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They were all young kids

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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.

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 Chapter 20

Michael Vona's story

   "Hand to hand combat." Thatís me. I was hand to hand. I had a pistol at my head. And it went "click." And we fought. The guy scratched me all up. See, these things you hate to say but youíve got to say it because you want to know. He really gave me a good wallop. Besides, I was hit with a grenade.

    Now, when this guy, we started going hand to hand Ė after he put this pistol, that luger, but I guess he was out of ammunition Ė so weíre fighting; you ought to see the words I was using. He scratched me all up. Now if you want to know the language I used, I canít say on account of my wife is here, you know what I mean? And there was a medic on this side, on the left of me. Now on that left side there were quite a few guys in holes. But I donít know if Dzienis was there.

    My buddy [Abe] Taylor, I saw him fly out of the tank. But I didnít know whether he got hurt or not; heís the only guy I saw come out. He was actually up in front near the wall. And then when I got hit with the grenade, thatís when we started, the guy started beating me up but then he put the pistol to my head.

    Now, when I saw all these infantry guys go down, Iím saying to myself afterward, "What the hell are they doing over here?" Before we attacked, on our left hand side, how is it that nobody looked down that road? Didnít we have reconnaissance? And we were fighting the SS I think.

    So him and I, we really had it out, you ought to have seen the words I was using. But that pistol, when that didnít go off, I grabbed ahold of him, and he was scratching me. And I was whacking him. Iím hollering, "Shoot the son" Ö you know, SOB and all that crap, "F" and all those words.

    [Clarence] Morrison was the driver. I was the assistant driver. I used to drive heavy equipment when I was a civilian. I would drive the tank some of the time.

    I used to play the harmonica. I mean, you can laugh it off at times, but itís hard, itís there all the time, I donít care what anybody says.

    I donít know who shot the German. There was a medic there, it could have been him. But I saw a bunch of guys Ė later on, as darkness came Ė there were Germans walking up and down. Now, the guy that I was fighting with, heís on top of me; I jumped in a hole and I pulled him in the hole on top of me. Morrison was in a corner of the hole; he was hurt in the eye. I talked to him and he was all right, and I was smoking, with the German over me. He was still alive. He was still groaning. I thought later I should have given him his last rites.

    I said, "Iíve got to see what this guyís got." I put my hands in his pocket. I see English money. I said this bastard took it from the English. Then I waited until it got dark. I said, "Morrison, weíve got to get out of here." Because I saw these guys walking back and forth Ö but we had a cover over the foxhole.

    I got his luger, and Iím looking for ammunition; he hasnít got anything. All he had was a bayonet. And I gave that to Morrison. I said, "Morrison, weíve got to get out of here. Weíve got to take a shot. Either we get it or we donít." I figured he was a little shot, too. But I was shitting my pants, too, you know what I mean, like everybody else was. Then I heard somebody starting to cry. You canít blame that, I mean.

    It was [Ed] Dzienis. Dzienis was directly across from me. The poor kid, I mean I was a kid myself, I was 24. But Dzienis wasnít a type like me. I was a runaround. Not a runaround, I was a good boy, you know what I mean, for my age. But I had more freedom I guess; he was like a mamaís boy. But he was a nice kid, believe me. So I crawled up to him. I said, "Dzienis, I canít take you back. You stay here, theyíll probably pick you up, or Iíll try to get somebody." As we came back, the tank that was against the wall, that was Flowersí it was still burning. I said to Morrison, "Letís start walking toward" Ė I mean not walking, weíre lying down, and youíre crawling, and heís got that bayonet Ė so we start hearing noises. I said, "Uh-oh. Letís not go near there." There were a lot of people talking. There was light from the tank. Now we get to the wall. I said, "Morrison, thereís only one thing weíve got to do. Weíve got to get over this goddamn wall." We donít know whatís over the wall. They could shoot us. You lose direction. I thought it was the Germans on that side, too. But it wasnít. Morrison ran into an American guy. But when he went forward, I went to the left, and I passed out, because Iíd lost too much blood. That German, what a wallop he gave me in the head. And not only that, I was scratched. It took them I donít know how many months to clean that all up. Iíve still got a hunk of steel in me from the grenade, in my chest. Iím saving that for the next war. In fact, they treated me for shock, see. And then, when I was in the hospital, I was really sick. They operated on me three times. But then, in those days they didnít give a damn Ė well, thatís the way war is Ė they sent me back. They should never have sent me back. Thatís my theory now. I donít give a damn what anybody says. They sent me back to the line, which I didnít belong. Here I am driving other peopleís tanks. Hey, letís face it, how much can I take? So I got sick, I said, ĎAw, the hell with it.í I didnít say that, I just got sick, I thought Iím going back, Iím not gonna take it any more.

