Veteran with 'colorful' character honored
By TORSTEN OVE | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Published: March 16, 2014
There are enough stories about the late Stanley Klapkowski to fill a book.
Most of them are even true.
A Polish kid from Stowe, thin and tough as whipcord, he hunted German subs in the North Atlantic aboard a Polish Navy destroyer early in World War II and later fought across Europe as a tank gunner with Patton's Third Army.
He also drank and brawled, taking on everyone from fellow soldiers to his own brother, and relished combat to the point where he spooked other tankers serving with the 712th Tank Battalion.
In 1944, he earned the Silver Star for taking out 12 German vehicles with his Sherman tank's 75mm gun, nicknamed "Big Ann" for a girl back home.
Now, nearly 70 years later, he'll be inducted next Sunday into the Hall of Valor at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland. Klapkowski, who died in 1998, is one of 15 inductees this year.
Each has a back story, but Klapkowski's was surely unique.
"He was as colorful as they get," said Aaron Elson, a Connecticut oral historian whose book about the 712th, "The Armored Fist," was published last year. "I've interviewed about 300 of these veterans and he is one of the most interesting. I've heard so many stories about him."
Many thought him somewhat unhinged. One fellow tanker called the corporal "crazy as a bedbug" and suspected he was sneaking morphine in combat.
Klapkowski didn't do much to dispel the opinion.
"I hope [the Germans] keep fighting," he wrote home in one letter, "for it will give us a good reason to destroy their country and every damn one of them."
His volatile nature came out at every turn. Once, when an Army dentist hit a nerve while drilling, Klapkowski knocked the drill out of his hand. "Can't you take it?" the dentist mocked.
"You come outside, you [expletive], I'll show you if I can take it," Klapkowski snarled.
"He got restricted to the company grounds for one week for that," said a tank mate, the late Tony D'Arpino. "That's the kind of guy Klapkowski was."
He later got into a bar fight while stationed in Georgia; duked it out with his twin brother John, an Air Force man, over which branch of the service was better; and, at his nephew's high school graduation party in 1954, choked a man who bragged about dodging the draft.
"He was something else, I'll tell you," said that nephew, Donald Smorul, 77, of Dormont. "He didn't back down from anyone. He was the kind of guy you want to go to war with."
Yet his history can be hard to pin down.
Mr. Elson interviewed his fellow tankers in 1992 and visited Klapkowski in 1996, recording the interview.
But it's somewhat incoherent, with Klapkowski recounting some events that matched the memories of comrades and the historical record but others that simply could not have happened.
He said Gen. George S. Patton himself once jumped on his tank (he didn't), that he took 300 Germans prisoner (he couldn't have) and that he witnessed the Malmedy massacre during the Battle of the Bulge (he wasn't there).
Klapkowski was a recluse who didn't even have a phone; Mr. Elson tracked him down in Stowe through a neighbor.
He was struck by the contrast between his bellicose nature -- at one point Klapkowski said he would take a shotgun to Veterans Affairs to demand treatment for his bad back -- and a streak of kindness.
"He took care of his mother until the day she died [at 100]," Mr. Elson said. "He also had a kitten. He was gentle as anything with that kitten. It was such a dichotomy."
Born to brawl
Born in 1920, Klapkowski grew up in Stowe, one of six children, and hung out with a rough bunch in nearby McKees Rocks. Fighting was part of life, and despite his slight stature -- 5-foot-8, 160 -- he loved to scrap.
During the Depression, he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps.
He said he went "over the hill" -- left without permission -- when he learned he would be sent from Virginia to New Mexico. He didn't want to work in the desert after a friend warned him about snakes and scorpions.
He was back home when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. Like thousands of Poles in America, he wanted to fight the Nazis. When he turned 21 in 1941, he left his job at Pittsburgh Screw and Bolt Co. and hopped a train to to Canada to enlist in the Polish Army, joining hundreds of other Poles from Pittsburgh, Detroit, New York and Chicago.
"There was a lot of ethnic pride then," Mr. Smorul said.
Klapkowski wound up in the Polish Navy. While training in Owen Sound, Ontario, he was eager to kill Germans.
In a letter to a relative, he promised to cut the ears off the first German he met in battle and "send them to you."
He shipped off to England and served on the Lightning, a Polish destroyer already famous for attacking a U-boat in September 1939, the first contact between the Allied and German navies, and later participating in the British evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. The ship is now a museum in Poland.
Klapkowski manned a Bofors anti-aircraft gun and said he was involved in sinking two German subs and a destroyer in the North Atlantic.
After sinking one sub, he said, the German survivors swam to the Lightning for help. The Polish crew killed them.
"They're pulling them on board and they're cutting their throats and throwing 'em back in," he said. "They didn't monkey with them. It was rough, you know."
Klapkowski also said he was in England during Hitler's blitz. He hated the discipline on the ship and had gone AWOL, ending up detained in an English stockade. The details are fuzzy, but he apparently was locked up when the bombs fell and escaped when the building was hit.
Whatever the truth, military records show that he received an honorable discharge from the Polish Navy on Sept. 8, 1942.
He had been home in Stowe only for a few months when he was drafted by the U.S. Army.
