From Spearhead in the West, 1946 Edition  Woolner Index      NEXT

Frank Woolner
Journalist, Headquarters, 3rd Armored Division

Originally published: Yank, The Army Weekly, December 3, 1944


[EDITOR'S NOTE: Although the specific unit is not named in the article, Woolner is writing of the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion. This omission would be due to Army press censorship at the time.]

Inside Germany - There was moonlight. The air was cold and fresh, and it reminded you of winter time at home. There was the same curved bowl of blue-green sky, the same stars winking frostily. The ground crunched pleasantly under your feet, and the apple trees which covered this little clearing might have been growing in old New England. You walked in memory at this moment, almost expecting to jump a woodcock in the half light. The clear cold was soothing after the raw weather, but it linked a bitter chain of circumstances which added up to the soldier's ever-present pang of loneliness.

This wasn't New England. On the horizon was a steady flickering, like heat lightning, only it was cold-white, and the thunder came jumping back in spasmodic crumps of sound. You looked more closely through the little orchard now, and you could see the backdrop of war. Tank destroyers crouched in the gloom, low-slung silhouettes with impossibly long guns jutting from their angular turrets. Even as you watched the big steel machines, they opened fire, first one and then another, in a succession of ear-splitting blasts. The rippling spout of white flame seemed to imprint itself on your eyes after it had been dissipated to drifting smoke. Your ears sang with the reverberations of the big 90mm guns; and the loneliness suddenly was gone - the present had reasserted itself.

This was Germany in the winter of 1944, and here was a platoon of a Tank Destroyer Battalion, attached to the 3rd Armored Division. There was a guy sitting here on the trunk of an apple tree which had been toppled by enemy fire. His name was Cpl. George Harland, and his home was in Housatonic, Massachusetts. George had evidently been lost in nostalgia, too, because he said, " Nice night for fox hunting, isn't it? "

And because you used to hunt foxes on nights like these, over the same choppy hills of New England, you slipped into a perfect understanding with this guy who was a gunner of a deadly war machine.

"Anything doing?" you asked, sitting down on the apple log.

"Not much. We're firing indirect and reaching out pretty far. That last serenade registered at nearly maximum range. There hasn't been much incoming mail. Got a few rounds from a Jerry railway gun last night, but I think the Thunderbolts got him."

Harland is an easy going Joe. His blue eyes are gentle and he speaks slowly, without using profanity. He doesn't talk about the scores of German vehicles he has blasted into rust-colored junk, or about the Mark-V that nearly left him at Fromental forever. Veterans don't boast about these things. They say mildly, "Nothing much doing," but if you sit around and bat the breeze, high adventure inadvertently creeps into the conversation. Steel and fire and death are the hallmarks of the armored forces, but the tankers and tank destroyers of our Army like to forget that. They'd rather talk about football back in '39, or what the Dodgers are doing-or how foxhounds might run a red fox on a night when moonlight etches run-down apple trees with silver. In a way this is as it should be. The tired guys who man our weapons are fighting for such privileges.

Here, beyond the Siegfried Line, these big tank destroyers were dropping shells up to maximum range from their reeking muzzles. In one twelve-hour period a platoon of the weapons had fired 480 rounds. They were M-36s equipped with a 90mm gun - four to a platoon, fast and maneuverable, each packing a wallop sufficient to sieve the heaviest tank in the world.

Jerry had reason to dislike these TDs. Led by a 27-year-old Lt. Colonel, Wilbur E. Showalter, of Kingman, Kansas, the battalion had harried Jerry across France and Belgium, wrecking his armor and self-propelled guns at ranges of anything from 25 yards to sight distance. They'd waylaid the panzers time and again, ambushed German motorized columns, played havoc with the enemy at countless load blocks from Perriers to Aachen. Now, when the American drive paused temporarily, to bring up supplies and to straighten the line before launching that all-out attack which would mean " Germany Kaput," these identical tank destroyers dropped back and supported the artillery as though they had been just waiting for this moment. It was hard on Jerry, but it wasn't news. Tank destroyers have always been a bitter pill for supermen to swallow.

