Gas Pains

Tom grew up in Milwaukee, bartended in Wauwatosa in the '70s and moved here in 1984.

Commentary, observations and musings about the outdoors, life in general and maybe Tosa politics and personalities will be the order of the day. He savors a lively debate as much as terrific cooking.

Memorial Day With a Guest Post

Guest Post, Veterans

Today is Memorial Day.  The solemn occasion of remembrance for those who have died in military service. 

Somebody over at the Tosa Town Square posted a thought-provoking quotation by Ronald Reagan and a very touching news link.

It is, in a way an odd thing to honor those who died in defense of our wars far away.  The imagination plays a trick.  We see these soldiers in our mind as old and wise.  We see them as something like the Founding Fathers, grave and gray haired.

But most of them were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives - the one they were living and one they would have lived...

Dad passed away earlier this month.  He was one of the lucky ones to dodge the artillery and bullets of WWII.  He returned from the war, married, went to college, raised a family and knew the joy of grandchildren and a long retirement.

Following his funeral a couple of weeks ago one of my day-job colleagues commented upon how young the members of the military honor guard appeared to be.

Upon further reflection he concluded - But I suppose that is how it has always been throughout history.  Young people join the military and young people die in war.

That is twice in a couple of weeks that I have heard this refrain.  And it is heartbreakingly true.

This is as good a time as any to allow an authority on the subject an opportunity to speak.

Yep. This would be my dad.

When appropriate, bits and pieces of his memoirs (that were so carefully chronicled early in his retirement)  are going to be  published here from time-to-time as a guest post.  Mostly his life in general.

He would want it that way.

Today he is going to tell you a true war-time tale.

One that includes a couple of fellas that heretofore have probably not had their names published on the world wide web.

I'd like to think it appropriate that they are mentioned today.

On Memorial Day.

And that someone else's memory of them has accorded the deceased from so long ago some degree of permanency. 

We all know that anything published on the web has a tendency to stay there pretty much forever.


I cannot tell you about the the lives they would have lived.

So here's to you - William and Arthur. 

God bless you.

As told by my late father - Howard Gaertner...


Normandy, France in June of 1944.  The dates are inexact as nobody in our squad kept a calendar or diary in combat.  I believe the names and circumstances can possibly be corroborated.

Our group of approximately 300 infantry replacements left Camp Heathfield and boarded a Navy LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) for Normandy.  Our troops at that time were still hanging-on by their fingernails.

The trip across the channel, normally a seven or eight hour cruise, took us twenty-four hours.  The seas were brutal causing even the crew to become seasick.  Fifty-five gallon drums were lashed to strategic points on the vessel.  The ship became one huge vomitorium.  I don't think anyone ate a morsel.

About noon the next day we could see the beaches of Normandy.  Evidence of the invasion was aplenty.  Sunken ships and landing craft.  Trucks, tanks and artillery pieces were everywhere.

We did not run ashore as the LCI was able to do, but stopped several hundred yards from shore and clambered into Coast Guard landing craft. This open craft, large enough for thirty cramped GIs headed for the beach.  Perhaps fifty yards from shore the craft grounded on a sand bar and could not extricate itself. The coxswain tried reverse, asked the troops to squeeze forward and then backward in an attempt to free his craft.  Meanwhile the GIs got into yelling profanities at the two-man crew.

Even the cursing didn't help.

The crew dropped the ramp and ordered us to get our asses off the boat.  

We waded the last fifty yards ashore in waist deep water.

Upon gathering together a hundred yards inland we were met by a 9th Division non-com who guided us to a repo depot located among the hedgerows.  There we paired-off and pitched our tents and waited for our combat assignments.

My days with M Company began about the time of the Ninth Division's Cherbourg offensive.

Perhaps four or five other replacements and I moved to the front around twilight.

As part of a heavy weapons company we were all assigned to machine gun sections.  We found vacant slit trenches along a hedgerow ready for our occupancy.  On the other side of the foliage was a sunken road harboring a tank destroyer. 

   US Army Archives

Shortly after settling down in our slit trenches we came under heavy artillery barrages; mostly 88’s. The replacement in the slit trench to my rear leaped from his trench and pounced on my back.  He was shouting incoherently - Save me! Save me! Save me!  I told him -  Knock it off. Get back in your trench and if you know how to pray you might give it a try.

I only met this fellow the day before in the repo depot. He was foul-mouthed and a first class braggadocio.  Within days our squad noticed he had a hankering for the juice; calvados and cognac.  He was not the type of soldier you wished as a member of your squad.  Some time in August he just disappeared.  He was not captured or wounded.  Consensus leaned towards AWOL.

The barrage made us virtual prisoners and seemed to go on for a day.  The smell of exploding artillery, mortar and rocket shells permeated the air.  Rockets fired from the Nebelwerfer were dubbed screaming meemies by the infantry.  To make matters worse, whenever the tank destroyer next door would turn-over its engine it would draw more artillery fire.

Within a couple of days we were given the order to attack.  I clearly remember a rather heated exchange that morning between a supporting tank commander and our battalion CO.  The tanker wanted us to lead the way across the open field to the next hedgerow.  He said something about his tanks being vulnerable once they cleared their existing cover.  Lt. Colonel Don Clayman threatened the tanker with disciplinary action. 

Given the provocation that’s probably the least dangerous thing he could have done.

For weeks it was one hedgerow at a time.  Casualties were mounting and progress extremely slow and limited.  

Our sergeant, Bill Underwood, was killed. 

During this period we were served but one warm meal when we went into reserve for a couple of days. 

Rumor had it that there was going to be a big push shortly and the stalemate in Normandy may be coming to an end.  We didn’t know that we would be part of the St. Lo offensive until it happened.

July 25th our bombers and fighters, over three thousand aircraft, carpet-bombed a section around St. Lo measuring three miles long by a half-mile wide.

This is still clearly imprinted upon my mind.

Even though we were pulled back a good distance from the front, the shock waves caused by the exploding bombs denuded many trees and bushes of their foliage.  Our trousers and jackets flapped as if we were caught in a hurricane.

We lost many of our comrades, including Headquarters Staff, because ground panels we displayed to indicate our positions became obscured by the dust and smoke.

It was here that Art Draeving was killed. 

Art and I trained together at (Camp) Butner.  We were in the same platoon.  Art was a farm boy from central Wisconsin.

After the bombardment we moved out - only to be greeted by the now-familiar sound of burp guns...

This German newsreel footage of the battle of St. Lo is published only to illustrate the tenuous and brutal nature of the breakout from the Normandy beach head.  It is not an endorsement of Nazism.  Besides - you don't have to watch it.

Interested in more of the story?

Go to here and here.  

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