In Action With 'A'
Company, 63rd AIB
On Jan. 6, 1941 while with the First Armored Division, I was promoted to corporal and given the job of squad leader. Soon after that, I was selected to go to Washington, D.C., to be in the parade for President Roosevelt's third inauguration.
That was a long, cold and tiring trip by road. Then it was my luck to be seated with my back to the reviewing stand during the parade. When we started back to Fort Knox our vehicle hit a bridge railing and rolled over several times. Only one person was hospitalized for a crushed elbow. I rode back to Fort Knox in the back of a 2 /2 ton truck.
In April 1941, plans had been made to form the Fourth Armored Division with cadre from the First Armored Division. We were told weeks ahead of time what our jobs would be in the new division. I was to be a machine gun section sergeant. I found a good machine gunner, set up a machine gun in the latrine at night and pumped him for everything he knew about machine guns.
We arrived at Pine Camp (now Fort Drum) in upstate New York on April 15, 1941, and I was promoted to sergeant on that day. We were more or less a test unit to determine if an Armored Division could operate in that cold climate. It did get frigid in the winter time, often 28 degrees below zero. Our fillers for the Fourth Armored Division came mostly from New York New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio. They were quite a hodge-podge of nationalities and personalities. Most of them turned out to be pretty good soldiers.
In late summer of 1941, I was sent back to Fort Knox to a six-week gunnery course. When I returned to the unit, I was the senior non-commissioned officer (N.C.O.) of my platoon. They had sent out a cadre to form the 10th Armored Division while I was gone. It was a shock to find that I now had the responsibility for the platoon instead of just a machine gun section. Most of the time there were not enough officers to have one with each platoon and the platoon sergeants ran the platoons.
I was promoted to Staff Sergeant on April 23, 1942. That was the ordinary rank of a platoon sergeant at that time. In September 1942, we loaded everything on trains and headed for two months of maneuvers in Middle Tennessee. We detrained in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and were on the move until about Nov. 8, 1942. I had orders to report to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for Officers Candidate School on Nov. 11, 1942. After a rather stressful three months, I was graduated as a second lieutenant on Feb. 6, 1943 with orders to report to the 11th Armored Division at Fort Polk, Louisiana. I was assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, 55th Armored Infantry Regiment. It was later changed to the 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion, which was my home until almost the end of the war.
We did extensive maneuvers in Louisiana, back and forth across the Sabine River which was home to water moccasins as big as my arm. After maneuvers there, we moved to Camp Barkeley, Texas, near Abilene for a few months. Then in October, we were ordered to Camp Ibis, California., for desert maneuvers for three months. We were fortunate to be there during the winter months. It was still hot in the day time and cool at night. I think we only got one light rain during the three months we were there.
We were moved to Camp Cooke, California., near Santa Maria in February 1944. We were afraid we would be sent to the Pacific Theater which would not have been a very good assignment for an Armored Division. However, about September of 1944 we were loaded on trains and sent all the way back across the country to New Jersey and loaded on boats to Europe. We spent two months in England because General. Patton commandeered all of our armored vehicles when they arrived in France. We had to wait until new vehicles could be supplied to us.
We arrived in Cherbourg, France, on Dec. 16,1944, about the time the Battle of the Bulge was in full swing. We picked up our vehicles and headed east across France as fast as we could go in order to help blunt the bulge the Germans had forged through the lines in the area around Bastogne, Belgium, and farther to the west a distance of over 50 miles.
On our trip east through France, we got word that the Germans were dropping English-speaking paratroopers with the mission of delaying relief columns and sabotaging depots. That caused our sentries to be nervous and trigger-happy, especially around the bivouacs at night.
After about four days traveling across France, we pulled into bivouac one night and were given attack orders for the next morning. Our artillery was still on the road, strung out across France. So, we made our attack without artillery support and the results were not good. We lost a couple of tanks and several men. One of our company's lieutenants was wounded.
We pulled back from that foray and moved several miles further northeast within about 10 miles of Bastogne where the 101st Airborne Division was still surrounded by the Germans. We assembled at a crossroads and at about 2 p.m. made a mounted attack into the south flank of the Bulge. We had tanks and half-tracks abreast, possibly a mile wide, moving over frozen fields and woods as fast as we could go and still keep a semblance of order. We were shooting everything that even looked like an enemy.
