The PJ Tatler

Pop's War Stories: Meeting Patton, Jimmy Stewart and a Panzer

George Patton, Jim McMaster, Jimmy Stewart

George Patton, Jim McMaster, Jimmy Stewart

Sgt. Jim McMaster heard the jeep, and looked up from the winch he was wrangling. Three stars on the bumper meant straighten up and acknowledge.

Gen. George S. Patton returned McMaster’s salute.

“What’s the hold up, Sargent?” Patton barked.

A truck hauling a Sherman tank had slid from the rutted frozen slurry, but still blocked the road and thus the convoy. McMaster told the General he’d get the tank off of the truck and use it to pull the truck back onto the road.

“Carry on, Sargent,” Patton said, snapping a salute before ordering his driver onward. And that was that.

Mac and his men got the tank off, the truck out, the convoy moving again.

Not a lot of celebrity moments like that in World War II, although McMaster did meet actor Jimmy Stewart, then a captain or a major, late one night over drinks during a Channel crossing.

No, war is more mud than stars.

Jim McMaster, my Pop, wound up raising his four grandsons, and we hung on his words when he told us war stories.

Setting out for the Normandy invasion, McMaster grabbed the ship’s rail to vault into the landing craft. The next soldier, also vaulting, accidentally kicked his wrist, sending McMaster sprawling on the deck, and his wristwatch sailing into the drink. He’s headed to fight the Nazis, but at the moment, he’s ticked about losing the new watch. Sixty years later, he tells his great-grandchildren about the watch. It was a good watch, and new.

As they approached the Normandy beach on D+4, the landing craft pilot, eager to avoid underwater obstacles, idled the engine and said, “Here’s where you get off.” McMaster looked out at the distance to the beach and knew the water was too deep.

“Take us in closer,” he said. The skipper refused. McMaster laid a hand on his sidearm.

“Take us in.”

The motor revved and the boat moved closer to the beach. When McMaster dropped from the craft into chest-high water something heavy landed on his pack. As he was about to swing an elbow and tell the soldier to find another ride to the beach, when he realized it was a woman — a Red Cross nurse. He waded in, with her on his back, until she could safely walk on her own. He stayed in touch with her by letter for a while. Then the letters stopped. He later learned that the Germans bombed her Red Cross hospital. And that was that.

When McMaster enlisted, he hoped to fly. Instead, he wound up in a tank, with engines originally designed for aircraft that used high-octane, highly-flammable gasoline.

One day, a Panzer surprised him from behind a barn, and shot a track off his Sherman. Able to move only in circles, with no place to hide the tank, he ordered his men to abandon. Two went out the turret hatch, under withering machine-gun fire from the Panzer. McMaster finally leaped free of the crippled tank, losing a piece of his knee to a machine gun round. Before the two men in the belly could escape through the hatch between the fuel tanks, the Panzer lit it up. McMaster watched his fuel-soaked buddies burn. The Sherman exploded, sending the entire turret to high heaven.

This wasn’t a frickin’ movie where the stars all get to go home at day’s end to drink chardonnay.

These were American farmers, mechanics and clerks — boys — shredded, severed, bloodied and burned.

Veterans Day ceremonies tend to be calm, somber, clean and peaceful.

Let’s remember the men who climbed from the mud to the stars to make it so.