A brush with fame

Mike Wallace, the famous television journalist from 60 Minutes, passed away five years ago this April — I saw a note of rememberence on TV the other night.

That got me to thinking about the time I almost met Mike Wallace.

Back in the early 1990s I was working my way through college in Houston; I was lucky to get a job as a weekend night bellhop/valet at the Houstonian Hotel. I was the bellhop from midnight to 5 a.m. and the valet for the whole 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift ending Sunday and Monday mornings — most Sunday’s I’d do a double shift and valet until 2.

At the time the hotel was the official residence of the elder President George Bush and was frequented by many famous and infamous people.

During my tenure there I delivered a teddy bear and flowers to tennis player Monica Seles (her mother told me I couldn’t look at her or speak while I was in her room – so I waited till momma was out of the room to flirt); washed Earl Campbell’s convertible (complete with cleaning the longhorns on the hood for a $20 tip); had a weird conversation about ghosts with a strange person that I will call Mhirley Sacliane; and talked about life on Sunday’s at brunch with the Rev. John Osteen (his son is more famous, but the dad was more interesting).

Working overnight, I had many strange experiences. One night about 3 a.m. a Saudi  prince called down wanting a warm goat milk delivered to his room – the kitchen whipped up something and told me to deliver it. The prince opened the door completely naked with his harem of three behind him. I had to formally serve the drink – then wait for him to search around in the buff for money to tip.
Which brings me to Mike Wallace.

Each night at midnight I checked the front desk for my list of early departures — I’d call a van or taxi for them or have their car waiting when they checked out. I also had to deliver a newspaper to each room and occasionally deliver special early breakfast orders.

So this one night I had a note that the desk would make a wakeup call at 4:15 a.m. and I was to follow with black coffee, toast, bacon and eggs to this room for the host of 60 Minutes at 4:30 a.m. – it said “Don’t be late!”

I got there early and stood in the hall for a few minutes. I knocked on the door at 4:29 a.m. and this deeply wrinkled, tired man — with strong piercing eyes, and who looked vaguely familiar, opened it. Wearing only a white towel around his waist, and slippers, it seemed he had just got out of the shower and was toweling off. I remember his hair was sticking in every direction and he looked like he had a rough night. I brought him his cart of food – poured him his coffee and said, “How are you doing this morning Mr. Wallace?”

We talked about the weather while he lit a cigarette and guzzled coffee — still with only a towel wrapped around his waist.
I poured him another cup of coffee while he quizzed me on if I watched 60 Minutes, what I thought of the show, etc. I gushed praise, trying to make a good impression and earn a healthy tip.

He tipped me five bucks so my efforts had worked. I said, “Thank you Mr. Wallace.”  And then I left the room, bounced down the stairs. I leaned on the front desk to to brag to the blond front desk girl about my experience.

“You dope,” she said when I told her about Mr. Wallace giving me a tip. “That’s not Mike Wallace. It’s Morley Safer – the other guy from 60 Minutes.”


And that’s the story about how I almost met Mike Wallace.

Posted in Texas | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big cat ownership should be regulated

I did a double-take last week when I read that there are more tigers in captivity in Texas than in wild worldwide.

I’ve never seen an instance where an individual’s keeping exotic animals is a good idea. I do not understand the appeal and believe there should be strict laws prohibiting that ownership.

After I graduated college I took a job as a meter reader for a rural electric company in Oklahoma. This was before they could digitally read meters, so we had to read every meter and key in the reading. On our sheets there were little notes like “The lock combination is 3-17-22,” or “Beware of dog,” or “These people cook drugs so make a lot of noise,” etc.

I was reading someone else’s route one day and came to the next place, a “wildlife refuge” — when I flipped to my meter notes it said “Caution, lion chained to power pole.” It was the most gaunt, sad beast I’d ever seen – we stared at each other for about five minutes before I decided I wasn’t reading that meter. I used binoculars and guessed at the numbers. I later learned that old tame lion was put down after it ripped a woman’s arm off.

The hardest interview I’ve ever done occurred when I was at a newspaper in Kansas. They had this “animal refuge” outside of town with Siberian Tigers. They would advertise at the schools for kids to take their senior pictures with these “docile” tigers.

