Footnote 32 – Bob Greene, Duty: A Father, His Son, And The Man Who Won The War. HarperCollins, 2000, 2009. Kindle Edition, pp. 13-15.

Bob Greene’s book about his father’s death reports conversations he had with Paul Tibbetts, who lived in retirement not far from the Green family home in Columbus, OH. For those who might not know, Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr. (February 23, 1915 – November 1, 2007), was a brigadier general in the United States Air Force, best known as the pilot of the Enola Gay – named for his mother – the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb in the history of warfare. That bomb, code named “Little Boy,” was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in August 1945.

Any child of “Greatest Generation” parents, especially those of us who are losing or have lost them, can surely relate to Greene’s reflection on this Memorial Day. Today I am remembering James H. Wolfgang (August 13, 1922 – March 20, 2015), whose one and only “European trip” was via Omaha Beach in 1944, and for whom Memorial Day was always very meaningful.

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“Do people know my name?” Tibbets asked. He was repeating the question I had just asked him. A soft, private look crossed his face.

“They don’t need to know my name,” he said. The deed he had carried out was one of the most famous the world has ever known; it will be talked about in terms of fear and awe forever. He, though, even here in the town where he lived, was not as famous as the local television weatherman.

“People knowing my name isn’t important at all,” he said. “It’s more important—it was more important then, and it’s more important now—that they know the name of my airplane. And that they understand the history of what happened. “Although sometimes I think that no one really understands the history.”

And so we started to talk. Neither of us knew it that day, but it would be the first of many conversations—about the war, about the men and women who lived through it, about their lives, and the lives of their sons and daughters: the lives of those of us who came after them, who inherited the world that they saved for us.

As I sat with Tibbets that first day—thinking of my father in his bed just a few miles away—it occurred to me that Eisenhower was dead, Patton was dead, Marshall was dead, MacArthur was dead. And here was Tibbets, telling me in the first person the story of how the great and terrible war came to an end.

… gradually the stories would expand in context, would begin to explain to me certain things not just about this man, but about the generation of men and women who are leaving us now every day.

It is a wrenching thing, to watch them go. As the men and women of the World War II generation die, it is for their children the most intensely personal experience imaginable—and at the same time a sweeping and historic one, being witnessed by tens of millions of sons and daughters, sons and daughters who feel helpless to stop the inevitable.

For me, as my father, day by day, slipped away, the over-whelming feeling was that a safety net was being removed—a safety net that had been there since the day I was born, a safety net I was often blithely unaware of. That’s what the best safety nets do—they allow you to forget they’re there. No generation has ever given its children a sturdier and more reliable safety net than the one our parents’ generation gave to us.

The common experience that wove the net was their war. And as I began to listen to Tibbets—to hear his stories, later to question him about the America that preceded and followed the war from which his stories came—I realized anew that so many of us only now, only at the very end, are beginning to truly know our fathers and mothers. It was as if constructing that safety net for their children was their full-time job, and that finally, as they leave us, we are beginning to understand the forces that made them the way they were.

Tibbets began to speak, and as I listened I thought I could hear a rustle of something behind the words—I thought I could hear the whisper of a generation saying goodbye to its children.

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The Bulge

Map_of_Malmedy-Stavelot_December_1944

Seventy years ago, in the early morning hours of 16 December 1944, Allied troops in Europe were awakened by artillery barrages and the sounds of German armored infantry beginning a surprise attack that penetrated Allied lines, creating a “bulge” in the front over the next few days and weeks.

My father, now 92 but then only 22 years old, was serving with the 654th Engineering Battalion – a unit of map-makers, printers and lithographers, trained largely in the urban Midwestern technical high schools of Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Cleveland, etc. (in my father’s case, Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis). Like most of the common soldiers and support troops of WW2, they were largely drawn from the high school classes of 1940,’41, ’42, and ’43.

In the very first chapter of Citizen Soldiers (arguably his best book), Stephen Ambrose identifies the production and distribution of maps such as those produced by the 654th Engineering Battalion as “a critical and never-ending process – eventually in the Normandy campaign, the U.S. First Army passed out 125 million maps.” About 25 years ago, I found in the bookshop of London’s Imperial War Museum several copies of a history of WW2 told by the use of the maps used by any Allied unit wondering what’s the best way to get where they were supposed to go next – several of the maps in that book bore the imprint of the 654th Engineering Battalion.

