Corporal Sam Cropanese was the gunner in Pfc. Joe Bernardino's tank.
Cape Coral, Fla., May 17, 1993
© 2014, Aaron Elson
Sam Cropanese: In August of 1942, as soon as I turned 21, Uncle Sam sent me a letter, and I was drafted.
I spent some time in Fort Dix, and from there I went to Blackstone, Virginia, and took my basic training, and after basic training they shipped us out to Macon, Georgia. In Macon they put me in the 90th Medical Detachment. We were next to an air base, and a lot of people were being flown in from overseas who were wounded, and we were taking care of them.
One day I came home, and there was a hell of a snowstorm, so I couldnít get back on time. When I did get back it was three hours late. They didnít want to know nothing. They shipped me right out, to Fort Benning, and I went right into the tanks.
I was a gunner. We all had to know everything in the tanks, assistant driver, driver, gunner, machine gunner. We had to do everything. I had Herschel Payne, he was in the tank, too, of course he passed away. I wanted so much to meet him again. I wanted to meet all the guys that were still alive. I never got to meet them. It seemed like every time that I wanted to go to one of these reunions, something would happen. I came down here because I had a sick boy, and he lives close by me. As soon as he moved down here, this is about four or five years ago, he contracted a disease of the intestines. First it was ileitis, and then it went into Krohnís disease, and he had to get about two-thirds of his intestines cut out. So I was going back and forth between New Jersey and here, and spending as much time as I could with him. We almost lost him twice. Now he seems to be doing pretty good. But that was most of the reason why I couldn't make the reunions, and four or five years that I really wanted to push and make them I couldnít do it.
Eugene Crawford from California was also in my tank. Heís passed away a long time now. Joe Bernardino, I donít know if youíve talked to him yet, heís in Rochester, New York. And who else? Pilz was the driver. He died at the same time I got hit. When I got hit I got spun around and thrown on my can, and I thought I was a goner.
This was at the Falaise Gap. But there were many battles before that. A lot of battles. The first one was at St. Lo. I never knew what a hedgerow was. When I saw those hedgerows, I said, "My god, no wonder nobody can see anything." They were taller than the buildings, the one-story houses, and the hedges were so close together that you couldnít see anything on the other side. My god, traveling down those roads, all of a sudden, Bam! One would smack one of the lead tanks, and the lead tank would pull back, sometimes it would just knock it right out. It was really hell.
The first one that I heard that was killed was Lieutenant Tarr. I think it was [Sergeant Jule] Braatz that came back and said, "We lost one of our lieutenants."
And we said, "Who is it?"
Ohh, boy, I knew Lieutenant Tarr very well. Lieutenant Tarr. Lieutenant [Ed] Forrest. Captain [Clifford] Merrill. He was one hell of a guy, Captain Merrill. He was like Old Blood and Guts. He wasnít afraid of anything. He used to laugh every time a shell used to hit, we were crying and he was laughing.
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Sam Cropanese: I was getting mail when I was in the hospital, and they were telling me about him, he was a crazy guy, he just didn't want to stay down. He wants to be in the front lines, he wants to be there all the time. A captain, usually, heís going to stay back a little bit. Not him. With his tommy gun, he was really something.
Lieutenant Tarr was one hell of a nice man. Slow talking. Tall, heavy. I can still see him. They told me that he had come out of the tank, and they told him to get back in because there was a lot of firing, a lot of stuff coming in. And he started running up to the tank, he got up to the tank, he got on the track, was just ready to step into the tank when a shell hit right there and just blew him right off. He was gone instantly. And Braatz came back and said he was on the side of the road, we just left him there.
When I first went there I wasnít too scared, but when I heard that Lieutenant Tarr got it, now this is only one, I started getting scared, too. I said, Geez, he got it already, weíre all gonna get it.
Then we started with one battle after another. Some battles we were in! One, in Avranches, we pulled in about 12 oíclock at night, and all of a sudden the whole sky lit up. They were dropping flares down. And I heard over the radio, get the tanks up against the buildings, hurry up, don't stay out in the open. Then all of a sudden the bombs came down. They bombed the hell out of us. We were up against the buildings, and we heard the bricks and everything coming down on top of the tanks.
I remember, I was crying in the tank, Eugene Crawford, he was crying in the tank, we were praying and crying, oh, Iím telling you, what a feeling that is. We thought we were gone. All those shells are hitting next to you, hitting the houses and raining bricks on top of us. Every time a bomb would go off, the tank would shake all over the place, but we wouldnít dare move, because if we did, the planes up on top would see the lights of the tank, the flames shooting out from the motors, and they would sure as hell hit us. So none of us dared move until it was all over, and they took off and went away. Then we dug out of the bricks, opened up the hatches and looked around and said, "My god, how lucky can you get?" None of the tanks were hit.