We ended up that day in a little town called Rechrival. We suffered mortar and 88 mm fire all during the night. The next morning we found Germans on three sides of us, including a forward observer in a haystack only a few hundred yards to our left front. A white phosphorus shell from a tank eliminated him.
We were told to set up a defense line north of the town. Since we were not receiving any small arms fire, the company commander and all of the platoon leaders walked up to the top of the hill to see where to deploy the troops. We returned, and I started up the hill with my platoon. We started receiving small arms fire before we had gone a hundred yards from the town. It took us all afternoon to get back to the top of the hill. The Germans were dug in along terraces in two-man foxholes. I will never know why all the officers of our company, including me, were not killed the first time we went up there.
My platoon sergeant was wounded the night before by mortar fire and the new one I appointed was killed that afternoon Another squad leader was hit in the leg right near me and died of shock. Our company first sergeant was also killed that day. Also, several other men were wounded.
A unit of the 17th Airborne Division relieved us the next day. We pulled back and followed a unit of the 4th Armored Division into Bastogne. The unit of the 4th Armored Division that broke the siege of Bastogne was commanded by Col. Creighton W. Abrams. Later, Abrams was the four-star general who took over from General Westmoreland in Vietnam. He also was president of my OCS Board at Pine Camp when he was a major.
After Bastogne was cleared, we had a couple of days break, and everyone wrote letters home. One night while censoring mail with my platoon sergeant, I got my left hand badly burned trying to refuel a Coleman lantern. I was sent back to a hospital for about 10 days. When I returned to my unit, they had already participated in cutting off the Bulge north of Bastogne by driving north to meet the 2nd Armored Division driving south. All of the German units to the west of the line north of Bastogne either surrendered or were mopped up by other units. During this action, a very good soldier from my platoon was killed by our own artillery falling short. He was P.F.C. Russell Welsh, I believe from Pennsylvania.
The Germans had an 88 millimeter gun which was the most potent weapon of either side. They used it against tanks, personnel and as an anti-aircraft weapon. The armor-piercing projectile would penetrate both sides of the turret of our medium tanks, the largest tanks we had at that time. The 88 was used as a towed gun and was also mounted in the Tiger tank, a heavy tank that would only travel at about six miles per hour. Our guns were 75 and 76 mm guns and were much lower velocity than the 88mm. The only way we could disable the Tiger tank was to get a broadside shot and hit it in the suspension. Or, we could get close enough to hit it with a bazooka, a shoulder weapon that used a shell with a shaped charge.
The Germans also had rapid firing machine guns and machine pistols that threw out a lot of lead in a short time but were not as accurate as our Browning automatic rifles and our machine guns. Most of their rifles were bolt action with a magazine for five shells. Our M-1 rifle was semi-automatic and carried eight shells. We also had a semi-automatic carbine and an automatic Thompson sub-machine gun. Some officers and crew members of heavy weapons carried a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol. The Germans had a 120 mm mortar which was devastating . Our largest mortar was an 81mm.
After the Bulge was eliminated, we had a few days to maintain weapons and equipment and get some welcomed replacements before we assaulted the Siegfried Line. This was a line of fortifications along the west border of Germany adjacent to France, Luxembourg and Belgium. It had in front what we called dragon's teeth, several rows of concrete obstacles to a depth of about 40 yards. The obstacles themselves were set deep into the ground and protruded about 30 inches above ground. Their purpose was to stop tanks. Mines were also laid among the dragon's teeth. That line was covered by interconnected bunkers and gun emplacements made of three or four feet of reinforced concrete. Some bunkers were large and had living quarters inside.
Before we attacked the Siegfried Line, we were ordered to relieve a battalion that had already penetrated a short distance into the line. As we were walking in toward the positions, we passed a small village on a hill. After passing the village, we were exposed and easily observed by the enemy for several hundred yards. About 200 yards from the village, we heard a terrifying noise coming toward us. The Germans had fired a whole bank of rockets we called screaming meemies. These contained a big explosive charge but not much shrapnel. There was a deep side ditch by the road. We all made a dive for it, and one of those rockets hit in the ditch about halfway between me and one of my squad leaders. It felt like I was lifted clear off the ground and slammed down again. I had a bad headache for some time after that. The sergeant was able to get to our new positions, but then he had to be evacuated. It was very cold at that time. Two of my men suffered frostbitten feet and had to be evacuated.
