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Posts tagged ‘WWII Stories’

29
Jan

Military Myths & Legends: Wojtex the Soldier Bear

By LtCol Mike Christy, TogetherWeServed Dispatches

In the spring of 1942, after being attacked by Germany, the Russians released their Polish prisoners from the labor camps in Siberia. A new Polish Army was being formed in the Middle East under the command of the British and released Polish soldiers among the prisoners were ordered to join them.
On their way to the organization in Palestine, a group of Polish soldiers crossing through the Alborz Mountains of northern Persia came across a young boy from Hamadan Province. He told the soldiers he found the orphaned bear cub in the wild months before after hunters had shot the cub’s mother. The boy took the fluffy little cub home, but finding it increasingly difficult to care of the cub, he sold his playmate to the Polish soldiers for a few tins of food and other sundry items.
The cub was very small and the problem of feeding him was soon overcome by the improvised techniques employed by his new family including feeding him from on a bottle filled with condensed milk. Eventually, they all arrived in Palestine and the clumsy little bear quickly became the beloved pet of soldiers in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. They fed their ursine ward milk from bottles and showered him with the attention he had come to adore after losing his mother and being exposed to humans at an early age. In return, he boosted the soldiers’ morale.
He was given the name Wojtex, pronounced Voytek.
From the beginning, he became a popular member of the Company spending most of his time with the soldiers of the 4th Platoon. Two of his closest friends were two young soldiers, Dymitr Szawlugo and Henryk Zacharewicz who would both be featured in many of the photos and film footage was taken of Wojtek. He would often be found in the kitchen area eating everything he was fed and even developed a taste for beer and wine together with cigarettes which he would only accept when lit. He had a habit of drinking from a beer or wine bottle and when empty, he would peer into the bottle waiting patiently for more. He would usually take one puff of a lit cigarette and then swallow it.
Wojtek grew to become a very strong bear and was happy bathing and wrestling with his comrades. Only a few soldiers dared to take him on in a wrestling match as sometimes the men would get roughed up a bit by getting scratched or have their uniforms torn. The rest of the men were happy to watch. In Palestine, Wojtek became a hero one night by capturing a thief who had broken into an ammunition compound where the bear was sleeping. The Arab was shocked to find himself confronted by the animal and the commotion that ensued resulted in his arrest. Wojtek was quite satisfied with the reward of a bottle of beer.
When he was small, it was easy for Wojtek to ride in the cab of the transport vehicles but as he grew he would sit in the back with the supplies though he would often ride on one of the recovery trucks where there was more room to lie down during the long journeys and he could play by climbing up the crane.
Wherever he went, Wojtek would attract attention and his antics would cause a sensation as he loved to entertain people. He made friends with a few of the other mascots including Kasha the monkey and Kirkuk the dog. Kasha died of a broken heart after her chronically sick baby lived for less than a year and Kirkuk did not survive a sting by a scorpion. Such an insect did sting Wojtek on the nose on one occasion and the men of the Company thought that he would not make it through. His close companion Henryk nursed him back to health and he did not leave his side for a couple of days. After he had recovered, he was back to his usual self.
But before long, it looked like the soldiers would have to part ways with their new companion. On April 14, 1944, they found themselves in Egypt waiting to board a ship headed to Naples, where the unit was supposed to join in the Allied campaign in Italy. Port officials in Alexandria refused to allow the wild animal on board the ship, stating that only soldiers could make the journey.
So the soldiers improvised: They quickly obtained an authorization from the head military office in Cairo and made their bear an official soldier. They gave him a service number, a rank, and a pay book. It was now hoped the British officials in Naples to accept the bear as part of the unit.
It was mid-February 1944, and the courier ship for British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was in the port of Naples to help process Polish Soldiers that had just arrived by ship from Alexandria, Egypt, to advance with British soldiers against German and Italian forces.
Archibald Brown was a British official whose everyday duties was checking crew manifests and speaking with freshly arrived soldiers. But this would be no typical day.
He had already spoken with every single member of the new unit, the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps – except one.
“We looked at the roster, and there was only one person, Corporal Wojtek, who had not appeared,” Brown recalled in an interview, years later. But the documents said that Wojtek belonged to the unit. Brown had his service number and his pay book, but the soldier himself seemed to have vanished without a trace.
Brown then called out the soldier’s name, but there was no response. So he asked the other soldiers why Wojtek wasn’t coming forward. An amused colonel responded: “Well, he only understands Polish and Persian.” Brown was then led to a cage holding a full-grown Syrian brown bear, the unit’s most popular member.
Brown thought it was merely a joke. But the soldier-bear was actually a legal member of the Polish military and one that provided his comrades with vigorous support. Brown simply raised his hands in the air and left.
By then, the once small cub had grown to become a big bear, standing 6 feet tall and weighing about 485 pounds Having resolved to put their furry comrade’s strength to use, the Soldiers taught how him to carry crates full of heavy mortar rounds.
In the Italian theatre, the Polish 2nd Corps soon prepared to break through the German defenses at Monte Casino where it successfully captured the stronghold after much bitter fighting.
During the conflict, Wojtek found himself at the artillery firing line where he was seen to move crates of ammunition close to a truck where he was chained.
Henryk had been assigned to take care of the bear that day but when he was ordered forward as an artillery spotter, he had to leave Wojtek alone. Always inquisitive and willing to copy what the soldiers were doing, he began picking up the crates and moving towards the cannons. The sounds of gunfire did not concern him and he displayed courage in his willingness to participate in the action. After the battle, the official badge of the 22nd Transport Company became a likeness of Wojtek holding a shell. This symbol appeared on vehicles, pennants and on the uniforms of the Soldiers.
The war ended in May 1945 and the Polish soldiers were eventually sent across Europe to Berwick upon Tweed in England where they stayed at Winfield Camp.
As the Soldiers went through a process of demobilization, they would say goodbye to Wojtek, many knowing that they would never see him again since their journeys would take them to distant parts of the globe, but it wasn’t clear where the bear would live. A political tug of war of sorts began. The bear’s caretakers didn’t want him to go back to Poland because they were afraid that the fledgling Soviet-controlled government would adopt the bear as a symbol for communism, which was the opposite of what those Polish troops had been fighting for.
He ended up in Scotland, in a village called Hutton in Berwickshire, on a farm where he lived with other former Polish fighters who were being lodged there temporarily after the war.
That’s where the story gets personal for Andre Orr. Her grandfather was a Scottish Soldier who helped train the Poles from the Siberian gulag when they were in Baghdad, and she ended up marrying the man who ran the camp where they had stayed. She currently lives on that very farm, which apparently still has the bear’s claw marks etched into the trees in her garden.
So she grew up hearing stories about how people at the Scottish camp would feed the bear sweets like honey and jam, attempt to wrestle him, and kick around a soccer ball with him. “He was very much a part of the community and attended dances, concerts, local children’s parties,” she said. “He was like a dog. He was almost human.”
His death in 1963 at the age of 21 was met with sadness from those who knew him and it was reported in newspapers and radio stations.  His exploits and adventures have not been forgotten with numerous written accounts, memorials, and statues. In a time when Polish Soldiers had lost their country to the Nazis and later to the Communists, Wojtek became a symbol which the Soldiers were proud of, themselves knowing that they would not soon return to a free homeland.
Wojtek is still remembered today, his heroic deeds in the war living on in the tales and memories of those with whom he served. He became irreplaceable to his comrades – not because he was a wild beast, but because he truly became one of them.
In November 2011, a parade of veterans and bagpipe players made its way through Edinburgh as part of a celebration that included a eulogy – delivered in Polish – to the Bear-Soldier. There are already a number of commemorative plaques and statues in various museums, and the Wojtek Memorial Trust is lobbying to get a large bronze statue of Wojtek erected in the heart of Edinburgh.
On top of all this, Wojtek’s unique history continues to be repeated in stories, books, and film. In 2011, Will Hood, the director of the ‘Wojtek – The Bear That Went to War’ documentary, was asked what he found so fascinating about the bear’s story.
“The fact that he himself thought he was a human poses some very interesting questions about what it is to be human,” Hood responded.
Wojtex became part of the history of the Polish Armed forces in the Second World War and his legacy will endure.
Short video on Wojtex can be found at:
27
Nov

Profile in Courage: Gregory “Pappy” Boyington

By LtCol Mike Christy – Together We Served Dispatches

Stories of Gregory “Pappy” Boyington are legion, many founded in fact, including how he led the legendary Black Sheep squadron, and how he served in China as a member of the American Volunteer Group, the famed Flying Tigers. He spent a year and a half as a Japanese POW, was awarded the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross, and was recognized as a Marine Corps top ace. Always hard-drinking and hard-living, Pappy’s post-war life was as turbulent as his wartime experiences.