A pretty 17-year-old girl had wanted to have her picture taken with a cub – it was unavailable so they had her pose with an adult tiger. It licked her foot, she screamed, it bit her neck clean through. The girl’s mother came in my office to talk about it. I still have a hard time thinking about trying to have a conversation with her — she handled it much better than I did.

It made a lasting impression on me: wild animals are not pets and their ownership must be regulated.

Five states — Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin — allow the private possession of big cats with no oversight. That needs to change.

In Texas, the ownership of these animals is allowed by permit which can be applied for at the county sheriff’s office, with no inspection for safety required.

Texas needs to beef up that law to provide for inspections for safety and animal condition or ban the practice outright. That’s my two cents.

Posted in Kansas, Texas | Tagged | Leave a comment

One button from destruction

I did an interview for the local newspaper a few years ago for the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In October 1962, the world stood on the edge of destruction – closer to nuclear war than it has come before or since. And deep inside a missile bunker in northern Wilbarger County a finger hovered over a button poised to begin that war.
At the heart of the matter lay Cuba – the Communist controlled island 90 miles from Florida. On October 14, 1962, a U.S. U2 spy plane took photos over the island showing Russian nuclear missiles that could strike the U.S. within minutes. Thus began 13 tension-filled days of back-room negotiation and military preparedness that reached a boiling point on October 23, when a U.S. spy plane was shot down and its pilot killed. President John F. Kennedy took the country one step from nuclear war.
“My crew was on alert duty when (we) went to DEFCON 2 – the only time that ever happened,” retired airman Jerry Burns remembered of that day.
“The Missile Combat Crew Commander and I were on the console and decoded that alert message from SAC Headquarters. It went something like: ‘Skybird, Skybird. This is Looking Glass with a Red Dot Two message,” Burns said. “Holy mackerel! This was the real thing.”
Burns has retired to Arizona, but in 1962, he was assigned to Launch Crew 43 of the 577th Strategic Missile Squadron out of Altus Air Force Base. The 577th manned 12 Atlas missile silos built in a circle around the Oklahoma air base. One of those silos was in Texas – No. 5 – buried in a pasture near Fargo, three miles south of the Red River.
Burns answered with a simple “yes,” when asked if he thought there would be war. He believed it so much that his crew was making plans for bringing their families to the missile silo. That idea was “squelched” by command, Burns said, when the plan instead was made to reload the silos.
“We were just one more button, and two minutes away from WWIII. You could have cut No. 10 washers off of my sphincter for a month after that experience. I guess the world will never really understand how close we came that night,” he said.
Construction on the 12 silo sites of the 577th began in May 1960 and the Fargo silo was completed on November 8, 1961.The sites became operational in the summer of 1962, just months when the crisis with Cuba began.
Declassified documents show that the Fargo silo site in particular was plagued with a unique problem during construction. “Normal evacuation procedures were used to a depth of approximately 16.5 feet where operations were halted due to subsurface groundwater,” the document stated.
According to the document, workers installed a French drain, built two rings of pilings, cut two sump pits and poured a 12-foot curtain of concrete to deal with the water that was seeping into the pit at a rate as high as 600 gallons per minute. The contractors tried using cottonseed hulls, horse manure, 40 sacks of calcium chloride and 2,170 sacks of cement to seal the shaft to the bedrock – all to no avail. “Inability to control subsurface water has been a major concern and developed numerous problems in evacuation,” the report stated.
The problem was finally solved when a hardwood lagging was installed around the shaft wall and “water was handled behind this lagging and pumped from the bottom,” the report said.
It worked – Burns said he couldn’t recall any seepage in the silos.
The construction was also dangerous –  a carpenter was killed at the Fargo site on March 24, 1961. “At the time of the accident the victim was bending over the top of a concrete form attempting to remove a grade strip. He appeared to start to stand erect, lost his balance and fell off backwards from the top of the concrete form to the ground, a distance of 29 feet,” an Air Force briefing from the time stated. Fatality accident occurred at two other silos as well.
The Air Force also documented a fire during construction. On May 11, 1961, a Caterpillar generator and two buildings were damaged in the early afternoon when a pile of sawdust caught fire. High winds blew embers under the generator igniting a prior oil and fuel spill.
