Pfc. Joe Bernardino was loader in the 712th Tank Battalion. He died in 1995, only a few months after this interview took place.
Rochester, N.Y., Aug. 27, 1994
©1997, 2009, Aaron Elson
Joe Bernardino: Sam [Cropanese] and I were in the same tank. Eugene Crawford was the commander, and Eddie Pilz was the driver. I was the bow gunner. Sammy was the loader. There was a David, I think, was the gunner. And we were waiting [at the edge of a forest], at the Falaise Gap.
All night there was a cow that was moaning and moaning. It was wounded. Moaning and moaning. We were nervous. The Germans were in the forest, and Eddie Pilz, he was of German descent, he was telling them to come on out. And they were coming out, but not all of them. Then things got real quiet, and I started biting my nails. And Eddie and I had a little argument because I was biting my nails. We were all uptight. So I said some words and he said some words. I figured Iíd apologize to him in the morning.
Well, that morning, they broke through, right where we were. And we got an 88 right in the front, in the center. Eddie got a chunk in his throat and he was dead. I got shrapnel all over the whole left side of me, but I was all right. Sammy got his jaw blown off. The gunner was killed. Eugene got blown out, but he was all right. And the thing went right out the back and killed two doughboys making coffee behind the tank. One shell. It was an 88, armor piercing.
Aaron Elson: Thatís not the way Sam Cropanese told it. He told me that you had said your .45 was out, you were in the tank when the shell hit and that your gun went off and it ricocheted and hit you in the cheek.
Joe Bernardino: No, no. One of the guns went off, I donít know whose it was, but it didnít hit me. It went around me somewhere. Then, when we got out, two medical people picked me up, they were carrying me to a jeep, and a sniper took a shot at us and caught me right through the tip of my shoe. Never touched my foot. And they cut him up like hamburger.
Then they took me to Le Mans, to a forward aid station, and thatís where I saw Sam. I couldnít see out of my eye because I got a piece of that stuff in my eye. After I was married there was a piece on the left side of my face that I couldnít get out, it kept floating around, they found it when I went to the general practitioner. He sucked it out with something, he put on a faucet, and it came out and went ding! Right in the sink. Iíve still got the scars.
So from there, they flew me to England. I went to Oxford, to the hospital. Then they said I could go home, which I didnít approve of. "No, no, Iíve got to go back!" Well, they never brought me back to the 712th. They brought me to a replacement depot, they wanted to put me in the infantry. I would not go in the infantry. So then, later, they put me in the 740th Tank Battalion. I never did see the 712th after that.
The other thing, before that, after we lost our first tank, Captain Merrill was my commanding officer. He wanted to look for souvenirs. He was a souvenir hunter, a good man, a good captain. So being that I didnít have a tank, he said to drive his jeep. And we also saw Lieutenant Bell, when he was killed. I saw someone in the side of the ditch, with no head. And I said to my captain, "Boy, look at that guy. No head." Well, we went back to our headquarters, and he called me and asked me if I could remember where that place was that I saw the man without the head. So we went back there, and weíre looking down at him and he says, "You know who that is?"
I said, "No."
He says, "Thatís Captain Bell." I mean Lieutenant Bell. And I think, he always used to tell him, "George, one of these days," his first name was George, "one of these days youíre gonna lose your head."
Aaron Elson: Lieutenant George Bell?
Joe Bernardino: George Bell. And, as a matter of fact, have you ever seen our book, the 712th, his name is among those killed. There were other things, but you know, war is hell, what are you gonna do. We had a lot of fun, we went out, we were knocking down church steeples and all kinds of stuff. I was a machine gunner, and I used to like to set the curtains on fire in the houses. I used to set the gun one and one, one bullet and one tracer, the tracers were incendiary. And you shoot it off at the curtains, you catch the curtains on fire, then the house catches on fire, then the white flags come out and they come out. And if they fired back, then we hit the 75 and weíd blow the roof off. But thatís the way we did it. And one of our, Herman, we used to call him Herman the German, his name was Herman Pacione, he got some of his fingers chopped off when the hatch came down going through an apple orchard, and one of the branches hit the hatch and it came down on his fingers.
Aaron Elson: He lost the fingers?
