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World War II Veteran: Richard Henneman
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All I can remember about being in Europe was cold weather. I think that year, France and Germany and Belgium had one of the coldest winters they’ve ever had. I know the infantry guys had it really bad, being outside. We had a little bit of warmth in the tank from the transmission. We had insulated coveralls that we wore. Infantry guys were out in the open. They couldn’t even dig foxholes a lot of times because the ground was so hard. So they slept on top of the ground. We always appreciated the infantry. When they would ride the tanks, they were always extra eyes for us. We were buttoned up in the tank. We had very little peripheral vision. But the infantry guys would ride on the outside. If they would all of a sudden jump off the tank and start running, we knew we were going to be in for some trouble somewhere. And it was usually a German 88, the tiger tank. We weren’t looking for that. Their firepower was far superior to ours with the German 88’s. On our tank we had what was called an 87 mm gun. Near the end of the war, we got a new gun on some of the tanks. It was a 90 mm. It was fairly close to matching the 88. But the 88’s, I tell you, if they even missed the tanks, it sounded like the sound of a train going by. It was terrible.
Was your adrenaline so high during those times that you were just relieved every time you’d get missed or every time you’d make it through?
Yeah, you’d sit there thinking will the next one hit us? But you were trained for that. You knew what you had to do, and it was automatic.
Did you feel, when you were there, that you were part of a bigger effort? Did you feel camaraderie with the armed services in general, with the United States, or did you feel that you were just there with the infantrymen and these 5 guys?
You thought pretty much of the 5 guys you were with. You’re together, and you’re either going to go, or you’re going to make it together. Of course, one of the worst things for the driver - which I was, a tank driver – you’re sitting there not able to do anything. – Just wait for instructions to move or what to do. So, you kept thinking about if we’re going to get hit or not. You had to be alert all of the time. Because if all of a sudden you had to make a move to get out of there, you had to be ready.
So, you were alert 24-hours a day, really. Not a lot of sound sleep.
If you’re in a tank 24-hours a day… you feel safe when you’re in battle in a tank. I felt more safe than the guys on the outside. The infantry guys were under heavy gunfire. I was glad I was in the tank.
Were you injured while you were in the service?
The only injury I got was when I got out of a tank one day in a hurry and I slipped and fell and hit my .. right on the tip of my back. At that time, you slough it off. But later in the years, it started bothering me. I had what they call a pilonidal cyst. That’s what developed in my rear end. I was in the hospital and they removed that.
How long were you in the service?
I was in the service just under three years.
And what did you have waiting for you at home?
Well, my Mom and Dad were at home. I had a chance when I was at Ft. Sill Oklahoma, I played a lot of baseball, and I had a chance to go with the St. Louis Cardinals. I had a St. Louis Cardinals scout following me around down in the southern part of Oklahoma. I was hoping that I could get discharged and go into baseball. When I did get discharged in 1946, I came home and I met my wife. I wasn’t married at that time. I got married and I let baseball go; I forgot it. I played around locally here a little bit, but I didn’t try to go further. I was 24 at that time. And I always felt if you’re going to make it in baseball, you’ve got to do it at a younger age.
So are you a Cardinals fan now?
Well, unfortunately no; I’m a Cub fan. I’ve been with the losers for a long time.
Tell me what it was like coming home, after having this experience, and close relationships with people. What was it like to be scattered, and to then come back and be expected to live a “normal” life?
Of course, you felt good. The main thing when you got back was I want to get discharged. I want to be out of the army. I want to quit taking orders and being ordered around. I thought I’ll get back into my trade. I was a tool and dye maker. With the years that I had lost …. I kind of fell back into civilian life fairly good. I just forgot the bad memories.
What about those 4 guys? Did you ever talk with them?
For a few years, I did correspond with some of them. The one I corresponded with most, I was closest to, was a big Pollock named Stanley Frankowitz. He lived in Duluth, Minnesota. We used to go through Duluth when we went up north fishing in Canada. So we’d get together periodically, and have a few drinks together.
Would you reminisce?
We’d reminisce about certain soldiers; mostly about our buddies in the tank. What’s he doin’ now, ya think and how’d he getting along?
When your family asks you to tell a story, is there one that pops into your mind? Is there one that you like to tell that’s your best memory or most potent memory – something you are wiling to talk about?
One of the things that I talk about .. when I was out of the tank, we had a German artillery barrage come in. Everybody started finding a place to hide, and I got under the tank which I hardly ever did. I was under the tank and unfortunately, the tank was settling down. When it was over I couldn’t get out. So, I got claustrophobia bad. And I still have it. The guys pulled me out. It was fortunate that they could get me out of there. I thought I was a gonner.
What rank did you achieve when your service ended?
Well, I was what they call a T-5 or technical sergeant. All drivers had that rank. We always hoped we’d get another rating. My next rating would probably have been a sergeant.
Is there anything else I’ve missed? I know it’s hard to sum up your story in 20 minutes.
Well, one of the things that was a highlight of my service was near the end of the war. It was around the first of May. We liberated a P.O.W. camp down in Mossberg, in Bavaria. This was a large P.O.W. camp; there probably were 75,000 in there. Americans, English, the biggest part of it was French. When we drove through the gates of that P.O.W. camp, they just came flooding out. They grabbed us and hugged us and they hollered. Of course, they were so hungry. They were like skeletons, most of them, the clothes hanging on them. They wanted food. Being out in front, we didn’t have food, other than K rations or sea rations. We gave them everything that we had. And some of these guys were so hungry. We had a can of Spam in the K rations. They tore the lid off and started eating it with their bare fingers. I never saw people so hungry in my life. We were real happy that we could do that for them. Most of them had been in there three and four years so they were in pretty bad shape.
I’ll bet they have some memories of you guys too, that they tell about when you came through the gates.
Yeah, I got a lot of hugs and kisses. It was a wonderful thing for us to go through.
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