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Joe Vanacore oral history interview
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Michael Hirsh.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (38 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (28 p.)
Concentration camp liberators oral history project
This interview was conducted as research for The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust / Michael Hirsh (New York: Bantam Books, 2010).
Interview conducted November 30, 2008.
The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust (New York: Bantam Books, 2010) and Concentration Camp Liberators Oral History Project, University of South Florida Libraries, 2010 Michael Hirsh.
Transcripts, excerpts, or any component of this interview may be used without the author's express written permission only for educational or research purposes. No portion of the interview audio or text may be broadcast, cablecast, webcast, or distributed without the author's express written permission.
Oral history interview with Holocaust concentration camp liberator Joe Vanacore. Vanacore was a tank driver in the 4th Armored Division, which liberated Ohrdruf on April 4, 1945. His tank had a bulldozer blade, the only one in the battalion, so he was always the second tank in line when they were moving in case something had to be pushed off the road. When his unit arrived at Ohrdruf, Vanacore's tank pushed the gates open; the first thing he saw was a stack of bodies several feet high. They saw the crematorium and walked around the camp but left after three or four hours. Even so, Vanacore could not eat for a week, having been made sick by the smell. In this interview, Vanacore also discusses some of his other military experiences and mentions several of the men with whom he served.
Armored Division, 4th.
Armored Division, 4th
v Personal narratives.
Ohrdruf (Concentration camp)
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
Personal narratives, American.
World War, 1939-1945
Crimes against humanity.
University of South Florida Libraries.
Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center.
University of South Florida.
Special & Digital Collections.
Oral History Program.
Holocaust & genocide studies oral history projects.
Concentration camp liberators oral history project.
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xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8 transcript
text Michael Hirsh: You go by Joe or Joseph?
Joe Vanacore: Either one.
MH: Okay, and its V-a-n-a-c-o-r-e?
JV: Thats correct.
MH: Whats your birth date?
JV: My what?
MH: Your date of birth.
JV: October 31, 1919.
MH: I wonder if you could turn down the T.V.
JV: Yeah, Im going to. Im looking for the thing now.
MH: Thank you.
JV: Whats the matter with it now?
MH: Its okay.
MH: Okay. You were in the 4th Armored Division. Which battalion?
JV: A Company, 8th Tank Battalion.
MH: A Company, 8th Tank Battalion. So, you were in Albin Irzyks battalion.
Albin Irzyk was also interviewed for the Concentration Camp Liberators Oral History Project. The DOI for his interview is C65-00062.
JV: Thats correct. My tank had the bulldozer blade on it. I was the only one in the battalion.
MH: And were you the driver?
JV: I was the driver.
MH: So, tell me about coming to Ohrdruf. What happened?
JV: Well, you know, fromif youre driving a tank and youre in a fight in enemy territory, youre buttoned up and all you can see is out the periscope. And you cant see where you are or whatyou know, all you concentrate on is what the tank commander tells you to or what you see in front of you. If were in a fight, I have to use my own judgment on which way to turn the tank and move it, but I never kept it still and gave an enemy a target. And the thing is, we dontbuttoned up in the tank, you dont see a hell of a lot; half of the towns I went through I didnt even know what their names were. But anyway, Ohrdruf had these highten foot high, I guesswooden gates, very heavy wooden gates, and I pushed them in with the bulldozer blade.
MH: Were any other GIs there ahead of you?
JV: No. I pushed the gates down, and my company was the only company there. We were far away from all the rest of the battalions.
MH: Okay. Do you happen to know, was there more than one set of gates going into Ohrdruf?
JV: Not that I remember. All I remember is the main gates, one coming off the road there.
MH: Okay. Did you know a man named Bruce Fenchel?
JV: No, I dont think so. What was he in?
MH: Um, hang on one second. Well, I know hes in the 4th Armored, but he might have been in the other combat command.
JV: Yeah. Well, see, there was three combat commands and 35th Tank [Battalion] was in one, the 37th [Tank Battalion] was in another one, and 8th Tank Battalion was another one. One was always in reserve and two of them were on the march.
MH: Okay. So, you push down these gates
JV: Pushed them open, yeah.
MH: And you push them open.
JV: The enemies, the Germans that were there, as soon as we got that close they took off.
MH: Was there any shooting?
