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2014, Aaron Elson


Tanks for the Memories

The online edition

2014, Aaron Elson

Chapter 26


 Wayne Hissong

    Sergeant Wayne Hissong, of Argos, Ind., was a member of Service Company.

    When I went into the service, there were four of us who went in together. One of the fellows, John Charles Mitchell, he and I graduated from high school together. He was in B Company, and I was in Service Company. We went through everything, we got overseas, and he was one of the first ones in the battalion to get killed.

    His mother wrote me two or three letters overseas and wanted me to detail to her what happened. But your letters were censored. And I really couldn’t tell her too much anyway.

    Then when I got home, my dad met me at the railroad station, about 2 in the afternoon, and we went to our house, in the little town of Argos, Indiana. Then we went to my brother’s house.

    After awhile I said, "Well, I’m gonna go uptown, Dad," and he said, "I’ll go with you."

    On my way uptown he says, "Now, I want to tell you, Mitchell’s mother is waiting for you."

    She worked in a dry goods store on the corner. There was no way I could get around her, absolutely no way, hell, I could have went forty different ways and she could still see me, and I’m walking down the street, and boy, here she comes across the street.

    She wanted to know how it happened. And man, I could just tell her so much.

    He was a tank driver. At one time, he was considered one of the best tank drivers there was in our battalion. As I understand it, they came around a bend in a road that was blind on his side ... and he was engaged to a girl in England, and had written to his mother that he had gotten engaged, and his mother got the ring, and his sister sent the girl a wedding gown.

    Seeing his mother was about the hardest thing I had to do.

Smoky Stuever

    Shorty was my buddy in the cavalry down on the Mexican border. We’d go to town together with some other fellows. A lot of times we hitchhiked a ride. We were 50 miles east of San Diego on the Mexican border, in a very remote area, there was no bus transportation available. If the trucks weren’t going into San Diego, you had to find a ride there and back, and you had to make sure you got back on time, because we were under scrutiny of some old-time sergeants that served in the Philippine campaign and the Cuban campaign. They were very rigid.

    Shorty [Marion Kubeczko] and I stayed together through the cavalry. Also Kenny Wallace from Southern Illinois. There were some other fellows that we buddied with, but the three of us from Illinois, we always managed to stay together, and we were in the same tank crew, Wallace, Kubeczko and me. We were joined by Eugene Sand of Nebraska and Patsy Barchetta and Ed Chieleski. That was my recovery crew.

    Shorty was an eager driver. When we were leaving England, we brought up the tail end of the column, and we had to repair a flat tire on a truck. It only took us five minutes, but it made us drop way back and we had to try and catch up. Well, the truck could catch up, but we didn’t. We kind of dropped back, but we were going at top speed, and the MPs leading us made a sudden right turn in the middle of this town, and Shorty made this turn at high speed but he couldn’t stay on the street. He went through a cemetery. We went right over the graves.

    Shorty was killed on Hill 122. We were sent to retrieve a tank that was knocked out, and as we were going up the hill we encountered a heavy mortar barrage. I heard this one coming right at me, and I ducked, because my chest was about ten inches from where it exploded. It hit the front end of my turret, and Shorty didn’t have his cover down. He had it wide open, and he was down under, using the periscope. And the base of the shell went through his right shoulder and came out his abdomen, and shrapnel flew all around in the front end of the tank.

    Shorty was laying on the accelerator, going up the hill in low gear. And the tank retriever was headed right for a big pile of gas cans. I steered it out of the way, trying to shut that darn thing off. I shut the master switch off and that damn thing kept running. By that time, a paratrooper grabbed me by the feet and pulled me off of that tank and said, "He’s gone! Let him go." He shoved me down in a foxhole and I said, "Get off of me. I need some air." As soon as he let me go, I ran up there and got on that darn tank, and all around the turret was burning. I pulled the fire extinguisher and put the fire out inside, and then it dawned on me: Ground the damn magnetos. And so I ground the magnetos, and it killed the engine. The engine was going at top speed in low gear, and we were going to the top of the hill.

