(c) 2011 Aaron Elson
You were talking about the first day in action. I remember that day, because I was trying to make a little joke about it. All this training you had, like I was the assistant driver, and an assistant driver in the States, his job was to go back and open up the engine compartment and stand there with a fire extinguisher before the driver started the tank. So that first day in action I said, “Do you want me to open the engine compartment?”
Lieutenant Lombardi said, “Forget all that shit.”
Now we aren’t in action, I don’t know, three hours and we hear Sergeant Schmidt in the second platoon, the tank commander’s killed. They told him, “Don’t ride the turret.” And he was like sitting on top of the turret. Sniped right between the eyes. He was the first casualty in the company.
I don’t know if it was the next day or the day after, Captain Cary, who was our company commander, he used to tell us, “Watch out for booby traps.” He opened a gate or something, it was booby trapped and he got wounded.
But I remember that first day of action. Then you started saying, “Hey, they’re playing for real, this is no more games now.” And you’re saying to yourself, “I wonder who’s gonna be next.” And you look around. It could be any one of us. Who knows?
We arrived in Normandy 20 days after D-Day, and were immediately attached to the 90th Infantry Division, and our first operation was set up for July 3rd.
When we jumped off, our tanks made contact with the infantry and moved out. They hit a strong point. I was in a halftrack, coming right along behind. There was a firefight in a ditch, or a sunken road. The tanks came around and there was a German machine gun nest there. They shot that up, and the Germans pulled back.
I came upon that scene right in behind the tanks, and there were Germans trying to surrender or they were on the ground, wounded, and there was a GI lying on the ground in front of them, also wounded, and he starts shouting at me, he wanted help. There was a brush barrier there. So without thinking I run over, put one hand on that brush barrier and try to vault over it. It was booby trapped and the thing went off. I thought that most of it went over in back of me and maybe it did, but it knocked me flat as a pancake, and knocked me a little bit cuckoo for a while.
I took part of the blow in my left side. When I recovered enough to get up, I pulled up my shirt and I was skinned a little bit, but there didn’t seem to be any damage. And the back end of my raincoat was all blown to pieces. We got up and went on, and later in the day we had another firefight. I was in my tank by this time. We went out on a road junction and fired at the basement of a house where the infantry thought the Germans were holed up as they made an attack. We poured fire in there and that attack went pretty well, they made a little progress.
We never found out if there was anybody in there or not. It’s bothered me a little bit, there could very well have been Frenchmen in there for all I know, but this was a situation where you had to go along with what they wanted you to do.
Then my tank started having a lot of trouble with the engine. It was fairly late in the day. I was also starting to have some trouble walking.
I went back to the company bivouac area, and the next morning I was having a lot of trouble walking. I could feel liquid running down my back, and I was sore, so I went into an aid station and that’s when I found out I had a penetration wound in the left thigh. I had cuts across the back, not too deep. One of them was fairly deep, but superficial type cuts. And the doctor said – no, I was dealing with a ward boy, an enlisted man – he said, “You’ll have to go back. They can’t handle that thigh wound here.”
I said, “Well, I’m not going to,” something to the effect that I couldn’t do that. And I started to leave.
He went and got a doctor, an officer, and the officer came over to me and said, “You have to go back. That has to be taken care of.”
He led me to believe it could be done in a few days and I’d come right back. I’m not trying to paint myself in heroic terms here, but that was what I thought was going to happen. I didn’t think I was hurt that badly. But the doctor said, “You could lose that leg if you don’t get that slug out of there.”
I went and told Colonel Randolph, and went back, and they evacuated me, and instead of being operated on in a field hospital they sent me back to a much larger medical establishment further back.
As soon as I found out what was going on I tried to call Colonel Randolph. I spent four or five hours trying to get through to him, but never was able to get through. You had these wet-noodle lines, the field telephones, and you get so far and then the call disappears.
They opened up the leg and took out a rock that had been blown in, and I had all kinds of dirt blown into the wounds in my back. They were festered up.