"He had no qualms about it," Mr. Smorul said. Everyone in the neighborhood was off fighting or signing up to go. He headed to Fort Benning, Ga., for training.
After washing out of the paratroopers because of flat feet, he chose the tank corps and was assigned to the 712th. The unit arrived in England in late June 1944 and saw its first combat in France on July 3.
Klapkowski quickly gained respect for the superior German Panther and Tiger tanks and dreaded the fearsome 88, the anti-tank gun that split open Sherman tanks like tin cans.
"But," he recounted, "like any war, you get used to the noise and the fright, and I guess I started enjoying it."
The other members of his crew in Company C lauded him for his expert gunnery. But they were also leery of him. He seemed nervous, constantly wiping his lips with a handkerchief and deliberately frightening them with talk of impending death.
"We ain't gonna make it. Someday the tank's gonna get hit," he would say to an 18-year-old named Gramari, describing how the men would be trapped in the burning tank.
"I just blew up, I just told him, you know, 'Stop talking that way,' " D'Arpino said. "Because he's making me scared, you know. He liked to talk, Klapkowski."
He seemed to feel that nothing would happen to him because of his faith in God. His letters are filled with references to faith and miracles. In one incident, his tank hit a mine, the blast leaving the men "a little dizzy." But another tank hit a mine and everyone inside died. He said God had protected him.
The letters were also candid about the brutality.
"I'm sending home a little rosary I took from a young German soldier I killed," one reads. "He probably was a good Catholic, God rest his soul. I killed so many of them that the amount is too large to put down."
'I have no time for medals'
Klapkowski did a lot of killing on Aug. 8, 1944, at Le Mans in France, when he shot up a German column of heavy vehicles hauling anti-aircraft guns and received his Silver Star.
D'Arpino, the driver, pulled the tank in front of the convoy, just below a ridge in the road, and Klapkowski fired the 75mm gun at the lead German unit.
"He hit the first vehicle to block the road and then he just kept raising the gun, he hit the next vehicle, and raised the gun, hit the next vehicle, raised the gun, hit the next vehicle," recalled Bob Rossi, another crew member.
He blasted a dozen German vehicles with one round each.
In a letter home, Klapkowski mentioned that he was put up for a medal right away.
"I have no time for medals," he wrote, "but after the war when I get back home, then I'll have the pride and pleasure of wearing it."
He then asked his family to send some Hershey bars; the war was always a mix of the spectacular and the mundane.
There were lighter moments amid the carnage. In October 1944, as the Allies waited to cross the Moselle River, the tank crew holed up in a French house with chickens in the yard. Klapkowski decided to treat the men to dinner.
Grabbing what he thought was a bag of flour -- he couldn't read the foreign label -- he cooked up some birds.
It turned out the "flour" was plaster of Paris. The men sat down to what they later called "plaster fried chicken"; they just knocked off the plaster and ate what they could.
But out on the battlefields, the war seemed to be taking its toll on Klapkowski.
D'Arpino, for one, described him as "overzealous." That appears to have been the case during one engagement in the village of Gross Hemmersdorf in November 1944 that sent him to the rear for a rest.
Klapkowski jumped off his tank and onto another, manning the machine gun mounted on the turret.
In Mr. Elson's book, a witness, Ed Spahr, says a German woman ran from a house in a German uniform -- possibly her boyfriend's -- and opened her jacket to bare her breasts to show she was not a combatant.
"Klapkowski then cut her down with the tank commander's .50-caliber machine gun," Mr. Spahr said. "He continued firing after the battle was over and had to be pulled off the gun."
Medics tried to sedate him with pills called "Blue 88s," but they had no effect, Mr. Spahr said. They had to take him away in a straitjacket.
Klapkowski said in 1996 that he had no memory of the incident. But in a later interview that Mr. Elson did with other tankers, another C Company veteran, Grayson La Mar, told a similar story.
"Lombardi [the tank commander] chewed him out for shooting a woman," he said. "He didn't care. He was crazy. He was a good gunner, though."
Klapkowski was evacuated for 30 days, then rejoined the unit for the Battle of the Bulge, during which his tank was knocked out near Bastogne. But he and the crew stayed together, fighting on through the Siegfried Line in February 1945 and into March, when he won the Bronze Star for leading a group of medics through gunfire to help wounded men.
A few weeks after that, he was shipped home with "battle fatigue." The war was over for him, but not by his choice. After the German surrender in May, he said he was ready to go to the Pacific to fight the Japanese.
"They thought I was nuts," he said. He separated from the Army in June 1945.
Back home, he returned to Pittsburgh Screw and Bolt, first on Neville Island and then in Mount Pleasant, working there until his retirement at 62. He never married, living with his mother in Stowe and caring for her into her old age and his. He enjoyed hunting, fishing and hanging out at local bars.
He died of a heart attack at age 77 while walking home from a bar. He was cremated.
Mr. Smorul said he nominated his uncle for the Hall of Valor because he felt it was time, after all these years, that he received some recognition.
He plans to bury his uncle's ashes at the Cemetery of the Alleghenies so that future generations have a physical marker to visit and pay tribute to a man who did his duty so long ago.
"I felt that he was somebody," he said. "I wanted to give him someplace where he could be remembered, even if by no one else than his family."