Joe Bernardino: I donít know whether he lost them or whether they put them back on or what happened, but he got some damage to his hand.
Aaron Elson: Did you grow up in Rochester?
Joe Bernardino: I was born and raised here. I was also hooked in with the 82nd Airborne.
Aaron Elson: A Company was with the 82nd.
Joe Bernardino: Yes, we were. And then we were with the 90th Division, Texas and Oklahoma, and we were with the 8th Division, the Golden Arrow.
Toward the end of the war, we had hundreds and thousands of Germans, all loaded with their gear and all, they just didnít want to fight anymore. Then we went, we were with Patton, they switched us from the First Army to the Third. Oh, Iíve had a rough, terrific, exciting life. Sammy got out of it then, and he came home. I stayed with it till the end of the war. I was in the little town of Stroh, Germany, when the war ended. But then it didnít end for us. We fought two weeks after that, mopping up those who didnít know the war ended. So those who got killed after the declaration that the war ended, I felt sorry for.
Captain Merrill and me, we didnít see eye to eye. He used to like to hunt souvenirs. And one particular instance that I never told anyone, he said, "Park here." So I parked. In the woods. He said, "Iíll be right back." Well, it was three hours and he hadnít come back. Now on the front lines, three hours is a long time, and Iím sitting there, and Iím hearing [on the radio], "Bring water to Point 4." We didnít have any points. It wasnít us. And along came some remnants of the 82nd, and asked me what I was doing there. I said, "Iím waiting for my C.O."
They said, "Well, youíre right in the middle of a battle thatís coming in here, youíre gonna get killed. Youíve got to get out of here."
I said, "I canít, Iím waiting for my C.O."
They said, "Youíve got to get out of here, you donít have to wait anymore."
So I left. Now I was told this by a first lieutenant, to leave. I went back to my headquarters, and Sergeant Vinson says to me, "Whereís Captain Merrill?"
I said, "I donít know. He got out of the jeep, heíd been gone three hours, and they told me to leave because they had a front coming in." I didnít know if the man was dead or what.
Sergeant Vinson says, "Boy, youíre gonna get your ass chewed out."
I said, "What do you want me to do?" Well, he came back finally, and about an hour later he had someone else driving his jeep. He passed right by me and snubbed me. Well, he was my captain, he was the boss, but I was told to leave and thatís what I did.
You see, Captain Merrill was a hard-nosed man. Coming overseas, he had the "I" shaved on his head, for Victory. They all had their heads shaved to make victory. He looked like a Mohawk Indian. He was a big, bullish man, and I always thought he was pretty good, but I mean, when Iím sitting three hours, and Iím on the lines, and theyíre telling me to get the hell out of there, and I donít know where he is, whether heís alive or dead, what would you have done?
Aaron Elson: I would have done the same thing. Who is it, this is the first Iíve heard of this, with the shaved heads? Was it the officers?
Joe Bernardino: No, it was just men, and he wanted to get in on it.
Aaron Elson: What was it like when the tanks were bombed at Avranches?
Joe Bernardino: Well, at one point, we came around a corner and hereís this tank. It was a tiger, and it was a question of who got the first shot. We got the first shot and it just peeled the side of that cannon, so they couldnít use it. And something must have exploded inside. I, as the bow gunner, jumped off of my tank when we got there. I opened the hatch, and saw a guy there, eating. He had a can of sardines open and a loaf of black bread. So I pulled the pin and dropped a grenade in and closed the hatch, and jumped back in my tank and we left. The rest were dead. He was the only one alive. This is a story that Iíve never told, and I think that was up around Avranches. But we knew the German tank, because they had the clatter of the track, and the squeak, ee-ee-ee, squeak, squeak, clatter, clatter, clatter, we could hear them. But we had it on them because our turrets went around. They had to move their whole tank, so we kind of had the edge on them, but they had an 88 that you could not deny. The 88 was the most respected gun in the world.
Aaron Elson: Were you with the battalion when Lieutenant Tarr was killed, George Tarr?
Joe Bernardino: I beg your pardon, thatís who it was, Lieutenant Tarr, not Bell. Lieutenant Tarr, heís the one that got his head blown off. Youíre right, absolutely. Lieutenant Bell was another one who came in. And he got lost, and he was crying. And one of the sergeants took over and we got him out of the mess that we were in. That was Lieutenant Tarr who got killed. Iím glad you brought that up, because I was beginning to wonder about Bell when I was telling you about it.
