World War II veterans remember: Paul Andert keeps memories alive for younger generations
Posted: Monday, July 13, 2015 12:00 am | Updated: 12:21 am, Mon Jul 13, 2015.
If you’ve ever visited his website, or received one of his regular emails — the ones simply signed “Old Paul” — then you know how easily Paul Andert has embraced the computer age.
Recently, the 92-year-old Tulsan took another high-tech step forward.
“It was a first time for us and a first time for them,” said Andert of the Skype session he had a few weeks back with high school students in Caen, France.
“We exchanged views … . They wanted to know what parts of France we were in (during the war).”
Hosted by Oklahoma Technical College, the “first-time experiment went well,” he said. “I hope to do it again soon.”
Andert, who’s devoted the latter part of his life to telling his World War II story, is happy to take advantage of any avenue open to him.
Over the past 20 years, he’s given hundreds of talks around the country to civic and veterans groups, schools and churches. He’s appeared on “The Glenn Beck Program” and tackled film as an adviser on the WWII movie “Fury.”
He’s also written extensively, including “Unless You Have Been There,” a book about his war experience.
Fame was never his goal, but Andert is fine with a little notoriety — as long as it serves the greater cause: keeping alive the memory of the men and women who fought so bravely for this country.
The ‘spaghetti’ principle
Spend much time around Paul Andert, and you learn quickly that he’s got plenty of opinions. And he can be unapologetically blunt when sharing his views on a particular subject.
But even when he’s setting you straight on God or country or any other of his favorite subjects, his blue eyes never lose their sparkle.
It’s the same when he talks about the war, which he did recently in an interview with the Tulsa World.
A native of St. Louis he dropped out of school at 17 and lied about his age to get into the Army. Andert would be leading his own infantry platoon by the time the U.S. joined WWII. It was a job he took seriously, he said.
Taking his cue from Gen. George Patton — his commander in the 2nd Armored Division — Andert tried to lead by the “spaghetti” principle, he said.
“You can’t push spaghetti, as it won’t go anywhere,” he explained. “You have to get out in front and pull it.”
In other words, “as a leader you are to show your soldiers you will not ask them to do anything you wouldn’t do.”
Andert lived by this credo.
Even when an injury could have ended his war service, he wasn’t about to ask his men to finish the fight without him.
“The doctor said he was going to do me a favor: ‘You’ve been in three invasions, and I’m going to send you home,’ ” Andert recalled.
“But I told him I’m not going home and sit in front of a radio and wonder what’s happening to my guys.”
‘All the times I nearly got killed’
Andert has been working on three book projects recently.
Of the two related to the war, one is about his recollections of serving under Patton.
“It’s about all the times I nearly got killed,” he said.
The premise is simple enough. Still, with three years of front-line warfare experience, the task is anything but.
One example will surely make the cut, the one about Andert’s being caught between a wall and a German Tiger tank.
“With nothing to do but hug that damn wall,” Andert said he held his breath as the tank fired.
The shell missed him. But the force of the explosion did not, and it catapulted him up and over the top of the wall to fall on the other side.
A leg injury would cost him the next few weeks in a hospital.
Cheating death, though, can become a way of life. Soon Andert was at it again.
An episode near Linnich, Germany would be the first of three close calls in a row.
First, he was hit by shrapnel from an exploding shell. Then Andert survived the crash-landing of a plane and the sinking of a boat.
The plane was carrying him to England to recover from the shrapnel wounds when it clipped some power lines on its descent.
The boat — crossing the channel to take him back to his unit — was accidentally rammed by another vessel. Andert, who came away both times uninjured, can’t help laughing about it all now.
“I lucked out again,” he said.
The ideal meets the real
Once Andert gets going, listeners are in for a ride.
In a rapid-fire delivery that would put his old Thompson submachine gun to shame, he relates one incident after another, barely pausing for a breath.
And he doesn’t fudge on the messier facts. Recounted along with the brave and heroic are tales of friendly-fire incidents and missions gone wrong.
The treatment of prisoners, too, wasn’t always pretty. But as Andert is likely to put it, “unless you have been there” you have no business judging.
Also, while the “no man left behind” mantra sounds good, he said, in the field dealing properly with the wounded and dead was often impossible.
He recalls how once the best he could do for a slain friend was “to put his head back with his body and his dog tags.”
It wasn’t much. But at least it would allow him to be identified later.
Those memories, Andert added, are the worst. You never get over losing men under your command.
By the end of the war, Andert had participated in seven major campaigns and been decorated many times.
He’s proud of the medals — chief among them a Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts and the French Croix de Guerre.
But as gestures of appreciation, they take a backseat, he said, to something that happened when he first got back to the states.
Boarding a bus for home, Andert was surprised and touched when a young girl rose and told him to take her seat.
“That,” he said, “was the best homecoming I could get. It meant so much.”
Making a difference
Andert had never met the woman before. But what she said after one of his recent presentations has stuck with him.
“She told me I changed her life,” he recalled with a puzzled expression. Don’t get him wrong: he was flattered.
“But I don’t know how anything I said” could change a life.
But as a sign that, just possibly, he’s making a difference, Andert will take it.
His favorite responses are those from schoolchildren. Two walls in his home are devoted to the many letters he’s received after he visited classes.
“Sometimes, dads will stop by (his home) and bring their sons,” he said, “and I’ll talk to them about the war and answer their questions.”
Andert spares his younger listeners some of the rougher details.
Instead, they hear stories like the one about how he outfoxed his comrades once to get some confiscated German wieners. The image of Andert, his field-jacket pockets bulging with hot dogs, is one “they always get a kick out of,” he said, chuckling.
‘Young to be a platoon sergeant’
Another story that gets told often concerns a visit Gen Dwight Eisenhower paid to Andert’s base in England.
Standing at attention with other 2nd Armored personnel, Andert was surprised when the future president stopped, looked him in the eye and said:
“Kind of young to be a platoon sergeant, aren’t you?”
Andert replied, “Yes, sir.”
“Lied about your age, didn’t you?”
The two then exchanged some small talk, and Ike moved on.
For someone whose service started with a lie, albeit a forgivable one, Andert is all about the truth now.
Which is why, at 92, he’s not about to quit speaking and writing. There’s too much of it still to tell.
How else, Andert said, will current and future generations know about the real experiences of WWII soldiers?
Somebody has to tell them.
And who better, he added, than somebody who’s “been there.”
Tim Stanley 918-581-8385
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