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2014, Aaron Elson



Once Upon a Tank in the Battle of the Bulge

Jim Gifford, Tony D'Arpino, Ed Spahr, Bob Rossi, 712th Tank Battalion

 Page 2

2014, Aaron Elson 

    Aaron Elson: Lieutenant Gifford, just before you got wounded you had gotten the Bronze Star?

    Jim Gifford: That was for Maizieres le Metz. We had a battle in Maizieres. That was a town on the Moselle River. We were held up there by some SS and Panzer divisions. And the town was cut in half by railroad tracks. It wasn’t a big town. And we were on one side of the tracks, they were on the other. At night they used to come right up close to us, like 75 yards, and throw hand grenades at us, and we had to wait till daylight before we could open up. Then we’d head out across the tracks, shoot up the houses, and then we’d pull back, and they’d come right back in. They used to bring their reinforcements in with horses that had their feet covered with burlap bags so you wouldn’t hear the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves. That was Maizieres le Metz. That was a bloody town.

    Tony D’Arpino: I think Sergeant Warren used to have the right idea. I can remember him, God rest his soul, saying, I made tank commander for a couple of weeks, that’s another story, but he used to tell me, "Listen, if you ever become tank commander," he says, "never mind getting the high explosive shells. Get the white phosphorous." He says it does the same job and twice the damage.

    Ed Spahr: Well, they’d have knocked us out quicker, I think, if I wouldn’t have fired white phosphorous that day. Because that one tank stopped.

    Tony D’Arpino: Nobody got much white phosphorous until Sergeant Warren.

    Ed Spahr: I hit him right in the front and that tank stopped because he thought he was on fire.

    Bob Rossi: I was with Sergeant Holmes at the time. They say that all the powder has to burn, and this one day I threw a round into the breach and it hung up, because some of the powder was frozen, and it hung up the round, and I think Tony and somebody else had to get out the rammer staff, this is in combat, with the rammer staff and push that round out of the breach so we could fire.

    Jim Gifford: Lucky you didn’t hit the detonator.

    Bob Rossi: That’s when I learned from there, from that experience, always wipe breach off before you put a new round in. This is something that we learned, there’s a possibility that the powder was frozen and didn’t burn.

    Tony D’Arpino: I can remember Klapkowski, he was crazy as a bedbug anyway — he was one of the best gunners in the company, he was good, but he had other, he probably thought I had faults, too, I don’t know — but anyway, we had Gramari as a loader, Klapkowski’s the gunner, and a round jammed after he fired it. So you know how you had the ramrod? So Klapkowski got Gramari out there, right, and they’re hitting them [the shell] out, and Klapkowski says, "Gramari, here’s the secret of this," he says. "Don’t hold the ramrod tight, hold it loose."

    And Gramari says, "What do you hold it loose for?"

    "Oh," he said. "In case the round goes off, you won’t get splinters from the ramrod."

    I said, "Klapkowski, that’s no thing to say." You know, he scared the, I was young but Gramieri was a kid. I think he was 18 years old.

    Bob Rossi: I replaced Gramari.

    Jim Gifford: Yes, he looked like [he was] 14.

    Tony D’Arpino: Luigi his name was.

    Bob Rossi: Luigi Gramari. He was like combat fatigue, I would say.

    Ed Spahr: Klapkowski scared him.

    Bob Rossi: Scared the living hell out of him. Klapkowski used to pull the same crap on me.

    Ed Spahr: He was scared. Because I know I was scared.

    Tony D’Arpino: Anybody who says they wasn’t scared...

    Ed Spahr: I could have beaten Jesse Owens any day a couple times.

    Tony D’Arpino: Being scared and being yellow are two different things altogether.

    Ed Spahr: You had to do, you did something whether it was right or wrong, that’s the way I looked at it.

    Aaron Elson: Tell me about Klapkowski

    Bob Rossi: You want to hear about Klapkowski? He was a gunner. He comes from Pennsylvania. He served in the Polish navy prior to the United States’ involvement in World War II. He was in England during the blitz.

    Tony D’Arpino: He was over the hill. He deserted.

    Jim Gifford: Deserted the British army?

    Tony D’Arpino: No, the Polish navy.

    Ed Spahr: They pulled into Canada for repairs, and he jumped ship. He had relatives in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania.

    Bob Rossi: He used to tell us stories how he was in England during the blitz, and he was in a building that a bomb hit it, and all he remembers is that he woke up the next day. And another time the German planes were coming in to strafe, all they could do was cut the lines to their ships and just hope to drift out to open sea. That they were setting the gasoline on fire in the water.

