Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Southbound Winnie and Southbound Peggy

The B-26 on which tail gunner John Sweren flew 58 missions.

   When Stephen Ambrose wrote that he felt like he developed post traumatic stress syndrome just by interviewing all the World War II veterans that he did, I thought, "What a crock." But I can understand where he was coming from, and I'm sure he was exaggerating a bit. And while I would never claim to have anything close to PTSD, some of the interviews I've done are veritable emotional roller coasters, going from laughing out loud to getting all choked up and vice versa.
   One such interview is the subject of my new Kindle publication, "Merry Christmas in July," an edited transcript of my conversation over two days in Mesa, Arizona, in 2009 with John Sweren.
   John's B-26 took a direct hit on July 28, 1944, and the tail section broke off with him in it. He managed to bail out, was captured and became a prisoner of war. One of the stories he told was how in Stalag Luft IV, he read a book called "Ordeal by Hunger," about the Donner party. Most of the other people in his room in the prison compound read it as well. When he was on the long POW march across Germany in February and March of 1945, he was so hungry one night that before going to sleep he told his buddy Lloyd Alexander that if Lloyd should wake up in the morning missing an arm or a leg, he'd know where it went. He meant it as a joke, but when he woke up his buddy was nowhere to be found, and he never saw him again. That should be humorous, but it always haunted John that his friend must have taken him seriously.
   John tells the story better than I do, which is why, when possible, I prefer to present the stories I record in the veterans' own voices or in their own words.
   The audio of John's interview is available from audible.com in a three-interview set titled "March Madness," and now the transcript is available from Amazon for its Kindle e-book reader.
   Here's an excerpt:

Aaron Elson: What about the first time you shot down a German fighter?

John Sweren: First time? I think it was an ME-109. They circled, and I opened fire before he did, and whether he fired or not I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you, there was so much debris in the air there when I hit it, and I didn’t know whether I hit it but they claimed I did, because in a box, you have six planes, three up here and three a little bit lower. So I’m not the only one that’s got a gun. Other people see the plane also. But that’s why I got a couple planes shot down and one probable. But when the plane was hit that I thought I hit, they claimed I hit it, and it just flipped over and down it went.

But, this is not my idea, on a .50-caliber machine gun there’s a buffer plate on the back with a cylinder on the buffer plate, probably two inches long or two and a half inches long, a Micarta disk, plastic kind of, so when the bolt would come back for the recoil – this was none of my idea but somebody said well, they put nickels in there. So I got some nickels from home, I sent for them. I put them in there, and every fifth bullet is a tracer, okay, when you shot, it looked like all tracers. The recoil was three times as fast with the nickels in there, because we’d come back sometimes, my boxes were almost empty.

Aaron Elson: So it would speed up the rate of fire?

John Sweren: Yes.

Aaron Elson: So the tracer was almost constant.

John Sweren: Yes. And I was, I don’t know who told me this, nobody followed up on it but I did, and my crew chief says, every time we came back he’d change the barrels, he says, it looks like a shotgun, no land and no grooves in there.

Aaron Elson: Because the heat was melting the ...

John Sweren: I didn’t know what it looked like too much in the daylight time, but one evening we had a late mission, and boy, I’ll tell you, in the dark, it looked like every bullet was a tracer. But that was my experience. Everybody didn’t do it but I did it, because somebody told me to put nickels in there, so I sent home to the United States and they sent me three rolls of nickels. I think I gave some to somebody else.

Aaron Elson: Would you have to replace the nickels?

John Sweren: They stayed in there all the time. The Micarta disk looked like kind of a rust color, about the same size as a nickel, but evidently there was some sponge there, give there, nickels, snap, snap, snap, so I know every mission the crew chief would check the barrels, wanted to know if I used it.

Aaron Elson: Now you had two kills and three probables, no?

John Sweren: No, I think two kills and one probable.

Aaron Elson: What was the second one like?

John Sweren: The second one was, we were, we always flew different boxes, had three boxes, you’d have a high box, a middle box and a lower box. The lower box was kind of a Purple Heart box. And I think the second one we were in the low box, and the plane kind of circled. I lost track of it, and it came up from kind of underneath and made a 90-degree turn and started firing. Of course my rapid fire I think got him, but he just, just a flash of light, that’s all, I couldn’t tell, I blew it up. But, uhh, but after that happened, I said a little prayer, God bless the guy, he was in the war just like I was, fighting for his country, and I felt sorry for what happened. It was either him or me. Or us.

Aaron Elson: Even though he was trying to kill you, you didn’t feel anger?

John Sweren: Well, I guess I felt anger at the time, but after it exploded, the anger went away and I felt sorry for him and his family, or loved ones. That was me mostly, I don’t know what the group that I was in, my acquaintances, my crew, and even other people that were on different aircraft, after the briefing, the woman pours drinks for you and then, at first I thought boy that’s got to be cocktail hour. They had a purpose for it, to loosen you up and you’d talk. But get to the barracks, and communications was very, we hardly ever talked about what happened. The people in my barracks, everybody kind of talked about something else. We played a little cards, we’d play on this guy’s bed, and we had some plastic cups there and we’d have a drink. Not everybody drank, but I did, quite a bit. Well, I came from a family that, we always had booze on the table and milk, nothing else, and my father said “Take your choice,” but I never drank anything until after the war. I didn’t know what liquor did to you but it does relax you. It put me to sleep a lot of times, because I’d have two or three drinks, and you could feel it, so I’d sleep pretty good. If I didn’t have anything to drink I’d toss all night, and dream about this and that.

Aaron Elson: You’d dream about the missions, in England?

John Sweren: Yes.

Aaron Elson: Now tell me about the time, Brett was telling me outside, that you had a couple of drinks and you fell asleep in a shelter and you woke up and the roof had collapsed on top of you, in London.

John Sweren: Well, it was not in a shelter, it was a house. This was in Rumford, England, probably around 75 kilometers from the base. I rode my bicycle that far. Seventy five kilometers is a guess on my part. So you’d see a sign in this yard, “room for rent.” I saw two of them and I saw this bigger house. I rang the doorbell or knocked, and they said yes, come on in. I introduced myself. Then I went kind of into Rumford, and I think into London maybe, London I think it was, and they had dog races. And all these guys up there, well, you’ve got to bet on so and so and so and so. I had a little paper there, a program, of the horses, I mean the dogs that were running, so I went up there. I already picked them out, Southbound Winnie and Southbound Peggy. I chose Southbound Winnie to come in first and Southbound Peggy to come in second, and it was just the opposite. They both came in. And, I don’t know, at that time the British pound was $4.05 US, so I had a whole sack full of money. They had a bar there, and of course I was drinking, and there was a flower shop. Before I got there I bought some flowers to take to the place where I was staying. There were two ladies there, a grandma and her daughter. So I bought flowers for them. Oh, they’ve got a tub there, I put the flowers in this tub. So after the race, I went to the counter and got my money, I don’t know how many pounds I had but quite a bit, maybe about four hundred dollars worth, so I got on this bus, and from the bus I got a cab, and I was pretty loaded.

I stumbled into the house there, and I brought the flowers in. On the way up the stairs, they had a beautiful vase, I knocked it down and broke it. And I said, “Ohhhh, I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay. That’s okay.”

So they took me into bed, brought me some tea and some little cookies, and I passed out. Boy, I’d drank quite a bit, or it hit me a lot. So morning came, and I felt like there was lead on top of me. I opened my eyes, and I see daylight through the roof. It was all plaster on me. A buzz bomb had exploded nearby. How I made it I’ll never know, but after it was all over, the two ladies, I think one was 72 and the daughter was fifty something, she’d lost her husband in the war, so they thought I was gone because when they escaped out of the house, well, after it was all over there’s a little blank there in my mind, but when they came back, she said, “Johnny, the vase would have been broken anyhow.” She said “I’d sooner have you break it than doggone it, the Krauts.”

   (With special thanks to Christian Levaufre and Brett Schomacher, both of whom made my interview with John Sweren possible)

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"Merry Christmas in July" is available in the Amazon Kindle store. If you order it, please think about leaving a review.
John Sweren, center, at the dedication of a monument in 2005 where his plane crashed in Fierville-Bray, France.

