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2014, Aaron Elson


Tanks for the Memories

The online edition

2000, 2009, Chi Chi Press

Chapter 3

Hill 122

Jim Rothschadl

    Corporal Jim Rothschadl, of Waubun, Minn., was a gunner in C Company’s first platoon

    I took my basic training at Fort Benning. Tough training, too. You had to go through a two-or three-week period called Tiger Camp that would kill an ordinary guy. They kept you on the go 24 hours a day practically. They’d just about drive you out of your mind. I wouldn’t last half a day at it now.

    At first there was no 712th Tank Battalion. We were Company I of the 10th Armored Division. I was in Company I, 11th Armored Regiment, 10th Armored Division. Later on the whole battalion was split off.

    They had an armored school at Fort Benning. Each company was supposed to send one or two guys, and I was asked to go. It lasted about six weeks. After it was over with, one morning in formation the captain read off a commendation for me. Out of 500, I was the second highest. It surprised me. Later on, he sent me to gunnery school at Fort Knox for two months.

    When I got back, there was a position that I thought might be opening. The armory had a person who assigned weapons and kept them repaired and made sure they were all brought in after they were taken out. I was in the armory when Jim Flowers came by and started talking to me. I had never met him before. He had only recently transferred to our unit.

    We had quite a chat there. He came back another time and we talked some more. The third time he came back was several days later. "I’d like to have you in my tank," he said, "as a gunner."

    "I’d rather not, really," I said. "I didn’t want to be inside of a tank. I’d been in a tank quite a bit. I drove a tank, and fired out of a tank for weeks and months. There isn’t a lot of room in that turret. It’s claustrophobic when you’re locked in there.

    Flowers didn’t say much. He left, and then he came back a few days later and said, "Well, that’s the way it’s gonna be. You’re gonna be my gunner."

Jim Flowers

    Lieutenant Jim Flowers, of Dallas, was the leader of the first platoon in C Company

    I took my tanks on into Pretot, and I found Leroy Pond and his battalion staff out in the edge of an apple orchard. There are a lot of apple orchards in Normandy. I went over and told him I’m there, I’m ready to go to work, words to that effect. We were planning how we were gonna get everything organized and get up on the line where we were supposed to be, and maintain contact with the units on our left and right.

    The thing I’ll never forget was that some replacements came up for the First Battalion, and some of these boys, you could look at them and tell that they were scared half to death, before they ever actually came under enemy fire. One boy that I remember in particular was a young captain, he reported in to Pond, and as they’d come in, Pond would assign them to whatever job he wanted them to do, and have a sergeant take them out to where they’re supposed to be.

    Pond sent this young captain up to take command of one of the companies where the company commander had become a casualty, and that kid, he didn’t make it all the way up there, he fell apart before he got there. The sergeant brought him back, and he says, "He can’t make it." He was sitting over on the ground, shaking like he had a bad chill.

    If it were one of my boys, I would have gone over and grabbed that young fellow in the front of his shirt and shook the hell out of him and told him, "Now look, you’ve been trained to do a job. You’re a captain in the infantry, and it’s your job to do this, and all of us are frightened. Now you get your butt up from here and you go up there and take command of that company."

    But Pond didn’t do that. He sent the captain back. I think the common terminology to describe that boy’s condition was battle fatigue, and he’d never been in a battle.

    On July 6th, Pond and I got the word to make the assault for Hill 122. People had been there before, some tried to get up and couldn’t do it.

    The north side of Hill 122 is pretty steep, and there’s no way we’re going to get the infantry or anything else up there. But you don’t need to, because on each end it’s not all that steep. That’s the reason we approached it from the ends instead of making a frontal assault.

    Pond and I were going to go up the west side of Hill 122 and the Second Battalion, under the command of Colonel Don Gorton, was going to come up the east side.

    There’s sparse vegetation on this slope where we were. No place to hide anything. Maybe a bird could hide in there, and maybe a cottontail rabbit could, but certainly nothing so large as a tank. So after I crossed the railroad tracks I’m drawing fire.

    I’ve got to get out of there and I’ve got to do it in a hurry. The only thing I can do is run down the road toward the east end of the hill, and I’m under observation all the way. So I took my tanks and went barreling down there, and got down to a wooded area between the road and the railroad, and ran into Lieutenant Lombardi [Lt. Charles Lombardi led the third platoon of C Company]. And Don Gorton with his Second Battalion is there, they’re waiting to get the word to move out and go up on the hill. So Gorton and I plan that when we get the word we’ll move up the east end. I went over and told Lombardi what I was gonna do.

    Hill 122 had been occupied by the Roman legions back in the third, fourth century a.d. Matter of fact, there’s a stone quarry I called it, an excavation, up there to this day, and I think there’s a building or the foundations for some buildings that the Romans had built there fifteen, sixteen hundred years ago.

