Monday, December 24, 2018

A cemetery Christmas

Dutch History teacher Wiel Goertzen at the grave of Ed Forrest.

   At my office Christmas party, I mentioned to my colleague Bob Montgomery, an avid historian in the city of Bristol, Connecticut, that I’d like to give a talk at the Bristol Public Library. He asked me if I wanted to talk about my books. I said, “No, I’d like to talk about cemeteries.”

   I proceeded to tell him three stories about graves, and I was telling him a fourth when our publisher, Michael Schroeder, happened by and said, “Leave it to Aaron to talk about cemeteries at a Christmas party.”

   “Actually,” I said, “these stories are kind of uplifting.” I pointed out that the grave in the fourth story, that of an unknown German pilot, an “unbekannte flieger,” as it were, was marked by a propeller blade from the Messerschmitt 109 in which he crashed, and that a lady in the village cemetery at Heimboldshausen kept it decorated with dried flower arrangements even though she didn’t know his name. “Isn’t that kind of uplifting?” I asked. He wasn’t impressed.
The grave of the "unbekannte flieger" who, after my visit to Heimboldshausen, with the help of German historian Walter Hassenpflug, was identified as Erwin Bunk.
   But I’m getting ahead of myself. Bob said he always found cemetery stories interesting, as any historian would, so I told him that one of the stories I’d like to talk about was about Johnny Daum.
   In 1994, with the 50th anniversary of D-Day approaching, the newspaper I worked for at the time asked me to find some local D-Day veterans. So I wrote to Stephen Ambrose at the Eisenhower Center in New Orleans and asked for recommendations. He sent me a list of about a dozen.
   One of them was Ed Boccafogli, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division. Ed told of an incident that occurred before he boarded the plane to fly across the English Channel. There was a young paratrooper named Johnny Daum, and being that Ed was a little older and more rugged, he took Johnny under his wing. Johnny was about 19 years old, a good looking kid, tow-headed. Ed noticed Johnny staring off into space, and asked him if everything was okay.

   Johnny said matter of factly, “I’m gonna die tomorrow.”

I can still hear Ed quoting himself, ” ‘Ey, Johnny,'” he said, “‘some of us will, some of us won’t, you ain’t gonna be one of ’em.'”

   “Sure enough,” Ed said, “he was one of the first ones killed.”

   When I launched my web site in 1997, I posted my full interview with Ed. Eventually the transcript of the interview was re-posted on the web site of the 508th Parachute Infantry Division, Ed’s unit, and the anecdote about Johnny Daum’s premonition was picked up in a book titled “The Americans at Normandy,” by John McManus.

   Meanwhile, in Eagle Lake, Wisconsin, a fellow named Tom Stumpner grew up knowing he had an Uncle Bud who was killed during the war. That was all he knew, as his mother would never talk about her brother.
    “Band of Brothers” was released in 2001. I don’t know when Tom saw it, probably not too long thereafter, and he suddenly remembered that his Uncle Bud was a paratrooper. His mother wouldn’t talk about it, but Tom’s interest in D-Day was piqued.

   Then his mother took ill. When she was near death, she gave Tom a box, I don’t know if it was a cigar box or a cardboard box, but in it were letters, snapshots, and other memorabilia from Uncle Bud. It was then he learned Bud wasn’t really his uncle’s name. His uncle’s name was John Daum.

   He didn’t know much beyond what was in the letters. But then he bought “The Americans at Normandy” and discovered the anecdote about Johnny Daum’s premonition. And then, I don’t know if he googled John Daum or Ed Boccafogli, but he discovered my interview on the paratroopers’ web site. He emailed the site and said he wanted to fill out his uncle’s story, and he sent them copies of the letters and snapshots his mother left him.

The American cemetery in Normandy. Photo by Mary Kay Bosshart.

   Fast forward to 2011. Mary Kay Bosshart, who writes a blog called “Out and About With Mary Kay,” took a tour of the American cemetery in Normandy. The tour guide stopped at one grave and told a story.

   In 2007, the guide said, another tour guide found a letter propped up against the cross marking the grave at which they were stopped. The grave was that of John Daum.

   The tour guide in 2011 gave Mary Kay a copy of the letter, which she posted on her blog.