In addition to the silo, an underground command center (LCC) was built at each site. The two were connected by a tunnel. The entire facility was built on springs to limit shaking in case of Soviet bombing of the site.
Secrecy didn’t seem to concern – the construction was reported on at different intervals in the Vernon Daily Record at the time. More than 200 schoolchildren took a tour of the facility when it was dedicated.
Gary Chapman, who still lives in the area, said he remembers the construction being a great source of interest and that the missile was often out of the silo in plain view.
Burns said that those Atlas missiles were visible for a reason – so the Soviets would take note. “I believed then, and I believe now, that our ICBMs were what caused Khruschev to pull his missiles out of Cuba. I believe that the USSR feared our ICBMs more than anything else we had. Our ICBM reaction time was extremely short compared to our aircraft, and the USSR had no way to defend against our ICBMs,” he said.
Duty at the silo was a “fantastic” posting for Burns, who was a 20-year-old from Kentucky when he drew the assignment. “They took very good care of us.  Of course, when you think about it, they pretty well had to.  My tech school training lasted over a year and must have cost the USAF a bundle.  I do recall that each LCC had a decent kitchen.  We were provided meals which we heated up in the oven.  We picked up the meals at the in-flight kitchen on base prior to departing for the silo.  There was a nice shower in the LCC also.  The bunks were typical G.I. type, and to me were comfortable.  Funny thing is that I do not recall who changed/laundered the sheets,” he said.
Burns was part of a five man crew – two officers and three airmen. They were transported to the silo by station wagon or helicopter, and served a 24-hour alert duty – which usually lasted much longer due to briefings. Burns said that a duty tour could be at any of the 12 silos.  “We would be informed at the squadron daily briefing which silo we were going to that day,” he said.
The silo was equipped with an Atlas F missile held upright underground behind two 75-ton blast doors. The rocket was fueled by liquid oxygen, reached 18,000 mph and had a 6,300-mile range. It was 100 feet tall and 14-by-13 feetwide and topped off with a type W-38 nuclear warhead with a 4-megaton yield.  “I did not fear the missile, but I respected what it could do,” Burns said.
Burns was a Ballistic Missile Analyst Technician (BMAT) with duties that included all missile electronic systems, including the Inertial Navigation System.  The Missile Facilities Technician was responsible for silo mounted electronic and mechanical equipment such as the elevators.  The Electrical Power Production Technician was responsible for the two large diesel generators.  “Servicing of silo diesel fuel, LOX (liquid oxygen), etc would be monitored top side by a crew member.  All silo and missile systems were monitored electronically, and any failure was indicated in the LCC and had to be immediately fault isolated.  Of course, we had more than our share of ‘here comes the General’ alarms, plus many no-notice on site evaluations and practice alerts which were generated by SAC Hq.  I do not recall being bored,” Burns said.
By October, 1962, Burns said the tension had gone up for the crew culminating with the call to DEFCON 2. “I do recall the mood of my crew was somber and professional. We had a problem with our Inertial Navigation System, which I was able to solve, and countdown was completed up to ‘Commit.’ One more pushed button would have raised the missile to full up and locked position and started WWIII.”
The missiles never fired, Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba led to negotiations that resulted in the missiles being removed from Cuba in exchange for U.S. missiles being removed from Turkey.
The 577th silos were shut down three years later. The Atlas-program was deemed outmoded and unsafe following an explosion at the Frederick, Okla. site. “The Frederick accident was terrible,” Burns said. “I heard a dozen explanations for what happened, but I never trusted any of them.  I do recall a rumor that one of the silo doors was blown a quarter mile away.”
The missile was removed from the silo in February, 1965 – Chapman said it happened fast, one day it was there, the next day it was gone. The air conditioning and generators were sent to Southeast Asia to prepare for an escalation of forces in Vietnam. Burns said he knows of five 577th airmen that also went to Vietnam as helicopter pilots and all were killed in action. Burns retired from the Air Force in 1981 and retired from Honeywell in 2002.
Today the entrance to the Fargo missile silo has been filled in to stop the adventurous from exploring it — kids would slide down the air shaft into the water that filled up half the silo. The site itself is owned by the Northside ISD which utilizes the outbuildings for school activities including an annual livestock show. One vestige of that time remains —  the water in surrounding neighbors wells is still contaminated with benzene.

