Bing is a former US Army Ranger who I wrote about in Together We Stand and also Twenty-One. His story is one of the more dramatic and traumatic that I have been told and the effects these events had on the rest of his life says much about the long-term effects of war. I met him and Frances, his wife of nearly sixty years, at their home in the heart of Indiana, USA, back in November 2002.
Warren ‘Bing’ Evans
Interview date: 26 November 2002
J: Really just to start off with, if you could tell me about where you were born, family, growing up, right back to the very beginning I suppose and whereabouts and what your Dad did and all that sort of stuff.
W: Really, well at least to me it doesn’t seem like it would be that interesting, but James I was born in Aberdeen, South Dakota. That’s just a few miles from the North Dakota line in the middle of north and south Dakota, Aberdeen would be almost in the middle of it. One of the largest cities in South Dakota. If you can imagine the largest city being between 25 and 30,000. At that time it was 16 or 17,000. My father died of cancer when I was four years old. My sister was two.
J: It was just the two children was it?
W: Yes. And she was uneducated. She could read and write. That sounds strange for a civilised country but at that time it was not so strange. So we had a difficult time. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a railroad engineer on the Milwaukee railroad and Aberdeen was a division headquarter but their house on 406 South Seventh Street was really the only address I knew as I grew up.
J: So your mother, your sister and yourself moved in with your grandparents?
W: Well, no. My sister did. But my grandfather it was in the middle of the depression, or the depression was shortly thereafter, but a depression for us anyway. I had an uncle who was starting his family, he had three children at that time and he and his wife and three children were in that same small house. It had only really two bedrooms but they divided the one upstairs and made sort of two small rooms, and I have an uncle who actually is four months younger than I am and he had the one little cubby hole but it was a cubby hole for one and my aunt who just died here two months ago and I was caring for here here, was on the other side and they, my aunt had a double bed so my sister slept with her. But then with my uncle and his family and grandpa and grandma’s two children and then at that time his father and mother were living with them and they filled a small basement. So there was no room for my mother or for me. My mother waited table, did anything she could to try to keep body and soul together and I sold papers on the street, had a paper round, that sort of thing. Pretty much I grew up wild. It sounds like I’m feeling sorry for myself but really I’m not. I thought a lot of people lived that way. It was hard times. I don’t ever recall living longer than six months in any one place and then we’d run out of money and my mother would run out of money and they’d kick us out and we’d move and then there was for a long time that my mother was not well and it was at that time well you had to understand the life of a paper boy in those days. I sold papers on the street as well as having the round. And I had the best block in town but the only way you could keep that block was to fight for it. Physically fight for it. And I suspect you’ve heard of other places that did the same thing. I took some pretty good beatings I think some time but I never lost a fight because I couldn’t afford to lose the block. It was as simple as that.
J: Were you conscious of being happy or unhappy as a child or was it just this is what you knew and that was how it was?
W: I can’t recall ever being ecstatic. I can recall some miserable times but I didn’t realise then how miserable they were. Does that answer your question? No, I don’t think I felt sorry for myself because I thought a lot of people lived the same way. They didn’t but I ate pretty well a lot of the time. Now my mother was a good cook and she would cook for the city groups and so forth. They’d meet in the YMCA in Aberdeen and I’d come to the back door in the YMCA and she’d let me in then she’d fill me up with whatever goodies she was having that day. So I ate pretty well and there was a man who had been a missionary in China who was the Secretary of the YMCA and he came back and retired but he took over as the Secretary and I think he knew that I would come in, and my uncle was working in the locker room at the time, barely scraping by with his family, really not scraping by. If it hadn’t been for grandpa and grandma he wouldn’t have made it. But the bed I remember most was under the steps at the YMCA. I’d go into the locker room before he’d lock up, kind of get lost in there and no-one would know I was there and then he’d lock up and when he’d come the next day I’d get out. I think that Mr Ware (his name was Ware — I know because his daughter Kathleen beat me out of the scholarship. They gave one scholarship to the highest scholastic girl or highest scholastic boy and I was in the running for the boy but she got it as a girl. I think she went to [?]. Anyway, she had a scholarship). That’s sort of my background. As a kid I went from pillar to post. I was out of school for a year because I had put a boy in the hospital that I’d fought with and I was taken before the juvenile judge and his daughter was at school with me – Lota Sign[?], Judge Sign – and I think she interceded for me and anyway he didn’t put me in reform school but he put me on probation and told me that I didn’t dare fight any more and I said well how do I keep my block, that’s the way I keep body and soul together. And I think he was responsible then for getting me a job with the Candy Service Company as a salesman.
J: So you could give up your block?
W: So I could give up my block. I remember I made 18 dollars a month. That was pretty good pay. It kept my sister and I alive all the time my mother was in hospital.
J: So that’s a bit of good fortune really?
W: It was. Oh I’ve had lots of good things happen like that. So I was out of school for a year. My sister and I then graduated together. I guess I was a pretty good football player because I had several scholarships, athletic scholarships, offered. I also liked to sing. Does that sound strange? And I had a scholarship to the New York School of Music (when it was the New York School of Music, I don’t think it’s called that now, I think it’s – where did Gretchen go to school? – anyway it’s actors and actresses and known more for its voice singing as music) but that summer I broke my nose playing baseball. I didn’t have a mask and I was catching it’s been broken several times but anyway instead of singing from the diaphragm and using your head as a resounding board it stopped right there and they told me to get it fixed and wait for a semester but I didn’t want to wait and I had all these football scholarships so I went to school on a football scholarship. And of-course in those days we didn’t have the faceguards so it was broken several times again. They finally gave up on me and told me that’s all I thought about.
J: So where did you go to school then?
W: Well I started at University of Minnesota. Under Berney Behrman[?] which means nothing to you but he was probably still the greatest football coach that Minnesota has ever had and it was in the days that he had the power house of the nation so I started there and actually lived in the University fire station for my board and room but when it came time to register they wouldn’t let me into the university. Today they couldn’t do that but at that time they wanted to make certain that you stayed eligible and so they told me that I had to go to what they called General College and that was to make certain that I stayed eligible to play football. And I said well I came here to get an education, not to play football all together. And Dallas Ward[?] was a freshman coach. He was very understanding. He said well if you’re good enough in a couple of years you can demand to be put into the University and they’ll let you in. And I said in the meantime I get a knee blown out or an injury of some kind and then what happens? And he said well you’ll get your education I suppose but it won’t be what you want. And so he advised me asked me where I had other offers and he said why don’t you go to South Dakota State. And I did, so I went to South Dakota State and that’s where I played my football and got my education.
J: So it all turned out quite well really?
F: Well the war came. He was still in college when did you say you joined the National Guard for spending money?
W: They gave me my board room and tuition for playing football but I had no money and all. In fact when I went the 180 miles was it from Aberdeen to Brookings where South Dakota State was, it was all gravelled roads at that time, no paved roads, I had everything I owned in one suitcase and so I didn’t get back and forth too often.
J: How did you get there? Did you hitch?
W: Oh yeah I hitched. Sometimes it might take two or three days but I hitched. In those days the jails were pretty good at letting someone like me sleep in the jail if I got caught overnight. I know some of those jails quite intimately. But having no spending money I joined the National Guard, even though I was in ROTC. Are familiar with ROTC? Reserve Officers Training Corps? Your land grant colleges have an ROTC pool and I was in that. But I was in the middle of my junior year and I was also in the National Guard.
J: But you joined it just to get a bit of extra cash?
W: Yeah. I got a dollar a drill and we had a drill once a week. So every thirteen weeks I got paid thirteen dollars. That was my spending money. Not much but we had a few dances on it.
F: And we started dating at college.
J: Oh you met at college did you?
J: So how did you get to go to South Dakota?
F: I lived there.
J: And you enrolled in the college?
F: Mmm. I knew who he was because our two high schools played each other and I knew who he was.
W: She used to wish something would happen to me. She’s told me about that several times.
F: Oh in high school. He was so good we thought if we could just get rid of him.
J: Oh because he was the best guy in the team?
W: One of them. I mean we had a pretty good team. We were undefeated there for about two years. But then February 10th of 1941 we were federally inducted. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with the song, it says â€œI’ll be back in a year little darling. Before we were part of the war effort and we were only going to be gone for a year but of-course December of that year we wound up in trouble. The Japanese saw to it that we were not going to be neutral.
J: Can you remember a sense of war coming anyway?
J: You did feel well before Pearl Harbour did you think we’re not going to be able to keep out of this or did you think maybe we would?
W: No, I thought the only way that Hitler was going to be stopped – it was Hitler then more than it was the rising sun – would be for us to get into it. And somehow or another Frances do you remember our mood at that time? Our mood was that we knew that we were going to be into a war at some time or other didn’t we?
F: I didn’t.
J: It’s quite interesting. Growing up during that period, the US was not into getting involved in wars at all. I know a lot of people were very isolationist and wanting to keep out of it and it’s Europe’s business, not ours.
W: And until Pearl Harbour I think it was that way. We were an isolationist country.
J: But when you started getting involved in National Guard, did you think this could end up with me going to war or did it just not occur to you at that time?
W: I think I might have to say that it was I hadn’t really thought of it from that angle. I haven’t put any thought into it. For me it was a matter of getting that dollar a week. And then of-course when they inducted us federally, then I wanted more than that because at that time we were planning on getting married but we didn’t think we could do it on 21 dollars a month and that’s what the pay was for a bum[?] Private.
J: So when did you start dating?
W: 1939? Or 1940? Frances? It was a blind date for me.
F: It was thanksgiving vacation. Everybody went home. But he had to stay because of the National Guard. And the fellow I was dating went home and the girl he was dating went home for thanksgiving. And we had a date for a dance that night.
W: Well I called her up. I didn’t know many of the girls locally but a friend of mine also in the guards at that time, I asked him, I said I’d like to go to that dance this weekend and I said do you know of a girl that would enjoy dancing and going out? And he said yeah but she might be spoken for but then he came back and told me he said well I believe she’d listen. So I called her and sure enough and she tells a better story about the arrangements but I didn’t know who she was and she was going to come down and meet me at the armoury and I didn’t know who it was I was going to be meeting and you told me what you were going to be wearing.
J: So you had pre-arranged it on the phone.
W: Sparks flew even that first night. The military ball was coming up and I asked about that.
F: He had a date for the ball and so did I and so every third dance he danced with me – in those days we had programmes you know, you filled in with whom you were going to dance – about every third dance I had with him. But we went through with it. I was with my date and he was with his.
W: And then we didn’t really see each other too many times after that for a while but then the word came to me that she had broken up with whoever it was she was going with and I was in the process of the same thing with who I was going with and I heard that she was available so that’s when it started. From then on here we are. Sixty years later.
F: Three and a half years he was overseas. And a lot of people didn’t wait.
W: She was on her way to Fort Dix, we went to Fort Dix, we knew we were on our way overseas and that was a month after war was declared. That was Christmastime 1941.
F: Fort Dix is on the east coast.
J: So you’d already been posted down to Fort Dix?
W: No we went to Camp Claven[?] Louisiana, that’s where we were, and she came down there to see me at Christmastime, some time down there anyway. We saw each other only for a few minutes. Then we took off and she had to drive all the way back.
J: So you came all the way down to see Warren and then literally the moment you got there, after she had already started the journey you found out you were going
W: We didn’t know where.
J: But you were going overseas.
W: Well we didn’t know that for certain but we figured that we were going to some port of embarkation.
