Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Kisses and Cognac from the liberated French villages and too close a brush with Death

Greenville’s American Legion FDR Post 186 has been conducting interviews at Camp Cecil Perkerson of our World War II veterans for the Library of Congress’ Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans’ History Project.   The following interview of Lelia Cheney Freeman and her daughter Patricia took place in June, 2010 and concerned Lelia's husband and Patricia's father, the late Ben Freeman.

 Benjamin Rosser Freeman III was born on January 31, 1917 in Greenville, Georgia. With the exception of his years at Emory University for undergraduate and law degrees and his time in the Army, he lived in Greenville all of his life.  He married Lelia Sims Cheney in 1948.
   Freeman went to Emory at Oxford and got his BA degree and law degree from Emory and because Emory had no ROTC he went to Civilian Military Training Camps at Anniston, ALA and then at Ft. McClellan. He also took related correspondence courses which earned him the rank of Second Lieutenant. He made $1.50 a week and was given $4 dollars for transportation. Student soldiers at that time would hitchhike to save money. In their spare time, they loved to go in the caves in Anniston and used Coke bottles for light with a strip of blanket for a wick.
   Ten months before Pearl Harbor, Freeman enlisted and gave up over five years of his life for his country. He had worked a year after law school but decided to enlist in Feb. 1941 before Pearl Harbor that December. He went to Ft. McClellan to sign up and was sent to Ft. Benning. He was like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch, Lelia says, it was great to be fifty miles from home, and he could stop to see his mother in Greenville.
   Freeman entered the Second Armored Division, 41st Armored Infantry Regiment, but soon transferred to the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Armored. He received promotions to First Lieutenant, then Captain. His final assignment was intelligence officer for the 7th Armored Division, HQ 48th Armored Infantry Battalion.
   After training at Camp Polk, Louisiana (Swamp Polk!) and training in the Mohave Desert in California, Freeman came back to Benning for a second time. General George Patton, Jr. was in command and he addressed the troops saying, “Gentlemen, we are getting ready to shove off. I want you to look to your left and look to your right. One of you men will not make it back.” Sobering thought.
   Freeman’s unit sailed for overseas duty on the war time, stripped down Queen Mary where they were packed like sardines, he said, on the former luxury liner. They were sent to Scotland near Glasgow and then to the Salisbury plain near Stonehenge. They sailed the same date as D Day, and he later told Lelia he was thankful he was not on the beaches on D Day and if he had to be wounded he was so glad it was before the Battle of Bulge as he was cold natured!
   When they did sail and land at Omaha and Utah Beaches, the beaches had been cleared. Their first engagement in the Battle of France was at Senonches where they lost their first men. Chartres followed and it was quite battle with three American columns attacking the city from the north, east, and south to capture the vital transportation hub. After Chartres, Freeman’s 48th Armored Infantry Battalion made one of its greatest accomplishments: they were the first Allies to cross the Seine River. 88 mm shells rained down on them, but they made the crossing and routed the enemy. Other important achievements were establishing a beachhead on the Marne, freeing 150 cities as they pressed through Melun, taking “Radio Paris” the Nazi radio propaganda outlet, and liberating Chateau-Thierry, La Ferte Gaucher and Montmirail, Provins, and Verdun. It was at Verdun that Ben’s battalion ran out of gas. Freeman was in twenty three engagements before he was wounded.
   When they liberated the villages, the American forces received the gratitude of the French. The people would come out with praises, raise the two country’s flags and bring gifts: cognac, eggs, vegetables plus smother them with kisses. It was very different when they got to Alsace Lorraine-all the windows were shuttered and locked as the people were German there and not happy about the situation.
   Recouping after Verdun and being without petrol, they headed for Metz, a heavily fortified city which has resisted wartime sieges throughout history. On September 14th at 3 p.m. during a lengthy and costly siege, Ben was wounded.  As an intelligence officer, he was interviewing a German prisoner when shrapnel from mortar fire slashed through his helmet, grazing his forehead and seriously wounding his eye and face. He dashed up the road to a culvert and aid station, and Colonel Durante, the doctor, used his last bandage on Ben and gave him sulphur and morphine. He was rushed to an evacuation unit and while on a gurney being pumped with meds he insisted on keeping his helmet. At every aid station and at every field hospital, the staff would try, first thing, to take his helmet.  Weak and groggy and in pain as he must have been, he refused, gripping it tightly between his legs. And so he carried it with him all the way, and today it is treasured by his family.  A photograph of his slashed helmet hangs on the wall of American Legion Post 186.
   From the last field hospital near Verdun, he was flown to a stopover at 98th General Hospital in England, and on by ambulance and train to the 83rd General Hospital in Wales just over the border from Chester, England. Prospective recovery promised to be slow, so Freeman asked for Judge Advocate duty in Chester which he enjoyed between surgeries. This hospital stay lasted about four months.
   In January, 1945 he was transferred to O’Reilly General Hospital, Springfield, MO which would be his home until spring of 1946. Continuing surgeries were done, but as usual he made lasting friendships with numerous patients and nurses.
   In September, 2000, Freeman and his wife Lelia, attended a 7th Armored Reunion in Springfield and visited the hospital site. Now the home of Evangel College, WWII barracks buildings are still in use there interspersed with fine brick buildings.
   Captain Freeman was discharged May, 1946 receiving the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and other medals.  He served five years and three months, lost 80 % of his sight in one eye, but he never complained about any time in service.
   An enthusiastic member of the 7th Armored Division Association (of Veterans), he served it as Judge Advocate.  An annual highlight for him was always the reunion his “old army buddies” held in various parts of the country, and he returned from his last only a few days before his death.
   Ben loved his local American Legion Post 186, enjoyed its meetings, and supported fund raisers which resulted in building their impressive headquarters. For the Post’s September 2000 meeting, Ben was asked to be the speaker for the evening. He related his army experiences with his usual humor, dedication, and patriotism. When the Legionnaires met only one month later, he was gravely ill and died the following day.
   Ben’s wife, Lelia Cheney Freeman was born and grew up in Washington, Ga and met Ben after the war. He had come back to Greenville to practice law and Lelia was dating his best friend. Lelia was working in Savannah 200 miles away and at every opportunity Ben started driving there. They courted there, and Lelia told him she would not have left Savannah for anyone but him.
   Lelia was at UGA during World War II which she describes as a girls’ school with the men the all gone off to war. But life went on and they were very aware of the war. She gave blood until she was told she was too anemic. Lelia went to the Women’s Club and rolled bandages to be sent to the Red Cross. She learned to knit and laughingly said she had no knowledge of knitting and started with the hardest item: gloves. 
   There was rationing in the U.S.: sugar and gas. Art supplies for Lelia’s studies at UGA were also hard to come by. When she later learned Ben’s outfit had run out of gas before Verdun and it reminded her of those here who cheated to get gas. 
   In the years after World War II, Lelia and Ben visited the surgery in Wales-now a private home-as well as where he was wounded in Alsace Lorraine. Ben found the area around the steel mill where the mortar trajectory had fired on him and there were daisies growing there. Lelia and Ben both said they were thankful Ben was not pushing up those daisies!
   Enlisting in February 1941, Freeman was dismissed from the Army in May, 1946 after being wounded in September, 1944. He then came to Greenville and set up law practice. Freeman passed away in October, 2000.