Bob Lamkin Story
An Artilleryman Follows
In His Fatherâ€™s Footsteps
by Tony Welch
â€œI was standing on the back porch as he drove away in his car,â€ says Bob Lamkin. â€œAnd thatâ€™s the last I ever saw of him. I was six years old.â€
Lamkin, now 91, is referring to his father, Robert L. Lamkin, a veteran of the Spanish-American War (1898-99) and the Philippine Insurrection that closely followed. The senior Lamkin served during the latter conflict, which claimed over 4,000 American lives. And then — a quarter-century later — he simply disappeared.
What ties could possibly link â€“ much less bind — a child to a father who suddenly abandons his family?
â€œWhat I remember of my father is that he fought as an artilleryman in the U.S. Army,â€ Bob recalls. â€œMy only image of him is from an old photograph. Heâ€™s in his uniform standing beside a 155 millimeter cannon.â€
This single connective thread, fragile though it be, would eventually lead Lamkin to a different battlefield half a world away. In his own time and in his own way, Lamkin managed to forge a path that reunited him with the father he would never come to know.
The Spanish-American War and subsequent conquest of the Philippine islands eventually involved 126,486 U.S. troops. In this 1902 photo, a battery of 76mm Hotchkiss cannons clear the way for attacking American infantry. Bob Lamkinâ€™s father would have helped man a 570-pound howitzer like this, pulled by a team of three mules.
But first things first.Bob Lamkin had a few blind alleys to traverse before reaching his goal.â€œI transferred to Oregon State University as a sophomore in 1940,â€ he explains. â€œROTC was required, and thinking back on my father I chose the field artillery (FA) rather than the infantry or engineers.â€ Later, Bob joined the Enlisted Reserve Corp and remained in school until called to basic training at Camp Roberts, California. Then off to FA officer training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Part way through the course, Lamkin suddenly found himself transferred to infantry OCS at Fort Benning, Georgia.Two weeks short of graduation, he was called before the examining board and without explanation transferred to yet another base in South Carolina.Surprise! Lamkinâ€™s back in artillery school.
Then as now, soldiers were apt to use a naughty acronym â€“ SNAFU â€“ to describe a military mix-up. But Bob wasnâ€™t complaining â€“ far from it.Private Lamkin was finally where he set out to be.In the military, head counts are always done alphabetically. Lamkin recalls two infantry classmates at Fort Benning by the names of Lambert and Landis who stood either side of him at every roll call. â€œThey both graduated from infantry training, both were commissioned as shave-tail lieutenants, and both died a few days apart during the Battle of the Bulge. So you could say the board did me a favor.â€
Following graduation, Lamkinâ€™s class assembled at Boston harbor where it boarded a converted banana boat, bound for Europe. Skipping a stopover in Britain, the ship crossed the English channel and off-loaded on the French coast. â€œWe gathered up our guns and ammo and towing vehicles and went a short ways inland to a chateau, where we hunkered down. The chateau had been a Wehrmacht headquarters, until our infantry chased them out. I think it was around the end of June, almost a month after D-day.â€ Bob also notes that chateau living was a welcome surprise; Normandy had yet to fall and the battle of the hedgerows kept dragging on. With each passing summer day, the din of battle gradually faded as the Allies gained a solid foothold in southern France.
And then George S. Patton arrived on the sceneâ€¦
Bobâ€™s battalion served under the Third Army, commanded by General Patton. Says Lamkin: â€œHe was always in a rush to get there first. When Patton took off, he went like a raped ape and woe betide those who couldnâ€™t keep up.Â I remember reading a story in Stars and Stripes that quoted him as saying â€˜Iâ€™m going to cross the Rhine if I have to send home a boat-load of dog tags.â€™ That didnâ€™t sit too well with the troops, as you might imagine.â€
Lamkin was assigned to headquarters battery, the command staff for the entire battalion. Each FA battalion consisted of three batteries (A, B and C), totaling in all 12 guns and a complement of support troops. Thus, a typical infantry division was backed up by fifty-four 105mm howitzers, the workhorse cannon of WW11. Experienced artillerymen in a race against the clock to engage the enemy prided themselves in executing given commands in the shortest possible time span. Bob Lamkin was witness to just such a performance the first time out of the bullpen â€“ and likely owes his very life to a set of skills perfectly planned and promptly executed.Â Â Â â€œOur battalion and a number of others began moving inland, until we finally ended up in Belgium just behind the front line in an area adjacent to where the Battle of the Bulge was going on. We had just unhooked all twelve guns from the towing tractors.
â€œWithout warning, a salvo of artillery shells descended at our rear, maybe a hundred feet away. The terrain ahead was sloped, with the hilltop facing us, and the firing was coming from somewhere out of sight beyond the crest,â€ Lamkin recalls. A lethal concoction of dirt, smoke and flying shrapnel sent Lamkin scampering for the nearest sanctuary â€“ a parked Jeep. Crawling beneath the framework and laying spread-eagle to minimize exposure to what he knew was coming next, Bob clenched his teeth and tightened his sphincter muscles. A second salvo of equal force arrived moments later, this time exploding in front of the battery. â€œWhoever was shooting at us likely had a hidden forward observer ((FO) calling the shots,â€ Lamkin explains. Bob tried further to shrink himself in anticipation of the grand finale — the gunners were about to split the difference and drop the last load right on target.
