BY MELANIE BUCK –
In today’s world, it is becoming increasingly rare to find World War II veterans and even more rare to find two soldiers that served together, lost contact for decades, and now spend their days traveling together. As Memorial Day approaches, the world would do good to remember, and be thankful, that such men not only existed, but fought for our freedom long before most of us were born.
Such is the case with Larkin Dilbeck, now 96 years old, and Harold Bradley, now 90 years old. Larkin is a graduate of Hatfield, Arkansas, and still has family here. Harold was born in Elmore City, Oklahoma, and both men now live in south Texas. Larkin worked for the CCC in his early days and was part of the Shady Lake project, building benches, cutting wood, and making roads.
The two met more than 70 years ago, in 1943, before going overseas to fight one of the biggest and most well-known battles in history-the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle of WWII. Their story begins when they met in Arizona at Camp Bouse, a top-secret post in the middle of the desert, after both went through basic training in separate posts.
Larkin explained how top secret Camp Bouse was. When he was transferred, no one had ever heard of Camp Bouse and he almost didn’t make it there…
“I’d never heard of Bouse, Arizona. I had to change trains in Chicago, and then at Flagstaff, Arizona, and I got to Bouse in the middle of the night and there was nobody to meet me. I was about to panic. There was an Army truck there and I went and talked to the driver and the Sargeant that was with him. They were there at the railroad tracks getting supplies. I told him my story and he said, ‘I know just exactly where you’re going.’ It was just plain luck that I came across somebody that knew what it was. The bad part is, we were in secret training and we were not suppose to let anybody know what outfit we were in or let anyone know anything about it or where we were and he said I’ll take you right through the front door. I didn’t have any idea that I was being smuggled. The sargeant said, ‘we’re going to go through a check point and you just stay behind those boxes when they shine the light. At that point, I didn’t care as long as they got me to some food and a place to stay. He let me out just where he said he would, right at the company office. The guy that had sent me from Fort Knox was in there and he knew me and he said, ‘How’d you get in here?’ And, I said, what do you mean, I hitchhiked in here.” From there the questions continued but again, eventually, Larkin was allowed in. He said the sargeant never did like him after that because he got into a top-secret location right under their noses.
Camp Bouse was used to create and test a new weapon, the Gizmo. Army tanks were outfitted with modified turrets that carried 13-million candlepower lights that passed through a narrow slot, blinding the enemy. The men explained that with the blinding light, the enemy was unable to determine how far the tanks were from them and soldiers could advance forward with the tanks and the enemy couldn’t see them either. Although the Gizmo worked great in flat terrain, it was no good on uneven land and eventually the project was canned. This is also where Larkin got his first experience in a tank, he was actually a stenographer. Before going overseas, Larkin said the only firing he did in a tank was, “three shots in that tank with the light on in the middle of the night and the gun was already aimed. That’s all the training I got.” Harold was part of a group that tested the highest ever on firing training in a tank, boasting 83.6 percent.
When Larkin and Harold were shipped overseas as part of the 740th Tank Battalion, known as the Daredevils; Larkin in the 2nd Platoon, and Harold in the 3rd Platoon. After landing in England in July of 1944, Harold crossed the English Channel in October and landed on Omaha Beach where the Normandy invasion happened. Larkin had been routed through Scotland and Wales. After making their ways across France they came to Neufchateau, Belgium. Harold explained,
“We were camped in an orchard in cold, cold weather. We had dug fox holes in that orchard. My first vision and hearing of war was the first night we were there. Germany started sending buzz bombs. They had the most horrible sound coming over. They were so loud. I don’t think they were aiming for us but I think they were sending them further into Belgium and even into England. But you never knew where they were coming down at. We didn’t have any equipment to fight with at all.”
The Battle of the Bulge had not been going well for allied troops so the 740th was rushed there to help. Upon arrival, the company had to piece together tanks at what was basically a scrap yard to even have something to fight in. They were then immediately sent to fight Joachim Peiper, the best tank commander in the German army. The Germans had ‘tiger tanks’ which were larger and better than what the Americans had, but, they fought him with their pieced together equipment, and amazingly, held the Germans. “We faced him head-on at Stoumont Belgium. We fought him until he started retreated back. Larkin’s was the first tank to go into Liege, Belgium. And it was reported that Piper couldn’t believe that it was a single tank battalion that beat him.”
