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Celebration In Pompey

By Terry D. Janes

 

Today, September 11, 2004 I am informed by my dear friend Dr. Pierre Peiffer that the town of Pompey, France is paying honor to the nearly 5,000 casualties the 15,000 man 80th Infantry Division suffered during a two-month period liberating the area around the Moselle River.  They have chosen my own Uncle, Staff Sergeant Frank L. "Pappy" Ream Jr. as the symbol of this honor.  To say the very least, I am proud that my uncle will represent so many.  Words cannot quite express how deeply touched I am.  The "Bloody Moselle" was one of the costliest battles the division ever fought in terms of losses of people.  Sadly, no one seems to have a clear idea of how many French civilians and German soldiers lost their lives in that horrible period.  My uncle was a shy, humble man who would have been embarrassed at this attention given him.  He was a normal, average kid from Independence, Missouri.  He grew up in a very poor family of fifteen.  He was of part-French and part German ancestry.  He worked to help support his family.  Even after he was grown, and a Staff Sergeant in the 702nd Tank Battalion Red Devils, he had his pay sent home to his family, leaving nothing for himself.

 

"Junior" as he was known to his family joined the U.S. Army in 1940.  He served in the last of the horse cavalry in the 2nd Cavalry Division.  When the U.S. Armor Corps was created, he jumped at the chance to become a tanker.  In 1943, he heard of a new battalion being formed.  It would be his first chance at having his own platoon, and the first step in fulfilling his dream to someday become an officer.  See, while he was so busy helping to support his family, one of those things he neglected for himself was a college education.  That was required to get into the officer candidate school.  Therefore, Frank would have to work himself up through the ranks if he wanted to make his dream come true.  This opportunity with this new 702nd Tank Battalion looked like his chance to make it happen.  Frank was part of the cadre, and assigned to act as platoon sergeant for 3rd Platoon, Company B.  The young boys who soon joined 3rd Platoon as raw recruits came to call him "Pappy", because he was so much older than they.  While "Pappy" whipped these raw recruits into shape, giving them the training they would need to fight a war, survive and win, he also helped educate his immediate superior, Lt. William "Bull" Miller.  Miller had been to college, and officer candidate school, but he didn't know much about what the everyday business of running a tank platoon was really like.

 

Decades later, retired Col. Wm. "Bull" Miller told me that Frank helped him a lot, but never tried to take advantage of it, nor act like he resented it in any way.  While Miller was Frank's boss, he thought of him more as a partner.  They trained their men, and the unit prepared to go off to war.  "Pappy" suffered health problems left over from his work in the swamps of Arkansas, when he had worked for the C.C.C. before joining the Army.  The Army doctors wanted to declare him unfit for combat duty.  "Pappy" considered the "boys" in his platoon to be like his own son's, although in truth, he really wasn't that much older than they.  The thought of leaving these boys he was so proud of, was abhorrent to him.  He felt that somehow, as long as he was there to watch over them, they would be okay.  To add to his worries, his wife was expecting a child, and the doctors didn't expect her or the baby to survive.  Frank was tortured with being torn between loyalty to his wife and to these "boys" he felt responsible for.  He knew there was nothing that he could do to change whatever outcome came from his wife's situation.  However, he believed that there was something he could do about making sure his "boys" survived.  So, against the pleadings of his family and the advice of his doctors, S/Sgt. "Pappy" Ream insisted on going to war with his "boys".

 

Third Platoon suffered it's first real taste of war at Argentan, France when it was sent into an ambush which destroyed all but "Pappy's" tank "Ceci C'est!-This is it!"  His tank only escaped by chance.  The platoon was devastated.  They had lost men, brothers and friends.  In the midst of this heartache for 3rd Platoon, "Pappy" got a V-Mail telling him of the birth of his son, and that his wife and baby were okay.  He also got a photo of the baby!  His feeling of relief at this news was countered by what his "boys" had just been through.  To make matters worse, his company commander had been placed under arrest and faced the death penalty for trying to persuade General McBride not to send another platoon into the ambush at Argentan.  When McBride insisted upon this stupid idea, Captain Stover had respectfully refused the order on behalf of his men.  McBride had Stover arrested.  They got new tanks and new men to replace the losses.  On the way to the Marne River, "Pappy" lost his Gunner John "Bucky" Weaver when a tank hatch slammed shut, cutting off "Bucky's" fingers.  "Pappy's" Loader Floyd "Stew" Stewart took over the gunner seat for "Bucky" and they made do.

