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By Tech 5 Joseph L. Crooks, 37mm Tank Gunner
Company D, 42nd Tank Battalion, 11th Armored Division.
The evening of December 31st 1944 Company D 42nd Tank Battalion (part of Combat Command "A" 11th Armored Division) was on alert and staying in a cattle barn in, or near the small town (village) of Rechival, Belgium. Early in the morning on New Years Day, Company D, A light tank company equipped with M5A1 tanks, moved out of the cattle barn and into the open snow covered farm fields under orders from Company Commander Captain George D. Warriner. Company D consisted of three line platoons and I was in the third platoon. Our platoon leader was 1st Lt. Eli Warach and I was the tank gunner in his tank. As we moved forward Captain Warriner could be heard on the company radio saying "keep coming, you are doing fine" and that was the last time we heard his voice.
As we kept moving forward I saw one of our tanks get hit by German Gun fire. Two of the men in that tank jumped out and ran to our tank and crawled up on the front of the tank. They were both hurt. One of the injured men was draped over my 30 caliber co-axial machine gun in such a manner that I was unable to fire it. Lt. Warach was able to get both of the injured men to get to the back deck of our tank and out of the way. He instructed tank driver Refugio Hinojos, to turn the tank around and take the injured soldiers back to the Medics that were a short distance to our rear. They got off the tank with the help of the Medics and Lt. Eli Warach then gave orders to turn the tank around and get back into the battle with the rest of the company. We soon encountered enemy infantry and bow gunner William B. Phelps was kept busy firing his 30 caliber bow gun.
We soon approached a long line of hedge row to our front. We went right through the
hedge row and got caught in a huge, deep tank trap behind the hedge row. However,
driver Hinojos was able to maneuver the tank into a position where we could drive
forward-with the tank leaning at about a 45 degree angle to the left. We were lucky that a
track didn't come off the tank.
After moving forward in this position for awhile we came out of the tank trap into the open only to see a German Self Propelled anti-tank gun directly in front of our tank. It appeared to be about 35 to 40 yards in front of us. The German tank was about the size of one of our Sherman Medium tanks. Lt Warach kept commanding our driver to do hard rights and hard lefts so we could stay away from the muzzle of the gun on the German tank and to the rear of the enemy tank. It was Lt. Warach's leadership and wisdom that saved our lives.
I kept firing the 37mm cannon at the German tank as directed by Lt. Warach hitting it about six or eight times, all to no avail. The 37mm cannon projectile was unable to penetrate the armor plate on German tanks or self propelled anti-tank guns. Finally, one of the armor piercing 37mm projectiles hit the rear engine compartment door and into the engine block of the German tank, bringing it to a halt. We could see black smoke coming from the enemy tank and we knew the tank was disabled as it could no longer move.
Lt. Warach received orders by radio for us to assemble at another location. As we were
moving away from the location of the German tank our tank was struck by a German
anti-tank shell on the right front part of our tanks drive sprocket. Fortunately, the shell
missed the sprocket and struck the area holding the volute springs and front two bogie
wheels next to the bow gunner. The bogie wheels came off which released the tension on
the track. The track soon broke and we were forced to abandon the tank. When we abandoned the tank Phelps caught his combat trousers on the butt plate of the
30 caliber bow gun and ripped the right leg of the trousers from top to bottom. Several
days later, while repairing them with a sewing machine discovered in a Belgium home, a
passing Signal Corps Photographer took his picture. The picture appeared on the cover
of the 18 February 1945 issue of Yank Magazine. Before racing away from the tank Phelps stopped long enough to remove something from the storage box on the right front fender of the tank. It was the next day before anyone knew what he took. Lt. Warach was admonishing Tex for not getting away from the tank fast enough when Tex handed him a handful of cigars and a framed 8 by 10 photograph. The photograph was a photo of Mrs. Warach which he had recently received, along with
the cigars, in mail from home. Those were the items he took out of the storage box. We moved away from the abandoned tank as fast as we could and a short time later a medium tank from the 42nd Tank Battalion picked us up and took us to the assembly area.
At the assembly area which was a small village I could see burning houses and dead cattle lying all over the little farm area. I talked to Staff Sergeant Alfred Pfeiffer at his maintenance halftrack and asked him where the rest of the company was. He told me that this was all that was left of the company. We had lost 12 of the 15 tanks of Company D, 42nd Tank Battalion and several of our Company D Tankers on that devastating and horrendous New Years Day, January 1st, 1945.
Tank Gunner Joseph L. Crooks Notes: The two injured soldiers that crawled up on our tank were:
Murray Kaye, New Jersey
Franklin Hartwig, Wisconsin
Our tank crew:
Lt. Eli Warach, Platoon Leader and Tank Commander, New Jersey
Cpl. Refugio Hinojos, Tank Driver, El Dorado, Kansas (Wichita area) Later changed name to Ray Cervantes
Cpl. Joseph Crooks, Tank Gunner, Cuyahoga Heights Village, Suburb of Cleveland, Ohio
Pfc. William B. Phelps, San Antonio, Texas
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