drawbacks of analog recording as that on a 60- or 90-minute cassette, the side may run out at the most inappropriate moment. In the few seconds it takes to flip the tape and hit the record button, valuable information can be lost. Thus at least a few words from my interview with the Wolfe twins are missing from the part in which they read some of the notes their mother penned to Billy after his death. Nevertheless ...
 "In loving memory of my dear son who lost his life fighting for his country..."

            end of side
"...but it only fills my heart with pain, for while others' hearts will sing with joy, mine will mourn for my dear boy. He died for his country, his life he gave, his dear body is sleeping in a lonely grave. Dear God up in heaven, send your angels I pray, to watch over his grave on Christmas day. God bless our dear boys who are still in lands far away, who cannot be with us on this Christmas day. Speak peace to their dear hearts and remove all their pain, and bring them home safely before Christmas again."
   I'm working on a new audiobook featuring interviews with brothers, sisters and widows of young men killed in World War II. I still have some editing to do, but it should be ready in the next couple of weeks. I hope you'll watch for it. It will feature interviews with:
   James Bynum, younger brother of Quentin "Pine Valley" Bynum, 712th Tank Battalion.
   Erlyn Jensen, kid sister of Major Don McCoy, 445th Bomb Group.
   Sarah Schaen Naugher, widow of Capt. Jim Schaen, 445th Bomb Group.
   Myron Kiballa, younger brother of Gerald Kiballa, 712th Tank Battalion.
   Maxine and Madaline Wolfe, sisters of Billy Wolfe, 712th Tank Battalion.
   Kay Brainard Hutchins, sister of Newell Brainard, 445th Bomb Group.
   Elizabeth "Libby" Pitner, widow of Lt. Wallace Lippincott, 712th Tank Battalion.

Please email me if you'd like to reserve a copy when it's ready. Thank you, Aaron Elson

- - -



Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Real names, real places

Robert Hopkins

   A couple of weeks ago I was listening to "Fresh Air" on National Public Radio. Substitute host Dave Davies was interviewing Mark Bowden, the author of "Black Hawk Down," about his new book, "Hue 1968."
   Hue is the city at the center of the action in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket." I was going to post a YouTube video of a scene from it, but I can't even watch it without grimacing, so I won't subject my handful of readers to it.
   During the interview, Bowden read a passage. It's a gripping passage describing a scene I've heard variations of in my interviews with World War II veterans.
   It also contains an error, the kind an author with all the resources at his disposal of a Mark Bowden shouldn't make. If I can confirm the error with a few clicks of a mouse, you'd think Bowden would have been able to, especially if it's in a passage he's going to read in interviews and cite as one of the key moments in the book.
   Maybe the error shouldn't bother me -- after all, Steven Ambrose was famous for some of his miscues and Cornelius Ryan gave the world the impression that the D-Day assault on Pointe du Hoc was for naught. The reason this error bothers me is that Bowden is talking about people with real names from real places with real families who may or may not have known how their loved ones died, or what was or wasn't in the casket that came home.
   This is the passage. At first I didn't sense an error. But being a newspaperman at heart, I'm always looking for a story angle, and for a moment I thought I found one.


Dave Davies: Well, Mark Bowden, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to begin with a reading of your book. This is a moment where we meet an American soldier who is with a unit that is pinned down by North Vietnamese soldiers. He's in a foxhole. Do you want to just set this up and read us this portion?

MARK BOWDEN: Yeah. His name is Carl DiLeo, and he was an infantryman with an Army Cavalry unit that had been sent out to push toward the Citadel from the north. And they got trapped in the middle of a field where they were stuck for a day or two essentially with the North Vietnamese taking target practice at them. And it was a - they lost half of their men. So it was a harrowing and terrifying experience for him and for all of the men who were there.

(Reading) The worst thing was the mortars, which rained straight down on them. They were being launched periodically from only a few hundred yards away. DiLeo could hear the pock and then the whoosh of its climbing. If he looked up, he could actually see the thing as it slowed to its apogee. From that point on, it was perfectly silent. There it would hang, a black spot in the gray sky, for what seemed like a very long beat, the way a punted football was captured in slow motion by NFL Films, before it plummeted straight down at them.

(Reading) The explosion was like a body blow even when it wasn't close. All of these were close. You opened your mouth, and sometimes you screamed out of fear, and it kept your eardrums from bursting. It was hell, a death lottery where all you could do was wait your turn. If you stayed down in the hole, you were OK unless the mortar had your number and landed right on top of you.

(Reading) This is what happened to DiLeo's good friend Walt Loos and the other man in his foxhole, Russell Kephart. They were one hole over. They got plumed. They were erased from the Earth. DiLeo watched the round all the way down, and it exploded right in their hole, vaporizing them. One second, they were there, living and breathing and thinking and maybe swearing or even praying just like him.

(Reading) And in the next second, two hale young men, both of them sergeants in the United States Army, pride of their hometowns - Perryville, Mo., and Willimantic, Conn., respectively - had been turned into a plume of fine pink mist, tiny bits of blood, bone, tissue, flesh and brain that rose and drifted and settled over everyone and everything nearby. It, or they, drifted down on DiLeo, who reached up to wipe the bloody ooze from his eyes and saw that his arms and the rest of him were coated, too. Then there would come another pock and another whoosh.

DAVIES: And that is Mark Bowden reading from his new book about a pivotal battle in the Vietnam War, "Hue 1968." You know, that's such a vivid description of the brutality and terror of war.
    This is where my ears perked up. I work part time for a small newspaper in Connecticut. The newspaper's parent company, Central CT Communications, recently bought the Willimantic Chronicle. I thought hey, Russell Kephart might still have family living in Willimantic and the fact that his death is described so powerfully in a bestseller might make for a good story.
   Thanks to things like the Traveling Wall and various other sites, there is a good deal of information on the Internet about the 58,000 young Americans who died in the Vietnam War.
   According to, Thomas Walter Loos died "through hostile  action ... small arms fire." So far so good, except for the difference between being killed by small arms fire and taking a direct hit from a mortar in your foxhole. Loos also was awarded the Silver Star.
   Now imagine my shock when I looked up Russell Kephart and found at the Virtual Vietnam Wall ( that his place of birth was not Willimantic, Connecticut, but Lewistown, Pennsylvania.
   There was a third sergeant killed from the same unit that day, Robert E. Hopkins. He was from Willimantic.
   In the fog of war it might be easy for a combat veteran to mix up the hometowns, if that is what happened. But if a researcher or Bowden himself were responsible for the mixup, it would be unconscionable.
   I sent a correction to "Fresh Air," but since it was the author's mistake and not the show's, they apparently didn't see fit to make a correction, although they did point out that they misidentified a war correspondent in a clip they aired at the beginning of the show.
     In the last few days I've heard from the granddaughter of a person I interviewed some 20 years ago and was able to send her some anecdotal material about her grandfather, as well as the audio of the interview with her grandmother. And I heard from a young woman with the same last name as Max Lutcavish who is trying to determine if she was related. I sent her a couple of stories about Max, including one in which he told his buddy Dess Tibbitts he was going to go on a "careful drunk," mixing sterno with grapefruit juice, and a half hour later he couldn't stand up. Also, Lutcavish was responsible for one of the high water marks in the history of the 712th, knocking out a Mark V Panzer with the .37 millimeter gun of his light tank. No wonder his nickname was Lucky.