Le 1 november 2007
Dear John,
    We don’t know each other, we know nothing of each other’s lives and even so, I feel I owe you so much. I know nothing of you or so little.
    I don’t know what were your tastes, your hobbies, your favorite music or if you had a girlfriend back home. I don’t know what you loved in life, your too short life.
    John, you’ve been buried here for over 60 years, in this land of France that saw your last days. These last days where you fought for the liberation of a country, a whole continent and a civilization. When I found your picture, I started thinking a lot about you, your face, your pink cheeks, almost the face of a child. Your smile tells me you must have been mischievous, cheerful and full of life.
    Then I felt a deep sorrow because I know that on that day of June 6 th, 1944, when you jumped into the cold black night on the Normandy beach, you must have been terrified. Terrified before the unknown, terrified at the thought of never seeing your family again, of loosing your army companions, of being alone, of death itself. Nevertheless, you survived that historic night and fought for two long days, before you fell on June 8 th.
    I wonder how were the last moments of your life, with who you were. From the bottom of my heart, I hope that you were not alone. Because I know that your comrade-in-arms must have done everything to protect you, reassure you and comfort you.
I read the letters that were addressed to your parents when you passed away and realized that you were very much appreciated by your army companions.
    Before I leave John, I would like to tell you how much I am aware that your ultimate sacrifice and the one of thousand of men like you has allowed me and all of us, to live in a land of freedom and peace.
    For all of this, I am sincerely grateful. So, I promise you that every time I will travel to Normandy, I will come visit you to honor your memory. I will lay my hand on your white cross, so that you are not alone in the dark anymore. I will keep your memory alive in my heart and I will never forget what you have done for me, for our liberty, for all of us.

    See you soon and may god bless you.
Yvan ----

   Fascinated by the letter and wanting to know more about Johnny Daum, Mary Kay asked at the cemetery office if they could put her in touch with Yvan, and she asked the web master of the 508th PIR site if she could contact Tom.

   Today, Mary Kay, Tom and Yvan are great friends. Tom has been over to Normandy several times with members of his family, and has even learned a great deal more about his uncle’s experiences and the circumstances surrounding his death.

   The second story is about a Gold Star mother. It was told to me in 1999 by Erlyn Jensen, who was 12 years old when her brother Bill, who was 19, went into the service. Bill became a major in the 445th Bomb Group and was killed on Sept. 27, 1944.
   Erlyn's mother took Bill's loss very hard. Her two daughters encouraged her to join the Gold Star Mothers, which she did, and that seemed to help considerably. Then one day a family friend who Erlyn said wished to remain anonymous gave her mother an all expenses paid trip to France so she could visit her son's grave in the Lorraine American Cemetery at St. Avold.
    When she told the support group about the upcoming trip, one of the other Gold Star Mothers said, “Mrs. Mohr, I’ll never be able to go to St. Avold. If I give you ten dollars, would you buy some flowers and place them on my son’s grave?”

   “Oh, I’d be delighted to,” Erlyn’s mother said, or words to that effect.

   Now, this was a pretty emotional moment in the story and as often happens, I was getting choked up. Erlyn said, “If you’re gonna cry now, just you wait.”

   Erlyn’s mother went to France and visited the cemetery at St. Avold. She checked in at the office and a guide took her to her son’s grave. He gave her a whistle and said to blow it when she was ready to leave, and he would come and get her.

The Lorraine American Cemetery at St. Avold, France.
    She spent as much time as she needed, and then blew the whistle. When the guide returned, she showed him a piece of paper with the number of the other Gold Star Mother’s son’s grave.

The guide looked at the paper and said, “Mrs. Mohr, he’s buried right across the walkway from your son!” So she was able to come home and tell the other Gold Star Mother that your son and my son are neighbors.

   Over the years I’ve posted a lot of stories and transcripts from my interviews. On June 3, 2010, I received the following email:

Dear sir,
    My name is William Goertzen and I’m a teacher at a college for 12 till 17 year olds. I teach History and each year we spent about 10 weeks on World War Two. One of our fieldtrips is to Margraten, an American Burial site for soldiers killed in action; our school adopted the grave of one of these soldiers. With our classes we visit the grave once or twice a year, we pray for this man and we put some flowers at his grave in order to honor him and all those who died for the freedom of Europe and the Netherlands.
    Since October 2007 i have seen searching for information on Edward L. Forrest, 1Lt of the 712 th Tank Batallion. All I know is that he was killed in action on 3rd April 1945 and his ASN = O1017955. Now our idea is to make a wall inside the school with information and photos of Ed Forrest, so the War becomes ‘touchable’ for our pupils; it becomes more ‘real’ if they can look at and read about this lieutenant. We also hope to honor this particular soldier by creating this wall in our school, at
a place where pupils pass every hour/lesson.
    My problem is that I cannot seem to get any further on the internet. All trails lead to dead ends. I’ve sent forms with requests to the Department of the Army Administration section in Virginia, I’ve filled in a form of the NARA in Missouri, but no news yet. A mister Paul Wilson of North Carolina helped me on my way; Aparently Ed Forrest lived in Stockbridge, Berkshire County, MA., but all my internet searches lead to dead ends.
   In all of your interviews with veterans of 712th TB, I only once came across the name of 1LT Ed Forrest, mentioned by one of the veterans.
    Perhaps You could help me on my way, so I could learn more about his death but especially about the man behind the name; he also has or had family; I’d like to obtain information and pictures in order to make my remembrance wall and to use it in order to point out to 12 till 17 year olds that WW2 must never be forgotten.
    I hope to hear from you very soon and I would like to thank you already for reading my mail.
Yours sincerely
William Goertzen, teacher at Carbooncollege in the Netherlands.