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veterans Day 2012

Karnig Thomasian

   The other day I spoke to a sixth-grade class at the elementary school from which I graduated some 51 years ago, in the class of '61. I was deeply impressed by the brightness and inquisitiveness of the youngsters in the class, and I witnessed only two yawns in the whole 45 minutes. That's a lot better than I can say for my average library presentation. I spoke to the kids about oral history, and they made a lot of comments and asked a lot of questions.
   And I learned a lot myself. I learned that no sixth grader, at least at Hunter College Elementary School, has ever heard of Studs Terkel. So I told them that when people think of oral history, Studs Terkel is the name that comes up most often, and that he wrote books like "Hard Times" in which he let people tell their stories about the Great Depression, and "The Good War," in which he interviewed veterans of World War II. I also told them there are many oral historians and that many good colleges have oral history programs.
   All of these kids take part in National  History Day, and I explained how whatever subject they choose for their presentation, if they google the subject and add "oral history" to the search, they're almost sure to find individual stories that will add depth to their project.
   But the most important thing I learned was that I shouldn't assume that readers of my blog, which I hope now includes a sixth-grader or two, may not know as much about the war as I do now. When I read my previous entry upon returning home, hoping it didn't have too many cuss words, I came upon a passage in which Walter Galbraith described reaching for his steel helmet and said that it had morphine inside. I thought, if I'm a sixth-grader and I'm reading this, assuming sixth-graders who don't know who Studs Terkel was do know what morphine is, they're going to think he got the helmet so he could use the morphine.
    So I opened the entry up and added a parenthetical explanation of why the morphine was there -- in case someone was wounded -- and then Walter went to to explain how he took his rifle and propped the helmet up in the hatch opening of his tank, and when a shell exploded above the tank it shredded the helmet so that it looked like spaghetti, but at least it kept most of the shrapnel from entering the tank.
   Which brings me to Veterans Day. I brought a set of audio samplers to give to the students, and left them with the teacher, Alvin Shields, to hand out after I left.
   In honor of Veterans Day, here are some of the audio excerpts on the sampler CD, which I usually hand out at air shows or when I give library talks. The excerpts are mostly taken from full-length audiobooks.

Karnig Thomasian

Karnig Thomasian was a gunner in a B-29 that exploded over Rangoon, Burma, and was a prisoner of the Japanese.

Pfc. Patsy J. Giacchi

Pfc. Patsy J. Giacchi, a quartermaster, was a survivor of the ill-fated Excercise Tiger, in which the LST 507 that he was on was torpedoed and sunk.

Ed Boccafogli
Ed Boccafogli, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, veteran of D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge

Erlyn Jensen, left, and Linda Dewey

Erlyn Jensen, Kassel Mission Historical Society. Erlyn's brother, Major Don McCoy, was the command pilot on the Kassel Mission bombing raid of Sept. 27, 1944. and was killed when his B-24 was one of 25 Liberators from the 445th Bomb Group that were shot down that day. Linda's father, Bill Dewey, was the pilot of a badly shot up B-24 that made it back to an emergency Royal Air Force landing field at Manston, England.

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Two veterans talking tanks: Walter Galbraith, Part 2

I don't have a picture of Walter Galbraith. Dale Albee, above, was his tank commander and platoon leader.

   Here's the second half of my conversation with Walter Galbraith and Cesar Tucci, two veterans of D Company of the 712th Tank Battalion, back in 1991 or perhaps 1992 at the battalion's annual Florida mini-reunion in Bradenton. The first part was in my previous entry.

Aaron Elson: Where were you from?

Walter Galbraith: Boston. I was in the 101st Engineers, with my brother and some buddies, and then I got out because I had two kids. Then the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. I got out, and my brother had to go overseas, so I joined the Army, and I got in the 10th Armored Division. Then the 10th Armored Division became the 712th Tank Battalion [the 712th was broken out of the 10th Armored as an independent tank battalion], so that's how I got into it

Aaron Elson: What happened to your brother?

Walter Galbraith: He got malaria, but outside of that he was okay. I was glad that I joined, because I wouldn't feel right, with him being over there. I had two kids, but I couldn't help it, I just felt I had to go. As a matter of fact, I tried to get drafted and they wouldn't draft me. They even brought my wife up, and they said, "Do you love your wife?" And I said, "Of course I love my wife." Then I said, "But I want to go in." Then they said, "Well, we won't put you in this draft, but we'll put you in the next one," and I couldn't wait, so I volunteered.

Aaron Elson: What was it like inside the light tank?

Walter Galbraith: It was hot. That's why you had that helmet on. If you ever forget, sometimes you would lean your face and just bump it, and you'd never take your helmet off again. And I always wore my helmet up this way, I couldn't stand it over my ears, so I've got pictures of me, no matter where I was, I looked like a Viking. But they were fast, and they were cold in the wintertime.

Aaron Elson: What was it like your first day in combat?

Walter Galbraith: Oh, God. The first day that we went across, we had just landed and I was talking to a lieutenant. We saw some dead GIs, and then some dead horses and cows, they were all puffed up like a balloon. I was more ascared of the dead Germans than I was of the live ones. You'd see them with their eyes, grotesque looking. So I'm talking to the lieutenant, he's dead now, Lieutenant Coe. He was my tank commander, and we're standing talking, and phwee, a bullet went by us, so we both went down. And then one night, the German plane came over, we called it Bedcheck Charlie, and when the tracer would go up, it was like it was raining upside down. So I'm on my tank, and we slept in our tank, and I'm watching these infantry guys. They dug a hole this way and that way, a slit trench, and they put hay down there. I thought, they've got it made. So they moved out, and when they did, I jumped out of my tank and went down there, and it was so nice, for about two minutes, when our artillery let go. The whole ground vibrated, and I jumped out of that gosh darn trench and went back around on the other side of my tank.

Aaron Elson: Going back to the first day in combat...

