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Posts Tagged ‘743rd Tank Battalion’

 

So, it is the sixth of June again.

American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the primary landing zone for Americans during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. (U.S. Air Force Photo)The ocean pounds the advance of sand amidst the relics of a different age, the hulking remnants of the tide of battle. The surf rolls in and kisses the beach, as the last participants mix on the hallowed bluff above with the politicians who have gathered from all over the world.

Thirty years ago I watched as the American president honored  the fallen, and the living, at the cemetery for the fortieth anniversary. Just out of college, something stirred inside me. Something was awoken.

Those thirty years have passed. I began by writing letters to the newspaper. I began to interview D-Day veterans and others. I began to collect stories- not relics, prizes, or artifacts. I really had little interest in captured Nazi flags or samurai swords.

I wanted to talk to the men who were there.

The fiftieth anniversary came next with great pomp and more reflection. It graced the covers of the major newsweeklies. “Saving Private Ryan” stirred the consciousness of a new generation, and reflections of the old. And I learned so much more of the war beyond the beachhead. That there were so many beachheads.

The sixtieth anniversary came around. Students on their bi-annual trips to France would bring me back their photographs and the requisite grains of white sand from Omaha Beach. Teenagers had their emotions  a bit tempered, I think. I would go on to introduce them to so many who were there. When they themselves were teenagers.

So now it is the seventy-second. On the 65th, I wrote about a friend who is no longer here, but today I would like to introduce you to a survivor of D Day who is still with us.

I first met Bill Gast at a reunion of 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion soldiers at a reunion in March 2008, in which I  was present with several Holocaust survivors who were meeting their liberating soldiers for the first time. Later, Bill came to my high school to speak to students. I think the experience of sharing, and meeting the Holocaust survivors whom the 743rd came upon and liberated, affected him deeply.

Unlike many who may be physically able, Bill has no intention of going back to the sands of Omaha for this anniversary. As he explained to our students in 2009,

“I’m listed [in the event program] as a liberator- however, I am also a survivor of World War II, having landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on D-day and fighting through to the end when the Germans surrendered, May the 7th, 1945.”

“Pictures.

Video games.

Movies.

Words.

They simply do not covey the feeling of fear.

The shock.

The stench.

The noise.

The horror, and the tragedy.

The injured.

The suffering.

The dying, and the dead.”

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D-Day: the view from a tank on Omaha Beach

Washington (AFP) – From inside his tank, the young soldier could see “practically nothing” on Omaha Beach.

Seventy years later, William Gast still wonders whether he rolled over his comrades sheltering from German gunfire that day.

Gast was 19 years old the morning of June 6, 1944. “We came in at H-10, that was 10 minutes before the designated hour.”

He cannot recall why he and his fellow soldiers arrived early, but he has other memories that have never left him.

As part of Company A, 743rd Tank Battalion, 1st Army, Gast remembers the training beforehand in Britain, when he rehearsed driving the Sherman tank onto the landing craft. And then floating in the English Channel.

“Another night we went out and we didn’t come back. That was it.”

Gast got to know the captain of the landing craft that would ferry his tank to the beaches of Normandy.

The skipper promised he would get them close enough that they would not be submerged in water, like so many tanks were that day.

He kept his word.

Another tank unit at Omaha Beach was less fortunate, with 27 of 32 tanks launched at sea five kilometers (three miles) from the coast sinking before they could reach land, despite being outfitted with a flotation screens.

“The order was given to go, we started our engines up, they lowered the ramp,” said Gast.

Amid German shrapnel and sea spray, he “could feel the tracks spinning.”

At last, the tank tracks took hold on the sandy sea bottom and he drove up the beach.

– Like throwing marbles at a car –

Down below in the driver’s seat, Gast tried to steer the tank with the aid of a small, manual periscope.

“You can imagine how much we could see, practically nothing,” he said.

The radios inside the tank were so unreliable that his commander would tell Gast which way to turn by kicking him on the left or right shoulder.

