Sunday, May 30, 2010

War Stories

I know that as a general rule war certainly isn't considered a humorous subject. However, war is part of life and in every part of life something funny can be found. Thank the Lord that's the case, because there are times when our only choice is to laugh or cry and laughter is often the best medicine. When I asked my Papa what he did in World War II he decided to make me laugh rather than make me cry, I think he had the right attitude.

For those of you who never had the pleasure of meeting my Mom's Dad I'll tell you a bit about Papa. He was truly a remarkable man, both wise and gentle, loving and considerate. I have rarely met anyone as dedicated to the Lord and the Christian path as my Papa. Many are the hours he spent with me telling me stories from the past or debating one subject of faith or another. All in all he was what a grandfather should be.

My Papa passed away just recently. He left behind him a large number of loved ones that miss him very much. He also left behind him a history that will be remembered after him. I feel certain that he has gone on to meet his reward and that he and I will see each other again. It is never “Goodbye” for us, but only “Until we meet again”. Until that time comes we have to remember those that have gone on before.

I thank the Lord that Papa decided to share some of his war stories with me, so that I, in turn, could share them with you. According to my Nana my Papa never talked about the war, that is to say, until I got interested in it when I was about ten or eleven. She once told my mother that she would sit and listen when he began to tell me about it so she could find out what actually happened to him. Papa hated the war and didn't even like to think about it. However, I think my blind innocence made him decide that he might as well satiate my curiosity.

To start with Papa was a radio operator in an M60 tank. He was in a division commanded by Patton himself. He had stood within feet of that famous general. Once he was also called aside with all the other “boys from Kansas” to talk to general Eisenhower. I once made the mistake of saying that Patton seemed to have blood lust or something like that. Papa unloaded on me. It must have been forty years after the war, but to Papa that was still his general and you didn't say anything that wasn't respectful.

When he first got back from the war he was definitely “shell shocked”. He never would come out with us to shoot fireworks and I never saw the man shoot a gun with my own two eyes. One day I asked him why he didn't like fireworks and he started one of his stories:

“Well, during the war I saw enough fireworks. The Germans liked to keep us on edge. There was a shell they used to shoot into our camps that was so small it would have had to land right on you in order to hurt you at all. It wasn't meant to kill us, just to scare us. It had a hollow face and had piano wire stretched across it. When they would fire them into camp it would sound like a screaming banshee. It also let us know they were close and that they knew where we were. They liked to fire them off at around two in the morning when everyone was really in a deep sleep. I don' know how many times my eyes shot open as one of those shell shrieked over our camp.

Of course, in time you did get kind of used to it. I remember one night the Germans were firing over our camp to hit another location a ways down the road. It had just gotten dark and you could see the tracer shells flying above us. One of my friends grabbed a couple of signal flags and climbed up on top of one of the tanks.
He started giving signals that were telling the shells to keep on going that there wasn't a landing spot where they were. Finally one of the officers saw what he was doing and told him to get down off that tank. He said 'But Sir, if I don't wave em on they may decide to stop here!' Needless to say this gave all the boys a good laugh, including the young officer.”

That was one that Papa told me I don't know how many times, but every time he told it he laughed. Even in the middle of a situation like that our soldiers found something to smile about. It made me proud to be kin to some of them.

Another thing Papa told me about was daily life as they drove all over Europe. It was hard to go without the comforts of home and they did as much as they could to improve their lots. Papa and the men in his tank went to some effort that was certainly above and beyond the call of duty.

“Most of the US soldiers stuck together pretty tight, we were all in this together and were going to have to work together to get out of it. As a general rule we didn't steal from each other or cheat one another. However, in every group of men you can find someone who is only out for himself.

Once one of the guys in my tank ended up getting a pack of cigarettes stolen. The officer over us got furious and you can understand why. It's not like there were any enemies in the camp to steal our stuff. One of our own soldiers had robbed him. He did his best to find out who did it, but no one would say. Finally he got mad enough that he told all the men that if anything went missing from his boys they would get twice as much back.

However he managed it, he was good to his word. Later that day he brought by two packs of cigarettes. This continued as the months went by. If a shirt of ours went missing we got two. If someone stole a belt from us there were two given to us. Before long the inside on the tank was filled up with our stuff. Finally we decided something had to be done.

The plan was simple: we had to build a trailer. We began to collect parts where ever we could find them. Now, the problem was that you couldn't just hook a wagon up behind your tank and start dragging it around like a gypsy caravan. The army had regulations and tanks were only allowed to tow army issue trailers. The problem with that was that the army wouldn't just give you one and you weren't allowed to make your own.

We worked out a design that looked just like the army trailers. Then we took the parts we had scraped together and built a very good look alike. After it was done we painted it to look just like any of the other army trailers. I even painted a the set of numbers it was supposed to have on the sides. The numbers were completely made up, of course, but I figured no one would take the time to check. After all, there was a war on.

When we were done with it very few people could have spotted it for the fake it was. We hauled it around behind our tank for months as it slowly filled up with stuff. We had spare uniforms, cartons of cigarettes and loads of stuff we had gotten here and there.

However, one faithful day we ran into trouble. We were stopped somewhere and the brass decided to do a general inspection. One of the officers noticed our little trailer and began walking round and round it. He took note of the numbers and went to check them. A few moments later he returned.

'Is this trailer US Army issue?'

'No Sir.'

'I thought not. Disconnect it from your tank. It stays here.'

'Yes Sir.'

