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Archive for the ‘Oral History Spotlight’ Category

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Bataan Death March Survivor Lester Tenney Dies at Age 96

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Lester Tenney during World War II.

Lester Tenney during World War II.

Lester Tenney, a survivor of the Bataan Death March whose harrowing oral-history account of his ordeal as a WWII prisoner of war is an unforgettable component of The National WWII Museum’s Digital Collections, died Friday, February 24, in Carlsbad, California. He was 96.

Tenney’s postwar life was dedicated to education—both as a university business professor and as a staunch advocate for his fellow POWs in the quest for official acknowledgment by Japan of the wartime atrocities they endured. He was a regular speaker at the Museum, most recently capping the 2016 International Conference on World War II with a stirring presentation titled “The Courage to Remember: PTSD—From Trauma to Triumph.”

“He gave the speech of his life,” said Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, PhD, the Museum’s president and CEO, in a message to his staff following news of Tenney’s death. “Lester’s DNA resides in this Museum.”

Tenney was tank commander with the 192nd Tank Battalion when he, along with 9,000 American and 60,000 Filipino troops, surrendered to the Japanese at the Battle of Bataan in April 1942. The ensuing Bataan Death March killed thousands during a 90-mile forced march to POW Camp O’Donnell.

“Number one, we had no food or water,” said Tenney in his Museum oral history. “Number two, you just kept walking the best way you could. It wasn’t a march. It was a trudge. . . . Most of the men were sick, they had dysentery, they had malaria, they had a gunshot wound.”

Their Japanese captors showed no mercy for the ill or wounded, Tenney said. “A man would fall down and they would holler at him to get up,” he added. “I saw a case where they didn’t even holler at him. The man fell down, the Japanese took a bayonet and put it in him. I mean, two seconds.”

Tenney’s march lasted 10 days. Conditions at Camp O’Donnell killed thousands more prisoners. Tenney survived that camp and others, passage to Japan in a “hell ship,” torture, and three years of forced labor in a coal mine before he was liberated at the end of the war. His WWII experiences, which he documented in a memoir titled My Hitch in Hell, haunted him all of his life.

“I feel guilty many times, even today,” Tenney said in his oral history. “I feel guilty that I’m back. I feel guilty that I’m living such a wonderful life. I feel guilty that a lot of my friends didn’t come back. Nothing I can do about it, but I can feel guilty because I feel that they were better than I was. I’m sure that my buddies who came back all feel the same.”

After the publication of his memoir in 1995, Tenney “shifted into a role as a prominent thorn-in-the-side of Japanese authorities unwilling or unable to acknowledge what had happened during the war,” said his obituary in The San Diego Union-Tribune. “Stories he shared with reporters, civic leaders, schoolchildren in the United States and Japan,” along with his published memoir, “eventually wrung apologies from government leaders and from one of the corporate giants that benefited from POW slavery.”

Tenney is survived by his wife of nearly 57 years, Betty, a son, two stepsons, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Our deepest condolences go out to his family, friends, and fellow WWII veterans. Our gratitude for Lester Tenney’s service and sacrifice—and for his decades of dedication to ensuring that his wartime experiences and those of his fellow POWs would not be forgotten—lives on.

Lester Tenney's oral history is part of The National WWII Museum's Digital Collections.

Lester Tenney’s oral history is part of The National WWII Museum’s Digital Collections.

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Farewell to Dr. Harold “Hal” Baumgarten, D-Day Survivor and Friend of The National WWII Museum

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Private Harold “Hal” Baumgarten, Company B, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. Part of the first waves of the assault force, Baumgarten endured murderous enemy fire, was wounded five times in just 32 hours of fighting, and had to be evacuated by hospital ship.

The Museum’s Digital Collections contain a minute-by-minute personal account of his harrowing D-Day experience. Watch the oral history here—https://goo.gl/Yo8jaF—and join us in a heartfelt final salute to an American hero, retired physician, and dear friend of The National WWII Museum. Dr. Baumgarten died December 25, 2016, at age 91.