The difficulty in seeing the way ahead has left Gast with a gnawing sense that he may have run over the bodies of American soldiers on the beach.

“The saddest part about the whole thing is, not being able to see, I may have run over some of my own people.

“And if I did, I don’t even know it. I can’t ever get that out of my mind, you know?”

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Corporal Gast heard machine gun bullets hitting the side of the tank, “like throwing marbles at a car — that’s what it sounded like.”

“And there were shells that exploded right beside me. You could feel the tank shake.”

For Gast, it was a day of fear and terror, and following orders without reflection.

“I can’t tell much about what happened, I was scared to death to start with,” he said.

“It was just like putting it on automatic, you just did what you had to do, did what you were told to do.”

By noon, close to 19,000 American soldiers who landed at Omaha were still pinned down on the beach.

– High school sweetheart –

Carefully laid plans had unraveled as the beach became a killing zone, with troops mowed down under a fusillade of German machine gun, artillery and mortar fire.

Small teams of US troops eventually managed to break through on the bluffs between German positions, with the help of combat engineers blowing up obstacles.

The losses were staggering: more than 2,000 dead, wounded and missing on Omaha beach. The exact toll is still unknown. Of the 15 tanks in Gast’s Company A, only five survived without damage.

Gast, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart during his combat tour, and went on to marry his high school sweetheart.

Now 89 years old, he recently was awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur at a small ceremony for World War II veterans at the French embassy in Washington.

The short, soft spoken man stood up to receive the medal and shook hands with a French diplomat. But he has no plans to return to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

His son, Bill, said his father did not want to relive that day: “It’s important we don’t forget but you try to hide things somewhere.”

http://news.yahoo.com/d-day-view-tank-omaha-beach-104656852.html

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Blair Williams grave by Vincent Heggen, 2017. Netherlands American Cemetery.

Here in the United States, Memorial Day will be upon us soon.

In interviewing WW II veterans over the years, I found that most whom I was privileged to know shied away from honors and recognition on Memorial Day.  I was reminded of the sacrifices that the veterans made, again and again, but they all told me that the real heroes were the ones that did not come home. And that Memorial Day was the day reserved for THEM; contrary to popular American opinion, it’s not another Veterans Day. But this weekend we tip our hat to the veterans among us, and post that ‘salute to the troops’, thank them for their service, and we are free to start our summer vacation. Did we just give ourselves some kind of pass?

The holiday known originally as “Decoration Day” originated at the end of the Civil War when a general order was issued designating May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” When Congress passed a law formally recognizing the last Monday in May as the day of national remembrance, we effectively got our three-day weekend and our de facto beginning of summer. But do we really want to know?  If we do, maybe we can take the time to seek out one of those who fell on those faraway fields, and think about what it means on a personal level, try to find out more about a life that was cut short. Here are a few to think about.

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Riverside Cemetery, Oshkosh, Winnebago County, Wisconsin, USA. Credit: J M Schumann

This is Marvin Boller. His remains did make it home. A Thanksgiving letter written  to him did not. The backstory:

In writing my second book, I revisited a horrific incident that occurred in the earliest days of American penetration onto enemy soil in Germany.  Resistance was stiff; on a cold and rainy day before Thanksgiving, 1944, 3 tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion’s ‘D’ Company were wiped out in a muddy apple orchard a few miles across the river.

In 2012, I was alerted to the existence of this WWII era letter in a memorial museum in Belgium. The envelope was postmarked Nov. 27, 1944, and addressed from the USA to PFC Marvin K. Boller, D Co., 743rd Tank Battalion. It was also stamped ‘DECEASED’.

