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Follies of a Navy Chaplain

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Tanks for the Memories

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They were all young kids

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Love Company

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A Mile in Their Shoes

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2014, Aaron Elson

   

Tanks for the Memories

The online edition

2014, Aaron Elson

Chapter 21

A bad day at Habscheid

 Bob Rossi

    We subsequently got a new tank, and Sergeant Holmes [Eldon K. Holmes] became our acting platoon leader. He had been the platoon sergeant. On Feb. 8, 1945, we were knocked out again, at Habscheid, Germany. We were in a wooded area; they called us in during the night.

Tony D’Arpino

    We argued about it. If you move the tanks at night, Jesus, they make too much noise, they draw artillery fire. But the infantry officer said, "I’m giving you an order."

Bob Rossi

    When light came, it seemed like everything opened up at once. They knew we were there in the woods, and they had mortars, artillery, machine gun fire.

    I could hear the shrapnel hitting the outside of the tank. All of a sudden, Sergeant Holmes fell down into the turret, and I was yelling, "Holmes! Holmes! Are you hit?"

    And Spahr says to me, "Sure he’s hit."

    We picked him up and put him in a sitting position behind the gun. Shrapnel had gone through his steel helmet. He had several long cuts the length of his head, and the o.d. [olive drab] towel he used as a scarf was soaked with blood.

    I said to D’Arpino, "Give me the first aid kit." And with that, he can’t open it. The darn thing was rusted shut. So with a chisel he opened up the first aid kit, and I bandaged Sergeant Holmes as best I could, and as he’s laying on the floor he called up Sergeant Gibson [Maxton C. Gibson] on the radio. He says, "Gib, I’m hit, I’m getting out of here."

    And Gibson called back, he says, "We’re all getting out of here." With that, Gibson started up the hill, and this is when we found out that the Germans had the hill zeroed in.

    Gibson then led us up the hill. He stopped to see if we were coming behind him, and just as he stopped, the Germans fired two rounds in front of his tank. We could hear him say on the radio to his driver, "Kick this tank in the ass and let’s go!"

    We came up the hill next, and an armor-piercing round hit us and went from the rear to the front of the tank, and landed between the assistant driver’s legs. Jim Sessions was the assistant driver. He was a recruit, I think it was a day before or a day after his 18th or 19th birthday. He later told us his left leg was on top of an ammunition box because it was all wet down there. If his leg had been down, it would have been blown off.

    I could see the shell lying there. It was red hot. In the meantime, we were on fire, because the 88 round had gone through our gas tank. I turned to pull the inside fire extinguisher, and I got hit in the face with flames.

    I yelled, "Let’s get out of here!"

Tony D’Arpino

    I knew there was another tank behind me to get out, so I tried pulling over to the right to give him room to get around me, and nothing was working.

    Sessions, the assistant driver, was new, and he grabbed a fire extinguisher. I said, "Jump, you crazy bastard, jump!" Matter of fact, I didn’t even unplug the radio or anything, I just got out.

Ed Spahr

    He [Sessions] never did attempt to get out till I got ahold of him. I jumped back up on the tank and grabbed him.

Bob Rossi

    One tank was already knocked out in the woods, and we had taken two guys from that crew into our tank, so there were five of us in the turret. The other three guys from their crew were laying on the back deck of Gibson’s tank. Now they’ve got the better tank with two hatches, but Gibson wouldn’t let them in. This is the way we should have done it, because we only had one hatch in the turret. This was the old cast-hull model. The tank I was in with Gifford, I had my own hatch, but this tank had only one hatch.

    The two men were Bob Gladsen and Cecil McFarland. And this is the funny part of it: McFarland’s carrying a carton of cigarettes with him. He told us their bogey wheels were shot off, they can’t move, and he takes the carton of cigarettes with him!

    When we got hit, I was the last guy to get out. I was on my hands and knees, waiting for the others to get out. I no sooner got out of the turret than the ammo started to explode and started to make smoke rings from the turret.

    It had been raining the night before when we got the order to move. Sergeant Holmes said to me, "Rossi, get out and lead the tank," and he handed me his tank commander’s watch, which had luminous dials. Now I’m running in front of the tank in the rain, holding it up as I’m running so D’Arpino can see the watch in the dark. After we got knocked out the next morning, I said to myself, "Thank God my clothes were soaking wet." I think that’s what saved me from getting burned to death in the tank.

Tony D’Arpino

    It’s taking a while to tell this story, but it all happened within seconds. When that projectile hit and I saw it land beside Sessions’ foot, it came right alongside the transmission. The transmission was between the driver and the assistant driver. The projectile was red hot, and it was laying right down by his left foot. I put my hand outside and tried to pry myself up, and that tank was just as hot as a stove.

Ed Spahr

    When they hit us, it felt like it drove the tank ten feet forward.

Bob Rossi

    Just before I got out of the tank, the other tank, just about on our left rear, they got hit. But they weren’t as fortunate as us. La Mar [Grayson La Mar], who was the driver, was burned pretty bad. I can remember when they took that stocking mask off, it took some of the skin right off his face. And Whiteheart [Gary L. Whiteheart], the type of tank they had had ammo stacked in back of the assistant driver, it shifted, and hit him right in the back.

