Editor's note: This is the second of two parts
Finally, Al Przytula of Dunkirk opened the mail that gave him his orders to report for duty. Standing in front of Fredonia's post office, he boarded a full bus headed for the United States Army training base at Fort Niagara.
After boot camp training, Przytula headed to Jacksonville, Fla. to the Army 155 Howitzer school. Most would refer to his new position as "cannon cooker." He was assigned to a 155mm Howitzer. It was an artillery piece used to fire projectiles at enemy positions and other targets. The 155 was also designed to fire various rounds which included the HE (high explosive), the WP (white phosphorous), the beehive and more. Each round had its specific purpose.
Al Przytula, U.S. Army
While in training in the United States, the artillery battery traveled exclusively by train. When it was ready to move, they would board a 4 by 20 railroad car. A "4 by 20" meant the car was designed to hold four horses or 20 men. The unit moved to many different areas of the country testing this new artillery piece. This was done in order to test the artillery in all weather conditions and terrain. The Army needed to know how the piece worked during a rain storm, if it was accurate over mountains, and if it was accurate in direct fire. Before heading overseas, Przytula's last stop was Mississippi.
In the European theater of war, Przytula's unit, the 977th, did its duty of giving direct support to Army units. During the war, the 977th returned with its combat pages full of the following:
492 days in combat
205 casualties KIA (Killed in Action)
Five POWs (Prisoners of War)
Total missions fired: 5,934
Total rounds fired: 118,710 (Daily Average 241.8)
The following are the decorations awarded to the 977th:
Distinguished Service Cross: 1
Legion of Merit: 3
Silver Star: 15
Soldier's Medal: 6
Bronze Star: 22
Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster: 33
Purple Heart: 197
When the Allied victory was secured, Przytula's unit got the official word that they were through with combat and could come home. Returning from World War II, Przytula's hopes of getting his old job back were dashed.
Not being in the first group of returnees meant that by the time you returned, most of the jobs had already been taken. Employers were so happy to see these young heroes return that most tried to create new positions for them. But as more and more men returned to the U.S., jobs became scarce. Jobs that were necessary before the war were no longer needed. Factories that had been fitted to make war goods were shut down. There was no longer a need for new tanks, ships and airplanes.
One day, Przytula put an application in at a company called Special Metals. This move turned out to be a good one, and he spent the next 36 years there in the rolling department as a catcher. He rolled steel to make it smaller.
Przytula used his retirement to get in some traveling. He loved to travel, and at this point he was able to go back to Europe to visit London, Italy, Germany and France.
I interviewed Al Przytula just a week before he passed away. I was invited by his friend Hank Serafin to meet Al in his room at Saint Columban's on the Lake. After reading his military records, there was a question I wanted to ask him: Looking back 65 years after being a combat soldier, what in your mind was the worst thing you had to deal with?
He answered, "Every day while engaged in combat was a bad day, except for that one day when I reunited with my brother Peter for one day. The worst time was when I felt totally lost, when I read on a piece of paper that my mother was lost; she had passed and I didn't get word for almost two weeks! Living 14 days with your mother dead and not even knowing it, nothing you could do or say, no place to go, no phone to call, I was totally useless. Another bad day is when my battle field buddy was shot and killed next to me in our fox hole, nothing I could do except wait until the fire fight was over!"
This was another local hero, a man who I could see loved his country and family. When he spoke to me he didn't know he only had one more week to live, yet he talked of the days in Europe with the 977th as if they just happened. Talking about his childhood and the days before and after the war, though, was hard for Przytula - he didn't remember them as clearly.
If I were to list all of the action and everything the 977th saw during the war, I would fill a solid 15 pages. As one can see from the combat action reports, Przytula's was one artillery battery out of over 400 batteries the U.S. had that fired over 118,710 rounds of high explosive artillery. One round, if it were to hit a normal home, would not only level that home, but would also leave a hole 10 feet deep. All those surviving infantry men whom the 977th supported made it home because these cannon cookers delivered their rounds right on time and right on target!
In doing Przytula's story, many times I drifted back to my own days in the military. I was with an artillery battery in Vietnam. Life in an artillery battery is not an easy one. The minute a soldier reports to his battery, when in a combat zone, he is officially on call 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Artillery pieces are designed to support troops while on patrols, operations or while engaged in combat with the enemy. Artillery batteries use many different types of rounds, depending on what the forward observer wants to use. If he wants to know how close he is to his target, he will call in one "Willie Peter" (WP), also known as white phosphorus. It's a round that, when it hits, makes white "marking smoke." If the enemy is located, then the forward observer would call in six HE (high explosives). If the six rounds come in close, then he may call in "six guns six rounds," which means 36 rounds of high explosives. If the enemy is spotted in a cave, the forward observer may request a time delay round, making the round come in, then wait three seconds before exploding. If there are many enemy soldiers out in the open, the forward observer may request a "firecracker round," which is an artillery round with eight grenades in it. Once the round hits, the grenades all explode. The "beehive" would be used if soldiers were being overrun.
The last round would be the illumination round. This round would light up the sky as if it were daytime. The battery Przytula was in had six guns, and these were 100 percent ready to go any time. If a forward observer called in a "Firemission," that meant it should take no more than one minute before the first round comes screaming in. There was so much pressure on these soldiers. As the 977th's Action Report stated, Przytula's guns fired 118,710 rounds.
Having served in a unit that fired this much artillery, the memories of those blasts stayed with Przytula for life. Many people were killed on one hand, and on the other, many were saved. Przytula's job was one that every one of his fellow soldiers counted on, and he did it well. Przytula's role as a combat artilleryman was something that was hard to explain to people, and because of that, artillerymen often keep their experiences to themselves. They were a dedicated, tight-knit group though, and offered each other support both in and after the war.
We lost Al Przytula a few weeks back. His story is one that will stick with me. We celebrate him as our Hero of the Week.