The online edition
©2014, Aaron Elson
How Cold Was It? (The Battle of the Bulge)
I always said, the Air Force had it rough, but when they got through with their mission they went back to a nice barracks, hot meals, showers and everything else. The Navy, the same way. Theyre on the ship. They have their battles and then theyve got a bunk to sleep in, theyve got cooks cooking for them.
Us guys, we had no heat in the tanks in the goddamn winter. I remember digging out snow, putting branches down on a blanket, and a blanket on me; when I woke up in the morning I had about twelve inches of snow on me.
We had a rotation plan in our tank. The engine compartment stayed hot almost all night. We used to take turns, one night apiece, sleeping on the engine compartment.
You can just imagine, its raining, youre soaking wet and you get cold in that goddamn piece of steel. There were no fans even. When they fired the big gun, the smoke and everything else, youve got nothing to suck that out. Today everything is different, but they didnt have none of that stuff. And those tanks were cold!
I had a pair of green knit gloves. And a leather glove over it. When Id post the guard outside on the tanks, I had my boots and overshoes on top of the boots. It was so cold I used to take my gloves off and suck my fingers, Id have the fingers in my mouth and suck them so that I wouldnt freeze.
And you didnt stand. You were scared, you didnt know what to do. As you stand still, youre not moving. Youre not circulating. And you didnt know whether you should move or not, because your ears have got to be wide open to hear things. And if you were having perimeter, you have a section, you stay there, you dont go traveling because youre gonna get killed, whether it was by friendly fire or enemy fire. So you stayed in that area. But it was cold.
You could take your finger and scrape the frost off the inside of the tanks, because they didnt have any heat. I had an assistant driver, Johnny, from Tennessee, I forget his last name. He told me, "George, if I get home, and its in the middle of July, and I think how cold I was, Im gonna build a damn fire."
I used to have a ritual when I was on guard duty. Youre scared, I dont give a goddamn what anybody says, I mean, its one thing being scared and another being yellow. And youre scared. And I used to have a ritual. Id be alert, but it kind of occupied my mind. Im the only boy in my family, I have five sisters, and when I was on guard duty, Id start with my oldest sister, and picture her in my mind, her name and everything else, then Id go down to the next one, and the next one, and the next one, and the next one. And this kept me going. Then my mother and father. Then Id think of my uncles. And by the time the two hours was up, you went through the whole family. But it kept your senses.
We had these knit hats in the winter. Your hair, it hurt just to touch it, and the guys used to joke, "Well, I guess Ill comb my hair," and theyd take the hat and screw it around a couple of times, and it looked like theyd stuck their finger in a socket.
O.J. Brock, of Corbin, Ky., joined A Company as a replacement during the Battle of the Bulge.
I had a birthday on the Queen Mary. My birthday is the 27th of December, so I was a young kid of 19. When I got to France, I went to a repple depple, and got the assignment to go to the headquarters of the 712th.
They had eight or ten of us at that time, replacements, I think three of us went to A Company, and some to C, and some went to Service Company.
That was certainly an overwhelming experience. I was assigned as an assistant driver during the Battle of the Bulge. It was winter and there was snow on the ground. Id look out, and Id wonder why they hadnt picked up the dead Germans. Some of them had their helmets laying beside them, and the artillery was horse-drawn, and the dead cattle and the horse-drawn artillery was on the side of the road.
Its rather shocking to a young kid to see all that, the war zone, that fast. You go in and you get off the trucks and go into combat in days. It was certainly an awakening experience.
I was in combat less than a week after I was brought in from headquarters. Thats why I say it was certainly an unusual experience for a young kid. I guess you mature very rapidly as you go along, however. I talked to the old-timers, and theyd been there for months and months.
They just said, "Welcome to the best tank battalion in the world," and they told me that the past record was certainly unique in the European theater, that they had quite a few accomplishments, a lot of successes. Of course they had a lot of people killed and wounded, and we know thats part of war, but the morale was certainly excellent. People talked about family life. Most of the guys were talking about getting home and getting back to their families. A lot of them werent married. Most of them were younger, and had girlfriends. They had plans. They had goals.