J: So you literally got half an hour then had to turn round and go back again?
J: Long drive. How long did that take?
W: 1500 miles or more. Well then when we got to Fort Dix we knew we were scheduled to go overseas, my Company Commander’s wife and my Battalion Commander’s wife, my Battalion Commander was my athletic director in college, their wives were coming out to be with them before they sailed. And so Frances got in with them and she came out and we were going to be married in New Jersey. I got the license. Three day waiting period and the ring and everything was ready and the three women were in automobile accident at Rockford Illinois. It was a third of the way to New Jersey.
F: We had driven all night and I was driving from midnight to 4am I think. We changed drivers and I was in the back seat when we had the accident. There was snow on the side of the road piled way high. This man came over the hill in our lane and we couldn’t get off the road, could have gone this way but we couldn’t and didn’t and had a head on collision and I was thrown out of the car, through the driver’s door. And my suitcase was on the road, my wedding dress and all my clothes and an ambulance took us to the hospital in Rockford and then Bob Coffee and Ray Schaltz[?] came but he couldn’t come because we weren’t married.
J: What happened to your dress? Did it ever get picked up?
F: Yes. They picked it up. It was dirty.
J: How badly injured were you?
F: They were hurt more so than I was.
W: So she was in the hospital when I sailed.
J: And you tried to get over and they just said no?
F: Said no.
J: And this time you were Private First Class were you?
W: We were in the First Division overseas in the British Isles.
F: No, were you Private First Class?
W: No, I was a Staff Sergeant by that time. I had been promoted pretty steadily through the year from Private to PFC to Corporal, to Sergeant to Staff Sergeant.
J: You must have been extremely worried when you heard what had happened?
W: It was one of the few times that I really thought seriously of going over the hill. I thought it was very unfair. But we sailed very shortly thereafter. The very first part of January. And in the black of the night I tore up the license and tossed it and the ring in the ocean. I figured it was bad luck. And three and a half years later she was still waiting.
J: So you got there in the end. It must have sometimes felt as though fate was conspiring to keep you apart.
W: It tried hard at the time we married. My 225 pound frame had 160 on it by that time.
F: 140 when he came out of the prison camp.
J: Just to go back to joining up and the training and everything. You joined up in the First Division.
W: The first division to be called up. It was the 34th National Guard Division.
J: And at what point did you become a ranger?
W: About two months after arriving in Northern Ireland and I was with 109th Engineers with the 34th Division and we were helping to make the camps in Northern Ireland available for the troops that were to follow and so forth.
J: So you were in an engineering regiment to start off with?
W: Yes. Then they called for volunteers for a commando type unit and the British commandos were the only ones that had really seen any action after Dunkirk which I think was primarily to keep them off guard and not being able to accumulate force enough to invade England. Let’s see, we were federally we became rangers on June 19th 1942. That date I know specifically. We sailed second or third week in January. I don’t remember that date exactly.
J: Was it on a troop ship or one of those converted liners?
W: It was called the American Legion. It was an army troop ship. We probably had 3500, 4000, maybe more than that troops on that ship and it was fast enough so that they could avoid the subs.
J: I was going to say, were you conscious that there might be subs out there?
W: Oh yes. But we left and were not in convoy.
J: So did it take you three and a half days, something like that?
W: Seemed to me like it was five days. Because they were doing a lot of this.
J: Can you remember being apprehensive about being attacked by a u-boat?
W: I would say yes. Being part of the British commandos you know we spent a lot of time on the water. A lot of our training was amphibious.
J: What did you think of the presumably the commandos were training you up, it was British officers, British soldiers that were conducting the training. Did you have respect for them?
W: Well we thought very highly of them. I suspect that they took the cream of the crop of the commandos to train us. We were trained by the commandos.
J: But they seemed tough and resilient and knew what they were talking about?
W: Yeah. They had their hearts set on discouraging us and they didn’t think we could take it. And of-course we were just as intent on showing them and I think as a result we broke every record they ever had.
J: And what was the sort of stuff you were doing?
W: Hand to hand combat training, obstacle courses, amphibious landing, repelling
F: They trained up and down the mountains.
J: Abseiling, that sort of thing?
W: Yes. And we were trained on Lord Cameron clan estate: Sir Robert Cameron in Northern Island. And Achnechary Scotland.
J: OK, so you moved from Northern Ireland to Scotland?
W: We moved from Northern Ireland we were in the commandos when we were in Northern Ireland. I guess you might say we were a bastard outfit because we didn’t quite know who we belonged to but our rations were British. The only thing that was American was our pay. And it used to irritate our friends the commandos.
F: Do you know the history of Colonel Darby? He was their leader.
J: They were known as Darby’s Rangers for ages weren’t they?
F: He was the Command Sergeant Major for Colonel Darby, original rangers.
W: I started off being the First Sergeant for E Company.
J: How many Companies were there?
W: Six line Companies and a Headquarters Company.
J: And you were just called the First Rangers?
W: Yep, First Ranger Battalion.
J: When they were calling for volunteers, what made you think I’d like to join? Was it because you were bored of doing what you were doing or because you thought it would be more interesting?
W: No, we knew that the British commandos were in on the action at that time and we thought that perhaps we could help end the war and they made it challenging that if you think you can’t take it, don’t get into this outfit. And I thought well there hasn’t been anything yet I haven’t been able to take. I think it was the challenge that attracted me. You had to prove yourself. And Frances and I both heard that there were from 3-5,000 volunteers and of-course they wound up with 500 of us. Six line Companies at full strength: 66 men.
J: That’s small for a normal Company which is several hundred.
W: We were formed after the British commandos. We took our alignment directly from them.
J: When you were training in Scotland were you in tents?
J: Was it not pretty cold?
W: It was mid-June, July. The rainy season in Scotland. Because I remember we were there at the foot of Ben Nevis but we never saw the top of it! It’s a strange thing. When we went back there and Frances was with me, we were only there a week, in 1992, and we saw the top of Ben Nevis. And we never did see it in the two months that we were in Achnachery.
J: Did you ever have to climb up it?
W: We trained on it. I don’t know that we ever some of us did Les Kness and I climbed the top of it but I think we were on our own.
J: Did you make good friends there did you? Were there any friends who came over from your engineering regiment or was it just you?
W: There was one , still living, by the name of Chuck Leyton[?] and it’s strange we haven’t really stayed in contact with each other but occasionally Christmas or something like that. I was First Sergeant of E Company. Les Kness was the Staff Sergeant to one of the Platoon Sergeants. And then when I became a Sergeant you see that’s a story because a Battalion doesn’t warrant a Sergeant Major. But somehow Colonel Darby swung it that I became the first Sergeant Major, probably one of the only ones for Battalion strength in the army. I don’t know that though. But he swung it somehow and I became Sergeant Major and Les Kness then became the First Sergeant of E Company. I received the first battlefield commission in the European theatre and when I was made a Second Lieutenant, they didn’t have a Sergeant Major then until they took two Companies from the First Battalion and made another First Battalion.
J: And were you commissioned in the field because one of the Second Lieutenants had been killed or wounded? To fill a hole?
W: It’s nice to say that I got the first battlefield commission in the European theatre but this was in the invasion of North Africa. At Arzew and Gordon Clevnel[?] was killed in part of that action. He was in C Company and Colonel Darby didn’t want a green Lieutenant at that time and so they made me a Second Lieutenant. And so there’s always been a cloud on my commission: that someone had to die in order for me to become a commissioned officer.
J: That happens all the time in war doesn’t it.
W: To this day, probably my [interruption]
F: You know his nickname, the way he was known in the army, well all his life?
W: Till today, everywhere but here. We’ve had a concentrated effort to not have it known here but it’s becoming
F: Bing. And he got that nickname from Bing Crosby.
W: Just because I broke my nose doesn’t mean that I quit singing, just meant that I couldn’t but I didn’t quit.
F: He does sing. He has sung like Bing. He moves up to a note like Bing.
J: What did you make of Colonel Darby?
F: He loved Colonel Darby.
W: He was a soldier’s leader. He had charisma. He led. He joined in. If the going got tough he was part of it. As I say, he was a soldier’s leader.
F: He was a West Point man.
W: He was a West Point man and I suppose that if you were to look at him now you’d have said â€œBoy he’s cocky. And he was. He was cocky, confident, sure of himself, sort of a Patten egotist. I’d say they were probably the same ilk. Except that Darby had more capacity to empathise with his troops than Patten did. Patten made an arse of himself at times I guess you know. Six footish.
J: He sounds like he has a lot of similar traits as David Stirling who formed the SAS and it’s interesting what you’re saying because I was speaking to someone who was in the SAS a few weeks ago and he said almost exactly the same thing about Stirling that you’ve said about Darby. And also Stirling gave battlefield commissions except he got in a bit of trouble for it. It sounds like they were rather similar men. Adored by their men and soldier’s leaders.
W: He could close his eyes at the right time [end of side A]
J: Some people just have that ability to know when to come down hard with discipline and when to let it go on other occasions.
W: You never really got too familiar with Colonel Darby. He always let you get so close and then you met the resistance.
J: Did you have particular friends in the rangers?
W: Oh yes.
J: Even when you were training you must have had time off to go and do stuff?
W: Well we only had really one day. Les Kness and I walked from one end of Fort William to the other. Did every bar. Missed the bus home and had to walk from Fort William to Achnachary to the castle. 13-14 miles. Spean Bridge is what half way between and Spean Bridge was about seven miles from the castle.
J: So you all enjoyed a drink in those days.
W: No I didn’t really know how. Although today I enjoy my Scotch. The reason is they had no refrigeration and so the beer was always warm and anything that turned me off was a warm beer, or a warm ale. And of-course they didn’t have any ice to put in the Scotch and water either. It went down a lot better so I started drinking Scotch and wine although I didn’t care for wine really until I got into North Africa and then we would spend some back in the German lines, didn’t want to just drink water out of wherever you got it so I usually had wine in my canteen. And so today I don’t drink it for breakfast, but rather than coffee – I’ll drink coffee all day long – but when mealtime comes I’ll have a glass of wine with my meal. I enjoy it. But I’ve noticed that my taste for wine is very definitely dry and as time goes on the dryer the better. So your merlots and you can always get a cabernet sauvignon, that type of wine.
J: Tell me about North Africa. When did you find out you were going to be heading over there? By the time you were heading towards North Africa, did you feel well prepared as an outfit? You felt that you had done all the training you could do and you were now ready to go into action to put it to the test?
W: Ready to prove that we were good?
W: Yes. We had the Dieppe raid in between.
J: Were you involved in that?
W: There were two Dieppe raids. Did you know that?
W: The first one aborted. They were supposed to have had it and then because of weather it aborted. I was the First Sergeant of E Company so I sent myself on the first Dieppe raid and when I came back I was a Sergeant Major and Colonel Darby said no you’re not going. So I did not go on the Dieppe raid that is known as the Dieppe raid. I was on the one that aborted.
J: At what stage did it abort? Were you already at sea?
W: We were on board ship although we did not sail. The weather was not decent. It was the weather that kept us the first time and the weather wasn’t too much better when they finally landed, which was only two weeks later, a very short time later. And then did we know about North Africa? I don’t think we really knew about North Africa until we got on board ship and started studying sand table models of where we were going to land.
J: All you knew you were going abroad somewhere and that was that?