One of the Museum’s earliest and most enthusiastic supporters, Dr. Baumgarten was a featured speaker in The National D-Day Museum’s 2000 grand opening ceremonies. The wristwatch he wore ashore at Omaha, given to him by his father, has been on display at the Museum ever since.  In 2015 he received the Silver Service Medallion, awarded to veterans and those with a direct connection to World War II who have served our country with distinction, at the Museum’s Victory Ball. He was a frequent speaker at Museum events, including the International Conference on World War II, and returned to “Bloody Omaha” several times with Museum tours of the Normandy beaches.

Of the 30 men on Dr. Baumgarten’s landing craft on D-Day, 28 did not survive the invasion, a chilling fact cited by Museum president and CEO Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, PhD, in remarks after receiving the French Medal of Honor in May 2016.

“Many years later, Harold would make a point of reciting the full name and hometown of fellow soldiers who didn’t come home,” Mueller said. “‘I want them never to be forgotten,’ he would say.”

According to Dr. Baumgarten’s obituary at Legacy.com, his WWII service—for which he received a Purple Heart and two bronze stars, among other honors—inspired him to devote his life to “paying back,” first by becoming a teacher, then a doctor.

His vow to honor the memories of the men who fell around him on D-Day was evident in scores of interviews, his own writing, countless speaking engagements around the world, and his dedication to the Museum.

Dr. Baumgarten credited Museum cofounder Stephen E. Ambrose with encouraging him to write and speak about his war experiences, and it was through the Ambrose connection that Dr. Baumgarten’s journey onto and across Omaha Beach reached its widest audience: at the D-Day Museum’s June 6, 2000 opening, Saving Private Ryan director Steven Spielberg told Dr. Baumgarten that the film’s unforgettable beach combat scenes were drawn from the recorded interviews Ambrose had done with the veteran.

“He is the real thing,” said Saving Private Ryan star Tom Hanks at the Museum’s opening.

We send our condolences to Dr. Baumgarten’s wife, Rita, who frequently accompanied him at Museum events and on tours, as well as all of his family and many friends.





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Beaches and Battleships: A V-J Day Guest Blog

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Image Courtesy of Harry S. Truman Presidential Library

Image courtesy of Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, “Photo Number 98-2437,” Photographer Unknown.

To commemorate Victory Over Japan Day 2016, Jay Mehta of Overland Park, Kansas, a 10th  grader at the Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, Missouri, composed this guest blog detailing his experiences after traveling to The National WWII Museum in December 2015 and hearing the oral history of Lieutenant Commander James Starnes, who was officer of the deck aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, when the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed to officially bring WWII to a close. Jay later continued on his journey, traveling with family to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to visit “The Mighty Mo” herself.

“Beaches and Battleships,” by Jay Mehta

History shapes our lives. This saying often refers to the decisions and battles of times past that are still affecting the world today. However, over the course of the past year I have come to understand another facet of this saying: that understanding history not only informs our decisions, but also inspires us to experience new things.

Last summer, at the National History Day competition in College Park, Maryland, I was one of 51 students (representing the 50 states and the District of Columbia) to receive the Salute to Courage Award from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. In December, we each represented our state at the opening of the Museum’s new Richard C. Adkerson & Freeport McMoRan Foundation Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries. As a part of the award, each of us was privileged to study the life of one veteran or servicemember from our home state. When I received the name James Starnes and began watching his oral history, I was immediately befuddled. I represented the state of Missouri. James Starnes was born and raised in Decatur, Georgia. It was not until the end of his fascinating chronicle that I understood why a student from Missouri had been chosen to study him: James Starnes was the officer of the deck and navigator of the USS Missouri, the ship on which the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allied forces, thereby ending World War II.

The research drew me in rapidly. I began to watch footage of the historic event to try to spot a young Starnes or some aspect of the scene he described in his oral history. I also emailed the archivist at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, to see if the museum had any artifacts relating to the surrender, which happened during Missouri native Harry S. Truman’s presidency. Most interesting, however, were the facts I uncovered about the USS Missouri itself.

I began to wonder why the USS Missouri had been chosen for the surrender. This was soon answered when I discovered that it was Margaret Truman—the daughter of the then junior senator from Missouri—who had actually christened the battleship by smashing the ceremonial bottle of bubbly on its hull. According to Starnes, on that day Truman promised his daughter that “the ‘Mighty Mo’ will steam into Tokyo Harbor someday, with guns a-blazing, and the war will be over.” It made perfect sense, then, that four years later, when he was president and was choosing a location to mark the end of one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, he chose the ship named for his home state and christened by his only child.