I didn’t get back to the outfit until September.
Bob Hagerty, of Cincinnati, was one of 14 battalion members who received battlefield commissions.
It’s funny, you remember not the tragic things, like when you see somebody who just died, because no matter how much you mourn him you’re not going to bring him back. What you tend to think of is the goofy things. Like the time, I think Big Andy [Bob Anderson] was my tank driver, and we were supporting the infantry. We came across a little clearing, and we came to some small trees, and I had to urinate. We didn’t see anything out in front of us. I said, “Andy, hold it right here, I’m gonna get out a minute,” and I jumped out and started to urinate right by the tracks.
A couple of the other guys decided to get out of the tank as well. And we all were about half-finished when we heard some small arms fire. There were Germans, we hadn’t seen them. Whatever we were doing, the process stopped right there. We jumped onto the back of the turret, and we had the turret between us and them, we were able to duck inside the tank. You know, that’s so many years ago, but I still remember that.
Or a time right after we’d been committed in France, I think it was even before the first person in the battalion was killed, and our tanks were being brought up to a certain place in support of the 82nd Airborne Division. They were dug in, and they fancied themselves as super soldiers. They had these distinctive outfits, they carried grenades hooked onto their uniform legs, and they had big knives, they said they killed quietly rather than shooting, so it all sounded very grizzly.
We were supposed to take our platoon of tanks – Ed Forrest was our platoon leader – into position just slightly behind where the infantry would be. That meant we had to go up a little dirt road and make a turn onto a smaller dirt road and that would bring us into position.
Forrest went first, then the No. 2 tank, the No. 3, and I was No. 4, I was the platoon sergeant. Somebody had told Forrest, “When you go up this road and you take the right turn, hit the gas, don’t worry about sliding around the turn or maybe running into some small saplings, hit the gas because there’s a German gun that’s trained on the road.
So he goes up and gets around there, and he goes over where this infantry position is, and No. 2 goes up, and No. 3 goes up, and then I went up. And as I made the turn, I heard this loud metallic sound, but the tank kept moving, so I thought, “We haven’t been hit?” Then the No. 5 tank came along behind me.
When we got up behind the infantry, and we got out to see if anything had happened, there was a big hole in an apparatus on the back end of the tank that was useful for a tank that was discharged into the water, it redirected your exhaust portals. The German had fired as I rounded that corner, and his shell went through this shield. We were a millisecond away from him penetrating our tank.
People who knew said, “Oh, that was an 88.” You could tell by the size of the hole. Well, an 88 was big enough to knock out our tanks any day in the week.
After that, the guys in the company who hadn’t yet been exposed to battle, you know, they didn’t have any war stories – they were gonna have damn shortly, but they didn’t have them then – they could say, “Look at Hagerty’s tank, look at that hole.”
We still had those big shrouds on the tanks from landing in the water. Hagerty was the tank commander and I was his driver. We were coming down this road, we stopped at this crossroad, and boy, one came in close. Because they had everything zeroed in.
I said to Bob, “We’d better move.” So we moved on up to a hedgerow, and backed around so we could get a shot at anything coming.
I got out of the tank, and went back and was eating a sandwich. I leaned over on the tank with my hand, and in that shroud that comes up, just below the end of the tank, there was a big hole. That 88 went clear through it. I said to Bob, “That’s pretty damn close, ain’t it.”
And we were carrying Bangalore torpedoes on the back of the tank. They came in two pieces, and you could hook them together. Then instead of blowing up, they blew down. You could use them to blow a hole through a hedgerow. I saw that hole, it was inches from those Bangalore torpedoes. I said to Hagerty, “Look at that. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting rid of these torpedoes.” I threw ‘em over the hedgerow. That was too close for comfort.
Phil Schromm and I enlisted about the same time. We both went to the horse cavalry back in Fort Riley and took our training, and we ended up in Camp Lockett.
I played a dirty trick on Phil when we got to Camp Lockett. On the way out we said, “Now we’re not gonna get in that stable gang.”
