Sunday, September 29, 2019

Episode 18: The Kassel Mission Part 2: George Collar

In this episode of War As My Father's Tank Battalion Knew It, we take a detour from the hedgerows of Normandy and the banks of the Moselle River, and hitch a ride on a B-24 into the dangerous skies above Germany. This interview was recorded in 1999 and there is some background noise on portions of the tape. Running time: An hour and 25 minutes.

Podcast: Lieutenant Tarr's Platoon

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Kassel Mission, Part 1

While visiting a village in Germany where my father's tank battalion lost several men near the end of the war in Europe, I learned of a spectacular aerial battle that took place in the area. Sept. 27, 2019 is the 75th anniversary of that battle.

Podcast: Lieutenant Tarr's Platoon

Saturday, September 14, 2019


I was browsing through a folder of photos for my author web site when one of them stood out. It’s a photo of the second of two plaques on the 712th Tank Battalion monument in the Memorial Garden at the Patton Museum in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
The plaque contains the names, in alphabetical order, of 50 of the 100 members of the battalion who were killed during World War II.
What struck me immediately was that the first and last names on the plaque were like bookends: Lt. Wallace Lippincott, Jr.; and Pfc. Billy Paige Wolfe.
I could go through the panel and tell you a story about many of the names engraved on it, and those I don’t recognize you can probably find mentioned in “A Tank Gunner’s Story,” by the late Louis Gruntz, Jr., who traveled his father’s combat route with his dad and recorded many stories of B Company. And there are some names that are a mystery, like Doye Smith, whose great-nephew Brian Smith knows only the date and location of his great-uncle’s death but has searched fruitlessly for further details.
But back to Wally Lippincott and Billy Wolfe. These are two of the tankers whose stories, along with that of Ed Forrest, whose name is on the first of the two plaques, have meant the most to me.
Wally Lippincott was killed at Sonlez, Luxembourg, on January 14, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge. He was killed along with his tank driver, Quentin “Pine Valley” Bynum, whose name is on the other plaque, and his loader, Frank Shagonabe.
One day I received an email from Chris Bynum, who inherited his uncle Quentin’s dogtags. I went out to Springfield, Missouri, and interviewed Chris’s dad, James Bynum, Pine Valley’s brother. The tankers who remembered Pine Valley assumed that that was the town he was from, but there is no Pine Valley in the Ozarks where he grew up. There is, however, a resort town named Pine Valley in the mountains around San Diego near where they trained, so it was likely he had a girlfriend there during his days in the horse cavalry.
Frank Shagonabe was a Native American. I never met any of his kin but there was a deeply moving article in the Muskegon Chronicle in 2009.
A few years ago Vern Schmidt, a veteran of the 90th Infantry Division, returned from Europe with a canteen. His friend Norbert Morbe, a militaria collector, found the canteen in the woods in Belgium. It had Lieutenant Lippincott’s name etched into its side. He asked Vern to try and locate Lippincott’s family. I was able to put Vern in touch with Ted Nobles, Wally Lippincott’s great-nephew, and with the help of the Philadelphia Inquirer we were able to locate Elizabeth Pitner, Wally’s widow, who had remarried and was 92 years old.
The other bookend is Billy Wolfe. In 1992 I interviewed Maxine Wolfe Zirkle and Madalene Wolfe Litten, twin sisters who were 16 years old when their brother Billy, who was 18, was killed. Their mother, who never knew the circumstances of Billy’s death, saved everything from his short life, including an essay he wrote in high school.

Pfc. Billy P. Wolfe, killed at Pfaffenheck, Germany, on March 16, 1945
Pfc. Billy P. Wolfe

“If I were to be blind today,I would want to go off by myself in the mountains, climb to the highest cliff, and look out across the valley at the towns, farms and farmhouses.
“I would want to see the squirrels running and leaping from one walnut tree to another, and the birds flying.
“I would like to see the deer run and jump swiftly and gracefully and leap across the fences, and lie in a tree that leans across the water and watch bass laying under the rocks and dart out after a fly.
“I would go through the house from one room to the other picturing each piece of furniture, every corner and everything, in my mind.
“I would like to see all my sisters, brother and parents together as we were, and picture each as they look for future reference.”
I’ll go through the other names on this and the other plaque at a later date, but each of these bookends could inspire a book by itself.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Barroom Brawl

Phenix City, Alabama was off limits, but that didn't stop tankers and paratroopers from going there. Tank driver George Bussell and tank commander Reuben Goldstein took part in a brawl at Ma Beachie's, an iconic establishment in a city described in a government report as the "wickedest city" in America. But first, a couple of anecdotes about a friendly fire incident and a mad gunner, both of which will be elaborated on further in future episodes of War As My Father's Tank Battalion Knew It.