Just as suddenly, Lamkin relates, the air overhead was rustled by the passage of numerous artillery shells coming from various directions. Ever alert, the headquarters command post had simultaneously contacted no less than thirty-one other batteries scattered around a five-mile area, and provided them with estimated co-ordinates of the enemyâ€™s location. A blanket of destruction â€“ well over 100 shells â€“ saturated the distant landscape in what is termed a TOT (time on target) concentration. â€œVery lucky for us,â€ Bob grins. â€œWe never did get that third salvo.â€
As a matter of record, artillery â€˜serenadesâ€™ on the battlefields of Europe occasionally reached eye-popping proportions. In a single nighttime engagement, an attacking battalion of German infantry was stopped in its tracks by a defensive barrage totaling 11,500 rounds in various calibers, including 155mm. During the Battle of the Bulge, U.S. artillery fired an estimated 1,225,000 rounds from 4,155 â€œtubes,â€ as cannon barrels were labeled by their handlers. To be sure, the infantry paid all due respect to incoming rifle and machine gun fire. Beyond that, artillery (and its first cousin, the mortar) were horses of another color. Incoming artillery barrages that seemed to go on forever â€“ thirty minutes of continuous drum fire was not uncommon — often left survivors on both the Allied and Axis sides â€œcringing, crapping and cryingâ€ in their foxholes â€“ as one GI lyrically put it. Between August 1 and November 30, 1944, Third Army medics cataloged the following physical damage; for every gunshot wound, there were two explosive shrapnel wounds. No such tally was kept of the dead.
Once business in the Ardennes was attended to, the battalion was re-assigned in support of a tank corps. Exiting Belgium into Germany in late January, 1945, Lamkinâ€™s battery spent day after day in relentless pursuit of the retreating Germans â€“ further evidence of General Pattonâ€™s desire to lead the pack.* â€œWeâ€™d move into an area and get set up. Then the tanks would pass through until they met enemy strong points. If that didnâ€™t get the job done, theyâ€™d back off and weâ€™d take a crack at it. Then the infantry moved in.â€ ** Not once did Lamkinâ€™s group ever have to resort to direct fire. â€œThatâ€™s when you shoot directly at a visible target on the ground,â€ he explains. â€œAll our distant firing at unseen targets involved a lot of computation and co-ordination. We used high explosive (HE) shells almost exclusively. Some exploded on contact, some we set for air-burst.â€ Though assigned to duties within the headquarters command staff, Lamkin got in his fair share of licks behind the Model M2A1 howitzer as a breech loader â€“ or ammo man. What he couldnâ€™t keep track of were the number of times his battalion picked up and moved. Like playing a continuous game of hop-scotch and leap-frog, as Bob puts it.
Once over the Rhine River via a pontoon bridge, the battalion skirted Cologne and continued cross-country into Bavaria, with stops at Schweinfurt and Frankfurt. â€œWe only paused if a target was assigned to us,â€ Lamkin notes.
Unlike the front line infantry, who were obliged to dig new foxholes most every time they moved, cannoneers enjoyed the â€˜luxuryâ€™ of sleeping bags spread out on the ground covered by shelter halves â€“ so called because two men, each joining together a canvas half shelter — were provided a measure of protection from the elements.
Lamkinâ€™s battalion wasnâ€™t exactly on a guided European tour, though on rare occasions it seemed that way. Next stop: Czechoslovakia â€“ country number five. Lamkin soon discovered there were other â€˜touristsâ€™ out and about, enjoying the springtime blossoms and other amenities. â€œWe were heading for Vienna, Austria, when the news came down that Germany had surrendered,â€ Bob relates. â€œA few days later several of us were checking out a small village when we came across a farm house with some activity going on. What do we find but a half-dozen Soviet soldiers. So we all sat around celebrating and got kinda drunk on Russian vodka.â€
Strict rationing of a dwindling supply of ammo from October 11 â€“ November 7, 1944, restricted the Third Army to twenty 105mm rounds per-gun-per-day â€“- in all, 76,000 shells. The subsequent drawn-out Battle of the Bulge far exceeded that sum on any given day.
Fortunately, none of the men in Bobâ€™s battery were killed, nor did they suffer any battle wounds by warâ€™s end. Returning to Germany as part of the occupation forces, Lamkin and half-a-dozen buddies were assigned to the 115th FA Battalion motor pool in Frankfurt. â€œIt was a great time for us,â€ he reveals. With virtually the entire German transportation system smashed to smithereens, getting around proved a major challenge. â€œIn the beginning,â€ Bob notes, â€œthe only thing we had to worry about was the upcoming invasion of Japan. At one point we actually trained for that, until the Japanese surrendered in August.â€ The motor pool assignment, says Lamkin, proved to be a gold mine in disguise. Senior officers and master sergeants â€“ the ones who ruled the roost and had the power to return favors â€“ made heavy use of the vehicles under Lamkinâ€™s care. The twinkle in Bobâ€™s eye suggests that a barter service second to none flourished within the battalion.