W: Yep. And we didn’t really know that it was going to be an invasion. But somewhere along there we knew that we were joining a convoy from the United States. And when we went through the straits we knew the way we went through that we were flirting with danger and we knew where we were and we could – of-course you know how narrow that is – we could see the outline against the sky of Gibraltar, so we began to get suspicious.
J: Can you remember thinking this is it? This is the moment for real?
W: I suspect when we got into position and didn’t sail any more, we just kind of floated out there, that we were close to where we were going to I didn’t know whether it was going to be Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica one of those islands. Could have been any place. I didn’t realise the massiveness of the invasion, but it was 12 or 15 hours later that we began to get the picture come back to us. We landed then at Arzew which was the gateway to Oran which was where most of our troops landed, in Algeria.
J: Much opposition?
J: There was a bit of fighting there?
W: No. There was a bit of fighting in Oran and we should not have been a part of that but for some time our commanders didn’t realise what we were supposed to be for and that our companies were only 60 men and so they often misused us.
J: Thinking you were much larger numbers of troops?
W: Yes. They would put us in where they’d say a battalion say and they’d think 1500, 2000 men and of-course as a result we were often misused. But as the war progressed then they became more familiar with us and it became less of a problem although it followed us all the way through.
J: Can you remember much about that landing at Arzew?
W: Probably as far as detail I’ll remember that one because it was the first one. And we got our feet wet but that was really it. We split the Battalion up: one was to attack the harbour itself and take the fort that housed the troops that protected the harbour. Above that on the highest point in Arzew in the harbour was a gun battery and probably half of the men of the troops that were guarding that port would be at the gun battery so the one half that was under Colonel Bammer[?] landed in the Port. And under Darby the one that they thought they’d have the most difficulty with. We landed let me say three miles up the coast around a promontory up the coast undetected so our landing was really very successful. And then we marched in along the coast road, this is 2 or 3 O’clock in the morning, of-course no traffic. And we were at the proper landmark
J: So you landed well before the rest of the invasion?
W: Oh yes. In fact the harbour was completely ours when they landed that day.
J: So you must have been one of the very first Americans to actually touch foot in the European theatre.
W: True. At least where the major battle was. We were the first into Arzew and that was where they landed to attack Oran. And then the troops that landed after us – I forget where they first landed, I don’t know, but there were several divisions and they were the ones that attacked Oran and took the harbour and that’s the harbour that they used to supply most of the allied action and troops in North Africa.
J: But you achieved your objective no problem?
W: There’s a little story there. We had studied the sand tables and I had studied them very closely and of-course I was shadowing Darby and I thought we went by our landmark which was [?] gully here and hard to pronounce but there it was. And we got 500 yards perhaps beyond and I told Colonel Darby, I said â€œI believe Colonel Darby we’ve missed our point. And I went back then and talked with Sneider who was the Company Commander of F Company and Matt Sneider who had been my Company Commander of E Company — so it must have been D, E and F that was on that part — and told him that I thought we’d gone by. And they did too. So I said why don’t you come up and tell him that. And they said â€œNo, we’re not going to tell him, you tell him. So I went up and told him and explained to him what I thought had happened and he went back and talked to Max and Roy Murray and he mentioned that he had gone past it so we went back and found where we were supposed to have been and so we approached the gun battery from the rear. They were all pointed out to the sea. And we were in amongst them before they knew what hit them. So we had maybe one or two casualties but no fatalities.
J: Was that the first time you’d fired your rifle in battle?
W: Yes. And it’s strange that before we landed my personal experience was that it was anticipation: this is what we’ve been trained for, we were good at it, let’s get on with it. I was anticipating, exhilarated. Can you understand that? I might tell you that the next time that we experiated an invasion which was at Sicily I didn’t have quite as much anticipation as I did well I still did, but there was a certain measure of anxiety too apprehension.
J: You weren’t particularly apprehensive or nervous about landing in Africa?
W: No. I anticipated it. I was rather looking forward to it. But when we landed in Sicily which was our second invasion, I was a little more apprehensive but still we were doing our job, but by that time we had also been watered down a little bit and the men who had trained originally we took two companies and made the first battalion two companies and made the third battalion and two other companies and made the fourth battalion and split the headquarters up between all of them. That brought us back up so that we had three battalions of 500 men each.
J: Was it strange coming into the European theatre the first time and you’re fighting the French. Did that seem odd to you? You were mentioning earlier that Hitler had to be stopped. Did you just see the French you were coming up again in Algiers as part and parcel of the Nazis and Hitler or did you think hang on a minute why are we fighting the French here?
W: No, we knew that the Vichy French were actually pro-Hitler. As far as we were concerned they were one and the same except they were lousy soldiers.
J: In what respect? Badly trained?
W: If the going got a little tough they would give up easily. There wasn’t any hang in there, there wasn’t any desire to make the enemy pay or anything like that.
J: They were a pushover basically?
W: Well let’s put it this way, I think they were lovers not fighters! I think you’ve heard the expression before.
J: So you took Arzew no problem and then literally two days later there was the armistice.
W: The troops landed the next day unopposed and into the harbour. There just wasn’t any opposition until they got half way to Oran. That’s where we lost Gordon Clevnel[?]. The infantry being green the American soldier, the Yankee soldier was not a good soldier at the beginning of the war. They held up regiments and divisions, probably with just a few being fired on here and there, no-one seemed to know what to do, so they would call up the rangers so Gordon Clevnel[?] cleared the way for them several times and was killed in the process. But the difference was in the training. It isn’t that the Americans were any more fearful or anything like that. It’s just that they had not had the training. Didn’t have the mindset. Now later I think the 34th Division and the First division and some of those, the 81st Airborne, some of those became not only good but elite troops, even though they had to get a lot of replacements.
J: I suppose there’s nothing like experience in the battlefield to sort that out?
W: And you develop a different mindset. James the first time we landed I told you it was with anticipation. The second time not so much anticipation and a little apprehension. The third time a great deal of apprehension. Three times and out.
J: Was that D-day?
W: No, that would have been at Salerno. We spearheaded four different invasions before we ever got to D-day. And they were almost driven back into the sea. If it hadn’t been for the rangers they would have been at Salerno. We ran into Cassian[?]. He was quite a commander. I’d say one of the better commanders of the war. Then came Angio[?] and I don’t know quite how to describe that. Did you ever see the movie â€œSaving Private Ryan? Do you remember a little excerpt in there, where he seemed to be operating in a vacuum, no sound? Well when I landed in Angio I was in that vacuum. I did everything I was supposed to do. I didn’t experience fear, I didn’t experience apprehension, I just operated in a vacuum. My mind just closed everything else up. It’s a strange feeling. And someone who had experienced that got to Stephen Spielberg and explained that sensation and he did a good job with capturing that. In fact as far as I was concerned that was the most real part of the movie. You cannot liken a Hollywood war after the real thing. You can try hard from the stories that are told, but it doesn’t work. You can come close. You can hear a tank coming around a corner. They can assimilate that. Now in North Africa really it wasn’t until the Tunisia campaign that the Americans really got into the fighting. And at Gafsa and El Guettar. The first real battlefield success was by the rangers at – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Sened Station or not – there were three companies of us pulled a raid on Sened Station. At that time I was platoon leader of 2nd Battalion so I was in A company and that was what 10, 12 miles back of the German lines.
J: How did you get there?
W: We infiltrated through the lines at night. One of the things we were good at. We traveled up there in the night in a convoy.
J: Were you in vehicles or on foot?
W: No, we traveled, from where we were in El Guettar, Gafsa, and we got to this French outpost at 1-2am in the morning. Between then and daybreak, because we had to be where we were going before daylight, and that was in the hills overlooking Sened Station and so we had to get that 10-11 miles in just 3 hours, get through the lines to get it done. And we did. And the next day then through the day we studied
J: So you were lying up during the day?
W: We were on one mountain looking across the desert valley, 3-4 miles and studying their positions and we knew it was pretty well manned but carelessly manned.
J: What sort of equipment did they have there?
W: They had the artillery batteries, the mortars, the machine gun placements, the outposts
J: How many of you were there?
W: Well there was the First Battalion (we were still just the First Battalion) and headquarters wouldn’t have been with us part of them would have been I have to go through this in order for you to understand: there were three ten man sections to a platoon, that’s 30 men. Then there’d be the Platoon Sergeant and the Platoon Leader (the commissioned officer) so there’s 32 men. So that twice was 64 men when they were at full strength plus the Company Commander and his runner we called them. So we had 66 men maximum. But then Headquarters would always attach an aid man, a medic, to us and they would also attach a Signalman to us. So if we’d been at full strength and had the Headquarters with us we could be as much as 68 men. But now you must understand that by this time we’d had quite a bit of fighting and we were not at full strength. So I’m going to say that the three Companies, let’s say there were 180 men on the Sened Station job. We probably weren’t that many but
J: And what do you think the strength was of the station?
W: Probably three or four thousand. But we knew a lot of them would be asleep. And you’d be amazed at how much havoc 180 men can wreak in the middle of the night and you surprise them. And we did. For instance, the one barrack that we got into I wasn’t a part of this: Les Kness, my friend who is still living was a part of this. They got into the barracks and they put a man at each bunk because they even knew they were even there they had heard firing but they didn’t know we were in amongst them and that’s the time when hand to hand combat, they just cut their throats these guys as they slept. So it was that kind of havoc. And so that night that’s where we were on this mountain and where they were on the ridge in that station which was a big supply depot that fed the frontline troops which was why it was so important. And we took off after the sun had gone down but before the moon had come up.
J: What time of year was this?
W: We landed in November. I’m going to say in the middle of the winter so let’s say February but don’t hold me to that. But we waited in pitch black and then we lined up not like you would think, not single file like they show you in the movies but we were abreast. A Company was on the left, E Company was in the middle and F Company was on the right. I was in A Company so and a brand spanking new Lieutenant and so my job was to make certain that we weren’t surprised from the left flank. Even as we advanced we still had our objective but we had two objectives and we advanced across the valley floor like this in the middle of the night.
J: What was the terrain?
W: Rough, desert-like but not loose sand, it was hard.
J: Any plant life?
W: Well, yes. Sage brush and that type of thing. Desert plants. A lot of rock.
J: It must have smelt dusty and herby?
W: Yeah. And we got within 100 yards and I think they detected that something was up and they started to fire but they thought it was much farther away than we were. And so the firing that was done was over our head and wasn’t enough to get the troops out of the barracks and stuff like that. And so we got right in amongst them and then it was hand to hand combat.
J: There were no gates to get through or anything?
W: Walked on in. On the ridge that was half a mile long that most of the troops were on, that the outpost was on, that was the ridge that guarded it from the allies. Then we got right in amongst them then it was hand to hand combat. And we wreaked an awful lot of havoc.
J: Presumably you’re trained in hand to hand combat and the everyday infantryman isn’t.
W: No. I would say roughly 15 million Americans that were in WWII that 800,000 of them actually saw combat of some form or another and out of that I would say that maybe 30,40 or 50,000 that’s all that ever saw the person they were fighting.
J: But you guys did.
W: We looked at ours. In fact I probably shouldn’t tell you this because heroes don’t react this way but as the flares were going and the scene was lighted up, it was pretty bright, and out of the shadows came this guy I think intent on killing me, in fact I know he was, fighting back, but in the light of the flares I looked into his eyes. They were big and frightened and saucer-like and bewildered and I couldn’t pull the trigger on my piece. I froze as I looked into his eyes. And I probably wouldn’t be here today except Tommy Sullivan who was my runner. He did it for me.
