WWII Veteran Series--Charles Flatt: A Boxful of History

November 9, 2018

           

Charlie and Ginnie Flatt have both died since I wrote Charlie's account of his WWII experiences in 2008 or -9. (I got this photo from his online obit.)  Charlie had a bright, salesmanly personality and he told one hell of a story. 

  

In Charlie and Ginny Flatt’s Rising Fawn home is a box filled with history.

 

The box, about three feet long and one high, is filled with letters written by Charlie to Ginny during the 1940s. Those fading documents chronicle not only their courtship but Flatt’s life as a solider in World War II, two stories so intertwined that Flatt is incapable of telling one without the other.  That is the way we will tell them now.

 

Charlie Flatt grew up in west Tennessee in a close, religious family. After high school, he moved to Gary, Ind., to seek his fortune, but in January 1943 plans were interrupted by a letter from the U.S. Army cordially requesting his presence. He was 19.

 

Sent for basic training to Virginia, Flatt served as orderly to a colonel for a week and as a reward was given a three-day pass. Armed with $20 borrowed from a buddy, he got on a Greyhound bus to see the sights of Washington, D.C.

 

On the bus, he fell into conversation with a Massachusetts woman traveling with her two daughters. One was a child in pigtails, the other he figured was about 12. At the end of the journey, the little family invited him to share their picnic in a public park. He took them up on it, and afterward politely exchanged addresses.

 

Flatt never uses the word “lonely” but lonely he must have been because, though such formality was hardly part of his teenage repertoire, back at base he found himself writing the family a thank-you note for the lunch. “Everybody should do that, but it was a miracle that I did,” he said.  

 

The note was answered not by Mama but by the older daughter, Virginia, or Ginny, who turned out to be not 12 but 16--which made a difference somehow. Thus began the correspondence that was to last throughout the war. “I fell in love with her from her letters,” said Flatt.    

 

Meanwhile, Flatt was trained as an antiaircraft vertical gun pointer, promoted to corporal and shipped overseas. “We lacked nine minutes of being the first American antiaircraft battalion to open fire in the defense of England,” he said. 

 

It was now October of 1943 and German airplanes were regularly raiding British targets. Flatt’s job was to shoot them down. 

 

His description of his antiaircraft work sounds like one of  those puzzling war-room scenes in the black-and-white movies of the time. He’d sit with earphones on, listening to the voices of the ATS, a British women’s force, announce, “Enemy planes in ABEL, 1, 2, 7, 6.”  He’d then make a chalk mark on a map of England divided into quadrants, and a lieutenant behind him would shout an order. “Then,” he said, “the battalion in unison would fire a barrage.”

 

Flatt’s outfit was credited with being the first from the U.S. to shoot down a German bomber, and it went on to become the highest-scoring antiaircraft battalion in the ETO. “So when it came time to go into Normandy in June of ’44,” said Flatt, “our outfit was called to be in the invasion.”  

 

On June 6, 1944, the first Allied troops had begun invading Nazi-occupied Europe, landing at Normandy, France. It was later that month that young Cpl. Flatt and company boarded the Liberty ship H.G. Blasdel to cross the Channel.

 

They almost made it. They were in eyeshot of France when, on June 29, Blasdel was hit with a torpedo from a U-boat. Besides the troops, she was carrying a load of ammunition and gasoline, and she went up like a torch. “The people on the bottom bunks never even knew what hit them,” said Flatt. Seventy-six men died.

 

Charlie Flatt, severely charred, was thrown by rescuers off the burning Liberty onto a tiny English minesweeper floating alongside. “It was just like being burned alive,” he said. He spent the next two months in English hospitals. He gained the Purple Heart for this incident but lost his hair--it had been burned off in the explosion.

 

But one thing Flatt did not lose was the sweater that Ginny had sent him with a recent letter. It was cut off him but he kept what was left. “I tucked it under my body, and it went with me until I got back to the United States,” he said.

           

Late in the summer, Flatt had recovered enough to rejoin his antiaircraft unit in France--but not for long. One day he happened to be driving the jeep assigned to his unit when it died, its engine burned out for lack of oil. When he received a transfer to the infantry just after that, he suspected it was because he’d been blamed for killing the jeep. “I thought I was being punished,” he said.

           

He was not. The real cause of the demotion was that Uncle Sam was amassing men to repel the Germans’ last and most terrible offensive--the Battle of the Bulge, it came to be called. “People don’t understand,” said Flatt. “That made the invasion look like a cakewalk.”

 

In antiaircraft, Flatt had carried a gun but never fired it. Now he was suddenly given a BAR--a Browning automatic rifle, which discharged 500 rounds a minute. “The first time I ever fired that BAR, I fired it at a German,” he said. “It was on-the-job training. When I got into the infantry, I found out what war was really like.”

 

Charlie Flatt, a lifelong salesman, has the gift of gab in spades. He knows a good a story when he’s got one and he tells it full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes.

 

But on the Battle of the Bulge, he goes uncharacteristically quiet. “It was bad,” is about as specific as he’ll get.  It was, in fact, very bad indeed. With 19,000 Americans killed, the Bulge was the bloodiest battle of the war for U.S. forces.

 

Suffice it to say, then, that Flatt survived the Bulge, and pressed on into Germany with the infantry that winter of ‘45. A book written about his old antiaircraft battalion quotes a letter he wrote to his Ginny during that period about taking German prisoners. But it was a German he didn’t take prisoner who continued to haunt Flatt through the ensuing years.

 

He was in a tiny village, approaching a house where his squad was assigned to spend the night. “Nobody was worried, because the war was practically over,” he said. But the door flew open and a German soldier came out firing. Up came Flatt’s Browning and down went the German into a flowerbed.

 

Inside the house that night, Flatt found a photo album and flipped through it idly. It began with the picture of a baby boy on a rug and went on to chronicle his life as he grew to manhood. As the subject of the photographs matured, his face began looking familiar. Disturbed, Flatt put down the album, went outside and rolled over the body in the flowerbed.

 

Sure enough, it was the boy in the pictures. With the war lost, the German soldier had returned to his own house and had died defending it. The senseless death tormented Flatt, and despite his ethics regarding looting, he took two photographs of the boy from the album and later had them enlarged and framed.

 

In April, Flatt was invalided out of the infantry with “march fracture,” foot damage caused by the constant tramping, and he finished the war operating a PX in France. His assistant there was a German POW who became, to Flatt’s pride, a close buddy. “Killing wasn’t all I did,” he said. “I made friends of the enemy.”

 

Flatt was shipped back to the States in November 1945. He bought a ring and got on a train to Massachusetts, where Ginny lived.

 

He was nervous. He’d proposed in a letter, but he had never so much as touched her hand. Face to face with a real, live bride-to-be, what was he to do?

 

But when Ginny met him at the train station, the problem took care of itself nicely. The couple first walked toward each other, then trotted, then ran. “And when I got to her, nobody had to tell me what to do,” said Flatt. “I knew exactly what to do.”

 

Flatt went to college after the war and in fact was in law school when he discovered his true vocation – “the world’s greatest salesman,” as he’ll tell you without blinking. He was so good at it that at one point he was hired by a competitor to steal all of his own customers. He did.

 

Now retired, Flatt lives with his Ginny on their beautifully landscaped farm. Surrounded by children and grandchildren and heavily involved with their church, they live very much in the present.

 

But sometimes they take a certain box out of its home in the laundry room, and together they review their story of love and war.

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