An earlier post in this blog talked about the importance of being attached. In the case of the 371st Fighter Group, this is a reference to the attached unit which provided essential services to the 371FG to enable its full combat capability.
Mr. Albert Tesch was one of those men who enabled Frisky to fly and fight. He was a member of the 1590th Ordnance, Service and Maintenance Company. His story is told in a north-central Montana newspaper called the Fairfield Sun Times, in an article that ran in November, 2013. This was just after he participated in an Honor Flight mission to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. It is repeated here for your viewing:
Choteau’s Albert Tesch, WWII Veteran, Visits DC Memorial
By Ken Gjerde
Sgt. Albert Tesch, 87, of Choteau, served his country and the pilots and crews of the 371st Fighter Group in WWII Europe. Transported to England in February – March, 1944, its three squadrons of P-47 Thunderbolts were assigned to the Ninth Air Force. Stationed at Ringwood, in Southern England, they built runways with steel sheets stamped with holes whose edges gripped the soil. Their Fighters would support ground troops in the invasion of France and the push to Berlin. The Group was authorized 811 enlisted and 183 officers. A 371st historian remarked, “We have to remember and acknowledge the vital contributions of the additional six-hundred men in the ‘attached’ units.” Albert was one of those. From childhood he had a strong interest and liking for airplanes and liked being around the P-47s’.
The P-47D Thunderbolt was remarkable. It is said to be the largest, heaviest Fighter ever powered by a single piston engine. Weighing five tons empty, with a wing span of forty-one feet and a thirty-six foot length her range was up to 800 miles in battle conditions, with a speed of 433 mph at 30,000 feet. Armed with eight .50 caliber machine guns in its wings, with 3400 rounds, it also carried two 500 pound bombs. Pilot skill with her strafing and bombing capabilities made it a lethal weapon for ground troop support; and stripped of bombs and extra fuel tanks she was deadly in aerial combat.
The 371st had ten units attached in support to keep the P-47’s flying: A trucking company to transport all equipment from airfield to airfield; Military Police, three detachments, one each from the 21st Weather Squadron, the 40th Mobile Communications Squadron, and the Ninth Flying Control Squadron. A Quartermaster (supply) Company, and a Fire Fighting Platoon. The 1590 Ordnance, Service and Maintenance Company, where Albert served as a truck mechanic, rounded out the attached units.
We can be drawn to Fighter combat film footage with no thought of anyone beyond the pilots. What a disservice that is to those who kept the planes flight and combat ready; provided transport to follow the advancing armies; and built airstrips closer to the fighting where they could be most effective. These men and women are truly our nearly forgotten heroes, who, in humble roles, carved their signatures into the victories of our wars.
Albert was born and raised in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. His Canadian mother and American father worked across the river in Detroit, Michigan. At sixteen he began work at a plumbing shop where his dad worked. At seventeen he became an Apprentice. The U.S. Government, in 1941, bade American Citizens move to U.S. soil so they did. He turned eighteen in January, 1943 and being drafted in March, 1943 interrupted his apprenticeship training. An acquaintance of Albert’s family, serving in the Navy at the induction center, knew of his plumbing skills and told Albert he could get him into the Navy Seabees. When it was time to sign up the man had stepped out, leaving Al in a quandary. He remembered his mother saying, “Put your faith in the Lord and he will take care of you.” With that he was ready to accept any assignment.
He received basic training at Miami Beach, Florida; Ordnance and Mechanic Schooling in Atlanta, Georgia in June 1943, and graduated as a truck mechanic. In August he was transferred to Barksdale Airfield near Shreveport, Louisiana as one of the last two men assigned to the 1590 OSM Company with the 371st. They sailed from New York in an old French cargo/passenger ship with six men to a stateroom. (Totally unlike usual troop ship accommodations!) The severe stormy seas washed four inches of water into their hallways and rooms. He avoided real sea-sickness but was miserable and didn’t eat much on the trip. They wintered at an airfield near Liverpool, England housing C-47 cargo planes and gliders, but were later transported to Ringwood where the 371st was forming up in early 1944.
