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A Mile in Their Shoes

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©2014, Aaron Elson


The Wall

Cleo and Doug Coleman

Page 2

(c) 2014, Aaron Elson

    Aaron Elson: When you were in Vietnam, what kind of mail did you get? Did you have a girlfriend back home?

    Doug Coleman: Yeah, I did. I got a Dear John, which everybody got, I guess.

    Cleo Coleman: See, every time Iíd get a letter from him, he wanted to know how Linda was. That was before you met your wife.

    Doug Coleman: That donít make any difference; thatís a long time ago.

    Cleo Coleman: I wouldnít say she was out going with another boy, because he was in combat. The way Iíd write to him, Iíd say, "Take care of yourself, and donít worry about any girls. Go ahead with what youíre doing, and donít worry about girls till you get back." Because he was in combat, and I thought he might do something foolish and get killed.

    Doug Coleman: Everybody got Dear John letters.

    Aaron Elson: What did you do when you got it? Did you get drunk?

    Doug Coleman: No Ö I donít know.

    Aaron Elson: How did she say it?

    Doug Coleman: I donít even remember.

    Aaron Elson: But you and your wife wrote to him, Cleo?

    Cleo Coleman: Yeah, we wrote to him a lot.

    Aaron Elson: And you wrote home?

    Doug Coleman: Yeah, and then Iíd write to my sisters, and theyíd write me. I got a lot of mail. At night time when I got dug in and all, Iíd write people as much as I could.

    Aaron Elson: Having been in combat, Cleo, what would you think when you would watch the news, knowing Doug was in Vietnam?

    Cleo Coleman: Iíd worry about him. Itís hard. I know about what heís gone through. Itís a lot different from the way I had it. I think maybe he had it rougher than I had it, being out there in the boondocks, living out there three or four months. It had to be worse than what I had. It bothered me quite a bit. I just had to go from day to day, and hope heíd make it. And then worrying about getting a telegram. Itís rough. Iíd been through war myself.

    Aaron Elson: That first day that you were in combat, tell me again what happened with you getting out of the tank?

    Cleo Coleman: Well, we landed. We dug in at night. We could hear gunfire. See, I went in about 18 days after D-Day. The front was a little bit in, but you could hear the fighting. They told us all to dig in that night and the next morning, at daybreak, weíd be in combat. They sent out the scouts that night, and they came back with the news that thereís no big firearms up there; nothing to fear about, all small arms. My tank was in the lead of the second section of the platoon. At that time I was a loader. I was down in the turret, and all I had was a periscope to look out. I couldnít see much. There was a jeep blew up right beside us, and I didnít know what in all was going on. Then the tank in front of mine got knocked out. The shell went right through the front and cut the driverís head off.

    Aaron Elson: Did you see the tank ahead of you get hit?

    Cleo Coleman: No. I was down in the turret. The boys told me what happened later. So we moved up, we pushed them back quite a ways, and to our left we spotted a German ammunition dump. [Sergeant Les] Vink, heís the tank commander, told the driver to stop, and he told the gunner to put his sights on it. He gave him the elevation; we could see the Germans running around carrying boxes and things. Vink gave the order to fire, and we opened up on this ammunition dump. That was to our left, but to our right an 88 opened up, and it just missed our tank. So Vink told the driver to back up to a wooded area, and when the driver started backing up, the tank bogged down. The ground was soggy, and he couldnít go any farther. Then Vink gave the order to dismount.

    I was the last one to get out the top, and when I was coming out of the hatch, my helmet came off. Louie [Gruntz] was the gunner. He was in front of me, and he forgot his gun. So heís scared, and he sees that I have no helmet on. He says, "You go back and get your helmet, and pick my gun up," and he grabs my gun out of my hand, just like that. And there I was with no gun and no helmet. But thereís no way Iím going back.