Aaron Elson: Now wait a minute, of all the people who told me about Lieutenant Tarr, not one of them said that he had lost his head.
Joe Bernardino: Ask Captain Merrill, heíll tell you. What Lieutenant Tarr did, from what I understand, we were not to stop at any crossroads, that was the worst place you could stop. He did. He stopped at a crossroad to ask information, and he got two shots. One blew his side off, and the other one I guess knocked his head off. And he was laying alongside the ditch. And thatís where I saw him, and I didnít know who he was. I see a guy with no head. And thatís when Captain Merrill asked me if I could I find my way back to where that was. I said, "Yes." And weíre standing there and looking down and he says, "You know who that is?"
I said, "No."
"Thatís Lieutenant Tarr."
And I said, "Wow." And it looked like he had a big chunk of something sticking out of his hip, out of his pocket. So he must have got hit first in the side, then another shot, or maybe the same shot did both.
Also, in the same area, we were in an apple orchard, and we got shelled, and apples are falling all over our head, and some guyís sleeping in a halftrack, the halftrack got hit and he came running out, his hair was all a mess, and then he put the fire out and went back in. Two or three minutes later the halftrack got hit again. He came out of that one all right, but he wouldnít go back. But then it burned, and once these things start to burn, they would burn for half a day, and shells start going off in all different directions, so you've got to get away from them.
But you see, they told me that I could go home. Now, I was 22 years old or 21, I wasnít married, I didnít have a girl, I was very patriotic, and my country was in trouble. I said, "I donít want to go home. Iíve got to go back. Iíve got a score to settle." Because of Sammy, you know, and all that.
Getting back to Sammy, in the field hospital I met someone that was giving me shots, that was from Rochester, a nurse. Her name was Virginia B. Allen, and she lived at 288 Dartmouth Street, here in Rochester, and I didnít know it at the time, but we got to talking, and she says to me, "Are you Joe Bernardino?"
I said, "Yeah."
"Well, thereís someone over there that says he knows you."
So I walk over and Iím looking at him, and looking, and his face was kind of yellow, and I just couldn't make him out. And I said, "Do you know me?"
When I realized it was Sammy, I had a lump in my throat. I didnít know what to say. I said, "Ohhh, I knew that was you. I just pretended I didnít recognize you." And I felt terrible. But Sam and I were the best of friends.
Aaron Elson: The way he described it, he said a piece of his jaw was off.
Joe Bernardino: Well, he got one side of his, I think the right side, Iím not sure. Now he's got the mustache and you donít see it. So anyway, it was a bad scene. There are a lot of things that you could come up with, that you could remember. I never say too much to my wife because she doesnít understand. And you canít talk to someone who doesnít know and hasnít seen anything like that. They will never understand. You could say things, and people would just look at you and turn around and say, "Boy, what a crock."
Aaron Elson: Some of the tankers have described a lieutenant who went haywire and had to be removed from the tank. Was that the Lieutenant Bell you mentioned?
Joe Bernardino: I donít know about that part, but I do know that he panicked. We were on a mission, we were four tanks, and we got right in the middle of real heavy gunfire, and we didnít think we would ever come out of it. Thatís when we had the roving haystacks.
Aaron Elson: Roving haystacks?
Joe Bernardino: Yeah, there were Germans in the haystacks, little haystacks, and the haystacks used to move around. And then there were big haystacks, and we didnít know what they were either. But Lieutenant Bell, I guess he started to cry, I didnít know what he was crying about. I didnít understand the whole thing. All I know is that Sergeant, I donít remember what sergeant it was, he asked him, we were lost, and the sergeant says, "Well, Iíll take over." But we got out of it. And as we went down the road, we were stopped by a bunch of infantrymen who thanked us for knocking out a tank. And we said, "What tank? We haven't seen any."
"You know the haystack you guys took a shot at?"
"There was a tank in it."