This battalion came ashore in Normandy with the 3rd Armored Division, and went into action at St. Jean de Daye, France, in time to help smash a German counter-attack which was designed to reach the sea at Isigny. The 3rd became famous as an outfit that helped to spearhead the entire United States First Army forces from the breakthrough sector of Perriers-St. Lo to the Siegfried Line, making the most spectacular advance of the western campaign in an 18-day dash from the Seine to the German border. The Tank Destroyer Battalion was there in the dust and grime of that long attack. It shared the 3rd Armored Division's well-earned sobriquet: "The Spearhead."

A tank destroyer is a big vehicle. It looks like an underselling, angular tank, and it weighs 32 tons on the prowl. If you haven't studied your silhouettes, well, you might take it for a German panzerwagon. The gun is exceptionally long; and there, in fact, is the explanation of so much weight on a relatively thin-skinned vehicle - that wicked shooting iron and the counterbalance which allows smooth tracking.

The TD is not a tank. It has an open turret and a thin skin, in comparison to the hide of a Sherman or Mark-V. Fast, and extremely maneuverable, the M-36-can outslug any tank in the world, but in a duel with armor it would fare very badly. This sounds like a contradictory statement, but it isn't. While the heavy 90mm weapon of the TD will destroy anything on wheels or tracks, it must do so from a concealed position or suffer the consequences of a hit which would certainly pierce its inadequate armor. The motto of Tank-Destroyer Command is: " Seek-Strike-Destroy." Officers of this new branch of the Service add: "But never duel!"

TDs stalk their game like the black panther, which is their shoulder flash, and direct fire against enemy armor, which is the primary mission of these bulky looking but deceptively fast vehicles. They are, however, versatile, and may be used in other capacities.

Here in this little orchard, under a pale winter moon, the men who helped to bring the blitz back to Germany were practicing one of those secondary roles - that of indirect fire in support of field artillery. After the hectic, never-ending attack across France and Belgium, it was tame pursuit.

The billowing, acrid dust of France was in the nostrils of these men. Imprinted on their souls were the night marches and the slashing, triple-pronged attacks where tank and tank destroyer slugged it out at negligible range. They'd strewn the rust-colored carcasses of Hitler's panzer armies all along the road from Normandy to the Siegfried Line. They'd dueled with enemy armor in violation of every principle set down by tank destroyer command - because it was necessary, and because many things were done that way in order to further the rapid drive at all costs.

Naturally, there were casualties. One does not engage and defeat the Wehrmacht's elite without paying a price. They'd killed the enemy, and the enemy had struck back savagely even as he died. These campaign-toughened TD troopers remembered their dead. You can see that memory in the face of a seasoned soldier. It is in his mind, in his' tired eyes. You can easily note the transition in such a man from a relatively soft spirit of competition to quiet hate. A veteran knows no wave of sympathy as the bullet strikes home or the shell smashes a vehicle and its occupants to blood and tangled metal. It's kill or be killed. Death to the enemy, and elation as he falls.

There were things you couldn't forget. Like the dead in the ditches of Normandy, or the flaming action at Ranes and Fromental. Here, while British forces drove south to clamp shut the Argentan-Falaise pocket, 3rd Armored Division troops cut to the very center of the Nazi elite elements under von Kluge. The TDs fought gun to gun with heavily armored panzers. A Sergeant Commander named Juno met two of these wickedly efficient enemy vehicles at a bend in the road - smashed them both into smoking junk before they could lay on his thin-skinned destroyer. Then, when the wounded enemy soldiers cried for help, Juno left the safety of his destroyer to aid them. He was killed immediately in the explosion of burning ammunition.

