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2014, Aaron Elson


The Purple Heart

Dick Bengoechea, 712th Tank Battalion

2014, Aaron Elson

    Dick Bengoechea, of Boise, Idaho, is a veteran of the 712th Tank Battalion. He is an officer of the Purple Heart Association in Boise. This story is drawn from an interview that took place in 1995.

    You can’t judge a man till you’ve walked in his shoes. I mean, you don’t know what, you do a lot of funny things when you’re under pressure like that, you don’t realize till you look back afterwards, especially after Malmedy.

    We have a guy who was in the 82nd Airborne who jumped in Normandy and Holland and in our Purple Heart magazine, it shows us about about a platoon of German prisoners, in the snow, and there’s one guy facing and one with his back, he was a lieutenant, and there’s a jeep over here. And he’d just handed this guy a Thompson submachine gun and our friend that’s in the Purple Heart, he’d been wounded twice, he handed him one. He says, "If one of them Krauts breaks and runs, shoot every sonofabitch." And he wrote that in the Purple Heart newsletter, and showed that picture. They had him come clear to Albuquerque just last month to get the award for the best story of the year.

    Then we have another guy who was a P-51 pilot, he was low, strafing, during the Bulge. They shot him down, and he got a Purple Heart. He was on a prisoner of war train, and his own goddamn squadron shot the prisoner of war train and he got another Purple Heart. He’s about 87 years old. But you find so many guys who didn’t talk about the war. My kids used to say, "Why don’t you talk about it?"

    I said, "Well, you don’t go around telling people you shot people. What is there to tell?" I found out through working with the vets, through the Purple Heart organization, the older guys, in the last year or two, have started talking about it. They get with a guy, "Oh, I was there," and "Do you remember this and that?" But a percentage of people don’t understand just what it is. Like I say, until you walk in their shoes you can’t … that’s what makes it interesting, I guess. We’re a piece of history that shouldn’t be forgotten. During World War II the whole world was involved, even the Germans. They had no economy, Hitler gave them something, Roosevelt gave us something, and everybody was in the war, on the home front, and it hasn’t been that way since.

    I finally talked to my son about the war about a year ago. See, I went to the VA right after the war, and they just laughed at me. I said, "I’m having awful bad problems. I can’t hear." And I said, I’m not coming back to this goddamn place. Then six years ago, a couple of guys I know said, "Why don’t you go down and at least get your card?" So I went down, they gave me a physical, looked my records up, and said, "Where in the hell have you been?" I’m 40 percent disabled. Then last year, on account of my hearing, they brought it up to 50. So now I get everything but teeth. All my medication, and everything. And I thought that was kind of ironic. Then they started the Purple Heart organization and I got involved with that. Then I was involved with restoring vehicles. And I’ve been real active since then, trying to help vets.

    Another guy, who’s 84, he was in the service in ’38 and ’39, a B-17 pilot with 27 missions over Germany. His last mission he had two engines out on his fortress, the Cliffs of Dover are 700 feet high and he’s flying at 300, and the only place he can land is a little white piece of sand on the beach. So he put her in, killed all of them but himself and his co-pilot. And all these years, it’s never really bothered him but then he retired, and he was really having flashbacks. He said, "I killed nine of my boys." He’s got more time to think, see. You get older, and it comes back to him, remarkable, just as clear as can be. But he was an old man then. A B-17 pilot. Twenty-seven is a lot of missions.

    I had another friend, this guy was a tail gunner, he went over Schweinfurt, when they shot so many of them down. And it’s funny, that rear turret, the tail gunner’s turret, they had to enlarge it because it was so cramped in there, and they extended it five inches, and they called it the Cheyenne turret, the reason being it was manufactured in Cheyenne, Wyoming. They made all those modifications. Well, this guy refused to go to Schweinfurt the second time, and they never did anything to him, a whole bunch of them, they just shot so many of them up. And he’s got kind of a funny story he tells. He was at 10 Downing Street taking in the pubs, and they cleared out of this pub about half-drunk, his tie was off, his hat was off, and his blouse was unbuttoned, and Admiral King – this was a real sonofabitch – and Eisenhower come driving by in Eisenhower’s car and King pulled it over to the curb and said, "Soldier, you’re going to the MPs." Jumped out and grabbed him, pushed him up against the wall. And he said, "I’m gonna phone the MPs, you’re out of uniform." Just lit into him. And Eisenhower stepped right in front and said, "What outfit are you in, son?"

    He told him.

    Eisenhower said, "You went over Schweinfurt, didn’t you?"

    He said, "Yes."

    Eisenhower said, "Put your tie and your cap on and get the hell out of here." And so Eisenhower was his idol then.

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