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2014, Aaron Elson


Tanks for the Memories

The online edition

2014, Aaron Elson

Chapter 10

The Breakout

Tony D’Arpino

    The first tank I was in hit a mine. The night before, they shot everything they had at us. That meant either they were counterattacking or they were moving and didn’t want to take all this ammunition with them.

    So we knew the area was mined. I can still see a cow pasture, with a gate, and it was open. Lieutenant Lombardi figured we can go through that gate. And I don’t know what made him do it, but just before we got to the gate — I was the assistant driver and this guy named Cardis Sawyer from Texas was the driver, Klapkowski was the gunner, and [Grayson] LaMar was the loader — just before we got to the gate, Lombardi told Sawyer to stop, and he said, "Open hatches." And we all opened our hatches. Then he said, "Proceed through the gate."

    That’s the last thing I remember for a while, because Boom! There was shit flying all over the place. My helmet was gone. I could feel something hot running down my left leg. I thought my leg was blown off.

    The three guys in the turret got right out. Sawyer and I stayed in the tank, and I was stone deaf. When the stuff cleared and I looked down, I saw the transmission had a crack in it, and the hot oil was running down my pant leg and inside my shoe.

    There was an aid station down the road. So Sawyer and I went down there. Sawyer went in first. I heard him scream. I said, "The hell with this," and went back to the tank. I never saw Sawyer again.

    Now they made me a driver. I told Lombardi, "You know, you ought to keep me out of that driver’s seat. I want to stay in the tank, but give me another job, because I can’t hear. You might tell me to stop and I’ll keep on going."


Jim Gifford

    All of the tanks in my platoon went in different directions one day, and we were supposed to come back to a checkpoint, but one of the tanks didn’t return. Nobody knew what happened to it.

    So just before dark, I went out on foot looking for it. I had a couple of grenades with me, and a tommy gun. I went through some woods and followed this road — carefully, naturally, because I don’t know what the hell is out there because we’re behind the German lines.

    I came to a crossroads, and there was a house there with a little woodpile in front of it. It was almost dark now, so I settled down for the night right there. I didn’t want to go walking in the dark back towards our line, I’d get my ass shot off by friendly fire if not by the Germans, so I slept in that woodpile, and I’ll never forget, a cat came up and meowed, and sat with me. He stayed there most of the night.

    Just before daylight, I saw a column of Germans coming down the side road, and they stopped. There were about twelve, fifteen of them, they walked right by me. But there was no point in my shooting at them, they were a point, out reconnoitering like I was doing, and eventually they would go back to their own line. So it would have been just plain suicide to throw, what did I have, two hand grenades and a tommy gun? So I let them go by me.

    When daylight came, I went further along the road, and then I crossed it, and I came to a hedgerow. I walked along that hedgerow, came to the opening in it — it was a high hedgerow, seven or eight feet high, and about five feet thick n — and I turned to go into the next field, which was a wheatfield. As I did so, I found myself face to face with a German point man, and he had a tommy gun too, a Schmeisser we called them.

    Behind him, there were about fifteen guys, all loaded for bear. They had bandoliers of ammunition hanging around their necks, they had big machine guns, a whole goddamn line of them.

    I stood there. I froze. I knew if I raised my gun I was going to get a thousand bullets in me. I didn’t know what the hell to do. And the guy looks at me. We’re only two feet from each other.

    The guy was clean-shaven and he was about my age, and he had on his German helmet and a gray uniform, he must have been a fresh recruit, because his uniform was pretty clean. But he was so startled to see me that he didn’t know what the hell to do. He had to make a fast decision, too.

    As a matter of fact, the guys with him made the decision for him. They realized that maybe I was the lead man of another bunch. Lucky for me they didn’t come into my field before I went into theirs, or they would have realized I was alone. They would have probably slaughtered me. But they weren’t sure how much was behind me, and I just stood there. I didn’t raise my gun.

    The last guy in their line turned and started running into the wheatfield, and Jesus, they all turned. I guess they figured I had about a hundred guys behind me. I never raised that goddamn gun. I just held it. And the other guy backs away from me, and he starts turning, and he goes down through the wheatfield and way the hell over in the corner of it and disappears.

    I went along the wheatfield following them, to see where they’re going, and still looking for the tank. It was a risky business, but I don’t know, you do these things and afterward you figure, now, what a stupid thing to do, but you do them. You can’t explain these things. And then, in the leaves, I saw something glisten. I went over and they had thrown all their guns down and covered them with leaves, but they didn’t have enough leaves to cover them all. And then I saw down there, in this little wooded ravine, there was a stream, and there was a little vacant field, and there in the middle of that field was our tank, close to the stream, sunk below the tracks. It had gotten stuck in the mud, and the Germans were all standing there with their hands on their heads, they had surrendered to the crew.

    Another time, right after Lombardi’s tank went over the mine, I got out of my tank and went over the hedgerow to reconnoiter. Before you pull tanks up into an unknown area you go up ahead and look around, if possible. So I was creeping up ahead, jumping behind this tree and that tree, going through a field, and now I’m up ahead maybe four or five hundred yards. The tanks are waiting to see what I’ve got to say when I come back.

    While I was out there, I came across a dead German soldier. I jumped over a hedgerow and the guy’s laying there on his back in a foxhole. I looked around, I didn’t see anyone else, so I picked up his tunic and put my hand under it to see if he had a luger, but he didn’t have one.

    Then I went on up ahead towards this house. I’m looking through my field glasses now, and I don’t see anything out there. I said, Jesus, they must have pulled out.

