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2014, Aaron Elson


Tanks for the Memories

The online edition

2014, Aaron Elson

Chapter 13

Plaster Fried Chicken

Jim Gifford

    The next day, we licked our wounds and then we progressed toward Hyange. We were close to the Moselle River, and this town is on its west bank. As we came into the town, now we’ve got a lot of infantry, we’re a big task force. The infantry was sitting along the road, just waiting to move up, and there was a farmhouse there.

    I went in the farmhouse; they were trying a German colonel. He was an SS colonel, and there was a bunch of officers in there trying him. He had ordered the execution of a whole bunch of people in that village, and he got himself caught. I didn’t understand the details of the trial, but he was being tried by a military court there. And they had French people there, there was quite a group.

    I was waiting to move up, and in the meantime, they brought this guy out. There was an old stone house and it had apple trees in the yard, and this big old stone fence went around the house, supporting the apple orchard away from the road.

    They walked this guy over, and put a rope around him, and tied him to the apple tree, put the rope around the center of him. And they put this firing squad together. It was the first time I ever saw a firing squad. They brought about six or seven guys off the road. They blindfolded him, and he stood there, and Jesus, they shot him. I don’t know what the hell he did, but they said he ordered the execution of a whole bunch of people in the village.

    From there we moved towards the Maginot Line, and we got up to near the Moselle. Some of our outfit had gone into the Maginot Line and then we were told to pull back, and to hold up in this area, because we were out of gas. So this whole massive force stopped, and we all picked areas for ourselves.

    We dispersed ourselves around that area, and while we were waiting for gas to come up, we didn’t move for almost three weeks. We could have walked in through the Maginot Line, but they came back into it, and later it had to be taken.

    While we were waiting there, things got kind of hot. It was all small stuff, nothing big happened. At least we had a chance to rest a little bit and lick our wounds, so to speak.

    When we started out again, our particular unit had to go down with the 357th Infantry to take a town called Maizieres le Metz, which was by the Moselle River, and this is when the whole thing started up again.

    We came down into that town. It was a railroad center, with four or five tracks going through it. The town straddled the railroad tracks, and there was a slag pile there.

    We were there for over two weeks, and we had a lot of action going on. Every day it was something. That’s where I was walking across a field with this infantry officer, and he looked at me and said, "I think I’ve been shot." So we both ran over this ridge, and we got on the other side of the ridge, and his jacket had a hole in the right shoulder, a small hole, like a pencil hole. And I pushed his jacket up and there was a bullet that had gone in his back, right there, but that’s the reaction, he didn’t get knocked down, he just said, "I think I’ve been shot."

    There was a jeep on the road. I flagged it down and told the jeep to take him back, and I never saw him again. We never heard a thing. We were just walking across the field toward this slag pile when he looked at me, startled like, and said, "I think I’ve been shot." Sometimes a bullet will enter you, it comes in so fast I guess you don’t realize it.

    I got the Bronze Star at Maizieres. We were getting ready for an attack to take the town, and the infantry was there. The morning of the attack, Colonel Barth, Major Henry and myself were standing by the side of my tank, and as we were going to move out, we didn’t realize it but the Germans had moved in during the night. Now it was daylight, it was just about time to move out, all of a sudden this German soldier crossed the railroad track and threw a hand grenade at us. I got hit in the left leg, but I had a very small wound, it wasn’t much. Colonel Barth got hurt bad, and Major Henry, a piece of shrapnel went through his legs, and he died a little later.

    Then Colonel Mason took over from Colonel Barth. He was an infantry colonel. So I had to deal with him, and he was a very, very qualified guy, he was really a good line officer, he knew everything that was going on. I told him we could still do the attack, because we were lined up all night getting ready. So he said okay.

    So then we started out with the tanks, and we headed out across the railroad tracks, and we made our turn to go up the main street.

    The houses were all old cement houses, they go back probably a hundred years, and they’re right next to each other. So we were going up the main street, there are no alleys, and they’re usually two stories high. Tony D’Arpino was the driver at the time, and I think Ed Spahr was the assistant driver. I’m not sure who the gunner was.

    As we drove down the street, the shell fire was real heavy. They were dropping everything at us, and the whole street was boiling with dust and explosions. The shell fire was blinding the driver, and he went up on the sidewalk and started grinding the side of a building.