   I didn’t know how to say “mother lode” in Dutch, but that is what Wiel had struck. Although my father’s time in combat was barely long enough to get a cup of coffee and two Purple Hearts, he managed to bond with a fellow lieutenant, Ed Forrest, who was killed near the very end of the war. As I recorded and preserved the stories of the veterans of my father’s battalion, I always asked veterans of my father's company about Ed Forrest. As Ed was an original member of the battalion while my father was a replacement, I heard many more stories about Ed than about my dad.

   And then in 1995, I decided to see if I could find Ed’s family. Within a couple of phone calls, I was on the line with Ed’s brother, Elmer Forrest. I went up to Lee, Massachusetts, and interviewed Elmer. I subsequently interviewed Dorothy Cooney, who had a secret romance with Ed and never married. I learned Ed had a falling out with his father and moved in with an Episcopalian minister when he was 14, and that the minister left a diary which I was able to read at the Stockbridge Library.

   Elmer Forrest had passed away, but I was able to put Wiel in touch with David Forrest, Elmer’s son, and David sent him a family photograph, which, along with some material I sent, was placed in a display case in the school.

The Ed Forrest display at Carbooncollege in the Netherlands.

   There you have it: three stories about cemeteries, each uplifting in its own special way, and each of which I had a role, however small, in preserving. If you’d like to know more about Johnny Daum, please visit the web site of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

   If you’d like to read or hear more, please explore the pages of my new web site,, and check out the great prices in my eBay store.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

How Sergeant Warren Lost His Stripes

Hank Lochowicz and Jabos
   Two years ago, Don Knapp sent me some photos from the war, but they were in pdf form rather than jpg. As I was looking through them, now that I have the ability to convert them, I discovered this picture of Hank Lochowicz, of Milwaukee, with a dog. This was the caption on the back of the picture:

   This story, however, is not about Hank Lochowicz, and it's not about Don Knapp, who I assume took the picture. Incidentally, you might have seen Knapp interviewed in "The Color of War," a documentary that aired on the History Channel a few years back. But this story is about the dog Jabos and Sergeant Jim Warren, and illustrates the kind of discrepancies that arise when stories are told secondhand. In this case, there are two strikingly different versions of how Sergeant Warren lost his stripes, but they both lead to the same conclusion: that Jim Warren was busted from a sergeant and tank commander to a buck private.
   The two different accounts were from Bob Rossi, a Pfc. in the third platoon, and Lieutenant Jim Gifford, who was Rossi's tank commander and platoon leader until Gifford was wounded during the Battle of the Bulge.
   Rossi joined the battalion as a 19-year-old replacement in November of 1944, shortly before the battalion's first crossing of the Moselle River. Sergeant Warren was one of the many characters he told me about.
   "I started to tell you one of the many Warren stories," Rossi said, "why he hated General MacArthur. The way he told us, Warren was in the Marines in Hawaii first, but he was getting discharged and his records were being sent to San Diego. In the meantime, he told us, he got into some trouble, and the sheriff of the island,. Duke Kahanamoku, he was a famous athlete, he was gonna come to grab Warren. Now Warren technically was a civilian, so the only way he could beat the rap was if he joined the Army. So he stayed in the islands with a searchlight outfit. And as fate would have it, MacArthur was the general in charge of the islands at that particular time, and they're going to have a big inspection. So he said they spent weeks polishing up the equipment, painting this and painting that. He was like a battery sergeant. And he says here comes MacArthur, and he says 'Ten-hut!' And he said he gave MacArthur the biggest highball [salute] you could ever give an officer. MacArthur says, 'Sergeant, how do you cut your toenails?' Warren says he was mystified. MacArthur says, 'Show me how you cut your toenails.' He made Warren sit down on the parade ground, take his shoes and socks off, and as he's sitting there, he made the whole battery crowd around Warren, and he says, 'Now this man is going to suffer from ingrown toenails, because he doesn't cut his toenails properly.' And Warren's sitting on the ground, everybody's razzing him, he took some razzing for weeks. That's why he hated MacArthur, for making a fool out of him."
   Sergeant Warren's name came up in several stories told to me by veterans of C Company. The consensus was that he looked after his men, he drank heavily, and was the kind of reliable tank commander you would want backing you up in a tense situation.

