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©2014, Aaron Elson

 

   

The Hospitality Room

Orlando, Fla., Sept. 10, 1993

©2014, Aaron Elson

    Sometimes at reunions of the 712th Tank Battalion, I would get a group of veterans sitting around a table in the hospitality room and plant the tape recorder in the middle. This interview with Otha Martin, Andy Rego and others is the result of one such session.

    Aaron Elson: Your name is?

    A.P. Lounsberry: A.P. Lounsberry

    Aaron Elson: Where are you from?

    A.P. Lounsberry: Alexandria, Louisiana.

    Aaron Elson: Did you know Richard Howell?

    A.P. Lounsberry: No, I didnít know him.

    Otha Martin: You see, I donít know if somebody may have already told you, but the 712th was spread all over the 90th Division, and actually we had one company attached to each regiment. Three regiments, the 357th, 358th and 359th infantry regiments of the 90th Division. Then they had artillery. But anyway, there were three medium tank companies and one light tank, D Company, they were recon. Theyíre not supposed to get on out there in a pitched fight. Theyíre supposed to hit and run, see whatís out there and let us know what weíre up against. A Company was attached to a regiment, generally the 359th, wasnít it? And B Company, they may have switched some, but they were generally with the 358th. And we most of the time were with the 357th. Then there are three battalions in each infantry regiment, and three platoons in a company of medium tanks, so one platoon would be with one battalion of infantry. We were spread over a lot of miles. An A Company man or a B Company man, or even some of our own C Company people, they might be eighteen miles from us, and maybe in fact we donít know what theyíre doing, or they donít know what weíre doing, and they might have had a whale of a fight and we donít know a thing about it. Thatís just the way it was. You can talk to people and they might not be so wide apart, but if somebodyís a quarter of a mile up there, he wonít know what went on down here. Iím just telling you that because one man canít tell you the whole story of the 712th.

    Aaron Elson: How did you come to be in the 712th?

    Otha Martin: I was from Oklahoma. I put in a hitch in the Thirties in the 29th Infantry at Fort Sill. And when I finished that, then I wasnít in the service. Then I was drafted, and I went in in World War II. There were seven of us at Fort Sill, thatís where the induction center was, and the seven of us asked for the armored force and all seven of us got it. They put us aboard a Frisco train and I had the big brown envelope with our orders in it, and they said "Donít open this until youíre on your way." We didnít get too far up the road when these other six boys, they wanted to know where we were going. See, we didnít even know if weíd get what weíd asked for. I said, "Well, weíre on our way," so we opened it up, and we headed for Fort Knox, and thatís where we went through basic. I done had a hitch in the 29th Infantry, I knew something about the Army, but nothing about the armored force.

I was without any rank, just the same as if I had never been in.

When I joined the outfit I was a radio man. I went to radio school in England. And then I was a radio man until, I donít remember the date, such time as Captain Sheppard came by and said, "Get your stuff." I was a gunner, too, and had gone through the gunnery school. Well, when you get your stuff, a musette bag, thatís what armored people had, a little bag, and our bedroll, thatís your stuff, thatís all of it.

So I went to Number 2 tank in the second platoon. And this was the driver at the time.

    Aaron Elson: Your name is?

    Ralph Tambaro: Ralph Tambaro

    Otha Martin: So I went in as the gunner. Did Peck get killed or just wounded.

    Ralph Tambaro: He got wounded.

    Otha Martin: But he never did come back. I replaced him. I was a radio man, but then they got to needing gunners worse than they needed radio men, and I was a gunner. So I replaced Peck. And I stayed a gunner until the tank commander, who was named Wallace Brown, he was from Virginia, and he got hurt. Then I took the tank, Iím tank commander then, until such time as the warís over.

    Aaron Elson: Where was Peck wounded?

    Otha Martin It was before we got to Metz, because when I joined the outfit, they were sitting out in the apple orchard. Iíd say it was early in September when Peck was wounded.

    Aaron Elson: Could it have been at Mairy?

    Ralph Tambaro: I canít remember. All I remember was there was a little pine wooded area that we were in that night, and then we pulled out of the pine area and went up there on the hill, and thatís where we got hit.

