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They were all young kids

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A Mile in Their Shoes

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©2014, Aaron Elson

 

   

They were all young kids

The online version

©2014, Aaron Elson

Lieutenant Jim Flowers and the battle for Hill 122

This is the story of Jim Flowers, a brash young lieutenant from Dallas whose courage and sacrifice helped turn the tide in one of the bloodiest battles of the Normandy campaign. Flowers' story, along with that of the battle for Hill 122, is taught to French schoolchildren. Yet it is virtually unknown in the United States.

Order "They were all young kids" on Amazon.com (sold out).

 Chapter 19

Jim Rothschadl, Part 2

   When I was in the hospital in England, I was looking around for people that I knew. It was a huge place, and on the end of every bed was a tag, with name, rank, serial number, and what else was on there? Whether you were Protestant or Catholic. And they gave the units also. So I was looking for guys from the 712th, or the 90th, or the 82nd Airborne, I knew some guys from the 82nd weíd trained with.

    I go back and forth there, and one day I ran into a guy from my company. A fellow by the name of Coleman. He was the second cook in the kitchen all the while while we were in Benning. I said, "What happened to you?" He had a big cast all the way down his leg.

    "Those sonofabitches," he said. "One day they got short a loader and stuck me in a tank!" He never was in a tank.

    He said, "They showed me what to do," and he got his knee in back there, where the recoil from the breach comes; thatís what smashed his leg. Smashed his whole knee up.

    Another guy I got to know in the hospital, his name is Fred Czarny. He was in the bed next to me in the hospital. I was already married at the time, to this wonderful lady. I went home on a furlough and got married. And when I was burned, my fingers got stiff, like pieces of board. I couldnít write. I couldnít bend them for a long time. This Fred Czarny would write for me. I would dictate to him.

    He stayed over there in the hospital, and he said, "When you get back to the States, send me a fifth of whiskey." Named the kind, too. So when I got to Halloran General Hospital, I was going to keep my promise.

    I said to the nurses and doctors, "I want to send this guy a fifth of whiskey." But there was a rule, you canít send whiskey overseas.

    "You canít do it," they said. I begged them. But I couldnít do it.

    Czarny got hit in the back. He was kind of heavyset, he had a lot of meat on him. He got hit by an artillery shell; he was bent over, it just made a rut on his right side. He lost control on that side. He was writing with his left hand.

    Now, this is kind of a little side story. Jim Driskill was the maintenance platoon sergeant Ė he was one hell of a good guy Ė and it was his duty to go up and check the tanks and find the bodies and identify them. And the first sergeant generally went with him, Bucky Spearman, an old guy.

    When we were still in England, Driskill and I were good friends. He was a raw-boned Texan, a farmer.

    About a month before we went to France, we were all issued a new pair of shoes. And his platoon, the maintenance platoon, didnít have to stand inspection. The line troops did. I happened to get a pair of shoes that had a little fuzz, they were hard to keep the shine on. But you couldnít say, "No, I donít want these," you took what you got. I couldnít keep a nice polish on them, so I was bitching about that a little bit to Jim one day, because I think just the day before we had an inspection and the inspecting officer bawled me out for not having my shoes polished properly. And Jim says, "Iíve got a nice pair of shiny ones," and the same size as mine.

    As soon as we got the shoes, you had to stamp your name and serial number in them, with indelible ink. I had already done that with mine, and he had done it with his. But I was sick and tired of catching hell for not having polished shoes. "Letís trade," he said. "You take my shoes and Iíll take yours." So we traded shoes, and I forgot about it.

    When Hill 122 happened, when I got hit down there, it blew my one of my shoes 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 there Ė he told this to my wife and me; we went to Texas to see him Ė there was a shoe laying there. He picked it up, and it had his name in it!

    And I hadnít heard from that guy since Day One. So one day here comes the mail and thereís a letter from Jim Driskill.

    He never had my address. Somehow he got ahold of it. And the first sentence, he says, "Whereís my other shoe?"

    We have a son out in Arizona, so one time we were driving to Arizona, and I thought Iíll stop and see the old boy. It was about 400 miles out of the way. He lives in the town of Claude, Texas, in the Panhandle. So we stopped at his place and visited with him for quite a few hours. And we talked about that shoe, what a coincidence it was, walking out there and looking for this grizzly stuff and here he finds a shoe with his name in it.

    Kiballa, all his family ever got was this telegram saying he was killed in action somewhere in France. Nothing else. Didnít tell them where he was buried, they didnít know a thing. Until I called there and got hold of Myron, and talked with him a little bit.

    We all almost got stuck in the same marsh that Sheppardís tank got stuck in. One area of that hill was kind of a sharp embankment, and we were spinning down there, but we finally got through there. And Iíll never forget all those foxholes all the way up that hill. They were dug in there like they were told to hold that line. Those poor bastards, the Germans. They were just young guys like us, too, I suppose, as innocent as we were. Itís too bad, isnít it?

    We got a prisoner one day, a day or two before Hill 122. We were moving along, and an infantry lieutenant called for air support. It was a clear afternoon. And there was a long building on the side of the road, with tile on the roof instead of shingles. It was low and had walls about two feet thick, of stone. So we stopped about 20 feet away, and all the infantry guys were huddled up against that building while theyíre waiting for these planes to come, and then they came within minutes, a couple of squadrons of Thunderbolts and Mustangs. We had a pair of really powerful binoculars in the tank, and I was watching these guys. Each plane had either a 250-pound or a 500-pound bomb under each wing. They were not too far ahead of us when they were bombing, and I could see them just like I can see you. I could see a pilot. I focused in on one of them and I followed him down. These guys went into a hail of bullets, you could see the tracers going up. None of them got hit. There were 10 or 15 planes dropping their bombs there. And one of them Ė it was a P-47 Thunderbolt Ė I saw only one bomb drop. The other one hung on there. I remember seeing the plane Ė as soon as he dropped the first one, they all flew back over our lines Ė and I never thought you could handle a plane like that. He was trying to shake that bomb off. He was coming toward us, and the damn thing finally fell off, just on the other side of the building. And all these tiles came off, falling on all these GIs. What a commotion!

    We stayed there for a while, and pretty soon somebody hollered, "Sniper!"

    Somebody picked up three or four infantry guys and started walking down this road. There was a great big cottonwood tree that had tipped over, and the bushes tipped with it. I was watching these guys go down there; thatís where they thought the sniper was. I was watching with the binoculars, and pretty soon I couldnít see them. They went around the tree; there was a big chunk of dirt and the roots. Pretty soon they came out with a German. I was watching this Ė I had my binoculars in the turret Ė and they were coming toward me. He was a little fellow. And they made him kneel down, right in front of my tank. He was kneeling down on his hands and knees Ė just on his knees, he had his hands behind his back Ė and these guys were trying to ask him something. Enlisted men werenít supposed to talk to prisoners, it was sort of a rule. But they did. And I kept hearing him repeatedly say, "Ya sem Czech." I can talk Czech, so I walked over to him. And I knelt down by him and started talking Czech to him. He jumped up Ė he was just delighted that somebody was talking Czech Ė so these infantry boys thought he was trying to do something, and they grabbed ahold of him, and down he went.

    I told the guys, "Wait a minute!" And I talked to him for a bit. He couldnít talk German; he could talk Czech. The Germans took a lot of Poles and Czechs and they scattered them in their infantry units as fill-ins. So I was talking to him. He had some pictures; he showed me pictures of his mother and his father. He said that the Germans killed them. He was born in Prague. They killed his mother and father, and then they put him in a labor battalion. Then when we landed in Normandy, they took him out of the labor battalion and put him into an infantry unit, along with a lot of people from other countries they had overrun.

    He said the Germans told him, "If they capture you, theyíre going to hang you from the nearest tree. They donít take prisoners." Then he said to me, "Are you going to kill me?"

    "Noooo," I said. "Youíre going to be all right now. Theyíll take you back someplace, and from there youíll probably go to the United States." I gave him a cigarette. And he had a little cigar, it was ersatz. He said, "These are no good, but Iíll give you one."

    Another time, we had a chance to take prisoners, and we didnít take them. They were in a pothole, with some trees, and they did have some white flags up, but they didnít make it. Another tank was firing; we fired.

    We stopped at this pothole. Earlier we had picked up Ė I donít know whether Flowers ever mentioned it Ė we picked up a German motorcycle, and loaded it up on the back of the tank. He was going to use it for reconnaissance. It was small; it was a motorbike. There was a lot of room on the back of the tank, a deck like. So he put his little motorcycle there, and he was going to use that for recon. I donít know what ever happened to that. I found a concertina. I always loved a concertina. And in this little wooded pothole, there was some other stuff there, some rifles and pistols. Do you know what a concertina is? Itís like an accordion, only itís a hexagon shape. We used to have one at home. I picked it up and tied it on the back of the tank. It was a crazy idea, that as soon as I get a chance Iím gonna put it in a box and somehow send it home, to my dad.

    It was in what we call a pothole. A low piece of ground that at one time had water in it, and trees, probably it was about five times as big as this house in area. A low spot. I think they picked up some of these machine pistols. Really well made, compared to our tommy gun. Then they had these pistols, the lugers, some of those were in there. We had a bunch of junk on the back of the tank. It was a crazy idea, oh, Iím gonna send it home.

    Kiballa was always with me in France; he was always with me either inside or outside the tank. One day we came to a hedgerow and there was an open field ahead of us, and the lieutenant said, "Iím gonna stop here. Iím gonna back up into the woods with the tanks." Then he said, "Iím going to make a recon."

    I said to myself, "I hope he doesnít ask me to go along."

    He said, "You stay here, and keep me covered with the .50-caliber," but he did take a couple of infantry guys with him. They ran across this field, which was about 300 yards, and we were sitting in the tanks waiting for him to come back. He disappeared into the woods on the other side with two guys. And pretty soon the other guys in the tanks were calling my tank, Trigger 1-1. Some of the guys wanted to go out and take a crap. "Canít we get out for a while?"

    I said it wasnít up to me. We were supposed to man the guns.

    I was getting on pins and needles waiting for the lieutenant to come back. And these guys were saying, "Weíd better get out of here, because theyíre going to zero us in here pretty soon." It doesnít take long to zero in. The enemy, they knew how to do it. We knew how to do it, too. So the tank commanders were upset. And lo and behold, pretty soon, here comes a mortar barrage. It started way out in the woods where they were, what they call a walking mortar barrage. Small mortars, I think they were 60-millimeters. They explode on impact. And here I see Jim come running, and the other two guys, zigzagging and running like hell, and mortar fire was firing all over. One piece hit the ammunition box for the .50-caliber ammunition Ė there was a space of about three inches between the bottom of the ammunition box and the turret. And I was watching, I wanted to get out of the way so he could jump in the tank. But he made it all right. He came flying in there. And he gave the order immediately, "Proceed!" Mortars wonít hurt a tank. Some of the guys wanted to know whether they should button up Ė I donít know whether we buttoned up or not Ė but we went across that field. Nothing happened; nobody got hurt.

    Abraham Taylor was a Jewish fellow. Just one hell of a nice guy. I was really sad when he got killed. He was quite a bit older than us. He was a good platoon sergeant. He was good to me. He was good to the men. Some sergeants thought they were dictators. He was always kind of soft-spoken. He was such a nice fellow.

    Iíll tell you one little incident thatís humorous. We never backed off the damn line hardly. At nighttime, it was scary. So we got to this one spot, and there were some buildings there. Little villages all over the place. My tank was stopped there, and there was a little house. The top of it was pretty well shot up. But there was an entryway to go down to a root cellar, and the door was open. Kiballa was with me then. Flowers wasnít right there at the time. We could see a big barrel down there, like a 150-gallon barrel, and we knew that it was full of apple cider. And right alongside it was a smaller barrel, about 30 gallons, and there was the cognac. So we were debating a while, maybe it was boobytrapped. Finally, I didnít go down there first, somebody else went, it wasnít one of my men. Somebody went down there and they found out there was apple cider and cognac, and we were filling up our canteens with a mixture of the two. And I overdid it. I got loaded to the gills. And I passed out. Then in the early morning hours I was laying on the ground outside, and Flowers bawled the hell out of us. We were supposed to be manning the .50-caliber guns. I had told one of the guys to take my place.

 

     I came home in October of 1943 on a 15-day furlough, and this wonderful lady that Iím married to Ė we were both young Ė we had been writing letters and so forth, and we decided to get married. We did. And I went back to camp.

    I went to Fort Knox, to gunnery school, and I was scheduled to go back to Fort Benning. So one night about a week before my time was up, I wrote a letter to my company commander. One night I sat down, I wanted to go home again so bad before I went overseas. I knew I was going overseas. So I wrote a letter to Jim Cary. I explained to him that Iíd been home in October and gotten married, and my wife was home there, and would it be possible to get a delay en route. I didnít have another furlough coming, but the company commander can issue a delay en route, I knew that. And lo and behold, he sent me delay en route papers and a three-day pass. I got 13 days. So I was able to come home one more time.

    She wrote to me every day. She never missed. Sometimes I didnít get them every day. And I tried to write to her every day. I wrote some from France that she never did get.

    We still have a bunch of them. They were love letters. We were young, you know.

    I did write one serious letter home Ė not to my wife but to my brother. My younger brother. I had one older brother, and he was in the service, but he didnít get overseas. He could have gone overseas but he didnít go. And I had a younger brother. He wrote to me when I was in the hospital in England. He was home, with my father and mother. Thatís the only letter I ever got from him. Otherwise my dad always wrote, and my wife, and my brother Fred. He wrote to me kind of regular. But my brother Richard, he wrote me this letter, he said, "All my friends are going in the Army. Iím going to go in the Army." And of course I knew what hell it was over there.

