The online edition
©2014, Aaron Elson
You could only get a replacement tank if you lost one in battle, and the replacements were slow in coming through. We had a void of tanks for a long time.
So I started battle losing them on paper. And then the durn war ended before my tanks balanced out. I had four or five too many, and we had to turn them in at Nuremburg.
We went to an ordnance place down there and turned the tanks in, and they wouldnt take but just the number listed in the table of operations.
I said, "What am I gonna do with the rest of them?"
"Thats not our problem."
So I found a field down there right close by, and parked those tanks, got out and left. A week or so later a guy named Marshall House called, and he said, "Are you by any chance from Louisville?"
I said, "Why, I sure am."
And he said, Well, this is Marshall House."
I said, "Why, I remember you, Marshall." And we talked about old times.
And then he said, "What about these tanks down here?"
I said, "I cant hear you. It must be a bad connection."
When I returned to the States, I became the provost marshal at Fort Myers, Virginia.
At Fort Myers, there were 23 generals, and that means there were 23 generals wives. That was my biggest problem, keeping everybody happy.
A provost marshal is the military equivalent of a chief of police. Youre in charge of discipline, law and order. Anything goes wrong, call the provost marshal. I got calls at all times of the day and night. If they called me at home, Id tell them to call the office. As long as it wasnt Mrs. Bradley.
Omar Bradleys wife was rather an eccentric type. When I took the job as the provost marshal, one of the first tidbits of information was that Mrs. Bradley was to be handled with kid gloves. Well, one day she called the office and the provost sergeant answered the phone, and he handed me the phone quick. He said, "Its Mrs. Bradley."
She said, "Major. Theres a great big dog jumping on my little dog."
I thought for a moment. I said, "Is that little dog a female?"
"Yes. But shes been spayed."
And I thought, gee, this is a tough one. I said, "Yeah, Mrs. Bradley. No doubt the dogs been spayed, but you know that big dog doesnt know that."
She cackled, and said "Youre pretty smart."
I said, "Ill come right over and handle it personally."
When I went over the dog was gone, of course. But she invited me in to have a Coke. I got along well with her.
She drove pretty fast. She had a kind of a car that looked like an old, what the hell make of a car was that, it wasnt a Reo, it looked like an old Essex, I dont know what make of car it was. Anyway, one time she made the turn around the post exchange building and the car leaned over, it went on two wheels. The MPs were behind her. She called me and said the MPs were harassing her.
"No," I said. "They reported it to me and told me about it. They thought there was something wrong with your car, and they didnt know but they might have to render assistance."
"Ohhh." No more said.
We had, even among kids, rank was considered. I caught three of those little kids one day, one was a chaplains son, another one was General Parks son, and another generals, no a full colonels son. They had somebodys hunting bow, and hunting arrows, and they were trying to play William Tell.
The chaplains son was junior, of course, he had to hold the target. And the others were trying to shoot the bow and arrow.
I put a stop to that. In fact, in the course of doing it, one of those arrows hit them across the ass. That didnt go over good with Mrs. Park.
General Park didnt know about it at the time but Mrs. Park, she called me. She read me up and down. "This is Mrs. Park."
I said, "How are you today, Maam?"
"Dont Maam me! Thats my son you struck."
"Oh," I said. "That wasnt anything. It was just a reminder to him that he shouldnt be playing with dangerous things like bows and arrows that are steel-tipped." That toned her down a little but not enough to suit me. I didnt say anything further, but she told General Park.
General Park called me. He said, "I understand you had occasion to strike my son with an arrow."
I said, "I certainly did, Sir."
He said, "How did it happen?"
I told him.
He said, "Good. Now Im gonna whip his ass in good shape."
The guys who drove the tanks had a real spirit, like Percy Bowers, Pine Valley, Dess Tibbitts, Big Andy Robert Anderson. He survived. In fact, I dont even think he was injured. Which is really pretty neat, when you think of how vulnerable the driver is.
The guys who drove the tanks had this reeling about each other. I think they felt like there were some skills that were honed a little more than the others. A lot of your survival depended on his skill, particularly in avoiding getting bogged.
Bussell was in my platoon, but he was with another tank. I think he was with Goldstein and Charlie Bahrke.
Bussell was so heavy, he had the biggest rear end, and you thought, "That guy is gonna get in my hatch?" He had been a tanker before we came to Fort Benning from Camp Lockett, so he was on the cadre that was going to help train us. We took a look at him, he had this big stomach, and an even wider rear end, and yet, when getting in the tank, he had a shimmy that he did, that he was in there in no time at all. There wasnt any forcing himself or getting scratched or scraped.