Posted in History, Oklahoma, Texas, Veterans | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reflecting on covering the Big 12 media days

Covering college football conference media days seemed to reduce the IQ of the media by several points. The Big 12  meets this week in Dallas and that got me to thinking about covering the event in 2011.

I was at the Galleria in Dallas before 8 a.m. on that Tuesday; a full two hours before my first scheduled interview so I had plenty of time to roam around from place-to-place.  It was early and there may have been 15 or 20 media people wandering on the third floor at the time.

Now I don’t like Oklahoma University, I never have. From watching television, I’ve always thought Sooner coach Bob Stoops was pompous and unfriendly.  I was wrong. With no entourage or handlers, Stoops wandered through and talked to everyone there. I was stunned and I managed to mumble “Hi,” and that was about it. I liked him despite myself.
Two hours later when Stoops made his official appearance, riding up the escalator it was like the royal wedding: Hundreds of photographers and cameramen jostling and pushing for a picture. It was a mad rush; people were standing on tables and chairs. At one point a cameraman pushed Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville out of the way. I don’t know where all those people came from or where they went – within seconds there was nobody there but the coaches and players from the other four schools and a few media folk.
My first meeting with Tuberville was in that hallway after Stoops had moved on. I introduced myself and asked a really stupid question. “Coach I hope you win all of your games but I don’t think you will. What do you think?” He put his hand on my shoulder and steered me down the hall answering a question I should have asked.
I had always thought, again from television, that Tuberville was slick and arrogant. I have revised my opinion. Tubervile is a straight shooter and not always politically correct. I liked that. He was friendly and I see why he has a reputation as a great recruiter.

In the first group conference Tuberville was in fine form and quite funny. At one point he said he didn’t think Tech could compete with TCU this year; then he said he wanted to read former coach Mike Leach’s book. “Maybe I’ll ask him for an autographed copy,” he said.
After the first press conference, I had time to kill. So I went and watched the regional television interviews. Kansas coach Turner Gill’s team was picked to finish last in the Big 12. And Gill looked like he wanted to be anywhere but in front of the camera — I should say cameras. The ballroom had four camera stations, each with a dozen cameras. Each coach and player went from station to station, answering the same dumb questions over and over. That’s why you see quotes and hear sound bites that don’t quite match from different sources. Gill went around the room answering the same questions – sometimes he’d give a different answer. On the same page of notes I had him saying Kansas was going to be pretty good and saying that they weren’t going to be very good. I guess he covered all of his bases.
My favorite part of the day was the one-on-one interviews; I had about 10 minutes with each of Tech’s three players. I got so much time because almost all of the writers were thronged around the Oklahoma players. I ran out of questions to ask safety Cody Davis so I asked him if he had any questions he thought I should ask. He volunteered his opinion about Oklahoma State: “I don’t like the fans at Oklahoma State.”
It was hard not to root for all the players and coaches; they all seemed much more patient answering dumb questions than I would be: and I was one of those asking dumb questions.

Posted in Big 12, College Football, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

So long to an old friend

I learned recently that a friend of mine up in Oklahoma had passed away. Curt “The Hogshooter Philosopher” Johnson had about 40 years on me but we were good friends because of a shared love of history and amateur archeology.

Curt wrote a column for many years called “The Hogshooter Philosopher” and we met working at a newspaper in a little town of Nowata with maybe 4,000 in the whole city – needless to say there wasn’t a lot to write about on the crime beat.

So I had to be creative to find subjects to fill the paper and Curt was my running buddy and No. 1 source for all things unusual. Curt, a Delaware Pow Wow leader, taught me Indian customs and outlaw lore. We spent far more hours on the clock wandering through fields with metal detectors than our boss probably would have appreciated.

Through Curt I interviewed depression era gangster Al Spencer’s family, sampled backwoods moonshine, went crawling through mud caves searching for Dalton gang loot, dug up several forgotten Civil War and Indian battlefields, toured every old Indian village, outlaw hideout, ghost town and homestead that Curt could find through his vast web of contacts.

