12 wrz 2015

Sidney Thal’s Story - Part 1: "At once our attack was brought to a halt"

My father was born in Russia in Smila, near Kiev. My mother was born in Rhode Island. I was born October 3th, 1918, the 4th of five sons, no girl! My father and mother worked together in my fathers’ business for many years until his death from burst appendix in 1936, due to peritonitis. My mother died in 1977 from Leukemia.

My father came to America as a young boy as an indentured worker to a slaughter house operator near Philadelphia. His family in Russia were tanners, so he was an experienced meat cutter. He quickly became expert as a judge of meat-grader of quality! After his marriage in 1906 my father opened small meat markets in South Philadelphia. After a series of moves from small stores to larger stores he finished up in Chester, PA in his last and best store, in 1927, with five sons – 4 helping when not in school.

Immediately after his death in 1936 my mother sold our house and sent me and my youngest brother to Pennsylvania Military College (PMC), a boarding school in Chester, Pa, in September 1936.

The school, PMC, had two divisions in its entire history – college and high school. I graduated in June of 1937 and went to work in a store owned by my older brother, Leonard, in Philadelphia. In 1936, where my oldest brother, Edward, went to Miami Beach, where he went into the hotel business with money borrowed from my mother so, in January 1938 I went to Florida to work with my brother until I enlisted in the army Air force in 1940, in the month of October. I enlisted (volunteered) because I was convinced that war with Germany was certain.

My experience at PMC was incalculably helpful, because I was a corporal by the second day responsible to teach 800 new recruits how to march, military law, and daily physical training.Two weeks later we were on our way to Puerto Rico. Within 3 months I was a radio and machine gunner on B-28-medium bombers stationed at Borinquen field.

In January 1942 I went to Fort Benning, Georgia, to become a lieutenant in The Infantry. When I graduated Officers Candidate School in May of 1942 I chose the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

When I joined the 9th Division we were training for amphibians landing and on one of the practice landings we left for the invasion of North Africa!!! We landed November 7th, 1942 in French Morocco.
We landed on a beach south of Safi in French Morocco. Safi is about 50 miles south of Casablanca. Within 5 hours we were in the town of Safi – a quick landing, very little resistance, and welcomed by French troops. From Safi we next were sent to Kasserine Pass to relieve the few forces left. I was now 2nd Battalion Communication Officer – still a 2nd Lieutenant.

Click on the map to move to the Liberation Trilogy website and see the Interactive Map and the Slideshow to learn more about the Operation Torch, Invasion of North Africa.
The map is taken from Rick Atkinson's book "An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy" (Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; 2007)
© Rick Atkinson, with permission.

After a 3 week stay at Kasserine Pass we then went to take part in a huge attack at El Guettar in Tunisia, where I was captured. The battle of El Guettar involved 3 American divisions, including ours; it was a night attack. The path was so narrow that we were forced to walk in single file (five paces apart) so our four companies formed a line 4000 yards long up to the line of departure. The first attack by the Germans occurred during a rest break! Heavy machine gunfire and hundreds of flares exploded at one time followed by mortar and artillery, heavy barrages.

At once our attack was brought to a halt. The sun was just creeping over the horizon and Colonel Gershenow* ordered me to find out why we were being held up. Within a few minutes I reached the attack company and realized that they were facing a battery of artillery fire, point-blank, pinning them down. By the time I returned to report to Colonel Gershenow he had disappeared with his staff. Due to heavy fire, I found myself alone and crawled back trying to keep safe till I ran into Lt. Craig Campbell* (ex aide de camp to General Einsenhower), we found a shell hole and set up a point of fire. After a few hours we were out of ammunition and water. The sun was high and cries of the wounded all around us was critical. We discussed surrendering and finally we decided to do so!

I was carrying a Garand rifle, so I tied my handkerchief to the barrel and waved it overhead. All firing ceased – two Germans some distance away stood up and motioned us to come to their position. We picked up a couple of wounded on the way and wound up as POWs. The Germans then joined our survivors gathering the wounded. They were immediately tended to by the German doctors. We were, all unwounded, searched, and disarmed – tagged and under armed guards marched to trucks. Shortly after we were on our way we numbered about 150 on a 3 trucks convoy.

We were taken to a field where spent the night under a poorly live enclosure, guided by soldiers with machine guns. This first night was spent with all of us wide awake wondering what is going to happen next. The worst fears were the unknown. We had, luckily, a few German speaking American kids who translated everything. According to them we were on our way to the city of Tunis – the capital of Tunisia. In the morning we were on our way.

*Lt. Col. Louis Gershenow and 1st Lt Craig Campbell were also POW of Oflag 64.

© Sidney Thal
Edited by Mariusz Winiecki
Special thanks for Cheryl Ellis, for corrections on her father's story

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