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J. Wilborn
Posts: 26
(2/8/01 3:41:45 pm)
Reply OLD CHARLIE
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OLD CHARLIE.

Charlie was a storyteller--a gifted storyteller. At lunch
breaks or other times when the crew was together,
Charlie would hold his listeners spellbound with the story
he told. You will note I said ‘story’ and not plural
‘stories’. Charlie told one story--he told one story very
well. Depending on the working conditions, or other
time restraints, the story always seemed complete enough
for the listener to have formed his own visions of what
might have happened. Charlie was not highly educated and
his story was liberally laced with crude
colloquialisms and bad words--not filthy language mind
you--Charlie was not that type--just ‘Charlie words’, so
to speak. As one would listen to Charlie’s story, one could
almost sense a certain spirituality--a paranormal
event--not frightening at all, but uplifting--making you
want to say humans aren’t all bad after all--even when at
war. Those feelings come in either the short version or
it’s long rendition. Here, these many years later, I am
recalling that story as accurately and as completly as I
can--after all, it has been almost half a century. When
Charlie told us his story, he had only been away from the
war about seven years.
I graduated from my Iowa high school in May of 1951--the
United Nations police action in Korea, later to be
called the Korean War, made me lust for service to my
country--I wanted to join the Navy. My guardians
counseled me to wait for a few months as I was only
seventeen and had to have their written permission for
naval enlistment. After helping to get the spring crops
into the field, I went off to the city and sought a job.
Times seemed good--jobs readily available. The job I chose
was to be in the shipping-receiving department of a
large auto repair supply house. That’s where I met Old
Charlie--that’s what everyone told you when you needed
a question answered-- ”ask Old Charlie”. When you’re only
seventeen, thirty five seemed ancient--Charlie was
older than that so I picked up the expression also “see Old
Charlie”. What made it even more fitting was that
Old Charlie always wore bedroom slippers--that and a black
glove on his left hand. Shortly after I went to
work at AUTO SUPPLIERS, Charlie offered a kind of an
explanation for his attire--maybe he cought me staring
at him. He told me he had been born and raised on a farm
but after being hurt in the war, didn’t say wounded to
me, just hurt--well you just can’t work in cow and pig
manure wearing bedroom slippers and you sure as hell
can’t milk cows wearing a glove! No, Charlie didn’t say
what he said to me hatefully--he was just grinning
away--having been raised on an Iowa farm, around the pigs
and cows, I knew a thing or two about manure--I
grinned back at Old Charlie. I was yet to hear how the
seemingly gentle old fellow had been hurt--over the next
several months that I worked there--before entering the Navy
in August, I would hear Old Charlie’s ‘story’
many times. Whatever variation of the story it was -- the
complete or the abridged, I would thrill to the story
and the spiritual mystique surrounding it. I never felt
sorry for Charlie--he wouldn’t have allowed it--the
bedroom slippers and the one glove sheltered war wounds--
Charlie never said the word wounded--it was
always his hurts.
December 24, 1944. The day before Christmas throughout the
Christian world. The Christian world at war--a
war that had dragged on and on, accounting for untold loss
of life and human misery. Allied forces had been in
the European theater of operations since June 6th--always
attacking and driving eastward toward the bowels of
Nazi Germany. Two weeks prior, the German Army had launched
a major counter-offensive against the
attacking Allied forces--in the coldest and most severe
winter in recorded history, the mighty armies reeled and
battled--the France and Belgium battlegrounds would forever
be remembered as being where the greatest tank
battles in the world were fought. Many of the foot soldiers
from all sides would freeze to death in the bitter
winter temperatures. There were times when battle tanks
from various units would become
stranded--mechanical breakdowns--run out of fuel and
ammunition. Even against standing orders, crews would
abandon their machines and attempt to get back to friendly
lines. More that a few times, those crew members
would be found frozen to death--victims of the terrible
weather instead of the terrible war. Other times, battle
elements would become separated in the heat of battle--or
lost to enemy action, thus a single solitary unit
surviving. How frightening that must have been for the four
man Sherman tank crew--Charlie’s crew--tank
commander Sergeant Charles Schroeder’s crew. Dawn had found
them sheltered on the lee side of a hedgerow.
Their idling engine had failed an hour earlier--out of
fuel. The intense cold had rapidly invaded the confines of
the tanks steel interior--all of their rounds for the main
gun had been depleted--it would have been useless
anyway because the turrent could not be rotated without the
engine running. They had their side arms, a couple
of tanker carbines, and the tanks fixed machine guns.
