By Charles Brown
According to most movies and television shows, WWII soldiers were beardless youths, snatched from their mother’s bosom and drafted into their country’s fight for survival. While in some cases this is true, the portrait, like most things in the movies, is much overdrawn.
One case in point is my wife’s uncle Edward J. Blecha. Ed was born in 1910 and drafted in 1942: he was 32 years old. Shortly after Pearl Harbor the United States revised its 1940 draft law called “Selective Service” and registered males from 18 to age 64 and actually drafted men up to the age of 45. The idea here was that the older draftees would not see combat service and would be used to fill stateside or rear area jobs.
Ed was the kind of guy that around his neck of the woods, Braidwood, IL, would be called “handy.” He hunted and fished and picked up mechanical skills working on a gang assembling dragline excavators for the Northern Illinois Coal Company’s strip mining operations that had replaced traditional shaft type coal mining.
After the war was over and Ed was discharged at Camp Grant, IL he worked a number of jobs including one at Illinois Clay Products, another strip mining operation, except this time the prize in the ground was clay used to produce refractory brick. Ed married my wife’s aunt Agnes in 1951 they had no children. Ed didn’t say much, taciturn would be a fair description, though he always spoke to you and exchanged pleasantries at family gatherings where I first met him. In 1972, we built a house next door to Ed and Agnes and Ed and I both raised vegetable gardens. We spent some time talking over the fence and drinking a beer or two.
Only occasionally would he mention his war. I had been taught by my Dad, a WWI vet, not to ask a lot of questions, especially about someone’s military service. Ed was proud of serving his country, but there was just a little bit of an undercurrent of resentment about inequities in the system that decided who served and where they served and who didn’t serve at all.
After boot camp Ed was sent to Camp Chaffee and assigned to the 69th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. The 69th Armored Field Artillery Battalion was originally formed as the 69th Field Artillery 15 February 1942 at Ft. Knox KY. June 1942 saw the Battalion at Camp Chaffee, AR and by fall the 69th and two other units, the 59th and 93rd, were re-formed as Armored Field Artillery Battalions into the 6th Armored Field Artillery Group and equipped with M7 Motor Carriages mounting a 105mm Howitzer on an M3 tank chassis. While regular field artillery was towed by trucks or half-tracks, most armored field artillery was self-propelled.
On August 11, 1943, the 69th departed Camp Chaffee for Camp Shanks, NY and boarded a transport on August 20. Arriving at Oran, Algeria on September 2, equipment was made battle ready and re-loaded for transport to Naples, Italy arriving October 23 and moving north with the 5th Army.
The 69th was what was known as a “bastard outfit” or in more polite company an “orphan outfit” because it was not part of an organic divisional organization. Units like the 69th were assigned to other, usually larger units, to add a little muscle for a particular task such as an invasion or some other major assault or other unpleasantness and sometimes just for administrative or command and control reasons. Men assigned to these units often thought, with some justification, that because they were not part of a divisional organization, they received the short and dirty end of the stick when it came to combat assignments, resupply, R&R, beer rations and just about everything else.
D-Day January 15, 1944, found the 69th at the Anzio beach head where they stayed employed on the invasion perimeter until the breakout. June 1944 found them in Rome and points north. By July they were back in Naples refitting and loading up for another D-Day landing this time Winston Churchill’s perennial favorite, the on-again-off-again Operation Anvil now known as Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France on August 15, 1944.
Moving north and east through France they wintered in the Alsace region and with spring moved as part of the 14th Armored Division across southern Germany south of the Danube River where they halted near the Czech border on V-E Day. The official record shows that at one time or another the 69th was attached to the 5th and 7th Army, the 1st and 14th Armored Divisions, 82nd Airborne, VI, XV and XVI Corps and 3rd, 36th, 42nd, 44th 45th, 70th, 71st, and 106th Infantry Divisions. The 69th also supported the First Special Service Force, the “Devil’s Brigade” of 1968 movie fame, at Anzio.
After V-J Day, Ed and the rest of the 69th’s troops marked time, waiting for rotation back to the states and de-mobilization. Sometime between 8 May and 18 September 1945 Ed acquired his P-38. The story related to me when he gave me the weapon in July of 1982 goes like this: After hostilities ceased, the 69th bivouacked in various small Bavarian villages, sometimes moving a few miles one way or another, mainly acting as garrison troops. As Ed put it, “The Krauts didn’t need to be watched – they weren’t about to make trouble. They were as sick of the whole business as we were; except we were going home and they were already there.” With time on their hands and no one shooting at them the troops took up the usual pastime of the conquer, wandering around the various villages trying to hustle up something to drink or a little female companionship.