    The tank driver, Freddy Bieber, always told me, "I know where Iím going" Ė heís the driver; he can see. So I said, "Iíll stick with you." And when I got out, Vink and Louie and Bardo [assistant driver Roy Bardo] all took off together. Bieber stayed with me. I was going towards the Germans, because I didnít know where I was. He said, "Follow me." There was a big ditch dug there, and we fell in the ditch and started crawling. A machine gun nest started firing on us, cutting limbs over our back. You had to get low.

    The ditch was on a hill, and on the other side of the ditch there were infantry boys digging in. And the Germans were shelling hard. The infantry boys would dig a while, and then theyíd have to hit the ground because artillery was coming in. So I walked up Ė no helmet, no gun Ė and one of the boys said, "Youíre in bad shape. One of our boys is laying over there. Go and get his; he doesnít need it anymore."

    I said, "No way!" I was scared; it was my first day.

    He said, "Iíll get it for you." And he went and got that carbine rifle. The boy had a death grip on the carbine. He pulled it out of his hands, and picked up the helmet, which was laying to his side.

    There was blood all over the helmet and on the gun. I took some leaves and wiped it off the best I could, put the helmet on my head and got down. And Bieber said, "Letís go this way." I followed him, and there were halftracks and tanks and everything else of the enemyís burning as we went by.

    As we were going back, we ran into a new outfit that had just moved in. They wanted to know how it was up there.

    "Boy," I said, "itís rough. It is bad."

    Aaron Elson: After that first day in combat, how did you adapt?

    Cleo Coleman: Well, I thought I was gonna go crazy. I was scared to death.

    Aaron Elson: Did you see anybody else go crazy?

    Cleo Coleman: I seen one boy. What happened, we got replacements. One boy was called to the Army, and his brother volunteered; at that time they let them do this, to stay together. So they came in as replacements while we were in France. Both of them came to our company. One was in the first platoon, and the other was in the third platoon. So the day that one of them would go out and the other didnít, he stayed behind and worried about his brother. Finally, one day, one of them got it Ė I think the younger one Ė and the other one, they sent him back behind the lines. It got to him pretty bad. I never did see him anymore.


    Aaron Elson: Youíve never tried to contact or locate anyone who was in your unit?

    Doug Coleman: Yeah, I did. Just before I came here, because this little address book I had, I was gonna tell my dad, I saw a guy in there from Pennsylvania. I gave this old number a call and it was a place of business. Iíve got a few addresses from guys and Iíve started to do this a few times, drop them a postcard or something, but I havenít heard back from any of them.

    There was one guy that I was with in Vietnam with who got killed; he was from Ohio Ė I canít remember where in Ohio he was from, and I canít remember his name. I started to get that information before I left Vietnam. I was gonna look his parents up, and I felt guilt. I was afraid his father was gonna jump on me because his son had been killed. If I had been there this wouldnít have happened; I always had it in the back of my mind I would say that.

    When I was a volunteer at the Wall, this man came up and said, "Iím looking for a name."

    I told him to give me the name, and I went to this book. So he told me the name, and I walked over, and I said, "Right hereís his name." And that really hurt me a lot because that old man fell to his knees and started crying. He said, "Thatís my son." There was a girl there with him. She said, "Thatís my brother."

    Thatís why I wish I would have looked up the father of my friend who was killed. I knew if I had a son I would be wanting to know about how he was killed. I should have done that. I think a lot of us Vietnam vets, we never did do that. Thatís probably why a lot are getting into it now.

    Aaron Elson: Did you marry after the war?

    Doug Coleman: Yeah. I got married at 23, and I was really lucky; Iíve been married for Ė next July it will be 25 years. I was one of the fortunate ones. A lot of Vietnam vets have been married five or six times.

    Aaron Elson: Do you have children?

    Doug Coleman: Iíve got three kids. Iíve seen my share of bad times; weíve separated a couple of times. But the marriage has survived. I got a lot of counseling. I used to drink a lot.

    Aaron Elson: Who does the counseling?

    Doug Coleman: Iíve got two; Iíve got a psychiatrist and a psychologist.

    Aaron Elson: Are they veterans?

