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2014, Aaron Elson


Tanks for the Memories

The online edition

2014, Aaron Elson

Chapter 12

Moon Over Mairy (Sept. 8, 1944)

George Bussell

    I was across the street from my tank, standing guard, about 2 in the morning, and I heard this stuff coming down the road. I could tell by the tracks it wasn’t ours. The noise was altogether different. They had steel tracks, and we had rubber.

    I just squatted down there by a tree, and this outfit came down the road, and they stopped. And this lieutenant or whoever it was, the commander, he was leaning way out of the hatch.

    The 90th Division had a sign down there, Christ, as big as the wall of my living room. Red, white and all that crap. It said, "90th Division artillery C.P." And that’s what the tank stopped and was looking at. And I was squatting there.

    Then some doughboy, I don’t know who he was, took a rifle and he took a shot at this guy in the tank, but he missed him. And boy, when he missed him, hell broke loose and tanks started rolling in. But we were all camouflaged. Hell, those tanks came right up to me and never did see me, and I sure as hell didn’t uncover till after they were gone. Then after they were gone, I was outside by the road trying to dig a foxhole and that dirt was as hard as a rock. Man, I’d have dug a foxhole if I could have. Finally I made it up to the command post, which was on a hill.

    The German tanks were down below, and there was a two and a half ton truck coming along there just like nobody’s business. A German tank comes out, Pow! He blew that truck all to hell. Where we sat, they had tow-mounted tank destroyers. When daylight came they stuck the tow mounts in on the German tanks, and knocked quite a few of them out. Then our tanks came in.

    That was a hairy time. Man, I could see myself going and everything else.

Doc Reiff

    Captain Jack Reiff was the head of the battalion's Medical Company

    I rarely went back to the rear. I just stayed right with the headquarters company and the mortar platoon, an assault gun platoon, and the medics, and usually there were maintenance people around.

    My men were out with the different companies. They would be assigned with the different infantry regiments, and they’d take an ambulance and a halftrack with them.

    I can’t remember why, but I went from where our battalion was back to the division headquarters, to turn in a report or something, and I reported to the division surgeon. Of course, I looked like Willie and Joe, I mean I was covered with mud and dirt.

    I went back to the division surgeon, and he said, "Where’s your battalion?"

    And I said, "Well, the companies are out with infantry regiments."

    And he said, "Where’s the battalion headquarters?"

    So I pointed to the map and said, "Right there."

    He said, "Oh no, you couldn’t be there. That’s in enemy territory."

    I said, "Colonel, I’ve been in a tank battalion for nearly a year now, and if I couldn’t read a map I’d be dead."

    And he said, "But that’s all enemy territory."

    So I said, "Let’s go in and look at the operations map." The division headquarters map was about eight feet tall, with red marks for the enemy and blue marks for the Allies, everybody’s all dressed up, and here I was looking like I just got out of a foxhole.

    So we did look at the map and sure enough, over there it was red, red, red. So the division surgeon says, "Let’s go and look at the G-2 map," that’s intelligence, they’re a little bit more savvy about where the enemy was, and the same thing.

    So I left, and went back to battalion headquarters, and sure enough, they were right.

Jim Gifford

    During the afternoon of September 7, we were in a column, and we were told don’t use the radios, we were trying to be quiet. And a little Messerschmitt 109 comes by, about 200 feet off the ground, right alongside of us. I can see the pilot now looking at us, and he went whipping off. Nobody fired at him. That was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

    Then we dispersed the tanks around this town called Mairy, and we were in the woods on both sides of the highway. In the meantime, I went up ahead to reconnoiter with a jeep. There were some infantry guys at a crossroads about a mile up the road, and I sat there and had some coffee with them. Then I said, "Well, I’m gonna go on back."

    I returned to the tanks. And then during the night, Jesus, a German column comes down the road. They didn’t know where we were, and they stopped.

    I ran up to the road with Scott [E.L. Scott]. I told him to grab a bazooka, and he and I ran up to the edge of the road. We didn’t want to fire our guns because they’d know where we were. So with the bazooka I figured I’d catch that first tank, and the sonofabitch stopped up there, he turns that gun, and Boom! He hits George Peck’s tank, and he turns and he hits another tank, and the guys are sleeping on the ground next to it. And one shell, it bounced off the tank and went right straight through this guy that was sleeping, he was a lieutenant from one of the other companies. The next day I went over to see what happened, and he was still in his sleeping bag, and I pulled it back, and the damn round, he had a hole in his back, he never knew what hit him.

    This must have been about four in the morning, because all of a sudden it started getting daylight, and then we started shooting the shit out of them, and the whole column fell apart.

    A couple of the German tanks went over to the left down through a field, and we had one tank pull up alongside, I don’t know whose it was, and he fired, he knocked it out, and the crew piled out, and they started running up the road towards us. So we threw a machine gun up on top of the bank, took it off the jeep, and as they came toward us they gave up.

    Then another tank started down behind them, and he stopped his tank, and the crew got out, they didn’t fire. They came over toward us and gave up.

John McDaniel

    John McDaniel, of Paragould, Arkansas, was a member of A Company

    Lieutenant Bell [Harry Bell] used to get on me all the time because I wouldn’t sleep with my shoes on. For one reason or another I just couldn’t sleep with them on, and he’d say, "We’re gonna get into it, we’re gonna get attacked sometime, and you’re not gonna have your shoes on."

    I said, "I’ll put ’em right here," beside me, and I can put my shoes on in a hurry, I don’t have to lace them up. So he got to the point where he pulled his shoes off, too.

    When they woke us up that night — what happened, one of the kitchen people from this little command post fired on these tanks, and when he did, boy, there was just a terrible commotion, and it woke us all up — I couldn’t find my shoes. I reached for them where they ought to be and they weren’t there. So I got in the tank just like I would have with my shoes unlaced, I just got in it barefoot. I was the assistant driver. Swartzmiller [William Swartzmiller] was the driver.

    We all got in the tank, and the first thing Bell did was call Lester O’Riley, who was the company commander. And lester said, "Are you sure it’s not our people?"

    And Bell said, "No, I can read on the tank. They’re German."

    And Lester said, "You’re sure they’re German?"

    Bell said, "Yeah."

    And Les said, "Give ’em hell."

    When he said that, old Bell told Swartzmiller, "Fire it up," and boy, when he fired that tank up — now, we had an advantage in that we had an electrical turret, and they had to traverse theirs by hand, but they were facing right straight toward us so they didn’t have much turning to do. And boy, they fired on us, and hit us in our suspension system.

    After that we couldn’t move the tank, and Bell said, "Bail out!" So everybody bailed out.

    When we abandoned the tank, I took off across the field because I knew about where Lester was.

    Somebody hollered at me and said, "Are you American?"

    I said, "Yes."

    And he said, "Come over here," top the wooded area. So I ran out of the open field into the wooded area, and it was General Devine [Brigadier Gen. John Devine]. He had his colonel with him.

    I said, "My company commander’s right up here," where I was going.

    He said, "You just stay here with me."

    Then he and the colonel were talking. He said, "When I woke up, I reached to wake up my driver, and he wouldn’t move. He was dead."

    As soon as it got light I went over there, and that boy was laying there just like he was asleep. He had a little hole right in his forehead, there was no more blood than there’d be on the end of your little finger. I guess that hot shrapnel pierced his skull and seared that blood. He looked like he wasn’t 20 years old.

    I had heard General Devine tell his colonel about the driver. So I stayed with Devine, and boy, when you get in combat like that it will really work on your nervous system and your stomach, too. I told him, "I’ve got to use the bathroom," and he said, "Go right back over here," and he said there’s some digging equipment. So I went over and dug a place, and used it, covered it, and came back.

    I stayed with him till it got light, and when it did, I asked him, "You reckon we’re gonna get out of here?"

    It was cloudy at that time. He said, "Just as soon as these clouds clear out, we’ll get ’em." He said don’t worry about it. He was so cool and calm, I was really surprised. And his colonel seemed to be in good shape, too.

    After it got daylight, I started toward the tank and I met old Bell. I said, "I couldn’t find my shoes this morning."

    He said, "These are not mine I’ve got on."

    I said, "They’re mine! I thought they looked like ’em." And he pulled them off and gave them to me, and then he went barefoot.

 Clegg Caffery

    Major Clegg "Doc" Caffery was a member of Headquarters Company.

    Mairy was a little crossroad in France. We went into a bivouac there one afternoon, the artillery command post was about two miles to the north of us, and they had two tank companies protecting them. We were in a wooded area.

    Early that morning, about 3 o’clock, I heard a 75-millimeter go off. And minutes later, Les O’Riley comes on the tank radio, telling Colonel Randolph that he is firing on a German armored column.

    Things quieted down, and then at daybreak, two of these German vehicles, they were light tanks, Mark IVS, came into our area. I was in the wooded area with the headquarters vehicles, and Dickie [Forrest Dixon] was not too far away, with Service Company.

    I was hiding behind a tree, and I saw Dickie climb into this inoperable tank with no engine, and with battery power, he knocks off one of these tanks.

 Forrest Dixon

    Service Company always bivouacked in the center of the battalion when we were on the road, because our people were service troops, and we had all the gasoline and the ammunition with us, and we needed the protection.

    The shooting started about 2 o’clock. Of course, we were all alert, and wondering what was going to happen. I don’t remember why but the Service Company boys were just very, very excited and it looked like they just didn’t know what was going on, and they didn’t know what they should do. I had been awake for two days practically, and I thought, "Well, I’m gonna just put my bedroll down by the halftrack where the radio is and see if I can’t get some sleep," and maybe that would at least quiet them down a little bit.

    This was probably 4 o’clock. The shooting had stopped — nobody knew there were other tanks in the area. So I got my bedroll and told the sergeant in charge of the radio, "If anything happens, you wake me up quick."

    He said okay. And nothing happened. I got up the next morning, I think it was about breakfast time.

    One crew was working on a tank — they had the motor out — when someone yelled, "German tanks!" And everybody took off. I can’t blame them for that.

    I thought, "Oh, shit." I had been up for I guess 48 hours, and had barely had any sleep, and I was too goddamn tired to run. So I got in the tank.

    Besides, all the gasoline and ammunition was in our area, and I guess I might have been thinking about that.

    One boy stayed with me. I don’t know who it was, but he was next to me and I said, "Do you know how to load a gun?"

    He said, "I think so."And I said, "Well, you get the gun loaded and I’ll see if we can’t get one of those tanks."

    There was one round of ammunition in the ready rack, and he couldn’t get it out. I said, "Let me try." So he took off.

    I put the round in the gun, and then I thought, "I won’t be able to turn the turret," because the boys were supposed to disconnect the electric when they took out an engine. When I hit that traversing box I didn’t expect to hear it groan. It kind of groans when the gun turns. I was a little bit surprised. I thought my boys obeyed me better than that. But I’m glad they didn’t. It takes a few minutes to disconnect the electrical system, and they were trying to save time.

    I had the round of ammunition in, and the turret turned, and then I got to thinking, "I’ll bet the sight isn’t lined up with the barrel." So I thought I’d just better wait. I kept it pointed at the lead tank, and when it got about 50 yards from me, that’s when he saw me and began to turn to get his gun in my direction, and I let him have it.

    Then I grabbed the radio and I hollered, "Sam, I need your help!" That was Sam Adair, he had the assault guns, and I knew that the assault guns were just up a little ways. So I didn’t get out of the damn thing. The Germans saw the assault guns coming, and they stopped right quick and everybody got out with their hands up. I stayed right inside the tank. I didn’t want them to know I was the only damn fool there.

Doc Reiff

    They just came attacking right across a field. And there was a tank sitting there. Dixon jumped in this tank, and he starts shooting this German tank.

    So this German lieutenant gets out, one of his arms was badly injured. In the first place, it was a great insult to call a German officer "Leutnant." That’s a second lieutenant. "Oberleutnant" was the first lieutenant. They were very touchy about that.

    This kid comes out, and I’m speaking to him in broken German. I said, "Alles kaput." And he said, "Nein, nein, nein, nein." We’re still speaking in broken German. I said, "Well, you’re certainly out of action."

    And he said, "Which bone is it, Doctor, the radius or the ulna?"

    Thirty German tanks, 60 halftracks and over 100 miscellaneous vehicles were captured or knocked out, and 764 prisoners taken at Mairy, according to the battalion’s unit history

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