From left: Ed Spahr, Jim Gifford, Tony D'Arpino, Bob Rossi
     At the 1992 reunion of the 712th in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I sat at a table with four veterans --  Rossi, Gifford, Tony D'Arpino and Ed Spahr -- who were in the five-man crew of a tank that was knocked out on January 10, 1945, in the vicinity of Wiltz, Luxembourg, during the Battle of the Bulge. Sergeant Warren's tank was behind their tank. When the crew abandoned it, Lieutenant Gifford, who was wounded, told Sergeant Warren to fire into his tank and set it on fire, so that it wouldn't fall into the hands of the Germans.
   "Sergeant Warren was the type of guy, he was really military," D'Arpino said. "I mean, his tank crew wouldn't eat unless he said so. He was that kind of guy."
   "When I joined the third platoon," Rossi said, "I arrived with Koon Leong Moy, who we called Chop Chop because of his Oriental heritage. [Moy was a second generation Chinese American from New York City, and political correctness had not yet been invented]. "Right away, when Lieutenant Lombardi was assigning the crews, Warren says, 'I want him.' He thought Chop Chop was gonna cook for him. "Chop says, 'The hell with you, you cook for yourself.'"
   "But I'll tell you one thing about Sergeant Warren," D'Arpino said, "Sergeant Warren, and we weren't used to it, Lieutenant Lombardi even told me this himself, he wasn't used to having a guy like Warren in the Number 2 tank because if Lieutenant Lombardi had something hot in front of him, Sergeant Warren rode up on his backside. You could count on him. Very dependable. He wasn't one of these guys who would sit back 400, 500 yards."
   "He was a good tank commander," Rossi said.
   "The only trouble Sergeant Warren had was he liked his 'tea' a little much." D'Arpino looked at Gifford and said, "I think, from the time you were with us you could probably say the same thing, Sergeant Warren was one of the best Number 2 tank, when you were in trouble, he was right there."
   "He was dependable," Gifford said.
   "If you had a fast tank like I had in reverse, you'd always bump into him," D'Arpino said.
   "There are more Warren stories than you can shake a stick at," Rossi said. "He had pots and pans galore on the back of his tank. I used to say his pots and pans make more noise than the tank itself coming down the road."
   "Now this is toward the end of the war with Warren, one of the other  stories," Rossi said during my 1992 interview with him at his home in Brick Township, New Jersey. "They were giving us a pep talk on how we're going to go into Czechoslovakia, and how to conduct yourselves, these people are our friends, not our enemies. And to make it impressive, they gave us all new helmets. The war was gonna be over.
   "And as we're all sitting around laying on the grass, Colonel Kedrovsky is giving a talk, there's Warren on the ground, playing with the dog, Jabos. He was playing with the dog's penis, and he's laughing.
   "Colonel Kedrovsky sees this, and he's pissed off.
   "So they let it go. And no sooner had this happened, than the war ended.
   "Now we go into occupation. We went to Mincen, Malybor, then we went for miles, we traveled to Amberg. That was a mess. It took forever to clean those barracks up, because everybody looted it before we got there.
   "I can remember that night. We had a choice. I don't know how many miles we traveled, with the dust and everything, a column of tanks. We had a choice, either wash or make coffee. We had half a jerry can of water. So right after that, they broke Warren. It didn't go unnoticed. They let him continue as a tank commander. As soon as the war ended, they broke him from a buck sergeant to a private."

   When I interviewed Jim Gifford at his used car dealership in Yonkers, New York, in November of 1992 -- only a couple of weeks after the group interview -- he brought up the incident, which he didn't witness personally, as we were talking about Stanley Klapkowski, the gunner on the crew, who was not at the reunion.
   "Klapkowski was a nice looking kid, he almost looked German," Gifford said. "He had that wavy blond hair, and he was a handsome kid. But he had a Polish background, and he didn't like the Germans for some reason. The boys could probably tell you more stories than I could about him, because I didn't see him raising hell, just like I didn't see Warren when he threw a bottle at some general. Got himself demoted from sergeant to nothing. And that made me feel bad. He was drunk, and when he was drunk, he was another person, forget about it. Some general was up there, some minor general, not a big general, and he was in the area, and Warren threw a bottle at him, and the general had him demoted. But they didn't throw him out of the Army or put him in the stockade. I guess [Jack] Shepherd, who was the captain at the time, probably said, 'Look, the man was drinking, he's been through a lot, give him a break.' But there were a lot of things, so many guys could tell you stories that you probably wouldn't want to see printed."