    Doug Coleman: The psychologist is. He was in Vietnam at the same time I was. So it helps a lot Ė somebody whoís been there, he knows. It isnít only about Vietnam, because the focus is the outside world. Thatís where our problems are.

    Aaron Elson: When you were in Vietnam, did you ever think about your dad having been in the war?

    Doug Coleman: Yeah. Thatís what kept a lot of us going. Youíd look around, and youíd say, "My dad went through this, and other people went through wars and made it. If they could make it I can make it."

    Cleo Coleman: Once you get in, itís like the first day, youíre scared to death. Thatís with you all the time. But you get tempered into it, and you donít fear it as much. You go on. You just hear bullets going over, in the background, maybe you jump a little bit. But you get toughened on it. Thatís how you survive. It hurt me; Iíve seen a lot of dead men, Iíve seen them burned up. But if you get in it long enough, you learn to survive.

    Doug Coleman: I saw some things in the war that I donít think you ever tell anybody. There were some things that happened to me. I wonít even talk about it.

    Aaron Elson: Do you talk about it in therapy?

    Doug Coleman: No. You donít have to. They know. Especially the one thatís been there. I think a true veteran doesnít tell everything anyway, a combat veteran.

    When I was in Vietnam, I sat down in the boonies one night with this old black man. He was a sergeant. Iíd been there for maybe two or three months. He said, "Coleman, if you get home one of these days, and youíre out in a bar drinking Ė I know youíll be out in a bar drinking Ė and some veteran will start telling big old office tales like you never heard in your life." He said, "You just get up and you walk away."

    You never will hear the whole truth. I donít care how many books you write, or how long you live, you ainít gonna find out all that went on.

    Cleo Coleman: You do things you donít like to do.

    Doug Coleman: The things I told you did happen, but thereís other things that come along with that stuff, like the looks of people; what they looked like when they were dead. But thatís how it is.

    Aaron Elson: When youíre your fatherís age, maybe then youíll talk about it.

    Doug Coleman: Yeah, youíve opened up more; I understand why you said that. Dad, he never did talk about the war.

    Cleo Coleman: One time, I know, I did something I didnít like to have to do. There was a small village. My tank commander said, "We seen some people traveling around here. Fire on the village." And I discovered there were some women and children walking around. I told him, "There are civilians in there."

    He said, "Do this. Theyíre not supposed to be there."

    And I had to fire on them.

    Aaron Elson: Did you see afterward what happened?

    Cleo Coleman: No, I didnít go and see. But I knew there were civilians, women and children. I saw them through the periscope. Thatís when I told the commander, "I see civilians." He said, "Theyíre not supposed to be there." Thatís not something to make a big deal out of after all these years.

    Aaron Elson: But it had to have affected you.

    Cleo Coleman: I didnít mind fighting men.

    Aaron Elson: Were you wounded at all?

    Cleo Coleman: Small.

    Aaron Elson: Where were you wounded?

    Cleo Coleman: On the top of the head. We were standing guard under the timberline at the edge of a field, and the Germans threw over a shell. It hit the top of the tree, and shrapnel came down. I was standing guard on top of the turret; I felt something on my face, and one of the boys says, "Youíre hit."

    There was blood running down my face, and about that time they were bringing the payroll out in a jeep, so they took me back over all that open field. There was no protection whatsoever, and I said, "I believe Iíd have been safer if Iíd have stayed in the tank."

    They took me back to the company headquarters, which was on an old farm, and I slept in the barn. I stayed there for about a week. They cut all my hair off, shaved me, and stitched it up. Then here they come with a glass of cognac, and they say, "Thisíll help you."

    Thereíd been some dead that had been laying out in the field and they couldnít get to them. When they did get them, they brought them back to this farm where the company headquarters was. There was a whole truck full of them Ė dead bodies, Americans and Germans thrown up there together Ė and I climbed up and looked at it. It was a terrible sight.

    Aaron Elson: What was it that made you want to look?

    Cleo Coleman: Iíd been in combat for a while, and it was stupid I guess; I wanted to go up there and look and see. I mostly was checking for American boys.

    Aaron Elson: What did you see?

