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