    So the next thing, I’m looking up ahead, and there was a fork in the road, and there’s a hotel, and in the lobby of the hotel, it had windows, there was a gun firing at us. So I hollered to the gunner to put white phosphorous in, and he put the white phosphorous in, and then I took control. You can take control away from the gunner if you see something that you can’t take the time to tell the gunner, so I took control away and I aimed it for the lobby and fired, and it blew up in the lobby. Later, after we took the town, I went in that lobby, and Jesus, the gun was there, and there had been a guy behind it and there was nothing left but his boots, that white phosphorous wiped him right off the face of the earth.

    Immediately after I fired the gun, we were still on the sidewalk grinding up against the building, something made me look to my right. I’m up in the turret, and level with the second story of the building. I look, and here’s a guy with a rifle pointed right at my face, and he fires. I looked at him, he looked at me, and he fired the gun but it missed me.

    It was such a surprise. I just saw this guy shooting at me, and I just didn’t have a chance to do anything, it happened that fast. He fired, and he was gone into the room, disappeared immediately.

    By this time, Tony’s got the tank straightened out and he’s pushing the tank out into the street. Then we continued up to the end of the street.

    We got toward the end of the town, and we stopped up there and reconnoitered, and the infantry came behind us, and we took the whole town. Everything happened quickly. So we took that town, and held it, and in the meantime we got orders to move further to the north, I forget where the next town was.

    The Bronze Star was because Mason wanted to take the town with infantry, but I offered him tank support and he really appreciated it, so I led the attack into the town.

Tony D’Arpino

    We were there for almost a month at Maizieres le Metz.

    They had a schoolhouse where in one room were Americans, in the next room were Germans, there were tunnels under them.

    Our tank stayed in the same position for three weeks. We were guarding a couple of roads, and they used to drop off the rations in the center of the town. They had five sets of railroad tracks, and the Germans had that place zeroed in, so the jeep could only come down so far with the supplies. They’d dump them there, and then we’d have to get them and lug them back to the tank. And I’ve got a five-gallon can of water on my shoulder and Klapkowski’s got chickens and stuff, frozen chickens, it was some holiday, and we had a few other rations. And I dropped that can of water so many times, I’d hear "Ding!" and I’d drop the goddamn can and hit the ground. Finally, when I got back down to the house where our tank was at the corner, there was no roof on the house, it was blown off — down in the cellar was a bin full of potatoes. So I told Lieutenant Lombardi, "This is it. You guys want to eat, you go up there and get the goddamn rations. I’m not going up there no more." I said, "I’ll eat the potatoes down in that bin."

    But that place was really something. They had it zeroed in. I can see the slag piles all across the way there. And down at the end of the street was a pasture, and the cows were dead.

    As a matter of fact, I was driving the first tank, when we first got into position down there, I was just easing into position, and I shouted, "There’s a gun pointing at us!" I didn’t know at the time it was the leg of a cow. So we put one round into this dead cow.

    While we were in Maizieres, we were sent some chicken, and Klapkowski wanted to fry it.

    All the stuff was in the house where we were staying. As a matter of fact, they had a lot of dishes, beautiful dishes.

    So Klapkowski is looking for flour, he wants to roll this chicken and fry it. And he starts a fire in the stove. I said, "There’s smoke going up the chimney. For Chrisssakes, they can see us."

    "Awww," he says, "they know we’re here anyway. We’ve been here so long, they know we’re here."

    He goes down in the cellar — there was some stuff stored there — and he gets this bag, it had some German writing on it. He says, "Is this flour?"

    I felt it, and said, "No, that feels like plaster of paris."

    He said, "No, that’s flour."

    So he rolls the chicken in this stuff. And he’s saved the bacon fat from the 10-in-one rations, whenever he fried anything, like potatoes and stuff, he’d use this.

    He fried the chicken, and it came out the prettiest golden brown you’d ever want to see. But you couldn’t eat it. It was tough. So he just banged it against the wall and knocked the plaster off. The plaster came off in one piece, and the chicken underneath was cooked.

    Then he set the table. He got the tablecloth, and set it with five dishes. Afterward, he said, "Okay, fellas, time to do the dishes." And he opened the window, tablecloth, dishes and everything else, out the window. I don’t know how many plates we broke in that house.

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