Chesko Interview


Mr. Chesko: My name is Francis Chesko from Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania.  I went into the service in February of 1943.  I went down to Camp Shelby, Mississippi with the 148th Combat Engineers.  We were trained to build bridges, dig up mines, and so forth.  So then, after I got through basic training, I was shipped to England, to Camp Swindon, and I helped build an airfield there.  I went overseas the second day after D-Day and I got wounded on July 19, 1944.  I don’t know what happened, but when I came to I was in the hospital tent and they were pulling the skin off my fingers, hands and my face, but I don’t have any scars.  So then they put me on an airplane, a Z47 and flew me across the Channel. Going across, I was half doped-up, and I asked the nurse, “Where are we going to land?”  She said, “Swindon, England.”  I said, “Well we can’t land there because I helped build an airstrip there,” but we made it.  So then, after recuperating for two months, they sent me back to the war with the 7th Armored Division.


Mr. Triesler: What type of work and how hard was the work that you did?

Mr. Chesko:  Oh very hard, building bridges, sure, and our outfit built the longest bridge in the war, across the Rhine. 1300 feet, it was a tread way bridge. That’s how our troops and tanks and everything crossed the bridge. Below the Remagen Bridge, which was blown up by the Germans; it stood for uh, I think it was nine days. A lot of our troops would go over that, it collapsed. And a lot of the engineers got killed after, when it collapsed too. The bridge was built with pontoon boats. We took 100 and some thousand prisoners.


Mr. Triesler: What unit were you attached to when you first went over, right after D-Day?

Mr. Chesko: Company B, 33rd Armored Engineer Battalion, 7th Armored Division.


Mr. Triesler: So you returned to the 7th armored after you were better.


Mr. Chesko:  Oh no, I went in with the 148th Engineers. Then they ship you wherever there was a vacancy. So I wound up with the 7th armored division. I got discharged out of the 7th armored then, and we were in Lanzeburg Germany after the war ended, over the Russian zone.  The people – the German people – they found out we were going to leave, and the Russians were coming in.  And they were crying and begging us to stay, because they knew what the Russians were like.  And then after we get out of there, they were starting to train us; to ship us to Japan, but the atomic bomb was dropped and we didn’t have to go.  And that was a happy day (brief chuckle).


Mr. Triesler: With the German people – did you have any thoughts about “Oh, I wish we could take them with us?”


Mr. Chesko: Well in a way, yes.  Sure, because most, well not most of them but a lot of them, they were innocent – it was just the leaders.

Mr. Triesler: : So even though they were the enemy, you still had compassion?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh yes, definitely. Sure.


Mr. Triesler: : Can you describe what kind of tools you had to work with, what your job might have been like as an engineer, and what dangers were involved for you?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh all kinds of dangers, because we had minesweepers. You know that pick up landmines, and course that’s dangerous. Oh sure. And then a lot of times we had to go and use bayonets to dig the mines up.  And if you hit that pressure cap, well, then you’re gone.


Mr. Triesler: what’s the process in going through a minefield and disarming a minefield?


Mr. Chesko:  Well, I imagine most of the people saw the films, you know, on T.V., and isn’t that where you go digging?  But you didn’t dig straight down because the detonator was on the top.  So you’d dig from the side-like or underneath.  And after you’d get it up, you could put a pin in and then you were safe.  And then they had “Bouncing Betties” they were called.  That was a mine. And if you stepped on it, it’d go off. But the longer you kept the pressure on, it was okay.  So when you’d lift you foot up, it’d go off, and then you were…


Mr. Triesler: How’d your parents feel?  Did they know this was your job?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh sure, sure.  Yeah, well they were always worried.


Mr. Triesler: As far as the army goes – did you travel just behind the army or out in front of the army or –


Mr. Chesko:  Sometimes behind, and a lot of times we were up ahead even some of the times, especially during the Bulge.  Because everyone was mixed up.  You didn’t know who was who.  And there was German Paratroopers, of course, they’d come down.  And they could speak just perfect English, and they’d come in and blow things up, you know, and send you in the wrong direction and this and that.  It was very terrific, yes.