After the war ended, in a short period of time, Id get a call at random, and somebody would say, "Im in Cincinnati, tell me how to get out to your house." And it would be some Army person. On one of these occasions, it was George. He was in Cincinnati and wanted to come out.
I dont think I warned my father in advance. My father had this awful habit of asking people, "What do you weigh, son?" He never asked me, he was just interested in huge people. I just knew he was going to ask George, and I was hoping he wouldnt. I thought it might be a sore spot, because George was as big as ever, maybe bigger. And pretty soon, Dad said, "Son, what do you weigh?" And George, he had these real bright blue eyes, he said, "About 191, sir."
Every Lent, Bob Hagerty would quit smoking, and then after Lent hed start smoking again. Then hed say, "God, if I could only quit that. I just wish I could quit smoking."
I would say, "Well, Bob, you just did for six or seven weeks."
"Yeah, but that was for Lent," hed say.
Bob was a good man. I liked him. I got along fine with everybody in the service and I had a good time, and still I wouldnt want to go through it again.
I had a lot more aftereffects after I got home.
We lived a mile down the road from where we live now, and I farmed for 30 years. When I first came home, thered be nights, say, that I worked in the field late, Id be scared to goo ut to the barn to milk the cows because I knew there were Germans out there waiting. So Id drive up the road, and I knew there was a German tank waiting. My wife will bear this out, thered be nights Id lay in bed and just freeze. Shed wake me up and say, "W-w-whats the matter?"
"Theres Germans there!" I had more aftereffects, and was scareder, than I did when I was over there. But I was scared, and every time after you were back on break, youd pray that you would never have to go back up to the line. And anybody, I always said this, anybody that was in combat who wasnt scared, theyre either a damn liar or they never were in combat.
I wouldnt say I had nightmares, but once in a while I do have dreams. I think about twice I dreamt I was shot. But other than that, I wouldnt call them nightmares.
Ive fallen out of bed. That just happened recently, and I never told Mary what I was dreaming about. But thats what I was dreaming. I dont know where the hell I was, it must have been during the war someplace. I was up against the tank and somebody had a gun pointed at me, and Im kind of sliding down so he wont hit me, and I hit the doddamn floor! Im on the floor there, covers and all. About three weeks ago.
When I came home, my dad and mom were both still alive, and we livedover on Pleasant Street in Indianapolis. I had the back bedroom on the second floor, and it had French windows.
One night I was asleep, and if my mom hadnt come in and caught me, Id have probably jumped out the window, because there was thunder and lightning and I kept saying, "Here they come! Here they come!" Id sat up on the edge of the bed, and I was heading for the window. I had the window open. But she grabbed hold of me. After she grabbed hold of me I was all right. Thats the only time that ever happened. But I probably would have jumped.
This stuff bothers you, and the reaction was later, not then, you dont have time to think about it, but later I had nightmares. Ive killed this Kraut a hundred times, for example, and each time he comes a little closer. I dont know how the nightmares come on, but all of a sudden, I still get them. Youd be surprised how much they shake you up. Then you dont get any sleep. I dont sleep much. If I go to bed at 10 oclock, Im away at 1:30. I might get another hour of sleep, not much more.
Its a good thing Jan and I have a queen-size bed. Im over on one side and shes over on the other, and if I start slugging, why, I miss her. I havent hit her yet.
When I finally got back to the States, I was down in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and II had been missing all these paychecks. I was always on the move someplace, from one hospital to another.
One day we were told to go down to the auditorium, because the paymaster was coming in. So he called my name, Gerrard, and he started shelling out hundreds of dollars. I said, "There must be some mistake. Im not entitled to all this."
He said, "Thats whats here." So I took it. I went back to the ward and I told the guys its not my money. And they were hollering, "Keep it!"
I went back to the service department in the hospital, and there were a couple of WACs there. I told them about all the money, and one of them said, "Wait a minute," and they went and got my service records, and she said, "No wonder you got paid all that money."
It was stamped in my service records, "Killed in action."
I said, "Holy cow!" Its a good thing they never sent that to my wife and mother.
There was this one incident, near the end of the war. The Germans were getting hard up, and they had horse-drawn artillery, and there were three pieces of artillery coming down the road. They saw us, and stopped.
They turned an antitank gun around on us and they fired. They must have been poor gunners, because they fired three shots at us before I fired, and I could see in my sights that I hit this antitank gun. I hit it with H.E. thats high-explosive and I could see a body flying up in the air. I saw a horse get hit at the same time, when the shell exploded on the front end of this German field piece. The horse was hit in the back end, I guess, because his front feet were trying to drag around. I believe there were four horses attached to this field piece, or maybe it was only two, I forget. But one horse was all right and the other horse was trying to get away, and dragging this other horse, and my next shot ... I took to put those horses out of their misery. I didnt know whether the other horse had been hit, but it probably had some shrapnel in it. I had seen a horse before that was hit, and he was all blown up. He was laying in the field, he looked like he was going to burst, and I thought to myself, those horses, that horse that I had seen, and I had seen cattle that way, too. I thought, Im not going to let that suffer. So the next shot, I sent a high-explosive into those horses. ... Thats hard. ... In fact, thats harder than enemy soldiers. But I had to do it.