    Otha Martin: Iím going to guess that it wasnít long after he was hit [that I joined the outfit], because they wouldnít let the tank go long without a crew member. It was before we took Metz, before we went into Maizieres. They were setting out there, and they ran out of fuel, I mean the fuel got low, and they were setting out there waiting when I joined them. It was in the apple orchards. And the German planes were coming down and strafing. Artillery had Piper Cubs, you know what a Piper Cub is? Well, a Piper Cub had one man in it, he had a couple of hand grenades and a .45, and thatís about all the weapons he had. But his job isnít to fight, itís to spot the targets from the air and radio the artillery batteries. Well, the Germans knew what that Cub was up there for, and they would get after him. Heís no match for a fighter plane, so he just had to get away. And one of them, one time there was one up there, he had given them a target down there, well, theyíre working [on all their coordinates], theyíre working it all out, and theyíre shootiní at him from the ground. And he got out of humor, and he told íem, "Damn it to hell, quit computiní and start shootiní." But this fighter plane came in after that Cub, and that Cub went right in again, we were on a hill and there was a little old village back in there, he went right in there and made a sharp turn, that German fighter plane followed him in there, and when he gets in there he canít turn that short, he crashes into the hill and the little Cub flies back up, and they gave him credit for a kill. He put that swastika on his little Cub.

    Aaron Elson: You saw that?

    Otha Martin: Well, no. We may have seen it, but I mean we didnít know what all went on. We were sitting out there waiting on gas. And finally, when we did get gas, did you ever hear of the Red Ball freight line? Under ordinary conditions they would unload gas, ammunition, everything, and our trucks would bring it up. But this time they didnít do that. They just ran the Red Ball trucks right on up there.

    Aaron Elson: Which platoon were you in?

    Otha Martin: C Company, second platoon.

    A.P. Lounsberry: I was in the third.

    Otha Martin: At the end, that was Gibson, wasnít it?

    Aaron Elson: Who led the second platoon?

    Otha Martin: Francis Fuller.

    Aaron Elson: Snuffy Fuller?

    Otha Martin: Snuffy Fuller.

    Aaron Elson: What was he like?

    Ralph Tambaro: Sort of a quiet type fellow.

    Otha Martin: A real quiet little fellow. We had a man ahead of him, but he wouldnít fight.

    Aaron Elson Was that Hellman?

    Ralph Tambaro: Yeah, thatís it.

    Aaron Elson: What happened with Hellman?

    Otha Martin: They transferred him to the quartermasters. The quartermaster handles supplies, theyíre way back, they donít even hear artillery.

    Andy Rego: He broke down under fire. We were trying to close the Falais Gap, and we were bivouacked, and they moved the second platoon out, Hellman was the commander of No. 1 tank, and they were going down this road that led to the Gap. The Gap was more like a dike, there was an enormous valley down in there. Hellman was proceeding up the road there, and his tank got hit. When his tank got hit, Hellman bailed out of the tank. He never stayed to see if any of his men were okay or not; he came back to the company. He just claimed it was too god damn bad.

    Well, they left him in the company down in there, and in that tank, the driver was a tall fellow from New York, I think he was being raised by a widow woman, Sidney Henderson was his name. Nobody ever knew what ever happened to Sidney Henderson. Did you ever hear anything about Sidney Henderson?

    Ralph Tambaro: No.

    Andy Rego: He was never found. He must have been captured. If he got captured, we still donít know that. He was missing in action. Charlie Vietmeier was the gunner, he was from Pittsburgh, and Charlie broke down, he was sent out of there and I never saw Charlie come back to the company again. Wasnít a guy by the name of Tolland the bow gunner?

    Ralph Tambaro: Dave Tolland. No, it was Smallwood.

    Andy Rego: Smallwood. Smallwood was the bow gunner. Who was loading?

    Ralph Tambaro: I donít remember, but Smallwood got all cut to pieces trying to get out.

    Andy Rego: Well, like I said, then the only other fellow missing is the loader in there, but thatís what happened to Hellman. Hellman was transferred out of the company and never seen again.

