©2014, Aaron Elson
Sergeant Lester Suter was one of the first veterans of the 712th Tank Battalion with whom I did a lengthy interview. This is a vignette from that interview, as are some other Stories of the Week.
During the war I picked up about 350 replacements and brought them back. A battalion consists of 765 men, and we went through more than 1,100, so we had to get about 400 extras to replace the killed and the wounded that we lost.
You couldn't always get the kind of personnel you wanted. A lot of times you’d put in for a tank driver and none would be available. So if you couldn’t get a driver, you’d look for a tank gunner [because crew members were trained to do other jobs in a tank]. So you went down the line and took what you could get. And this one particular time, I couldn't get any tankers. I had to take plain old enlisted men; six and seven weeks is all the training they had ever had. And I told the officer, "To make tankers out of them, you’re going to have to pull some tanks back and train them. Give them a week’s training, and you can teach them in a week, if you concentrate, enough to be a tanker. I think that was a very good idea on my part. I put the idea in the officer’s head, and he suggested it to the colonel.
Colonel Randolph was a great guy. He was a southern man, from Alabama. He would come out as we were bivouacking and he’d say, "Are you getting enough to eat? Have you got places to sleep?" And he’d just talk with us; he’d move from this little batch of men to that little batch of men, and he really encouraged the men. He was loved by them. If he'd have stayed with us, he’d have been really good, but he got killed. He was a real southern Gentleman. He used to call his wife ‘My Lady.’ He’d talk about his wife and say, "Well, my lady's at home. (Lt. Col. William Randolph was killed at Nothum, Luxembourg, on Jan. 9, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge].
I was a replacement sergeant. Every day I’d get the B.C., or the battle casualty report. I’d make it out myself, because I’d hear this company had so many killed or wounded and that company had so many. I’d make four copies – two for the colonel, one for my files, and one to send into another office.
We had four ways of reporting these guys, first killed in action, then wounded in action, then slightly wounded in action, and then we had missing in action. I’d make out this report every day, and so I knew what was going on. If they came back and gave me a battle report and in putting all the casualties together, I’d see it was 30 or 40 guys, immediately I’d jump in my truck and go back to the replacement depot and say I need 30 or 40 guys.
One thing that really moved me was, towards the end of the war I picked up an Irishman out of Bridgeport, Connecticut. He had two kids, and he had been trained for about six weeks, but he wanted to go out on a tank and pretend he was a tank commander. So they went out on a joy ride, and although the war was over, he got shot. He got shot on May 9th and the war ended on May 8th. You see, these Germans in some of these places didn’t know the war was over, so they just fired on our tank and they got him with his head sticking out. That was sad to me, two kids and he’d only been there six or eight weeks. He was 22 or 23 years old, and had a good personality. That really affected me.
There was one guy in D Company. He was a commander of a light tank, a sergeant, and he says, "Yo ho ho, here we go, a thousand miles an hour!" and he’s shoving off down this road, and Jesus Christ, that night, I’m writing a KIA on him.
I had to send the personal effects of all the KIAs back to their wives and mothers or friends, whoever was the closest relative. And a lot of them had wives, and they’d have pictures of girlfriends that they had met in England or even in Germany there or France, and I knew this because they’d have a picture of their wife and then maybe pictures of one or two girlfriends. So I would go through their wallet and screen it and pull out these girls, so it would never be known to their wife. I thought that was only a fair thing to do. I thought it was a benefit to them, although they were dead. So I went through their personal effects as we sent them back to the United States, and anything that was bad I pulled out. I thought, why tell the wives? When a man’s dead, he’s dead.