   I never met Sergeant Warren, who passed away before I began interviewing veterans of the 712th Tank Battalion. But there's one more notable story Rossi shared.
   "This is at Christmastime," he said. "We're at Kirschnaumen [France]. Up on the hill the bulldozer tank dug out all the ground, and our turrets were just sticking above the dirt. We're in a holding position. This is just prior to the Bulge. It was miserable cold out there, and we were doing guard duty, four hours on, eight off.
   "So this one day, we're standing around, the house we were in had a blanket covering a hole up on the second floor where a shell had hit previously. We had to sleep up there. And the mother, father and daughter slept in the one room downstairs.
   "So we're in the other room, like the gathering place, it had a stove in it. We used to gather around the stove, oh, it was so cold. This one day Sergeant Warren, we had a kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling, this was in the evening and Warren was drunk, and he's sparring at the lantern. We're all laughing, because he was really a card. He throws a haymaker at the lantern. He misses the lantern and hits me on the other side, and I went flying across the room. And I come up with the biggest fat lip you ever saw. And when that was over, we went to bed.
   "The next morning, I'm in one of the other rooms, and I hear somebody, they were talking, and I hear, 'Ahh,' he says, 'I never touched the kid.' So I went in and showed him my lip, and he believed it."

   "Several years ago," Rossi said a little later in the interview, "I got one of the newsletters. Milford Anderson and Warren had died about the same time. I just filled up. These are the guys I was in combat with, they're both dead. I wrote to Anderson's wife, I think I sent her a picture. And I wrote to Warren's wife and I told her what a great guy he was. In combat he was the type of man that you wanted behind you, because he was right there. He drank a lot, but he was a good soldier. I wrote to his wife and I told her about the incident where he gave me a shot in the mouth."

- - -

For more great stories, visit

Friday, March 16, 2018

T-4 'Wac'

T-4 Wesley Harrell, 2nd Platoon, C Company, 712th Tank Battalion. Photo courtesy of Don Knapp.
   I received an email yesterday from the nephew of Wesley "Wes" Harrell, who was a tank driver in the 712th Tank Battalion, and whom I interviewed in Hobbs, New Mexico, in 1994.
   "My uncle served in Company C of the 712th from Normandy thru Germany," the nephew wrote. "He was a Sherman tank driver and lost two tanks in battle that I know of that you wrote about. He never spoke about his service. I only learned about it shortly before his death back in 2003. I am putting together a shadow box for future generations of my family to remember him as both of his sons (my cousins) have already passed -- neither of them ever had children. His wife (my father's sister Laverne) is now in a nursing home in Hobbs, NM. I want to finish the shadow box so she can see it. It will have the flag from his military funeral as well as the medals he was awarded, photos, his dog tags, T/4 patches, a certificate from the 712th Tank Battalion Association, etc. ...
   "I wish I had spoken to Uncle Wes more about his service but like so many it just wasn't something that he spoke of. My childhood was spent reading military history books of those that served in WW2. I was in my late 30s before I even knew that I had a hero in my own family. I know Uncle Wes never would have considered himself a hero, but he always will be one of mine.
   "I look forward to hearing back from you -- and thank you for both your father's service and your efforts on behalf of these supremely brave men."

    T-4 Harrell, a.k.a. T-4 Wac, was of special interest to me because he was involved in a battle that took place on March 16, 1945 -- coincidentally, his nephew's email arrived on the eve of the 73rd anniversary of that battle -- in the village of Pfaffenheck, Germany, which his platoon leader, Lieutenant Francis "Snuffy" Fuller -- said in a letter to Hubert Wolfe, whose brother Billy died in the battle, was his "worst day in combat."
   It was Harrell's tank commander, Don Knapp, who gave him the nickname Wac.
   "We had access to coveralls which I liked," Knapp said when I interviewed him at the 1994 battalion reunion in Cincinnati. "They were all one piece, and it enabled you to crawl around because sometimes if you had to crawl through the basket in the fighting compartment down into the driver's compartment, you didn't get caught on things. But I guess he liked the two-piece fatigues that were made more for infantry. They had baggy pockets on the side to keep things in, and in the process of getting out of the driver's compartment he sometimes got his pockets caught. And he was a little broad in the beam, he was just a heavyset, well built young man, but I said, 'Man, you've got a butt on you like a Wac.' [WAC stood for the Women's Army Corps.] So the name stuck. And he didn't mind, because he was that kind of a person. He resented nobody.
   "I remember one time we were clearing out from some woods and he caught the 75 a little bit on a tree and he almost put the gun out of battery, and I went down and I guess I kind of stomped on his head, and that night I said, 'Babe, I'm sorry, I just got mad at you.' And he said, 'Oh, that's all right. I shouldn't have done it, it's a dumb thing to do.'"

