The online edition
©2014, Aaron Elson
"I havent much to tell, except that I have joined an outfit," Private Billy P. Wolfe wrote in a letter to his family dated March 5, 1945. "As a lieutenant told us, The best goddamned outfit in the world.
"I dont know much about its history as yet, but it played a major part in smashing the Siegfried Line and has fought since D-Day and drove the Nazis from France. It is the 712th Tank Battalion. I am in Company C and in Germany now."
Billy Paige Wolfe was a fresh-faced kid of 18 who grew up in Edinburg, Virginia, on the north fork of the Shenandoah River. He had a small collection of Indian arrowheads and Civil War bullets that he picked up working in the cornfields, and he loved to fish and hunt, although the first time he had an opportunity to shoot a deer he couldnt bring himself to pull the trigger.
"If I were to be blind today," Billy wrote in a high school essay, "I would want to go off by myself in the mountains, climb to the highest cliff, and look out across the valley at the towns, farms and farmhouses.
"I would want to see the squirrels running and leaping from one walnut tree to another, and the birds flying.
"I would like to see the deer run and jump swiftly and gracefully and leap across the fences, and lie in a tree that leans across the water and watch bass laying under the rocks and dart out after a fly.
"I would go through the house from one room to the other picturing each piece of furniture, every corner and everything, in my mind.
"I would like to see all my sisters, brother and parents together as we were, and picture each as they look for future reference."
Although there were seven Wolfe children five girls and two boys there was a special bond between Billy and his two younger sisters, twins Maxine and Madeline. Billy was two years their senior, but because he broke his hip one year and came down with pneumonia another, he was in the same class with them at Edinburg High School.
When Billys brother Hubert was drafted, Billy tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps, but was turned down. Maxine and Madeline dont know the precise reason why he was turned down, but Madeline says, "He wanted to get in so bad he didnt know what to do."
Billy was drafted on Aug. 23, 1944, and went to Fort Mead, Maryland. From there he was sent to Fort Knox and trained as a tanker.
He wrote home faithfully, describing the chow that was to add 15 pounds to his frame before he went overseas, asking about his friends, requesting his swimming trunks and more stationery, chiding the twins about their weight, and sprinkling his letters with words like "damn" and "hell," knowing full well that they would cause his mother, Anna May Wolfe, who taught Sunday School, to have a conniption.
Billy sent one of the twins a small pin in the shape of a tank. "Dear Madeline," he wrote. "Here is your pin. Take care of it, and no boys are to wear it. Also I want a big letter of thanks, understand? That costed me a big pile of money, you old soak. You never write. Maxine does. Well, dont be too bad, now. I am in a big hurry. So long, Love Bill."
Billy came home on leave before going overseas. On Jan. 30, 1945, the twins walked with him up the mile-long country road to Route 11, where he caught the Greyhound bus.
"He walked between us and there was snow on the ground," Maxine Wolfe Zirkle says. "Ill never forget. That snow lay for it seemed like weeks, and every day, when we went to school, we would walk in his tracks. Thats how sentimental we were."
"When he left," Madeline Wolfe Litten says, "he said, So long, kids, and if I never see you again, goodbye. And he waved all the way down the road.
"Twins, I think you are having a birthday soon. Sweet 17, isnt that right?" Billy wrote in the March 5 letter. "You can be glad you are not boys, or there would be a possibility of you getting in this mess, although I dont think, and hope, it wont last that long. Happy birthday, Twins, and many, many returns of the day."
The letter arrived on the morning of March 16, 1945. With the time difference, it was afternoon in Pfaffenheck, Germany, a small town east of the Moselle River and west of the Rhine. Billy Wolfes tank, which had been hit by an armor-piercing shell, was burning fiercely.
After my tank was knocked out at Habscheid, I was assigned temporarily to the second platoon. This is March of 45.
One day Im on guard duty, in the early hours of the morning, and Im looking all around were parked alongside the houses in this town and these German soldiers are coming out of the woods with some girls, and I whisper, "Everybody up, Krauts! Krauts!"
With that, Martin [Otha Martin], he was the gunner, he pushes me down, and he gets up and starts firing his tommy gun at them.