    Aaron Elson: So Fuller replaced Hellman?

    Otha Martin: Now heíd fight.

    Aaron Elson: And he could play the accordion too, from what I understand.

    Otha Martin: Well, he might have been a musician. Iíll tell you what his civilian occupation was, he was a baker.

    Ralph Tambaro: A bartender. He owns a bar.

    Otha Martin: Is he? Okay. And when we ran on, if we were lucky enough to run onto the ingredients, he could bake as fine a cake as you ever saw.

    Andy Rego: He could play the piano for you guys, too. I picked up a V.C. Horner Tango accordion, 120 bass, over there. When we were in Amberg I had it already boxed up, and he told me that I couldnít take it with me as company material, that Iíd have to ship it. But then Iíd have to have somebody sign for it, that I had purchased it. Snuffy told me that Iíd never get it out of there, so why donít I give it to him? I told him before I give it to him Iíd put my foot through it.

    So I had a major Ė I worked in post utilities, I canít recall his name, a very fine gentleman Ė and I told him, "Major, I have a problem." Now, these people in post utilities were just ordinary scared Germans, and every meal that we ever had, breakfast, dinner and supper, we always had coffee, and they probably had somewhere in the category of three 20-gallon aluminum containers. And theyíd just put about twenty pounds of coffee in a bag and stick it down in there and just punch the devil out of it with a stick. Some of that coffee was not completely expelled, and they used to take it out and just throw it away. Well, some of those German fellows, they looked at it and they couldnít understand why they were throwing it away when it had still a reasonable amount of strength to it. So they dried it out, and when they were going out to the front gate with it, one of the guards stopped them and actually threw them in jail. I talked to the major about it, and I told him it was a hell of a scheme, but if he ever wanted any of the used coffee, let me know and Iíd take care of it. So I worked in the fire department over there, I worked with a fellow by the name of Ben Woods, and we had a Class A pass, one day on, one day off, and we used to all eat early chow. When I ate early chow, Iíd go wash my mess kit out, then Iíd go over and Iíd fill it up again and take it over to the fire hall. There were two fellows over there who were both German and worked in post utilities, one was Eric and I canít remember the other fellowís name right now. But anyhow, they took turns eating.

    Well, they were standing around and he had a cigarette in his mouth, because he had picked up the butts that he had found. But he didnít have anything to light it with. I said to him, "Do you want a cigarette lighter?"

    He said, "Iíll take anything youíve got, matches, cigarette lighter."

    So I gave him a cigarette lighter, I donít know, I must have had a dozen of them.

    He said, "But no fire."

    I said, "Donít worry about that." I got a Coke bottle and I got him some hundred-octane gasoline, filled it up. It burned wonderful. And I chewed tobacco, I chewed Prince Albert, Kentucky Club, Willoughby, anything that they had, and I had a lot of those packs left over, so I gave them to the guys up there. And they took me in as a half-decent guy. I could walk in there and I could get anything in post utilities. And, as I said, I said to the major over there, "I need a favor."

    He took the pencil off his ear and said, "What do you want?"

    I said, "I need a bill of sale that I bought this accordion. If I donít get a bill of sale, they wonít let me take it to America, and Iím gonna have to put my foot through it and ruin it."

    He said, "No problem."

    He went over to the typewriter and he said, "This man is dead, but nobody knows it but you and I. Iíve verified the transaction between you and Mr. So-and-So for 1,000 marks." Fine. Thatíd be a hundred dollars in American money, ten cents on a mark. So he gave me that piece of paper, and I went over and I said to Snuffy, "Read that."

    I went back and I had a box made for it, and I put it in, and I was home Iíll bet you four months before that box ever caught up to me, but I finally got my accordion home. But Snuffy, like I said, he wanted it in the worst sort of way. I wouldnít give it to Snuffy or anybody else. And my oldest girl was taking the piano and the accordion, but it was too doggone heavy for her to lug around, so I thought maybe I could take it up, but I was working maybe fourteen, fifteen hours a day, so I didnít have time. I had a friend, he was divorced, and he had had a tough time, but he lived on a 147-acre farm, and the only thing he was crazy about was horses and music, he had a good pulling team. I took the accordion out of the cupboard one day and he said, "You know, Iíve always wanted one of them like that," and I said, "Buddy, you got it. Thatís yours." So I gave my accordion away. But I wouldnít give it to Snuffy.

