World War II vet's grandson retraces route of tank battles
Lou “Louch” Baczewski never talked about his experiences as a tank driver in World War II. They were just too painful.
Then his curious, wide-eyed grandson, Lou “Andy” Baczewski, started asking questions, usually while fishing or sitting around a campfire.
Lou began to open up, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. The Collinsville man had witnessed death and destruction and faced extreme hardship as an 18-year-old in the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Division.
“He was in combat for 10 months,” said Andy, 38, of Eureka, Mo. “There were times that their uniforms were rotting because they hadn’t been able to take a shower for a month.”
Andy eventually began recording the stories, which became the basis for “Louch,” a book he self-published in 2013, the same year his grandfather died at age 90.
Last summer, Andy traveled to Europe with cameraman Jordan Heath, a University of Missouri student. They followed the path of Sgt. Baczewski’s unit, covering 900 miles by car and bicycle, from Omaha Beach in France to Dessau, Germany.
They visited landmarks and interviewed residents, including a Belgian woman who had escaped a massacre that Andy’s grandfather had described. She was 3 years old, short enough to be missed by bullets in a firing line.
“(Grampa’s unit) originally started out with 152 men, and only 18 of those men survived,” Andy said, noting Lou fought in all five major land campaigns in Europe.
Today, Andy is producing a documentary about the two journeys — the grandfather’s in the 1940s and the grandson’s 70 years later.
The public is invited to learn about the project, called Path of the Past, and see the film trailer at 2 p.m. Dec. 10 at Collinsville Memorial Public Library.
The director is Kyle Gisburne, 22, a recent Webster University graduate who works for a St. Louis production company. He’s hoping for success at film festivals next year.
“This documentary, more so than others, kind of delves into what a World War II soldier would have felt at the time and what he learned from the experience,” he said.
Lou was living in tiny Pocahontas and working at a St. Louis small-arms plant in 1943 when he was drafted. The Army trained him to drive tanks for the heavy 3rd Armored Division, 33rd Armored Regiment, D Company.
After the war, Lou worked as a laborer and millwright apprentice at Granite City Steel, then a millwright at Kanalco. He and his wife, Helen, had five children.
Son Stanley had never heard his father talk about his World War II service until little Andy started asking questions.
“I just thought it was great that he could communicate with Dad and get these things out of him,” said Stanley, 67, of Collinsville, a retired construction electrician. “I didn’t know Dad went through all that.”
Andy taught industrial technology at Washington (Mo.) High School for nine years and now works as a construction foreman. He has a history degree from Eastern Illinois University.
The latter helped him understand the importance of research, making sure his grandfather’s memories matched actual events before he put them in a book.
Andy spent hours at the University of Illinois, where many 3rd Armored Division records are stored. He also helped arrange for one of Lou’s old Army buddies to visit from Pennsylvania.
“It was amazing,” said Judy Baczewski, 69, Stanley’s wife, a retired union office employee. “They cried. It was so emotional for them.”
While in Europe, Andy was struck by the fact that Americans were largely able to move on from World War II while the Germans and French faced constant reminders for decades.
He suspects that U.S. separation from bombed cities and concentration-camp ruins may have contributed to the tendency by veterans, like Lou, to keep their feelings hidden.
The Path of the Past project includes fund-raising efforts for veterans organizations. They can be followed on the Facebook page.
“I feel very driven to tell this story,” Andy said. “It really was a gift that my grandfather was willing to talk about it to me.”
At a glance
- What: Talk on “Louch” book and documentary
- When: 2 p.m. Dec. 10
- Where: Collinsville Memorial Public Library, 408 W. Main St. in Collinsville
- Admission: Free
- Information: Call the library at 618-344-1112 or visit Path of the Past Facebook page