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.