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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