Family Ties: A World War II Tank Destroyer, an MVP, and Ron Santo’s Teammate

I grew up on a farm in rural Northwest, IN, just a couple miles from my paternal grandparents, and it’s from that relationship that all of the following anecdotes spawn. Two involve cases of mistaken identity resulting from innocent ignorance, but the third is actually a tale of discovered history.

My grandfather, Paul Altman, was a humble man from a farming family in White County, IN. Strong and soft-spoken, he was a great athlete and also very intelligent, good at nearly everything he did. I always used to kid him about his erroneous weather forecasts, but he was still right far more than he was wrong.

He was also Catholic, which I have been told was a handicap in the eyes of the parents of a beautiful young woman named Donna (I think they eventually got over it). But my grandmother cared little for Paul’s denomination, knowing that a man is more than the church he attends. In any case, their union meant that my father was a part of the Dawson family.

My dad followed in Grandpap’s footsteps, going full-time into farming once high school was done. But a combination of developments conspired to send him down a different path in his early 30’s, when my dad went back to college to become a teacher. It just so happened that his Aunt Betty (wife of Melvin Dawson, my grandma’s brother) was an elementary teacher not too far away, so he paid a visit to her class one day.

When he arrived in the classroom, Betty announced to the students that my dad was related Andre Dawson, who would have been in the midst of his MVP season with the Cubs. Needless to say, the kids flocked to him for autographs, never mind the obvious disparities. Just the same, I like to claim Hawk as my long-lost uncle.

Speaking of, I’ve got another Cub uncle. While watching the game on June 28th, my kids heard the announcement about the seventh inning stretch singer and cried out in unison: “George Altman?!” As you may guess, the familial claim I lay here is false…I think. But our shared surname and my love for jerseys actually brought about a funny story.

Given the state of professional sports, my jersey buying is now limited to throwbacks and custom jobs, since you can’t trade a guy who’s not playing any more and I’m not planning on changing my last name. While in Cincinnati a few years back, I was walking through the mezzanine when I heard: “Where in the hell’d you get a George Altman jersey?”

“My uncle gave it to me,” I shot back. Cue quizzical look. As I turned to walk away, the guy still appeared as though he was trying to remember the 15th decimal place of π.

I actually got the chance to meet Uncle George at the 2015 Cubs Convention. I waited in line to have him sign a baseball, but my real motivation was just to get the chance to talk with him for a few moments. I even got to meet his wife, daughter, and son-in-law in sort of an impromptu family reunion. Probably my favorite memory of CubsCon.

So those were a bit more fun, but I’d like to break serious for a bit to tell you about one of my Grandpap’s older brothers, Lawrence Altman. From what I knew, Uncle Lawrence was very much like my grandfather: humble and hardworking, but with a bit of a mischievous streak in his youth as well.

I knew that my great-uncle (and never has that prefix been more accurate) had fought in World War II, but I knew very few details about his service. In fact, the most salient information I had about his time overseas came from my Grandpap, who told me that he and his brother had both purchased new cars in either late 1941 or early 1942.

And since Lawrence couldn’t take his new car to Europe, Grandpap did what any kid brother would do: he took care of it for the next three and a half years. Not a bad deal for a farmboy in his late teens and early twenties, having two new cars to choose from.

But I do remember hearing that Uncle Lawrence was part of a tank destroyer unit, though I only heard him talk about it once. The finer points of that memory have worn dull, but I recall him talking about a time when his tank rounded a corner, only to end up face-to-face with a German Panzer. Not a particularly enviable spot.

Sure, he had been in a tank destroyer, but those things were built for speed and maneuvering, not for an up-close firefight with a bigger and more heavily-armored beast like the Panzer. As he told it, they backed out of there as fast as they could.

Now, the reason these memories came back at all was that I had been reading about a new Brad Pitt movie due out this Fall. Fury was inspired by the true story of an American tank unit that fought behind enemy lines in Germany near the end of World War II (see trailer below).

The movie spans the course of a single, very long day and at least one-third of it takes place inside a Sherman M4 tank. Think a terrestrial version of Das Boot. As I was reading, synapses started firing and I thought back to Uncle Lawrence; I sent his daughter a message on Facebook to see if she knew what kind of vehicle her father had operated in the war.

But as soon as I had made my digital query, I realized that I could probably do a little research of my own. The interwebs can truly be wonderful at times and I quickly found exactly what I was looking for, simply by Googling “Lawrence Altman tank.”

Uncle Lawrence served in World War II with the U.S. Army from March 1942 to November 1945, where he was a TEC 4 with Company C, 638th Tank Destroyer Battalion. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and received five battle stars from the European Theater.

The 638th TD Battalion, equipped with the M18 76mm GMC, better known as the Hellcat (pictured above), deployed with the 84th Division at the beginning of December 1944 and took part in the subsequent Ardennes fighting. It arrived at Cherbourg, France, September 7, 1944.

The battalion then entered the line near Prummern on November 20 and supported operations against the Siegfried Line. It fought to reduce the Bulge during January 1945, supported Roer River crossing in February, crossed the Rhine River on April 1, and advanced across Germany, reaching the Elbe River near Wittenberg on April 24.

It was really amazing to be able to share this with my family and to read some of the comments from those who knew my uncle best. His daughter Anne wrote: “We’ve always been proud of our dad. This lets other people see how awesome what he (and so many others) did for all of us to have our freedom [really was]. He was a humble hero.”

Echoing that, Lawrence’s son Mark recounted: “I once asked him about why he never yelled at any of us as we were growing up. ‘You know, I went through the Battle of the Bulge; there’s nothing to raise my voice about here.” Donnie, his other son, added, “We were so blessed to be raised by Lawrence and Opal. Thanks to Uncle Paul for keeping dad’s battery charged!”

My great uncle passed away in 2000, but it’s clear that his influence is being felt all these years later. It’s perhaps a bit odd that a movie starring likes of Brad Pitt, Shia LeBeouf, and Logan Lerman would lead me to discover more about my family history, but I’m certainly glad it did.

As we celebrate the birth of our nation, I’m feeling a renewed sense of pride in my family, including the uncles who never really were. Because when you get down to it, family is about more than just a name or blood relation. But I’m particularly proud to share both of those with a man who never needed a movie made about his life, who never raised his voice in either anger or false bravado.

Lawrence Altman may have fought under the motto of “SEEK, STRIKE, DESTROY” but he lived according to a doctrine more along the lines of “TEACH, LOVE, CREATE.”


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