 

As they approached the Moselle River, the fighting got more intense.  The Germans were determined to halt the Americans at the river.  General Patton had other ideas.  As they approached the river on September 7, 1944, 3rd Platoon got the job of assisting the infantry in taking the hill in the Foret l'Avant Garde just above Pompey.  They fought their way up the hill, the tanks taking the old fire-road.  They chased the Germans off the hill, and down the opposite side toward the river.  For the most part, the fighting appeared to be over for the moment.  Sitting in the clearing at the top of the hill, Lt. Miller realized that the Germans would soon counterattack.  When they came, it would be through the trees, and they wouldn't have much advance warning.  Lt. Miller ordered "Pappy" to hold the position with his tank & Sgt. Thomas's tank.  Lt. Miller took his tank and the other two back down the hill to refuel and rearm.  His plan was to return to the hilltop and hold it while "Pappy" & Sgt. Thomas came down to refuel and rearm.

 

Up on the hill, "Pappy" sat in his tank commander's hatch, scanning the woods for any sign that the Germans were counterattacking.  Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the river, some unknown German soldier was firing a hidden 20mm anti-aircraft gun into the direction of the Americans, in the off chance that the shells might hit something.  Unluckily, one shell did hit the turret of "Ceci C'est!-This is it!", skipped, hit the periscope and ricocheted up and hit "Pappy", blowing off the right side of his head.  His body dropped down into the tank, spraying blood and gore all over "Stew's" back as he sat in the gunner seat.  "Stew" took command, and ordered the driver to get the tank down the hill to the medics.  They got to the bottom just as Lt. Miller was getting ready to come back up.  They got "Pappy" out of the tank and into an ambulance, which took him to the field hospital.  That was the last most of them ever saw of "Pappy".  His fellow Platoon Sergeant Fred Riley had also been wounded, and lay in the bed next to "Pappy" in the hospital.  Seven days later, on September 14, while the division was fighting for it's life in the Moselle crossing, Staff Sergeant Frank L. "Pappy" Ream Jr. died.  The reality is that he was no doubt brain-dead when he was hit, but his heart continued to beat for seven days.  They didn't understand the idea of brain-dead back then.

 

Just today, I think I found out what happened to the German who was firing that anti-aircraft gun which killed my uncle.  From my friend Ken Aladeen comes this: "It was some time in September of 1944 our 57mm AT gun platoon was ordered to take positions on the steep banks overlooking the Moselle River.  Directly in front of us was the small town of Pompey.  Our mission was to see that no further damage was done to the three-span bridge immediately to our right. One span had been blown by the retreating Germans.  Our engineers could span that gap with Bailey sections.  However if another span was blown, it would be too much for the Bailey sections.  The first day, we sat silently and watched the Germans wheel one of their multi-tube mortars in to position.  This is the infamous "screaming meemies" you may have heard about.  That night we heard the many shells leaving that thing.  Next morning we broke radio silence and were successfully able to vector our artillery on to the damned thing.  We heard no more out of them.  Later three A-20 light attack bombers came in at tree top height and bombed the road junction we were looking at.  As the A-20s approached, we watched as the enemy uncovered a 20mm ack-ack.  Once again we were able to vector our 105's in on them and that gun was destroyed.  The third day we were ordered to leave the positions (which we were glad to do) Having not fired a shot we still felt that we had had a successful mission."  Ken was in the 318th Infantry Regiment, to which "Pappy's" Company B was assigned.

 

Today the area around Pompey is thankfully a happier, beautiful place.  The terrain looks much like my own Missouri Ozarks region.  The people who live there are warm, kind and generous.  They are also grateful.  They know that had these Americans not liberated their country, the world would be a much different place today.  Today, in the spot where "Pappy" Ream died 60 years ago sits a community center and children's playground.  The beauty and majesty of the hills and valleys no longer are marred by death and destruction.  Instead of the sounds of artillery, bombs and guns, you hear the song of birds in the forest.  Today, the French children can play with the innocence that all children should have.  This is in stark contrast to what a small boy named Pierre Peiffer experienced in 1944.  Pierre was deeply touched by all he witnessed back then.  Seeing so much death and destruction helped inspire him to become a doctor and heal people.  He never forgot those brave men who liberated his world there in the Moselle valley.  He remained grateful for what he had.  It was Dr. Pierre Peiffer, who got the wheels turning that resulted in today's celebration in Pompey.  Words cannot express my gratitude and love for this man.  I call him friend, with great pride.  I cannot imagine how he came from where he was 60 years ago to where he is today, and I admire his strength and goodness.  I am sure that my uncle would be proud to know that his death helped such people have a better life.  As I pointed out above, my uncle was one to put others before himself.

 

I wish to express my gratitude to the Mayor of Pompey, Laurent Trogrlic, the Le Conseil Municipal, the Les Associations Patriotiques, the people of Pompey, and Dr. Pierre Peiffer.  Those 5,000 casualties were not for nothing, if peace reigns and people such as these thrive.  May God bless them all.

 

 

 

 

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