Well, there was an old sergeant, he said, “If you get in the stable gang, you’ve got it made. You eat ahead of everybody, you get everything you want and you don’t have to stand any duties.” So when we were walking down there that morning I said, “Phil, remember now, we’re not gonna get into the stable gang.”
First thing, one of the officers said, “Anybody want to join the stable gang?”
And my hand shot up.
Phil said, “You rotten bastard.”
I’m the only one that raised his hand.
Schromm always said, from Day One, he used to say, “I’m gonna be the first one killed in action.”
“No,” I said, “you’re not, Schromm.” We used to kid one another all the time. By god, he was serious about it, and he damn sure was the first one.
I forget the officers he was with, and maybe I didn’t even know them. See, we jumped off with the 82nd Airborne when we left, there was just a small front there when we went in. And he was walking with these officers up there in the front somewhere, they said the shell hit right out in front of him. And then shortly after that, Lieutenant [George] Tarr got killed.
On the morning of July 3rd, 1944, the 712th Tank Battalion, being attached to the 90th Infantry Division [two line companies of the 712th were attached to the 90th, and one to the 82nd Airborne], was making an assault toward Hill 122.
My first platoon, Company C, had been assigned to work with the 1st Battalion of the 359th Infantry Regiment. Company A was assigned to work with the 82nd Airborne Division.
The day before, Colonel Paul Hamilton, the battalion commander from the 359, and I were planning how to make this attack in our little sector, and we had gone out and climbed up a tree so we had better observation. We were looking down a slight hill toward a creek. In the morning, after the artillery lifted, Colonel Hamilton took two companies and jumped off toward the village of Pretot going down the hill, across the creek, and up the other side to the village, which was probably a mile in front of us. We were off on the left hand side of the road going toward the village, but I couldn’t take my tanks down to the creek and cross it because the banks were too steep.
After Hamilton took his two companies into the attack, they hadn’t been gone very long until somebody said that Hamilton had been wounded by a treeburst artillery shell.
About the time Hamilton was moving out to make the attack, I heard some tanks coming down the road. I was about 50 yards off the road. I ran out to the road and looked, and here comes a column of five tanks, and George Tarr from A Company is in the lead tank.
He stopped, and said he’s looking for where he’s supposed to be.
The people with the mine detectors had already come by and were maybe 300 yards down the road in front of us. Tarr continued on down the road and stopped when he got even with the engineers. He got out of the tank and was talking with the lieutenant of the engineers. And this infantry lieutenant might have said, “Get those tanks out of here, fella, you’re bringing fire in on us.” And Tarr turned around, went back over to his tank and started climbing up over the side of it – you put your foot up on a bogey wheel, and then up on the track – and he thought of something else and he turned around, and he went back to the lieutenant. After the lieutenant answered his question, Tarr turned around and started to climb back up on the tank, and a shell landed on the road right beside the tank and right behind George, and that was the end of it for him.
They dragged George over in the ditch beside the road. I can still see him, he’s over there in the ditch, leaning back, doing what George did best of all, taking a nap.
Jule Braatz was the platoon sergeant. I guess he got in Tarr’s tank, the lead tank, and went on down the road, and he hadn’t gone very far until he hit a mine. In a few minutes, Braatz came walking back up the road and he looked like a zombie, he was pretty upset. He stopped, and I asked him what had happened. He said that Tarr got killed, and that he had taken the tanks on down and had hit this mine, and he’s going back for some help. I said I’d get on the radio and call back to battalion and tell them what had happened.
Lt. Jule Braatz, of Beaver Dam, Wis., was the first of 14 sergeants in the battalion to receive a battlefield commission.
When we landed in France, we hadn’t see or even heard a German yet, and George Tarr was killed.
