Son of Austrian immigrants fought for U.S. in World War II
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Piffer: My granddad Joe Telck came from the Tyrol, which is Northern Italy now, but before World War I it was Austria. His plan was to get settled with a good job and send for grandma, but while he was here the war started and my grandma got stuck. During the war, my granddad had a hard time because Austria was in the war against the United States and when he went to New Castle people would heckle him because he was Austrian.
He worked in the coal mines in New Castle and eventually got 160 acres from the government up West Elk Creek and started farming. After the war, my grandma was able to join him on the farm.
My dad came next and went to work in the mines in Ludlow, Colo. Mom joined him two years later and they got married.
Gallacher: Was he there during the Ludlow Massacre? (see note below)
Piffer: Yes, he was. I remember him talking about that. They shot some of those striking miners on the spot. They were against the unions and anybody trying to organize one.
He worked in Ludlow until he lost his leg in a mining accident. A moving cable came around and caught him and his days in the mine were over. After that, Mom and Dad moved in with her folks on the farm in West Elk.
My dad had a wooden leg for most of his life. Even though it was really heavy he could do a lot of things with that wooden leg. Actually he had two, one for work and one for Sundays and special occasions.
He could ride horseback and do all the work around the farm. He farmed for years and years. I was born on that farm. Even as little kids, my brother Joe and I had to work. We milked cows and stacked hay, fed the pigs and chickens. We always had plenty to eat.
We raised acres and acres of potatoes. I remember in the fall when school started, most of the farm boys in that whole area missed the first couple weeks of school because they were picking potatoes.
Gallacher: What did you do with all of them?
Piffer: We had big potato cellars, and during the winter we would sort them and put them in hundred-pound sacks. And then in the spring Johnny Ritter, the potato buyer, would come by and truck them down to the railroad and ship them out to Denver and the big cities. We only shipped the best. The rest we ate or fed to the pigs.
But life changed when my mom died. I was 10 at the time. By then my mom’s folks had bought a place in Coryell Town in New Castle.
My dad figured that with Mom gone, he couldn’t take care of the farm and us at the same time. So my brother Joe and I went to stay in town with the grandfolks during the week and Dad would come get us and take us back to the farm for the weekends.
My mom was nice, she never laid a hand on us, but Grandma had a pretty heavy hand. If we didn’t do things the way she wanted, she let us know it.
Gallacher: That must have been a really difficult time for you.
Piffer: It was, but when you’re that little you don’t realize as much. But when my grandmother took over, she really took over. If you did something wrong you got a slap on the face. She meant well, but it was hard after losing Mom.
Gallacher: Did you finish school there?
Piffer: No, I got a chance to go to California about halfway through high school and I took it. It was 1939, and the aircraft factories were real busy. I went to school out there, and then later on I got a job in the factory building airplanes.
That’s where I was on Dec. 7, 1941. I was working the night shift and was on my way home when the bulletin came on the radio saying that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Right then and there I thought, “I’m going to join the Marines.”
Gallacher: Why the Marines?
Piffer: Because I knew they would get there first. A month later I was in boot camp, and from there they shipped us out to New Zealand and we trained with the New Zealand army for six months. We went from winter in New Zealand to our first landing at Guadalcanal, where it was hotter than hell. That’s where we met the Japanese.
We got bombed every, every night while we were there. They circled their planes around and around just to harass us and just before they left they would bomb us.
From Guadalcanal we went to Bougainville Island. I remember we landed on the beach, and the Japanese air force came at us so hard that the ships that dropped us off had to leave, taking all of our supplies and ammunition with them. So all we had with us was a little bit of grub in our backpacks and whatever ammunition we could carry.
I remember just like it was today. The beach had a giant curve to it. And I was in that curve when a Japanese Zero came strafing up the beach. I can still see the face of that Japanese pilot because he was only 30 feet away from me. He was really laying it down but he couldn’t get at me because I was tucked into that curve. We finally got off the beach and into the jungle.
Two days after we landed, the Japanese landed a bunch of their people in behind us. Bougainville was quite a fight. We saw death everywhere, day in and day out.
From Bougainville we went to Guam and ran the Japanese out of there. From there, we went to Iwo Jima where we had a helluva fight. We were losing about 300 Marines a day. We were there 30 days and had about 7,000 die and thousands more wounded.
I remember one night we were relaxing in camp, sitting around in a group, when a Japanese artillery shell hit, and it got the guy sitting right next to me.
Iwo Jima was tough. I remember when they raised the flag there. Everybody thought the battle was over, but that was just the beginning. Everyone on both sides took a helluva beating. They were hauling the dead out in dump trucks.
Gallacher: What did that do to you?
Piffer: I knew I had to keep going. I couldn’t afford to stop and think about it for very long. I never thought that I would get killed, but I saw so many of my buddies get it. Sure, it affected me, but I knew I had to keep movin’. I see this war stuff today, and I break down into tears.
I probably wouldn’t have made it if the war had continued. We were scheduled to be one of the first divisions to invade Japan, but then they dropped the atomic bomb and the war was over.
Gallacher: How did you adjust to civilian life after living in the thick of war?
Piffer: It felt so good to be home, and the people treated me so good. I did have a lot of sleepless nights. I dreamed about some of my buddies that I knew and lost.
I remember one time, just after I got back, I was up at the ranch standing out by the garden fence when a county road crew blasted some rock. That sound scared me so bad I jumped over the four-foot garden fence.
My family was good about helping me. When I came back I met my first wife, Mary Antonelli, and got married. She helped me adjust.
Epilogue: Charlie and Mary Piffer had three children, Duane, Dick and Barb.
Charlie took advantage of the GI Bill and studied auto mechanics and auto body repair. He worked in Glenwood Springs for Tenbrook Motors and later for Lincicome Motors, where he was the service manager.
Charlie eventually opened his own auto body shop on South Grand and ran it for 20 years. When he closed his shop, he went into real estate for a few years before retiring.
Mary Piffer died suddenly in the early 1970s. Three years later, Charlie met his present wife, Glenda McDonald. They now live in Grand Junction.
Note: The Ludlow Massacre was an attack by the Colorado National Guard on a tent colony of 12,000 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, Colo., near Walsenburg, on April 20, 1914.
The massacre resulted in the violent deaths of between 19 and 25 people; sources vary, but all sources mention two women and 11 children, asphyxiated and burned to death under a single tent. The deaths occurred after a day-long fight between strikers and the Guard.
Ludlow was the deadliest single incident in the southern Colorado coal strike, which lasted from September 1913 through December 1914.
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