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Chatfield veteran shares memories of wartime service
By Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy
Tuesday, August 13, 2013 4:15 AM
Chatfield World War II veteran Orville Tangen holds a drawing of himself as a young man and a photograph of his brother, Robert, who was killed at the invasion of Normandy, France. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
"I volunteered for the Army. My number would come up sooner or later, so I did volunteer. I tried to get into the Navy in 1939, but they didn't want me because I was slack-footed. I think in '41, they would've taken me," said 96-year-old Chatfield resident Orville Tangen, recalling his service to the United States during World War II.
"Before the war, I was working by the hour for ten cents an hour, working around home, standing in the dirt tending the bagger on the threshing machine, but I was inducted into the service at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, on July 17, 1941," he recalled.
Tangen was first shipped to Fort Knox for eight weeks of basic training. There, he said he and his fellow soldiers trained with tanks - the old type, nine-cylinder with airplane radial motors. "You had to start those with a shotgun shell, I think. We didn't have much to work with at the base because the United States hadn't gotten into the war yet, manufacturing guns and machines, so we trained with broom handles," he added.
While he was young, Tangen said he felt that he knew what he was getting into, though the entire reality of war hadn't settled upon him quite yet.
"I was in the 5th Armored Division, and our job was to start a new 5th Armored Division, training new troops coming in," he said. "We went to California for that...at Camp Cook, California, Santa Maria, Lompoc...Will Rogers' ranch was along the beach on the Pacific. I was there for quite a while before we were called out to south of Santa Barbara because they thought the Japanese might invade there. Some shells landed out in the oil fields, but it didn't amount to much of anything."
From there, Tangen was sent to the Mojave Desert. "When I was shipped to California, I found out they needed cooks, so I volunteered, got it," he said. "I loved the work of cooking. I cooked for at least two years, then we were shipped off to different camps before we went across the Atlantic."
He and his division left New York in March of 1943. It took them 12 days to go to Liverpool, England, as they staggered across the Atlantic to avoid the German submarines. Tangen explained there was a whole convoy of ships arriving in Liverpool.
"I was on an English ship - there were beds along the wall, about four high, and everybody was sick for most of the trip," he said. "If you didn't get sick from the rocking and rolling, you got sick from the stench. Some were sick all the way across in the hospital part of the ship. I was sick for a day or two, then I was OK."
Upon landing in England, Tangen joined the men wielding spoons to show their patriotism, and he was later given a .45 Thompson machine gun with a collapsible stock for his mission at Normandy, France, and across the European continent.
"I cooked for a whole battalion in England...there were over 800 people, and more cooks and more stoves. Then I was acting mess sergeant on the southeast shore of England," he said. "They had a lot of kitchens set up for feeding the invasion troops a last meal before they invaded France. I think my brother, Robert, was in one of the field kitchens before he went across to France. He wasn't in mine."
Orville's younger brother had joined the infantry of the Minnesota Guard in 1942, and the last time the brothers were together was when Robert stood for Orville as best man at his wedding in McMinnville, Tenn., after which the younger brother was shipped out and sent to the beach at Normandy.
"The last time I saw him, he came up from Fort Rucker, Ala., and was my best man. He was killed at Normandy in one of the first invasions of France. Since I was in the 5th Armored Division's field kitchens, they couldn't land our division until there was someplace to land on," Tangen recalled. "We landed on July 26, and my brother was killed July 16. I didn't know it until a letter I'd sent him got sent back marked 'deceased.' I went to my captain and said, 'I want a tank. I'm trained for tanks.' I was not happy with the Germans."
Tangen's division was split into three combat commands, and they would be on the front "X number of days" before being sent back to the operations base for recuperation.
"They'd be sent back for a hot meal, a shower and a change of clothes. Sometimes we were very smelly, I think, before we got back to the kitchens."
He continued, "Our first casualty was before we started into Paris. The free French had captured Paris, and they saved a lot of bridges across the Seine...we got a lot of help from the free French. We marched tanks into Paris, and people were so happy to see us that they hung flowers on our tanks, and they got into the cognac that they'd buried during the years of occupation. I didn't drink any because I was the driver."