In a tank platoon, when you go out, you donít know if youíre going out for one day, two days, three days, a week, two weeks. Youíre going out on a mission. When you start coming back, everybody at the headquarters is waiting. Their heads are all turned, and they start counting the tanks, just like the bombers. How they come back, if they come back. When you come back, then you start telling the grizzly stories about what happened. Whereís Tank so and so? He didnít make it. Now one of my tanks, Russell something, I canít think of his last name, he got killed. We went back, we went over to get some tanks, new tanks ...
Aaron Elson: Levengood?
Joe Bernardino: No, I think it was an Italian name. Anyway, I went with three or four other guys to get some replacement tanks, so they put Russell in my place, as a bow gunner. They went out on a mission, and were gone two days. Their tank didnít come back. And then I heard about what happened. The tank got hit, Russell got both his legs blown off and part of his rear end, he died two days after that. That was supposed to have been me. As much as I didn't want to go and get those tanks, I was glad then that I did. But that would have been me.
In one of our travels also, we saw a German who was taught in Ohio. He was a lieutenant. We got him in a barnyard and we were marching him with a branch in his shoulder, making him goose step, and he said too many things that we didnít like. One of the things was that he had killed so many people, and he was honored by the fuhrer, he was personally, the fuhrerís this and that, so while he talked too much we finally shot him. Which we didnít want to do, but hey, war is war, what are you gonna do?
Then we heard about a little 9-year-old girl that was nailed to a cross, and she had been raped and killed by so many Germans. And youíd hear all these atrocities, or youíre driving along and you get this odor, of somebody thatís dead, and you donít have to see it, you smell it. A long way off.
Aaron Elson: This German that was shot, how was it done? Was it like a firing squad?
Joe Bernardino: No, we just pumped so many shots into him, like he said he had done to some of our people. Of course, we donít know who hit him and who didnít, we were at a distance. But we didnít class it as an atrocity or anything like that. Itís just that he was an SS, and if we turned our backs and he had a gun, we would have all been dead. And then also, thereís the little kid who says, "Hey, come on, I know where thereís a whole lot of Germans," so you go over there and youíre in a trap and youíre dead. You know, things like that. But to me, war is hell, and I accepted it as that, and I always tried to look after myself and my fellow man.
Aaron Elson: Some people in your platoon have described seeing a cow in a tree. Did you see that?
Joe Bernardino: Yes I did. As a matter of fact, I was driving a jeep that day, it might have been again for Captain Merrill. We went to a little headquarters, and if I remember we pulled up, it was on the left hand side, a little house, we went in there and three GIs came over from the 82nd Airborne Division. So they come up to me, theyíre standing by the jeep, weíre talking, and one of them says, "Hey, you got a cigarette?"
"Yeah." So I give them cigarettes. And over to the right, across the street, just like from here to the corner, there was a little wooded area with cows in it. And these three GIs from the 82nd, theyíre smoking a cigarette, and one of them says, "Oh, weíve got to go." And a while later they wandered away, and they walked into that area, and as theyíre walking away Iím thinking, "Boy, theyíre gonna have a rough time," you know, the 82nd had it pretty rough, "I wonder whatís gonna happen to them." And two or three minutes after that I heard, "Whooom!" And hereís trees, branches and stuff flying all over the place, these three GIs were killed, with the cow. Part of the cow was in the tree, but those three GIs were killed, too. They walked on teller mines.
Aaron Elson: It must have been more than one mine.
Joe Bernardino: I think they used to stack them one on top of the other. And as they were walking away I was just wondering, what would they ever get to be, because I personally never thought that I would ever get to see home again, because many times I was right in the middle of the crap, hey, war is hell, thatís the way it is. But, you know, I feel that for what I did, even if I was there only one day, one day in combat, I deserved to be called a soldier, and I deserve to be told thank you. One day. And I was in it with the other outfits for Iíd say a good nine, ten months of combat.
Aaron Elson: When I send you the book, the things that you recognize will be a little distorted because I got them from other people, for instance Sam Cropanese said he was outside the tank when he was wounded.
Joe Bernardino: No, he was inside. We were all inside the tank when it got hit.
Aaron Elson: He remembered being outside the tank when the shell came in.
Joe Bernardino: If he was outside the tank, how could he have got his jaw blown off? How could the gunner have gotten killed, and how could the driver have got killed, and how could I have got hit, and how could Eugene Crawford get knocked out of the turret? Does that make sense? I told it to you just the way it was. Matter of fact, I think we had a picture in the front of, whatís her name, Russell? Some woman, she was an American girl.