Larkin tells of one of the many times that he was faced with sure death, “It was Christmas Eve day of 1944 and we were going down this road and came to a curve. When we got around the curve, we were looking down the barrel of three German tiger tanks. We threw our tank in reverse which would’ve been too late if they had had something to throw at us. But, we decided they didn’t have anything in their tanks or they would’ve already knocked us out so we went ahead and they were out of ammunition and fuel. What had happened, the weather was terrible and they had come through this forest and gotten themselves into a terrible traffic jam and were just shooting everything they could see and they ran out of ammunition and fuel.”
Larkin’s daughter, Larka, sat in on the interview and after Larkin telling this story, Larka told one herself. “When we went over there with the 740th Tank Battalion Association, we had been on a bus for seven hours going around this curvy highway 69 years later and Daddy leaned over to me and said, ‘when we drive around this next curve, that’s going to be where those three German tanks were sitting.’ And, I thought, he must be confused because there’s no way that 69 years later he could remember that spot in the road. But, when we came around that curve, one of those tanks is still sitting there. I said Daddy how in the world could you remember that and he said, “once you feel like you’re going to die in that spot, you don’t ever forget it.'”
When they got into Liege, only a few Germans were found alive in a basement. Larkin told of how they found American soldiers behind the town, dead. They said instead of taking Americans as prisoners, German troops would kill them onsite. “This was our introduction to war,” said Larkin. “At Malmedy, Piper and his troops came through there and they took no one prisoner. They call it the Malmedy Massacre,” Harold said.
“After the Battle of the Bulge was over, our next priority was to break the Siegfried Line. When we were going to the Siegfried Line, we had to cross the Roer River and the Germans had flooded it and we had to sit in the woods for two or three nights for the water to go down and for our engineers to throw down these pontoons for our supplies to cross it. When my battalion started to cross this flat area, we got almost to the levy that was made to protect this city from the high water and the three thanks behind mine got knocked out. We were just lined up like ducks. This happened about 1:30 in the afternoon and we couldn’t go anywhere, we just had to sit there. We thought they were just trying to nerve us out. We couldn’t figure out why they weren’t firing at us. A gunner from Harold’s platoon finally spotted this gun that had been dug back into this levy and he couldn’t traverse around far enough to hit my tank. I was in the second tank and we had to sit there until it was getting dark and we finally went back around those burning tanks. There were seven out of fifteen men killed in those tanks. While we were regrouping, they broke the Siegfried Line at that place.”
From there, the men were put in boxcars to travel to the next spot on the Line, and their next adventure. Larkin said at one point, he thought he’d lost a leg, “We got down to the Saarbrucken area. I was in the first tank and we got up to the Siegfried Line again. They had blown the road up and there was a big crater there. We couldn’t go any further and our Leiutenant got out, I was still in the tank. German soldiers were throwing artillery like rain onto our side of the Line and one of the shells fell into the open hatch of our tank. I got out after it hit us. Two of us got out and two didn’t. The flame hit me on the arm and I couldn’t feel my leg. I started crawling up the ditch until I got nerve enough to look down and see about my leg and it was alright.” This is how Larkin gained his Purple Heart award.
Harold recalled, “After we left Saarbrucken, they sent us back to Aachen, Germany, between the Roer River and the Rhine River. I was going up the road with my tank crew and I spied a German horse-drawn vehicle coming up off of the sideroad that we were heading towards. I thought he was going to come up and surrender to us but instead of that, he turned and went the other way. So, I told my gunner to turn that gun that way thinking if we threw some 30-calibur rounds at him and maybe he’d turn back around. Whether, my gunner did it on accident or on purpose, he hit the 75-calibur and my hand got caught in the recoil. I looked down and the blood was flowing so I called for a medic and I got out and went and sat down in a bunker in the shade to wait on him. While I was sitting there, here came five German SS troopers coming out of that bunker, all with their guns on them…they gave up. We took their weapons and they just walked away and that’s how I got my Purple Heart.”