Born on Dec.4, 1912, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, young Boyington had a rough childhood, as divorced parents, an alcoholic step-father, and lots of moves withheld much-needed parental guidance. He got his first ride in an airplane at the ripe young age of six, when the famous barnstormer, Clyde Pangborn (who later flew the Pacific non-stop), flew his Jenny into town, and young Gregory wangled a ride. What a thrill for a little kid!

In 1926, at the age of 13, his family moved to Tacoma, Washington. In high school, he took up a challenging sport that he would practice for many years – wrestling. As an adult, the hard-drinking Boyington would often challenge others to impromptu wrestling bouts, frequently with injurious results.

After graduating high school in 1930, Boyington attended the University of Washington in Seattle, where he was a member of the Army ROTC and joined the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. He was on the Husky wrestling and swimming teams, and for a time he held the Pacific Northwest Intercollegiate middleweight wrestling title. He spent his summers working in Washington in a mining camp and at a logging camp, and back in Idaho with the Coeur d’Alene Fire Protective Association in road construction. He graduated in 1934 with a B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering and soon after married his first wife, Helene, who bore him his first son, Gregory Clark Boyington, 10 months later. He initially worked for a time as a draftsman and engineer for Boeing in Seattle.

Boyington had begun his military training in college as a member of Army ROTC and became a cadet captain. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Coast Artillery Reserve in June 1934, and then served two months of active duty with the 630th Coast Artillery at Fort Worden, Washington.

In the spring of 1935, he applied for flight training under the Aviation Cadet Act, but he discovered that it excluded married men. Boyington had grown up as Gregory Hallenbeck, and had assumed his stepfather, Ellsworth J. Hallenbeck, was his father. However, when he obtained a copy of his birth certificate, he learned that his father was actually Charles Boyington, a dentist, and that his parents had divorced when he was an infant. As there was no record that someone named Gregory Boyington had ever been married, he enrolled in the U.S. Marine Corps Aviation Cadet program using that name.

He began elimination training in June 1935, where he met Richard Mangrum and Bob Galer, both future heroes at Guadalcanal. He passed and received orders to begin Flight Training at Pensacola NAS in January 1936 with class 88-C. Here he flew a floatplane version of the Consolidated NY-2. Like another great ace, Gabby Gabreski, Boyington had a tough time with flight training and had to undergo many rechecks. On February 18, 1936, Boyington accepted an appointment as an Aviation Cadet in the Marine Corps Reserve.

Until he arrived in Pensacola, Boyington had never touched alcohol. But here, with hard-partying fliers, and the burden of his wife’s “indiscretions,” he soon discovered an affinity for liquor. Early on, he established his Marine Corps reputation: hard-drinking, brawling, well-liked, and always ready to wrestle at the drop of a hat. But he kept flying, all through1936, slowly progressing toward earning his wings, flying more powerful planes like the Vought O2U and SU-1 scouting biplanes. At Pensacola, he also met his future nemesis, Joe Smoak, memorialized in the TV show “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (loosely based on Boyington’s memoirs of the same title) as “Colonel Lard.”

Boyington finally earned his coveted wings on March 11, 1937, when he was designated a Naval Aviator and transferred to Quantico, Virginia, for duty with Aircraft One, Fleet Marine Force. He was discharged from the Marine Corps Reserve on July 1, 1937, in order to accept a Second Lieutenant’s commission in the regular Marine Corps the following day.

Before reporting for his assignment with VMF-1 at Quantico, Virginia, he took advantage of his 30-day leave to return home and reconcile with his wife Helene, who became pregnant with their second child. In those days, Marine aviators were required to be bachelors; Boyington’s family was a secret that he kept from the brass, but he brought them with him to Virginia, installing them quietly in nearby Fredericksburg. He flew F4B-4 biplanes during 1937, taking part in routine training, an air show dubbed the “All American Air Maneuvers,” and a fleet exercise in Puerto Rico.

In March of 1938, VMF-1 aviators took possession of the latest, hottest Grumman fighters, the F3F-2s, the last biplane fighters used by the U.S. Army Air Force. Powered by the mammoth 950 horsepower Wright-Cyclone engine, the fat-bellied aircraft was fast and rugged.

In July, he moved to Philadelphia to attend the ten-month Marine Corps Basic School. Apparently not motivated by the “ground-pounder” curriculum, Boyington here evidenced the weaknesses that would haunt him: excessive drinking, unpaid debts, fighting, and poor official performance. On completion of the course, he was assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Group at the San Diego Naval Air Station, where he took part in fleet exercises off the aircraft carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown.

Boyington’s irresponsibility, his debts, and his difficulties with the Corps continued to haunt him. One memorable, drunken night, he meant to show off the swimming prowess he had attained as a swimmer at UW, and attempted to swim across San Diego Bay, but wound up naked and exhausted in the Navy’s Shore Patrol office.

Despite his problems on the ground, it was during these days of 1940, flying with VMF-2, that Boyington first became noticed as a top-notch pilot. Whatever his other issues, he could out-dogfight almost anyone. Boyington was promoted to First Lieutenant on November 4, 1940, and in December he returned to Pensacola as an Instructor. Once back at Pensacola, his problems mounted when he decked a superior Officer in a fight over a girl (not his wife), and his creditors sought official help from the Marine Corps. His career was a hopeless mess by late 1941.

Rescue came from the Chinese front against Japan. Anxious to help the Chinese in their war against Japan, the United States government arranged to supply fighter planes and pilots to China, under the cover of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO). CAMCO recruiters would visit U.S. military aviation bases looking for volunteers to help defend China and the Burma Road, critical to maintaining the flow of supplies to anti-Japanese forces in the Far East. The pilots were volunteers only in the sense that they willingly quit their peacetime job with the military; otherwise, they would be handsomely paid through CAMCO. Pilots earned $600 a month, flight leaders $675, plus a fat bonus for each Japanese plane destroyed. This was double or even triple the current military salary for pilots.

In March, CAMCO recruiters began their quest to form the American Volunteer Group (AVG), later known as the famed Flying Tigers in Burma. One recruiter set up an interview room in Pensacola’s San Carlos Hotel, a popular watering hole for pilots. On the night of August 4, Boyington found himself in the hotel bar simply “looking for an answer.” Payday had been just a few days earlier, but he was already broke. His wife and children were gone, he was deeply in debt, and his superiors were breathing down his neck.

The money looked very good to Boyington. Assured by the recruiter that the program had government approval and that his spot in the Corps was safe, he signed on the spot and promptly resigned from the Marine Corps. While the AVG deal for pilots normally meant a later return to active U.S. military service, in Boyington’s case, his superiors took a different view. They were happy to be rid of him and noted in his file that he should not be reappointed.

Boyington shipped out of San Francisco on September 24, 1941, on the Boschfontein, of the Dutch Java Line. After docking at Rangoon, the AVG fliers arrived at their base at Toungoo on November 13. During his time with the Tigers, Boyington became a Flight Leader. He flew several missions during the defense of Burma and was frequently in trouble with the Commander of the outfit, Claire Chennault. After Burma fell, he returned to Kunming and flew from there until the Flying Tigers were incorporated into the USAAF.

