UNIT INCLUDING ST. LOUISANS CAUGHT IN ARTILLERY TRAP, UNDER HEAVY FIRE TWO DAYS
Stokes Describes ‘Infernal’ Bombardment, Heroism of Men When 128th Battalion Runs Into Nest of Nazi Flak Guns in Leipzig Area.
By RICHARD L. STOKES
Of the “Washington Bureau of the Post-Dispatch, now representing this newspaper on the western Front as an accredited war correspondent. WITH THE SIXTH ARMORED DIVISION, April 17
(By Wireless) (Delayed).
A FEARFUL two-day bombardment by German guns brought narrow escapes and produced a number of instances of heroism among St. Louisans and Missourians with the 128th Armored Field Artillery Battalion which today has resumed its advance into Germany after escaping from a trap.
We ran into the artillery trap on Friday the 13th, the day we heard the tragic news of President Roosevelt's death.
For two days we had raced aross Thuringia into Saxony, meeting only spotty resistance from small arms and an occasional small caliber field gun. It was too good to last. We had followed a zigzag course over back roads and across fields, avoiding strong points and probing for weak places. We finally ran our noses smack into a veritable hornets’ nest--a concentration of scores of 105-mm. guns defending important military industries in the general neighborhood of Leipzig.
As if aware that their time was running out, the Nazi gunners apparently tried to fire all their remaining shells in desperate haste.
They came in by the hundreds. They were time bursts, exploding at tree-top height and showering in all directions steel fragments weighing as much as 25 pounds.
They seemed particularly eager to wipe out our command post. For two hours repeated salvos crashed all about. One chunk of shrapnel cut a hole in a wall of the adjacent farm building large enough for a wagon to pass through.
During that morning the situation of our combat command was admittedly extremely precarious, but by afternoon large forces had rushed to our rescue. Many hostile gun positions were overrun by the infantry or knocked out by our own artillery. From the window at which I sat typing I could see Thunderbolts diving on the German batteries and hear the sound of their strafing and bombing.
With the danger for the moment passed, the soldiers discussed the tragic news from Washington. In this section of the Sixth Armored are many hundreds of men from St. Louis and other Missouri cities. They were sobered rather than elated to realize that the mantle had fallen on a fellow Missourian, Harry S. Truman.
The Germans renewed their shelling when the Thunderbolts had gone. Great steel fragments clatter down as the guns, almost surrounding our position, pounded steadily. During the two days of the infernal bombardment more than one veteran thought it not unlikely that at last his time had come. For a few brave American boys it did mean the end.
Three men killed.
Only two men were left out of the crew of a half-track in Battery A, the soline tank of which exploded when hit by a shell and
killed three men, including a St. Louisan, in a foxhole underneath. Three others were wounded. Sgt. Carl Gerhardt was seated on the left forward running board of the half track and Cpl. Woodrow Bowen of Black, Mo., a tank driver, was squatted on the ground against the vehicle at the left rear when a shell hit the forward right side.
Gerhardt had just lighted a cigarette and remarked to Bowen that he thought he had better fasten the steel door behind him or it might wing under concsion and “knock my block off."
He was just reaching for the latch when the shell struck. The swinging gate knocked Gerhardt several yards and stunned him. When he came to his blouse was on fire.
On the second morning of the bombardment, Gerhardt jumped into a foxhole and Cpl. James Jones of St. Louis dived in on top of him. The shell struck feet away, caved in side of the foxhole and both men were buried under the earth, but neither was scratched.
Walks Away, Shell Hits.
The other man in the half-track crew who escaped injury was Lt. Raymond J. Carney of Taunton, Mass. He was standing on the right side of the vehicle when he noticed that men in the headquarters half-track standing nearby had been injured. As he walked over to investigate a shell hit the exact spot where he had been standing.
Both Carney and Gerhardt are confident that the three men killed in the foxhole under their vehicle had died of concussion before the ﬂood ot flaming gasoline poured down into the pit. The shock was so violent that it tore out the half-track's steel floor. Gerhardt, mess cook for Battery A, also acts as interpreter. He was born in St. Louis, but his parents are now somewhere in Germany. Statff Sgt. James W. Carroll of Webster Groves helped pull the dead and wounded from another foxhole. He had scarcely left with the stretchers when three shells in rapid succession hit the foxhole. (Sgt. Gerhardt, 32 years old, is a brother of Henry Gerhardt, 35065. Arsenal street. His wife, Mrs. Jean Gerhardt, is a resident of Chicago. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Gerhardt, and two other brothers are somewhere in Romania. Sgt. Carroll, 24, is the son of Mr. and Mrs. John Carroll of the Webster Groves address. His brother, Lt. John M. Carroll Jr., is serving in the South Pacific.)
Saves Shell Truck.