I also began to listen to Mr. Starnes’s words more carefully. He mentioned that as officer of the deck his duty was to give the Japanese delegation the official permission to board the ship. He spoke of positioning eight men, each over six feet tall, at the Japanese entry point to project an aura of dominance.

He spoke of the infamous wartime incident aboard the Missouri when a young Japanese kamikaze pilot, en route to collide with the ship, was shot down. His plane left a dent on the side of the ship, but there were no American casualties. However, recognizing their shared roles as pawns in a larger, international game, the crew of the USS Missouri decided to honor the pilot with a navy funeral. Realizing they had no Japanese flags on hand, the crew stayed up all night sewing a red sun.

I read about how General Douglas MacArthur dropped a pen nib cover during the Instrument of Surrender signing ceremony—which took place on what would from that day forward be known as the Surrender Deck—but  was not willing to bend down and pick it up, as it would seem like bowing to the enemy.

These stories filled my mind while writing my oral-history project. After it was submitted, and only a week before the Road to Tokyo grand opening, I received an email from the Museum that I had been selected as the student speaker for the VIP gala the night before the grand opening. Writing that speech in the next few days allowed me a chance to reflect on what I had learned throughout the process. However, what best gave me a sense of the importance of studying and exploring history was the experience of actually delivering the speech in front of more than 600 people. I was floored to see the knowing looks on the faces of veterans throughout the audience as I spoke naively of battleships and campaigns. I was warmed to see their smiles as I read a poem that was included in the oral history I had researched. I was especially surprised when, after leaving the stage and heaving a sigh of relief, I ran into a gentleman who turned out to be the chief historian at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (a National Park at Pearl Harbor). The next morning, I carried the Missouri state flag into the grand opening along with my fellow students with a new sense of its historical weight. On the flight home, I discussed with my mother how incredible it would be to actually see the USS Missouri at its resting place in Pearl Harbor someday. My experience at the Museum was over, but my journey aboard the USS Missouri had only just begun.

Fast-forward a month or two. My family was planning a spring break trip to Maui, Hawaii, and my parents told me we were planning a day trip to Pearl Harbor to see the USS Missouri and the USS Arizona. I was ecstatic. On top of being a WWII nerd, I could not wait to stand aboard the ship I had spent months researching. Finally, March arrived, and my family and I flew west toward beaches and battleships.

When we arrived at the Missouri, I was immediately struck by its size and majesty. Even by today’s standards, the Iowa-class battleship—the last of its kind—is considered a leviathan. I began to recognize many historical odds and ends I had encountered in my research. After a guided tour, I began to explore on my own. I went to the navigation room in the high decks of the ship and sat in what would have been James Starnes’s seat. I found the Japanese entry point where the tall men had stood (marked by two poles which stand closer together than the rest). I saw the dent made by the kamikaze pilot (which, after countless paint jobs and modernizations, still has not been removed). I even saw the place where General MacArthur signed the Instrument of Surrender and where the pen nib cover was later found. However, the most incredible moment aboard the Missouri for me was standing on the highest deck open for tourists, where one can see the USS Arizona Memorial, which I would visit in the coming hours. The green outline of the sunken Arizona can be seen directly off the bow of the Missouri. Some nearby guide was telling a tourist that the ships, one above and one below water, were positioned in this way so that the Missouri could watch over the fallen servicemembers still on board the USS Arizona.

This visual summed up my entire experience learning about the war in the Pacific. In one body of water off the coast of Hawaii, in one day, a person can visit a ship that witnessed the beginning of World War II in the Pacific theater and the ship that witnessed its end. To have stood atop both of those ships and to have captured a glimpse of war and its consequences continues to inform my decisions today. My oral-history project and my trip to The National WWII Museum served as the impetus for visiting Pearl Harbor. However, my experience at Pearl Harbor was also, in turn, deeply enriched by my oral-history project and my trip to the Museum.

When I left Pearl Harbor, I remember scribbling down a note to myself. While writing this blog entry, I found it and pulled it out. To me, it sums up how I felt immediately after leaving the park and what thoughts were rushing through my mind about the war in the Pacific. The note reads as follows: “The fire of World War II was ignited by blood and smothered by a signature.”

