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778th Tank Battalion

The 778th Tank Battalion, originally the first battalion, 41st Armored Regiment was organized on September 21, 1943, at Camp Barkeley, Texas. The "Thunderbolt" Division had just come of maneuvers in Louisiana and Texas. It was activated with the Thunderbolt Division on August 15, 1942 at Camp Polk, Louisiana. The battalion motto was; "Hurl the Thunderbolt." Major Joseph Lewis Spettel commanded the battalion.

In addition to 41st Armored Regiment tankers replacements from Fort Knox, Kentucky, filled out the 778th Battalion. The men trained at Camp Barkeley and Camp Howze, Texas, before shipping out on August 25. Next stop was Camp Myles Standish, Massachusetts. From Camp Standish it was a quick trip to Boston where the battalion boarded the former Italian liner Counte Grande and sailed for Europe on September 4. Eleven days later, the tankers were in Cherbourg, France, only recently liberated from the German army.

From Cherbourg, the battalion moved inland to Valognes and Bricquebec. Normandy was peaceful four months after the greatest sea borne invasion in history had stormed ashore on the Cotenin Peninsula. The 778th readied tanks, equipment and themselves for battle.

On November 6. they left for the battlefront. The destination was Metz, still German occupied in November, the battalion showed some of the speed for which the Thunderbolt Division would become well-known. They covered 67 miles or November 6 and 69 miles on each of the next two days. On November 9, the Thunderbolts sped through Paris and halted at Clichy Sur Bois 97 miles from where they started that morning.

On November 12, the battalion rolled into Briey, in the Third Army zone near Metz. No sooner had they stopped than the tankers smoothly changed tracks from steel to rubber on their big Shermans.

Lieutenant Colonel Preston R. Bishop succeeded Spettel as battalion commander in Europe The battalion was attached to the 95th Infantry Division in General Walton "Bulldog" Walker. XX Corps and ordered to an assembly area at Rombas. just nonh of Metz and close to the front. On November 15, the 778th joined the attack of Metz. an ancient fortress city.

The battalion's baptism of fire was bitter. Enemy gunfire and mines claimed men and machines. There was house to house fighting in the outskirts of Metz, up to the Moselle River and across into the city center. Metz was in American hands on November 23, Thanksgiving Day. The Thunderbolt enjoyed a rest and a turkey dinner They also earned a certificate of commendation from Major General Harry L. Twaddle, 95th Division commander.

Twaddle praised the Thunderbolt tankers for their quick work in changing treads. "The high state of training of the Battalion was demonstrated by the speed with which it organized for combat." he wrote. "The courage and determination of its men was proved during the battle... The outstanding performance of the 778th Tank Battalion during the period 15-22 of November contributed in no small degree to the success of the 95th Infantry Division in capturing its assigned objectives in the fortress city of Metz."

Patton commended the 778th Tank Battalion and the 377th and 378th Infantry Regiments for heroism at Metz. The general said the three Thunderbolt outfits were "outstanding, both in the combat skill of the individual units committed and the control and sound tactical judgment displayed by commanders of all echelons."

Patton continued: "The fourteen days of continuous attack against a strong and aggressive enemy along a 26-mile front, drove irresistibly to the heart of the city of Metz where contact was made with the American forces advancing from the south. In the course of the attack you successfully (1) made four assault crossings of the Moselle River at it high flood stage, (2) penetrating the lines of defending forts, reducing those necessary to accomplish the mission, and (3) greatly contributed to the destruction of an entire reinforced German division."

Patton concluded that the Thunderbolts were successful because of their "individual courage skill, endurance, and determination" plus 'sound tactical judgment (and)...an insatiable desire to close with the enemy."

On Nov 26, the battalion was in an assembly area al Glatigny, east of Metz. Two days later, the Thunderbolts were in Boulay. The going was tough. The terrain was soft, hardly ideal for tank warfare. It never is where the infantry fights," a 778th Battalion tanker observed.

Losses mounted. but the Thunderbolts rolled on. On December 1, the 778th's olive green Shermans clanked across the border into Germany with the 95th Division. Ahead was the city of Saarlautem and the Saar River. Beyond was Hitler's Westwall," a wide belt of mine fields. pillboxes. tank traps and gun emplacements. all manned by infantry and supported by armor.

The fighting was fierce in the Saarlautem area where the Nazis had camouflaged pillboxes as houses. The 778th Battalion had run headlong into a major strong point in the Westwall, dubbed the "Siegfried Line" by American and British troops.

On December 15. the Thunderbolts were fighting toward the Saar River. Word spread that the 95th Division would be relieved by the 5th Infantry and that the 735th Tank Battalion would spell the 778th. The Thunderbolts were looking forward to some rest and relaxation for the holidays. But it was not to be. The 5th relieved the 95th, but the 778th stayed in support of the 5th Division.

North, in the Ardennes Forest, the Germans counterattacked on a 50-mile front. Nazi panzer divisions overran several First Army positions in a desperate attack the Germans hoped would save the Third Reich or prolong the war. Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt bragged that  his troops would enjoy Christmas in Pans.

The 778th Battalion stayed put at the Saar Bridgehead.

The battalion was luckier than most American units in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The tankers had reasonably comfortable quarters in homes, good food and even electric lights sometimes. Occasionally, there were movies luxunes unheard elsewhere among hard-pressed American units.

The weather was cold and snowy. but the 778th was snug and the tankers enjoyed Christmas and New Year's in relative peace and quiet. The Army\ Air Force bombed Saarbrucken on December 14, but the 778th Battalion saw little action on their section of the western front in January.

By mid-February, the Bulge was erased. The German attack had failed. Nonetheless. there was fierce combat at Saarlautem. Saarlautem was the most bitterly contested battlefield on the whole front after the Battle of the Bulge, a 778th veteran said.

Also in February, part of the battalion was sent north to the Siegfried Switch to support the 94th Infantry Division. The rest stayed to support the 95th Infantry Division at the Saar bridgehead until March 11 when it too, was dispatched to help the 94th Division. The 778th was back together at Tawem, 50 miles north.

The Thunderbolts hoped they would get a little rest. But the 4th Armored was driving hard north and across the Moselle River. The 778th Battalion rumbled on to Shillingen and Hermeskeil. Enroute they saw thousands of German prisoners streaming back toward the POW cages. Many in the battalion figured the war must be almost over.

On the morning of March 17, the men of the battalion awoke to the sound of gunning tank engines. It was the 10th Armored Division; the division had cleared the road net they had needed. The whole German front was collapsing. The 4th and 11th Divisions were across the Moselle and were behind the enemy.

On March 21, the battalion was in Aus sem. The Germans were on the run, but the 778th tankers pressed on for the grandest prize yet: the Rhine River. Once across. the German heartland was wide open.

The battalion barged ahead. The 5th Infantry Division bridgehead was expanding and the 4th Armored got across. The Thunderbolts crossed the Rhine March 25 on a pontoon bridge with the 26th Infantry. They were in Darmstadt the next day.

By month's end, the 778th Thunderbolts had passed through Langendiebach and arrived at Wittgenborn.

Meanwhile, the 26th Division continued mopping up behind the streaking 11th Armored. The next objective was Fulda, which the Thunderbolts reached on April 3. The men of the 778th wondered how long the war could last. Abandoned German trucks, tanks and other vehicles and equipment was strewn everywhere. Enemy soldiers were surrendering by the thousands. To the east, the Soviets were driving hard; a linkup seemed certain in just a few days.

On the 11th Division drove. It was almost impossible to keep up with cities and towns reached and passed: Schleid, Rosa, Suhl and Schleusinger all by April 10. Enemy resistance was crumbling; everybody in the battalion who wanted a Nazi souvenir had one, from shiny new pistols to helmet and flags. Suhl and Zella-Mehlis had plants that made hand guns and machine pistols. The plant were full of weapons and parts in bins. The G.I.'s had plenty of ordnance to trade and sell to the Russian at war's end.

On April 13, the battalion rolled into Sonnebeg.' Afterwards, the terrain got rough. When one tank threw a track, enterprising 778th crewmen used a team of horses to fix it.

Ahead was the Nuremburg to Leipzig autobahn one of the widest, smoothest superhighways in Germany. Beyond Leipzig was Munchberg and beyond the Czech border. The 778th was all set to get another country under its belt when orders changed. The outfit would veer south toward Austria.

The battalion battled its way across the autobahn. On April 22, the tankers were in Kaltenbrunn. Two days later. they rolled into Bruck. A check of maps showed the Danube was close. The river was wide and deep; 778th tank men wondered where or if it could be crossed. The tankers were again attached to the 26th Division.

The battalion was making 10 to 20 miles a day roaring through more German cities nobody had ever heard of: Falkenstein and Schwanzbach. The attack was east, along a line north of the Danube; the Thunderbolts drew considerable fire from German armies on the opposite bank.

The tankers scurried along the waterway, scouting for bridges. The Germans had blown them all up. On May 3, the Thunderbolts were in Austria. Enemy resistance was weakening by the hour.

On May 6, the battalion was in Ulrichsberg. Two days later, the weary tankers joined the rest of the Allied world in celebrating the end of the war in Europe. A 778th veteran recalled: "It felt funny and nobody could believe it. We still blacked out the windows and kept a heavy guard. We would have liked to celebrate if we had something to celebrate with and some place to celebrate, but we had to leave that to the folks at home. Then we found out that we were pretty tired."

Their weariness was understandable. Since joining Lieutenant General George S. Patton's Third Army at Metz in November. 1944, the Thunderbolts had spent 176 consecutive days on the front line as a spearhead for three infantry divisions: the 26th, 94th and 95th. They were part of four of the five major American campaigns in Europe: Northern France, Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland and Central Europe.

After the fighting ended, the 778th Tank Battalion moved across the Bohemian Highlands into the Czech Sudetenland, which Hitler grabbed before the war. Later, the battalion was sent back to Hofheim, Germany, between Wurzburg and Nuremburg.

At Wildflecken, the men saw more evidence of the horror of war. About 19,000 men, women and children were crowded into a displaced persons or refugee camp. Some of the 778th tankers left their Shemmans here and provided camp security.

The 778th Tank Battalion went to war with 700 officers and men. Casualties included 48 killed in action and 250 wounded or injured in accidents. Two men were killed on maneuvers in 1943 - 44. For gallantry in action, first lieutenant Alfred S. Araujo won three Silver Stars and an award for heroic action at the Battle of Pellingen, the 778th's bloodiest.

Other men earned Bronze Stars, Silver Stars and Purple Hearts, many posthumously.

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