A German captain came into our position one night and surrendered. He spoke good English and I heard him tell our Captain, Dale Howard, that he felt his nation's cause was lost.
I don't think I was ever as concerned about a pending action as I was the night before we were to attack the Siegfried Line. Our company was to lead the battalion with my platoon leading the company. We spent most of the night before the attack fine-tuning our plans. We left the bivouac area on foot timed to reach the dragon's teeth just before daylight. We went through in single file to reduce the danger from mines. Our objective was a small hill about 800 yards from the dragon's teeth. After getting through the dragon's teeth safely, I moved my platoon to the left and was moving parallel to the base of a steep ridge. As we approached the end of the ridge, it had become light enough that I could see German soldiers sitting outside their pillbox as if they were having their morning coffee. I gave the signal for everyone to move to the left up the ridge on the double. When we reached the top, we found trenches and fighting positions all prepared . When the Germans came streaming out of their pillbox to occupy their positions, we were waiting for them.
There was one German machine gun behind us which was supposed to be covering the dragon's teeth. I think we woke the gunners when we moved up the hill. One of my rear squads took care of it. After several hours of standoff, the Germans killed their lieutenant and surrendered. I believe there were 18 German soldiers in the pillbox plus the two on the machine gun. We only had one man slightly wounded.
The German defense complex extended several miles back from their border. We were attacking in a southeasterly direction, and it took us five days to finish the job. The last day we made a mounted attack on a German village that had a dug-in defense line right across our line of march. We pounded the area with artillery mortar and tank fire before jumping off on the attack. Again, my platoon was the lead platoon. As we passed the dug-in Germans, we sprayed them with machine guns mounted on half-tracks. One of our vehicles hit a mine and was disabled. After finally getting the platoon to the village, we cleared the right side of the street and captured a battalion commander and his staff. The rest of the battalion was captured where it was dug in, in front of the village.
We set up a defense line southeast of the village after the shooting stopped. A platoon of Germans came out of some woods on our right, not realizing we were there. We threw a couple of 60 mrn mortar rounds at them and they all hit the ground. My company commander, Captain Dale Howard, spoke German. He asked them to hold their fire. He and one soldier walked down to where they were and talked them into surrendering. He and the German lieutenant walked back up the hill like old friends with the platoon tagging along behind.
After that incident, I sent a patrol to my right to make contact with a unit of the 6th Armored Division. They came back and informed me that they had contacted my brother Howard's platoon. The next day we got together. We celebrated the fact that we were still alive and told a few war stories. That was Feb. 16, 1945, and I was notified that I had been promoted to first lieutenant on orders signed by General George Patton.
After this action, we were sent several miles north back into Belgium into a blocking position while an infantry regiment attacked the Siegfried Line. The only thing of much significance up there was a captain from another unit who would take a loaded bazooka every night and sneak into the German camp, blast a tank, throw the bazooka down and scurry back to our line.
After the Siegfried Line was breached all along the front, it was time for the armored divisions to do the thing they were designed to do. For the last several weeks we had been operating more like regular infantry with our tank and artillery support. Our division assembled near the Prum River and, after some difficulty crossing, headed for the old city of Andernach on the Rhine River. The Battle of the Bulge had drained the Germans of many of their scarce stores, including gasoline. They had commandeered horses to haul food and ammunition and to pull guns. Our Air Force caught convoys of horse-drawn vehicles on the road and slaughtered them. The road to Andernach was strewn with dead and dying horses, wagons and all sorts of supplies. The same thing was prevalent in Andernach.
The German Army wanted to get as many soldiers as possible across the Rhine to fight another day, but the Air Force prevented most of them from getting across. We collected masses of prisoners and marched them out of Andernach six abreast.
Our company had the job of clearing from the center of town north. One of our sergeants was hit by a sniper and his leg was broken. The same sniper shot two medics while they were trying to treat the sergeant. We determined the shots were coming from a tower or church steeple. We brought a tank up and had him put a few rounds in the tower. We had no further problems from the sniper.