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A POW V-E Day Memory

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On May 8, 1945, World War II ended in Europe and this year, 2015, marks the 70th anniversary of V-E [Victory in Europe] Day. While jubilant celebrations took place throughout the world, others lived this moment in a more quiet and reflective way.

Yesterday we received an email from a WWII vet, blogger and former POW, James Baynham, in which he shared his own personal V-E Day experience.

Jim Baynham

Jim Baynham

James C. Baynham served in the USAAF as a B-24 pilot in the 445th Bombardment Group (H) in the European Theater of Operations. Baynham flew 11 missions before being shot down on September 27, 1944 during the raid on Kassel, Germany when hundreds of German Fw190 and Me109 fighters attacked his squadron. He was captured and spent seven months in Stalag Luft I.

Jim Baynham with his B-24 Crew.  Jim is in the second row, second from the right.

Jim Baynham with his B-24 Crew. Jim is in the second row, second from the right.

The months between January and May 1945 were some of the harshest for American POWs in Europe. The severe weather, overcrowding, forced marches, and mistreatment by captors who were on the brink of defeat all took a physical and mental toll on the POW population. In Europe during WWII, 1, 121 American prisoners of war died while captive, most in the waning months of the war. By 20 May 1945, all surviving American POWs were back in US hands, some held weeks after war’s end by Soviet forces.

Baynham recollected on his whereabouts seventy years ago:

Tomorrow will be V-E day. And those days seventy years ago are surprisingly fresh in my mind. I was three weeks shy of having my 21st birthday and woke up the morning of the seventh in a soft feather bed in Wismar, Germany. It was a town that British troops had taken, and I had arrived the day before after trekking through about 60 kilometers of Russian controlled territory.  Pat Murphy, a fellow POW and I had left Stalag Luft One and made our way to Wismar on our own. We weren’t sure how we were going to get home but we figured if we kept going West we would find American troops and now, lying  in luxury, out of the dangerous land of Russian convoys and safely in Allied territory, we were really and truly safe and for sure would see those beautiful G.I.s later that day. About a quarter million German troops had come to this town also, fleeing capture, and certain death by the Russians. They probably felt as relieved as Pat and me, but they were camped in fields all around the town while we were snug in bed. In a few weeks we would be home, but right then, seventy years ago this morning, we were good!

More of Baynham’s story can be heard in his full oral history interview on our Digital Collections site. To read more about POWs in Europe, see Guests of the Third Reich: American POWs in Europe. Jim  was one of our “Guests of the Third Reich Special Guests,” who visited the Museum during the exhibit’s run.

Post by Chrissy Gregg Baynham and Kimberly Guise and Special Guest Jim Baynham.

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Remembering the Malmedy Massacre

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Victims of the Malmedy Massacre taken on 14 January 1945. National Archives Image from the Collection of The National WWII Museum.

Seventy years ago, in the days of January 13th and 14th American troops began to uncover this gruesome scene in the snow in Belgium. The murder had occurred weeks earlier; murder, because the American victims had already surrendered to the Germans and were thus afforded the rights of POWs under the Geneva Conventions. Instead of being held captive and transported to a POW camp, on  December 17th, 1944, outside of Malmedy, Belgium, 84 American POWs were murdered by their German captors, part of the 1st SS Panzer Division. The war crime now known as the “Malmedy Massacre” was part of a series of such killings in which 362 American POWs (and over 100 Belgian civilians) perished.

73 men were tried for these crimes in the War Crimes Trials held at Dachau in 1946, in which 1,672 German war criminals were charged. Of these 73, 42 received death sentences, 21 life imprisonment and the rest, long sentences. All of these sentences were eventually commuted and by 1956, all had been released from prison.

See an interview with Ted Paluch, survivor of the massacre on our Digital Collections site, recorded in October 2009 by the Museum’s Manager of Research Services Seth Paridon. And read more about Paluch in this Oral History Spotlight, previously featured on our blog. See also the entry on this tragedy in our digital exhibit on POWs in Europe, Guests of the Third Reich.

Post by Curator Kimberly Guise.

