Friday, March 16, 2018

T-4 'Wac'

T-4 Wesley Harrell, 2nd Platoon, C Company, 712th Tank Battalion. Photo courtesy of Don Knapp.
   I received an email yesterday from the nephew of Wesley "Wes" Harrell, who was a tank driver in the 712th Tank Battalion, and whom I interviewed in Hobbs, New Mexico, in 1994.
   "My uncle served in Company C of the 712th from Normandy thru Germany," the nephew wrote. "He was a Sherman tank driver and lost two tanks in battle that I know of that you wrote about. He never spoke about his service. I only learned about it shortly before his death back in 2003. I am putting together a shadow box for future generations of my family to remember him as both of his sons (my cousins) have already passed -- neither of them ever had children. His wife (my father's sister Laverne) is now in a nursing home in Hobbs, NM. I want to finish the shadow box so she can see it. It will have the flag from his military funeral as well as the medals he was awarded, photos, his dog tags, T/4 patches, a certificate from the 712th Tank Battalion Association, etc. ...
   "I wish I had spoken to Uncle Wes more about his service but like so many it just wasn't something that he spoke of. My childhood was spent reading military history books of those that served in WW2. I was in my late 30s before I even knew that I had a hero in my own family. I know Uncle Wes never would have considered himself a hero, but he always will be one of mine.
   "I look forward to hearing back from you -- and thank you for both your father's service and your efforts on behalf of these supremely brave men."

    T-4 Harrell, a.k.a. T-4 Wac, was of special interest to me because he was involved in a battle that took place on March 16, 1945 -- coincidentally, his nephew's email arrived on the eve of the 73rd anniversary of that battle -- in the village of Pfaffenheck, Germany, which his platoon leader, Lieutenant Francis "Snuffy" Fuller -- said in a letter to Hubert Wolfe, whose brother Billy died in the battle, was his "worst day in combat."
   It was Harrell's tank commander, Don Knapp, who gave him the nickname Wac.
   "We had access to coveralls which I liked," Knapp said when I interviewed him at the 1994 battalion reunion in Cincinnati. "They were all one piece, and it enabled you to crawl around because sometimes if you had to crawl through the basket in the fighting compartment down into the driver's compartment, you didn't get caught on things. But I guess he liked the two-piece fatigues that were made more for infantry. They had baggy pockets on the side to keep things in, and in the process of getting out of the driver's compartment he sometimes got his pockets caught. And he was a little broad in the beam, he was just a heavyset, well built young man, but I said, 'Man, you've got a butt on you like a Wac.' [WAC stood for the Women's Army Corps.] So the name stuck. And he didn't mind, because he was that kind of a person. He resented nobody.
   "I remember one time we were clearing out from some woods and he caught the 75 a little bit on a tree and he almost put the gun out of battery, and I went down and I guess I kind of stomped on his head, and that night I said, 'Babe, I'm sorry, I just got mad at you.' And he said, 'Oh, that's all right. I shouldn't have done it, it's a dumb thing to do.'"

   The battalion crossed the Moselle River on March 14, 1945. On the night of March 15, C Company's 2nd Platoon was in the village of Udenhausen when it learned of the battle taking place in the nearby village of Pfaffenheck. Lieutenant Francis "Snuffy" Fuller said he would proceed to the village in the morning, as it was too dangerous to travel at night.
   Harrell was driving one of the platoon's five tanks. His tank commander was Sergeant Lloyd Heyward of Decker, Michigan, who took Knapp's place after Knapp was diagnosed with "combat exhaustion" a couple of weeks before. The gunner was Johnny Clingerman of Zanesville, Ohio. The loader was Pfc. Billy Wolfe of Edinburg, Virginia. The assistant driver, or bow gunner (also called the bog), was Koon Leong Moy, of New York City, whom the platoon had nicknamed Chop Chop.
   On the morning of March 16, the second platoon approached Pfaffenheck through an apple orchard, as Fuller preferred to avoid the road leading into town.
   "When we went into town," Harrell said during that 1994 interview, "they told us to drive up beside this building. They told us they were firing at hidden guns. There were a lot of guns in town.
   "They'd already got the first tank. Then they told me to move out, and I started to pull out from behind that building. And when I did, why, that 88 went through the side, and we had about 180 gallons, maybe 200 gallons of gas in that thing. And man, it caught fire just like that [he clapped his hands loudly]. Of course we had drills before to see how fast we can get out of them tanks in case of fire. Me and Chop Chop, I don't know which way he went, but when I got out, they were firing with small guns, machine guns, at me because they was hitting pretty close to me. And I crawled to a hedge, a pile of dirt, and I hid behind there.
   "And then they quit. I don't know whether somebody knocked him out or what, but they didn't fire no more."

   Of Harrell's crew, Pfc. Billy Wolfe and Sergeant Hayward were killed. Johnny Clingerman lost an eye, Moy was burned on his hand and face, and Harrell's eyebrow and hair were singed. Jack Mantell of Milwaukee, the loader in Lieutenant Fuller's tank, was killed, and Sergeant Russell Harris, one of the other tank commanders was killed.
   One company of the 90th Infantry Division suffered heavy casualties in the battle. The village cemetery is the final resting place for 100 members of the 6th SS Mountain Division.

Front Row, from left: Russell Loop, Indianola, Illinois; Joseph Rickel, Racine, Wisconsin; Lloyd Seal, Orange           , Texas. Back row, from left: Jack Mantell, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, KIA; Lt. Francis Fuller, Tonawanda, New                     York; Carl Grey Jr., Oswego, Kansas; John Zimmer, Macedon, New York; Otha Martin, Leguire, Oklahoma.                     Photo courtesy of Don Knapp.
Billy P. Wolfe, Edinburg, Virginia, KIA Pfaffenheck, March 16, 1945.

Russell Harris, Decker, Michigan, KIA, Pfaffenheck.


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