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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Saturday, January 13, 2018

S***hole Story No. 2 (no pun intended)

Bob Rossi, 712th Tank Battalion veteran
   Another story with a very contemporary theme from my World War II Oral History archive. Bob Rossi was one of my earlier interviews, back in 1992. He was a source of many stories in my book "Tanks for the Memories," and his full-length interview is included in the audiobook "Once Upon a Tank in the Battle of the Bulge." He joined the 712th Tank Battalion as a replacement in September of 1944. In this excerpt he recalls an incident shortly before he joined the battalion.
   Bob Rossi: "We wound up, this is a funny story, we wound up in this replacement depot. Now this is my life, living in barns, stables. We were all replacements, and the way they fed you, a section at a time, they would throw all these C rations together, they made like a stew out of it, and you were allowed one scoop of this meal, a canteen cup of coffee, a slice of bread, and a pack of cigarettes. And a tropical hershey bar, or we had some other bar that they gave us which was like a fruit bar. And this one time I wound up with a pack of Lucky Strike green cigarettes. The phrase was 'Lucky Strike has gone to war.' I wound up with Lucky Strike green cigarettes. I was a celebrity. 'Let me see that, let me see that.'
   "They had a mound of cigarettes on a table. As you went by they gave you the cigarettes. You could get Chesterfields one day and Camels the next. The first pack they grabbed they gave you.
   "We had to clean out these stables first to make them habitable for us to live in, and we got our bedrolls on the ground, and finally they assigned us jobs while we were waiting to be shipped out. And they assigned me to be in charge of this latrine. Now it's a little distance from where we're staying in the stable. And what it is, I have to keep this 55-gallon drum full of water, make sure there's toilet paper, they had toilet stalls, no seats on them. And as the guy came in, there was an old slate urinal with the disinfectant powder. And I have to keep this place clean. Hose it down and what have you.
   "Now I'm doing this for two days. And as the guys would come in, they would take their steel helmet off, grab a helmet full of water, use one of the stalls, then flush it down.
   "Now the third day I'm on the job, I've got everything cleaned up, a detail is coming toward me. They're walking toward me, they've got buckets. So I'm standing in the doorway, and one of them, I don't know if it was a sergeant or an officer, says to me, 'Okay, soldier, you want to get out of the way?'
   "Underneath me, I was standing on a trap door, is all the crap in God's world. That they're flushing down. These guys had to scoop it out into the buckets. I said that was a real s*** detail they were on.
   "That's the type of latrine I was in. Further away, they had what looked like sentry boxes, but they were on a platform. And the guys would take a crap, and it would go into cans, and they'd just keep changing them.
   "We were all ready to leave, we've got the full field pack on, we're not allowed to take our stuff off, because we don't know when the trucks are coming. And who pulls up in a staff car, Marlene Dietrich. And she looked like hell. She had the helmet on, olive drabs. So maybe ten, fifteen minutes later, she comes out on stage. She had a beautiful red gown, a shimmering gown, she sits down, pulls up the gown, she shows off those famous Dietrich legs. Then she sang. Then we got on the truck, we had to leave."

 - - -
   Bob Rossi's full two-hour interview is included in the World War II Oral History audiobook "Once Upon a Tank in the Battle of the Bulge," along with a group interview with four of the five crew members of a tank that was knocked out on Jan. 10, 1945, and individual interviews with the other four crew members.

Once Upon a Tank in the Battle of the Bulge


The Captain of the Head: A Shithole Story

Bob Hamant, "A Marine on Tinian"
   A certain word has been much in the news lately, and it reminded me of a story I recorded several years ago during an interview in Cincinnati with Bob Hamant. Bob spent a year with the Marines on the island of Tinian during World War II.
   The story, one of many Bob told during the interview, which was arranged by his daughter, began with a discussion of the atomic bomb.
   "Toward the end of the war," Bob said, "they issued us wool socks, wool pants, jackets, wool sweaters, gloves. Hell, it's 90 degrees on the average [on Tinian], what are they gonna need that for? And nobody knows anything, but they gave you all this survival training for the winter. Hell, the only place they could take would be Alaska and we already owned that. But one thing we did have while we had that stuff, one of the guys says, 'Hey, there's a big plane up there on the airfield,' and he says, 'They're doing something to the bomb bay doors.'
   "Somebody says they're going to take a bigger bomb.' [The Enola Gay, which dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, took off from Tinian.] "Well, if you want to keep something a secret, you put guards around it, so then everybody comes up and looks. And we asked the guards. They didn't know. They just said they're doing something to the bomb bay doors, and that's it. 'We're supposed to keep everybody away.'
   "Hey, the bigger the better that you could drop on them. Well, nobody knew what an atomic [bomb was]. And so we found out. They notified us that they dropped an atomic bomb on Japan, and in the area where it dropped nobody will be able to live for 45 years. And we thought if they drop a couple more, we'll go home and everything will be fine. I don't know how many days it was later on they dropped the second one, and they came down and said, 'Turn in all your winter gear.' And then they told us we were supposed to make an invasion on northern Kyushu, which has snow, and they expected like 85 percent casualties because the Japs were gonna fight to the last man and old woman, and the cold. They said we'll lose almost half the guys from the cold alone, with frostbite.
   "So we were really glad we didn't have to go. But anybody comes along and says we were horrible for dropping the atomic bomb needs their head examined. There are thousands and thousands of guys, maybe millions of them, that are living today because they dropped it. And probably in Japan too, it probably saved a lot of their lives."
   "You mentioned the prospect of frostbite," I said. "What about malaria?"
   I'm not 100 percent sure what made me ask that, but I thought since Tinian was a tropical island, it might have been a problem.
   "That was more or less in the Philippines," Bob said. "There was no malaria on our island."
   "Even with all the mosquitoes?" I asked.
   "No, we had mosquitoes," Bob said. "There's something I forgot to mention was flies. You can't imagine the amount of flies. At night the flies would go and land on a tree, and a little twig would wind up to be a big branch because the flies were on top of flies. And when you went to eat, when you opened that can, the flies were on it like that. Your food disappeared, so we had to figure something out. We had mosquito netting, you'd pull it over your head and try to eat, but after a while you weren't so persnickety, you'd eat flies. When you went to the john, there'd be maybe ten million flies in there and you almost didn't have to wipe your butt because the flies were so thick. It was pitiful.
   "Oh, that's another story I could tell you. I got put on as captain of the head. That means you've got to clean the heads. So I had an oxcart that I would bring around and it had gasoline on it. I'd throw a cup full of gasoline down each one of the holes and roll up some toilet paper, set it on fire, toss it in the hole, step out the door, and it'd go 'Whooooff!' And it would kill all the flies.
   "Well, I ran out of gasoline, so I told the truck driver, 'I need more gasoline.'
   "He said, 'Okay.' He brings out a 55-gallon drum, and we put it on the oxcart, and I went in there and I threw a cup full of gasoline down each one. This was different, it's an eight-holer, and I rolled up the toilet paper, lit it, threw it down there, closed the lid, stepped out, and there was the biggest explosion you'd ever want to see. I got hit by the door, and about two or three hundred feet up in the air there was toilet paper flying. Here they gave me aviation gas. I was just getting the regular old gas. I blew that thing all to hell. But I was just lucky the door hit me, and nothing else. I was clean. That was funny. And they gave me another name for that, I forget what that one was. 'Don't go to the john when Hamant's around!'"

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Bob's interview is included along with three other interviews in the audiobook "Four Marines."