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Follies of a Navy Chaplain

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Tanks for the Memories

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2009. Chi Chi Press.
All rights reserved.

   

Tanks for the Memories

The online edition

2014, Aaron Elson

Chapter 11

Ballgame's Over (The Falaise Gap)

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."

Jim Gifford

    After Mayenne we started swinging toward the north. We swung around and we headed toward the Falaise Gap. We didn’t know it, but we were making a big circle.

    It was a bright, sunny day. We came out on a hill, and you could see this valley out in front of you. Across the valley you could see cliffs. This was the Falaise Gap, which was a famous old gap that went back to medieval days. William the Conqueror’s castle was in the Falaise Gap. The villages go back to his time.

    That was an area, that gap, where armies came and went for generations.

    We were on a hill on the east side of the gap. As darkness started to fall, we started to disperse our tanks down on the hill, and our A and B Company and the 773rd Antitank Battalion were out into the flatland. I was with C Company up on this ridge. So our whole Task Force Weaver column was building up.

    We made a circle of our tanks, just like the covered wagons, because we were behind the lines, we don’t know what the hell’s gonna be there when daylight comes, so we’re always ready for an attack.

    The next morning, it was just daylight, I took my field glasses and I went back up the hill so I could see out over this valley. I’m looking down in the valley in the early sun and I see all these little sparkles, little sparks all over the valley, what the hell is that? I looked through the field glasses and I’m telling you, I couldn’t believe the sight I saw. It was thousands of bayonets flashing in the early morning sun. These guys, these infantry guys, were walking toward us, now they’re about three miles away up that valley, and they’re dispersed among hundreds of tanks moving along. Holy shit, I saw this, this was coming toward us, this is it. So I ran down, I got on the radio and I started hollering over the radio what’s coming. And it wasn’t twenty minutes later a bunch of our P-47 Thunderbolts were flying in towards them, at treetop level, those guys were our saviors, they were our angels up there, they were there all the time so we felt secure. They used to run in groups of four, and they came flying in one group after another. They’d go and the next thing there’d be some more of them coming in, they were knocking the shit out of them, and shells started flying over us, big shells. Part of Task Force Weaver behind us — we’re in the lead because we’re tanks — so all that task force that was behind us were dropping theri blades, what they call blades on these big guns, and firing from wherever they are back there. They had their Pipers, little airplanes, Piper Cubs, they were painted gray and sort of a greenish color, they were flying over us directing the artillery fire.

    Well, these poor bastards out there three miles away, they were catching bloody hell, I’ll tell you, they were getting it. We were firing at them from a mile or two away. We weren’t waiting till they got to us, we were blasting away at ’em. And our A and B Company were spread out across the valley and the 773rd Antitank Battalion, they were spread out. And this monolith, whatever you want to call it, was slowly rolling, with all the destruction that was going on, it was coming along right by us — and Jesus, it wasn’t stopping — and we were hitting everything. They had hundreds of horses drawing artillery. And instead of turning and coming up the hill toward us, they continued to head toward the gap with our A, B and 773rd Antitank Battalion dispersed there, and those two companies were catching hell because the Germans started rolling through them. And when they hit these two companies plus the 773rd, they started piling up, and the next thing they turned and they started to go back and started running into themselves.

    When the whole thing started, over on the cliffs across from us tanks were shooting, and we thought they were Germans, so we were shooting at them for almost an hour, until we were told those are British and Canadian tanks, stop shooting at them.

    From what I understand, about 50,000 Germans actually got through us, but the other 200,000 piled up. By 2 o’clock in the afternoon, airplanes had been flying over dropping leaflets, they were all over, I’ve even got some of those leaflets, I have them somewhere in my stuff here, saying surrender, wave the leaflet, you’ll be okay. And we got orders, they kept coming over the radio, stop firing at 2 o’clock. Stop firing at 2 o’clock. But you could fire at anything, you wanted to shoot at a tank, you could shoot at a tank. Anything you wanted to shoot at, there it was, it was a slaughter, and most guys were just shooting without even looking, it was that bad.

    Then at 2 o’clock it stopped, and they started coming up out of the gap. Their equipment was burning all over the place, as far as you could see, burning equipment, it must have been as bad as that situation in Iraq. It must have looked the same. There was so much equipment, for miles it was burning all over the place, and these guys were coming out waving flags and waving papers. By the time they got up to us on this ridge — we were alongside of a dirt road which wound behind us — there were hundreds of them. They were coming past the tank.

