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Letters From the Front

Morse Johnson, 712th Tank Battalion

   Morse Johnson of Cincinnati was one of 14 sergeants in the 712th Tank Battalion who received battlefield commissions. This is a collection of excerpts from the letters he wrote home to his mother and sister during his 11 months in combat. There are no dates on the excerpts, but they are presented chronologically, beginning with the battalion's landing on Utah Beach on June 21, 1944, three weeks after D-Day. Morse Johnson died of Alzheimer's disease in 1998.

1996, 2008 Morse Johnson


    In January 1942 I left the War Production Company in Washington, D.C., and went to my home in Cincinnati. Then I entered the Army at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, in January 1942, did basic training in the cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas, and joined the 11th Cavalry Regiment in April at Camp Lockett, California. Then in July 1942 at Fort Benning, Georgia, we converted from horse to tank and became part of the 11th Armored Regiment of the 10th Armored Division.

    On Sept. 20, 1943, a separate tank battalion – the 712th – was activated and at least 40 of us constituted the core of the enlisted personnel of Company A of that Battalion and were, by and large, still the core of that Company when the 712th landed on Utah Beach in Normandy on June 28, 1944. We thought then, and never thereafter doubted, that we were the best tank battalion in the U.S. Army.

    While in battles in Normandy, Northern France, the Rhineland, the Ardennes, and Central Europe and finally in Czechoslovakia, I have approximately 100 letters which my mother and sister had saved. They are more authentic and graphic than are later recitals from memory. I have chosen some excerpts from approximately 18 of those letters, in chronological order from Normandy on July 1, 1944, until VE Day in May 1945 from Czechoslovakia.

* * *

    I am now in France. We got to the Port of Embarkation at breakfast time – "Stars and Stripes" (the Army’s newspaper) to the contrary notwithstanding, we still had powdered eggs and powdered milk – and learned that the Company would go over on an LST save for four tanks, mine included, on an LCT with an English crew.

    We "sardined" into the flat craft and in 24 hours arrived at the beachhead. Hundred of boats ranging from rowboats to battleships and Spitfires, P-38s, C-47s and other planes circling overhead and barrage balloons. Jeeps, trucks, tanks, half-tracks, scout cars, bustling about without any apparent sign of organization. Stacks of sunken ships sticking up in the water, smashed German pillboxes, wires – hundreds of them strewn all over and attached to every available fixture – MPs (Military Police) pointing this way and that. Trucks and ambulances stuck in the mud, a large batch of prisoners being herded into a boat. Signs pointing out mine fields. Medics, infantry, Navy engineers, ordnance, quartermaster, air, artillery, signal and transportation personnel. Everything so apparently chaotic and yet through it all our four tanks moved, directed by most efficient MPs, with clipboards on which the next destination of each unit was set out. We rejoined our Company, dewaterproofed and camouflaged our tanks, dug our foxholes, set up guard and went to sleep and all around us are heavy pieces of artillery which have been firing all day and all night.

    And this is it, dear Mother. We are all ready. We’ve got the equipment, the ability and the spirit.

* * *


    We have been for the last few days just behind the front lines and hear only the big guns, save for small arms fire here and there, wiping out small pockets of resistance. Pete and I decided to scout around a bit and ran into two infantry men of a Division which had just come in.

    They asked: "Have you been up front yet?"

    Our response – gestures and inflections the same as though the questions had been "Have you been downtown today?" – "Yeah, we’ve been up."

    "Well," they pant, "how is it? Pretty rough?"

    "It’s rough all right," we reply, with a know-it-all glance at one another, "God damn rough," and are smothered with admiring glances. Silly as it may sound, little incidents like that boost our morale.

    In one house Pete [Carl Peterson] and I found the reincarnation of Madam LaFarge. If anyone was ever built to sit by the guillotine and knit, this French Madam was. Drinking cider, we had an hour of gaiety – "Vive la France!" – "Vive President Roosevelt!" – "Vive De Gaulle!" – and after each declamation Madam would run her forefinger in a slicing gesture across her throat and curse "Les Boches!"

* * *

    It would be senseless to let you think that life is a bed of roses and when I tell you a few things, I do not want your imagination to run riot. My beloved Pete – I’ve written about him frequently – got hit by a German bazooka and was badly wounded and burned in the leg. I shall never see him again unless it’s back in the States. Our friendship was very complete and genuine. [Peterson's leg was amputated.]

    I fought the other day alongside a Tank Destroyer Captain who won my complete admiration. He was battle-wise and oblivious to personal fear. Such careful coordination is needed when tanks, tank destroyers and infantry operate together, one has almost a devitalizing fear of shooting his own men. When we had completed our job, he came up and said, "Damn good shooting skipper" – my gunner should take the bows here – and I told him what a privilege it was to work with him. He answered, "Hell, skipper, we could win this war together."

    We continue to advance steadily but my impatience at the inch by inch progress has been more than counterbalanced by my present understanding of battle technique – particularly in terrain like we now have which I cannot for security reasons describe.

    It’s tough and then it isn’t. We’ve had to do some mighty unpleasant things – had to once shoot down several jerries who were waving the white flag of surrender but there was absolutely nothing else we could do without perilously endangering our infantry who were fighting alongside of us.

* * *

    Again I write with the possibility that we may have to move out at once. Three of our tanks, Ray’s, Jule’s and mine, are in an assembly area. The trapped Nazis have made several attempts to break out and we are guarding a road in case they succeed. There is the constant din of artillery, the drone of a reconnaissance plane, several trucks every five minutes going up with infantry or returning with prisoners, the ubiquitous jeeps, an occasional ambulance, some tank destroyers, a hot sun with thick, white clouds. I am sitting with my back up against a most uncomfortable apple tree and am some 15 yards from my tank out of which from the radio is issuing the harried voices of Frenchmen, a unit of which is fighting nearby. My gunner is asleep under the tank, my driver, assistant driver and loader are on the alert manning the guns.

    Well, Ray suggested walking up the road a piece and we ran onto the most awesome spectacle I have ever seen. A rather large orchard ended in a high, steep cliff overlooking 5 or 6 miles of an undulating valley. There, before our eyes, unfolded perhaps as big a section of the trap the Germans were then in [the Falais Gap] as could be seen at one time. With a pair of field glasses we could see most everything in detail – we watched a convoy of Nazi trucks head down a road, come to the top of a rise and be utterly demolished. I guess this is the end or near the end of German resistance in this sector – if it were only the entire German Army instead of just a portion of it!

* * *


    You should have seen me the other day. We were halted in the center of a town and surrounded by an ecstatic, worshiping crowd who were festooning our tanks with flowers and bestowing cognac, hard boiled eggs, etc! Perched on my tank turret with a bottle of vin rouge in one hand and a mushmelon in the other, I became a veritable political Toscanini as I would pronounce the name of some Frenchman. Then the crowd, taking their cue in part from me, would go into wild frenzies of shouting and gesturing. At such a name as "Laval," lips would curl and fingers would slice across throats and then "De Gaulle" – enthusiastic cheering and scores of blown kisses testified to his popularity in that sector. It is by no means unanimous. I found ardent "Giraudists" yesterday and there is still much respect for "le vieux soldat" – Marechal Petain. Perhaps our authorities do not appreciate such intrusions into French politics but they would be magnifying the importance of one dirty and amused GI on the minds of people hardened and tempered by five years of torment and confusion.

    Our successes have been so swift and sure that when coupled with the Russian advances and whatever inferences can be drawn from the faces and attitudes of the countless German prisoners we have seen, we are becoming too optimistic about the finish of this mess. I try to convince myself that we will still be fighting for at least a year so that I will suffer no disillusionments but, like the rest, so ardently hope for a quick end and that such self-discipline is impossible.

    Perhaps nothing causes me more concern than the political apathy among the soldiers [the 1944 presidential election was then on]. It seems incredible but so few realize the obvious connection between their present activity and their conscientious exercise of the democratic privilege. At the best one out of ten will vote. Yesterday I became so enraged that I berated one of the nicest lads I’ve ever known. Perhaps I exaggerate the seriousness of it all but if a tragic turmoil like the present war does not inspire men to appreciate democracy and to do everything to solidify its basis, what will, short of fascism or communism?

* * *

    The terrain is just one big lather of slush and muck. Occasionally some of us get a break and bivouac down in a barn or house and the natives, if they have returned, are, as a general rule, cordial and generous with such as eggs and milk. Right now I am luxuriously comfortable in a barn with lots of straw but last night I got a little jumpy even though the possibilities of a Nazi night patrol were very slight and we had a competent guard set up. A quiet cigarette, a few remarks with the guard and I settled back again. When I am actually fighting the enemy, I have a wholly impersonal attitude towards those we see and fire at. I am unable to – or rather I do not – identify that Nazi helmet and uniform with a human personality. Nor do I stimulate my fighting spirit by regarding them as beasts. There is also very little of the "kill or be killed" in me. It is really far more methodical than that. In front is a roadblock manned by Nazis. To advance we must smash that roadblock. And so we do and there is nothing much more than that. But somehow the threat of a Nazi patrol at night presents a far more personal involvement. Franz and Hans are actually out there with human qualities, virtues and faults. It is under such circumstances that war becomes so wholly inconceivable.

* * *


    In one house where we stayed, a fretful woman, learning that I could stumble through French, beseeched me to give her assurance that the Americans would not be shelling her barn as she wished to milk her cows, which had not been milked for 10 days. I said, "Madam, je ne suis pas General Eisenhower" which almost broke up the room full of her family and neighbors as all present thought that was just a riot, slapped thighs, held stomachs, poked each other and pointed at me, gasping between such guffaws as, "Il n’est pas General Eisenhower." One thing leading to another, I should tell you about some civilians. Their stupidity or insensibility defies imagination. On frequent occasions, when shells and machine guns have been whistling and spattering, we have seen some people standing about as though they were at a circus. In one town we took, there were some five tanks shooting full blast and about 50 doughboys using their rifles, all spraying streets almost at random and centering our fire on windows and buildings where it seemed the last sniper or bazooka man had fired from. In our midst sat a white haired man on a park bench calmly smoking a cigarette and watching our actions as though it was a good show. You would have to see it to believe it.

* * *

    And how are all the Huffmans? I do think of you often and try to picture a typical evening meal. What do you talk about? All of these questions and images wind through my mind as I stand a guard shift or lie on my bedroll or wait on my tank for orders to move out. How much and how often all of us think of home! This should not come as news to you but perhaps with first hand emphasis it will make you better able to understand and appreciate it. I should say that conversation among soldiers at war divides down about as follows 1) 40% – actual battle experiences – strategy – guessing as to the war’s end – speculation as to our future part (all lumped together for they naturally feed into one another) 2) 25% – Home – what we liked to do in civilian life – tales of mother, brother, et al not because they are interesting but because it is a pleasure to talk about them 3) 20% gripes about the Army and about other men in the Army 4) 10% – sex, including the movies 5) 5% miscellany, including primarily sports. This is the American Army. I understand other nations have a far more politically conscious soldiery, but were I to assign a percentage for us to – call it "politics" – it could not accurately be more than 2%.

* * *

    We are now in the cellar – none too large but quite safe – of a bomb and shell-scarred house, which is the common condition of all houses hereabouts. We occupy so much of this town and the Heines occupy the rest. The tactics involved for the capture of the remaining sections require as much daring and coordination in a small way as D-Day in a big way. Overhead the air is filled with artillery shells and with the tricks reverberations can play along the streets and around buildings, it is often quite impossible to determine with any certainty which is Heine and which is ours. No such problems about machine guns for the Heines have such a rapid rate of fire that the sound instead of "tat-tat-tat-tat" is "burrrp" and hence is called a burp gun. Here and there buildings are still burning and smoking and frequently only several blocks away comes the spatter and racket of small arms fire. Occasionally do we see any civilians and then under careful escort, carrying just as much as they could snatch up. They are headed back to some concentration point. The Germans are feeling this war and for many years hereafter will see the scars it made. This city is just a mass of destruction.

    Well, the rain seems to have gotten tired and the days are clearer but also much colder. Under present circumstances – Heines in their cellars only several blocks away – two guards are required on each tank, which means guard duty for each of us both night and day. After shivering and intense alertness for two hours, it is almost a luxury to return to the protective, albeit dank, cellar and my warm bedroll.

* * *

    In the recent bunch of magazines you sent there was much talk about "veteranology" – the problem of how to handle the returning servicemen. In many instances, it was approached scientifically, replete with classifications, categories, etc. and throughout was the assumption that the war had forever stamped basic and common characteristics into 9 million American men; that such a group should be set apart like redheads or color-blind people. Oh, what superficial and often pretentious analysis. This is a frightful nightmare but really has not permanently affected us. Let me illustrate. My tank had advanced across a clearing and was covering the advance of the infantry behind us. I was watching like a hawk for any machine gun nest or sniper. The first wave of doughboys started across and suddenly the crackle the crackle of a Heine machine gun and I saw one of the boys go down. I was beside myself with self-blame. I had not located that nest. Despite the fact that we found it was inaccessible to my eyes and guns and that the infantry officers were almost embarrassingly complimentary over the way we had accomplished our mission, I could not contain my self-derogation for several days. Now I am reconciled to it and it serves only as an unpleasant incident. The major post-war personnel problem is returning 9 million men to work, not 9 million servicemen to work. Do you understand?

* * *

    One of the most amusing lads in our company had a tank back at ordnance for repair. He was strolling through the town, in which ordnance was then located, when with typical rear echelon severity and stupidity he was accosted by an MP who demanded: "Where is your sidearm?" Such military accouterments as sidearms and steel helmets have far more seeming significance in the rear than in the forward echelon. Randy, such is his name, immediately looked ashamed and modest and with utmost deference asked: "Have you ever jumped out of a burning tank?" The MP was disconcerted. All he could do was answer: "Well no, fellow, why?" Randy had gotten to third base and now dashed for home: "Do you think you would take time to get your sidearm with your tank burning and the ammunition in it exploding?!"

    The MP was whipped and could only respectfully ask: "And after your tank is fixed, what are you going to do?" Randy steeled his expression, gazed out into the distance, and with a solemn shake of his head, determinedly sighed, "Back up front again."

Stories                                 Letters From the Front, Page 2



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