U.S. Army veteran Sy Kaplan served as a tank mechanic with the 2nd, 14th and 4th Armored divisions in North Africa, Italy and France during World War II.
After the New York native completed basic training at Camp Upton in Long Island, he was assigned to Camp Chaffee, Ark. to learn how to fix and maintain armored tanks.
The first ones he tinkered with were relatively ancient — and inefficient
“We worked on tanks with airplane engines — World War I-era tanks,” he said. “Everyday you had to turn a filter to purify the gas.”
“Then we got the M5 tank. It had two Cadillac engines. That was a light, fast, fighting tank.”
During the 13-week training, Kaplan was promoted to tech sergeant and was deployed overseas with the 14th Armored Division.
“We landed in Oran, Africa with a big convoy of Liberty ships,” he said.
Kaplan was among a group of 3,000 men who were assigned as replacement troops to give the guys on the front lines a break and to replace those who had been killed or injured.
“We went up on the front lines for three or four weeks and a bunch of guys would come back. I thought, ‘What the hell was I getting into?’ We were all afraid, we were all young. We didn’t know what was going to happen. When we got bombed we jumped out of one hole and into another one,” Kaplan said.
Later, some of the men were sent back to the dock to unload tanks, chassis, trucks, guns and other accoutrements of war.
“You name it, we degreased it,” he said.
Cosmoline grease was liberally applied to prevent vehicles and weapons from rusting during the transatlantic voyage.
“We were covered from head to toe with grease,” he said, laughing. “We had 10 steam Jennies steaming (melting) the grease off,” of rifles, vehicles and mechanical parts.
Men and machinery were soon on the move again.
“We wound up in Tunisia and Bizerte, Africa. We fought in the Kasserine Pass. We were the second group of Americans to go through.”
The first effort, in February, 1943, resulted in heavy casualties; the Allies were pushed 50 miles back from their positions. When Gen. George Patton was put in charge of the command (II Corps) in March, 1943, the Allies — in a more cohesive effort — pushed back and put the Germans on the run.
After Kasserine, the men regrouped and were put on a British passenger ship.
“We were heading across the Mediterranean to invade Sicily, but unbeknownst to us, Sicily was already cleared,” Kaplan said.
The food on the voyage left much to be desired.
“They gave us mutton and biscuits,” he said, grimacing. “The biscuits were so hard you could throw them at a window and break the glass. The mutton stunk.”
When the men arrived in Italy, they began unloading tanks, supplies and construction materials for combat engineers.
The docks and ships were protected by barrage balloons — large balloons tethered by metal cables used to defend against low-level aircraft attack — but it wasn’t enough to protect the men on shore.
“Enemy planes were coming over … we ran like hell. We ran to some warehouse and stayed there overnight. We were unloading the ship and we left everything on the dock.”
He said the warehouse reeked.
“It smelled like vomit,” he said.
The next day, Kaplan and his buddy tried to find the source of the stink.
“We were pushing this hay away to the side. We were getting closer.”
“Buried under about 3½feet of hay were these big Parmesan cheese wheels. They (Italians) hid ‘em from the Germans.”
The men appropriated one of the wheels.
“We cut it open with a bayonet,” he said, laughing.
“Then we thought, ‘We better get going and see if we can find our outfit.’”
On the way back, they picked up some salami, bread and Chianti at some shops down at the docks.
“When we went up to the line, we told everybody about the cheese,” and shared it with the guys.
Kaplan and the men pushed ahead and found that all their areas up to Rome had been pretty well cleared of the enemy. The men stayed in Rome for a couple of weeks then took a convoy into France.
“We went up through Dijon, Epernon, Neufchateau — that’s where we had a big ordinance depot from World War I.”
In Neufchateau, in an alcove in the mountain, was a gruesome sight.
“They were dumping all our frozen dead from the front. Stiff corpses, some with no legs, no arms. When spring came, the bodies thawed out,” he said.
In the spring, when the burial detail came through, the men were laid to rest in nearby cemeteries.
“We needed lumber in the worst way for the engineers … we went with a team of German soldiers (prisoners) and we started cutting logs. A German soldier stepped on a mine near the side of a tree and I got hit with shrapnel. I was standing 25 feet away from the mine. I got hit on the side of the face … and I got a claw hand,” he said holding up his left hand. “I went to the hospital. I was laid up a couple of weeks.
“I was lucky,” he said.
Some of his friends were killed in another mine explosion.
Kaplan found himself in the vicinity of Gen. George Patton on two separate occasions.
“He was an S.O.B. in his own way, but no matter what anybody said, he cared for the troops.”
Patton, Kaplan said, was a hard-charger who gave no quarter to the enemy.
“He was crazy. He was wild,” Kaplan added. “He said, ‘Don’t give ‘em any rest! Don’t let them refuel! Run ‘em over and knock ‘em down!’”
Kaplan, who said he fought battle fatigue before the war ended, was relieved to get home in one piece.
There are some images that are particularly frightening — those that are burned into his memory forever.
“The Germans’ Screaming Mimis (a piece of rocket artillery) — the shells came over and they exploded into a bunch of little grenades — steel was flying all over.
“We went through hell, but we came out in a lot better shape than some of the other guys. I came home with my legs and my arms,” Kaplan said.
He was awarded two Purple Heart Medals and three battle stars for his actions in World War II.
The Palm Desert resident received the County of Riverside Desert Senior Inspiration Award in 2001.
He’s the commander of Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 78, and is responsible for a territory that runs from Palm Desert to Blythe.
DATE OF BIRTH: Feb. 28, 1924
HOMETOWN: South Fallsburg, N.Y.
RESIDENCE: Sun City Palm Desert
BRANCH OF SERVICE: U.S. Army; Tank mechanic with the 2nd, 14th and 4th Armored divisions.
YEARS SERVED: Nov. 12, 1942 – Nov. 1945
RANK: Tech Sergeant
FAMILY: Wife Doris (deceased); two children, Ilona Gasbarro of Palm Desert and Ellen Kaplan (deceased).