Walter Galbraith: I remember going into an area, and Lieutenant Bellows getting out of there to find out where we were, because we never knew anything, all we knew is we're here. So he got out of the tank, and while he got out of the tank, he left us in a wide open space. I could see for miles. A hedgerow, you couldn't see from here to there, and all of a sudden we're in the open, and then the Germans started shelling us. So we stood there for a couple of seconds, with the shells coming over, and I said, "Let me get out of here!" So I said, what the hell platoon I am, "Third platoon, move out." I grabbed the mike. And we moved out, and down the road we met the lieutenant. He said, "What happened?"
   I said, "We were being shelled. We were wide open." And then I felt like I was being a coward or something. So anyway, we moved into an area, I guess it was the next day, we get in the area, there was a big ditch, and there was like a little bridge going across, and then we broke into this hedgerow, and went down this way. And when we were there for a while, we heard guys calling "Medics!" and guys kept seeing snipers. All of a sudden, my tank was the lead tank, so the shells start hitting all around our tank. So what I did was I took -- and I held myself down, I wouldn't go out -- the lieutenant was gone again, I wasn't about to leave this time because I felt that if I do, he'd probably say I'm chicken or something. So the shells come over and the tank would vibrate, and then I don't know why I did this, I reached outside the tank and I got my steel helmet, because we had the tank helmet, and on the inside of the helmet is a liner, and we had morphine (morphine syrettes were taped inside the helmet for use when someone was badly wounded). So I took the helmet, and I raised the breech of my gun to hold it; because the lieutenant was gone there was the open hatch, and I was always afraid of a shell coming in there. So I put that there and the shells would come over, and all of a sudden this shell came over, and I don't know whether it exploded on top of the deal there, anyway, I look at my finger and my finger's bleeding, and my helmet's on the floor. So I pick my helmet up, there's a big hole in the helmet, and it's like spaghetti, where the shrapnel had gone in and went maybe a thousand different ways, just like spaghetti, just shredded. So I climbed up on top of the tank, and the driver and assistant driver jumped out, and I climbed up on top, and another shell came over, and I went flying through the air and I landed on my back, and I was trying to catch my breath. I wasn't sure I was wounded because I felt this pang, like someone smacked me in the ass. I had o.d.'s [olive drab] on, and long underwear, the fatigues, and then this combat thing on, so there was a lot of stuff. So I found out that I couldn't move my butt, and they were hollering "Medics! Medics!" So they said try to get down the road a little. I was pulling myself on the ground, and then the lieutenant came back, and in the meantime the medics came by, and so he says, "Are you wounded?"
   I said, "I don't know." All I know is I couldn't move myself. So he started cutting, and cutting through all those different clothes. I was afraid he was gonna find nothing. So they opened it up and found I was wounded., I had shrapnel in me. But I also had some British coins, and I didn't know it until later, but it twisted the hell out of the coins. So the shrapnel had hit the coins. But anyway, they said "Get down the road as fast as you can."
   My tank was on fire, by the way, I forgot about that. Our tank caught on fire, so the lieutenant had to get onto another tank, and they went out through that hedgerow down a way. So while they were gone, I'm dragging myself along, to try to get down the road, and then the medics, the doctor came. So I looked over at the whole thing in the hedgerow, and how the hedgerow goes where I was, then this big mound, and then the road. And I said, "Oh, shit, I can't go over that." I was going to go down to where the tanks, the tanks took that fence down, they had to get out of there fast. So I looked up, and then more shells came over, and when they did I just flew up, and I landed on a couple of GIs, and I forget what the hell it was they said.
   I said, "I'm okay. I've got to get down the road." So I got down the road, and this jeep with places to put stretchers came, and they said "Hey, a guy's wounded here," so they picked me up, and they put me on this thing, and then after a while I couldn't hear any more fireworks. The first medics camp I came to was on fire, where a German shell had just hit it, and so I said "Oh, shit, what a hell of a place to be," but I was only there about fifteen minutes. Then I was on a jeep, and I went off, and the next thing I know they put me in a duck [an amphibious DUKW], and they took me across the channel.
   And over there they said, "Can you count to ten?" I said, well shit, I figured they were telling the truth, because we had guys who couldn't read or write. So anyway, they put me in a duck, and from there to a hospital ship, and I went to England, to a hospital.

Cesar Tucci: We had just moved into the hedgerows, and we were waiting for our first combat assignment, so Sergeant Heckler, one of the tank commanders, was called to receive some combat orders. He received them, and then he went back to his tank to tell his tank crew about what they had to do. And his tank crew was preparing the tank for combat, so the guns were loaded, the machine guns, the tank cannon made ready. The machine guns were loaded and ready to go, and the bow gunner, I don't remember his name, the bow gunner for Heckler...

 Walter Galbraith: He was killed later, too...

Cesar Tucci: Yeah. This all happened at once. The bow gunner was turning to get on his knees to check the ammunition stowed behind his seat in the bow position. Just as he did that, he reached back and leaned on the back plate and handle and trigger of the bow machine gun. And at that time Sergeant Heckler reached up and grabbed the 37 cannon and started to mount the tank, like it was customary to do. He grabbed the tank and started up. And just as he did that and got up there, the bow gunner accidentally set off a burst of machine gun fire, and caught Sergeant Heckler right across the middle, and he was the first casualty of our company. He was killed before we ever got into action, and was killed by his own man in the tank.
   Later on, there was a replacement made, Sergeant McNulty took over his tank, and they're on a mission, and went up a road, and they hit a mine, I think it was, and the whole tank crew was killed. It flipped the tank right over. [editor:s note: actually, Sergeant Everett McNulty and Harold Heckler's crew were killed in a different incident, when their tank was struck by an 88 and burst into flames]. Sergeant Heckler was our first casualty. That kind of hit hard, you know, this is for real. A great guy, a redhead, Harold Heckler.

Walter Galbraith: I'll tell you another one I just happened to think about. I was thinking about the funny ones, I just thought of this. This is in the Ardennes. We had come to this open, you could see for miles. And this is the forest over here, I could see these Krauts going back and forth. I was admiring them for a minute. All of a sudden they stopped. They were Germans, and they saw us. And so they started firing like hell at us. So the best thing for us to do was to get the hell out of there. So we come right around, we're still facing those guys, we had these panels on the back so you could see us for miles, our airplanes won't bomb us, we had these pink, orange. So we came around that forest like this and then we turned into the forest. In the meantime they're shooting at us and they're knocking the branches off the trees, and not hitting us. I guess they couldn't get down far enough. So we finally get in, and we lost a couple of tracks, and we had to stay there all night because our tanks wouldn't move. So that night, they kept shelling, and I heard tanks moving, and I said, "Well, we can't fight anybody in the dark, you know, some kid with a throwing stick [panzerfaust] could knock the hell out of you in the dark. And I said, "I can hear the medium tanks, I guess they're leaving." And all of a sudden I saw a flame go up. I said, "There's a tank on fire," and I says, "Shit, they hit one of our tanks."
   So we had turns sleeping, and I happened to be awake. Lieutenant Albee was sleeping, and I didn't know where the other guys were. So I'm looking out, and I see somebody run across in front of the tanks, a silhouette, and I said Jesus, and I looked again, and the Germans had a different helmet, there was something about the hook or something on the helmet that got my eye, and I said "Albee, Albee," and I woke him up. I said "I think those are Germans running across the flaming tank." And so he got his binoculars out, and in the meantime I got my turret turned facing right at that tank, and he said "Yah, they are." And so we started shooting. And I was firing the machine gun and the cannon, and he's firing the 50-caliber machine gun on top. And we heard, "For God's sake, stop firing, you're killing your own men!" And Jesus, my head shrank. I said oh my God. And then Albee got his binoculars out again, he said, "No, they're Heinies," and he started firing again. And I started shooting like hell at them. And even then they kept hollering, "No, you're killing your own men." And then all of a sudden we saw our pink tracer go this way, and then we saw a white tracer come back, and then we knew that that was the Germans. Because we had a pink tracer, and they had white ones. And when that came back, boy we just "bbbrrroom." Then everything was quiet for a while. I kept my machine gun ready for anybody who might come across. I'm in the tank, and someone starts climbing up the side of the tank. "Who's there?"
  He says, "Who's in charge here?"
  So I said Albee. I said, "Albee, wake up."
   So he says, "I'm Sergeant so-and-so." I wish I could remember his name. He said, "I just got out of the hospital. He said, "I'm not worth shit." That's how he talked. And he says, "You know what happened? You see that tank over there that's on fire? That's a German tank." I thought it was our tank that was knocked out. So he said, "You know how we are in the dark. You can't see shit." He said "I had to climb out of the tank," and he says, "This German tank is coming up the road. I had to tap the guy on the back to tell him to turn the turret," and then when he got lined up, through his eye, he just kept firing, and knocked the shit out of that tank.
   So that was over, and he got off. A few minutes later, somebody else started climbing up on the side of the tank. And I don't know what the hell, I was scared. Anyway, I'm ready to throw a hand grenade back or anything they had. I had it all in my mind what I was gonna do. Anyway, it was a colonel. Now goshdammit, he gave us his name, I'm Colonel So and So, I don't know today whether it was our colonel, Kadrovsky, or whether it was an infantry colonel. And he says, you know what happened, he said, had they gone by, he says this would have cut the whole advance. And that was it. And then he left. The next morning, we left the tank there I guess, and we got in a truck. The next day we got in another tank.