Helen Bernardino: Jane Russell?
Joe Bernardino: That's it.
Aaron Elson: You had a picture of Jane Russell?
Joe Bernardino: I think we had a little picture on the final drive right in front. But anyway, this shell came in right in the front, right in the middle, and when that thing came through, Iíll tell you, it was really something.
Aaron Elson: What had you and Pilz been arguing about?
Joe Bernardino: I was biting my nails. He says, "What are you biting your nails for?" And he also had one of my guns in his pocket, thatís what happened. And I said some words, I donít remember what they were, and I thought, "Aww, I shouldnít have said that, Iíll wait till later and Iíll apologize." Well, I never had the chance to apologize and to this day that bugs me. And I wouldnít go in his pocket and take my gun out either. I figured I wouldnít do that when heís alive, I will not do that when heís dead, Iíll respect him. It was a .45. That had gone off earlier, I donít know whether it was him or who had the gun, but that gun had gone off. It just ricocheted, no one was hurt. And we had shells and cartridges, all kinds of stuff all over the floor, and whenever a .30-caliber used to jam, we were supposed to have an asbestos glove, which I could never find, so you reach over and grab the thing and crank it again, and I always used to burn my hand. The barrels used to get white hot, and they used to bend, so you'd take them off, put new ones in. And one time I pulled up, and thereís a lieutenant standing there, and I heard some small arms fire, and somebody's hollering, "Heeey! Heeey!"
Iím looking down, "Whaat?"
"Open that breach!" he says. "Your gunís firing." It was so hot it was firing by itself. I just didnít realize it. And I opened the breach, itís a wonder I didnít kill anybody. But thatís how hot they used to get, and theyíd bend.
Captain Merrill, I donít think he understood, to this day, I think he thinks that I deserted him, which I could understand but if he stops to think, Iím in the middle of this crap and heís gone three hours, hey, in five minutes this guy could have been dead and Iíd still be setting there for what?
I remember, I donít know if anybody ever told you, but there were bodies on the beach stacked up six and twelve high, American bodies, waiting for the trucks to come along and pick them up. Germans were coming out, getting in the LSTs and being brought over to England. There was all kinds of stuff, but you donít remember everything. You remember the things that maybe you donít want to remember, that you canít forget, and many people have gone crazy. As you know, being in combat is not like going to a party or something. And then, when you live with it all these years and you have no one to talk to about it, thatís worse yet. I could never talk to my wife about it because, first of all, when I got married her mother is German. She didnít like for me to marry her daughter.
I used to wake up, whatever hour of the night it might be, in a cold sweat, and Iíd sit up, and Iíd look around the room, and everythingís all right, and Iíd go back to sleep. At first my wife was very concerned, and then I told her, and I guess she began to realize what it was from, and so we just never bothered with it anymore. I havenít had that for quite some time now, but this is something that never leaves you, you never forget these things. This is not a thing that you went out and somebody played ball and somebody lost and nothing was lost. This is memories, this is friends, this is buddies, the closest people to you, and what you see, what you hear, what you smell, you canít tell anybody what itís like that wasnít there.
Aaron Elson: Did you have any encounters with the Hitler youth?
Joe Bernardino: The brown shirts? Oh yeah, they were some of the fiercest people you wanted to be up against. Them and the SS. The Wehrmacht soldier was just a regular, everyday [soldier]. But not the SS, the shock troops, they were something else. They would throw everything at you, and then some. But, you know, then you take it not a day at a time but a minute to a minute.
Aaron Elson: Tell me again about your mother-in-law. She was German?
Joe Bernardino: She was of German descent, and she didnít want me to marry her daughter. Because I was Italian. But we got married anyway, and as the years went by, she began to understand, and then when we moved out here and we had our first child, we were married ten years when we had our first child, and oh, she thought the world of the kids. She thought the kids was gonna be dark, being that Iím Italian. But I have two sons, both born with blue eyes and one was a tow-head, blond as could be, and I was also, when I was born, I was a towhead. So anyway, she was an entirely different person, and the years went by, and my wife used to tell me how her mother really didnít like the idea, she wanted her to marry one of her own. I was one of her own, Iím an American. I happen to be Italian, but I guess she had some bad encounters with a couple of Italian people, and this kind of stuck in her head. Well, theyíre not what she wanted, she wanted the best for her daughter. Unbeknown, she got the best.