Mr. Triesler: Did you have to carry a weapon?


Mr. Chesko: Oh sure!


Mr. Triesler: And what kind of weapon did you have?


Mr. Chesko:  The M1 Rifle.  Sure!  And when I first went into France, I was a bazooka man.


Mr. Triesler: And you aimed it or you loaded it?

Mr. Chesko:  No, I used to shoot it.  We were up in Holland along the canals.  And we were in a buffet in town – it was nighttime.  And we were sitting there and we hear this tank coming down the street. And it was a German Panzer tank.We heard this tank coming down the road.  I said lieutenant, “There’s a German tank coming down the road.” And he said, “No, there can’t be, we have men up on the canal bridge.  And they’re guarding it and if anybody comes and goes they’re supposed to blow it.”  So there’s a German tank coming down.  Grabbed the bazooka.  Aimed it out the window – it misfired.  Wouldn’t fire.  Out the back we go.  Crossed the field and the German comes around the corner and he starts machine-gunning.  I got knocked over.  And here’s what happened. A machinegun bullet hit a post – a fence post – and knocked a big hunk off, and hit my cartridge belt and knocked me over, but it didn’t wound me though.  And that was very scary (chuckles).  Had a lot of close calls, we had, yes. It brings back a lot of memories though – good ones and bad ones.


Mr. Triesler: Okay, well, you now make me wonder if there were any other close encounters with Germans.  Is there one that stands out in your mind more than others?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh, gee whiz.  Well, we were going down the highway and all the trucks and all were lined up, you know.  And the Germans zeroed in with their eighty-eights and started throwing their artillery – the eighty-eights – in.  And it hit our truck.  And we all ran out, and got in a ditch you know.  And there’s one of our buddies laying in the ditch – half a face.  Ugh – very gruesome.

Uh, so, up in Holland, I dug a nice foxhole for two people and the farmer had, uh, logs out in the field, you know, so I got them and laid them across the top of the foxhole, put dirt on it, and just left an opening to go in.  So, I’m sitting there, and I don’t know I just move my head, and a bullet came by right where my head was, so that was another close one.  The lieutenant came walking by and he says “Oh my god” he says “what a pen house you have! Just get in, let me get in with you!”  So I crawled in the back and curled up and lit a cigarette. Woke up, nobody around.  Start hollering, everyone left me! I finally caught up with them, and we all climbed on a tank and we got out of there because we were overwhelmed, there was too many Germans coming at us.  But we got away from them then and set up a line back further.


Mr. Triesler: Do you think you ever remember hitting a tank with a bazooka?


Mr. Chesko:   No I never did hit one no.  That was the only chance I ever had to fire and it misfired, <laughter> so that was the only one.  And it was—I had four brothers in the service.  Three of us went overseas, so three of us got wounded.  And the fourth one, he was a little younger, so he didn’t even go out of the states, so.


Mr. Triesler: Where did the other brothers serve overseas?


Mr. Chesko:   Oh, well one brother served in the 4th Armored Division.  That’s, oh I have to tell you this story, yes, see you brought it back to me!  Well anyhow I was in England for the nine months and I was a corporal at the time, and I was on CP, CQ rather, Charge of Quarters. And uh at the cp where the captain was so one day I was sitting there and this young girl comes in and I say what are you doing? She says I’m looking for a corporal Chesko, well I said believe it or not you found him, no kidding. So she says you know your brother is stationed down here about 20 miles away, and we couldn’t communicate with, you know, each other be account of censorship but anyhow I had a typewriter of course and typed out a pass and a requisition for a jeep, so I did that and I went in to see the captain and I said captain I’d like a jeep and a pass oh for the weekend and he just looked at me and with all my explaining to him of course I got it. I showed it to him and he said you son of a gun you had it all ready. So I took a right down and He was a tank operator and the tank was called a coal cracker because we were from the Pennsylvania coal fields so I found the tank and I went up and found his barracks and a couple steps and I went up and he was sitting on his bed with his back to me.