The 371st flew training, fighter sweeps, and dive bombing runs over France in the spring. The Group’s activities heated up about June 1st with days of escorting bombers to various air fields. One day the P-47 takeoffs and landings were endless and though not announced, they sensed the invasion was on. One pilot, a Major, had flown so low that he returned to base with small tree twigs stuck in the leading edge of his wings. Word spread it was indeed D-Day, 6 June. Another Thunderbolt returned with one cylinder shot off the engine and badly leaking oil. Al remembers thinking, “She was a good rugged airplane.”
With the Normandy beachhead and a few miles inland secured, the Group sailed from South Hampton coming ashore on Utah beach 16 June. Anticipating high tides, Albert was trained to waterproof vehicles for operation in deep water, and trained others to assist. They practiced the art on the Channel beaches. On landing, the water was only ten inches deep between their LST ramp and the sandy beach. Moving up from the beach they saw crashed and wrecked gliders. They settled in on the east side of Ste Mere Eglise, which had become very noteworthy when some parachutists from the 101st and 82nd Airborne units had landed there in the dark a.m. of D-Day. One man’s parachute had caught on the town’s clock tower, leaving him dangling and exposed to enemy fire. While the airstrip was being surveyed a battle was raging nearby between paratroops and the Nazis, but the strip was completed in seventy-two hours. Seven combat engineers were killed during its construction.
That move and fighter activity kept their three big service trucks hopping. The “Automobile” truck carried the lathes, tools, and other equipment for repairing vehicles and engines. The “Welding” truck carried everything for multiple large welding tasks and the “Armament” truck carried the equipment for repairing machine guns and bomb carrier and launching mechanisms. A big problem was supplies never kept up with need so they were always scavenging battlefield wrecks for parts.
Six man tents were “home” and in winter were very cold. Tents were also utilized as wind break “garages” for repairing trucks. To keep tools warm they’d punch holes in gallon cans, add a sand and fuel mixture, and string wires or small rods across the top to support their tools. The cooks were very good, making tasty cheese, tomato and bacon omelets from powdered eggs for breakfast. Roast beef meals were a treat but the usual fare was pork chops and spam. To this day, like most veterans, he “doesn’t eat spam.” At Ste Mere Eglise movies, taken by the wing cameras of the 47s’, were shown once a week. Sometimes when he sees these clips on TV now he recognizes those he originally saw in France.
A rare event, vividly remembered, was General Patton’s 3rd Army tanks rumbling through Ste Mere Eglise after coming ashore at Normandy. “They rolled by starting about noon and all night, all the next day and night, and part of the next day.” Patton broke through the bottleneck that had been holding up the Allied advance and after about three months at Ste Mere Iglise they packed up and moved up with the advancing armies. This routine would repeat itself as they followed the 371st. The Airfields from which they would operate were at le Mans, St. Dizere, Dole, Tantonville, Nancy with Al’s outfit to the south at Vezaleze, Metz, Mainz, Frankfurt, and Nuremberg. During all these moves they’d see the scarred landscapes, wreckage of infantry and tank warfare and other signs of battle. Though small pockets of enemy resistance existed with some sniper fire, the infantryman’s war reality was not theirs.
He spent very little time in Paris. Once, he and a buddy “appropriated” a four ton wrecker truck, and with extra gas, headed out for a few days look at the countryside and camped one night just outside Paris. On this excursion they came across a Nazi airfield strewn with many destroyed airplanes. At le Mans they were scrounging through a tank bone yard and found a Sherman tank with three holes in its front, about eight to ten inches apart and about three inches in diameter. They were so precise as if drilled, courtesy the deadly German 88 mm. cannon with armored piercing shells. The inside of the tank was destroyed and covered with dried blood. He shakes his head, “You think the armor protects you. I wouldn’t serve in a tank on a bet.” On these country side excursions they were warmly welcomed by the people and enjoyed the wayside cafes and taverns.