    Tony D’Arpino: I was with Klapkowski all the time. From Day One down in Fort Benning, Georgia, we were in a tank crew. He had a habit, he was very nervous, he would wipe his lips with a handkerchief.

    Bob Rossi: Always.

    Tony D’Arpino: He would do that I don’t know how many times a minute. And he was, I don’t know the correct word to use, but he was a gunner. That god damn gun looked cleaner than any part of any man’s body, I don’t care how many times he took a shower, he was good at that. But he also, I don’t know how to put it, but I think he was a little, a little. ...

    Ed Spahr: Battle fatigue.

    Tony D’Arpino: Well, this is back in the States. But he was a good gunner. Matter of fact, one of the first times over when Patton, when they were, what do you call it, the Germans were trying to get into Le Mans.

    Bob Rossi: And we came face to face with a column.

    Tony D’Arpino: We intercepted, pulled right in front of them, a whole German column coming, and the road went like this here, and then up in this here [indicating that most of the road was not visible over a rise]. Now Klapkowski just took a chance that that, matter of fact I was driving, first thing I see is this motorcycle, a German motorcycle with a sidecar and branches with green leaves all over it coming down toward me, right? I cut over to the left and let him by. I figured the gunner’d get ahold of him, right, Klapkowski. So anyway, Klapkowski took a chance that the road was straight. Over the crest he couldn’t see what the hell it was. But he’d just elevate the gun a hair and fire a round. I think he got credit for I don’t know, thirty-some-odd vehicles.

    Bob Rossi: He hit the first vehicle to block the road and then he just kept raising the gun, he hit the next vehicle, and raised the gun, hit the next vehicle, raised the gun, hit the next vehicle.

    Tony D’Arpino: And the Air Force got the end of the convoy.

    Bob Rossi: He got the Silver Star for that.

    Tony D’Arpino: He got the Silver Star. And we were headed for Le Mans. We were going to reinforce Le Mans.

    Ed Spahr: That’s the day the Air Force came down and even strafed some of us.

    Jim Gifford: Thirty-seven Messerschmitt 109s.

    Tony D’Arpino: I can still see that first, the motorcycle with the sidecar, the Germans I moved over to let them by, tipped upside down and the wheels are going around like a sonofabitch.

    Bob Rossi: You mentioned about the German motorcycle. I can remember an incident toward the end of the war, we had stopped along a road, and this B.A.R. [Browning Automatic Rifle] man, he was from the 357, he was guarding the road. He [the motorcycle] was coming toward us. Now, I don’t know if his intention was to try and stop us. And this B.A.R. man fired and hit this German soldier right in the face. And then minutes later we passed him, we moved out, and the guy was like, his left leg was, the motorcycle was on its side, his left leg was underneath the motorcycle, his right leg, he was still in a death grip with the handles, the motorcycle was still running, in that death grip.

    Tony D’Arpino: I was with Klapkowski from Day One in the States at Fort Benning, and when we went to Jackson, Fort Jackson, to do our firing, and we were getting ready to go overseas, we all had our dental work done. Guys like me, if you had a cavity, you lost the whole tooth. They lined you up and they’d put you in the chair, "Yeah, that’s got to come out," they’d give you novocaine, you’d get out and go back to the end of the line. And then when you come around again they pulled it, right?

    Klapkowski had such perfect teeth, and white, I mean white as that sheet of paper, they were beautiful. He had one little cavity, so they didn’t want to yank it, they were gonna fill it. Now this is a true story, now. And it was a, either a Mexican dentist, a little short guy, anyway, starts drilling. And Klapkowski knocked the drill out of his hand, he must have hit the nerve, Klapkowski knocked the drill out of his hand. One more time, right, knocked the drill out of his hand. And the Mexican dentist says to Klapkowski, "What’s the matter, can’t you take it?"

    And Klapkowski says, "You come outside, you sonofabitch, I’ll show you if I can take it." He got restricted to the company grounds for one week for that. That’s the kind of guy Klapkowski was. He was a good gunner, and sometimes he was over, overzealous, I’d say. I’ve seen times when he’d push Lombardi out of the way, and just get outside the turret with that .50-caliber, go crazy with it.

    Bob Rossi: Another incident, me and Klapkowski, we had just crossed the Nied River, we forded it, and he says, "Let’s take some baths." And he and I took turns going down to the river taking buckets of water with the sand in it, and one of those smoking units that the Germans used to smoke the meat, the fire underneath, with the boards, the firewood on the bottom of the stove, poured the water in, and he took the bath standing on the wood. Then we cleaned it out and we got some more water and I took a bath. We’re standing over an open fire to take a bath.