   I'm not perfect. Years ago I posted on my web site a very convincing interview with a veteran who described in great detail  how he survived a massacre, having his chin shot off when he turned his head as the German shot him in the head. Exhaustive research proved that such a massacre did not take place.  That description got picked up in a book about Normandy, and will probably be rewritten in other books in future years. I believe the veteran had a form of Munchhausen syndrome, and was brilliant at making bizarre scenarios seem plausible. When I interviewed him the medic who treated him was there and I asked what he looked like. The medic said he looked like Chester Gump, a popular cartoon figure who had no chin. The veteran said to the medic, "You know, only a little while after you left the dressing you put on fell off." To which the medic replied, "I didn't charge you much, did I?"  

esident of the United States takes pride in presenting the Silver Star Medal (Posthumously) to Thomas W. Loos, Sergeant, United States Army, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against a hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam. Sergeant Loos distinguished himself by intrepid actions on 4 February 1968 while serving with Company D, 2d Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. His unquestionable valor in close combat is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the United States Army.

Friday, June 30, 2017

"He was the best thief I had"

Forrest Dixon was the maintenance officer in the 712th Tank Bn.

   It's funny the snippets of literature you read when you were young that stick with you for the rest of your life. The long, slow, brilliant opening of "The Grapes of Wrath," for instance, or the description in Emile Zola's "Germinal," in which a coal mining family makes coffee using the same coffee grounds five times. Maybe it was three times. I think of that when I pop a K-cup into the single serve coffee maker (actually, I make coffee the old fashioned way ... in a four-cup Mister Coffee carafe).

   Last November I wrote a blog post about the critically acclaimed documentary "Blood on the Mountain," which my nephew Jordan Freeman co-directed, about coal miners, and I added the transcript I did of my impromptu 1996 interview with Eleanor Mazure, whose late husband, Frank Mazure, was a maintenance sergeant in Service Company of the 712th Tank Battalion. Eleanor grew up in Piney Fork, Ohio, which I think she said was about 20 miles north of Steubenville. Incidentally, Steubenville was recently mentioned in the news. The commentator remarked that while Steubenville is in the heart of coal mining country, coal mining is no longer its main employer. A hospital is. And that hospital will likely lose jobs if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. But I digress.
   Two weeks ago I received an email from a young woman in Ohio. "Hi, Aaron," the email begins.

I saw your blog entry from last year about your nephew's documentary "Blood on the Mountain" and your interview with Eleanor Mazure. She was my grandmother. I am the oldest daughter of the son you referred to as Frank Junior. 

I know very little about my father's side of the family because he wasn't around much after my parents were divorced. The interview was very enlightening! It gave me a mental picture of my grandmother and grandfather that I didn't have before. Reading it was a somewhat emotional experience for me.  Thank you for posting it!

I noticed some references to the interview being recorded. Is there any way I could get a copy of that recording? It would be wonderful to hear my grandmother's voice as she talks about that part of her life. My son never met my grandmother, so I think it would be valuable to him to hear the interview as well.

Again, thank you so much for posting the interview and the photograph. I don't have much knowledge or memorabilia from that side of my family and I will definitely add this to it.  Please let me know about the recording and let me know if there is anything else you may have that pertains to my family that you could share.
      I never met Frank Mazure, this woman's grandfather, but his name came up in some of my interviews with veterans of the 712th Tank Battalion, with which my father served. He was spoken of very highly, so I located a few passages in which Sergeant Mazure was mentioned and sent them along in a followup email. One of them was this excerpt from an interview with Forrest Dixon, the battalion maintenance officer, probably in the late 1990s.
Aaron Elson: What was it you told Mrs. Mazure about her husband?

Forrest Dixon: He was the best thief I had. I said to her, "I don't mean it quite that way, but he got spark plugs that we badly needed, which was much above t.o. [table of operations]" And I said "That's why our tank battalion had one of the best records of any tank battalion in Europe, separate tank battalion." The number of tanks that we had operating, we had one of the best records. Colonel Randolph told me we had the best record. At one of the meetings that Randolph was to, I don't know what general was asking how many tanks he had operational, he said all we've got are operational, as far as he knew. And then the general pushed him a little bit, and Colonel Randolph says A Company has so many tanks, and B Company and C Company. But he said the difference between the number we're supposed to have and that number isn't because they're sidelined, it's because we've lost them and they haven't been replaced. And the guy quit bugging him. And I later found out that the fellow was bugging Randolph to find out the number because he had a battalion that just didn't have very many tanks ever.

   We had, in most cases, if a company had ten tanks, they had ten operating. They might be back at my place for a few hours, but we had very few tanks non-operating. And what was knocking the tanks out was plugs, but we'd get 'em plugs right quick. I didn't dare give the companies, I didn't dare divide my number up, so we kept them, and we gave them, like if they had two tanks the plugs were going bad, we gave them, I guess there's two plugs per piston and what the hell did we have, nine pistons, I'd give them 36 plugs. And then I'd tell them to be back tomorrow with the old plugs. And then Mazure would take those and they'd clean them. We used them to get new plugs, and we kept the tank battalion running. That's about the whole thing that knocked out these tanks was running idle. But you couldn't tell them not to run them idle, good God, they had to move sometimes. They didn't have time to start the tank. They had to put it in gear and get the hell out of there. So we just had to live with it. I said "But we had enough extra plugs so we could supply 'em".

Aaron Elson: What did you say to Colonel Randolph on the third day in combat?

 Forrest Dixon: The second day. He called me up about midnight, and he said, "How many tanks have we got?" I said, "We've lost half of them. We're good for one more day."

