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"My World War II Memories"
by John C. Crews
12th Armored Division,
(The Hellcats, aka “The Mystery Division”)

56th Armored Infantry Battalion
Company “C”

ETO [European Theater of Operations]


 

I was inducted into the Army from my home in Oklahoma City in 1944. I took my boot camp training at Fort Joseph T. Robinson in Arkansas, and then was assigned to the 12th Armored Division, known as the Hellcats, based out of Camp Barkley in Abilene, Texas, where I debarked for the European Theater of War on September 4, 1944. I told my new wife, Joelmae, “goodbye” and boarded a train that took the new soldiers to our POE (Point of Embarkation) at New York City.

Our group was honored with a huge ticker-tape parade in New York City - a real patriotic sendoff! I was thrilled with the parade, but also scared, knowing I was going off to war - into combat. I was 19 years old.

I crossed the Atlantic on the troopship HMT Empress out of Australia and landed in England for training and preparation ahead of moving into the theater of war in France.

In Britain, I was camped near London and was billeted in the home of some friends of my wife’s British pen-pal, Mary White, whom I also was able to meet. The friends who boarded me were extremely thankful for the United State’s help and they treated me to breakfast in bed. I also met my Army friend Gerald Daniels, with whom I’m still friends today. During that October, we were able to see some of the sights in London before we crossed into the war in France.

We GI’s did not know what the top secret plans were, of course, so we did not know exactly where or when we would be going, but when November came, we crossed the English Channel to Le Havre, France. Here, we became part of the Seventh Army under Generals Allen and Patch. We made our way across the French countryside to join our D-day survivor buddies. I saw the church steeple where our fellow paratrooper landed - the tangled chute still on the steeple.

We joined up with the main battle lines near Weisslingen, Germany by December 7th.

My occupation was as a radio operator. This included CW, Morse code, and voice coded also. Mainly CW and FM. These signals could not get over hills and mountains well. My radio shack was my half-track vehicle with a driver and machine gunner on the top turret (a 50 caliber gun) to help keep us safe! We changed our code machine several times daily to keep ahead of the Germans who were reading our codes. If I couldn’t maintain constant communications, I would strap my 40 pound radio on my back and send and receive messages at the same time I was fighting the Germans, so I did earn my Combat Infantry Badge legally and proudly!

Unfortunately, I was a great target for snipers - me with my important radio communications and its long, 4 foot antennae. I heard lots of Nazi bullets zinging by my ears!

My memories of fighting across Germany are not good, but all bad - seeing friends of mine killed or injured. Fighting the Hitler Germans was intense! During the time of the Battle of the Bulge, we went through the famous battle at Herrlisheim and then cleared the Colmar Pocket. This was one of the worst winters in anyone’s memory, at least in the last 14 years - fierce winter snow up to our belts. We were well supplied with winter woolen coats and gloves, food, C-Rations and later, improvised K-Rations that we warmed up. We enjoyed the instant coffee. Many, many times, I would make my coffee in my metal cup and right then we would receive Kraut artillery 88’s - which had an awful screaming whine coming in - and I would run for cover losing all my hot coffee! I was sure mad at the Germans!

During this time, our enemy was the fierce winter snow and the German tanks. We could hear them coming from miles away because Hitler was running low on fuel. So, lots of “crack, crack, Boom” to announce they were coming! We got our bazookas and destroyed them.

On January 7th, somewhere on the front lines, I suddenly came across a German foxhole. Emerging from the hole was a German Colonel. Fortunately for me, he was alone, but we were both startled and frightened. Facing my rifle, he knew he was captured, and I motioned to him to drop his weapon belt and move away with his hands on his head. I was so nervous, I told him to “Stick ‘em up!” He obeyed, and I retrieved his handgun. I remember that the Colonel was smiling as I delivered him to the MP’s - the war was over for him. I received a Bronze Star for this capture.

The handgun I took from him was a Walther 7.65mm, which I still own. This gun saved my life many times during the fighting to follow, especially in Munich. This weapon was the best for clearing houses and basements and was very handy in street fighting. Shooting from a window or doorway, you are better hidden with a handgun. The Nazis would wonder, “Where did that shot come from?” A rifle sticks out, and if you shoot them with it, you get a live grenade in return.

