Part 28: Battlefield medals (some earned, some not)
By Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek
When I started the stories of Anzio, I told you how no place at the entire beachhead area was out of German artillery range. However, because of the arc of the shells, there were small places where German artillery shells never landed, especially at the coast. These are the places where the officers and clerks spent their time. Before Anzio, these men were used to being at the rear, well out of harm’s way. Because shells landed near them and a few were even killed, they decided they deserved medals for bravery. Dad told me he witnessed them making up stories of bravery about each other so that they could get medals. Kind of like having your name engraved on a sports trophy you never earned. Apparently, they thought merely being in range of artillery was enough to earn medals.
After witnessing this, Dad decided that he would write-up some of his men for medals. After all, they had actually done many very brave deeds, some of which I will try to include later. As far as Dad knew, none of his men got medals for the brave deeds for which he wrote them up. The only medal given to one of Dad’s men that Dad knew of was the Purple Heart Al Bacon received when he was wounded in the hand while he was with Dad on a very dangerous assignment. Yet another story I must include later. Dad never knew Bacon got his Purple Heart until Al showed it to him after the war back in Michigan. I apologize for repeating this, but well after the war, the Army decided that any soldier who survived a major battle deserved a Bronze Star. Anyone who earned five such Bronze Stars received a Silver Star. As the title of this series suggests, this is how Dad got his Silver Star. By these rules, all of Dad’s men earned medals, but most of them probably never knew it. The Army never notified Dad. He only found out about it by an article in the 45th Division News in 1986, 41 years after the war was over.
As far as mental toughness goes, Anzio seemed to be the hardest place to be on the entire European front. This was especially true of new recruits. One new radio operator who joined Dad’s team at Anzio was Jim Burns Sr., father of the Jim Burns who wrote the book I’ve been telling you about. Jim Burns Jr. wrote to the 45th Division News, and asked about anyone who might have known his dad. My dad replied to him in a letter. I’m going to take a break from telling these stories and let Dad tell you about this in his own words from the hand-written letter he wrote back to Jim:
Dear Jim Burns,
I may have known your father quite well. I was 3rd Battalion, 180th Infantry radio chief all through North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany. One of my radio operators was a PFC James Burns. Was he your dad? If so, he was a very dependable, responsible soldier. He got along well with everyone, and everyone liked him. He and Al Bacon of Beula, Michigan, were good friends and tended to share a foxhole together. I had to assign two operators every day we were on the line or in attacks to go with the colonel who commanded the 3rd Battalion. I took my regular turn, so I paired off at different times with James or Al; but more often, I paired the two of them.
Shortly after Jim joined us in Anzio, we were dug into the bank of a 10X14-foot-deep irrigation ditch (actually a drainage ditch). The ground was so saturated that we dug little drains around the outer edges so the seepage could drain out into the main ditch. All of us had been in combat for awhile when Jim joined us, so when we heard a batch of German mortars go off, we instinctively dove for the nearest hole. Bacon was farther from the hole than Jim, but while Jim cocked his head to listen to the first incoming barrage, Al scooted around him and into the hole.
Four of us crammed into one hole with another operator first, me second, Al third and Jim last. But, with the rest of us cowering in the darkness of the dugout, Jim stuck his head in the hole (entrance) and yelled, “Bacon, where the hell are you!?” Bacon, shaken by the shrapnel cracking outside and the ground shaking around us snapped, “Right here, shut your damn mouth!”
Jim never got over how a big guy like Al (over six feet and strong build) got into that cave so fast he didn’t even see him. They laughed about it later and became close friends.
That was the James Burns that I knew and learned to respect — one whom you could stake your life on. As scared as he was, his first concern was for someone he hardly knew yet! Is this the dad you were seeking information on? If so, is he still alive? If so, I would love to hear from him. I just turned 81, so I don’t know how many of my wartime radio crew are still around. Only Al Bacon and I got together after the war. We put a new 1947 motor in my 1936 Plymouth.
Lots of love and luck,
Jim Burns Sr. was very lucky to have someone like Al Bacon take a liking to him and be his friend. Many new recruits were not as lucky. So many of them couldn’t take it and told their superior officers this. However, most of them were forced to stay. Only very extreme cases were excused from the war. Some who were left were not even able to raise and fire a rifle no matter how much encouragement they got from their fellow soldiers. From Dad’s stories to me, Al was an extremely brave and powerful man. Burns was strong and well built also, just not as big as Al. When I look at wartime pictures of them, I see no fat, just hard muscle.
The above letter Dad wrote to Jim Burns Jr. opened a whole new world for him. You see, Jim’s dad died when he was only 19 and never said anything to his son about the war. Jim eagerly listened to all that Dad would tell him over the phone and Dad wrote several more letters to him. From Dad’s first letter, Jim was able to contact Al Bacon and was able to write his book, “Friends at Anzio,” by combining stories from Al and Dad. Jim put a lot of effort into his book and I need to give him all the credit I can.
Without Jim’s book, I wouldn’t be writing this series now. After I found all Dad’s writing about the war, I started to think of all that Dad told me and that I now had a lot of written material from Dad to help. As I write this series, I see that my book will be much longer than Jim’s and will pretty much swallow up his. I talked to Jim about this and he told me I was free to use whatever I wanted from his book.
In the next episode, I’d like to tell you more about “Berlin Sally and George.”