One day Ed and a buddy were making their way through one of these unpronounceable towns, after nearly 40 years Ed couldn’t remember the name, when by chance they observed a couple of duce and a half’s backed up to a building and a working party of GI’s loading the trucks. As they approached, one of the GI’s called out to them asking if they wanted a souvenir and tossed each of them a package wrapped in oiled paper. Ed and his buddy ducked around a corner and opened the package: each one contained what appeared to be a brand new P-38.
Now that he had a P-38, Ed needed a holster and a couple of magazines. Ed asked around and found a group of entrepreneurs in a neighboring transportation outfit who were selling equipment seized when German troops were being disarmed. They had an entire truck load of holsters, leather gear, helmets, belts with buckles that said, “Gott mit uns” (God is with us), ammo pouches, bayonets, daggers, weapons of all sorts and just about anything you could think of in the way of souvenir grade “stuff.”
The quartermasters cum souvenir vendors told him that they had been assigned to burn German personal equipment piled up at some road junction but instead loaded the best looking stuff on the trucks and in their spare time had been peddling it all over southern Germany and business was booming. Talk about capitalism at work. $5 later Ed had a nice “hard shell” holster and a couple like new magazines.
On September 18, 1945, T/5 Edward J. Blecha, 36327304, presented himself and his P-38 to the company clerk and Captain Donald D. Fitz signed off on AG USFET Form No 30 “Certificate” and he was officially authorized to retain his P-38 as his personal property. These certificates acted as a sort of title to captured enemy equipment. Many GIs just put things like that in their barracks bag but Ed got the paperwork too.
Originally, when Ed gave me the pistol I was planning on shooting it, but when I disassembled it I noticed that there was no wear on the feed ramp or the breech face and what looked like grease or Cosmoline in some of the nooks and crannies. The next day I asked Ed if he had any paperwork or if he had ever fired it. He thought for a minute and left the room and returned with the certificate. He said that he had never fired it and didn’t even know what ammo it used. Apparently, neither did the company clerk or Capt. Fitz because the certificate calls it, “1 ea. P-38 Pistol cal. .38 No 6249.” They also neglected to include the italicized lower case “e” following the numerals 6249which was part of the German system of serial number marking.
The P.38 pistol evolved from a combination of events; the first being the 1929 introduction of the Walther Model PP Polizie Pistole or police pistol. The PP and the 1931 follow on Model PPK Polizie Pistole Kriminal, a smaller version of the Model PP for use by non-uniformed police, were revolutionary designs featuring a double action trigger designed so it had to be pulled all the way through its cycle to fire. This allowed a round to be carried in the chamber with the hammer down and the safety on or off allowing the instant deployment of the weapon. These weapons also had a loaded chamber indicator in the form of a small pin that protruded from the top of the hammer cut at the rear of the slide. The common chambering for these blowback operated weapons were .22 LR rim fire, 7.65mm (.32 ACP) and 9mm kurz (short) (.380 ACP)
The Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI imposed severe restrictions on German production of nearly everything connected with a military use including “military caliber” pistols. As Germany began to develop more modern weapons forbidden by the Versailles Treaty, they used a method of disguising the manufactures of these weapons. Instead of applying the manufacturer’s name they developed a code. Walther’s early code was “480” later switched to “ac”.
By 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power, Germany had already begun to ignore the treaty strictures. As Hitler consolidated power he publicly abrogated the Versailles agreement and went on a weapons design and production binge. It was fairly obvious to everyone that Germany was girding its loins for something, likely a little revenge for the Versailles travesty, but considering the recent WWI blood bath that nearly wiped out an entire generation of Europe’s male population along with millions of civilians, nobody was in the mood to do anything other than whine about it.
The Reichswehr, the German armed forces from 1919 until it was replaced by Hitler’s Wehrmacht (German Defense Force) in 1935, had been using the Pistole 08 or P-08 in 9mm parabellum caliber as a standard service sidearm since before WWI. In the U.S. this weapon is called a “Luger” and the cartridge is called 9mm Parabellum or 9mm Luger. “Parabellum” is a Latin expression loosely translated as “for war,” in this case, a full power cartridge intended for military use. Interestingly enough, it was also the telegraphic address for DWM (Deutsche Waffen und Munitionfabriken) the company that produced the P-08 Luger pistol.
The P-08 was a classic and very successful design, however, it was expensive and time consuming to produce and prone to jamming when dirty and could be picky about ammunition quality because of its hand fitted parts. The German army began think of a more modern and cheaper alternative, one that would be easier to produce and conserve production machine time and tooling costs. In 1939, the cost to produce the P-08 Luger pistol was about $121 in today’s money while the P-38 was about half that at $64.