    I looked down from the tank, and these guys were all dusty, dirty and filthy, and tired. They were a bedraggled army, it was a defeated army. They were just so goddamn glad to just be alive. They kept looking back at the carnage and shaking their heads just like we were, lucky they weren’t back there.

    I remember one guy, there were about five or six, young guys they were, carrying a wounded soldier who also looked young. He was on a makeshift stretcher, and a halftrack of ours was going back. I stopped the halftrack and I told them, I said bring him up here and put him on the canvas which was laying on the halftrack. So they put him up on there, and then the five or six guys with him, they were all Germans, got on the halftrack to go with him, and I figured let ’em go, they ain’t gonna do harm, they’re glad to be out of this battle.

    You know, it’s a funny thing, there’s almost like a signal, somebody blew a whistle and the ballgame’s over. They weren’t trying to shoot us anymore, they were just glad to be surrendered. For hours they were coming up out of there, going back down the road.

 Ruby Goldstein

    We had a driver in my platoon, Duane Miner, he was from Minneapolis, I think. He was married, tall, a handsome looking kid.

    In back of the driver, up above, in the turret, you’ve got your 75-millimeter, you’ve got your gunner, tank commander, and your loader. Sometimes the machine gun would get so hot from firing that if you don’t open up the cover, she’s gonna keep firing. And he’s sitting down below, he got up, opened up the hatch, and someone left the cover on the machine gun in the tank behind him, and it fired. It killed him. That’s how accidents happen.

    We had another kid, at the Falaise Gap. A Company was closing the gap, and everything was quiet. In the distance was the woods out there. We didn’t know what was in the woods. But we knew that it was our job to encircle and we had to close this gap.

    We got out of the tank, and took a little Coleman stove we had, put it in back of the tank. You light it up, take your cup, put some water in it, heat it up for coffee. A mortar shell lands, beeko, he’s gone. Just for nothing. Out of the blue. That was the only one that landed at that time, the first one.

    Then, after we jumped back in the tank, all hell broke loose. That’s when I caught shrapnel in the neck.

    I took out my handkerchief, and I held it up against my neck. I jumped down, and a jeep came by, and they had a stretcher with a fellow on it, and one in the back seat, and the driver. I got in the front and we went to a first aid hospital. It was in the back of a huge building, like a castle, but we went around the back, underground, to the cellar like, and they had all the guys who were wounded, everybody in line, waiting their turn to get treated.

    Finally, I was next. There was a kitchen table, a white porcelain table. Strip to the waist, lay down. He’s got a flashlight, he’s looking at it, and he says, "Oh, that’s nothing. A little bit more and I wouldn’t even have to do this."

    I said, "Thanks."

    Then he had a pail there, and he dug a knife, scalpel, who the hell knows what the heck he had there, he went in and dug it out and I hear, "Clunk!" I said, "Wht was that?"

    He said, "Ahh, you don’t want to see it." But I looked. It had flesh on it, and it was bloody, with dirt on it. He dug out another piece, and that was it. He couldn’t get it all, because it had already gone in. I still have it in my back, small pieces. And then somebody put sulfanilamide, they bandaged my neck, that’s it.

    And you know something funny? It didn’t hurt much. When you get hurt, the shock is so great that you don’t even feel the pain. In fact, if somebody came in and stuck a knife in you and it was unexpected, you wouldn’t feel it right away. It’s afterwards that you start feeling the pain.

Sam Cropanese

    Sam Cropanese, of West Paterson, N.J., was a gunner in A Company

    I was wounded at the Falaise Gap. But there were many battles before that. A lot of battles. The first one was at St. Lo. I never knew what a hedgerow was. When I saw those hedgerows, I said, "My god, no wonder nobody can see anything." They were taller than the one-story houses, and the hedges were so close together that you couldn’t see nothing. My god, traveling down those roads, all of a sudden, Bam! A shell would smack one of the lead tanks, and the lead tank would pull back, sometimes it would just knock it right out.

    The first one that I heard was killed was Lieutenant Tarr. I think it was Braatz that came back and said, "We lost one of our lieutenants."