Boyington claimed to have shot down six Japanese fighters, which would have made him one of the first American Aces of the war. He maintained until his death in 1988 that he did, in fact, have six kills, and the Marine Corps officially credits him with those kills. However, loosely-kept AVG records only credited Boyington with two aerial kills. The difference seems to have been a mere technicality: it was noted that in a raid on Chiang Mai, Boyington was one of four pilots who was credited with destroying 15 planes on the ground. As the AVG paid for destroyed Japanese planes, on the ground or in the air, Boyington lobbied for his share of the Chiang Mai planes or, to be precise 3.75 planes. And so, later at Guadalcanal, he characterized his Flying Tiger record as including “six kills.” For Greg Boyington, the 3.75 ground kill claims added to 2 aerial kills, rounded off to six kills, and established himself as one of the first American Aces. It may have been a “little white lie,” but once his AVG number of six kills found its way into print, and his USMC victories started piling up, there was no going back.

While with the Flying Tigers, Boyington also made the acquaintance of Olga Greenlaw, the beautiful wife of the Tiger’s XO, Harvey Greenlaw. In her own words, Olga “knew how to get along with a man if I like him.” Apparently, she and Boyington “got along.” Olga served as statistician and writer of the Flying Tigers’ Daily Diary for the year they were in China. In 1943, she wrote her own book titled “The Lady and the Tigers” about her experiences with the Squadron.

Boyington returned to the States in the spring of 1942 and took up with Lucy Malcolmson since his first marriage had fallen apart. With some finagling, undoubtedly helped by the wartime demand for, and a shortage of, experienced fighter pilots, and against the prior recommendations by his superiors, he was reappointed to the U.S. Marines in November, with the rank of Major. In January 1943, he embarked on the Lurline, bound for New Caledonia, where he would spend a few months on the staff of Marine Air Group (MAG)-11. Here, he got his first close look at a Vought F4U Corsair, the fighter in which he would record the majority of his aerial victories.

Boyington finally secured an assignment to VMF-122 as Executive Officer for a combat tour. As usual, he clashed with his superior. This time it was Major Elmer Brackett. Brackett was shortly removed, and Boyington took over but did not see much action. It was now early 1943, when, as the new CO of VMF-122, his claim of six kills with the AVG first made it into print.

In late May of 1943, Boyington’s nemesis, Lt. Col. Joe Smoak relieved him of his command of VMF-122. Shortly afterward, Boyington broke his leg and spent time in the hospital. In the summer of 1943, as he convalesced, the U.S. Naval Air Forces needed more Corsairs in the fight. Oddly, the key pieces – trained pilots and operational aircraft – were present in the South Pacific, but many of them were dispersed. Boyington was given the assignment to pull together an ad hoc Squadron from available men and planes. Originally, they formed the rear echelon of VMF-124.

In a complex, and common, wartime shuffling of designations, Boyington’s team was redesignated VMF-214, while the exhausted pilots of the original VMF-214 were sent home.

Under Boyington as CO with Maj. Stan Bailey as Exec, they trained hard at Turtle Bay on Espritu Santo, especially the pilots who were new to the Corsair. Two other noted Officers rounded out the Squadron: Frank Walton, a former Los Angeles cop, became the Air Combat Intelligence Officer (ACIO), and Jim Reames the Squadron doctor. Walton would later author “Once They Were Eagles.” While leading this group of young pilots, most in their early 20’s, Boyington – at the advanced age of 30 – picked up the nickname “Gramps.” The press gave him the nickname “Pappy” after he was shot down, which stuck with him for the rest of his life.

The new VMF-214 was originally called “Boyington’s Bastards” by his men, since none of them were at the time attached to any units, but was later given the more newspaper-friendly label “Black Sheep” by the top brass. In early September 1943, they were moved up to their new forward base in the Russell Islands, staging through Guadalcanal’s famed Henderson Field.

The Black Sheep fought their way to fame in just 84 days, compiling a record 197 planes destroyed or damaged, troop transports and supply ships sunk, and ground installations destroyed in addition to numerous other victories. They flew their first combat mission on September 14, 1943, escorting Dauntless Dive Bombers to Ballale, a small island west of Bougainville where the Japanese had a heavily fortified airstrip. They encountered heavy opposition from the enemy Zeros. Two days later, in a similar raid, “Pappy” claimed five kills, his best single day total.

In October VMF-214 moved up from their original base in the Russells to a more advanced location at Munda. From here they were closer to the next big objective – the Jap bases on Bougainville. On one mission over Bougainville, according to Boyington’s autobiography, the Japanese radioed him in English, asking him to report his position and so forth. Pappy played along, but stayed 5000 feet higher than he had told them, and when the Zeros came along, the Black Sheep blew twelve of them away and drove off the rest. He even made an unsuccessful play for “Washing Machine Charlie,” a random Japanese Betty bomber with deliberately-unsynchronized engines that would make erratic and inaccurate nocturnal bomb drops over Henderson Field on Guadalcanal.

During the period from September 1943 to early January 1944, Boyington destroyed 22 Japanese aircraft. By late December, it was clear that he was closing in on Eddie Rickenbacker’s record of 26 victories (including his claimed 6 with the AVG). But the strain had begun to tell. On Nov. 19, 1943, his old nemesis Lt. Col. Joe Smoak placed him under arrest for 10 days for speaking to the staff of the Wing Commander without Smoak’s explicit authorization. Then, on Jan. 3, 1944, in a large dogfight in which the Black Sheep were outnumbered 70 to 30, Boyington was shot down. He later claimed three enemy aircraft killed in the aerial battle, one of which was verified.

He landed in the water, badly injured. After being strafed by the Jap fighters, he struggled onto his raft only to be captured by a Jap sub several hours later. They took him first to Rabaul, where he was brutally interrogated. Even the General commanding the Japanese forces at Rabaul interviewed him. Pappy later related in his memoirs titled “Baa Baa Black Sheep” that the General asked him who had started the war. After Pappy replied that of course, the Japanese had started the war by attacking Pearl Harbor, the General then told him this short fable:

“Once upon a time there was a little of old lady and she traded with five merchants. She always paid her bills and got along fine. Finally, the five merchants got together, and they jacked up their prices so high the little old lady couldn’t afford to live any longer. That’s the end of the story.” The General left the room, leaving Boyington to ponder that there had to be two sides to everything.

After about six weeks, the Japanese flew him to Truk. As he landed there, he experienced one of the early carrier strikes against Truk in February 1944. Along with six other captured Americans, he was confined in a small, but sturdy wooden cell which might have been designed for one inmate. The only opening was a six-inch hole in the floor, for relieving themselves. The stench became nearly intolerable.

He was eventually moved to a prison camp at Ofuna, outside of Yokohama. His autobiography relates the frequent beatings, interrogations, and near starvation that he endured for the next 18 months. The guards, whose only qualification seemed to be passing “a minus-one-hundred I.Q. test,” beat the prisoners severely for any infraction, real or imagined.

He initially lost about 80 pounds, and described how he once entirely consumed a “soup bone the size of my fist” in just two days, a feat which previously he would not have believed a dog could achieve. During the middle period of his captivity, he had the good fortune to be assigned kitchen duty. A Japanese Grandmother who worked in the kitchen befriended him and helped him filch food. Before long, he returned to his pre-captivity weight. He freely admitted later that during the two years he spent as a P.O.W. his health improved, due to the enforced sobriety, with one exception: on New Year’s Eve, he managed to get drunk after begging a little Sake from each of the Officers.

From Camp Ofuna, he witnessed the first B-29 raids striking the nearby Naval Base at Yokohama. During this time, he was given a temporary promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. When he was repatriated, he found he had been awarded the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. He also added to his claims for aerial victories after his return. Several other pilots had seen him down one Zero, which raised his total to 20 with the Black Sheep, and 26 if his claims for 6 with the Flying Tigers were included. Twenty-six was Eddie Rickenbacker’s WWI record, and the number shot down by Joe Foss, the top-scoring Marine pilot of all time.