    Then I helped them take Shorty out of there, and gave them his belongings. And then this colonel that was in charge of that operation, he was from the airborne group [the 82nd Airborne Division], he said, "Let’s get this damn tank off of this road. Who can drive a tank around here?" Well, they had me down on the side of the road, trying to give me a morphine shot, and I wouldn’t take it. So I said, "That’s my tank, and I’ll get that damn thing out of here." And I made a U-turn, with sparks flying in every direction.

    That night, the Germans were laying some mortar fire on us, and Tony Skolarus gets up out of his foxhole and he goes out in the middle of the field, and he says, "Come on, you Germans, kill me! You got Shorty!" So I grabbed him and shoved him down in a hole. And he says, "What can we do? What can we do?"

    And I said, "Start praying. That’s what your mother’s doing."

    We had a guy in the other tank retriever, that was on the other side of this open field, his name was Whitehead. He was an atheist. He was always in arguments with Kenny Wallace about religion. Back in California they would argue and I would get in trouble because they’re arguing after hours, and at Fort Benning, all over, those two were always arguing about religion. Kenny Wallace would always get into these religious discussions with many people, wherever he went. I admired him. He was quite an evangelist. I could never shut him up.

    So when Whitehead woke up that next morning, he says, "I want everybody to hear me. I prayed last night."

Tony D’Arpino

    One of the drivers in Lieutenant Flowers’ platoon was a guy named Paul Farrell. He came from Haverhill, Mass. A handsome guy, had red hair, he was married. We were very friendly because we both came from the Boston area. When we were at Fort Benning, we used to go to the bars together.

    Farrell was in the first platoon, and I was in the third platoon, so once we went into combat we didn’t get to see each other that often.

    We came together one day, and I asked for Paul Farrell, and one of the guys says to me, "He’s sitting in the tank. He won’t get out."

    So I go over. I drop myself down into the assistant driver’s seat, and he says, "Hi."

    I said, "What’s the matter?"

    He says, "We aren’t gonna get out of this alive."

    I said, "You really believe that??"

    He said, "Yeah."

    I said, "If I thought that, I’d get up, take off. Go back. Over the hill." I said, "You’re gonna get out of it alive, don’t worry about it."

    "Nooo," he says. "Never."

    That was the last time I ever saw him. That that guy there, even in the States, when we had guard mount, they always used to give a 24-hour pass to the best-dressed. The best informed. Best-dressed, Farrell got it every time. He was just made for uniform. He had the build. The shirt fit just perfectly, like a model.

    I can remember, we had a young kid — young kid, we were all young kids — the loader on our tank was Luigi Gramari, he came from Utica, New York, and he was probably a year and a half younger than I was. And we had the honor to go back up Hill 122 after Flowers got knocked out, we were gonna go up there and take it.

    We were in Lieutenant Lombardi’s tank, and Gramari threw a tirade. "You stupid sonofabitch," he’s saying, now Gramari, he weighed about 110 pounds, he says to Lieutenant Lombardi, "You’re gonna go up, all the goddamn first platoon just got killed and you’re gonna go up there?"

    I grabbed him. I said, "Get in the tank, will you, and be quiet." He’d heard about all these guys that, you know, and now we’re going to go do the same thing, how crazy can you be? He was telling Lombardi, but Lombardi was taking his orders from the infantry.

    It was getting dark, and Gramari thought we were going to go right then and there, but we waited until the next morning. By the next morning, everything turned out pretty good. We made out all right.

Louis Gerrard

    Harold Gentle and I were both from Philadelphia, but I didn’t know him before the war.

    The day I was drafted, we were down at the Reading Terminal, and we got on the train. He said, "Is this seat taken?" and he sat beside me. And from then on, we were buddy-buddy.

    From there, we went to New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, where we got all our shots, and the next day we were put on trains, and everybody said we were going to Florida. The guys looked out the window, they said they saw palm trees.

    They asked me when I went in the service, at New Cumberland, what would you like to go into? I told them I’d like to get in the Air Corps. They said "Okay." The next day I was in tanks.

