By Vivian Blevins
Thanksgiving in 2022 is a difficult time for Americans as many of us are used to simpler lives than we seem to have in recent years. I have my list of obstacles/challenges/heartaches and I’m sure you have yours.
On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful for my family, my extended family, my friends from coast to coast, the students I have taught and will teach. Today, however, I want to say thank you for the military veterans I have met and interviewed, men and women who have allowed me into their lives, who have taught and inspired me. This list grows every month and is now around 200, but who’s counting?
In this column, I’ll focus on some of the WWII veterans I’ve known since I began this chapter of my life ten years ago. Everyone passed and I think somewhere they smile when I recall some of the funny stories they told me. And maybe when you have your Thanksgiving meals this year, you can ask veterans at your table to tell you some humorous stories. Get your phones/cameras out to capture those precious memories.
FIRST LIVE AIR RAID: Harry Ashburn (1923-2022) told me that in mid-1943, when he was a corporal, he was stationed in a non-combat area in the New Hebrides. He and his unit had been preparing for a Japanese air raid with air raid drills, and they were confident that if it did, they would act. They were between shifts when the air-raid siren went off and they heard, “boom, boom, boom.” The instructions were to run to the nearest trench and hug the dirt. The nearest was about 100 yards from the shipping tent where Ashburn was standing. He froze. Others of his unit ran to the trench.
The men were about halfway when one turned and yelled at him, “For Christ’s sake, Ash, come on!”
Ashburn told me he was thawed: “I hit them all in the ditch.” He further stated: “In an adjacent unit, a guy ran into a tent pole and knocked himself unconscious; another caught his neck on a clothesline and fell to the ground. There was a third man awaiting a disability discharge from the army because of back pain, and he passed every single man in his squad. Turns out the booms were coming from our own planes.”
KEEP THIS TRAIN AWAY FROM THE DAMN RUSSIA: Robert Tweed (1921-2018) – At the end of the war, Tweed was responsible for bringing a trainload of about 200 displaced people from St. Johann in Tirol to Wiener Neustadt. His orders were strict: “Do whatever is necessary to protect this train from the Russians. They steal everything that isn’t nailed down.’ Tweed reported that whenever the train stopped, some of the escapees jumped off and disappeared. Goods wagons also disappeared. As the train dwindled to one locomotive, two carriages and maybe 30 people, Tweed knew he had to act, so he grabbed a submachine gun and headed for the locomotive. He said: “Even the Russians understood this language.”
WHO IS THIS ODD MAN KISSING MY MOM?: Harry Christy (1922-2021) – Christy told me, “I took the war seriously. We had a job to do and we did it and were blessed to be able to return to our families.” It was December 5, 1945, and after being in the Battle of the Bulge and the Stalag VII-A POW camp, where he responsible for bringing the prisoners home at the end of the war, Christy arrived in Columbus by train. As he got off the train with his holdall, he told me he was tired and half asleep. He had not seen his wife and son Tom for a year and a half. Seeing her, he ran, hugged his wife tightly and began kissing her passionately on the mouth. He said his young son, not even two years old, was probably thinking, Who is this weird man kissing my mom?
YOU WANT A CIGARETTE AND YOUR NAME IS WHAT? Cyril Franz (1919-2019) – One of Cyril Franz’s duties at the end of the war was guarding German prisoners of war. On duty, one of the prisoners asked Franz for a cigarette. In the days of World War II, K rations included groceries, candy bars, chewing gum, and American cigarettes. Franz tried, with little success, to communicate with the POW what he wanted from the package. Franz said he kept thinking: This man looks like me enough to be my brother. As they stood there smoking they started playing crazy charades and Franz soon learned the prisoner’s name, Cyril Franz.
AND THE MEN UNDER YOUR COMMAND HAVE WHAT DID? Robert Tweed (1921-2018) – Tweed has shared so much of his life with me, having initially told me he would only talk about meeting his wife during the war. That story aside, what he related was usually horrific, including orders to go to Dachau right after the Americans liberated the POW camp to witness the atrocities committed there by the Germans. However, sometimes he would start to grin and tell me a story that made me laugh. i love this one He and his men were billeted in a French village, where they had taken over the home of a “fierce Frenchwoman, old, stooped, and probably not weighing ninety pounds.” The woman, as Tweed put it in his book entitled Fifty Years Later or Nostalgia Unlimited, “given us hell for walking into her house with muddy feet. It was a spring thaw so there was mud everywhere.”
The soldiers decided to teach her some English, and she went to the village well to fetch water every day, using her newly acquired skills. They taught her that “bonjour” was “bull—-t” in English and that “Fermez la porte” was “Shut the f—ing door” in English. To improve their English skills, the soldiers began greeting them with “Bull—t, Mama.” And she always returned the greeting.
One day two American girls came in a Red Cross truck and knocked on her door looking for a place to warm up. Proud of her skills, Mama greeted them with “Bull—-t” and then “Shut the f—ing door.” By the time Mama realized she’d been tricked, she barely spoke to the soldiers. Shortly thereafter, they went back in line.
Just before VE Day, Tweed’s driver got dead drunk, slipped on some loose boards used as a walkway and fell into a manure-filled cistern. He was rescued by a Sgt. Wheeler and a Sgt. Stevens and dragged to a pond and thrown in. Tweed told me: “When my driver was as clean as Wheeler and Stevens thought he would manage, they took him to a barn on the property, threw a blanket over him and left.” The driver was standing in the middle of the night and looked for a warmer place to stay. He migrated to a farm help shelter, where he later told Tweed he was “invited by a burly farm hand to join him in her bed”. He did and…
Note: If there is interest, Dr. Vivian Blevins begin monthly sessions at the Miami Valley Veterans Museum in Troy to help veterans write accounts of their military service. Email her if you are interested: [email protected] No special talents are required, just a desire to capture that time in as few or as many pages as the veteran desires. And do you know that Blevins taught telecom employees to write their autobiographies as well as college students. In other words, this isn’t her first rodeo.