The troops crossed the Seine and charged the Sigfried line, but they were forced to retreat because their supply corps couldn't keep pace with them. "Of course, the Germans were lined up, so we had a lot of fighting to get through," Tangen said. "There were quite a few casualties...people killed or wounded. My friend, Ervin Becker, died of cancer, but he still had shrapnel in his lung when he died."
Tangen described evenings spent walking guard and dug into foxholes. "It was kind of scary - we heard burp guns in the distance when we were walking guard. I was walking guard one morning when I saw about 20 men walking toward me. I reported to my captain and we captured 23 Germans. They were waving a white flag, but we captured them. They were infiltrating in back of us, too, so it was really quite scary."
Tangen's unit was removed from the area and ended up back in Luxembourg. He said they were called back because the Army was trying to save as many people as it could without fighting all the time.
"We liberated Luxembourg...we drove through the city, and people appreciated that they were liberated from the Germans," he remembered.
He admitted, however, that there were good days and bad days. "We lost our platoon leader, and the assistant driver lost both of his lower legs."
Regarding friends who suffered injuries, he stated, "Peter Thauwald told me that he went into the Army six feet, two inches tall and came out six feet tall...that the army cut him down two inches. It's tough to sit and watch your buddies get hurt or killed, but you keep on going."
Tangen's unit was soon on the move again and he drove a tank all over northwestern Europe, including France, Luxembourg, Holland and east toward Berlin.
"We had skirmishes all the time," Tangen said. "I was even in the Battle of the Bulge."
He recalled an incident in a foxhole in a German forest that showed how close the soldiers were to be killed in action.
"The German air force was pretty well down, but in the Hurtgen Forest, they were firing personnel bombs, and I swear they'd hit our foxhole," he said. "One night, my buddy and I set up our tent over our foxhole, and we went to bed. We got up the next morning, things were fine, and we went to bed again the next night. Got up the next morning and found our tent was shredded from the shrapnel. Trees...there wasn't a tree unscathed. The wind would come up sometimes and branches would fall down and kill some guys, too."
Orville added, "We were drinking coffee out in front of the tank one morning when a guy's cup just disappeared. It was taken right out of his hand, and when he found it, it had a hole in it. We were close because it had a hole in it."
Tangen wrote home to his family as often as he could, but realized, of course, that all of the letters were being censored.
He did his best to forge onward with his division, observing the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, and fighting proudly for the United States.
"Toward the ending of the war, we were sitting on the Elba River with our pontoons, ready to go across into Berlin the next day, and the orders were changed - we were told to sit tight," he said. "The Russians met us on the Elba and they kissed us on each cheek, gave us a hug and, five days later, they wouldn't talk to us because the Cold War was on already - they had orders from Stalin. Before we met the Russians, the Germans were leaving the eastern front to surrender to us because they didn't want to meet the Russians who were going on to Moscow and treated people so bad...that's why they were surrendering to us."
Once Germany fell, Tangen said there was little to do.
"I didn't get home until October 1945. In the meantime, we were sitting on the Elba. We took over houses, beds and all...the Germans had to move in with their neighbors and friends," Tangen said. "I told my captain, 'Is there anything to do other than staring at the ceiling?' He told me to go to the motor pool and sign out a jeep to take the officers where they wanted to go, and I had pistol permits, so I wore my pistol inside my coat."
Tangen's last glimpses of Europe were of the destroyed hills and villages of Germany and the beautiful French Riviera. "We were given a week's rest on the Riviera - we were there a whole week. We could see Monte Carlo on a clear day, but it was off limits to us. We couldn't go because we didn't have any money, and it was a millionaire's resort in peace time."
He brought home souvenirs of his war experience, including a sheepskin-lined overcoat belonging to a German SS officer, guns, a bayonet, a Nazi armband, and K and C rations. All of these were sold at online auction because the veteran saw no use in keeping them as he and his wife, Helen, moved into their apartment at Chosen Valley Care Center.
His favorite souvenirs, however, are hand-drawn pencil portraits of himself and Helen done while he was wandering the French Riviera. The drawings capture them in a time when they were young and unaware that some day, they would celebrate 70 years together.
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