    Fort Benning, Georgia, that’s where the palm trees were. We were all in tanks.

    We were in Benning for over a year. Gentle and I, we really hit it off. I was an usher at his wedding, in Manionk. He married somebody from Philadelphia. We both got furloughs, and he married her on the furlough. Her cousin was an ensign, and he had to be the best man. Gentle wanted me to be the best man, but she wanted the ensign. He said to me, "Would you mind?" He fought like hell with his wife, he wanted me to be the best man. I said, "Harold, don’t do that. I’ll just be an usher, I don’t care."

    After they were married, we were in Fort Jackson, and she came down and stayed with him.

    Her mother was a pain in the neck. One time Gentle’s wife was on the phone with him, she says, "My mother wants to come down," to Fort Jackson, oh, he got on his hands and knees and prayed, and said, "No, please don’t have her come down!" I was there watching him on the phone. So she never came down.

    Gentle’s wife remarried, I found out. When I got back from overseas I went over to see her in Roxboro. The father-in-law, he understood. I told him what happened. He said, "They were all killed in a tank?" He was classified as being missing in action. But they were all killed in that tank. They were all ablaze, and they can’t get out of them tanks.

Bob Anderson

    Generally when you were up on the line all you got to eat was what we called C rations, but then when you got back for a 10-day rest, you’d do most anything. There was one time a bunch of us guys were having fun, we’d throw hand grenades in the creek, they’d go off underwater and we’d get fish, clean the fish and eat them.

    Then we got crazy enough we were taking and unscrewing the cap of the grenades and knocking all the powder out, and then we’d pull the pin and toss them over to somebody. Well, I did that to one kid whose name was Bynum, I said, "Here, Quentin Bynum," well, I didn’t have all the powder out so the thing exploded. It didn’t have strength enough to hurt him but that made us quit doing that stuff. He could have got hit in the face.

    One thing I’ll say about the outfit I was in, we grew up as a group of men that stayed together. I can list several of us that stayed together and went through the 10th Armored and went to the 712th Tank Battalion, we fought together and we came home together. Earl Apgar lives up here in Rockford, Illinois. Jule Braatz lives in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. And there were several boys out of Chicago, we all stayed together after we got out. We became like brothers.

    Quentin Bynum, shucks, him and I we fought and had one heck of a good time. Percy Bowers from Cheteck, Wisconsin, we were the best of buddies.

    Percy Bowers was killed at Avranches. He was killed in a cemetery. His tank was knocked out. Pretty near all of us were out of ammunition. His tank was knocked out, he got out of his tank and was carrying a white flag, crawling back, and some German shot him, with a white flag, crawling back.

    Quentin Bynum, who was better known as Pine Valley, was killed in the Adennes Forest. He’d still be here today but they had a new lieutenant.

    I heard it all over the intercom — they were in this forest, and the Germans were laying artillery, and the shrapnel was coming down and hitting the tank. And this lieutenant said, "Abandon tank!"

    And Bynum said, "No, Lieutenant, that’s just shrapnel. Just sit still."

    "I said abandon tank!"

    And they all abandoned tank, but one man, his name was Shagonabe. He stayed in the tank, and he’s the only live boy out of that crew. [Frank Shagonabe was also killed in action.] The rest of them, Bynum — I don’t know why Bynum obeyed — but this lieutenant, if he would have listened to an older man, they all might have been alive today.

    About two or three days later, they asked me if I’d go back and identify Bynum. I would just say you could recognize him. He was full of shrapnel, and laying in the snow.

    A few years ago I went down and saw some of his folks, and his mother — I don’t know why I didn’t go down there when we first came out — his mother didn’t believe in burying him underground, he’s buried on top of the ground [in a mausoleum].

    I went up to Cheteck, Wisconsin, to see Bowers’ folks. They didn’t have him brought back. When I was back in Germany, it must have been about 17 years ago, I did go to Bowers’ grave.

    I went all the way through the service, I got three Bronze Stars, knocked out tanks. With my luck, I never got a Purple Heart. That kind of, it just gets you, now.

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