In December 1944, Dad’s unit had established a map depot containing 1.5 million maps in the Bock Tannery on the banks of the River Ambleve at Stavelot, Belgium. Here’s the account from the official unit history of the 654th Engineering Battalion, produced shortly after V-E day in 1945 by those who served in the unit:

“Although we had a paratroop alert, and heard some unexplained artillery racket from the direction of Malmedy [about 6 miles away, and about which more later—JSW] nobody expected any real excitement. The first indication that things were getting pretty warm was on the evening of Sunday, December 17, when a sentry from another engineer outfit rushed into our orderly room with word that he had seen German tanks and had been fired on at a road block less than a mile away, across the river. He was sent back to his unit to report, and a little later ha and another man from his unit recrossed the bridge in a jeep to see if the road back was still being held. They had just got across the bridge when they drew a heavy burst of enemy fire, wounding both of them and wrecking the jeep…In the meantime we had taken up defensive positions along the riverbank with our machine gun set up to guard the bridge…

“Since our orders were to hold out until relief arrived, we knew we were in for a hot night. Heavy firing broke out along the river. Mortar shells and machine gun slugs were coming our way, and we answered them with our carbines. From midnight until dawn of December 18th we alone held Stavelot against the German First SS Panzer Division. If the German commander had known that the east bank of the Ambleve, which he wanted very badly to cross, was being held by a mere handful of surveyors, draftsmen, and clerks, he could have sent his tanks roaring across the bridge and up the back road to Spa and Liege. As it worked out, we kept Jerry ducking all night long. Our carbines silenced at least one German machine gun which was operating only fifty yards from the main warehouse of the map depot, and by morning, when the armored infantry arrived to take over the defense of Stavelot, our line was intact, and the line of the main German thrust had swung to the south, trying to find a softer spot in American lines… When we pulled out in the morning [under orders from above to fall back toward Spa and Trois-Ponts, deemed by the Allied brass to be more defensible] we hadn’t lost a man, we had held our position, and we had caused the enemy, with his determination, casualties and plenty of trouble.”

According to some of the “standard” histories of WW2 – usually composed decades later by using many such unit histories, interviews, letters, and many other source documents – the engineers from the “other unit” were elements of the 291st Engineering Battalion, which was in part responsible for the removal and documentation of at least 76 American corpses slaughtered – machine-gunned to death while standing in an open field, having surrendered and been disarmed by the Germans. This was the infamous Malmedy Massacre at the Baugnez Crossroads, only about 6-7 miles from Stavelot where the 654th was stationed (the definitive account is Crossroads of Death by James J. Weingarten, University of California Press, 1979). They were not the only disarmed POW’s massacred by German forces during the Battle of the Bulge.

Had the 654th realized that the Germans they were facing across the Ambleve was the notorious Kampfgruppe Peiper, they might have had a more sobering perspective on their predicament. The commander, Joachim Peiper, was the “point of the spear” of the German attack sweeping west to seize river bridges all the way to Huy. Indeed, even the armored infantry which replaced the 654th at Stavelot was unable to hold the bridge the following day; an attempt to blow the bridge before the Germans could cross was evidently stymied in part by the infiltration of at least two of Colonel Otto Skorzeny’s English-speaking German troops operating behind the Allied lines in captured American uniforms and Jeeps. Peiper’s uncharacteristic hesitation that night at Stavelot was probably as much an attempt to regroup his men, who had been fighting steadily for 36 hours, as well as allow the remainder of his armor, stretched out for miles behind him, to catch up to Peiper’s lead elements. Had Peiper known that Stavelot was the site not only of the map depot, but also one of the largest Allied fuel depots in all of Europe, storing millions of gallons of gasoline, he would no doubt have stormed across the bridge without hesitation.

Over the decades, often relying on the first-person accounts in the 654th unit history, I have tracked the course of where my father was stationed all across Europe, beginning at Tetbury, England (near the current summer palace of Prince Charles in the Cotswolds – where the 654th assembled the huge 6-inches-to-the-mile 3-D relief map of the Normandy beaches used by Eisenhower and the top brass for the main briefing in London, including Churchill himself, of the D-Day invasion – described in the opening chapter of Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, and formerly discussed on this blog). The trail then led across Omaha Beach, through Paris, across France and Belgium, and ultimately across the ruined Siegfried Line and the wreckage of Aachen into Germany (first stop at Bad Godesburg, north of Koblenz and about 2 miles from the famous Bridge at Remagen).

One of the most memorable evenings in our “family history” was taking my children to Bad Godesburg nearly 50 years after their grandfather was there, having supper at a sidewalk café within sight of the stanchions of the ruined “Bridge at Remagen,” explaining to a very attentive audience the significance of WW2 and the “citizen soldiers” like their grandfather who each played their part in the “Mighty Endeavor.”

