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Justice Served

By Terry D. Janes

 

Many of my readers are familiar with the story of the crew of "Mad Dog", the M4 Sherman tank from Company C, 702nd Tank Battalion.  Lt. John Prestridge commanded "Mad Dog".   Lt. Prestridge was Platoon Leader of 3rd Platoon of C Company.  Cpl. George Gearheart was "Mad Dog's" able Gunner.  I first learned about "Mad Dog" from its Driver, Bonifacio "Fish" Yraguen.  Just after publishing my first book, I got a strange phone call one day.  The caller informed me that he had just read the book, and needed to talk to me and was coming to see me.  He then hung up the phone, leaving me to wonder at whom this was, and what it was about.  The next morning, this same man called back, informing me that he was at the Kansas City International Airport.  He asked me if I could come to get him and his wife.  I went to pick them up and first met this simple looking man and his wife.  Both looked like your average Midwestern farming couple.  I certainly had no idea that Mr. Yraguen, or "Fish" as his fellow tankers called him, was a multi-millionaire.  I accepted him for what I saw, and that was an old, sick man whose time was nearing an end.  At home, in Oregon he owned a very large logging company, ranches, and all of his money was self-made.  Boni, as I called him was a true American success story.  The man had a third grade education, spent his childhood as an old fashioned sheep-herder living in a wooden wagon in the mountains, proudly served his country as a tank driver in W.W. II, and made his fortune by sweat and good sense afterward in the logging business.  But to me, he was a veteran who was about to die, and wanted to make sure his story was told while he was still able.  I felt honored that he chose to reveal what he had kept locked inside of him since the war to me.  I also felt honored that he trusted me, a complete stranger, to continue telling his story after he was no longer around to do so.

 

Boni was a colorful character.  Of Basque descent, his parents immigrated to the US when he was a child.  He was the first to learn English in his family.  Boni was especially proud to be a Red Devil tanker from the 80th Division.  During the war, Boni had three tanks shot out from under him.  Boni was a deeply religious person.  I don't mean he was some "preachy" goodie-two shoe.  He was raised in the Old-World Basque Catholic tradition, and kept his religion within himself, but he took it very, very serious.  I spent quite some time with Boni, interviewing him about his experiences in World War Two.  During those interviews, we laughed, and we cried together.  His lovely wife Julia accompanied him, and sat in on our discussions, listening quietly.  It quickly became apparent that she was hearing his stories for the first time, as was I.  You see, in all those years, Boni had never told anyone about what he had seen and done.  Not even his wife and children.  I realize now that was a common thing with men of that generation.  They didn't discuss the horrors of the war, and they certainly never bragged.  If Boni were to brag, it would only be about how proud he was of his fellow soldiers in the 702nd Tank Battalion and 80th Infantry Division.  He was very humble about his own role in the war.  This is also common with men like him.  As I absorbed Boni's stories, and had a chance to corroborate them with original documents I became aware of what an extraordinary man I was talking to.  Much later, I was able, and honored to nominate Boni's tank crew for the "Combat Tank Ace Award" at Fort Knox, Kentucky's Armor School.  Boni's crew of the tank known as "Mad Dog" was given an award by the Armor School, and at the time ranked as the #1 U.S. tank crew for the highest number of kills against enemy armor.

 

Boni was proud of that award.  Not for himself, but for his crew, the 702nd Tank Battalion Red Devils, and the 80th Division.  He wanted it to be a symbol for all the men, because they had earned it together.  At war's end, when so many rear-echelon types were awarding themselves medals for their "bravery", this true hero, and many others like him got nothing.  It wasn't the medal itself he would have wanted, but the rotation points he would have gotten, and which he truly deserved.  See, with enough rotation points, a GI got to go home sooner.  That is all he wanted; to get home as fast as possible to his beloved wife Julia.  Boni was not so lucky.  He had to serve out his time in post-war Germany.  So, all these many years later when I interviewed him, any glory for him meant very little.  He simply wanted his outfit to get some of the credit they had been denied by fate and deeply deserved.  He wanted the world to know he was damned proud to be a Red Devil, damned proud to be in the 80th Division, damned proud to have served under General George Patton, and damned proud to be an American.  That is where he wanted any credit to go, in that order.  After the commotion of the award had settled down and he was back at home, he bought a new car for himself and Julia.  He paid cash for his new Lincoln Town Car.  In fact, he got into an argument with the salesman, because the salesman insisted on trying to discuss financing terms, and couldn't comprehend that Boni wanted to pull cash out of his pocket to pay for the luxury car.  Boni had to call in the manager to get a cash price.  After shocking the car dealer, he drove his new car home.  He liked it so much; he called me to tell me about it.  Because he felt indebted to me for my making such huge personal sacrifices to write the book about his outfit, and because we had become very good friends, he wanted to buy me a car just like his.  I gently and politely refused, in spite of the fact that my rusty old van was on its last leg, and I could not afford to replace it.  He insisted, telling me that he would call a Lincoln dealer near me, and have a car delivered.  He wanted it to be "Red Devil Red".