    Van Landingham [Carl Van Landingham] was the tank commander, part of his heel was torn off from the shrapnel.

Grayson La Mar

    Grayson C. La Mar, of Trinity, N.C., was a driver in C Company

    We were on top of this hill, and we were taking orders from a 90th Infantry Division lieutenant. Since we hadn’t run into anything the night before, he wanted to go on down to the bottom of the hill, in the valley. But at daybreak, when we started out, all hell broke loose. We had four tanks and a tank destroyer. They threw a shell in the tank destroyer, killed all of the crew. One boy, they broke his leg, and he was trying to climb out when they threw another round in and finished him off.

    Then they got the second tank, I believe it was. When they got that, that left three tanks. Sergeant Gibson, he didn’t know what the rest were gonna do, but he’s gonna get the hell out of there, and he’s the only one that got out.

    When he left, Sergeant Holmes’ tank followed him. I automatically backed up and followed Holmes. When I got to the top of the hill, Holmes’ tank was sitting in the middle of the road burning. So I couldn’t get around. I had to go off into a field, and when I did my back end blew up. The shell came in there and set me on fire.

    It took three tries to get the hatch open. The hatch would hit the gun barrel. The gunner was killed, so nobody could operate the gun to get the barrel out of the way. Finally, on the third try, I got it open enough to squeeze out. If the gun was a quarter-inch further I’d have never got out.

    The force of the shell had blown my steel helmet off. I still had my tank helmet on. When I got out, there were blazes all around and I had to keep my eyes shut.

    I heard the tank commander, he was hanging over the side, he said, "Help me." He had gotten his heel blown off. I dragged him off into the snow, and I just fell in it, too. There were about ten inches of snow. I drove my head into it.

Tony D’Arpino

    We crawled all the way down that hill, got down to the bottom, and Van Landingham was missing. He’s still back up there. So I don’t know who the other guy was and myself, we grabbed a stretcher, we crawled back up. They were shooting right over our heads. I thought that was my last day. I had three tanks knocked out from under me, and out of all of them, I thought that was it.

    We crawled up there with a stretcher to get Van Landingham. We finally get to him and he’s moaning and groaning. I’m looking for blood, I don’t see anything. He’s got those combat boots on. I look, and he goes, "Ohhh, ohhh," real sharp, now he must have been hit someplace, I don’t know where. I couldn’t see any blood. We’re trying to get him on that stretcher, and we’re trying to crawl on our hands and knees with the stretcher, get him down over the crest where they couldn’t see us. They had that place zeroed in. We’d go a few feet and "Shooom!" We’d drop the stretcher. The third time the stretcher hit the solid ground, Van Landingham, "Oooooh," he would groan. Anyway, God willing, we got him down to the bottom, and I don’t know who that man is today, I’ve thought about this a million times, but an officer saw me and whoever else had that stretcher, and he took our names, he thought we should get the Silver Star for what we had done. I was told later that this man was called back to England, he had to be a witness in a court martial. I don’t know who the officer was. He wasn’t in our outfit.

Bob Rossi

    Later on we were kidding, it was bad, but we kidded, "That German gun crew must have all got the Iron Cross and a three-day pass." Two tank destroyers had also been knocked out, and we lost practically the whole company of infantry that we were attached to. The Germans kept pouring on the artillery, mortars and small arms fire.

    After we abandoned tank, we ran from pillbox to pillbox. Gladsen threw his .45 down, because he was afraid of being captured. I still had Gifford’s .45, and it fell down on the inside of my combat pants. I’m running with it down around my ankle, and I’m thinking if I got captured they’d think that I was trying to hide the gun. They’d probably kill me.

    I gave the gun back to Gifford when the war ended and we were stationed at Amberg.

Ed Spahr

    I remember there was a sniper, and this captain pointed to an infantry boy and said, "Get up there and get that sonofabitch." And that infantry boy handed him his M-1, he said, "Here, you get him."

Bob Rossi

    We were running from pillbox to pillbox to get out of the line of fire, and the infantry was dug in in foxholes. They said, "Don’t run on the road, it’s mined. Don’t run in the gully, it’s mined." We finally got to this pillbox, and I think it was a major or a lieutenant colonel, he wanted American wounded put outside because he complained that they were in the way of him conducting business. And we were PO’d at him. I was so mad at the time, I was only a kid, but I was so mad I felt like shooting the German prisoners who were there because they did this to us.

    About that time, somebody said to me that I had blood all over me. It was then that I noticed that I had Holmes’ blood all over my left sleeve from when I had bandaged him in the tank.

    He was evacuated, and finally our company jeep driver came up to make several trips to get us back to the rear.

    We left the pillbox where the first aid station was and waited for the jeep driver to come back for us by a bombed-out house. There were several German dead in there. Then a self-propelled artillery crew set up their position next to the house and started drawing fire from the Germans, so we got the hell out of there.

    Finally, the jeep drove us back to the rear.

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