JV: No, no, no shooting getting in there; they were running. We caught up to them a day or two later. I cant remember perfectly when exactly it was, but I know we caught up with them.
MH: Okay. They were down the road someplace?
JV: Yeah, they were high-tailing it back towardsyou know, theyre in Germany.
JV: I guess they didnt know where to go.
JV: Youre running away from the enemy, youre in your own country, what the hell do you do?
MH: Right. What were the names of the guys in your tank, do you remember?
JV: Bill Jenkins was tank commander, Bill Fowler was the gunner, I was the driver. The loader and the radio manat the time we were there, I cant remember which one it was; we kept changing that all the time, getting different guys. And Doc something from Texas; he was the assistant driver, the bow gunner.
MH: Whenjust out of curiosity, when you talk about a bow gunner, where is he sitting?
JV: Theres two men in the driving compartment, the driver and the assistant driver, and he manages the bow gun. Theres a .30 caliber machine gun thats in his hands. They stick outside the tank; I call it the passenger side.
MH: Okay. And if he has to get back in and button up, the gun stays up, right?
JV: The gun stays there all the time.
JV: Unless you take it out. We took it out once at Avranches, took it out and mounted it on the ground.
MH: So, what happened once you get inside the gates?
JV: Well, we were shocked at what we saw. One of the first things I saw was this big pile of bodies, about five, six foot high, like a haystack. I didnt realize they were bodies tillyou know, the mind didnt tell me they were bodies until I got a little bit closer and then I saw them, you know?
MH: Were you out of the tank at that point?
JV: No. I got out of the tank to go look at the ovens where they did the cremating, and we looked around. And of course we had to move right quick, and [George S.] Patton and [Dwight D.] Eisenhower got there and then we took off, we had to take off. My company had towe were ordered to keep going. Other companies, you know, medics come in, the doctorsthey called every doctor in the division in.
JV: And they brought lot of important peopleas a matter of fact, we had the mayoryou know, if youre writing a story about Ohrdruf, you gotta write the story also of the main town. Our objective wasnt Ohrdruf prison camp; we didnt know it was there. Our town waswhat was the name of the town now? Do you know the name?
MH: Well, you came through Gotha.
JV: No, theres a town, the town where all of the great German masters of music lived; they all lived there, and they had beautiful homes. They were untouched. And the mayor, we had the mayor and his wife and his whole family: they made them march through the Germanthrough the prison camp, and they didnt believe what they saw. They committed suicide the next day, the husbandthe mayor and his wife.
MH: Right, that was the mayor and the wife of Ohrdruf.
JV: Yeah, Ohrdruf. Yeah, Ohrdruf, thats the name of the prison camp. Im trying to think of the name of the town.
MH: Well, the town of Ohrdruf was right next to the prison camp.
JV: No, wait a minute, there was another name for the town where the people lived; they lived about a mile away from the camp. It was a beautiful town, untouched by the war. They were all very famous[Johann Sebastian] Bach, [Sergei] Rachmaninoff, guys like that. They owned houses there. Did you know that?
MH: Uh, no, but Ill figure it out.
JV: Check it out. As soon as it comes to meIm losing my memory anyway, you know, and I never forgot the name of the town; its in the book, in the history book. I think our objective was the town, cause we took the town and then we went over to get the prison camp on our way out of there.
MH: Yeah, Im looking online and it says Bach lived in Ohrdruf.
JV: Yeah. The town of Ohrdruf?
JV: No, thats the name of a town.
MH: Thats the name of a town
JV: The name Im thinking about is a very short name.
JV: Oh, God, what the heck was the name of that damn town? Ohrdruf, Ohrdruf, Im trying
MH: Eisenach? Uh
JV: No, they were close by.
MH: Well, I can find it.
JV: Yeah, IllI gotta look it up in one of my books or something.
MH: Okay. So, how long did you stay in the camp?
JV: My crew, my tankwell, my company, rather, we were there maybe three, four hours and then weI figured they did some bulldozing with the tank in there, filling up holes and stuff like that, and then we got orders to move. Our battalion commander Irzyk andI dont know if it was Eisenhower. Patton was there.
MH: But they didnt come for a few days.
JV: Yeah, thats when they were called in and told about the camp, and then they all came to look.
MH: Right. But you were gone by then.
JV: Yeah. And Eisenhower made the remark that he was ashamed to be a calledlike, he was ashamed to be of German descent, something like that. I dont know the exact words, but thats what he was talking about.
JV: After what he saw there. They had a dump truck, a train-yard dump truck loaded with what I thought was sand: it was the ashes from the bodies that they burned. And theyd go and theyd dump it in this river someplace down there. I didnt know where it was that they did it.
MH: So, what about the survivors that you saw?
JV: Now, there was one American pilot who was still alive, and the doctors went to work on him right away. Our medics and all the medics were available, for the battalion right away went to try to find out as many that they could that were still alive, and they found quite a few and they started treating them, taking care of them, you know?
MH: What are you doing while thats going on?
JV: Oh, just looking around in disbelief at what I saw. The smell got me so bad I couldnt eat for a week. Terrible smell, of the dying bodies and all, the cremation and all that stuff.
MH: How did that sort of thing affect you later on?
JV: Well, it stays in my mind, and you know, when I hear people say, The Holocaust was a fake, I would choke them. I really couldnt stand people that say things like that. We were right there, we saw with our own eyes. We did at two camps, Buchenwald and Ohrdruf.
MH: Yes. So, tell me about Buchenwald.
JV: I wasnt at Buchenwald.
MH: Let me put you on hold for one second
JV: Yeah, sure.
MH: Dont go away.
(switches phone lines) Hello?
Unknown Woman: Hi, its me.
MH: Hi, Im on the phone. What?
Unknown Woman: The tire thing went on when I was driving.
MH: So, stop at Goodyear and get some air.
Unknown Woman: Am I in Punta Gorda today?
MH: Okay, good-bye! Â Im on the other phone.
(switches phone lines) Hi, Im sorry.
JV: Yeah, I dont know which company or which battalion took Buchenwald. The only thing I know about it is what we read about it, what we heard. The 4th Armored took Buchenwald and Ohrdruf, and wemy company took Ohrdruf, not the battalion; the battalion came in later. We were out front, way out in front of the battalion when we got to BuchenwaldI mean, to Ohrdruf.
MH: And what was your company again?
JV: A Company.
MH: A Company.
JV: 8th Tank Battalion.
MH: Okay. Whered you grow up?
JV: Jamaica, New York. Queens.
MH: Queens? Okay. And how old were you when you went in the service?
MH: You were drafted or enlisted?
JV: Drafted. I enlisted in 1937 when I was seventeen and the Army was filled; they didnt have anythey werent recruiting because they were filled. And then when things got a little tougher, about the year 1938, they wanted me to go back in. I had a good job and I said, Hell with you. You wouldnt take me when I needed, you know? But then theyI got drafted inI had my letter from [Franklin D.] Roosevelt in Decemberno, the beginning of January, thats when I went in, in January of forty-two  or forty-one  or whatever it was.
MH: Right. And whatd you do when you came out of the service?
JV: When I came out?
JV: Well, I decided Im not gonna do what my brothers and other people did: they took advantage of the $21 a week for a year. You ever heard of that?
MH: Yeah, I believe so.
JV: The unemployment offered to pay the soldiers $21 a week. What was the thing, 21/52? Oh, 52/21: for fifty-two weeks youre paid $21. I didnt even go to the unemployment. I went to the union that I was working with, in the laundry, and they had a job for me, waiting for me. And I went back and I got a laundry truck in Manhattan. I was driving, delivering laundry in Manhattan. And then I gave the job to a good friend of mine who was married, had a kid; he just got discharged and he had no job, no money, and I gave him the job. And I gotI went to work in the ships, down on the waterfront. I got work for (inaudible) Marine; they were taking them luxury liners that they converted to troop transports back to luxury liners. There was plenty of work, lot of overtime; it was a good job, and I liked it, but I only was there about six to eight months. My brother was a stair-builder and he talked me into going into the stair-building business. I stayed for fifty years.
MH: Oh, okay.
JV: As a stair-builder.
MH: You married?
JV: Yeah. I got married in 1947.
JV: Well, the girl I married, her husband was killed in the Bulge. She had a little boy, and we had two other ones: we had three children. Now we got eleven great-grandchildren and ten grandchildren.
MH: And how old are you now?
MH: Eighty-nine. Okay.
JV: Do I sound it?
MH: No, actually you sound pretty good. You got a strong voice.
MH: Anything else you remember about Ohrdruf, about being in there?
JV: Well, there was a lot done and said about Ohrdruf, even that we learned about after we left, and thats how I found out about most of the stuff, from what Ifrom the guys that were there, from the different companies, and the medics; all the medics were there for a long time. We knew them pretty well, and they used to tell us all about it. What happened, all the ovens were empty. There was a big line of ovensI dont know how many were there in the lineand they were empty and cleaned out, and that whole room where they did the burning of the bodies there was clean. And the bodies got stacked outside. They were waiting outside, I guess, of the ovens, and I guess they were gonna cremate them, the big pile of bodies that were laying.
And then, the guys went and searched all the buildings, and there was a few German soldiers that stayed, that didnt run, and they surrendered. What they gotthey got Intelligence to take care of them; they dont let nobody have them, you know? So, we dont know what they found out from those few soldiers, but the people from Germany that came through there couldnt believe their eyes. They said they didnt know anything about it. Well, who knows if they were telling the truth or not?
MH: Yeah. You werent there when they marched the townspeople through, though.
JV: No. That happened the next day.
JV: We didnt stay there that day, the same day we opened the prison; we left before dark.
MH: Okay. You left before dark?
JV: I think so.
MH: Okay. You didnt see anybody from the 37th Tank Battalion there, did you?
JV: You know, I was very good friends with a lot of guys in the 37th. But one guy claimed he was there, but he was a tank commander in the 37th. How could he be fifty miles away from his battalion when hes a tank commander and going to prison camps? He might have got it mixed up with Buchenwald, I dont know. But I know for a fact nobody from the 37th was there. The only one that was there from the battalion was Irzyk; he came right as quick as we told
MH: Wait, he saysI talked to Irzyk, I went to his house. He told me he didnt go up there until the next morning.
JV: Oh, the next morning?
JV: Oh, I didnt know. I thought he was there that night.
MH: No. He didnt go up till the next morning.
JV: Oh, cause thats when he notified the division and the Army and everybody else.
MH: Yeah, causetheres other people from the other combat command. Harry Feinberg was in
Harry Feinberg was also interviewed for the Concentration Camp Liberators Oral History Project. The DOI for his interview is C65-00041.
JV: Well, Harrys a good friend of mine, but I dont think he was there. He claims he was
JV: And I cant believe he was, because if youre a tank commander in a company, how could you go thirty-five miles away from your company, and theyre in combat, and go to the prison camp? They didnt even know about the prison camp when we took it; they were miles away. I dont believe Harry was there. And cause we let him do all the speeches he wanted to make, he said somebodyI forget who he saidordered him to go there. What for?
MH: Theres actually a photo of the battalion surgeon from the 37th taken
JV: Right, Dr. Scotti.
JV: Yeah, hes a good friend of mine, too. Yes, he was the first one that they brought in there.
MH: So, how did
JV: And he discovered a grave there with 2,000 bodies in it.
MH: Right. But if Scotti was from the other combat command
JV: No, no, no, noScotti wasoh, wait a minute. Dr. Scottithe 37th Tank Battalionyeah, thats another battalion. Thats another combat command.
MH: Right, so how didso, they must have been there if Scotti was there.
JV: Not when we opened the gate. It was long after we got in there.
JV: My company was the onlynow, we might, sometimes when we go on these specialmy company, in my ten months in combat, was about four or five times given orders for specific targets, to go straight for that target. Dont do any fighting, bypass them, go through the Germans, but go to the town of whatever we were after. And once in a whilelike, for instance, Avranches: we were given orders that we had to drive fifty miles to save a bridge from being blown up, in Avranches. We drove as fast as we could to get there. And when we did get there, we found we had two or three infantrymen with us to take care of prisoners, cause tank men cant take care of prisoners. You know, you cant guard prisoners from a tank.
JV: If we had to take a couple of them with us, wed sit them up on the front of the tank right in front of the 75, in front of the gun.
JV: And we told them if they did anything wrong wed blow that gun: wed blow them off of the tank with the gun. And they rode the front of the tank. Infantrymen rode with us in our tanks, when we had them; a lot of the times we had infantrymen, we used to take them with us on our tanks.
JV: But when we went to Ohrdruf, we only hadthere might have been a couple infantrymen there from the 51st [Infantry Battalion].
MH: Okay, let me read something to you and you tell me what you think. This is from an oral history of this guy Bruce Fenchel, who died about a month ago, who was in the 8th Tank Battalion. He says, On April 1, we crossed the Werra River, bypassing Eisenbach to the north and thus avoiding the autobahn and the main roads. On the way to Gotha, the tanks overran
JV: Gotha, thats the name of the town out of Ohrdruf; that was our target.
MH: Okay. On the way to Gotha, the tanks overran a Wehrmacht Panzer tank school and two huge airfields concealed in the dense woods. Gotha surrendered at 1030 April 4. Prior to Gotha surrendering, in the early hours of the morning, the 8th Tank Battalion drove south. A detached unit of five reconnaissance tanks was sent out to observe the area immediately to our front. While sitting still and looking through my binoculars, I noticed several soldiers running in a ditch. I said, If were the forward echelon, who in the hell are they? We noticed them cross the road. The tank commander yelled, Kick her in the ass. This, of course, meant full speed ahead. As we moved from our field position onto the road, we soon heard the machine gun and small arms fire. We then came upon some large steel gates that were locked. The command came, Ram them! We were liberating the Ohrdruf concentration camp, the first German concentration camp encountered in Germany. Soon, men were coming out of the woods. They were survivors who had hidden in the woods. And it goes on.
JV: That wasnt my company or my battalion. I can tell you that, because wherever we wentyou know how my job was? I had the dirtiest job in the battalion. Whatever company wasevery couple of days Irzyk would change the lead company, and then youd have likeI mean, yeah. And A Company would besay todays A Company. I would have to be the second tank back from the point, cause if they knock something out on the road, I gotta push it off the road, keep it open for the trucks. Tanks probably could get around, but a lot of roads were narrow, and if theylike a Germanour planes knocked out a Tiger tank right across the highway. I dont know if the crew just abandoned it and ran or the tank was really out of commission. Its a sixty-ton tank and I got a thirty-ton tank, and I had to get it off the road, and I did. It took me twenty minutes until little by little I kept inching and inching it till I got it to the edge and pushed it over.
MH: What kind of tank are you driving?
JV: A Sherman.
MH: A Sherman? Okay, and its only a thirty-ton tank?
JV: Thirty tons.
MH: And the Tigers were sixty.
JV: Sixty tons, and the Super Tiger or whatever they called it was a little heavier, about sixty-five tons, something like that. Thats a mistake they made: they put too much weight on them for them. They had a good tank, but we could beat them; we could go faster than them in reverse, very slow. But anyway, whatever company was in thethen, B Company was in the lead the next day, then I would be with B Company. They would ask for me, they want a dozer with them. C Company was in the lead, they want a dozer with them.
As a matter of fact, Ill tell you a story that has nothing to do with the prison. I was attached to C Company; they were taking the lead. At five oclock in the morning, I drove out to my tank commander, we went to C Company, and we had to go along with them. We came to the Moselle River in France, and we had to cross the river. So, the company commanderhe died a few years ago, but none of us cared for the guy, he was chicken. He told us, my tank commander, and said, Go across the river and find out what kind of condition the river is in. We have to cross it. I said, What, is he kidding? Why doesnt he go across himself?
But anyway, they gave us an order. We went across the river. We cut the bank on the other side so the tanks could climb up the bank. When we got acrossthen another platoon came across, then the rest of the company came across, then the battalion came across, and that company commander was still on the other side. He was the last one to cross in the division. He got a medal of congressionalthe Distinguished Service Cross for being the first American across the Moselle from Patton. I was fit to be tied.
JV: But thats just a story, you know? Thats the way they handed out medals.
MH: Well, the officers always got the higher medals.
JV: Oh, sure. And he was a captain, a company commander, and he got the Distinguished Service Cross. But he was not the first American, he wasI think he was the last American in the war to go across the Moselle. But you knowhis name was Marshall. I dont want to hurt the guy; the guys dead now. But he was captured by the Germans. Then we caught up to a bunch of Germans and we foundone of our tank commanders had a German prisoner with Marshalls fancy boots on; he had these fancy boots with the fur lining sticking out. They were warm boots and he recognized them right away. He said, This guys got Marshalls boots on. Well have to shoot him. So, he questioned the person where he got the boots, and he said he got them off an American prisoner. And then eventually we caught up to them and found Marshall and freed him. He got away, and he got his boots back and everything; we got the boots for him. Funny things happen in a war, you know?
MH: They do. They do.
JV: Yeah, a lot of strange stories.
MH: Im stillI cant sort outyou know, I got so many different people saying they got to Ohrdruf
JV: Well, I
MH: and the military records dont help.
JV: No, but Ill tell you the truth. Did Irzyk tell you his side?
MH: Oh, yeah. I went to his house and spent
JV: Did you talk to Captain Kieley?
JV: Leonard Kieley, he lives in Maine.
MH: Captain Leonard Kieley?
JV: He waswell, he was bigger than that then he was now, but heyou wanna talk to him?
JV: Wait a minute, I got his number. Were very, very close, you know; weve been so close we were like brothers all the way through the past sixty years after that war. Were just likenobody recognize any rank or anything, you know?
JV: But we were a good outfit and we did a lot. Now, let me see. (mumbles to himself) Â Here it is here, the address is.
MH: Okay, whats the phone number?
JV: Oh, wait a minute, and then theres another number. I dont know what the hell that is.
MH: Okay. And its Captain
JV: He was our company commander for quite a while. He replaced CaptainI mean Captain [Chuck] Stauber. Captain Stauber is the one that took us into Europe, and then when he got promoted to G-2, Kieley became our company commander.
MH: And Kieley was company commander when you got to Ohrdruf?
JV: Was all the rest of the war, yup.
JV: Yeah, I think heyeah, Im pretty sure he was. I get mixed up with these promotions. But anyway, he was placed under arrest by Colonel [Hayden A.] Sears for disobeying a direct order on the field of battle in the face of the enemy, which meant firing squad, and it was a joke. Every man in the 51st Infantry Battalion, 4th Armored division, every man in the 8th Tank Battalion signed a petition, and a lawyerone of our captains was a lawyer, and he said, You know, if you sign this petition, youre committing mutiny. We said, Fine, then well all go to jail; at least well get the hell out of here. So, anyway, all of the CCA, CCB, CCC, all the commanders from them combat commands said, Dont court-martial Kieley, give him to me. Give him to me. They all wanted him, cause he was so good. And Patton and General [John Shirley] Wood made him change his mind and they dropped all the charges.
MH: What supposedly did he do?
JV: Well, if Iyou dont mind listening to the story?
JV: Its only a couple seconds.
JV: We were on the top of a hill and looking down at a small city. It was open fields, no woods, no nothing, wide open. The 51st Infantry, A Companyand A Company and the 8th Tank Battalion were together. Our orders were to take that town or city. So, Captain Kieley and the captain of the infantry division said, Well, what are we gonna do? Lets find out whats in there. So, they contacted G-2, and G-2 said its heavily loaded with enemywith all kinds of stuff; theyre gonna defend the town. So, Kieley said to the infantry guy, Look, well go down in, well call for an artilleryAT&T, thats
MH: Time and Target.
JV: You know, all the targets, whatever they call it.
MH: Right. Yeah.
JV: Well, anyway, and he said, Well go in under the artillery, and then once we get in there, well settle them, quiet them down and take it over; you guys come in and clean it up. So, thats the way we worked with the infantry all the time: we didnt ever let those guys go in front of the tanks. So, Sears drives up in the meantime, and he says, What the hell are you waiting for? Youre supposed to get down there! And they said, Were waiting for the artillery to put a barrage over the town. [Colonel Sears asks] Â Well, who ordered the artillery? He [Kieley] said, We did. He [Sears] said, Well, you have no business He [Kieley] said, Im the one who calls the artillerycalls it off.
So, they ordered us to go, and we went. And he ordered the infantry in front of the tanks. He killed almost half of them, which was stupid, you know? And they had to do it, so we did it, we got down there, and then when we got almost into the town we got in front of the infantry: we forced ourselves in front of them to save those guys. They were being machine gunned all over the place. So, we got in and we took over the town, and the infantry cleaned up.
He [Sears] comes down and he wasthe colonel was all pissed off about the infantry going in in front of the tanks; he said he didnt order that and blah-blah. And Kieleyyou wont believe this, but the two captains, the infantry company captain and Captain Kieley, they both jumped in the jeep, took their .45s out and loaded it, and they ran up the hill after him. They were gonna kill him, thats how mad they were, cause they lost so many guys. They were really mad and they were flying up that hill, and he saw them coming. He took off, the colonel, and the next day the MPs [military police] were there picking Kieley up and putting him under arrest for disobeying a direct order in the field of battle.
But anyway, it was a big joke on his part. He washe came in the Army as awhen we first met him, he was a colonel, a full bird colonel, and he was a full bird colonel when the war ended and everybody under him became generals. He never got the star. But thats a good story, and when youif you talk to Kieley, ask him about it. I dont know the town or the hill we were atlike I told you, I dont know the names of the placesbut if you remind him, say, I heard you were arrested for disobeying a direct order, and then hell tell you the story, maybe a little better than what I tried to explain it.
MH: Whens the last time you talked to him?
JV: About a month ago I called him up. About a month, two months ago. Yeah.
JV: Hes a hell of a nice guy. We had so much fun at the conventions. Really, really good guy. We all loved him.
MH: Okay, and he was at Ohrdruf with you?
JV: Huh? Ohrdruf? Oh, yeah. He was theIm pretty sure he was the company commander.
JV: I cant be positive, cause so many different things happened, you know? Sometimes guys get promoted or transferred and we dont even know about it till way long after, you know? When youre in a tank like that, probably most of the time youre with your crew and yourself, and you dont socialize with the other guys in your company. Everybody stays in the tank and youre ready to move all the time. My first day in combat I got out of my tank, dug myself a nice foxhole, got my shelter, got in the hole, made myself nice and comfortable, and just laid down in that tank, and a shell hits about twenty feet away. I jumped up, went back in the tank and I didnt come out for ten months.
MH: (laughs) Okay.
JV: I would never go out in a foxhole again. And an infantrymanwe tried, begged him to come into the tank under an artillery barrage. I said, Come on, jump in the tank, or go underneath it; go in the tank. He said No, no. We said, Why wont you come in? He said, I saw you guys burn alive, and were not gonna do that. The infantry feared getting in the tank and we didnt like getting out of it.
JV: Isnt that funny? Thats the way you were brought up, you know, when you were raised
MH: Its what you know, yeah.
JV: Yeah. And, you know, there are a million stories. You could write a dozen books about this war. It was terrible.
MH: Okay. Well, I thank you for your time.
JV: I wish I could help you more. If I knew you were coming I would go digging outsee, I just moved into a senior residence here, where my wife just died. I got a lot of stuff put away and I gotta go digging it out. If I can dig it out, I can check up some of these stories with the history. You got a copy of the history book?
MH: Um, no, but
JV: Wherere you calling from?
JV: Oh, youre in Florida?
JV: Oh, then you can go to West Palm Beach and see Irzyk.
MH: Yeah, I was there. I went to Irzyks house.
JV: Oh, I meanIm talking about Kieley, go see Kieley. Not there. Kieleys in Maine.
MH: Kieleys in Maine, yeah.
JV: Yeah, howd you like Irzyk? Hes a nice guy.
MH: Very nice guy, very helpful.
JV: Wonderful. And hes got some family; his son-in-laws a Marine general or something.
JV: He was a great officer. We all loved him very much. The only trouble is, a lot of the company commanders that were with us all the way from Pine Camp to Czechoslovakia, some of them didntthey didnt care too much about the way he wrote the book. Up Front with Patton, something like that, is the name of the book.
He Rode Up Front for Patton, published in 1996 by Pentland Press; he is also the author of Gasoline to Patton: A Different War, published in 2005 by Elderberry Press.
I lost mine. They thought he was putting himself in front of everything too much.
MH: Yeah. You happen to have a picture of yourself from World War II, with your tank?
JV: Yeah. Yeah, I got pictures. Give me your address and Ill make a copy and Ill send it to you.
MH: Okay, or if you send me the original Ill put it on my computer and send it back to you.
JV: Oh, all right. I can do that.
MH: Thatd be easier.
JV: Yeah, you want the tank?
MH: Yeah, youId like a picture of you, or you and your guys and your tank, whichever, whatever is the best.
JV: What I got islet me see, I gotta check on what Ive got. Ive got a picture in France, as soon as we jumped off; we were in the town, the first town were in. About fifty school children came around the tank, curious, and me and the crew were outside the tank talking to the kids. So, theres a picture, I think, of all of us. But Ill find a nice picture for you.
MH: Okay, or if you send a couple, then Ill send them back.
MH: You want me to give you my address?
JV: Yeah. Give me your name and address.
MH: Okay, its Mike Hirsh, H-i-r-s-h.
JV: Wait, a minute. Mike?
JV: This damn pen isnt writing.
MH: You were in the same unit with Paul Glaz
Paul Glaz was also interviewed for the Concentration Camp Liberators Oral History Project. The DOI for his interview is C65-00048.
JV: Mike what?
MH: Hirsh. H-i-r-s-h.
MH: You know, I
JV: Okay, Mike.
MH: I met you when you were at the reunion in New Jersey.
JV: Oh, you did?
MH: Yeah, I was there; in fact, I took some pictures there.
JV: Oh. You were supposed to call me from there.
MH: Uh, yeah, I think I tried to call you for a while and I wasnt able to get through, and now that Im writing I figured Id better call you and find out what was going on.
JV: I dont know if I helped you any. I tried to get you untangled about the Ohrdruf business.
MH: Yeah, its all helpful.
JV: You probably know more about Ohrdruf than I do, because by the time we get into there, got into the camp, did what we had to do, and the next thing you know its time for us to leave, so we reallythen what I found out from talking to guys and reading in the books and stuff, thats how I found out more about it.
JV: But I can tell you this: as a tank driver in the A Company, 8th Tank Battalion, we opened the doors to Ohrdruf, and as far as I know, there was nobody with us. Maybe a couple of infantrymen; Im not sure.
JV: There was no other tanks, no other vehicles, no other guys from any other battalion or anything with us. We were the only company. And, like I told you, five times in the war we were picked by Irzyk to go take a target that was very important to be taken as fast as we can, so we speed to go bypass the Germans at likeI dont know if you know the story of Avranches, but when we got there this bridge went over this river and then the town was straight up in the air, a cliff, straight up about eighty feet high. Then there was a town along the river way up there, and the Germans put guns in all the houses in the windows, 88s and whatever they had. And we were down in this apple orchard on the other side of the river.
We checked the bridge out. It got dark and it wasthe German regiment was trying to get to the bridge to get out of here. They were on their way back, retreating, and theywe took about 300 of them. Kieley wasnt company commander then; he was a lieutenant, and he was guarding them prisoners with a machine gun on a jeep. I said, How can he take 200 prisoners? And then it got dark and a guy in my tank screwed up, fired at the prisoners. They were surrendering like crazy, and he goeswe got there just before dark and he sees all these Germans lined up with their hands up, and he shoots the machine gun at them, and they all panicked and they all ran amuck. They went crazy. And here we are fighting infantrymen with tanks: we couldnt fight them. Stauber was our company commander and he took uswe left there, went up the road about fiftyno, about five miles up the road.
We pulled in a field and parked. We made a big circle to protect ourselves, and we could see German tanks about 100 yards away. They thought we were Germans so thats why there was no fighting there. But anyway, soon as it started getting daylight we took off again to Avranches to save the bridge. We did save the bridge, but while we were there, the Germans zeroed in over that apple orchard where we were in on the side of the river. And the Germans opened upthey fired five shots and they knocked out three tanks of ours, and killed a lot of our guys. We emptied every bit of ammunition we had in the tanks, and the nearest American outfit was too far away to help us.
The only thing that could help us was air. Our battalion commander, he got help from the air. The P-47s came out and broke it up. Pattonwe took fifteen thousand prisoners that day. And Patton came up and hes leading the prisoners, but he didnt do shit. We did. We lost the men, we did the fighting. He took credit for the prisoners. (laughs)
MH: Of course. One other question about Ohrdruf: what time of day did you knock those gates down?
JV: I think it was aboutIm not sure, but it could have been around noon time.
JV: It could have been, cause Ithats another thing: we dont look at the clocks when youre moving with the tanks. Im guessing its about noon, cause it was quite a few hours before it got dark.
JV: All right?
MH: All right, thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
JV: Nice talking to you, Mike. Ill send you them pictures as soon as I can find some decent ones.
MH: Okay. Thank you.
JV: All right?
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