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Life on a thin skin with Patton

Fri, May 18th, 2001
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Elden Grabau served with the famed Second Armored DivisionBy Charles PautlerMonday, May 21, 2001

One morning last February my fiancee and I decided to go to the VFW pancake breakfast in Spring Valley. This combined two of my favorite interests; eating and talking. I havent lived in Spring Valley for four years, so every time I go to one of these breakfasts I always make it a point to make new acquaintances. One new friend I met that day was Elden Grabau, who came over to our table to make us feel welcome and keep our coffee hot. As he walked over to the table, I nudged Mary and whispered, "I bet that guy was at the Bulge". She is so used to this by now that I think she said something like, "maybe he was, but dont ask him too many questions."

We talked with Elden for about half an hour, and found out that not only was he at the Battle of the Bulge, but also the invasion of North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy, as well as the months of combat which followed each invasion during World War Two. I was lucky enough to be invited over to his house and talked with him in depth the next week, and like most veterans, found him to be generous, informative, and very honest in the stories he told. I could easily fill up a book with his stories, but here are a few experiences he shared with me.

Born in Forestville, Minnesota to Adolph and Anna Grabau, Eldon was the oldest of eleven children; nine boys and two girls. He grew up in Forestville, and was inducted into the army in February, 1941.

"I was still single and 23 years old," Elden said. "I had basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and it was the first time I had been so far away from home. Of my eight living brothers, six of them were in the service, and three of us saw combat. I was in the 67th Armored Regiment of the Second Armored Division. Our nickname was Hell On Wheels, and we were commanded by General George Patton."

Once in the army, Elden was sent to a special school where he learned how to drive and fire tanks.

"In a tank you could have four or five guys. You had a driver, assistant driver, tank commander, gun loader, and radio man. Sometimes depending on the situation we had four and the radio man and loader were the same guy. If the radio was tied in to Battalion then we had to have another radio operator, then we would use a fifth man. When I first started driving a light tank we had no intercom within the tank and used shoulder taps to communicate. The driver sat down below in the tank and the commander sat up above in the turret. If you wanted to go right, the commander would tap you on the right shoulder with his foot. If it was a sharp right hed push down hard. To speed up, hed put his toe in and poke you in the back. To stop hed put his foot on your head."He was then sent to mechanics school and learned how to maintain and repair tanks and other armored vehicles, including half-tracks. This specialized training was important because once overseas he would be in charge of four to five men who worked day and night to repair tanks and other vehicles when they broke down, often under extremely dangerous circumstances.

"I was a staff sergeant and laid out all the work," Elden told me. "When we had to move, I spent most of my time in a half-track. Half-tracks were called "thin-skins" because the armor was so thin. When we convoyed, we were always the last one in the convoy in case someone had trouble. We would help fix whatever equipment needed it, then catch up with the rest of them. Sometimes wed get there 1-1/2 hours after everyone else."

"On campaign, if a jeep had a flat tire, wed carry several spares in our half track and give the guys in the jeep one of them. Then theyd drive along side and throw us the flat which wed fix while we were still moving. When we would finally get to bivouac (camp), we would have to check all the vehicles and equipment to see if anything was wrong. A lot of times we never got any sleep at all. Daylight would come and we would move out again. The guys would lay in the half-track for a half hour or so to get whatever sleep they could. If something broke down wed have to work on it all night long."

The First Foxhole:
North Africa

"We left for North Africa from Norfolk Virginia," Elden said. "Our ship went out and we convoyed with 850 other ships. After two days all of a sudden our ship quit. They sent a diver down only to discover that we had lost the propeller. Here we had to sit, bobbing out there; we were sitting ducks for a submarine. They left two destroyers back with us, and called for a tug. We were pulled up next to another ship which was a Liberty Ship. For the next two days we unloaded our ship onto theirs day and nightfood, half tracks, ammunition, gasoline, equipment, everything. They were still painting the ship as we were loading itthe hatches werent even covered yet; the sailors had to put something over them while we were moving. We were five days behind the convoy, and we eventually caught up to them. We passed through the convoy because we had a lot of fighting equipment on our boat. We were put at the head so we could start the invasion of North Africa."

"In North Africa, we went over the side of the ship on big ropes into the landing craft. The craft was big enough to hold us and our half-track. It was pretty rough in that landing craft with the waves going up and down. I had my rifle then and about five or six bandoleers of ammunition around me, and my pack, so I was pretty weighed-down. They ran us into shore as far as they could. It was about waist deep when we landed. Our half-track had an air-breather on the carburetor so the engine wouldnt stall. There was not that much enemy resistance where we landed."

"The first foxhole I ever dug was in a cemetery up on a hill. While we were up in that hole, I saw my first German airplane, a Stuka. He was going to bomb, but he didnt drop them anywhere near us, but then he decided to strafe us with his machine gun. I layed in that hole up there in that cemetery and thought, so this is what war is. Thats what went through my mind. We eventually got him, because farther down our line there was a big cloud of smoke."

When asked about sleep deprivation, Elden replied, "During combat you didnt get much sleep. In North Africa and England we would get some sleep between operations when we were in more of a routine, but combat was different. I remember many times when on the road Id sleep standing up in the half-track while standing in that circle (the gun mount frame). One time it was raining and we couldnt dig any holes, so we parked there and I just went off and layed in the ditch. First thing I knew after about an hour and a half the damn water was running in my sleeping bag. I just moved over a little bit and went back to sleepI was soaking wet anyway; that didnt make any difference."


After about four months in North Africa, Elden and his unit geared up for the invasion of Sicily, which the Allied commanders viewed as the key to eventually taking Italy.

"We went over land from Casablanca, up through the Atlas Mountains, clear over to Tunisia, stayed there for two weeks, and then invaded Sicily. We loaded onto an LST (Landing Ship Tank) and waited in the bay for 1-1/2 weeks. It was very stormy the night we landed in Sicily; it was black and cold. There I had my first experience at being strafed on a ship. I was so darned scared my knees were shaking so much that I had to grab and hold them. I could hear the ricochet bullets hitting the steel. We all got scared."

"We could see land as we were coming in and the enemy started shelling. The Destroyers layed out smoke so the Germans couldnt see what was going on. Our LST couldnt get in close enough, so

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