East Tennessee WWII veteran Tab Torbett reflects on service in war-torn Germany

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TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) One Piney Flats native remembers his service in World War II like it was yesterday.

Tab Torbett recounts what he saw in war-torn Germany from the comfort of Brookdale Senior Living in Johnson City, now more than 70 years later.

Tab’s parents, Eli Anderson Torbett Sr. and Etta Fitzgerald Torbett, pioneered a successful greenhouse business in the Tri-Cities. But, before Tab would follow in his family’s footsteps and open the Johnson City Plant Farm, he would put his life on the line in history’s deadliest war.

At 98 years old, Tab describes his service to our country with a sense of pride.

“I was working in Baltimore at the time. When I went to the box to get my mail, there it was. My draft.” Tab received that call following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

At only 22 years old came the time for Tab to leave all he knew behind; including his family in Piney Flats. But, it wasn’t without a proper sendoff.

“They fixed me a good lunch and they wished me well. I thought it was the best thing for me to do. I really did, from my heart.”

After basic training, a stomach-churning journey by ship to France and preparing for war, Tab landed at his primary station in Passau, Germany on the Austrian border.

He and fellow soldiers of the 102nd infantry division of the U.S. Army were in charge of firing a 155mm Howitzer at German forces.

“The men would set the coordination for the gun to where they were gonna fire. You hold your ear, pull a lanyard, and it fires,” Tab recalls of his mission.

He remembers, as many veterans do, so clearly the atrocities he witnessed. One story that sticks out to Tab is the brutal killing of a group of Polish citizens who were trapped by enemy forces inside a house.

“The Germans came and set it on fire. Those people were fighting and the fire was burning them. They were trying to dig out from under there, you could see them digging out,” Tab recounts.

“They shot them on top of that. That was awful to see.”

Tab says following that brutal killing, American soldiers gave those killed an honorable grave, instead of the trench burial that the Germans resigned them to. They were laid to rest with their names displayed on rocks thanks to the U.S. troops.

One thing, however, many soldiers never saw was the persecution and genocide of the Jews through concentration camps. The most infamous of war crimes was something Tab did not fully grasp until after the war was over.

“We just didn’t realize all that was going on. We saw the films of it. It was heartbreaking to see what all Hitler had done to the countries. Beyond any man’s thinking.”

Then, in 1945– the relief that Tab and the world had been waiting for.

“The news came that the war is over. We were just shouting and glad it was.”

Those moments of joy, coupled with work still to be done. Tab’s unit was charged with guarding German POWs. He would soon find that he had more in common with those soldiers than he thought.

“Hitler had drafted those guys just like we got drafted. Those prisoners were just as kind and nice as they could be. They wanted out of there. They wanted to go to their home if they had one. But I doubt they had one, in all the rubble.”

Even all these years later Tab remembers little moments of humanity found in the face of the so-called enemy.

“One of them said, you need to shave, I’ll shave you. I said, well sure. He started shaving and shaving down my throat with that straight razor. I thought, oh Lord, my time is here,” Tab recalls with a laugh.

But even still, he would make it home to Tennessee.

“Camp Atterbury, Indiana. That’s where we got our discharge. We went through the line and they gave us 50 dollars. Each one got 50 dollars,” Tab chuckles. “We were on our way home.”

After the war, for Tab and so many others, life would simply go on.

“It was wonderful, beyond words. To know the war was over.”

Tab Torbett would continue his family greenhouse business in the Tri-Cities, owning and operating his own plant farm on Pickens Bridge Rd. until the 90s.

Torbett Greenhouses still operates today in Piney Flats, Tenn.

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