Sergeant Otha Martin, of Leguire, Okla., was a tank commander in C Company.
We had just made our second crossing of the Moselle River. We crossed it under artificial moonlight which they made by bouncing huge lights off the clouds on a treadway bridge, and went on to a village that I cant tell you the name of. We pulled in before daybreak, and we were lined up.
Just as it began to break day, there were a bunch of haystacks stuck out there, and the Germans were in them. They began to come out of there, and theres one running toward No. 3 tank, that Lloyd Hayward was the tank commander on. Thats the tank that Billy Wolfe was in.
Im in No. 5 as the gunner that day. I was normally a tank commander, but Jack Sheppard had said, "Weve got a man here who can do that but I dont know if he knows a damn thing about a gun or not, would you be the gunner in No. 5?"
I said, "Yeah."
So we pulled in there, and Bob Rossi was on guard. He was the loader that day. I was sitting on the gunners seat, kind of dozing, and he just had his head up out of there.
Several years ago, when we had a reunion in Orlando, Rossi said to me, "Im lucky to be here."
I said, "How come?"
He said, "I thought you were gonna kill me."
I said, "We never had no problem."
"Oh no," he said. "But that one time you jerked me out of that hatch up there and slammed me against the wall of the tank, I thought you were gonna kill me." Well, that tank is solid steel. Heres what he was doing: He hadnt been with us so long, but he was saying, "Heinies. Heinies." He saw em, but he wasnt doing anything. So I grabbed him and I jerked him out of that hatch so I could get up there, and I had a Thompson sub laying on the radio. I slammed him down into the tank, and I got up in there, and that German was running toward the No. 3 tank. He had a long overcoat on and it was flopping. I started to work on him with that Thompson sub. Well, theyd always said if you could shoot a man anywhere, even in the hand, with a .45 itd knock him down. Thats not true. I like to cut that one in two with .45 slugs and he finally did fall behind the tank, and Hayward hollered at me, "You got the sonofabitch!" He was going to our tank, I dont know if he intended to throw a grenade in there or what.
So we stayed there. We moved up and had a little firefight, it wasnt real bad, and got that under control and stayed there that day and that night.
Sometime before daylight the next morning, on the 16th of March, somebody came after us. The infantry had tried to take Pfaffenheck and got treated bad. There was a crossroads there, and an SS outfit was holding the crossroads. It was troops from the [6th] SS Mountain Division.
Snuffy Fuller [Lieutenant Francis A. Fuller] wouldnt move. He said, "When its daylight, well move. But were not moving in the dark."
Sergeant Byrl E. Rudd, of Elmer, Oklahoma, was the platoon sergeant in C Companys Second Platoon. I did not interview Rudd, who passed away in 1993. The following is from a letter he wrote in 1986 to Ray Griffin, who had asked him for details of the action at Pfaffenheck.
Having crossed the Moselle River, we spent most or all of the day clearing the high ground on the east bank. There were two companies of infantry with the second platoon of 712th, Company C (me) as support for either infantry company that might happen upon a machine gun nest. The Germans were backing up, supposedly, for a last stand at the Rhine River. We were giving them plenty of time because our left flank was lagging behind. From the sound of rifle fire, they were meeting more resistance than we were.
We moved slowly eastward all day. About sundown, we hit a spot of open terrain. This area was three to four miles square.
On our right flank, the trees extended to a small village approximately two miles ahead, so there was no problem to get there with cover all the way. This village was Udenhausen. A little farther east and one to one and a half miles north was another village, Pfaffenheck.
After a powwow, Snuffy Fuller informed the infantry companies that the tanks would not be split. One infantry company would occupy each town for the night, with all tanks in the higher town of Udenhausen. A blacktop road ran north and south on the east of these two towns, and there was not one building on the east side of the road. There were tall pine trees 25 yards or less east of the road, and on our left flank buddies were still progressing too slow for me.
So here we are, mission accomplished. Two towns exposed to a blacktop road and miles of tall pines. I checked to see if all the tanks had a good field of fire and where the infantry outposts were. Nothing to worry about. The Germans have crossed the Rhine. WRONG!
