Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Corporal Ted Fleser. Fleser served as an Army Ranger during World War II, and fought in North Africa and the Allied Invasion of Sicily.
Cpl. Ted Fleser:
My brother had been in the CMTC, Citizens' Military Training Camps. In fact, he had been regimental heavyweight in boxing, and I used to work out with him and knew that we would be getting into a conflict of some sort eventually, since Mussolini had already been into Ethiopia and Hitler was moving around in Europe into Czechoslovakia and so forth and Austria. And so, in school, I took what was called physiography, which is a physical geography or form of geology in order to learn map reading and became sufficiently proficient at that to make up from topographical sheets, a relief map, and got to attend the New York World's Fair at the Westinghouse exhibit because of that, displaying them.
When the war broke out. When we were hit in December 7th, well, it took me a couple of months to convince my mother I should be going in. It wasn't until February of '42. And there, on enlisting, you were supposed to be able to get your choice of activities. I went for infantry where I'd had my background, armored, or ariel gunner, and he put me in a Signal Corps because of my vision, which uncorrected was approximately 2200 on one eye, 2100 on the other. And so, I was initially in the Signal Corps and went over to England with them. That is, I went through radio maintenance school at Fort Monmouth after having been at Camp Crowder, Missouri for field wire and was one of the people to be designated to help form a signal service battalion at Fort Meade, and then we went overseas to Scotland, motored on down through the moors to England and left from Birkenhead, which is across from Liverpool for the invasion of North Africa.
I had turned 20 at Camp Crowder. I turned 21 in North Africa at Oran. I was continuously applying for transfers to the infantry. That's where I had been trained. I knew I would be good at that. I knew I was an excellent marksman. I knew that I could perform well there.
The Rangers, being a commando-type organization and exceedingly capable infantry unit, yes, I wanted to be a part of them. And so when the opportunity came to transfer into an organization of that sort, when it was being expanded in North Africa from the original First Battalion to form three battalions, the first, third, and fourth, and they had sent a contingent back to the States to help form the second and fifth, well, I was able to get out of the Signals, who had had priority over all before and into the Rangers.
I didn't really give it much thought rather than the fact that it was what I had directed myself toward. I had trained for it and knew I was capable of doing anything any other man had done. And as far as being killed, no problem. It was necessary, but my job wasn't to die for my country, but to make my opposition die for his. So, I didn't worry about it.
You might be surprised to find that, as people, they came from all fields. It wasn't necessarily a big, burly brawler. We ended up with guys. One fellow in my company was a preacher. Another, on the other hand, was a ... What do you call a guy, again, in a barroom?
Yeah. Another was a very soft spoken boxer.
It was on the invasion of Sicily. At Gela. It was a wet landing and, as I mentioned, I was a BAR gunner and being a wet landing and there was sand into the mechanisms of the BAR. So, I ended up with a 20-pound single-shot weapon. Well, my concern is about that. What can I do to correct it? I dropped it and picked up a Beretta, which equivalent that is automatic rifle of Italian usage, 6.5 millimeter, which would correspond to roughly 25 caliber. And also I separated from my assistant and luckily latched on to the other BAR gunner of our platoon, his assistant who was separated from his gunner. So, we picked up the weapon and the ammunition for it and just continued on.
Oh, a scout would have Tommy guns, generally. You'd have sniper. He had a Model 1903 Springfield, that's a bolt action rifle, a scope site. Rest of the guys would have the M1 except for the BAR gunners. And you had two squads so equipped, and then you'd also have the third squad was your weapon squad, which would be your bazooka gunners and mortarmen. That's about it.
It was rough weather. First off, as we were coming in, we circled for a while to form up until all the boats had been disgorged from the mother ships. After we'd formed up and we're going in, as I said, it was rough weather, which was to our benefit in a way, in that the troops ashore were using search lights on a boat. They could surf the water, the waves with the search lights, pick us up, but because of the rough weather would be going up on a crest and into the trough. So, they lost us. They'd spot us and lose us, happily for us. But also, there was some misguidance on going into a designated spot. Happily, they did form, I believe it was Darby in one of the landing craft led us in.
I referred to when we had hit the beach about it being a wet landing and all that. Well, that's one of the things that happened. And so, but happily, our area of the beach was not mined, or at least we didn't encounter them or else the foul weather had covered up the mines with the sand. Whatever, we lucked out. We had our objectives. We knew which end of the beach we should be heading for and went toward that. And then the company finally did assemble there, continued on taking out our objectives and so forth.