Mr. Triesler: So you snuck up on him


Mr. Chesko:  Yeah got him behind the neck and wouldn’t leave go. He said a few choice words of course.  So I spent the weekend with him.


Mr. Triesler: That’s fantastic, very careless of you, and you said you had two other brothers in the service.


Mr. Chesko:  Yes


Mr. Triesler: So where did the serve?


Mr. Chesko:  One was in the Admiralty Islands in the pacific of course and he got wounded, he was in the Infantry. And then the other one, he was in Washington, PA. Washington State rather. There is a Washington, PA. We used to hold our 148th Army engineer battalion reunion there. But then the two men that were running it, they died about 3 years ago. We never have anymore. But then now I go to my 7th Armor division reunions every year and this year was the 63rd.


Mr. Triesler: You mentioned the captain that gave you permission.


Mr. Chesko:  Yep, Captain Zagny.


Mr. Triesler: And you also mentioned the word censorship, and I wondered, did you write many letters during the war?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh sure.


Mr. Triesler: Did you ever try and have a code of any kind to get around censorships?


Mr. Chesko: No, I didn’t. No, I was too young to know that I guess. I don’t know. But they used to censor them and a lot of them would be cut out if you gave any information that may be usable, of course.


Mr. Triesler: You never had to act as the censor, did you?


Mr. Chesko: Oh no. Usually the Lieutenants did that.


Mr. Triesler: What did you think of the food when you were in the service?


Mr. Chesko:  Well, like everybody else, it wasn’t too good.


Mr. Triesler: Did you miss many meals, you know, when you were in Europe? When you crossed the Channel, did you find it was hard to get food?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh definitely. We used to live on K rations and C rations. Oh yea. The darn trouble is breakfast used to have coffee in them so you could do a little for ya and make some coffee. And sure nine times out of ten you’d get dinner with lemonade in it.


Mr. Triesler: Did you have to worry about the Germans with the fires?


Mr. Chesko:  Sure, you had to be careful


Mr. Triesler: So did you have to try and disguise them somehow or block the lights?


Mr. Chesko:  Well if you were in a little building over there, you’d light it in the building and it wouldn’t be visible as much


Mr. Triesler: What about smoking a cigarette at night?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh, you had to be careful about that too, yes… very careful. Thank God they didn’t have this vision that they have now, you know, you can see at night. I’m glad they didn’t have that, at that time. It’d be pitch dark and you’d be on guard duty at night or in a foxhole, and you couldn’t see a thing.


Mr. Triesler: I guess you’d have to have a keen sense of hearing.


Mr. Chesko:  Yes, yes, and one night we were up along the canal, and I was underneath a little ledge along the road and they would throw mortars in and I guess they were 80 millimeter mortars, fairly big, and you could tell how far they were going to land away from you by the sound, so that’s how I know that it’s gonna be very close, and that was good. It was only about four feet away from me, but I made it or else of course I wouldn’t be here.


Mr. Triesler: You’re some of the luckiest soldiers in the world


Mr. Chesko:  I know I am, God was with me a lot of times.


Mr. Triesler: You said the canal, would that have been near Holland or Belgium?


Mr. Chesko:  It was in Holland, oh yeah, it was in Holland.


Mr. Triesler: Did you have much contact with the civilian population?


Mr. Chesko:  Yeah, after the war was over, yes. Most of them were very nice. Oh yes


Mr. Triesler: Where were the civilians largely during the war when the soldiers would come?


Mr. Chesko:  Well they would either, come and you know go through our lines to get away from where the battles were, or they would be in basements a lot


Mr. Triesler: How hard was it to do your job as an engineer and feel like you had to use your rifle at the same time did you feel that way?


Mr. Chesko:  Very hard, Oh yes. We would have outposts. Of course the Germans they were very smart , you know, fighters and all.  We’d be building bridges and they would wait until you were three quarters finished and they’d throw in artillery, of course, and blow it out. [chuckles] 


Mr. Triesler: Did you have any contact with the German Air Force at all were you concerned about the German airplanes?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh, definitely.  See now they came out with the first jet. And at the Ramadan bridge that was captured by the Ninth Armor Division, that’s were we saw our first jet; well actually we heard it, because it was so darn fast.  And the bullets were flying and they were gone.  So that was the first jet we ever heard about.


Mr. Triesler: Did you have to do anything to sort of camouflage from potential airplanes flying over and spying what you were doing?  You know, did you have to set up any camouflage from airplanes or anything like that? 


Mr. Chesko:  Not for building the bridges, no, that was too vast of an expansion, ah, yeah, generally… hope and pray for some fog maybe.  [chuckles] And another thing, during the Battle of the Bulge, the weather was against us! Because it was foggy and all for days, or a couple weeks - I forget now, and we couldn’t use our Air Force! And we were running short on ammunition, food, and everything.  And we had no winter clothing, at the beginning.  Your fingers would stick to the rifle. Oh it was, it was tough.


Mr. Triesler: How would you get your fingers off the rifle?


Mr. Chesko:  Well you just. Very carefully. Yep. Oh boy so when the weather did clear. Oh man all them planes coming in. oh bombing and strafing and dropping food and ammunition ah that was wonderful yeah.


Mr. Triesler: Did you think you might get captured after the Bulge?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh yeah all the time sure, but you had to be careful because I don’t know if a lot of people heard about the Malmedy deal were the Germans killed so many of our troops that were prisoners and our outfit happened to go by there the next day we chased the Germans out of the S.S. and you could see the bodies, all you know the hands up in the air and feet up in the air and all frozen. Yeah very bad.


Mr. Triesler: Did you know much about the concentration camps in the Holocaust?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh Well we liberated a few. We liberated a Russian camp. It wasn’t a concentration camp but a prisoner of war camp


Mr. Triesler: Russian soldiers?


Mr. Chesko:  Yes ex-Russians they were still soldiers but the were prisoners. Some place in Holland. But I forget where, but anyhow as soon as we opened them gates we made a mistake oh when they came out and they were starving they took everything, we had trucks at the time they took all of our rations and  oh anything they could find. They were eating dead horses that had been dead for a few days. And everything oh yeah they were really bad.


Mr. Triesler: Was it a mistake because your food was gone, or was it a mistake because they weren’t in a position they could eat – it would make them sick?  Why was it a mistake that you let them out?


Mr. Chesko:  Well, the way they rushed at us.  We didn’t know what they could’ve done. We should’ve left the gates closed, you know, but we didn’t use our heads.


Mr. Triesler: Okay, but sometimes I know, people who are starving, if you feed them too much I think –


Mr. Chesko:  Oh yes, it’ll make them sick or even die, yes, but they didn’t get that much (laughs).


Mr. Triesler: Now what kind of other camps did you get to?  You said Russian soldiers, but you liberated a couple camps, I think you said.


Mr. Chesko:  I don’t remember saying couple.  I remember that one, yeah - yes.


Mr. Triesler: So it never came to any of the concentration camps.


Mr. Chesko: Well, our outfit did liberate another camp, our 7th Armor liberated, but I wasn’t at that spot at the time.  And they had quite a few of our 7th Armor Division men were in that camp as prisoners, yes. But I didn’t see it though.


Mr. Triesler: Well, what did you end up doing after the war?

Mr. Chesko: After the war?  Well, I wound up being a shovel operator.  A power shovel operator, in the coal fields.  For 20 years, I think.  And then the wife and I, we opened up a fabric store.  Sewing machines, fabrics, yarns – so on and so forth.


Mr. Triesler: What town was that?


Mr. Chesko:  In Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania.  Population ‘bout five thousand.


Mr. Triesler: That must be an Indian name.


Mr. Chesko: That’s what it is. 


Mr. Triesler: Did you know her during the war?


Mr. Chesko: No I didn’t know her, I met her on discharge in forty-five lets see October of forty-five the 20 ah why I forget the 25th I think it was.  I was discharged and I met her the 28th. 


Mr. Chesko:  My brother was supposed to be the loost to her and I happened to get her.  He was with me at the time.


Mr. Triesler: Was this the brother your dad had been with?


Mr. Chesko:  Younger, no this was the younger brother.