Guards are out. The infantry is bedding down. Lieutenant Fuller looks out. I am looking out. He looks at me and I at him. Nothing is said. I feel like ducks on a pond, and so does he. Good houses to sleep in, but I am up making a noise. Guys are griping. Then, about 2 a.m., I hear people running near the end of the town. I jump on my tank and listen. An infantry guard stops them. All are excited. They wake the officers and convince them of a horrible massacre in Pfaffenheck. Those boys, five or six of them, are the only survivors of the company. The infantry officers are furious and want to attack right away. Lieutenant Fuller and I have a powwow. We present our plan to avoid the road and attack five tanks abreast with the infantry on the back of the tanks across the open ground at full speed to the apple orchard. The time would be just at sunup. We are hoping that the big guns would be looking at the blacktop road. Plan accepted and carried out.
The apple orchard was full of SS troops. All had American guns. The second section soon cleared the orchard and three houses on the left side of the street for the infantry. I then had to go forward to get a field of fire down the street. It curved or made a couple of angles. The infantry was taking a beating, which I thought was coming from the right side of the street.
There was no big stuff up to now. At the first intersection, I saw Lieutenant Fuller moving and firing at the second intersection. I saw him stop. We were both firing across the blacktop road into the tall pines that were thick with Germans. We had them running, I thought.
Lieutenant Fullers tank was hit by an antitank gun. He got out and made it to the buildings. About the time he got there and looked back, Lloyd Hayward came out of the top hatch. One of his legs was limp. Lieutenant Fuller started after him. Machine gun fire stopped him.
The fifth tank was not able to fire in that direction. I jumped out to go get Lieutenant Fuller while my gunner kept them pinned down across the road. I got Lieutenant Fuller to go back down the street to find a medic. I found Russell Harris, the tank commander, was slowly dying from a bullet that had just grazed the top of his head while he was in the orchard. The medic told me his life might be saved if we could get him to a hospital within four hours. The boys had got him out of the tank. He seemed to be in no pain. They tried to get to him with a jeep, but the SS drove them back. They tried later with a halftrack, and the SS drove them back again. While I was there, I learned that the [loader] of the No. 2 tank had been killed about 50 yards after leaving the orchard. This man was Jack Mantell. Those SS troops were tough.
Being under strength going into this action, the infantry company was very slim in men able for combat. I had seen their officer killed. Upon getting back to my tank, I found the roof of the house that was protecting me to be on fire. Lots of the SS were moving around in the pines. I decided to try the antitank gun again. He was still there, and he knew where I was. Time to try something else.
The field artillery had been firing all day, but their shells were going too far to help me. I went to find an infantry non-commissioned officer who knew where the phones were. He would not call the field artillery, so I called someone and got to talk to the field artillery fairly soon. He finally agreed to bracket one gun. The first shell hit between me and the No. 5 tank. I told him to raise it 200 feet. Since the two tanks were the only men near the road, he agreed, with a promise to pull it down if the SS tried to come back into town.
The field artillery went on until an hour or more after dark. The SS had quit shooting at us. They were still milling around in the trees across the road.
After doing my job on the ground, I got back in the tank. The roof had fallen in on the house protecting me from at least one antitank gun. While trying to get my nerve up to try him one more time, I noticed that the one rifleman to my right was not an infantryman but was a tanker. This man was Aaron C. Brown, who had gotten out of the No. 5 tank and had picked up a rifle and came up where my tank was. Standing at the corner of the house, he picked off several SS men when they moved from one tree to another.
After more than an hour of field artillery fire, I got nervy and decided to try to get one more shot at that antitank gun. He knew what I would do and was waiting. If I had pulled out one more inch, he would have gotten my gun shield. Then I tried backing up again, but the space between the two houses was too wide. He would have gotten two shots at me. There were probably two of them, anyway.
After dark, I got my tank backed up to the disabled crews. I organized three tank crews ready to go full-strength. Then with the few infantry boys left, we set up our defense for the night.
I called the field artillery again. I told them our position and said that I would tell them, if the SS tried to reenter the town, to shell the east half of the town.
We had accomplished our mission. However, at dark there were a lot more men on the other side of the road than there were on our side, so every man pulled guard all night long. We got no information or instructions from anyone all day or that night. The medics finished what they could do by about 2 a.m. (Too late for Harris).
