'Louch’ drove a tank from D-Day to V-E Day
By CARL GREEN
Collinsville – Louis J. Baczewski grew up in nearby Pocahontas, IL, enjoying a peaceful life with his family of Polish origin. His immigrant mother would call him inside with a distinctive mispronunciation of his name.
“Louch!” she would call. When the neighbors heard it, that became his nickname.
“Louch” went on to become a hero of World War II, the head of a large family and a laborer working out of East St. Louis, among other union jobs. His life makes a great American story, and now his namesake grandson, who is both a union electrician and an historian, has published a book telling that story.
Louch – A Simple Man’s True Story of War, Survival, Life and Legacy is a 359-page biography complete with footnotes and bibliography that not only tells Louch’s story but also serves as one of the better descriptions of U.S. tank warfare in the campaign from D-Day to V-E Day – the surrender of Germany.
The younger Louis Baczewski, 38, of Washington, MO, and a member of IBEW Local 309 out of Collinsville, has also had a life that combines history and union labor.
He graduated from Eastern Illinois University with a history degree and experience as a union electrician but became a teacher for nine years, heading the Industrial Training program at Washington High School and teaching welding, drafting and electrical work. Last year, he decided to go back to working full-time as an electrician.
“Education is just a lot of work for very little pay and a lot of headaches. It was time for a change,” he told the Labor Tribune.
“I had opportunities to go back to teaching, but it’s nice to go back to the trade and have an eight-hour day and be done at the end of it. I kind of forgot how great that was.
“It’s really allowed me a lot more freedom so I can pursue my history work. I’m not going home at the end of the day to grade a bunch of stuff or just be kind of destroyed mentally from dealing with 120 students a day.”
But he never forgot his interest in history – especially after he began taping the interviews with his grandfather in 2002 that would eventually become the basis of his book.
“At night, we’d hope Grandpa might tell a story,” the historian recalled. “Sometimes he would talk about growing up poor in the Depression in Pocahontas and how tough that was. Occasionally he would talk about the war. That’s how it all started. I began having conversations with him.”
What he learned was the astonishing story of how Louch drove a Sherman tank and its crew from D-Day until the end of the war as part of the famed 3rd Armored Division.
FIGHTING THROUGH EUROPE
“He was real modest,” the author recalled. “He would just say, ‘Uh, I was a tanker.’ But little did we know – and it started to come out in these conversations – that he’d really had a significant role in World War II. His tank crew was part of every major land operation in the European Theater, all five major campaigns.”
“Their tank was the only tank that I could find that actually survived all the way from Omaha Beach to the heart of Germany.”
Baczewski found another electrician, Les Underwood, who also served in the tank, and incorporated his recollections into the book.
Each tank had a crew of five – commander, driver, assistant driver, gunner and assistant gunner. Their Sherman tanks proved to be outgunned and under-armored against Germany’s array, but Louch never got the upgraded Pershing tank.
“They were arguably the most successful armored division of the war,” Baczewski said. “They destroyed more German tanks and captured more German soldiers than any other armored division. Grandpa didn’t know how much history he was really involved in.”
In the end, he and his grandfather both marveled at how the tank and its driver made it through so many battles.
“That’s the most amazing thing that he could not understand himself,” he said. “I think that was part of the reason why he was such a religious man. He was at church more than the priest.”
As the interviews continued, the author continued to be surprised by Louch’s stories.
“At first it was just to get the story down for the family. But the more he talked, well, they call it narrative therapy,” Baczewski said. “When veterans find someone they can trust to speak to about their experiences, it allows them to kind of expel the demon to a certain extent.
“I probably know more than most people about the subject matter, but I still could never understand what it was like to go through what he did, in the true sense of how horrible it was,” he added.
“The more we talked, the more these darker, more graphic stories came out, and I think, in a certain sense, he needed to tell the story. Because so many of his friends and the people that he served with just didn’t make it. I think he wanted to tell their story.”
MORE THAN WAR
To round out the book, Baczewski interviewed other veterans, studied all of the available information and told the rest of Louch’s story from after the war. He used the image of fishing in the creek as a way to tie it all together.
“It allowed me to tell the story in a way that gives people a break from the carnage of the war,” he said. “It kind of goes back in time, and all of a sudden you’re on the creek, fishing again with Grandpa.”
Louch died in 2013 at age 90, too soon to see his life go into print. The war was just part of the story.
“I didn’t think it was a credit to him to discuss just what he did in the war,”
the author said. “It’s about this person who survived this horrible experience and how it shaped him and his family. I feel like he lives through that book.”
Baczewski found a way to publish the book that is totally up to date – Amazon’s Create Space program, in which the merchandising giant prints and sells the book. “If you have it basically put together right and it looks quasi good enough, they publish it as an independent,” he said. “It’s a great resource for a starting author.”
It’s such a good story that Baczewski is working with Webster University film-maker Aaron AuBuchon on “Path of the Past,” a full-length documentary film on the book and the process Baczewski went through to write it.
Last summer, he journeyed to France and was filmed literally retracing his grandfather’s path, finding locations where the tank had been and meeting people who had experienced some of the same events.
One was a Frenchman on a bicycle who understood Baczewski’s fractured syntax just well enough.
“He biked me right up to a bridge where there was a marker dedicated to the 3rd Armored Division liberating their city,” he said. “We even found images in stock footage of them crossing the bridge.”
The film is scheduled for completion in June. Meanwhile, Baczewski is working as a residential electrician and also as an historian promoting his book, which has sold about 2,000 copies.
“I’m kind of letting it do its own thing,” he said. “I do events and presentations and signings at book stores. I’m focusing on the movie, too. I think that will open the doors for more people to know about the book.”
(“Louch” lists for $19.95 online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. The film “Path of the Past” has a Facebook page or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)