We were moving so fast, one hundred miles a day, and I was given a new detail. There was the problem of running out of ammo and tank tracks. I was given the task of taking over three tank retrievers to Cherbourg. The tank retrievers had wheels that were chain driven and the cabs were armored. The engines were in the middle of the cab, six crew members in each. They sat three in a row on the left and right sides, one behind the other. The first man on the left was the driver. Then, there was a long trailer behind. I was told I would probably run into some trouble when I got to the dock at Cherbourg. They gave me four cases of Piper Heidseck Champagne. It was absolutely the best. They said, "Use this as a last resort."
We took off, taking us about two days to get to Cherbourg. We arrived at about one o'clock in the morning. The docks were piled high with ammo and vehicles. I was trying to find the man in charge and of course the guard said, "The man in charge is a major, so he is asleep." And, "Of course you can't bother him now."
I said that is neither here nor there. We were desperate.
"Where is he sleeping?" I asked.
Then he said, "I shouldn't tell you this, but he is in billet so and so."
I managed to wake up the major and he was really angry. "What is the meaning of this?" he asked.
I said to him, "I am Lieutenant Don Hansen. We are the 7th Armored Division and we are in desperate straits. I need all the tank track and ammo I can haul on three transports here. We are really short on ammo."
"Well," he says, "Lieutenant, I can't issue anything to you. This is all slated for the 9th army."
Well I wasn't going to come home empty handed. We got to talking, and I mentioned the fact I had something outside he would probably would like to have. We spoke a little more and it turned out that I went out of there with three retriever loads of ammo and tank tracks. They helped us to lower some of the old medieval bridges in France by about 12-18 inches. Those tank retrievers were heavy and the bridges were not able to handle that kind of weight. The sheer gravity of this also helped lower some of the bridges, similar to what fell the famous Luddendorf Bridge, along the Rhine River, at Remagen, the place of the battle that insured our victory, in March, 1945.
Following a mile-and-a-half long, steep grade, we came into the town of Marche (pronounced "Marsh"). One of the crews descending the grade, was going down and riding the brakes on his tractor. It's chain drive required oil slingers to continuously keep oiling the chains. The boys had a big load on it and the brakes caught fire. This was happening way ahead of our jeep and by the time we got there, all of the ammo had exploded. There wasn't anything left of the tank retriever, tractor or trailer. All that remained was a 36-inch high pile of molten steel in the middle of the road. We lost a couple of the boys in the cab who had not gotten out in time, a real disaster.
I forgot to mention before they gave me the detail of using the tank retriever, we had gotten into the town of Fountainbleau, directly south of Paris. This was the place where Napoleon built his castle, a favorite where he used to do a lot of hunting. We billeted in his old hunting grounds. Once there, we had to walk to the town, about a two-mile hike. One of the highlights of the area, we visited his castle, a beautiful large building.
Tobacco was impossible to obtain. If you wanted a pipe, the only kind available was a British white, clay, bowl-pipe, with a soda straw for a stem. This was terrible! I went into a store, in Fountainbleau. Under glass there was a beautiful arrangement of pipes. I picked out one that looked like a genuine French Briar. I bought it and walked back out to the woods in our area, and lit it up. As I was puffing away, every so often there would be a little pop. I looked and this pipe bowl was full of holes. Then, they had filled it with plastic and made a little design on the outside that made it appear to look like it was grained. By the time I got to the area, the bowl of the pipe was nothing but holes. Disgusted, I just threw it in the brush.
While we were there some of us went into Paris. The Germans were still in Paris making it a dangerous situation. For three days and three nights, we were in Paris having the time of our life while the French people were helping us hide until the Germans left. It was quite an experience.
After the trip back with ammo and tank tracks, we had lost one retriever. I next got the detail of using two 6 x 6 trucks and hitting any and all air strips for incoming supplies. If I got there first and the plane came in, I got to keep whatever was on that plane.
One plane load came into a town by the name of Sedan. It was full of crates of 45 automatic pistols. We were told we could keep them, so we loaded them all up and took them back to the area.
TRANSITION. It was about this time that we came to the city of Verdun. During WWI, it was famous for the hardships and trench warfare. The town still had a supply of WWI medals. All of us were issued those same WWI medals by the mayor of this city.
Patton had to stop. He had run out of gas. We couldn't move. We were just approaching the town of Metz, when this happened. This was the place where the Germans had an officers training school.
We could see a large building on top of a high hill, which if you were there could look in all directions, down below. Well, it was our turn to approach this and Patton had issued orders that we were going to take the town of Metz, including the officers training school.
This didn't happen. We couldn't take the town. We were wounded, plus we had lost a lot of material and had to pull back.
Our commanders told us that we were going to go into a rest period and take an inventory of what we had left. Well, this was about the time we learned whenever anybody said you are going into a rest period... look out because that is when all hell is going to break loose and you are going to really get into some rough stuff.
We received reinforcements from some other groups. They told us that this time we are going in and we are going to take Metz. This attempt was worse than the first.
