By Jim Sullivan
---- — Newbury’s Gene Palumbo used to do a lot of damage in a tank. Now, he does it with a pen.
“I was never a writer,” said the 90-year-old author of the self-published memoir “Load Kick Fire,” which was recently named one of three finalists in the history/military category of the 2013 USA Best Book Awards.
“But I kept feeling, I want my story to get out there, so that people would understand how the war was fought,” he said. “I fought it in a tank and as reconnaissance. I wasn’t an infantry guy with a rifle, I didn’t fight that way. But I was with them all the time.”
A loader in the 756th Tank Battalion, B Company, 3rd Infantry Division, Palumbo spent 22 months directly on the front lines of World War II, from the Battle for Rome all the way to the taking of Adolf Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest complex in Germany.
“I can’t believe it,” Palumbo said of his Best Book Awards honor. “They called my son and told him the book (was a finalist.) My son thanked them very much, and they said it was a very good book.”
“I’ve heard these stories since time began,” said Palumbo’s wife of 64 years, Jeanie. “People who have read the book say it is a very easy read. It’s like he’s talking to you.”
Palumbo, a Waltham native, was a professional figure skater before the war.
“That’s what I did for a living, and I had a good life with it,” said Palumbo, who was drafted in 1942.
After boot camp, Palumbo was given the chance to be made a sergeant and serve his time skating for the USO, but he wanted to fight.
As it turned out, he liked tanks. His first mission was the Battle for Rome, where he and his battalion found themselves rolling into Cassino from the Garigliano River. It was not a friendly reception.
“What the hell stares us right in the face but the Germans, machine guns and all,” Palumbo said. “Ammunition is running back and forth, and riflemen, they are all there. I said, ‘Fire! Fire!’ But my guns ain’t firing. All of a sudden, we take a hit, and I see fire and shrapnel that hits me in the face and the hand and ripped my jacket open and put a mark right across my back. I was lucky though.”
Palumbo thought he would never get out of the tank, but somehow he did.
“The Germans kept firing at us with their machine guns and everything,” he said. “(But) I hid in a foxhole with two other guys. One of them starts to run, and he steps on a land mine. It blew his ankle right off. He is yelling, and I’m yelling at him to get the hell down. He’s yelling that he’s going home, and he’s running around on his stump. I thought I was a dead man.”
Unarmed, Palumbo and a pair of other soldiers backtracked their way across the Garigliano and to some relative safety. But he went right back across the river a few hours later and made it into Cassino, where he would spend the next 42 days.
“We were in Cassino, blowing up everything,” he said. “Germans were putting grenades on their rifles and shooting them at us. That’s what it was, back and forth.”
That was only the beginning Palumbo’s combat experience, which saw him serving alongside Audie Murphy and eventually taking Hitler’s mountaintop retreat.
“He had a big table there,” Palumbo said. “And I sat behind it and threw my feet up there and said, ‘All right, Hitler. Here we are!’ That was the last place we took.”
Surviving the war was one thing, adjusting to civilian life after was another. Palumbo went on to own the Joyland ice rink on Plum Island, where he settled and raised a family. The author’s two sons, Doug and Thomas, who died in 2011, assisted their father with corralling his stories for “Load Kick Fire,” which is available online.
“I just decided that I wanted to get my story out to the public, and that’s it,” Palumbo said. “I hope they read it.”