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Posted: February 15, 2015 7:00 a.m.

There and back again

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Doctor David Almand opened his medical practice in Conyers when we both were still relatively young. Goodness, how time flies when you’re having fun. Albeit, only recently did I find out his father, Frank Almand, was a World War II veteran who served in Europe. This is Frank’s story.

West Avenue in Conyers – 1924 – Frank Almand begins his journey on this earth in the old Baker house. The Baker house stood on the left hand side of the road if one traveled south from the railroad tracks. No title loans business or Waffle House, no Piggly Wiggly or package store, no McDonald’s or convenience stores. Everyone knew their neighbors.

“I graduated from Conyers High School in 1941,” he recalled. “I found a job with the Atlanta Constitution in the circulation department. I still remember the day a couple buddies and I hitchhiked a ride into Atlanta. The driver had his radio on; the date was December 7, 1941. We heard the news about Pearl Harbor. We knew a war had started but I wasn’t upset and it didn’t worry me, most likely because I realized that sooner or later I’d receive a letter of ‘greetings’ from Uncle Sam.”

Frank was drafted in 1943.

“That just about killed my mother,” he said. “She was worried sick.” Considering the circumstances, her anxiety was more than sagacious: Frank was not only the baby of the family but her only son. He continued, “They sent a bus load of us to Fort McPherson for exams and tests then sent us home for a week. After that we went back to Fort McPherson to board a train. We didn’t even know where we were going. We rode and rode and rode. We finally arrived at Fort Leonard Wood, Montana in the middle of the night. Officers were waiting to greet us but they were expecting trained troops, not recruits.”

Winter time at Fort Leonard Wood is no picnic. “It was cold, real cold,” Frank recalled. “I was assigned as squad leader and had an arm band signifying my little authority. I remember this one guy — bless his heart — a farm boy that just couldn’t catch on to things, like always step off on your left foot when starting to march. Well, I solved that problem by putting a rock in his left hand so he’d remember to use his left foot.”

Frank was assigned to the 137th Ordnance Battalion. “Captain Diamond, our company commander, was forced to start from scratch,” Frank said. “He sent as many of us as possible to a variety of schools, mechanical, welding, cooking, instruments…I ended up in artillery.” A notch above the crowd, the Army shipped Frank to Grinnell University in Iowa. “The Army wanted me to earn a commission,” he said. “But I just didn’t have the educational background for college, so I returned to the same outfit at Fort Leonard Wood. I was given a clerical position to maintain all the records and to trace the equipment coming and going.”

Temporary duty assignments included Camp Phillips in Kansas to ready another outfit for overseas duty, training maneuvers and war games in Tennessee in the dead of winter, and in Dec of 1944 to Camp Shanks in New York to board a ship for the war in Europe.

“We sailed on the USS Mount Vernon, a converted cruise ship. Picture 5,000 soldiers at sea for the first time. Talk about sick! It was horrible. Guys threw up in their mess kits standing in line for chow. Shoot, even if you weren’t sick you got sick from all the sickness. I got so sick that I was already dreading coming home on another ship after the war was over!”

Docking at Marseille, France, Frank’s outfit set up a staging area before moving on to Luneville, France. He said, “We set up shop in Luneville. I had to sleep in the shop since broken down or battle damaged vehicles came in 24/7.” As the front lines moved forward, so did Frank, all the way into Germany: Kaiserlautern, Frankenthal, Willsback, Bobbingen, Wusiedel, Darmssteadt, Kiessel, Ehringhasen, Mannheim, Deggendorf, and into Munich.

Frank recalled the activity before crossing the Rhine River.

“Our tanks were fitted with floatation devices because the Germans had blown all the bridges. Our entire area was covered with tanks. We had a country fellow in our unit named Walter. He’d never been anywhere. Captain Diamond put him in charge of guarding the tanks with explicit orders, ‘Walter, nobody, and I mean, nobody, gets into this area.’ Well, later this guy walked up and demanded entry into the area. Walter refused his entrance. The guy was furious, claiming he was a General. Walter told him he didn’t care who or what he was he wasn’t getting into the area. The sergeant of the guard had to straighten things out, but we sure were proud of Walter.”

Due to the problems associated with moving heavy equipment, Frank’s unit was normally in the rear areas. “That didn’t mean much,” he said. “I remember setting up shop in a rail yard then German planes strafed our positions. I was in the shop and had to sprint for a foxhole. Shoot, my legs were so rubbery I had trouble running. Luckily, things turned out okay.”

Snipers were a problem. “One day when we were receiving small arms fire a young lieutenant decided to fight back. He grabbed a .50 caliber machine gun and started firing tracers into the enemy positions. Well, some of the tracers fell short into the rail yard, right on top of boxcars loaded with hundreds of thousands of five gallon cans of gasoline. The tracers burnt through and started a chain reaction fire visible for miles around. I helped fight the fire all day long.” Frank Almand received the Bronze Star for his bravery. Ironically, nobody ratted on the lieutenant; he too, received a Bronze Star.

Frank’s opinion of the French: “Pretty lazy, if you ask me. Give them a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread and they’re happy.” His view of the Germans: “I thought German people very industrious. In the destroyed towns they had started rebuilding, but some towns were still intact. In Ehringhasen we took over a German house and the family had to live in the basement. The lady came up every day to clean. And her two kids, a boy and girl approximately six and eight years of age, spoke perfect English. There was no animosity, no bad feelings. We loved those kids. My wife and I visited Ehringhasen in 1987. Our tour guide took us right to the same house. The boy, now a man, still lived there. We talked for hours. His sister was in America going to college. Another lady spoke to us and it turned out she used to wash our uniforms. Later the tour gathered in a restaurant with a big turnout from the townspeople. The mayor even picked up the tab.”

When asked his reaction upon Germany’s surrender, Frank said, “There was no celebration, from what I remember. We were concerned about our next port-of-call. You see, we’d just been ordered to pack up. We were heading to the Pacific to fight Japanese.”

The war ended before the bags got packed. “We were going home,” he said, smiling. “We took a train to Bremerhaven and boarded a ship that I considered no better than a canoe.” The ‘canoe’ was the Liberty ship, the USS Tufts Victory. “Scared me to death,” Frank said. “I didn’t think a ship that small could make it across the Atlantic. But there we went, up and down storm swells like a roller coaster, 11 or 12 days of it. Well, guess what, I didn’t get sick. Don’t know why, but I didn’t. There was a lot of gambling going on, not much else to do, but I didn’t gamble then and still don’t. One of the gamblers was a fireman from New York; he took the boys to the cleaners.”

Frank Almand returned to the Atlanta Constitution for a short period of employment before attending an Electrician’s school in Chicago. “Yeah, I walked 40 blocks each day, to school, to work, in the middle of a cold Chicago winter. I returned to Atlanta and found a good job at Georgia Power.”

Frank worked at Georgia Power for over 30 years in the general repair shop refurbishing ground and above-ground transformers. One of the transformers blew up in his face. “I still have eye problems from that,” he said. Frank will be undergoing his third eye operation this coming Friday. In 1948, he married Hattie Spivey, daughter of the then-pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Stone Mountain. The couple was married for 62 years until her passing. Frank has been an active member of Zion Baptist for over 65 years. “Hattie and I had a wonderful life together,” Frank said. “God has been good to me. Hattie was the best woman on God’s green earth.”

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail.com or aveteransstory.us.

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