One day I wanted Curt to help me find the spot on the Verdigris River where Osage Indians ambushed and cut off the heads of a dozen Confederate officers in 1863. Armed with metal detectors, we went marching through dense brush and timber on an extremely muggy day in May. We had identified a hill that matched a survivor’s description and hoped we could find the needle in a haystack. After many hours we had uncovered about a dozen old Civil War era pistol bullets.

Suddenly Curt shouted. He had stumbled over a half circle depression filled with rocks that turned out to match the description of the mass grave we were looking for.  Our jubilation was short lived however when we realized we were completely covered with seed ticks falling from the trees. We marked the spot where we were at and immediately took off for home. Within a few hours, I had picked about 50 tiny ticks off my head – Curt called me while I was still tweezering. He said he was in the bathtub filled with bleach. “Bleach! I’ve never heard of that for ticks,” I said.

“Well I don’t know if it works either,” he said. “But the bleach stings so bad and is making me so nauseated that I don’t hardly notice the ticks anymore.”

So long to my friend, I appreciate everything you taught me. We had some great times though I still haven’t tried a bleach bath for ticks.

Curt always closed his Hogshooter Philosopher column with the same two words, so in honor of him, I’ll close this column the same way:

Stay Happy

Posted in Cherokee, History, Oklahoma, Old West | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Lessons learned from the sand trap

I learned a valuable lesson a week or so ago: When traveling the road less traveled, look out for the sand traps.

One of my wife’s coworkers was on vacation and for that week we were taking care of her farm animals near the Wilbarger-Foard County line.

All went well till Thursday, and then the bottom fell out. Literally.

We had the farm chores all done and loaded up in the SUV to head back home to Vernon.

Now my wife’s co-worker lives at the corner of two county roads – I’d come in and left on the same road each time; curiosity got the best of me on this night and I decided to take the other road to the highway.”I don’t think that’s a good idea,” my wife said.

“Why not? Who wants to drive the same way every time,” I said.

I made it about a quarter of a mile down the road when our vehicle sank and kept on sinking in the sand – to the bumper and then it sank some more.

I got out and surveyed the situation – who puts quick sand in the middle of the road?

I tried pushing. Nothing. I tried digging it out. No good. I tried using wood planks for leverage. Nada.

No worries I have AAA, they’ll tow it out. “We’ll have a wrecker to you within an hour,” the nice AAA lady said.

Then the wrecker driver called from Vernon. “Sorry, we won’t come out there,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because we’ve been out there before and got stuck in the sand,” he said – try finding someone with a tractor he suggested. “Um, okay,” I said while thinking there aren’t any houses for several miles but I did see some bleached animal bones.

A conversation with a county deputy followed the same track – couldn’t get down it due to fear of getting stuck, try finding a farmer to help he said.

How come everyone knows of roads no one can get down? Are they designed to foil Oklahoma if it ever invades Texas – kind of like in Europe where roads used to not have signs to foil invaders?

We took off walking looking for a mythical farmer. We came to the first house about a mile and a half later. No one was home. Out of options I called Joyce at the newspaper.

“Help,” I yelped.

Obviously I had been calling the wrong people. Within minutes Joyce had talked to Mr. Igou who talked to a friend who then talked to another friend, who got a buddy and they went out looking for us.

Alan Waggoner and his friend Jim found us wandering in the 100 degree heat. They drove us to our vehicle, dug it free and then pulled it out – all without cracking a single joke on my predicament.

I guess I learned a second bit of wisdom: when traveling the road less traveled – it’s good to have a cell phone.

It’s also good to know that there are still good, friendly, helpful people. I appreciate it.

Posted in Texas, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Harry Thompson: Battle of Bulge was like going through Hell

A friend on mine, Harry Thompson, passed away today (August 3, 2011) at the age of 97. Harry went through hell for his country and his sacrifice is worth remembering. In 2008, Harry came into my office to talk politics and he let me tape our conversation. Our talk switched quickly from politics to his time as German prisoner of war in World War II.

