Monday, July 02, 2007

“It has to be up to you” (MNA June 07)

Associate Editor

“We decided, I’m going to go into the service because I had the feeling that I was needed.”
This is what Louis Shapiro said, and what many veterans of World War II say when asked about their choice to enter military service.
The other part of “we,” was Shapiro’s wife, Annette, who told her husband when he said he was considering entering the army “I can’t tell you what to do. I can’t tell you to go or not to go, it has to be up to you.”
It was a decision that the couple made together, which would separate them for almost three years, while Louis went off to the war in the European Theater as a Sergeant. There, he had the task of keeping tanks and other machinery repaired for Allied troops.
He says his training was for “repairing anything from a watch to a shaft for an artillery piece.”
So, like many other citizen soldiers, Shapiro had to leave his wife of a year and a half, his family, and his civilian job in an auto supply/auto machine shop, and go off to support the troops who invaded Normandy.
“We went down to the depot, all the family there — I felt very sad. And here I am going all alone, don’t know what I’m going to do or what, and I got on the train,” says Shapiro.
Once in the army, his experience wasn’t limited to repairing machinery, though. In training, one of the guys in his company asked, “Hey Sarge, would you like to go for a ride in this tank?” to which Shapiro replied, “Sure, show me how it works.”
“Now, I’m going to go up in the turret,” the soldier told him. And off went Shapiro behind the wheel, at breakneck speed on the base’s test track, with the other soldier up top.
“So I was really traveling along there, and I’m talking to him. Man, I’m hitting bumps and everything else,” says Shapiro. “And I’m not getting an answer, and I look up there, and all I see is eight fingers hanging onto a ledge.
“I had hit a bump and knocked him out of the turret.”
“I finally got it stopped and he come in — I hate to tell you what he said to me, but he wasn’t very happy.”
Once he finished with training and shipped off to Europe, Shapiro’s unit was tasked with supporting the 3rd Army, moving with trucks filled with all manner of machinery. “We could make anything that we wanted, and it traveled with us and our company. Our company was on its own quite a bit, many miles at times from headquarters. And so we were able to do a lot of service for the different organizations.”
His unit did more than just maintenance. They performed other tasks such as re-tooling rotors for jeeps, and even made a new screw shaft for a large piece of artillery.
But Shapiro’s unit was also assigned to guard Fort Jean Darte, an underground fort left over from World War I, which the Germans had used to manufacture airplane parts. Twenty soldiers from his unit, Shapiro, a lieutenant, and soldiers from other units, went into the subterranean fort with eight foot thick cement walls to protect it from falling back into German hands.
He recalls that the fort was littered with the remains of cart horses which the former German inhabitants had eaten when they ran out of food. Sleeping on straw which was originally for the horses, the American soldiers had to contend with rats which “were bigger than cats,” according to Shapiro. His unit remained there until after the Battle of Bulge.
While at the fort, one of the soldiers picked up an anti-tank mine and tried to open it. It was a gruesome occurrence which Shapiro says “has never left my mind.”
Another memory burned into his mind was from Dachau, which his unit camped only four miles away from shortly after the war ended.
“There were a couple little girls that were in the prison camp that had come out and I had visited with them, and they’d speak a little bit of English, and they were so swelled up from malnutrition. I was fortunate enough once in a while to get (them) food from home or some rations that I didn’t eat.”
When his service was over, and Shapiro finally was able to go home — he almost lost his paperwork. Catching a ride to a train in an ambulance converted into a mail truck, the driver allowed him to sleep on the mail bags in the back. The driver woke Shapiro when they arrived at the station.
“I got up and thanked him. And meanwhile I had forgot and left all my records on his truck. I said ‘oh man, I’ll never get home now.’”
In an attempt to get his paperwork back, Shapiro enlisted the help of an MP, who took him to headquarters. In talking with the MP, he discovered that he had grown up in Easton, only eight miles from Owosso, where Shapiro was from.
The Michigan born MP was able to help him track the records down to an office at headquarters, and found a major who retrieved them from a desk. By luck and a joint effort, the two had managed to find his valuable ticket home.
Shapiro never saw the MP again, despite living less than 10 miles away from each other back in the States. “In all my days here in Michigan and at home, I tried to find him and I never could find him.”
It wasn’t the only face from back in Michigan he would see on his journey home. “Believe it or not, as I was on the deck (of a ship) and we were going home, here was an officer, up on the top deck, that I knew was from Lansing. His name was Bernie Friedland. I hollered up there and he hollered back. He said ‘I’ll get home before you. I’ll tell your folks you’re on your way.”
After arriving at Camp Attlebury, Ind., Shapiro caught a ride to Detroit in an old Plymouth — from a guy who was charging for rides — where his wife was waiting for him with her sister, whose husband was also in the service.
“I got to the house and there was my beautiful wife standing there to greet me. I can see her as though it was yesterday with her hair done way up high, and she was just as pretty as a picture.”
“And that,” says the humble Shapiro of his war experiences, “that’s about it.”
Cean Burgeson can be reached at:

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