And then there was the irony of it all. Wars are loaded with the ironic; scattered events have a propensity for linking up with one another. One chance happening leads to another and â€“ voila! To wit:
â€œFrom time to time,â€ says Lamkin, â€œsome of us were called on to help man the checkpoints along a major roadway. We were on the lookout for certain documents issued to returning German veterans by the occupational authorities. If they possessed such signed and stamped documents, we let them pass. It was their ticket back to civilian life. Those others men who lacked such documentation were turned over to the MPs and sent to a POW camp for further interrogation and disposition.
â€œOne day this young man approached the checkpoint. He looked to be in his early twenties â€“ around my age. He spoke perfect English, no accent. His papers — everything was in order. I noticed his clothes were a mix — half military and half civilian. We got to talking and swapping stories about where weâ€™d been during the war, and what our duties were. As he got deeper into the details, it slowly became evident that this fellow standing just a few feet away had once tried his damndest to kill me.â€
A further exchange of background revealed that the detaineeâ€™s parents had immigrated to America just after WW1 and settled in the Midwest â€“ Iowa, to be exact. Their son had paid relatives in Germany an extended visit just before the war broke out â€“ which timing proved disastrous. Despite his status as an American citizen, heâ€™d been drafted and assigned to an armored regiment.In his fourth year of combat and now an officer, he found himself fighting on the western front.
â€œHe turned out to be a commander in a Panzer brigade,â€Bob explains, â€œand it was his battle group of Tiger and Panther tanks that attacked us with their seventy-six and eighty-eight millimeter cannons that day in Belgium. He told me our plunging artillery fire had destroyed or crippled nearly half his armored force.â€
A second chance encounter proved even more dramatic, containing as it did all the elements of a Shakespearian tragedy. â€œNot too far away there was a liberated concentration camp,â€ Lamkin continues, â€œand it was fairly common to come across former inmates wandering around. One day this figure came down the road, and when he saw us he turned and cut across a field. We fired a few machine gun rounds in his direction and that got his attention. So hereâ€™s this Jewish kid, 14 years old. He told us heâ€™d escaped twice from the camp during the war, each time from a lineup leading to the gas chambers. How he managed that, I canâ€™t imagine. We let him hang around and heâ€™d scrounge food from nearby farms.â€
A grinning John Kelly (luck of the Irish?) examines his helmet, battered but not penetrated by a nearly-spent chunk of flying shrapnel. Even well dug-in infantrymen most dreaded being caught in a heavily wooded forest; incoming artillery rounds exploded on contact with the tree tops, driving shrapnel into their fox holes and shelters.
â€œOne day we were checking out this fellow whose papers appeared in order. All decked out in civilian clothes. The kid happened to wander up and when he saw this guy, he took off running. One of the guards chased after the kid and brought him back. He pointed at the man and said he was a SS major (sturmbannfuhrer) in the concentration camp. We ordered the man to take off his shirt and there — sure enough — was a SS tattoo*** under his arm.
â€œWe decided it was the kidâ€™s turn at bat. Somebody got a shovel, and on the sly I removed the ammo from my carbine. We shoved the German over on the shoulder of the road and told him to start digging. I gave my rifle to the kid and told him he was in charge.â€
â€œSo hereâ€™s this SS officer digging away. Every time he paused to catch his breath, the kid would jab him in the arse with the rifle barrel and shout â€˜schnell â€“ schnell !â€™ The grave was maybe two feet deep when suddenly the guy fell to his knees, and with folded hands begged the kid for mercy. We ordered him out of the hole and turned him over to the MPs. Not long after we heard a solitary shot in the distance.â€œAnd, you knowâ€¦ I still wonder about that to this dayâ€
Lamkin and his wife of 62 years, Alma, reside in a suburb of Portland, Oregon.After finishing college, Bob spent the majority of his working years in industrial sales.â€œMost of my closest friends have passed on,â€ he says. â€œA couple times we talked about having a reunion in Switzerland, but somehow it never happened.â€
* The Third Army under Patton fought continuously for 281 days. No other army in military history ever advanced farther and faster. Third Army killed, wounded and captured some 1,811,388 enemy combatants â€“ six times its own strength in manpower.
â€œI am the Infantry. Queen of Battle.â€
â€œI am the Artillery. King of Battle.â€
The King puts it where the Queen wants it.
(wall placard in the field artillery Enlisted Menâ€™s Club, Fort Sill, OK., 1947)
*** The SS tattoo (Blutgruppentatowierung) was worn by members of the Totenkopfverbande–SS to identify an individualâ€™s blood type â€“ A, B, AB or O. Application was on the underside of the left upper arm. It served to identify blood type in case a soldier was unconscious and in need of a transfusion.