 

   Otha Martin: Iíll tell you how he got the name Snuffy. His name was Francis A. Fuller. We had a boy, a soldier, from Layton, Ohio, in the Number 4 tank, Byrl Ruddís tank, he was the cannoneer in Number 4, name of Wesley Haines. Haines would bend his elbow if it was cognac, schnapps, champagne, any alcoholic beverage, Haines would take some of it. And when heíd get drunk, well, you know how drunks are, they insult anybody. Haines told him, "You look like Snuffy Smith in the comics." And it stuck, from then on it was Snuffy Fuller.

    One time, one Sunday morning, we were in a town and this is not so long before the warís over, itís beginning to get in spring, the weather had warmed up, it was nice, and weíd taken this town, and Snuffy, he had the flour and all the ingredients, and he was in this house, a real nice home there, and he was in there baking a cake. We were all outside soaking up that sunshine and not in a fight, that was one of the few times we werenít in a fight, and they had some big Belgian horses, they were huge, in a stable back there.

    Well, Haines had done imbibed some, and he was getting the horses out and riding them. He was trying to make them run. Well, them olí horsesí feet were that big, you know, big ranch horses, and they were liable to fall down and hurt you. Snuffy saw him and he came and said, "Haines, put them horses up. Let íem alone. I said donít bother íem anymore."

    Well, he put íem up. So Iím settiní out there soaking up the sunshine and resting kind of easy. But I had had nothing to drink, in fact, I wasnít a drinker. Haines put the horses away for a little while, but then he got one of the horses out again and he was trying to make him gallop.

    Snuffy came out there and told him, "Haines, I told you to put that horse up and I mean put him up and leave him up," and he said, "Martin, Iím giving you a di-rect order. If he gets that horse out again, shoot him."

    You know, Iím not gonna, I donít want to shoot one of my own men over a horse, hell. Well, Haines put the horse up. Then he came around and Iím settiní there, and he got up close, he said, "Say olí buddy, you wouldnít shoot me, would you?"

    Thatís how he got the name of Snuffy.

    Aaron Elson: Tell me about Aaron Brown.

    Otha Martin: Souvenir Brown. His name was Aaron Brown, but everybody knew him better as Souvenir. He was from Mullen, Texas. Thatís just a little village. The county seat town of whatever county thatís in was Goldthwaite, and thatís what heíd tell you heís from. But his records showed he was from Mullen, which is a little village just a few miles from it.

    He was a pretty good soldier in a fight, but he was a looter. Thatís where he got the name Souvenir Brown. If there was anything anywhere in the vicinity, heíd find it. He might get cans and things that wasnít worth a thing, but he was always picking up stuff like that. Come his time to pull guard Ė you know, many days we had to stand guard all the time, if we were guarding a road or whatever Ė come Souvenir Brownís time to pull guard, somebody else had to pull the guard ícause heís off looting somewhere. He was obnoxious as hell when he wasnít in combat, but when he was in combat he was a good soldier. He was a bow gunner.

    Ralph was the driver there, and Ralph said heíd seen the time when weíd be in a fight, I mean we were actually in a fight, and Brown brings out a razor blade, a razor, dry-shaving himself. He was the bow gunner. But he was different.

    Andy Rego: He started out, when I first met him, I think he was in a headquarters tank, and he was a bow gunner then. Max Gibson was the tank commander in the 105.

    Otha Martin: Now at that time Gibson was platoon sergeant. And then Gibson later was a lieutenant, he got a field commission.

    Andy Rego: I canít go on down and tell you now who all, like I said, well, Heyward was the gunner, I remember that, who was loading and who was the driver, I canít say that. Johnny Roberts was the driver of the headquarters tank at that time.

