Letters from Europe

By Letter to the Editor
Published August 28, 2005

Edward Graff

This is from a crewman of a Landing Craft Infantry, boats designed to deliver troops during an amphibious assault on enemy territory.

Today we have loaded with 82nd Airborne, and our sealed orders say Salerno (Italy), Sept. 9, 1943, at 0400 hours. We get along like cats and dogs. No sleep tonight. A little on edge but ready. Strapped into my 20mm until about 0300, then go to my winch. We understand this is a sandy beach with a nice slope. I'm starting to see and hear flashes and bombs. As we get closer, everything multiplies. When we hit the beach at "H" hour, you will be able to read a newspaper. We had a picture-perfect landing. Dry feet for the soldiers. Tremendous amount of fire power, noise and dive bombers. You must remember my job is the winch and when we are at this stage, I am ready for pull off but I have about 30 seconds to look.

The Salerno invasion was the toughest, hardest, most sad and most "beautiful" of the five USS LCI(I)-14 made. Let's talk about the "beautiful." I can picture this like it was yesterday, with tears in my eyes. White beach, green foliage, black morning sky, explosions, shells, tracers, streaks of fire in all directions, red, green, blue, yellows in all shades, different shades of smoke drifting. Sounds of bombs in all sizes of shells, whistling German 88 shells, small-arms fire, screaming and hollering. Then a German dive bomber, color beige with the black crosses on the bottom of the wing, single engine, came from the port side, going starboard, curving away from us, not more than 75 feet in the air and 50 feet in front of us. He was strafing the soldiers on the beach. It has always been my dream to have someone paint me that picture. It will never happen. How do you paint noises? So I will carry it with me to my dying day.

-- Edward T. Graff, St. Petersburg

Converting captors
Fred Wysocki

On March 16, 1945, our tanks were on patrol, with B Troop men riding on the tanks, near Fell, Germany. The mission: Capture the top of the hill position affectionately called "Shrapnel Hill." Our platoon's tanks were fired upon.

Although my tank managed to turn around, it was hit in the rear engine compartment and thus completely disabled. I was injured in both legs but was able to walk. I heard someone calling for help. It was Walter Kollman, who was seriously injured. In fact, he had one leg blown off and the other leg hanging by the skin. As I went to help him, I was taken prisoner by the Germans.

The Germans assisted me in carrying Walter into the woods on a stretcher. It was necessary to cut off the rest of his other leg to do this. He was bleeding profusely and there was little we could do for him, but he asked me to reach in his pocket where he carried a little prayer book, and I read the 23rd Psalm to him. And then he died.

I was then ordered to retreat with my captors. For several days, we marched toward the Rhine and as we walked, I explained the advantages of giving themselves up - how well the German prisoners were treated by the Americans with good food and clean quarters. I argued that their situation was hopeless and why lose their lives on a futile situation. I finally convinced them to surrender, and we turned around and headed in the opposite direction toward our lines. Whenever we met other German soldiers going the other way, my captors would hide me in the middle of the group, which numbered about 16 men.

It took several days to contact American forces, and we finally reached an outpost of the 16th Cavalry Group where I turned the soldiers over to them.

-- Fred Wysocki, Spring Hill

Wedding amid the ruins

I ended up with the 101st Airborne, assigned to Company C, 401st Regiment. My duties were as a runner, taking messages from the sergeant to each squad leader. The last of May 1943, we left for a staging area in southern England. We had to wait a few days for the fog to lift before we were put on a ship into Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. We landed about 11:30 a.m. behind the 4th Division. We all made it ashore with no one being shot. We lost our first man as we were entering Carentan on June 9. We stayed in town that night and moved out the next day. A few days later they pulled us back just about to the place we came ashore. I went into Cherbourg and it was a total mess from our bombers bombing it for days. There was not much left to it. What I thought was a little funny was a bride and groom and the whole wedding party walking down the road.

-- Robert H. O'Mara, St. Petersburg

Winter woes
Vincent Presutti, Munich, 1945. “It was a treat to be clean,” he said. “We couldn’t wash for a month at a time on the front lines.”

We spent the winter in the mountains. Around Dec. 15, we were given our winter gear at last. I remember before that I was so stiff from the cold that I couldn't move from my waist down. The parkas that they gave us were white. The Germans could see us coming a mile away. They weren't for us, so we didn't use them. They were just too white and too hot to fight in. They finally brought us short green jackets and new down-filled sleeping bags.

We were to get a turkey sandwich for Christmas, which we thought was great. As it turned out, we got nothing. Everything was withdrawn. There was nothing behind us. We withdrew for three days and three nights back to the old Maginot Line and dug in. The ground was frozen, and we had a hard time getting our holes dug.

