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Otto Olson 

 

"My name is Otto Olson.  I was born September 10, 1907.  I am of Norwegian descent.  My mother and father immigrated from Norway, and settled in Duluth, Minnesota.  I had two brothers and two sisters.  I lived in a time where my mother and father had to work hard to provide for us.  We were the "have nots", but we all did not even know it, as we loved each other and cared.  I graduated from Duluth Central High School.  I worked as a truck driver, delivering groceries for a while.  Then I became a bookkeeper at Turle & Co. (a grain commission company).  The depression closed up the company as Farmers Grain Corp. took over financing the farmer's crops.  Just prior to the "Crash", I was given a membership to the trading floor, and I bought and sold grain, barley, rye, flax, spring wheat, Durum, etc.  I worked many jobs during the depression.

 

I got married in 1939.  On May 30, 1942 I was drafted.  It was ironic, because on that same day, I was asked to go to Chicago and work in the Chicago Board of Trade in grain work.  I was given a free train ride to St. Paul, Minnesota, where I was put up at a camp there.  I took the tests (had an I.Q. of 157), received my shots and got my Army clothes.  I was sent to a trucking group.  After two weeks, I was transferred to a tank company.  When I asked; "Why separate me from the group (as I had just got to know them)"?  The sergeant said; “We need you for tanks-a better job-anyone can drive a truck”.  In a short time, I was placed in a tank group.

 

Dressed all up in our uniforms, (gloves and all) we took our tanks to the airport and gave a demonstration.  We gave a talk on the tank's use, guns and equipment to all the high ranking officials who visited our tank area.  In four to six weeks, I was chosen to go to Gunnery School.  There were three battalions training in the area.  One man from each battalion was chosen to take the gunnery course.  The course lasted three to four months.  At the end of the course, I was given the rating of Buck Sergeant.  I was happy, as I could then call my Wife, Sarah, to come to Fort Knox with me.  I secured a small apartment-no water-kerosene lamps-outside "biffy"-but we two were happy.

 

My Sergeant rating I put on in a rush, so I could go to chow and tell that great big T/4 that I was higher than he was.  I told him, when I pushed up to him as he was right next to getting served.  I said, "Get to the rear of the line.  I'm  pulling my stripes on you, like you did to me when I was a private."  I also said, "Corporal, remember as you go through life, that the man you kicked in the rear, might be your boss one day."  In those days, rubber was a scarce item.  The rubber plantations were unable to supply the United States with enough to resupply our tank's rubber treads.  We policed all roads and saved the smallest pieces in cans, to send back to the manufacturers.  But thanks to our good Lord, a substitute rubber was invented and we had tank treads and no more policing.

 

Our tank men were from Pennsylvania steel mill areas.  I was made Cadre for instruction purposes.  I had one man, about eighteen or nineteen years old.  He did not want to shoot or train with a rifle.  His name was Carlo Ciprianno.  He was afraid of everything.  He was part of the group I was responsible for.  I told him if you want to live, you must endeavor to learn all you can of tanks, guns, etc..  It came time for us to crawl under a large wired in area, with wires everywhere, and live rifle and machine gun fire going all the time, with small explosions being triggered as we went.  I felt so bad for him [Carlo], I had him follow me out of the ditch into the firing area, with a ground hugging crawl (rear-ends pulled down).  I was so concerned about my private, as he followed me, that it was over and I had no time to worry or be afraid.

 

The tank roads around Ft. Knox had red mud, as the basic road material.  It was ground up like fine face powder, and raised some dust when we took driving trips.  We took driving trips for radio use, and other skills one needed, like driving blind with the [tank] Commander in control.  I was one [tank commander].  [There were] two drivers.  One did the driving, the other was ready to take over as told when in an emergency.  I was up in the open top area with my feet where I could put them on the driver's shoulders, and he would slow down or stop, etc..  I had a throat larynx microphone that my crew could hear.  They drove buttoned up [tank hatches closed], for experience.  One day while training the crew, I experienced the tank going off the road and into a forty-five degree angle up the side of the road.  The dust was terrific, and the driver, when I looked in the tank, was sitting and crying, all hands off the steering levers.  "Quick", I yelled to the other practicing private, "Pull your right lever, and get back on the road!"

