Part 27: Behind enemy lines
From: Glen Palecek, son of Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek
After Dad directed the big Navy guns that I told you about previously, he was sent on dangerous missions, some of which were behind enemy lines. I wish I had more details about individual missions and what he did, but I don’t have many. I will try to tell you here what details I do know. The colonel in charge of Dad’s battalion was the one who was supposed to be giving orders, not the radio operators themselves.
After the story I told you about how Dad directed the Navy guns, both Dad and Al Bacon recall stories of how they directed artillery fire themselves. Bacon recalls how he and Jim Burns would sometimes be caught in the open and have to “run like hell” to avoid being killed. Thankfully for them, it was very hard for the Germans to hit moving targets from long range. Bacon said you never know how fast you can run until you are being shot at. When caught in the open, sometimes they would find a ditch, a hole, or some other shelter to hide out in until darkness came. In spite of over 100,000 Allied troops being located at the Anzio beachhead, Dad or two of his radio operators would sometimes be very much alone in the middle of a battlefield, praying that one of Hitler’s various weapons of war wouldn’t find them. Dad and his men had the unlucky tasks of moving about during the day to try and spy on what the enemy was doing and to direct artillery fire at them. Thankfully, these daylight missions were relatively rare. Dad and other soldiers usually hunkered down in the day and moved little during daylight hours.
The Germans of course knew this and would send artillery shells at night into the many ditches and trenches the Allies used to move about. German planes sometimes used flares to light up the night and expose the moving soldiers. No soldier could stand being in a wet foxhole all day and night, and they would venture out, always being mindful of the nearest hole they could dive into. As the days, weeks, and months passed, they got bolder and bolder, testing the limits of the “safe” zones. It is quite obvious that by now, Dad was a hardened veteran and did not have any fear of death. I know many have written that soldiers were always scared in battle, but it is quite clear from Dad’s letters to Mom that he had now lost any fear he had earlier. I will share these letters with you later so you can see what I mean. Death was ever-present on the battlefields and every day death would demand payment in the lives of men. Men like my dad somehow grew to accept this. Death was there, and that was that. There was nothing anyone could do to prevent it and it became an everyday way of life. Whenever I read Dad’s letters, his written accounts, and remember his stories, a strange feeling comes over me. I can feel the war. I can feel some of what Dad felt. I get this feeling not just in my head, but in the pit of my stomach as well. I never get this feeling when I watch war documentaries or war movies. I don’t get it when I read history books about the war. I only get it when I read Dad’s own accounts or remember his stories. There is one exception to this and that is the writings of Bill Mauldin. Many of Mauldin’s stories are so similar to Dad’s, it’s scary. They sometimes seem as though Dad is the one actually telling them.
One thing I remember is Dad saying how strange the Germans acted when he was behind enemy lines. There were several times when German soldiers walked right past him. Dad never did understand why he wasn’t seen. Perhaps God was protecting him, or perhaps the Germans were drunk, or suffering from lack of sleep. Jim Burns wrote that they sometimes acted as though they were on drugs.
Dad said the radios they carried were Swedish and were in the form of backpacks. With this type of radio, they could listen to just about anything, including the news, the ships, and other units. Two radio operators were almost always sent out. One radio operator was to listen and the other would write down the message. Also, if one operator was killed or had his radio destroyed, the other could continue the communications.
Dad talked about how engineers would “wire up” communications between companies. This meant they would string telephone wires so phones could be used instead of radios. These wires would be strung across the ground and sometimes over buildings or other structures. Did you ever wonder where the phrase “I heard it through the grapevine” came from? In the early days of the telegraph, wires were often strung like this without poles. Where they were draped over buildings, they looked like grapevines. So, when someone said he heard it through the grapevine, he meant he heard it from the telegraph, or in this case, over the telephone. Dad also wrote to Mom describing a homemade radio he and his men crafted out of “a razor blade and a bit of wire.” Dad said it didn’t look like a radio, but it worked to listen to local broadcasts. The only station they could get clearly at Anzio was a propaganda station aired by the Germans with a program Dad called “Berlin Sally and George.” Sally and George were two Germans pretending to be Americans and their programs were aimed at defeating Allied morale and getting them to surrender. A lot more on that later.
After I wrote this episode, I found Dad’s written account of one of the days like I mentioned above. In this hand-written letter to Jim Burns, Dad describes a day behind enemy lines with Al Bacon. I will save that for another time, as there is not room in this episode.
I would like to end this part with a big thanks to the Winona Post for printing these stories. After Dad died, Mom asked me to do this, and I wish I had started before she died. I would also like to thank all of you who told me you enjoy reading about Dad’s adventures. It seems every week I meet someone in a Winona store who tells me they are following this series. I am not getting paid any money to do this, but your gratitude makes up for that. I also continue to get more information from some of you — it all helps. Thanks!