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71st Armored Field Artillery Battalion WWII

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Wallace Weeks WWII Story

Written and generously contributed by Wallace Weeks daughter   Jamie Weeks Von Holstein

<Click here to see his photo collection>

Wallace Weeks War Story

July 2004

 

Daddy was drafted into the army on Sept 20, 1942, when he was 21 years old. To the U.S. Army, he was now Serial # 38248934. He initially reported to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, and was assigned to the 71st Field Artillery Battalion, which was a part of the 5th Armored Division. The 5th Armored would later be known as the Victory Division.

Originally his unit was destined for the fighting in North Africa, and although they were on their way to Camp Cooke in Lompoc, California, instead they were dropped off in the Mojave Desert.  They joined the other men in his outfit at the Desert Training Center and trained for a time in order to experience fighting conditions similar to Africa.  For a bit of history, the Desert Training Center was established by Major General George S Patton, Jr., in response to a need to train American combat troops for battle in North Africa. The camp, covering 18,000 square miles, was the largest military training ground ever to exist. Over one million men were trained there. But the war in North Africa ended before they could be sent there.  The Germans and Italians in Africa surrendered on May 13, 1943.

Eventually Daddy’s unit was sent to Camp Cooke, which today is Vandenberg Air Force Base . He remembered the blackouts and how vehicle headlights were covered with only slits for light to come through. Of course this was because the West Coast feared air attacks by the Japanese.

The next training destination was Tennessee because the terrain was supposed to be similar to Europe. His unit spent a month here then moved on to Pine Camp, NY for more training. The last stop before “embarkation” was Indiantown Gap Military Reservation in Pennsylvania. Daddy remembers that when the time came to be sent abroad, they didn’t know where they were going, but Daddy was told to take a 10-day furlough. Doonie ( what I called my grandmother) sent him $50 so that he could take a train home to Alice.

The 5th Armored Division (7000 men) sailed from the Port of New York on February 10, 1944, using 2 ships. One was the Edmund B. Alexander and the other was the Athlone Castle, and they traveled in a convoy with a Navy escort of cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers.  Daddy was on the Alexander and remembers the trip taking two weeks, with only two meals a day being given to the soldiers. When they arrived in Liverpool, England on February 24th, Daddy remembers it being totally pitch black. Daddy had arrived in England a year and 5 months after entering the army.

The 5th Armored Division was used to operate camps, known as “sausage camps” in southern England for the forces that were doing exercises in practice for the European invasion.  Daddy’s unit was stationed at Tidworth Downes. They were assigned to stay on the beach and “make life comfortable for the invasion troops”, feeding them, etc. But they were ordered not to talk to them.  The soldiers who would eventually take part in the D-Day invasion would sail out into the English Channel and practice attacking the English coast, landing, etc. He remembers that German u-boats once torpedoed a practice and killed 700 men.

Following the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, the 5th Armored returned to Tidworth Downes in preparation and training for fighting in Europe. During this time, the concept of “married companies” was devised. Within each combat command each infantry platoon was “married” to a tank platoon. They also had an artillery battalion and fighter-bombers. Eventually the 5th Armored entered France, at which time Daddy landed on Utah Beach.  The date was July 26, 1944 and the men came onshore on LCI vehicles (Landing Craft, Infantry) and on LST vehicles (Landing Ship, Tank).  LCI’s could carry 200 soldiers, but LST’s were larger with a capacity of 200 soldiers and 20 tanks.

Daddy’s 71st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, under the command of  Lt. Col. Israel B. Washburn,  was the direct support for the Combat Command B, whose commander was Col. John T. Cole.  The 71st was in the “married company” consisting of  the 81st Tank Battalion and the 15th Infantry.  Daddy served in Sherman tanks which carried 5 men ( driver, assistant driver, gunner, observer, and tank commander). Daddy served as driver, gunner and observer at different times. Wherever tanks traveled, the ordinance (mechanics) followed. Daddy said he only served in two tanks, having only lost one .

