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Subase Pearl Harbor Det 716 

 

Pfc. Ernest F. Grossiant
U.S. Army

On March 11, 1919, a boy was born to William and Effie Grossaint in Greely Colorado, their third child. The new addition to the family was named Ernest. Ernie's mother would later give birth to two more girls leaving Ernie the only boy in a family of five children.

Ernie, to all who knew him, grew up during difficult times and had a hard life as earnings were little during this era.  His father worked at farming and for a feed elevator company where he only made $25.00 a week, not much to feed and clothe a family of seven.

Marshfield_WI.pngIn 1932 the family moved to Marshfield, Wisconsin, where Ernie attended grade school.  Later he attended high school in Stratford, Wisconsin.  Because of the distance to his school and the hard winters with snow accumulating to several feet, transportation to and from school was nearly impossible so he had to board in Stratford.  This meant an additional financial burden for the Grossaint Family.  He was really needed on the farm to help his father, but his parents wanted him to get an education.

Ernie did well in high school, but there was one subject he just couldn’t master, typing.  He tried to learn the skill, but just couldn’t master the keys or maintain much interest.  It made no sense to him. and he said, “When am I going to use typing on the farm?”

One day while setting at the typewriter and struggling to force his fingers to strike the right keys his typing teacher, a male, came up behind him and grabbed his ears and twisted them as a punishment for his slow and poor progress.  Ernie, a tall lad and somewhat a scrapper, said, “I don’t know why I didn’t hit him”.  But he knew if he had, he would have only been in serious trouble with his dad. So he refrained from doing so.

Later he thought about dropping the course and taking something more suitable so he went to his typing teacher and asked him if he would give him a partial credit for the progress he had already made.  The teacher sourly replied, “I wouldn’t even give you the time of the day.” Ernie again said, “I don’t know why I didn’t hit him”.  Instead Ernie decided to end his 10th grade and high school education and return to the farm where he felt he was needed.  His father and mother reluctantly accepted his decision. 

After the war broke out Ernie was drafted into the Army.  He could have requested a deferral since the War Department, as it was called back then before it was renamed the DOD, would grant deferrals to certain occupations, food providers (farming) one of them. But he opted to answer the call of duty instead so on 09 January 1942, Ernie reported for duty and was sent to basic training at Ft. Sheridan, Illinois, in the north suburbs of Chicago.

Basic training at Ft. Sheridan was “short term training” during war years and only lasted a few days unlike today’s ten week course.

At the end of this training he was sent through basic training a second time.  Because the Army not being prepared for the war they found themselves in, the brass hafirearms_mg_m2.jpgdn’t figured what they were going to do with the soldiers they were training.  So to give him something to do while a decision was being made they sent him to Camp Wallace, Texas, for a second basic training course on 17 January 1942.  Still not prepared to place him the Army sent him to a third basic training course at Camp Hulen, near Palacios, Texas, on 21 March 1942.  He was finally sent to Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas, on 27 June 1942 where he learned to fire Anti-aircraft guns. 

After three basic trainings and weapons training Ernie had been billeted as an Anti- Aircraft Gunner and was now sent to the war zone in Europe where he would spend the next 2 1/2 years, starting with that somewhat inauspicious initial landing in North Africa.  The European Campaign would find Ernie 2 1/2 years later in Nuremberg, Germany, victorious with those who were fortunate enough to survive the long bitter war. 

Let’s hear from Ernie as he describes his journey overseas: 

“On 02 October 1942 weUSS_Henry_T_Allen_(APA-15).jpg departed Ft. Bragg in North Carolina for Norfolk, Virginia, where we would board the USS Henry T. Allen (AP-30) for the long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to North Africa and the war.  We boarded the transport ship on 23 October.  The journey was long and the seas were very rough causing many of the soldiers to get sea sick. While on board the ship we were assigned watches topside to spot enemy planes and submarines and man the many machine gun placements on deck.  The watches were two hours on and four hours off.  Because of our responsibility we were given ‘head of the line’ privileges in the mess hall.  Some of the ship’s crew complained we were given this privilege but were told those men, including me, had to be available for the watches that helped to keep the ship safer from enemy attack.  This seemed to satisfy the crew and there was no more complaining, at least within our hearing, which was an improvement.    On 07troops_ready_to_invade_bouganville_1943_ern.jpg November the ship arrived offshore of Mahdia near the strategic Port Lyautey in North Africa.  As the soldiers disembarked, they were asked if they wanted any extra ammo, and I, being young and inexperienced, asked for 500 rounds.  After looking over the side of the ship, and seeing the rough seas and huge waves, I thought to myself, ‘If I miss the deck of that LCT with all this ammo, I will be the first in my group to see the bottom of the Mediterranean.’  Well, I managed to lower myself over the side of the ship by clasping my hands together and hanging on to the cold wet rope ladders.  The instructions from the load master were to jump to the LCT when he said drop.  But when he shouted the command, all I could see was open water and the bow of the ship in my face. We were being tossed wildly in the rough seas.  Finally, I saw the 400px-LCT202.jpg LCT and felt my feet touch the deck and I dropped.  As soon as I hit the bottom of the LCT, several other soldiers fell on top of me; we must have looked like the Keystone Kops but at least I had cushioned their fall.  When we were ready to beach, the tide was out and we had to crawl up the muddy embankment to get under cover.  Many soldiers got stuck in the mud due to the weight of their ammo and gear. It wasn’t long after landing that we were ordered back to the LCT.  We had to capture an airfield so that the allied and American planes could land before running out of fuel.  The ordeal was horrible and frightening.”