Back in the States, in September of 1945, he claimed to have shot down two more planes in that final battle. Frank Walton, the ACIO, prepared the combat report, and Boyington signed it. With a stroke of his own pen, Boyington was credited with twenty-eight victories, making him the highest scoring ace in the Marine Corps. At the time, Boyington was being feted in a national War Bond Tour, patriotic feelings were running high, and he was a national hero. No one challenged the two additional claims.

Pappy lived until 1988, but it was a hard life, marked by financial instability, marriages and divorces, and battles with alcoholism. Things started downhill on his War Bond tour, when he was frequently drunk. On one infamous occasion, he embarrassed himself, the Corps, and the audience with a rambling drunken speech. His tangled affair with Lucy Malcolmson (still married to her husband Stewart Malcolmson) broke up, quite publicly, when he took up with Frances Baker, who became his second wife. Now a PR liability, the Marine Corps officially retired Boyington in 1947, allegedly for medical reasons, and promoted him to full Colonel.

He moved from job to job, never able to stay with any one thing. He frequently refereed at wrestling matches. After a continued decline into alcoholism, he went on the wagon in 1956 and even joined AA. Things picked up for him in 1958 with the success of his autobiography, “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” He met Dee Tatum the next year, soon divorced Frances, and married Dee (his third). The 1960’s were a real low period for Pappy, including estrangement from his own children.

Pappy’s greatest fame came in the mid-Seventies when the television show “Baa Baa Black Sheep” appeared. Based very loosely on Boyington’s memoirs, the show had a three-year run, and achieved a consistent popularity in reruns. Pappy was a consultant to the show, and got on well with its star, Robert Conrad. But the show’s description of the Black Sheep pilots as a bunch of misfits and drunks, which Pappy happily went along with, destroyed Pappy’s friendship with many of his squadron veterans, including Frank Walton. The show made Pappy a real celebrity, found time to get married a fourth time to Josephine Wilson Moseman, and he made a good career out of being an entertainer – appearing at air shows, on TV programs, and other venues.

Boyington, who had been a heavy smoker and battled cancer since the ’60s, died in his sleep on January 11, 1988, at the age of 75 in Fresno, Calif.

12
Dec

Heroic Pilots of Pearl Harbor

At the beginning of December, 1941, Army Air Forces pilots Second Lieutenants George Welch and Kenneth Taylor had moved their P-40s away from the main airfield at Wheeler to a nearby auxiliary field at Haleiwa as part of a gunnery exercise. The vast majority of Army Air Forces fighters at Wheeler were parked in neat rows on the main flight-line; although war with Japan appeared imminent, it was decided that the possibility of sabotage from the ground presented a greater threat than a potential air attack, and it was easier to guard them while parked in neat rows than dispersed on the airfield perimeter. When the Japanese carrier-based sneak attack against Pearl Harbor and Wheeler and Hickam Fields came on the morning of December 7, 1941, the majority of the U.S. Army Air Forces fighters were easily destroyed on the ground, several of them when the first P-40 pilot attempting to take off to fight was hit and killed on his takeoff roll and his fighter went crashing down the flight-line at Wheeler.

Welch and Taylor had spent the evening of Saturday, Dec. 6, at a dance at the Wheeler Field officers club, followed by an all-night card game some distance away from their home base at Haleiwa. That fateful Sunday morning, as they discussed the merits of taking an early morning swim, they heard distant gunfire. Suddenly the Japanese swooped down on Wheeler Field, which was a center for fighter operations in Hawaii. Dive bombers seemed to appear out of nowhere. Violent explosions upended the parked planes, and buildings began to burn. Welch ran for a telephone and called Haleiwa as bullets sprayed around him.

“Get two P-40s ready!” he yelled. “It’s not a gag. The Japs are here.” The two hopped into Taylor’s car with machine-gun bullets from planes of the attacking Japanese aircraft kicking up dust around them. They reached speeds of 100 mph during the 16-mile dash to Haleiwa. Japanese Zeros strafed their car three times. When the two fliers careened onto the airfield nine minutes later, their fighter planes were already armed and the propellers were turning over. Without waiting for orders they took off.

As they climbed for altitude they ran into twelve Japanese Val dive bombers over the Marine air base at Ewa. Welch and Taylor began their attack immediately. On their first pass, machine guns blazing, each shot down a bomber. As Taylor zoomed up and over in his Tomahawk, he saw an enemy bomber heading out to sea. He gave his P-40 full throttle and roared after it. Again his aim was good and the Val broke up before his eyes, tumbling into the sea. In the meantime Welch’s plane had been hit and he dived into a protective cloud bank. The damage didn’t seem too serious so he flew out again – only to find himself on the tail of another Val. With only one gun now working he nevertheless managed to send the bomber flaming into a watery grave.

Both pilots now vectored toward burning Wheeler Field for more ammunition and gas. Welch later recalled: “We had to argue with some of the ground crew. They wanted us to disperse the airplanes and we wanted to fight.” Unfortunately the extra cartridge belts for the P-40s were in a hangar which was on fire. Two mechanics ran bravely into the dangerous inferno and returned with the ammunition.

They headed directly into the enemy planes, all guns firing. This time Ken Taylor was hit in the arm, and then a Val closed in behind him. Welch kicked his rudder and the Tomahawk whipped around and blasted the Val, though his own plane had been hit once more. Taylor had to land, but George Welch shot down still another bomber near Ewa before he returned.

In the aftermath, the single American airfield to emerge from the battle unscathed was Haleiwa. Some speculated that this was because the Japanese did not know of its existence. More likely, it was because Welch and Taylor aggressively and continually drove off the attackers. One group of Japanese planes, their bomb cargoes expended, turned to strafe Hickam and Ewa airfields and the naval installations at Ford Island. One of those Japanese pilots saw an aerial melee in the distance that very likely included Welch and Taylor. The Japanese flier reported seeing several of his comrades’ planes falling from the sky in flames.

Taylor later recalled: “We went down and got in the traffic pattern and shot down several planes there. I know for certain I shot down two planes or perhaps more; I don’t know.” A total of 29 Japanese planes were shot down during the attack, and Welch and Taylor were officially credited with seven of them, four in their first sortie and three in the second.

In all, a total of five U.S. Army Air Forces pilots managed to get their planes off the ground and give battle that morning. One of them, a lieutenant named Sanders, led a group of planes through overcast skies at 6,000 feet. When a formation of six Japanese bombers was spotted attacking an airfield, the group chased them off. Sanders picked out the Japanese leader and sent the smoking enemy plane spiraling into the sea.

Sanders then spotted a comrade in trouble. Lieutenant James Sterling had closed with an enemy bomber, but another Japanese plane had gotten on his tail and was pouring fire into him. Sanders pulled in behind Sterling’s attacker, and all four planes went into a steep dive. Sanders was the only one to come out. Sterling lost his life, and both Japanese aircraft went down.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, Taylor was assigned to the 44th Fighter Squadron, and went to the South Pacific at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. He was able to record two additional aerial kills: the first on January 27 and the other on December 7, 1943, two years after Pearl Harbor. This brought his total number of career kills to six, making him a flying ace. After 27 years of active duty, he retired as a colonel in 1967, and became the Assistant Adjutant General for the Alaska Air National Guard, retiring as a Brigadier General in 1971.

After contracting an illness from a hip surgery two years prior, Taylor died on November 25, 2006 of a strangulated hernia at an assisted living residence in Tucson, Arizona. He was cremated and later buried at the Arlington National Cemetery in June 2007 with full military honors.

Welch remained in the Pacific Theater of Operations and went on to score 12 more kills against Japanese aircraft (16 in total), making him a triple ace.

In the spring of 1944, Welch was approached by North American Aviation to become a test pilot for the P-51 Mustang. He went on to fly the prototypes of the FJ Fury, and when the F-86 Sabre was proposed, Welch was chosen as the chief test pilot.

