Text by Mark Mathosian and Joey Steuber
ADVANCE, N.C. — America’s WWII veterans are in their 80s and 90s and dying off at an alarming rate. Today, there are several organizations rushing to preserve the personal accounts of those brave American veterans who risked their lives to assure the world would be free from Nazi domination. When our country needed volunteers to fight the Nazis and Japanese, many American Armenians volunteered for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. This article is the story of two brave American Armenians who risked their lives to assure future generations would live free. In the introduction we can suggest to all American Armenians that it is not too late to document the histories of their brave relatives from the WWII so they too can be remembered for their role in preserving democracy.
The years 2008 and 2009 were not good years for the Mathosian family. My father, George Mathosian, and his brother, Archie Mathosian, passed on within months of each other. Both were in their 80s. Both were much loved and respected by family and friends. They were easygoing people with a gusto for life and a kind word for all. George and Archie served America during World War II by entering US military service. George was in the US Army and Archie was in the Army Air Force.
The two brothers saw much action; George through the windshield of his military command car while driving over the bombed out roads of France, Belgium and Germany and Archie from his rocky seat in a B-17 bomber flying high over European cities and countryside.
Like many of their generation they didn’t ask for praise or accolades for serving their country. When asked about their military days they replied by simply saying they had done their duty for their country. It always took a little pressure to get details, which we were anxious to hear. This is their story and I hope it sparks an interest in readers to retrace the steps of soldiers in their families, America’s citizen soldiers.
George Mathosian, Tec 5 749th Tank Battalion Service Company, by Joseph (Joey) Steuber, George Mathosian’s grandson:
For years our family has heard war stories told by one man time and time again. The stories never alter, yet the high-level of our attention to his words never fails. How is it that these stories that we have heard so many times can still captivate our minds every time he tells them? The answer is simple: courage. The courage that is personified in those stories is overwhelming, and knowing that the courage belongs to one of our beloved family members makes it that more captivating. That family member is George John Mathosian. Although the family has heard his many stories of the war, many don’t know the full story of his journeys during the war, only bits and pieces of where he was and what he did. Luckily, George Mathosian took time out of his busy schedule to sit down and talk with me to clear up some of these mysteries.
Drafted into the military in 1943 at the age of 21, George first applied to serve in the Navy. “I applied to the Navy first, but I was denied because I did not have enough molars in my mouth,” George said with a loud laugh. “Can you imagine that, I couldn’t join the Navy because I didn’t have enough molars in my mouth.” Soon after George joined the United States Army.
He started off his journey at Camp Bowie, Texas, where he had basic training. For six weeks of that training George was sent to school to learn the skills of a high-speed radio operator, which would be his position for the duration of the war. After basic training, George remained in Texas for about seven months, waiting for when he would be called to action. Finally, he was called to duty and was shipped off to Europe on a week-long boat ride to England on a 5,000-man troop ship.
When he finally arrived in England, George got to see the beauty of England. “It was a beautiful place, real country-like, with beautiful homes. The first thing I noticed were the pretty hedges.” But soon George would have to leave England. He was assigned to the 749th Tank Battalion, attached to the 4th Armored Division, Third Army; led by General George S. Patton. His company was composed of 150 men.
From England George was shipped to France, on June 26th, 1944, 20 days after Dday. After that George’s company was sent north to Belgium, where their objective was to suppress German soldiers. After Belgium his company moved south to France, and then entered Northern Germany. Throughout Belgium, Germany and France George’s company saw combat day in and day out. His company received many casualties, and also had many soldiers taken prisoner. In such conditions one would think that a soldier would be under extreme stress, but not George. “I actually didn’t have much stress. I was too busy, too busy on the radio.”
It was in Germany that George encountered his “closest call” with enemy Germans. Stranded (along with tanks and automobiles) without gas or ammunition, George was the first man of his company to spot dust rising from the valley below his company. The company’s fears would soon come true, when three German Royal Tiger Tanks (which were the most feared German tanks because of their incredible strength) were spotted approaching George’s immobilized company. “We were all scared,” said George. “Death or capture awaited us, and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it.” Then the company’s prayers were answered. “Suddenly we see three American airplanes (P-40’s) fly overhead,” said George with a wide grin on his face. “They bombed the hell out of those tanks, thank God. That was a close one.”
Although George was put in harm’s way in that case, one of the other events that George encountered that may have been even scarier was the disappearance of his younger brother, Archie. George was first told that his brother was missing just as his company entered Germany. For a whole week George had no idea of the state of his brother, yet his responsibilities to his company and nation did not fail, for George still did his job in the diligent and precise way that his superiors and fellow soldiers had known him to do. Finally George received news of the status his brother, who had been captured by the Germans after his plane had been shot down. “Whenever I first heard about the capture of Archie, I felt feelings of revenge towards the Germans because they got my brother,” said George.
A normal day of work for George consisted of basically listening. He listened to all of the radio signals that came in on the company’s radio. Once he received a proper signal he would then write out the Morse code by hand, and then give the code to the decoders, who would pass it along to the superior officers. After receiving a reply from the officers, George would then type back the response message to the corresponding company. His job lasted 24-hours a day, since the signals could/would come in at any moment. George even had to sleep with his earphones on his head, since he was the only radio operator in a company of 150 men.