Those of us left were ordered to immediately head out and go north and join the British second army in Holland. So, I and the 7th Armored Division and the remainder of all of our tanks, armored cars, and half tracks took off in the middle of the night up through southern Belgium.
The rain just poured! We were like a bunch of drowned rats!
As the sun came out the next day, we pulled into the town of Huy, which appeared to be almost as large as Seattle. We chased the Germans out of the city and the townspeople turned out en masse on both sides of the street while we were in columns throughout the city.
The streets were heavily lined with people, about eight columns of ten rows each. It created such bedlam. But then, the column stopped and we could not proceed. The young ladies were very accommodating. We would just get going again and they would hop in the vehicles, handing us bottles of wine, fresh Belgium Waffles, and Apples. What luxuries.
Before we got through town some of us had to go to the toilet and could not wait. Those that did, would pull six feet out of the column, grab a shovel and dug a small hole. I remember squatting over my freshly dug hole with a lady handing me apples, jabbering away. It did not matter to her; it was just one of those situations.
We proceeded up through Liege, Belgique, up to the King Albert Canal. Now that we were in Holland, our job was to protect the west side of the King Albert Canal, from the Germans on the east. I soon learned why Holland has so many canals... it rains all the time. Something has to draw the water away.
One night the 87th RECON was on the west bank of the canal. They radioed back to headquarters that the Germans were laying pontoons. We know that the message was received back at headquarters because it was registered, but nothing was done about it. Before light the next morning, the Germans had laid the bridge across the canal and destroyed about eighty four of our medium tanks. That afternoon our commanding general of the 7th Armored Division, General Sylvester had been demoted. He came out in his civilian clothes and was ordered back to the states. The name of the new commanding general assigned to us was Hasbrook.
We thought we had supply problems crossing France, but when we were attached to the British we REALLY learned what supply problems were. Of course the British had on leased our medium tanks, with twin jimmy diesels in each one. This was something new to us because our tanks had old radial continental aircraft engines in them.
We were not so lucky to have the diesels, ourselves. In fact, I remember one instance in a little area wooded of pine trees, with only about three hundred or so men.
A British Colonel arrived in one of the jeeps we had leased them. He held up a banged up flashlight and said, "I say, would you happen to have an exchange on a torch?"
Of course I did not have any flashlights or anything of the sort, so I could not help him. He wanted to swap that banged up flashlight for a brand new one, or one that worked.
Another day, a cute little Dutch girl came walking down the road with her wooden shoes, called "klumpa." I think every one of our enlisted men, which was three hundred or so said to her, "Hi honey!"
She replied, "Nix, maschinen is kaput!" GRANDPA, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN IN ENGLISH? THAT THE MACHINES ARE KAPUT?
I never will forget that. I thought that was really funny. WHAT MADE IT SO FUNNY?
Around this same time, a big '41 Cadillac came along. Parking, six lovely young ladies got out, all wearing suits of various sizes. They were sporting replicas of the statue found in downtown Brussels, where a little boy is urinating. Their statues came in various sizes, 6-inch, 12-inch, and 18 inches high. They had their arms full of them. And the enlisted men bought them up like popcorn. I do not even know what they paid for them. But, I guess the local people had to make some money, somehow.
In the midst of trying to conquer or take Aachen, a beautiful old city. Once acquired, we started to move east. These two pictures are what remained of Aachen, after the bombing. DESCRIBE MORE OF AACHEN. I HAVE TWO PICTURES TO TALK ABOUT HERE.
The next town east Aachen was the size of Des Moines, Iowa. It was called Duren. It was very much an agricultural city, reminding me of my farming days. By the time we made it through there, not a thing was left standing, due to artillery and air bombardment. Perhaps these pictures give you some idea of the travesty. You might see a brick chimney or a brick wall, but even the trees were pulverized. We had to bulldoze the space wide enough so that we could continue through the city with all of our vehicles.
Then, we approached two little towns, Julick and Linnich. We took the towns and then inventoried our men and how it affected our units.
I was lucky, "Willie-the-Whip" was my driver. He was from Crab Bottom, West Virginia. He never bathed. I do not think he ever washed his hair or even shaved in all the time we spent together. He had a jeep and a little trailer. We had two beds in there and Willie had made a heater out of tank engine to keep us warm.
We were coming along just outside of Julick. The road was full of mud and slop, telephone wires, dead animals, and GI's. We saw a command car coming down the road towards us. An officer was sitting very precisely in the back seat. Just then, we heard incoming artillery. A shell whizzed over. The officer must have been just fresh from the states because he dove out of the moving command car, straight to the ditch consisting of nothing but black ooze about 10 inches deep.
All we could do was sit there and laugh at the comedy.
Up until this time we had never gotten close to the famed "tiger tank." We knew that the tiger was armed with 88 millimeter shells, capable of a much greater velocity than anything we had. Our tanks would fire their little French 75's and the they WHO IS THEY? would see the shells just bounce off the side of the tiger. This comedy was our first encounter with one.