“I was captured the second day of the Battle of the Bulge in a tank attack and was released at the end of the war. I was a prisoner about five months from December 17, 1944,” he said.

Harry  was a chief warrant officer with the 924th Field Artillery Battalion of the 99th Infantry.  “As a warrant officer, I was a personnel officer. My job was to keep track of the troops, keep count of the dead or wounded. I had something like 500 or so I was responsible for.

“I was captured in Belgium, at a little town, Bullingen. Ended up in boxcars that took me, well first it was to Bonn, Germany and then Nuremberg; finally to a camp at Hammelburg. A group joined our camp – Patton’s son-in-law was one of ‘em. Patton sent a commando raid in to free him and it failed. It got a lot of people killed.”

I ask Harry about being released. “It was in May, we started walking. It was 241 miles. For over 30 days, everyday we thought we were going to get shot. Hitler had given orders to shoot all POWs. While we were on the road walking, a German general came up to us and told us he had orders to shoot all POWs, but he said, ‘As long as you’re in my district that order will not be obeyed’.”

Harry and his fellow prisoners were force-marched across Germany for 36 days, before being liberated by Allied armies. “When I got home, I had a little bit of shrapnel in my shoulder blade, I’d been hit by a bomb fragment, I had two frozen feet, two bursted ear drums, a broken nose, real bad artery problems, which caused me to have two strokes, and a heart attack. I almost died from bleeding ulcers from malnutrition. And I was, they talk about the stress, I guess I had a bad case of that. At that time I should have been taken care of by a psychiatrist. But my wife took care of me; it took five years, she kept me together. We had got married right before I went overseas.”

“Do you still have nightmares?” I asked.

Harry said yes. “I had post traumatic stress – nightmares, I still do, once or twice a week. But that’s to be expected I guess.”

“Sixty-two years later and it still haunts you now like it did then?” I ask.

“I went through hell, I’ll tell you that,” Harry says and fixed me with his eyes. They did not blink. They were hard, deep and strong, and returning his gaze I felt the cold of that winter long ago.

“The worst thing was getting bombed by American planes. When we were on the road from Hammelburg, we got to Nuremberg at the train yard. There was a munitions factory a couple hundred yards from us. The air raid sirens came. First they bombed an adjoining town, like Wolfe City is to Greenville. And we’re wondering what in the world are they bombing there. They did a good job, an excellent job bombing, then another wave came and dropped right on that munitions plant, and tore everything up. Then here come another wave, and dropped flares right on us. It killed outright, it seems 24 of us, 105 wounded. It was a gruesome sight. People blown apart, it was awful. I had a friend, I was talking to right before that, he was no more than 15- 20 feet from me and his uh, his leg was blown off and it was hanging in a tree with the boot still on it. And about the time that was rolling in, I reached into a crater to pull a fellow, he was blown to pieces. On the other side, the guy was curled up in the corner saying, ‘My name is Bob Eberly,’ he said, ‘the singer’s name is spelled e-b-r-l-y and mine is e-b-e-r-l-y. I’m from Chicago.’ Blood was just rushing out of his nose and his mouth and I guess he had internal injuries. I never did find anything else about him, except he was from Chicago, whether he died or not. But it was gruesome. The good Lord looked after me. I covered up with rocks and dirt and boards, whatever. I was just fortunate. I just don’t know how I come out of that alive.”

Harry told me that he dreamed of that day at least once a week, the images were burned in his memory. He tells me how he was captured. “All I had was a pistol, it was shooting rocks at a tank, what good is it? The guy was shooting at me with a burp gun on a tank while I was running along the side of a house. As I was running I was like this,” Harry points back with his hand, crouches and covers his head with his other arm, ”shooting at him. I don’t know if I hit him or not, I was running too fast.”

How did they capture you? I ask.

“Finally, after I don’t know how long, I got in a house, I got into the cellar. And there were nine other fellows there, and we got to watching one tank right after another go by. In no time at all we were four, five miles behind the front. Tanks don’t take prisoners. At Himsteldt – apparently they killed everybody in the town. What are they going to do with prisoners, turn the machine guns on ‘em.”