 

I explained to Boni that it would be unethical for me to take a large gift like that for my work as a historian.  I wanted there to be no question by anyone that what I wrote was truth, and nothing but the truth.  When I put it to him in those terms, he understood and respected me the more.  It wasn't too much longer and my friend Bonifacio Yraguen passed away.  Little did I know, that very soon my concerns about my journalistic integrity being questioned would become a reality.  After Boni died, certain ill-informed, very crass people, whom I will not dignify to name began calling me a liar about the events that took place in the little town of Heiderscheid, Luxembourg on December 23, 1944.  They were also calling Boni a liar.  The fact that the statements I had made in my book about that day's events were backed up by multiple government documents and the testimony of numerous veterans meant little to these "pseudo-historians".  They claimed that at that time period, the German Army did not have that many armored vehicles.  These people had an agenda, which would have us believe that the German Army was vastly under equipped to fight against the Americans in the Battle of the Bulge.  They would have us believe that the all-mighty, vastly superiorly equipped American Army overwhelmed the poor, defenceless German Army.  Evidently, the huge casualty numbers on both sides and the evidence to the contrary meant nothing to these wannabe re-writers of history.  These same people would have us also believe that the Holocaust never happened, and that it was just Jewish propaganda.  I knew what I had written was true, and I knew that my friend Boni had spoken the truth.  My dear old friend and Mentor, Col. William B. "Bull" Miller got especially angry to hear these people calling me a liar.  He staunchly defended me to all comers.  I personally, was not so angry at my having been insulted and having my integrity questioned, but I was very damned mad at having my friend Boni insulted, especially as he was no longer alive to fight back.

 

The whole incident eventually died down, and was forgotten by most.  I don't hold any personal grudge for the slight against me, but will admit that it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth to think of this true American hero being called a liar.  Not long ago, I was visited by a proud member of L Company, 319th Infantry Regiment at my home.  His name is Bill Krehbiel.  Bill is the Author of the very fine book, "The Pride Of Willing And Able" about L Company, 319th Infantry Regiment in World War Two.  Bill is also the author of a newly published, and extraordinary book about the 80th Division in World War One.  When Bill came to my home, he was kind enough to bring along his massive photo album of his service in the Second World War.  I asked Bill if he would mind my scanning the photos it contained, and posting them here on this website.  He agreed, and I set to work.  The majority of those photos were just recently posted online.  Imagine my shock and delight to find four crystal clear photos of Heiderscheid, Luxembourg taken on December 23, 1944!  Here in my hands, I held the photographic proof of the truth Boni and I had spoken.  And now, without further adieu, for the first time in public, I present to you my readers the photos of what took place that cold day in Heiderscheid, Luxembourg on December 23, 1944:

 

 

In this photo, Cpl. George Gearheart stands looking into one of the armored vehicles "Mad Dog" destroyed.  The stateside newspapers used a cropped, grainy photo similar to this at the time to tell of the Silver Star Medal Cpl. Gearheart was awarded for this action.  The rest of the crew got nothing!

 

A disabled German SP-Gun

 

A disabled German Panther

 

 

I cannot swear to it, but the man on the left in this last photo very much resembles Lt. John Prestridge and the man on the right, my dear old friend Bonifacio "Fish" Yraguen!  It matters not, for this is Heiderscheid, Luxembourg on December 23, 1944, and this is the German armored column that "Mad Dog" knocked out!  This shot was taken from close to the position of where "Mad Dog" sat that morning as this German armored column drove past it's position.  Note the black marks, all on the same side of the German vehicles, where "Mad Dog's" cannon blasted each one.  Now that my friend Boni has been vindicated, may this serve as an object lesson to those who would re-write history for their own twisted agenda, whilst calling the truth a lie.  The truth will prevail!

 

My Eternal Thanks To Bill Krehbiel For These Images!

 

 

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