We landed in the dark of night. We went down a road and we pulled into a field alongside some 155 Howitzers, Long Toms, and they were shelling. We took off our waterproofing, and the next morning, it’s raining and drizzling, and we were supposed to report to either a regimental or battalion headquarters of the 82nd Airborne. So we’re going down a road, a little old farm lane if you want to call it. My crew at that point was Pete Charapko, Elvin Wilder, L.E. Stahl and Mike DePippo.
We’re going down this road. I’m in the fourth tank and I can’t see what’s going on up at the head of the column. It’s raining and muddy and slippery, and all of a sudden over the radio comes [John] Pellettiere, who was the gunner in Tarr’s tank at that time, hollering for me. He says Tarr has been hit.
I got out of the tank and walked down this road and I couldn’t see anybody. There was a blacktop road that came through, and he had taken that. I went over to his tank, and Tarr was dead.
The infantry outfit wanted the tanks in a hurry, so I took over Tarr’s tank. There are five tanks in a platoon, but now I only had two, that tank and another one, because the third tank got stuck, and my regular tank and the fifth tank couldn’t get around it.
So I take over those two tanks, and I was supposed to go up to the road to meet these 82nd Airborne people. Right ahead there’s a crossroad, and there’s a building up ahead on one of the roads. The infantry officer said, “We’re receiving fire from there, can you shoot into it?”
I asked the officer, “Has that road been cleared of mines?”
We advanced down the road, and I told Pellettiere to fire when he could see the building, and I thought he had fired, because when you’re sitting with your head out of the turret and that gun fires there’s a backblast. Then all of a sudden these guys are trying to push me out of the turret.
What happened is we hit a mine. And underneath the tanks we had an escape hatch supposedly which just had a little bitty ridge around it to keep it from going up. When the mine went off, it blew the escape hatch right up into the ceiling of the tank. Russ Levengood was the assistant driver and Percy Bowers was the driver. It killed Levengood. In fact, we all went out in the ditch and I said, “Where’s Levengood?”
Percy said, “He’s coming out of the escape hatch.”
Well, what he had seen was the escape hatch blowing open. When I went over, Levengood was dead.
Sgt. Wayne Hissong, of Argos, Ind., was an ammunition truck driver in Service Company, and was assigned mostly to A Company.
When I went into the service, there were four of us who went in together. One of the fellows, John Charles Mitchell, he and I graduated from high school together. He was in B Company, and I was in Service Company. We went through everything, we got overseas, and he was one of the first ones in the battalion to get killed.
His mother wrote me two or three letters overseas and wanted me to detail to her what happened. But your letters were censored. And I really couldn’t tell her too much anyway.
Pfc. Orval Williams, of Macalester, Okla., was a loader in B Company. He was wounded on the battalion’s first day in combat.
Sergeant Diel was our tank commander, and when we got to St. Jores, somehow he got us separated from the rest of the platoon. When we got knocked out and I got out of that tank I couldn’t see another tank anywhere. And when they got us on a jeep and started back with us, the other tanks were way down north of us. There was a railroad overpass there and the men were gathered up under that overpass talking. Sergeant [Tullio] Micaloni and a bunch of others waved and hollered when we went by. But they were way back there. We had gone way up ahead and were broadsided across the road right at a curve.
The first shot that tank fired at us missed us. I heard it and I pulled my periscope left. I told Sergeant Diel, “Someone took a shot at us from the right side.” I turned my periscope around, and I’m looking right down the tube of the gun on a German tank, just about a half a block from us. And about that time they let her fly again. I was in the tank when two shells came through it. The first shot killed John Mitchell, my driver. I could see him, he was right in front of me. Just about half his head was gone.
Mitchell was a big guy, he probably weighed about 220, 6 feet tall, and just pleasant to be around. That first shot killed him. The first shot also got me, knocked me off my seat, tore three inches of little bones out of my left hand. They told me when they went to operate on me at the evacuation hospital that they might have to take the hand off – my arm was paralyzed up to my shoulder. They put me to sleep about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and at 4 o’clock the next morning the nurse woke me up, and when she woke me up I didn’t know whether my hand was on or not. But I reached over and my hand was still there.