Harry said he and his fellow soldiers were discovered and forced to surrender. “When the got us, they lined the ten of us up against the wall, they were getting ready to shoot us, they had their guns cocked when some officer stopped them. They wanted our clothes for infiltration – took my overcoat, took my overshoes. And it was cold, right then it was about zero.”

The prisoners were placed on German tanks, to be taken to the rear. “I jumped on the tank, there was so many POWs on it, you couldn’t tell whose tank it was. I had a friend, and he was in the bunk next to me, name of John Pettyjohn. “I said ‘John, let’s get off of here. There’s a counterattack.’ And the bullets you could hear hitting the tank but they hadn’t hit nobody. I said, ‘John, you can stay but I’m getting off.’ I jumped off; I thought I was going to get killed right then. Anyway, that tank got about a block from me, got a direct hit from an artillery shell and killed everyone on it. And I crawled, had to go over the dead, and I could hear shells all around me.”

It was winter, but Harry said he was so scared at that time he can’t remember if there was snow on the ground or not. “I don’t mind telling you that I was scared to death. I was scared. Somebody say they’re not scared when they get in a situation like that, I don’t believe ‘em,” then Harry laughed. “You get so durned scared you can’t even cry.

“I don’t think they could train people to be that cruel, that they would just shoot you. They said to this one guy, ‘Get your hands up’, and then stuck the gun in his stomach and shot him. That was at the Battle of the Bulge, they shot civilians. They had us on the road walking, there was something along the road, it looked like carrots, stacked up like cordwood on the side of the road, and one of us said, ‘I wonder if that’s good to eat.’ He went over to get one. They killed him right there. Doesn’t matter if it was Germans, Japanese or what, they get POWs and your life wasn’t worth a plug nickel. I imagine we were probably the same way.”

“They took us to the boxcars, I about died of starvation in those boxcars. In those boxcars, it took us 13 days before we finally reached Nuremberg without anything to eat but snow and ice. And on the 13th day when we were in Nuremberg, they told us they were going to feed us. They gave us a bowl of warm water with half a turnip in it. I was so weak, I couldn’t hardly walk. It was so cold we had to run in place to stay warm.”

What was life in the camp like? I ask. Was that something, running in place, that you had to do everyday? “We called it hell camp,” Harry answered. “I guess there were a hundred to a barracks, stacked three high. All we had was a sleeping roll and wood slats. I guess it was the later part of January that I got to sleep on straw, instead of sleeping on cold cement or wood. They didn’t care if we were alive or dead, a lot of ‘em was shot too. Start arguing with ‘em and they’d turn around and shoot you.”

Did they have you do calisthenics like you see in movies, or did they do head counts? “No, they left us alone, it was so cold. There was no heat in the building whatsoever. We got seven lumps of coal for the whole week.”

Seven lumps, I interject, per person.

“No, for everybody, to go in a big pot-bellied stove. It was so cold, they gave us thin cotton blankets, about 3 foot by 6. A fellow by the name of James Park, we had the same bunk together there, we slept together for warmth. It was 20 degrees below zero. That was at about the same latitude as North Dakota.”

Were there Russians or British there as well or just Americans? “Oh yes, There were mostly Serbs there, from Yugoslavia. They’d been there a long time. They’d go out and work, they got plenty to eat – when we didn’t have anything. I went from 155 pounds in five months to 105.

What was the first thing you wanted to eat when you got home? “When we got home, I’d eat one meal, turn around and 15 minutes later eat another full meal. I’d eat anything, I’d eat anything but raspberries. They taste like old medicine.”

I wanted to know if he still ate the things he was forced to eat in captivity. “I ate cabbage, I stayed alive for 30 days eating raw cabbage and raw potatoes.” So you don’t eat cabbage anymore? I ask. “No, I love cabbage. I’ll unroll it and eat it leaf by leaf,” he says as his hands mimicked unrolling the leaves. “I still like it. Pretty soon you start to like everything. I’ll eat anything.”

Harry, I said, you are a true hero.

“No, I ain’t a hero, I did my job. If there’s a hell, I went through it. But boy, I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t give anything for my experiences. I’d do it all again.”

Posted in History, Texas, Veterans, World War 2 | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments