Capt. Everett H. Wilcox's WWII Recollections
The following narrative is drawn from three telephone conversations with former Captain Everett H. Wilcox, Commanding Officer of Headquarters Battery, 71st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 5th Armored Division. Our conversations, which were held in the fall of 2009, are supplemented by stories passed on to me by Carol C. Wilcox, wife of Mr. Wilcox's nephew. The narrative summarizes Mr. Wilcox's Army service during WWII, from stateside training to the ETO. It is not a complete history, but rather reflects the memories of a man who did his job with bravery and distinction, and helped bring the war with Germany to an end. My intent in contacting Mr. Wilcox was to learn what I could about my father's WWII service time. I came away with a much broader picture of the 71st and the war in general. Mr. Wilcox and my father served together and were friends, as is reflected in this story. Gary W. Beckley October 30, 2009
"I got in the Army in 1940 at Fort Jackson, S.C., in the 71st Field Artillery," recalled Mr. Wilcox. That was the place where he and my father started their respective Army enlistments. Both were soon transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma with the rest of the 71st FA. They became the Field Artillery School Troops, a horse drawn 75 mm artillery battalion. "I enjoyed riding the horses," he would say to his niece. Reflecting on seeing a Fort Sill group officer's picture from June 1941, he stated, "That was a cadre for different units and most in the picture didn't stay with the 71st battalion that went overseas."
From here the story takes a warmer turn with the 71st's arrival at the Mojave Desert near Needles, California, where they joined the 5th Armored Division for Desert Maneuvers. "It was so hot, you could fry eggs on the hood of the trucks and tarantulas, which were plentiful, were sometimes in your bedroll in the morning," he said. When asked about the equipment the battalion had in the desert, he replied, "The only vehicles we had were Jeeps and trucks. No tanks or artillery pieces. We were just training to survive the conditions." The desert mimicked North Africa, a possible destination.
Following the desert training, my father and Mr. Wilcox were off, about a week apart, to Fort Knox, Kentucky to the Armored Force School for communications training. "They were six week courses. I went there two times. You were sent for the training when the classes opened up, if you were not doing something else important at the time," he told me. "Your Dad and I were drilled in Morse Code to the point that we saw words in our heads instead of hearing dots and dashes."
When communications classes ended they returned to Camp Cooke, California (now Vandenberg Air Force Base), near Lompoc and the coast, where the 5th Armored, including the 71st, had moved from desert training. "One day our outfit was ordered to the coast, with our 75 mm artillery pieces, to shoot at a Japanese sub offshore, to no avail. He wasn't afraid of us," he said.
Tennessee Maneuvers followed. "We were completely out in the woods, no barracks at all. We slept in tents, or on the ground. No time to write letters. That is the first place that we got to use real equipment, like the M7 [self-propelled 105 mm howitzer] and tanks that we were going to use in Europe, although they weren't in the best of shape."
Mr. Wilcox added, "We were considered one of the best trained units at that time, but didn't have much experience in our new equipment. Tennessee was supposed to get us ready for our newest destination." That was most likely southern Europe.
"We were reviewed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt once," he offered. That could have been in Tennessee or one of their next destinations, Pine Camp, New York or Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. "Right before we were to go overseas, I lost my First Sergeant when the doctors found something wrong with him. I had to promote Elmer Douglas, small smart fellow, to replace him."
The 71st departed New York harbor on the Edmond B. Alexander, bound for England. "On the trip over the Atlantic, the largest convoy to date," Wilcox recalled, "the normally quiet ship to ship radio traffic increased dramatically when we ran into a hurricane, and we could understand the messages being received and sent with our communications training."
While in England, he recalled, "I would slip away when I could and go to London and see stage shows in Piccadilly Circus and there would be bombing going on at times." When I tried to identify a harbor picture, with his help, by its damage, he replied, "Everywhere we went in England, there was damage."
"The 71st rode in Victory Ships from England to France, transferring to smaller craft to get to the beach," he told me, and it brought another story to mind. "On the troop transport to the beach at Normandy, loaded with 300-400 men, the cook in charge of the kitchen went all the way to the bottom of the ship and fell and injured himself, straddling a railing." "All swollen up", he said. "We couldn't do anything with him till we got him ashore, as quickly as possible, to a field hospital."
While explaining the lack of publicity the Division received for its exploits, he related to me, "Once ashore and proceeding to one of our first encounters, all cameras and related materials were taken from us. We became the Secret Division, always leading the charge of first, the Third Army under Patton, then the First and later the Ninth Armies." When Wilcox was asked if the 71st was one of Patton's Ghost Troops, he laughed and said "We weren't supposed to let anyone know where we were, no pictures taken, etc., but everyone else (Germans) knew where we were." [This coincides with a conversation I had with Jacob Werner, tank Commander with the 81st Tank Bn., who told me, "One time the 5th AD moved out with the tank and truck markings covered with mud (only the star showing) to obscure their identities. Rubber tanks and loudspeakers were moved into our old locations to try and fool the enemy about where we were." — GWB]
He once explained, "I always used aerial photos from the day before to figure movements, following terrain mostly." he said, "I probably didn't know any of the towns' names except Paris. Plus, the town signs were all turned around everywhere we went." When asked if cloudy days hurt progress, because the observation planes couldn't go up, he replied, "I remember a day when so many B-17's flew over us at once that I couldn't see any blue sky at all. It would be completely white from the contrails. It was a sight to see."
"While in France a German plane spotted me and started strafing. I had to dodge the bullets and finally found a place to evade the plane," he recalled. This happened on several other occasions. "One time, my driver [Pfc. Griffith] and I were being fired on by Germans, with one shell falling in front and another one in back of the jeep as we drove down the road." [This relates to a comment by Pfc. Griffith in Fire Mission – The Story of the 71st Armd. F.A. Bn. In the E.T.O.: "That was the only time I ever dug a fox hole for someone else. I figured my best bet in getting out of this was to keep Capt. Wilcox going, he was so busy with fire missions he couldn't be bothered, so I started two holes. I'd dig in one for awhile and then jump in the other." — GWB]
Discussing things which happened in the Hurtgen Forest, Mr. Wilcox mentioned, "I remember waking up covered by snow with only a small hole to breathe through and then digging myself out, seeing men frozen to death and trying to eat a warm meal, but it froze before I could eat it. I wound up eating Rations."
"I left for a month's leave in the states before the war ended." he told me during one conversation. "I rode home from Europe on an Italian Liner loaded with German prisoners with only myself and a few other officers in charge of them. When we got into New York Harbor we all heard that FDR had died [on April 12, 1945] and we all had to stay on board for a couple of days. The war ended before I could go back," he added.
"After my leave in the States, I was supposed to go back to Germany, but I got a wire from the War Department and I was sent to Fort Sam Houston for a special school. It took 3 days to get there. When I got to Fort Sam, I found out that it was a school for officers who were going to be leading the troops into Japan. About 40 officers went to the school for 6 weeks and on Graduation Day a wire was received from Ft. Knox wanting two officers to take charge of troops there. Myself and another man were the only ones eligible at that time. When I got to Ft. Knox, I was put in charge of about 500 soldiers with about 10 Sergeants. What they didn't tell me was that these men had malaria and other maladies from being in the Pacific. Most days I would lose a good portion of officers and enlisted men reporting for duty each day due to their ailments. I had a great deal of sympathy toward them. We all knew, that for us, the war was over."