Often accompanied by my good friend and former student, Steve Wallace – who during his 20+ years living in Germany has forgotten more about WW1 & WW2 battlefields than most of us will ever know – I have located many of the places my father’s unit occupied decades before. This included a foray into the Belgian woods with a metal detector (with permissions from the museums and authorities controlling those sites) which produced a buried, mud-encrusted but relatively well-preserved Nazi helmet not far from Spa; it occurred to me then that “the guy who wore this might well have shot at my Dad!” That helmet now resides in my office at home.

Today my father is in a nursing home in Indianapolis, his mind still clear and his resolve strong despite the fact that his body will no longer do everything he wants it to. My thoughts and prayers are with him tonight, as I consider the circumstances he and millions of his comrades faced seven decades ago. Thanks, Dad – I love you!JHW-WW2

Footnote 30 — Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

Footnote 30  —  Rick Atkinson, The Guns At Last Light: War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (The Liberation Trilogy, Volume 3).  New York: Henry Holt and Co.. 2013, pp. 23-24 (Kindle Edition Locations 573-609).

The “stuff” of war: Excerpts from Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy:

“The loading of invasion vessels bound for the Far Shore had begun on May 4 and intensified as the month wore away. Seven thousand kinds of combat necessities had to reach the Norman beaches in the first four hours, from surgical scissors to bazooka rockets, followed by tens of thousands of tons in the days following. Responsibility for embarkation fell to three military bureaucracies with acronyms evocative of the Marx Brothers: MOVCO, TURCO, and EMBARCO. Merchant marine captains sequestered in a London basement near Selfridges department store prepared loading plans with the blueprints of deck and cargo spaces spread on huge tables; wooden blocks scaled to every jeep, howitzer, and shipping container were pushed around like chess pieces to ensure a fit. Soldiers in their camps laid out full-sized deck replicas on the ground and practiced wheeling trucks and guns in and out.

“In twenty-two British ports, stevedores slung pallets and cargo nets into holds and onto decks, loading radios from Pennsylvania, grease from Texas, rifles from Massachusetts. For OVERLORD, the U.S. Army had accumulated 301,000 vehicles, 1,800 train locomotives, 20,000 rail cars, 2.6 million small arms, 2,700 artillery pieces, 300,000 telephone poles, and 7 million tons of gasoline, oil, and lubricants. SHAEF had calculated daily combat consumption, from fuel to bullets to chewing gum, at 41.298 pounds per soldier. Sixty million K rations, enough to feed the invaders for a month, were packed in 500-ton bales. Huge U.S. Army railcars known as war flats hauled tanks and bulldozers to the docks, while mountains of ammunition were stacked on car ferries requisitioned from Boston, New York, and Baltimore. The photographer Robert Capa, who would land with the second wave at Omaha Beach, watched as the “giant toys ” were hoisted aboard…

“Armed guards from ten cartography depots escorted 3,000 tons of maps for D-Day alone, the first of 210 million maps that would be distributed in Europe, most of them printed in five colors. Also into the holds went 280,000 hydrographic charts; town plats for the likes of Cherbourg and St.-Lô; many of the one million aerial photos of German defenses, snapped from reconnaissance planes flying at twenty-five feet; and watercolors depicting the view that landing-craft coxswains would have of their beaches. Copies of a French atlas pinpointed monuments and cultural treasures, with an attached order from Eisenhower calling for “restraint and discipline” in wreaking havoc.

“The U.S. First Army battle plan for OVERLORD contained more words than Gone with the Wind. For the 1st Infantry Division alone, Field Order No. 35 had fifteen annexes and eighteen appendices, including a reminder to “drive on right side of road.” Thick sheaves of code words began with the Pink List, valid from H-hour to two A.M. on D + 1, when the Blue List would succeed it. Should the Blue List be compromised, the White List would be used, but only if the word “swallow” was broadcast on the radio. A soldier could only sigh.

“Day after night after day, war matériel cascaded onto the wharves and quays, a catalogue Homeric in magnitude and variety: radio crystals by the thousands, carrier pigeons by the hundreds, one hundred Silver Stars and three hundred Purple Hearts—dubbed “the German marksmanship medal”— for each major general to award as warranted, and ten thousand “Hagensen packs,” canvas bags sewn by sailmakers in lofts across England and stuffed with plastic explosive. A company contracted to deliver ten thousand metal crosses had missed its deadline; instead, Graves Registration units would improvise with wooden markers. Cotton mattress covers used as shrouds had been purchased on the basis of one for every 375 man-days in France, a formula that proved far too optimistic. In July, with supplies dwindling, quartermasters would be forced to ship another fifty thousand.