The 5th Armored fought it way to the Seine River, liberating Paris, in the first month after they arrived in Normandy. They covered about 600 miles. Daddy said that they went pretty fast once they had broken through at St Lo, traveling mostly on highways. The Germans were retreating at this point so it was “sort of a hit and run situation” until they hit the Rhine River. When Paris was liberated, they were supposed to be the first American army unit to go into Paris, but they decided to let the Free French Unit go first instead.  The Free French Unit was made up of French fighters who fought against the Nazis after they occupied France. Once the 5th Armored did get into Paris, Daddy remembers the people giving them wine and cognac, and throwing fruit to them. Unfortunately, he especially remembers being hit in the head by a very hard pear.

Next Luxembourg was liberated and the division crossed into Germany. They penetrated the Siegfried Line and fought there during the fall of 1944.  Daddy told a story about how he was doing the driving through the streets of a small town when his tank knocked the corner off of a building.  He also traveled through a village where the residents showed their appreciation with bottles of wine.

The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest occurred during the month November 24 – December 24. Daddy said he just remembers it being horribly cold.  When the weather was too cold to sleep on the ground, he slept in the gunners seat. “The condensation was so bad and dripped on us when it was cold and the tank was stopped.”  Afterwards, the division was pulled back into Belgium to protect that territory during the Battle of the Bulge. At Christmas, the Belgian people took U.S. soldiers into their homes for dinner.

In Germany, Daddy remembered staying in a German castle that they took over while they were assigned to watch the Siegfried Line. They butchered cows and ate beef and drank wine along with that.

Daddy recalled a close call where he had gotten off his tank to “take care of business” behind a tree.  Once he was back to the tank, an incoming shell hit ground where he had been standing. The tank was untouched and he had been one lucky soldier.

There was an incident after crossing the Rhine River where Germans the hit five of the allied tanks. Daddy’s tank sustained a glancing blow, but all of the guys were able to get out and get behind an embankment.  Then the tank received heavy fire and sustained enough damage that the crew transferred to a new tank.

There were stories about Hitler that Daddy heard while there. One was that Hitler encouraged his soldiers to breed to increase the “perfect race” and so he had established homes for the pregnant girls.  There was also an instance in which a large group of Jews had been locked inside a barn and killed by setting the barn on fire. Daddy said the allied soldiers were given the option of going to see the site, but Daddy did not.

One of the most remarkable stories of Daddy’s was reported in the Alice Echo 40 years after it happened.  After crossing the Rhine River, the units of the 5th Armored were rolling across the German countryside and approached the town of Tangermunde, where Allied prisoners of war were being held. The burgermeister of the town vowed that the town would not surrender. In fact when an army officer did try to surrender he was shot by an SS officer. The Americans rescued him, and warned the Germans that if the POW’s were harmed, the town would be leveled. The town finally surrendered and fought among themselves, but once the Americans were in town, Daddy noticed a released POW walking down the street with “Alice, Texas” hand-written on the back of his jacket. Daddy started talking to him and discovered that Oscar Navejar was from Alice.  In fact, Daddy had been in school with his brothers.

The 5th Armored continued on across Germany to within 45 miles of Berlin,  being the closest of any Allied units to that city at the time the war ended. The Russians, who were on the outskirts of the city, were allowed to actually take Berlin.  The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945 and there was much celebrating with all the wine and schnapps that could be found, according to Daddy.  The dropping of the atomic bomb ended the chance that the Allied forces would have to go to Japan.

Daddy had occupation duty for thirty days after the war ended. They were sent to Niedersgegen and went on patrols to show the Germans that the Allied forces were still there.  Daddy’s unit was set up in a farm house and had their own cook and bartender.  The men had beer, wine and cognac available to them. The German beer was strong….4%…8%…especially the 12%.  Of course post-war Germany had other industries…..the prostitutes setting up business on a well-known hill.

Happily, Daddy returned home to the United States on October 5, 1945.

 

 

 

 

 

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