J: Was that just because you can do all this stuff, you can kill all these guys when it’s impersonal but as soon as they become a real human being with real feelings that you can understand it’s too close for you to
W: It’s hard to explain and it never happened after that but that one time I froze. He had his gun out like this. He was a young man. I don’t think he really knew what he was going to do.
J: It must have been people everywhere.
W: Yes, mayhem when you get into that kind of combat.
J: You’re too exhilarated to feel adrenaline pumping so presumably there’s no thought of personal safety and worry like that?
W: So but I thought you’d be interested in that little side thing. And we were only supposed to take about half a dozen prisoners. I think we probably had a dozen. But then we had to get back to our lines.
J: I was going to say, you can’t possibly kill 3,000 people. At what point do you what’s the objective there?
W: Go in and wreak all the havoc we could
J: Did you have a timeframe?
W: Yep we had to start back so that we could get back to the French outpost in the dark. We wouldn’t want to be sitting at that time we didn’t have air superiority.
J: Was it just hand to hand combat? Did you set any explosives off and that sort of thing?
W: We probably did but that wasn’t my job. My job was to wreak all the havoc we could and make them uneasy and apprehensive and wary. There’s a difference between fighting a cocky enemy and one that’s apprehensive.
J: So the actual part of the station that you personally attacked, that was barrack blocks was it?
W: James the actual part that we were on: men ten yards apart so my part of the front would have been 2-300 yards and then their part of the front would have been another 300, so we’re talking about the front for the 3 companies let’s say 1,000 yards. And that’s the best I can remember.
J: And how long do you think the action took?
W: Half hour to an hour at the most before we re-assembled and then we had to
J: And what was the signal to retire?
W: Well we had our runners and our walkie talkies.
J: So it’s just: â€œpull back now?
J: And you have to get all your men together?
W: My men were together and of-course we were together as a Company so the two Platoons were together and we had our connecting men between the Companies and so when the order came to move out we moved out all together. And it was a lot of double timing on the way back. We were bringing our wounded and Ernie Pile[?] was with us.
J: I’m going to use Ernie Pile in the book because he’s just such an interesting figure.
W: I don’t think he talked too much about this one because he was told not to come on the raid but he said â€œI want to. He said â€œI won’t hold you up. But when it got to the place that he couldn’t keep up, he told us to go on. He said just leave me. He said â€œI was fool enough to come. But I gave my pack and my rifle and I had a Platoon Sergeant who was a big husky man and between us we carried Ernie for a while. If he was 130 pounds ringing wet I would be surprised.
J: After the action can you remember something of what you were feeling? A sense of whether you’d done a good job?
W: Oh James no.
J: Is there a come-down after the adrenaline rush of taking part in an action like that? Or is it just too long ago to remember?
W: No, I’m trying to recreate the feeling in my mind. We’d been two nights without sleep, one day in between and we had covered let me say 12 miles twice in that time and one was with a lot of stealth and the other time was in a lot of hurry and so I think there was just when you took stock and found that you had two or three casualties but they were all with you, they were going to be alright, we got them back safely – we never left a man on the field if we could help it – I think it was more: â€œOh leave me alone I want to get some sleep. Can you understand that?
J: A wave of fatigue must have suddenly hit you?
W: Yes. That’s exactly what I was trying to get across. Really there wasn’t much emotion. It was just â€œleave me alone. And of-course along here we were experiencing enough in the way of casualties so that we had to continually be replacing men. But when the Tunisian see Sened Station is a good story. Gives a good idea of how we operated. But we also Djebel el Ank, have you ever heard of that?
J: I’ve heard of the place but not of the action.
W: At Gafsa we were in an olive grove and we had our patrol guard each night. I had one that approached this saddle like this called Djebel el Ank which was Rommel’s troops coming from the east being driven by Montgomery and they would have had to come through this saddle or come close to it to get at us. And at this time the fortunes of war had kind of shifted to the German’s favour for a while.
J: Is this around the sort of Kasserine time?
W: Yes. Kasserine Pass was different and that’s where our troops kind of broke, the American troops. It was just strange, our leaders didn’t know what they wanted so we were pushed back and the rangers fought the rear guard action for that.
J: Were you involved in that one?
W: Yes. But now that we’d pushed them back again and we’re at Gafsa again and over there 8, 9 or 10 miles was the pass, the mountain called Djebel el Ank. And I approached this narrow pass from the front with my patrol and drew their fire. We knew pretty much what they had there and a man by the name of Wojcik now Less Kness and Wojcik and Bill Musegates were the next three men to get commission from the ranks and Walt Wojcik — it’s strange that people that did the patrolling were old time non-commissioned officers but they were now commissioned and they were the ones that were leading the action patrol rather than some of the men who came over as 90-day wonders — so Wojcik was trying to find a way this way, climbing the mountain and so come down and surprise them from behind and I was the diversionary action. I was to keep them busy so his chances of getting undetected were good. And it worked, so the next night the rangers infiltrated through the lines again on the route that Wojcik had chosen the night before, got up in the mountain and then old Darby, the old showman got his bugle out and sounded the bugle charge down the mountain. And so there again we’d been all night long getting there. This was at daybreak and we came down off that mountainside and attacked them and I suspect we took about 3-4,000 prisoners.
J: They just didn’t know what had hit them.
W: We got to the stage where it was ridiculous for us and we had to get somebody in there to help us and we had to turn them over to I forget what Division was there at the time.
J: Did they look like beaten troops?
W: They looked stunned. They actually hadn’t had to fight the kind of soldiers rangers. They were used to meeting them head on with tanks and manoeuvering your troops for head on confrontation.
J: What was your preferred weapon. Did you just have an assault rifle?
W: Jamie we had one Platoon which was the mortar squad. We only had one squad in the rangers that had mortars. Our automatic weapon would have been the browning automatic. We didn’t carry the 30 gallon machine gun because it would have slowed us down. So we did have BA[?] otherwise we had the M1. Officers carried a Carbine and 45 calibre pistol. But it got to the place where most of the men would either carry a 45 or a captured Luger or something like that because it was pretty handy if you got into hand to hand combat. And of-course your commando knife.
J: Where you would you keep that?
W: Wherever it was the handiest.
J: And you were all expected to use that in these hand to hand fightings.
W: Of-course it sounds like we did it all the time but Djebel el Ank and Sened Station, Shanti[?] Pass, there are only a half a dozen times in all the time we were over there, in all the combat we saw that we actually would have used knives in hand to hand combat. So it wasn’t as often as you think.
J: And you’d been trained by the commandos in the use of these knives had you?
W: Yes. In fact the knives were really just a modification of the British commando knife. They were the ones that taught us how to use it. The commandos were the ones that taught us little tricks.
J: Such as?
W: We taught the guys after us that came in but the commandos were the ones that taught us.
J: What are the sort of tricks they taught you?
[end of tape 1]
W: You think of a knife like this, you never use it like that, you use it like this. Different things like that. I’ve forgotten more than I knew about.
J: Your ordinary Infantry Battalion or Regiment or whatever, they’re sent up to the front, they do a stint at the front then they leave the front, they go back and have a couple of weeks behind the lines or whatever. Rangers don’t operate like that do they? You have your base and then you’re moved somewhere and then you have to go and infiltrate and do little bits here and there and is that more the way you operated?
W: That’s the way we should have operated. We were used as frontline infantry. All through North Africa they didn’t know how to use us. The first man to really know how to use us was General Truscott and he would use us the right way. And General Allen.
J: What did you think of Allen?
W: I thought he was a good General. Misused but good General.
J: He seems to be liked by everyone. It’s a bit like Monty. Everyone has this opinion that Monty was loved by all his troops. I haven’t come across a single Desert Rat who has a good word to say about him. And I haven’t come across a single American soldier who has a good word to say about Patten. They all say they’re show ponies and all talk.
W: They were the all show offs and the other guys were the guys that did the
J: The quiet guys. People have a lot of respect for Alexander and a lot of respect for Auchenlech[?] who came before Monty. They just quietly got on. Bradley is another guy everyone loveds.
W: Omar Bradley. He was my PMST[?] for one semester at South Dakota State.
J: There must have been time where you had time off? You can’t have been on the front line all the time?
W: James I can remember one time off. We were fighting in the mountains in the north of Naples in the highest mountains in the southern part of from Rome down south. When I don’t know how long we’d been there. I had a heavy beard, dirty, hadn’t had clean socks for I don’t know how long and my feet had been frozen for I don’t know how long and I had what they called trench foot. By this time we were 3rd Battalion and there were only three old officers left. Would you believe I was an old officer! I was commanding a Company at that time and another Company Commander at that time by the name of Jo Larken[?] (I called him BB Eyes) we were called down off the top of the mountain. We thought oh boy here we get another assignment now and the jeep was waiting for us when we got down off the mountain and they took us to a place called Sorento in Italy. If you’ve ever been there it’s a really lush town and the Albergo di Vittoria which was probably one of the lushest, probably one of the nicest resort hotels in all of southern Italy. And about 2-300 feet above the Mediterranean sea. It’s a cliff and you take an elevator down, you’ve got your own beach there. From the dining room you could look off and see Capri in the distance. Very glamorous setting. And on the Amalfi coastal highway made famous by Longfellow. And they sent us there, Jo Larken and I. And we had three days. And Colonel Dammer[?] said I never knew two guys that needed it more. So they sent us and we walked into that place and we were the first customers. And a man by the name of Heinz who had managed the Astor Hotel in New York but was in the army now and so he had tried to get it in shape but it didn’t have running water or anything like that. But Jo Larken and I spent three luscious days: two days and three nights there. That was the only time off that I can ever remember having once we got in combat. That had a lot of pleasant memories. And some apprehensive ones. It’s funny how I can remember these things but the combat I have a little trouble remembering. But the hotel on the cliff here and coming down the cliff here outside of our window, across the gully between, the ocean was down here, over here, and the bay came in like this, and around this mound came this road. And it was just opposite our window, big window. And that first day we were — as I say there was no running water – but we were so dirty, so filthy and mud hanging all over us and so Heinz brought us different uniforms, clean uniforms but we wanted to take a bath so they sent two ladies started carrying hot water. One had two buckets of hot water, the other had two buckets of cold water and they mixed the two together in the bath tub and then they stood there. And I thought what the devil! That water’s going to get cold! Finally one of the women began to speak, she said â€œGet in. I thought well OK. So I took my clothes off and got in. They didn’t think anything of it! They scrubbed my back and puttered around there. They were both probably old enough to be my grandmother so there wasn’t any hanky panky. That was just standard to them. They didn’t think anything of that. They were brought up a little differently or something. I think they’ve probably seen that before. The Italians have a different way of doing things.
J: When you were in North Africa, how often did you get to shave and that sort of thing?
W: Oh we shaved every day. For instance after the Tunisian campaign we didn’t have any time off but every now and then there wouldn’t be a dance or anything like that but usually some nurses from an evacuation hospital nearby would come and have dinner with us or something. That was as close to socializing that we ever got.
J: And most of the time it was a case of getting kip when you could?
W: Yeah. And after Tunisian campaign is when we split up and made three Battalions out of the one and we scoured troops from the countryside and all the divisions for a special type of man to get each Battalion up to strength, up to 500. You’d think it wouldn’t be hard to find 1500 men but it was hard to find 1500 men of the right kind. And even then we had to always get more than we were going to use because after 2 or 3 or 4 days of the kind of training we were doing then, they were dropping out like flies. We had to keep replacing them
J: So you just did your training out in Africa?