   The battalion crossed the Moselle River on March 14, 1945. On the night of March 15, C Company's 2nd Platoon was in the village of Udenhausen when it learned of the battle taking place in the nearby village of Pfaffenheck. Lieutenant Francis "Snuffy" Fuller said he would proceed to the village in the morning, as it was too dangerous to travel at night.
   Harrell was driving one of the platoon's five tanks. His tank commander was Sergeant Lloyd Heyward of Decker, Michigan, who took Knapp's place after Knapp was diagnosed with "combat exhaustion" a couple of weeks before. The gunner was Johnny Clingerman of Zanesville, Ohio. The loader was Pfc. Billy Wolfe of Edinburg, Virginia. The assistant driver, or bow gunner (also called the bog), was Koon Leong Moy, of New York City, whom the platoon had nicknamed Chop Chop.
   On the morning of March 16, the second platoon approached Pfaffenheck through an apple orchard, as Fuller preferred to avoid the road leading into town.
   "When we went into town," Harrell said during that 1994 interview, "they told us to drive up beside this building. They told us they were firing at hidden guns. There were a lot of guns in town.
   "They'd already got the first tank. Then they told me to move out, and I started to pull out from behind that building. And when I did, why, that 88 went through the side, and we had about 180 gallons, maybe 200 gallons of gas in that thing. And man, it caught fire just like that [he clapped his hands loudly]. Of course we had drills before to see how fast we can get out of them tanks in case of fire. Me and Chop Chop, I don't know which way he went, but when I got out, they were firing with small guns, machine guns, at me because they was hitting pretty close to me. And I crawled to a hedge, a pile of dirt, and I hid behind there.
   "And then they quit. I don't know whether somebody knocked him out or what, but they didn't fire no more."

   Of Harrell's crew, Pfc. Billy Wolfe and Sergeant Hayward were killed. Johnny Clingerman lost an eye, Moy was burned on his hand and face, and Harrell's eyebrow and hair were singed. Jack Mantell of Milwaukee, the loader in Lieutenant Fuller's tank, was killed, and Sergeant Russell Harris, one of the other tank commanders was killed.
   One company of the 90th Infantry Division suffered heavy casualties in the battle. The village cemetery is the final resting place for 100 members of the 6th SS Mountain Division.

Front Row, from left: Russell Loop, Indianola, Illinois; Joseph Rickel, Racine, Wisconsin; Lloyd Seal, Orange           , Texas. Back row, from left: Jack Mantell, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, KIA; Lt. Francis Fuller, Tonawanda, New                     York; Carl Grey Jr., Oswego, Kansas; John Zimmer, Macedon, New York; Otha Martin, Leguire, Oklahoma.                     Photo courtesy of Don Knapp.
Billy P. Wolfe, Edinburg, Virginia, KIA Pfaffenheck, March 16, 1945.

Russell Harris, Decker, Michigan, KIA, Pfaffenheck.


Monday, March 5, 2018

Coming Soon: Tanks for the Memories 2, The Hospitality Room

"This is the only loving I get out here" -- Art Horn in a letter to his girlfriend.
  It's been a long time between posts. I've been working on a new book, "Tanks for the Memories 2: The Hospitality Room." This is a collection of stories, interview and conversation excerpts from the many reunions of the 712th Tank Battalion that I went to in the 1990s, until they stopped having them because the last few veterans were too frail to make the trip. It didn't help that two of the four who were at the final reunion were treated so badly in the airport where they had to make a change on a flight from Boston to Florida that they decided it would be their last reunion. I forget what year it was, but in the early 2000s, I think.
   Please keep an eye on social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, my email newsletter, which gets posted on Facebook anyway) for further progress on the book. In the meantime, since I had such a wealth of material from which to draw, I'll be posting some "outtakes" from the many transcripts which have been hiding on my computer's hard drive for nearly two decades.
   The photo above is of Art Horn, who became a mechanic in D Company of the 712th Tank Battalion. Art sent the picture to his girlfriend Margaret, whom he would later marry, in Chicago, and it wound up in a newspaper, I'm not sure which one.
   While he was training in the horse cavalry, Art had a bit of a mishap on a horse. It was not the horse pictured above. During an exercise in which the trooper had to ride in a figure 8, shooting at targets at various points, Horn fell off the horse, struck his elbow on the ground, the pistol fired and the bullet struck the horse in the chin. The horse survived. I had heard about this from a couple of other former cavalrymen in the 712th, so I asked Art about it. This is what he said:

   "That was after six to eight months of training, the company commander gave an order to the stable sergeant to take certain horses away, we were gonna be firing on the range, and he says to put those in the corral and don’t let them on the line so that anybody could take one. But I think I got one. And I waited my turn. The biggest problem was that the rest of the horses were in the distance, they would stay there and each one of us would make these figure eights, run the figure eight, and this horse that I had, as long as I fired away from him, when I went around the other way to fire crossover is when it got too close to his ear and he bucked and he threw me on the ground. And when I landed on my back, my elbow hit the ground and I still had my hand on the pistol. The bullet went straight up. Because they always said when you’re on the firing range, when you’re not firing, always hold it straight up, because if I’d have held it off to the side I might have hit one of the men that were standing around.
   "So I did that. The horse stopped, and I got up and I looked and I noticed that there was a little blood coming down from his throat. And I looked at it, and I said, oh, the bullet hit the horse. But I also noticed on the halter on the horse there was a double leather thong that was underneath there. The bullet went through that, and then I found out later that the bullet only entered into the horse’s mouth, and when they got to the vet they were able to take it out and it healed up, and he was back in the saddle again."
Art Horn

