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2014, Aaron Elson


Tanks for the Memories

The online edition

2000, 2009, Chi Chi Press

Chapter 4

A Blinding Flash of Light

Jack Sheppard

    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. I’ve got a battalion that’s 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 don’t 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.

Jim Flowers

    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. I’m 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 can’t remember exactly where but it had to be somewhere between that rock quarry and the heavily wooded area.

    I stopped up there because that’s where I’d marked for Taylor to bring the tanks, and somebody’s 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, "Y’all stay here, and when Taylor gets here, y’all just wait for me, I’ll be back after awhile. If I’m not back within an hour, you’ll know I’m not coming back."

    With that, I walked out in the woods and went in an appreciable distance, and I encountered several Germans. They didn’t see me, and I sure wasn’t 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 it’s not going to be disastrous. There’s not all that much stuff out there to stop a tank, not even to slow us down, really. At least I didn’t 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 didn’t get there but with four tanks. One of the tanks, I’ll not mention the sergeant’s name, that boy died here in the past year or two. It’s 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 wouldn’t 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 Taylor’s tank, and my No. 5 tank. Since Wiley was gone, I needed a tank commander. So I said, "Sheppard, you’ve never been in a firefight, wouldn’t you like to get a little combat experience in a tank?"

    I put Sheppard in Taylor’s tank so I could communicate with him, and put Taylor in Wiley’s 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 it’s not going to be easy but it’s not going to be all that tough. "You got any questions? Then let’s mount up and move out."

    The driver of the No. 4 tank, that’s the one in which I put Sheppard, he wouldn’t go. He wouldn’t drive that tank. They tell me this happened. I didn’t 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 Sheppard’s jeep driver. But at one time he had been a tank driver, so it wasn’t new to him. He volunteered, "Why, I’ll take that tank."

Jim Rothschadl

    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 "Po’k Chop. So all of a sudden I heard, "Hey, Po’k Chop? You hungry?"

    I said, "You’re 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 can’t stand outside. You’ve 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 wasn’t sliced, so we took chunks off, and we scooped out the marmalade with our hands. We ate the whole gallon.

    So we’re laying there, and Sergeant Speier came over and said, "It’ll take about an hour. I’ve got a hot meal for you." We hadn’t 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 couldn’t believe it. "I’m not gonna go," he was saying. "I’m just not gonna go. The hell with you, I’m 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 don’t have to be court-martialed, they could shoot you right there. They didn’t do that. They took him away.

    Sergeant Bailey was the communications sergeant, although he knew how to drive a tank, and damned if he didn’t volunteer to drive that tank.

Louis Gerrard

    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] — that’s the first time I’d seen Flowers since Europe, since the day we got hit — I told him the guy, he wouldn’t drive the tank, so Bailey says, "Get out. I’ll drive the tank."

Jack Sheppard

    I said to Flowers, "There’s only three men in the tank, you need a driver and you need a commander, so Bailey will take over as driver and I’ll take over as commander, but you are the platoon leader, I’m 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 we’re 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.

Jim Flowers

    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 couldn’t 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. I’d take my tanks and knock this underbrush and thicket down so his infantry could get out. That’s one of the reasons they were trapped in there. I’ll knock some paths through this stuff so y’all can walk behind me to get out.

    So at first, this infantry was walking in front of me, but that didn’t last long. We hadn’t gone but a short distance and they fell back in line with my tanks. And that didn’t last but a few yards, they just couldn’t 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 Pond’s 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 don’t know where in the hell the infantry is. I had no idea that the Germans were decimating Bealke’s infantry now.

    As I come out of the woods and onto that hardtop road, I look both ways and don’t 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. Don’t 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 Wiley’s 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, I’m stuck back here."

    I thought, "Damn!"

    "What do you want me to do now?"

    "Well, hell, you’ve 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, "I’ll get somebody back there to pull you out of that marsh"

    I went on, and out in this field there’s bushes, weeds and stuff. And there’s a hedgerow up there. I don’t remember if there’s 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.

    "I’d run quite a distance across the second field in after I crossed the road, and Taylor’s tank and Titman’s tank are off on my left, nothing on my right. Sheppard’s back stuck in the marsh.

    After I’d 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. I’m sure that I’m in a fire lane that they’ve cut.

    At the same time, I’m on the radio telling the other tanks to look out for that anti-tank gun and giving them the approximate location of it. Let’s be careful. So fater Gary backed up, I had him pull to the right and then go forward. Hopefully I’m out of this guy’s fire line. I’m sure not going to slow down to find out.

    As we do that, we hadn’t pulled up too far until, I don’t know whether it was an armor-piercing shot, it might have been a bazooka, I don’t 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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