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A Blinding Flash of Light
Captain Harlo J. Sheppard, of Tampa, Fla., was the Company C commander
There are three presidential unit citations in the 712th. One of them is for the first platoon, C Company. I was with it at the time.
I was taking this tank to Jim Flowers. It was one of his tanks that had been knocked out and we got a replacement for.
We got up on top of the hill and were going down towards Flowers. I was in a jeep leading the tank, with Jim Bailey as my driver, when a lieutenant colonel stopped me. He said, "I need some tanks down there. Ive got a battalion thats surrounded by SS and they need tank support but bad."
I said, "Well, let me see if I can get Flowers released." He was with another infantry battalion, I dont know which.
I called the division commander, and he by voice authorized me, so I called up Flowers, and he came back and joined us.
I left Taylor to get the tanks filled with gasoline and stowed with ammunition. Then I took a map and marked it where I wanted, and I said, "You bring the tanks over there. Im going ahead to take a look," to see what the opposition has in store for us.
I got in the jeep with Sheppard. We went back over on Hill 122, and pulled up over on the west side, I cant remember exactly where but it had to be somewhere between that rock quarry and the heavily wooded area.
I stopped up there because thats where Id marked for Taylor to bring the tanks, and somebodys got to be there to meet him. So I told Sheppard, you just stay here with Jim Bailey, that was his jeep driver, I said, "Yall stay here, and when Taylor gets here, yall just wait for me, Ill be back after awhile. If Im not back within an hour, youll know Im not coming back."
With that, I walked out in the woods and went in an appreciable distance, and I encountered several Germans. They didnt see me, and I sure wasnt going to cause any trouble for them right then.l
I went in maybe two hundred yards, maybe further. I saw enough to know that the going was not going to be real easy but its not going to be disastrous. Theres not all that much stuff out there to stop a tank, not even to slow us down, really. At least I didnt feel like it at the time.
So I went back, and in the meantime Taylor had arrived with my tanks, and I got my tank commanders together.
He didnt get there but with four tanks. One of the tanks, Ill not mention the sergeants name, that boy died here in the past year or two. Its not important who he was. Somewhere between where they started out and where we were, they, how do you say it, I think he had engine trouble or something, the tank wouldnt run.
We got over to Hill 122 with the tanks, four of them. My No. 1 tank, my No. 2 tank, my No. 4 tank, which was Taylors tank, and my No. 5 tank. Since Wiley was gone, I needed a tank commander. So I said, "Sheppard, youve never been in a firefight, wouldnt you like to get a little combat experience in a tank?"
I put Sheppard in Taylors tank so I could communicate with him, and put Taylor in Wileys tank. Two tanks in the platoon have a two-way radio, the other three only have receivers. Wiley had gone back two days before to get something done about his crushed fingers.
I told the tank commanders what I thought the problem would be that we were going to encounter in the woods, that its not going to be easy but its not going to be all that tough. "You got any questions? Then lets mount up and move out."
The driver of the No. 4 tank, thats the one in which I put Sheppard, he wouldnt go. He wouldnt drive that tank. They tell me this happened. I didnt find out about this for probably several years. It might have been twenty years after the war. I often wondered why that man was not in that tank and Bailey was.
Bailey was Sheppards jeep driver. But at one time he had been a tank driver, so it wasnt new to him. He volunteered, "Why, Ill take that tank."
We had backed off the line, and there was a rumor going around that another tank battalion was going to take our place. We pulled our tanks into a little field, and our kitchen trucks were there.
I remember driving into the field, standing up in the turret. Flowers was outside already, talking with somebody in a jeep.
Sergeant Speier, he was the mess sergeant, he knew I liked pork chops. He used to call me "Pok Chop. So all of a sudden I heard, "Hey, Pok Chop? You hungry?"
I said, "Youre goddamn right."
And he tossed me up a gallon can of marmalade and a loaf of bread.
We were parked alongside the hedgerow, and somebody came up and said, "You cant stand outside. Youve got to get underneath the tank," because mortar fire might come in.
There was about two feet under the tank, so we crawled under there, and took this gallon can of marmalade we were so damn hungry and the loaf of bread. There were four of us, Ed Dzienis, our loader; Gerald Kiballa, the assistant driver; Horace Gary, the driver, and myself. We took a Bowie knife, and we cut open this can of marmalade. And we broke the bread, it wasnt sliced, so we took chunks off, and we scooped out the marmalade with our hands. We ate the whole gallon.
So were laying there, and Sergeant Speier came over and said, "Itll take about an hour. Ive got a hot meal for you." We hadnt had a hot meal since we left England. About that time, a jeep comes racing into this little field with an officer.
One of our tanks was parked about a hundred feet from our tank, and I noticed a commotion over there. Several people were gathered around it, and people were waving arms. So I walked over there to see what was going on.
And here this guy was, he refused to drive. I couldnt believe it. "Im not gonna go," he was saying. "Im just not gonna go. The hell with you, Im not gonna go." And they put him in a jeep, and away they went. We had been told that the rules of war, if you disobey an order on the front, you dont have to be court-martialed, they could shoot you right there. They didnt do that. They took him away.
Sergeant Bailey was the communications sergeant, although he knew how to drive a tank, and damned if he didnt volunteer to drive that tank.
