Reading’s Boys #8: August-September 1944, Part 1

Herbert Elliot Stark (August-September 1944)

In the first few days of August, Herbert Stark, of the 30th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop (Mechanized), 30th Infantry Division, did not have very much to do. There was a fair bit of movement but no real contact with the enemy. Until August 6, that is. At 7:30 PM on August 6, 1944, the 2nd Platoon, 30th Recon Troop was attached to the 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division, and orders were given out to begin moving from Mortain towards Barenton.

On August 7, as Herbert’s 2nd Platoon was moving up, they were stopped by German tanks and a swarm of infantry. I cannot even imagine the emotions that Herbert and his comrades experienced in those desperate moments. All of a sudden, a small platoon from a reconnaissance unit was staring down the turrets of a group of German tanks. I wonder if Herbert even tried to fight. On that day, Herbert watched a good handful of men he knew die. I cannot blame him one bit for choosing to come out with his arms up and his weapon in the grass at his feet. I wonder if he felt like crying as the Germans pushed him down the road towards their own lines. I wonder if he felt ashamed that he had given up instead of going down with his buddies if he thought about home and shook his head to try to empty the thoughts from his mind if he pictured his front door at 98 Lowell Street and realized that his mother would soon receive a telegram informing her that her son had been reported missing in action.

In the coming weeks, Herbert would probably grow very accustomed to feeling the barrel of a gun in his back, the feeling of an empty stomach, and the fear that there was not much else left to live for. I wish I could reach back through the decades and just walk with him. I wish I could have been there with him so that he didn’t have to be alone, surrounded by faces he’d never seen before.

According to Herbert’s NARA Partial Record referring to his time as a POW, Herbert was not received and processed at Stalag IV-B (where he would spend the rest of the war) until December 25, 1944. It is quite possible that this is a mistake, but either way, it seems rather cruel; for the kid from a small town in Massachusetts to be placed in the camp where a piece of his soul died on Christmas Day.

It is unclear to me exactly when Herbert was returned to US Army control since the Russians who liberated Stalag IV-B did a horrible job of actually liberating anyone, and this was the case for pretty much any camp that was “liberated” by the Russians. Though the average Soviet soldier often showed plenty of compassion for his American allies, he was controlled by a system he had no way to challenge. And thus, many prisoners of war who were liberated by the Russians ended up running through the German and Polish countryside trying to find a way back home.

According to Jeff Rogers, a man who has done extensive research and also written a book about the 30th Recon Troop, Herbert’s nephew said that after the war, Hebert never really talked to anyone about his experiences. He couldn’t move on from the memories; they gripped him tightly, almost to the point of strangling him. Herbert Stark’s soul had been broken a little bit by the pain and suffering he, and others around him, endured.

When I first began doing research on Hebert, I was under the impression that Herbert had actually been captured by the Germans on December 25, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge. When I learned of Herbert’s struggle to move on from his wartime experiences, I nodded my head. That made sense to me. Humans are impacted by things in dramatically different ways, as many people now know. One man could watch everyone around him die in a battle and return home with his humanity and soul intact and ready for the switch back to civilian life. One man could watch one comrade die and never be the same again. A few days after learning that Herbert was taken prisoner on December 25, 1944, Jeff (who I had been communicating with during my research on Herbert) and I realized that Herbert was actually taken prisoner on August 7, 1944, and not December 25. At first, I thought it was especially odd that Herbert would be in combat for about a month and then imprisoned for about nine months and could never put himself completely back together again after the fact. I wanted to know why. There had to have been something. I did not find out why, but rather, I found the absence of something essential to sustaining a mentally stable human: moments of happiness and joy, free of anxiety. I found myself suddenly wishing that he had been taken prisoner on December 25, because if he had, he would have been with the 30th Recon Troop when one of my personal favorite war stories took place. 

