“Hello Soldier! Welcome to your death.”
Joseph C. Capilets was inducted into the US Army on February 11, 1943. He was assigned to the 87th Infantry Division, ‘The Golden Acorn’, 346th Regiment. After nine weeks of basic training, Joe was assigned to S-3 Section, Plans and Training at Camp McCain, Mississippi. The 87th trained new recruits for assignment overseas.
While engaged in training, the 346th participated in the South Carolina Serviceman’s Baseball League. Joe relates that one week prior to shipping out to the European Theater, the 346th lost a heartbreaker, 1-0 to the 15th Armored Division. He remembers this well, as four of that team’s starting nine members were killed early in battle.
When Joe entered the service he was engaged to a pretty young lady by the name of Nina Lazzara. They were married on July 6th, 1944, one month before he shipped out to Europe. Joe took a honeymoon cruise without Nina, but with several thousand other GI’s on the Queen Elizabeth I from New York to Scotland, without destroyer escort. Joe says the QE I was too fast for the German submarines.
The 87th served with great distinction in World War II, having participated in three battles: the battle of the Bulge (Ardennes); the Rhineland (Germany), and in Central Europe. Joe was awarded a bronze Star and Combat Infantry Badge. In a recent book on the Battle of the Bulge, General Patton was quoted as saying “…the highly recognized 82nd Airborne may have gotten too much credit and the 87th too little for our success.”
Joe’s unit was awaiting return to the States and reassignment to the Pacific Theater of War when the Atomic Bomb ended the war. He returned to the States in September, 1945 and was honorably discharged shortly after. Joe started work with Binney and Smith (Crayola) in January, 1946 and stayed with that firm for 40 years. Nina and Joe moved to Marco Island in 1985. Joe was an avid tennis player. He has served as a member and Quartermaster for VFW Post #6370.
……excerpted from The Mail Call
Joe described some of his infantry years:
“My philosophy was soldiers were replaceable. The horrors of war had some men self-inflicting wounds to get out of duty,” ‘Pepsodent Smile’ Capilets tells Coastal Breeze News, “We were taught to shoot and how to use a bayonet, even how to break an arm over your shoulder. The sergeants yelled and cussed at us about everything! It was blind obedience: whatever they said, we did it! It was the sergeant’s job to make us obedient. Once deployed, we slept outside in foxholes no matter what the weather! The first thing we’re taught is to take an extra pair of clean dry socks with you. While cleaning one pair you could put on the other. You couldn’t take your boots off, though, when you went to sleep. Your feet would swell up and you couldn’t get them back on, so we always slept with our boots on. A lot of men suffered from ‘trench foot’ from marching across France. We landed in France on September 1944. We marched across France into Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany, and then to the Czechoslovakian border. We could have freed the Republic of Czechoslovakia but we had to wait there for 30 days for the Russians. That was the deal Roosevelt made with Stalin. The Russians wanted control over the Balkan states.”
Each man was given a pack to carry; it contained a sleeping bag and supplies. Joe’s carried his baseball glove! At the time, the military feared gas would be used as a weapon against the soldiers, so each man in the infantry was given a gas mask. “Funny thing, it was the first thing the soldiers threw away! It was bulky and uncomfortable to carry so we just tossed them. I still remember being flashed a picture of a man with no lower jaw or chin in a film the army presented on the consequences of being gassed. It was horrible! We were told to watch for signs of gas, like phoscene which smelled like freshly cut grass. Still, once in the field, those gas masks were too much to carry and out they went.
We weren’t allowed to tell anyone back home where we were of course, all the mail was censored. In a letter to my mother, I referred to her maiden name which was Patten–a clue to where I was serving. She got it. Family members were not allowed to know, but the Germans certainly knew who we were and where the 87th Division was! In fact, our first day there, they dropped pamphlets of propaganda on us! It read, ‘Hello soldier! Welcome to your death! While your loved one is out with another man, you’re here fighting England’s war.’
I remember my first day going into combat, we were the replacements. There were guys coming off the field and they looked so tired and weary. You knew this was it. Walking in the field, you see dead American soldiers, you don’t see dead Germans of course. I walked up to a man on the ground and he didn’t have a leg. I wondered where the severed leg went. A little ways further I came across it. I was shocked. The soldier looked so neat and clean. It reminded me of playing a no hit game. But you see, the enemy brings back their dead, too. That’s why we didn’t see dead Germans there.
We were a part of General Patton’s 3rd Army. Patton had the heaviest casualties because he pushed harder and risked more. He needed too. Once Patton came by to check out the front lines, ‘How’s everything, soldier?’ he said to me. I replied, ‘Fine sir.’
When I was young we were children of the depression. My father had no work and raised four kids. So, I poured my heart into sports; it was free.” He dreamt of being in the big league someday. At 17 he was offered an opportunity to be in the minor leagues, 3-I League (Illinois, Indiana and Iowa). Joe laments, “I didn’t have the guts to take the offer. I didn’t think I could handle eating in greasy spoons all the time while on the road and with so little pay.
