Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memorial Day 2011: Tarr's Platoon

Lieutenant George B. Tarr of Newtown, Pa., was the first officer in A Company of the 712th Tank Battalion to be killed, on July 3, 1944. He was also the officer my father replaced, until he himself was wounded but a few days after joining the battalion.

Clifford Merrill was the A Company commander, although he, too, was wounded and evacuated before my father arrived on or around July 27th. Ellsworth Howard was the company executive officer and eventually took over as company commander until he was wounded in the Falaise Gap. Charlie Vinson was the company's first sergeant and, to the best of my knowledge, he didn't get wounded and even recalled my father reporting back to the battalion in early December after recovering from the wounds he sustained in Normandy.

In the second, expanded edition of my first book, "Tanks for the Memories," which I'm currently formatting for Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, I have a story about George Tarr. It was told by Cliff Merrill, and was about a train ride from Fort Gordon, S.C., to Camp Myles Standish outside of Boston, which was the battalion's port of embarcation for England and eventually France.

Tarr's wife, Dorothy, had recently given birth to a son, and Merrill wanted to keep Tarr's mind occupied on the train ride so he wouldn't worry about his wife and baby. I don't know if he was any more or less nervous than any other soldier who had just become a father -- several members of the battalion became fathers shortly before or after going overseas, including Sam MacFarland, a sergeant and later lieutenant in A Company who learned he had a daughter while his tank was in an apple orchard in Normandy, and who named his daughter Lucky. Grayson LaMar, a tank driver in C Company, married his wife, Arlene, while stationed at Fort Gordon but had a sergeant who kept putting him on KP instead of allowing him to take the bus to a nearby town where his wife was staying. Mrs. LaMar wrote a letter to Grayson's lieutenant, Jim Cary, explaining the situation and Cary made the sergeant stop putting Grayson on KP. The LaMars' eldest daughter, Judy, who was born while her father was overseas, once thanked Cary at a reunion and said that without his intervention, she wouldn't be here.

In order to keep Tarr busy on the train, Merrill asked him to count the soldiers on the train. "Go count noses," is the way he recalled the request. Tarr protested that he took a head count just a short while before, and Merrill reminded him that the battalion was about to go into combat and you never knew but one or more of the soldiers just might get a notion to jump off the train. Merrill couldn't recall whether he gave Tarr the assignment himself or had Ellsworth Howard tell Tarr to count noses, but the two of them shared a laugh while reminiscing at one of the battalion's reunions several decades later.

Clifford Merrill was wounded on July 13, 1944, spent almost a year in the hospital and wouldn't return until the war in Europe was over. As he was a career soldier, he was assigned to be part of a tribunal at the Dachau war crimes trials, and later served as a provost marshal, the equivalent of a chief of military police, at the compound where the prisoners were kept.

While he was in the hospital, his first sergeant, Vinson, would write to him to keep him abreast of developments in the platoon. The way he got around the censors, Merrill said, was that if a battalion member was killed, Vinson would write that he joined Tarr's platoon.

One day, Merrill's wife, Jan, gave me a copy of one of the letters he had saved in which Vinson made mention of Tarr's platoon.

"27 January 1945, Somewhere in Luxembourg

"Dear Captain,

"One of the members of the Battalion staff tells me that you say I owe you a letter with a little poop on our past actions. Well I might owe you a letter, but as yet I have had no reply from the last one I wrote you. It could be that the APO is screwing up, as our mail has come through very slowly.

"There is a lot that I would like to tell you about, but it would never get by the censors. We are still with the same division. And the outfit is really getting to be appreciated by the Infantry. Especially since our last big operation. The tankers really did themselves proud. The second and third platoons raised hell with the enemy armor. Sgt. Hagerty did all right with three Mark V’s and crippled a Mark VI. The second platoon accounted for six Mark V’s, a self-propelled gun and a prime mover. Then Lt. Forrest got himself a Mark V to finish things off. After that the enemy sort of got a little discouraged. The co-axials did a great amount of damage too. It is still a very wicked weapon.

"The company isn’t exactly the same as when you left, but there are still plenty of the original members left. Greener, Pacione, Koschen, Coburn, Hagerty and Lieutenant Forrest are all operating again. Schneider, MacFarland and Hagerty are in for commissions, and Braatz is in for first. Lt. Cozzens, the CO, is a new officer, but all the men think he is okay. He is doing a good job. Lt. Forrest is getting a much deserved rest now. He will be the exec and maintenance officer. He is one of the best all around officers going in my estimation.