Carl Walther Waffenfabrik had been covertly working on the 9mm parabellum Model MP Militarpistol (Military Pistol) since about 1930. Basically, this weapon was a blowback operated supersized Model PP complete with a double action trigger and rounded rowel hammer. Since the MP did not have a locked breech for the relatively powerful 9mm parabellum chambering, it required a very strong recoil spring making the slide unusually difficult to manipulate and in endurance tests the weapon tended to batter itself. This design was quickly rejected but the army liked the double action trigger feature. By 1933, Walther had developed another double action pistol, this time it was a locked breech style again called Model MP even though it was an entirely different mechanical design. In 1935, Walther developed yet another locked breech prototype pistol called the Model AP Armeepistol (Army Pistol). Development work continued until 1937 when two patents protecting the breech locking design and other features were granted. Walther produced a civilian version called the Model HP (Heerspistole, apparently the German language had lots of words meaning army) featuring a highly polished blued finish.
Actual mass production for the German military started very early in 1940 and continued until May 1945 when the German war effort completely collapsed. Walther was never able keep up with production quotas and in 1942 that portion of the Mauser factory at Oberndorf that was producing the P-08 Luger actually curtailed P-08 pistol production for nearly a year to retool for P-38 production. The German high command was so impressed with the P-38 that they were willing to have Luger production virtually halted to allow later increased P-38 production. From late 1942 to May, 1945, Mauser-Werke produced about 329,000 P-38 pistols.
The pistol that Ed Blecha brought home from his all expenses paid motorized tour of Africa and Europe is the standard Mauser-Werke Oberndorf production, marked as follows: Standard right side slide marking consisting of one Nazi Eagle stamp with one WaA135, the Waffenamt, or Weapons Bureau code assigned to Mauser-Werke, marked on either side. The left side of the slide is marked byf 44 (Mauser-Werke 1944 production code) and serial number 6249e was likely produced in the first half of 1944. Germany used a serial numbering system that used 4 digits that started at 0001 and extended to 9999 then the numbers started over at 0001 with an “a” suffix to 9999a then started over again with a b suffix and so on. Each factory was assigned their own numbering series so there could be more than one gun with the same number except for the factory code and production year. The correct serial number identification for Ed’s P-38 is “byf44 6249e” there is only one of those.
The stamped letters in the cut for the safety are painted with a blob of white on the “S” for SAFE which shows when the safety lever is down in the safe position and the “F” for FIRE is painted red which shows when the safety is up in the firing position. The breech face, bore and the barrel cartridge ramp show no wear from chambering and firing cartridges they appear “as new.” The barrel, slide and frame have the matching serial number digits 6249e and the frame is marked with the Nazi eagle and WaA135 code in the area above the trigger. The grips are black plastic with the standard horizontal grooves and lanyard loop. The finish is grey phosphate and the frame, barrel and slide are of slightly different shades and show tool marks typical of late war manufacturing. By 1944, the fine polish and finish long associated with German gun making craftsmanship was long gone, sacrificed to the needs of wartime production. The front sight has the numeral “4” on the left side – apparently the front sights came in several different heights. The vertical point of impact for the P-38 was adjusted by use of taller front sights for guns that shot high or filing the sight down for guns that shot low. Both magazines are typical late war: un-marked except for “P.38” on the left side near the bottom.
The “hard shell” molded cowhide holster is dyed black and marked on the rear P-38 in large letters and CWW, WaA750 and 1941. These codes are for Carl Weiss Lederwarenfabrik (Leather Goods Factory) Braunschweg, Germany for 1941 production. The belt loops and other stitching are intact as is the lifting thong or strap which is slightly stretched. The holster has the standard spare magazine pocket on the front. Some German holsters, especially the hard shell variety, had a lifting thong or strap attached to the cover and the holster body. This strap passed below the front of the trigger guard when the weapon was holstered and the flap fastened.
The P-38 holster was intended to be worn on the left side cross draw fashion, which placed the weapon in a butt forward position and the alignment of the belt loops tilted the butt down. When the weapon was drawn, the left hand unfastened the cover strap and raised the cover, causing the lifting strap to tighten and slightly raise the weapon in the holster making it easier to grasp and draw with the right hand.
Ed Blecha suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage at about 0745 hours on December 14, 1985 while standing in front of his bathroom mirror shaving. He died at 1125 hours on December 19, 1985 without regaining consciousness. Over three years in the Army, more than 24 months overseas at the height of WWII, most of the time spent in active battle zones, two invasions, 5 named battles, and he died from a broken blood vessel suffered in his own home, doing an ordinary everyday thing.
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