In 1991, Ed Spahr told me a story about a lieutenant who, not knowing how badly he had been wounded, handed Spahr a camera and asked him to take a picture. The lieutenant was evacuated and Spahr had not seen him since. In 1992, the lieutenant, Jim Gifford, showed up at the annual reunion of the 712th Tank Battalion.
Spahr, Gifford, Tony D'Arpino and Bob Rossi were all in the same crew on Jan. 10, 1945, when their tank was knocked out during the Battle of the Bulge. Here, they reminisce about that day, and many others.
Harrisburg, Pa. October 3, 1992
©2000, 2009 Aaron Elson
Jim Gifford: I was a lieutenant at the time, a first lieutenant. When I left the service I was a captain in the Ninth Armored Group.
Bob Rossi: I was a loader in Lieutenant Giffords tank. I was a private first class. I got out of the service in January 1946.
Ed Spahr: I think Id better be classed as a utility man with all of C Company because I served in every platoon. I think I spent more time in the front than a lot of other ones did, because if that platoon wasnt there, I was with another one.
Tony Darpino: I was a driver, first tank, third platoon, and towards the end I was a tank commander for a very short period when the end was in sight. I was discharged in 45.
Aaron Elson: Where did you come together as a unit?
Bob Rossi: Just prior to the Battle of the Bulge, Jim was brought in as our new tank commander.
Tony DArpino: He was our platoon leader.
Bob Rossi: We were in the No. 1 tank. We wound up in the town of Kirschnaumen in Belgium. I can recall so vividly how we wondered where Lieutenant Gifford was all day. We were in a hayloft, and he came up the ladder, it was a footladder, he said, "Come here, I want to show you something." He had draped the tank in white sheets. They werent whitewashing the tanks at that time. There was snow all over the ground. So he scrounged these white sheets from all over and he draped our tank so wed have camouflage.
That same night, he had gotten a package from home, and he had some canned chicken. He shared his package with all of us.
We were talking about home, and he said to us, "You know, Id rather lose an arm or a leg than lose my eyesight." He said, "Theres too much to see in this world." And the next day when he got hit, he got hit in the eye.
It was a hairy situation because we had gone into a pocket to flush out the Germans, and as fate had it, our left track was knocked off.
Tony DArpino: Wasnt that the time that we just took one section of the tanks, just us and the second tank? We were almost ready to eat supper when we had to go out.
Bob Rossi: We only had two tanks, us and Warrens. There was concentrated machine gun fire. Lieutenant Gifford got hit in the right eye, the bullet lodged in his cheek. I thought he might jump out of the tank, and I yelled to him to keep down or they would blow his head off. He said, "I dont want to jump out, I want Warren to come forward to help us."
Then he said to me, "Rossi, how bad am I hit?"
And I lied, I said, "You dont look bad, Lieutenant." But he looked like somebody hit him in the face with a sledgehammer.
Tony DArpino: I remember something else about that, too. [To Gifford] He was great for having a camera around your neck, right?
Bob Rossi: Im gonna get to that. So he says to me, "Fire the smoke mortar." And this is the joke. In my excitement, I forgot to knock the cap out of the top, and when I fired the first mortar it went like this [motioning straight up and down]. And then I fired some subsequent mortars to give a smokescreen.
As we were abandoning tank, Lieutenant Gifford was firing his .45 and pulling Spahr out by one of his arms. Spahrs leg was locked.
Ed Spahr: I had a little blood coming out, something had hit me, I went along with him back to the aid station.
Bob Rossi: Ed was the assistant driver. His machine gun was firing by itself it was so hot. And I said, "Twist the belt, twist the belt," so he could stop the bullets from feeding into the machine gun. And Klapkowski, who was our gunner, he and I were running in a zigzag, we could see the snow being kicked up around us. As we were running, a recon truck came toward us, and Lieutenant Gifford said, "Fire that .50 and protect these boys!"
And the guy yelled out, "Its our last box [of ammunition]!"
He said, "Fire it anyway, you sonofabitch!" And thats when they started firing the .50 to give us cover.
As we got out of the line of fire, he handed his .45 to me, he says, "Hold this for me till I get back."
And with that, he says, "Take my picture."
I said, "Lieutenant, I cant take your picture."
Ed Spahr: I took it. Thats the only way I could have got hit, right here [on the inside part of the arm], when I was holding the camera up to take his picture. It felt like a bee sting.
Bob Rossi: And there he was, having his picture taken. He had gotten a Bronze Star that morning, he had the ribbon, his face was all puffed up, blood all over his combat jacket, he says, "Take my picture."
Jim Gifford: I couldnt see out of my right eye, but I didnt know how bad it was. Its a funny thing, I didnt feel any pain when the bullet went in.
