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Michele Skalicky talks with Jerry Caplan, who led a mostly African-American Battalion in the Battle of the Bulge and changed the prejudices Americans had toward African-American soldiers and with Helen Hawley, who served as a public health nurse with the U.S. Public Health Service during World War II.
Jerry Caplan has vivid memories of a long ago December when he was surrounded by enemy troops in France during WWII.
But they carry a sense of pride for him—a time in his life when he felt like he could really make a difference.
The 89-year-old Caplan still goes into work each day at his office in the Landmark Building downtown, which he owns. On a shelf behind his desk is the helmet he wore when he fought in World War II, and scattered throughout the space are mementoes from that long ago time—things like magazine and newspaper articles and photos reflecting a handsome Caplan and the men he served with.
Caplan didn't expect to fight in a war when he was drafted into the service for a year in June of 1941.
"I expected to be out the following year, but Pearl Harbor, of course, came on Dec. 7 at which time I was in for the duration."
Caplan went thru basic training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and then went to Fort Knox in Kentucky with the 4th Army Division. He had a chance during basic training to go to OCS to begin a 90-day training session to become a 2nd lieutenant. He declined, planning to get out the following summer.
But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed those plans...
In February of '42, Caplan was transferred to Camp Cook—now Vandenberg Air Base—in California.
"It looked like it was going to be a long period from then on so we decided, since we were going to make a career of this, we might as well enjoy some of the fruits of the military, so we started applying for OCS."
In April of '42 Caplan was appointed to Class 21 at Fort Sill in Oklahoma to become a lieutenant in the field artillery, and in July he became a 2nd lieutenant.
"After OCS, we had appointments to various units around the country, and I was appointed to go to Camp Gruber in Oklahoma, which was just outside of Lawton, and we joined the cadre as the 969th Field Artillery Battalion, though actually at that time it was still the 2nd Battalion of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion. There were 2 battalions, 1st battalion and 2nd battalion 333rd. Sometime later on, they changed the designation, and we became the 969th Field Artillery Battalion."
The Field Artillery Batallion Caplan was put in charge of was made up entirely of African-American soldiers, except for the 25 officers who were white. Caplan says the general feeling then was that African Americans would not make good soldiers, but he and his men would change that perception.
"We were told when we first started training with black soldiers, they said, 'don't worry, fellows. You're never going into combat anyway because you can't trust these fellows.' And we told them that the eyes of the world were on them, and our boys performed admirably."
The 969th was encircled at the Battle of the Bulge where they were attached to the 101st airborne division.
"We were all fighting together, and there was no such thing as color anymore. As a matter of fact, some of the soldiers who were members of white contingencies came to us during the Bulge while we were still encircled and wanted to know about joining our group. At that time we had lost a few men but not too many, but we still had room to put more in. I said, 'if you're willing to help us, we need help down at the firing guns.' So, the white soldiers who were no longer attached to anyone else because their units had been decimated, they joined the black soldiers, and this was the first integrated Army that we had."
The 969th was sent to England early in 1944 and then to France in July. There, they participated in the hedgerow battles thru Normandy and then went on to Brittany.
By October, the men were positioned in Belgium in a region known as the Ardennes, which was thought to be an unlikely area for the Germans to attack.
The next month, Caplan says, they received word that they'd be there for the winter, so they built log cabins to shelter in for the coming weeks.
"We moved into these new cabins, got settled down for the winter, and the first night we were there, comfortably set in place, the telephones rang. It was about 11 o'clock or 12 o'clock at night, and order came down from headquarters to be ready to move on the road by dawn."
Under cover of darkness, using only black lights, they completely reassembled all of their equipment, got their guns back in order and positioned the men on the road to await orders to move out. But those orders didn't come in the early morning hours as they'd expected.
"We didn't know which way to turn. We didn't know whether to go forward or backward. We didn't know where we were, as a matter of fact. We just stayed and waited until finally an order came for us to move, so we moved a few miles down the road at which time I had a very interesting thing happen to me. I was standing in the middle of the road not knowing whether to go north or south or east or west with my men behind me. I had a battery of 103 men and 4 howitzers and machine guns and all the other equipment and not knowing which way to turn. Dawn came, and were standing in the middle of the road just waiting for an order from somebody with some authority. A jeep drove by me and somebody yelled out, and I'll never forget this and I'm still trying to find out who it was, Somebody yelled out to me, 'hey, Jerry! What the heck are you doing here?' I turned around and couldn't see who it was, and ever since that year I've been trying to find out who it was who saw me, but I never did find out."
The men had moved into another position, set up their guns and started firing when orders came to point their howitzers in all four directions.
They were then told to move back about four miles to the perimeter of Bastogne.
The Battery was running out of ammunition and food—they had to scrounge around at area farmhouses to find food. Ammunition was dropped to them by air since the men were surrounded by enemy troops.
He says tankers came and drained the gas from their trucks.
"We said, 'what are you doing?' They said, 'you're not going anywhere anyway, so you don't need the gasoline. You have to be here until the supplies break through to you. Finally, they did break through after we were surrounded for 8 to 10 days."
Caplan and his men were in that position on Christmas Eve—it was a time when many American troops lost their lives.
"The Germans had power over us at night, so they dropped bombs. And if you've never been in a situation where they're firing at you at night from overhead with airplanes, and they use these flares where they can light up the whole area and it looks like dawn, you feel naked in the snow. We were in foxholes and slit trenches, had our guns pointed but not knowing which way to turn but just stayed there and took the fire and did the best we could. Most of us lived through it of course, some didn't."
During that time, Caplan says the cold took its toll on several men.
"Some of those boys wouldn't change their socks. They had cold feet. They were wet feet, and some of those boys lost their feet, as a matter of fact. They had to be amputated."
The 969th knew they were safe around the 28th of December, when General Patton and his men broke the German encirclement and came thru with a tank and supplies. He says it was an incredible feeling to know they weren't alone anymore.
Caplan grew up with a passivist father and never expected to be a soldier. But he has no regrets. In fact, he looks back on that time as one of the best of his life.
He met his wife—Theda Ann Karchmer—or Tac as she's known by her friends and family—while he was stationed in Oklahoma and she was a student at Oklahoma University. They saw each other a dozen times before tying the knot. Caplan says, while he wouldn't recommend that to anybody, it worked in their case—they've been married 65 years and have 2 children, four grandkids and 2 great grandkids.
Jerry Caplan is extremely proud of the 969th field artillery battalion. They received a rare Presidential Unit Citation in 1945 in France.
A New York Times Editorial written on August 3, 1945, sums it up: It reads: "Among the heroes of the Bastogne fighting of last December were the members of the 969th Field Artillery Battalion. For nine days, these gunners, fighting as infantry, short of food and almost out of ammunition, helped stand off 3 German divisions. The 969th, though commanded by white officers is a negro outfit. If prejudiced persons continue to say the Negro does not make a good and brave solder, the rank and file of the 969th will now have a ready answer. Officers and men, they all did honor to the land of their birth."