Vince Heggen, who tends graves of the men who were killed with Martin, posted this for Memorial Day:

 Co D 743rd Tank Bn was moving from Langendorf to Erberich in November, 1944. It kept raining the whole day before they arrived in the orchards near Erberich. It was 8h20 when a German tank opened fire and knocked out 3 light tanks… All the crews were killed and a few of them are buried at the cemetery of Margraten. The letter, in front of the graves , was written by Marvin Boller’s wife. Marvin was killed just the day before Thanksgiving and the letter was marked ‘return to sender’.  The letter made the link between the crew members of Marvin’s tank  buried here, and Marvin who was buried [elsewhere].

Frank McWilliams grave by Vincent Heggen, 2017. Netherlands American Cemetery.

 

{You can read a Washington Post article:

Americans gave their lives to defeat the Nazis. The Dutch have never forgotten.}

 

I wrote to Carrol Walsh, a liberator of the train near Magdeburg and a fellow member of Company D, and asked if he knew Boller; I also sent him this image of the envelope.

He wrote back:

‘Hi Matt, I was stunned when I read your message. I remember Boller very well and remember when he got killed.  I believe it was just before Thanksgiving 1944 when a big German tank wiped out three tanks of the first platoon of Co. D of the 743rd. Every member of every crew of every one of the tanks was killed.  I seem to remember packages arriving for some of these guys after they had been killed.  I used to tease Boller, who was an older man, because he wanted to vote for Tom Dewey and I was big for my pal, FDR.  Boy what a memory you stirred up.  I knew all the guys that got killed in that engagement.’

Walsh and others would survive and go on to liberate Holocaust survivors on April 13th, 1945. And the letter has never been opened.

I did not know you, I don’t know if anyone is alive who knew you, but you are not forgotten.

 

 

MARVIN K. BOLLER

PFC, 743 TANK BN WORLD WAR II

Birth: Oct. 9, 1908
Death: Nov. 22, 1944

More can also be seen here.

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April 17, 1945, was a Sunday. It was three days after the liberation of the train near Magdeburg, near the Elbe River, just miles from Berlin. War weary GIs had their first encounters with the conditions at the train. They would never forget what they saw.

April 17th. (1945)

Dear Chaplain;-

Haven’t written you in many months now, its funny how a few moments are so hard to find in which to write a letter way past due; it’s much easier to keep putting it off the way I’ve done. I’ll try to make up for it in this letter.

Today I saw a sight that’s impossible to describe, however I’ll try. Between 2400 and 3000 German refugees were overran by my division during our last operation; most of them were, or had been, inmates of concentration camps, their crimes the usual ones, – Jewish parentage, political differences with der Fuhrer, lack of sympathy for the SS, or just plain bad luck. Not one of these hundreds could walk one mile and survive; they had been packed on a train whose normal capacity was perhaps four or five hundred, and had been left there days without food.

Our division military government unit took charge of them, and immediately saw what a huge job it was going to be, so they sent out a call for help. Several of our officers went out to help them organize the camp they were setting up for them. The situation was extremely ticklish we soon learned; no one could smoke as it started a riot when the refugees saw the cigarette, and we couldn’t give the kiddies anything or they would have been trampled to death in the rush that would result when anything resembling food was displayed. The only nourishment they were capable of eating was soup; now the army doesn’t issue any of the Heinz’s 57 varieties, so we watered down C-ration[s] and it served quite well.  It was necessary to use force to make the people stay in line in order to serve them. They had no will power left, only the characteristics of beasts.

A few weeks of decent food will change them into a semblance of normal human beings; with God willing the plague of disease that was already underway, will be diverted; but I’m wondering what the affect of their ordeal they have been through, will be on their minds; most will carry scars for the rest of their days for the beatings that they were given. No other single thing had convinced me as this experience has that Germany isn’t fit to survive as a nation. I’ll never forget today.

I was going to write mother tonight but thought better of it. I’ll be in a better frame of mind tomorrow. I’m only a few dozen miles from Berlin right now, and its hard to realize the end is in sight. I’m always glad to receive your scandal sheet. You perhaps missed your calling, as your editorial abilities are quite plain.

As ever,

Charles.