The Army fought the Germans in North Africa and eventually drove them out.  Ernie’s unit then moved on to Sicily to fight the Germans there. 

While in Sicily, Ernie developed a temperature of 106°. The medic that took his temperature couldn’t believe it was that high so threw away a perfectly good thermometer because he thought it was defective.  The medic then took his temperature with a new thermometer and had him sent to a British hospital after he took his temperture again with the same results.  While in the 456px-Pattonphoto.jpghospital Ernie needed to go the restroom and left his ward.  When he finished, he started back to his ward and was stopped by one of the other patients and told, “You don’t want to go in there.”  Ernie asked him why and was told, “General Patton is in the ward, and I just saw him slap a soldier and tell him to get back to the front”.  The soldier was in the hospital for battle fatigue which General Patton didn’t feel was a real medical concern.  When the general asked the soldier how he was, the soldier replied, “Just fine, Sir”.  This is when General Patton in an outrage slapped him which became a famous scene in the great George C. Scott portrayal of the General.

Again, in Ernie’s articulate voice, probably as unwavering at his current age of 94 as it was back then during World War II:
“In another incident I recall a moment of justice appeared for me and other privates. We were asked to chop wood for the camp mess sergeant for the stove to cook the meals.  The mess sergeant told me to get up early in the morning to chop wood and start the cook stove fires and quite frankly, I said no.  ‘Cut your own firewood,’ I retorted. I told him that after being up most of the night on guard duty, watching for snipers and air raids, I was not about to get up to chop wood while he was snuggled in bed;  the next morning, in retaliation, he served a cold breakfast.  We hungry soldiers started banging on our mess kits, demanding a proper meal.  Our lieutenant came out and asked what was going on.  The mess sergeant said, “Grossaint refused to chop the fire wood for cooking.’ The lieutenant asks me why I had refused   and I told him about the same thing I had told the sergeant the day before,  ‘We soldiers who  are protecting the encampment and are responsible for bomb loading should not be expected to chop wood for the cooks, too,  They should be earning their pay grade and doing what they were assigned to do, cook for the soldiers which includes getting fuel for cooking our meals.’  The lieutenant agreed with me and the cooks had to chop their own wood from that day on.  He was applauded for standing up to the mess sergeant for what he felt unjust.

After his release from the hospital he continued to fight the Germans on Sicily with his unit which eventually drove them off the island.

His unit then deployed to the mainland of Italy where they started driving the Germans north and finally out of Italy altogether.  Ernie and his compatriots also fought the Germans on Sardinia freeing this Italian island, too.

They then moved into France where they fought in Corsica, Marseilles, Dijon, Nancy and Paris.

M2_.50_cal_Anti_Aircraft_Gun.jpgWhen Ernie wasn’t manning an anti-aircraft gun he loaded bombs into aircraft preparing them for the daily sorties against the Germans.  One evening, his crew was tasked with the job of loading several aircraft with bombs.  Unfortunately, there were more aircraft than there men to load them which meant they could miss their deadline.  Each of the bombs weighed 1 ½ tons.  This was going to be a long hard job and they would be working into the early morning hours if not all night and even then they might not finish the job on time.  A member of the loading crew noticed a commander car with a winch on the front of it and someone got the idea of snatching it to aid them in loading the heavy bombs.  The crew went over by the commander car and stood in front of it talking and milling about while a couple of the guys busied themselves with unbolting the winch as others stood watch.  After they had it unbolted they continued to stand in front to the vehicle concealing the fact that the winch was no longer there and waited for the officers to come back to the vehicle.  The officers finally came out and got in their vehicle and backed out and drove off, leaving behind their winch which was lying on the ground where the gun crew had left it.  That “requisitioned” winch made the job at hand a snap and soon all were free to return to their quarters and get some sleep. Necessity was the mother of invention; we had to do whatever we could with what we had. Times were desperate and hard.

 

Another incident where their cumshaw talents paid off was when Ernie noticed a truck with its bed covered with a heavy tarpaulin.   and realizing this would make a nice dry lean-to to sleep in and keep their equipment dry.  He took out his knife and started cutting away the rope securing the tarp to the frame of the truck.  He then told his friend what he was doing and asked him to hold up one side of the tarp while he held the other and wait for the driver to start moving the truck.  As soon as the driver started to pull away they held up the tarp while the truck drove out from under it.  They found wire and secured it to something and draped the tarp over the wire and secured the sides to the ground leaving them a nice dry place for the six man gun crew to live.  Several others wanted the share their newly acquired quarters as there was enough room for six more people to sleep comfortably.  One of them was the duty truck driver who was allowed to move in because use of his truck could save the gun crew a lot of walking and carrying the heavy guns. Others who provided services that helped to make the gun crew members’ lives a little more bearable were also allowed to call the tarp their home.  We had to do whatever we could to survive the harsh conditions of that time and place.