My crew at the time was Earl Holman, Abe Taylor was the tank commander, I was the gunner, G.B. Kennedy was the bow gunner, and then we had a driver, his name was Lochowitz.
I told Flowers, when I was in Louisville [at the 1988 reunion] thats the first time Id seen Flowers since Europe, since the day we got hit I told him the guy, he wouldnt drive the tank, so Bailey says, "Get out. Ill drive the tank."
I said to Flowers, "Theres only three men in the tank, you need a driver and you need a commander, so Bailey will take over as driver and Ill take over as commander, but you are the platoon leader, Im just another tank in your platoon." So he said okay. He said, "You follow behind Taylor." They pulled out in front of me and we pulled along behind them.
Flowers I think fired the machine gun a few times, and all of a sudden we were with this battalion of infantry.
Then we were given orders that were going to attack across the road. The road went along a big open field with a hedgerow at the far end. Flowers and K Company of the 358th Infantry were going to take that hedgerow. Famous last words.
I led the tanks on into the woods and ran the Germans in front of me until I started seeing some of our own infantry, and I asked them where their battalion commander was. It turned out that this was the Third Battalion of the 358th Infantry, and their battalion commander was a man named Jacob Bealke from Sullivan, Missouri, a reserve officer.
When I found Colonel Bealke, he was glad to see me. To say the least, he was glad to see me.
We planned how to get him off of that hill and out of those woods. Some of that brush, it was kind of like a thicket, you couldnt see through it much less walk through it, and they had been catching hell.
They had managed to capture eight of the Germans that I had run down that way, and from them we found out that this is part of the 15th Regiment of the 5th SS parachute infantry division. These were fairly clean kids, most of them looked like they might hafve been in their early to mid-twenties. They had had a bath and a shave recently, and had had something to eat, they had clean uniforms, the whole nine yards. We probably looked like a scurvy bunch of bums by then.
Bealke and I made a plan on how to get out of there. Id take my tanks and knock this underbrush and thicket down so his infantry could get out. Thats one of the reasons they were trapped in there. Ill knock some paths through this stuff so yall can walk behind me to get out.
So at first, this infantry was walking in front of me, but that didnt last long. We hadnt gone but a short distance and they fell back in line with my tanks. And that didnt last but a few yards, they just couldnt get through that stuff, and there was a heavy concentration of German soldiers. So the infantry walked behind my tanks.
Our plan was to get down the side of the hill, which in some places was pretty steep, and out of the woods onto this hard-surface road that ran on the south side of the hill, and go on out into the fields on the other side of the road and try to get him up on the line with Ponds battalion.
Everything worked out according to plan, except for one thing. The infantry kind of got bogged down.
I ran down the side of the hill, knocked down a bunch of brush and thicket and stuff for em, and at first the infantry was right behind me. We got down to the hardtop road, and now I dont know where in the hell the infantry is. I had no idea that the Germans were decimating Bealkes infantry now.
As I come out of the woods and onto that hardtop road, I look both ways and dont see a damn thing, everything looks fine, so I go across the ditch and the hedgerow on the other side, and out into a field.
In front of me was a swampy area. I could tell by the vegetation growing there. I got on the radio and told the other tanks to look out for that as they came across the road. Dont run into that marshy area there and get stuck.
I went around on the right side of this marsh, and as Sheppard came across, why, Bailey ran him out in it and got stuck.
Taylor, who was in Wileys tank, and Kenneth Titman, who was in the No. 5 tank, they went around on the left side and went on. Then Sheppard got on the radio and said, "Jim, Im stuck back here."
I thought, "Damn!"
"What do you want me to do now?"
"Well, hell, youve still got your tank gun, your 75. You can support my advance by fire." He can sit there and fire in front of me at any target of opportunity that he can see.
"When I have an opportunity," I said, "Ill get somebody back there to pull you out of that marsh"
I went on, and out in this field theres bushes, weeds and stuff. And theres a hedgerow up there. I dont remember if theres any trees, although there might have been.
The thing that I do remember is that the artillery and mortar fire from the German side was falling in on us kind of like hail or raindrops, boy, there was a lot of it.
"Id run quite a distance across the second field in after I crossed the road, and Taylors tank and Titmans tank are off on my left, nothing on my right. Sheppards back stuck in the marsh.
After Id run quite a distance out into that second field, I recall seeing a blinding flash of light and hearing this big bell ringing.
What had happened, the Germans had fired an armor-piercing shot from an anti-tank gun and I saw the muzzle flash, and the ringing was that they had bounced this thing off of my turret.
I immediately had Gary stop and back up. Im sure that Im in a fire lane that theyve cut.
At the same time, Im on the radio telling the other tanks to look out for that anti-tank gun and giving them the approximate location of it. Lets be careful. So fater Gary backed up, I had him pull to the right and then go forward. Hopefully Im out of this guys fire line. Im sure not going to slow down to find out.
As we do that, we hadnt pulled up too far until, I dont know whether it was an armor-piercing shot, it might have been a bazooka, I dont know what it was but it came through the right sponson, where a bunch of ammunition is stored, and ignited the propelling charge in this 75-millimeter ammunition and clipped off my right forefoot, and I suppose that whatever it was probably went out the other side. Instantaneously, the tank is a ball of fire.
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