 

I had to inform Captain Marsh [about the incident], as a person can't break down in a tank.  I did not say boo to anyone else, but that man became a supply sergeant.  My tank, 32 tons with a 75mm gun, was named by me as “Sarah”, after my wife.  I had one private that I felt sorry for.  He could not read or write.  He had no mail, and he was very lonesome for back home.  I had him give me the name and address of this girl he left behind.  I wrote a letter in his name, and he got a letter back.  I had written alot of "Blarney" in the letter, and the girl must have liked it.  This kept up for a good three months when lo and behold, he did some writing on his own.  This had to be done prior to getting the night's sleep.

 

When we went out on maneuvers (Red & Blue?), it was worse than war ever was.  We were set up in Tennessee in a wild rough area.  I went on my first plane ride.  Captain Nordstrom had a pilot friend who made observations of the maneuvers from the air.  He had bragged that he was going to give Captain Nordstrom the works (trick flying), while in the air.  So, Nordstrom sent me up to take his place.  The pilot gave me the works, upside-down flying, steep flying, etc..  I was dizzy for a week after coming down.  The weather was so cold that we had to thaw out some to make coffee.  When our training was completed, we had to make up exercises in tank driving, firing, etc., for a display to some high ranking officials.

 

Out of Proctor & Gamble soap, I made miniature tanks, etc., for a ground display of the action.  This I did in the evening at the apartment, as my wife was down.  To top it off, we drove our tanks through a rough area.  It had two barns we drove through to show the power and how tanks could travel on.  We had to make this display before a grand stand of top army personnel.  We were caught short of two persons for my tank, so I had to go it alone.  Besides driving, I had to load the 75mm tank gun with ammunition.  It was a tough job, but I managed it.  It was all a great success.  I almost made a boo-boo getting the shell into the 75mm gun, with myself being all alone.

 

When this was all over, I was called into the Headquarters office and told a new position had been opened in Battalion level S-2, Enemy Intelligence (Tech Sergeant), and that I was to work in the Battalion office.  I tried to turn it down, as I liked the boys I was training, and the job.  But, they refused.  So, in the office I went.  I worked in conjunction with the Operations Tech Sergeant, Walter Mrozek (of polish origin).  I visited him in Chicago, after the war.  He is now deceased.

 

We spent some time in Kansas, running a light tank in the prairie at high speed.  We were driving blind, with two men below and myself as gun commander up in the open top watching the progress.  I had a throat mic., and a hand mic., and was up in the turret as a watch-dog.  A lieutenant was supposed to have looked the area over, but as we were speeding along at about 50 m.p.h., a huge deep pit, 20 feet wide I'd say, came out of nowhere.  As Commander of the tank, I could have placed my feet on the driver's  shoulders and said "Apply brakes".  This wide ditch was straight up on each side, about 20 feet deep and 20 feet wide.  [There] was not much time to think, but I chose to gamble on the tank being able to jump the crevasse.  We hit the other side.  The tracks spun for a short time and moved the tank over the side.  It sure was an awful jolt, and gave me a whiplash.  If we had not jumped it, we would have died, as the tank would have flipped over with us inside, to a sure death.  You understand, I was kind of [p.o.'d] at the lieutenant, as he did not let us know the terrain ahead of us was eroded and dangerous.  The crew did not know the danger as they were driving blind.  All openings in the crew pit were closed.

 

Blown Bridge

 

My back and neck were sore at times, twenty some months afterward.  I would not have let them know at the time, of the danger, as they could have panicked and pulled on the brakes.  I went to First Aid the next morning, and they said it was old age I was hurting from.  From Kansas, we left on our way to New York City, to prepare for our trip to England.  Our company took a very round-about trip to New York City.  We went on a circuitous trip to Canada.  It was really a tiresome round-about way, so as to fool any espionage spies as to our moving out for overseas operation.  We ate good, driving without lights (blackout).  We stayed on the trains, no way anyone could know what was going on.  I remember all the tunnels we went through.