   "No," he said. "We lost half of what we started with today. Tomorrow if we lose half of what we have left, and if the next day we lose half of those, we're good for several days." [Colonel George B. Randolph, the battalion commander, was a math teacher in Montgomery, Alabama, in civilian life].

   "But," he said, "how many of them are battle casualties?"

   And I told him, "We'll have most of those tanks back in operation in another 24 hours."

   Part of our problem was just getting them out of the mud, or getting them hanging up on a hedge. Or replacing a section of track. And that we could replace.

   I had a good crew. Sergeant Mazure had two crews, and each one could replace a motor in three and a half hours.

   You see, one of the big jobs was to unbutton the armor plate. But we could do the whole thing in three and a half hours.

Aaron Elson: What would you replace them with, new motors or rebuilt?

Forrest Dixon: In the early part of the war they were brand new ones. They called them Series 13 motors. Everything was on them. Carburetors and everything. A Series 13 motor, all you had to do was take the old motor out, put the new one in and hook it up.

   By mistake we got a Series 11 motor I guess it was and good God, that's a 24-hour job. The carburetion and everything is off. You had to take this off and that off. But the Series 13, it's just like when you buy a motor for your car. Whether you buy a big motor or you could buy a short block. And every once in a while there'd be a package of cigarettes in the box the motor came in. Somebody back in the States would put a package of cigarettes in.
    This brought the following reply from Frank and Eleanor Mazure's granddaughter:
Wow! I really don't know what to say. Reading your reply brought an unexpected flood of emotions and I don't really know why. I think a gap that I didn't know existed is being filled for the first time in decades.
    I have since sent the young woman the audio of her grandmother's interview. My own maternal grandmother was a major part of my childhood, but I never knew my paternal grandmother, although a cousin of mine wrote a play about her, and I've seen a photo of her. And while I didn't have a similar flood of emotion upon finding the New York Times obituary of my great-great-grandfather, Meyer London, on the Internet, I did feel a swelling of pride at learning he was known as the Matzo King of New York.
   One thing I've learned about oral history is that the stories are about real people with real names and in some cases valid addresses. The story of Frank and Eleanor Mazure is an example of the upside of this phenomenon. In my next blog post, I'll write about the downside.

The original post about Eleanor Mazure: "Coal Miner's Daughter" 

The first chapter of "The Grapes of Wrath"

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Gold Star Sisters, Part 2

Billy Wolfe

   Pfc. Billy P. Wolfe, 18 years old, 2nd Platoon, Company C, 712th Tank Battalion, was killed in the village of Pfaffenheck, Germany, along with three other members of his platoon, on 16 March 1945. Oral Historian Aaron Elson interviewed Billy's sisters, twins Maxine Wolfe Zirkle and Madeline Wolfe Litten, in 1993. The twins were 16 years old when their brother was killed.

Second of two parts

Aaron Elson (reading a letter of Billy's into the tape): "February 12, 1945, Dear Mom, I am glad you heard from Hubert. I had a letter from Gigi, Peg and you today. The most mail I received in a long, long time. Total letters received since I came in Fort Meade, five letters. So Uncle Hukey is in Belgium?"

Maxine: That's our brother Hubert. They called him Hukey, the neighbor kids called him that, they couldn't say Hubert...

Aaron (reading):  "I have written to him a number of times. About the next time you hear from me I will be overseas. We packed this morning. We will be leaving soon. Tell Mary I am awfully sorry about her cigarettes. Was Hubert's letter V-mail? It didn't take it long to come over, considering the distance and all. I will have to close now. If you don't hear for a while, you will know why. All my love, Bill."

Madeline: Now this letter was written on the boat going overseas...

Aaron (reading):  "February 16, 1945, It seems like a long time since I last heard from you. I did get a letter the 12th. How is everyone there? Oh yes, I got the Valentines the other day. Thanks a lot. I saw in a newsreel a couple of weeks ago about a fire in the Norfolk Navy Yard. Was it close to where Dad works?
   "I wrote to Hubert yesterday. I hope he gets it all right and before his birthday. Have you heard from him lately? How is the Martz family getting along?
   "We just had a physical checkup. They are a nuisance. Say, Mom, have you gotten my January war bond? I reckon you and the censor will have a hell of a time reading this, but the boat is sort of rocking and Jake is sort of shaking his bunk.
   "I wish you all could see the ocean from a boat. The ocean is so blue it looks like I could dip my pen and write with it. We are on a nice boat, I think.
   "Well, folks, I don't know what to say, so take things easy. Love, Bill."

Madeline: This one he changed boats en route overseas.

Aaron (reading): "March 5, in Germany, just joined his outfit..."

Maxine: It was written March the 5th, and we received it on the 16th, the day he was killed.

Aaron (reading): "March 5, 1945, Dearest Folks, I wrote you a nice long letter the Third, and lost the darned thing, so I will have to try another one.
   "I haven't much to tell, except that I have joined an outfit. As a lieutenant told us, 'The best goddamned outfit in the world.'

   "I don't know much about its history as yet but it played a major part in smashing the Siegfried Line and has fought since D-Day and drove the Nazis from France. It is the 712th Tank Battalion. I am in Company C and in Germany now.
   "Have you heard from Hubert lately? I haven't heard a damned thing from anyone since the first of February. I am going to write to Hubert tonight, I think. I have written to him I don't know how often but haven't heard from him.
   "When my mail comes through I should get a bushel basket full. I wrote to Peg the other night and haven't sent it yet.
   "Twins, I think you are having a birthday soon. Sweet 17, isn't that right? You can be glad you are not boys, or there would be a possibility of you getting in this mess, although I don't think, and hope, it won't last that long. Happy birthday, Twins, and many, many returns of the day.
   "I am sorry I can't do anything about it and I can't even send cards. I'll tell you what I will do. I'll bring you or send you some souvenirs. I already have some.
   "Peggy, Brookie and Gigi have birthdays in March, too. What has Scorcher been doing? Tell him I have seen some of the German rifles and machine guns and would like to be back and talk about them.
   "Well, has Alpen been over to see Mary yet? Is Mary still there? I haven't heard anything for so long. Maybe she is married and settled down. How about that, Mary?
   "I don't know anything else to say, so I will close now. Love, Bill."
   This letter was received March 16.

Madeline: This was mom's last Christmas card from Billy, and these are all the family letters that Billy did not receive, they were all marked "deceased" and returned to us.
   Most of these were from Hubert to Billy, and they were marked "deceased" and returned to the family.
    Here's the notes that Mom would write in the night...

