HELLZAPOPPIN IN NORMANDY

Interviewed by Bill Copeland
with Joseph T. Surowiec

Theodore “Ted” Surowiec, Corporal
747th Tank Battalion
H Company
Gunner
12-1942 to 9-16-45

Medals: Purple Heart

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Ted was interviewed at his home in Lilburn, Georgia on December 5, 2007. At 86, he still has a warm smile and keen sense of humor. His memory for details isn’t what he would like it to be, but he talked freely and shared the experiences he went through in his life leading up to and during the initial days of the Allied invasion of Normandy in the summer of 1944. The following is his story as he related it.
(Posted December 28, 2007)

*****

I was inducted into the army at the age of 21 in December, 1942 in Newark, New Jersey. My sister, Felicia, accompanied me to the Old Newark Armory where I was sworn in. I was sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey for classification and assignment of specialty and training. We weren’t there long before we boarded a train that took us to Camp Hood in Texas. Camp Hood was a major tank training base. I was assigned to a tank company in the 747th Tank Battalion. We started training in the old M3 “Grant” Tank with a 37 mm gun. But, before long, we received the tank we would be using in Europe, the M4 “Sherman” Tank with a 75 mm gun.

M3 Grant

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M4 Sherman

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I remember that the tanks had steel treads on the track and churned the dirt into dust as fine as talcum powder when dry and a black, muddy quagmire when wet. The tanks were ice boxes in winter and ovens in summer. We went on maneuvers, war games, in Louisiana. My tank was going up a hill amid a lot of fallen timbers, with stumps 24 inches off the ground. Well, we rolled up on one of them, straddling the tracks, and got stranded. A game umpire approached us and marked our tank as destroyed. It seems funny now, but it wasn’t then. It was strangely coincidental to what was to happen to me in France.

After my training in Texas and a short furlough, the 747th shipped out for New York City. The tanks were put on flatbed railcars. Someone had to ride guard (shotgun) with the tanks. I and several of my buddies volunteered and rode with the tanks from Houston to Louisiana during the winter of 1944. It was a mistake. The cold and wind caused me to spend a lot of time in the tank along the way.

When I was younger I learned to play the accordion. I had a small one with me at the time, which I played for the boys during training. I had it with me when we finally reached our destination in New York. We were boarding a Liberty Ship and I asked my commanding officer what I should do with the instrument. He told me in might be good to have it and to take it along to Europe, so I kept it with me; but I didn’t play it much.

It was my first time on a ship. It was February, 1944, and the trip was terrible. Huge swells lifted the ship and set it down in troughs where we couldn’t even see the other ships. It was a bad time. Lots of the boys were seasick and not in the mood for music. Seasickness is worse inside the ship, but the weather was too cold to spend much time topside.

Finally, we reached Glasgow, Scotland, and we were glad to go ashore. We had a long march to our bivouac area and I again asked my commanding officer what I should do with the accordion. He told me to carry it along with my pack. He would ask the other men to help me carry it. They did, too. We lined up three across in long lines and when I got tired of carrying the instrument I passed it to the man in front of me. I watched that accordion go from me up to the front of my line, down the line on my right and back up the line on my left. I guess those boys liked to hear me play.

Once we settled in and received our “Shermans” we were instructed to waterproof our tanks. That meant we installed waterproofing materials on the tanks and submerged them into deep pools of water. Closed up inside, we then looked for leaks and patched them up. The tanks had extended intake and exhaust pipes, which rose above the water so the engine could breathe. Once we plugged the leaks, we drove the tank out of that pit. It was a strange feeling being closed up in a tank completely submerged in water.

By this time I had reached the rank of corporal and was assigned as tank commander. My crew consisted of Private Sandit, the driver; Private Switka, the assistant gunner and loader; Private Peter (the “Greek”) Zanis, the assistant driver and me. We drove our tank along with the other “Shermans” down the English roads and streets until we reached our initial station near the 29th Infantry Division at Plymouth, England. Those steel tracks really tore up the English highways. I remember the inlet and surrounding shore at Plymouth was like a park. We erected Quonset huts and tents and slept on straw mattresses. Away from home, not knowing what lay ahead for us, we were nervous and uneasy. Not the best of times but the food was good and I had the accordion. The music lightened our spirits a little and made us feel happy.

I remember seeing German aircraft, surveillance planes I guess, coming over our area. We’d hear the planes come in at night, watched as the lights searched for them, and listened as the antiaircraft artillery opened up. I didn’t see any hits.

We stocked up with battle gear and tank ammo and got ready to move the “Shermans” to the disembarkation point. We were ordered to name each of our tanks for quick field identification. The first letter of the name was to be the same as our company, which for us was H (for headquarters) Company. There was a play on Broadway back in New York City called “Hellzapoppin” and I thought at the time that would be appropriate. My crew agreed so we named the tank after that play, “Hellzapoppin” and stenciled it on both sides of the turret. Little did we know it would soon be popping all around us in Normandy.

I was concerned about the accordion again. There is not a lot of room inside a “Sherman” tank with all the ammo and very little space to carry a musical instrument the size of an accordion. However, I was given permission to bring it with me and I found a place to store it in an empty compartment in the floor of the tank. Luckily it fit well.

An English barge came into the bay and we loaded four of our tanks onto it, one on each corner, making it ride low in the water. It was so low we could stand along the inside of the barge and touch the water. I was concerned we might sink with all that weight. After loading, the barge was anchored in the bay and we sat and waited. On June 4, 1944, we moved into the English Channel. The weather was bad and the water was rough, choppy, and the waves were dangerously high. I was concerned again we would sink. We were ordered to turn around and returned to the bay. I remember feeling a sense of relief.

Then two days later, on June 6th, we did it all over again. Early in the morning the barge moved into the Channel and sailed to Dover. I remember seeing the “White Cliffs”. At Dover, the invasion fleet came together and I could see hundreds of ships, on both sides of us and I remember thinking, “This was going to be easy, a piece of cake.” But it sure didn’t turn out that way. The navy bombarded the coast of Normandy for what seemed to be hours, firing shells which whistled over our heads continuously. I could not believe anyone could be alive on shore after such a pounding.

The 29th Infantry went in with the first wave on Omaha Beach. My unit, the 747th Tank Battalion, was held in reserve. Our barge sat out in the Channel all day looking for a place to go in. I had a pair of binoculars and could see what was happening on shore. It seemed everything was on fire; tanks, trucks, everything…. I remember seeing the bodies of soldiers, all lined up with their boots sticking straight up; a lot of bodies; our guys. They were lying all over the beach, and some were still floating in the water.

We waited in the Channel bobbing up and down with big waves. The navy scuttled a ship offshore to serve as a breaker, but we sat and couldn’t find a place to land amid all the debris and obstacles. We ate, slept, and lived on our tanks while waiting to go ashore; waiting and looking at the bodies filling the beach and the water’s edge. We watched as crews threw grappling hooks into the water to pull out the bodies and clear the area, but there were still more bodies. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Finally, a navy cruiser came by and motioned us forward. We received a signal from the beach directing us to a landing spot. That was June 9th. We had been living on the barge for three days waiting to get the call. I got an uneasy feeling as we got close to the beach. With all the stuff floating around us, bodies, gas masks, gas cans, and other debris littering the water and beach, I really got scared then.

At the place where we were to go ashore, large tape had been laid on the beach, which indicated where the minefields had been cleared. If we followed the tape, we would be able to move safely across the beach and inland. The first tank off the barge was following the tape but got a little too far off the path and detonated a mine destroying the tank. I remember seeing the entire heavy steel track and drive sprocket bent 90 degrees outward. We had to wait until another area was cleared of mines before moving forward again. We moved off the beach and up a hill. I remember that we parked in a spot near a dead GI soldier. It appeared he had been shot in the shoulder, had bled badly and maybe died of shock. We knew that it would probably be several days before his body was recovered so we covered him up.

Like I said, we were attached to headquarters company along with the two other tanks just off the beachhead. We were ordered to take a technician to the front in our tank to repair a radio, and were then told to stay at the front line until needed. After delivering the technician we spent the night reconnoitering for the enemy by firing machinegun rounds into nearby suspected German hiding places. I could see Germans troops through my binoculars moving around in the far distance beyond our guns. The next day we picked up an artillery forward observer named Lieutenant Lindsey. I moved down to the gunner’s position inside the turret while the Lieutenant was in command. Our job was to take the Lieutenant to points at the front were he could direct artillery fire. We were about ten miles from the beach near a village called Isigny. This was the dangerous hedgerow country of France and we were scouting the area. We drove into several orchards and dismounted keeping as quiet and hidden as we could. I accompanied Lieutenant Lindsey to points where he could fix coordinates on the enemy positions.

Returning to the tank each time, Lieutenant Lindsey called for an artillery strike over the tank radio and within a minute or two we could hear the shells crackling overhead. We then moved to another position and repeated the drill. At one point the Lieutenant directed us to move the tank onto a small dirt path, through the hedges, just wide enough for the tank to get through. I told the Lieutenant we were instructed to stay off the roads. He overruled me and we advanced down the path. I was in the gunner’s position again when I heard Lieutenant Lindsey order the driver to quickly back up and to get off the road. Looking through the periscope I saw a white flash at the end of the road and the Lieutenant yelled for my driver to use the left (steering) lever quickly. We backed off the road and into a big oak tree. The tank started climbing backwards up the tree. It reminded me of the encounter I had with a tree back in Louisiana, but it wasn’t nearly as humorous this time.

We sat against that tree with our side exposed to the enemy when we got hit. I remember that I didn’t hear anything, but felt the explosion and the heat as the inside of the tank became engulfed in flames. I realized that I was on fire and knew I had to get out. I can’t remember any of the boys screaming. I couldn’t hear anything. I do remember Switka swatting the flames on his body. Lieutenant Lindsey was dead or unconscious and slumped in his seat, so I pulled myself out. I put my right foot on the seat to push upwards and tried to use my left leg, but it wouldn’t move. I pulled myself through the opening with my arms, slid out the top and onto the side of the tank, then fell to the ground. I laid there still. I looked at my left leg and knew it was busted, and I couldn’t move it. My assistant driver, Peter “The Greek” Zanis, the only other crewman to escape the flames, pulled me away from the burning tank and propped me against a nearby tree. I watched for hours as the flames and smoke shot out of the turret consuming my buddies; Switka, Sandit, and Lieutenant Lindsey. My accordion went with it, and so did the music.

The fire had burned my clothes and I was lying there mostly naked with burns all over my body. There was no bleeding or pain, which had to be a blessing at the time, but my left leg was shattered. I knew I was in trouble when I looked at it. I remember thinking, “What a mess it was in”. There were voices in the distance and I laid there for about three hours afraid the Germans were going to find me and kill me. I heard rustling in the leaves and played dead, but thank God it was an advancing unit of American GI’s. One of them found a blanket and covered me up, while another gave me sulfur and water. I know they were worried I would go into shock. For me the war was over.

I was evacuated back to the beach to the dressing station where they amputated my left leg just below the hip. After the surgery, they put me in a make-shift hospital at Omaha Beach and I laid in a bed. A nurse came in, all serious and somber and asked me if I knew what they had done to me. I pretended that I didn’t know anything, but glanced under the sheet and acted like I was shocked, just before I told her I knew. I knew all along that I was going to lose that leg, but thought I’d have a little fun with the nurse. I was worried however about what my mother would think: “Would she be disappointed in me, thinking me to be less of a person without two good legs?”

I was next taken to England and put aboard the Queen Mary in the main ballroom, which had been outfitted with three-tiered bunk beds. They took the bandages off three days out of England and I could see what was left of my leg; nothing more than a stump the size of half a football.

I was put into a hospital in New York while the army looked for a place for my rehabilitation. Private Sandit’s wife came to visit me seeking information about the death of her husband. It was a sad time. My mother and father also came from New Jersey to visit me. My mother was chatty and went on about my injuries. She didn’t seem disappointed at all. My father didn’t know what to say so he remained quiet. That hurt because I really needed his support at that time. My father was a quiet, reserved man however a word of encouragement from him at the time would have lifted my spirits. Perhaps he didn’t know what to say. But I didn’t know what to say either. I have of course forgiven him.

The army finally decided to send me south to Lawson Army Hospital in Chamblee, GA., near Atlanta for special treatment and recovery. It was a large, sprawling facility specializing in treating amputees and other special war injuries. Over several months my burns were treated and I was nursed back to health, eventually being fitted with a prosthesis (artificial wooden left leg). Learning to walk again with the new leg required long hours of practice, patience and determination. While there, I fell in love with a local southern girl, Reba Johnson. She had been working in the Bell Aircraft Plant in Marietta, Georgia, helping to build B-29 bombers for the war. She was also volunteering time in the hospital to help cheer up the guys. We eventually married and raised a family. I love the south and I have live here ever since the War.

I didn’t understand at the time why my life was spared that June day in France, because a lot of America’s finest young men never came home from Normandy, including several of my buddies. Their graves must be marked somewhere in France. I received a letter after the War from Lieutenant Lindsey’s mother requesting details about how her son had died. I wrote back informing her that he died honorably serving his Country and that he did not suffer.

I was still young, thankful to be alive, with the rest my life in front of me. I thanked God for the opportunity he has given me to continue my life each day.

*****
It’s history like this that makes this country great. Men like Ted Surowiec sacrificed a great deal fighting fascism. And women like Mrs. Surowiec worked at home building the weapons that would insure our victory.

Products of the greatest generation? I think so.

Bill Copeland


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