Williams was the loader in my tank the first day that we saw action. We went out at daylight and I don’t remember how long we lasted, but I think it was somewhere around 10 o’clock. We confronted a German tank that had the drop on us, and he got us before we could get him.
We’d been sitting there for quite a while. But the German tank came around the corner. They knew where we were, and they came around and had us before we could get a shot off. Our gun was facing in the wrong direction. I looked up and saw the tank coming and I hollered “Tank!” I had a master control to bring the gun around.
When I hollered “Tank!” we had a high explosive shell in the breech and it was automatic that you opened it up and removed the high explosive shell and put in an armor piercing shell. And that was the wrong thing to do. It was the right thing for the way we were trained, but it was the wrong thing for the circumstances, because while he was unloading and reloading, they got the shot in. And if we’d have hit them with the high explosive, even though it wouldn’t have hurt them it might have stunned them enough or slowed them down from the debris and the smoke that we could have got another shot in. But it didn’t happen that way.
The first shot killed the driver, John Mitchell. Zygmund Kaminski was the bow gunner, and as I recall, he got out of the tank without a scratch and then got shot. And Williams, I think he got shot in the wrist, I don’t know whether he’s ever been able to use his arm since then. Vernetti was the gunner, and it seems to me like he got hit in the foot. And I got hit in the leg. I was the tank commander up in the turret, and when I went out of the tank I went over the side and went right on over to the ditch, because there’d been an infantry officer killed right beside the tank that was trying to talk to me, while he was talking to me he got shot. And every time I’d stick my head out of the turret, they’d spray across there with a machine gun and I couldn’t get the machine gun located. But eventually what happened, by our being there and drawing some fire and returning some, we drew enough fire off of the infantry that we got a company out of there. So our mission was accomplished even if it cost us a tank and a driver.
I don’t know where the other four tanks in the platoon were. We had gotten separated. And we were firing until we were disabled. When the tank was disabled, we evacuated, damn quick.
I went out the top of the tank, and there was a machine gun firing at us. I didn’t know where the machine gun was at, but on the hatch that closes, I had one side open and it had a little foam rubber padding on it so you wouldn’t bounce your head against the metal, and that was riddled with machine gun fire. I didn’t dare stay there so when I went out I went right on over a hedgerow and hoped that I was out of the line of fire, and I waited for the other people to come to me. And nobody ever came. They went in the other direction. When I got to the aid station, Kaminski came in, and he’d been shot in the thigh I think with a sniper bullet. And I was surprised, I thought he got killed when Mitchell did, because I could see Mitchell from where I was but I couldn’t see Kaminski, and then they hit the tank four times. After they’d done the first damage they hit it three more times and eventually it burned and blew up. So there wasn’t any fighting or any return fire or anything after that first round went in, we were through.
Cpl. Cleo Coleman, of Phelps, Ky., was a gunner in B Company.
I was in Sergeant Vink’s tank in combat. We were following Sergeant Diel’s tank that first day. The front tank was knocked out, too.
I was a loader at that time, and right at the side of me there was a mine explosion. They said a jeep blew up. I couldn’t see it. And the front tank was hit by an 88.
The night before, they had gone out on reconnaissance, and they said, “You’re not going to face heavy arms.” All small arms. Then we ran into roadside guns, and the front tank was knocked out, Sergeant Diel’s tank was knocked out. I don’t remember at all who was the tank commander in the front tank.
We spotted an ammunition dump in front of us so Vink said to fire on the ammunition dump. We opened up, and to our right there was an 88 that opened up on us, and Sergeant Vink said, “Get the hell out of here.” He said to back up under cover. The tank driver started to back up and we bogged down, and Vink gave the order to abandon tank. We all got out, and I lost my helmet. Louis Gruntz was the assistant driver. He was scared – we all were scared – and he left his gun. He grabbed mine out of my hand and said, “Coleman, you have to go back there for your helmet. You pick my gun up.”
I said, “No way.”