    Tony D’Arpino: You know, I was always in Klapkowski’s tank crew. And we used to go to church together on Sunday morning. But Klapkowski was in another world by himself. I never went out with him, because I knew he was nothing but trouble as far as I was concerned. He liked his tea, and he used to drink quite a bit of it. But anyway, he went to town one Saturday night. Sunday morning I went to wake him up to go to Mass, and he had the covers over his head. And I pulled the covers down and so help me God, I didn’t recognize him. His face was twice the size that it used to be. His eyes were full.

    Jim Gifford: He got into a fight?

    Tony D’Arpino: I thought he got in a fight with about four bears or something. We finally had to take him to the dispensary, and they put him in the hospital for a while. This was in Fort Benning.

    Ed Spahr: He got tangled up with troopers.

    Tony D’Arpino: Paratroopers. He called some paratroopers some goddamn name, and the paratroopers showed him. But Klapkowski was a good gunner. I mean, he was a good shot, he was a good gunner, but, of course, like all of us, I guess he had some faults.

    Bob Rossi: I want to relate a story about one of our real characters of the third platoon, Sergeant Jim Warren. He was a career Army man. And just prior to the Bulge we were in this Kirschnaumen and we were standing around one evening, and we had this one room where the stove was, the mother and father and daughter lived in one room, and there was a GI blanket covering a hole where a shell had hit. So it was pretty cold in this house. And we were standing around kibbitzing this one night, there was a kerosene lantern hanging down from the ceiling on a cord. And Jim Warren was, always had a half a load on, and he’s shadowboxing the lantern. And we’re laughing, he’s playing around, he’s boxing the lantern, and he throws a haymaker at the lantern, misses the lantern and hits me. I went flying across the room. I come up with the biggest lip you ever saw. And the next morning, this was late at night, the next morning we’re getting up and I could hear him saying to somebody, "I never touched the kid." And I came up and showed him the lip. He believed it then.

    Tony D’Arpino: I remember him. I don’t know what town or nothing, but we were sleeping in a barn, it was hooked onto a house, a hayloft, with the hay, right, and I don’t know who it was but somebody was getting some action with one of the girls there, right, and Sergeant Warren was half-loaded like always but asleep, right, and I guess the guy was kicking hay in his face. The guy had his pants down. Warren grabbed him and threw him in the goddamn hayloft. This is a true story. He says, "You sonofabitch," he says, "let a man in here."

    Bob Rossi: He was truly a character.

    Tony D’Arpino: Sergeant Warren was the type of guy, I mean he was really military, I mean, his tank crew wouldn’t eat unless he said so. He was that kind of a guy.

    Bob Rossi: When I joined the third platoon, [I arrived with] a Koon Leong Moy who we automatically called Chop-Chop because of his Oriental heritage. Right away, when Lieutenant Lombardi was assigning the crews, Warren says, "I want him." He thought Chop-Chop was gonna cook for him. Chop says, "The hell with you, you cook for yourself."

    Tony D’Arpino: But I’ll tell you one thing about Sergeant Warren. Sergeant Warren, and we weren’t used to it, Lieutenant Lombardi even told me this himself, he wasn’t used to having a guy like Warren in Number 2 tank, because if Lieutenant Lombardi had something hot in front of him, this Sergeant Warren rode up on his back side, you could count on him, very dependable. He wasn’t one of these guys would sit back 400, 500 yards.

    Bob Rossi: He was a good tank commander.

    Tony D’Arpino: The only trouble Sergeant Warren had was he liked his tea a little much. But other than that, he’d been a first sergeant and busted. He could remember MacArthur when he was a major. We were discussing that a little while ago today. He had some kind of antique guns that he’d break down, paint and everything else down in the islands there, and MacArthur came to make an inspection, and he told Sergeant Warren to take off his shoes and his socks, he wanted to see if he’d cut his nails square. He didn’t even look at the guns that the guy broke his back cleaning and painting and everything else. He wanted to see how he cut his nails.

    Bob Rossi: He made the battery that they were attached to break ranks to crowd around Sergeant Warren.

    Ed Spahr: He was from Flat Lake, Oklahoma, and his wife was from Crows Nest, Kentucky.

    Tony D’Arpino: He used to like Chop-Chop.