In September, 1947, the F-86 project moved to the Muroc test facility (now Edwards AFB, California), the same base at which the Bell X-1 was being developed. North American was instructed by Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington that they were not, under any circumstances, to break the sound barrier before the X-1 achieved this milestone. However, Welch disregarded this order, and during a test flight on October 1, 1947, he entered a steep dive from 35,000 ft. During the dive, Welch observed symptoms compatible with Mach jump. However, due to problems with the landing gear, further full-speed flights were delayed. On October 14, the same day that Chuck Yeager was to attempt supersonic flight, Welch reputedly performed a second supersonic dive. This time he started from 37,000 ft., and executed a full-power 4g pullout, greatly increasing the power of his apparent sonic boom. Yeager broke the sound barrier approximately 30 minutes later.

To justify the investment in the X-1 program, the Pentagon allegedly ordered the results of Welch’s flights classified and did not allow North American to publicly announce that the XP-86 had gone supersonic until almost a year later. The Air Force still officially denies that Welch broke the sound barrier first. Welch had achieved supersonic flight only in a dive, not in level flight, and his flights were unofficial and not tracked by NACA measuring equipment, making verification impossible.

Welch went on to work with North American Aviation in the Korean War as Chief Test Pilot, engineer and instructor, where he reportedly downed several enemy MiG-15s while “supervising” his students.

After the war, Welch returned to flight testing – this time in the F-100 Super Sabre – with Yeager flying the chase plane. Welch became the first man to break the sound barrier in level flight with this type of aircraft, the first USAF fighter to achieve level supersonic flight, on May 25, 1953. However, stability problems with the aircraft arose, and on Columbus Day, October 12, 1954, Welch’s F-100A-1-NA Super Sabre disintegrated during a 7g pullout at Mach 1.55. When found, Welch was still in the ejection seat, mortally injured. He was evacuated by helicopter, but was pronounced dead on arrival at the Army hospital. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Welch and Taylor were both nominated for the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions on Pearl Harbor Day, and the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces, General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, was reportedly anxious to receive the nominations. Unfortunately for the two heroes, the intermediate Chain of Command, whose pride was evidently smarting from having been caught off guard and suffering the devastation they did, reasoned absurdly that they had taken off without proper authorization and therefore could not be awarded the United States’ highest military award. As a result, the awards were downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross for both men.

30
Nov

SO1 Don Hammill US Navy (1942-1945)

Read the service reflections of US Navy Sailor:

hammil20serviceSO1 Don Hammill

US Navy

(1942-1945)

WHAT PERSUADED YOU TO JOIN THE NAVY?

Some of my boyhood friends had joined the Navy and some were going to join.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor my parents agreed that I should join.  I was very patriotic and intended to serve my country and fight the enemy.

BRIEFLY, WHAT WAS YOUR CAREER PATH IN THE SERVICE?

My journey began when I arrived at NTS, San Diego on 10 Jan 1942.  I spent 3 weeks in Boot Camp then I was assigned to Sonar School before being sent to the USS Crosby (DD 164) in February, 1942.  The Crosby patrolled the West Cost on Escort Duty until February, 1943.  We eventually entered the Mare Island Navy Yard for convesion to a high Speed Transport and were reclassified as APD-17, High Speed Destroyer Transport.  We cleared San Francisco on 27 February 1943 and sailed, by way of Pearl Harbor, Samoa, Vitu Levu Noumea and Espiritu Santo.  We practiced beach landings at Santo with James Roosevelt’s “Marine Raiders” in March of 1943.  We were cleared on 29 April for Guadalcanal as a Transport Screen and on 6 June 1943 we reported for escrot duty in the Solomon Islands.

DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS?

We saw tremendous action on the USS Crosby with 17 Amphibious Landings.  We went through all of the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, and all islands in between to the Phillipines, we finally secured after Corregedor and Manila.  We then went back to Ulithi in the Central Pacific to prepare for the Okinawa Operation.

I saw my first combat in June 1943 when 120 enemy plane came down slot to attack Guadalcanal and the fleet in channel between Tulagi and Guadalcanal.  American and New Zealand planes and surface ships shot down 94 Jap planes with a loss of 6 U.S. Planes and the recovery of 2 U.S. pilots.

The Crosby was one of the American surface ships in this battle.  We began island hopping from our forward bast at Tulagi and were eventually awarded 10 Battle Stars for the following Operations; Eastern New Guinea, New Georgia Group, Bismarck Archipelago, Treasure-Bougainville, Western New Guinea, Hollandi, Leyte, Luzon, Manila Bay and Okinawa Gunto.

Additionally, the Crosby was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation for the following Operations: New Georgia Group, Bougainville Landings, Cape Gloucester, Leyte Gulf, Ormoc Bay Landing, Lingayen Landings and the Okinawa Operation.

My battle station was a gunner on the 20mm on flying bridge on the Crosby.  In November 1943 a low flying plane came in directly at the bridge of the Crosby.  I unloaded a full magazine on my 20mm and shot down the enemy plane. I also shot down a suicide plane in Lingayen Gulf as it was headed for the bridge. That was in January 1945.  My Shipmate, Albert Johnson, was an eyewitness to each of these actions.  Albert, who was stationed at a searchlight platfrom directly above me, was going to send me an affidavit on the incidents but regretfully he passed away before he was able to send it.  I do have a copy of it now, provided below.  His description depicts actions against the enemy that day:

“Statement regarding the participation of Don E. Hammill of Murray, Utah and Albert R. Johnson of Phoeniz, AZ in actions against the Japanese on November 17, 1943 while serving aboard the USS Crosby (APD 17):

I was a member of the crew of the USS Crosby (DD164/APD17) with the rate of SM2C and was a shipmate of Don E. Hammill, Sonarman 2nd Class on November 17, 1943.  On said date, at approximately 0800, our ship was landing troops in Operations off Bougainville Island in the Solomon Islands, when our ship came under attack by Japanese planes. We were at General Quarters and my Battle Station while landing troops was in Boat One of a Four Boat group where I was the communications between the mother ship and the USS Crosby.  Our four boats had left the Crosby when Japanese aircraft entered the landing area.  Boat one was 100 yards off the starboard bow of the Crosby when two planes dropped bombs on the Crosby, One bomb landed close aboard the bridge on the starboard side.  The plane bulled out of its bomb run, gained altitude and turned into a strafing run on the port side of the Crosby.  Sonarman Hammill’s 20mm gun on the flying bridge opened fire emptying a full magazine into the enemy plane, tracer fire could be clearly seen entering the engine and cockpit of the plane.  it appears that the 20mm fire hit the enemy pilot as the plane veered radically and plunged into the sea.  Sonorman Hammill’s 20mm machine gun was the only one that could have had the opportunity to get a first hit on the enemy plane.
Signed/Dated,
22 September 2003
Albert R. Johnson, Lt (USNR/Ret)”

FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?

My particular memories during 23 consecutive months in the South Pacific were when I was literally staring into the eyes of the enemy pilots while manning my 20mm gun.

WHICH INDIVIDUAL PERSON FROM YOUR SERVICE STANDS OUT AS THE ONE WHO HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON YOU…AND WHY?

I didn’t have an individual person that had a particular impact on me personally but I never forgot the great strategy of Admiral Spruance in the “Miracle at Midway.”  We were all inspired by the Admiral’s actions since he, against all odds, stopped the Japanese fleet early in the war and the Battle of Midway early in 1942 prevented the enemy from occupying Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States.

DO YOU HAVE A PARTICULARLY FUNNY STORY FROM YOUR SERVICE THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE?

When we were at Esperado, before being sent to Guadalcanal, and were training with the 4th Marine Raiders practicing landings with them. They were commanded by James Roosevelt.   While we were there, Roosevelt got word that the Army club at the base there had a nice big piano, but there wasn’t one in the Marines club.  Not having a piano, but wanted one, he organized a group of some of the larger Marines in the unit to go and “re-locate” that piano in the middle of the night and put it in the Marines club.  That was of course the subject of more than a few exchanges between the various service members but it was a lot of fun.

WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER THE SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW?