Our advance was blocked by the fact that you had to cross the plains of Gela. It's approximately a five-mile stretch where you could be a perfect target, of course. As I said, it was a plain and it was covered by the Italian and German defenses. The C and D companies were assigned to detail of crossing the plain and taking out the pill boxes that were defending it, and there was a German battery of 88s covering the pass. A diversionary action was set up by having some vehicles moving around so that they could be heard. And I was in D company, I can refer specifically to that. We crossed the plain. The Italians periodically sent up illuminated flares. It's a little parachute holding a flare on it to illuminate the area, at which time we would freeze and far less noticeable. You might as well be a stump.
And so, we crossed a plain. We had only one problem on the way now, an Italian outpost, and we had one casualty. He had a grenade bounced off his helmet and temporarily blinded him. We continued on and we moved past the outpost through the barb wire entanglements past the machine gun pits and then among the pill boxes before they knew we were there.
And then, the bazooka came in and if you visualize the psychological effect of a shoulder-fired artillery piece as far as the people in the pill boxes would be concerned. As I say, the bazooka gunners opened up on the slits on the pill boxes and they came streaming out. We had to set up traffic control as guys acting as cops to direct the prisoners. It was really gratifying. We had no casualties anymore on that part until the following day when one stupid Ranger stood up on a crest and naturally someone took a shot at him. Happily, he was only wounded.
Oh, among the things that were learned there was, you're familiar with a Teller mine. It's a German anti-tank mine about so big. I'd say about 18 inches in diameter. And it was set for detonation pressure of probably about, well, anyway, it was over 300 pounds. So, we would use them. We could see where they had been planted in the road. Okay. If Teller mine is there, not going to have another mine. So, that was a relatively safe place. So, we would use them as well as hard areas that we could see to walk. However, the Germans then reduced the detonation pressure and so we stopped doing that.
Well, we were involved in other operations for a while in Sicily. Then we were withdrawn, put back into training until the invasion of Italy. The main landing being at Salerno. We actually landed at Maiori. We made that landing from LCIs, Landing Craft Infantry, and whereas the LCA is the Landing Craft Assault.The capacity of an LCA was approximately 30. The LCI was a much larger craft. It was almost like a destroyer. Its silhouette looked like a submarine with a conning tower and so forth.And it had two ramps that would be projected to take you out to the beach hopefully. But on the way in, the armada was spotted by Jerry aircraft, but that was for the main landing. We detached and swung over to Maiori.
Happily, it was a beautiful landing. They didn't know we were there. This took place in the wee hours of the morning. Nobody knew we were there at all. We hit the beach, made it up to the road and on up the road until we encountered an armored patrol, apparently. A [inaudible]. Well, there was a light tank, an armored car, and a command car. What the heck it was doing there, I don't know. But, anyway, again, we called to our bazooka gunners to go forward. They knocked out the armored car and the light tank was able to take off. See, on a mountain road, they couldn't maneuver very well. It couldn't get around to fire on us, whereas we could on them. And so, the armored car that had been disabled was pushed over and stuff and we just continued on. We took up positions up at Chiunzi Pass and held there. We had with us some forward observers from the British Airborne who directed naval gunfire on the lines of communication. The British had a couple of monitors as barges with 15-inch rifles on them, guns that were being directed by this British Airborne forward observers. And when the shells would come over, you could feel the air change and the tree tops move. Happily, no low rounds, no short ones. Every once in a while there'd be, not usually, it happened once in a very blue moon, a loose rotor band, and then you would get a change in sound. The rotor band is what causes the shell to rotate.
Anyway, we also saw the B-24s, bombers. We were up high enough to watch them make low level runs on the lines of communication. There was railroads down below as well as the road system. And that's what I'm referring to as lines of communication there.
Yes I was up as far as Venafro San Pietro. I don't know of any particular raids that we participated in and prior to Venafro San Pietro, I remember us taking Naples after Chiunzi Pass. Unfortunately, at Venafro, initially we were used properly to take the hill, but then because of the shortage of personnels, et cetera. As you know, Italy was later referred to as the forgotten front with all supplies being diverted to the UK. We were later used as just regular infantry as a holding unit.