Podcast: Lieutenant Tarr's Platoon

Following is an article that appeared in the Shelbyville, Tennessee, Times Gazette in 2005, which gives some background on what Phenix City was like in the 1940s:

Death, prostitution and the paper boy

Monday, December 12, 2005
Second of a five part series of Jack Culpepper's memories of growing up in Phenix City, Ala., widely known for years until 1954 as the most corrupt city in the nation. Culpepper, 83, now resides in Tullahoma.
   Jack Culpepper's first run-in with the steamier side of Phenix City life occurred in the 1930s, at the age of 11, while he was making money like many boys did in those days -- delivering newspapers. He and his lifelong friend Joe Freeman would head across the river to Columbus, Ga., to pick up the papers for delivery in the wee hours of the morning.
   It was a routine the pair would repeat for years: catching a midnight show at the movies, doing their delivery job and then in bed by 4 in the morning. This explains why a boy of that age would be in a sleazy honky-tonk at 3 a.m. on a Sunday.
   "I was just a kid and they only messed with me that one time," Jack said. He would cross the 14th Street bridge on his bicycle, which led into where most of the criminal activity was centered. While Joe attended to his deliveries across the street, Jack entered the Blue Bonnet Cafe and was only there to collect his two dimes for the papers when suddenly he heard. "Look, it's a virgin, let's get him!"
Someone grabbed him and thrust him into the lap of a woman who obviously made her living with her body.
   "Scared the daylights out of me," Jack remembered. Just as quickly, he heard "Leave him alone, he's just a kid," at which point other women of ill repute set upon the one who had grabbed Jack.
   "I left a pile of 'em in the floor ... of women ... working her over, I guess."
   But while it was the only time the criminal element would deliberately accost the young Jack, another early morning newspaper delivery at the age of 13 would leave quite an impression on him.
   Entering the "Merry-Go-Round" to deliver his papers, Jack found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time. Apparently, two drunken soldiers decided to reenact a scene that made the archer William Tell famous throughout the ages, except instead of using an apple and a bow and arrow, the pair chose a shot glass and a .45 automatic pistol.
   However, the solider with the .45 shot a bit lower than he intended and Jack was splattered with brains, blood and pieces of skull from the unfortunate man with the shot glass on top of his head. "I didn't witness it, I felt it!" Jack said. "Part of his head hit my shoulder!"
   His head and shoulders covered with the blood of the dead man, Jack fled the murder scene so quickly that he left his brand new Fleetwood Stream bicycle with chrome fenders -- "the Cadillac of bicycles" at the time -- containing over a hundred papers on the sidewalk.
   He ran six blocks to his house where he lived with his half sister and her husband, the couple who were like a mother and father to him. His sister took one look at the bloodied Jack and dropped to the floor in a dead faint.
   His brother-in-law ripped Jack's shirt off and got a bucket of water to wash the blood off. Then an hour later, he went back to the scene of the crime to retrieve Jack's bike, and Jack continued delivering the papers like nothing had happened.
   Jack was close to another shooting in Phenix City some years later while he shared a 10 cent taxi ride with an unknown man. He has trouble recalling what year the shooting took place or what the circumstances were, but he definitely remembers they were riding through the 14th Street Bridge area.
   "All I remember was a man on the sidewalk pointing a gun at the taxi. I heard 'Hit the ground!' and he went and bailed out the door and when he did, I went out the other side ... but I don't remember much after that," Jack said. "The cab driver, he sped away and left us there."
   It was in 1940 when Gen. George S. Patton made his threat to level the town and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, after reading the classified reports of how some of America's fighting men were treated, gave the town its "wickedest city" label, a title it took Phenix City years to shake.
   Gambling kingpins encouraged children to play with the slot machines and went as far as to install kiddie chairs. There were slot machines in nearly every business, including the post office. One factory produced loaded dice and marked cards, and there was a school that taught crooks how to crack safes.
   When Jack was a teenager, there was only one of the infamous locations he ever entered, the business run on the west side of town by Beachie Howard, also known as "Ma Beachie." Ma looked and sounded like the stereotypical sweet little Southern lady, except she ran Beachie's Swing Club, which had strippers, gambling and liquor.
   "Don't mess with him, he's with me," is what Jack's older friend told those inside during his one and only visit helping deliver bread. Across the street from Ma's club were three rental properties she owned. Ma would claim ignorance of what her renters did to earn their rent money, but ....
   "It had a sign up there that said 'rooms for rent by the hour, day or week' ... so you knew what that was," Jack said.
Ma Beachie was actually known to be one of the kindliest people doing business in Sin City; she helped out drunken soldiers by keeping track of their money and holding it for them as they patronized her nightclub. They would wake the next morning to find a note in their pockets from Ma telling them how much they had and that she was holding it for them. Others in Sin City would simply keep it.
Women could be had for a dollar an hour or $20 a night by the eager, young soldiers, who would frequently lose every penny in the gambling parlors, due to all the games being rigged, or due to being drugged and robbed by the prostitutes. For those that were broke, short-term loan establishments and pawn shops could be found anywhere along 14th Street, all under the control of the syndicate.
Some of the small town girls that came to Phenix City looking for work might find themselves thrown in jail without charges for several days, and then a procurer for prostitutes would come calling and offer to pay the fine -- if the girl would work for them. If she refused, the girl stayed in jail and was charged as a criminal, either until she could pay the "fine" or accept the offer of "work."
Tuesday: Was Phenix City tied to a nationwide white slavery racket?