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 And that hospital will likely lose jobs if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.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"