After nearly 70 years, Tom Rabb could still hear the sound of the German soldiers’ boots as they marched the cobblestone streets. Only recently has the clacking ceased to invade the sleep of the 88-year-old WWII combat veteran.
Rabb, who served in Gen. George Patton’s Tank Corps, talked to Seark Today about his World War II experiences, recalling them with humor and sadness.
Rabb’s story begins in 1925 when he was born at his home on Rabb Road in rural Drew County where his family grew cotton and tomatoes. The sight of a car on Rabb Road was so rare that when a car did pass, the kids would run out to the road to see what kind of tracks it made.
Rabb attended the Myhand School, a small community school about a mile and a half from his home.
After completing eight years of school, Rabb helped with the family farming operation. “We grew cotton until tomatoes came into the county,” he said. “Then, we went mostly tomatoes. At that time there were six tomato sheds here in Monticello and you’d have to get in line to get unloaded.”
That simple life on the farm in Drew County was interrupted in 1943 when Rabb got a call from “Uncle Sam.”
This naive, 18-year-old farm boy from Drew County who had seen very few cars growing up and had not been farther from home than Pine Bluff would soon be driving a tank in Gen. George Patton’s Tank Corps.
After Rabb was trained to drive a 20-ton medium tank with a 75 mm gun, the troops loaded onto a ship headed for Europe. By this time he had been promoted to corporal.
At Normandy, Rabb wasn’t in his tank more than a week before it was hit.
“We were fixing to go through an intersection and they got a fix on us,” Rabb recalled. “We bailed out and we were running and this chaplain running along beside us fell down. I just reached down and grabbed him by the belt.”
The chaplain was trying tell Rabb something but Rabb couldn’t hear him.
“I carried him about 25 feet and threw him in the trench and went in on top of him,” Rabb said.
In the trench, Rabb learned what the chaplain had tried to tell him.
“He was trying to tell me he wasn’t hurt but I didn’t know that,” Rabb said. “I thought he was hurt.”
They were in the trench for a day or two.
It was an experience Rabb found difficult to talk about. “I was scared,” was all he could say.
After about two days in the trench, they were rescued by a convoy of half-tracks. From there, they went to Luxemburg and traveled several days with no resistance until they reached the Siegfried Line, a defense system stretching more than 390 miles.
“I don’t believe you could ride a bicycle through there,” he said. “We had to call engineers to blow gaps in there so the troops could go through.”
After crossing the Seigfried Line, they began checking houses for German soldiers.
Once the towns were evacuated, they would throw grenades at houses where they suspected a German soldier may be hiding. They came upon one house and decided not to throw a grenade when they heard a loud cry.
“We opened the door and this young woman had just given birth to a baby and there was a little boy in the room crying at the top of his voice,” Rabb said.
In another house, they found a laundry bag of clothing. War weary and dirty, they took a sponge bath and put on the German underwear. “Only thing is they didn’t have a relief hole,” he said, chuckling.
Later, while being treated for a wound he received when struck by a piece of metal, an English nurse began to call other nurses to where he was being treated. “See, see, see,” Rabb recalled her saying as she pointed at his underwear.
“German swastikas were stamped all over my drawers,” he said, laughing.
While in Germany, Rabb was one of a half-dozen men who captured 30 or 40 SS German troopers.
“Them dudes were mean,” Rabb said. “It wasn’t but about five or six of us and we got them at the edge of a mountain and somebody said ‘Can any of y’all speak English?’ and one of them stepped out and said ‘I can speak English very well and I understand what you’ve said and you’ve done violated what was said at the Geneva Convention.'”
“I didn’t know what the hell the Geneva Convention was but one of our boys said ‘Well, you can bet your butt you ain’t at the Geneva Convention now,'” Rabb said.
The SS troopers were then told to drop their pants to prevent them from running away until they could be taken to prison. As they dropped their pants, things began to fall out of their pockets.
“Let me show you something,” Rabb said as he walked across the room of the Guest House where he lives in Monticello. He picked up a small box containing his World War II memorabilia. Inside was a tiny compass, about the size of a thumbnail.
It belonged to one of the SS troopers they captured.
Rabb then pulled out his Good Conduct Medal and his ETO Ribbon with two bronze stars, representing his participation in two major battles.
“They claim it was two major battles but I thought they were all major,” Rabb said. “You could get killed in any of them.”
Some of Rabb’s experiences were so horrific he couldn’t speak of them.
“You see some of your buddies dead and after a while you’d see some of the civilians wearing their boots and things,” he said. “I’ll tell you this: if hell is any worse you don’t want to go there.”
Rabb never met Gen. Patton but was one of those who were called to guard him one time when he spoke to some “top brass.”
“He was telling the officers what he wanted them to do,” Rabb said.
Pointing to a large map, Patton outlined a plan for the officers. When an officer responded that he would lose too many men if he did as Patton instructed, “(Patton) said, ‘Let me tell you something colonel, you ain’t got nothing but men. Take ’em up there,'” Rabb recalled.
Rabb said he believes it would have killed Patton to smile. He likened the general to the late Joe Brown, a Drew County game warden. “He could make you feel guilty even if you weren’t,” Rabb said.
Rabb was in the Austrian Alps when he learned the war was over. “We built one of the biggest fires you’ve ever seen,” he said. “We blowed up some German trucks and things and we had a big fire. There was a lot of shooting and hollering and dancing and all that kind of stuff. I don’t know who brought us the news, but they said, ‘Don’t cut up too much because them Germans may not know it’s over yet.'”
For Rabb, the war never really ended. “I think about it every day,” he said.
Years after the war, he would sometimes be awakened by the sound of those German boots hammering the cobblestone streets.
“I had nightmares about that a long time,” he said. “I could hear them boots clacking on them bricks.”