There were many different aspects in the lifestyle of George during World War II. Communication back to his family went through V-mail (the soldiers mail service), but he rarely wrote to his family, for he was constantly on the move. And what about food? As far as the quality of food, well, it was not the Armenian cuisine George loved. He described the food as “terrible, but you had to eat something.” In addition to rations, George was lucky enough to be accompanied by one of his longtime “friends” during the war, cigarettes. And what kind of entertainment did George have during the war? “Dog fights,” he said, the kind between airplanes, where enemy planes attempt to shoot the other down. “I never saw the Americans lose, not once.” Besides the dog fights, George and his fellow soldiers also listened to the radio, mostly the BBC.
Towards the end of the European campaign, George’s company was steadily moving closer and closer to Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany. With only 20 miles to go until Berlin, George, along with all of the American forces, stopped and let the Russians capture the city. The war was over and George would finally get his chance to go home.
While waiting to get picked up to go back to the United States, George stayed for two months in Marseilles, France. Close to Marseilles was a city with a group of Armenians, who fed George many classic Armenian dishes. But soon George was shipped back to Fort Dix, NJ, where he was discharged. He was now back in the Bronx, working as the assistant manager at Woolworth’s. In fact, when George visited Woolworth’s corporate office, he was shocked to see his name on a bronze plaque for “Woolworth’s Service Men.”
When asked whether his military experience has influenced his views about war, George answered in his typical, passive form. “I don’t care. The way I see it is if the country needs you, you do your share. You don’t have to be a hero, just do your share.”
Archie Mathosian, S/SGT US Army Air Force 100th Bomb Group, 351st Bomb Squadron Archie Mathosian volunteered for the US Army Air Force in February, 1943. He received basic training in Miami, Florida, followed by radio school in South Dakota and gunnery school in Yuma, Ariz.
Archie recalls that while in gunnery school he had an accident that caused him to be hospitalized. While feeding ammunition into a 50- caliber machine gun during an aerial mission the gun dislodged from its holder and began spraying bullets in the plane. Archie received shrapnel wounds in his left thigh as a result of the mishap.
After gunnery school he was assigned to a crew on a B-17 bomber stationed in Thorpe- Abbott, England. He and his crew flew 17 missions without an incident. Then, they went out on the 18th, a fateful mission, and the crew’s last.
While on a bombing run over Berlin on March 18, 1945 they were attacked by German jets. The jets were ME-262s and M-410s. Archie’s plane took enemy fire and was shot down at 30,000 feet.
According to Archie, “We lost four planes from my squadron alone. Two members of my crew, the ball gunner and tail gunner, went down with the plane. The left waist gunner, the one who bailed out before me from the only exit available (the cannon hole), was never heard from again.”
Archie said he was the only survivor from the rear of the B-17. He recalls that the jets hit the bombers from the back and below. The tail gunner fired back at the jets on their tail. To the crew it felt like “all hell broke loose.”
The right wing had a gaping hole in it. Burning fuel poured into his gun position through shattered Plexiglass. The explosion catapulted him back against the opposite wall. His flak jacket was still on and he owes his life to the protection it afforded. The plane took a severe pounding and was descending in a slow spin. The roaring noise caused by the wind and fire was loud enough to suppress the buzzer signal to abandoned ship.
Archie recalls that the left waist gunner was pale and motionless. Archie took the initiative to reach the only escape route at the rear of the plane, the rear door. He tried to release the hinge pins, but to no avail. The left waist gunner looked down at the cannon made hole, put his hand on his ripcord on his chute and disappeared through the hole. The hole in the plane was just big enough to permit an exit with a chute on. Archie followed suit and jumped through the hole, ripcord in hand.
Archie does not remember how he felt when leaving the plane. He does recall feeling excruciating pain in his groin caused by the chute strap. Then, he dropped into a small river. Before he hit the river he realized his boots were gone. As he was descending he observed several people running to the edge of the river in his direction.
The river turned out to be a small, very cold stream. When he landed the German citizens immediately began beating him. However, in a short while a single German soldier came along and took him in custody. The soldier quieted down the crowd and Archie feels he owes his life to that soldier. He was then ushered into a barn where he was reunited with five of his crew members who had successfully parachuted from the plane.
The next part of his journey put him on route to Stalag Luft 1, a German prisoner of war camp. On route to the camp they rode in a wood burning truck. After a while they disembarked from the truck and they were forced to drop their wet garments. This was almost catastrophic because of the brutally cold winter weather. The thin garments the crew was wearing was barely enough to survive the bitter cold.
The B-17 crew were forced to walk with their hands above their heads. They were soon met by three burly men on bicycles dressed in black uniforms. They got off their bikes, whip in hand and began beating them.
After receiving a painful slash across his cheek Archie’s sense of rage overtook caution. He grabbed the man’s arm and forcefully shoved him back. To Archie’s surprise, the man stopped whipping him. He later learned that there was a soldier standing behind him with a rifle pointed in his back of his head. Archie and the other crew later surmised that the reason the soldier didn’t shoot Archie was because the man with the whip was directly in front of Archie. Had he been shot, his blood and guts would have splattered all over the German.
During his trip to the POW camp he developed large blisters on his feet. He had to be supported by other crew members to get around. Eventually they reached Stalag 1 where they were interned.
Archie and the crew remained POW’s from March 18 to May 7, 1945. Stalag Luft 1 prisoners were mostly officers and noncommissioned officers. They were not made to work, however, hunger continuously plagued them.
One day, they heard aircraft. It was the Germans departing from the area. The Russians had arrived. By all reason they were now free. However, they were kept confined for their own protection.
A lone horseman, a Russian colonel, came by and set them free. The barbed wire around the camp was pulled down. Soon, a freedom plane transported them to a tent city in France and eventually they boarded a plane for the United States. Archie became a civilian once more on November 8, 1945.