March 11th, 2009

Dear Mr. Rozell: My father-in-law was 1st. Lt. Charles M. Kincaid. He was a Liaison Officer with the 30th. Division Artillery.  He was honored with an Air Medal in the battle of Mortain and a Bronze Medal in the battle of St. Lo.  In the battle of Mortain he won his Air Medal by calling in artillery adjustments while flying in a Piper L-4 over 4 panzer divisions on August 9, 1944.

He rarely wrote home. He did write home to his minister about one event that evidently really caused him to stop and think. Attached is a copy of that letter that his sister transcribed – making copies for others to read.  The letter describes the Farsleben train and his experience there.

I need to thank you for your website and work. You and your students work enabled me to connect the letter with the actual historical event. It further enabled me to show my children the pictures and to make their grandfather’s experience real, not just an old letter – that this event so affected him that he needed to tell his minister before he told his mother.

Thank you,
Mark A.

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I am in Israel now to embark upon two and a half weeks of study at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. I am humbled. But I was here before, in 2011, with liberator Frank Towers as he was recognized for his efforts 70 years ago, on behalf of American liberators everywhere. Here in Israel he met with statesmen and the head of the IDF, as well as over 50 survivors and their families who were liberated on April 13, 1945, an event that Frank had a direct hand in.

Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.

Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.

It’s a long story, but my work as a teacher has been here, too. In the background, note the Benjamin photo at the 2015 70th anniversary state ceremonies.

"The anguish of the liberation and return to life". Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner. Yad Vashem, 2015.

“The anguish of the liberation and return to life”. Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner. Yad Vashem, April 2015.

The short version of the story:

Fifteen summers ago I sat down to listen to an old gentleman in a rocking chair. A  war weary tank commander in 1945, he told me stories of his World War II experiences and then led me to his fellow tank commander, who showed me a picture that their major had taken on April 13, 1945. You see, those two were there, and their two tanks had liberated a concentration camp transport deep in the heart of war-torn Germany.

It would be the first time in decades that this picture had seen the light of day. And because of its discovery, and what we would do with it, thousands of lives were about to change.

Yad Vashem contacted me in December 2014 to inquire about using the Major Benjamin photo. I immediately sent them a high resolution copy. My friend Varda in Israel writes, ‘[The photograph above was taken] during the main ceremony at  the Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem. This photo shows the President of Israel Reuven Rivlin make his speech. You can see your photo there at the middle (banner) and I now think it was there throughout all the ceremony.’

Below, a post from the time of the event in April, 2015..

 

My good friend in Israel let me know that the April 15th  commemoration of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Israel was a moving event and sent me the link to the video of the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation. While the  narrative  behind the Major Benjamin photograph was not a focus, the photo that which now seems to be becoming a cornerstone of the history of Holocaust liberation is all throughout the ceremony, and especially at 8:31. One of my friends, a survivor who had been a six-year old boy on this transport that Major Benjamin photographed at the moment his jeep arrived at the train, notes,

The photograph wouldn’t be there if not for your effort. It was presiding on 1.5 hrs of national ceremony in the presence of Israel’s president, prime minister, the entire government, the top army guys, survivors, chief rabbis and was nationally broadcast. You have a direct hand in this.

Me, a lowly teacher, whose work for an evening is presiding as the backdrop for presidents and prime ministers. I am proud and hope that the story is told over and over, and that it serves the memory of the victims, the survivors, and the liberators well. I just can’t believe sometimes this path I have been down, since the day over a dozen years ago when I took the time to listen to a war veteran, and began to backtrack his story.  There are other forces at work here, I think… and there is a cosmic force that reverberates in you when you teach the Holocaust from the heart.

Teachers out there, you all know the power of what we do. I hope this serves as an affirmation.

 

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Matthew Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow and teaches history at his alma mater in upstate New York. His work has resulted in the reuniting of 275 Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’, was released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. His second book,  is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, the Benjamin photograph and this ‘Train Near Magdeburg’. 

 

 

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So, it is the sixth of June again.