When we went to Venafro and took the mountain as we were expected to, and then here we have very inadequate clothing for holding on a mountain in a winter or even in a late fall. We're holding. We're becoming more and more miserable. We only have, as I stated before, a very small number of men. We had, granted, gone up 20% over strength, which brought us up to, say, 75 to the company. But there with trench foot and other casualties, the force is being depleted. In a relatively short time, well, anyway, in a matter of weeks, which was not a very short time when you're undergoing it, we were almost totally depleted. For example, our company had been reinforced by a machine gun unit from the 45th, I believe it was 180th Infantry. They set up in the logical position, but the Germans had been there previously, and so they knew where logical positions were, and so a mortar came in on them and they were obliterated.
At the time I got hit, well, there was a cave from which the Germans were operating and our engineers had come up with a drum of gasoline rigged with explosives to be lowered to the cave and detonated. When that was done, the Germans didn't know and thought of it as a major attack and didn't know what was taking place and laid in with everything they had.
Well, fortunately, I wasn't in my sleeping place. You couldn't dig in, you couldn't dig a slit trench or anything. So, I had selected a position between a couple of rocks and I was crawling toward that when a mortar came in and landed in the rocks. So, happily I wasn't there, but I did collect a piece in the jaw. And so I passed my BAR onto the other BAR team and went on to the aid station. But at that time, we'd been reduced to approximately a dozen men. Our squad leader was also hit. His was a calf wound, and we'd gotten word at the aid station that Harrington had been hit to wait for him. Then we got another call, "Forget it, he's expired."
Well, with the weather conditions, it was easy to go into shock, and so I got detail of guiding the engineers on down and onto the hospital.
I was shipped back to Africa and hospitalized there. Well, first, I had the mortar bomb fragment in the jaw removed and then shipped back to Africa for the trench foot to recuperate from that since ... Oh, I hadn't mentioned the trench foot that much, but we're all up at Venafro with a trench foot. I could no longer go out on patrols and so forth. All I could do was sit on outpost.
Well, somehow the timing was good and it didn't take effect until after we were out of combat. We had taken our objectives, et cetera, and back into training when the malaria hit, and again, similarly, after the invasion in Italy, it was after Chiunzi Pass, the landing at Maiori and so forth. After we had taken our objectives, after we had secured Naples and been in rest there, that we started coming down with yellow jaundice, hepatitis A now.
But in each of these cases, or especially the one in Italy, the word would came out that we were going back to Blighty, back to England. And we'd be coming out of the hospitals regardless of what shape we were in to get back to the unit to go back to England. Only, it was up to Venafro instead.
As I say, we were at, after getting out of the hospital and getting back to Italy and Ranger rear was at Lucreno, which is a little north of Naples. When the word came back about what happened at Cisterna with the first and third being wiped out and the fourth being decimated, one of the medics there, whether he had just been a casualty also at one time, I don't know. But anyway, he felt he should have been with his unit and committed suicide, feeling that he should have been with the other guys, rather than being in the rear. What caused him to feel that way? I don't know, of course. It's all personal. Just as two of my pals I had been with since North Africa had been casualties at Cisterna and were both getting out of the hospital also, and the three of us got together at Lucreno. And since my company no longer existed and they had transferred into the cannon company, the three of us went to Pasoli, which was the amphibious base and hitchhiked a ride up to the beachhead on an LST with number 40 Royal Marine Commandos. And so, I joined their company and mine didn't exist. But yes, there was a firm attachment.
We kept in contact through the years. Unfortunately, most of them were passed on. Until within the last couple of years, there was a very close association between these two Kane brothers that I had referred to and myself with Bill Ketchens, who is the driver of our half-track and ourselves. He's the one who married the girl from Southern France and you've met Bing and he's typical of the people.
They're basically similar type of people. They're people who would support each other. They have confidence in each other. They've gone through extreme training and know that they'll come through on it and that you can rely on each other. How often can you go out on most anything and feel that you can have confidence in that person to back you up. If you're going out doing something, if you are putting your life in jeopardy, but you know that this other fellow will be there to support you, to see that if it's all possible, you'll come through. Even if it means he endangers himself, you're going to go for whatever your objective is that much more confidently. You don't find it in civilian life. You have no need for it in civilian life, possibly, but it was there.
Among the present day Rangers, just as in the Rangers of the past, I think each of us is confident that we can rely on each other, know that each is going to be there to support each other and could be depended on throughout whatever the circumstance might be.
That was Corporal Ted Fleser.
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Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.