On March 17, 1945, our entire 12th Armored Division was transferred or “loaned” to General George Patton’s Third Army. We became known as the “Mystery Division.” This was because we were to be used as a secret tool to confuse the enemy. Patton would often pull us from the front, and being very mobile, would set us up miles up or down the front. Perhaps Hitler would think, “Where did that army come from?,” and “How many armies do the Americans have?” It worked to our advantage.

We always did our quick moves at night. We would form a convoy using “cat eyes” for the vehicle’s lights. These were light covers with slits about three inches long. Drivers had to very carefully follow the cat eyes of the vehicle in front of him. He usually could not see the road or anything else. On one of the mountains, one of the half-tracks missed a curve and we lost that vehicle and the soldiers in it.

On March 27th, 1945, we reached the Rhine river at Worms, Germany. The bridge was still standing with a fortified tower that had circling windows, perhaps four stories high. The bridge had been wired for explosives by the Germans. The only way for us to cross was to swim or else be killed. Very early in the next morning, we were to swim the river and since I was not a swimmer, I asked around for anyone who could swim to help me. One soldier said he would take care of me, and he helped me swim across the Rhine in the cold darkness. It was very scary!

We received a lot of fire from the tower sharpshooters and lots of our men were wounded or killed. We brought up tanks afterwards, though, and blew the whole top off the tower! Mission successful!!

Our armies were superior to the Nazis. We were clothed better and fed better. We had rest periods several times. My first one was to Nancy, France, and the second one was to Paris. Of course, this was a morale builder. We were furnished free cigarettes, although I don’t smoke and never have.

Hitler had brainwashed his army and the civilians, warning them that the Americans would rape the citizens and then kill them. When we captured a town, we first cleared all the houses, then the basements with guns drawn. The house that I cleared first, I’ll never, never forget. In the basement was a family of four. A grandfather, mother, and children, with their hands folded in prayer. They begged us not to be raped and killed. They found out right away that we were good humans like they were. They were so relieved that they offered us food and milk. We could not accept the milk, though, because it is the easiest thing to be poisoned.

On April 22, we reached the Danube river. The 12th AD captured the bridge at Dillingen here and erected a famous sign that stated: “You are crossing the beautiful blue Danube through the courtesy of the 12th Armored Division.”

On April 26, we were at Burgau, just south of the Danube, when I realized that the arms fire we were under was coming from our own forces on the other side of the town. They thought we were escaping Nazis! I could not raise them on the radio, so I decided to run across the town with my radio pack until I could get the signal to them to stop the friendly fire. Burgau had not yet been cleared of the enemy, so I was under intense sniper fire the entire time. I remember the sound of the German bullets whizzing by my head all the way through the town. I also remember running very fast! Finally, they answered my radio message and stopped the firing, which saved many of our lives. I received my second Bronze Star with Oak Clusters for this action.

After this, we entered Munich where I experienced very fierce street fighting.

On May 8th, Germany surrendered unconditionally and we halted fighting and waited for our time to go home. We shipped out from Bavaria on troop trains that were really just livestock boxcars with bare floors and thick hay to rest and sleep on. We traveled all the way across Germany and France in these boxcars to Camp Lucky Strike, near Le Havre. There, we would board ships for our 30 day leave at home before heading to the Pacific Theater to fight again in the ongoing war with Japan!

Before the war, I had played guitar and sung professionally in Oklahoma City on KOMA radio, so before boarding the troop train, I had bought a German guitar to take home. Unfortunately, the train lurched one day, causing one of the soldiers to fall over onto my guitar which was ruined.

At Camp Lucky Strike, we spent several weeks until the trip back to the United States. I worked as a Company Clerk during that time and learned to play ping-pong. In August, I boarded the S.S. Marine Devil, one of the many troop ships taking us back across the Atlantic. The ship was very crowded and there was a lot of seasickness, especially below decks. I took a chance and slept on the deck to avoid it.

Just after leaving Le Havre, destination Boston harbor, we received news over the ship radio that the atomic bomb had been dropped in Japan. About mid-Atlantic, we heard that the second bomb had been dropped, and that the Japanese had surrendered, ending all the war! