World War II

The Great Pinochle Game

 ...The price of freedom

by Irving Smolens

This is a World War II story. The Melrose connection in addition to being an experience similar to mine, although mine was not exactly the same, is that I read it at the WW II and Korean War Memorial in front of the former Coolidge School on this past Veteran's Day. After reading the story and my own comments after the reading, many in the assembled audience were visibly moved and made their feelings known to me.

Peter Russo who wrote the story was the chief of the gun section next to my own. After Cherbourg was liberated, B battery was reconstituted and Peter was transferred from his own C Battery to B Battery as a replacement. I was making arrangements to meet him at the dedication of the D-day Museum in New Orleans when I learned of his somewhat sudden death from a heart attack.

His story, more than any other I have read anyplace, is the embodiment of all that we were experiencing as we were about to assault Hitler's Europe and go into combat for the first time. The weather, the living conditions aboard the landing craft, the seasickness, the humor and escapism of a Pinochle game under those adverse conditions, and the ever-present fears we all felt, but kept to ourselves, were all part of something that, in large part, we all shared and the memory of which has remained vivid in our minds for almost fifty-seven years.(I.S.)

The Great Pinochle Game

D-Day minus three, found the crew of this Artillery Battery crammed aboard a Navy LCT (landing craft tank). An LCT resembles and is about the size of a sand-carrying barge. Carefully squeezed into its hold were four self-propelled 105 mm howitzers, one supply truck and one jeep. Walking between vehicles was next to impossible. Little walking would be done during the sea voyage.

We were barely out of the English Harbor when the greater part of the gun crew succumbed to sea sickness. There was a mad scramble for position on this small craft. The men who were not the fastest and the strongest were to take up topside resting areas. The winners nestled near two toilets, one on the starboard, and the other on the port side of the bow. All but the Pinochle players remained wet throughout the trip. If the drizzle did not keep one wet, the sea spray did.

The great Pinochle Game began as soon as we reached deeper water. Four of us chose partners, ducked under the truck tarp and began the game which was to last three days. We preferred the outdoors and bright lights, but the weather, sea spray and vomit kept the game under the tarp.

On the evening of June 5, 1944, a meeting was called. The few able to attend gathered around to hear of the postponement of the invasion. Word was passed on to the sick men and eventually a rumor was spread about. Some color appeared to return to the faces of the sick when the word of a return to England reached their ears. In short order, the paleness returned along with the sea sickness, regardless of the good news. The Pinochle Game, of course, continued.

One more crummy day passed into night and the sea was as rough as ever. Another meeting was called during the early morning hours. Again, those able to attend gathered around. This time the word was "Go". The Invasion was on for this day, June 6, 1944. All at this meeting were briefed as to the enemy strength, our landing spearhead force and the beachhead assigned. We were directed to pass this information on to the others when possible. There would be no return to England. The spearhead infantry was ours and we would land on their backs on H Hour. Back to the game for the Pinochle players.

Daylight was now approaching and the volume of planes flying overhead was noticed. Bombs were landing on the beach, in hopes of destroying enemy gun emplacements. The Navy guns joined in pelting the same area. We stopped the Pinochle game to watch the rocket-carrying craft speed in front of us. A few hundred yards off our port side, the rockets were unleashed. We looked on as the tiny lights of the fired rockets created a Coney Island fireworks scenario.

Our attention was diverted by a large boom to our left flank and not more than 50 feet to our center. The boom was followed by a huge puff of smoke. B Battery was leading the Battalion Artillery toward the landing site on Normandy. It struck a mine in the water and was gone. We could see very little debris and a few bodies as we rode by. All on our LCT were up and looking at what was left of B Battery personnel, the landing craft and the equipment. Sea sickness was replaced with horror and fear. We were introduced to our first combat exposure. We focused on the enemy artillery rippling along our landing zone and thought about the losses to be added to that of B Battery.

LCT Prototype

Not a sound was to be heard on this craft until we landed. We became seasoned veterans before one round was fired in support of our Infantry. The Pinochle Game was over.

There were 60 men on board the LCT carrying B Battery to Utah Beach. Thirty-seven of those men were killed in the explosion and the twenty-three others were severely wounded. Many of those who died that day were my buddies. The bodies of most of those who were killed were never identified or recovered. Their names are memorialized for all eternity on the granite walls of the Garden of the Missing in the cemetery overlooking the Invasion Beaches. There are more than 1500 names on that wall from all branches of the armed services. Virtually every panel in the rotunda has at least one name of a soldier with whom I had served.

The ultimate sacrifice of those men is a constant reminder to me, as it should be to all, that "Freedom is not Free."

May 4, 2,001

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