By BUTCH WEIR/Special to the Item
The Picayune Item
The years are widening from when the bombs stopped falling in 1945 and the Greatest Generation’s ranks are thinning but enough remain to provide vivid reminders of that dreadful time.
Dr. Vernon Tuttle, retired Poplarville chiropractor and veteran of World War II who fought in the European Theater of Operations, can still bring up memories of that time — even though the details may not be as sharp as they once were.
“We had good times, we had bad times,” he said of his wartime experiences.
Tuttle, almost 19, was drafted in April, 1943, did his basic training at Camp Robinson, Ark., followed by a 7-day leave and then returned to the base in Arkansas in August. He said they then boarded ships for the voyage to Oran in North Africa.
After three days they boarded ships to Naples, Italy, across the Mediterranean where he said there was still some German resistance. He said the soldiers could still see smoke rising from where bombing in the city had occurred.
While at Naples, two representatives of the Rangers Special Forces group visited his unit at the replacement center at the University of Naples and asked if there was anyone who wanted to volunteer for the Rangers. Tuttle said he and a buddy of his volunteered.
The Rangers were a Special Forces unit originally trained for mountain combat. That special training was required because the original mission was to attack installations in Norway where Germany was producing heavy water, a special component in the production of an atomic bomb. That mission plan was shelved and their first taste of combat came in Italy, taking a mountainous position by scaling a cliff face the Germans considered unapproachable.
The 4th Battalion received six weeks of intensive Ranger training from the 1st Special Service Force, later dubbed the Black Devils by the Germans because of the black grease paint used as night camouflage. The 1st, 3rd and 4th Ranger Infantry Battalions came to be known as Darby’s Rangers after its commanding officer, William O. Darby.
Days started with a four to five mile forced march, alternating between running and fast walking. Then, there was the live fire training, Tuttle said. “One fellow, not in the bunch I was with, got killed. They were shooting pretty close.”
Soon after finishing training Tuttle said they began their first combat action, that included the landing at Anzio, which lasted almost a month although he said it wasn’t supposed to last that long. The Anzio landing and subsequent combat actions were critical to the Allied Italian campaign and has been featured prominently in several movies.
The 4th Ranger Battalion and Tuttle’s Co. E’s involvement came after the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions had gone up on the line. The resulting fighting saw many soldiers of the 1st and 3rd Ranger battalions killed or captured and the 4th Battalion lost over half of its men, Tuttle said.
Accounts from Ranger veteran Internet sites record the sad events.
“On January 30, 1944, the 1st and 3rd Rangers Battalions with the 4th in reserve were to take the town of Cisterna in a daring night action behind the German lines.” Prior to the decision to attempt the surprise night attack the area had been lightly defended, Tuttle said, adding that some patrols had even ventured into Rome unopposed.
When the Germans, now reinforced by a full division of SS soldiers and paratroopers, discovered the 1st and 3rd Rangers brigades, a furious battle ensued, he said. “The 1st and 3rd Battalions were surrounded and under murderous machine-gun and mortar fire. ... The 4th Ranger Battalion tried desperately to reach the trapped sister units but was stopped.” (Armyranger.com, World War II - North Africa/Europe, by LTC JD Lock)
The 4th Battalion, in its abortive attempt to relieve the other two battalions, was surrounded for a brief time, but managed to retire the next day. “We didn’t have much chance,” Tuttle said. “I was one of the lucky ones.”
Though the exact figures were not known, it is estimated that of the nine hundred Rangers that went into the pocket, fifty percent were killed or wounded and fifty percent were captured.” (Armyranger.com, World War II - North Africa/Europe, by LTC JD Lock)
Tuttle remembers to this day one part of the action where he was under German fire.
“There were foxholes there out in the area we were in and the Germans had been there before in (the) foxholes and I jumped in one — it was a stand-up foxhole — and every time I’d stick my head up, they’d cut dirt around me with machine guns.
