Lou ‘Louch’ Baczewski pictured at left with tank crewmate Les Underwood in Belgium, 1944. The two reunited, right, in 2011.  

Lou Baczewski is an electrician with a passion for history.

Collinsville, Ill., Local 309 wireman/author/filmmaker Lou Baczewski with his grandfather, Lou ‘Louch’ Baczewski.

 

The second-generation Collinsville, Ill., Local 309 wireman, though, has taken his love for the past to the extreme, authoring a book about the remarkable story of his own grandfather’s fight through war-torn World War II Europe, and then recreating that journey for an upcoming documentary film.

“Louch” is the story of his namesake, Louis J. Baczewski, born in 1922 to Polish immigrants in the tiny town of Pocahontas, Ill., about an hour west of St. Louis. Drafted into the U.S. Army a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Baczewski was assigned to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where he was trained to drive an M-4A1 Sherman tank.

Known to friends and family as “Louch” (pronounced Loo-ch), a nickname picked up thanks to his mother’s strong Polish pronunciation of his name, Baczewski eventually found himself fighting his way across Europe, from the beaches of Normandy, France, to Frankfurt, Germany, after the fall of the Nazi Third Reich.

In his book, the younger Baczewski describes in vivid detail the struggles faced by his grandfather and his compatriots in the 3rd Armored Division, where American tanks were badly outgunned by their German counterparts, and where they only ultimately prevailed by throwing more tanks – and more lives – at the enemy.

“There were 232 tanks in the division when these guys landed on Omaha Beach a couple of weeks after D-Day,” Baczewski said. “And by the end of the war, they’d lost 1,300 of them.” That meant every tank in the division was replaced nearly six times over the course of 10 months of fighting.

The tank crews didn’t fare any better. Of the 152 young Americans who landed in Normandy on June 23, 1944 as part of Louch’s D-company, just 18 survived to the end of the war.

Lou Baczewski atop one of the M-4 Sherman tanks he drove during the war.

Of the lucky few who reached central Germany in the weeks following the Nazis’ unconditional surrender – V-E Day—were Baczewski and a young assistant gunner, Les Underwood. The two served in the same Sherman tank from the Battle of Saint-Lô in July 1944 through the infamous Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest seven months later.

After the fighting stopped, the two were roommates in Frankfurt during the U.S. occupation of that city, but when they returned home – Louch to Pocahontas, Les to Lancaster, Pa. – they lost touch.

In one of the book’s most touching moments, the younger Baczewski got in touch with Underwood and arranged a reunion. In 2011, Underwood, with his wife and adult daughter, made the 800-mile drive from Pennsylvania to Illinois.

“It was an emotional moment,” said Leslie Baruffi, Underwood’s daughter. “These two men just hugged one another and cried. They’d been through so much together during the war. It took 65 years, but they finally had a chance to reunite, and it was like they’d never been apart.”

After coming home, Louch joined the Laborers union and later worked as a millwright and a steelworker. Underwood spent nearly 40 years as an IBEW wireman and member of Reading, Pa., Local 743.

“It’s amazing how their lives paralleled one another, even after they lost touch, both being union guys, working with their hands,” Baruffi said. “My father never really talked about the war, but with Lou, they relived the whole thing in a week.”

Les Underwood was assistant gunner in several tank crews, including Lou’s, over the course of his time in Europe.

Stories of the underpowered Sherman tanks, called “death traps” by the troops who operated them, flowed from the two men that week, including recollections of one particular day that haunted both of them for 60 years.

“It was the worst day of our lives,” both men told the younger Baczewski of the fight during the Battle of the Bulge. As D-company approached the Belgian border-town of Cherain, 10 Shermans and their crews met five superior German Panther tanks and one German Mark IV tank, backed up by loads of infantry and a battery of 170mm anti-tank guns. By the end of fighting on Jan. 15, 1945, only Baczewski’s tank remained. Underwood’s tank was hit, killing his driver and assistant driver instantly. The turret crew bailed out and Les was forced to dive into the snow and play dead as German infantry overran their position.

As he lay motionless, a mortar shell exploded nearby, setting Underwood’s jacket on fire, and moments later a German soldier kicked him hard in the ribs to see if he was still alive. The Nazi soldier then lifted the motionless Underwood, said “Kaput,” and threw him back in the snow. It was the longest day of his life, he recalled, as he lay freezing in deep snow, afraid to move as bullets ricocheted around him. At nightfall, he crawled back to U.S. lines past two German sentries to rejoin what was left of D-company.

Underwood later received the Belgian military medal, the Croix de guerre, for his bravery that day.

The two would soon cross the Rhine River into Germany, liberating the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp as nearby units captured the nearby Nazi rocket factory responsible for the V-2 missiles that killed nearly 3,000 civilians and injured 6,500 more during the Blitz in London.

The younger Baczewski and his grandfather had always talked of going to Europe and retracing his unit’s steps, but Louch’s failing health and death in May 2013 ended those dreams. In the summer of 2015, Baczewski decided to forge on alone, bringing along a cameraman to document his bicycle journey through the hedgerows of France, the forests and towns of Belgium and the cities of Germany.

Baczewski, along with co-director Kyle Gisburne and assistant producer Aaron AuBuchon, is near completion on a feature-length documentary about the trip and the book, titled Path of the Past, that he hopes to debut at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Mo., next March. A portion of the film’s proceeds will be donated to H.E.R.O.E.S. Care, a charity that assists military families before and after deployment.

Local 309 Business Manager Tim Evans said Baczewski has been active at the local and presented the film project to the executive board, where members took a lot of interest. “Lou’s so passionate about this, and we were glad to support him in it. I hope lots of people read this and buy the book. It’s an amazing story.”

Those interested in the film’s progress can follow “Path of the Past” on Facebook and order the book, “Louch: A Simple Man's True Story of War, Survival, Life, and Legacy” on Amazon. A trailer and clips from the film are available on YouTube.