The next morning, the first thing we saw move was 12 or 15 American tanks coming down the blacktop road from Udenhausen toward us like they were on a pleasure cruise going to Koblenz. When they stopped, we found that everything movable in the woods was gone. There had been two antitank guns where Lieutenant Fuller was firing when he was hit. One was knocked out, Im sure by Lieutenant Fuller. The other had been towed away.
That morning we were informed that 3,200 SS troops were in the woods when we attacked. It scares me to think what might have been had we attacked down the blacktop road that morning.
Im almost sure about the fourth boy killed in Pfaffenheck, but I will check with Wes Harrell. He was the driver of Snuffys tank. Three boys were wounded, but I dont remember who they were, either.
It wasnt far to Pfaffenheck from this little village, maybe three kilometers. We moved across country abreast, not in a column, and No. 3 tank was the first one hit. I dont know if No. 1 or No. 2 was hit next, but No. 3 was hit first. It was in an orchard. We went through the little town, but the Germans had dug in on the road and had their guns camouflaged, and they knocked out No. 3. And they cut Haywards leg off below the knee, I remember him holding it and dragging it with him. He got out on the ground, and they cut him down, they machine-gunned him on the ground.
Billy Wolfe, the shell hit him somewhere in the midsection, and he burned in the tank. He was dead. Hayward was on the ground, dead.
Wes Harrell, who was from Stonewall, Oklahoma, and lives in Hobbs, New Mexico now, he was the driver. He got out. And the bow gunner was a little Chinese boy named Moy. Koon L. Moy. We called him Chop Chop. He got out. And the gunner was John Clingerman. He got out without a scratch. But then he got on Snuffys tank. The reason I know that was the first tank hit is because Snuffys tank wasnt hit yet. Clingerman got on it, and when it was hit he lost an eye. And it killed Jack Mantell. He was the loader in Snuffys tank.
In that crew, Carl Grey was the driver, a Mexican boy named Guadalupe Valdivia from Topeka, Kansas, was the bow gunner, and he wasnt hurt. The gunner was Russell Loop, he lives at Indianola, Illinois, hes a farmer. Jack Mantell was the loader, and he was killed. The shell came through the gun shield.
Snuffy was the tank commander and lieutenant, the platoon leader. So thats 1 and 3. Now No. 2 tank which was my tank, but I was the gunner in No. 5 tank that day they put a man in there that had come in fresh from Fort Knox named Russell Harris, and he was one of these gung-ho type fellows, he told me the first time I saw him, "Im not afraid of the damn Germans. Theyll not make me pull my head in."
I told him, "Harris, youre a fool. These people here, theyre not necessarily afraid of the Germans, but they respect them. Theyre good soldiers. Theyll kill you. If they shoot your head off, youre done. But as long as you can stick your head back out and fight again, youre worth something."
Well, thats just what he did. He never pulled his head in and they shot him in the head with a 40-millimeter gun.
There had been only four men to begin with in that tank. John Zimmer was supposed to be the loader, but he had gone to the medics back across the river, and he wasnt there. The driver was Leroy Campbell from Meridien, Mississippi. The bow gunner was Lloyd Seal, but he had got up to be the loader in the turret in Johns place. And the gunner was Clarence Rosen, he was from Ogilvie, Minnesota, and one of the top-notch gunners, too.
Now thats three tanks gone. That just left 4 and 5. I was in 5. Byrl Rudd was platoon sergeant, and he was in the No. 4 tank. Well, the Germans had him hemmed in behind a house with a big dug-in gun up there, camouflaged.
So hes hemmed in up there. That just left the No. 5 tank. And we were the only one that could move. The Germans tried for the whole day to come back across the highway, but they never did get back. But I burned the barrel out of a .30-caliber air-cooled machine gun, we changed barrels. I never counted them, but we stacked up a whole bunch of SS troops.
Although we just had two tanks left, the next morning we moved out with three, and I never knew where the third tank came from until the reunion at Niagara Falls [in 1987], and Snuffy Fuller was there. I said, "Ive thought about this for a lot of years, I want to know where we got the third tank to move out."
Snuffy said Sheppard got it from A Company. And that answered that. But he came to me that day and said, "Say, do you want to be my gunner today?"