Aaron Elson: What did you do after the war?
Joe Bernardino: After the war I struggled as a driver for Carhart photo-finishing service, thereís Kodak and Carhartís, I don't know if you ever heard of Carhart. I used to drive a truck for them, and I had four routes every day. Later on I ventured into being a mechanic, and a body man, I mastered these things as I went along. Then I became the manager of these places, and I managed all these different places.
Also, I became an insurance adjuster. I worked for Crawford and Company insurance adjusting. And we worked for all the insurance companies. And that seemed to be pretty good, then I went to work for Ascutti which is now Patrick Pontiac here in the city, one of the largest around, and my boss was a 27-year-old kid who got killed in an auto crash, and thatís when I retired, that was in 1984. After I retired I couldnít sit around at home doing nothing, so I went out and Iíve been driving school buses, until now I can't go back because I'm going in the hospital Wednesday. So what theyíll find I donít know, but it seems I have a tumor on the pancreas, thereís a good chance that itíll come out all right, they donít know whether it's benign or what. And so Iím going in Wednesday.
Aaron Elson: Good luck.
Joe Bernardino: Howís Sammy doing, by the way?
Aaron Elson: I saw him last year. He seemed to be in pretty good shape. He said he used to get together with you ever year.
Joe Bernardino: He used to come here.
Aaron Elson: One of his sons has some serious health problems, and I think that tied him up quite a bit.
Joe Bernardino: Little Sammy, yeah.
Aaron Elson: He was trying to sell his apartment in Florida. Iíll look him up and see if I can get ahold of him.
Joe Bernardino: Tell him I said hello. Mary is a real nice girl, too, his wife. I remember his mother, and his sister in laws. The very first time I saw TV, when we were visiting Sam and Mary, we went to her sisterís house. First time I saw TV. We bought our first TV in 1950, and they came out, what, in 1948? You wonder how you did without TV, you know. But we managed. If they had TV then, if we had the news reporters that we have today, we would have lost the war. They would have been there with the cameras. Now they call these people in Desert Storm, they call them heroes. Well, they are heroes. Like I say, if they spent one day in combat, thatís a lifetime. Because you only need one bullet, thatís your life. Thatís the way it is. I respect anyone, I don't care what war he was in.
Aaron Elson: You know, I came down here on an impulse, because I had a little time, and I was looking through the roster, and I saw your name, and I knew that Sam had mentioned you, and I thought gee, I'd like to meet you, and find out a little more about the platoon.
Joe Bernardino: And I rambled along, didnít I.
Aaron Elson: Oh, no.
Joe Bernardino: You know, when youíve got it locked in you for so many years, when you start to talk about it, it just comes out. You don't rehearse it.
* * *
Aaron Elson: What did your father do?
Joe Bernardino: My father was an immigrant, and he worked. During the Depression things were pretty rough, so my father never really had an education, but he had common sense, and a good will, and wanted to survive and bring his family up with good morals, and this is the way it was. My dad worked whenever he could. There were certain jobs that he couldnít do. He couldnít read or write. But at 6 years old, in Italy, my father worked in a sulfur mine, at 6 years old. And he came to America when he was 21, and then he went to work for the WPA. Then he worked at the button factory, they used to make buttons here in Rochester, he worked there for quite some time, and then he retired. When he retired he bought a house on Pennsylvania Avenue, thatís where I went back to, and he had a little grocery store. No cash register, no adding machine, he had it all [in his head], he ran that for 20 years. He had it all figured out, how much, if a guy came in and bought the stuff, he knew just how much it was, and he made change for people out of a cigar box. So Iím the son of an immigrant, and proud to be the son of that immigrant. And my mother, she raised a family, five girls and a boy and she had lost one. She died at 59 years old of a heart attack.
My mother's name was Regina. My fatherís name was Gaetano, but they used to call him Tom.
Aaron Elson: And youíre how old now?
Joe Bernardino: Seventy-two.
Aaron Elson: So you were 21 or 22 when you went in?
Joe Bernardino: About 22, I guess.
