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Our War: Tank veteran's memories 'all coming back to me'

The small, rectangular piece of paper is soft and faded, the decades-old creases where it has been folded and refolded are slowly disintegrating.

The ink is smeared into faint blue smudges, the wording barely discernible.

But Louis Baczewski, 85, of Collinsville, keeps that faded tank driver's license with him, tucked in his wallet, all the time. His memories are tied to that small piece of paper.

On Veterans Day, he dons his U.S. Army dog tags and wears them proudly, remembering a younger man who achieved the rank of sergeant and drove a tank with the 3rd Armored Division, 33rd Armored Regiment, D Company in World War II. He survived the Battle of the Bulge when many others didn't, including his tank commander.

"I've never really thought about my combat, but in the last few years, it's all coming back to me," Baczewski said.

The Pocahontas native joined the Army in 1943 and landed on Omaha Beach on the coast of Normandy, France, on June 21, 1944 -- 15 days after D-Day.

He held his dog tags and rubbed them together between aging fingers. The metal is slick, the stamped letters and numbers fading and flattening back into the silver smoothness.

"You never forget your number on your dog tags," he said. "I've got a lot of memories, and there seem to be more now than there were at first."

Before landing at Omaha Beach, the division trained in Liverpool, England. They prepared their tanks for the watery drop-off by extending the exhaust into the air and water-proofing the tank.

"They dug these big pits and filled them with water. We had to drive our tanks into the pits and plug the holes in the tank," he said. "They told us if we didn't waterproof our tanks and they dropped us off into deep water, we would drown in the tanks."

The unit commander gave a speech to his troops before they embarked onto the coast of Normandy.

"He told us, and I'll never forget what he said, he told us, 'This is it. This is what you've been training for. Some of you won't come back and some of you are going to wish you are dead before this is over,'" Baczewski said. "That first night of combat, we knocked our four Mach 4s, and they took out two of ours. After that night, I didn't think I'd ever get back to the states."

His assistant driver got killed by a German sniper as they spent a year fighting their way through Belgium, Luxembourg, northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes and led the ground charge into Germany. His division, nicknamed the "Spearhead Division," was the first Allied ground unit to cross the lines into Roetgen, Germany, in early December.

The Germans were massing their forces, and troops were preparing to fight the Battle of the Bulge.

His unit lost 15 tanks in the battle. The entire 3rd Armored Division lost 1,473 men and 163 light and medium tanks.

Baczewski recalls seeing a tank in front of his explode and ignite, burning the men inside to death.

"A tank is more or a less a time bomb," he said. "You had two 90-gallon tanks of gasoline on either side and rounds of big ammunition in it. It was hectic to survive if you got hit because there was only one way in and one way out. In the summer, you cooked in that tank, and in the winter you froze."

An assistant tank gunner faked his death during the Battle of the Bulge to trick German soldiers who were passing through, Baczewski said.

"One of those German soldiers picked him up, dropped him and said 'kaput' to the other German soldiers," Baczewski recalled. "He managed to crawl back to the tank that night."

Even in Europe, the world can be a small place for a man who grew up in a small Midwestern town.

"I saw an infantry guy digging in and digging in and I looked again and I said 'Why, that's Mel Weber from Pocahontas!'" he said. "I said 'Hey, Mel!' and he said 'Why Lou! What the hell?' It's quite a thing, running into someone from your hometown while you're over there."

As the tanks made their way across Europe, they occasionally stopped in bombed-out towns and looted the empty houses.

"Sometimes you found things you wanted and sometimes you didn't," he said. "I had a lot of watches and jewelry."

But he came home with very little in the way of war souvenirs, he said. A member of his unit raided his duffel bag while he was on leave and took it all.

"I even had a set of silverware in there," he said.

He unfolded a Nazi flag and looked at the faded red, black and white fabric.

"I took it out of a home in Germany and figured I'd bring it home," he said. "I had some German helmets, but I gave those to my nephews."

In one bombed-out German town, they rummaged through a warehouse and found cases of liquor bottles packed in straw.

"So, we took some and strapped them on the back of the tank and carried it with us," Baczewski said. "We shared it with the infantry on the way."

He has a box of memories: his dog tags, ammunition shells, a few German knives, paperwork and pictures.

"I think about these guys a lot," he said. "We went through so much. I sit down in that recliner, and I go through that stuff, and it comes back. It all comes together. I have so much to be thankful for to have survived this. I look back, and so many guys were killed or missing in action. I was really fortunate to get through it."

Contact reporter Jennifer A. Bowen at jbowen@bnd.com or 239-2667.

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