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12 JULY 2009 | Birmingham,AL
In 1941, Tommy Alfano was a 16 year old junior on the varsity football and baseball teams at Ensley High School in Birmingham, Alabama. School was out for the summer and the most serious thought on his mind was how to get out of working in his father's grocery store and play ball with the guys at Wylam Park. He was excited to find out that a scout from a minor league professional team had been checking him out. But an event occurred that changed his life.
On December, 7,1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt declared war against the Japanese, subsequently Japans allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States. I was playing football with some of my friends (Stanley Tubbs, Joe Globetti, Henry John Marks, Calvin Holmes, Bill Brodie, and D.T. Smith) at Wylam Park when some other kids ran onto the field to tell us that America was at war.
My seventeenth birthday was January 1, 1942. When we returned to school after the holidays many of my older friends, who were on the football team, had quit school to "join up".
The War prayed heavily on our minds. It was all my friends and I could think about. We were filled with outrage and patriotic zeal but had no idea of what war really meant. I only needed eight credits to graduate but I just couldn't concentrate on school. When Billy Haywood of the draft board asked me if I wanted a deferment to finish school, I said no. So I got "called up". The draft board covered Pratt City and Ensley so many of the guys had attended Ensley High School.
They sent us first to Ft. McClellen to take physicals and IQ tests. If your score was high enough on the IQ test you could select the branch of the Armed Forces (Army, Navy or Marines) in which you wanted to serve. I chose the Army because Papa had served in the Army in WW I. Don Domino, my cousin Geneva's husband, reported with me to Ft. McClellen too, but be didn't pass the physical. Don was so upset and disappointed. He just didn't know how lucky he was. My friend Joe Odo joined the Marines. Two Greek boys, Poulris and Belotis, from Ensley High, joined the Navy. Barnes, the captain of the football team joined the Army Air Force and so did my cousin Tommie Alfano and my friends Harry Livingston and Slue Harris. (Slue Harris was killed on D-Day.)
Next they sent us to Ft. McPhereson in Atlanta where we got our shots and were issued shoes, uniforms, and a duffel bag. Most draftees at that time were assigned to the Medical Corp. Panis a Greek kid from Wylam and Charles Emit who went to Ensley High were part of the group who were with me. (Panis operated the Oakland Barbecue after the war)
After Ft. McPhereson they put us on a long troop train to Camp Barclay in Abilene, Texas for 13 or 14 weeks of medic training. We were taught how to treat different kinds of wounds; head, chest, stomach, arms, and legs, and how to splint broken bones. Our main objective was to determine the seriousness of the wounds, administer first aide, and tag the wounded who needed to be taken back to the field hospitals. We were to also indicate on the tag if the wounded had received morphine. Every soldier was issued a morphine packet.
As part of our "boot camp" training, we were taken on long marches with heavy backpacks that contained blankets, clothing, bandages, salted water, gas mask and the medical supplies pouch. But we received no fire arm training. (Later when they assigned us to an army unit they gave us Medics some combat training but it wasn't as complete as the normal infantry soldier was taught. This was a grave mistake for a lot of medics.) After basic training some of the medics were chosen to go to dental school. I was on the list but for some reason was taken off at the last minute. While at Abilene, I got to play baseball for a short time. I loved that game. (In another section of the camp, men were being trained for tank duty. Those guys had a hell of a time at the Normandy landings too.)
When we completed the training they gave us a five day pass to go home before shipping us out. While I was at home my sisters, Selina and Jay, insisted that I have a studio photograph taken in my uniform. I was a handsome devil! When the leave ended, we boarded a long troop train of only medics and headed north. We passed through Chicago and ended up in Venango in northwestern Pennsylvania. (It wasn't far from Wellsville, Ohio where my wife, Jennie is from.) We were put through a daily routine of calisthenics. I can't remember how long we were there before they sent us on another long troop train to Camp Shanks, New Jersey. I was given an overnight pass and decided to visit my mother's brother Frank and his wife Katie Buscarino who lived on Melrose Street in Brooklyn. I took the subway from New Jersey, exited on Jefferson Street and walked to Melrose Street. Aunt Katie didn't recognize me at first. They lived in a downstairs flat. I visited with Uncle Frank and slept on the sofa. The next morning he had to go to work and I went back to Camp Shanks. We shipped out that day for England.