“Four hospital ships made ready, “snowy white … with many bright new red crosses painted on the hull and painted flat on the boat deck,” the reporter Martha Gellhorn noted. Each LST also would carry at least two physicians and twenty Navy corpsmen to evacuate casualties, with operating rooms built on the open tank decks— a “cold, dirty trap,” in one officer’s estimation— and steam tables used to heat twenty-gallon sterilization cans. All told, OVERLORD would muster 8,000 doctors, 600,000 doses of penicillin, fifty tons of sulfa, and 800,000 pints of plasma meticulously segregated by black and white donors. Sixteen hundred pallets weighing half a ton each and designed to be dragged across the beaches were packed with enough medical supplies to last a fortnight.

 

D-Day seventy years later

Like many others who have visited these sites in Normandy, I found it an overwhelming experience tto try to imagine the magnitude of the sacrifice. Take a moment to reflect …..

Ferrell's Travel Blog

D-Day, June 6, 1944, is a very important day in American history. Here is one of the photos I made of “Omaha” Beach on a rainy day in 2002. This is where many American soldiers landed on that fateful day.

"Omaha" Beach in Normandy. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

A visit to this area and especially to the American cemetery helps us realize what a great debt we owe to those who gave their lives while fighting for freedom. A few years ago, prior to his death, I visited regularly with a veteran of World War II who was at Normandy. I enjoyed hearing him talk about the war, and asking him questions. I was always encouraged when I left his home.

The American Cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy. Photo by F. Jenkins.

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Footnote 21 – Father’s Day Note on Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy III

Footnote 21 – Father’s Day Note

On this Father’s Day of 2013, I am thinking of course of my father, James H. Wolfgang, now nearing his 91st birthday.  His only trip to Europe occurred at age 21 – via Omaha Beach.  His unit, the 654th Engineering Battalion, was responsible for producing the millions of maps with which Steven Ambrose, fifteen years ago, opened his book Citizen Soldiers.

Today I began reading the most recent version of the war in the European theatre, Rick Atkinson’s third volume of his Liberation Trilogy. A testament to the engineers who translated hard-won intelligence-gathering information into usable maps and models, Atkinson’s Prologue includes an account of the mammoth plaster-cast model of the beaches of Normandy, constructed under armed guard by the 654th Engineering Battalion in a small village in the Cotswalds during the spring of 1944, and then transported to London.  The massive model is featured in the orientation film at the D-Day Museum in the old Higgins Boat factory in New Orleans.  Here part of Atkinson’s Prologue:

“Nowhere were the uniforms more impressive on Monday morning, May 15, than along Hammersmith Row in west London.  Here the greatest Anglo-American military conclave of World War II gathered the 1,720th day of the war to rehearse the death blow intended to destroy Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.  Admirals, generals, field marshals, logisticians, and staff wizards by the score climbed from their limousines and marched … into the Model room … [formerly an auditorium] at St. Paul’s School … Top secret charts and maps now lined the Model Room …Behind [Eisenhower] in the cockpit of the Model Room lay an immense plaster relief map of the Normandy coast where the River Seine spilled into the Atlantic.  Thirty feet wide and set on a tilted platform…[it] depicted, in bright colors and a scale six inches to the mile, the rivers, villages, beaches and uplands of what would become the world’s most famous battlefield.”

Early in his life, my father was a part of that vast enterprise by the millions of “the greatest generation” who played various roles, in ending oppressively tyrannical regimes across the globe, remaking the world (for good – or ill – in varying circumstances), and indirectly allowing the gospel to be heard in many new places around the globe.  Returning home to marry his high school sweetheart, he raised his family to obey God, honor their country, and be of service to others.  From his Bible class on Romans I (and others) first learned the foundational gospel truths anchored in the concept of “justification by faith,” and through him I developed my earliest love for hymns by observing him develop his abilities in leading hymns for public worship, thus enabling other Christians to worship God in song. And that is merely the beginning of the “short list” of important things he taught and modeled.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad – and thanks for all those things you did, in war and peace – and still do! I love you!

Footnote 21 – Father’s Day Note Rick Atkinson, The Guns At Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (New York Henry Holt and Company, 2013), Kindle edition, Locations 157, 172, 223.

Footnote 5 – An Army At Dawn

Footnote 5 – Rick Atkinson, An Army At Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-43 (New York: Henry Holt, 2001), pp. 33-34, 40-41, 413-415.