I was discharged in November of 1945.  I returned to Salt Lake, City and graduated from the University of Utah Law School in 1950 with a Juris Doctor degree and practiced law for 30 years.  I am now retired and Vice President of Membership and Development for the Utah Council of the Navy League of the United States.

HOW HAS SERVING IN THE NAVY INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU NOW APPROACH YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?

I have always been proud of my service in the Navy and my family aboard the Crosby and my contact with the TWS Family and my Shipmates there.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR THOSE THAT ARE STILL SERVING?

After getting out of the service I can say that what I learned in the service was real discipline.  I was young and cocky when I started my time in the service and it wasn’t until after my first battle at Guadalcanal that I realized we were in a real war and other people were trying to kill us. Anyone who is currently serving should be proud and have respect for their seniors and those serving with them.  The reality is that war is harsh so they must train hard, learn their job well and execute their duties to the best of their ability. You should be proud to be in the greatest Navy in the world and do everything you can to be the very best Sailor you can be.  I salute everyone who has or is currently serving.

HOW HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU TO MAINTAIN A BOND WITH THE SERVICE AND THOSE YOU SERVED WITH?

Becoming a member of TWS has been the most rewarding experience of my retirement years.  The ability to talk with all of my shipmates on TWS is great.  My daughter Jill literally saved my life by getting me into Huntsman Cancer Hospital for emergency surgery in 2009. It was after this surgery that a lot of shipmates on TWS kept me in their thoughts and prayers during a long, slow and painful recovery. I must give a hand salute to MCPO Ed Armstrong for keeping everyone on TWS updated regarding my condition and for calling me every day for more than a year to check on me. I would like to wish blessings on him and all my TWS shipmates and the United States of America.

23
Nov

Pfc Frank A. Plebanek US Army (1943-1945)

Read the service reflections of US Soldier

plebanek1Pfc Frank A. Plebanek

US Army

(1943-1945)

If you are a veteran or family of a veteran, join us today at http://sos.togetherweserved.org to share their stories.

WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?

Having just turned 18 years of age I knew I was eligible to be drafted, but didn’t know when that time would come. My buddy and I went to the Naval Recruiting office and told them we would

like to become pilots on an aircraft carrier. He arranged for us to go to Kansas City, MO for testing and physicals on Dec 31, 1942 and Jan. 1, 1943. We both passed the tests and physicals and were told to return home and that we would receive a letter within 30 days to report to Pensacola, Florida for induction into the US Navy.

We did receive a letter about three weeks later that informed us that enlistments for 18 year olds had been canceled and we could wait to be drafted and then transfer into Naval Aviation. We didn’t like that idea, so went to the Army Air Corp and then the US Marines and they told us the same thing. We had both quit our jobs and decided to go to the local draft board and tell them we wanted to enlist and would like to go out on the next draft call from our city.

We were told to report for induction on Mar 19, 1943.

BRIEFLY, WHAT WAS YOUR SERVICE CAREER PATH?

I volunteered to be drafted March 1943. Trained with 78th Lightning Division, in D Co of 309th Regiment. I was trained in Use and Tactics of Heavy Water Cooled 30. Cal. Machine Gun.

I was sent as POR to England and Joined the 82nd Airborne Division about ten days before D-Day. I was being held as Reserve Status and assigned to 325th Glider Regiment. I was placed in E Co. in a Mortar Squad when the Unit was returned from combat in July of 1944.

I participated in Operation Market Garden as Second Gunner on 60mm Mortars. I was wounded on Oct 1, 1944 near Mook, Holland and sent to England to recuperate.

I was then returned to duty in Feb 1945 to rejoin my Unit which was near Schmidthof, Germany. I was assigned as a Gunner on a 30 Cal. Light Machine Gun.

While holding the West Bank of the Rhine river in Cologne, the CO said needed a jeep driver so I became his driver until the hostilities ceased in May of 1945.

We then were sent to Berlin, Germany for Occupational Duty until Nov of 1945, when I had acquired enough points to be able to return to the States to be demobilized on Dec 23, 1945, returning to my family about 6:30 p.m on Christmas Eve!

DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?

We landed by glider in Holland and spent 8 days on the Front Line. I came so close to being killed so many times.

A German soldier had my head in his sights when he fired his rifle. If his aim would have been 2 inches higher he would have shot me right between the eyes. The bullet landed in the dirt, right in front of my nose and about 2 inches below the top of the dirt around my foxhole. The dirt the bullet kicked up filled my eyes and I was unable to see anything for over an hour, while I tried to clean the dirt from my eyes, with water from my canteen.

While trying to awaken a man to relieve me on guard duty one night, a sniper tried to shoot me while I was looking for the man in his hole. He must have fired three or four times at me until the firing woke another solier who fired back at the sniper. I believe the sniper was in the attic of the nearby farmhouse. He was just firing at the sounds I was making. I believe he was the same sniper that killed Verl Miller earlier that afternoon.

On a later occasion, as I looked around the corner of a fireplace protruding from the rear of a house, a German stood there with a flame thrower about 25 feet from me. He immediately fired the flame thrower and as the ball of flame was coming toward me, I dodged around the corner of the house and dove into an empty foxhole.

One of our Sergeants, along with five other men and I were trying to recover the mortar we had lost the day before, when we’d been attacked and didn’t have time to bring it with us. We were proceeding in single file as we were walking along the dirt road and the man (Closen), directly in front of me, was hit with machine pistol fire from a German gunner. Closen was riddled across his lower chest and fell forward to the ground and squirmed his way into the hedgerow trying to take more cover. He only got about half way into the hedges when he stopped, lying perfectly still. We all knew that he was killed in action. He had been through Africa, Sicily, Italy and Normandy without being injured and it seemed such a shame that he had to die in Holland.

Late afternoon on the third day, while Payne and I were in our foxhole, the Germans made a small counter-attack with a half-track and a few troops following it. We heard it coming, but couldn’t see it, and when it came into view, the gunner on top, with a machine gun, opened fire at Payne and I. We dropped to the bottom of our foxhole, without being hit. The gunner kept us pinned down, until some of our troops fired a bazooka round at it. It was hit in the radiator and backed away toward their own lines. When all the firing stopped we raised up out of our hole and found that all the dirt around our foxhole had been scooped away by the machine gunners bullets.

Another day, while it was raining, I tried to have a cigarette, but couldn’t keep it lit. I decided to go into a small shed about 30 yards away. As I entered the shed I found it dry inside, so sat down and had a cigarette and candy bar. It wasn’t long before a few guys decided to join me in theshed for a smoke. When the fifth man arrived, I thought to myself, ‘this is not good, too many people in one spot. I explained this to the men in the shed. When the sixth man arrived, I decided to leave and mentioned that they should too. Then four of them left and there was only one man in the shed. The Germans had spotted all the men gathering at the shed and probably had it zeroed in for their mortars. Before the last man left, a mortar round landed about five feet from the shed and blew it all apart. They then placed machine gun fire on the spot where the shed had been. The last man didn’t make it out and was killed.

On another occasion, I was digging a foxhole and had it about knee deep, when I noticed some leaves move near my hole while I was standing in it. I immediately dropped into the hole as a mortar shell exploded not two feet from me. I wasn’t wounded as all the fragments went over me. I couldn’t hear anything for about two hours, until my hearing returned from the concussion of the blast.

After we lost the mortar I was assigned to be first gunner on a light machine gun. One time, a German machine gunner was returning my fire but he couldn’t lower his fire enough to hit me. I was concentrating on firing my own weapon and didn’t realize how close I’d come to being hit until I discovered the severed leaves he’d shot from the trees about six inches above my head.

I was really ticked off at the Germans for shelling our bivouac area. Our Company was pulled off the line to go to the rear to get some R & R for two days. My Buddy and I dug a slit trench to sleep in or take cover if we were shelled. We covered it with logs and dirt because it was raining. We’d left just enough room to get into and out of the hole. While we slept, at about 10:30 p.m. we were shelled and an artillery shell exploded in the tree just above us and the entire top of the tree trapped us in the slit trench. We were both wounded in the lower legs and were trapped inside until the medics could remove the tree and help us from the slit trench. It just didn’t seem right that I was wounded while in a two foot deep slit trench, below ground level and protected by dirt and logs over 2/3rds of the hole. Of course if it hadn’t been for the logs and dirt over our bodies, we both may both have been killed. We were taken by ambulance to a field hospital in Nijmegen in the morning. Then the next day to a hospital in Brussels. The next day I was airlifted back to England in a C-47 ambulance plane. After being airlifted back to England, I spent about four months in the hospital before being returned to my Unit, which had already moved into Germany near Aachen.

WHICH, OF THE DUTY STATIONS OR LOCATIONS YOU WERE ASSIGNED OR DEPLOYED TO, DO YOU HAVE THE FONDEST MEMORIES OF AND WHY?

Berlin, Germany, the 82nd Airborne Division was assigned as occupational duty forces, after the German forces surrendered. It was nice to know we wouldn’t have to do any more fighting on this side of the world. We didn’t know if we would be sent to help the Pacific forces invade Japan. Seeing Berlin almost completely demolished from the bombing and shelling, was an awesome sight. Being the CO’s jeep driver we had to travel in the British and French zones. Trying to get around we sometimes had to travel 3 or 4 miles to find routes to get to where we wanted to go that was only a mile away. Our Company was quartered in Mariendorf, which is a small section of the southern area of Berlin. We were due south from the Brandenberg Gate and the Templehof Airport. Spandau was west of downtown Berlin.

A group of about 10 from our company, a Lieutenant, myself and 8 others were assigned to assist the British, in Spandau, to help get all the DP’s (Displaced Persons) and German Soldiers back to their home locations. This took about six weeks before all the holding pens were emptied. I met many British soldiers and German girls (typists) while doing the sorting of thousands of German soldiers and civilians.

I think we spent more time in Berlin than any of the places we were stationed and while in combat. We were constantly moving from one place to another through England, Holland, France, Belgium and Germany. Seemed we were constantly going back and forth from France to Germany.

As troops were being sent back to the US to be demobilized, we were given points to accumulate, the men with the highest number of points were being sent home first. My number group was called about the middle of November and we left Berlin, returned to France and left Marseille to go through the Mediterranean, past Gibraltar and on to New York.

So to me, my whole oversees adventure was to leave Boston, land in England, go to Holland, go to Belgium, return to England (in hospital), back to France, then to Germany, back to France, back to Germany, back to France, back to Germany, back to France, then leave France to go by ship to New York. I was able to visit all the Capitals, London, Paris, Brussels, Berlin.

FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?

I was in the hospital near Whitney, England when I learned that my Unit was called to duty to help halt the German counter-attack in Dec. 1944 at the Huertgen Forest. I regretted that I was not able to be with my Unit when it really needed the most able bodied men. They had advanced on into Germany by the time I was able to return to duty.

WERE ANY OF THE MEDALS OR AWARDS YOU RECEIVED FOR VALOR? IF YES, COULD YOU DESCRIBE HOW THIS WAS EARNED?

I was awarded the Bronze Star for service during the Rhineland Campaign in Feb. 1944. I was unaware that I’d received the medal until Sept 1963.

OF THE MEDALS, AWARDS AND QUALIFICATION BADGES OR DEVICES YOU RECEIVED, WHAT IS THE MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU AND WHY?

Earned the following Medals and awards:

European,African, Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one invasion spear- head and four campaign stars
Army of Occupation WW II Medal
Presidential Unit Citation Badge
Combat Infantryman Badge
American Campaign Medal
Victory WW II Medal
Good Conduct Medal
Bronze Star Medal
Purple Heart Medal
French Fouragere Lanyard
Belgian Fouragere Lanyard
Netherlands Orange Lanyard

All equally important to me.

WHICH INDIVIDUAL PERSON FROM YOUR SERVICE STANDS OUT AS THE ONE WHO HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?

While training in the States with the 78th Div, I had training on driving and maintaining motor vehicles. I had no idea that I would eventually become a driver.

Later I was with E Company, of the 325 Glider Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. When the Company Commander needed a driver they looked through the records of all the company personnel and found that I had been qualified as a driver. We were in Cologne, Germany, holding the west bank of the Rhine, while they were clearing out the Ruhr Pocket which they had encircled on the east bank. My CO asked me if I would like to be relieved from being a gunner on the 30. Cal Light Machine gun and become his regular Jeep Driver. Without too much consideration, I agreed and continued as his driver until I was sent home on points.

CAN YOU RECOUNT A PARTICULAR INCIDENT FROM YOUR SERVICE THAT WAS FUNNY AT THE TIME AND STILL MAKES YOU LAUGH?

On the eve of my 21st. birthday we had a Company party while we were occupying Berlin. I was the CO’s jeep driver at the time. I went to the Company party with intentions of drinking enough until I passed out. After we had dinner I took 7 double shots of Cognac, a wine glass full of Gin, a bottle of Champagne and 3 and a half glasses of beer. All this in about a 4 hour period.

My buddy Tom Graves from Service Company hauled me up three flights of stairs and put me to bed. I was supposed to take the CO to Regimental HQ at 9AM. I never got up after three times being awakened and told to go get my jeep. They had someone bring the jeep to the Company area and finally got me up so I could drive him to HQ.

The Captain got in the jeep and asked me if I thought I could make it. I told him I thought I could. When we got to the corner and I had to make a right turn, I almost fell out of the jeep. He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back. When I had to make a left turn I fell over into his lap and he helped me straighten out again. We made it to HQ and I stayed in the jeep and slept until he came out about two hours later.

I felt much better after getting more sleep, and we made it back to our Company area with no further incidents. He then told me to get my Assistant Driver to take over the driving duties until the next day. I was lucky not to have been written up. It was certainly a milestone birthday to remember.

WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER THE SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? IF CURRENTLY SERVING, WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT JOB?

I was a Automobile Service Station Manager for about 20 years. I then operated my own Service Station for 5 years. I finally gave up my lease during the first gas shortage because the government was telling me how much gas I could sell and how much money I could make. It all became too much because I had to cut my operating hours and couldn’t make enough money to support my family.

I then went to work for another dealer for about five years as an Auto Mechanic. Then gave that up and started working at General Dynamics as a Maintenance Mechanic, then transferred to Machine Tool Rebuilder.

After 12 and a half years I retired from there in Jan 1990. Still retired after 21 years.

WHAT MILITARY ASSOCIATIONS ARE YOU A MEMBER OF, IF ANY? WHAT SPECIFIC BENEFITS DO YOU DERIVE FROM YOUR MEMBERSHIPS?

82nd Airborne Division Association
325 th Glider Infantry Association
American Airborne Association
Military Order of the Purple Heart.
Disabled American Veterans
Combat Infantryman’s Association

Derived no specific benefits from any of them.
Went to reunions of the 325th and the 82nd.

I am mentioned in the following three books:
‘LET’S GO’ by Wayne Pierce 1997- The story of the men of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment.
‘GLIDE TO GLORY’ by Jerry Richlak, Sr.-Unedited personal stories of Airborne Glidermen of WWII.
‘ALL AMERICAN ALL THE WAY’ By Phil Nordyke-The Combat History of The 82nd Airborne Division in World War II.

HOW HAS MILITARY SERVICE INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU HAVE APPROACHED YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?

Personally experiencing the daily life of a Soldier gave me a greater base of knowledge of how to deal with problems, organize and determine what’s truly important. I developed the realization that I had to rely on my own resourcefulness to succeed. I had to literally grow up in the trenches.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR THOSE THAT ARE STILL SERVING?

Stay with the rules and behave. Do your job.

IN WHAT WAYS HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU MAINTAIN A BOND WITH YOUR SERVICE AND THOSE YOU SERVED WITH?

I have found lost friends after 50 years. It’s another vehicle to document history of service.

21
Oct

The Importance of Preserving Military Memories

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, every day, more than 300 Vietnam veterans, more than 450 Korean War veterans, and more than 850 WWII veterans pass away due to old age, complications from exposure to Agent Orange, and other lasting consequences of war.

If we don’t capture their stories now, most of these veteran’s military service will go unrecorded, resulting in a tragic loss of our military history and the records of the sacrifices made by so many. Fortunately some members are doing something about it.

In the past couple of years a number of members have written about relatives who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. One was made into a Navy VOICES; the other an Army VOICES. Both were written by their sons who are themselves TWS members.

Army member Stephen Curlee wrote about his father, Navy officer LtJG Jack Curlee, who served aboard an LST during the invasion of Okinawa. Another was written by Air Force member Brad Crooks whose father Army 1st Sgt. Leonidas M Crooks served during many of the most important battles in Europe during World War II. Both recalled stories told them by their dads through the years and both did detailed interviews over the past few years knowing there wasn’t much time left.

http://navy.togetherweserved.com/usn/voices/2013/61/Curlee_voices.html

http://army.togetherweserved.com/army/voices/2014/83/Crooks_voices.html

Following the posting of Brad Crook detailed tribute to his father’s WW II service, Army TWS member, Tom Thompson send us an email on what it meant for him and wrote about his late Uncle Michael Strazanac who served in the Army during WW II.

Here is the insightful piece written by Tom Thompson to Brad Crooks

Thank you for sharing your dad’s experiences in your heartfelt tribute to his wartime memory. A nation of younger people who have never served, may not appreciate the sacrifices of our brave, patriotic “citizen soldiers” who answered our nation’s call of duty in the darkest days of World War II.

One only has to read what happened to nations that the Nazi’s and Imperial Japanese conquered to appreciate what could, would have happened here. Your dad, along with millions of others, quite literally saved the world for us. When they came home, many did not speak of what they saw or what they did, especially out here in the stolid, rural Midwest. You are privileged to have had him share his experiences with you. I too feel fortunate to have had Uncle Michael Strazanac share with me some of his war history before passing on.

Uncle Mike served as a sergeant under General George S. Patton from France in June 1944 to May 1945 when Nazi Germany surrendered and it was only a few years before he died in 2001 that he shared a few memories with me, also an Army veteran (1970-79).

I had assumed he was a ‘rah, rah parody’ of what most Vietnam-era vets assumed WW II vets to be. He was anything but and 50 plus years later he still remembered events vividly. He was also bitter about what he considered senseless death and what he felt were screw-ups “the brass made” trying to look good.

As I read what you wrote about your father coupled with my own experience listening to Uncle Mike, I realize they, and millions of combat veterans like them, shared a common untreated wound. I heard it best described in a color WW II documentary on PBS of troops coming home: elated to make it home they nevertheless brought with them “a well of bottomless sorrow” along with their victory over the Axis. The majority of returnees suffered this sorrow in silence.

Not surprising when one considers that the Army divisions Uncle Mike served in sometimes suffered 125% casualties from D-Day (June 6, 1944) to VE day (May 8, 1945). Since combat divisions are mostly made up of support troops not actually on the front lines, you get an idea of how deadly it was for the line companies and how traumatic such heavy losses were to witness. My uncle’s was hardly impervious from the experience.

My aunt said he suffered nightmares and depression for years. PTSD had not yet been discovered or labeled as such nor would he have admitted he had emotional issues. I suspect he would not have tolerated any treatment or being set out as being unusual or different – a Slavic trait my cousin has said.

I do know he considered the loss of the many American lives he witnessed as inexplicable and senseless. To appreciate the horrors and brutality of the European battlefields, I recommend the non-fiction book “Citizen Soldier” by Stephen Ambrose in which he describes the costly and fierce combat fought by the U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany – June 7, 1944 to May 7, 1945.

Uncle Mike had been in England for months in preparation for the D-Day invasion of Normandy when he got into serious trouble. As I understand it, he was a very smart aleck 18-year-old kid and had angry words with an officer in his unit. Tensions were so high between the officer and my uncle, the possibility of his being sent to the stockade over trumped up charges was likely. Luckily another more level headed officer intervened and had Uncle Mike transferred to the 728th AFA (Armored Field Artillery) Battalion of self-propelled 105 howitzers. So he missed the Normandy landing, or most of it, and the horrors that followed when our inferior armor was chopped to pieces by Panzers and 88mm AT guns in the enclosed hedge groves and shooting galleries on the tight roads leading into France’s interior.

Toward the end of the war Uncle Mike was delighted to find his old unit was just down the road from where he was and excitedly hurried over to visit “the guys.” Imagine his shock and anguish when less than a year after he had transferred out from the unit he had spent a year training with, he discovered only one survivor in the unit who remembered him. The entire unit was virtually wiped out in a week or so in the hedgerows of Normandy shortly after the Normandy invasion. Imagine being that one survivor.

Unfortunately, his children, gifted, sensitive, educated professionals and academics, do not seem to understand the underlying nature of this often angry, driven, prickly man who not physically violent, just explosive and biting in hiscomments. (Photo is Uncle Mike with his oldest granddaughter Samantha less than a week before he died.)

When his disturbed daughter died by her own hand in the late 1970s, the tragedy tore at the heart of this devote Catholic that had already witnessed so much tragedy and devastation as a youngster. He could be very abrupt and rough. He was not a warm and fuzzy individual but I respected him and knew his heart was filled with kindness, just not milk and honey. Neither did I appreciate how deeply scared he was until shortly before he died.

I sometimes wonder if Uncle Mike considered the chance moments that let him survive the war, when the friends he trained with all died or were wounded and evacuated. He mentioned his fondness and bond with the men of his original unit. He described the training as a specialized armored commando as very rugged, “kill or be killed” and physically demanding. I suspect he really did appreciate the moment of serendipity that allowed him the opportunity to survive.

I know he was sickened by all the loss of life, but bore a strong dislike and mistrust of the German people for the rest of his life due to the things he witnessed. He also kept a strongly embedded distrust of the military brass and politicians.

During one of our sessions of hand digging his ponds in the middle 1990s, he gave a vivid account of how toward the end of the war an infantry regiment of war tested veterans was chopped to pieces on a worthless hill occupied by fanatical SS diehards.

Since his Self-Propelled Battery of 105s was in close support at the base of the hill, he witness much of the carnage.

By then everyone knew the war was over and the focus was on making it home. A new colonel (or general) had just been transferred in after spending the entire war in a cushy office at the War Department in D.C. The green armchair colonel/general had this regiment charge with fixed bayonets repeatedly up the open hill. The infantry was charging in lines over open ground and getting chopped up by well emplaced machine gun fire. The smart SS gunners fired low deliberately, horribly wounding and maiming the legs and groin area of exposed veterans who had already survived much of the fierce fighting across Europe. Then they would shoot up the medics and buddies that went out to retrieve them. There were many cycles of this. This hill could have easily been bypassed or reduced by airpower.

He did not tell me how it ended, just that the cycles of death, maiming, and charging the hill in Civil War style bloodbath seemed endless at the time. The senior officer was trying to make a name for himself as an aggressive commander before the war ended so his former stateside role would not impact his future promotions. In Uncle Mike’s way of thinking, the experienced infantry soldiers had survived much of the war just to die or be permanently maimed for a hill no one needed so close to the end.

He told me how he was just talking to one of his friends, an older man, who was shot between the eyes during the battle. As he was gathering his dead friend’s effects, he read a letter from the 10-yr-old daughter of this man. Mike was 19 or just 20 then. He looked at me with haunted eyes, “That letter really bothered me.”  He was not a crier or emotional man at all. He carried this well of sorrow with him always.

I tried to find out more about this “minor skirmish” on WW II vet sites or from members of his unit with no success. Just another nameless hill and Army screw up that did not scratch the sheet of history unless you were there. I wonder if that senior officer got his promotion. This type of idiocy was not confined to this campaign or battle. It is a common thread in the American military. Lives traded for promotions.

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