One time we were bivouacked, it was in the daytime, and I heard German planes coming over. Then I saw one stray American plane, with the double fuselage, a P-38. He came out of nowhere and he chased one of these German planes, and I was watching them, but they were firing, so I got scared, I dove under the tank and I stayed there, and I'm watching from under the tank. Iíd never seen a dogfight before. They were chasing each other. All of a sudden, the P-38 hit the German plane, the German plane was smoking like crazy, it went into the clouds and just disappeared. The P-38 turned and he went away.
One time we got called out by the 359th Regiment of the 90th Infantry Division. They got hit with a lot of tanks, and they were stuck. Panzers and all kinds. They were knocking the hell out of them. So they called two platoons in, we were one, we went in with five tanks, and another went in with five tanks.
As soon as we got there, we heard these 88s going under us, and on the side, and smacking the tank and glancing off, I could hear it just banging and going under, there were so many 88s firing at us, it was crazy. All of a sudden I heard the lead tank say, "Letís get the hell out of here!" So we backed up the tanks and we got out fast, and they called in the tank destroyers to take care of them. We got out of that battle there, boy, Iíll tell you, it was bad. We didnít know where the firing was coming from, and we were right in the middle of it.
Then youíd see the Germans dead on the side of the road, and youíd see the GIs dead, one time I saw a pile of GIs, they just piled them up, then Germans down the road, they just piled them up, too, and just left them there for the cleanup crews. War is dirty. I wish there were never any wars. They are so bad. And scary, too, because you never know when youíre gonna get it.
We had so many battles. Mayenne, Avranches, St. Lo was the first one. Then came the Falaise Gap. There was one time there that we bivouacked, and the company commander told us to watch all the roads. Put the tanks on the main roads. Of course, when you park the tanks you have to watch the roads, but he was so strict about it. Watch these roads. Donít let anything come through.
So we were watching. All of a sudden, at night, we heard rumbling. Tanks coming down the road, and they let the tanks get real close. They said, "Donít fire, donít fire." All of a sudden all hell broke out. It was the German tanks, they were trying to break through our lines. Well, not only our company, our whole battalion of tanks were there and had every road covered, and they blasted the hell out of those tanks, caught íem like crazy. What a beating they got. They were hit from all over. They didn't know where the firing was coming from. We took in a lot of prisoners there.
Another time, we were bivouacked, at night time, we were resting. In the morning, when we got up, there were Germans all over us. No tanks or anything, just Germans. And we were looking way out, I'd say maybe 400 yards out, and they had white flags up. So one of the fellows in the tank, I think it was Pilz, he spoke German, and he was telling them to come ahead. All of a sudden we saw them ducking down, so Crawford says, "Let íem have it!" We threw a couple of rounds in there, all of a sudden we saw the flags come up again. Pilz told me to lift up the hatch, and he was hollering out for them to drop their arms and come forward. So they did. They dropped their arms and came close to the tank, and we told them to line up close to the tank. There were about 200 of them. So we turned them over to the 82nd. We were attached to the 82nd Airborne. What fighters they were!
One time, the 82nd was told not to take any prisoners, because the Germans had taken the 82nd and they were hanging them on trees, they were pulling out their nails, theyíd done something real bad, so the 82nd Airborne division commander must have told them not to take any prisoners. They would take them, but they would take them back in a field and all of a sudden they would open up on them. But it was because of what they did to them. If it wasnít for that, the Americans, they wouldnít do that. But they were so mad because of what they did to their buddies.
They were one hell of a nice outfit to work with, the 82nd Airborne. Always there. Always with us. Always watching. Telling us if there was anything around. If we needed to scout out anything, they would go out and scout it out. Let us know if a road was clear, if anything was there they would tell us.
Finally, we got to the Falaise Gap. Chambois. We were bivouacked in the area, and it was early in the morning, it was about 5:30 or 6 oíclock. I was outside. I had my little stove out. We were making coffee. All of a sudden a treeburst came down, it hit the trees and it just rained on us. It was an 88 shell. The first one that hit was the one that got me. It hit me, spun me around, threw me right on the ground. Infantry men all the way around, and the tankers and everybody, I heard crying and moaning, oh my God, Iíll tell you, I wouldnít want to hear that again. There were so many people hurt with that one shell that burst out, and after that they were firing at us from all over. Thatís when I got hit, I got thrown down. Medics got to me. I got hit in the face. The left side of my lip was hanging down. My nose was split open. A piece of my nose is still missing. A piece of shrapnel about an inch and a half hit me, it ripped me wide open, went in through the jaw, busted the jaw, and it stayed right in the bottom of the jaw, just missing the jugular vein.