Tony DArpino: I can remember plain as day one thing about that night, that evening. We were about ready to eat our meal, whatever it was, and they said that there was a small pocket, it was holding the infantry down, they wanted the tanks to clean it out. You took two tanks. It was just supposed to be a small pocket. And it turned out to be a little more than that, I guess.
Jim Gifford: It was bad news.
Bob Rossi: After we were knocked out, Sergeant Warrens tank came forward, and under Lieutenant Giffords orders, he set our tank on fire.
Tony DArpino: We had ruined the radio. We put a grenade in the gun barrel. We did everything we were supposed to do.
Bob Rossi: So the Germans couldnt turn the gun around and fire on the town.
Jim Gifford: I had Warren shoot into the back of our tank because the Germans were stealing the tanks. Theyd use them against us. The track was blown off so it was useless anyway.
Tony DArpino: But the gun was still good.
Jim Gifford: So we immobilized it by hitting it in the back.
Tony DArpino: We had the best working escape hatch of anybody in the platoon. I used to oil that thing up good, so that when you touched the lever it would really fall out. Sometimes that was the only way of escape. If youre inside the tank and the hatches are down and the gun is traversed over your hatch, you cant open it to get out, you have to go out the other way.
I can remember always telling Klapkowski, he was the gunner in the tanks that I was in most of the time, and I always told him, "You sonofabitch, if we ever get knocked out, make sure that guns in the center, because if I cant get out because youve got the gun traversed over my hatch," I says, "Ill haunt you. Ill come and pull the sheets off of your bed."
Jim Gifford: Im sure theres a few guys that arent here today because of that gun being over their hatch.
Tony DArpino: That used to be my biggest worry.
Bob Rossi: We subsequently got a new tank after that. Sergeant Holmes became our acting platoon leader. When Lieutenant Gifford was wounded and we were knocked out, that was January 10, 1945, Berle, Belgium Luxembourg.
Jim Gifford: Outside of Bastogne. Wed have been the first tank in Bastogne if we hadnt got knocked out. Bastogne was right over there, we were heading for it. We had to go down a defile with a lot of woods and they were dug in there, but we didnt know that.
Bob Rossi: We were committed to the Bulge already. When Lieutenant Gifford was evacuated, we waited maybe several weeks for a replacement tank, and thats when we got this new tank, and Sergeant Holmes became our acting platoon leader. He was the platoon sergeant. And on February 8, 1945, we were knocked out again, at Habscheid, Germany. We were in a wooded area. They called us during the night.
Tony DArpino: In high ground, no?
Bob Rossi: In high ground. And it seemed like the Germans were just waiting there for us.
Tony DArpino: They had it all zeroed in. They had three lines of machine gun fire. Some just grazed the ground, some came waist-high.
Bob Rossi: When light came, it seemed like everything opened up at one time. They knew we were there, in the woods, and they had mortars, artillery, machine gun fire, and all of a sudden Sergeant Holmes collapsed in the turret, and I was yelling, "Holmes! Holmes! are you hit?" And Spahr says to me, "Sure hes hit." And with that we picked him up, and put him behind the gun. Shrapnel had gone through his steel helmet. He was hit in several places. The towel that was around his neck, a bath towel, was sopping wet with blood.
Later, after this happened, I noticed I had blood all over my left sleeve. And with that, I asked DArpino, "Give me the first aid kit." And with that, he cant open it. The darn thing was rusted shut. So with a chisel he opened up the first aid kit, and I bandaged Sergeant Holmes as best as I could, and as hes laying on the floor he called up Sergeant Gibson, he says, "Gib, Im hit, Im getting out of here." And Gibson called back, he says, "Were all getting out of here." And with that, Gibson started up the hill, and this is when we found out that the Germans had the hill zeroed in. As Gibson stopped, they fired two rounds in front of him and missed him. He took off. We came up the hill, and Bang, we got hit. The 88 went through our engine compartment and landed between [Jim] Sessions he was the assistant driver it landed between his legs.
Tony DArpino: He was a recruit.
Ed Spahr: First time up.
Bob Rossi: I think it was a day before or a day after his 18th or 19th birthday.
Tony DArpino: I was driving, and I knew there was another tank behind me to get out, so I tried pulling over to the right to give him room to get around me, and of course nothing was working. Sessions, the assistant driver, he was new, he grabbed the fire extinguisher, and I says, "Jump, you crazy bastard, jump!" Matter of fact, I didnt even unplug the radio or nothing, I just got out.
Ed Spahr: He never did attempt to get out till I got ahold of him. I jumped back up on the tank and I grabbed him.
Bob Rossi: I neglected to say, one tank was already knocked out in the woods, their bogey wheels were knocked off, and we had taken two guys from that crew into our tank, so there were five of us in the turret when there should have been three. When we got hit, I was the last guy to get out. I was on my hands and knees waiting for the others to get out, and I no sooner got out of the turret than the ammo started to go.