    So I go back to tell the outfit, and as I come by this German soldier, he’s gone. The sonofabitch was alive all that time, and he must have played dead when he saw me coming. I don’t know where the hell he went. That was a thrill. I thought, Holy shit, I don’t believe this!

    At the same time, I found an American soldier that somebody had sniped. He was laying in the bushes. He was about 18 years old. I picked him up, he didn’t weigh 120 pounds, and I carried him over about three fields, heading back towards the tanks, until I got to a road, and then I laid him down in the road.

    Then I radioed back to the tanks, and I said, "There’s nothing up here, they’ve withdrawn."


Lester Suter

    One night, after we had advanced about 12 miles, I was put on guard duty. It was midnight, and there was a dense fog. I had to stay from midnight till four in the morning.

    So I’m there, and I’m standing guard, all of a sudden I hear sounds. I thought, "Jesus Christ, don’t tell me they’re sneaking up on me." And I hear these sounds, and oh boy, am I scared, because any minute they’re gonna rush at me. So I put my back against a tree, I said, "Well, they’re gonna have to get me from the front, not from the back," and so I kept hearing this, and I said, "Why the hell don’t they come faster? The sonofabitches, they know I’m here, so why not get it over with?"

    And it still got closer and closer, and man, I had my gun cocked and everything, I was ready to fire, and all of a sudden, out of this fog steps a big cow. Oooooh boy, there were about three cows eating the grass, and I thought they were Germans sneaking up on me.


Jim Gifford

    We got orders to head towards Caen. The tanks gathered together, and suddenly we found out we were assigned to an outfit called Task Force Weaver. That was an armored outfit that was going to break out of Normandy, and that’s what we did. We went through Caen, to St. Lo.

    We got to one town, I don’t remember its name, we pulled into an apple orchard, and they had dropped gasoline off. How they got it there I don’t know.

    So we spread our tanks around, and they told us to dig a foxhole, everybody, they said dig foxholes.

    I said, "What the hell are we going to do with a foxhole?" You know, we’re moving all the time. But they told us we’ll be here all night, dig a foxhole.

    The next morning we’re putting more gas in the tanks and getting replenished, and suddenly I see these airplanes going over, and I’ll never forget, I was counting them, I counted 37 Messerschmitt 109s, those are German fighter planes. First I saw the cross, I hollered to the guys, "Geez, look at the French crosses," they looked like the Cross of Lorraine. And then we looked again and shit, those are German crosses.

    We watched them go out of sight. What we didn’t know was that they were looking for us, and they found us. So the next thing I know, Geez, the shells are firing, bullets are flying all through everything, and we all ran for our foxhole, and when I dove in the foxhole, Geez, there were two guys under me. And we came out, and all they had hit was one armored vehicle which they set on fire.

    Then we continued into a town called Mayenne. We took the town, and at night we straddled the road with our tanks. And then during the night we hear these trucks coming. So we go out by the edge of the road, and Jesus, here’s a whole column of German soldiers and trucks coming through the night, they’re about fifty feet apart. And they’re barreling down the road in the dark. They go right by us, of course we’re keeping low, it’s dark, they can’t see us. But they’re looking for us.

    They go down into Mayenne. It was an old medieval town, it had a river, and they crossed the bridges and reached the town square. Then they turned around, you could hear their transmissions shifting gears, and the next thing they start coming back out. There were maybe four, five, six trucks. And as they went by us, we were waiting for them. We started to slam them ‘em with everything we’ve got, and blew them all up.

    We let the last truck go through and then we hit them, so that we got them all. They were a mixture of infantry and air force men, because on some of their lapels we found air force emblems. We wiped them out. Whether anybody captured any of them I don’t know.

    One guy came running at me. I was right by the hedgerow, and he and a couple of the other guys jumped into a gully to the right of me. I threw a grenade in at them. I didn’t know whether I’d hit them or not, but when I looked the next morning they were in there, and that’s when I saw the lapels.

    And the one guy — it’s a funny thing how honest you can be at a time like that — one guy, I lifted him up to look for a luger. We were always looking for lugers, because you could trade them for something. So when I picked him up, his tunic broke open, and he had a wallet which was thick with this white French currency, I don’t know what it was but it’s like instead of having a ten-dollar bill if you had a thousand-dollar bill you’d get white currency. It was all wrapped up with rubber bands in this wallet, and I felt bad. Oh shit, this was this guy, his parents or whoever his heirs are back home should get this, I don’t want it. And I put it back in his tunic.

    About an hour later, I thought about it, I said, "Shit, his family’s never gonna get that." So I went back, but somebody had already beat me to it.


Forrest Dixon

    When they made this advance towards Le Mans, they left half the trains back in Mayenne. The trains had ammunition and gasoline. Well, we got into a little firefight on the way, and we were using more gas and ammunition than we thought.

    So Colonel Randolph and General Weaver called me over, and Colonel Randolph says, Captain Dixon, you and Major Caffery [Clegg "Doc" Caffery] go back to Mayenne and get the trains."

    I couldn’t understand why he wanted me up there, but I thought, well, I originally was a tanker, maybe he’s going to give us a few light tanks or something. It was midnight, and we had to go through sixty kilometers of no man’s land.

    "Yes sir," I said. "What are we going to take back for protection?

    "Oh, I think you and Major Caffery would be better alone." So all we had was a jeep.

    The most eerie part of that was Colonel Randolph and General Weaver held out their hands, and General Weaver said, "Hope to see you tomorrow."

    I sure hoped so! That’s the first time I ever shook hands with a general. "Hope to see you tomorrow, boys."

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