Mr. Triesler: Did you bring back any souvenirs?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh yes definitely. Well in that book you will see I have daggers I have S.S. dagger.  I have two pistols and binoculars and a compass and other little plastic bands and you know arm bands, and a little flag with uh a swastika on it.


Mr. Triesler: Did you have to mail those or could you carry them?


Mr. Chesko:  No I brought them back in my duffle bag, and then when we got into New York and I had four pistols in the bag, and they made an announcement you were only allowed to bring two pistols ever.  So I went and gave two away.  Walked down the gang plank, duffle bag on your shoulder, name, rank, serial number never even checked us.


Mr. Triesler: Wow.


Mr. Triesler: Do you remember where you were when you found out Pearl Harbor had been attacked? Do you remember what you were doing?


Mr. Chesko:  Well it was a Sunday, I was getting ready for church I believe, when I heard it.  That was December the 7th


Mr. Triesler: Do you remember too where you were when the war ended in Europe in May of 1945?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh sure, Landsburg Germany


Mr. Triesler: And how did they let you know?


Mr. Chesko:  Well they came on and made an announcement and got us all together, we thought uh oh, here we go, and were very happy


Mr. Triesler: And people were jumping?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh definitely, yeah.  I’ve had a wonderful life


Mr. Triesler: You must have gotten some medals then if you were wounded.  What medals or battle scars do you have?


Mr. Chesko:  The purple heart, and five bronze stars for five campaigns.  And everybody got a good conduct medal because there were very few who didn’t behave.


Mr. Triesler: Did you think at the end of the war we should have tried to go to war with the Russians at that moment?


Mr. Chesko:  Not really no, I was just thankful to have them on our side.  It would have been very very tough to beat them with the Germans at that time.


Mr. Triesler: What was your wife’s name?


Mr. Chesko:  Maiden name Pangonas.


Mr. Triesler: Really, is that Greek?


Mr. Chesko:  League of Nations, Lithuanian and Dutch


Mr. Triesler: Was she born in Europe or in the United States?


Mr. Chesko:  No, in the Untied States, and we’re living in the same house that she was born in. She’s 82.


Mr. Triesler: When’s your birthday?


Mr. Chesko:  January 23th, I’ll be 86. 1924, I was born.


Mr. Triesler: In growing up in Pennsylvania, did you follow the Pirates at all in baseball?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh sure, and the Eagles, of course, were followed.


Mr. Triesler: Do you remember ever getting to any baseball games?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh sure, the Yankees I saw when I was only about 16.


Mr. Chesko:  So I have a wife of course, three children, Jimmy, Susan, and Rose-Ann, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.


Mr. Triesler: Fantasic, wow. Have you gone back to visit?


Mr. Chesko:  Yes, oh yes. The wife and I were over a few times. Going through the different places I was at.


Mr. Triesler: People treated you well?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh yes, very well. Thanking us of course.


Mr. Triesler: When you went across the channel, what kind of means did you have to go across the channel?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh, just a small ship, of course, then we got on the landing crafts. I went in the second day.


Mr. Triesler: Do you remember which beach you had to go on?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh yes, Utah beach.


Mr. Triesler: So by the time you landed on the second day, I guess we had pushed the Germans off?


Mr. Chesko:  Not too far though, not too far. A few miles, yeah.


Mr. Triesler: So, did you have to go right into fighting against them?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh sure, sure.


Mr. Triesler: What were our defenses have been like when you arrived?


Mr. Chesko:  Well, there were shell holes from the plane, the bombing, you know, and then there was artillery in already too. Oh yeah, machine guns, of course, and a few tanks. Oh yeah, yeah.


Mr. Triesler: About how many men were in your unit at that time, do you recall?


Mr. Chesko:  Oh, at that time, I was only in a battalion when I landed there. About 700 men. Oh, I have to tell you this. My little town of Mahanoy was only about ten thousand or less than that at that time. There was 19 men from my town and the little villages surrounding it. 49 men who would be in my outfit. Four that I graduated with from Mahanoy Township High School. That was the outskirts of the Mahanoy city.