An ammunition truck in Battery B was hit and shells and small arms bullets exploded in every direction. Sgt. Claude Beams of Centralia, Mo., snatched several blazing projectiles from the vehicle and flung them away. Then he scooped up dirt and threw it on the ﬂames, finally putting them out.
Sgt. Charles Mann of Mexico, Mo., was wounded slightly in the face and Capt. Orville S. Brightwell of Boonvilie, commander of Battery B, was nicked on the chin by a shell splinter, but remained at his post after first aid treatment. Pfc. Darrell Flowers of Battery C, whose home is in Hopkins, Mo., had just been notified that he would start at once for a furlough at home, when a shell struck 20 yards away and showered his 105-mm. gun with shrapnel. Hopkins was unhurt and now is on his way home.
The narrowest escape in Battery C was that of its commander, Capt. Stanley M. Brown of Grinnell, Ia. The bombardment caught him in the open too far away to get to a foxhole. He flung himself to earth with no shelter. A German 105-mm. shell struck 10 yards away and came rolling past his head at a distance of three feet. He remembers chiefly that there was a small clod in front of his eyes. “Boy, that clod looked as big as a barn," he shuddered today.The missile was one of the few duds the Germans sent over.
St. Louisan Nicked.
A miraculous escape was that of Sgt. George E. Torlina, whose home is at 6701 San Bonita avenue, St. Louis. When one installment of the shelling started, he ran for a half-track and was diving beneath when there was a burst of fire on the other side.
One shell fragment tore the front from his combat blouse and another ripped his trousers and the khaki shorts underneath, but his only wound was a faint scratch on the leg, Sgt. Torlina, 26, member of the 128th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. is the husband of Mrs. Lola Torlina and the son of Mrs. Elsa Torllna of 6701 San Bonita avenue, Clayton. He has been overseas since January, 1944.)
We were enabled to escape from our trap by a surprise attack by infantry of our combat command which overran and captured dismantled in a park no less than 24 new German 105-mm. rifles. We took nearly 100 prisoners, all bold, defiant Nazis and Hitler youth zealots.
We learned later that the wasp's nest into which we crashed was one of the largest concentrations of flak guns in Germany.This and other divisions have taken hundreds of new 105-mm. and 88-mm. cannon. These were intended primarily to defend from Allied bombers the colossal synthetic oil, gasoline and benzine plants south of Leipzig, but the barrels of the guns can be depressed for use against ground forces.
Saturday was spent mostly on another of those motor promenades across Germany which have been so incredibly easy. One curious feature was a string of factories miles long with smoke and steam pouring from the stacks and no doubt busily turning out munitions for Hitler. We raced past without trying to molest them. It is not our job to polish off war plants, but that of the divisions coming up behind us.
We liberated 2500 English, French and Russian war prisoners and took hundreds of Germans prisoner. Monday in the G-4 section of the Sixth Armored Division, encountered Warrant Officer Alexander C. Klimas, 4162 Juniata street, St. Louis. He has charge of motor transport and is also the division's fiscal officer. He was formerly a sales engineer for the Autocar Sales and Service Co., 2740 Locust street. It happens that his half-track was manufactured by his old company. Since the Normandy beachhead it has traveled 2500 miles in France and Germany and is still going strong.
Germans’ Dual Nature.
Incidents of the day again illustrate the dual character of the Germans. At one spot they battied against us like one of the great martial races of history. At another they gave up as if they were the most spiritless people on earth, surrendering by hundreds without firing a shot and leaving unblown some bridges and railroad viaducts and not even pretending to man elaborate roadblocks. .
Out of one town slogged 107 German soldiers miserable creatures, bone-tired and mortally disheartened. They declared that they had been given only three carbines for the whole lot.
Ovation From Germans.
In another village we received the first ovation yet given us by the Germans. They ran out to meet us with smiles and laughter and with hands extended. They said they were evacuees of Coblenz and vicinity and that the stingy Saxony peasants had refused to give them food. They declared the local Volkssturmers were cowards and would not fight. Sure enough, at that moment about 100 of them came plodding along with their hands behind their heads. They had surrendered at the first summons.
The Rhinelanders all but danced with joy at the discomfiture of their hosts and insisted on trying to shake our hands “for giving us revenge.”
The attitude of the German populace toward their American conquerors continues to puzzle us all. True, there are always some waving white flags in a transport of terror, some women who weep and some men who scowl.
Passive, Wooden Faces.
They came forth along our route in throngs, lining sidewalks, peering over fences and leaning from windows to watch us pass. But I have a memory of only leagues of
faces of wood, impassive, totally devoid of expression. The effect of this stolid vacuity day after day is growing uncanny. So far as the Sixth Armored's sector is concerned, and also from what I have seen of the Fourth Armored's sector, the Germans thus far are fighting less strenuously to defend their own home soil than they did in France to defend conquered territory. Captured German officers admit that the Volkssturm is worthless in a military sense and describe its members brutally as “mere sausage meat." But formidable resistance that we have met at chosen points has stripped our front line troops of the impression that the war on the Western Front may end in days or weeks. They remember that the Reich has great armies of first-class soldiers on the Eastern to the Russians the easier it is for the German commanders to shuttle forces from one side of the corridor to the other as the emergency requires. But perhaps we are too near the trees to see the forest.