    And we said, "Who is it?"

    "Lieutenant Tarr." Ohh, boy. I knew Lieutenant Tarr veery well. Lieutenant Tarr was one hell of a nice man. Slow talking. Tall, heavy. I can still see him. They told me that he had come out of the tank, and they told him to get back in because there was a lot of firing, a lot of stuff coming in. And he started running up to the tank, he got on the track, and was just ready to step into the tank, when a shell hit right there and just blew him right off. He was gone instantly. And Braatz came back and said he was on the side of the road, we just left him there.

    When I first went overseas I wasn’t too scared, but when I heard that Lieutenant Tarr got it, now this is only one, I started gettintg scared, too. I said, Geez, he got it already, we’re all gonna get it.

    Then we started with one battle after another. Some battles we were in! One, in Avranches, we pulled in about 12 o’clock at night, and all of a sudden, the whole sky lit up. They were dropping flares down. And I heard over the radio, get up against the buildings, hurry up, don’t stay out in the open. So all the tanks went up against the buildings, and all of a sudden the bombs came down. They bombed the hell out of us. We heard the bricks and everything coming down on top of the tanks. I was crying in the tank. Eugene Crawford, he was crying in the tank, we were praying and crying, oh, I’m telling you, what a feeling that is! We thought we were gone. All those shells are hitting next to you, hitting the brick houses and raining bricks on top of us. Every time a bomb would go off, the tank would shake all over. But we wouldn’t dare move, because if we did, the planes up on top would see the lights of the tank, the flames shooting out from the motors, and they would sure as hell hit us. So none of us dared move until it was all over, and they took off and went away.

    Then we dug out of the bricks, opened up the hatches and looked aorund and said, "My god, how lucky can you get?"

 Red Rose

    Sergeant Walter F. "Red" Rose, of Jonesville, N.C., was a member of Service Company

    I was never seriously wounded. I’ve seen the shells coming in, and went rolling and tumbling. The only time I was ever wounded, we were being strafed one night and I hit a clothesline in a yard. That’s the only blood I ever drew.

    They hollered, "Let’s get the medics up here, Rose is wounded!" I mean, the blood was flowing. I said, "No I’m not, I’m just skinned."

    It was night. It was in the village at Avranches, and I was running through the dark, around behind the houses trying to get away from that highway because I knew the flares were down there and they’re coming in and strafing down on that road, and you got out of your vehicle trying to get away from there.

    They told me I could have a Purple Heart because the plane was strafing. I turned it down.

 Steve Krysko

    Corporal Steve Krysko, of Scranton, Pa., was a gunner in A Company

    During the battle of the Falaise-Argentan Gap, I was firing 75-millimeter shells into a wooded area as fast as my loader could ram them into the gun’s breach. Suddenly, a running, hand-waving infantryman materialized in my periscope. I reached up, grabbed onto the hatch rim and hoisted myself into a standing position in front of the lieutenant. Even now, the infantryman’s words have a disquieting effect as I recall the moment: "Stop! You’re killing our own men!"

    I fell back onto the gunner’s seat, laid my head on my arms, and cried. As far as I was concerned, the war was over for me. It hit me that not only was I killing human beings, which in itself is traumatic, but I was killing our own men.

    I refused to fight on, and had to be sent back to A Company’s rear "safety zone." I crawled under a disabled tank and lay there for the rest of the day. No one said anything to me. I tried to convince myself that I was a Section 8 — mentally disturbed — and would be sent back to the States because of battle fatigue. By dusk, however, I realized that faking a mental breakdown is something I couldn’t do. The next day, when I learned that my tank commander had screwed up orders, I refused to go into battle with him. He had been told "Don’t fire on the left," but inadvertently he heard, "Fire on the left."

 Sam Cropanese

    One time, it was in the daytime, I heard German planes coming over. Then I saw one stray American plane, with the double fuselage, a P-38. He came out of nowhere, and he chased one of these German planes. I was watching them, but they were firing, so I got scared. I dove under the tank and I stayed there, and I watched from under the tank. What a dogfight! I’d never seen a dogfight. They were chasing each other. All of a sudden, the P-38 hit the German plane. The German plane was smoking like crazy, it went into the clouds and just disappeared. The P-38 turned off and went away.