I dont watch war movies. Ive seen a little bit of them, but then if I watch them, I dream about what actually happened. I have nightmares, because you see the people in the movies, you see these shells coming in and hitting right in a group of people, they fly up in the air, then they jump up and run away. That doesnt happen. When that shell hits in a group of people, there might be one or two that get up and run away, but the whole group doesnt do that.
I have one son. He was born nine months before I went into the service. He has two children, a boy and a girl.
Theyre grown up now. The grandson, this is his second year in college, and my granddaughter, shes out of college. Shes 22 years old. My grandson is 19. My granddaughter got married last August.
When they were in school, fifth or sixth grade maybe, my grandchildren would say things occasionally about the war, and ask me things about it, and I would just say, "Somebody else will tell you about it." Id also say, "You dont want to know anything about this, youll read it in history. What you read in there will be good enough." Thats the way Id answer them.
I brought back a couple of German pistols. I guess my son was about eight or nine, and I came in the house one day from work, he had come home from school about a half-hour before I did, and he had one of his schoolboy friends with him, and he was showing him these pistols that I had brought home.
The one he had out at that time was a Walther, it was a German officers, the officers name was on the holster. It was a shoulder holster. The pistol was a 7.65 caliber, and I had ammunition for it, and he was showing his friend the weapon. I took it away from him and I explained to him how dangerous this thinhg was, and within a week I had gotten rid of all my German pistols. I gave one to a friend who had never been in the service, and the other to a fellow who had been in the service but he was in the Air Corps, and had never seen ground combat.
I had a brother who was in the Navy. He was on a destroyer. And my sister was home, her husband was in the Navy. As a matter of fact, he was a radio man on the Intrepid, from the day it was launched until the day it was decommissioned. His name was Carl Armstrong. He was on that ship every day. He was in the radio shack. And he could tell some stories about that ship.
Every year, when hed come East to visit they lived in California I was going to take him aboard, and hed say, "Next year," and doesnt he die this last spring. He got cancer. He had a heart attack, they operated on a bypass, and they found he had cancer also and he passed away.
He was on that Intrepid. And a client of mine who was in charge of the museum on the Intrepid told me, "When he comes in, let me know," because we wanted to roll out a carpet for him, and he never got there.
When I got discharged, I drove to Brockton, which was probably about five miles from where I lived in Whitman. I still had my uniform on with a ruptured duck. When you were discharged they gave you what they called a ruptured duck, that showed that you were discharged from the service. And I had no civilian clothes that fit me.
I went to a pants store in Brockton, and they had pants, but they were too long. In those days they had cuffs, and they had to be shortened.
So the owner said, "Can you pick them up in a couple of days?"
I said, "No, I want a pair today. I want to get out of this uniform."
So he says, "Well, Ill do you a favor. Ill fix one pair for you today."
I said, "Fine, thats all I want. As a matter of fact, for that Ill buy an extra pair."
He told me to come back about 5 oclock, just before he closed, and he said, "Ill have them ready for you."
So I had to waste some time, and there was this nightclub named Cappys. We used to go there during the war when we got furloughs, and he used to have all kind of American flags. It was a good place to pick up women. They had floor shows there. So I said, well, Ill go down there and have a couple of beers while Im waiting for the pants.
Now this is the first or second of October. It was kind of chilly. I parked the car near the place, and just as Im going to walk in, this guy, he was strapping, he was bigger than I was, he opens the door, and I walk in.
Right after we get inside, he takes off his topcoat, and he was a state trooper. He says, "This place is raided!"
Im standing there with my mouth open. I said to the guy, "You just let me in!"
He said, "Im sorry. Youve got to stay here. The place is raided."
I said, "Whats gonna happen?"
He said, "After we question everybody, the paddywagon will come, and theyll take you to the Brockton police station, and youll have to go to court, and youll pay five dollars for being present at the time of a raid."
I said, "For Chrissakes, you held the door open for me!"
He said, "Im sorry." Then he said to the bartender, "Keep serving."
So Im in there, and Im really nervous now, and theres a sailor, I can still see him. He was loaded. There were two or three state troopers behind the bar, they were looking for betting slips, and the sailor was going, "All you goddamn soldiers and sailors that fought the war, this is what you fought it for, these 4-F ..." he called the state troopers all kinds of names, and the trooper that held the door open for me kept looking at this guy. After about ten minutes of listening to this sailor spout off, the trooper says, "Listen, punk. Ive got more bad time in the Navy than youve got good time."
We were there a good two hours. Then the paddy wagon came, and loaded the sailor and four or five civilians. There was one woman in the whole place and she was crying because her husband was on the second shift at the Fall River shipyard and she wanted to get home and make his lunch. I guess she stopped off for a beer before she went home.
Finally, I got out of there, and I went up to get my pants, but the store was closed. Then I couldnt remember where I parked the car. So I took the bus home, and the next day I had to ask a buddy of mine to drive me up to Brockton.
When we were still in England, this fellow Jim Driskill and I were good friends. I liked the guy, he was a raw-boned Texan, a farmer.
About a month before we went to France, we were each issued a new pair of shoes.
Driskills platoon, the maintenance platoon, didnt have to stand inspection. The line troops did. So I happened to get a pair of shoes that had a little fuzz on them, they were hard to keep a shine on. I couldnt say, "No, I dont want these," you took what you got. So I was kind of bitching about that to Jim one day, because the day before we had an inspection and the officer bawled me out for not having my shoes polished properly.
And Jim said, "Ive got a nice pair of shiny ones," and they were the same size as mine. So we traded shoes.
As soon as we got the shoes, though, you had to stamp your name and serial number in them, with indelible ink. So I had already done that with mine, and he had done it with his.
When I got hit, it blew my shoe off. And when Driskill and his group came up to our tanks some days later to see what they could salvage, he said he was walking around, and he saw a shoe laying there. So he picked it up, and it was Jim Driskills!
Several years after the war, here comes the mail, and theres a letter from Driskill. And the first sentence, he says, "Wheres my other shoe?"
My daughter was six weeks old whden I went overseas. She was two and a half years old when I came home.
She didnt like it. Shed been sleeping with her mother, and when we put her in her own bed she got mad. She said, "Go back to Germany."
One morning, real early, the nurse came in and said, "Are you ready to go back home?
I said, "Yeah, Im ready to go."
I think she had brought me some breakfast. She said, "Eat your breakfast and brush your teeth, and be sure that your toilet articles are all together." I had a little zipper bag that I kept them in. She said, "Well be back in a little bit, to start your flight home."
She was a man of her word, because it wasnt too long until they came and got me and took me out to Prestwick and loaded me on a C-54.
After the war, those were passenger planes, the biggest passenger airliners we had. I guess they were the first of the four-motored airliners. They were made by Douglass.
I cant remember whether the stretcher cases were stacked three high or four high on each side of the aisle, but they had them stacked kind of like sardines, except on one end they had regular seats for the ambulatory patients.
We flew from Prestwick to Reykjavik, then to Greenland, and then I guess we stopped at Gander. I didnt get off the airplane. We may have gone on over to Goose Bay. Six of one, half a dozen of the other except that theyre 500 miles apart. We went from there to Mitchel Field on Long Island.
There, they put us in a little station hospital. While I was there, I got a real haircut. A barber came up, a real barber. The USO, they just couldnt to enough for you. They were real nice. I was there for three or four days. I didnt know where I was going.
They said theres a big Army hospital, a general hospital, in Temple, Texas, would you like to go there? I said, "I sure would, and the sooner the better." The next day they loaded me and some other guys on a C-47 and took us down the East Coast, I think we went down to Greensboro, made some stops along the way. And they went over eventually to Love Field in Dallas, and they put me in a station hospital out there.
The nurse on that ward called Jeanette and told her I was there, and Jeanette got my mother and father, my little daughter, and my sister, and one of my loudmouth neighbors who I wish theyd have left at home. Imagine, people coming into a damn hospital and asking you, "Did you see any Germans? How many did you kill?"
I enjoyed it. In retrospect, why, Id have probably done the same thing.
The next morning, they flew me down to Temple, 130 miles south of Dallas, and took me over to McCloskey General Hospital.
After revisions on both stumps, and almost a year and a half, they transferred me to Percy Jones General Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan. I was there for almost another year and a half, so all told I was hospitalized for almost three years.
The first temporary prostheses I had were fabricated and fitted about nine months after I was initially wounded. I could figure it out to the day. Roosevelt died on April 12th, 1945. Thats nine months to the day from the day they scooped me up on a piece of bloody French real estate until I put on my first temporary prosthesis.
I used to kiddingly say Roosevelt had lived a long time, and had a pretty full life. He had done a lot of good things, a lot of things with which I didnt agree, but Im just one person. Somebody had probably called the president over at Warm Springs and said to him, "Jim Flowers is standing up and hes taking his first steps," and Roosevelt says, "Ive heard it all. Nothing further that I care to hear." And he sat down and died.