The day finally came to take Trooper Fred Bills's dog-tag home, I barely slept a wink from excitement. I was up about 3 hours too early, so I sat at my laptop punching in more names and numbers trying to get more hits from these tags. Eventually it was time to leave, I grabbed my bag with a copy of 'Men Behind the Militaria', my camera and of course remembered to put the dog-tag in my wallet! That could have been embarrassing if I had forgotten to take that. I got to his house, a fair journey from my own and knocked at the door. I was greeted warmly by Fran who kindly kept my well supplied with cups of tea. I met John and he introduced me to Fred. We all sat around the kitchen table and it wasn't look before Fred was talking about his time in service and recalling many tales. Most of which resulted in me laughing, John had some different photographs scanned in on his tablet to the ones I had seen previous. Lots of Shermans and Staghounds can be seen in them. Fred was a driver and recalled many an interesting event from the front seat 'head and shoulders' out the hatch, as was his usual position. Unlike his Co-Driver who would batten down the hatch at the slightest bang. At one event when he reopened his hatch the commander dropped an apple down on top of him 'BANG' went down the hatch again!
His time in training was far from squeaky clean, with him sneaking out of the base on dozens of occasions, usually under the instruction of his pal who was a bit of a 'jack the lad'. They certainly pushed the limits of how much time that they could get away from camp and fair play to them.
Fred's first posting abroad was Africa, dysentery anyone? The usual desert problems faced by combat troops, heat, snakes, poor hygiene conditions usually from lack of water. His tank crew and many others would resort to washing their uniforms in hi-octane tank fuel! Then placing these on the top of the tank to dry. Most of the time they would only wear shorts and boots inside the tank as the heat from the sun was just too much, not forgetting that the heat created from the tank as well added to this mobile sweat box.
After Africa came Italy, Monte Cassino. The name rings home with all interested in military history. It was here at the base of Cassino that Fred was wounded. Whilst standing outside of his tank relieving himself, a new tank was parked up behind his. The driver was repeatedly revving the engine, causing it to backfire. When causing lots of noise and combined with bright flashes, the inevitable happened. German artillery started hitting around the area. Fred dove under his tank, moments later another member of a tank crew joined him. Seconds after that a shell clipped the curved front of the Sherman and burried its way through and into the ground exploding in front of the other guy. Fred was struck by a piece of shrapnal in the head, but the other poor chap was killed outright, saving Fred's life. He somehow got back into the tank, his Sgt started shouting at him "what the hell were you even doing outside?", but Fred could here nothing, the berating continued, although Fred had no idea what his Sgt was actually saying, until Fred started to smile. His Sgt then barked "what the hell are you smiling about?". Fred calmly replied "I can hear you now". He was pulled from the line and sent to hospital, where the doctor said that he couldn't remove the metal from his head, it would eventually come out of its own accord. Which it did, about 60 years later!!!
It was about this point that I pulled out Fred's tag and handed it over to him. He smiled and said "that's my number, I will never forget that....", but then he pointed out much to everyone's confusion that he had never seen that dog-tag before in his life, despite it all being his details! Very puzzling? Why would the army make all these tags if never issued? Where they told to make a set for him and then it was never used? Where they going to change all the fibre ones for metal, but then didn't? Who knows...
I have a mountain of information on Trooper Fred Bills and when I get around to writing 'the Men Behind the Militaria 2', he will feature a large part of it, and so will lots of these dog-tags I would imagine by then.