    Bob Rossi: That’s how, when Chop Chop joined Warren’s tank, that’s how Warren got the new name, Ding How — "Can Do" in Chinese. Ding How. Can Do. He was a great character, but like we said, a good tank commander.

    Tony D’Arpino: They can say what they want to, I think, from the time you were with us you could probably say the same thing, Sergeant Warren was one of the best Number 2 tanks, when you were in trouble, he was right there.

    Jim Gifford: He was dependable.

    Tony D’Arpino: When you were in trouble, he was right there.

    Ed Spahr: You could never tell whether he was excited or not.

    Tony D’Arpino: If you had a fast tank like I had in reverse, you’d always bump into him, because he was still there.

    Jim Gifford: He didn’t shirk from anything.

    Tony D’Arpino: He had other faults like all of us.

    Bob Rossi: There are more Warren stories than you can shake a stick at. He had pots and pans galore on the back of his tank. I used to say, his pots and pans make more noise than the tank itself coming down the road.

    Tony D’Arpino: But he was the type of man that you’d want, especially when you’re not a Number 1 tank, you know, when you look in front of you, there’s nobody there but you.

    I can say this now, I think the driver of a lead tank is the worst goddamn job God ever created. ‘cause you’re looking through that periscope, you ain’t got no gun to shoot to keep you busy, you’re looking to see if anybody’s aiming at you. The gunner’s busy. The loader’s busy loading. At least the bow gunner, he had a machine gun that he could spray, play with a little bit. But the driver just sat there waiting. But one thing I always did, I always when I stopped, when they told me to stop, the first thing I’d do was put it in reverse.

    Jim Gifford: Tony, were you driving, in Maizieres le Metz, were you driving the tank when we went up on the sidewalk, scraped that building?

    Tony D’Arpino: Oh yeah.

    Jim Gifford: I was up in the turret. Up ahead there was a split in the road, and there was an antitank gun in the lobby of a hotel. So I hollered for white phosphorous. We fired a white phosphorous into the lobby, and it blew out, later we saw the gun in there, and there was a guy behind it, and there was nothing but his boots, that white phosphorous wiped him right off the face of the earth. But then we went up on the sidewalk and started scraping that brick building, and something made me look to the right, and here was a second story window and there was a Kraut standing there with a gun right at my face, and he fired it. I looked at him, he looked at me, and he fires the gun, and it went either to the left or the right of me, and then he disappeared back into the room. That was the damnedest thing I ever saw.

    Tony D’Arpino: You know what I remember, one of the first, we were in the hedgerows, one of our first days over there, Klapkowski was the gunner, and he wanted to fire the machine gun or something, he had seen a guy, he wanted to fire the machine gun. The solenoid for the machine gun and the 75-millimeter were close together. He hit the 75-millimeter. I’m looking up the periscope and I see this German machine gunner, right, and all of a sudden, Jesus, I don’t see nothing but dust, the whole thing disappeared, the gun, the guy, Klapkowski stepped on the 75-millimeter instead of the machine gun.

    Ed Spahr: I remember the day, this was not long before he really went haywire and they took him back. You remember the guy that went running across the field, about five or six hundred yards away from us, and a 75 round went after him? Remember, he shot at one man? I knew he was completely cracked then. When you do tricks like that, you know you’ve got a killer instinct then. You ain’t just fighting a war.

    Bob Rossi: I saw them doing that up when we were up in the Sudetenland. Light tanks were shooting at one German soldier in the field in the snow. It was like a game.

    John Zimmer: Did you get hit in the breakthrough, Normandy?

    Jim Gifford: No, I got hit in Maizieres, with a grenade. Then I got shot up in the Bulge. I got hit two or three times, nothing serious, except the breakthrough.

    John Zimmer: I’ll never forget the morning of the breakthrough, George Peck, you remember him?

    Jim Gifford: Oh yeah, George.

    John Zimmer: We were in the tank waiting for the go-ahead. He got out, he said, "I’m gonna have a cigarette." Soon as he lit that cigarette, everything broke loose. The cannons, everything started up.