    And thatís where Brown, I remember Brown, we got in below Hill 122 in there, and then when we went in on 122, they went in that road in there, and then the kitchen and second platoon and the prime mover was over there on the side, and he turned to Bennett, went in the field, and we were scattered around in the second field in there. Headquarters tank was way down in the corner, because I had to go down and get a rammer staff, [which is] a bell like, and a bore brush to swab out the tank [the 75-millimeter gun barrel]. I remember going down in there. And thatís when Bob Gladsen and I got into it, he was the gunner over there, and I said to him, "Are you gonna put any crosshairs on this thing and sight it in?"

    And he said, "Do I have to?"

    I said, "Well, youíd better pull the goddamn firing pin, too, so you can cross-bore." And we got into a fight, and I said to Lieutenant Griffin, "Youíd better learn that goddamn gunner something in there, because heís gonna kill us all." And I went down and I think I talked to Johnny Roberts and I got the rammer staff, the bell and the bore brush down there, and I came back, and him and Griffin were talking in there. Then we swabbed out the tube, and he put the crosshairs on, and he pulled the firing pin out, and then he picked out something maybe five or seven hundred yards away. And I asked him, "What are you putting on it?"

    He said, "Iím putting the zero on there."

    I said to him, "Jesus Christ, you ainít gonna come within five hundred yards."

    Then they talked it over, and they got it squared away.

    Otha Martin: When they bore-sighted a gun, do you know what weíre talking about? You take the firing pin out, and thereís a little hole that the firing pin goes through. And you scope, you sight, crosshairs. Now the gun is in about the middle of the tank, the telescope is off over here to the side, right in front of the gunner, so he could put his head up and look into it. I donít know the exact distance, I never measured it. But the gunís here, and the scopeís over here, so thereís some distance between them. So when you set the crosshairs on a target, a church steeple or something, the further away the better, because you aimed at it, and then you aimed through this firing-pin well at the same thing, and right there is where they come together. So if theyíre a long ways offÖ

    Andy Rego: The lines would be parallel

    Otha Martin: But if youíre aiming at something a hundred yards away, theyíd cross there, and if you were shooting at a thousand yards, youíd be way off. Do you understand what Iím saying?

    Aaron Elson: Yes [like heck!]

    Otha Martin: So the furthest thing you could get to bore-sight your gun on, the better it was.

    I was a radio man back with headquarters, but if somebody had radio trouble, I had to go fix it. But I was also a gunner. So there came a time when Peck was hurt, when they got to neediní gunners worse than they did radio men. They could slide by maybe without a radio man, but they had to have a gunner. So Jack Sheppard, that was the company commander, he told me, "Get your stuff." Well, your stuff was a musette bag and your bedroll.

    Aaron Elson: Was there a time when somebody in Ray Griffinís tank was killed because the gun was traversed over his hatch?

    Andy Rego: Uh, no, letís see. The first tank we lost, Lochowitz was driving, he couldnít get out because the gun was over his hatch, but he got out of that.

    Aaron Elson: Where did that happen?

    Andy Rego: Where did we get hit at, Tam? We left there, and we jumped off from there to Mayenne. We got down to Mayenne, we were on that 110-kilometer spearhead to Le Mans. Then after that we jumped off from there, then I think it was up in Ste. Suzanne.

    Ralph Tambaro: I donít remember.

    Andy Rego: Oh, you werenít with us. I was in the first platoon in C Company, then everybody was branched off, to the 357, 358 and 359, and we all had our different destinations that we were traveling. We were all in that same thing in there, what did they call that, Weaver? Task Force Weaver. And thatís what the objective was, Le Mans. We got counterattacked in Ste. Suzanne. We took Ste. Suzanne at night, and then had to take it again in the morning. And then thatís when old Indian Warren down in there, he was all by himself, and he was guarding one of the flanks. He had a whole bunch of Germans down in there in the woods, and man, he was just blowing the hell out of the woods over there, and they went over and they wanted to know what he was firing at. He said, "Look at íem down in those woods, theyíre running all over to hell. Come on and help me." He peppered the hell out of the woods, and actually a lot of them got away, they didnít go chase them. And we jumped off from Ste. Suzanne, then our next objective was Le Mans. We fought a hell of a terrific battle outside Le Mans. They had a bunch of forces coming together over there, like a wedge coming into Le Mans, and we had to take a Frenchman with a stick and a white flag going up, we were shooting each other, cross-firing over there, and they had to take this Frenchman over there and wave the white flag to tell them over on this side, I donít know what armored division it was, that we were Americans over here and to stop firing. We were cross-firing.

