Testimonies from the Midwest

 

T/5 Richard P. Courchaine, 823rd Tank Destroyer Bn., 30th Infantry Division

Division patch     T/5 Courchaine enjoyed a sandwich during the liberation of Brussels, Belgium; photo courtesy of Richard Courchaine       Division patch

T/5 Courchaine enjoyed a sandwich during the liberation of Brussels, Belgium; photo courtesy of Richard Courchaine

Richard P. Courchaine was born on January 27, 1922, in Chicago, Illinois, but was raised at Winner, South Dakota. His mother was a Polish immigrant and his father was of French-Canadian heritage. Due to the financial pressures of the Depression years, Richard left home at 14. For three months he worked on the Alaskan Highway, a Civilian Conservation Corps project.  He then worked as a heavy truck driver in a CCC logging camp in Oregon. On January 16, 1943, while he was still 17, Richard entered the service at Ft. Lewis, Washington. In his words, "I was going either way, so I might as well enlist."  The following is but an outline of his story, derived from conversation with Richard and his family, his official papers, and newspaper clippings. When removing his papers to show me, he offhandedly mentioned that the pouch which contains them was a souvenir  he took from a German whom was killed in the process. It was a great honor to visit with Mr. Courchaine about his war experiences.

Service Record: T/5 Courchaine trained in Texas and Louisiana and departed from the USA for the European Theater of Operations on April 4, 1944. He arrived in England on April 11, 1944, and trained with the British. Courchaine named his first and subsequent six Harley Davison motorcycles Hertford Honey, after his future wife, whom he had met while training in Britain.  He served 18 months with the 30th Infantry Division in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia as a motorcycle scout.

His duties were to drive a motorcycle in advance positions scouting enemy forces for numbers, gun positions, and road blocks. In addition, he delivered messages and made minor repairs to his motorcycle.              

T/5 Courchaine's major battles and campaigns included Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central Europe. He was wounded at least twice: in France on July 27, 1944, and again on April 30, 1945, in Germany.  He also was briefly a German POW and was hidden in Belgium until Brussels was liberated by the British in September of 1944.

Because he was on detached service, he was captured without incident. Alan Arnett, an armored car driver, remembers Richard's capture like this: "We were informed in late July, 1944, that we would be moving on an all night attack and convoy near Montain, France. We had to make sure our armored trucks were full of gas and ready to roll. This is about the time that Dick Courchaine was captured by the Germans. He was on his motorcycle and following a jeep that was leading the convoy. The jeep had an officer and driver in it. He thought the officer knew where he was and they drove into the German lines. The officer was shot and killed. Dick tried to get his tommy gun out but the Germans were on top of him."

He goes on to say, "The Germans loaded the American PW's on tanks and were moving them to the rear echelon or PW Camps. Early in September, 1944, our P-51 fighter planes attacked the German column that Dick was in while being marched to a Prisoner of War camp. Dick jumped his Guard and knocked him to the ground. Then he ran to a village. As he entered the village, a French lady motioned for Dick to come to her. He did and she took him to her cellar to hide. She had another GI there too. As the front lines moved forward and the Germans retreated, the British captured the village where Dick and the other GI were hiding. That was about September 3, 1944, near Aut, Belgium. Dick did not know where our outfit was located so he stayed with the British until he found his motorcycle that was used by the Germans and dumped in a ditch where Dick found it. He was with the British until they liberated Brussels in the first part of September, 1944."

Camp Encounter: Regarding his capture, Richard remembers that while in the process of taking maps from 9th Corps headquarters to recon late one night, he was surrounded and captured by the Germans.

He was later chastised for not destroying the maps he carried, but he shrugged his shoulders and said, "It happened so fast; there was no chance." He wryly added, "They were only maps we had already intercepted from the Germans anyway."

Richard remembers being marched to Buchenwald. He does not know exactly how long he was there. He arrived by himself and remembers that he "was not assigned there, just being held there." Because he was subsequently moved by the Germans, there are no records regarding his time at Buchenwald. He believes he was there perhaps nine days before the Germans marched him to another camp.

His recollection of Buchenwald was that it held American and British soldiers as well as civilians. He said that the Red Cross came with doughnuts twice but ran out quickly. He didn't think that he had it that bad but went on to say that he saw POWs who had been captured in North Africa and had been in the camp for several years. "They had it rough," he said. His other memory is of the political prisoners being shot "100 a day."

When Courchaine was moved from Buchenwald, he remembers the long march, lots of people being shot, and that his feet were so raw that he didn't think he could go on, but kept going anyway. When his chance to escape came, he took it. He then hid in a cellar until the English came. Disregarding her own safety, the woman who hid Richard was a member of the Belgian Underground. Her husband, a prominent leader in the community, had fled when the Nazis first occupied Beligum. Upon liberation, Richard  "kicked around Belgium," fighting with the British for awhile and then returned to his unit late in the war.

Vera Courchaine, Richard's mother, received a telegram, early in September, long after Richard had actually been captured, subsequently escaped, and been hidden in Belgium.  "The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son Technician Fifth Grade Richard P. Courchaine has been reported missing in action since Three September in France. If further details or other information are received you will be promptly notified." On September 22, 1944, a confirmation letter of Richard's MIA status was received by Mrs. Courchaine. Likewise, an April 3, 1945 letter was received. Richard still become emotional when thinking of his mother's anguish during these times.  At the same time the US War Department was informing her of his MIA status, Richard was also sending her letters. "She didn't know what to do; she wondered if the letters were some sort of trap." He goes on say, "It wasn't just us boys overseas who suffered."

Awards: T/5 Courchaine's discharge papers list his decorations and citations as European African Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with 5 Bronze Service Stars, American Theater Ribbon, Good Conduct Ribbon, World War II Victory Medal, Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster. In addition, he was later awarded a POW medal and received additional Purple Hearts.

 

After the War: Richard Courchaine departed for the United States on October 20, 1945, arriving on October 28, 1945. He was discharged on November 2, 1945, at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. Later he brought his English bride home and now lives in Wyoming in a log cabin that he long ago promised to build her. Although Richard has been blessed with a loving family and a good life, his health has been a concern for some time. In and out of the VA hospital, much of his and his family's time and energy has been devoted to fighting for health care that Richard was promised in exchange for his devoted service to his country.

Richard has twice returned to Europe. In 1976 he took his whole family, paid for by the Belgian Underground, to a 30th Anniversary celebration in Belgium, where they met the 88-year-old Belgian woman who hid Richard in 1944.

Among his memorabilia, Richard has a huge Nazi flag, one of three in existence, which he "liberated" while in Brussels.

Richard and his unit of motorcycle scouts; photos courtesy of Richard Courchaine

 

Richard and his unit of motorcycle scouts; photos courtesy of Richard Courchaine

Richard and his unit of motorcycle scouts; photos courtesy of Richard Courchaine

British liberation of Brussels; the woman who hid Richard is pictured with a basket in front of the tank; photo courtesy of Richard Courchaine

British liberation of Brussels; the woman who hid Richard is pictured with a basket in front of the tank; photo courtesy of Richard Courchaine

American soldiers with a stockpile of German arms and ammunition at the gate to Buchenwald; photo courtesy USHMM

American soldiers with a stockpile of German arms and ammunition at the gate to Buchenwald; photo courtesy USHMM

An aerial photograph of Buchenwald concentration camp showing the destruction of the munitions factory and storage area of the camp by American bombers; photo courtesy USHMM

An aerial photograph of Buchenwald concentration camp showing the destruction of the munitions factory and storage area of the camp by American bombers; photo courtesy USHMM

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