In the middle of January, at night, I was on the gun because I couldn't sleep. I had settled down on the machine gun, took off my shoes so as not to get my new sleeping bag dirty. I never took off my shoes. I removed my helmet and laid it down alongside of the gun. I never took off my helmet. I got a call from our C.P. in the rear. There was action in front of us, and I was to open up and fire when the flare went off, which I did. I went through a box and a half of ammo when something hit me in the head. It felt like being hit with a ball bat. It knocked me off the gun. I got right up and swore at the gun for ejecting the shells at me until I tried to wipe the sweat from my left eye. Then I knew I had been wounded by artillery shrapnel. At the same time, the platoon sergeant took over the gun and I crawled down to the pillbox after the fire fight. I climbed over the top of the hill and went to battalion aid. They sent me to regiment aid and then they sent me to division aid to be sent back farther to take the fragment from my head.

-- Vincent Presutti, Sun City Center

Unscheduled landing

I served as an aerial gunner on B-24 Liberators in World War II. It was a short time before the Battle of the Bulge, and the target was in the Ruhr Valley. We were lead ship of the 44th Bomb Group on this mission. On the bomb run we suffered the loss of one of the port-side engines, but Capt. Rassmusen stayed right on course. Lt. Lee finally called out, "Bombs away!" and we started to lead the group out of "Flak Alley." ME109s and FW190s were on us immediately. Our ship suffered more heavy damage.

We dropped out of formation and descended to a lower altitude. That made us a better target for anti-aircraft fire, which apparently resulted in damage to the other port engine.

The captain told me to check the cables running through the bomb bays. Lo and behold! There were three live 300-pound bombs hung up on the port-side bomb bays. Enemy action had damaged several control cables and one of the doors had not opened all the way. All three bombs were ready to explode. All they needed was a slight bump on the nose to detonate. I reported the situation and our radio operator, Lou Muldoon, joined me on the catwalk between the open bomb bays. After a little careful manipulation, we managed to free the bombs without a catastrophe.

In the meantime, we lost the second engine and all the hydraulic fluid. Capt. Rassmusen told us we could not possibly make it back to England. The captain ordered the crew to prepare for bailing out. Someone asked him what he was going to do, and he said he intended to bring the ship down. Everyone decided to stay with the ship rather than take a chance on a parachute landing in enemy territory.

Right about then, our flight engineer, Tom Muldoon, reported he was unable to lower the landing gear manually. Flying a B-24 with two engines out on the same side and no landing gear seemed like a no-win situation, but time had run out and, besides, we still had confidence in our pilot. Our navigator, Lt. Whitsit, located a small air base in Belgium within our limited range. The size didn't bother the captain. He just said, "With no wheels, we won't need much room to stop rolling."

We all assumed the proper position for crash landing and prayed for the best. Well, he did it! We all scrambled out of a very badly damaged aircraft with only a few minor bruises. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a Jeep showed up, driven by a frantic sergeant. He explained in very colorful language that we were right on the front line. Allegedly, there were Germans on the other side of the field, but no shots were fired. After a quick exit from the field, we were transported about 40 miles away to Brussels, Belgium. Within a few days, we were shipped back to England, ready to fly a few more missions. During 1944, I completed 30 missions and logged 299 combat hours.

-- Edward H. Petelle, Seminole

Across a lake

The war in Italy ended on May 2, 1945. At the time our company, F-86th Mountain Infantry, 10th Mountain Division, was just north of Lake Garda in northern Italy on the way to the Brenner Pass in the Alps. On that day, when word came down that hostilities in Italy were ended, we celebrated by tossing live hand grenades into the small lake next to our machine gun position. Soon German soldiers were seen on the opposite shore, also celebrating the end of the war in Italy as we were, tossing grenades into the lake.

Twenty years later - after college, marriage, four children and teaching - I was the superintendent of schools in Lake Placid, N.Y. A young boy, Gerhard, came to Lake Placid to train as a figure skater. Gerhard attended classes at the high school when not training. His parents came to visit him on the weekends. His dad was a brewmaster for Rheingold Beer in New York City. In conversation with Gerhard's dad, we discovered that he had been a German soldier who, on that day in May 1945, was tossing hand grenades in a small lake in the foothills of the Alps in northern Italy.

-- Arthur Thompson, New Port Richey

Friendship across borders

I went overseas and arrived at Glasgow, Scotland, on July 22, 1944. Then sent to Omaha Beach on July 25 and assigned to 3rd Replacement Depot. My services included many duties until the war ended May 8, 1945. Then I was sent to Mosbach, Germany, and was an Italian interpreter for 42 Italian displaced soldiers. My assignment was to rehabilitate these men so they could be released and sent home. They were placed on various duties until September 1945 when all but two went home.

One Italian married a German girl on Sept. 17, 1945, and we became friendly. When I was sent home in February 1946, our friendship continued. His name was Amelio Tonni, and he married Lisa Kauffman. We wrote to each other, and my wife and I went to Italy to visit them in 1984. Amelio died in 2003. In ending, I could tell more about friendship, but it would take 100 pages.