They answered my questions, although I didnt have too many. I looked around and right away I could see that they were certainly excellent soldiers, and I knew then that theyd been through a lot of combat.
The first person I saw get killed was in my tank. I was the assistant driver, and we had a rendezvous in this town, I dont remember the village. It was a small, rural community, and Hank Schneider we called him Hank, he was a lieutenant, he had gotten a battlefield commission. He had the maps and things, and they were making plans for the next few days. We were attached to a regiment of the 90th Infantry Division. We didnt have any infantry people with us at that time.
As we approached this objective it was a small community, with some churches and small storefronts Peter Charapko, he was in the third or fourth tank and I was in the lieutenants tank, he said, "Hank, weve got snipers all around. Youd better button your hatch."
It wasnt five minutes later that Hank was hit in the head with a snipers bullet, and he fell down through the top of the tank. We radioed back, and the gunner said turn around, and told us where the aid station was, but Hank was dead immediately, shot through the head.
We stayed back in headquarters for a couple of days. We had to clean the tank out, all the blood and stuff. But that was certainly a shocking experience. I didnt know the people too well, but its certainly a heart-wrenching experience to lose some of your friends and comrades.
Hank Schneider got shot by a sniper, between the eyes. He was warning everybody to keep their head down. And pop-pop. Bingo, he got it, warning somebody else.
Morse Johnson and Bob Hagerty made the arrangements for the 1988 reunion in Louisville, and Hanks son came to the reunion. I had gone to the chapel in Fort Benning when Hank got married. His wife came from Chicago, thats where he was from.
She had the baby when we were overseas, so I dont know if he got a picture of the baby or not at that time.
After Hank got killed, she remarried, and the husband adopted the child. Then the husband died, and she married another fellow, and they moved. And Ray Griffin, I dont know who told him or how he did it, but he finally located the son. Maybe the son was trying also to locate somebody, but anyway, they made the connection, and he came to the reunion.
None of us had ever seen him, so we didnt know what to expect. I dont know if it was Merrill or Charlie Vinson said to me, "Thats Hanks son." So I went over to him, introduced myself, and got to talking to him. And he, like yourself, wanted to find anything, he never saw his father outside of a picture. Morse and Hagerty were on the podium, and the son asked if he could speak to the battalion, and everything right from the heart. And Im telling you, you really got a chill.
I was wounded on the inside of my left arm. Our tank got knocked out, and luckily, we all got out. They hit us somewhere in the track, and busted it, so that if we kept going wed have just gone around in a circle.
After we got hit, Lieutenant Gifford stuck his head out, and a machine gun bullet struck him around one eye. He had blood all over. When he got out of the tank, I dont think he thought he was hurt as bad as he was, and he stepped behind the tank, away from the incoming. When we got behind the tank, Lieutenant Gifford tossed me his camera, and said, "Take a picture of me."
So Im standing there with my hands up taking the picture, thats the only way I could have gotten hit in a spot like that, I had to have my arms up. It just felt like a bee sting.
It was no big deal to me. I really didnt think I was hit until the medic asked to see my hand because when I dropped my arm the blood would drop off my fingers, and he wiped it off and said, "I cant see where the bloods coming from."
And then, all at once, he said, "Its coming down your arm. Take off your shirt." And there it was, I was bleeding like a stuck pig.
Just prior to the Battle of the Bulge, Jim Gifford was brought in as our new tank commander. He was our tank commander and platoon leader. We were staying in a hayloft in the town of Berle, in Belgium. We wondered where Lieutenant Gifford was all day, and he came up the foot ladder and said, "Come here, I want to show you something."
He had draped the tank in white sheets.
In Berle, I went around to the houses we didnt have white paint yet, they finally brought up some white paint, but we didnt have it, so I went around to all the houses and took all the white sheets they had. People didnt appreciate that, but I brought them back and handed them out to the guys to cover our tanks with, because that airplane coming down there got me to realize that they could see us in the road. It had started to snow a lot. By the time we got up to where we were running into the enemy in force, some of the tanks had white paint on them, some of them didnt. I dont remember whether the paint was on our tank or not when we got hit that day.