    Jim Gifford: That was outside of Thionville. That Thionville. During the afternoon we were in a column. Matter of fact, Task Force Weaver. And we were told, "Don’t use the radios," and the next thing a little Messerschmitt comes by, about 200 feet off the ground, right alongside of us, I can see the pilot now looking at us, and he went whipping off, nobody fired at him, he went off up that way, came back, right by us again, because we were trying to be quiet. So we forgot about it. That was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

    Then we dispersed the tanks around this town called Hyange, and we were in the woods on both sides of the highway. In the meantime, I went up ahead to reconnoiter with a jeep, and there were some infantry guys at a crossroads up there, and I sat, and I had some coffee with them, and they’re guarding the crossroad, Americans. So I said, "Well, I’m gonna go on back." I went back down. They were about a mile up the road. I came back. And then during the night, Jesus, a German column comes down the road. And they didn’t know where we were, and they stopped right there, and we’re over here. So Scott, I told him, "Grab the bazooka," and we ran over to the edge of the road. We didn’t want to fire our guns because they’d know where we were. So with the bazooka I figured I’d catch that first tank, and the sonofabitch stopped up there, he turns that gun, and "Boom!" He hits Peck’s tank, and he turns and he hits another tank over here, and the guys are sleeping on the ground next to it. And the one shell, it bounced off the tank and went right straight through the guy that was sleeping, he was a lieutenant from one of the other companies. The next day I went over to see what happened, and he was still in his sleeping bag, and I pulled it back, and the damn round, he had a hole in his back that big, he never knew what hit him, he was still sleeping.

    This must have been about four in the morning, because all of a sudden it started getting daylight, and then we started shooting the shit out of them, and the whole column fell apart. And a couple of them, the tanks went over to the left down through a field there, and we had one tank pull up alongside, I don’t know whose it was, and he fired, he knocked it out, and the crew piled out, and they started running up the road towards us. So we threw a machine gun up on top of the bank there, took it off the jeep, and as they came toward us, they gave up.

    Then another tank started down behind them, and he stopped his tank, and the crew got out, they didn’t fire, they came over towards us and gave up. That’s when Putnam got killed.

* * *

    Aaron Elson: Does the name Aaron Brown ring a bell?

    Bob Rossi: Who was that, Souvenir Brown?

    Tony D’Arpino: Souvenir Brown, yeah.

    Jim Gifford: He came out of the same mold as Warren.

    Tony D’Arpino: I think he was a little worse.

    Bob Rossi: I was with him in the second platoon. You want to hear a story about Brown? I was with him. I was with the second platoon because I was waiting for a replacement tank, and some guy had gone AWOL from the second platoon, so they sent me down to replace him. So I’m in Jack Green’s tank, and Brown was the assistant driver, and we had an engagement with some SS outfit. And it was a hairy situation where we fought them from out of town, into the town, out of the town. It was an all-day battle, back and forth. And we were tired, scared, what have you. And we were finally in the town, and I can remember this brick wall that the German farmers had made, and what was his name, I can’t think of the fellow’s name, a German soldier was wounded, laying off to the side of the road when we were coming into the town, and he was waving for us not to run over him. And as we came back, one of the guys went back to walk him in. This guy was just about cut in half. When we brought him into the town, he was leaning on the brick wall for support, one of the medics motioned to one of the German prisoners, they had maybe ten or twelve German prisoners, to come over to assist this wounded German.

    Jack Green, thought the guy was trying to make a getaway, and he grabbed him and started beating the hell out of this guy with his tommy gun clip, and I’m yelling, "Jack, stop it! Stop it, don’t do that!" And he finally stopped hitting the guy.

    With that, he says to Brown, Souvenir Brown ... oh ... Brown was pinned down by a German officer with a P-38. He was out looking for souvenirs as usual, and he got caught out in the open, this German had him pinned down with a P-38. He finally got back to our platoon, and Green says to him, "Get up on that tank and do some guard duty." And in so many words he must have said F-you to Green. Green was a little guy like me, he grabbed Brown by the hair with one hand and started beating him with his other hand. And he made Brown a bloody mess. And he says, "Now, get up on that tank!"

    And with that he started to walk away. Brown pulled out his .45, he was gonna shoot him in the back. Green pulled out his gun, he was gonna shoot Brown. And they both put their guns back in the holster. With that they started in again, they’re gonna pull their guns on one another. They finally cooled it. So Brown says to me, "I’ll give you twenty dollars to pull my guard duty."

    I said, "What the hell am I gonna do with twenty dollars here?" And with that, he got up on the tank and did the guard duty.

    Jim Gifford: Green was a rugged little guy. He was from South Carolina.

    Ed Spahr: Another guy, I always compared him with you [to Gifford], because you liked to stick your nose into things where you shouldn’t have been at times, but that was McGuire, you remember, the radio technician? He used to ride the back of our tank, all by himself, remember? Going into battle. He didn’t care.

Interviews                       Four Men and a Tank, Page 3