I work with military veterans, giving them the opportunity to tell their stories: for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, on local cable, through news columns, in magazines, and via programs at Edison State Community College. When possible, I post the stories on YouTube so that they are available to an audience worldwide.
I’ve become close to some of these men and women and enjoy not only their stories but also their warm smiles and hugs. Capt. Robert Tweed, U.S. Army, Battle of the Bulge, Dachau the day after the camp was liberated by Americans, sends me his copy of Reveille, a quarterly publication of the Rainbow Division, after he reads it.
In World War I, Douglas MacArthur said, “The 42nd stretches like a Rainbow from one end of America to another.” The division was activated in August of 1917 and at the end of World War I, the Rainbow Veterans Association was formed.
I thought Tweed would be pleased to open a copy of the newsletter and find a small article about a presentation he made at Edison in October of 2015 with a photo of himself, age 94, and other speakers. I was royally surprised when the editor of the publication, Suellen R. McDaniel, responded promptly and told me that Tweed was under her father’s command in World War II. Her father was Lt. Col. Edwin Rusteberg. She indicated that she had a photo of Tweed as a young soldier that she could use with the article.
The day I received her email showed me, again, that the world is small. I called Tweed and he remembered his commander: “Of course, I remember him. We were never person-to-person, saw him as head of a formation. We executed his orders. As soldiers in the field, we thought we were being pushed around and nobody cared whether we were shot up or captured. After Bastogne we were moved five times in two days, told to dig in on frozen ground with only small entrenching tools. Seems like we never got anything done. We soldiers had an expression for it, SNAFU. This means ‘Situation Normal, All F****** Up.’
“Once I did meet face to face with a General Smith. The 14th Armored Division sent some tanks to give us support. We had lost so many men to death and capture that they gathered the few remaining in a group called Company X, and I was sent by my company commander on a recon to meet with the support that was coming. They were about two miles away, and I had gone through a snow storm to get to them. When I got there, I was taken to a tent where General Smith was studying a map. He told me to identify the location of my company on his map. When I leaned over to do so, all the melting snow that was on my helmet landed on his map. He was not happy, and he used a few words to express his anger, words that were new to me.”
Editor McDaniel had a similar story to share that she learned about her father at a Rainbow reunion: “Another soldier in the battalion wrote that when he helped to deliver a truckload of badly needed ammunition to the command post ( a cellar in a house in Hatten, the town under siege by the Germans), he parked it outside the house to report in. He wrote, “When the Colonel came down off the ceiling, he roared ‘What are you trying to do, blow us all to hell? Get that truck moved NOW!’”
It was at Hatten where Tweed got his battlefield commission as a second lieutenant. He tells it this way. “I was a rifle squad commander, and I don’t know why Hatten, France, was considered important. There were no railheads there. Our orders were to protect the command post, to hold the town at all costs. We had no bazookas as ours had been sent out for modification. We heard tanks rambling out of the woods, Tiger tanks with 88 millimeter canons. Without a bazooka, we had no hope and as the Tiger tanks approached, we realized that my assistant squad leader had a grenade launcher on his M-1 rifle. If he could get a grenade in the soft underbelly of the Tiger as it crossed the railroad tracks, we might be all right. The first grenade bounced off and the second did the same. No detonations.
“We were behind a knee-high concrete barrier, and the Tigers were headed in our direction. The first tank opened fire on us with a machine gun on one side and a flame thrower on the other. I yelled to my squad, ‘We gotta get out of here – no point in being barbecued.’ We ran for a mile to the Second Battalion. They had bazookas, and as the Tigers approached, there was a perfect shot, under the turret of the first Tiger. The second Tiger turned around, but the white-caped German infantry (camouflage in the snow) marched toward us.
“We won that day, and they offered me a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant. If I took it, I’d get ten days off the line, a warm bed, good food. And I knew I’d get to live for 10 more days. I took it.”
Why do I record these stories, spend time writing for which I don’t get paid? From time to time I ask myself, “If not me, who?” And I know the answer.
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or [email protected]