    Cleo Coleman: Oh, thereís arms, feet and legs, thrown all over, bloody, and eyes open, and blood had run out of their mouth and their eyes.

    Aaron Elson: And the smell?

    Cleo Coleman: The smell was real bad. The Germans had a smell about them; it might have been the clothing they wore, but itís different from ours. Then youíd go out there in the field and see cows with their legs up in the air, and they had a terrible odor.

    Aaron Elson: Did it ever make you throw up?

    Cleo Coleman: No. Then theyíd send us out K rations, and thereíd be a bunch of kids, maybe ten or twelve, theyíd watch every bite. And I wouldnít have enough to give them all, so Iíd throw what I had out on the ground just like a football, and theyíd be grabbing at it.

    Aaron Elson: Was this when you were recovering from the wound?

    Cleo Coleman: No, it was in combat. Going through the little towns. Then sometimes in the wintertime boys would go to one of the farms and kill them a beef, and put the quarters on the back of the tank.

    We were guarding a pillbox one time. There was smoke coming out of that pillbox, just a few yards away. We were down in the tank, and we had a Coleman burner. Weíd draw straws to see which one would go out there and cut him some steak, and bring it back in the tank so we could cook it.

    Then when we did, a lot of times thereíd be a German that was kind of a mole. Heíd climb up there Ė you could just see the top of his helmet Ė and heíd take a shot at us with a bazooka. When weíd start firing, heíd just slide back.

    Later on, a night patrol flushed them out with hand grenades. But I thought that was interesting, guarding that pillbox, with them in there under cover, and you in the tank sitting out in the open.

    Aaron Elson: Was that on the Siegfried Line?

    Cleo Coleman: Yeah. You couldnít knock the pillboxes out. We tried. The walls were so thick, you couldnít get through them.

    Aaron Elson: Do you remember where it was that you were wounded?

    Cleo Coleman: I donít remember the place. It was in France. Then one time, this piece of shrapnel Ė I was wearing a helmet; usually a tanker doesnít wear a helmet, but I had my steel helmet on Ė and this piece of shrapnel big as a quarter went through my metal, into the liner, and stopped.

    My helmet saved me that time. And what I was afraid of all the time was mortar fire going down the hatch, and me down in there. I was afraid Iíd get wounded, crippled, and I couldnít get out of there, and would sit in the tank on fire and burn.

    And another thing I was afraid of was getting captured. I had a German P-38; they were more accurate than our .45s were, and I carried one all the time. I said if they get me, itís death. Theyíd kill you right there. Especially the SS. They donít take many prisoners.

    Aaron Elson: Now, that happened on both sides.

    Cleo Coleman: Uh-huh. We had a tank commander in our platoon who was killed, Stanley Muhich. I was right beside him, the next tank over. I donít remember the town now Ė it was a small village Ė but anyhow, a shell got jammed in the chamber. So youíve got a big rod; you have to get out there, stand at the end of the barrel and push the shell out. Thatís what he was doing when a sniper got him. They loaded him up and we moved back to this little town. That evening a sniper was brought in Ė he was bound to have been a sniper; he had a camouflage uniform on Ė and one of our boys Ė Muhich was one of his best friends Ė I saw this boy march the prisoner out behind a stone wall and close the gate. I didnít pay much attention, but I heard a gun fire. And he came back through the gate and his face was white.

    One boy says, "He shot that prisoner." And we went to look. He had a hole between his eyes. Nice looking man. But I never did say nothing about it.

    Aaron Elson: Do you think this was the sniper who had shot Muhich?

    Cleo Coleman: He took it that it might have been. Later on Ė after I came home Ė I got a letter from Muhichís sister. She wanted to know how well I knew her brother, and did I know how he got killed. I wrote her back and told her just exactly how he got killed.

    She wrote me another letter; she said, "Did you ever hear of Stan ever saying if anything happened to him, he wanted to be buried over there?" I wrote her back and told her I never heard him say anything; I said we didnít talk about things like that.