Freddy Bieber was the driver. He always told me, “Coleman, if we ever get in a tight spot, we’ll stick together,” because he could see more when he was driving than I could. I got out of the tank and he said, “Follow me.” We went to a ditch, and I was going toward some Germans, and he said, “Hey, Coleman, this way.” They were shelling the place terrible. So I followed him. Machine gun fire was cutting twigs out over my back. I had to get as low as I could. Him and me both. We crawled, pulling with our arms, but we got over to our doughboys, and then they were shelling the place terrible and they were trying to dig in.
One of the boys saw that I didn’t have a helmet or a gun and he said, “One of our boys is laying over there, he doesn’t need it. Why don’t you go over and get his?”
I said, “No way! That’s out in the open.”
He’d been in combat for a few days probably. So he said, “I’ll get it for you,” and he ran over to get it. The boy had a death grip on the gun. He forced it out of his hand and got his helmet. There was blood all over it. I took some leaves and wiped it off, and put that helmet on my head, and he said, “We’ll go behind the lines.” I didn’t know where I was going. He didn’t either. But we went back, evidently, where the Germans had been knocked out. We saw our vehicles were burning. Finally we got to a new outfit of our own, they had just arrived, and they asked us how it was up there.
“Oh,” I said, “I’m too scared to tell you. It is rough.”
And they said, “Well, here’s a shovel. Dig in.” We dug in. I didn’t sleep any all night. I was scared. I was all to pieces. And this was my first day in combat.
The next morning they got hold of our company and trucked us back to our outfit, so the next day we were right back in combat. It was 53 days I believe before we got the first break.
One of our men got killed by one of our own guns. I wouldn’t say the name of the guy, it was all an accident. We were all waiting to go, they were supposed to go up on a hill, in order to mount up. I’m talking to him, and he’s right in front of the gun where the assistant driver is. The assistant driver jumped in and he didn’t have the safety on. I’d just moved away and he shot the guy right in the back.
I was talking to him. We were resting and talking. And the gun is right behind him. But when they said “Mount up,” I got up and moved a little, and in the meantime when the assistant driver jumped in, the machine gun went off.
Sgt. Caesar Tucci, of Tonawanda, N.Y., was a member of D Company.
We had just moved into the hedgerows, and we were waiting for our first combat assignment. Sergeant [Harold] Heckler, one of the tank commanders, was called to receive some combat orders. He received them, and then he went back to his tank to tell his tank crew about what they had to do. And his tank crew was preparing the tank for combat. The machine guns were loaded and ready to go, and the bow gunner, I don’t remember his name, was turning to get on his knees to check the ammunition stowed behind his seat in the bow position. Just as he did that, he reached back and leaned on the back plate and handle and trigger of the bow machine gun. And at that time Sergeant Heckler reached up and grabbed the 37 cannon and started to mount the tank, like it was customary to do. He grabbed the tank and started up. And just as he did that and got up there, the bow gunner accidentally set off a burst of machine gun fire, and caught Sergeant Heckler right across the middle. He was the first casualty of our company. He was killed before we ever got into action, and was killed by his own man in the tank.
Later on, there was a replacement made. Sergeant [Everett] McNulty took over his tank, and they were on a mission, and their tank was hit, and the whole tank crew was killed. Sergeant Heckler was our first casualty. That kind of hit hard, you know, this is for real. A great guy, a redhead.
I was standing right there. I had just finished talking to him, and Lord, I don’t remember what I had said. I don’t remember that part. But whatever we had been talking about, I turned around and I went back to my tank, and then I heard a burst, about two or three rounds, I don’t know how many. But I turned around and I looked, and there he is lying on the ground. I’ll tell you, I felt awful about that.
Andy [Schiffler] was there too. We were just getting ready to move out. Here’s what happened: The man who was the bow gunner on that tank was getting into the hatch and his foot hit the machine gun, the .30-caliber. I guess if I hadn’t turned around and was in the process of walking away, who knows, maybe it would have been me, but it was not. It was all just a big accident. But when I turned around I was in a state of shock, I mean there he is, I had just been talking to him, and then to see him there, the bullets caught him in the abdomen or the groin, because he reached down, I do remember that, and then after that he was dead.