    I was on a ship. No, wait a minute, before, when they sent me back to England, Jesus, I woke up, there were Germans carrying me. I said, "Where am I?" They were prisoners of war, but I thought I was captured. I was in the water. Then they put me on an LST and out I go again. Then I wake up in a special room, they had me strapped up, with another German. Then they came down, they gave me cigarettes, I was smoking them. When they took me off the ship, I was out again. I had a million tags on me. This is the Godís truth. If you saw all these tags and shots they must have given me Ö in fact, I got up at 8 oíclock this morning, I didnít even shave, we had breakfast a quarter after nine. I used to shave all the time. Sometimes you look at it, you say, "Jesus," you know, itís really funny, but it isnít. I mean, your dad never told you, just like I never told my son.

    Hey Jim, why didnít they check on the left hand side? They should have checked more, as far as Iím concerned. Where was reconnaissance? We went into a death trap, thatís what it was. But that was the only way to stop it Ė you know how they do things. In other words youíre the guinea pig, youíre the small guy, you do what the big guy says, itís like a colonel stopped me one day and he asked me, we had coveralls, we had different uniforms than the infantry, so I had coveralls and I had no helmet. So weíre walking up the hill, weíre fooling around, Iím looking for the kitchen, Iím hungry, Iím sick and tired of eating K rations Ė when you went to the bathroom you were pooping nails, you know what I mean? Spikes. This colonel stopped us, and he wanted to know where was the helmet. He wanted our name. He said, "You know, I could send you to jail."

    He said, "Whereís your dog tag?"

    I said, "Iím Jewish. Iím not gonna wear a dogtag. If you want to take us to jail, you can." The hell, I get out [of combat], right?

    It happened that there were a couple of 88s, but when you hear them, youíre safe. Itís when you donít hear them. So the colonel and his driver hear them. He turns the jeep around so fast and he took off. And here I was sitting on the ground Ė rather it was a dirt road Ė laughing like a sonofagun. I told him I was Jewish; I wasnít, I was Italian.

    Abe [Taylor] lived right here, fifteen, twenty minutes away, in Warren. I was ashamed to go see his parents, honestly. I felt bad to say I saw their son, you know what I mean? I didnít actually see him on the ground or anything like that.

    I was 21 when I went in. They caught me right away. I know the guy, too, that put me in. I wanted to choke him. I knew him very well.

    I got married in 1946. Iíve got a son, heíll be 49 next week.

    I knew Anna before the war, we had known each other, what, seven years? I didnít want to get married [before I went in], suppose something happens to me, it isnít right. Like [Kenneth] Titman, he was married, oh, he was worried, he told me.

    Titman was always quiet, and he was always by himself. He was worrying about his wife, I guess, and kids. I donít know how many kids he had, though. Just like [Paul] Farrell. I know Farrell had one.

    New England was all mills, they made shoes, all the wool for these factories. I had a chauffeurís license. I used to drive 18-wheelers. I used to drive a chain drive, see, you donít remember those things. I could drive an 18-wheel or anything, in those days they had canvas trailers. Then your dump trucks, you take the Sterling, that was just like a tank, you could hit anything and you wouldnít even get a scratch. Thatís the way they made them in those days.

    My dad grew up in Hoboken, right across the street from Frank Sinatra. And my grandfatherís buried in Newburgh. He was working for the railroad, him and his brother, they were working on the tracks. So as the train was coming, it sucked them right in and killed them. I didnít know my grandfather.

    When the tank was hit, Titman said something, and I just jumped out. In fact, I left my sub Thompson. I had taken my stock off, to use it as a pistol. There were 20 rounds in the clip, and I had the clips welded, in other words I had 40 rounds. I kept it in the tank, right next to me, and sonofagun I jump out without it. And I wasnít going to go back in and get it. Thatís when I got the grenade. But I didnít feel nothing, see, you donít feel nothing.

    Morrison was driving and I was using the .30. I could see these kids and Iím shooting away like a sonofagun, and thatís when I heard the noise, thatís all. I still donít remember hearing Titman.

    I got hit by the grenade as soon as I got out. I didnít see it, but it probably exploded ten or thirteen feet from me. I donít know what kind of grenade it was. When they took the steel out of me it was like razor blades. But most of the shrapnel came out okay. The only thing, they were worrying about my face where he scratched the hell out of me. But Iím lucky, when he put the pistol to my head Ė oh, wait a minute Ė he puts the pistol, and I grab ahold of him, but it clicks. So Iím fighting and Iím swearing, he was scratching me, and Iíve got him by the neck. Iíve got one hand trying to hold where the pistol was, and Iíve got him by the neck Ė as small as I was, I was 129 pounds, but he wasnít that much bigger. He had a helmet on, but I think it came off because we were fighting. I donít remember if he had blond hair, black hair, blue eyes, or purple hair. I figured I wasnít gonna last anyway. Thatís the way you think. But I was surprised to see Morrison there.

    I said, "Morrison?" He didnít say a word. So I started to talk to him afterwards. Then I got this damn German down. I said, "Iíll get you, you sonofabitch, and youíll stay right on top of me." Because afterwards, they were coming back up and down, and they were shooting. I donít know how they missed the kid from Worcester, like I said, he was crying.

    Before we went, Abe said to me, "Mickey, saddle up. This is it." And I said in Italian, "Oom-gatz, saddle up." I hung out with certain guys. You didnít know all of the platoon, because you didnít hang out with them. Just like the first 25 miles in basic training, I carried the company flag. I got a pass for that. I said to [Frank] Perry, "Come on, Frank, letís go," boom, we went to Phenix City, we were shooting pool. Oh, Jeez, they had kids over there, 12-year-old prostitutes. They were paying all the churches off to keep their mouth shut. I went swimming bare-ass, me and Frankie, in the Mississippi River, goddamn cottonmouths over there. There are snakes. I would never sleep on the ground. We went on maneuvers in Tennessee, I slept on the top of the tank.

    Hey, Jim, were you with us the day we drank prune juice on maneuvers, and we all had the runs?

    Itís hard to remember, though. Sometimes it comes to you. Youíve got to remember the good and the bad.

    When I was a youngster, I went to school, but Iíd been out to the West, Iíd been all over. I finished high school. I could have gone to college. URI was cheap in those days. There was some kind of a plan they had, for the poor like. But I wanted to go with my buddy, Haffa. Everybody had nicknames, Haffa Buck. Haffa Buck and I went as far as Billings, Montana. I went up to Yellowstone National Park, that was nice. I went by train.You get in the boxcars. Nobody bothered you. They only go five, ten miles an hour, you go through the Red River Canyon, you can just jump on it. Weíd sleep just lying down on the side of the road, going into a diner or something, you work for a few days washing dishes, go to the Salvation Army. Youíd find ways.

    When youíd go out in the West those days, they all carried guns. Theyíd kill you. I went into a drugstore and it says, "No Indians, no blacks" Ė being Italian, I used to get tan, they threw me out. I didnít open my mouth.

    My mother was born in America. My father came here when he was only a year or a year and a half old. They went to school as far as the eighth grade. In World War I, one of my uncles on my motherís side joins the Italian army. He gets killed. Hereís my father in the American army. Of course they didnít know each other then.

    Like I say, ask Flowers, I mean, letís face it, why didnít they check this stuff? This is my theory. We went in there like stoops, thatís the way I look at it. Thatís the way I feel, in my heart. When I see these kids go, I mean, I could have gone, too. Iím lucky that thing he didnít have nothing left in there. I should never have gone back because I wasnít a well man.

    He had the luger right to my temple. And it clicks. I mean, itís no joke, you know what I mean?

    I was in a private room in a general hospital, and I was in a bed, all tied up. In shock. When I woke up again, I donít know how many times I passed out, on account of I lost all that blood. Then when I woke up on the ship, when the Germans took me there, remember, I thought they had me as their prisoner. What the hell do I know? Then I pass out again. I remember they were putting me on an LST, thatís all. There was four of them carrying me in.

    After they sent me back to the outfit, I got sick. I went berserk. I got the jitters, because I had too much of it. Iíd seen too much. I still get medication. And the doctors at the hospital, they knew that Iíd be back, believe it or not. I stayed four months in the VA hospital when I came back again.

    The VA knew Iíd be back when they read my records. Because I was in shock a lot, on board ship, it had to be a hospital ship, and I was in, what do you call it, a straitjacket, Iíll be honest with you, and Iím wondering, what the heck am I doing in this thing? Then I got a guy next to me, heís a kraut. So this girl comes in, and she gives me a package, and itís got oranges, candy, and then there was a carton of cigarettes, guess where itís from. Some outfit in Cleveland, an undertaker. I said, aw, youíve got to be kidding. After that I must have passed out again. Then as they were taking me off, I passed out again. But then when I got in the general hospital, Iím in a room all by myself, and theyíve got me tied up, with all these damn things, and my arms and all that crap. Straps right across to hold me there. They had blood going into me, and they were giving me more goddamn shots. I said, "What are you doing to me?" Then once I got up they put me in a ward. They put you in tents. I was fartiní around, Iíd jump over the wall and go to a bar.

    When they sent me back to the line, I remember going back on a ship, a lieutenant says, "Vona?"

    I said, "Yeah."

    He gave me a rifle.

    I said, "What the heck am I gonna do with this?"

    He says, "Youíve got to have something."

    So he walked away. Plunk. I threw it away. It was bigger than me. I could never shoot a rifle. Imagine them putting me in the infantry.

    Then they put me in different outfits. Like [Tony] DíArpino, I drove for him one time. And some other guys, they were tired, I mean naturally you get tired, you get fatigued. Thatís what it is. I drove for [Lieutenant Charles] Lombardi for a while.

    I knew I wasnít right, but I didnít want to say anything. Then one day I said, "I just canít take it," and I just laid down. I started shaking. My mind went berserk on me. I didnít know whatís happening. See, you think of what you did before, and what you received, you know what you got. But I always regretted that I never got something better than being a Pfc. Because I did a lot. More than a lot of guys.

    I even told Abe Ė he said, "Mike, donít tell them I did this." He wanted to give me his dog tags. I said, "Throw the goddamn things away, will you?" He was scared, I mean. I said, "What the hell are you gonna give them to me?" He wanted to put them on me.

    This was a few days before [Hill 122], because it was around where they used to kill Ė in other words, if you were Jewish Ė he was a hell of a guy, believe me, what a nice guy. It was going around, if you were Jewish, Boom, that was it. That was what they were saying. I didnít see any of that. But you believe it, you know what I mean?

    I donít know if he did throw the dog tags away. But he was a good sergeant. He took orders, and he gave orders, nice orders, in other words, he wasnít a bastard. He was a regular guy. He treated you as a human being. Titman, he was more of a jittery guy, and I used to kid with him, fooling around. I didnít hang out with Morrison or the other kid. They stayed by themselves. Morrison was from Indiana, I think. And the other kid was from Connecticut. I think Bridgeport.

    I go by Taylorís neighborhood all the time, I go down to Bristol. I donít know if youíve heard of Bristol. Thatís where they have that big parade, the Fourth of July, a lot of New York outfits come up here.

    I still have nightmares. Thatís why now, I sleep alone, my wife sleeps alone. With her condition and my condition, moving around. Itís unbelievable, but you live with it. You canít cry about it. Itís hard. But Iíll go down to the VA and have some fun. Or Iíll walk, I do a lot of walking. Iíve got to start losing weight. I take blood pressure pills, hypertension.

    Taylor was tall, and skinny. He was a good egg. He was good to everybody. Him and I, we used to kid each other. We could say anything, even though he was Jewish. He would call me a guinea, a wop, come on. And I could call him other things.

    When his father first came here, he was a tailor, thatís how he got his name. That I remember now. It was his father, when he first came here, thatís the way he told me. Because they couldnít talk English.

    But like I said, your friends you remember, and my friends were all killed. Thereís nothing I could do, but me, Iím lucky Iím alive.

    To me, war is hell. You donít know until you see it. At the beginning you think itís a game. But once youíre in combat you throw the book away. What they taught you in the service, forget it. Youíre on your own. Your officers would take their bars off. Itís true. What the heck, if they see the bars theyíre gonna shoot him first. I mean, itís no joke, they teach you one way, but then you go out there and itís different.

Contents                       Chapter 21, Myron Kiballa's story