With Veteran’s Day weekend being celebrated, it makes sense for me to honor my favorite World War II Veteran in the wine business, and that’s Leo Trentadue of Trentadue Vineyards.
Leo Trentadue was awarded both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his World War II participation.
What follows are his stories, many of which were told to Rich Hinkle in an assignment that I asked Rich to do for the winery. I could see Veteran’s Day on the horizon, and I didn’t want these stories to go untold; or better yet, undocumented. In one sense, they’re quite charming, in another… it’s the private tales of war.
Leo Trentadue celebrated his seventy-ninth birthday in 2004, with a trip to the verdant forests of northern France. Exactly 60 years earlier, he was nearly put into the earth by German bullets . . . several times.
Cat Life-1 “I might have done well in a casino, in those days,” the wine patriarch concedes with a grin. “You could certainly have called me ‘Lucky.’ But of all the times I should have been killed, I was most lucky when a bullet went through my left bicep. Had I turned the other way, it would surely have gone through my heart!”
Had that been the case, wine country would have had to forego the excellent, justly famed “Geyserville” Zinfandels, not only from Trentadue, but also from Ridge Vineyards, who initially put those wines on the map. But we’re getting ahead of his story.
“When I was drafted, I was just a raw country boy,” says Leo. “My father had an apricot ranch in Cupertino, and there were no kids for miles. I had my two dogs, we hunted rabbits, and I did a little fishing. Didn’t have a car. When I finished high school, I was drafted. The Navy turned me down when they found out I was totally color blind. I had no idea; but, the Army took me and sent me to Texas for basic training. A new law had been passed, so they couldn’t send me overseas until I was 19.”
Leo turned 19 on July 30, 1944. Shortly thereafter he boarded the S.S. Mauritania, bound for Liverpool. “The Mauritania was then the sixth largest ship in the world, and they packed us like sardines in a can. I waited tables, and usually slept under one of the tables, when I wasn’t seasick and hanging onto the rail. Liverpool was gloomy and foggy, and then they put us on a boat for Cherbourg [west of Omaha Beach]. Took us three days—without food—to cross the Channel. This was August of 1944, and I was at the front for two months.”
Cat Life-2 “One day, a Jeep off-loaded us in a ditch in Forret de Parroy, near Lunéville—we called it ‘loony-ville’—France [near Nancy]. When we came back there were two bodies draped across the hood. A half hour later, a mortar shell landed ten feet behind me, and my helmet went flying.”
Cat Life-3 “Another time, we were digging foxholes—every time you stopped you dug a foxhole—and it was impossible for the tree roots. Two of us were taken away from our half-dug hole to retrieve some water cans for our company. When we returned, we saw the Sergeant and another guy ‘sleeping’ in our fox hole. We would have complained, but it turned out that they had been killed there. Had the Sergeant not sent us for water, it would have been us.”
Cat Life-4 By November, snow was falling and digging a foxhole was a tiresome process. “You’re supposed to dig it six feet deep. One time a bullet hit two inches above my head, so I became a devout believer in the six-foot-foxhole—and that was getting more and more difficult to do.”
Cat Life-5 “We were alongside a road, and they had just dropped off our K-rations—scrambled eggs for breakfast—and the sun wasn’t even up yet. The Sergeant told us to fix bayonets, because we were going down a hill where the Germans were dug in. The sun was right in our eyes and we were trying to be very quiet, so as to surprise them. Suddenly, someone
on my right opened fire. I have no idea what he was shooting at, because he couldn’t see anything, but all hell broke loose. Rifle, machine gun and mortar fire was coming from all sides. All of a sudden, everyone in front of me was down, either killed or wounded. I stopped and made a half turn to see what was going on behind me, and that’s when the bullet entered my left arm. If I hadn’t turned, that guy probably would have hit me in the heart.
Cat Life-6 “This is a long story, but I’ll make it short…. We were up at the front for awhile and they decided to give us a rest period. When that happened, we had to go back from the front a few or so miles into a town to rest. It was a full moon night and these guys came in from this brand new division—new clothes, all cleaned up—and it was starting to get dark. We were up at the front, with these foxholes here and there. One of the new soldiers was telling me he’d sharpened his bayonet real sharp. In World War II, officers couldn’t pull all of us out of the front all at once, so a couple of us went back a hundred feet or so from the foxholes to get into a mortar hole. They’re bigger than a foxhole. About five or six of us were sitting in there, and it was really crowded, so I decided to get out and go sit on the edge of the hole. Just then this German 88 artillery shell came falling down from the sky, and landed on the edge of the hole. But, it didn’t explode. I was sitting there looking at the moon shining off the tail end of it, as it was sticking out of the dirt. What are the chances of that happening? Like one in a thousand? I jumped back down in the hole and the guys wanted to know what happened. I said ‘there’s an unexploded 88 shell on the edge of the hole there,’ and everyone jumped out of the mortar hole. No one wanted to wait around to see if it was going to explode.