American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the primary landing zone for Americans during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. (U.S. Air Force Photo)The ocean pounds the advance of sand amidst the relics of a different age, the hulking remnants of the tide of battle. The surf rolls in and kisses the beach, as the last participants mix on the hallowed bluff above with the politicians who have gathered from all over the world.

Thirty-two years ago I watched as the American president honored  the fallen, and the living, at the cemetery for the fortieth anniversary. Just out of college, something stirred inside me. Something was awoken.

I began by writing letters to the newspaper. I began to interview D-Day veterans and others. I began to collect stories- not relics, prizes, or artifacts. I really had little interest in captured Nazi flags or samurai swords.

I wanted to talk to the men who were there.

The fiftieth anniversary came next with great pomp and more reflection. It graced the covers of the major newsweeklies. “Saving Private Ryan” stirred the consciousness of a new generation, and reflections of the old. And I learned so much more of the war beyond the beachhead. That there were so many beachheads.

The sixtieth anniversary came around. Students on their bi-annual trips to France would bring me back their photographs and the requisite grains of white sand from Omaha Beach. Teenagers had their emotions  a bit tempered, I think. I would go on to introduce them to so many who were there. When they themselves were teenagers.

So now it is the seventy-second. On the 65th, I wrote about a friend who is no longer here for the 72nd,  and the 75th will bring fewer who were there back to Normandy.

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Today I would like to introduce you to a survivor of D Day who is still with us.

I first met Bill Gast at a reunion of 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion soldiers at a reunion in March 2008, in which I  was present with several Holocaust survivors who were meeting their liberating soldiers for the first time. Later, Bill came to my high school to speak to students. I think the experience of sharing, and meeting the Holocaust survivors whom the 743rd came upon and liberated, affected him deeply.

Unlike many who may be physically able, Bill has no intention of going back to the sands of Omaha for this anniversary. As he explained to our students in 2009,

“I’m listed [in the event program] as a liberator- however, I am also a survivor of World War II, having landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on D-day and fighting through to the end when the Germans surrendered, May the 7th, 1945.”

“Pictures.

Video games.

Movies.

Words.

They simply do not covey the feeling of fear.

The shock.

The stench.

The noise.

The horror, and the tragedy.

The injured.

The suffering.

The dying, and the dead.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmKNYMaa_sU

 

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D-Day: the view from a tank on Omaha Beach

Washington (AFP) – From inside his tank, the young soldier could see “practically nothing” on Omaha Beach.

Seventy years later, William Gast still wonders whether he rolled over his comrades sheltering from German gunfire that day.

Gast was 19 years old the morning of June 6, 1944. “We came in at H-10, that was 10 minutes before the designated hour.”

He cannot recall why he and his fellow soldiers arrived early, but he has other memories that have never left him.

As part of Company A, 743rd Tank Battalion, 1st Army, Gast remembers the training beforehand in Britain, when he rehearsed driving the Sherman tank onto the landing craft. And then floating in the English Channel.

“Another night we went out and we didn’t come back. That was it.”

Gast got to know the captain of the landing craft that would ferry his tank to the beaches of Normandy.

The skipper promised he would get them close enough that they would not be submerged in water, like so many tanks were that day.

He kept his word.

Another tank unit at Omaha Beach was less fortunate, with 27 of 32 tanks launched at sea five kilometers (three miles) from the coast sinking before they could reach land, despite being outfitted with a flotation screens.

“The order was given to go, we started our engines up, they lowered the ramp,” said Gast.

Amid German shrapnel and sea spray, he “could feel the tracks spinning.”

At last, the tank tracks took hold on the sandy sea bottom and he drove up the beach.

 

– Like throwing marbles at a car –

Down below in the driver’s seat, Gast tried to steer the tank with the aid of a small, manual periscope.

“You can imagine how much we could see, practically nothing,” he said.

The radios inside the tank were so unreliable that his commander would tell Gast which way to turn by kicking him on the left or right shoulder.

The difficulty in seeing the way ahead has left Gast with a gnawing sense that he may have run over the bodies of American soldiers on the beach.

“The saddest part about the whole thing is, not being able to see, I may have run over some of my own people.

“And if I did, I don’t even know it. I can’t ever get that out of my mind, you know?”

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Corporal Gast heard machine gun bullets hitting the side of the tank, “like throwing marbles at a car — that’s what it sounded like.”

“And there were shells that exploded right beside me. You could feel the tank shake.”

For Gast, it was a day of fear and terror, and following orders without reflection.

“I can’t tell much about what happened, I was scared to death to start with,” he said.

“It was just like putting it on automatic, you just did what you had to do, did what you were told to do.”

By noon, close to 19,000 American soldiers who landed at Omaha were still pinned down on the beach.

– High school sweetheart –

Carefully laid plans had unraveled as the beach became a killing zone, with troops mowed down under a fusillade of German machine gun, artillery and mortar fire.

Small teams of US troops eventually managed to break through on the bluffs between German positions, with the help of combat engineers blowing up obstacles.

The losses were staggering: more than 2,000 dead, wounded and missing on Omaha beach. The exact toll is still unknown. Of the 15 tanks in Gast’s Company A, only five survived without damage.

Gast, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart during his combat tour, and went on to marry his high school sweetheart.

Now 89 years old, he recently was awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur at a small ceremony for World War II veterans at the French embassy in Washington.

The short, soft spoken man stood up to receive the medal and shook hands with a French diplomat. But he has no plans to return to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

His son, Bill, said his father did not want to relive that day: “It’s important we don’t forget, but you try to hide things somewhere.”

Mr. & Mrs. Gast, Holocaust Survivors-American Soldiers reunion, 2009.

Mr. & Mrs. Gast, Holocaust Survivors-American Soldiers reunion, 2009.

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Here in the United States, Memorial Day will be upon us soon.

In researching for my upcoming book on the liberation of the train, I are reminded of the sacrifices of the soldiers, again and again. Right now I’m revisiting a horrific incident that occurred just across Hitler’s “West Wall”, the so-called Dragon’s Teeth that formed the three-mile deep defensive fortifications that our troops had to cross to enter German soil.  Resistance was stiff; on a cold and rainy day before Thanksgiving, 1944, several tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion’s ‘D’ Company were wiped out in a muddy apple orchard a few miles across the border.

boller envelope

Letter to Marvin Boller postmarked 5 days after his death. It remains unopened in a museum in Belgium. Thanks to Vincent Heggen, the curator.

In 2012, I was alerted to the existence of an unopened WWII era letter in a memorial museum in Belgium. The envelope was postmarked Nov. 27, 1944, and addressed from the USA to PFC Marvin K. Boller, D Co., 743rd Tank Battalion. It was also stamped ‘DECEASED’. I wrote to Carrol Walsh, a liberator of the train near Magdeburg and a fellow member of Company D, and asked if he knew Boller; I also sent him this image of the envelope. He wrote back:

‘Hi Matt, I was stunned when I read your message. I remember Boller very well and remember when he got killed.  I believe it was just before Thanksgiving 1944 when a big German tank wiped out four tanks of the first platoon of Co. D of the 743rd. Every member of every crew of every one of the four tanks was killed.  I seem to remember packages arriving for some of these guys after they had been killed.  I used to tease Boller, who was an older man, because he wanted to vote for Tom Dewey and I was big for my pal, FDR.  Boy what a memory you stirred up.  I knew all the guys that got killed in that engagement.’

Walsh and others would survive and go on to liberate Holocaust survivors on April 13th, 1945.

So here is a tribute to Marvin Boller, and all who fell. His body was returned to the United States. Rest on.

Riverside Cemetery, Oshkosh, Winnebago County, Wisconsin, USA. Credit: J M Schumann

 

MARVIN K. BOLLER

PFC, 743 TANK BN WORLD WAR II

Birth: Oct. 9, 1908
Death: Nov. 22, 1944

More can also be seen here.

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I’ve been working a bit lately on my next two upcoming books, The Things Our Fathers Saw II and the one closest to my heart, working title, A Train Near Magdeburg or The Last Transport. And I have been struggling with that book for years. It’s a hard story to tell because it has to be done right, the first time.

TNMMy own personal connection and closeness to the subject has been documented at this blog since 2007, when we hosted the first reunion before a student audience at our high school, when we knew of only 2 liberators and 4 survivors. Today, that number has grown over 7 fold. Unbeknownst when we began, this story has grown and taken over the second half of my career as an educator.

Trying to take on the subject matter of the Holocaust as a classroom teacher is a daunting task, and one not to be taken lightly. Trying to convey that through the eyes of your survivor friends is exponentially difficult. But when you open yourself up, palms up and arms out, especially at the authentic sites where millions of families suffered, there is a coupling of the past and the present.

It’s not an easy thing to open yourself up to. But if you think that it is all in the past, you are very, very mistaken.

Now throw into the mix the experience of the young American boys, battle hardened and hardly innocents by now, who stumbled across the train and the horrors of the Holocaust. Confronted with the reality of sick and starving people, and a war in its closing days where the enemy, the perpetrators of this evil, are still shooting at them. They have a mission they have been tasked with, and it’s not a humanitarian rescue operation that they trained for.

Oh no. They had no idea. Many of these young guys were haunted for life by what they encountered.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say. In my case, more like one hundred thousand. Behind the camera, the major in the jeep snaps a photo as specters emerge from the springtime morning mist. The little girl turns her head in terror at the two monsters clamoring behind the jeep with the white star,  Tanks 12 and 13 of the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 30th Infantry Division of the United States Army. It is April 13, 1945, deep in the heart of the Reich. Friday the 13th. Tank 13 stays on after securing the perimeter to protect the vulnerable from their would-be murderers.

For the young beautiful men with perfect teeth and handsome uniforms, the first instinct is to recoil. This is not natural and these people have been reduced to stinking animals. Lice infested. Stench ridden. Infected with bad, bad disease. Revulsion and vomiting is a common reaction.  These are not human beings.

But, they are.

They are.

And what are we going to do about this? The battalion commander cocks his .45 and calmly places it to the head of the local burgermeister when he displays reluctance to comply with the order to open homes and feed the prisoners.

And next up on the roller coaster ride for the incredulous GIs  is stomping rage and jags of crying. Generations later, an 89 year old tells me, “My parents wondered why I couldn’t sleep at night, after returning home.”

The soldiers transport the victims out of the line of fire. The medics get to work. People continue to die, but somehow humanity returns. The war ends. The survivors and the soldiers go their own ways, most refusing to speak of this time for decades. For many, the trauma passes onto the children  of the generations that come after.

And then, in the twilight of living memory, a high school teacher with an unassuming project has the encounter with the unknown photographs, and asks the unasked questions.

Seventy years later, across time and space, the portal has been entered. The wires of the cosmos have been tripped. And the universe channels the unassuming power of love across the abyss as the aged rescuers and survivors and their descendants are brought together to meet again.

It is a miracle of healing and reconnection. A cosmic circuit has been completed, but maybe, in some small way, another pathway to undoing a tragic cycle is opened. And it is not a coincidence.

As I wrap up this post, I am pinged with an email from my ‘second mom’ in Toronto, survivor Ariela. She was 11 when she was liberated on the train with her aunt. Her parents and grandparents were murdered in Poland by the Germans. She’s good on Facebook, but has a tough time with email. She’s thinking of me, and the book which has to tell the story. The email comes through now, loud and clear.

This is the train that should have led to death. Instead, it leads to life, and a legacy of the triumph of good over evil. And maybe, just maybe, amidst all of the horror and the suffering, there is a lesson here, somewhere.

I’d like to think so.

 

 

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