W: For the First, Third and Fourth. And we sent some back then to help train the Second and the Fifth Battalions in this country. Sixth Battalion came in in a different way in the Pacific. But we did the Second and the Fifth that were the two Battalions that landed in Normandy. And so when we trained the First, Third and Fourth we had an awful time getting back up to full strength, but we did. And we had enough of the old timers in there so we had three damned good Battalions. A little watered down but not as you would find it later. Then as time went on we just had to get replacements and try to assimilate them and we became more watered down as time went on. Wasn’t anyone’s fault. Inevitable. And when you’re used as we were used and they used us more the way they should as time went on and as commanders got used to what we were doing, but our reputation probably was our undoing. Our reputation that we’d never had a defeat as rangers. At Angio when we were asked to infiltrate through the lines to Cisterna of-course you’ve heard the story where the First and the Third were wiped out. That night before when they were telling us about what we needed, what was going to happen and how we were going to do it. Strange, it was Les Kness and I again, two former enlisted men told Colonel Darby that his intelligence information was wrong. They told us that in Cisterna it was only the headquarters of the ranki[?] paratroop brigade and not much else. And I’d had patrols out myself and Les had had patrols out with the Fourth Battalion (Les was now with the Fourth Battalion) and we knew that they had been moving in troops like it was going out of style. But we didn’t know how many but we knew that there had to be several Divisions. And when they told us that it was only the headquarters of ranki[?] paratrooper brigade and we shouldn’t have too much trouble I spoke up and said Colonel there are an awful lot more men, they’ve got several divisions and Les backed me up. The two of us said no that’s not right. And Colonel Darby — who later cried when he thought about what we’d said — said those are my orders, those are your orders. And so I said yes sir.
J: And you were in the Third Battalion at this stage were you?
W: Yes. Commanding F Company of the Third Battalion.
F: Right here I found this letter that came yesterday from Les Kness. It was Veterans Day when he wrote it: â€œI read a book that I borrowed from Frank Mateevee. He was a POW taken at the same time: Cisterna. The book had a lot of short stories in it from different POWs from Missouri. Sure opens our eyes to the suffering endured by you fellows. I am happy that I followed down on the rear of that advance on Cisterna. I was with Colonel Darby when the last couple of fellows talked to him on the radio. He was screaming â€œFight! Fight! Don’t Surrender! Tears were streaming down his face. I told him â€œColonel, you have got to get a hold of yourself. Those men cannot fight with nothing. You have four companies of the Fourth Battalion caught out there. That is when he asked me how many men we had left. I estimated 80-120 of the whole bunch. I had sent them across the road to dig in. Some day I will tell the rest of the story. Now doesn’t that sound like Paul Harvey?. That was all he wrote about it when he was just thinking about Warren on Veterans Day. Did you know there’s a book written about him? â€œI read your book â€˜Heroes Cry Too’. I think it is a good book and well written. I could tell that it was a verbal account from you. They did get mixed up on some of the fighting part but your explanation of the POW part was fantastic. I wondered how you functioned so well without being aware of what was going on. Someone was helping you. May have been Christ in twos (F: what did he mean by â€œtwos. W: Well that there was a different Christ each time I needed him). I know that God speaks to us in three ways: first and mostly by circumstances, second by the word, third by the holy spirit or dreams. You my friend have been blessed. Glad I didn’t see you when you were less than 140 pounds. On your frame that was not much meat.
J: Is this the book done by the twins?
J: That’s an amazing story.
F: Not a very good book though. To those of us who know. I’ve heard Warren speak so many times and he’s talked to me after we were first married and he wouldn’t talk to anybody but we were in the car they sent him to Fort Hot Springs in Arkinsaw, the officers were in one hotel, enlisted men in the other, that was for recuperation and resting and each morning we
J: This was at the end of the war?
W: After I got back. We were married. She was waiting for me.
J: Tell me about your reunion? That must have been something.
W: Well you tell about that honey. I was a mess!
F: We should not have gotten married so quickly. We were married two weeks after he came back. He landed on 19th July 1945 and we were married on 5th August and my uncle was a florist and he had put peonies back in bud and was keeping them from May when they usually bloomed, put them in this cellar that he had where it was cold. So we married in two weeks. And he had a malaria chill at the altar. It was just too soon. He was having them every afternoon about 5pm. We were married at 7.30pm I think and I thought we’d be alright but we weren’t. Perspiration was just rolling off his head. I remember when he kissed me at the altar and I did this because there was sweat all over my face! I didn’t mean to do that but people saw it. Well he was so thin. He didn’t have any clothes, uniform or anything coming from a prison camp so he had a uniform made. It was a beautiful uniform for the wedding and then soon after
W: He was asking about when I got home. When I got to Norfolk, Virginia. And I called you.
J: You got off the ship, and you were able to make a telephone call were you?
W: We were allowed to make one.
F: There was a long line waiting and he had to wait his turn. And he called me about 9.30 I think that night and then he got on a train and I got on a train and we met in Minneapolis. And when I got off the train he was walking along towards me, checking the cars, looking for me.
J: You sill recognized him straight away?
F: Yeah. But he was a sight! His neck looked about this big around and his jaws are wide set and he was a sight!
W: And we were married two weeks later: August 5th. And then we started to get acquainted again. And you think that that wouldn’t be hard to do but after three and a half years and what we both had been through, we were complete strangers. Each of us married a dream. It didn’t take long. Probably because we were married it took less time than if we had tried to do it otherwise. She said we probably shouldn’t have married. I was having nightmares, terrible nightmares around about that time and I remember one of the first nights we were at my mothers and I was having a nightmare standing up in bed and she touched me and I knocked her clear across the room, under a sewing machine across the room. That’s when she learned never to touch me, so from then on she just
F: Get away from you and call your name. I still do. He still has them. Not as often of-course but he still has them when he starts there’s a sort of a gutteral moan and all of a sudden he yells out something and when the moan starts I just get away.
W: She wakens me now too.
J: Can you remember them?
W: The nightmares? Oh yes. How could you forget them.
J: Is it mostly the camp?
W: There are half a dozen nightmares that I live with, really just a half a dozen but one of them, I even hesitate to talk about because most people can’t even fathom what it was like and usually if I even talk about it I have a nightmare about it.
J: Well don’t. I wouldn’t want to be responsible
F: You’ve come so far now that you know what you’re going to say.
W: Probably my most miserable nightmare there are two miserable ones, but my most miserable. I had escaped (this was the second time I had escaped)
F: Now we’re in Germany in the prison camp.
W: The prison camp was in Auflech[?] 64 which was in what used to be called the Polish Quarter, Northern Poland now I think. Probably 50 miles south of Gdansk, you know the North Sea. And we were in the middle of a pitched battle between the Germans and the Russians. We had been heading for the Russian lines having escaped. And so none of us spoke Russian and we knew we had better in the middle of a pitched battle trying to get into the Russian lines. We didn’t want to go back to the Germans and so we got into a potato cellar. If you’d been in that part of the country you’d know that they store their potatoes out in the middle of the field, you can see the mound that covers them and it keeps them from freezing although when we got in there I would sense that it was much like being in the inside of a refrigerator. Just almost freezing but not. And oh how miserable that was. But anyway, while we were there we had eaten a couple of raw potatoes, that’s all we had and one day a 14, 15, maybe 16-year-old boy, came into our potato cellar to get potatoes for his family. And there we were. And he jumped out of there and ran and I guess told his family about us, and later he came back and brought some hot potato soup. The first hot food we had had in a long time. We managed to get word to him that we were trying to get to the Russian lines. I don’t know how much he understood but he understood enough to know that we had escaped from the Germans, and so the next day he came back with clothes, heavy clothes and blankets and oh what a blessing that was! And so we just put on those heavy clothes over our uniforms and this went on for two, three or four days while the battle was raging overhead and around us and one day the Germans drove the Russians back and established their headquarters in our potato cellar. And this young fellow was with us and of-course the Germans recaptured us and they were the SS troops. They weren’t just ordinary Germans, they were the best the Germans had. And the next day they lined this young fellow up and they had gotten his whole family and they lined the five of them: two younger kids, one couldn’t have been more than five or six years old and the mother and the father and in front of us lined them up and shot them one at a time. That nightmare haunts me to this day.
The other one, after they took me back they sentenced me to be shot as a spy because I was in civilian clothes. I don’t know what they did with Tony [?] or Kenny [?]. There were two guys that I escaped with. I didn’t know them hardly at all. I remember their names and that was it.
J: So you thought you were going to be shot then?
W: Yes. They tried me. But it was perfunctory. I was in civilian clothes. I didn’t have a leg to stand on. It was automatic that you were a spy if you weren’t in uniform.
F: And in German so you didn’t understand it did you?
W: No. Except they told me that I would be shot April 22nd. And that I remember. In the meantime they had me in a heat cell in solitary confinement. And they had heaters down one wall and I was in there with no clothes, stark naked. And they had the heat on and you couldn’t stand it, you couldn’t breathe, and of-course there were no ablutions really to talk about simply because we didn’t have enough to eat, there wasn’t enough there, but you had to urinate so went in the corner. And then they turned the heat off and you would start breathing deeply and then they would come up. An interrogator who could speak English as well as I could speak English, with your kind of accent however so it must have been learned in Britain, and he would start questioning me and they just couldn’t understand, they just figured that I must know something and of-course I still had my uniform on and there was a ranger flash and they would interrogate me and they did that two or three times, they’d bring in a good meal and I’d eat it, the first time I ate it and of-course then you’d leave and they’d turn the heat back on again and because of the food which I wasn’t used to I threw it up and there I’d be in my own mess again. Anyway, they came and when they thought I probably really didn’t know anything and so they took me out of there and put me into a Russian compound with Russian prisoners. And I thought they mistreated the Americans! They really just didn’t feed us. The Russians were something else again. They put me in there and they were starving. And my other nightmare is a horse driven cart coming by with the bones of a horse that had been made into stew or something like that, just the bones of a dead horse, and they tossed the bones over into that compound and I was in a little better shape than the Russians were so I got to one of the bigger bones. You know you break them open and such that marrow out of there and it’s very nutritious and good. And anyway I fought those Russians over the bones of an old dead horse and as I was sucking the marrow out of that I looked at myself and thought boy how low can you get to fight for the bones of an old dead horse! And to this day I wake up When I cry, those are the two dreams that make me cry.
J: That’s quite a burden you’ve had to live with all these years.
F: It is a burden.
W: It doesn’t bother me most of the time. Most of the time I’ve enjoyed every day.
F: We’re talking about 57 years we’ve been married. So when you ask him these things he has to really go back and then he’s tried so hard for so long to forget.
W: You know when I first came back — to sort of indicate why — my father in law, Frances’s father, was as proud of me as if I’d been his own son. And he wanted me to speak. They asked Charlie if he’d get me to speak to the Chamber of Commerce for a [?] I think it was. I didn’t want to. But for him because it meant so much to him, I agreed to do it. After it was over with, James, the local banker, we know him well, Herb Cheever, said to my father in law, â€œYou know Charlie that was an interesting talk but only half of it was true wasn’t it. And I had two or three other times I was supposed to speak and I just flat didn’t do it.
F: My dad was so angry with him that he moved his account out of that bank.
W: So for forty years of that time I never said a word to anyone, even to my kids. My kids resent the fact that I never talked about this and they’re finding out now all the different stories.
F: Well the night you got taken prisoner. We were in Honeyburg at that time. We had just moved here I think a short time before, but it was a VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Party and it was packed, that place. And he spoke, and he told some of the things he’s telling you. There wasn’t a sound in there. It was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.
W: From then on. And then I had gone through a period just before that of post trauma syndrome. They didn’t know about that in WWII and they didn’t know what they were doing with me. I’d been working with the Ross and Perrina[?] Company and was one of their bright and shining stars and had one promotion right after another and I’d taken over a division in Michigan. This had started to hit a little before that but it really
F: In Georgia, that was awful.
W: Well that was later. It really hit there and I’d
J: So how long was that after the war?
W: 25 years? And the Company was very good to me because a lot of times I just disappeared. I didn’t want to see people, didn’t want to be with them. I’d be holed up in some motel. I was supposed to be working and she didn’t know where I was. It was a terrible time in my life. And a psychiatrist that was working with me at that time finally convinced me that what I needed to do was to talk about it and not hold it inside, that that was my problem. And I suspect he was right. I haven’t had the same problems since I started talking that night at the VFW. I opened up and there was a time I wouldn’t have talked with you at all. I would have told you to go jump in the lake. And there would be people who if you tell some of my stories who won’t believe you either.
F: Young people don’t know.
J: This is why I wanted to do these books, because of my own curiosity for the subject and it struck me that what’s so interesting about WWII was that everyone who lived through that war was involved in one way or another. You may not have been in France or Sicily or North Africa, you were just about as involved as anyone really even if you were in the US because Warren was away, other people you knew were involved, I don’t know what you were doing
F: I was working.
J: Everyone was involved and I always think to myself what would I have done in that situation, how would I have dealt with it, and I know the fact that I left my wife for six weeks when I went to India and I was miserable as sin. How do people put up with three, four years.
People of my age don’t know how lucky we are.
F: You know they leave the rangers over 18 days in combat and bring them home. They didn’t do that with
J: I suppose this is why I’m interested in what it was like when the ordinary guy finds himself in an invasion or whatever it is and how you dealt with that and responded to it and how it affected your life.
W: Have you ever studied the Sad Sack cartoons in Stars and Stripes? They’re from WWII. But Weary Willy was one of the characters. The reason I bring that up is because Bill Muldoon who was the cartoonist came closest to capturing what it was like to be a WWII soldier than anybody ever has. His cartoons are truer to life. People laugh like crazy at them but they’re truer to life than most people realize.
F: Colin is one of our grandchildren, he’s the only one here, and he was in 8th I think. He came here after school one day, his eyes shining, saying â€œlook Grandpa, I want to show you something Grandpa and here in his history book it’s talking about WWII and he was excited. He knew a lot more about it than the teacher I think but it hit the history books when he was at high school.
W: James we’ve been sidetracked a couple of times, I’m sorry. I must tell you that come 1 O’clock
J: If you can bear with me a little bit longer, I was interested to know about what you were doing all this time and were you still writing letters furiously?
F: I rarely heard from him. I don’t know, were you not supposed to write or you didn’t have time to write?
W: I used to wake up on the boat and we were on the boat for six weeks before we landed in North Africa. No mail getting out at all, and we couldn’t write anything anyway because we couldn’t tell where we were or what we were doing and then otherwise I was so busy reading the letters that my men were sending because I had to censor them and then we were in combat, I’d say we were in combat 75% of the time we were in combat.
F: It didn’t worry me. I knew he couldn’t write.
W: And every time we did and then I’d write a note and in the prison camp, that’s a story in itself, I wrote as much as I could, they were little cards and stuff like that.
F: I could show you if you want to see a card about that long and it’s pretty deep and it’s printed. And then he saw it and crossed out what wasn’t true.
W: But she wasn’t even getting those. I couldn’t write to my mother, she wasn’t getting anything. Because she had remarried after I went into service and her name was Reader and then my sister had married and her name was Think.
F: And I was writing with my name: Wheeler. And finally he sent a letter to me addressed Mrs Warren Evans
W: Took a shot in the dark
F:and he said â€œI can write to you my next of kin. I got it. So I started sending my letters to him. My return was Mrs Warren Evans and he got them.
W: But I’d been a prisoner then six months?
F: At least, more. And then the boxes that I sent, I could send one a month
W: I never got them before that.
J: What were you doing during the war?
F: I was a court reporter. And I worked two different places in the courts.
J: Did you follow what was going on abroad?
F: Tried to.
J: Was that largely through radio, newspapers?
F: And the movies at that time. They’d have a newsreel, five nights of news. I remember the night his picture was on the newsreel and I went to that movie every night to see it.
J: When was that?
F: I don’t know.
W: Probably 1943, something like that.
J: That must have been very thrilling.
F: It was. I just sat there.
W: I showed up in a lot of pictures and stuff and papers but you didn’t know who they were. Like that Fort Worth Texas paper.
J: Did you think at the time that it was the right thing that America was involved?
F: It just had to be. I had to deal with it. I wanted to go into service at the beginning but he didn’t want me to so I gave it up and I had taken a court reporters course so I went to the courts.
J: That kept you pretty busy?
J: Probably just as well. Can you remember the first time that you went into action against the Germans in North Africa? Because that must have been a short while after Algiers.
W: That would be in Tunisia. Kasserine Pass, the battle for El Guettar, Gafsa, Djebel El Ank, Sened Station, that’s one of the first. And usually we were up against the cream of the crop in the desert.
J: And they were good soldiers?
W: Yes they were.
J: You had a healthy respect for them?
W: Healthy respect. We didn’t have anything to compare with them at that time. In fact you must recognize that the Americans didn’t have an army really.
J: This is one of the things I’m very interested about.[end of side]
the first time the British and Americans were fighting shoulder to shoulder because in the WWI you had separate commands. And you had shared leadership and everything. And I’m very interested in the differences between British and American approaches and one of the things is Britain already had an army and it had a regimental structure. You guys, because the army was so small and it had to build up very quickly, you were all training together: officers, non-coms, other ranks, whereas that didn’t happen in Britain. It’s very interesting to me how you got involved and how you got promoted and how you came to join the rangers and stuff. I’m interested that you guys were in a different league but for most Americans this was a baptism of fire and a half – a very sharp learning curve.
W: At the beginning, at the very beginning, as I say we were the very first Division overseas, the 34th Division, you didn’t have a very good opinion of us and we had earned that. We were not soldiers. We were a bunch of people thrown together playing at being soldiers. The 34th Division, because we’d been in the National Guard and we’d been federally inducted, were probably at that time – that and the First Armoured Division – we were two full Divisions and they were unwieldy, they were all square divisions they call them, they were 30,000 men. They didn’t triangularise them until later and make them more wieldy. So the British soldier tended to look down his nose at the Yank and that old saying: â€œOverpaid, over-sexed, and over here was earned! It was really the truth. They fought a good battle in the bar rooms. They were good bar room brawlers. Soldiers? No they weren’t. Not all British were either but for the most part they had lived through enough, so even the Home Guard which was made up of what we call 4Fs if you know what I mean, they were better soldiers than our front line soldiers because they had lived through the hardship, they had lived through defeat as well as success, they were facing being invaded, they had a different mindset. Ours was: â€œHere we are you lucky people! So there was a difference.
J: That is certainly true about the British but the other thing is that Britain had an Empire and was used to warmongering. We were brought up on war and battles and it was very interesting, one of the Desert Rats I spoke to he was there pretty much from the word go from 1940 right through to the end in Tunisia, 1943, he said to me one of the things we used to really love was listening to the guys who’d been in India before the war and their stories, these are the guys we looked up to. The whole culture of fighting and battle and people had a vague idea of what to expect in a way that your Yankee footsoldier couldn’t possibly have known because it was all so new. Even your officers didn’t have any experience of combat whereas Britain did. That’s a crucial advantage.
W: I think that your better soldiers on the Yank side actually came out of North Africa, Sicily and Italy. I think as we fought up the boot in Italy that there was a healthy respect between the Brits and the Yanks because we had grown up then and had proven that we were good fighting machines. And we did have an advantage in that the American economy was such that the supplies began to come to us and as the war progressed you could see it develop that we had material superiority. Now we never did equal their German 88 gun. We never did equal their Tiger tank. Individual. But we overpowered them with the masses. One thing we can do is produce them. And if the military got to the place where they could prove something was better we could make it. And it got to the place where we were doing a lot of the British manufacturing for them. So by the time the American soldier — the 34th Division, the First Division, the 45th Division, the 36th Division, a half a dozen divisions who fought most of the time in Africa, Sicily and Italy — they wound up being comparable, perhaps better, because I think that the average American is far more competitive in a competitive situation. They just have a mindset that way, and because of that, once they learn how to be a soldier, they become a good one. But that was rather a long time coming.
J: This is my point that one of the best ways to become a good army is to have experience of the battlefield I’m sure. You learn from your mistakes. I think the Americans were really good at it. You weren’t as rigid as the British or the Germans who have this military tradition. The Americans were far more adaptable I think.
W: The German Prussian and the British regular army. That that came later was watered down the same as ours was. But the German Prussians regular army segment of their armed forces was by far they were comparable. There were more of Hitler’s SS and Prussian troops than there were the British, simply because they outnumbered. And they’d been at it longer. But your regular army and the German Prussian regular army: the Rommels, that school, were very comparable. You could tell they had the same sort of backbone and we had to development that. We had to learn it. And let’s face it our regular army at that time, your regular army was bigger than ours, so that was a very small percentage of our force. I hope that answered that part of the question.
J: Can you tell me what are your memories of Kasserine?
W: Outside of the individual actions? You mean the battles?
J: Your personal experience of it I suppose?
W: Kasserine Pass was one of the lesser actions. I know that in history it was major. As we retreated, as we were driven back, the rangers were fighting the rear guard action. I mean literally. The American forces actually were in disarray, were being driven back and if the Germans had fouled it up and if we hadn’t slowed them down somehow they would have – I don’t know what would have happened — they would probably have driven them all the way back to Algiers.
J: You think they missed a trick there?
W: Yes. So, but I think the rangers were what gave our troops the chance to regroup and find out what was happening and start to learn about this business of being in a war. We were completely inexperienced until that time. Kasserine Pass I think made them realize what we were up against and I think it was the first time.
J: Even as a ranger, what can rangers do against Tigers and Mark 4 tanks?
W: Bazoukas, mines. We fought them and sometimes we turned their own guns on them. We did a lot of that. And because of the area, the space involved, we were relatively safe in fighting the way we did. It sounds like once again, you’ve got the picture that as we fought the rearguard action for the Kasserine Pass. That here we were standing up there 500 men holding back the German army. What we were doing was picking at them piecemeal. Slow them down and we’d attack them and this would always take them by surprise because they weren’t used to that either. And so I think that the rangers’ success in slowing down the German juggernaut was surprise at the way we were doing it. It was unconventional. It was a commando type thinking. The only difference was I think we out-commandoed the commandos. Because I think our American Indian heritage or something like that, the way we fought the frontier war kind of stayed with us and we were inclined to be able to fight that way and so at Kasserine Pass we were attacking where they weren’t expecting and it slowed them down and then we’d back off and we’d attack them from another angle.
J: Were you up on the sides of the pass?
W: When you say the pass, that sounds good but this mountain range over here was 10 miles so you’re talking about a pass that’s ten miles or more wide. Some places wider than that.