    I took my tanks and ran up this gully on the east side of the hill, expecting that the next moment would be the last of me, but I didn’t draw any fire. Lombardi’s tanks were right behind me, and the infantry was right with us.

    We got up on the top of the hill from the east side, but I can’t stay there. I’m supposed to be down on the west end, where Pond is bringing his infantry people up.

    I dashed on down to the other end of the hill, and some of Pond’s people were already there. Pond stayed there long enough to catch his breath. He hadn’t had all that much opposition anyhow. Then he moved part of his battalion in a southwesterly direction, and got out onto a gently sloping hill on the other side of Hill 122.

    The Germans probably let him get out there, and then moved in behind him and cut him off. So he’s sitting out there with a couple of companies from his battalion, and the Germans had cut their telephone line, so the only communication he has is with his radio.

    George Porter, who at that time was headquarters company commander of the battalion, asked me if I could take some stuff out there. I said, why hell, yes. They needed rations. They needed water. They needed medical supplies. They needed ammunition. Plus they needed batteries for the radio.

    I said, "You get the stuff up here, and I’ll load it on the decks of my tanks and make a dash out there to him."

    While they’re bringing the stuff up, we get word that the Second Battalion of the 358th Infantry, which was also up on the hill by then, had encountered some pretty terrific fighting in the woods. So I took my tanks in there to drive the Germans back.

    There was a heavy mist. I couldn’t see very far anyhow, so I got inside the tank, closed the turret hatches, and tried to see out of the damn periscope. Only there’s no good way to get the water off of the front glass of the periscope. The only way you can clean it is to pull it down a bit and shove it back up, and it wipes the water off of it, but you can’t even do that because you’re sure enough blind when you pull it down, even if it takes just five seconds.

    I started drawing fire on my tanks, and suddenly very close by I saw a bazooka team. The Germans had an anti-tank weapon called a panzerfaust. Up close, it looked like a 16-inch coastal artillery piece, although it was really a little over three inches around. Whew, I saw that damn thing pointing at me, and fortunately we were able to get a shot off before he could get us in his sights and squeeze one off.

    In the meantime, I’ve unbuttoned, so that I can stand up on the seat and see what the hell I’m doing.

    While we were out there, the stuff that we were going to take out to Pond arrived. They loaded it on the back decks of my tanks. David Hickman, who was a staff officer in Pond’s battalion, was going to ride along with us. He had been out there with Pond and had managed to get back, that’s how we knew how critical his need was to get some aid out there and get it there in a hurry.

    We tried a couple of times that night, but we had to turn back. It was a dark night, and we don’t know what the hell is out in front of us, and the Germans are shooting at us. So we turned back because we needed more light.

    The morning of the Seventh, we tried it again.

    Going around that west side of the hill, off on my right front, there’s a hedgerow, quite a distance away, and I could see some bushes moving. Bushes and small shrubs, trees, they don’t move, but these were moving parallel to that hedgerow. This has got to be a vehicle. So we zeroed in on it and stopped it.

    We continued around the road a little bit further and here come a couple of German soldiers walking up the middle of the road. They turned out to be Polish. They had their fingers laced on top of their heads, and they were unarmed.

    I don’t know what’s in front of me, but those boys know. So we turned them around and marched them right back down the road in front of those tanks.

    I let them walk in front of my tanks for maybe a hundred yards, and all of a sudden it dawned on me, "Uh, uh, Flowers, you can’t do this." I don’t know if this is against the Geneva Convention or whether it’s against the written law or not, but it’s certainly against the moral law to do this. Those kids have surrendered, and here I’ve placed them in a position to get killed.

    So far as those boys were concerned, the war was over. They had surrendered. So I stopped, and they looked back. I motioned for them to come back, and had Ed Dzienis, my loader, who was Polish, tell them to get their butts back up the road and somebody would find them and take care of them.

    I went down this road a bit further, and off on the left hand side in front of me I sure enough did see a cannon down there that had a muzzle on it that looked like it was two feet in diameter — it’s an 88 — but it looked huuuge.

    Again, the Lord was on my side. I saw this anti-tank gun dug in on the side of this road, and fortunately, I swung the turret around and had Jim Rothschadl, my gunner, pick him up in his sight and lay one round of high-explosive on that gun, and we knocked him out before he could fire a shot at us.

    We went on over a distance, four or five hedgerows, and I cut back to the right trying to find Leroy Pond and his battalion, and I ran into some of his boys, led by a captain. I got out of the tank and walked over to him and asked him if he knew where the battalion command post was, and he pointed and said, "I think it’s over there somewhere."

    Then I said, "You ought to get the hell out of here." He was down in one of these sunken roads, with a hedgerow on either side. "This is not a good place for you to be."

    "Oh," he said, "we’ve got a lot of cover."

    I said, "Yeah, you’ve got the wrong kind of cover. Don’t stay in here. I implore you, get the hell out."