Christmas, 1944, at Nancy and Vezaleze, while in support of the Battle of the Bulge, was very cold. Here Albert’s good friend, a welder, received a commendation for repairing two semi fuel tanker trucks. The tankers were sorely needed to carry fuel at that crucial time but had serious leaks that presented a very complex welding job. They lived upstairs in a brewery barrel making building and used the lower floor and a warehouse for work. They found the owners private stock of beer. They often let it freeze, then drained off the alcohol and added it to their fruit juices.
They viewed Metz where General Patton had one of his toughest tank battles. At Nuremberg they went to the huge open air stadium where Adolf Hitler had made famed speeches and arrogantly paraded the men and arms of the Third Reich. It was a somber feeling, and yet a thrill, as Albert stood exactly where the Fuehrer had delivered those rousing addresses imagining how it had been. Germany surrendered when his unit was in Nuremberg.
His unit was then moved to Marseilles, France loaded and waiting shipment to the Pacific for the anticipated invasion of Japan. Albert was on leave in England when Japan surrendered. With barely enough “points” for discharge the unit was then shipped home rather than be reloaded to become part of the Army of occupation. He had celebrated the war’s end with throngs of people in London’s Trafalgar Square. It was loud and wild, almost beyond belief and never to be forgotten. Words don’t describe it. Some years ago Albert was asked to do a taped interview representing those who served in support roles. Very reluctantly he finally said yes. Readers can find an internet link for it by searching “371st Fighter Group”. He is now glad he did so to help paint a fuller picture of the war.
Two other events crown his military service. In 2009 he attended the 65th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. Touring the country side he saw a steel mesh fence that probed a memory, but what was it? It dawned he was looking at pieces of the runways used to quickly lay airstrips as they moved through France. While visiting the museum at Caen he talked about the war with a secretary. Arriving back at his hotel he found a packet with a good seating ticket, courtesy of the American Embassy, who the secretary had called on his behalf. His seat on a platform adjacent to the speaker’s platform gave him a forty foot view of the dignitaries including the Prime Ministers of France and England, and the President of the United States. It brought to mind how the world had come together in that place to eliminate a tyranny so long ago, and now symbolized that unity by honoring those who paid the ultimate price for freedom, signified by the rows of nearby graves. To have had the privilege of being present at both times was truly memorable. Little did he know that “just doing my job”, as he described his time in the military, would make him a humble part of all this history.
This past October 13-14th Albert visited Washington D.C. with 82 other veterans on the seventh Big Sky Honor Flight. The government “shutdown” was noticeable in that the Lincoln memorial was closed and the fountains at the WWII Memorial were not spouting. A special permit made it possible for the WWII memorial to be open where Senators Baucus and Tester and Representative Daines met and spoke with the veterans. Their three bus caravan toured the other War Memorials, the Capital Mall and Arlington Cemetery where the changing of the guard never fails to impress and amaze. He hadn’t realized how hilly and heavily treed the cemetery was. He was impressed with the care, organized manner, and attention to detail with which the Honor Flight volunteers operated in fulfilling their mission and he thanks them. Having had only seen pictures of the memorials he summarized the trip thusly: “It meant everything to me and it was wonderful.” Only the veterans travel free and contributions for their participation may be made to Big Sky Honor Flight, P.O. Box 80201, Billings, MT 59108 or website, bigskyhonorflight.org/donate.php.
Albert and his wife Sarah, “Sally” are long time residents of Choteau where he operated, with his dad, Tesch Plumbing, which is now owned by their son Tom. Al still participates somewhat in the operation. A second son Fred, who is retired, accompanied him on the Honor Flight as an escort and also to the 65th Anniversary of D-Day ceremony in France in 2009. He has expressed thanks numerous times to have been able to participate with his father in these events. They have a daughter, Margaret Schmittou, of Billings.
A fitting close to this piece is a poem about the importance of taking care of what may seem like little things; thought to have first appeared in 1309 in John Gower’s “Confessio Amentis.”
For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of the battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a nail.