Cesar Tucci: Around the first of December, we went out on the Saar River, the village of Dillingen, and they requested volunteers to man gun positions on the Saar River to kind of make a fake for the Germans, to make them feel that we were coming across in strength at that point. So there was a lot of firing to be built up at that point, and I volunteered to go down there. They said this would be a mission of two or three days. So I went down and manned a 50-caliber machine gun at that position.
   On the way down, a sergeant from I think headquarters company was in charge. We had 50-caliber machine guns and mortars that we were going to set up inside the houses and various areas on this side of the Saar River to fire across and fire at the forts of the Siegfried Line. So I volunteered for one of those positions. So we go down there, and to get there we had to reach the top of a hill, and then the halftrack had to make a mad dash to go down because it was exposed to direct fire from the Germans on the other side. And it was like going through a gauntlet. We went down there just as fast as we could go and they were firing at us, but we beat it, we got down into the town and then we were out of their view. When we were in the town, we were only subjected to mortar fire and machine gun fire.
   We set up our headquarters in a brick apartment building on the opposite side of the street from the river from where we had set out. My partner and I sandbagged the machine gun in a kitchen in a German home on a porcelain kitchen table and had it fixed to shoot out the back window of their kitchen across the river.
   These fire missions would be announced to us on the radio, start a fire mission, we would go, run across the street, put the back plate on the machine gun, we'd never leave the back plate there because patrols would come through the town, and when they gave us the word to fire, everybody, mortars, 50-calibers, everything they'd fire across that river, to give a real show of force. That would go on for four or five minutes, and the gun would get real hot, the barrel would, so when the fire mission stopped, I had to reach out with an asbestos glove, take the barrel off, ram an oil patch through it right away, and then take the back plate off the machine gun and beat it across the street back into the middle portion of that building. Our room was in the middle portion. It was built like a court, like, a square, and in the middle of that square were the outhouses, and we were in the middle portion of that. And as soon as we got back, the Germans would start returning fire with mortars and machine guns. And one of the mortar shells I remember hit the craphouse, right in that square it went right in and demolished that outhouse there. And I'd stand guard in the hall, it was a long hall, and they told us, watch for German patrols, they come through the town at night. I'd stand just inside the doorway where they couldn't see in but I could see out, and I'd see the German tracers coming across the river, and they'd be hitting high, because, there again, if the trajectory was high, they couldn't hit very low, but I could watch them way up in the building. I was doing that one night when this was happening, when all of a sudden we got that zhooom, a damn mortar hit, you know those outdoor cellar exits, it was beside the door, it hit down there, and the concussion of that damn thing pushed me all the way back ten feet in the door. But that's all it was, no shrapnel or anything but the concussion pushed me back there.

Walter Galbraith: At the time you're talking about, if you ever wanted to see anything so beautiful, the river was there, and our pink tracers was right across, and then you'd see the white phosphorous from the Germans, with all the beautiful colors and all. So anyway, we're coming down that road to get to the river, and they had these lights shining up against the clouds to give it a light effect, and all those beautiful lights would just shine up into the clouds so we could see where we were going.
   So anyway, we're not allowed to wear our helmet straps, because the concussion would break your neck, so we had to put the damn things around, and your helmet's going like this on your head. So every time a shell would come over as we were going down the road, we'd fall, we'd hit the ground, and our helmets would come off. It looked like spittoons bouncing all over the road. But the colors were so beautiful, the pink tracer, the red tracer coming back.

Cesar Tucci: That shelling that night was rough as I remember. It hadn't been that rough, but what it wound up being is this: We weren't there for three days. We got relieved from that position on my birthday, the 16th of December. But one time we had a fire mission, and I had to go through all the rigamarole, I got the barrel off, the back plate, and didn't make it in time. So the only thing I could figure out then, on one end of the living room of this German home, and they had all ultramodern furniture in there, mahogany tables and everything. So I took a wall from where the shelling was coming from, there was a buffet under there, I dove under that buffet and watched the shrapnel come bouncing in through the window while they were shelling. So right after that was all over, I got the hell back across the street, and got out of that.
   When we got out of that, we stayed in that area. Then we celebrated New Year's Eve there, and this French family baked a lot of sweet cakes, pastries, so they invited us to participate. We were sleeping in the schoolhouse on the floor, and the French family was upstairs in it also, they were living there as refugees. So they invited us, and we had a combination of Calvados and pastries, and boy, there were a lot of sick guys. I never in my life got drunk, but that night I got sicker than a dog. And I got through and I went to bed, I went to my blanket and lay down, and geez, I got woke by Joe Masser, he said "Tooch! Tooch! It's your turn, come on, get up!" I sat up like a zombie, oh, my God, I said, what an awful feeling. And I went out to stand guard, my head spinning, sick to my stomach, the longest three hours I ever spent. Oh, my God, I felt terrible.
   This is the time that our battalion was ordered to move up to the Bulge area. So everybody packed up and we started up that way. This was the worst trip of my life, honest to God. After that night, I had what they called the GI shits, and what I was wearing, I got my underwear, my o.d.'s, and on top of that I had my combat suit, you know, like a ski suit. So the convoy was so slow going up, it was bumper to bumper. So they'd stop periodically, and they'd have a few minutes, and every time they stopped I was out the back end of a truck heading for the side of the road, pulling all those clothes off I had to get rid of my problem. Unfortunately I couldn't go fast enough and the convoy would start up again and I was chasing after it trying to pull up my pants and everything else, it was a circus. Oh, it was an awful trip I had, I said never again would I do any kind of drinking like that. What a diarrhea case I had.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Walter Galbraith, Part I, "The Professor"

Lisa Keithley, left, and Dale Albee. Lisa's great-grandfather, Walter Galbraith, was Albee's gunner in World War II.
   My new book is finished, with a projected publication date of April 2013, so watch for an announcement. While writing it, I pored through transcripts of conversations I hadn't looked at in years.
   One of the first veterans I interviewed was Walter Galbraith, of Boston, probably in 1991 or '92. I think it was at the first Florida "mini-reunion" of the battalion I attended. I spoke with Walter and Caesar Tucci, both veterans of the battalion's D Company, which comprised the 17 1/2 ton "light" tanks.
   Walter passed away in 1994. It was not until the following year that I met Dale Albee, who'd been Walter's tank commander and platoon leader. Walter was the gunner in Albee's tank.
   In 2001 I received an email from Lisa Keithley, then 15 years old. Her great-grandmother had recently passed away and Lisa inherited the war memorabilia of her great-grandfather, Walter Galbraith.
   I immediately remembered how Albee told me how broken up he was when he learned that Galbraith, his gunner, passed away. So I wrote to Lisa and asked her if she'd like to get in touch with her great-grandfather's lieutenant. Albee had a daughter living in Vancouver and visited her during the Holidays. While there, he paid a visit to Lisa, who was doing a school project on her great-grandfather's experiences.
   I used a couple of Walter Galbraith's stories in my first book, "Tanks for the Memories," but as I read through the transcript I realized that there was so much more of his story to tell. Here, then, is my conversation with Walter and Caesar Tucci, circa 1991:
Walter Galbraith

   When we were in Germany, I forget what part of Germany it was in, but some of the houses only had just a wall up, so the GIs put their bedrolls against the walls. It was in wintertime, to keep the wind from ... anyway, the last man on guard, in the tank, had to make sure that you pulled the ammunition off the tank. So I climbed up on my tank in the morning, and my eye caught the brass. Who the hell did that? So I pulled it down. What I first went up there for was to check Little Joe. Little Joe is the motor that turns the turret. If you press your thumb on one side you start the machine gun, if you hit the other side you hit the cannon. So I got in and I saw that brass, I pulled it down and I cleaned out the chamber, I cleaned out the ammunition, and I threw it back in, and the breach came up. Now, if that fired, it comes back 18 inches. I had my hand on the guard, and if that had come back ... I remembered when I came in there it was to check on Little Joe, so I reached over and when I did my hand came up, and I hit the damn cannon. The periscope was in front of me, and I saw the road blow up. I blew the whole goddamn road up. And I thought, "Oh, my God, did I kill somebody?" That's the first thing I thought about. So I reached up, I raised my seat, and I looked out. I didn't see anybody walking around with no head on, and I felt good, I didn't care what they did to me, I hadn't killed anybody. And all of a sudden the company commander, the first sergeant, all the guys are walking up to that big hole that I made in the road, and I figured, well, I'd better go face the music. So I walked up there, and I was just gonna say, "Well, that's the way the cookie crumbles," and the first sergeant says, "Jesus. I drove over this road three times this morning and that goddamn mine didn't blow up."
   So Andy Schiffler says, "That was no goddamn mine," and I grabbed him by the back of the neck, I said, "You shut up."
   But anyway, what happened after that, at the same time, when the cannon flew out, some plaster from the side of the wall fell down on the poor guys who were laying there, and they thought the Germans had counterattacked, so they jumped up and they were scared like hell.
   Another thing that happened, while we were in basic training, we had to learn how to ride a motorcycle, the tank, cars, so after we got familiar with it, it was the old tank, and when you shift, that's with the rivets in them, you know, the old type, that was our practice, so you shift into first, second, third, fourth. By that time you're looking that way and the tank is going this way. The only directions that the driver would have is that the tank commander would press him on the shoulder, right shoulder turn right, left shoulder turn left. We had to go through this obstacle course with the tanks, and each had turns. I went through it, and then somebody else went through it.
   There were two huge trees, great big trees, with just enough room for a tank to go between them. When you're driving, they said don't stay in first all day, which some guys would do. As soon as that tachometer went so many thousand rpms, you had to shift.
   The instructor's sitting beside the bow gunner, and the driver's going, and so he'd tell you "Keep your eye on the tachometer."
   So my turn came and I went through the trees, and I'm looking through the periscope, it looks like the trees are moving. So I see these trees, and I come like that, and go right between them.
   Then this fellow got in, and we called him the Professor. I can't think of his name, but it was his turn, and he, if you asked him a question, he'd say, "Well, uh," it took him all day to tell you, but when he finally came up with an answer, he had a vocabulary that big. But anyway, it was his turn, so we get in the tank, and he's driving, and we're going, and the instructor said "Keep your eye on the tachometer."
   "Ow-kay." He talked like Mortimer Snerd, so he'd go like that, and again the instructor said "Keep your eye on the tachometer." So we went down through the course and we finally come to those two trees. I saw the tree move in front, and I thought at the last second he's gonna pull on the lever and go right between the trees. Then "Bang!" He hit that goddamn tree, and ruined the tank's transmission and everything, and all the tree's branches came down on top of us. I landed on top of the bow gunner, the tank commander landed on top of the driver, and everything got quiet for a second. And the instructor said something like "God damn you," I can't think of his name.
   And he said, "Well, you told me to keep my eye on the tachometer, didn't you?"
   That's about the funniest thing I can tell you, but those are the two things I can think of right now.
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Monday, October 15, 2012

Shipmates Lou Putnoky and Yogi Berra

Lou Putnoky and Yogi Berra at the Berra museum

   Every now and then I get a call from Lou Putnoky of Carteret, N.J. He gets nostalgic, usually on a Sunday, especially since his wife, Olga, passed away two years ago. We chat for a while and he tells me what a wonderful thing it is that I'm preserving all these veterans' memories, and I try to tell him without the veterans themselves and their courage and experiences, there would be nothing to preserve, all I do is poke a little tape recorder microphone in their face and ask a couple of questions. I try to tell him that, but he wants no part of it.
   Lou is a World War II Coast Guard veteran, and was a radio operator on the USS Bayfield, the flagship of the Utah Beach invasion fleet. The Bayfield also took part in the invasion of Southern France, as well as the battles in the Pacific for Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and he is one of the many veterans who witnessed, albeit from a distance, the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi.
  One of the highlights of Lou's time in the service was having served on the same ship as Yogi Berra, which leads me to a story that is kind of sad in a way. Lou lives in New Jersey and expressed a desire to meet Berra again, so about a decade ago, when I was still working for a newspaper in New Jersey and there was some kind of publicity event at the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, I invited Lou to come with me, and he got to chat with and have his picture taken with Berra. That isn't the kind of sad story, and I can't find the story in the transcript of my conversation with Lou that I used in my book "A Mile in Their Shoes: Conversations With Veterans of World War II," which means I must have edited it out because it was kind of sad, although in retrospect I should have left it in, which is why I'm relating it now, secondhand.
   After the war was over, Lou was a big fan of Yogi Berra, and regaled his son with tales of their shenanigans on the stern of the Bayfield, the stern being, in Lou's words, "where all the action was." One day, when his son was perhaps seven, Lou decided to take him to Yankee Stadium to see if he could introduce him to Berra. They arrived early and were watching batting practice. Lou took his son down to the railing and told an usher he'd been a shipmate of Yogi Berra's, and asked if he could give Yogi a note. Lou said the usher must have been a veteran, because he nodded understandingly.
   He saw the usher walk over to Berra and hand him the note, and he thought he saw Yogi nod. Then Yogi began walking in his direction, and Lou was going to get the chance to introduce him to his son.
   Just then Lou saw Casey Stengel come out of the dugout and walk over to Berra, and the two of them turned and went into the dugout.
   End of story. Now tell me that isn't a little bit sad. But Lou's face lit up when I brought him to see Berra at the museum.
   Here's an excerpt from my interview with Lou, in which he talks about Berra on the ship, and rationalizes the fact that Berra never attended a reunion of the Bayfield crew:

Aaron Elson: What can you recall about Yogi Berra?

Lou Putnoky: Yogi Berra is a very, very bighearted, very nice, quiet individual. I reluctantly use the term simple, good. If he wasn't that way, he would be the first one to be at the reunion, I'm a hundred percent certain he would go. Because he would feel uncomfortable being there, especially being a celebrity.  He was a coxswain on one of the rocket boats. He was attached to the admiral's staff, so we had, maybe the staff brought, let's figure they brought maybe a hundred men to supplement the crew of our 500 crew with them, and Yogi Berra was attached to Admiral Moon's staff. And Yogi latched onto our particular group because that's where the action was, on the stern of our ship. There was always something going on, and he said to us that the admiral was such a nice man. He said that when he was in England, he would be able to recognize, with thousands of sailors, he was able to recognize men and he would stop his car, his jeep with the two stars, because he knew that they were going back to the ship, and he would pick up seamen that were part of his ship. He didn't know them by name but he knew them by looks, and he would pick them up in the staff car, which was very unusual. But this was the kind of man he was, very well-liked. It upset everyone of course when they found out he committed suicide, it really shook us to the core, at the time.

But Yogi was very personable. And of course it always comes up in conversation when you had new people, "What did you do? What are you gonna do after the war? What did you do before the war, whatnot," and he said "Oh, I played ball, at Norfolk, in the minors." And we looked at him, with his bandy legs, and of course that shit-eating grin that he had, what the hell kind of ballplayer, are you pulling our leg? Were you a batboy or something, just like we're talking now. And of course we never paid much attention. He skipped over it, he didn't elaborate on it too much. It would come up every now and then, and we would kid him about it. Nothing serious. And then after the war I'm looking through Life magazine and I see his picture. I recognize his picture. I knew him as Larry Berra, not as Yogi Berra, and I said, "Larry, good God, he did play ball," and he was a fantastic, phenomenal ballplayer. He could hit any kind of wild, crazy wild pitch, you never knew what the hell he was gonna hit.

Other than that, during Normandy I remember him pulling alongside our ship with his rocket boat, and I know, like everyone else, he was deathly scared. Once they let go all their rockets, and they come back and any other assignment that they might have for his craft.

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   Got Kindle? Or the free downloadable Kindle reading app for PC, Tablet or Smartphone from Amazon? "A Mile in Their Shoes" is available today and tomorrow, Oct. 15 and 16, for a free download of its Kindle edition, and it's only $2.99 after that. Or read my full interview with Lou Putnoky here.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

This one's for Father Joe

   If you're a Goodreads member, I need your help. A Goodreads member recently gave Connell Maguire's book "Follies of a Navy Chaplain" a one-star review. Short but very negative. It brought the average review down to three stars. If anybody reading this blog has read "Follies of a Navy Chaplain," like it or not -- and I'm betting you enjoyed it -- puh-LEEZE post a comment or a brief review at Goodreads. Father Joe passed away at age 93 earlier this year and I'm sure if he were still here, he'd have kind words for the person who posted the negative review.
   If you haven't read it and have a Kindle, or have downloaded the free Kindle reading app to your computer or tablet, I'll make "Follies of a Navy Chaplain" available for a one-day free download tomorrow, Oct. 10.
   If you have neither, but would be willing to read a copy and post a review at goodreads, email me your address at aelson.chichipress@att.net, and I'll send a free print copy to the first ten readers who request one.
   Following is a brief excerpt from "Follies of a Navy Chaplain" in which Connell Maguire describes his last day in Ireland, which he left with his family to emigrate to the United States at age 11.
   My own book "Tanks for the Memories" recently got a very short one-star review of its own at amazon.com, c'est la vie, that doesn't bother me. But Father Joe deserves way better.