Madeline:  "As long as life and memory last I shall always remember the beautiful sight..." oh, that was something else she had sent. In 1932 something she saw in the sky... [note: You've got to love the Internet. The twins said they thought their mother might have been referring to an eclipse. According to the NASA web site, on August 31, 1932, there was a total eclipse of the sun!]

   "In loving memory of my dear son who lost his life fighting for his country..."

                          end of side 

"...but it only fills my heart with pain, for while others' hearts will sing with joy, mine will mourn for my dear boy. He died for his country, his life he gave, his dear body is sleeping in a lonely grave. Dear God up in heaven, send your angels I pray, to watch over his grave on Christmas day. God bless our dear boys who are still in lands far away, who cannot be with us on this Christmas day. Speak peace to their dear hearts and remove all their pain, and bring them home safely before Christmas again."
   And "Dear Billy, I just have to write a few lines to you tonight, although I haven't heard from you for a long time I'm still hoping and praying to hear from you soon, so please, Billy, take care of yourself and write to me. Until I hear from you I will always be waiting and hoping."

Madeline: That was written April 14, after she got...And this is May 8 (V-E Day), she's still writing.
   "Dear Billy, I am lonely and sad today when I should be happy. If only I knew you were living I could rejoice. Please son, write to me if you can."
   Just all like that. Notes that she wrote. Here's one: "Dear Lord Jesus, look down on that weary world this blessed Christmas night and bring peace to the weary hearts, and may we through faith hear the sweet message that the shepherds heard on that other Christmas night so long ago as they watched their flocks. Oh blessed babe of Bethlehem born so long ago, look down on this weary world this Christmas night and on it peace bestow."
   And these are just sympathy cards the family received.

Maxine: This is Daddy's letter to Mom after Billy's death. He was in the Navy yard. He wrote it but he never sent it.

   "Monday the 9th, 1:25 o'clock. Just got through my wash and will try to write you a few lines. I worked last night. Gigi and Phil are working today. We came to Richmond Friday, got there about 5 o'clock, stayed there until Saturday night p.m. o'clock, got home about 11 o'clock p.m., stopped at the post office, got the mail, got three letters from Hubert written March the 20th and 23rd and 27th of March. Poor child said he'd just written William" -- William, we called Billy William for fun -- "he never had but one letter from him since he has been in Germany. He wanted to know when we heard from him. Poor child, I just cannot hardly read the letters. I just think they will break my heart to hear him wondering about his brother Billy. But God knows it is not my fault, for the Democrats bring sorrow every time they get in, then they all try to creep back or hide behind a petticoat, or get where they never have to get into battle. But thank God I never helped to put him there. Well, I must close and get my supper and pack my lunch."

Maxine: Oh, Daddy hated Roosevelt with a passion.

March 25, 1983, a letter from John Zimmer, C Company secretary, inquiring about next of kin or friend.

A.E.: When you received that, what did you do?

Maxine: They called me on the telephone, that they had gotten this letter at the Chamber of Commerce in Edinburg.

Madeline: See, this is Edinburg, and we live in Mount Jackson.

(The letter was sent to the office of vital statistics, Edinburg, Va.)

Maxine: They called me on the phone and asked me, Doris Stover, she was the secretary at the town office, at the chamber of commerce, and she called me one afternoon and asked, she had talked to someone and they had told her that they thought that our brother was Billy Wolfe. Well, I was petrified. I said "Oh, yes."
   She said "Well, we have a letter here from New York someone inquiring."
   Well, right away I thought, after all these years nobody's interested. It's a gimmick. That they wanted to present us with a plaque.
   Well, I got to thinking, "What's the purpose? How much is it gonna be?" You know, just in my mind. And I told her, "Oh, yes, please send it to me." So I had it hand-delivered, I can't remember who it was.
   Then we sat down and thought, checked out with my husband, he said "Well, it sounds authentic to me." So we sat down and wrote a letter. And it just took off from there.

A.E.: So you wrote to John Zimmer, and then he called you or wrote to you?

Madeline: They came down and presented us with this plaque on August 5, '83, he and Sylvia brought this plaque to us. And we began to ask him questions and he couldn't answer too many, so he put us in touch with Ray Griffin, and from there, these two books are correspondence.
   And of course Jack Marsh is our personal friend, he was the Secretary of the Army (under President Reagan) and we wrote to him a letter, and he sent us copies of all Billy's war records, his death, and all the accounting of it.

(Billy's name is on the Wall of the Missing in the cemetery where Patton is buried)

Maxine: After 38 years, Billy was declared killed in action. They didn't want to declare him dead, but they have. We received these medals in 1989, after we requested them. And we even got a duplicate Purple Heart, which we didn't need...
   The European-African-Middle Eastern campaign, the American campaign, the Good Conduct medal, and World War II, honorable service lapel button.
Maxine: By the way, over here is his guitar. And here's some rocks, here's Indian slates that he found. And civil war bullets. He found them out in the corn fields, where he thinned corn.

Madeline: The letter from Snuffy Fuller was Hubert's. But his wife passed it on to us. When he passed away she gave it to us.

Maxine: Hubert had all of them tied up with a ribbon.

Madeline: Hubert was wounded the day before Billy was killed. He was two years older than Billy.

Madeline: ...papers and all this, so he wouldn't get the news out of the newspaper. We just tried to keep it away from him. But our sister Peg wrote him a letter, and she thought that he already knew and she said "Wasn't that terrible about Billy?" Well, he didn't know what was terrible about Billy. But he always had a feeling that something had happened to him because he never heard from him.I think it was about May that he got the letter from Peg.

Maxine: Then he wrote to Fuller to confirm it.

A.E.: And Fuller wrote back that letter. (reading statements from members of Billy's platoon who responded to the request for information:)
"8 June, 1945, statement. I, Corporal Otha Martin, was a member of the Second Platoon of Company C, 712th Tank Battalion, when the platoon entered the town of Pfaffenheck, Germany, on the morning of 16 March, 1945.
   During the engagement with the enemy in the town, I saw the No. 2 tank of our platoon receive a hit by an antitank gun and saw the tank burst into flames.
   This tank was commanded by Sergeant Hayward, with Corporal Clingerman as gunner, Private Billy Wolfe as cannoneer [loader], Private Moy  as assistant driver and T-4 Harrell as driver.
   The tank continued to burn all that day, and during the burning all the ammunition exploded. The next morning, 17 March, 1945, I went over to look into the tank. The interior of the tank was completely burned, and the exploding ammunition had turned the interior into a shambles.
   The only remains that I could see of Private Wolfe were what looked to be three rib bones, and these were burned so completely that upon touching them they turned to ashes.
    Staff S. Otha A. Martin."