Harold Heckler was one of the nicest people you’d want to know. And a good cavalry man. He went up the line real quick. He was one of the men who were brought in from Chicago. He was just one of those people that never gave you any trouble, and was so easy with his crew, his crew worked as a team.
They had had their briefing and were getting ready to move out, and you didn’t clear your guns until you knew that you were gonna come back into the company area and part of the time you were very careful. But for him to clear the gun he would have had to lift the breech, remove the belt, and then you operated the operating handle one time. But he got in and somehow or other with an open trigger, he kicked the machine gun and fired a three-round burst, which meant that the belt was still in the weapon. It hit Heckler in the groin. I don’t know how long he lived, but I think he was dead before they evacuated him.
For something like that to happen, it would be the same as shooting your brother, because that’s what the crew is, it’s a family. You work and you train and everybody is dependent on the other, because if one screws up it’s gonna hurt the whole group. And it becomes so automatic that you do things without ever having to give orders. And that’s what Heckler’s crew was, it was just a team, because instead of saying “You do this, you do this, you do this and that,” he could just say, “All right, we’re going to clean the tank. We’re gonna clean the guns.”
I think Ezerskis was the driver, Jezuit was the bow gunner, so Jezuit may have been the one that kicked the gun and shot Heckler. But that whole crew, Ezerskis, Jezuit and Roselle, was the crew with McNulty, that same crew, McNulty took over after Heckler was killed.
Sgt. Mike Anderson was a tank driver in the Headquarters Company assault gun platoon
We were on a hardtop road, and we came by a farmhouse. I was in the first tank, and they let us go through. The second tank got hit and burned. That’s the one in which Richard Howell was killed.
After we passed the farmhouse, we got into the orchard, and we were weaving back and forth around the trees. There was a German tank in the corner. He shot at us a couple of times. The first one hit the ground, and the second one knocked our track off. We fired back, and our first round went over it. Our gunner dropped the barrel as far as he could and let the next round go, and it caught that German tank right under the big gun, right above where the driver was sitting.
After we got squared away, we walked over and looked at this tank. The driver was still in it, he was dead. The rest of the crew had jumped out and gone back. But they had another round in the gun, and that breech was almost closed completely. If they’d have closed it, I think that’s the one that would have gotten us before we got them.
Cpl. Robert Atnip was a gunner in Headquarters Company.
We went up to go around a road, at the edge of an apple orchard. The Navy was going to fire a couple of smoke shells from a ship, to lay down a screen for cover. They fired two shells, but the wind blew the smoke away, and we didn’t have any cover. They said “Go,” so we went. We were just exposed.
There were three tanks in the assault gun platoon. I was the gunner in the third one. I don’t know why, but I happened to be looking at the second tank, which was 75 or 100 feet away, when the first round hit it. They hit it twice. Sergeant Shelton was the tank commander. Herman Hall was the gunner. Richard Howell was the loader. Philip Morgan was the driver and Olen Rowell was the assistant driver.
The first round seemed to jar the tank, and then when the second shot hit it flames flew up, they just mushroomed out in a matter of seconds. I saw Shelton come out of the tank, carrying Hall by the shirt collar. Shelton was a very strong person, and he literally flung Hall out of the tank and onto the ground with one hand. I didn’t see anybody else come out of the tank, and it was burning fiercely.
After the tank had burned for quite a while, I saw the 90th Division infantrymen bringing Morgan to an old house, and I hollered at them, “Where are you taking this man?” Morgan was blind at that time, the skin around his eyes was swollen together and he couldn’t see. So an infantryman said, “Do you know this man?”
I said, “Sure! He’s out of that tank there.” He had an odd-looking helmet, and the infantrymen thought he was German. So he said, “I’ll take him to the medics, then.”