(Excerpted from "Follies of a Navy Chaplain," by Connell J. Maguire, (c) 2012 Chi Chi Press
   My parents had a shop and a good business in Glenties town at the time of the Irish war for independence from England. However, there was not much opportunity for young people. My mother had witnessed her four brothers leave for America, never to return to their grieving parents. She dreaded that fate. She saw boys, fresh from school, sitting on the corner smoking. Something had to be done and soon. There were four children then and taking us to America would be a chore and expensive. They had relatives in Scotland so there we went to Greenock, the Brooklyn of Scotland. I was just a year and a half so I do not remember the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond. The expedition to Scotland did not work out so back we came to Mam’s grandparents. Dad left for America to make a living for us. He went back and forth over a period of nine years. In 1923, he built a house in Ireland and tried to find work there. Kathleen was born in December in that house. We went to Yeats County where Dad had some friends but no luck. Dad had to leave again. Finally in 1928, Mam took Kathleen and went to check out the possibility of taking the whole family to America. She left Barney, Pat, and me with Aunt Bridget in the new house. Anne was in boarding school in County Monaghan.

   Mam returned in 1929. Teresa was born in June and varicose veins laid Mam up for days. Later she sold the house for the fare to America, and hired a car and driver to take the six children to Dublin to the American Embassy for physical exams and processing. I remember a stenographer asking another should she describe my hair as black or brown. What’s left is neither now. We sailed from Belfast. The ship was a day late so they put us up in a hotel. I don’t recall street cars in Dublin. I do remember being stunned to think how expensive concrete roads and streets must be as we approached Dublin. In Belfast we watched the trolleys together until I was scornfully excluded when I remarked I hadn’t yet seen any trolleys on the middle two tracks. We landed in New York just after the ominous stock market crash, soon to affect us. My father was on the pier to meet us. Then and for many years, I took for granted all my parents did for us.

   Almost all the news about the United States that made the Irish, English and Scottish papers was about gangsters and kidnapping. I had the impression that other than the Irish and the rich Americans who hired the Irish, all Americans were gangsters and kidnappers. I promptly received a scare. I had lagged behind the others carrying a suitcase. A man grabbed me by the arm. My God, I didn’t last five minutes in this country. I shouted “Mam! Mam!” I still wonder why he stopped me.

   So much had happened in a short time. That independent recorder within me was at work all the while, clicking some moments into memory’s file and erasing others.

   For our last months in Ireland, we had moved from my grandmother’s house to a house on a rise in a field in Meenahalla. Perhaps there was friction with five children, my mother expecting, my uncle and grandmother all in one house. We had a grand time in the rented house, kicking a football around the field and exploring the huge stone remains of a rath, a prehistoric burial mound. A row house in Philadelphia would be quite different. So would plumbing and electricity and an instant gas “fire” in the morning that saved so much time.

   My mother did not go down to Mullantboyle that morning of our departure to say goodbye to her mother. She was busy with a five-month-old baby, luggage and checking on the  other four of us. Besides, the Irish do not like to say goodbye.

   The night before many neighbors came to say farewell, to try to enliven the traditional “American wake” the night before emigrants departed forever. How different all this is now!

   Of that morning, a few things are etched clearly in memory. I was delegated to take a hammer back to Uncle Barney at my grandmother’s. I don’t remember whether I saw either one of them. I never saw Grandma again. I had to walk the equivalent of a block on the main road on my way with the hammer. I met the McNamees going into town to our school, this time without us. We didn’t hug or say goodbye. We took the meeting in stride as just another happening. But that something in me wrote it down indelibly. Our worlds were separating. We would never see each other again. I did not feel it then.

   I remember combing my hair in front of a little brown framed mirror. I forget how we got to the station. Rose Kennedy in a khaki raincoat was the only one to see us off. She said she too would emigrate. She never did. My mother and sister were crying as the train pulled out. My brothers were sad. I wasn’t. To me it was an adventure.
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Follies of a Navy Chaplain
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Friday, September 28, 2012

Darrell Petty Part 3: Patton's speech

Darrell Petty

I met Darrell Petty, of New Castle, Wyoming, at the 1997 reunion of the 90th Infantry Division in Omaha, Nebraska. This is the third and final installment of our conversation.

Darrell Petty Part 1

Darrell Petty Part 2 


Darrell Petty: I wouldn’t take a million dollars for my experiences. I wouldn’t give a nickel to go do it again. But if they ever start getting over here, they don’t have to call me, I’ll grab my own gun and go. That’s the way I feel.

Aaron Elson: And what about the Nuremburg trials?

Darrell Petty: Oh, it wasn’t too much different than the ones at Dachau as far as that goes, except they were bigger names. Of course, old Goering, he cheated them, he cyanided himself. I don’t think they ever figured out where he had it hid, they thought maybe he had it hid in a glass capsule in his rectum because he was checked pretty well. He had a real deep belly button and he might have had it in there, but I think they would have checked it.

Aaron Elson: Now did you have any contact with these prisoners?

Darrell Petty: Just watching them. Standing guard there, watching them. And my folks saw me on a newsreel one time. My folks lived about 47 miles out of town. Anyway, the guy that had the place leased from them, I don’t know if you remember it or not, I don’t know how old you are...

Aaron Elson: I’m 46....

Darrell Petty: They used to have what was called the Pathe News and the film running over the screens at the movies, and it was on Nuremburg, and old Harry saw me there. Well, he drove clear to the ranch that night, and told my folks. He said, "You get in there tomorrow. Darrell is on film." And they came in and saw it.

Aaron Elson: Did you have brothers and sisters?

Darrell Petty: Yeah. There was five boys and two girls.

Aaron Elson: Were you the oldest, or the youngest?

Darrell Petty: I was the fourth child. Two brothers are older than I was, and a sister.

Aaron Elson: Did your brothers go in to the service?

Darrell Petty: My oldest brother served, spent the wartime in England. He was in the 844th Aviation Engineers. They built airfields. And when he came over to France, they built airfields. Then he spent a couple of months in Vienna. It was Russian-occupied, and we kept two battalions of Americans there at all times to protect the people of Austria, Vienna, from the Russians. Yeah, our allies. And they needed it. He could tell a few things that happened up there. But anyway, then he shipped for home, and he come right back pretty near to Munich, a place called Erding, about 17 kilometers out of Munich, and there was a German airbase there. And I came in off pass one night, I had a class A pass, I came in and the charge of quarters said to me, "Your brother’s here." I said, "What?" He said, "Your brother’s here looking for you." I said, "Well, where in the devil is he at?"

He said, "He’s based out at Erding but he had to catch a truck and go back out." So I got me a weekend pass and went out there and saw him. Then, after that, we got together about four times before he shipped on home. He came home ahead of me. Of course he went in ahead of me, too.

Then my second brother, he lost his left eye in a gun accident. Didn’t lose the eye but it took the lens out. His eye looked pretty normal. Then he had a small hernia, and they wouldn’t take him. He tried to go when I went, but they turned him down. Then the first brother younger than I am, he was in Korea. Then my youngest brother was in Vietnam. He was 20, he put in 23 years, the youngest one. He was in Germany several times, he was in Vietnam several times. Got shot down over there. He was with a helicopter gunship, part of the 101st. And he got shot down one time, he got out of it pretty lucky as it turned out.

My two oldest boys, they were in the National Guard, but they were in between Vietnam and Korea. Then the youngest boy ...

Aaron Elson: When did you get married?

Darrell Petty: My wife’s from England.

Aaron Elson: Did you meet her there?