I must have been in the ditch about three hours. A medic got to me before that, and I still remember, he got a needle and thread, and he hooked the piece of meat that was hanging, my lip was just hanging there. He hooked it back on, put a couple of threads in it, he put a bandage on it with that sulfa, and he just left it there, and he said, "Now you stay here until they come and get you." If he hadnít done that, I would have lost a whole piece of my jaw. Whoever he was, God bless him, he saved my lip.
I stayed there about three hours. Then they came in with a jeep. There was still a lot of firing going on. Handgun firing. They came in with the jeep, threw me on, and got me out. We drove out of there fast and went back to where the tanks were, and Eugene Crawford got into the jeep, he grabbed ahold of me and he said, "Hang on, Sam, hang on. Weíre going down to the aid station, and theyíll take care of you there." So right where the tanks were, they gave me plasma. They hooked it up on the jeep and just left it there, I think Eugene was holding it up, he was holding me, and we went down to the first aid hospital, and Eugene got out and he said, "Sam, take care of yourself, youíll be all right, donít worry, youíll be okay."
And I was telling Gene, "I feel myself going, Iím not gonna make it." And he was crying, he was saying, "Sam, youíre gonna make it, youíre gonna make it, donít worry." Then he left, and I went in the ambulance, and they took me to Le Mans. And in Le Mans they operated, they took the piece of shrapnel out, and they gave it to me. I still have the piece of shrapnel.
While I was in the hospital in Le Mans, my head was all bandaged up, and I was on a stretcher. There were no tables or anything, the stretchers were all on the ground. Iím on the ground and Iím looking up, and I see someone that I know, and I says, "Holy geez, could it be?" It was Joe Bernardino. So I hollered out to him, I couldnít call out too much, my jaws were wired up, so I was trying to say, "Jo...Jo...Jo." He looked over, and he didnít recognize me. So he came close to me, and he said, "Holy Jesus, is that you, Sam?"
I said, "Yes, itís me." We started talking there, and he told me that he had gone into the tank to get some sugar, and he had his gun, I don't know what he was doing with it, but he had his gun out, and when the shell hit, it shook the tank, the gun went off, it ricocheted and hit him in the face. How do you like that action? [Joe Bernardinoís version of this story differs somewhat]
He stayed awhile. He didn't go back to the States like I did. Mine was going to take a long time to heal. But he went back over again. From then on, I didnít hear from him until he came back to the States, and then we started writing to each other. Every year I used to go to see him in Rochester, and he used to come and see me down in Jersey.
That was one hell of an experience. My God. The tank driver, Pilz, was killed when I was injured. Ruby Goldstein was right there, too. I donít know if Ruby got hit then.
We were getting hit by everybody. We were getting hit by the Germans, by the Canadians, by the French, they were trying to hit the Germans, they were hitting us. We were firing at the Germans. It was one hell of a mess in that gap, because everybody was firing at each other. We didn't know where anybody was. Thatís why a lot of people got hurt. There was no real order. The Germans were trying to get out of there, and we were trying to hit them, and we were hitting each other. Hell of a thing.
One time we were on a hill, this was either at Mayenne or Avranches, but they put us on top of a big hill overlooking the town, and we came down just a little bit and got between the trees, and we were just sitting there until daybreak. Daybreak came, and we were looking out into the town, all of a sudden, our tank got hit. Bam! Right in front. The assistant driver's seat.
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Sam Cropanese: One of the boys got hurt. The tank commander, I forget his name, an Italian fellow, he got hurt, the hatch caught his hand, and almost cut it open, so he was sent back and somebody else took his place, and I got out of the assistant driverís seat and I went to the back. What an omen. That shell that hit the tank hit the assistant driverís seat and went right through and hit the back of the tank. It was an armor-piercing shell, and it started flaking, and itís just like one of these sparklers that you use on the Fourth of July, thatís what happened. Right in the tank. It was sparking all over the place. We knew right away that it was an armor-piercing shell that hit. And our tank is loaded with all kinds of shells inside, 75s, armor-piercing, phosphorous, .50 calibers, .30 calibers. When it got hit, everybodyís hollering, "Let's get the hell out of here," before this thing goes up, itís getting on fire in the tank. So we got out, and the tank driver, the same guy, Pilz, he didnít want to get out. He wanted to pull the tank back and try to save it. The tank commander that took over, he went inside and he was trying to grab him and saying, "Come on, get the hell out of there, this tank is gonna go, hurry up, get out." Finally he got him out of there. No sooner did he get him out, and they started running away from it, that thing started blowing up. The ammunition started to go. Iíd never seen so much smoke in all my life. That smoke went sky high, right out of the turret. It blew up. What a signal it gave for the Germans. Then you can imagine how much shelling we got, because they hit the tank and they had a landmark there, all the smoke and everything coming up. We took off in a jeep and got back to the lines, and picked up another tank. Boy, Iíll tell you, if we didn't get out of there in a hurry weíd have all been killed.
