A tale of two soldiers … Walter Tatko and John Bourgoin

May 22, 2015
By Boca Beacon

DSC_7402BY JACK SHORT – To anyone who happened upon a scene in the kitchen of the Palmetto Inn recently, two men pouring over maps with their wives and siblings, sandwiches and soup cooking on the other side of the counter, it might have seemed like they were reminiscing over a European vacation taken years before.
But it becomes clear after listening for a few moments that they are tracing the steps of their Division, the 3rd Infantry, through its European campaign in WWII. They were in many of the same places, though at different times, and these two men with Boca Grande ties never knew each other then.
They couldn’t be more different. One is quiet, circumspect, maybe even a little solemn. His stories are sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking, but always deeply personal.
The other seems like a thrillseeker, his stories still envenomed with unabated vitriol for the axis soldiers. He relishes memories of strafing German trains in a P-40 (or possibly a P-47 – I don’t have his knack for numbers) and destroying everything he could. He also lights up when the conversation turns to planes, motorcycles or fast cars, which he raced after the war.
Both men are in their 90s. The former, Walter A. Tatko, doesn’t look it. The latter is John Bourgoin, who also looks much younger than his years but seems so more because of his devil-may-care attitude.
Tatko served in the 3rd Infantry Division. He was part of the third wave of Allied forces that landed in Southern France in 1944, after extensive training that followed a two-week period policing Rome and searching for remnants of the German forces there.
They landed in small crafts on the French Riviera. He’d been drafted two years before, given a choice between the Army and the Navy.
“I chose the Army because I didn’t want to go on a ship,” he said.
But he ended up in the water on various crafts anyway, like the LCI that set him down on the beach in Southern France.
“Our captain was good,” he recalled. “… we didn’t even get our shoes wet.”
They didn’t suffer the casualties the first waves did – some as high as 30 percent – because the beachhead was already established. But there would be plenty of trouble ahead.
Tatko was assigned to a bazooka team. His friend, who was later killed in France, carried the gun and Walter carried the ammunition.
Bourgoin was picked up by General Patton in Casablanca and taken along as a translator. He was a lieutenant.
“Patton said, ‘We need someone who can speak French, Arabic and Spanish,’” John said. His commanding officer responded, “You may have him, lock, stock and barrel.”
And so he went with the 3rd Infantry to Tunis.
“I went all over Sicily with George S. Jr. because the French and Arab troops were there,” John said.
He was at Nuremberg, too.
“I saw Goebbels, Himmler, the whole bunch,” he said.
Walter had gone from Casablanca to Oran in cattle cars – 40 men to a car for days at a time – and eventually to Rome before he landed in Southern France.
“The French people were very gracious to us,” Walter said.
He earned his Distinguished Service Cross there. He and his fellow soldiers were stopped at a farmhouse when the enemy started firing on them just before dark.
“We all hit the ground,” he recalled. “Their tracer bullets were white. They were so bright you could sit there and read the paper.”
He and his fellow bazooka operator, Frank, were safe but they heard the sound of tanks on half tracks approaching.
“I said to Frank, ‘I don’t like the sound of this thing. Do you think we should check it out?’” Tatko said.
They moved into a more exposed position. On the way, he found a friend lying in a field, shot in the stomach. He said he promised to send help, but broke off from telling his story before he could say what happened to the man.
When they were able to set up they destroyed the German halftrack, then moved to a second position where they destroyed another. He was told he’d receive a commendation.
Later in the campaign, crossing a road and embankment through machine gun fire to a riverbank, he was shot by a sniper and taken out of the war.
“I made it to the riverbank and stopped and my arm hurt me,” he said. “I looked down and saw a hole in my uniform and saw there was a hole on the other side, too.”
The scars are still visible as he demonstrates some of the movements he was instructed to perform during his rehabilitation. Walter figures he was lucky he didn’t lose his arm.
“Most of the time when you were shot they didn’t salvage anything,” he said. “They cut your arm off and that was the end of it.”
The bullet had gone through the bone and left a gap that had to regrow. But eventually he regained most of the use and range of motion he’d had.
“I didn’t want any kind of parade or dedication or presentation,” Walter said. “I said no. As far as I was concerned I had the medal and that was the end of it. I thought, ‘It’ll go in the drawer with the rest of the things and that’s the end of it.’”
Bourgoin also refused a commendation, a Purple Heart.
“I was hardheaded,” he said.
He was on a Liberty ship in July, 1943 just off Italy’s coast when it took a bomb right behind the smokestack.
“When I landed in Sicily (in Gela), and the Germans got me, I had a shot in my leg,” John said. “I saw the people without an arm, without a hand, without a leg, crawling on the ground, and … I cannot kneel at the church … and I refused the medal. I said, ‘Look at the poor guys, and me for a scrape?’ I said, ‘No sir, I don’t deserve it.’ I was too proud.”
There were lighter moments in the conversation. They shared a few laughs over the Army food.
Once, when Walter saw a woman who looked like his mother and gave her some of his rations, she began to cry. His friends asked him why she was crying and he responded, “I gave her a C Ration. “
They said, “Oh, well no wonder she’s crying.”
Bourgoin agreed. “I hated the damn things. That’s where I learned to eat everything with Tabasco sauce.”
As the conversation comes to a close, sandwiches were served and the war moved out of focus. Instead they talked about cars and their kids, who works where and drives what.
To an observer, the poignancy of the memories these men still carry with them is evident. It is still possible for those who experienced the war and those who hear stories about it now to be overcome or enthralled by their experiences, now nearly three quarters of a century past.
Those stories and experiences, the visceral quality and the lessons as well as warnings they carry, should never be lost. The sacrifice and tragedy and victory of everyone involved should be honored by each generation that follows for the debt they owe the greatest generation.