Darrell Petty: I met her there, but we didn’t get married, she came to the States and we got married in ‘46.

Aaron Elson: How did you meet her?

Darrell Petty: Oh, just out on pass one time I met her, and we got to corresponding and we kept track of one another. She wrote me letters in Germany when I was there. I didn’t write her many back, because we couldn’t, and especially when they had blackouts, we couldn’t even correspond, we had to get our mail and read it and burn it.

Aaron Elson: Really? You had to read your mail and burn it?

Darrell Petty: Read it and burn it. Couldn’t wear insignia. And if we were gonna write a letter we had to write it when they could send it right out.

Aaron Elson: Why was that?

Darrell Petty: Censorship. Under blackout conditions. Because the Germans said one time that they knew where we was at, they knew where everything in the Third Army was. We never knew where we were. We’d be here, they’d pull us out of here and we’d be up here. That’s the way it was. Interrupted some meals I was trying to fix a few times, and pulled out. But anyway, after I got home, Elaine came to the States.

Aaron Elson: Did you ever ride on the back of tanks?

Darrell Petty: Yeah, I did. Whatever. You’d ride any way you can get. Sometimes the little ten and a halfs that pulled the antitank guns, 57s. I rode on them a few times. We’d jump on the tanks, halftracks, or whatever we could get on. In fact, when we went into Czechoslovakia the first time, I might have been one of the first ten GIs in Czechoslovakia. I’m sitting right astraddle that 76 gun on a Sherman. And the border was just a little ditch. It was about as wide as from here to the wall, just sort of halfway between here and that ...

Aaron Elson: You were straddling the 76 gun? And you could tell the difference between the 76 and the 75. A lot of the Shermans had 75s. But the lead tank, the lieutenant’s tank, often had a 76. So you were on the front tank?

Darrell Petty: Yeah. Oh, yeah, you could tell, you got to where you could tell the difference.

Aaron Elson: And that was on MacFarland’s tank?

Darrell Petty: I don’t think it was.

Aaron Elson: Do you know the name of the village?

Darrell Petty: We weren’t at a village at the time we crossed the border. We weren’t at a village, where I first went in. But we sat in Hof for quite a long time. And the irony of it was that the Germans sent word that if we’d come take Berlin, they’d send all the trucks that they could to help us take it. They didn’t want the Russians to have it. They wouldn’t let us go. Patton wanted to go, they wouldn’t let us go. Eisenhower said not to. Bradley, of course, told us that. Patton told Bradley, he said, I’m quoting from stuff I’ve read, but he said, "Hell, tell him you couldn’t find me and I went." And Bradley said, "No, he’d know that was one of your tricks." And he said, "You can’t do it."

I’ve also got, somewhere, I’ve got a shed and I’ve got stuff stored in it, I don’t know whether I can go through it and find it, somewhere I’ve got a magazine that’s got photocopies of two letters from Truman to Eisenhower. He gave him three options. He said, "I didn’t sign the line of demarcation. Roosevelt did." He said, "You can sit and hold, you can go into Czechoslovakia or you can go to Berlin." Yeah, we wanted to go. But then we went into Czechoslovakia. But I suppose, actually where we went in is close to Hof.

Aaron Elson: Were you in Hof when it was shelled by the railroad gun?

Darrell Petty: Yeah. I was shelled before we got into Hof, too. But we also went out and got a crew of a B-17 that blew up right over the line, and bailed out just before it blew up. I guess that was actually the first foray into Czechoslovakia, because they were trying to kill them in the air, shooting at them.

Aaron Elson: Really?

Darrell Petty: Oh yeah. Watching white tracers go up. And the tail gunner and another guy, they had come down on the wrong side of the line. We got on a jeep and went out there...

Aaron Elson: When you say the line, was this the border line or the...

Darrell Petty: Well, the Germans were dug in on one side and we were on the other. They weren’t crack troops, they were the trooops they just throwed in there for the last thing. And we grabbed a jeep with a .50-caliber on it, and I forget how many now, there was about probably six or seven of us hanging on that jeep all over. We went out through there and I was fortunate enough I got behind the .50-caliber, and we got both those guys. We got the tail gunner. He gave me his jacket and his flight suit. And they wouldn’t let me bring it home. They took it away from me when I tried to bring it home. But anyway, we got ‘em out of there. And we got our butts chewed a little bit. Our company commander got chewed out for us going across there, and he chewed us out, and then he turned around and said, "And I’m proud of every damn one of you." Anyway, yeah, we sat at Hof waiting there, getting ticked off because they wouldn’t let us go there, but then we eventually wound up going into Czechoslovakia. And when the war ended, when they officially stopped us, we were in a little village and I can’t think of the name of it in Czechoslovakia.

Aaron Elson: It wasn’t Susisce?

Darrell Petty: I don’t know. I know one of our kids, his grandparents had come from the town and they made him the honorary mayor, and throwed a hell of a celebration. But that’s where they stopped us. And we were on our way to Prague, supposed to go up there and help the patriots, but the Russians beat us in there. So they stopped us, and that was it. Then we pulled back across, and then we of course, we were in garrison just a little ways from the border, and we had outposts. We’d go up to them, in different spots. One little town we had an outpost in, half of it was in Czechoslovakia and half was in Germany.

Old Patton, our headquarters was in Weiden, we did a review for him. And a parade. He come down off that stand and he went down through the ranks, and he stopped and talked to every damn man. And if you had decorations, he asked what you got them for, and so forth. And his voice didn’t fit his stature at all, he had that high, squeaky voice. And he was a big man, and boy, decked out the best...

Aaron Elson: And what decorations did you get?

Darrell Petty: I’ve got three Bronze Stars, a Bronze Star and two clusters. And the V for valor. I’ve got a Purple Heart, or a Purple Heart and cluster. And I got the Victory medal and the Occupation medal, and the American defense...

Aaron Elson: Now the three Bronze Stars were for what?

Darrell Petty: Well, one off of that Hill 451. And one ... I’m gonna wear your tape out ...

Aaron Elson: That’s all right.

Darrell Petty: I got volunteered to take a jeep, a Red Cross jeep down to one of our sister companies and bring out some wounded. The guy that was the main medic on it couldn’t drive, I don’t know how, that was always weird to me, he had a driver, and the driver, I don’t know if he went AWOL or what he did, but he just disappeared. And he was looking for somebody to drive a jeep.

Aaron Elson: Now, when you say you "got volunteered..."

Darrell Petty: Well, Lieutenant Kelso was standing there. And he said, "Can you drive that jeep?" to me.

And I said, "Well, I never drove a jeep. I’ve drove a lot of trucks and a car, and I bet I can drive it."

Well, he said, "Go with him and take that jeep. Drive it." So I got volunteered. So we went down and we were coming out with those three guys, and that damn gun was trying to hit us, and we brought them out. So they turned me in for that one. And the other one I never figured I should have got.

Aaron Elson: What were the circumstances of that?

Darrell Petty: Well, I didn’t figure I’d done any more than anyone else.

Aaron Elson: But where was it?

Darrell Petty: It was just before we went into Czechoslovakia.

Aaron Elson: That was for going in and getting out the fliers, or something else?

Darrell Petty: He said he was turning us in for that, and I think that’s what it was. I just felt like that was something I should have done, anyway, and it’s probably a good thing we did. When they seen us going, they cranked up those TDs and tanks and come with us or we’d have been in trouble.

Aaron Elson: They went with you?

Darrell Petty: Yeah. But, you know, you do what you have to do. We was reviewing, like I said, for Patton, and he did that, and then he got back up on which it looked like a big prizefight ring, only about four times as big. And he said, "Now, men. You all are men or you wouldn’t be here." I was an 18, 19 year old kid there, I wasn’t 19 yet at the time. September, right after Japan surrendered. If they’d have stayed in the war two weeks more, we’d have been on our way to the States, 90-day leave, and then to the Pacific.

Aaron Elson: And what’s your birthday?