Rowell just got killed in an automobile accident in the last year or so. He lived in Mississippi, down in Meridian. The [tank] driver and the assistant driver went out the front hatches, and they got around where this old building was, where just moments before the Germans were occupying but they took off when all this action started. This infantryman went on around, and that’s where he came out with Morgan, thinking he was a German.
And I never did see Howell.
We sat there all night, since the first tank had been damaged and ours was the only tank left. The infantry said “Just hold it, don’t move. If we’ll be needing you we’ll tell you, because when you come up here, all you’re doing is drawing mortar fire on us.” We sat there all night, and the next day our maintenance crew came up there with a tank and pulled the old hull that was left off of that pile of ashes, and we sifted through all that. We couldn’t find any fragment of bone or body. The only thing we found was some little brass buttons, like they had on the Army fatigue. Everything else was just cremated. So I always thought the driver and assistant driver went out and I didn’t see the assistant driver until a few minutes later, maybe somehow Howell got out that way too, but he was the loader.
We went up the next day and looked at the gun I’m sure that did the damage. It was an old tripod mounted 88-millimeter German gun. I think what they must have done is left one man on it, he knocked out our tanks, and then just went off and left the gun.
On one of our missions we had to go in and pick up a tank that had a 105 on it. It was disabled, but it had disabled a German Mark IV tank back in the corner of this orchard.
There were a bunch of disabled tanks, German and American. But this one particular German tank, that Mark IV back in the corner, the body of this man driving was still in there, and this portfolio that he had had in his coat pocket, or his uniform, was laying on his lap. I looked at it, and it had the pictures of his wife and children in it. He was a very handsome man. He looked like he had been a movie star or something, that’s the expression that one of the other guys said, “He must have been a movie star.”
As the war went on, maybe months later, we were somewhere in Germany, and they told me that there’s a room upstairs in this building that you can spend the night in, because they always told me where to bed down. I never had time. I always had work. When I went up into this house, I saw this man’s picture.
I said, “Who is that?”
“That’s my husband.”
I couldn’t sleep in that house. It was just like what we saw in that portfolio, with the two kids and the wife, and the picture of him. I called some of the guys’ attention to it. I think Wallace was one of them that remembered it, and Patsy Barchetta recalled the incident. That was a choking time.
Sgt. Fred Steers, of The Dalles, Ore., was a member of Headquarters Company.
The first day in combat Phil Schromm got killed. That scared the bejeebers out of the whole bunch of us in the reconnaissance platoon. They told me they thought he had a direct hit with a mortar. He was right there alongside the tank, he couldn’t hear anything coming in, and they figure he got just about a direct hit. And about that time I was talking to a paratrooper who’d been in there for about three weeks. I said to him, “You lucky sonofagun. You’ve been here three weeks.” And I didn’t expect to see the sun go down that night.
Colonel Randolph called me up about midnight, and he said, “How many tanks have we got?”
I said, “We’ve lost half of them. We’re good for one more day.”
“No,” he said. “We lost half of what we started with today. Tomorrow if we lost half of what we have left, and if the next day we lose half, we’re good for several days.”
“But,” he said, “how many of them are battle casualties?”
I told him, “We’ll have most of those tanks back in operation in another 24 hours.” Part of our problem was just getting them out of the mud, or getting them hanging up on a hedge. Or replacing a section of track.”
I had a good crew. Sergeant Mazure had two crews, and each one could replace a motor in three and a half hours.
In the early part of the war we would get brand new motors. They called them Series 13 motors. Everything was on them, carburetors and everything. All you had to do was take the old motor out, put the new one in and hook it up.
By mistake we got a Series 11 motor and good God, that’s a 24-hour job. The carburetion and everything is off. But the Series 13, it’s just like when you buy a motor for your car. And every once in a while there’d be a package of cigarettes in the box the motor came in. Somebody back in the States would put a package of cigarettes in.
July 3, 1944, was the battalion’s first day of combat. The battalion would spend 311 days in combat.