We loaded as much of our stuff in the tank as we could, but it wasn't much. It was with heavy hearts that we disconnected our little trailer. When we pulled out that day we left a trailer full of loot behind us.”

Papa thought of this as one of those funny little things, just as I do now. However, when I was a child I was furious. I thought of all the effort they had put into that as well as all the swag they were forced to leave behind. I couldn't stand the thought of it. Papa used it as a teaching opportunity.

He explained that they could have asked for a trailer and if the army had given them one there would have been no problem. He also explained that it was a war, not a game. That officer wasn't sure how that trailer would handle in the mud or at the tank's top speed. It hadn't been tested and might not have been safe. The officer had done what was right. I understand that as an adult, but I still wish there had been some way to save all the goodies.

To wrap up with I am going to recount the story of how Papa won the bronze star and how he actually deserved the purple heart. I had found his bronze star in a drawer one day. I don't think he ever told me that he had it and I wasn't sure what it was. So I asked him and this was his explanation:

“That's just a medal they gave me during the war.”

“What is it?”

“It's called the bronze star.”

“Why do they give them out?”

“It's for action above and beyond the call of duty.”

“Wow! How did you get it?”

“Well, the truth of the matter is that I don't really deserve it. You see, it was near the end of the war and we were passing through an area where we didn't think any Germans would be. As we were going along we ran up on a Tiger tank. Now one Tiger was trouble and so we tried to maneuver out of it's way. I was on the radio reporting our location and situation. As we were running from the one Tiger we ran up on two more.

The real problem with that was that one Tiger could probably take out three M60s. We were in a single M60 facing three Tigers. So, we did the only thing we could and ran for it as fast as we could manage. The entire time I had my head down over my radio giving our side the information they would need to help us out of the mess we were in.

Suddenly the tank came to a stop. I sat there on the radio doing everything I could to get support. A little red light flashed up on my control board to let me know that I had lost radio contact. I pulled my headset off and turned around to ask the boys if they knew what was happening. When I looked up the tank was empty. The hatch was hanging open and daylight was streaming in. I was alone.

A moment later I heard a noise. 'Ping ping ping ping' I realized the the tank was being hit with machine gun fire. Then it hit me: I had lost radio contact because I didn't have any antennas and I didn't have any antennas because they had been shot off! I waited for a pause in the fire and then jumped out of the tank. It had been parked right beside a building and my comrades in arms were yelling at me to hurry up and get inside. I didn't hesitate!

As it turned out the Germans must have been out of shells for there main canon. They strafed us with machine gun fire, but probably wouldn't have punched through the tank with it. In just a few minutes later our support showed up. The Germans headed for the hills and we were rescued.

I was given the bronze star because I stayed in the tank while everyone else had bailed out. I kept providing information until the radio antennas had been shot off. However, I didn't do it on purpose. If one of the guys had thought to tap me on the shoulder I would have been out of that tank as fast as I could have been. So, like I said I don't really deserve it.”

I disagreed with Papa then and I do so now. He did deserve that bronze star as the duty he preformed was above and beyond the call of duty. The fact that the Lord saw fit to keep him from knowing what he was doing until after it was over doesn't change a thing. Many men have done heroic things by instinct and never taken time to consider them until they were over. That doesn't make them any less heroes.

I later asked him if he gotten any other medals and this was one of the stories he told me:

“Well, I was supposed to get a purple heart, but I didn't really deserve it so I didn't make a fuss when I didn't get it.”

“What's the purple heart for?”

“For being wounded while in the service. You get one if you get shot or something like that. Of course, you can also get one for sitting on a bayonet by accident.”

“You were wounded?”

“Yes, but like I said I didn't deserve a purple heart. I was wounded by our guys not by the enemy. You see, the hatch on my tank slid around to the side to open rather that opening strait up. When we felt there wasn't any danger we would open the hatch and poke the top of our heads out of the tank to help the driver watch the road. Each of us would take a turn helping the driver watch.

When you opened the hatch there was a pin you put in place the keep the hatch from sliding closed on someone's head. You never wanted to forget to put that pin in place. It happened one day that the first guy on watch did just that. We had been riding down a straight road for hours and so no one had noticed that the hatch was loose. However, right after I started my watch the driver took a sharp turn at high speed.

The weight of the hatch caused it not to turn as the tank did. The result was that it slammed on my head with so much force that it cut the straps of my helmet. The driver saw my bloody head gear rolling down the front of the tank and slammed on the brakes.

'I think I just cut Gene's head off!' he yelled.

The boys flew into action and got the hatch opened. I had a gash on both sides of my head and was pouring blood. Fortunately a group of medics were on the road right behind us. They got me patched up in no time. One of them said he would submit the medical report so I would get my purple heart. I told him I didn't think I deserved it, but he said that I clearly did.

However, it was the end of the war. We were all on our way home. That medic forgot to fill out the report and I never got the medal. Since I didn't really deserve it I never mentioned it to anyone. It was just one of those funny things that happens.”

I remember wishing that Papa had gotten that medal. I wanted to look at it. Now, I see that he was right. The medal wasn't important. What was important was my Papa's life and what he did with it. I don't have that bit of ribbon and metal, but I have the story that would have been behind it. The memory means much more to me than some award ever would have.

I hope you all enjoyed this. Happy memorial day everyone!

1 comment:

  1. I posted a comment before and it didn't "register". Anyway, thanks Jeremy for writing this. It's a rare glimpse into the everyday life of a WWII veteran that just happens to be my father and your grandfather. I'm very proud of my dad too!