I said, "I aint put in no application for it but I will." So we put Loop over in No. 5, and Rudds tank was still intact. And we moved out with three tanks, and moved down through the woods. The Germans had pulled out in the night, took their guns with them. And we pulled through the woods, out on a point of a ridge, and could look across the Rhine.
Thats the 16th day of March that the fight was in Pfaffenheck. Billy Wolfe was killed. Russell Harris was killed. Lloyd Hayward was killed, and Jack Mantell was killed. And we lost three tanks.
We went across an open pasture and got into this town. We were staying behind buildings. We pulled around the buildings and got on the road, where this 75-millimeter gun was just across the road and down, and I could never get that thing in my sight. It was too low down. I couldnt get my gun down that far. I could have knocked that silly thing out, saved a lot of trouble, if I could have got my gun down.
Then they started firing a lot of footballs [panzerfausts] we called them. So we had to back out of there. We backed out, and thought we could pull around behind these buildings and then come in facing them. Well, that was a mistake. Theyd already knocked two tanks out there and we pulled out and we were the third. But ours would still move. So we backed around behind a building, and Snuffy and I went out to pick up one of the boys that had both of his feet shot off, one of the other tank commanders. He had managed to crawl down over the back of the tank, and we got out there, and got him up between us, but they hit him about a half a dozen times right between us. So we let him back down and took off pretty quick.
The gun crew that knocked our tanks out, I went into a building with the infantry, after we couldnt get that sergeant back, I went up with the infantry and I went to an upstairs room. I had an old M-1 rifle, and got me a chair, and I sat down in it, and I picked them suckers off one by one. Every one of em.
I think Jack Mantell was just about the closest buddy I had over there. Just a night or two before he got hit, we were setting in a house, and Jack said, "Ill make a deal with you." He had a wife and a little boy. And he said, "If I get killed, will you go tell my wife and little boy what happened? Exactly."
And I said, "Well, Ill make you a deal the same way. Will you go tell my folks?"
And I reckon that was about, he was the closest, really. I did go and tell her. She lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Took me a while to get the nerve up, but I did go tell her, finally.
Before we moved up to Pfaffenheck, Jack was standing guard outside a house. He was a replacement, and I thought I had him on the stick. A shell came in, and the house had a tile roof. It hit a corner of the house, and some of the flak went through his helmet, cut a pretty good gash in his head. I said, "Jack, this is your chance. Say your heads killing you. Get the heck out of here." Another quarter of a mile and he was gone.
I did not interview Lieutenant Fuller for this book. The following is a letter that he wrote to Hubert Wolfe.
To Pfc. Hubert L. Wolfe Jr., Company M, 310 Infantry, APO 78, 14 July, 1945,
I hardly know how to start this letter, as you dont even know who I am. Anyway, Lieutenant Seeley, the adjutant of our battalion, received a letter from you asking the facts about your brother, Billy Wolfe. As I was his platoon leader and was there when he was killed, he has asked me to try to give you the information you requested.
Captain Sheppard has already written your mother, but perhaps he has not told her exactly how he died. But I am trusting that since you are a soldier, I can tell you the true facts, and then perhaps you can tell your folks what you think they ought to know.
To start off, our battalion has been attached to the 90th Infantry Division since July 3rd, 1944, which as you probably know is in the Third Army. My platoon, the second platoon of C Company, 712th Tank Battalion, was attached to the second battalion of the 357th Infantry Regiment.
Your brother joined my platoon on the 4th of March while we were driving to the Rhine River, following up the 11th Armored Division. We drove to a town called Mayenne, and then changed direction and started driving to the Moselle for the second time.
On the evening of March 14, we crossed the Moselle and found that the infantry that had preceded us had gotten into a jam and lost over half of their men and gotten cut off, so we were called upon to rescue them.
We succeeded in reaching the town where they were, and cleared it okay, and stayed there the rest of the day, and stayed there the night of the 15th. Then, on the morning of the 16th, we were told to attack the town of Pfaffenheck, which was about 2,000 yards north of where we were. The TDs started into the town first, but as they rolled over the crest of a hill, the lead tank destroyer was knocked out by an antitank gun. They withdrew, and succeeded in knocking out the gun and another.
We were then ordered to try to enter the town, and by going down a draw, I managed to get into the east side of the town.
Your brother was in No. 2 tank, which was commanded by Sergeant Hayward, with Johnny Clingerman as gunner, William Harrell as driver, Koon Moy as bow gunner, and your brother as loader.
As I said, all of the tanks got into the town okay except No. 3, which encountered a 40-millimeter AA gun, which killed the tank commander.
We took all but three houses, when the infantry got stopped by firing from the woods east of the town. In order to knock out the gun that was holding up the infantry, the tanks started to move out to get a firing position. I sent the second section along the backs of the houses, while I took the first section into an orchard. My tank was in the lead, and the tank your brother was in was on my left flank, slightly behind.
Just after we had passed an opening between two houses, my loader told me No. 2 tank had been hit. I looked over, and the men were piling out, and the tank was blazing. The shot had went through the right sponson, puncturing the gas tank.
I didnt know then how many men had gotten out, so I tried to get my tank into position to rescue the men, but as I moved into position, my tank received a direct hit through the gun shield, killing my loader. Fortunately for the rest of us, my driver was able to move the tank before the Heinies could fire again.
After giving Clingerman first aid and getting the rest of the boys calmed down, I took my gunner with me and we crawled out to where Sergeant Hayward lay wounded. I found that he would have to have a stretcher to be moved. I went back to get the medics, and then I learned from the rest of the crew that your brother never got out of the tank. As the tank was burning all this time, we could not get near it. I dont know if you have ever seen one of our tanks burn, but when 180 gallons of gas start burning, and ammunition starts to explode, the best thing to do is keep away.
When I got the medics back out to Sergeant Hayward, I found he had been killed by a sniper. The other section of tanks finally took care of the Heinies, and we secured the town.
Your brothers tank continued to burn all that night, but in the morning we were able to go out to investigate. We determined that your brother had been killed instantly, as the shell had hit right above his seat. There was nothing visible but a few remnants of bones that were so badly burned that if they had been touched, they would have turned to ashes.
As for personal effects, you could not recognize anything because the intense heat and the exploding ammunition had fused most of the metal parts together.
The accident was reported to the GRO of the 357th, and as we moved on to the Rhine the next day, I didnt think anything more about it until two weeks ago when I received a letter from the Third Army asking for information. I sincerely trust that by this time they have everything straightened out. If you ever get into the neighborhood of that town, the tank may still be there. The town of Pfaffenheck is about 13 miles south of Koblenz on the main autobahn that runs straight down that peninsula formed by the Rhine and the upper Moselle.
Maybe I have told you more than I ought to, but I really would like to help you in any way that I can. Your brother was very well liked by all the rest of the crew, but he was so doggone quiet that we hardly ever knew he was around. Of the other members of his crew, William Harrell is still with me, as is Koon Moy. Clingerman lost his eye and had his legs filled with shrapnel and is now back in the States. That was the worst day I had in combat. I lost three tanks, had four men killed and three wounded. But that is the way things went. It might be interesting to you that in the town there were seven anti-tank guns, one 40-millimeter antiaircraft gun, plus plenty of determined SS troops. We counted 92 dead Germans and had 23 prisoners.
I am enclosing a snap one of the boys took which has your brother on it. I will also try to draw a sketch of the town, so if you ever get there you can find the place.
Incidentally, you will have to use your judgment as to how much of this story you want to pass on to your mother.
Dont forget, if I can be of any further help to you, I will be more than glad to hear from you at any time. There is no use in trying to tell you how sorry I feel, because you have been through the same things yourself, so Ill just say so long and good luck.
Francis A. Fuller, First Lieutenant
Billy Wolfe and Jack Mantell came to us the same time, they were just youngsters. The first or second day they got there, they were talking to me. They were concerned about how theyd do in combat. "Boys, I dont know how youll do, but the fact that youre concerned about it, I believe youll be all right." Well, they both got killed in just ten or twelve days, but they didnt get killed because they were bad soldiers. If a man had been there twenty years hed have got killed if he was in their spot. When one of those big shells hits you, youre dead, its not your fault either. You just dont weather that.
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