Cat Life-7 “The other time we took this town, and there was a tank outside this building in a house that we captured. There were 20 Germans downstairs in this basement of the house. We could hear them… One of our guys spoke German, and he yelled down for the Germans to come, up or we would throw a grenade down there. We thought there was probably about two or three guys. They started parading up the stairs and out of the basement. Well… There were 20 or 30 of these guys instead of two or three. You can’t imagine what we went through. There were three of us Americans there with all these Germans. I thought we should go outside with these guys–the room was filling up. They were all lined up outside, and I noticed this one guy with his belt open. I saw that he had a P-38 pistol. I reached over and grabbed it and said, “Pistol.” Instantly, the rest of the guys heard me say, “Pistol,” and four more guys opened their coats and held out their pistols. Now, here I was holding five guns. (I was wishing they were Lugars). Somehow, with the grace of God, three American soldiers managed to capture 30 Germans. Then, outside this building where we captured the German soldiers, was a Sherman American tank. Just in front of the door was a lieutenant–a nice guy–standing right there in front of the door. I was facing him and we were talking. Across the street was a German officer in a building. He was hidden from us, and he fired at the tank with a bazooka. The bazooka shell hit the tank, glanced off it, and hit the lieutenant in the back. He was wearing a pack, and it shredded all to bits. Regrettably, he went down. I had been facing him and the shell hit him in the back. If he hadn’t been there, that shell would have hit me in the face. (A little piece of the shell did hit me in the hand and it’s still there today.)
Cat Life-8 “Now, when that happened we grabbed that lieutenant and we dragged him into the house… In the house with us now there was this other kid, 19 like me, who wanted to see who had fired that shot and who could see us from across the street. He went over and stood on one side of the door, and I went on the other side, and we were looked out across the street. All of a sudden a shot rang out and a bullet came through the door and hit the kid in the head. Now, if I’d picked that side to stand on instead of the side I did pick, that would have been me.
Cat Life-9 “As I got up to look for a foxhole, machine gun fire was hitting right where my feet had been, and then I was shot in the arm. This time, they didn’t miss. The wound burned, and I figured I had lost my arm. Took me a long walk to find a medic, and he had to cut away my heavy coat, my fatigue jacket, my wool shirt, and my tee shirt. (I told you, it was cold out there.) He sent me on to town, into the basement of a stone house. All the docs were asleep, which pissed me off, so I started yelling at them. It was only after the doc had patched me up, and it was light out, that I noticed that these guys were all officers, and me a lowly private. By that time, I was so happy to be alive that all I could do was laugh about the whole situation.”
(Cat Lives expended, it was time to go home) Later, at a field hospital, it was, ironically, a doctor from Santa Rosa who told him that his wound was a ticket home, and asked if he wanted it. “’’Hell yes,’ I said. I was lucky there, too. My transportation home was the USS West Point, crewed by the Navy. The Navy ate well, and so did I. Big, thick slices of ham. Ice cream! Heaven, let me tell you.”
Leo has particularly fond memories of the memory lane trip he took last year with wife Evelyn and son Victor. “Everyone says that the French hate Americans, and I will admit that some Parisians may be a little curt. But as soon as we got out into the country, especially where the fighting was all those years ago, we were treated like royalty. People came up to us, saying, ‘If it hadn’t been for you, we’d be speaking German today.’ There were as many as four memorials each day. At Blamont, where I was wounded, we attended a special ceremony. They feted us with food and wine at every event. The red wines were much lighter than ours, and you could drink them almost like beer. What really surprised me was that there were still concrete World War I bunkers—my father had served in the US Army at Verdun, not too far from where I was wounded—that looked like they had been in use yesterday.”
Here’s to the men who have served, including my dad and uncles in world War II, and all the men who have served since that war. During the Vietnam War, we chanted, “Was is not healthy for children and other living things.” That chant is still relevant today, and I abhor war. What I don’t abhor, though, is all of the men who have the calling. My niece Tracey just sent an Email to me this morrning. It included this picture of soldiers carrying the coffin of a fallen hero. It also included the following words: It is the VETERAN , not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion. It is the VETERAN , not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It is the VETERAN , not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the VETERAN , not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble. It is the VETERAN , not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial. It is the VETERAN , not the politician, Who has given us the right to vote.