It was August, and the men of the 30th Recon Troop were breaking out of Normandy and heading for Belgium. On their way, they picked up a German payroll. Of course, the men were not supposed to keep the money, but of course, they did. Later on, in August, the men stopped in a Belgian town for rest, and that night, everyone began piling into a local diner to eat. For many men, this was the first real food they’d had since their time in England. As the night progressed, the owner of the diner explained to the soldiers that it was getting late and he needed to close the place. The soldiers protested, saying that not everyone had eaten yet and that they really wanted real food but the diner’s owner held his position and asked the men again, to leave. The soldiers of the 30th Recon Troop then gathered together the money they had taken from the captured German payroll and bought the restaurant for the night so that the diner would stay open. The next day, the men rolled out of town with full stomachs.

This story is one that I cannot help but smile at. It was an evening of happiness and joy, free of anxiety. And Herbert Elliot Stark wasn’t there. In his time in combat, he had seen nothing but pain, suffering, death, gruesome wounds, and grief. There were no happy memories to break up the bad ones.

Herbert would return home to Reading after the war and raise a family here. He would pass away on August 14, 1985, and when he passed, I guess I hope that he found peace. With the death of Herbert Elliot Stark, the horrible memories of a bad war passed on too.

Paul William Connelly (August-September 1944)

On June 30, 1942, Paul Connelly strode into the Lafayette Building in Wakefield to fill out his draft card. Standing 6’ tall, and weighing 146 pounds, the only distinguishing mark on Paul’s body was a scar on his left temple. I am not quite sure when Paul actually entered service but I do know that by August 1, 1944, he was a 2nd Lieutenant assigned to the 94th Bombardment Group, 410th Bomb Squadron. Once Paul arrived at Bury St. Edmunds Airfield in England, he probably would have been introduced to the crew he would serve with. Those guys would become Paul’s brothers. 

On the morning of Paul’s first mission, which would be a bombing run to Rechlin, Germany, his crew’s pilot, Robert Hall, invited the crew to come and pray with him. Each of the men declined. They were too nervous to be praying. Their minds could focus on little else other than the mission they had ahead of them. So, on August 25, 1944, Paul and the rest of the crew would climb up into a B-17 called “The Uninvited” for their first mission. 

I do not know any details of the mission. I do not know what happened. I do not know how many planes may have been lost. In all the books I have read about air combat during the Second World War, I have noticed one relatively common theme, though: most guys remember their first mission with some level of fondness. There is something about flight that makes us a little giddy. Listening to the coughing of the engines as they turn on, seeing the propellers begin to spin, feeling the plane inch forward, watching each bomber in front of you, race down the runway and lift up into the great blue sky. 

The order probably came over the radio once the plane was out over the channel, “Test guns.” All the gunners would open fire, spewing metal into the sea, and then stop shortly after. One veteran described the gun check as a way for the men to let out their anxiety. They had taken off safely, and letting out all that angst happened when they fired those guns into the English Channel. The plane would become deathly cold as the B-17 rose up through the clouds, and many men would plug their flight suits into a wall outlet that would heat up their clothing.

A few hours into the flight, Robert Hall probably would come over the radio and tell everyone that they were entering the bombing run. When bombers entered their bombing run, they were the most vulnerable. They could not take any evasive maneuvers because they would throw off the bombing path. They needed to ensure the bombs fell in the right place. Some of the gunner’s voices may have crackled through the radio informing the crew of enemy planes entering the bombers’ formation. As they approached the bombing target, Robert would have given the controls over to Paul because Paul was the bombardier. This made sure that Paul could keep the plane right on track to drop the plane’s payload. Every word that came out of Paul’s mouth at that point was law. At the end of the day, it was Paul who would decide if the bombing mission was successful. 

When Paul shouted, “Bombs away!” the bomb-bay doors would drop open and the heavy payload the plane was carrying would fall to the earth and their job would be done. All they needed to do now was get back home. German fighters probably swooped in to meet the bombers that were now dashing away a bit faster because of the weight they’d lost dropping their bombs. Flak guns may have harassed the crew of Paul’s plane throughout the mission, but they would make it back.

During the months of August and September, Robert Hall’s crew, with Paul Connelly as bombardier, would fly 11 complete combat missions. Robert Hall’s grandsons recalled that after the crew had survived two or three missions, they started to join Robert when he prayed before each mission. They seemed to figure it couldn’t hurt anything, so why not. They’d already survived this long– they thought they could use any help they could get. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email