After I graduated high school, I couldn’t afford college. Bus fare was 5 cents each way. We didn’t have 50 cents per week to spare. Instead I entered the Civilian Conservation Corp which the army ran. We worked in the state parks. They housed us, clothed us, and fed us. It occupied the youth of America and gave men work too. The Department of Interior hired foremen like professional masons, who came in, taught us their trade; dig a hole, make a frame, pour concrete. Other trades too, like carpentry.”
Joe served from beginning to end in one outfit. He recalls being called up to headquarters after basic training to report to Colonel Fischer. He wondered what he’d done wrong. They gave him a job and two stripes, and another shortly thereafter. He was Staff Sergeant, but he always regretted not being a PFC (Private First Class) first. Headquarters is where he met Captain Nelson Bryant. Captain Bryant loved sports, especially baseball. He was putting a team together. On weekends Joe would work the obstacle course while others slept in. He wanted to be in the best physical condition. While assigned to headquarters, he worked in plans and training.
He was accepted for Air Cadet training, a program assigned to Army Air Corps. He said in his interview he wanted to be a pilot and fight one on one. He was concerned, being engaged to be married, he might not come back. He figured Nina, a beautiful young lady, could adjust if he didn’t return, but they decided not to wait and got married right away. After they married, General Arnold cancelled further pilot training and Joe was reassigned to his original outfit, Company D, 346th Regiment, 87th Division, who were still at Fort Jackson, SC. Now he was low man on the totem pole. He was lucky to rejoin his outfit where people knew him. Since he could read maps he was promoted to map Sergeant.
Company ‘D’ was really in the thick of it during the last six months of the war. He was asked to be part of C Company because he befriended Captain James T. Sanderson from Miami, but he chose to stay with Company D. A month later, Captain Sanderson was killed. Joe’s always wondered if he’d gone with him, would he have been with him.
Being on the frontlines, Joe remembered being asked to check on a broken wire for communication. “There were wires strung along the roadway for the phones, but the communication had been cut off. They didn’t know if the troops on the other end were taken by the Germans or what. It was midnight, dark, and here I am going down the line. Holy mackerel, I could be walking right into German territory, but it was my job to find the break. I found it and spliced it back together and returning safely.”
It may seem like a frivolous thing in the midst of war, but interest in baseball gave soldiers something to look forward too, something to keep their minds occupied with instead of the ravages of war. Baseball Commissioner Landis had written President Roosevelt after the attack on Pearl Harbor questioning whether baseball should continue while the nation was embroiled in war. The President responded the next day with what is now known as the ‘The Green Light’ letter. He suggested the game would offer a much needed morale boost to those on the home-front as well as to men serving overseas.
Joe ‘Pepsodent Smile’ Capilets was given orders to get a ball team together. When the war ended in Europe they had had two-hundred German prisoners in the process of building a baseball field. Captain Bryant told Joe if he wanted to pitch he’d have to turn down the pass he’d just earned to Paris. The colonel gave the order to win that ballgame! On his team was a Yankee Major Leaguer, Bill Johnson. Joe pitched.
The following is a recap of the game from Captain Bryant’s Sport Report:
The 345th waxed by order! 12-1
The 346th Invadors showing mid-season form opened their baseball schedule with a smashing, decisive 12-1 victory over the slightly faded Blue Devils for the 345th Infantry. The confident 345th’ers with two victories over the 87th Division team under their belt, were smothered under a combination of a 13 hit barrage, five hit pitching by Invader twirler Joe Capilets and flawless work in the field by the ‘Bryant-Man’. Pepsodent smile Capilets worked well for the winners using a deceptive side arm delivery that had the 345th stickers coming back to the bench mumbling under their breath. Gene Tumelson and ‘Pop’ Reins took turns ducking line drives of the Invador line up which reminded one of the famous Yankee ‘Murderers Row’ with shortstop Bill Johnson, former 3rd baseman, adding the genuine Yankee touch. His long triple in the sixth inning was a clout that would have carried over many a left field wall in the Major League Parks that he cavorted in before coming into the army. Handling the catching chores was another American Leaguer, George Yankowski of the Philadelphia Athletics, whose heavy bat accounted for a single and a double, and whose smart ‘big time’ handling of pitchers promises to be one of the sparkplugs of the Invador championship machine. Centerfielder Rob Russell, former Georgie U. halfback put on a beautiful performance of defensive out-fielding that had spectators rubbing their eyes in amazement. His great running catch of Tony Gelon’s long line drive bid for extra bases in the 4th inning was easily the fielding gem of the ball game.
So WHY was he called ‘Pepsodent Smile’ Capilets? “When I pitched, everyone thought I was smiling! I was grimacing really. It wasn’t a smile at all!” says Joe. “Captain Bryant did originate that name and sometimes referred to me ‘Jittery Joe’.”
He returned to America on a ‘Liberty’ ship. During the next ten years, Joe and Nina had five girls. In his forties he took up tennis, playing a regular schedule three times per week. It wasn’t until Joe was in his 80’s when his doctor threatened to treat him for a mental disorder if he didn’t’ give up the game, that Joe was convinced to give it up.
Joe views Winston Churchill’s quote regarding the Royal Air Force: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few,” as the most accurately descriptive about the war.