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Howitzers and Can Openers

“Tell me again, Granddaddy. I want to hear about how those German guns missed you! Tell me just one more time.” Sam’s grandson smiled encouragingly.

Sam knew the ten-year-old Scott wouldn’t give up until the story was told once again. The boy was a persistent rascal!

The two sat on the bank of Page’s Lake in Spartanburg, South Carolina. After Sam cast his line, he carefully sat down in a lawn chair and held his cane pole. Scott would expectantly stand closer to the water for a while and then suddenly plop down beside his granddaddy. There was no pattern to their fishing ritual; it was all about lazy enjoyment.

The fish weren’t biting, but the two weren’t ready to leave yet. They both had pulled in a few carp but threw the scavengers back. It was a fine, spring Saturday, and they didn’t have an agenda.

Sam had stopped to buy a can of worms at A & B Aquarium on their way to the lake. The can was full of red wigglers, Scott relished the challenge of trying to pull just one worm out from the wiggling mass. Then he struggled to bait the hook; the worm always lost.

“I remember you got sea sick crossing the English Channel. You said all the men got sick because the waves were high and kept crashing into your boat.”

Scott’s blue eyes looked straight into his granddaddy’s blue eyes. The young boy searched for the adventure story, and the older man blinked at the horrific memories.

“What was that town’s name in France where you landed?” Scott questioned. “It’sbeen a long time since you told me the story, and I reckon I forgot.”

“The town was Rouen, Scott. We landed there on December 1, 1944. Our ship, full of men, vehicles, and equipment, crossed the English Channel, and we disembarked on December 2. We bivouaced…”

“Granddaddy! I don’t remember what bivouac means!”

The seventy-five year old patiently replied, “It’s like the camping you do with your Scout troop. You plan to stay only a night or two, so you don’t have much equipment. You say camping, soldiers say bivouac.”

“That’s right; we can’t carry much in those backpacks,” Scott nodded.

Scott’s grandfather smiled at the equipment his grandson packed. Sam had helped Scott pack for many of his Scout camping trips. In 1944 Sam’s pack was certainly not crowded with packages of beef jerky, hot dogs, ramen noodles, marshmallows, and peanuts.

Sam pictured many of his meals during World War II. The army C-rations werepacked in twelve-ounce cans; the meat and vegetable hash was the best. The potatoes and carrots were recognizable in those cans, but the soldiers didn’t want an ID on the meat. Beef jerky and peanuts were never included in their C-rations, but cigarettes were.

As Scott walked over to cast his line, Sam began reminiscing again. “We set up our general headquarters in a small building next to the main house on a large farm. The smell of the former inhabitants, cows and horses, permeated the space, but we were grateful to be out of the cold.”

“Your radio needed to be out of the weather, didn’t it, Granddaddy?’

“Yep, the small box that held my switchboard needed to be protected. I sent and received messages during my shift. As radio operator, I transmitted to the battery and division headquarters. Those messages kept us connected with one another at all times; we communicated through telephones and switchboards.”

Sam raised his voice a smidgen for emphasis. “You know, Scott, in wartime, knowing where your friends are is just as important as knowing where your enemy is.”

Scott’s granddaddy never missed an opportunity to share life lessons with him.

“Sometime earlier, the farm had been attacked; the fields and buildings were badly damaged. My unit was called the 334th Field Artillery Battalion. Our mission was tosupport the 345th Infantry. As we unloaded the trucks, we could hear the light and heavy artillery in the east. Do you remember the difference between light and heavy artillery, son?”

The boy grinned and turned to his granddaddy. “Yes, sir! Every time I visit the Citadel with you, you show me the howitzers at theend of the parade field. Those howitzers are light artillery, and you had bigger cannons in the war. Heavy artillery cannons could bust up and level a building. They were awesome!”

“That’s right, Scott. There were hills around that farm. All night long the booming of the cannons pounded our ears from those hills. Their howitzers and our howitzers were in a relentless drumming contest. Sometimes they sounded like thuds and sometimes like whams, I could recognize the sounds of our American cannons. Our howitzers sounded stronger to me.”

“Guess it was sorta hard to sleep that night, right Granddaddy?” interrupted the younger fisherman.

“It was almost impossible,” murmured his grandfather.

Sam laid his fishing pole down and opened the cooler beside his chair. It was too early for their picnic lunch, but it wasn’t too early for a pack of Nabs and a Coke. The Coke bottle was cold to his touch. He agreed with the slogan, “There is nothing like a coke.” Sam believed in the Coca-Cola product so much that he had purchased 100 shares of stock in that Atlanta-based company.

He reached for his tackle box to get out his bottle opener. Just the other day he had found three of his P-38 C-ration can openers. Sam was going to give one to Scott to take on his Scout trips. He opened the bottle and took a long swig.

“Scott, put down your fishing pole, and let’s take a break. Before I continue my story, I want to show you the army’s best invention.”

In seconds, the pole was lying on the ground. Scott reached for his Coke and crackers. Sam handed him one of the can openers.

“Is this a new opener, Granddaddy? I haven’t seen this before.”

“New to you, but old to me,” responded Sam. “I carried these during the war. Every soldier had at least one; some carried extras on their dog tags. It is a P-38 C-ration canopener. It won’t rust, break, and never needs sharpening. Besides being a can opener, it could be a knife or screwdriver. Sometimes I used it to clean my boots or fingernails.”

“That’s a strange name for a can opener,” remarked Scott

“Well, I heard two stories about its name. One was that it got its name because it took thirty-eight punctures to open a C-ration can. Sometimes I thought one of the puncture-counters didn’t pass third grade math. It took a few more punctures than thirty-eight when those cans were frozen.

When we were in the Ardennes forest, everything was frozen, even us. My feet got frostbitten; I couldn’t feel them when I walked. It was days before they started tinglingwith blood again. And that’s why I don’t like snow to this day!” Sam adamantly said.

“Granddaddy, I love sledding and snowball fights, but frostbite probably wasn’t fun at all.”

They both shook their heads at the same time.

“I also heard the can opener was named after our P-38 fighter planes. Besides being a good cold-weather plane, it was the fastest fighter plane in the American arsenal. Whichever story is true, these can openers are a symbol of my life during the war. Take this one on your Scout trips from now on; it will come in handy.”

“Thanks, Granddaddy. I’ll put it to good use.”

“Now, let me finish my story. Then we can get some more fishing in before lunch.

It was our first night in France, and I had been on duty taking and sending calls since midnight. My switchboard was set up about ten feet inside the building. It was early morning around daylight, and I was ready for breakfast and a break. Suddenly bombing started. I was in the Coast Artillery at the Citadel; I had trained on the large artillery and recognized their sounds. The Jerries had zeroed in on us right at breakfast time. Many soldiers were standing in line with their mess kits to get breakfast from the mess truck.”

The veteran stepped back from his vivid memories for a moment.

“In fact, Scott, your camping mess kit is almost exactly like the one I carried during the war.”

Looking across the lake at the horizon, Sam restlessly leaned forward in his chair. He could still hear the shrieks of the bombs and the screams of his friends. He swallowed hard.

“My training kicked in; I hit the floor! Before I covered my head, I saw dirt flying up in the air and men running for cover. Men fall where minutes earlier they were standing, drinking coffee, and talking. Several soldiers piled in around me, and others ran under trucks and toward the cellar for protection. The enemy had us! We were zeroed in the sights of their artillery at chowtime with no cover. In minutes, the barrage was over. Our howitzers began firing back; the firing wasn’t one-sided any more.

We all ran to help our buddies. A shell had fallen on a truck cab; it instantly killed the men inside. Medics grabbed stretchers and carried the wounded from the breakfast line to a makeshift clinic. Fires were put out. Order was restored to our camp, but lives had been lost. That was my first encounter with enemy fire.”

The memories brought Sam’s words to a standstill.

Scott reached over, grabbed his granddaddy’s hand, and squeezed it.

“I sure am glad you weren’t in that breakfast line, Granddaddy.”

With a broad smile, Sam turned to his grandson, “Me, too, son, me too!”

(Before my dad died, he told me about this first experience in WWII of being under fire. I wrote his memories as a short story and decided to share it. Our celebration of Veteran’s Day is soon, and I will miss calling Daddy to wish him a great day and thank him for his service.)

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