Part 25: A tribute to Dad’s best friend, killed at Anzio
By Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek
From: Glen Palecek
Aubrey Elam came from New Mexico, and Dad came from Wisconsin. Both were in basic training together when the Army put out a notice that they were looking for radio operators. Material was given out about this, and Dad started studying for the upcoming test. There were some other soldiers who thought they had an in with the colonel and thought they would be chosen. As Dad studied, they laughed, saying, “This is the Army, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” As it so happens, when it came time to send men to radio school at Fort Benning, Ga., the colonel was on leave. The officer in charge simply looked at the list of those who had taken the test and sent the three men who had scored the highest. One of those men was Aubrey Elam, and one was Dad.
At Fort Benning, Dad and Aubrey became best friends. They went to church together and even came forward for Christ together. Both did very well in their studies and Dad was chosen to be radio chief of the Third Battalion of the 180th Infantry, and Elam became radio chief of the First Battalion.
As I wrote in an earlier episode, they both complained to an Army chaplin about the murder of German and Italian prisoners in Sicily. That chaplin reported this to General Bradley, who in turn reported it to General Patton who was Bradley’s superior officer at the time. Patton didn’t want anything done about it since he had ordered no prisoners were to be taken. But Bradley insisted the sergeant who shot them be held accountable and, as I stated earlier, he was tried and convicted. I don’t like writing bad things about Patton or anyone else except Hitler. Unfortunately, Patton’s misdeeds will re-enter Dad’s life again in France.
I don’t know how much Dad and Aubrey saw each other during the war. Each one was in charge of all communications for their respective battalions, so I am sure they talked over the radio, but how much time they actually spent together, I don’t know.
I have several accounts Dad wrote about Aubrey’s death. Finding one now took a little time. Here it is copied from a hand-written letter from Dad:
“Aubrey Elam was my best friend at Fort Benning radio school. Less than two hours after Aubrey and his men relieved me and mine where we were dug in in the ruins of an old factory, German bombers killed all of them. Shells had failed to dig us out so the Germans finally used bombers.”
Several times Dad told me the story of how Aubrey died. I thought I would include the above account so that Dad could tell it here in his own words. However, there is more to this in the unwritten words he told me.
First, let me tell you that artillery was what Gerry used by far the most at Anzio. Artillery shells came in different sizes and from different angles, but from the same general direction. The ruins of the factory as Dad described above were good protection from artillery because soldiers could keep the stone rubble between them and the incoming shells. Throughout the war, it was easy to tell when artillery was used to destroy a town and from which direction it came because of the holes in the walls and from which walls were hit. The walls facing the artillery would always show the most damage. Often, American artillery would be used to drive Gerry from a town and then German artillery would hit it again from the opposite direction in a counter attack. Experienced soldiers could tell when a town had been hit in two different directions. The destruction of bombs from planes was different. These bombs came from above and caused more complete destruction with less walls standing. In the case of Elam’s death, the soldiers were braced for artillery from the north, and left vulnerable to bombs from above. By the way, the bombs used this day were not the foxhole bombs I described earlier. They were much larger.
Dad later retuned to these ruins. That must have been a terrible experience. I don’t know if he was involved with the removal of bodies, but even if he was not, there must have been a lot of blood and other ghastly scenes. Dad had a little wooden box in which he kept pictures. Now, he found another use. On the top, he carved a cross. Inside, he placed a picture of Aubrey, a Thunderbird arm patch, and a little note which read: “For Aubrey Elam, my best friend, killed at this spot on March ___, 1944. (Dad put the day, but I don’t remember it.) Dad signed the note and placed the box in the rubble at the place where he and Aubrey had traded places. By the way, if you look at the bricks in the path at the war memorial next to Lake Winona, you will find one that reads, “Aubrey Elam, killed at Anzio, my best friend.” Unfortunately, whoever carved the brick misspelled “Anzio.” Dad’s brick is just above this one. I am the one who paid for these bricks years ago. I wanted them to have bricks side-by-side.
Dad told me that someone else attached an American flag to a pole made from a small tree and stuck it in the rubble. This may not have occurred at this same battle site, because there were so many such places at the Anzio beachhead, but I like to think it was. Dad told me how the Germans wasted artillery shells to destroy this flag. However, the next day, there was what was left of the tattered flag rising again – less high than it had been before because of the now-broken pole. Someone had prodded it up again. At least two more times the flag fell to German artillery, but each time what was left of that flag mysteriously rose again. It got so one couldn’t tell it was a flag anymore, but the soldiers all knew it was. This act of defiance helped to raise the spirit of the Americans who always wanted to know if it was still standing.
In one of his battlefield letters to Mom, dated March 26, 1944, Dad wrote, “I lost one of the best friends I’ve ever known in the Army, recently. He was also one of the best Christians I’ve ever known. Our Chaplin paid tribute to him this morning.”
Apparently, this V-Mail was all Dad could get by the Army censors. He couldn’t tell Mom Aubrey’s name, but I am sure she knew. Shortly after Aubrey’s death, Dad also wrote that he “had no hatred for the Germans.” I wonder: how many men, even those who said they were Christians, could have written this after the Germans had just killed their best friend?
Looking up the V-Mail about Aubrey Elam brought me back to the many other letters describing life at Anzio. I will pick out some more stories from the Anzio beachhead for my next episode.
The last episode had a typo. It said Dad was an officer, probably a captain. It should have said “With Dad was an officer.” Dad never was promoted beyond the rank of sergeant. I think it is obvious from the rest of that episode that Dad was a sergeant. The Post has done a very good job of keeping errors out of these stories and this is the first one significant enough that I thought I needed to report it to the readers to clear up any confusion.