    Another time we got called out by the 359th Regiment of the 90th Infantry Division. They got hit with a lot of tanks, and they were stuck. Panzers and all kinds. They were knocking the hell out of them. So they called two platoons in, we were one. We went in with five tanks, and another went in with five tanks.

    As sooon as we got there, we heard these 88s going under us, and on the side, and smacking the tank and glancing off. Luckily they didn’t hit my tank, but I could hear them just banging and going under, there were so many 88s firing at us, it was crazy. All of a sudden I heard the lead tank say, "Let’s get the hell out of here!" So we backed up the tanks and we got out fast, and they called in the tank destroyers to take care of them. We got out of that battle there, it was bad. We didn’t know where the firing was coming from, and we were right in the middle of it.

    We had so many battles. Mayenne, Ste. Mere Eglise, Avranches, St. Lo.

    Finally, we got to the Falaise Gap. We were bivouacked in the area, and it was early in the morning, about 5:30 or 6 o’clock. I was outside. I had my little stove out. We were making coffee. All of a sudden, a treeburst came down, it hit the trees and it just rained on us. It was an 88 shell. The first one that hit was the one that got me. It hit me, spun me around, threw me right on the ground. Infantrymen were all around, and the tankers and everybody. I heard crying and moaning, oh my god, I wouldn’t want to hear that again. There were so many people hurt with that one shell that burst out, and after that it was coming in from all over.

    I got hit in the face. The left side of my lip was hanging down, and my nose was split open. A piece of shrapnel about an inch and a half hit me. It went in through the jaw, busted the jaw, and stayed right in the bottom, just missing the jugular vein.

    I got into a ditch, and I must have been there about three hours. A medic got to me before that, and he got a needle and thread, and he hooked the piece of lip that was hanging, he he hooked it back on, put a couple of threads in it, he put a bandage on it with that sulfa, and he said, "Now you stay here until they come and get you."

    When the jeep came and got me out, I still heard firing going on all over the place. We drove out of there fast and went back to where the tanks were, and Eugene Crawford got into the jeep. He grabbed ahold of me and said, "Hang on, Sam, hang on. We’re going down to the aid station, and they’ll take care of you there."

    Right where the tanks were, they gave me plasma. They hooked it up on the jeep, and Eugene was holding it up, he was holding me, and we went down to the first aid hospital. Eugene got out and he said, "Sam, take care of yourself, you’ll be all right, don’t worry, you’ll be okay," and I was saying, "Gene, I feel myself going, I’m going, I’m not gonna make it," and he was crying, he was saying, "Sam, you’re gonna make it, you’re gonna make it, don’t worry, don’t worry." Then he left, and I went in the ambulance, and they took me to Le Mans. In Le Mans they operated. They took the piece of shrapnel out, and gave it to me. I still have the piece of shrapnel.

    While I was in the hospital in Le Mans, my head was all bandaged up, and I was on a stretcher. There were no tables or anything, the stretchers were all on the ground. I’m on the ground, and I’m looking up, and I see someone that I know, and I said, holy Geez, could it be? It was Joe Bernardino, who was in my tank. So I hollered out to him — I couldn’t call out too much, because my jaw was wired shut — so I was trying to say "jo...jo...jo." He looked over, and he didn’t recognize me. So he came close to me, he says, "Holy Jesus, is that you, Sam?" I said, "Yes, yes, it’s me." We started talking there, and he told me that when the shell came in that hit me, he was in the tank. He had gone in to get some sugar, and he had his gun, I don’t know what he was doing with it, but he had his gun out, and when the shell hit, it shook the tank, the gun went off, it ricocheted and hit him in the face. How do you like that action?

 Jim Gifford

    The next day it started to drizzle, and we organized a whole bunch of guys, and their job was to just go down into the Falaise Gap and shoot wounded horses. The Germans were using horses to draw their caissons, these towed guns, and these poor horses were catching hell from all this slaughter.

    Some of them died instantly, some of them were injured, and some of them were just laying down with their heads up. It killed me to see that. I remember one horse, he had a shell in his shoulder, it was sticking out, a big round shell, it was about ten inches long, and four or five inches of it were sticking out of his shoulder, and he’s standing there, he had a shattered leg, and he’s eating the grass. He’s not even jumping around or anything, he’s just standing there, the poor sonofabitch.

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