They loaded us onto the Queen Elizabeth, which had been transformed into a troop carrier. It was packed with soldiers. Bunks had been jammed into every conceivable space. We were assigned a bunk to share with 2 other soldiers in eight hour shifts so while one crew slept the others were on deck. The ship took a zigzag course because it was unescorted. It took 5 days to get to Glasgow, Scotland. We were taken to a tent city replacement depot for army personnel. From there they divided us into outfits. Infantry and medics weren't supposed to leave camp but a few of us did and got arrested. The corporal scared us so badly. We thought they were going to shoot us. I remember that corporal because he made fun of my name. After we left the stockade we joined our units. It was around Christmas when they loaded us in trucks and sent us to the southwestern part of England to join the 29th Infantry Division at Slapton Sands. We had to march from the trucks overland to the location. The 29th Division was comprised of three infantry regiments, and headquarters sections. I was sent to Headquarters of the 3rd Battalion. Our home station was Plymouth, England.
While in England, I looked up my mother's younger brother, Joe Buscarino, who was in the Army Air Corp. I went to his base but they wouldn't let me in so he managed a three day pass and met me in London. At the hotel when we went down for breakfast the next morning, we saw a notice on the message board for a Sam Muscleman, a friend from Ensley. We found him in the restaurant and the three of us had breakfast together. We didn't see each other again until after the war.
Training drills and maneuvers with live ammo were held every day. A lot of times we never knew if it was a training mission or the real thing. We went on forced marches to Slapton Sands. It was mostly agricultural country and I would steal turnips from the farmers' fields, a practice that would help me survive later. We suspected that we were close to D-Day when they marched us to a camp that was enclosed and heavily guarded. Again, we were not to leave, but Sergeants White and Spicer did. They went to Plymouth to see Joe Lewis who was appearing with an USO troupe. They were arrested, and busted (reduced in rank). The night before D-Day we were bunked 6 to a room. I shared my room with Joe Schraldi, Jody Sandage, Julian C. Robles, Percy Dominy, and Anthony Rotola. I was on K.P. duty. The army served canned condensed milk and I learned to really like it but not diluted. I took several cans of milk back to the barracks and shared it with the guys. I still like condensed milk.
The next day, June 6, 1944, we thought we were once again being put through a practice maneuver but this time the ships didn't turn around. It was the real thing. I was on the USS Charles Carol with the 29th Infantry Division, 3rd Battalion, 116 Regiment, "L" Company. We were in the first wave sent to attack Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. Ironically, I recognized a sailor on the ship. He was a former Ensley football player whose last name was Carlton. It was a great comfort to see a familiar face. I was lucky to have run into him because before we disembarked he gave me a supply of candy bars that helped me survive that horrible first day and night. (Years later I located Carlton through his sister. He was in a University of Alabama Nursing Home in Huntsville and would frequently come down to VA hospital in Birmingham.)
Unlike others who disembarked from rope ladders off the carrier ships into the landing crafts, we entered our Higgin's craft first and then it was lowered from the ship into the water. As we headed for Omaha Beach, troop commanders read the official orders from General Eisenhower to attack. I learned later that hardly any of the landing forces made it to their assigned destinations. "L" company was to come in on the area designated Dog White but instead we landed in scattered groups eastward from the edges of Dog Red. We were about a thousand yards east of the target. We were lucky in a way because brush fires from Navy bombardments caused heavy smoke to drift onto the beach to shield our landing. The front of the Higgins craft let down for us to disembark. Our combat infantry division included medics, infantry men, machine gunners, mortar gunners, flame throwers, and engineers; a full complement. Third Battalion "L" Company had 32 medics. We were divided into groups consisting of a four man litter squad and a first aid man. Albert Sult, our sergeant, Rotola, Schraldi and me made up our group.
Nothing seemed to go as planned. Most of the soldiers on the transports got sea sick because of the very rough sea so they weren't in the greatest shape to be going into battle. The bombing and strafing of the beach that was supposed to soften the German defenses didn't hit the mark. The bombardment from the ships wasn't much more effective. Rockets just seemed to make a lot of noise but didn't phase the German troops. The Germans had build cement bunkers to shield their big guns. The beaches were strung with bob wire and anchored by heavy pillions armed with explosives. German troops were positioned on higher ground so their crossfire would cover anything that moved toward the beach. It was a "turkey shoot". Our men were being slaughtered. There were so many dead, dying and injured. Many men drowned from being weighted down by their heavy backpacks.
I disembarked the Higgins craft carrying a snow sled like backpack loaded with medical supplies and instruments. We were immediately under machine gun fire. When I stepped off into the water a wave hit me and all of the sudden I was shoulder deep. My life jacket automatically inflated and I began to choke. Our sergeant saw me and cut off my life jacket. Bullets zinged by me. My friend Schraldi, was shot in the head and died not far from me. We pulled ourselves toward the beach. The water was filled with bodies and body parts being pushed two and fro by the waves. Everyone scattered. I, through some miracle, made it to the sea wall and was joined there by a medic from another unit. We dug a trench and began doing what we could for the wounded. My sergeant took a bullet in the knee. I attended his wound and tagged him for evacuation. I saw another soldier get wounded by a land mine as he was trying to crawl under the German machine gun fire. When I reached him and turned him over, most of his abdomen had been blown away. It was fruitless, but I placed a bandage on him and heard him say "Thanks Medic" just before he died.
Our task was overwhelming but my partner and I did whatever we could for as many as possible. From our vantage point we could see our soldiers falling every where. "A" Company, the lead company, lost most of their men in the water. I found our later that the majority of the men in "A" Company were a National Guard Unit from Bedford, Virginia. Nineteen brothers, cousins and friends from that town were killed at Omaha Beach that day. Four companies in the 29th Division originated from Virginia: "I", "K", "L", and "M". The men in my company, "L" Company, were mostly from Stanton, Virginia. "I" Company was headquartered in Roanoke, Virginia.
That night German planes bombed and strafed the beaches. When the planes left, German troops near our position kept up enough small-arms fire to keep us on our toes. The machine gun fire continued through the night. We could tell our machine gun sounds from the Germans guns. Theirs made a distinctive burping sound. That candy Carlton had given me sure helped. It gave us the energy to get through the night. In the confusion at the beach many men were separated from their assigned units. Some of them broke through and were moving off the beach. Just before day break the morning of June 7th, the two of us decided to move inland. We followed the tracks of the men who had gone in before us and made it over a bluff. As they withdrew from their positions the Germans left snipers behind. As a column of American soldiers moved down the road, suddenly a shot would ring out and one or two would fall.
Beyond the bluff at a cross road there was a farm house. We crept close enough to see that Americans had occupied the house and saw some of our medical personnel on the porch. When we got to it, I recognized First Sergeant Walter Dickens of the 116 Medics Headquarters Division. When I asked him about the 3rd battalion, he told me they had sustained heavy loses and those who survived were scattered. Dickens assigned me to travel with the remnants of "A" and "B" companies of the 116th who were pulled together under the command of Lt. Colonel John A Metcalfe, Jr. Metcalfe was from Birmingham and a graduate of West Point. He was 30 years old. We were sent to attack Point du Hoc from the rear to divert the Germans attention from the Army Rangers who were approaching from the cliff side. The attack lasted 3 or 4 days before the Germans finally withdrew. Metcalfe was among the many men we lost in that action.
After Point du Hoc we regrouped again and for the first time I met up with some of the guys from the 3rd Battalion. My high school buddy Charles Emit was in the group. We were approaching the courtyard of a farmhouse when a sniper killed one of the Rangers in our group. His brother, also a Ranger happened to also be in our group.
The American forces finally penetrated the beaches, spread out and cleared the highway along the beach into the towns of Designa and Grandcamp. I asked to return to the 3rd Battalion. My best buddy, Jody Sandage, had been shot in the head while we were crossing a field. He was taken back to England to the hospital. After he felt strong enough, he went AWOL from the hospital and managed to hitch a ride on a ship back to Normandy to rejoin the outfit.
As we pushed inland the Germans took advantage of the tall thick hedgerows of the French countryside to mount their defenses. Again we sustained heavy loses. At the hedgerows a replacement litter barer reported to me. I turned to see about a wounded soldier and when I turned back to talk to the replacement, he was dead. There didn't appear to be a mark on him, but when I looked closer, I saw he had been hit by shrapnel. His name was Paul Zito. General Gerhart was in charge of the 29th Division and pushed us on toward St. Lo. It took us 45 days to get 20 miles. One day Jody and I had jumped into a ditch and were running to escape the enemy. The Germans had booby trapped the ditch and as we were running we tripped it. Through some miracle it didn't explode. As we moved across the French farm lands, I found turnip patches and dug them up to share with my friend. They sure did taste good. We were hungry and sometimes rations just didn't get to us. Major Tom Howie, a graduate of the Citadel, was leading us. At the end of his briefing at la Madeleine, Major Howie had ended by saying, "See you in St. Lo". It was his rally cry to keep to the task. Major Howie died later that day, July 19 at Martinsville Ridge the day before St. Lo fell. We sustained heavy losses for every mile we gained. General Gerhardt met with commanders in the field and placed the Major's body in and ambulance and as the armored column of Task Force C swept into St. Lo, Major Howie rode with it. Major Howie is remembered as the Major of St. Lo. He was buried near the rubble of an old church. (When I returned for the 40th anniversary of D-Day, I found the site with help of a Nun. The French people of La Madeline, had placed a plaque at the church site in his memory.) General Gerhardt dedicated and American military cemetery at la Cambe, the burial places of many Blue-and-Gray soldiers who died on the beach and in the long battle of St. Lo. But the survivors were to move out with the cry - "29-Let's Go!"
Finally we got to fall back to an area where they gave us medics more medical and combat training. It was also a place were replacements were grouped for assignments. After St. Lo the 30th Infantry moved up. Bombers were called in to saturate the area with bombs to give the 30th an easier time. However, the bombs fell short directly on the 30th Infantry Division. Many soldiers, including one of the commanders, were killed. The second wave of bombers did the same thing. The 30th weren't in any condition to attack. A reserve regiment of the 30th came in and completed the attack to finally break through the German lines. Germans countered but got stopped by Patton and his tanks. From St. Lo to Vire we lost many men including medics.
Vire was on high ground with the Vire River on the west and south separating it from three other prominent hills west and south of the river. The hill due west of Vire was called Hill 219 and was slightly higher than the city an excellent area to mount an attack on Vire from the West. The 116th 3rd battalion captured and cleared it on August 5 after hard fighting. After Vire the Division's combat mission in Normandy came to a conclusion as the British 3rd Division took relief positions. Units of the 29th were sent to peaceful bivouac areas and entered a brief period of rest, rehabilitation and training. We medics were given more medical and combat training there. It was also a place where replacements were grouped for assignment.
The next major assault was to be mounted in Brest, the second largest port of France. The Allies needed the port to ease the strain on the docks at Cherbourg the only French port being used to supply the American armies in Northern France. Brest was also a German U-boat dock. The 3rd Infantry Division, the 2nd Ranger Battalion, the 29th Division, and the 8th Infantry Division were dispatched to secure Brest. The battle was brutal but finally with the help of Patton's tanks Brest was contained and secured. I guess we lost as many men capturing Brest as we did on the beach.
After Brest was secure we were put on troop trains to Belgium. On the Train I got into a poker game and won some money but somewhere along the way I lost my wallet. A Frenchman found it and mailed it to my APO address. All the money was still in it. I lost the Frenchman's name and address but will forever remember his act of kindness. I had been in action every day since D-Day. Shortly after I got my wallet back, I was given a 3 day R&R pass to Paris. I had no clothes so I used clothes that had belonged to my buddy Robles. The train stopped along the way and I ate at Red Cross hotels, one was in Genine.
After that one pass, I was in battles through out the war: France, Belgium, Holland and finally into Germany. In Brest, Holland some replacements were assigned to us. One of them was Joseph Normanthan. They assigned him to me and we pitched our half tents together to make a larger one and spent the night together. He was killed the next day.
Winter came and the trenches filled with icy water. I got very sick and had a high fever. My feet swelled so badly that my boots had to be cut off. I was taken by ambulance to an evacuation station and hospital in a small Belgium town. At the hospital I struck up a conversation with a couple of the guys and couldn't believe that they were from Ensley. One of the guys was M. O. Smith whose mother was the lunch room manager at Ensley High. While recuperating at the hospital the Germans began an offensive at the Battle of the Bulge. The lead German tanks passed close by that little town but didn't bother to attack there. Those of us who could walk joined other stray American troops and formed a fighting unit to help at the Bulge. I didn't see M. O. Smith again until after I came home.
By November we were in Germany. The 29th Division moved up to the front on the first of the offensive, November 16, 1944. Battles ensued of cities leading to the Roer River up to Christmas. It was very cold. The replacement boots I was given at the field hospital were not combat boots and my feet were freezing. We managed to push the Germans back and they began to withdraw. I was sent to a relocation station and assigned to Koslar on the Roar River. Gayland Christensen was assigned to Headquarters Squadron; Joe Gubernant was the runner for the medical corp.; and Ray Newell was an "L" company replacement. In January and February the 29th Infantry mounted an attack against the Germans in the town across the Roar River called Julich. The engineers had erected a temporary bridge across the river. Our Medics were bringing wounded across the bridge when a German mortar hit it. All these men were killed. In Germany the 29th pushed to the Eb River and shortly after that the war ended. We lost so many men in the last days of the war. God spared me and I will be forever grateful. Of the 32 with whom I started only three survived. (Robles died in Germany the rest in Brittany.)
After the war ended I was assigned to an occupation force at Bremerhaven with the 29th Division, 3rd battalion, 116th Infantry. We were not allowed to fraternize with the German people. After Bremerhaven, I was sent to Camp Chesterfield, a replacement camp in Marseilles, France for two weeks then sailed home on the Onita Victory liberty ship to Ft. Patrick Henry Virginia. It was just before Christmas, 1944. I got on a troop train to Atlanta, changed trains there and came to Birmingham. I didn't tell Mama and Papa when I would arrive so I took a taxi home from the train station. Mama and Papa ran a grocery store at 3700 9th Avenue in Wylam, a Birmingham suburb. Our home was just around the corner on 37th Street. I asked the taxi driver to let me out on 37th Street. I knew my parents would be in the store. My older sisters were working and my younger brother and sister were in school. When I walked into the store pandemonium broke out. The taxi driver even stayed to see the reaction. It was so good to be home, but nothing would ever be the same for me. Scares from the war kept coming back. I found out my best friend, Stanley Tubbs, had died of malaria in the Philippines. My family had a welcome home/birthday party for me on New Years Eve, 1944. I was 21 on January 1, 1945.
I got to visit Jody Sandage once after the war. He lived on a farm near the Mississippi River. I had a meal with his family. We became lifelong friends. God had been with us. So many men didn't come back. For those who did return there is a bond that exists to this day.
I married Jennie Trainer from Wellsville, Ohio and we had six sons. We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary April 23, 1999. None of my sons, thank God, has had to go to war.
My wife and I attended reunions of the 29th Division every chance we got. Jody and his wife had settled in Florida and they would meet us at the reunions every year until his death. I named my fourth son, Jody.
My job required a lot of travel so I would look up members of the 29th Division whenever I could. The 29th Reunion Committee published a newsletter and I read an article in one of the editions by Henry John Marks. I found out he was the same man I met in the 116th Infantry's cannon division. In Asheville, North Carolina I found Charles Emit who had been at Omaha Beach with the 1st Battalion. I had met him on the bluff just above Omaha beach.
Documentaries and dramatizations of many of the battles of World War II have been and continue to be produced that try and capture the horrors of the War, but they will always fall short of the reality. They can't include the horrible stench of burning flesh, the nauseatingly sweet smell of blood, the sour vomit and foul excrement, and the putrid scent of decaying bodies. They can't really show the pain and agony suffered when young men lose their limbs, their eyesight, or are burned beyond recognition. Nothing can capture the feeling of grief and despair when the buddy you were just talking to falls silent mid sentence. I knew nothing of death and dying, of men loosing body parts or loosing their minds from shell shock. How could any of us know how we would measure up under fire? Most of the men proved their metal many times over. Medic! Medic! that call still haunts me.
Those of us who returned home found that it was difficult to communicate to family and friends about what we had experienced. Those who tried to tell their stories found that most people really didn't want to know. The war was over. They couldn't understand that for the men who experienced it, the war would never be over. Fortunately through the VFW and various 29th Division reunions I was allowed to talk to other men who shared that horrible experience. It was very therapeutic for us. Over the years my wife, Jennie, and I have attended as many of the 29th Division's reunions as we could. We have kept in touch with many of the men and their families. The last reunion I was able to attend was in June 1998. Our number gets smaller at each year. I will never forget my comrades in arms. The many who died on the battle field or the ones who survived. My wish is that America never forgets us.
Tommy Alfano died on April 25, 2000 at the age of 75.