This is William Harrell's statement:

   "I, T-4 William W. Harrell, was driver of the No. 2 tank, second platoon, Company C, 712th Tank Battalion, when we entered the town of Pfaffenheck, Germany, on the morning of 16 March, 1945. Another platoon of tanks from the company was pinned down by antitank fire from the edge of the woods to the right of town, so we attempted to circle around to the left of the town to get positioned to knock out the gun.
   As we passed an opening between two buildings, the tank was hit in the right sponson by an antitank gun and immediately burst into flames. I managed to get out safely and took cover behind a pile of dirt, when machine guns opened up on us.
   I saw Pfc. Moy and Corporal Clingerman get out safely, and Sergeant Hayward got out and crawled a short ways away even though he was badly wounded in both legs. I didn't see Private Billy Wolfe get out of the tank.
   The ammunition started to explode, so at the first opportunity I ran to cover in the nearest building. Later I borrowed a rifle from another tank and worked my way to the aid point, where I was joined by Pfc. Moy. During all this time I did not see Private Billy Wolfe.:

This is the statement of Koon Moy:

   "I, Pfc. Koon L. Moy, ASN32421554, was a member of the crew of the No. 2 tank, second platoon, of Company C, 712th Tank Battalion, when we entered the town of Pfaffenheck, Germany, on the morning of 16 March, 1945.
   There was an antitank gun in the woods to the right of the town, and we were trying to work around through the town to get into position to knock it out. As we pulled out from behind a building to cross an open place, the gun hit us in the right sponson and the tank started to burn all at once.
   Before I could get the hatch open and get out, I got burned on the hand and face. When I got out they began shooting at me with machine guns, so I jumped down and took cover behind a pile of dirt.
   I saw Corporal Clingerman and T-4 Harrell get out, and I saw Sergeant Hayward crawl away on the ground, but he was hurt in the legs.
   The ammunition began to explode as soon as I got out of the tank, so I crawled away as fast as I could. I didn't see Private Billy Wolfe get out of the tank. I was at the aid station and then taken to the hospital, so I never saw him again."

 Madeline: ... found out in the middle of April, and he had written letters. Then Mom, he wrote home wondering why he hadn't heard from Billy, and that letter of Peg's that he had gotten, about not to worry. And he said he knew there was something wrong, that he hadn't heard from him for so long.

Maxine: January 14, there was a widow lady, and her only son was killed. It was like quotation marks, ours was the last house in the lane and hers was the first. The road was a mile long, and the very first house, the lady there lost her only son in January, and then in March, our house was the last one on the road. It seemed like it was quotation marks.

Madeline: And Mom went, when we heard about the first son being killed, Mom went to visit her, and Mom told her, "You've had your problems. Mine are coming." She felt like something was going to happen to one of the boys.
A.E.: Tell me a little bit about Billy as a boy. He was born...

Maxine: May First, 1926.

A.E.: You were both two years...

Madeline: Younger.

A.E.: What happened that he would have graduated with you?

Madeline: Well, he started school, it was the...

Maxine: They had to have a quota, it was a little one-room school, and they had to have so many to enroll in order to keep it open.

Madeline: And the first year he went, one of the bigger bully boys at school pushed him, he was going down the hill to get water for the school, and one of the older boys pushed him off of the platform that the cistern was on and broke his leg, he broke his hip, so that put him back a year. And then another year he had pneumonia. So then we caught up together in school.

Maxine: And they carried him home, Hubert and Mom. Hubert went home after Mom, across the river, they had to go down the hill and take the boat, go across the river and walk to the house and get Mom, then they had to cross the river again and go up the hill to the schoolhouse, and carry him home.

Madeline: We had to take a boat across the river to go to school, and church. We had services three times on Sunday and we never missed a Sunday. That was our entertainment, the church. And school.

(This was the North Fork of the Shenandoah)

Maxine: Oh, you would be amazed. Daddy never had a car, and we had to walk everywhere. We would walk everywhere to get groceries, Daddy would walk to get groceries. And our church was on the other side of the river and so was the schoolhouse, so we had to cross the river. Daddy would either take us in a boat, he would test the ice in the wintertime to see if it was thick enough for us to safely cross, we would walk on the ice, or we would wade in the summertime. And we always put our shoes on after we got to the road.

Madeline: Daddy worked for farmers, and then he worked for the Highway Department, he was a heavy equipment operator. Then he went to Bowman Apple Products, and then he went to the Navy Yard, and then went back to Bowman. He retired at the age of 78, he was the night watchman at the end. The dry house, isn't that what he was in charge of? Where they made pumice.
   In the Norfolk Navy Yard he was a pipe fitter.

A.E.: Did Billy have a girlfriend?

Maxine: No. They all liked him, but he was shy, and he was interested in hunting, trapping, fishing, see, we lived on the river and that was his life.
   One time, he trapped a skunk, and he cleaned himself up and went to school, and the teacher wouldn't let him in the school. Oh, he hated that teacher. That's the one that gave him the C-plus on his essay. But she didn't like him, because he came to school with skunk on him. But no, he had no girlfriends.

Madeline: Now after he went in service, I don't guess he had time.

A.E.: Was there a rivalry between Hubert and Billy?

Madeline: Oh, no.

Maxine: Their greatest joy was to wrestle each other down, and pick on each other. Billy was quick, and he could box, he loved to box, and Hubert would get the giggles, and he would just lay there would giggle and Billy would get the better of him.
   One time Billy came home from school, and he always had a little grin but he wouldn't grin that evening, and finally we found out he had a tooth knocked out boxing at school. With Neff Crisman, the Neff you read about in the letter.

A.E.: He had all that Civil War memorabilia. Where would he get that?

Madeline: In the cornfields. He would thin corn for farmers. That's what he did. During school, of course we had three gardens at home, there were seven of us, but to make a little spending money he would thin corn.
    When they plant it it gets too thick, they would pull a certain amount of them up so the others would grow big.

Maxine: And when we'd walk home from school, get off the bus and walk home, he'd always say "Twins, carry my books, I am so tired." And then he'd get between us and lean on us, we carrying his books and he had an arm around each one of us, and he'd lift his feet up. He just picked on us!"

 A.E.: How old was he when he was drafted?

Madeline: He was 18.

