Taking off with the TANKS
By Sgt. Walter Peters
YANK Staff Correspondent
With the Second Armored Division in France—It was the morning of the beginning of the biggest drive since the Allies had invaded the shores of Normandy. The immediate objective of Combat Command "A," the outfit I was travelling with, was to advance through St. Gilles, thence through Canisy, and finally to capture and hold the heights just before Le Mesnil Herman. Nobody dreamed that our tanks would be sweeping across Brittany and right to the threshold of Brest ten days later.
Four of us were sitting in the half-track that served as command post for the battalion commanded by Lt. Col. Amzi R. Quillian. Along with others in the battalion, the men had made an all-night trek from a bivouac area far to the rear up to a position just before the jump-off line on the St. Lo-Periers Road. The men's faces were brown with dust. Their eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep. Dirt clung heavily from their eyebrows and eyelashes.
One of the men looked at his watch. “Ten-forty,” he drawled. The drive had begun at 0900 hours. Our medium and light tanks, led by Col. Quillian, were far to the front and the men in the Combat Command half-track waited for word.
Then the word came over the radio. The colonel's voice was calm and serious. “We've made contact with the enemy and have taken a few prisoners,” he reported.
"You’ve waited a long time,” another voice replied. "Get in there. Get punching. Get hitting…”
“That's the general, all right," said Pfc. Jack Giels, of Cleveland. "He's a bug on slogans."
"We're moving ahead," another voice said over the air. Our long column of trains, that included jeeps, supply vehicles, and ambulances, in addition to half-tracks, began to wobble through a break in the hedges and over the orchard paths that had been cut by the tanks up ahead.
We were cutting right through enemy lines. On either side of us were reserve tanks with infantrymen of the Fourth Division riding atop them. There were also other infantrymen riding in trucks driven by Negro soldiers of a quartermaster truck battalion. To the front, the tanks charged through the hedges, spraying them with machinegun fire as they did so. When the tanks came to enemy pockets that held them up, the infantrymen would jump off and mop up.
The command-post radio was busy with conversation.
“I am held up at a sunken road, 50 yards south of phase-line orange," Col Quillian reported. The whole column stopped.
The colonel continued talking. "Doing everything I can to get across. Using bulldozers."
"Fine, fine," another voice, obviously belonging to the general, replied. "You can have anything I've got. Let's get slugging into them."
While the column was stopped, a mortar platoon sergeant came to the half-track and asked if anybody had an extra helmet. A sniper's bullet had gone right through the top of his and made it unserviceable.
"Maybe the medics have one," Giels said. The sergeant walked back to a medic half-track to see.
The tanks got over the sunken road and we moved on again. For over a mile the terrain resembled farmland that had just been plowed. Everywhere the earth was shaken and blasted by the heavy artillery that had been hurling shells on to it early that morning. There were huge craters in the earth, too, from the bombs that our planes had dropped the day before. There also were burning German tanks that had been destroyed by the tanks ahead of us.
"It would cost Hollywood a cool ten million dollars to shoot a scene like this,” one of the soldiers said. The whole area was trembling from the fire of our artillery. Overhead, the sky was full of "grasshoppers," directing shell fire from the sky. Lying all over the orchards and the roads between them were dead cows and horses—-so many that you no longer paid much attention to them. At one point there were about 25 young pigs running back and forth in fright, and as they ran they squealed. A soldier jumped out of a jeep and took one of them in his arms.
“You'll be okay, little piggy," the soldier said stroking the pig's back. “You'll be all right. It's just those goddam Heinie swine we're after."
One of the men picked up a German song book.
"This is a song of the Panzers," he said. "It says here that when this war is over and the Germans all get back to their Fatherland they're going to raise their children to be Panzers like their daddies."
At about 1500 hours we got on the north road leading to St. Gilles. Then our column was halted again. The enemy was lobbing mortars and 75 and 88 shells into the road. Twenty-five yards behind us a half-track belonging to a heavy-weapons platoon was hit and three men in it were killed. A couple of others were wounded.
In a field to our right were a number of M-10s. Mortar shells were falling all around and as they did so, the men with the M-10s buried their faces in the earth. One of the shells landed directly on a trailer attached to an M-10. Huge flames began to spout from the vehicle. Then the crew of the M-10 ran toward the trailer and began to unload it.
"There's ammunition in that trailer,” a man in a jeep behind us yelled. The crew continued to unload. The fire was beyond control and the rear of the M-10 started to burn. Just then, one of the men took a fire extinguisher and doused another man who ran through the blaze and disconnected the trailer from the M-10 and then a third man drove the M-10 away to safety. Suddenly there was a terrific explosion and the ammunition began to explode.
A medic jeep drove by and the man behind the wheel jumped out and ran toward the trailer. There was another explosion and I didn't see the medic again. About two minutes later I learned that he had been blown up by the explosion—both legs blown off and his body hurled on to the M-10. The man who had run through the blaze to disconnect the trailer, I heard, was Sgt. Thomas Green, of Tennessee. There was too much excitement to get more details.
The column got rolling along the road to St. Gilles. About 300 yards along it, we were forced to stop again. Enemy mortars were still firing at us from somewhere ahead. Everyone took cover alongside the roads as best as he could. Then the fire subsided and we got back into our vehicles and went forward again. We came upon three men walking toward us. One of them was wounded and another was crying. He had lost his buddy only a few minutes before. His body was shaking and he was being helped along by the wounded man and the other soldier, who appeared to be quite all right.
When our column stopped again, a sergeant walked over to a lieutenant and said, “I think we lost ______ ______.
The lieutenant called over First/Sgt. William Trinen, of Letcher, S.D.
I I'd like you to go over and make sure if that body belongs to _____ _____."
“Yes, sir," the first sergeant said.
A few minutes later our half-track pulled into an orchard and the men stretched out in the grass to get some rest. After a time Sgt. Trinen came back. His face was serious. He didn't say a word for a few seconds. Then he looked at Giels and T/Sgt. Russel E. Sands, of Warren, Minn.
“His scalp was ripped wide open,” he said slowly. "He didn't have a chance."
There was a long pause. None of the men said anything.
Sgt. Trinen continued: “He wasn’t even 20 and didn’t give a damn about anything. He was such a clean-cut kid, too.”
Again there was silence for a moment.
"There ain't any of them boys bad when they're dead," Sgt. Sands said.
Giels looked up. "No, nobody's got a bad heart when they're dead."
Word came to us that the most advanced tanks were already passing through St. Gilles. I hitch-hiked a ride in an ambulance half-track that was going there to pick up some wounded. The road was jammed with our tanks that were rolling into the town. The dust was so thick that it was impossible to see more than 20 feet ahead. The infantrymen on the tanks held their hands
over their eyes to keep out the dust. The hot sun beat down on their backs and their clothing was damp from sweat. The gullies beside the road were filled with burning, smoking German tanks and vehicles.
The town itself was like the inside of a furnace. Everything that wasn't stone was on fire and the smoke choked our throats while the heat made it almost unbearable to go ahead. When we reached the other end of the town the ambulance I was riding in stopped. Lying beside the road were three Americans who appeared to be dead. A fourth soldier, though wounded himself, was giving water from his canteen to a fifth man, whose right heel had been squarely cut off by shell fragments and whose chest and face were also bleeding.
Cpl. 1 Carl Lindberry, of Chicago, a surgical technician on the ambulance half-track, felt the pulse of one of the unconscious men.
"There's still a slight beat in him," Lindberry said. "Let's take him in first."
Pfc. Willis Wacker, of Denmoss, N.D., and Pvt. Robert Jee, of Danville, Va., both first-aid men, unfolded a blanket over a stretcher and then placed the man on it. After the wounded man had been placed in the ambulance, Lindberry walked over to another of the unconscious soldiers. He felt one man's pulse and shook his head.
He walked over to the third unconscious soldier, who was lying on his back with his mouth wide open. The man's teeth protruded and the color of his skin was that of death. A little dog was lying beside this soldier, a little dog with a deep cut across his head and his bowels splattered all over himself and on the dirt around him. Lindberry felt the man's pulse. Still a chance," he said.
Next, the man with the cut heel was lifted into the ambulance, and then the soldier who had given him water walked unaided into the cabin off the ambulance.
I got back to the Command Post just as word came over the radio from the forward tankers that there was only enough gas left for a three-hour operation.
“Keep on slugging," the general's voice said.
They did, and at about 2200 hours, Col. Quillian's battalion reached its objective.
YANK 20 Aug 1944 British Edition
YANK 20 Aug 1944 British Edition