In France, 1st Lt. Jim Piana and his men slept in tents and in fox holes.
The minute they advanced into Germany, they slept in houses. A crew picked the best house in the town, and Piana set up his headquarters. They stayed there until a higher-ranking officer arrived a day or so later and took the house for himself.
“It was just dog eat dog,” Piana said.
Only once did he get any static.
When Piana’s unit entered Essen, Germany, a major German steel and industrial center, his billeting crew reported that it had located the Krupp family mansion. The Krupps’ steel, coal and munition ventures were key suppliers of weapons to the Nazi regime.
Alfried Krupp wouldn’t leave.
Piana marched to the house in his battle fatigues, carrying his Tommy gun. Krupp, a tall man who spoke good English, came to the door.
“I told him I was going to billet in this house and I was going to put him in the servants’ quarters. The servants’ quarters was only a 55-room mansion,” Piana said.
“He said he wasn’t going to get out, and I said, ‘Yes, you will.’ I took my Tommy gun and I sprayed it against the floor, and I said, ‘Next time, it won’t be the floor.’”
The next night, military police came and took Krupp to Paris. He was charged with using prisoners of war as slave labor in his factories.
Soon after Krupp went, a superior officer took the house from Piana.
Piana and his younger brother, Paul, were born in the family home at Newcastle. He joined the Wyoming National Guard’s 115th Cavalry at 17, fibbing about his age because there were so few options during the Depression. Six months after he joined, the regiment’s horses were replaced with motorcycles.
For two or three weeks, the regiment was used in the movie, “The Bugle Sounds,” released in 1942. Wallace Beery starred as a cavalry soldier who didn’t like the idea of switching to tanks.
“I know we wrecked a tank one time, and the movie company had to pay for it,” Piana said. “All that time we worked on the movie, I don’t think we were on there but eight seconds. I hate to think how many feet of film they shot.”
In February 1941, the unit was federalized and shipped to Fort Lewis, Wash.
When he stepped out of church in Olympia, Wash., on Dec. 7, 1941, he was greeted by staff cars driving through the town and ordering all troops to report to their stations. The bases were put on radio silence.
Piana was a tech sergeant then, and his regiment patrolled the West Coast from Port Angeles, Wash., near the Canadian border to Crescent City, Calif.
He wanted to fly so badly that he and another soldier talked about deserting to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. Before he could, Piana was sent to Officer Candidates School. He was assigned to the 605th Tank Destroyer Battalion and sent to Fort Hood, serving with officers who had all graduated from West Point.
“I was the only 90-day wonder in the outfit,” he said. “You can imagine what they thought of me.”
In 1944, he sailed on the Queen Mary to Glasgow, Scotland. Piana was put in charge of a reconnaissance unit, spending 90 days behind enemy lines.
“The life of a recon officer in World War II was 15 minutes,” he said.
Piana crossed five rivers in the war, on a variety of craft including glider planes and ducks, 2 1/2-ton vehicles that could float across the water. Major General James Gavin picked Piana to lead the crossing of Ruhr River by canoe at 2 in the morning, with German artillery blowing them out of the water. The men scrambled to a house that was, unbeknownst to them, used as a German command post. The Germans were upstairs with the Americans in the basement.
“Luckily, the Air Force always saved our neck,” Piana said.
His service beat him up physically. He broke his right arm in a motorcycle crash with the 115th, and it is still several inches shorter than his left arm. He split his leg from the ankle to the knee when his horse fell on him. And in Hanover, Germany, an 88 mm shell hit his tank, flipping it over and throwing him from the turret. It crushed his shoulder and pinned him between the 45-ton tank for five hours.
The cold was another enemy.
As an officer, Piana got a bedroll, while his men got two thin blankets. He’d let two of his men sleep on the bedroll, and he’d curl up in the tank or on the ground.
“When I was a kid, Dad was real active in Boy Scouts,” said Piana’s son Paul, named for his uncle, the killed Marine pilot.
“I always wanted him to go camping with me. And he would, but he didn’t like it. He said he woke up too many times in a dirt hole with just a blanket and two feet of slushy snow. He didn’t enjoy it anymore.”
All his life after the war, Piana has been a collector. Before they were stolen, he’d accumulated 3,000 collector liquor bottles — filled with liquor because he doesn’t drink — and hundreds of rifles. He collected stamps and silver dollars.
He was also a joiner, earning 14 lifetime memberships to clubs and service organizations: the NRA, VFW, American Legion, Lions Club, the Knights of Colombus. He signed his son up for a lifetime National Geographic membership when he was just 2 or 3 years old, and today, Paul will still get letters from the magazine asking if he’s still alive.
Perhaps Piana wanted to be part of something, to share a common purpose and circumstance. It was, at least, how he led his men.
He remembers once, after the war had ended and the trials and rebuilding had begun, he returned to Krupp mansion with 12 American soldiers. The mansion was by then billeted by Britain’s Field Marshal B.L. Montgomery.
British officers didn’t mix with the enlisted men. Montgomery required lower-ranked officers to stand behind their dining-room chairs until he was seated himself. But officers could order whatever they wanted to eat or drink — lobster, steak, didn’t matter.
After a couple of nights, one of Piana’s 12 soldiers told him their food wasn’t fit for human consumption. So Piana told Montgomery he wouldn’t be at breakfast the next morning. He was going to eat with his men.
We don’t do that, Montgomery answered. If you do, I’ll report you to your commanding officer.
You’ll have to report me, Piana answered.
The food was terrible. So Piana drew rations himself, feeding his men on 10-and-1s — 10 meals, for 10 men for one day — and eating with his men from then on out.
When he returned to the regiment, his colonel didn’t care about Montgomery’s report. In fact, he made him a captain.