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E Co, 32nd A.R., 3rd Armored Division

By Philip T. DeRiggi
Written in 2006


John, who passed away on October 8, 2005, was one of the many heroes of World War II that put their lives on the line so that you and I could enjoy the freedom that they fought so bravely to protect. I am very proud indeed to say that John was my brother. He got the nickname, "Johnny Boy", at a very young age growing up in Pennsylvania. Friends and neighbors often heard my mother or father yell, "Johnny, boy, if I get hold of you..."

He was 18 years old when he entered the United States Army. He bravely served with the 3rd Armored Division, one of the most aggressive of the American divisions. He fought in France, Belgium, and Germany and was wounded twice. John was in many major battles, including The Battle of the Bulge, and was on the crew of the new 90mm Pershing tank that destroyed a German Panther tank in front of the Cologne Cathedral in that famous and dramatic movie footage by Sgt. Jim Bates. (CONTINUED below photos)

  ABOVE PHOTOS on March 6, 1945 (from top): John DeRiggi's 90mm M26 Pershing tank in Cologne, Germany, (arrow points to John); John with German rifle in Cologne Cathedral Sqaure after destruction of Panther tank; John and tank crew; Pershing a moment after firing at another German tank prior to Cathedral Square shoot.

While in France, John and a buddy single-handedly captured about twenty German soldiers. He and his buddy had decided to check out a farm on the French countryside. To their surprise, two young French women approached and offered them some wine. As they stood next to a hay wagon talking, one of the young ladies alerted them that she had spotted about twenty Germans. The Germans were approaching along a dirt road toward the farm. John and his friend each had two pistols and a rifle. They thought quickly and placed the weapons on the hay wagon, spaced a few feet apart from each other. As the Germans got closer, they started to fire at them, rushing from one weapon to another. The Germans thought that it was a whole squad of Americans and decided to surrender. I guess watching those Saturday afternoon cowboy movies paid off. Maybe it was the French wine or maybe it was just because they were two brave young men. What do you think?

John was the only man alive out of a crew of five in an M4 Sherman that had been knocked out shortly before The Battle Of The Bulge. John's tank had advanced into an open field after exiting from a tree-line. A German Mark V that was camouflaged in a tree line on the opposite side of the field fired one round from its high velocity 75MM, knocking out the Sherman. John had been rendered unconscious by the concussion of the blast and was slumped in the gunner's seat. When he regained consciousness after a few moments, he learned that the tank commander, the loader, and the assistant driver had been killed instantly. He heard a moan from the driver's compartment and, laying on the turret floor, he stretched forward into the compartment. The driver was slumped forward in his seat, so John reached forward and placed his hands around the drivers waist to pull him rearward. To his horror, his right hand went right into a gapping wound in the driver's stomach. The driver's head flopped backward and he looked up at John for a moment. His eyes rolled upward and he died in John's arms.

It only took a few moments for John to realize that the German Mark V could fire another round at the Sherman. So he climbed up into the tank commander's seat and peered out the vision blocks. The Mark V had pulled forward from the tree-line and was perched on a bluff about seventy-five yards to his left. John grabbed a .45 caliber machine gun, nicknamed a grease gun, and perched himself on the seat. He was in a stooped position and, putting one hand on the hatch lever, he flung open the hatch and propelled himself out of the tank. He landed on the ground next to the Sherman, keeping it between himself and the Mark V. The tree-line that the Sherman had exited from was about forty or fifty yards away. It didn't take a genius to figure out that he had to make it to those trees.

Peeking from behind the Sherman, John could see the Mark V. Its 75mm main gun still pointed at the Sherman. John took a deep breath and started to sprint toward the tree-line. With his first steps, a searing pain shot up his left leg from his foot. It wasn't until he started to run that he realized that he had been wounded in the foot. Pain or not, he ran as fast as he could, zigzagging, as he sprinted toward the trees. Suddenly there was a load swoosh and he was pelted with dirt as a round from the Mark V tore into the ground next to him. The tank was apparently out of small arms ammunition and was firing its 75mm at John. Fortunately for him, they were apparently out of high-explosive shells as well. Two or three more armored-piercing rounds tore into the ground as he ran toward the woods. I'd hate to tell you what would have happen if the Mark V's gunner was having one of his better days.

John eventually made it back to the American lines and, after mending for a short period of time, was reassigned to a new tank. It was one of those long-awaited M26 90mm Pershing tanks that had just arrived in Europe. He was naturally grateful for surviving his ordeal, but was hell bent on revenge for his fallen comrades. As he once told me, "I shot at anything that moved!!"

John was seriously wounded sometime after the battle for Cologne. As a tank crewman, one knows all jobs associated with the tank. On this occasion, John was driving the tank. As they entered a wooded area, they could see some infantrymen that were pinned down by sniper fire. The tank commander asked John if he could see a particular sniper that was perched high in a tree. John replied, yes, and the tank commander asked him if he could get a shot at the sniper. John opened the hatch of the driver's compartment and raised his seat. Almost simultaneously with emerging from the hatch, a mortar round struck the tank next to the hatch. The shrapnel from the mortar round tore into John's face. He was unconscious and in shock. The crew members checked for a pulse, but couldn't detect any. Seeing all of the blood, being able to see his teeth through the side of his face, and not detecting a pulse, they thought that John was dead. They pulled him from the driver's compartment and placed him in a gully, along with some other casualties.

But John regained consciousness and tried to crawl from the gully. An infantryman, seeing his movement and under fire, crawled to John's aide. The infantryman kept John from crawling out of the gully and called for the medics. Unfortunately, we do not know who that brave infantryman was. I sure hope that he survived the war and that he tells his grandkids about the tanker's life that he had saved.

John's wounds this time were his ticket home, but not for about a year. He spent about a year in Army hospitals, first in Greenland and then in Valley Forge. PA. The Army doctors did a good job with plastic surgery and his wounds were barely discernable. There was still shrapnel in his face and, being too close to his optic nerves, the doctors left it in place. From time to time, John had a difficult time breathing through his nose, because of growth around the shrapnel.

Sometime after the war, John's original 3rd Armored Division unit, the 32nd Armored Regiment, became the 32nd Medium Tank Battalion at Ft. Knox, KY. Little did I know at the time, but nine years after the war, I was to take tank training in that very same outfit at Knox. It was a real coincidence, and I was surely proud to have had that good fortune.

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