    When we got into Le Mans, we were getting a lot of sniper fire from a lot of the high buildings and windows, churches and different things of that nature, but we got through Le Mans and went on the over side and went into bivouac, and I think we stayed there for three or four days and regrouped. I donít remember any skirmishes going through Le Mans itself, I mean we just drove through in force. But we had a whole company of infantry loaded right on the tanks. If we ran into anything, the infantry got off and went up our flanks to keep the bazookas off our back.

    When we got out of Le Mans, there was a self-propelled gun waiting for us. His first shot was up in the trees, a treeburst, and I think he got about three or four infantrymen on my tank there. One of them left an M-1 rifle there, and I think that M-1 rifle only had something like five low numbers on it, like 176, 344, something like that. I had that rifle with me, I told the infantryman, "Yeah, Iíll see you someday, Iíll give it back to you." And I donít remember where I lost that. I always used to have it on the back, we had a rack on the back of the tank, we had two antiaircraft 50-millimeter gun barrels right in the back of the turret there, and I used to carry two bandoliers on there, so when I jumped out I figured Iíd grab that M-1, the hell with that tommy gun, Iíd rather have that M-1.

    Otha Martin: It was a pretty good weapon. It had a lot more range than the Thompson.

    Andy Rego: It was a hell of a lot better weapon. That Thompson wasnít worthwhile carrying.

    Otha Martin: It was close. If you werenít close, you might as well have a bean shooter. If you were up close, itís a bad weapon. It wasnít a long range on it, but that M-1 would get you from about 1,600 yards.

    Aaron Elson: Was there a time when Souvenir Brown was shooting into the woods?

    Andy Rego: He had a shotgun. He was on guard. ...

    Otha Martin: He and Wes Haines both had double-barreled shotguns. Very bad weapons close.

    Andy Rego: They were holding this town, and Souvenir Brown was on guard, and the Germans were coming down the street. [This is from] what Iím told, I didnít see it or witness it. ...

    Otha Martin: I saw it.

    Andy Rego: And he fired both barrels, he knocked fourteen men down.

    Otha Martin: Iíll tell you. Ruddís tank was sittiní here, and I think No. 2 tank was sitting there, and itís a cobblestone street. Wes Haines was on guard in one tank and Souvenir Brown in another, and he and Haines, they could hear íem. The Germans had half the town, we had half the town, and theyíre wearing hobnail shoes on these cobblestone streets, they sound like a milk horse coming up there. They had all four barrels loaded with buckshot. And theyíre waitiní. Haines said, "Let íem get close, Brown, let íem get close." And they came right on up there, they were just gonna take our part of the town back. When they came up real close Ė now [Haines and Brown] had .50-caliber machine guns on top of the tanks, but they had these shotguns up there, too. They got up real close, Haines said, "Let íem have it, Brown," they [fired all four barrels] and they knocked them down way back there. They got one of them down in a basement where some of us were cooking supper, and he could speak English, he had been to the States. He spoke English real well. And heís a bellyaching about gettiní shot, said it was against the rules of the Geneva Convention to shoot a man with a shotgun. Well, Haines called this double-barreled shotgun he had Ė heíd got it in the stock, the firing scorched the stocks, and itís charred; Haines comes swinging in there, somebodyíd relieved him on the tank, he comes swinging in, and he called that swamp gun Old Betsy. He told him, "You kraut eatiní sonofabitch, If I hear any more bellyachiní outta you, me aní Olí Betsy here is gonna try your case." And he would, heíd have blowed him plum in two. But they were just a little bit unorthodox.

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