    I got back in the tank and we went on over to find Pond, and would you believe it wasn’t very long after that until the Germans shelled that position where the double hedgerow was and killed that captain and the fellows that were in there with him? If he had only listened and believed me that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time...

    When I found Pond, I dispersed my tanks behind his infantry. They took the supplies that I’d brought, and if I’d have been a 20-year-old beautiful blonde he’d probably have kissed me.

    They unloaded the stuff and distributed it. He didn’t have any orders to move, and I’m certainly not going anywhere without him. Hell, it’s his war as much as it is mine.

    While we’re there, a lieutenant, I think he was with a machine gun platoon of one of their companies, came over and said, "Do you mind taking your tanks out in this field here and seeing if those Germans are still out there?" He said, "I shot at one that raised up out of a foxhole, and I don’t know whether I got him or not."

    He pointed toward this little clump of shrub or brush growing out in the middle of a field full of weeds.

    I got my tank and Judd Wiley’s, and we jumped over the hedgerow and went out there, and there was a German soldier down in this big foxhole, the war was over for him. We went on by, and out in front of us we flushed a few Germans out, kind of like flushing quail out of the brush. I use that analogy because of the way these Germans would jump up and run a bit and then fall down so you didn’t get a good shot at them.

    We swung back over in front of the First Battalion’s position and saw some soldiers in a ditch over there, and I thought I’ve come on a bunch of Germans trying to hide from me over there, so I thought, "Boy, this is going to be easy. I’ll just pull up to this ditch and I can mow ‘em down."

    I ran over there, and just as I got up there, why, some lieutenant jumped up and started waving his arms, "Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!" An American. He had a patrol out there.

    When we got back to the command post, this lieutenant that had asked me to go out there in the first place says that one of his sergeants had followed my tanks out there, and he says, "He didn’t come back. I think that he probably got hit."

    Well, I’ll go back out and get him. He says, "I’ll go with you this time if you don’t mind." So, get in, let’s go. We took my tank and Wiley’s and we went back out there, pulled up on each side of this foxhole, and sure enough, this American soldier was down in it, but he hadn’t been hit, he just had been scared half to death. We let him scramble up over the side and get in the tank, I think we put him over in Wiley’s tank.

    We pulled up a little bit, and a German bazooka team, two men, raised up out of some weeds off to my right. The first inkling I had that there was anything over there at all was I could see this damn rocket coming at me. Head-on, a little to my right. It’s unbelievable that you can actually see those things flying through the air, it had a little trail of smoke behind it.

    Of course, there’s nothing I can do. I saw the thing and saw the soldiers who fired it, and that damn rocket hit on top of my track. I had rubber track blocks, and it hit one of the track connectors.

    When that rocket hit, there was a blinding flash of light and I just knew that it was all over. I thought that was the end of it.

    I shot at these soldiers and I don’t know, maybe we got ‘em, maybe we didn’t. But when that thing hit that track and didn’t come in, and I realized that the damage is outside, I had Horace Gary, my driver, try to move forward slowly to see what happens, and the tank moved. Both sides of it moved. I said, well, the track’s not completely off.

    We went back over a hedgerow, and as we were going over it, half of the turret hatch on Wiley’s tank — the turret hatches are in two pieces, and they fold down — one of the halves came unlatched and hit Wiley on his fingers, it crushed them.

    Wiley didn’t want to say anything about it. "Get back, go to the medics," I said.

    I had Abraham I. Taylor, my platoon sergeant, take the damaged tank back for repairs, and I sent Wiley back with it.

    So we’re sitting there with Pond’s infantry, and there are still no orders to move. We spent two nights there.

    Sometime on the morning of the 10th of July, Jack Sheppard — Lieutenant Harlo J. Sheppard — arrived. By then, I needed gasoline for my tanks. I needed ammunition. He brought two trucks up there loaded with jerry cans of gasoline, and some water, and ammunition, and of course, rations, those delicious C rations. I think he had taken command of the company by then, because Jim Cary became a casualty on the Third. Sheppard had been the motor officer for C Company, but now he was the company commander.

    Sheppard told me that there was an infantry outfit back on Hill 122 — we’re beyond Hill 122 and to the right of it now — he said there was a battalion of infantry that had been cut off, and they were having a rough go of it.

    Well, it looks like they need some help, and they need some help from somebody that’s got maximum firepower, and that’s my tanks.

    In the meantime, the tank that I’d sent back with Taylor had been repaired, so now I’ve got five tanks.

    I went over and asked Captain Pond if he had any orders for us to move, and he said, "Nope, not yet," so I told him about this battalion cut off back there in the woods on Hill 122 and said I ought to go over there and help those people get out of that mess, and he said, "Okay. Now, you will come back?"

    I said, "Oh, sure. I don’t know how long it’ll take. I’ll certainly be back before dark."

    "Okay," he said. "We need you. 'Bye."

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