Harold explained that after that, things went pretty good for them. They began to feel like the war was coming to an end. “We were getting ready to make a big push to finish it. We were ordered to take our tanks and see if we could see where the Germans were. Each little town we came to, the people were so happy with us and they would tell us that the Germans just left. Finally, we went through a little village and they were dug in. I took my tank and started firing 30-caliburs but they started jamming on me. I had another 30-calibur installed on the top of the tank and my gunner kept them back. We didn’t lose another man after that. He fired every box of 30-calibur in the tank. He and I were recommended for the Silver Star for that.”
When they reached the Baltic Sea, Larkin was struck was appendicitis and he was taken to a tent hospital to have it removed. He was there for about two days and then, he took his first plane ride, ever. The Army flew him to Paris where he spent a month on vacation.
In the meantime, the Germans surrendered and the war was ended on May 8, 1945. Harold spent time in the occupation of Germany. The Russians had moved in to some areas and were trying to take the spoils of war and the Americans held them back as well.
Harold was able to begin his journey back home to the United States on the day before Thanksgiving and arrived on December 6, 1945. We were on a little Liberty ship and got caught in a storm on the way and ported in New York.
When Larkin was done with his vacation, he knew he still had a brother, Alvin Dilbeck, on German soil so he set out to find him. “They gave me a nine-day pass so I got my blanket, my mess kit, and a canteen of water and started hitchhiking and hitchhiked across Germany. He was in an artillery outfit. I knew by the time I started hitchhiking, I knew where he was. During the war, we didn’t know where each other was at, they wouldn’t let the information out of where your friends and family were. But after the hospital stay, I hitchhiked right down the Autobahn to Frankfurt and then up north and then went east and kept coming on military traffic and they would pick me up and take me a little ways and then I’d find another. One of them forgot I was in the back of the truck and took me further than I needed to go. I spent the night there and hitchhiked back some the next day and made it to where my brother was.” In total, Larkin hitchhiked from the Baltic Sea to Bastogne in two days. “He was surprised to see me. We didn’t have communications back then so he didn’t know I was coming. I spent about five days with him before I started hitchhiking back. I made it back in just one day.” Larkin was sent home on December 2, 1945.
After the war, the men lost touch, raised families, retired from lifelong careers, and have been honored for their service, not only in the United States, but in Belguim and the Netherlands as well.
Each year, reunions are held in Belgium and the Netherlands for men such as Larkin and Harold. The soldiers such as the 740th Battalion that liberated them are held in high regard and festivals, feasts, and dances are held for them. Many of those soldiers still living, make the trek overseas to attend the honorable ceremonies given in their honor. The men explained that over there, the people are still thankful for the Americans who put a stop to the devastating war, thankful for the men and women who gave their lives for those they didn’t even know. Hundreds of Belgium citizens come out every year and pay tribute at American soldier’s graves that are forever interred on foreign soil. In one cemetery in Belgium, more than 70,000 American soldiers are buried there. “Any day an American soldier goes there, they celebrate. They email us and ask us to come back and to stay in their homes. You feel for them,” said Larkin. “They are overjoyed to return the ‘favors’ for us,” said Harold.
In 2013, the men saw each other for the first time since 1945 at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport while preparing to go to Belgium for one such reunion. Harold was in the airport when his name came across the speaker to come to the front and he found out he had been bumbed up to business class on the flight. Larkin’s daughter, Larka, explained, “I called the airline and told them that they were going to have two World War II veterans on that flight that had been together during the war and that one of them was a retired employee (Larkin). It took them a couple of weeks but it happened.” And that’s when they met back up and have since traveled overseas three times together and on several trips around the United States. They were honored at a ceremony in Branson, Missouri just days after our interview and are also set to be honored in an upcoming documentary about the development and training of the Gizmo while they were in Camp Bouse, Arizona. The men were interviewed for their part in the Gizmo project that will be entered into the Library of Congress.
Although both men have been decorated Purple Hearths and Silver Stars and have had more happen to them in two years than most people do in a lifetime, they are both humble and ready to share their stories so that others can learn from them. When asked what they would want people to take from their stories, Larkin said, “I would like to see more people interested in WWII and I would like to see more veterans tell their stories.”