Until now, a long series of villages and cities has dropped into our hands like ripe fruit. Generally the force that administered the necessary gentle shake was a tiny spearhead of two jeeps loaded to their entirety and two light tanks which salute each community on entering with a volley of machine-gun fire. Usually there is no reply, but occasionally a small group of German soldier; from a dozen up to 100 or 200 fire a few rounds, then surrender. Near one large city we shot up a convoy of Nazi vehicles herding into the interior an absolute army of Allied war prisoners and slave laborers who gave us an ovation in a babel of tongues.
Swift Patton Thrust.
Six days ago, with a thrust as fierce and swift as that of a master fencer, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton sent his Third Army forward 60 miles to reach the Saale River, last important barrier before the Elbe. The combat team with which I traveled left Koerner, Thuringia, at 8 o'clock on the morning of April 11 and by 6 p. m. had got as far as the village of Hassenhausen, which lies in a kind off a peninsula stretching south between Thuringia and Saxony. The advance met resistance so weak as to be fantastic. For the most part the trip was as un- eventful as a holiday jaunt along a quiet American highway. Town after town roiled off the map in dozens like telling beads on a string. During one favorable hour the armored column made 25 miles, a phenomenal distance.
Children in Uniform.
At the village of Tunzenhausen we met stout opposition and there were casualties on both sides. About 75 prisoners were rounded up. Some were men 50 to 60 and there were a dozen boys, all of whom said they were 14 to 16, but some looked to be 10 or 12. They said the Nazi leader came into town and demanded reinforcements. Thirty-five soldiers forced the elderly men and young boys to don uniforms. “We've been soldiers only two days," they declared.
In the outskirts of Hassenhausen, Pvt. William S. White of Albany, Mo., saw a movement near a barn. He fired several shots from his carbine, then went in single-handed and brought out eight German soldiers with their arms above their heads.
Five Gallant Men.
A few days ago this division was ringing with an exploit of singular courage in which a tank crew of five, amid the chaos of an early morning counterattack, set aided materially in the repulse of a German column. The gallant quintet was composed of Lt. George M. Robertson Jr., of Winona, Minn., fire observer for the 128th Artillery Battalion; Cpl. William R. Goss, Cedarl Gap, Mo., driver of the medium tank “Dehydrated Hell"s; Thomas A. Banks. Elk City, Ok., acting tank commander; Cpl. Albert F. Hamilton, Greenville, N.C., main gunner, and Pvt. Grossett, Pittsburgh, bow gunner. ‘
The incident occurred April 8 at the town of Marolterode, just southeast of Schlotheim. An enemy force burst from the nearby woods. We had a garrison of nine tanks and two platoons of infantry- . The first enemy waves of selfpropelled guns and some scores of‘ foot soldiers overran our outposts and moved swiftly into the center of town. Four of "Dehydrated Hell's". crew were sound asleep in bed, but Goss, who had been placed on guard in the tank, heard the noise of the Nazi entrance and jumped out and awakened Lt. Robertson. They returned to the tank and saw the enemy self-propelled advancing. Goss tried to back the tank behind a building, but the motor stalled on a steep embankment. Robertson ordered him to abandon the vehicle.
Fight as Infantry.
They went into the building and awakened their comrades. From his window Robertson saw one self-propelled gun in the street beneath and another coming in. The officer in command of the leading gun was sitting with his head out of the open turret. Robertson killed him with one shot from his pistol, a captured Luger. He killed one and wounded and other of two German soldiers trying to break in the door under the window. In the meantime the others had returned to the tank. Hamilton stopped a doughboy with a bazooka, took it from him and asked him how it worked. The G. I. showed him. Hamilton aimed the weapon, let fly at the second German self-propelled. It was the first time he had ever fired a bazooka. The rocket hit quarely and bounced the gun off the road into the ditch.
Nazis Lose Nerve.
Neither of these motorized cannon fired a shot. The first was undamaged but the crew was so demoralized by the death of their commander that they were unable to act. The five Americans then manned up the nuclaul of resistance which their tank positions an usual. Hamllton repeatedly called the command post by radio, asking
that an artillery barrage be placed on the town. At first the garrison milled about, but rallied with engineers, maintenance men and even cooks joining in the fight. The artillery shelled the town, but it took an hour to drive the enemy away. The Germans lost 48 killed, 30 prisoners and two self- propelleds.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
St. Louis, Missouri
United States of America
Friday, April 20, 1945