These humorous antics bring to mind the movie “The Green Berets” when Peterson steals the corrugated tin from the Navy with the assistance of an Army helicopter.  Men at war become ingenious improvisers.

Ernie had to man the anti-aircraft gun because the other members of the gun crew were understandably hesitant to stand behind a gun with their hands on the trigger firing at an enemy aircraft while it was diving at them with guns blazing.  He was one not to shrug his duty.  If there was a job to do that needed doing, Ernie was just not one to hesitate.

He was also not one to complain.  He told me while he was in El Paso and the temperature rose to 100° someone was complaining of the heat; Ernie said, “100° is less than 4° warmer than your body heat.  If you can’t take that, then die!”  His analysis was somewhat crass, but it states a point and describes his ability to cope with a situation without complaining.

On 10 June 1945, Ernie was in Nuremburg, Germany, three days after VE Day!  The long cruel war was finally over for Ernie in Europe and he and the troops could go home at last.

On 19 September 1945, seventeen days after VJ Day which signified the end of the war with Japan and the end of World War Two, Ernie was given an Honorable Discharge from the Army and was free to return home.  During his tenure he achieved the rank of Private First Class and earned the following awards:

  • European-African-Middle Eastern Theater medal and ribbon with a
         silver star and three bronze stars (representing 8 campaigns)
    Ernie_Awards.JPG
  • WW II Victory medal and ribbon with bronze arrowhead
         (signifying his beach landing in North Africa).
  • Army Good Conduct medal and ribbon.
  • American Theater medal with 5 overseas service bars.
  • One service stripe (for 3 or more years of continuous service).
  • Distinguished Unit badge.
  • Rifleman Marksman pin.

Mess_kit.JPGWhile many of America’s servicemen and women kept a journal to record events and dates of their time in the war Ernie took a different approach to keep his memories.  He used his Army issue mess kit which served as his plate for eating his meals.  The mess kit was a metal plate that had a cover which was secured with a latch.  When closed, the kit stored the knife, fork, spoon and a collapsible metal cup.  He carried this with him throughout the war.  With his bayonet he would engrave the names of the places he was and worthy events with dates.

He kept the mess kit over the years and it remains today a reminder of the many European campaigns he was a part of nearly seventy years ago.

With the end of the war, soldiers, sailors and airman returned home to their families.  Ernie returned to Hammond, Wisconsin, to the farm, but not the farm he had left when he was drafted.  His father had been forced to sell the two hundred acre farm as it was too much for him to work.  He had purchased another farm of about forty acres. 

Ernie worked the farm and took another job delivering milk.  He put in long hours because the only way to make good money doing this involved selling.  He spent much time going Milk_Truck.pngfrom door to door and farm to farm selling their product and building his route.  When it became time to replace a truck, Ernie always got the new one.  This caused some friction amongst his fellow workers as he was the junior man with the company.  He simply showed them his commission check for sales which shut them up.

Later, his boss who was having financial problems decided to shut the company down.  Ernie, hearing this, decided to look into starting his own business.  He had saved enough money from the commission checks that he bought a truck and started canvassing the customers from his old route and soon built a client base to form the business.  The business was a success and Ernie ran it until he retired in later years.

Ernie married and the couple had two children, a boy and a girl. His son would later also serve his country during the Vietnam War in the Air Force.   Maybe Ernie worked too hard, though, because after 25 years of marriage he and his wife broke up and went their separate ways. 

Later Ernie remarried and this marriage also lasted 25 years until his second wife passed away.

2013_Honor_Flight_Veterans.jpgShortly after Ernie’s 94th birthday he was invited to fly to Washington, DC, on 27 April 2013 to visit the war memorials compliments of Honor Flight.  He was assigned a sponsor who was responsible for his care throughout the trip. 

His sponsor, Terry Lang, a Vietnam War Veteran and Ernie boarded the chartered plane in Minneapolis and flew to Washington, DC, for a day that he will remember for the rest of his life. 

He expressed his tremendous joy in being a part of this.  Like all Veterans who are honored through the Honor Flight trip, Ernie just couldn’t get over the hundreds of caring peopleAirport_Receiption.jpg who met the plane in Washington to wish him well and to shake his hand; and when he returned to Minneapolis more caring people met the plane on its return.  The impact of how much their service to our country means to everyone is just not truly realized until they make this trip and experience it for themselves.

See the photos taken at the time of the interview showing Ernie and Bill, the author of this article.  View photos.

Authors Note:  After completing this story, Ernie expressed a desire to have a follow-up of his story published, which I am including here.  Read article.

 

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