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Unbroken: Louis Zamperini

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Louis Zamperini at The National WWII Museum in 2011

Louis Zamperini at The National WWII Museum in 2011

This week marks the release of Angelina Jolie’s film about Louis Zamperini based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 bestseller, Unbroken. Mr. Zamperini shared his emotional story with the Museum in the form of an oral history in 2011. It can be viewed in our Digital Collection.

Zamperini, an Olympic track runner, served as a bombardier in the 307th Bombardment Group, 7th Air Force, flying B-24 Liberators in the Pacific.  Zamperini’s aircraft went down in the Pacific and he and the two other survivors from his crew were adrift for 47 days.  Captured and tortured by the Japanese, he survived the war, regaining freedom on August 20, 1945. Zamperini was one of the 34,648 Americans held prisoner by the Japanese during WWII. Nearly 40% of those men died in captivity, a staggering 12,935 lives lost.

Read more about the Museum’s collection Pacific Theater POW artifacts and the story of the Ofuna Roster. Visit the Museum on Wednesday, January 21, 2015 for a Lunchbox Lecture on the Ofuna Roster and the ties to Unbroken and Zamperini’s story.

 Post by Curator Kimberly Guise.

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Voices from the Battlefield: Teaching with Japanese American Veterans’ Oral Histories

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Jimmy Kanaya in his Army uniform, 1940s. Courtesy of

Jimmy Kanaya in his Army uniform. Courtesy of Jimmie Kanaya. June 1945, Ft. Sam Houston, Texas.

The Museum’s new special exhibit, From Barbed Wire to Battlefields: Japanese American Experiences in WWII, explores two important aspects of Japanese American life during the war: life within the internment or incarceration camps on the American Home Front, and the heroic contributions of Japanese American soldiers on European battlefields and in the Pacific Theater. There are ways to bring this content into the classroom, even if teachers and schools cannot visit the exhibit in person at the Museum. Some of the artifacts and stories in the physical exhibit have been digitized and are accessible through the From Barbed Wire to Battlefields exhibit website at http://barbedwiretobattlefields.org.

A great way to supplement or  enhance your school’s or state’s WWII curriculum is through the use of oral histories. Oral histories, such as those contained within the Voices from the Battlefield: Japanese Americans in Service section, are a compelling way to make history come alive for students. Not only do most people tend to connect with and remember personal stories, but oral histories help to make larger, more abstract topics like the policy of Japanese American internment more accessible to learners of all ages. A case in point is the personal story of Jimmie Kanaya, who served as a medic for the all Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team before he was captured and placed in German POW camps. Kanaya’s individual experiences, and those of his family, illustrate the emotional challenges and dilemmas that many people of Japanese descent faced in the United States after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Kanaya, who was already in the Army when the Pearl Harbor attack took place, vividly recounted his experience of going on military leave to visit his family who were temporarily living in horse stalls at the Portland Stockyards Assembly Center in Oregon. Despite the fact that he was an enlisted soldier, the Military Police on duty at the Assembly Center would not let Kanaya back inside the facility to say goodbye to his parents or to help them move to the internment camp. Like other American soldiers of Japanese heritage during WWII, Kanaya felt the tension inherent in the complex choice to fight on behalf of the same country that had interned one’s family and neighbors, and the desire to serve in the military to prove one’s loyalty as an American citizen.

Interviews with other members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team like Daniel Inouye and George Sakato, and Japanese language translators who were in the Military Intelligence Service also reveal a variety of motivations behind volunteering to fight for America. Despite discriminatory treatment in the military and at home, many veterans shared Norman Ikari’s conviction that the United States was, at its core, still a country that believed “in such basic human principles [as] liberty, equal treatment [and] tolerance to the people that live here.” Over twenty Japanese American soldiers, including Inouye and Sakato, eventually received the Medal of Honor in 2000, over 55 years after their courageous actions and leadership during WWII. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team gained national fame and respect for their bravery, becoming the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in U.S. military history.

Learn more about the courageous actions of WWII Japanese American veterans by visiting the Voices from the Battlefields section on the From Barbed Wire to Battlefields: Japanese American Experiences in WWII exhibit site. To hear the Museum’s complete oral history interviews with Jimmie Kanaya, George Sakato  and Daniel Inouye, please visit The Digital Collections of The National WWII Museum website.

Post by Megan Byrnes, K-12 Curriculum Coordinator



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Dispatch from the Ardennes

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Memorial to the 394th regimental I&R Platoon of the 99th Division at Lanzerath, Belgium. On 16 December, 1944, these GIs held up the lead elements of Kampfgruppe Peiper for nearly a day, inflicting hundreds of German casualties, and delaying the German spearhead of the Ardennes offensive.

Museum Curator, Larry Decuers, sent us this photo from Lanzerath, where he is escorting the Museum’s Battle of the Bulge: Hitler’s Last Gamble – France, Belgium & Luxembourg Tour.

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Oral History: The I&R Platoon of the 99th Infantry Division at the Battle of the Bulge

The 99th Infantry Division’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon, also known as the I&R Platoon tell the story of how the 18 lightly armed men held off the spearhead of Kampfgruppe Peiper for over 8 hours at Lanzerath, Belgium during the opening stages of the Battle of the Bulge – the ultimate David versus Goliath story of World War II.

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Oral History Spotlight – Ted Paluch, Malmedy Massacre Survivor

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Ted Paluch, 1943

Theodore “Ted” Paluch was born and raised in the “City of Brotherly Love” Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a small family.  Ted followed the war in Europe closely and thought that the United States might eventually get involved.  “We used to gather round the radio or read the extras from the paper to follow the war.  We knew what was going on.” Paluch recalls.   Ted was playing pinball on Sunday December 7, 1941 when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor from a friend.  Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor Ted Paluch decided that he should join the United States Marine Corps.  “I went downtown to join the Marines and they turned me down!  I didn’t want to join the Navy so I decided that I would wait until they drafted me.”  Ted didn’t have too long to wait, in January 1943 he received his draft notice and was inducted into the US Army.  Paluch said, “When I was inducted into the Army I was excited.  When you’re young you figure that you will do all the shooting…well it turned out a little different.”

“We had maneuvers in Louisiana and on our first maneuver my unit; Battery B 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion was captured.  That was a bad omen.  After that I figured that I might be captured if and when I ever went overseas.  I really don’t know why I thought that, but I had a bad feeling.”  Ted and the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion shipped overseas to Europe in August 1944.  “My first taste of war was when one of the German U-boats sunk one of the ships in our convoy.  They hit a tanker and it was ablaze.  That’s when I realized that I was really at war.”

Paluch’s battalion first saw action in the Hurtgen Forest just prior to the Battle of the Bulge.  As Ted explains it, “We were in the Hurtgen for a while, that was a bitch I’ll tell you.  The damn trees would explode from the German artillery, and in just a matter of days it seemed that every tree within sight was stripped bare of all limbs.  It was a bloodbath in there.”  As bad as the Hurtgen was for Paluch, the worst was yet to come.

On December 16, 1944, the German Wehrmacht unleashed Operation WACHT AM RHEIN and attacked the US Army through a small, dark, dense forest that stretches between Belgium and Luxembourg known as the Ardennes.  The surprise German Offensive, which is popularly called “The Battle of the Bulge”, rapidly gained ground and by the end of the day on the 16th many US units were in full retreat.

Shortly after being pulled out of the Hurtgen Forest and before the German attack Paluch and the 285th were sent to Schevenhutte, Germany to garrison the town.  On December 16 the unit was given orders to proceed from the Seventh Corps to St. Vith and join the Eighth Corps.  “We left Schevenhutte early in the morning on the 17th of December and were heading in the direction of Malmedy.  I remember that it was wet, foggy, and damn cold. It wasn’t snowing yet, but I remember it being very cold.”   The column of vehicles that encompassed Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion was a column of about 30 vehicles and roughly 140 men.  As Paluch’s column neared Malmedy it went down a road and through the small crossroads town of Baugnez, Belgium.  As the column went through the crossroads it came under fire from several German vehicles and tanks approaching from another road. These German vehicles were the lead elements of Kampfgruppe Peiper, the spearhead of the German attack in the Northern Ardennes.  Paluch recalls, “The lead vehicles in our convoy were fired on.  The lead vehicles were way ahead of us and the Germans were still a good bit away from them, so when they were fired on the lead vehicles had a chance to run and get out of there, which they did.”

As the lead vehicles sped away and out of harm’s way the after part of the column came under fire from the rapidly approaching SS tanks.  “I saw them coming and our column stopped.  I jumped out of the truck and into a ditch full of icy cold water.  All I could hear was firing.  I popped my head up to see and all I could see was tracers, I never saw so many tracers in my life.  I pulled my head back down as a tank rolled around the corner and came towards us.  I could see that the men in the tank and the troops with them were SS troopers.  They had the lightning bolts on their collars.  All we had was carbines and here was this tank coming down the road right at us.  As it got close to us it leveled its gun at the ditch and the tank commander told us to surrender.  What were we going to do?  I threw my carbine down and threw my hands up.”

Immediately after surrendering Paluch was taken captive by two SS troopers who thoroughly searched him and sent him down the road with some other members of his column to the crossroads and into a field.  While there the SS troopers searched them again and took anything that they could use from the prisoners.  Ted says of his captors, “I had socks, gloves, and cigarettes, anything of value they took.  The guys that captured us were young, they seemed like ok guys.  They didn’t mishandle us or rough us up, they simply took us prisoner, searched us and then moved on.  They were combat troops and didn’t have time to mess with us POWs.  The guys that captured us and the tanks that were with them stayed around for about ten minutes and then disappeared.  We were standing there in the field with our hands up not knowing what was coming.  I could hear guys praying, maybe I was too…you know…you could hear it, all you could think of was getting away.”

As the initial SS troops pressed forward the rear echelon infantry came into view and began to pass the large group of American prisoners standing in the open field at the crossroads of Baugnez.  “One of the vehicles came around the corner and started firing into our group. I don’t know who the hell it was, or why they started firing but they did.  We were standing there with our hands up and I was in the front of the group nearest the crossroads.  As the German tanks passed they fired into the middle of the group of us, everybody started to drop and I dropped too.  I got hit in the hand as I went down.  After that as each vehicle passed they fired into the group of us laying there dead or dying in the field.  Anyone that was moaning they came around and finished them off.  After that they went back and took off.  After laying there for I guess an hour or more I heard a voice I recognized yell, ‘Let’s go!’, so I got up and ran down a little road towards a hedgerow.  The Germans came out of the house on the corner and took a shot at me and I dove into a hedgerow.  I had some blood on me and I lay down in the hedgerow.  I heard one of them come running towards where I was laying and look me over, I could feel that guy standing above me, he could have shot me in the back and gotten it over with, but he didn’t.  I knew he was waiting for me to move but I just laid there…dead still.”

Paluch lay in the hedgerow for a short while, stuck his head up and saw no one, rolled down the hedgerow and crawled along a railroad line that happened to take him to Malmedy.  Ted continues, “Along the way I met a couple of other guys from my unit who had survived.  We all came into Malmedy that night together.”  While in Malmedy, Paluch’s wound was tended to, he was interrogated by Intelligence and within two weeks he was back with the remnants of the 285th back in action in the Ardennes.

The aftermath of the infamous Malmedy Massacre.

“I never tried to think about the Massacre too much after the war.  I tried to put it behind me, but it never really has been behind me, it’s hard to forget.  I don’t know if we would have done that, but I don’t really hold any animosity towards them, I wish it didn’t happen but it did.  A soldier gets orders just like we do and you carry them out.  It’s a hell of a thing, but its war.”  When asked if the memories of the Massacre affect him today, Ted’s eyes grew misty and his chin began to quiver as he said, “I lost a lot of good friends that day, I knew almost every one of those guys who were killed that day.  I’m lucky…all my friends…all those young guys, they were all my age, with their whole life ahead of them.  It never should have happened, and I hope no one ever forgets that it did.”

Ted Paluch (center) and fellow survivors of the Malmedy Massacre, 1945

Word of the massacre spread rapidly through American lines and helped to strengthen the American resolve to stop the German Offensive dead in its tracks.  The Battle of the Bulge officially ended on January 25, 1945 when American forces pushed the Germans back to their original pre-December 16 lines.  More than 1,000,000 American servicemen fought in the Battle of the Bulge making it the single largest battle ever fought by American troops.  More than 83,000 Americans were casualties of the fighting.  The victims of the Malmedy Massacre lay undiscovered and frozen until January 14, 1945, when American troops recaptured the area from the Germans.   After the war, Jochen Peiper and many of his men were tried for war crimes as a result of the Malmedy Massacre.  The trial prosecuted more than 70 persons. Of those 70, there were 43 death sentences issued (although none were carried out) and 30 lesser sentences.

Ted Paluch was interviewed at his home in Philadelphia by Manager of Research Services Seth Paridon on October 20, 2009.

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Oral History Spotlight – Dominic Martello, 39th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division

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Dominic Martello was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, went to high school at Jesuit High School and upon graduation joined the New Orleans Fire Department.  Martello never gave the Army much thought, as he says, “The average fella never thought he would be in a war until the draft came.” Drafted by the Army before Pearl Harbor, Dominic was assigned to the 39th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division. Shortly after joining the 9th, he was shipped overseas for the initial landings in North Africa as part of Operation Torch.

The green US troops that landed between Algiers and Oran in November of 1942 had no idea what they were about to get into. The training that they had been given in the United States was not sufficient as Dominic recalls, “We needed all the training we could get.  We were fighting professional soldiers and we were mostly civilians. These guys had been fighting in the desert for years. We were going to catch hell.”

Dominic was the driver for a halftrack that had 75mm howitzers mounted inside the vehicle to act as mobile artillery.  Not long after landing in North Africa, Martello’s halftrack took a direct hit from a German 88mm artillery round, rendering it useless. With the loss of his vehicle, Martello fell in with the rest of the “dogfaces” of the 39th Infantry Regiment. As the North African campaign wore on, Martello’s unit slowly whittled down to a group of men that scarcely resembled their original state upon landing in November. By February at the Kasserine Pass, the heaviest weapon that his unit possessed was his Browning Automatic Rifle (B.A.R.).

Put at the edge of the Kasserine Pass in an effort to disrupt any German infantry attempting to infiltrate American lines, Martello and the rest of his unit were pounded by German artillery. As he puts it, “Those 88s were pretty close; you could hear them go by.” After the cessation of the artillery barrage, the German infantry attacked with a force that Dominic felt he could deal with, but the tanks that supported the German infantry were something that Dominic’s unit could not stop by any means. Martello recounts, “When you have a .30 caliber rifle and a tank is coming at you…you will not survive.  The rifleman has no chance against an armored vehicle. When I saw those tanks coming…it’s a hard pill to swallow. How are you going to fight against a tank with a B.A.R.?  There’s no way.”

The tanks and most of the infantry cut off Martello’s group. Constant machine gun fire kept the GIs pinned down. “I was in a cactus bush when they were shooting at me. That was the only place I could go.  I figured I had better jump in there because I could get those cactus needles out of my behind a lot easier than that lead that they were shooting at me.”

That night Dominic’s group pulled out of their positions and attempted to escape the encirclement that had cut them off from their own lines earlier that day. The small band of GIs marched down a desert road and followed a German unit towardwhat they assumed were the American lines. Martello remembers, “It was so dark the Germans couldn’t tell if we were Americans or some of their guys.” The next morning, out of ammunition and more importantly, water, the small band of men were betrayed by native Arabs and captured by a German tank unit. The German officer in charge of the tank unit gave instructions to his men to shoot Martello and his comrades. However, the Germans refused.  Dominic says of the incident, “I thought I was going to die right then.”

Dominic was captured at the Kasserine Pass in 1943 and spent 27 months in a German Prisoner of War Camp. When he was captured he weighed 200 pounds, but when he was liberated by US troops later in the war, he weighed a mere 87 pounds. Martello remembers, “We were so malnourished we couldn’t even walk.”

The war ended in 1945 but even now, the war still rages for Dominic Martello.  “I’m back there, that’s my problem.  Post Traumatic Stress, I was just back there.  I can be driving my car and BAM…I’m there.  I can be eating supper and BAM…I’m there…24 hours a day, seven days a week…all my life.  I’m controlled by memories…I don’t want to be but I am.”

Dominic Martello was interviewed by Museum Historian Thomas Lofton in Martello’s home in Metairie, LA on August 28, 2008.

Find out more about Kasserine Pass on The National WWII Museum website.

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