Hellcats live up to their name
Editor’s note: Carold Bland is the grandfather of Penny Clair, of Warsaw. This is the first of a two-part story.
I was born six years after the beginning of World War I, the war that was envisioned to end all wars and establish a stable world order and eternal peace. It was all too soon after the war that the frustrations, violence and revolutions sprang up in Europe.
I was drafted and called to Camp Dodge, Iowa, to take my physical in December 1942. I was home for Christmas, but reported for duty on Jan. 9, 1943, to Fort Knox, Ky., for basic training.
It was hard leaving my wife of only a few months, especially because she was with child. But I felt a devoted loyalty to my country. I was not only ready, but eager to support and defend our freedoms. Patriotism was high.
I took basic training with the 14th Armored Replacement Battalion. We learned to use and care for our tanks and our guns. We respected the quality of both and learned to use them to spill the life blood of our enemy.
Each man knew the price he might have to pay. I knew also that I did not want the battlefield for a deathbed. I would fight for my country, answer the call to my every duty, but I had a positive determination and overwhelming faith that I would come home when the war ended.
The third month after I entered the military, I received a telegram telling me my first child was born. I immediately asked for leave and settled for a three-day pass. I will never forget the pride and joy I felt when I entered the hospital room and saw my wife and baby son Rodger lying side by side on the bed. The joy lessened after a few short hours when I had to say good-bye.
After basic training, I remained at Fort Knox for radio school. We learned to operate and do minor maintenance of voice and CW radio equipment and to send and receive Morse code at a minimum rate of 16 words per minute.
I was sent to the newly activated 12th Armored Division and in September went to Tennessee for maneuvers which lasted until November 1943.
In March, before I was shipped overseas, my daughter, Connie Lee, was born. It was hard facing the fact that I would not see my family for a long time.
LANDING IN EUROPE
I was attached to the 12th Armored Division, F Company of the 92nd Recon Squadron. We were shipped to England in September 1944 and docked at Liverpool, England, on Oct. 2, 1944.
When we later landed in Le Havre, France, we worked our way first through the Maginot Line and then on through the Siegfried Line. Our mission was to take out the concrete pillboxes that contained machine gun emplacements.
Many of them had underground concrete-lined tunnels connecting them. Once the machine gun was knocked out, we used concussion grenades to destroy any enemy left in the pillbox or tunnels.
Our tank “The Green Banana” had a very long radio antenna. When we transmitted radio messages, it made it very easy for the Nazis to zero in on the signal and our tank’s location. Sidney Brickle, of New York City, was our assistant tank driver, machine gunner and a radio operator. Sgt. Sylvester Lumpkin, of Alabama, was our tank driver.
Once as we were inching our way through the Siegfried Line, our tank was barely missed by an enemy artillery shell. Lumpkin quickly moved the tank right up against an enemy pillbox and parked it there. We continued to be a target for their artillery, but they could not hit us.
After the Siegfried Line, when word was handed down to the Hellcats (12th Armored Division) that we were to relieve the 4th Armored Division, our stomachs rumbled. The famed 4th was known throughout the whole European Theater of Operations as the cream of American armored divisions. For months it had been spearheading for Patton’s 3rd Army. We theorized that Eisenhower must regard us as “pretty hot stuff” or else he was running out of divisions.
RELIEVING THE FOURTH
As we moved to complete our relief of the 4th, we saw for the first time full-scale artillery support by planes. On our radios, we heard procedure unlike any we had heard before.
One dark, foggy night, we were slowly moving through a German town. Our company commander Capt. Cobb was with us. When he rode with us, he was tank commander and rode in the turret with me to my right. We stopped alongside a large building.
We were there no longer than a minute or two, when suddenly I was impelled by some kind of force, much greater than an instinctive impulse, to turn and look behind me. I turned just in time to see a Nazi soldier who had come from behind the building, raise his rifle and point it toward the captain and I.
When I turned to face him, he immediately lowered his gun and ran back behind the building. I feel very strongly that God was that impelling force that caused me to turn and look.
Dead young soldiers lying on the battlefield with their bodies distorted and maimed is a sight that cannot be forgotten. Many that escape death are physically crippled and disabled the rest of their lives and most who experience combat come home, as I did, with a psychological condition called shell shock or battle fatigue.
The first time I faced a Nazi soldier at close range and was forced to kill or be killed, I experienced a feeling of awful weakness and my body began to shake with involuntary quick, short movements.
My body had trouble functioning, my heart was pounding in my ears and I was breathing hard and forceful. It was a forced, unnatural act and the most awful physical and emotional experience I’ve ever had.
We became, in time, superficially hardened to the horrors of war and each day became another “business of war as usual.” Our speed and devastating striking power, coupled with the gallant deeds of heroism of our personnel, wrote a glorious history for our Hellcat Division. I’m very proud of our five months of combat against the enemy in Europe.
For a time the Hellcats were attached with the 4th Moroccan Mountain Division of the 1st French Corps in the town of Rouffach to force the Nazis out of the Colmar Pocket.
TAKING OVER COLMAR
It was early February and the ground was covered with a thick blanket of snow. It was decided that we would white-wash our tanks before making the offensive assault on Colmar. This was done to camouflage our tanks. We stopped in a small French village about 20 kilometers from Colmar to do this.
Pretty French girls were very happy to see us and showed their appreciation by offering us wine. We drank the smooth wine from our canteen cups, as we white-washed our tanks. In some cases, the water we carried in five-gallon containers was dumped and refilled with wine, so that we would be richly supplied with it.
We were all genuinely intoxicated by the time we were ready to advance to Colmar. I have no doubts that every man, including the Army officers, were affected with diminished control over their physical and mental powers as a result of drinking. We advanced with our tanks, half-tracks, armored cars, etc. breast to breast.
High pitched sirens wailed their mournful sounds from every tank, horns sounded their warning signals and we were shouting war whoops like a large band of American Indians as we made our attack. We went through a minefield with no caution at all, setting off several of the shoe mines as we rushed forward.
The sounds and excessive barrage of gunfire must have given the Nazis a feeling of sudden terror and extreme fear. I saw many Nazi soldiers immediately desert their machine gun positions and run. We quickly drove the Nazis out of Colmar, cleared the streets and set up a curfew.
For our boldness in facing great danger in battle, we were greatly honored by French Gen. Charles De Gaulle. He gave every soldier who was engaged in the Battle of Colmar the French Fouriggiere for our valor.
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