Sitting in a swamp up by Julick, was a tiger tank with the right final drive shot off. Abandoned about a mile further was another tiger tank with a right final drive. That was good, so I told Willie-the-Whip to get our Platoon and see what we could do. We approached the one in the best condition. To our disbelief, it was full of 88-ammo, a pin-striped suit, and some silverware! We found out that it had a 12-cylinder Mayback gas engine and that is all it took for us to begin working on it to try and restore it to working condition.
We worked on that thing for one week, with incoming artillery around us twenty-four-hours around-the-clock. We took the good right final drive off the one tank and put it on the other. We cranked up the engine when we found there were no booby traps. The tank track on each side of a tiger is about 2 feet wide.
Willie got the thing started and it came right out of the swamp, taking us where our jeep never could. Willie timed it on the highway. It had a steering wheel like an airliner. Taking up the whole road, that seventy ton machine had a five-speed electric solenoid switch transmission. Wide open in 5th speed, it would do about twenty-three mph.
By the time we got it back to our area, the army group took it over. Later, it was shipped back to Aberdeen, Maryland. I hoped to fly back there someday and show it to Gladys.
Then we got orders to "move." Everybody was pulling out. So, Willie and I got in the jeep and took off.
In some places there was a little snow on the ground. We saw other groups going on different roads. Soon we came upon an aread where some officers were standing. Some bodies lying in the snow, some from our group. To our surprise, they had been mowed down by Germans with machine guns, only thirty minutes before. This was when we realized that there was something cooking. So we proceeded on to the town of Malmedy.
By this time we became aware that a counter attack was taking place. It would later be called, "the Battle of the Bulge." I had stranglers from every company in our division. I think I had quartermaster people, truck drivers, armored car people, tanks, and what have you. There was a head quarters set up in Malmady. I went in there and I asked if they knew where the 7th armored division was. They said they didn't even know where their divisions was. There were artillery shells coming in. We were surrounded. My little group moved into a hospital. Apparently it had just been evacuated. There was food on the table. There were supplies and equipment in the operating room. It just looked like everybody pulled out and disappeared. Buzz bombs started coming. This was a new experience for us. Anytime you heard one go over head and shut off you dove for a hole in the ground cause you knew it was coming down. When they came out it was a B1. Then they came out with a B2 which was much bigger, much faster, covered more distance, much more dangerous. It looked like a shooting star and would leave a 60' wide and 35' deep hole in solid rock.
One afternoon some MP's came in and said "whose in charge here?" Get your people together. We will lead you out." We found a way to get out of there. We got all the tanks and everything in a column and took off. We got out of Malmedy without being taken. Soon as we got to Rochefort we got orders to put roadblocks up on all roads leading into town. My roadblock was out east of town. I had three bazooka men and about four machine guns, thirty caliber and fifty caliber. We hid in the bushes. Pretty soon we heard a jeep whining up coming up real fast. And two GI's pulled up and said, " A Tiger tank is on the road about five miles coming this way", and away they went. Well fine, we will get him. We were out there about thirty more minutes, and a driver from town came out and said "we are pulling out." Line them up. So we go back into Rochefort. And Sergeant Carr who is our motor officer he is walking around trying to see if there is anything we left. We said "come on-lets go." He said "I'll be just a minute." Well he didn't make it. The beautiful part was after the Ruhr pocket we over ran a POW camp and we got him out of there.
Things really began to get a little rough. The Germans had managed to get a hold of our tanks. They had our uniforms. They spoke English flawlessly. They had our dog tags. They were directing our traffic. They were giving us radio messages which were phonies. It was just terrible and nobody knew anything. No body knew what was going on. I remember we pulled into a school house on a hill and there was a lot of snow. I told Willie to go out and dig a latrine for the men about fifty yards away from the schoolhouse. It was ice and snow and rocks. He went out there with a couple of triton blocks which aren't any bigger than a small flashlight and blew a couple of craters in the rock. It was Christmas eve as I recall. No it was Thanksgiving. We had turkey. Formaldehyde turkey. This turkey had been in a formaldehyde container to preserve it. Also we had thirty-seven bombs lit with in fifty feet of our CP and nobody got hurt. Which was also astounding. About midnight I decided I had to go to the latrine. The ;moon was out and it was real bright on the snow. Not a sound for a few moments. I am halfway to the latrine and all of a sudden I hear a roar and there is something exploding all around me, fire exploding all around close to me. Apparently there was a plane gliding down and all of a sudden I heard this roar. I didn't get hit! I still have one of the shells I picked up the next morning.
I had not heard or seen a thing until right at that moment. I was just lucky, I guess.
The next morning, Willy and I went looking for some of our tanks.
The Germans were dropping bombs at the time. We found two tanks and told them to follow us to the area.
We approached a village that had just been hit by the enemy air force.
There was an eight foot pile of debris that had spewed over the road from
the demolished building. We were
going to proceed over the pile of rubbish but there was a woman in front
screaming in French and putting her hand over her heart.
She thought her 21 year old son was under the debris. We later found him way over on the other side of a cathedral
where one of the bombs had blown him.