It was the law of speed and hot steel in France. It was running vehicles beyond all the applied principles of maintenance, whipping them forward and praying' that they would hold up under the strain. They held. The engineering wizardry of Detroit made that hell-for-leather drive possible, and its very speed insured success. German forces were caught off balance and their storied organization disrupted completely. At Mons, in Belgium, an estimated 40,000 Wehrmacht troops were killed or made prisoner by the American 3rd Armored and 1st Infantry Divisions. One platoon of tank-destroyers, on road-block in that anoint city of battle, destroyed twenty German vehicles in a six-hour period. Sgt. Muriel F. Lehman, of Marissa, Ill., accounted for most of them, he and Sgt. Arthur Parnell, of Boston, Massachusetts, with their respective crews.

Mons may well have been the beginning of Germany's modern twilight of the gods. The thousands of troops killed and captured here had been counted upon to hold the Siegfried Line. They met the American "Spearhead" instead; part of them blundered into the tank destroyers of Lehman's platoon. There was a vicious battle in the narrow streets. Tank destroyer guns sent bolts of livid flame lashing into armored halftracks and dual purpose anti-aircraft guns. Cpl. Frank Karpinski of Scranton, Pa., leaned on his panoramic sight and destroyed two vehicles with one projectile. A column of flame, mushrooming out of the dark target, disclosed the German crewmen twisting and struggling in the fire like puppets on strings.

When dismounted German troops fired from a building nearby, Cpl. Jack Moriarity, of Arlington, Mass., set the place aflame with his 50 caliber gun. When the score was totted up it revealed the fact that Hitler had lost twenty armored vehicles, plus crews, and an undisclosed number of dismounted troops to one platoon of tank-destroyers. There were no TD casualties.

A German officer, wounded in the action, told Sgt. Lehman, "You Americans don't know how to fight. All you want to do is slaughter us."

"You're damned right," Lehman growled, "I learned the trade from your panzers in Normandy."

It was hard to become excited over indirect firing after the sort of action this group had been through. Although German artillery registered frequently on their positions, it wasn't hot, flashing action of the "Spearhead "in attack. Men ducked into their foxholes now, and cursed the artillery, but they came out again soon and laughed at the inaccuracy of the Jerry gunners. It wasn't like that at Fromental, in France.

There was no laughter at all in Fromental, but there was plenty of blood and sorrow. There was a little 2nd Lieutenant there, named Richard Ferchaud, from Baton Rouge, La. They remembered him all right. Because the tank destroyer men were all older than the little Lieutenant, they called him "Junior." After he led them in action they changed the name; it became "Little Blood and Guts." Ferchaud challenged a Mark-V at Fromental and lost a TD in the action. He lost part of, his jaw, too, and went to the rear gamely trying to persuade a medic to release him. He was all right, he said. The men say that he certainly was all right! The Mark-V is still at Fromental, incidentally; it is rusty and blackened, with a big ragged hole in its four-inch frontal armor.

There were lots of things like that. Men and events you'd never forget if you lived for the duration plus eternity. The " Spearhead!" burning towns in the summer darkness. Road blocks, and Jerries trailing back with their hands behind their heads. Dead Jerries, like green wax in Madame Tussaud's chamber of horrors. And our own dead. The big guy with the tattoo marking on his neck; it said " Cut on the dotted line." A sniper killed him at Liege. The men of his crew hunted down that sniper-a very unlucky superman.

The tank destroyers had come a long way since the surf of Normandy had baptized their Spinning wheels and tracks. New replacements laced the outfit together, but a majority of the old men remained. They were, you thought, all like Harland, more or less.

Harland still sat on the apple log, frowning when the whiplash concussion of the 90's interrupted his speech. He said again: "Nothing much doing," and added, "I wish we'd attack and get it over with."

His platoon had just finished winging 480 big 90mm shells on the way to disrupt German communication lines, but he didn't think that was very spectacular.

You walked away presently, through the little orchard of apple trees, back to the road and a waiting Jeep. Your-feet crunched deep in the frosty ground, and the moon was so bright that it cast a shadow before you. The big guns of war flickered and thundered, but it was mostly in the distance and, like George Harland, your thoughts again slipped into the groove of nostalgia. Perhaps he was right. It would be fine to get going - to get it over with and to go home.

What a night to run a pack of Walkers on a big dog fox.

Return to Top

Woolner Index      NEXT