A.E.: You said he had wanted to enlist but they wouldn't take him.

Maxine: He wanted to get in the Air Force, but he was too near draft age that they wouldn't allow it, I guess. His school principal wrote a letter of recommendation, but it didn't turn out that way.

Madeline: So he said he'd just wait, because after Hubert got in he just wanted to get in so bad he didn't know what to do.

A.E.: Was Hubert drafted?

Maxine: He was drafted. He went in the month before Billy did, July. He spent his 21st birthday on the boat going over to Germany. We have a letter from Billy saying that his big brother was 21 today and he was on his way overseas.

A.E.: He was very close to his mother, I guess.

Maxine: He always told her that when he grew up he was going to build her a rock house out on the hill, and he was gonna name it Odd Rock Hall.

Madeline: He was just a kid. Oh, he'd get after us. Oh, the twins, if he couldn't find his socks or something he'd run get the mop and he'd swear we used it to mop the floor with his socks. He had a great sense of humor.

A.E.: Your mother was very religious?

Madeline: Yes. We were a very close family, and we remember Daddy carrying us, one under each arm, to go to Sunday school. We didn't miss church. It was the entertainment, social life. Our mother was a Sunday school teacher for years, our sisters played the organ for church.

A.E.: You had three sisters...

Maxine: The two of us had three sisters, and two brothers. We were the youngest.
   The oldest, Gigi, her name is Geneva but we called her Gigi, she went to business college, and she left home -- she was all of our instructor, she planned our...She went to New York, and then she went from New York back to Portsmouth, and worked in the Navy yard. But she planned all of our lives. She wanted us all to have a better education and like that, so she started out and went to business school. Then the sister that just passed away, her name's Peg, she was already enrolled to go in nurse's training in Winchester when she ran off and got married. That was the end of her schooling.

Madeline: Oh, that tore Mom up...

A.E.: Who was the sister who Billy asked in the letter if she was married.

Madeline: That's Mary. When she got out of high school she went to nurse's training in Winchester, and she was an R.N., and then she worked in Winchester a while and then Richmond, and in Norfolk. She ended up in Norfolk, as a supervisor of a floor in Maryview Hospital.
   Hubert went to diesel school, and that was it until he went in the service, and then he came back and went to business school locally, and then he went to Ben Franklin University in D.C. and graduated from there, he was a CPA registered in the state of Maryland, Virginia and D.C. Had his own business.
   He retired in December of '79 and March 13 of '80 he passed away. Of cancer. They were doctoring him, he thought he had good doctors, and they were trying to get his blood pressure, he had high blood pressure and they couldn't get it regulated, and found out he had colon cancer.

A.E.: And he never talked about the war?

Madeline:  You could tell, though, like he was lost when he came back. If anybody would mention it he would walk off. He just wouldn't talk about it.
   And the letter that he got from Fuller, he just told us just a certain amount, he didn't tell us in any detail, because he knew it would really upset Mom.

A.E.: So she never saw the letter.

Maxine: Oh no, she knew nothing about the letter.

A.E.: Tell me about those 38 years. He was listed as missing all that time? During that time, you said your mother continued to write letters to him. How would he come into your thoughts?

Maxine: All the time. You just wondered what happened to him. Was he alone? Did anybody see the smile on his face? What happened? Did it happen instantly? Did he need somebody? It was just a jumble. You just wondered where he was, if it was out in an open field. You just wondered if he was near a building. You just wondered what the situation was, and there were no answers.

Madeline: Just a void that you couldn't fill, just nothing to put with it. You just were out there seeking, but that's all.

A.E.: Would you often go look through that memorabilia, or were they put away?

Madeline: Mom packed them away, and we found them after she passed away. Once in a while she would show them to Maxine and I but she would never discuss it with any other members of the family. I guess it was because we three were together. Of course Mary was there when she got the telegram...

Maxine: She was there temporarily for a week or so...

Madeline: But we, like they always said, we held down the fort, Mom and Maxine and I. We had a little farm like.
A.E.: When the telegram came, what happened?

Madeline: Well, Mary walked out the lane...

Maxine: It was the most beautiful day, March the 27th, I remember what I had on. It was downright what you'd consider summertime. And we had gone to school. Once we went to school, nobody called for us, we didn't have a telephone at home, that's the reason the telegram was delivered by mail.

Madeline: We had gone to school, and it was about noontime, and our sisters, Peg and Mary, came to the door. Well, somebody knocked on the door and one of the classmates went and answered the door, and they wanted the Wolfe twins. Well, right away we didn't know what in the world, because nobody ever called for us. Once we left home we never heard from anybody till we got back. And they wanted us, so we went out...

Maxine: Mr. Ritz, the principal...

Madeline: ...and our two sisters were there and told us, and we were just numb. We came back in and just began to gather up our books, and our principal was teaching our class, civics that day, and he knew it was something wrong, and he went out, and when he came back in, he walked us out the door and told us to stay home as long as we needed, and he was crying. And after we left, we learned that he had called all the classes into the auditorium and had prayer...

Maxine: And dismissed school.

Madeline: Mom in the meantime walked down the river, alone, and called the neighbor to bring the boat across and take her over to her home, and Mom spent the afternoon, Miss Cleda Clinedienst, and Mom spent the afternoon with her so she wouldn't have to be alone till we got home. And then we went after.

Maxine: And walking back up the river was terrible, with Mom. I mean, it was just like we were lost.

A.E.: You went directly to Cleda's?

Madeline: We came home first and then walked down the river.

Maxine: 'Cause it wasn't right, Mom wasn't there. She was always there for us. And when we knew what had happened and she was gone, why we had to go find her. We knew where she was but we had to be with her.

A.E.: You said you remember what you were wearing?

Maxine: Saddle oxfords for one thing, brown and white saddle oxfords. And white anklets. And we had what they call broomstick skirts that were yellow with ...

Madeline: ...rag dolls around the bottom. And white blouses and blue sleeveless sweaters.

Maxine: You remember those things. The blouse had a little tie with strings out here...

Madeline: It had lace...

Maxine: And the skirts were just out of this world, it was a poodle skirt. A broomstick, and it had great big rag dolls around the bottom. You know, you remember those things. That was before your time!

A.E.: And how had you worn your hair then?

Madeline: Long, kind of curls here. Very stylish at the time.

(The twins would have been 17 in March.)