    So I donít know what happened. He was a cavalry man. I think he cleaned out the stables, Stanley did, in the horse cavalry, in California. That was his job.

    Aaron Elson: His buddy was white as a sheet when he killed the prisoner?

    Cleo Coleman: Yeah. It did something to him when he shot that man in cold blood. I wouldnít have done that. The last day of action, we were going across this field, and they started firing on us when we got about halfway. Then the Americans started throwing artillery in, and we blasted it, too, with our tanks. We had the doughboys beside us, and they hit the ground.

    There was a wounded German. He was down on his knees, and two doughboys walked up with a rifle. I hollered, "Donít do that, boys!" They just shot him anyhow. Killed him. The last day of action.

    After a manís captured, I wouldnít have done that. Theyíd have probably done me that way, the Germans, if they captured me, but I couldnít do it. I wouldnít want to do it. After a manís captured he should be treated like he was captured, not killed. Unless he did something real, real, real bad. But he was fighting just like me; thatís the way I see it.

    Aaron Elson: Now, when Doug came home, he suffered from post traumatic stress. How about yourself?

    Cleo Coleman: I was all right. My problem was it was so many months, maybe a year, Iíd dream about being in combat. Every night. If anything moved or fell beside me, Iíd jump.

    Doug Coleman: Iíve heard my dad; heís told me a pretty lot about the war, but I never have really told you anything, did I?

    Cleo Coleman: No. I know you had it rough. You didnít have to. I know.

    Aaron Elson: The things that you wonít talk about, have you seen anything similar in movies?

    Doug Coleman: Iíve seen things in movies that I relate to. The movie "Platoon," thatís the way I lived. The guy that made it, he was there.

    Dale Albee: May I say something? [Lieutenant Dale Albee, of the 712th Tank Battalion, was sitting in on the interview] I was going to say the same of "Platoon." Do you remember when that Vietnamese ran, and the guy shot him; did you see that puff of dirt come out of his back?

    Doug Coleman: Yeah.

    Dale Albee: Thatís exactly what you get when you hit a guy. When you see a guy running and you shoot him, thatís exactly what you get is that little puff. That was one of the things that I remember about "Platoon." Because thatís actually the way it happened.

    Doug Coleman: And Iíll tell you, the life I live right now, believe it or not Ė and he can tell you that, I mean I laugh and joke about it, and my wife laughs and jokes about it, my kids even laugh and joke about it Ė I live like Forrest Gump. I mow grass for I donít know how many hours. I live out in the country. I hardly ever see anybody. Thatís the way I live.

    Cleo Coleman: Just like me; I want to be by myself a lot of times. I just donít know, if the war did anything to me or what.

    Aaron Elson: When did the dreams about being in combat stop?

    Cleo Coleman: They probably went on for six months or a year. They slacked off gradually. But I was always fighting. If something moved behind me or would make a noise, I was aware.

    Aaron Elson: Did you marry after the war or before?

    Cleo Coleman: After. I raised six kids Ė three boys and three girls. One of themís dead.

    Aaron Elson: The one who died, how didÖ

    Cleo Coleman: She was very young; just a little girl, about 18 days old.

    Doug Coleman: And I have a sister who got killed when she was 19.

    Cleo Coleman: In a freak accident.

    Doug Coleman: Drunk driving. Her husband killed both of them.

    Aaron Elson: She was 19 and married already?

    Doug Coleman: Yes. She had a little girl, which we donít know where sheís at. His family took off with her, and we havenít seen her in 16 or 17 years. See, my sisterís husband got drinking one night; they hadnít been married long, but she had a little girl Ė she was three weeks old Ė and my sister got mad and went out looking for him. She found him in a bar; thatís what they told us. It was 2 oíclock in the morning, they were on their way back home, and he was driving at a high rate of speed. It was raining that night, and evidently they must have been arguing. They said he hit his brakes, and he crossed four lanes and hit a curve and went airborne into a gas pump and burned the car.

    Aaron Elson: Did that accident bring back any flashbacks of the war?

    Doug Coleman: For me it did, oh yeah.

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