 

At New York, two sergeants were allowed an evening in New York City.  Three of us went, T/Sgt. Williams, Mrozek and myself.  My second time to New York, we visited Jack Dempsey's Bar.  I had a coke.  I do not drink or smoke.  Someone took pictures of us three for almost nothing.  So we had pictures of it.  My first trip to New York was while I was a sergeant.  I was sent to New York to pick up two privates who just plain ran off from duty, as driver and assistant driver for Colonel Talbot.  With my papers, I went to Ellis Island and picked them up.  I put handcuffs on them, and had to watch them like a HAWK, as they were young and foolish.  I was glad to get them back to Fort Knox.  They were put in the brig for a short time.

 

Back again to the harbor of New York, we were all put aboard a huge English passenger ship [the H.M.S. Mauritania], with our luggage, etc..  Alot of us slept on deck.  All the crew were English Limeys.  They were busy endeavoring to sell us all the latest in women's silk stockings, at a huge price.  There was a shortage in the United States of silk stockings.  As a sales pitch, they said, "The girls will give you anything with socks as a present."  Me, I said, "No soap."   I was married and did not think of cheating on my wife.  I did get good food, and a good batch of sea sickness.  All day, all you could do was look at the wavy waters, the horizon, and watch whales a long distance from the boat.  Whoa, did I get sea sick after six hours of this.  The deck went up and down, when really it was not.

 

When we got off of the ship at Birmingham, England, I was still wobbly.  I do not drink, but I looked like a drunkard.  We were temporarily put on a golf course.  I saw some uniformed English men around the course, and thought they were Captains in the Army, but found out their resplendent uniforms were firemen's.  England was a place of dreams in my growing up days (it's famous authors, way of life, and the antiquity of England itself.).  In Birmingham, we were destined to wait for our tanks.  We were in England until eight days after "D-Day" [Author's note: Actually, the 702nd Tank Battalion was in England until August 6th, 1944.  A full month after "D-Day".].

 

I was somewhat disappointed in England.  I guess all the reading of all the famous authors did it.  While we were on the golf course, in tents, young girls, I mean young, snuck in and solicited their young charms.  The police would grab them.  Our boys were clean in this regard.  From the golf course, we were rationed off to a firehouse to sleep, and eat at a place where food was dished out to us.  No food was allowed to be dumped in the garbage.  You ate it all, I mean all!  The food was not as we had in the good old U.S.A..  I slept one night on the Firehouse floor.  We three Tech-Sergeants (Williams, Mrozek and myself were sent to a funeral home-a private residence with all it's funeral equipment (wheeled wagon, etc.).

 

The woman owner of the funeral home was not keen on us being there.  One night, we went to the town theater, and was disappointed as the pictures showed the English soldiers winning in all their efforts.  The U.S.A. was forgotten, it seemed.  The English soldiers seemed a bit jealous of our boys.  At times, in a brawl, they would take off their wide leather, heavy brass belt buckle hook, and slash away with them, hitting anyone having a disagreement.  While in England, we three sergeants had tea at a tea house.  The girls would get aggravated when we asked for a "spot of tea".  They would say, "It's not “spot”, it's “pot”!"  You could not even get a cookie, cracker, or any food with tea.  Things were rough that way, for the entire nation.

 

There was one thing we all loved, food-wise;  fish and chips.  The vendor was hard to find, and this food went real fast.  We all enjoyed eating fish and chips.  It consisted of potatoes like our French fries, and pieces of ocean fish, all served or packed in old newspaper sheets.  England is nice to see, with narrow roads, thatch-roofed homes, flowers were resplendent in window boxes, etc..  Market was something to see-all open markets, no refrigeration.  If you had to use the toilet when out on the road, it would be found in a tunnel.  One would use the side of the tunnel, where a ditch drained to an outside slope.  We were all made ready to leave England.  Myself, I had all the keys to the locker trunk that carried all the maps for "A","B","C","D" and Maintenance Company's, with orders as to our move to France.  I had the code book for secret messages, in and out.