I had been in the assistant driverís seat but I got out of there because the guy got hurt. I wish I could remember his name, because he was such a nice guy. He was a fighter. Pacione I think his name was. Sergeant Pacione. Heís the one that got hurt. Because of him getting hurt, I was saved. That thing would have gone right through me. Itís a good thing. Iím not saying itís a good thing he got hurt, but by him getting hurt, he saved my life.
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Every time we went out, I had to shoot at the houses, and the fields, just rake the fields where we were going. Just in case there was anything there, we would rake the fields. A lot of times you saw them getting up and theyíd get down again, but weíd just pass and go.
We had a 75 and a .30 caliber in the front when I was the assistant driver. When I was in the back I was loading the 75. I had a little porthole on the side, and one time I saw a German with his gun on the ground, like one of our machine guns, we were just passing, he couldnít harm us. We were passing him and he was firing at us, and I got a grenade and just dropped it out of the porthole and kept right on going. It must have blown him all up. I never even looked around to see what happened.
I must have killed a lot of them, because I raked a lot of the bushes, hit a lot of the homes, the hedgerows. We would rake the whole hedgerows, in case there was an 88 there, you'd hit him, because theyíre wide open. You would hit them or scare them to just abandon the thing and go hide until we got out of there.
A lot of times they would shoot at us. I remember one of the tanks that came back that had a hole through the back. I read it in one of your things there. I saw it. Right through the tin part.
One night when we were traveling, this was about 11 oíclock, we were strafed. The planes, when they came in, they could see the fire from the back of the tanks when we were driving.
It just so happened that the convoy had stopped, and all of a sudden the planes came down, heading right at us. Not from the back, from the front, they must have seen the flames. And everybody just closed the hatches, "Close the damn hatches fast!" You could hear the shells hitting the tank, "pat-pat-pap-pap-pap," like that, smacking into the tank. If we had stayed out there they would have cut us to pieces. Nobody got hit.
We had a plane, he never missed, we used to call him Bedcheck Charlie. This guy used to come around, it was a plane that had the wheels, they didnít go up, an ME109. That son of a gun used to sound like a washing machine. He used to come around just to harass us. We used to call him Bedcheck Charlie because it was always 11 o'clock at night. He used to come, drop his bomb, and take off. He'd just drop it anywhere. And every time we could hear that crazy machine, weíd say, "There he is," and weíd dive under the tank, because we never knew where he was going to drop that thing. Sometimes heíd drop it in the towns, sometimes in the fields, wherever it dropped, it dropped. But he never missed, every night he'd come around.
One time I saw Panzers in front of us. We didnít dare fire at them. They were in a big gully, like itís a mountain with a road, they were going through there. We couldnít see them until they got a little bit higher. Then we saw them, and these damn things, they were big.
We were told, if we saw a Panzer, donít fire on it. You canít hit them and do any damage because the metal on it is too thick. So we didnít bother them, we just let them go. We just held back and we didnít even try to breathe until they got out of the way. A whole platoon, there were five of them. If they had spotted us, they would have knocked us all out, and there wasnít a damn thing we could do but run. Nothing. Theyíve got big 88s on their tanks, and their metal, you could fire a gun and you're not going to hurt them. The only thing you can do is, if you can catch a track, you may blow a track off, but by the time that happens they got you.
Iíve got a photo that Iíve been looking for, of Steve Krysko leaning up against this tank. He had given me that during the war. But I canít find it. He was a tall, thin fellow. Good looking kid. He was good for pictures. He took so many pictures of everybody, dead Germans and GIs, tanks, oh my God, tanks, talking about tanks. Iíve seen tanks that were knocked out, youíd see pieces of the arm, a hand, all crumpled up, fingers all black, just a piece, scattered, over there, a piece of an arm here, the head blown off. On an 88 I've seen the same thing, a German 88, just seen charred pieces here and there, Iím telling you, it was a disgusting thing to look at.
But while youíre there, youíre in the battle and everything, itís not as bad as after. After, you start thinking about it, you say, Holy geez, I saw all that stuff there? These Germans all charred up. Americans in the small tanks that were hit, they were all charred, the tanks, and you could still see the GIs in the tanks, all black, like they were looking at you. All charred up. Oh my God, what a thing to look at.
God, when you see stuff like that, you really say to yourself, my God, weíre next. Whenís it gonna hit us? Every time we were called out, to go into a battle to help out the infantry or whatever you got called on, we used to say, "Well, maybe this is it." Every time we went out. Maybe this oneís it. Maybe this oneís it. You never knew if you were gonna come back.
Weíd say to ourselves, Boy, we were lucky this time.