"The men in the company are getting quite a few decorations. E.E. Crawford is back in the States on a furlough as is Sgt. Colton. Both men have been decorated twice. Each has the Silver and Bronze Stars. Bahrke has the Silver and Bronze Stars too. Pacione has the Silver Star and the Purple Heart with Cluster. Lt. Braatz, Tibbitts, MacFarland, Johnson, Ringwelski, Craven, Pellettiere, Hagerty, Bob Anderson, Bussell, Justice, and Borsenik have the Bronze Star Medals. Cameron has the Silver Star, and three new men whom you don’t know have the Bronze Star also. Shockley, who transferred to us from Headquarters Company, has the Bronze Star also. There are from 15 to 20 new awards pending for the men in the company. Pilz and Bynum, who are with Lt. Tarr, have been awarded the Bronze star too."

Now, what censor would question a letter like that? Edmund Pilz, a tank driver who spoke German, was killed in the Falaise Gap. The German 7th Army, trapped in the Gap, was trying to escape and A Company was in its way. Pilz's platoon, along with a company from the 90th Infantry Division, was in a field, and they could hear the Germans in the woods nearby. Pilz, according to Joe Bernardino, the loader in his tank, was calling in German for them to surrender. Some did, but many remained behind. Bernardino told Pilz to stop biting his fingernails because it was making him nervous, and they had an argument. Bernardino figured he would apologize in the morning, but shortly after daybreak the Germans began an artillery barrage. The first shell struck the tank, wounding Bernardino and killing Pilz.

Quentin "Pine Valley" Bynum, the other tanker who joined "Tarr's platoon," also was a driver. He was killed during the Battle of the Bulge. There was some question about how he got the nickname Pine Valley, but five decades after his death his buddies speculated it was from his hometown in the Ozarks. Only he was from Stonefort, Illinois, and there is no Pine Valley in the area.

There is, however, a Pine Valley in the mountains near Camp Lockett, where Bynum trained with the horse cavalry in 1942.
Of the others mentioned in the letter, Pete Borsenik, a mechanic, got the Bronze Star for repairing a tank under fire. Hank Schneider was killed by a sniper the day he received his battlefield commission, and Ed Forrest was killed in a freak explosion on April 3, 1945, barely five weeks before the end of the war in Europe. Chris Bynum, Quentin's nephew, inherited his uncle's dogtags and is one of my Facebook friends. I'm sure he's thinking about his uncle this Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Memorial Day CD

My mother, may she rest in peace, loved to knit. For some odd reason she never made me a sweater, although she made several for other members of my family. Maybe it's because I never asked. She passed away in 1992 at the age of 67. I have a couple of remnants of sweaters that she made for my siblings, one she never finished, the other has a couple of holes in it, they don't exactly fit, but I've always kept them as a reminder of her.

Jack Sheppard, the company commander of C Company in the 712th Tank Battalion, also loved to knit. He suffered what likely was a pretty nasty concussion during the battle for Hill 122 when a shell struck his tank while his head was sticking out. He had serious headaches for years, maybe decades after the war, until a doctor suggested he take up knitting. The concentration somehow helped immensely with the headaches.

Me, I weave. Not shawls or blankets, I'll leave those to the folksy artisans who populate craft fairs. I weave stories. Not just stories, but audio snippets of interviews I've done.

This year, for my third annual Memorial Day CD, I've woven, as best I could, the story of Pfaffenheck, using excerpts of interviews with the Wolfe twins -- Maxine Wolfe Zirkle and Madeline (pronounced Mah-de-lean) Wolfe Litten -- as well as with Otha Martin (with comments from Andy Rego), Bob Rossi, Russell Loop, Francis "Snuffy" Fuller and Wes Harrell.

Except for the Wolfe sisters, all of the principals in this story have passed away, so there's no going back to the source for clarification. And even Maxine and Madeline, who are identical twins, I have difficulty telling which one is which. The interview with Otha Martin, which is pivotal to the story, was conducted rather informally in the hospitality room at a reunion of the 712th Tank Battalion in the mid-1990s, and the excessive background noise prevented me from using some of the audio. I hope that the audio I did use from that interview is understandable.

Pete DeVries, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division, told me he doesn't tell war stories because the stories that are told should be about those who never got the chance to come home. Billy Wolfe, Jack Mantell, Lloyd Heyward, Russell Harris are four such young men.

There is more about the battle at Pfaffenheck in my previous entry, and there will be more in future entries. I don't know if it is due to my shortcomings as a writer or to the fact that the written word is no substitute for the voice of the person who was there and who is telling the story. I leave that for you the reader/listener to decide.
Listen to an excerpt:

"So long kids, and if I never see you again, goodbye"

"I'm giving you a di-rect order!"

The story of Pfaffenheck, which I've chosen for this year's Memorial Day CD, is more than two hours long, and thus fills two audio CDs. For now it is only available in my eBay store. Or, in the immortal words of Lieutenant Francis "Snuffy" Fuller to Otha Martin, you can call 1-(888) 711-8265 and say "I'm giving you a di-rect order!" for this year's Memorial Day double CD, which, incidentally, costs $5.95. Mention you read about this in my blog or on my facebook page and receive the 2010 and 2009 Memorial CDs as a bonus.