The Little Things Can Outshine
“The Big Picture.”
As I write this in December 2014, it is the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge—the siege at Bastogne. Now virtually forgotten by most Americans, it was the biggest and bloodiest battle fought on the Western Front in World War II. Over 500,000 troops clashed in the Ardennes Forest, as Hitler hurled 30 divisions and a quarter-million men against the freezing, surrounded Yanks. Seventy-six thousand were killed or wounded, among them one of my uncles. It was his last fight.
A rifleman, he had fought from the cliffs of Normandy on D-Day all the way to Bastogne, only suffering some deep bruises from falling rocks while scrambling up the cliffs from the beach. At Bastogne, he suffered blast trauma and a severe neck injury when his buckled helmet was blown off, then 3rd-degree burns when blazing fuel fell on his bare head. He spent years having skin grafts done and fighting repeated infections. Despite this he always called Bastogne his proudest experience as a soldier. Why? “Because we stopped them cold, when nobody but us thought we could.”
In the mid-’80’s I met and had several conversations with another veteran of Bastogne: A man who served as an NCO in a German Army field artillery unit. It was his last fight too, after being wounded and captured by American paratroops. Following the war he became a US citizen and wound up teaching high school history. One of his favorite study subjects was, not surprisingly, the Battle of the Bulge, getting “the big picture” denied him as a low-ranking participant.
“By all objective standards,” he explained, “By the correlation of forces—manpower, armor, artillery, logistics, everything, it should have been a brief and bloody fight immediately followed by massive surrender of the Americans. But all objective standards fell to individual stubbornness! In that battle,” he said, “The Americans were more German—more hard-headed and stiff-necked—than even we Germans.”
My favorite anecdote from Bastogne provides a clear illustration. An American tank destroyer was pulling back from the German onslaught, looking for a new fighting position, and ran across a lone, filthy, battered and bearded paratrooper. Armed with his rifle and a bazooka, he was hacking out a fighting hole, seemingly oblivious to the troops and vehicles flowing past his position, away from the oncoming Germans. The unnamed commander of the tank destroyer caught the eye of the paratrooper, identified only as PFC Martin of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment.
“If you’re looking for a safe place,” the paratrooper called out, “Just pull that vehicle behind me. I’m the 82nd Airborne. This is as far as the bastards are going.” And it was.
My uncle, my German friend—and almost certainly PFC Martin and that tank destroyer commander—are long gone now and the rest of their stories with them, and that, my friends, is a cryin’ shame. I’m not concerned with “the big picture,” the sweeping sagas of world-shaking events, nor so much with the stories of those who gained fame and acclaim, often memorialized in books and movies. Their histories are somewhat assured. It’s the human snapshots I worry about… the almost lost tales of individuals who rose to their moments in time. Let me share a few of them with you.
The Schoolmarm And Her Shotgun
When the Japanese Empire invaded the Philippines, they were pleased with their progress and emboldened by their victories. They became far less bold and were much less pleased after running afoul of a spectacled, 35-year-old schoolteacher named Nieves Fernandez. She had heard about the slaughter, torture and beatings of her people, and when soldiers approached her school on Leyte, she hid the kiddies, opened up on the invaders with a homemade shotgun, and then melted into the forest.
She found several men hiding out there, but they were disorganized, poorly armed and threw away their lives blindly attacking Japanese strong points. They became her new students, and her organizational skills, inventiveness and sheer courage quickly made her their leader. Starting with a handful of men and three American rifles, she taught them how to make shotguns—called “latongs” or “paltiks”—using blocks of wood, wire and salvaged lengths of gas pipe.
Knowing they could not kick the Japanese Army out of the Philippines, Nieves taught her boys to make surgical strikes on small patrols and security posts, terrorizing the Japanese and forcing them to concentrate behind their defenses, then carrying out acts of sabotage against their communications and supplies. Her philosophy was to deny them the countryside and ultimately, the country.
Over 2-1/2 years of guerrilla warfare, “Captain Fernandez” built her group to 110 men, mostly armed with captured Japanese weapons. She was wounded, shot through one arm, but remained in active command throughout the war. Her group was credited with killing over 200 Japanese soldiers, and Nieves herself killed several with her homemade shotgun and a long bush knife.
After liberation, when told a statue was to be erected in her honor, she waved a hand dismissively. “That’s when they called me Captain Nieves Fernandez,” she said. “Now I’m just Miss Fernandez.”
As the only female leader of the countless guerrilla groups of the Philippines, Miss Fernandez received some passing postwar renown before fading into obscurity. But the exploits of Phyllis Latour Doyle were hardly known at all for nearly 70 years, only recently coming to light.
After liberation, Miss Fernandez shows an American soldier the preferred
striking point for her bush knife—the neck.
The Schoolgirl And Her Soap
Half a world away in England, in 1941, when pretty, petite “Pippa” Latour joined the RAF for training as a flight mechanic, authorities challenged her documents. She looked like a middle-school girl. It wasn’t long though before other facts about her background came to the attention of Britain’s SOE—the Special Operations Executive. The offspring of an English mother and a French-born doctor, Pippa spoke French like a native, had vacationed and traveled in France—and bore a grudge against the Nazis. Her godmother’s father was shot and killed by the Germans, and her godmother committed suicide after being taken prisoner as a spy. She jumped at the chance for some payback.
After training with some strange characters, including an ex-convict cat burglar who taught her skills like using drainpipes and rooftops as her personal highways, she was smuggled into Vichy, France in 1942. Under three code names—Genevieve, Lampooner and Plus Fours—Pippa gathered invaluable intelligence and established a support network for further operations. She returned to England for rest and more training, then parachuted into Normandy alone on May 1, 1944.
Under the code name Paulette, the 23-year-old successfully posed as a poor 14-year-old French girl selling homemade soap to German soldiers—while learning all about the Normandy defenses. She slept in forests, foraged for food—including rat on occasion—and sent 135 coded radio messages back to England, all while keeping one step ahead of German radio-triangulation teams. Others didn’t. Sixteen of her sister British female spies were killed in action, summarily executed, or sent to concentration camps where they died.
Even after the Allies landed, she soldiered on, moving inland with the German Army for months, still sending out updates on troop concentrations and German movements. Pippa was awarded the MBE—Member, Order of the British Empire—and the Croix de Guerre, but she didn’t even stick around to formally receive them.
At war’s end she immediately moved to Kenya, where she married, becoming Phyllis Latour Doyle, then on to Fiji and finally New Zealand, where she lives today. She never breathed a word of her wartime service until one of her children stumbled across a footnote about her on the Internet 15 years ago. They petitioned Britain for her medals.
Finally, just last year, France’s government was given her full war records. On November 25th, Laurent Contini, the French ambassador to New Zealand presented Pippa, 93, with the Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration.
Just a couple of snapshots. Connor OUT