-- Laurence Roganti, Port Richey

Elspeth Cumming
Every day is a bonus

I was in the F.A.N.Y.'s, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. But that was just a cover up! I actually worked directly with the American Special Forces as a volunteer agent with the British Special Operations Executive. I worked with Virginia Hall (an American who also volunteered with the SOE) and with Col. George Chester and Col. Robert Adolphus Soleere. It was all very dangerous. We brought back many Americans who had been shot down in France. They were brought back to England in a small rowing boat.

I had many, many narrow escapes, so every day since has been a bonus. One experience while being stationed in London was sharing a bath tub with two Americans in the Regency Hotel, Piccadilly Circus. During a heavy air raid, they put a mattress in an enormous bath tub. Someone turned on the cold water tap when we were fully dressed in our uniforms. What chaos!

-- Elspeth, Cumming, Clearwater

The surrender

Where was I on V-E Day? I was in a field near Linz, Austria. I was a member of the 11th Armored Division, 22nd Tank Battalion Company "A," first platoon.

We were told about noon that the war was over and we were to stand fast for the time being. To say the least, we celebrated highly for the rest of the day. We did not bed down till about 11 o'clock. At 2 a.m., the company commander's Jeep driver came around and told us to mount up. We would move out at 2:30. We thought the war was not over anyhow.

We mounted up and were told to use our headlights for the move. It was then about 2:45 a.m. and the C.O. led the way. About an hour into the trek, we approached a column coming toward us, also with lights on, on the same track. Face to face, our C.O. had us come to a halt while he had a confab with the commander of the enemy. They were trying to give up to the Americans. They were informed that according to the Yalta Agreement, they were to give up to the Russians. They were to get off the track so we could pass, and at daybreak move back through our line at the Czechoslovakian border. We set up at the border to foil any attempt for others to come into Allied territory.

As the returnees came through us at daybreak, we relieved them of their weapons and vehicles. The Russians showed up about two days later.

-- George S. Kastner, Dunnellon

Mopping up

I was a combat medic with Company A of the 1st Battalion, 120th Infantry Regiment. We had just completed spearheading the Rhine River crossing and the Workhorse Division, the 30th, just ground our way to the city of Magdeburg on the banks of the Elbe River. Col. Purdue's night raiders destroyed the Germans and their defense line. Roosevelt's "SS" troops, as they called us, did it again. Mopping up was somewhat treacherous, what with lots of sniper fire and some spotty machine gun fire.

Sgt. North said, "Hey, doc, I heard there is lots of champagne in that building where that sniper is. C'mon, I want to take him out and we can toast the "frogs.' "

As we slowly made our way and finally got to a shelled-out building, Sgt. North peered out from the corner and "zing," the shot took off part of his nose. We hit the dirt and before we sought some cover, I picked up the piece of his nose. Then I blew the dirt off it, dusted it with sulphur powder, put it on his nose, applied a compress and said, "I heard the war was over but you had to get yourself a Purple Heart, no matter what."

-- N. "Chick" Cicchese, Port Richey

This is one of the exploits of Jim Helinger Sr. as told to a friend.

On Aug. 14, 1945, Jim and his unit were still stationed at St. Andre in France. On this day, the war with Japan ended. In order to celebrate this momentous occasion, Jim hopped in his "personal" aircraft and headed into Paris. The glider pilots had been using Renault Field as their local airfield since the Renault Factory was not in operation, building aircraft. Arriving in Paris, he met Denise at a Paris cafe. Jim got a case of champagne and they began drinking to celebrate. Then they decided to go into the center of Paris but the traffic was so bad and the people so numerous, they couldn't get to the Champs d'. Jim had a better idea. They could view the massive celebration from the air, in the comfort of his Stinson O-5 spotter plane that had been tied down to a tree at Renault Field. They got in the plane (recall some champagne had already been consumed) and took off, heading to downtown Paris, he in the back seat, she in the front.

Off they went, crossing over the Seine River. Jim's trained eyes picked out a bridge and, being the valiant aviator he was, he proceeded to fly under it. He saw more bridges around Paris and proceeded to fly over and under about 20 of them. Then he had a better idea.

Jim flew around the Eiffel Tower and scanned for obstacles and guy wires near or attached to the tower. He saw none. Checking the sun's angle, he repositioned his plane. Jim did something then that put him and Denise Bellicord into the history books. He flew under the Eiffel Tower and quickly away into the sun.

The next day, there was an article in the Aug. 15 Paris edition of the London Herald-Tribune. Page 1 covered V-J Day and, on Page 2, there was an article saying a crazy American pilot had flown under the tower but could not be identified. Witnesses reported there had been two people in the plane, celebrating the moment.

-- Curt Middlebrook, St. Pete Beach