Facing capture would have been more agreeable to
contemplate than the bitter freezing cold. Charlie
cautioned his crew to bundle up the best they could--keep as

warm as they might under the conditions. Every ten minutes
or so a crew member would get out and stomp and
thrash around to keep the blood flowing--it become
tiresome--Charlie wouldn’t let his men fall asleep--inside
the
metal behemoth, hoarfrost collected from the men’s
breathing--the only sounds were the opening and closing of
the hatch as the crew took their assigned turns outside at
keeping moving--trying to stay warm--stay alive.
Every so often Charlie needed to prompt one of the men that
it was their turn--. Finally Charlie had the men
remove their boots and rub each others feet--at first there
was a sense of revulsion--in the close confines of the
Sherman there was little enough room to begin with--but they
followed Charlie’s orders and discovered there
was relief to be had in that simple gesture.
Charlie had not been in the Army very long--he lived on the
family farm with his parents. When the war began
in 1941, Charlie was offered a ‘farm deferment’--a legal
release from being drafted for military service. As the
time went by, Charlie would hear of men who knew being
killed or wounded--some in the German war it had
become known as--or the Jap war--the one in the Pacific.
There were many unkind things said about men with
deferments--the most polite being ‘draft dodger’. It
bothered Charlie--it bothered him a lot. He told his
parents
that he was going to join up--the Army seemed the most
logical. Charlie was already in his late twenties--most
of the fighting forces were still in their teens. The Army
treated Charlie like a ‘rare-find’--older, more mature and
the vast experience of working tractors and mechanical farm
implements. Within six weeks of joining up, Charlie
was on a troopship headed for England--a member of the elite
armored division that would gain world wide
renown from the broncho General who led them--General George
Patton. Around the other troopers, Charlie
learned and talked the lingo--main gun barrels were called
tubes, the treads were called tracks, the hatch cover
was a lid--and even the special protective head gear the
tankers wore was called a ‘brain-bucket’. Charlie fit
right in--the name Pappy was mentioned on rare occasions by
new associates, however Charlie it was and Charlie
it would be--even later when he recieved a battlefield
promotion to Sergeant, the troops still called him Charlie.
The Sherman tank was fairly new in the American
arsenal--fast and agile but no match for the big German
machines--the Sherman gunners would claim that they had seen
main battery rounds bounce right off the German
Panzers--the machines that were named after large jungle
cats--the Leopards and the Tigers. Training classes
would empathize silhouette features--sounds of
engines--nomenclature about the enemy machines--even the
crack of the main battery was cause to send chills up the
spine.
The horrific cold was mind-numbing--Charlie and his crew had
to be more persistant just to stay awake. Ski
could no longer get up to make it outside the tank and work
out the kinks--his feet had become blackened--like a
bruise. He kept his mittened hands inside his field
jacket-- Packi, the Italian kid from New York swore and
muttered to himself--Jitter, the one who always claimed to
be a ballroom dancer fared the best of all--his nervous
energy seemed to fire up his engine. Charlie had noticed
the numbness and discoloration in his own feet and
hands--try as he might, there was no overcoming the
feeling--the worst thing about it was that it didn’t
hurt--it
seemed easier to lie still and sleep rather than bounce
around--waste your energy. The cracking open of the lid
become less and less--finally the crew just settled in--.
Sometime before midnight the sound come. At first it was a
muffled hum--then a distinct sound of an engine--a
turbine engine with the telltale whine--and finally a sound
that reverberated and cast away whatever doubts the
near frozen Sherman crew may have had. German armor--the
biggest of the big--a Leopard--almost one hundred
tons of machine designed for one purpose only and that was
to kill and destroy. The sounds were deafening
inside the steel hull on the Sherman---Ski was the only one
of the four that did not respond--he was too far
gone--he had obviously surrendered to the bitter nighttime
temperature--the other three Americans waited.