Darrell Petty: May 27th. And, anyway, he said, "The damn parade’s over." He said, "And I’ve got a lot to say to you, and I want you to hear me." He said, "You fall in just as close around me as you can." And I was probably from here to that post. And he told us things I won’t begin to try to tell you all, but some of the high points, he said, "We should go and whip Russia right now." He said, "We’re here, we’re equipped." He said, "We’ve got the bomb, and they don’t." He said, "Let’s don’t wait till they have it, and they’ll get it." He said, "All we’ve got to do is turn these German troops we’ve got loose and they’ll help us do it." And they would. And that got him in trouble, too, for saying that. Not then, but later. And he said, he just went right down the line why they’d always caused us trouble and this and that, and why, it was like having a fire department, which you didn’t have to have but you had to have it. You know, things like that. And he said, "The Russians will never do anything but cause us trouble." He said, "They will try to keep us out of Berlin." He said "They won’t succeed but they’ll try." That was the Berlin airlift. He said, "Communists will take over China and Russia will be instrumental in them doing it, but in the long run China will become one of Russia’s worst enemies."

Aaron Elson: He said that?

Darrell Petty: Yes. He said, "We will have these little brushfire wars, mostly in Asia, that we will not be allowed to win."

Aaron Elson: He didn’t say that, he said that?

Darrell Petty: You bet he said it. And he said Ike has political intentions, he said he intends to be the president of the United States and he’ll run for whatever party can put him in there. That’s what he said. That was September of 1945. You’re damn right.

Aaron Elson: That’s incredible.

Darrell Petty: You better believe it is. I watched it happen. And he said, "You know," he said, "Ike would back me as long as it didn’t look like I was endangering his career or his political intentions." And that’s when he said he had political intentions. He said, "As you well know," he said, "I always had my ass in a jam." He said, he’s a good soldier, he said, "I’m not saying Ike isn’t a good soldier," but he told us that right there, those were some of the highlights. And he also, I’ve read the books on him, "Before the Color Fades," and "The Last Days of Patton." And he told his family that he wasn’t gonna come home. Yeah, he said, "I won’t be coming back," and he also wanted to be buried over there with his men.

Aaron Elson: Do you think he was murdered?

Darrell Petty: No. I did for a while. But I read the accounts. He got in trouble, and they relieved him of the Third Army and put him in charge of the 15th, paper army we thought it was, cadre and paperwork. That was over his remarks about the Russians. Then he planned to go bird hunting, him and another general, and the other general come there and then he got called back in the middle of the night. That sounds kind of like maybe it could be a conspiracy and I’ll tell you the Germans, an awful lot of Germans think he was, think it was like Rommel, you know, and the admiration was terrific from the German people. Anyway, he completely changed his plans. He still was going bird hunting, but he was going a totally different route. He wanted to go past two or three of the battlefields. He wanted to go see the ruins of this one place, he believed he was an incarnation, and he changed his route around completely. There was no way they could have known that. But up to that time, I thought yeah, they did. But it wasn’t, I’m sure it wasn’t. In fact, I’m glad it wasn’t. But what a hell of a way to go after all he went through. And I had a guy trying to tell me the other day, oh, he was a crazy, bloodthirsty SOB, a couple of months ago. And I said, "Well, maybe in your eyes he was, but I’ll tell you something. I fought my war under his command." And I said, "If I had to do it again that’s exactly the kind of person I would want to command me." And I would. Because he knew how to fight a damn war. His theory was when you got a SOB, only he didn’t say it that way, running, he said you keep kicking him in the ass just as hard as you can kick him and then he said he can’t turn around and hit you. But he said if you let him slow down and turn around, he’ll hit you. He said, when Joe Louis had a guy in the corner and was gonna knock him out he didn’t back off and let him get cover. That’s the way he was. And one time when he was talking about his men, one time they asked him, "Why do you call your men sons of bitches?"

And he said, "Because they are." He said, "They’re my sons of bitches." But he said, "By the very same token, they know I’m their son of a bitch." He knew we cussed him. And we cussed him, but we didn’t let nobody else cuss him. When you’re hungry and cold and dirty and lousy and everything else ...

Aaron Elson: Speaking of which, did you ever get lice?

Darrell Petty: You’re damn right. And you know what they give us? You know, they talk about agent orange and that stuff? Okay, you know what they gave us to keep the lice off of us and kill them? Coming from little squirt cans like a Johnson baby powder can? DDT. We sprinkled it in our hair, we sprinkled it on one another’s necks, and we got a change of clothes once a month if we were lucky. No bath, but a change of clothes. We wore that stuff. We’d get sweaty and the pores would be open, then they’d cool down and they’d close up. We wore that stuff. DDT. I never heard of anybody getting anything out of that.

Aaron Elson: And where did you pick up the lice from?

Darrell Petty: Who knows? It seemed like France they’ve got them. It seemed like you’d get them there. Then if we could take over a house and sleep in a warm bed or something, we did. Whatever we can do.

Aaron Elson: The Germans all had lice.

Darrell Petty: Well, yeah, and yet they’re a real clean people. And it might sound funny, but being over there, I didn’t get to know the French very well till after the war was over, because I was too busy with other things. But I got to know the Germans pretty well after the war was over too, and personally, I prefer to be around the German people than the French people.

Aaron Elson: And why was that?

Darrell Petty: The morals, for one thing. I was standing in one of them underground tubes, the trains there, in Paris. I went back to see my brother, who was stationed there a little bit. And I got, about a 12 year old girl riding my leg propositioned me, right there in the middle of that damn train in front of everybody. That was just one incident. And not only that, they had their piss spots along the wall, and they’d be standing there holding their girlfriend’s or wife’s hand and talking to somebody else, taking a leak. And my dad told me they did it in World War I, I thought surely it wouldn’t be like that now.

Aaron Elson: Wait a minute, was your dad in World War I?

Darrell Petty: My dad was in World War I, 88th Division. Browning automatic rifle.

Aaron Elson: And did he ever talk about it?

Darrell Petty: Some. He shot the propeller off of a German Fokker plane one day with that B.A.R. There was three of them after a little French Spad, and the Spad was out of ammunition I guess, and they were coming in, teeing in on him, and they come pretty near straight in on him, and he just pulled down and emptied that 20-round clip and took that old wood prop right off that, and down it went. I don’t know what else all else he got into. He didn’t talk too much about anything else.

Aaron Elson: Did he get gassed?

Darrell Petty: No, he was lucky there. He didn’t get no gas. Well, I seen one of my old buddies, I’d better go find him.

Aaron Elson: All right, I really appreciate your talking to me about this.

Darrell Petty: Well, I don’t want any, you know, I’m just trying to tell you straight facts, like it happened, like I knew it. Someone else might disagree, I don’t know.

Aaron Elson: I think it’s important to get a little bit of this down, recorded.

Darrell Petty: Well, our kids, I’m a member of the VFW, and we’ve been trying to go to schools and talk to the kids, present a little of this stuff to the kids. And you know, man, they’re full of questions. They’re curious. They want to know about it, when it’s over they’re all around you. They’re not being taught this. They’re not being taught this at all. One guy reviewed his daughter’s history book, not from New Castle, there’s another history book, I think she’s in college now. It’s got two and a half pages on World War II. Can you think of anything that’s affected this world any more than World War II has in the past fifty-something years? I don’t. About two paragraphs on the Korean War and nothing on Vietnam.

Aaron Elson: Unbelievable.

Darrell Petty: Yeah. See, it kind of makes you look sick. You know, but you wonder what you went to war for. I’d do it again if it had to be done. I wouldn’t be very good anymore, I had a new knee put in, this left knee, on the 8th of July, and I’ve got to have this one put in the 10th of October. So I don’t get around so good.

Aaron Elson: And how old are you now?

Darrell Petty: Seventy, I’ll be 71. Yeah. I never thought I’d live to get this old. I used to look at people and thought they were old, now here I am. I’ve got to find old Coffey and see what he’s doing. Thank you.

Aaron Elson: Thank you!

Darrell Petty: I didn’t mean to...

Aaron Elson: No, please! When I get this typed up, it’s gonna take a while because I have a backlog, but I’ll send you a copy of it.