Lieutenant Gifford had gotten a package from home, and I can remember he had some canned chicken. He shared his package with all of us.
I can recall vividly, we were talking about home and everything, and he said to us, "You know, Id rather lose an arm or a leg than lose my eyesight." He said, "Theres too much to see in this world." And the next day when he got hit, he got hit in the eye.
They said that there was a small pocket of Germans, it was holding the infantry down. They just wanted one section of tanks, us and Jim Warrens tank, to clean it out. It was just supposed to be a small pocket. And it turned out to be a little more than that.
There was concentrated machine gun fire. Lieutenant Gifford got hit in the right eye, the bullet lodged in his cheek. I thought he might jump out of the tank, and I yelled to him to keep down or they would blow his head off.
He said, "I dont want to jump out, I want Warren to come forward to help us." Then he said to me, "Rossi, how bad am I hit?"
And I lied. I said, "You dont look bad, Lieutenant." But he looked like somebody hit him in the face with a sledgehammer.
So he says to me, "Fire the smoke mortar." And in my excitement, I forgot to knock the cap out, and when I fired the first mortar it went up and just missed coming straight down on top f us. Then I fired some subsequent mortars to give us a smoke screen.
As we were abandoning tank, Lieutenant Gifford was firing his .45 and pulling Spahr out by one of his arms. Spahrs leg was locked. Spahr was the assistant driver, and his machine gun was firing by itself it was so hot. And I said, "Twist the belt! Twist the belt!" so he could stop the bullets from feeding into the machine gun.
It was a strange thing. They would fire at us, and you could hear like rain on a tin roof. As soon as we were hit, they were spraying the tank so we couldnt get out of it.
I reached up, and I fired the .50-caliber into the front, and the firing stopped. Then, when I stopped firing the .50, it started up again. So I told the guys, "Fire your guns." I said, "Ill fire the .50, and Tony, you get out." Tony was helpless down there, hes no use to anybody because hes the driver, so theres no point in him staying. So we fired the guns, and all the firing at the tank stopped, and Tony went out the hatch. We kept it up until he got around the corner.
I just had my arm out, just so I could reach the gun, because I had already been shot being up there, so I knew they were going to try to pick me off.
Then Klapkowski got out, and Rossi was the next one, he went out. Then I told Spahr. Spahr was down inside. He had the .30-caliber machine gun. He would fire the .30 in one direction and I was firing the .50 in the other direction, and while we were firing, it was amazing, they laid low. They could see us, but they didnt want to get hit. And that fourteen, fifteen seconds between the time we would stop firing and theyd start hitting the tank again with their machine gun fire, that was when we had an opportunity to do things. It gave us about ten seconds.
So I said, "All right, Spahr, you fire, and then you stop firing, and then when you hear my gun stop, get your ass out of there." So thats what we did.
Then out he came. He stopped firing. I fired and I stopped. I jumped out. And Jesus, hes back there trying to get something inside the tank, and he was sort of stuck, and I reached up and Im grabbing him to pull him out of the hatch, and it turns out hes trying to get his duffel bag. I said, "Leave the goddamn thing in there, what are you, kidding?"
And he said, "Ive got all my stuff in there."
And I said, "Forget about it!" And I pulled him off the tank, and we both ran back, and we got behind Warrens tank.
After we got out of the tank, Klapkowski and I were running in a zigzag, we could see the snow being kicked up around us. There was an armored recon truck coming toward us, and as we were running, Lieutenant Gifford said, "Fire that .50 and protect these boys!"
And the guy in the truck yelled out, "Its our last box of .50!"
He says, "Fire it anyway, you sonofabitch!" And thats when they started firing the .50 to give us cover.
As we got out of the line of fire, Lieutenant Gifford handed his .45 to me, he said, "Hold this for me till I get back." And with that, he said, "Take my picture."
I said, "Lieutenant, I cant take your picture." So he gave the camera to Spahr. And there he was, having his picture taken. He had gotten a Bronze Star that morning, he had the ribbon, his face all puffed up, blood all over his combat jacket, he says, "Take my picture."
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