J: I’m trying to picture how you were operating?
W: We were on foot all the time.
J: Always on foot?
W: Always during that time.
J: And it’s a question of getting behind a rock, firing a bazouka, running back, that sort of thing.
W: Yes. They couldn’t put their finger on us and we were completely successful doing it.
J: And again you’re tightly working in your own Company?
W: Yeah. We might send out one Company, we might send out one Platoon: 30 men.
J: Was this mostly day time or night time actions?
W: Both. Round the clock.
J: And the conditions in Tunisia? You always got enough food? You didn’t get ill or anything?
W: That’s why I started drinking wine. Because you were often times caught without being able to get decent water. And if you got the water you would probably wind up with a case of dysentery or something because we just weren’t used to it. And rations? We had a supply officer and he had a crew and they were out there scrounging everything in the world they could for us. So we’d have our K rations and C rations and we had our own cooks and once in a while we might get one of those mountain goats or something like that.
J: And did you have much interaction with the Arab civilians or not really?
W: No. We couldn’t understand them, they couldn’t understand us.
J: But you didn’t have a problem with them pilfering or anything.
W: No, we just ignored them. If you did have a problem we probably didn’t know whether it was the Arabs or our own troops. It was a completely new experience but somehow or another the rangers were ready for it I think, because of the training that the British had given us, and I think that of-course we were a hush hush outfit then too. Very little was known about us and the successes we had had been post action rather than during them. Because people all of a sudden realized that they had an integral part of what was going on. All the way on that soft underbelly they called it.
J: Was your way of dealing with the loss of people in battle to sort of say right that’s happened, don’t think about it, get on with it?
W: James, yes, for the most part you had to go on. You had to forget about it. But there were some that you lost that hurt more than others. When I lost Ronnie Cockle[?] I had the emptiest feeling. He was my First Sergeant and he was an old timer and we had so many green troops at that time, but Ronnie would see to it that we had been together enough so that he read my mind a lot of times. And he knew what I would want and needed and would back my hand. I’d give an order and he’d been there. So that last day in Cisterna I remember being kind of cold, empty feeling, when I knew that Ronnie had been killed. Little Tommy Sullivan, the guy that killed the German whose eyes I was killed at Shonzee[?] Pass. We fought off twelve major counter-attacks because we were the reason that finally the Germans had to evacuate the Salerno[?] beachhead. And incidentally the British 45th Royal Marine Commandos was on our right flank and they were part of the same action. And we covered that whole distance, from there, 25 miles, with 1500 men and the British Commandos lets say 2000 men, covered that whole area and repulsed several counter-attacks. And you see I forget now what I was talking about.
J: Tommy Sullivan.
W: And there at Shonzee[?] Pass in the middle of one of those battles — by this time Tommy was a Sergeant, one of my Section Sergeants — and he was killed in that battle. Of-course we lost quite a few there in that combat and I remember how badly I felt at the time. It was kind of a I can’t really tell you the felling: it’s a stunned, cold, out of this world experience when that happens. And then the days go by and you realize that this is war and you forget about it. I can remember I was never close to Slim Camel[?] but Frances was with me at Matuno[?] cemetery, the American cemetery. We went from one grave to the other. And there was a story to tell as we stood by Ronnie Cockle’s grave, well she knew the story of Ronnie. But then we went over to Earle Parish’s grave, she didn’t know about that story I guess. Tommy Sullivan’s, Slim Camel I didn’t know Slim Camel all that well. He was a new one. Came as a replacement, but he was gung ho and anxious to prove himself and I let him do something I shouldn’t have let a green officer do and he was killed as a result. Now that one I felt badly about because it was a job I should not have sent him on. And yet if I had and one of the old timers had been killed, I wonder what I would have felt. Would I have felt exonerated?
F: Tell him about bringing Slim Camel down. You went up after him.
W: That was Earle Parish. We were fighting in the mountains over Benefo[?] and Earle Parish had been my First Sergeant when I was a Platoon Leader and he became First Sergeant of F Company under me when I became Company Commander. And he got a battlefield commission of a necessity. We had taken hill 950 (that’s metres)
F: You’re in Italy now.
W: 3,000 feet up. We had taken the hill 950 and the 501st, one of the paratroop battalions out of 82nd Airborne were supposed to have taken the hill alongside of ours, which was 50 metres, 150 feet higher. We accomplished our objective but they hadn’t accomplished theirs so we were going to help them and my Company was the one that was ordered to attack from the side and in so doing they were dropping grenades on us. It was that close. And one of them hit Earle Parish who was Platoon Commander. And so we picked him up – we were told to hold where we were – and so we had to get Earle Parish down that mountainside and we kind of fought our way back and we got him down the mountain and the hand grenade had landed on his backside and kind of blew his rear end away, but he was living. We got him down the mountain but then we went back up and continued our fight and eventually we accomplished our objectives, or the objective of the paratroopers, but then we got word in a couple of days that Earle Parish had died. So all of these special people like that, I didn’t get to all of them, but there they are sprinkled through that old graveyard. Each of them a story in itself.
F: And the bus was loaded and waiting and they just quietly waited for him. And I stood just off to the side of him and watched him as he went down those rows and saw the names he was looking for.
J: You must see some horrible things in battle, blood and gore, is that something you’re ever able to get used to? The time you see your first dead soldier does that hit you?
W: No I think that operating in a vacuum. That’s really what it’s like. You get to the place where you don’t know fear, you don’t know apprehension, you don’t know anything, you just do your job. And it’s a fatalistic approach. My Purple Heart comes from being wounded there at Cisterna and I can remember the shell exploded out here somewhere and the concussion knocked me out. I came to a couple, three, several weeks later in prison. I can remember the ground coming up to hit me but I can never remember hitting the ground. And they say your life flashes in front of you? Baloney! My only reaction was this is it! I’d been expecting it for that long. Eventually you build that attitude where you operate in that vacuum, where you have closed everything out of your life, out of your thinking. Where one of two things happens. And you’ve heard of this over and over again. Someone breaks. They can’t get into that vacuum. They can’t keep operating and do their job, use their head, but it’s in your own little world. No-one else is in it till something jars it. It’s either that or you break. Now there was an awful lot more breaking in WWII than most people realize. It’s something not talked about and people don’t bring it up about themselves. But guys like me and the old timers who survived and live through it operated out of that vacuum or they didn’t operate. After so much action, so much killing, so much of losing friends, so much of not daring to get too close to anyone, when you go through that long enough you either start operating out of that vacuum or you break. You cannot be in between.
J: Obviously you are in a dangerous situation. Most people say they assumed it would never happen to them but you’re saying that you did consider it and you thought that it was quite likely.
W: In fact when I was wounded and the ground came up to hit me. That was my reaction. This is it. I’d been expecting it. In fact that there was a certain sense of relief, I think. I can’t really answer that honestly but I seem to remember a certain type of â€œPheww, it’s happened. It’s hard to explain but there it is. No, and anyone that says that they didn’t experience fear at a certain time the only time that I didn’t experience fear was when I finally got into my vacuum. I didn’t experience fear then. Otherwise it was always there, day in and day out.
J: Can you get used to it?
W: Yes. You either do or you crack. And Frances read you a note from Les Kness that we just received yesterday, and James, Les was heller. I mean he was a first class heller and I was his best friend so we were a couple of hellers.
F: On time off you mean?
W: Yes. And but you notice his religious bent? When you go through what Les went through and what I went through you come out either a deeply religious man or a completely broken man. There’s no in between. You either accept the fact that there is a ruler of the universe, whatever you want to call it, or you don’t make it. You notice how it came out in his letter? He made no bones about it.
F: He never does. Well Warren reads his bible through every year. He has a bible guide and he goes through it every year. And nothing stops him. I don’t know if Les does but
W: He does. I don’t know whether he does it that way but he does it in his way. Les perhaps is more outspoken about his than I am. I kind of keep my faith to myself. He doesn’t.
J: Did you have your faith when you were out in the war?
W: Not like that, no. I’d gone to church all my life but when I was younger, as I said, growing wild, I used to meet my Grandmother for church every Sunday. But I hate to tell you that the reason I met her and went to church with her — she loved it – but because I could go home with her afterwards and get a Sunday dinner! And it wasn’t that I wasn’t schooled because I brushed against it, but the deep feeling of you’re either in or you’re out, he can’t speak to you unless you’re out. If you’re out then you don’t really listen to him. And I have learned that he’s spoken to me in so many ways. And I’ve been a very fortunate man really to have gone through what I have and still come out being able to enjoy life like I do.
J: You keep pretty busy now don’t you?
F: For three years he’s been President of the Rangers Battalion Association for the United States. And we met on September 11th 2001. We got there the day before and that morning he had to meet some guys downstairs in the hotel. The hotel was empty, waiting for the rangers. He went down. I had got up and helped him pack his suitcase, the things he needed for that meeting. And so quiet, no-one around. I went back to bed and fell asleep. The telephone rang and it was Mark, our son, in Portland, Oregon. He was at the airport out there ready to come to meet us and they closed the airport and so he called us in our room and he said something, I don’t even remember what he said. I said â€œMark what do you mean? He said â€œMother, turn the damn television on! I’ll see you later. And I turned it on and I saw the second plane hit.
Are you almost through? I want you to tell Hans’s story. Now where was that?
W: That was in close to the monastery, Casino, close to Casino in the mountains there. They were looking down our throats. The valley of Benefro[?], north of Naples, is a beautiful valley and the monarchy had their castle right in the middle of [?] and if you’re familiar with it it narrows down to where there’s a high range of mountains and on the backside of that is St Piedro and Casino, but there was that range of mountains that they controlled and looking down our throats and every time the allies would try to advance the Germans would throw the book at us. And so Colonel Darby called me in one day and said â€œWe’ve got to get to the top of that mountain where we think their observation post is. He said â€œI want you to take a patrol and get up there and see what they’ve got, see what we can do. So that night I took my patrol — one section, 10 men or thereabouts — and we got up there and I studied what they had and we looked at it from different directions and we knew the lay of the land pretty well. Came back down and reported to him. He said â€œDo you think, with your Company, you could take the top of that mountain? I said â€œYes, I think so. So he said â€œI want you to do that. And so that night we infiltrated right in amongst them and got in there and we didn’t have too much trouble. And daybreak came and I saw why we didn’t have too much trouble. Something we couldn’t see at night. We sat on this mountain top and here was this gully across here like this and perhaps 50 yards, 75 yards, they were on another peak sitting over there. Now we had their observation cut off — because the observation post was on our side — but nevertheless they were still on top of the mountain with us and we couldn’t reach that because this gully was in between, they would have picked us off like flies. But they couldn’t reach us for the same reason. I reported this to Colonel Darby and Oh boy! I wish somebody could have taken a tape of that. The air was blue! â€œLieutenant he said â€œI don’t give a damn what you do, I want you to take the other side of that mountain, do you hear me? Those are your orders. I said â€œColonel it’s impossible. It will take some time before I can find out how to do it but there’s no way I can frontal assault that and take it. Well, he said â€œWell you’ve got your orders. So I yelled over there and I said â€œCan anyone over there speak English? to the other side of the mountain. A voice came back as though you were answering me and he said â€œYes, I can. I said, â€œGood. Why don’t we declare a truce. And you alert your men, I’ll alert mine and you and I will stand up here and talk this over. He said â€œAlright, give me a few minutes. And so after a little while I yelled up â€œOk, you ready?. He said â€œYes. He said â€œBut you stand up first. So I didn’t know, but I stood up and he stood up on the other peak. And you say 50, 75 yards, that’s a long way to carry on a conversation but on top of a mountain it isn’t because your voice carries so well. So I tried to talk him into coming over for a steak dinner. I hadn’t seen a steak in I don’t know how long. I guess I hadn’t really had a steak all the time I had been overseas (you didn’t have many steaks in Britain at that time!). So then I said â€œWell how about coming over and meeting a Red Cross girl I knew we had Red Cross girls over there. I’d never seen one but I knew we had them. He just laughed. And you know, just trying to do anything to try to entice him into giving up without having to go through battle. But no. But I did find out that his name was Hans. He wouldn’t tell me any more. He was the only one over there that spoke English. So he got a little braver as the days went by, not many, but in the meantime I infiltrated through the lines and came up behind him and got in amongst them. We knew about where they had their machine gun posts and where they had their command post and
F: Hans had been in this country at the University of Michigan studying Hotel Management.
W: He was at the Kellogg Centre at Michigan State, learning Hotel Management. And his folks owned a hotel at Leipzig, Germany, and he said â€œThe reason I can’t come over there, he said â€œI’d come over, but if I do, it’s my folks that are going to suffer. I don’t dare. He had come home for a vacation and was conscripted into Hitler’s army and was now a Sergeant. And I asked him to get the officer in charge over there to stand up and he said there’s no officer in charge but I’m the non-com in charge. That’s the way it all started. And there’s so much to this story that half of the time I leave half of it out. But we accomplished our objective. For two or three days we had a truce every day, round about 3 O’clock, and some of them tried to throw souvenirs back and forth – it was a little too far for that – but it got to where several people would stand up on either side. But then it came time for the conclusion of the matter and they sent an army Colonel from the paratroopers up there and he was going to relieve us and we were then supposed to infiltrate that night and come up in behind them and take them but as I explained to the Colonel, where the machine guns were and where the command post was and where they would have snipers and so forth, every time I would say machine gun, the Colonel would raise his voice and say â€œI don’t see anything over there Lieutenant. And then I’d mention something else and he’s say â€œI don’t see a damned thing. And each time he’d raise his voice so Hans was listening to him too. And finally the Colonel just stood up and said â€œLieutenant there’s not a damn thing over there. Why haven’t you taken the other side of that mountain. About that time Hans was nursing his burp[?] gun on the other side and pointed it at the Colonel and said â€œHe hasn’t been here long has he Lieutenant!
J: It just shows that most of the guys you’re up against are just like you really, there’s nothing personal.
W: There’s a sequel. That night I gave orders to try to take Hans alive but he was killed. It’s kind of hard in the night to determine who was who. And so he was killed. Then we were looking down their throats at St Pietro. It wasn’t long St Pietro fell. But now the third time I escaped, and had to escape because I didn’t want to get shot. I escaped with a man named Pete Betcher[?] and we got back to our lines on the Elbe river. We didn’t dare move in the daytime so we did all of our moving at night and finally reached the Elbe river and of-course that’s a story in itself but I’m not going to tell him about The bridge is blown across the Elbe river of-course and on either end the superstructure was still out of the river. So we crawled across the river. On the German side there wasn’t much water where it had fallen in but when we got to the other side, the bend in the river where the bridge was, there was a 15-20 yard area there that the current was real swift coming around that bend. You had the superstructure and here was the shoreline here. And we couldn’t quite make it. But as we got across, we’d crawled across on the superstructure, and got to this side, but we were both apprehensive because he wasn’t in any better shape than I was in and I was 140 pounds at that time. Even though I was a strong swimmer I didn’t feel like tackling that strong current. [end of tape2]
W wondering what to do and all of a sudden an American half track loomed up on the other side which you couldn’t have seen from across the river, but we could see it. And they stopped there. And I yelled at them. â€œListen, is there anyone there that can hear me?. They said yeah they could hear me. I tried to tell them we were Yanks that we needed help to get across the river and they weren’t about to believe us because at that time the Germans were dressing in American uniforms and infiltrating into the American lines and creating havoc. So I didn’t blame them particularly but I said â€œOK, look you don’t want to help. If you want to see us die We had convinced them I think that we were Yanks because we talked about World Series and all that sort of stuff. I said â€œI’m going to start swimming this. I said â€œI’m 140 pounds and I’ve been a strong swimmer but from having been in a prison camp all this time and that water’s cold, I don’t know whether I can make it or not, so if you want to see me drown that’s up to you. Otherwise you can toss me a rope or something and help me. And so I started to cross. And this guy, seeing what was happening, waded out as far as he could go and then handed his gun out to me, with the barrel pointed at me, and I managed to get hold of it and I managed to get across. So Pete did the same thing. Pete Betcher was the same way so when we both got across there and they gave us a D Bar and we were both so hungry that it made us sick. But the guy that did that was a Corporal Hutchison and they weren’t going to let us write or anything so I asked if he would notify Frances. We still have his letter. And anyway, from there they took us into Leipzig, Germany, which was the headquarters of the Fifth Army, and they separated us because Pete was an enlisted man and enlisted men and officers don’t go together so they separated us. And I went into this hotel, which was the headquarters. And I didn’t think about it for a while, and then I got to questioning, thinking, hotel, Leipzig, Germany, Hans. I just wonder. So I got to questioning, and sure enough the Fifth Army had purchased the hotel to use for their headquarters from an old couple that ran it. And I asked them if they knew where this old couple was and they said no, but finally one day one of the MPs said that he thought he knew where they were in Leipzig, 9 or 10 or 11, 12, blocks, maybe a mile from the headquarters. I found them in a little apartment. But it had no heat or anything, the only heat they had was what they could furnish themselves. They dressed warmly. And I knocked on the door and it was answered by a woman and she was about 4 feet 10. Anyway, when I was sitting in a chair a little higher than this she would only be that much taller than I was, but she was that big around. And she could speak a little English and she called to her husband and he was a tall – almost as tall as I was – and very spare. So here was this typical German frau and Anyway I went there two or three times in a row and we got pretty well acquainted and found out that their son and their name was Schuller[?]. Hans had never divulged that to me before then. So Mr and Mrs Schuller, they got curious and we got pretty close and we swopped stories and so forth. And one day Mrs Schuller said to me â€œYou know something about our Hans don’t you. And I told her the story about on the mountain top. And that was one of those times I cried, telling her the story. And she stopped, put her arms around me and said â€œWe understand. And the next day they moved me out. We’ve tried to contact them since but they moved again I guess.
J: One thing you mentioned the other day on the phone, you said there were a whole load of notes that you might be able to lend me.
W: I think the best bet is the book that has a lot of this in it.
J: Can I buy one of the books?
W: I am going to have to order one. [interruption] I had been an ex-football player, probably the best shape I had ever been in in my life. 5, 6 or 7 mile an hour march was nothing for me. There probably wasn’t anything physical I couldn’t do at that time if it was possible. And yet I need to apologise to you because through the years the actual details of the combat we were in, I have closed them out of my mind to the extent that I can’t tell you. When you asked me about Kasserine Pass, the memory is there with me, but the details? I did spearhead four invasions, I did fight through six campaigns, seven I think. I did fight every battle of every campaign, and I did fight for two and a half dog gone years and never outside of the training itself the first six months. So for two years it was nothing but one day of combat after another, or preparing for the next day’s combat. And so I will admit that I have spots of memory and my memory seems to have closed out the action and the details of a battle. I am amazed at the men like [the Lieutenant] who was really in on one or two battles and he can tell you every detail, every step he took. And I can’t.
F: See the rangers were wiped out the night he was captured.
J: About North Africa, most of it happened in the winter and there was a lot of rain and fairly cold, did you bear up to the conditions OK? Night after night of getting soaked through? Took it on the chin?
W: Yup. The days were warm. You’d dry out in the daytime. The nights were cold.
F: Your feet didn’t take it very well.
W: In North Africa I didn’t freeze my feet. That was in Italy on the mountain tops.
J: For a young guy like yourself, hadn’t been abroad and then to go to Africa, can you remember any impressions of the country that stick in the mind, any smell, or incident, about Africa that sticks in the mind?
W: Stark is the word that comes out in my mind. Why anybody would want to live there I don’t know. And of-course the lush valleys that we hear about, I didn’t see. The closest I came to it were the olive groves in Gafsa. And I remember one of the old Roman hot springs, hot spar baths, and they were still there and still hot water running through it.
J: So you got clean that day.
W: Oh boy did I soak in that!
F: And put dirty clothes back on?
W: Oh yeah. That’s all we had.
J: You got used to living in dirty clobber?
W: Yeah. We could once in a while have a day or two when we could wash our underclothes and our socks. Once in a great while they would issue us with a new one. I can remember when we came back when I had half a dozen days at least, maybe more than that, growth of beard, didn’t have a tie on, Patten stopped me and read me the riot act.
J: You must have wanted to tell him to go jump didn’t you?
W: Well, I did sort of but it was Colonel Darby that put Patten straight. He said â€œLook General, this guy hasn’t seen a razor, hasn’t looked at water, hasn’t had a chance for water. They’ve been fighting from mountain top to mountain top and you’re asking him to wear his tie? He backed off. As I understand it now in retrospect, Darby and Patten were good friends. Probably they’d both been to West Point. Patten was a year or two older than Darby. So I imagine Darby could say things to Patten that most of us couldn’t have. But I did tell him, look at him in disgust a long time and gave voice to my disgust. But it was Darby that put him straight.
F: But you know they came down out of the mountains onto this highway and Patten would be there? And blast him out for the way they looked! Come on! They’d been up there all winter!
W: Let me tell you a story about that though. I don’t know whether many people know or not. Patten sort of went against orders in Sicily and went up the cut across to Palermo, took Palermo and then leapfrogged up the North coast to Messina and he used us the 3rd Battalion. The campaign lasted 38 days but I told Frances that I don’t think that’s right because we fought 39 days. And anyway, we would go in there and come in and cut the road and Patten would join us, and we leapfrogged down that north coast till we got to the mountain and we confiscated half a dozen mules and carried some 75 mm howitzers round the backside of this mountain overlooking Messina. Well we got there and we watched the Germans crossing the straits of Messina. And we had patrols in the town and the Germans were evacuating it because Patten was probably two days from being there.
F: But somebody told him they could. But then they had to go to Italy and fight the Germans, the very ones
W: They were crossing the Straits and with our 75s we could have picked off a lot of them and created havoc and sunk half the German army. But we were ordered to sit back and we weren’t supposed to do a thing. And Montgomery was supposed to be coming up the east coast, he was supposed to be first at the scene, it was planned that way. So there we sat watching at, not being able to do a thing about it, because Montgomery had to be the first in Messina, and we’d been there two or three days by the time Montgomery ever got there.
F: What did Montgomery do?
W: He didn’t do anything. It was all over with. He just made a triumphal entry.
J: So he was a show pony too?
W: Yes. I remember that.
J: Can you remember the end in Africa?
W: There wasn’t a day per se. It was over a period of a week or two that gradually the German resistance crumbled and
J: You must have had a sense of a good job done?
W: Yes. At that time we knew we’d had a good part of it and that we’d accomplished driving him out of North Africa where he’d been so successful, where Rommel had completely dominated North Africa. Now all of a sudden he was gone. That’s when they realized they couldn’t do without rangers. That’s when they made three battalions instead of one.