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Friday, January 26, 2018

Once Upon a Tank in the Battle of the Bulge

   I started going to reunions of my father's tank battalion in 1987. I always had a small tape recorder with me, and I would sometimes plunk it down in the middle of one of those round tables where maybe two or three veterans and a wife or companion would be sitting, and I'd record a sometimes casual, sometimes animated conversation. I would also conduct brief interviews with individual veterans, or be lucky enough to get two or three together to talk about the same event.
   The 712th Tank Battalion spent 311 days in combat, and its veterans had stories that ran the width and breadth of the human condition.
   Because the conversations were spread out over more than a decade, it sometimes was years before, in reviewing the transcript of an interview from one reunion, I would discover a detail that contradicted or corroborated a story from another.
   One of the first veterans I interviewed, in 1991, was Ed Spahr, at the battalion's Detroit reunion in September of 1991. Ed was of medium height, thin, wore glasses and spoke with something akin to a Philadelphia accent, although he was from Carlisle, Pa.

Ed Spahr

    In later years I would ask questions with a laserlike focus, like "Do you remember a tank that had to be destroyed when the battalion retreated across the Saar River from Dillingen?" However, with Ed, my questions were more generic: Were you scared? How was the food? Were you wounded?
   "These scars on my hand I got one time, they had anti-aircraft guns," Ed said, "I think they were 20 millimeters, and they hit our tank. They didn't penetrate, but on the inside of the tank a little round spot would get cherry red, and the paint would sometimes catch on fire. That's what made these little white spots on my hand.
   "I was wounded on the inside of my left arm. Lieutenant Gifford, he was our tank commander. Our tank got knocked out and luckily we all got out of the tank. After we got hit, Lieutenant Gifford stuck his head out, and a machine gun bullet struck him around one eye. He had blood all over. When he got out of the tank, I don't think he thought he was hurt as bad as he was, and he stepped behind the tank, away from the incoming. They were firing machine guns on us, but we were behind the tank. Lieutenant Gifford tossed me his camera, and said, 'Take a picture of me.'
   "So I'm standing there with my hands up taking the picture, that's the only way I could have gotten hit in a spot like that, I had to have my arms up. It just felt like a bee sting. It was no big deal to me. I didn't think I was hit until the medic asked to see my hand because when I dropped my arm the blood would drop off my fingers. And then he said, 'It's coming down your arm. Take off your shirt. And there this was, I was bleeding like a stuck pig.
   "I haven't seen Lieutenant Gifford since. He was all right, but he never came back to the company after that."
    That was in 1991. The following October, the reunion was held in Harrisburg, Pa. Spahr was there again. And who should walk into the hospitality room, but Lieutenant Jim Gifford!
   Not only were Spahr and Gifford there, but Tony D'Arpino, who drove the tank on Jan. 10, 1945, the day it was knocked out just outside of Wiltz, Luxembourg; and Bob Rossi, the loader, were there as well. And I was able to get the four of them around one of those round tables, with the tape recorder in the middle.
Once Upon a Tank in the Battle of the Bulge

   Following is a partial transcript of that conversation:

   Jim Gifford: I was a lieutenant at the time, a first lieutenant.

   Bob Rossi:  I was a loader in Lieutenant Gifford's tank. I was a private first class.

   Ed Spahr: I think I'd better be classed as a utility man with all of C Company because I served in every platoon.

   Tony D'Arpino: I was a driver, first tank, third platoon, and towards the end I was a tank commander for a very short period.

   Aaron Elson: Where did you come together as a unit?

   Bob Rossi: Just prior to the Battle of the Bulge, Jim was brought in as our new tank commander.

   D'Arpino: He was our platoon leader.

   Rossi: We were in the Number 1 tank. We wound up in the town of Kirschnaumen in Belgium [France, actually]. I can recall so vividly how we wondered where Lieutenant Gifford was all day. We were in a hayloft, and he came up the ladder, it was a footladder, he said, "Come here. I want to show you something." He had draped the tank in white sheets. There was snow all over the ground, so he scrounged these white sheets from all over and he draped our tank so we'd have camouflage. That same night, he had gotten a package from home, and he had some canned chicken. He shared his package with all of us. We were talking about home, and he said to us, 'You know, I'd rather lose an arm or a leg than lose my eyesight. There's too much to see in this world." And the next day, he got hit in the eye. It was a hairy situation because we had gone into a pocket to flush out the Germans, and as fate had it, our left track was knocked off.