Perhaps it is appropriate to consider the battles waged across 1,000 miles of North African coastline 70 years ago in early 1943. Though the “timeline” is segmented by identifiable battles such as Kasserine Pass (28 February 1943) and el Guettar (23 March 1943), the genesis of the conflict occurred months before.  Perhaps modern Americans can only imagine how much went into the conflict, even in terms of sheer material goods, as described by Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Atkinson:

“Dawn on October 24 revealed a forest of masts and fighting tops across Hampton Roads, where the greatest war fleet ever to sail from American waters made ready…..Young men, fated to survive and become old men dying abed half a century hence, would forever remember this hour, when an army at dawn made for the open sea in a cause none could yet comprehend.”

In addition to 33,843 soldiers, the holds of this flotilla carried “tanks and cannons, rubber boats and outboard motors, ammunition and machine guns, magnifying glasses and stepladders, alarm clocks and bicycles.  Into the holds went: tractors, cement, asphalt, and more than a million gallons of gasoline, mostly in five-gallon tins.  Into the holds went: thousands of miles of wire, well-digging machinery, railroad cars, 750,000 bottles of insect repellant, and 7,000 tons of coal in burlap bags.  Into the holds went: black basketball shoes, 3,000 vehicles, loudspeakers, 16,000 feet of cotton rope, and $100,000 in gold coins, entrusted to George Patton personally.  And into the holds went: a platoon of carrier pigeons, six flyswatters and and sixty rolls of flypaper for each 1,000 soldiers, plus five pounds of rat poison per company.

“A special crate, requisitioned in a frantic message to the War Department, held a thousand Purple Hearts… Phrase books with pronunciation keys, to be distributed at sea, perfectly captured Allied ambivalence, giving the French for both, ‘I am your friend’ and ‘I will shoot you if you resist.’  A propaganda radio station, cobbled together with a transmitter salvaged in Jersey City and a generator from a South Carolina cotton mill, was secretly installed in the U.S.S. Texas … Quartermasters had rounded up 10 million salt tablets and 67,000 American flag armbands, with 138,000 safety pins to secure them to uniform sleeves….Using a Michelin commercial road guide to Morocco, a government printing plant outside Washington had spent weeks reproducing sixty tons of maps, which were manhandled into the holds along with sealed bundles of Baedeckers, old issues of National Geographic, French tourist guidebooks, and volume ‘M’ of various encyclopedias….”

All this in addition to 72,000 troops and half a million tons of cargo previously shipped to England for the “shorter” sea journey to North Africa…. “In late January, Eisenhower had pleaded with Washington for more trucks.  Less than three weeks later, a special convoy of twenty ships sailed from Norfolk, New York, and Baltimore with 5,000 two-and-a-half-ton trucks, 2,000 cargo trailers, 400 dump trucks, 80 fighter planes, and, for ballast, 12,000 tons of coal, 16,000 tons of flour, 9,000 tons of sugar, 1,000 tons of soap, and 4,000 submachine guns, all of which arrived in Africa on March 6 ….”

“’The battle,’ Rommel famously observed, ‘is fought and decided by the quartermasters before the shooting begins.’  The shooting had begun months before in northwest Africa, but now the quartermasters truly came into their own.  The prodigies of American industrial muscle and organizational acumen began to tell.  In Oran, engineers built an assembly plant near the port and taught local workers in English, French, and Spanish how to put together a jeep from a box of parts in nine minutes. That plant turned out more than 20,000 vehicles.  Another factory nearby assembled 1,200 railcars, which were among 4,500 cars and 250 locomotives ultimately added to North African rolling stock.”

“In Africa, total supply requirements amounted to thirteen tons per soldier each month. …From late February to late March, 130 ships sailed from the United States for Africa with 84,000 soldiers, 24,000 vehicles, and a million tons of cargo….The Americans’ genius ‘lay in creating resources rather than using them economically,’ a British study observed astutely….’The American Army does not solve its problems,’ one general noted, ’it overwhelms them.‘   There was prodigal ineconomy – of time, of motion, of stuff – but beyond the extravagance lay a brisk ability to get the job done.  After Kasserine, American aviation engineers built five new airfields around Sbeitla – in seventy-two hours.  More than one hundred fields would be built during the Tunisian campaign.  The enemy would not be ‘solved’ in Tunisia.  He would be overwhelmed.”

And, above and beyond the material cost, at the expense  of more than 70,000 Allied casualties, “a continent has been redeemed,” to use Churchill’s memorable phrase.