Aaron Elson: You enlisted, or you were drafted?
Joe Bernardino: I was drafted. But they had lost my draft card, and my boss, he didnít want me to go because he didnít want to lose a driver. And I heard on the radio one day in my car that if they havenít called you, check with your draft board. So I gave them a call, and I went up and checked in, and they couldnít find anything. You had to have the card in your pocket. So they redid it, and a month later I got my notice. Greetings.
I didnít want my boss to change the course of my life. What had to be had to be. I could have stayed out, but Iíd regret it as long as I lived.
Aaron Elson: Now, describe once again the circumstances when you were wounded.
Joe Bernardino: The way I remember it, we were sitting there, waiting, and all of a sudden, all hell broke loose, they started to come out. And then, before we could even think of anything, we got a shell right in the middle of our final drive. It caught me on the left side and Ed got a chunk right in his throat, he was gone. I couldnít get out of my hatch, because the gun was over my hatch, and I couldnít get out [of the driverís hatch] because he was dead, so I had to get out the bottom. Sam got hit in the jaw. It might have been the right side. The gunner got killed, in the turret.
Aaron Elson: Do you remember his name?
Joe Bernardino: David. I donít remember his last name. And Eugene Crawford, from what I understand he got blown out of the turret. And finally, when I got out, a couple of medics got ahold of me, and they were taking me to a jeep, and we got ambushed as weíre going along, we got small arms fire, and I got my shoe blown off, never touched my foot. And they brought me to a forward aid station at Le Mans, thatís where Sammy was. And from there they put us on a C-47 and flew us over to Oxford, to a hospital. I was there about a month, and I volunteered to go back, I wasnít ready to go home. I knew what I was getting into, but we were all patriotic, back in those days everybody was patriotic, thatís where Rosie the Riveter came from.
Aaron Elson: Were your sisters working in defense plants?
Joe Bernardino: No. But my wife, who I didnít know then, was.
Aaron Elson: Helen, what were you doing during the war?
Helen Bernardino: During the war I was 16, 17, 18. I worked at Strong Memorial Hospital, on the Manhattan Project, which was the A-Bomb. I was in purchasing. I had charge of purchasing all the stuff. I didnít know what I was purchasing, everyone else was high priority, this girl Ann Herbert, she used to do the typing, Iíd just do the ordering. It [the Manhattan Project] originated right here in Rochester.
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Aaron Elson: What was the reaction right after the tank was hit? Did somebody say "Letís get out?"
Joe Bernardino: Well, no, there was just panic where we had to get the hell out because we know what happens when a tank gets hit, the ammunition starts to go off. Thereís 250 gallons of gasoline, and so we had to get out. So thatís what happened, and then when I saw Sam in the hospital, I didnít recognize him. His face was yellowish, and kind of swollen, it didn't look like him at all. I felt like a real jerk when I realized that I didnít recognize him, and he said, "Joe, itís me, Sam." I felt bad. I really did.
You know, we always tried to stay close. We were always close. All of us. We were always talking, respect your fellow man, he could save your life or he could take it, whatever. So, thatís the way we were.
Aaron Elson: I guess weíve covered about everything. You had never really talked like this to your wife?
Joe Bernardino: The only time we would talk would be if I bumped into another buddy of mine, like at the bus garage, another veteran, we started to talk about different things, and everything comes out a little bit, itís like religion. You donít talk about religion. If you're a Catholic you donít tell a Protestant about your religion. And you donít want to hear his, because itís not gonna match up with yours. So itís one of those things. And I always say, if I had to do it over again, I would do it.
Once I had an accident, right up here on Convent Road back in 1976, and I was hurt pretty hard. Some drunk hit me head-on, he had no headlights on. I was in pretty rough shape, and David [Joeís son] came over to the hospital and said, "Dad, youíve been knocked out of tanks, youíve done this, youíve done that, youíll be all right." And I was. It took a year to get back. Drunker than hell. He hit me as I was coming over a hill.
Aaron Elson: That was before seat belts were popular?
Joe Bernardino: That was 1976. Well, they were talking about seat belts. But this guy came from Victor, New York, which is about 20 miles from here, and I had to wind up toward him, right. And I was what, three minutes from home? Oh well. I lived to tell it.