D'Arpino: Wasn't that the time that we just took one section of the tanks, just us and the second tank? We were almost ready to eat supper when we had to go out.

Rossi: We only had two tanks, us and [Sergeant Jim] Warren's. There was concentrated machine gun fire. Lieutenant Gifford got hit in the right eye, the bullet lodged in his cheek. I thought he might jump out of the tank, and I yelled to him to keep down or they would blow his head off. He said, "I don't want to jump out. I want Warren to come forward to help us." Then he said, "Rossi, how bad am I hit?" And I lied. I said, "You don't look bad, Lieutenant." But he looked like somebody hit him in the face with a sledgehammer.

D'Arpino: I remember something else about that. He was great for having a camera around your neck, right?

Rossi: I'm gonna get to that. So he says to me, "Fire the smoke mortar." And this is the joke. In my excitement, I forgot to knock the cap out of the top, and when I fired the first mortar it went like this [motioning straight up and down]. And then I fired some subsequent mortars to give a smokescreen. As we were abandoning tank, Lieutenant Gifford was firing his .45 and pulling Spahr out by one of his arms. Spahr's leg was locked."

Spahr: I had a little blood coming out, something had hit me. I went along with him back to the aid station.

Rossi: Ed was the assistant driver. His machine gun was firing by itself it was so hot. And I said, "Twist the belt! Twist the belt," so he could stop the bullets from feeding into the machine gun. And Klapkowski, who was our gunner, he and I were running in a zigzag, we could see the snow being kicked up around us. As we were running, a recon truck came toward us, and Lieutenant Gifford said, "Fire that .50 and protect these boys!" And the guy yelled out, "It's our last box!" He says, "Fire it anyway, you sonofabitch!" And that's when they started firing the .50 to give us cover. As we got out of the line of fire, he handed his .45 to me, he says, "Hold this for me till I get back." And with that, he says, "Take my picture." I says, "Lieutenant, I can't take your picture."

Spahr: I took it. That's the only way I could gave got hit, right here, when I was holding the camera up. It felt like a bee sting.

Rossi: And there he was, having his picture taken. He had gotten a Bronze Star that morning, he had the ribbon, his face was all puffed up, blood all over his combat jacket, he says, "Take my picture."

Gifford: I couldn't see out of my right eye, but I didn't know how bad it was. It's a funny thing, I didn't feel any pain when the bullet went in.

D'Arpino: I can remember plain as day one thing about that night, that evening. We were about ready to eat our meal, and they said that there was a small pocket, it was holding the infantry down, they wanted the tanks to clean it out. You took two tanks. It was just supposed to be a small pocket, and it turned out to be a little more than that, I guess.

Gifford: It was bad news.

Rossi: After we were knocked out, Sergeant Warren's tank came forward, and under  Lieutenant Gifford's orders, he set our tank on fire.

D'Arpino: We had ruined the radio. We put a grenade in the gun barrel. We did everything we were supposed to do.

Rossi: So the Germans couldn't turn the gun around and fire on the town.

Gifford: I had Warren shoot into the back of our tank, because the Germans were stealing the tanks. They'd use them against us. The track was blown off, so it was useless anyway.

D'Arpino: But the gun was still good.

Gifford: So we immobilized it by hitting it in the back.

D'Arpino: We had the best working escape hatch of anybody in the platoon. I used to oil that thing up good, so that when you touched the lever it would really fall out. Sometimes that was the only way of escape. If you're inside the tank and the hatches are down and the gun is traversed over your hatch, you can't open it to get out, you have to go out the other way. I can remember always telling Klapkowski, he was the gunner in the tanks that I was in most of the time, I always told him, "You sonofabitch, if we ever get knocked out, make sure that gun is in the center because if I can't get out because you've got the gun traversed over my hatch," I says, "I'll haunt you. I'll come and pull the sheets off of your bed."

Gifford: I'm sure there's a few guys that aren't here today because of that gun being over their hatch.

D'Arpino: That used to be my biggest worry.

- - -

   This conversation went on for two hours, and included many harrowing incidents both before, during and after the Bulge. I had interviewed Ed Spahr in 1991 and Bob Rossi earlier in 1992. I subsequently interviewed Tony D'Arpino and Jim Gifford individually, and I visited Stanley Klapkowski at his home in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. All five interviews as well as much of the group recording are included in the audiobook "Once Upon a Tank in the Battle of the Bulge" in my eBay store, where I hope you'll check out that and the many other oral history audiobooks, all in the veterans' own voices.

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