                          end of tape

                     Tape 2, next morning
Madeline: ...instead of accepting the full amount, I think it was $10,000, I have his policy downstairs, and instead of accepting the lump sum, she chose to receive the monthly payment, I think it was $42.80, something like that, at any rate, she was very secretive about receiving them, and she would just put it in the bank, she wouldn't cash it, because she said she just couldn't spend that money. That's the way she was.

Maxine: And then of course after her death, it went into her estate.

Madeline: It was about $36,000 by then. I think that's what it was. She received it from 1945 to 1977.

A.E.: Let's just go over one more time the chronology of what happened after the 38 years. During those 38 years, how would the thought of Billy present itself?

Madeline: Mom put them away, she tied them all up and put them away. And not long before she passed away, she told us where they were, and she just wanted the two of us, when we were alone, she said to unpack them, I don't know, I guess it was because just the three of us were at home alone during the war, and like that, and she just didn't seem to want to share it too much with the others. I don't know why.

Maxine: Well, I think, too, it was because you and Hubert and Billy and I were like a second set of children almost. The others were older, and we were together all the time.

A.E.: How much distance, age-wise...There were you two, two years to Billy...

Madeline: ...two more to Hubert, three to Mary, a year and a half to Peg, and Gigi was about a year and a half. She was 13 years older than us.

A.E.: What year did your mother pass away?

Madeline: 1977.

Maxine: On the 12th of February, and Daddy passed away the next February on the 14th, just a year and two days. He was 89.

A.E.: The first thing in the sequence of events was finding the letter from Fuller to Hubert?

Maxine: That was after Hubert's widow passed away, we got these letters. The family packed them up and sent them to us, or we picked them up.

A.E.: What went through your minds when you saw that letter?

Maxine: It was just an answer to all the questions we had.

Madeline: Hubert had just told us briefly that he had been killed and he was in a tank, but he didn't go into any specifics on it at all, because he wanted to spare us.

Maxine: But then when we visited him after he had cancer, he said he had a lot to talk to us about.

Madeline: It was just two days before he died. He said "I want you all to have Billy's letters. They're in my bottom desk drawer, on the left. They're tied with a ribbon." He said "That will tell you a lot," and we just wanted them so bad, but we couldn't ask for them right...

Maxine: He said "Go in my office and read them." Well, with him in the condition he was, we didn't have the heart to...

Madeline: ...and he tried to play his guitar for us, he couldn't, he was so weak, he said "I can't do it now, but someday I'll play it for you."

Madeline: But he wanted us to go in his office. He said "Just take them and go in there and read them." Well, with him in the shape he was in, we didn't want two sorrows piling up, so then, I called, after Zimmer got in touch with us, we wanted those letters desperately, so Hubert's widow was away in Germany. She took a trip. And I called her sister, Evelyn, and I explained to her that we would love to have Hubert's letters that he had sent, if we could have them. That a gentleman from New York had written to us requesting information about our brother, and that he wanted to present us a plaque. And I said we need those letters to know, so that we can write back to him and give him information. And she said, "Well, I'll see what I can do. I'm going to talk to Peggy," that was Hubert's widow, "and I will explain to her." So she had, and we went down to Washington. Then Peggy had passed away in the meantime, just between that conversation and then. And Peggy's sister, Hubert's widow's sister, gave them to us, and we brought them home. That's a longabout way to get them, but we got them.

A.E.: The letter from Fuller to Hubert was in those letters? So that actually, you were contacted first by Zimmer, and then you saw the letter. So even though Hubert died in 1980, you didn't see the letter until...

Maxine: Did she hold that letter that long, Peggy's relatives? She died in '81. But I called them and asked for those letters. Zimmer contacted us in '83. We evidently went for a couple years before we picked those letters up.

A.E.: So Zimmer contacted you first, then you saw the letter from Snuffy to Hubert. When Byrl Rudd wrote that account in 1987...

Madeline: I know that we wanted those letters desperately, and we didn't know how to go about getting them without creating a little confusion. And when we heard from Zimmer, that brought joy to us that that was a good way to ask for them. And that's what we did. Then we went down to Upton Hill, Maryland, and picked those letters up from his widow's sister. And that had to be in, she died in '81, it must have been, then Zimmer we heard from in '83, it must have gone that long before we picked them up.
   Peggy died in June of '83. Well, then we picked them up in '84.

A.E.: You said that when he was close to death, Hubert said that he had a lot to talk to you about?

Madeline: He said he had a lot to tell us. And he also said, not long before that, that when he got well, we were going to Germany. He said "As soon as I get well, we're going to Germany and retrace all of this." That's what his plans were. He didn't get well. But he said "I want you twins to have the letters. In the bottom left hand drawer of my desk." But we had to wait from '80 when he passed away until about '84 to get them.

A.E.: And that set the whole chain of things in motion. And that first reunion you came to, in Niagara Falls. You met Fuller there?

Maxine: Yeah, we met him.

Madeline: And he was standing there, we went in, we didn't know who to look for, in the lobby were all these tanker hats moving around, so we knew we'd found the right place. We just went up and introduced ourselves to a couple, I don't think we found John Zimmer right off. But we were standing there talking to someone, and Frank Fuller walked over to where we were, and just talked a little to us.

Maxine: He said "I'm the one you all been looking for."

Madeline: And we wrote to him, he would never answer us, did he? We wrote him a detailed letter, and he never answered.

A.E.: After the reunion?

Madeline: Before the reunion, to let him know we had this letter. But then he never mentioned it, in none of his letters.
   And we were a little bit leery of sending Griffin a copy of his letter. That's the first time we copied the letter and sent it, and we felt "Well, he knows about it, how's he going to feel?" The confidence that he had with our brother, that we were sharing it, but then we figured, it's been so long ago, and it's history, and they need to know.

Maxine: We felt really shocked about it. We thought that we'd be betraying a confidence or something like that. I don't think we are.

A.E.: What was the emotional feeling that you had, you described it as a letting go, or putting it to rest.

Madeline: Oh, every time we'd get a letter, it just added more, see, we dug up all of these things that Mom, we opened her boxes and all and dug it all out. We had kind of forgotten things that we read in the letters. But we read all of the letters, and it was very emotional. Especially as she and dad had both passed away and didn't know. Because I think they would have felt better if they had known somebody that knew him, had  been in contact, instead of always wondering what happened. But each letter you'd get would describe a little more to you, and somebody in the letter would mention somebody else, and that just got your heart to pumping, thinking that, it just got on a roll...

Maxine: Every week we heard from somebody.

Maxine: Back during the war, I wanted to tell you that, it's neither here nor there, but when our brothers were overseas and in the service, we wrote to 17 different classmates and friends, Madeline and I did, and we were always getting handsful of mail.

Madeline: And our mail carrier always said he didn't know what was going to happen to us when they all come home at the same time! He always said that. But they were friends of the family that had gone into service, and our classmates. And then some of the boys' friends would write. Hubert's and Billy's friends would write to us.

Maxine: And I should have saved the letters from the other boys. We threw them away. That just breaks your heart. At the time you think, well, it's excess luggage.

Madeline: But we do have the complete little carrying case, blue satin with a little kimono in it that one of the service boys sent us from Japan. It's in a fancy little carrying case. Then from Belgium we had a pair of satin shoes with feathers, and all kinds of Chanel perfume, and a scarf. We still have those in the attic. I have them all tagged, too, because I thought years to come, somebody, when they go to clean out my house they'll wonder what in the world that was for. It has a history behind it.

A.E.: Did you have any ancestors who fought in the Civil War?

Madeline: Oh yes. And our great-great aunt fought the Indians off down here near Woodstock. They were attacking the family. They killed her husband and her brother, d she had two little children, and she killed one with an axe. That's history. I have the story, written. It's a document.

 Lieutenant Fuller's letter:

   "To PFC Hubert L. Wolfe Jr., Company M, 310 Infantry, APO 78, 14 July, 1945,
   I hardly know how to start this letter, as you don't even know who I am. Anyway, Lieutenant Seeley, the adjutant of our battalion, received a letter from you asking the facts about your brother, Billy Wolfe. As I was his platoon leader and was there when he was killed, he has asked me to try to give you the information you requested.
   Captain Sheppard has already written your mother, but perhaps he has not told her exactly how he died. But I am trusting that since you are a soldier, I can tell you the true facts, and then perhaps you can tell your folks what you think they ought to know.
   To start off, our battalion has been attached to the 90th Infantry Division since July 3rd, 1944, which as you probably know is in the Third Army. My platoon, the second platoon of C Company, 712th Tank Battalion, was attached to the second battalion of the 357th Infantry Regiment.
   Your brother joined my platoon on the 4th of March while we were driving to the Rhine River, following up the 11th Armored Division. We drove to a town called Mayenne, and then changed direction and started driving to the Moselle for the second time.
   On the evening of March 14, we crossed the Moselle and found that the infantry that had preceded us had gotten into a jam and lost over half of their men and gotten cut off, so we were called upon to rescue them.
   We succeeded in reaching the town where they were, and cleared it okay, and stayed there the rest of the day, and stayed there the night of the 15th. Then, on the morning of the 16th, we were told to attack the town of Pfaffenheck, which was about 2,000 yards north of where we were. The TDs started into the town first, but as they rolled over the crest of a hill, the lead tank destroyer was knocked out by an anti-tank gun. They withdrew, and succeeded in knocking out the gun and another.
   We were then ordered to try to enter the town, and by going down a draw, I managed to get into the east side of the town.
   Your brother was in No. 2 tank, which was commanded by Sergeant Hayward, with Johnny Clingerman as gunner, William Harrell as driver, Koon Moy as bow gunner, and your brother as loader.
   As I said, all of the tanks got into the town okay except No. 3, which encountered a 40-millimeter AA gun, which killed the tank commander.
   We took all but three houses, when the infantry got stopped by firing from the woods east of the town. (line missing)... into a firing position. I sent the second section along the backs of the houses, while I took the first section into an orchard. My tank was in the lead, and the tank your brother was in was on my left flank, slightly behind.
   Just after we had passed an opening between two houses, my loader told me No. 2 tank had been hit. I looked over, and the men were piling out, and the tank was blazing. The shot had went through the right sponson, puncturing the gas tank.
   I didn't know then how many men had gotten out, so I tried to get my tank into position to rescue the men, but as I moved into position, my tank received a direct hit through the gun shield, killing my loader. Fortunately for the rest of us, my driver was able to move the tank before the Heinies could fire again.
   After giving Clingerman first aid and getting the rest of the boys calmed down, I took my gunner with me and we crawled out to where Sergeant Hayward lay wounded. I found that he would have to have a stretcher to be moved. I went back to get the medics, and then I learned from the rest of the crew that your brother never got out of the tank. As the tank was burning all this time, we could not get near it. I don't know if you have ever seen one of our tanks burn, but when 180 gallons of gas start burning, and ammunition starts to explode, the best thing to do is keep away.
   When I got the medics back out to Sergeant Hayward, I found he had been killed by a sniper. The other section of tanks finally took care of the Heinies, and we secured the town.
   Your brother's tank continued to burn all that night, but in the morning we were able to go out to investigate. We determined that your brother had been killed instantly, as the shell had hit right above his seat. There was nothing visible but a few remnants of bones that were so badly burned that if they had been touched, they would have turned to ashes.
   As for personal effects, you could not recognize anything because the intense heat and the exploding ammunition had fused most of the metal parts together.
   The accident was reported to the GRO of the 357th, and as we moved on to the Rhine the next day, I didn't think anything more about it until two weeks ago when I received a letter from the Third Army asking for information. I sincerely trust that by this time they have everything straightened out. If you ever get into the neighborhood of that town, the tank may still be there. The town of Pfaffenheck is about 13 miles south of Coblenz on the main autobahn that runs straight down that peninsula formed by the Rhine and the upper Moselle.
   Maybe I have told you more than I ought to, but I really would like to help you in any way that I can. Your brother was very well liked by all the rest of the crew, but he was so doggone quiet that we hardly ever knew he was around. Of the other members of his crew, William Harrell is still with me, as is Koon Moy. Clingerman lost his eye and had his legs filled with shrapnel and is now back in the States. That was the worst day I had in combat. I lost three tanks, had four men killed and three wounded. But that is the way things went. It might be interesting to you that in the town there were seven anti-tank guns, one 40-millimeter antiaircraft gun, plus plenty of determined SS troops. We counted 92 dead Germans and had 23 prisoners.
   I am enclosing a snap one of the boys took which has your brother on it. I will also try to draw a sketch of the town, so if you ever get there you can find the place.
   Incidentally, you will have to use your judgment as to how much of this story you want to pass on to your mother.
   Don't forget, if I can be of any further help to you, I will be more than glad to hear from you at any time. There is no use in trying to tell you how sorry I feel, because you have been through the same things yourself, so I'll just say so long and good luck.
                Francis A. Fuller, First Lieutenant.
Lt. Francis "Snuffy" Fuller

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