My platoon cleared the last few blocks of the street going north out of the town and into the suburbs. We were clearing every house from top to bottom. I found one of the best stocked wine cellars you can imagine in one house. I posted my runner on it as guard. When the action was completed, we had plenty of liquid refreshments.
There was a road on the east side of the river and a few houses opposite Andernach. At night, the tankers would put a white phosphorus shell into one of the buildings. As it burned, they would shoot any vehicles caught trying to run the gauntlet as they were outlined by the light from the fires.
We were pulled back southwest after Andernach and given the mission of spearheading a drive from the Moselle River southeast to Worrns on the Rhine River. An infantry unit had established a bridgehead across the Moselle River and a Bailey Bridge was in place. Our crossing point was at the small town of Bullay east of Trier.
As usual, our platoon was leading our combat command as we did most of the four days it took to make the drive to Worms. We crossed the river late in the afternoon. After advancing only a few miles, we contacted the enemy about sundown. My platoon dispersed on the right side of the road and moved through sparse woods. We captured a few German soldiers. We moved through the woods to the edge of a field and decided to form a defense line there for the night. We brought up some tanks and dug in emplacements for the infantry.
We were moving at first light the next morning. We had a platoon of five tanks in front then. My five half-tracks came next then the rest of our infantry company. Other tanks and infantry followed interspersed with a battery of artillery (mounted) and a few anti-aircraft weapons.
When we first met the enemy for the day, my platoon would dismount from our vehicles and move up on each side of the lead tank to protect them from bazookas. Of course, they protected us from small arms fire as much as possible. Some days we would not see our vehicles again until the end of the day. We walked and dog-trotted most of the day except when we were dealing with resistance. Good physical fitness sure was a blessing during those days.
Late afternoon on the first day, the tanks hit a roadblock of felled trees across the road just after passing through a small German village. While we were still in the village, I found a gasthaus or beer hall that had beer and a bartender. I lined up my platoon and allowed each one to have one large glass of beer. We didn't worry about paying for it. It sure was refreshing.
We spent the night in the next town after a little resistance. For some reason, they sent our reconnaissance platoon out first the next morning. We were supposed to go about a mile or so and turn right across a small river. A few houses were on the near side and one house was across the stream. Just as the reconnaissance vehicles were crossing the bridge, it blew up. It was most likely detonated by a German in the lone house across the stream. The explosion killed several of the recon personnel and destroyed two jeeps.
The destruction of the bridge didn't delay us very long. We found a place where the tanks and halftracks could ford. A company of tanks and Company C, 63rd Infantry crossed and moved about a mile to the next village. They cleared it while the engineers were building a Bailey Bridge to facilitate the crossing of the rest of the column.
We had a serious fire fight on the last morning of the drive before reaching Worms. The lead tanks were fired on just as they entered a fair-sized town. My platoon moved forward and met a lot of machine gun and rifle fire after we had gone about a third of the way through the town.
The company commander called in artillery fire, but it was falling right on the building we had taken cover in. My radio was not working (they seldom did when we really needed them). I sent a runner back to get the artillery fire moved forward. He was killed by a sniper before he could deliver the message.
We also lost another good man that day. He was shot in the head while standing beside me. All of them were good men.
At the end of that day as we approached Worms, I was ordered to go to a camp that was a replacement staging area near Luxembourg. My job was to give classes on combat to the replacements before they joined their units. I think it was more to give me a rest than anything else.
The 9th Armored Division's capture of the railroad bridge at Remagen before the Germans could blow it facilitated the crossing of the Rhine River all along the front. Remagen was the gateway to the industrial heartland of Germany. Straight ahead was the city of Essen with its steel mills and factories that turned out Hitler's war-making weapons and equipment. I'm sure our tank columns pouring across the bridge and other bridges as they were built by our engineers was a big blow to the morale of the German people.
I was with the replacement depot for about two or three weeks. I'm sure it was in April because during that time we got word that President Roosevelt had died.
I headed out to catch up with my unit. I was amazed at the distance they had moved during my absence. They had crossed the Rhine River near Worms and headed northeast through the edge of Frankfurt and on to the city of Kassel. From there, they turned southeast toward Regensburg. At times they were more than 50 miles ahead of the infantry divisions that were supposed to protect their flanks. The trains hauling food and ammunition were escorted by tanks to prevent attacks by bypassed German units. I caught up with my battalion at Regan, a small town north of Regensburg on April 28, 1945. I was assigned to the machine gun platoon Headquarters Company, 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion.
While I was away from the battalion, the division had been assigned several M-48 heavy tanks with the 90mm gun. This made a tremendous difference when we encountered German tanks. The 90mm was equal to the German 88mm. I saw one German tank that looked like it had been opened up with a giant can opener after being hit by the 90mm. The turret of the German tank lay about 50 yards from the body of the tank.
At this time we were moving east, north of and parallel to the Danube River. In early May, we entered western Austria. We continued to have resistance and firefights every day. On May 8, as we entered the town of Zwettl, Austria, directly north of the city of Linz. We were notified that surrender papers had been signed, which was welcome news to everyone.
We set up roadblocks and picked up several concentration camp guards. Within a few days we began to be harassed by armored carloads of half-drunk, belligerent Russians.
After two or three weeks in the Zwettl area, we were ordered to move south of the Danube River to the town of Gmunden. The area north of the Danube, plus a greater portion of Austria, was turned over to the Russians as occupiers. We controlled the area south of the Danube and east to the Enx River. Salzburg was the largest city in the American Zone.
While in Gmunden, we took on the job of repatriating German prisoners back to or near their homes. I led one convoy of German trucks and buses through Nurnberg, Wirzburg, then northwest to the area of Bonn. The vehicles would drop out of the convoy as they were unloaded I put an ex-German officer in charge of the people and the vehicles. All I did was lead them in my convertible automobile which I used for transportation back to Austria. I took the liberty of detouring through Dresden, Germany, to visit my brother, Howard, on my way back.
To back up a little: We had a hard time keeping lieutenants, and our company was not unique. Most of the replacement platoon leaders were inexperienced at troop command and certainly had not commanded troops in combat. Consequently, their combat time was usually very short. We had some good, old platoon sergeants that had been with the company since it was formed at Camp Polk, La. Because those sergeants commanded the platoons most of the time, we gave them field commissions to second lieutenant, and they remained with the company until the end of the war.
There was Sgt. Jamerson, Sgt. Barr and one other whose name I can't recall. Other companies did the same thing. Some of the sergeants accepted the commissions reluctantly and said they would revert to enlisted status after the war.
My original platoon sergeant was Dwight Bearden from Stantonville, Tennessee After being wounded the first week of combat, he never returned to the company. The second one was Sgt. John Bond from Ohio. He was killed the same day he took the job. After Sgt. Bond was killed, I appointed a young sergeant as platoon sergeant, I can't remember his name. He didn't last very long. Then I appointed Sgt. Joe Kirk from New York who was the weapons squad leader. He was the best and boldest. How he ever survived until the end of the war, I'll never know.
The Headquarters squad leader that was killed at Rechrival was Sgt. Joseph I. Cullen. My runner who was wounded there was Pfc. Albert Stamets from New Jersey. I was privileged to visit the graves of some of my fallen heroes at the large American Military Cemetery at Luxembourg while I was on duty in Germany during the late '40's and early '50's.
It is a terrible shame that so many good people young and old died or were maimed for life because one crazy and unprincipled man, Adolph Hitler, wanted to salve his ego and try to dominate the world. I'm sure God will deal harshly with him.
We were at Gmunden from the end of May until the first of August, when several of us "officers" got orders to return to the states to join the 96th Infantry Division that was being formed. It was to be sent to the Far East and join in the assault on mainland Japan. A few days later, we boarded a Liberty ship at Le Havre, France. We gorged ourselves on fresh vegetables, milk and ice cream which we had not seen in almost a year.
About midway across the Atlantic, we got the news by ship radio that the two atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and that Japan was suing for an armistice. We landed in Boston, went to Fort Devens for one night and boarded trains for home. We had been given 30 days delay en route. The 96th Division was disbanding instead of preparing to go to Japan when we got to Fort Bragg, N.C.