D-Day veteran made all the right moves

Dan Curatola in France, 1945.

Dan Curatola of Bethlehem, Pa., had this picture taken in a coin-operated booth in Verdun, France, in May 1945.

You could not beat Dan Curatola at checkers. I tried over and over again, with no luck. His nimble brain was always ahead of the game, anticipating every move as he closed in for the kill. He was focused, relentless. It was amazing to see.

He was 89 when we played, and said he was the checkers champion in Bethlehem, Pa., his hometown, before the U.S. got into World War II. His next move was to the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, which took him to North Africa, Sicily and France. He had a facility for language – he spoke Italian, quickly picked up French.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, he was in the first wave at Omaha Beach. Think of the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan and you have an idea what he went through. Two days later he was wounded and almost died.

Dan had two Bronze Stars for heroism and a Purple Heart. I interviewed him for a story marking Memorial Day 2009. It ran in two parts in The Morning Call and also appears in my book War Stories in Their Own Words, http://store.mcall.com/war-stories.html.

He told me that he could never forget the war and men dying. It was burned in his consciousness, he said.

Dan Curatola and David Venditta in June 2009

June 2009: Dan Curatola and I stand in front of an Army jeep at the annual D-Day remembrance picnic in Nazareth Boro Park.

Dan and I stayed friends. Besides playing checkers, we went to luncheon meetings of the Lehigh Valley Chapter, Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge in Walnutport, where he once shook hands with a distinguished visitor, Mario Andretti. (Dan was a member of the Bulge group because, after recovering from his wounds, he returned to the war zone for limited duty during the German offensive.) He was honored with other local D-Day vets at VBOB’s annual picnic at Nazareth Boro Park commemorating the Normandy invasion.

One day when I was driving him to one of the VBOB lunches, he sang for me. It was a song he had heard only once, in 1944 in Kidderminster, England, in a hospital ward packed with other wounded soldiers. A U.S. Army nurse came into the ward with a guitar to entertain the men, sat down and sang a tune she herself had written. Dan not only remembered the music, he remembered the lyrics. It was all the more incredible in light of the condition he was in as he lay in the ward – shrapnel had almost torn off his left arm, he had shrapnel in his back and right leg, and a bullet in his side.

Dan played pinochle and enjoyed Lehigh University wrestling. As a boy, he went to Yankees games in New York and saw Joe DiMaggio play. He was an attentive fan, always keeping a meticulous scorecard. When I took him to a Lehigh Valley IronPigs game, we sat in the right-field bleachers and he dutifully scribbled on a scorecard, recording each out. I had a fright when a rocket-like line-drive foul ball slammed into an empty seat directly in front of us. I’d stood up and put out my hands to deflect it, if necessary, determined not to let the ball hit Dan. I couldn’t let a war hero die from a foul ball at a minor-league baseball game.

In the fall of 2010, Dan and I went on a bus trip sponsored by the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project to see the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. When we got back, the Sands casino in Bethlehem treated our entire group to dinner. As gratifying as the trip was, I could tell that Dan’s once-steely mind was slipping. He had bouts of confusion.

The following spring, Dan was admitted to the nursing home at the VA Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre. He would never return to his home in Bethlehem, where he’d lived alone.

He died last month, on January 29, at age 98.

Months after he was moved into the VA hospital, I went to visit him but didn’t stay long. I wasn’t sure he recognized me. He did seem to remember his role on D-Day, when I mentioned to others in the room that he was in the first wave ashore at Omaha Beach.

“It’s something you never forget,” he said, looking at me straight in the eye, emphasizing each word.

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Death of a general, and how I knew her

From before I met Anna Mae Hays, I had been writing about war veterans and working on a book about my cousin who died in Vietnam. People I met in the process connected me to Hays, who grew up in Allentown, Pa., where I live, and was the first woman in the U.S. military to become a general.

I’d like to tell you about this, because it shows how friends and acquaintances can weave in and out of our lives, sometimes to surprising and wonderful effect.

Anna Mae Hays in Vietnam

Anna Mae Hays as an Army colonel and chief of the Army Nurse Corps, on a helicopter trip to visit the 45th Surgical Hospital near Tay Ninh, Vietnam, in 1968. This photo is from the Lehigh County Historical Society. Hays, who grew up in Allentown, Pa., was promoted to brigadier general in 1970 and retired the next year.

Hays died January 7 in Washington, D.C., at age 97. She had served the country overseas in World War II and the Korean War, and led the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War. After chronicling her life in The Morning Call, http://bit.ly/2CEa4qu, I heard from two friends I’ve been very fortunate to know.

“She certainly was a remarkable woman,” wrote Lynn Bedics, herself a former Army nurse, who went on to become the nurse manager at the Allentown VA Outpatient Clinic and is now retired. “I feel privileged to have met her when she was the speaker [to promote] the Korea-Vietnam Memorial.”

The memorial is on the campus of Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville, near Allentown. Its U.S. Armed Forces Plaza was dedicated in 2005.

I’d met Lynn as a result of a War Stories project I edited at The Morning Call. Reporter Ron Devlin was interviewing vets for our Veterans Day 1998 special section. I asked him to include a nurse. He found Lynn and told me where and when she’d served – in 1969 and at the same Army hospital in Vietnam where my cousin Nicky Venditti died after a grenade accident. Lynn gave Devlin her maiden name. It matched a signature I found in clinical records of Nicky’s care.

So, Lynn had tended to Nicky in his last days. On top of this incredible coincidence, she lives in my neighborhood. Her account of her Army service in Vietnam takes up a chapter in my book Tragedy at Chu Lai, http://tragedyatchulai.com/

The other message I got was from Dick Musselman of the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project. He met Hays, a retired brigadier general who had lived in Arlington, Va., since 1964, on one of the group’s bus trips to Washington. The trips allow World War II vets to see the National World War II Memorial at no cost.

“We had made arrangements to have our lunch catered by a D.C. veterans organization at the Women’s Memorial, which is next to Arlington Cemetery,” the Navy vet wrote, using the common name for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. “She joined us as our guest and interacted with many of the veterans. She was exceedingly pleasant, with great poise and genuine compassion for every one of those vets.”

Dick and I share a passion for getting war veterans to tell their stories so others will know their sacrifice and courage. We got to be friends at the monthly meetings of the Lehigh Valley Chapter, Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, where he tipped me off to vets who had compelling stories. Regrettably, because of another commitment, I haven’t been to one of the lunches in more than a year.

Story about Martin F. Schaffer's death

The Morning Call’s story about leading Lehigh Valley veteran Martin F. Schaffer’s Jan. 2, 2002, death near Fort Dix. Retired Brig. Gen. Anna Mae Hays attended Schaffer’s funeral.

As far as my own contact with General Hays, it was sparse. I met her in 2002 at the funeral of a leading Lehigh Valley veteran, Martin F. Schaffer. The World War II and Korean War submariner was hit and killed by a car while crossing a street near Fort Dix, N.J., after buying a cup of coffee at a convenience store. He was 82.

Marty had founded the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Submarine Veterans of World War II and led the United Veterans of Wars, Allentown. He steered me to local vets he thought would be terrific interviews, sending me postcards with their names. Among them were B-17 pilot and POW Earl “Lee” Leaser and Robert Holden, who was on the sub that rescued downed Navy pilot George H.W. Bush.

At Marty’s funeral, Gene Salay came up to me and said General Hays was there and would I like to meet her. “Yes, of course,” I said, and he introduced us.

Gene was a former, longtime director of Lehigh County Veterans Affairs. I’d known him for seven years, ever since I set out to learn what happened to my cousin, a 20-year-old Army helicopter pilot from Malvern, Pa., who survived only 11 days in Vietnam. Gene was the first person I called about how to get Army records on the accident that left Nicky mortally wounded. That was the start of our friendship.

Gene Salay in Korea in 1953

Army Pfc. Gene Salay with a South Korean interpreter in July 1953 near the North Korean border. The interpreter, Kim Yung Jo, was killed soon afterward in the Battle of the Kumsong River Salient. Salay was seriously wounded in the fighting and captured by the Chinese.

A Purple Heart veteran and POW of the Korean War, Gene had a troubling story of his own that kept him in counseling. He wouldn’t tell it, despite a few years of my nudging. I knew only that he had been shot and almost died in a battle near the 38th parallel just before the armistice, and was held captive by the Chinese.

In 2003, he changed his mind about an interview. The story ran in the newspaper as part of my series, War Stories in Their Own Words, and is in my book of the same title, published by The Morning Call, http://store.mcall.com/war-stories.html.

Part of my interview with Gene, where he describes the July 1953 battle near Kumhwa in which he was seriously wounded and captured, was used by journalist Barbara Demick in her prize-winning book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.

Gene was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known. He died in 2010, with a bullet from 1953 still lodged near his heart.

His introducing me to General Hays at Marty Schaffer’s funeral was the only time I ever saw her. But she knew who I was and that I wrote the War Stories. In October 2013, she spoke with me by phone from her apartment in Arlington — an interview that became the backbone of my story on her death.

There’s one other thing about General Hays that hits home. She is in my book about Nicky, and it’s by virtue of a statistic she cited concerning the care given wounded U.S. troops in Vietnam. They were likely to survive, she once said, because of the work by combat medics and field-hospital staff. Only 1.2 percent of injured Americans who lived long enough to reach a hospital in Vietnam died after getting there.

Nicky’s misfortune was to be among the 1.2 percent.

Letters home from two doughboys in the Great War

James H. Kendrick

Sgt. James R. Kendrick of Company B, 14th Engineers, in The Tennessean newspaper of Nashville on December 8, 1918. My great-uncle George F. Cunningham was in the same outfit. I found this clip on Newspapers.com.

Frank Riggie wished he were with his brother Joe on the Western Front, facing the German army. He said so in a letter.

Joe thought Frank was nuts.

“You do not realize what you are saying when you announce a desire to be with us,” wrote Joe, a first sergeant with Company C, 14th Engineers, in the fall of 1917. “Consider yourself fortunate that you are in Vermont instead of France. The sound of heavy gunfire is continuous, and, believe me, when you hear the first shell screech overhead you commence to realize that war is a rough game. We are all looking forward to the time when our work will have been completed and we start back to the good old U.S.A., but we will stick until the curtain drops.”

The letter home is one of two from doughboys of the 14th Engineers I found on a research website. It was printed in the Riggie brothers’ hometown newspaper, the Essex County Herald of Guildhall, Vermont, on December 14, 1917.

I latched onto the letters because my great-uncle George F. Cunningham served in that U.S. Army regiment during the First World War, helping to build, run and maintain narrow-gauge railroads. George, a private first class from West Chester, Pennsylvania, was the subject of my last blog. He joined Company B as a replacement in March 1918 amid a massive German offensive and served in France until the next year, months after the armistice. He didn’t leave behind any record of his experience that I know of, so I wanted to see if others in his regiment were more open about what they saw, heard and felt.

Back in the old days, letters from hometown boys fighting overseas appeared in the local press. That’s what I was mining Newspapers.com for, and I got lucky with Joe Riggie’s account and one from a soldier who was in my great-uncle’s company. They give a glimpse of the men and the times.

Riggie’s letter, dated November 13, 1917, was headlined Over There: An Interesting Account of What the Railway Engineers are Doing “Somewhere in France”. The 14th Engineers had come to the war just three months earlier and were assigned to Britain’s 6th Army Corps. Joe opened by thanking Frank and his wife, Iva, for a gift they’d sent him.

“Your package containing cigars, etc., reached me October 30th, and this is the first opportunity I have had to write and thank you. You have no idea what a treat those smokes were, and such good ones. … American smokes of every kind are not obtainable here, and the issue of English tobacco is punk, mostly mixtures, and resembles and tastes like curled hair.

“Our only pastime is smoking and reading, as we are located in a very desolate and barren section of France. Of course, there is plenty going on in a military way, action galore, but absolutely nothing for recreation. Lights are not allowed at night any more than necessary, as they expose us to danger from enemy aeroplanes, but we have candles that we can use until 9:30 p.m. Am quartered in a low hut (shaped like a half barrel cut lengthwise) and have been very busy with the carpenter’s tools manufacturing my office furniture. Just getting settled now and it is somewhat better than doing business in a tent, especially when the weather is such as it has been here during the past six weeks. Rains nearly every day and the mud is terrible.

“The people at home little realize what a tremendous operation this war means, and those who imagine that there is pleasure with any of the active organizations in this country should join the colors immediately. I am perfectly contented, however, and in the very best of health. …

“Not very cold here as yet, but foggy and damp. We are operating narrow-gauge lines at present, and you should see our boys handle the dinky outfits. Perhaps you imagine that the trains consist of the locomotive, cars and caboose of the ordinary makeup at home – no such trains here. To be sure, there is the engine, but no caboose or coach for the crew, and the cars are like large dry-goods boxes, no cover or running board. The shells, if large enough, are loaded like pulpwood, as well as all other kinds of explosives. …

“While we do not consider ourselves in any particular danger, it would amaze you people at home if you only knew how little a life is worth in the war zone. We have been exceedingly fortunate, though, and none of the boys in my company have cashed in. …

“We move so often that it is hard to find time to write a decent letter, [but we] have not moved for over six weeks, except from tent to tent and hut to hut. About time to set us in motion again. …

“No one knows when we will return, but [we] do not expect to be here less than two years. Write often as you can and give me all the news because letters are appreciated more than money. By the way, we are paid in French money every month at the rate of 5 francs 10 centimes … . It takes 100 centimes to make a franc, and 10 centimes is about the same as two cents in American money. Very easy money to get accustomed to, and I like it much better than English money.”

The other letter is from James R. Kendrick, a sergeant in Company B, who wrote to The Tennessean less than a month after the war’s end. It ran in the Nashville newspaper on December 8, 1918, under the headline Nashville Soldier Wants to Get Home. Apparently there was a girl waiting for him there.

“I landed in January of this year,” Kendrick wrote. “After arriving over here, I was placed in the 14th Engineers, a railway operating regiment … which was in the first bunch of Americans to land in France. We were lucky enough to be in the big drive at Cambrai March 21, as we were with the British at that time, and believe me, we had plenty of experience of real war, and we were again lucky to be the first troops to pull in to Chateau-Thierry after Fritz was driven out and followed the boys right up to Fere-en-Tardenois. …

“I hope to see dear old Nashville next year some time. Would like to see old Broadway this afternoon, after working for the Bearden Buggy Company for a couple of years. It seemed like home to me, although I happen to hail from Birmingham, Ala., but my heart is in Nashville on Russell Street, where the grandest little woman in the world is. You can tell the world that Tennessee can’t be beat for girls.”

After reading these letters, I couldn’t help but wonder what became of Joe Riggie and James Kendrick, who had served our country “over there.”

They were working on the railroad – and blunting German attack

Pfc. Cunningham with cooks

Pfc. George F. Cunningham (second from right) of Company B, 14th Engineers, with the cooks of Company I during the First World War.

A few years after the First World War ended, a British commander wrote glowingly of the U.S. Army railroaders who served alongside his troops on the Western Front. The 14th Engineers, he said, were “gallant New Englanders” who not only kept up a lifeline to the Allies but threw themselves into the fight when catastrophe loomed.

I’m connected to one of those gallant doughboys, but he wasn’t from New England and he wasn’t a railroad man.

George Cunningham, circa 1917

George Cunningham, circa 1917

Most of the regiment’s 1,200 men had been recruited from New England railroads and arrived in France in August 1917, just four months after the U.S. declared war on Germany. The Americans did not yet have a command structure in place in France, so the engineers were attached to Britain’s 6th Army Corps and went immediately to the front. Their job was to build, operate and maintain “light” or narrow-gauge railroads.

“At the time the 14th Engineers came under my command, our failure to recognize earlier the urgent need for light railways was being repaired, but the personnel necessary to operate them was lacking,” wrote Major-General Aylmer Haldane, commander of the 6th Corps. “The arrival, however, of our comrades from across the Atlantic speedily changed the aspect of affairs in this respect, and soon in many directions trains were carrying men, supplies and materiel from the railhead at Boisleux-au-Mont to the vicinity of the forward trenches.”

Boisleux-au-Mont is just south of Arras, about 70 miles from the English Channel. The British were holding the line there when, early in 1918, the Germans launched a blockbuster offensive intending to break through, march to the sea and end the war.

AP story about book on 14th Engineers

An Associated Press story about British Major-General Aylmer Haldane’s book on the 14th Engineers. This clip is from The Morning News of Wilmington, Delaware, dated June 30, 1923. I found it on Newspapers.com.

On March 27, 1918, six days after the Germans began their great push, a 22-year-old carpenter from West Chester, Pennsylvania, joined the American Expeditionary Forces in France. He was my great-uncle George F. Cunningham, assigned as a replacement to Company B, 14th Engineers, in the face of the German juggernaut.

In his book “History of the Fourteenth Engineers, U.S. Army, from May 1917 to May 1919,” Haldane wrote: “The oncoming wave of Germans bore down for a time all endeavors to oppose it, and when at length it was brought to a standstill, the light railways in front of the corps, from railhead to the forward trenches, had changed hands. Now was the opportunity for the 14th Engineers, who at the critical moment proved that, while they could operate railways with all the skill required, they could as readily handle a rifle and share in the greater dangers of the firing line.

“I can vividly recall my chief engineer, Brigadier-General Harvey, reporting to me how stubbornly the 14th Engineers had taken part with the British infantry in helping to storm the onrush of the German troops, and my pride in having those gallant New Englanders under my command.”

George Cunningham's binoculars, Paul Fussell's book and Army portrait of George

George Cunningham’s Army binoculars, the Army portrait of him and Paul Fussell’s 1975 book about the British experience on the Western Front

It’s not clear how much of this combat my great-uncle engaged in. So far as I know, he did not leave behind any accounts of his experience in the Great War. But his discharge certificate lists the “battles, engagements, skirmishes, expeditions” he participated in as the Somme Defensive – the push-back against the Germans’ all-out drive — from April 20 to May 20, 1918, and the Aisne-Marne campaign from July 18 to August 6, 1918.

A private first class, he remained with the 14th Engineers in France until April 27, 1919, five months after the armistice. He was honorably discharged in May 1919 at Camp Dix, New Jersey. In June, back home in Chester County, he married Ethyl Mae Pierce, one of my maternal grandmother’s older sisters. He died at age 58 in 1953, the year before I was born.

George Cunningham at 1934 family reunion

George Cunningham with his wife, Ethyl (lower left), at a family reunion August 26, 1934, in Colora, Maryland

From what my older relatives have told me, he was a taciturn soul given to raising pigeons. An aunt told me that she heard he was gassed in France, but his records don’t mention it, saying only that he was never wounded and left the service in good physical condition. I have one item of his that he gave to my grandfather: Army-issue binoculars that got nicked when I dropped them down concrete steps some 50 years ago.

Haldane’s book was privately printed in Boston in 1923. I first saw it in 1997 at the U.S. Army Military History Institute (now the U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Recently, while mining the research website Newspapers.com, I found an Associated Press story that was written when Haldane’s work was published. It ran in newspapers across the country.

The 14th Engineer Regiment was transferred from the British 6th Corps to the U.S. Army in August 1918. According to the AP story, it was led by a railroad executive from the Midwest, Lt. Col. Albert T. Perkins. His battalion commanders were Maj. B.W. Guppy, bridge engineer of the Boston & Maine Railroad, and Maj. D.S. Brigham, trainmaster of the Boston & Albany Railroad.

Alpha Company didn’t mutiny, says officer who was there

Lt. Alan Freeman in Vietnam, 1969

Much has been written about the reported mutiny of soldiers in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade on August 25, 1969, in Vietnam’s Song Chang Valley. I learned about it in the 1990s while interviewing retired Lt. Col. Bobby Bacon for my book Tragedy at Chu Lai, about a grenade accident in an Army classroom that killed my cousin Nicky Venditti and two other newly arrived Americal Division soldiers. Bacon had briefly headed the replacement and training unit at Chu Lai before taking command of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment.

I previously blogged about Bacon’s account of the supposed mutiny and also presented a version by James Dieli, a soldier who was there. Now here’s another account, this one from an artillery officer who served in the unit’s headquarters.
It comes from Alan Freeman.

As Freeman sees it, Alpha Company’s headline-making troubles in Vietnam began with a brawl that had nothing to do with fighting the enemy. Company A, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry had seen a month-and-a-half of intense combat in the mountainous jungles south of Da Nang. The Americal Division, as it did occasionally with other units under its command, pulled the soldiers out of the field and brought them back to the coastal base at Chu Lai for rest and recuperation, R&R.

Lt. Freeman, a 21-year-old artillery forward observer detailed to Alpha Company, was with them. “We went to shows and drank a lot of booze,” he told me. “I think the second day we were there, we were watching a show and this chair came flying over my head.” A brawl had broken out with the men of another company. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Eli Howard, took action over this breach of discipline. “We got kicked off R&R and got helicoptered the next morning into a really bad situation.”

It was a U-shaped ambush, with the enemy firing from both sides on the Americans caught in the middle. Freeman landed with the company commander, Capt. Dennis Chudoba. Mortars hit around them. Freeman saw the dirt kicking up next to him and couldn’t figure out why. He turned and saw there was someone shooting at him. “If he’s a good shot, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

Freeman had been dodging bullets since arriving in Vietnam in May 1969 after completing a six-month officer candidate program at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He had been working closely with Chudoba even though they were in different units. An infantry company typically had two field artillery men – a forward observer and a radio operator. Freeman was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment at Landing Zone Center and was immediately sent out with Alpha Company as its forward observer.

That spring, the company came under fire almost daily. In June, Freeman said, he was wounded by a couple of Chi-Com (Chinese Communist) grenades.

Freeman was glad that Chudoba was in charge. A West Point graduate on his second tour of duty, he was the ideal company commander, Freeman said. He had fought the enemy, he knew tactics, he was “really sharp” and, on top of all that, he was a nice guy. Freeman, as forward observer, was almost always at his side. “We respected Chudoba, we trusted him.”

The U-shaped ambush lasted a few days, after which the inexplicable happened. Lt. Col. Howard, the 3rd Battalion commander, flew in by helicopter and replaced Chudoba with a young first lieutenant, Eugene Shurtz Jr. Shurtz had gotten his commission through ROTC and had no combat experience. Freeman said the move deprived Alpha Company of a “great leader.”

“We had been through 40 days of hell, and we held together. But after we lost Chudoba, there was no continuity with the company.”

With Shurtz in charge, Alpha Company got orders to scout a part of the Song Chong Valley, about 30 miles south of Da Nang. “It was supposed to be a one-day in-and-out,” Freeman said. “We didn’t bring any food. All we brought was water and ammo.”

They were helicoptered in and took fire as they landed. They came to a village, where the company’s Kit Carson scouts – former Viet Cong who scouted for U.S. infantry units and served as interpreters – spoke with villagers and returned to report there were no Viet Cong in the area. Alpha Company’s grunts started walking through the village in single file.

“Our first five or six people got through to the other side and then all hell broke loose,” Freeman said. The next several men in line were gunned down. The unit was under attack.

Freeman was astounded that the enemy had fired .50-caliber guns at the helicopters. In his four months of combat, he had never come across an enemy unit that was firing guns of such large caliber. It led him to believe that Alpha Company was up against a large outfit.

They later found out it was a North Vietnamese Army regiment of about 10,000 soldiers who were planning to overrun a couple of U.S. batteries, including the one at LZ Center. “How our intelligence didn’t know they were there, to me is mind-boggling,” Freeman said.

Alpha Company got cut off and took heavy casualties. “We just started getting slaughtered, and so we finally pulled back. I was calling in artillery like crazy to try to help us.”

The men clustered in one area, not realizing the size of the NVA force pitted against them in the jungle. The enemy kept probing as artillery shells screamed in. An Associated Press photographer, Oliver Noonan, was with Alpha Company’s headquarters section with Freeman, Shurtz, the radio operators and a sergeant-major. Noonan had accompanied the unit from LZ Center. He told Shurtz to get him out.

Shurtz called battalion headquarters and explained the situation to Howard, who said, “We’ll come in and get him.” One of the officers with Shurtz told him, “Do not bring that helicopter in here. It’s too hot.” But Shurtz let the UH-1 Huey from the 71st Aviation Company come in. It arrived safely with Howard aboard and picked up Noonan. But as the chopper left, it was “blown out of the sky,” Freeman said. Everyone aboard was killed.

Alpha Company was surrounded for several days. “Sometimes we dug as much as we could into the ground. We’d try to fortify as much as we could, because every time we moved in a different direction, people would get mowed down. I thought I was going to die.”

Eventually, the firing stopped. Battalion headquarters determined that the NVA had left the area and ordered the men to move up to the top of a hill, where they regrouped. They figured on spending a couple of nights there before returning to LZ Center.

But then the new battalion commander, Lt. Col. Bobby Bacon, ordered Alpha Company to go back down the hill to recover the bodies from the helicopter wreck. Shurtz got the order and held a briefing with his remaining officers – Freeman and one platoon leader, a lieutenant. (Of the two other lieutenants, one was killed and the other wounded. Sergeants had replaced them.)

When the word got out, five men said they weren’t going to go. They came to the command post where Shurtz, Freeman and the one other lieutenant were. “They told Lt. Shurtz that they weren’t going, that they had like five days left in the country and they’d had it. They weren’t going down the hill.” Freeman said Shurtz was so green, he didn’t know what to do. Shurtz called back to battalion HQ and told Bacon: “My company refuses to move.”

Unfortunately, Freeman said, Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, who was covering the death of Noonan, was standing right next to Lt. Col. Bacon. Soon after, Freeman said, Arnett “notified the world” that an Americal Division company had refused to move.

While Shurtz was on the phone, Freeman and the other lieutenant told the men who had spoken up, “If you don’t go with us, we’re taking your guns. You can stay up on the hill without any guns.” That changed their minds; they agreed to go.

Freeman said Shurtz’s report to Bacon “blew me and the other lieutenant away.” When Shurtz got off the phone, Freeman asked him why he’d said that to the battalion commander. “He just had this shell-shocked look on his face.”

Soon after that, the company started down the hill. But Shurtz didn’t call Bacon back and tell him that they were now on the move. Meanwhile, Bacon was flying in his executive officer and a sergeant to deal with the recalcitrant soldiers. “We get halfway down the hill and we have to turn around and go back up the hill to secure it so the helicopter can come in,” Freeman said.

Several days later, what remained of Alpha Company went to a secure area. Freeman guessed the unit was down about 40 soldiers out of more than 100. It was replenished with 50-60 soldiers who had not been involved in the battle.
“All these reporters come in – ABC, NBC, Time, Newsweek – and they start talking to everybody about what went on. You can imagine the stories they got when they talked with people who weren’t even there. For some reason, the reporters did not ask anyone who had actually been there during the firefights. Not one talked to me.”

After six months in the field as a forward observer, Freeman ran a battery at LZ Center, then returned to the field with an air cavalry unit – tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The so-called mutiny has stuck with him all these years. “It’s always bothered me that that’s what our company was noted for – and it was not true.”

Freeman laid the blame on a “tremendous failure of leadership,” starting with Howard, the battalion commander. “One time, Howard flew in to observe our company and decided he would walk point. It struck us all as very odd for him to do this, almost like a death wish.”

Shurtz was young and inexperienced, and “should never have been put in the position that he was put in.” As a result, he didn’t know what to do when the five soldiers said they wouldn’t go down the hill.

“If Chudoba had been with us, we’d have taken casualties but it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad,” said Freeman, a retired engineer in San Diego. “He would have known how to handle the soldiers when they did not want to go back down the hill.”

Freeman described a run-in he’d had with Howard, described as a “hot-tempered taskmaster” in Keith William Nolan’s 1987 book, Death Valley, about the summer 1969 offensive in northern South Vietnam, the I Corps tactical zone. Freeman said that when he was in the field, he didn’t wear his rank and didn’t shave, because he wanted to look like the guys he was with. They didn’t call him Lieutenant; they called him Arty, for artillery. Howard overheard that one day, “and he called me in and he raked my ass over the coals for not having their respect.”

But it wasn’t about respect, Freeman said. It was about the forward observer and his radio operator fitting in with the other soldiers so they wouldn’t stand out as targets. “When we went out, we had three antennas. The Viet Cong and the NVA weren’t stupid when they saw the antennas. Who do you think they were shooting at?” Howard, he said, should have known that, just as he should have known the risk of putting a green lieutenant in charge of a company.

Freeman said Alpha Company doesn’t deserve a bad rap, especially in light of the heavy fighting it faced in the Song Chang Valley – fighting he said is glossed over in the record-keeping at the time. He said he has seen some of the unit daily records supposedly showing what was happening hour by hour, and they don’t reflect the intensity of Alpha Company’s contact with the enemy. He also has copies of citations for medals awarded to soldiers who were with him in the battle.

“When you look at the number of medals awarded versus the daily reports, it’s mind-boggling. It’s as if nothing was going on.”

A day of great stories about Americans at war

It’s terrific to hear authors talk in person, right in front of you. You experience firsthand the passion behind their work.

I got a quadruple dose of that May 6 during the Civil War Round Table of Eastern Pa.’s daylong conference, Americans at War, at the Holiday Inn in Fogelsville. Four of the five speakers have written books and had them on hand for sale.

Despite the sponsor’s name, the lineup wasn’t limited to Civil War topics. That’s what drew me after I found out about the conference at an April meeting of the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project. I was there to talk about my Vietnam War book Tragedy at Chu Lai. Sitting beside me, my friends Ed Root and Tony Major of the Civil War Round Table told me about the event, gave me a flier and encouraged me to attend.

Later, when I read about the presentations, I thought wow! The speakers were experts on battles of the Revolution, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II, and on the search and recovery of POWs and MIAs. I had to go.

I had a particular interest in the talk by Michael C. Harris, author of Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America. As a boy in Downingtown, I played in the East Branch of the Brandywine Creek. In the 1990s, I read Thomas J. McGuire’s Battle of Paoli, about the “Paoli Massacre” that happened nine days after the fighting at nearby Brandywine.

Allentown, where I’ve lived for three decades, is steeped in Revolutionary history. It was the site of several Continental Army hospitals, a prison for enemy soldiers, and the church where the Liberty Bell was hidden. One Christmas week, after reading Richard J. Ketchum’s The Winter Soldiers, I drove to Washington Crossing and stood in the snow and cold on the bank from which Washington’s ragged army pushed off for Trenton. I had to get a sense of the moment.

In his talk, Harris laid out how the Battle of Brandywine happened and in particular the role of the American general John Sullivan. I bought Harris’ book, and while he was signing it for me, he invited me on a carpool tour of the battlefield he’ll be giving May 20. I’m going.

D. Scott Hartwig, author of To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, talked about how the bloodiest single day in American history happened. Army Col. Douglas Mastriano talked about his search for the truth about World War I hero Alvin York through archeology and ballistic forensics analysis, which led to his book Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne. In a sidelight, he entertained us with the amazing story of Cher Ami, the carrier pigeon that saved America’s “Lost Battalion.” Gregory J.W. Urwin told what happened to the U.S. defenders of Wake Island after the Japanese captured them in December 1941, the subject of his book Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity.

Retired Army Col. Ward Nickisch, who led teams that recovered the remains of POWs and MIAs, capped the conference with stories of perseverance, dedication and the far reaches of science.

It was a day of eye-opening scholarship into aspects of our military history I knew little about. If another one like it comes along, count me in.

Busting the Lane Gang: the John LoPinto story

John LoPinto, CID agent

John LoPinto, an agent with the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division in Rome, was one of the top investigators of the Lane Gang. This photo was taken Aug. 8, 1944. He was 36.

Just past noon on the day after Christmas 1944, gun-toting U.S. and British criminal investigators and Italian police converged on an apartment building in Rome. A tipster had revealed that one of the most dangerous Army outlaws of World War II, a rogue private from Pennsylvania, was hiding inside with a Canadian cohort.

Werner E. Schmiedel, alias Robert Lane, had led a gang of American and Canadian army deserters that terrorized soldiers and citizens from Naples to Rome. Collared after a months-long spree of violence, he faced charges that included carjacking a Polish general’s Cadillac and gunning down an Italian man in a wine shop. But on Christmas Eve, he and other Allied bad guys busted out of a Rome jail and scattered.

The soldier who got the tip on Schmiedel’s whereabouts was Technical Sgt. John LoPinto of Ithaca, N.Y., an agent with the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigations Division in Rome. He took a lead role in planning and carrying out the December 26 raid that bagged Schmiedel without a shot being fired, bringing the swaggering malcontent to justice.

Werner E. Schmiedel

Lane Gang leader Werner E. Schmiedel of Weisenberg Township, Lehigh County

Schmiedel’s capture that day had all the drama of a Hollywood gangster showdown. But I didn’t have the details on it and didn’t know about LoPinto’s role when I was working on an article about Schmiedel for The Morning Call a few years ago. (It ran in July 2015. Here’s the link: http://bit.ly/2mYEmws.) Schmiedel was of interest to Lehigh Valley readers because he grew up on a farm near Allentown. To tell his story, I’d spent almost a year-and-a-half gathering material that included his court-martial records and personnel file from the National Archives at St. Louis, and contemporary accounts in the press. Early on, in 2013, I wrote a blog about Schmiedel and updated it after my story appeared in The Morning Call.

Despite my effort to cover all the bases, it turns out I didn’t have all of the official paperwork the case generated. The revelation came last month, when I heard from a man in upstate New York who alerted me to an extraordinary document.

The man is LoPinto’s son Joe LoPinto of Freeville, N.Y., near Ithaca. He posted a note on my blog site saying he could provide more information because his father was a top investigator of the Lane Gang. Joe’s older son, John, found my story on the internet and wondered why his grandfather’s name wasn’t in it.

The name wasn’t familiar to me, but it had been more than a year since I’d looked at the records. Why wasn’t LoPinto in my story? I couldn’t say for sure. It might have been for the same reason I didn’t use the names of, for example, the Army prosecutor and Schmiedel’s lawyer – it wasn’t something I felt readers had to know. But I did remember that the court records don’t give details of Schmiedel’s recapture. There’s only a brief mention of the raid in a Stars and Stripes story about the Lane Gang’s wild doings.

“Lane and his second in command were surrounded in a civilian apartment,” staff writer Dean Boswell wrote in the GI newspaper at the time. “When the two refused to surrender, the CID and [British] SIB agents, accompanied by MPs, crashed the door to an apartment and discovered the two men cowering inside a closet.”

Joe LoPinto told me over the phone that his father and three other Criminal Investigations Division agents wrote the report on the Lane Gang that Army prosecutors used to nail Schmiedel. That document, 70 pages long, is not among the voluminous court-martial records I’d gotten from St. Louis. But LoPinto has it, and he sent it to me on a disc.

John LoPinto stateside

John LoPinto stateside with a new Buick Roadmaster

He said of his dad, “He was instrumental in the prosecution.”

Some Schmiedel anecdotes the former investigator told his family aren’t part of the CID report, his son said. When Schmiedel was on the loose and knew the military police were hunting him, he baited LoPinto by calling the CID’s Rome headquarters and telling the agent to meet him in various parts of the city and they’d shoot it out.
“Dad would take his police special .38 service revolver and go down there in a jeep and Schmiedel wouldn’t show up.”

After authorities identified Schmiedel’s girlfriend, a prostitute, LoPinto and several partners found her in a dance hall. LoPinto asked her to dance, and as they took a few turns, one of his associates went through her purse. He snatched a photo of Schmiedel, hurried off to CID headquarters and had it copied, and then put it back in her purse within the hour, before she knew it was missing. Copies of the pilfered picture were distributed throughout Rome, Naples and vicinity.

Part of that anecdote is in my story, based on a Stars and Stripes account. But the GI paper doesn’t have the gem about luring the woman onto the dance floor.

Joe LoPinto said the Italian press called his dad a hurricane or tornado because he would storm into whorehouses, where AWOLs and criminals hung out, and everyone there would jump out the windows to get away from him.

John LoPinto’s path to becoming a wartime criminal investigator started in Flushing, N.Y., where the son of immigrants from Sicily grew up. “He was basically a street kid, but he was very bright,” said his son, who is 64 and a builder. “He found the public library because it was a place to get warm, and then he discovered all the books in it.”

He went to City College of New York and Dartmouth, where he was a Golden Gloves boxer, and then to law school at New York University, where he edited the Law Review. After a stint as an attorney in Greenwich Village, he moved to Ithaca in the 1930s. When war broke out, he volunteered as an infantryman and fought in North Africa. But the CID needed people like him. He spoke Italian, was college-educated, had a background in law and was tough and aggressive. He joined the CID on Sicily and moved up to Rome.

“Dad was tenacious, well-educated and was just intent on doing everything properly, doing his job, especially given that he was the son of immigrants. The books he read were Horatio Alger. He was a self-made man.”

Lane Gang arsenal

The Lane Gang arsenal, in photo that was included in CID Report No. 115

LoPinto and fellow agents John X. Monahan, Henry L. Manfredi and Eugene F. Land of the 6709th CID Platoon in Rome laid out their case against Schmiedel in Report No. 115, marked “Confidential” and dated February 12, 1945. In a summary, the Report of Investigation of Activities of the Lane Gang says that all of the living military members were in custody by November 3, 1944. That was the day Schmiedel was first arrested in Rome, with Land making the pinch. On November 25, five civilian members were arrested in Naples, followed by three more in mid-January.

The narrative of the Christmas Eve breakout begins on Page 13 with the statement that eight prisoners escaped from the Central MP Jail in Piazza Collegio Romano about 1:40 a.m. Among them were Schmiedel and two other members of the gang – Delmar Joseph McFarlane, a Canadian, and Carl F. Green, an American.

Within hours, MPs nabbed Green and two others on Via Carla Alberto and locked them up. LoPinto got 20 civilian police officers to help MPs surround the buildings where the remaining escapees were believed to be holed up.

“On 26 December 1944,” the report says, “Agent LoPinto received confidential information to the effect that Schmiedel and McFarlane were in hiding in civilian clothes in Apartment No. 4, at No. 13 Via Carla Alberto, Rome.”

LoPinto, Monahan and Manfredi of the CID, and Sgt. Eric Swetnam of the British Special Investigation Branch hatched a plan to seize the two fugitives.

“Accordingly about eight MPs and five Italian police were called to cover the exits of the apartment building. The five civilian police in plain clothes … were placed around the front entrance of the building with orders to let no one leave. Then a confidential contact was made with the apartment in which Schmiedel and McFarlane were hiding. When it was ascertained with certainty that they were still in the apartment, Agents LoPinto, Monahan and Manfredi, Sgt. Swetnam and about three MPs entered the building and proceeded up the stairs one floor to the apartment. Schmiedel and McFarlane were ordered to come out.”

They did not respond, so the agents and Swetnam went into the apartment, followed by some MPs. Confidential sources had revealed that Schmiedel and McFarlane were concealed in a standalone closet, a wardrobe. Again they were ordered to come out and didn’t respond.

“Agent Manfredi and Sgt. Swetnam pushed over the closet. As it was falling over, Schmiedel and McFarlane jumped out of it in the face of drawn guns. They were dressed in civilian clothes and had their hair recently bleached. Bottles of hair bleaching chemicals were found on a stand near the closet, evidencing recent use.”

The two thugs were returned to the Central MP Jail. Within six months, Schmiedel – who ran away from home at 17, joined the Army, and lied and bullied his way from post to post – met his fate. He was court-martialed, convicted and executed for robbery and murder. LoPinto was in the crowd June 11, 1945, at an Army stockade near Aversa, Italy, when the 22-year-old badass died at the end of a rope.

I keep the copies of his records in my attic. The pile of paper in a plastic bin is about 8 inches high. I went through it page by page the other night, looking for LoPinto’s name, and found it typed at the bottom of statements from witnesses he had heard. Elsewhere, his signature is at the end of handwritten statements from Schmiedel and James W. Adams, a crony from Oklahoma. Adams was convicted with his boss in the October 10, 1944, shooting death at the wine shop in Rome, even though it was Schmiedel who pulled the trigger as the pair robbed patrons. Adams got the death sentence as well, but his penalty was changed to life in prison.

The trial transcript shows that the court-martial prosecutor twice called LoPinto to the stand to answer questions about aspects of the investigation and what he knew about the defendants. It was nuts-and-bolts police stuff that didn’t grab my attention when I read his testimony several years ago.

John LoPinto medals

CID Agent John LoPinto’s Order of the Crown of Italy and Bronze Star

LoPinto’s work in Italy earned him a Bronze Star medal for meritorious service. “He spent many sleepless nights and many days of fruitless search and investigation,” the citation reads in part, “but by his perseverance, planning and technical knowledge, he was able to contribute immeasurably to the tracking down and capture of the most dangerous members of these gangs and was instrumental in the recovery of important quantities of Allied military supplies and equipment.”

The Italians showed their appreciation by knighting him with the Order of the Crown of Italy, an honor his son said made him a hero back home in Ithaca.

LoPinto about 1978

John LoPinto about 1978

In civilian life, LoPinto was a lawyer handling a wide range of civil and criminal cases for five decades. He died in 1988 at age 80. His wife, Mary, died in 2008. They had two sons, Joe and John, and daughters Rosalia Miller and Cornelia Fiocco.

Lopinto’s legacy of military service to the country was passed on to his son Joe, a Marine Corps veteran, and Joe’s younger son, Scott, who will soon be deployed to the Middle East with the 1st Marines.

Joe said he once asked his father why he never became a district attorney.

“When you’ve hunted a man down and tried him and watched him hang,” said the onetime soldier who fought to put Schmiedel and his henchmen behind bars, “it dissuades you from wanting to pursue that career path.”