Tony DArpino: Its taking a while to tell this story, but it all happened within seconds, and when that thing hit and I saw that red projectile land beside Sessions foot it came right alongside by the transmission, the transmission was between the driver and the assistant driver it was laying right down by his left foot.
Jim Gifford: The projectile, gets red hot.
Ed Spahr: Cherry red.
Tony DArpino: I didnt even bother unplugging my helmet radio. I just put my hand outside, tried to pry myself up, and that tank was just as hot as a stove.
Ed Spahr: When they hit us, it just felt like it drove the tank ten feet forward.
Bob Rossi: I automatically turned around when we were hit. I turned around to pull the extinguisher. We had an inside extinguisher. It didnt do any good. The fire was so tremendous with all that gasoline.
And right after we got hit, just before I got out of the tank, thats when the other tank, which was just about on our left rear, they got hit. But they werent as fortunate as us in the sense that LaMar, who was the driver, he was burned pretty bad, I can remember when he took that stocking mask off his face he took the skin right off his face. And Whiteheart, who is now dead, the type of tank they had, they had ammo stacked in back of the assistant driver, it shifted, hit him right in the back.
Van Landingham was the tank commander, part of his heel was torn off from the shrapnel.
Tony DArpino: I remember we got all the way down, we crawled all the way down that hill, got down to the bottom, and Van Landingham was missing, right? Hes still back up there. So I dont know who the other guy was and myself, we grabbed a stretcher, we went back up we crawled back up. They were shooting right over our heads. I thought that was my last day, out of all the I had three tanks knocked out from under me, and out of all of them, I thought that was it. I had it.
So we crawled up there with a stretcher to get Van Landingham, right? We finally get to him and hes moaning and groaning, Im looking for blood, you know, I dont see nothing. Hes got them combat boots on. I look, and he goes, "Ohhh, ohhh," real sharp, right, now he must have been hit someplace, I dont know where. I couldnt see any blood. Were trying to get him on that stretcher, and were trying to crawl on our hands and knees with the stretcher, get him down over the crest where they couldnt see us. They had that place zeroed in. And wed go a few feet, and then, "Shooom!" Wed drop the stretcher. The third time the stretcher hit the solid ground, Van Landingham, "Oooooh," he would groan, anyway, God willing, we got him down to the bottom, and I dont know who that man is today, Ive thought about this a million times, but somebody saw me and whoever else had that stretcher, and it was an officer, not in our company, it was an officer that was down there, and he took our names, he thought we should get the Silver Star for what we had done. And then I was told later on that this man was called back to England, he had to be a witness in a court martial. I dont know who the officer was. He wasnt in our outfit.
Ed Spahr: He was a captain in the infantry up there. You remember, we all got up in that bunker?
Bob Rossi: We were going from pillbox to pillbox.
Ed Spahr: Ill never forget that day. The snipers were, you raised up a little up a bit and Ping!
Tony DArpino: Every time wed hear "ping" wed drop the stretcher and Van Landingham would hit and hed groan.
Bob Rossi: You know what was ironic? We were running from pillbox to pillbox to get out of the line of fire after this all happened. And the infantry was dug in in foxholes, they said, "Dont run on the road, its mined. Dont run in the gully, its mined." And we finally got to this one pillbox, and I think it was a major or a lieutenant colonel, he wanted American wounded put outside because he complained that they were in the way of him conducting business. And we were POd at him. I was so mad at the time, I was only a kid, but I was so mad I felt like shooting the German prisoners who were there because they did this to us.
Ed Spahr: I remember that one infantry boy, this captain said to this guy, he pointed to him, he said, "Get up there and get that sonofabitch!" And that infantry boy was sitting there, he handed him his M-1, he said, "Here, you get him."
Tony DArpino: If you remember, that night, it was dark when the infantry moved us up there.
Bob Rossi: It was raining.
Tony DArpino: We argued about it. You move the tanks at night, Jesus, they make too much noise. But the infantry officer said, "Im giving you an order."
Bob Rossi: So Holmes says to me, "Rossi, get out." He handed me his tank commanders watch with the luminous hands, he said, "Lead the tank." Now Im running in front of the tank in the rain, holding it up as Im running so DArpino can see the watch in the dark. And when we got knocked out the next morning, I said to myself, "Thank God my clothes were soaking wet. I think thats what saved me from getting burned to death in the tank." All my clothes were soaking wet.
Ed Spahr: We lost four tanks that day.
Bob Rossi: Three. Three out of the four.
Ed Spahr: Thats right. Gibsons was the only tank that got out.
Bob Rossi: Two tank destroyers were lost. And we lost about a company of infantry. I mean, we took a beating.
Tony DArpino: When daybreak came and I looked around, I said, "Hooooly shit." You could see for miles. I mean, we were really exposed. They had three lanes of machine gun fire.
Bob Rossi: You remember later on we were kidding, it was bad, but later on we kidded, "That German gun crew must have all got the Iron Cross and a three-day pass."