Suddenly the Leopard’s roar become a purring noise as the
tank’s big supercharged turbine settled into it’s idling
mode--waiting. Charlie had expected capture to be
inevitable--there had been recent stories of the mass
executions of American prisoners by the Germans in the
immediate area--Charlie, the eternal optimist, could only
hope for the best for he and his crew. The German tank
continued to idle away--not a threatening sound--maybe
even a comforting sound. Charlie knew that a single round
from that massive cannon on the Leopard--couldn’t
think about that--had to take care of his crew as he reached
up and threw open the heavy turrent lid. The large,
squat looking machine was about two hundred meters off to
their left flank--clouds of steamy engine exhaust
were being spewed out into the cold night air--this Night
of Nights--this Christmas Eve on the Western Front so
far from home--moon so bright a newsprint could be read by
it’s light. The Leopard’s main battery cannon was
boresighted onto the Sherman---Charlie had thought about a
single round earlier--now he stood upright, head,
shoulders, and torso exposed, looking directly toward the
Leopard. For the lack of something else better to do
Charlie saluted in the direction of the big Leopard--held
his salute for a brief moment and then snapped his arm
away briskly. The hatch cover on the idling German tank was
thrown open and a black clad figure come out of
the opening. “My God’ Charlie exclaimed to himself, “this
Kraut tanker isn’t going to fire after all--and I’ll be
damned” Charlie mused, “he’s returning my salute!”
“American tanker--nien petrol”, the German shouted
questionably, to which Charlie nodded and shouted yes all
at the same time. What was there to loose? Even if
Charlie’s crew had rounds for their main tube, they could
not fire and maneuver. “Merry Christmas American” the lone
German tanker shouted--slapped his helmet in a
careless salute and closed the hatch on the big turrent.
With a deafening rumble that seemed to shake the
ground, the enormous Daimler-Benz engine come to life from
it’s muted purring sounds. The Leopard spun
into a graceful leaning motion that eventually turned it one
hundred eighty degrees and roared off over the
uneven ground, eastward and away from the battle arena. As
the big Leopard had turned, Charlie had noted a
figure and a number on it’s side--almost as if it glowed in
the moonlight--it had read TRINITY 3. Those figures
was so near the German cross insignia, it all appeared as
one marking . Charlie looked off to where the big tank
had turned around--the dirt was gouged deeply where the
treads had gained traction. Right in the middle of
where the Leopard had stood idling moments before, were two
cans--they looked like the fuel cans carried on
American tanks--called jerry cans. On feet that felt like
numbed didgits that had gone to sleep, Charlie bailed out
through the hatch and down over the side. Fortune could not
be so kind--those were the feelings that were
playing with Charlie’s impaired senses--’just couldn’t
happen’ he concurred blindly. He dashed as quickly as his
frozen feet could take him over to the cans--even before he
got to them, he could smell the gasoline fumes in the
cold night air. “Jitter--Packi--Packi, you guys get out
here and help me--we’re moving out--we’re heading to the
barn!’ The two cans of fuel was quickly transferred into
the empty tanks on the Sherman--with a bit of coaxing
and jockeying of the choke the Chrysler come to life,
throbbing reassuringly. Ski still had not revived
himself--he was oblivious to all around him. The other men
had a new lease on life as the Sherman sped off
toward General Pattons Third Army line of defenses. Within
the week Charlie and his surviving crew members
would be in a hospital in England--Ski didn’t make it--never
knew of their salvation. Charlie had his ‘hurt’ feet
and hands treated for frostbite--toes on both feet as well
as some fingers on his left hand needed to be amputated,
thus Charlie’s ‘hurts’--not wounds. Ultimately the wearing
of the bedroom slippers and the single glove.
Charlie always finished his story--the most captivating part
to his story was a photo he carried with him.
Dog-earred and beaten up--maybe from the Stars and Stripes
newspaper--it was the picture of a German
Leopard tank with the tank commander standing in the
turrent--black uniform--a classic German pose--haughty
and proud--his tank was named the TRINITY 3. The article
went on to tell of this battle tanks numerous kills
of the American, English, and French armor. The purpose of
the newspaper article was that it announced the
destruction of the German Leopard and it’s crew back in
October 1944--the tank commander had been positively
identified and his exploits written about. This was the
part Charlie loved--what had happened to him and his
crew had happened two months later and hundreds of miles
apart. Charlie never mentioned the word
miracle--you just knew he wanted you to form an opinion of
your own. He only told that one
story--ever--sometimes short--other times the long one--once
was enough--noone ever offered Charlie a logical
explanation--he might have bought a good one--want to try?
John H. Wilborn
 

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*VMBB Senior Chief Of Staff*
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26,015 Posts
This may have been Charlie's benefactor...who knows...he'd perished
months earlier....Chief

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Wittmann
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