He said “that happened about three times and I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to play dead.’ So I stayed down for what seemed like forever and I come out of that foxhole and headed for another one. Well, I had an idea where I was going and I got there and they cut dirt on me again.”
He spent the night in that new foxhole. The next morning Tuttle said regular U.S. infantry came in and they were able to recover their dead.
After that engagement the remainder of the Ranger force was combined with Canadian Special Forces into what became known as the Devil’s Brigade. They went on to participate in operations in southern France.
Tuttle said he stayed in that force until December, 1944, when the group disbanded and members returned to their respective country’s forces. He said his unit then became part of the 474th Infantry regiment that included a battalion of Norwegian forces. “That gave us an inkling of where we were headed next,” Tuttle said.
Allied command was reconsidering action against Germany’s plans to develop an atomic bomb, specifically its heavy water production facilities.
At the same time the pace of the war was increasing. Tuttle said his force was enhanced by mechanization and began mopping up enemy forces in Europe that had been bypassed in the initial advances. The war’s end found them in Norway as part of occupation forces until the remaining surrendered German troops could be sent back to Germany. Tuttle said Germany’s harsh occupation of Norway during the war necessitated the Allies’ protection of the German prisoners.
Tuttle said his unit moved to northern Germany to begin the approximate two-week voyage to the United States, passing the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor near the end of October, 1945.
Reflecting on his wartime service, Tuttle said that unlike some returning veterans, he had not experienced any emotional illnesses such as what is now described as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“A lot of people say, ‘Do you have post traumatic syndrome.’ No, I never did. I don’t know why. I’ve seen some bad things and went through some bad things.” He had two minor wounds when many around him had serious ones, he said.
Tuttle credits his survival to what he calls “those little voices.”
“They don’t actually speak to you. When something tells you to do something or don’t do something, you did it.” One time, later in the war, Tuttle said they were guarding about two hundred German prisoners in a walled courtyard. The guards were in a circle spaced about 30 yards apart around the prisoners when something “kept telling him to move.” It made him so uneasy he moved over to stand with the next guard. “About that time a shell blew a hole in the wall behind where I was (first) standing.”
“A lot of times I didn’t know whether I was going to get home or not. I had my doubts.”
A year and a half after his return Tuttle began studying chiropractic medicine. That was not his original career choice, he said. During the war he’d had some back problems but was told it was probably from “sleeping on the ground,” but after the war they started again.
Then, during a game of bowling as he threw the ball down the lane he ended up flat of his back and spent a week in bed. His wife, who had used chiropractic doctors, urged him to try that for relief.
One thing led to another and Tuttle ended up becoming a chiropractor, later setting up a practice in Poplarville and finally retiring in 1999.
Tuttle said had kept in touch with some of his fellow veterans but their ranks are thinning. In September he was one of 88 veterans to participate in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight. The organization, sponsored in partnership with the Kiwanis Division 14 Foundation, sponsors a flight, free of charge for World War II veterans, “to visit those memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of themselves and their comrades.”
He said the flight left Gulfport Sept. 25 for Washington. Each veteran is assigned a “guardian” as a personal chaperone. The veterans, some with canes and in wheelchairs, are treated with the utmost respect. Tuttle is a spry 88 and still drives although he uses a cane sometimes when walking.
The 88 veterans visited many of the memorials in Washington before concluding on the day-long trip at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which Tuttle said was a fitting end to the trip.
“What impressed me so much about that was the way they (the guards) march,” putting one foot down in front of the other for 21 steps and then returning.
Tuttle said getting off the plane in Gulfport after the return flight, the final highlight of the trip was the reception at the airport. “That airport was just loaded with people and all branches of the military lined up. We marched through that and people all over that place, they were clapping hands and singing.”
He compared it to the welcome at the end of the war, coming into New York City on the transport ship past the Statue of Liberty with fireboats shooting jets of water, bands playing on barges, and ships large and small.
“That was quite a welcome, but this they had at Gulfport was fantastic. It was quite a trip.”