 

At 12:00, at the harbor, all maps for the future drive were handed out.  Our tanks were aboard, and we set out for the landing.  The weather was good.  We made a good landing, and all vehicles were unloaded.  We set up for the night protecting a unit of heavy artillery.  I remember it well.  We set out a good 3 or 5 miles from where the artillery was.  Not far from where we put up were all the diggings of World War I.  The trenches were all collapsed, [full of]wine bottles, etc.  "D" Company of light tanks were placed on top of a hill to protect the rest of the tanks, when we put up [for the night].

 

Colonel Talbot ordered me to go to "D" Company on the rear hill, and inform them that we were pulling out and to join us, as we proceed back to protect the artillery shooting a German Division of tanks, etc..  I took off with the message, and all of a sudden, I knew I was going the wrong way, as shot up vehicles, etc., were along the road, and a sign saying the river was ahead.  Quickly, I reversed my Jeep and going the right way, and delivered the message to "D" Company.  For awhile, I was a little leery, when I saw all that German equipment around.

 

We took off at around 12:00pm, and picked up "D" Company.  The Colonel had me use a flashlight and place the tank companies around the artillery company on the hill.  It was rough until we got the tanks positioned.  That same night, I slept in a pup tent, right behind this 155mm artillery gun.  I was so tired that I slept with the explosions causing the tent-flaps to go one way and another.  Boy, some noise!  Next morning, I decided I would go down the hill from where all the German tanks, etc., were destroyed.  Death was everywhere.

 

I went down a pasture to get to a German tank.  On the way, [I saw] two dead German soldiers in gray uniforms, being eaten by some large pigs.  I tried to climb into the tank, but the stench of decaying bodies was too much, so, no guns for me.  No way I could climb down the turret of that tank without losing my entire stomach.

 

The Germans were all out of gas, and were trying to use horses to get out of the valley.  One thing that surprised me was the equipment the German soldiers had, plastic tent pegs, plastic tents, etc..  They had us skinned.  I could see why they lost the war, no gasoline for tanks and airplanes.  From this duty of protecting artillery pieces, we were rushed up to get our entire battalion on the road through France, towards Spain, as a scare had come up that the Germans were sending tanks that way to cut us off.  As we were leaving, I picked up a whole case of fresh eggs that we carried along with us on the q.t..  The case of eggs had been hidden in a hedge, where all that German equipment was.

 

Smell-the odor was awful.  Death was all over.  Cities were completely leveled, and the death odor was everywhere.  We stopped and awaited more information on the enemy.  Our group with the eggs, made a fire, got a pan and water.  We sure had some good boiled eggs.  The scare of Germans coming from Spain pooped out.  Our tanks then moved on through the southern part of France towards Orleans.  I was, and am, awful glad I served in the U.S. Army (from May 30, 1942 to Nov. 28, 1945.  As you perhaps know, I was born in Duluth Minn., September 10, 1907, of Norwegian Emigrants.  Times were tough for our family.  We lived at one house, no lights, no water, no gas, no telephone and an outdoor toilet (two holes).

 

We had a family that loved each other.  If we wanted spending money, we earned it.  I have had two brothers, and two sisters, a family of seven.  I learned that I could do anything as well as anyone, and gained confidence in myself.  I am proud to be, or have been part of the 702nd Tank Battalion.  I won recognition, a Purple Heart, four Battle Stars, a Bronze Merit Award, etc..  I married Sarah Turner, a bank cashier.  We had one son who is now 40 years old, a Loyola graduate.  My Wife, Sarah died in 1971 of colon cancer, (a six year bout).  I continued working one more year at American Standard and retired.  God sent me my second wife, and we are very happy.  Say hello to all the boys, "God bless you all"!

Otto Olson

 

 

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