    Well, I wrote him a letter. And he saved it. He showed it to me after the war. The censors really blocked it out. They massacred it. Because I was going to discuss it and disillusion him. I'd been laying in the hospital for months, and they were doing this and that, they grew a culture, a live cell culture, in Readerís Digest they had a whole article on it. They thought they really had it made. Instead of grafting skin, they grew a live culture. I donít know how they did it, but they grew a live culture; my mouth was burned real bad, and they wanted it to grow back together. They had a hell of a time with that. They applied this live culture every day, twice a day. One of my buddies was laying burned, he was burned worse than I was. They did his whole face, over the months. And then one morning, before they shipped me home, it was about six months after I was there, one morning I noticed something different about him. His body rejected it. He was purple and green and red and white. They scraped the whole thing off. About 40 percent of the guys they used it on it worked, but on about 60 percent it didnít.

    I wrote this letter; itís funny they didnít toss me in the hoosegow. I told him to stay the hell out of it. I said thereís two of us brothers in here now, thatís enough. Stay home. Donít do it. And I told him some of the things that happened and how bad it is, and how cruel humans can be to one another. Itís terrible. They butchered the letter up pretty much, but he got the understanding of it. He didnít sign up. Of course, by the time he would have got trained the war would have been over.

 

    My mother and father were born in Czechoslovakia; what is now Czechoslovakia. When they were there it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They came to this country when they were 15 years old Ė they didnít know each other at the time Ė and they settled in a little Czech settlement in South Dakota, not far from Yankton. There were a lot of Czechs there who had immigrated earlier, and one of the farmers sponsored my dad. He was an indentured servant. He had to work three years for this fellow. The guy paid his passage and guaranteed him a job.

    My dad was one of five boys in his family, including his twin brother Martin. His twin brother was supposed to come the following year, but something happened and he didnít come, and my father ended up here alone. Martin got drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army and became a lieutenant. And he was killed over there, at the end of the First World War.

    My dad and mother were living in a settlement near Yankton, and he worked his debt off. Then he worked in a cement factory in the winter months, and in the summer months he was a dray man. He hauled dray from the depot to various business places. He also hauled beer to all the saloons. And he saved up a few dollars and he bought a house in Yankton.

    There were a whole bunch of other Czechs there, and some were related to us, cousins. There were about six families that were related. And one day, I donít know where they were, they might have been in a saloon, and they saw a brochure. And my dad and these other guys wanted to farm. They were born and raised on a farm in the old country. They didnít own it because big shots owned all the land, nobles and barons. By God, they found this brochure stating that thereís virgin land for sale. It didnít say anything about an Indian reservation. Virgin land for sale. A little bit down, and there were no lending agencies like the FHA. There was the Luck Land Company in Waubun, which is still on the reservation. These guys were bankers, and this was an Indian reservation. My folks didnít know this. Some time way back there, the government allotted land to the Indians Ė there are 800,000 acres on this reservation. They brought these Indians up and put them on the reservation. Thereís a village over here called White Earth; thatís where they settled them. After they were here for a while, the government said, "Thereís 800,000 acres here, weíre going to give each one of you 160 acres, and you should start farming." So each Indian family got 160 acres; if they were a bigger family theyíd get 240. These were called allotments. And they never had to pay taxes.

    They were all allotted this land, and then a few years later, the Minnesota Legislature asked the Bureau of Indian affairs to let the Indians sell their land if they wanted to. And Indians never were interested in farming. They hunted together and they fished together and they shared everything. They were never meant to be farmers. But they had these allotments. And these land barons here, the bigwigs, wanted to make some bucks. They got Congress to pass a law letting Indians sell their land. And they were hoodwinked into selling it real cheap. Like two or three dollars an acre. I went through all the records in the Bedford County courthouse, and found out every parcel, how much they paid for it. I had to do it because I was a county commissioner, and we went through a land claim settlement, because some of the Indians claimed it back. But these bankers, these three guys Ė talk about ripoff artists Ė they had a bank, and they went around and offered these Indians two dollars an acre, or four dollars or five dollars. Then they got title to this land, and they sold it to my dad and all these other Bohemians that came up here for $50 an acre. And they financed it, at 14 percent interest. Way back there, 14 percent interest. And they werenít told it was an Indian reservation. Hell, they could hardly talk English. They didnít know it until they settled here.

    My dad bought 160 acres to begin with, and so did my father-in-law. They bought some more later on.

    My dad, he loved this country with a passion. On the Fourth of July, heíd say, "Well, boys, no work today. Today is the birthday of the United States of America," and even though he was hard up during the Depression years, he made sure that we had some firecrackers, and we got some marshmallows and some wieners to roast, and we had three little flags to put on the hood of the Model A or the Model T. He thought this country was great. And I thought more about him, when I was over there, about his values, than I did about Old Glory itself.

    There were times when all of us Ė when times got bad Ė when we said, "Letís get the hell out of here, weíll go AWOL" Ė we were just kidding, none of us ever did. But I said to myself, boy, I would never, ever disappoint my dad, doing something like that.

Contents                       Chapter 20, Michael Vona's story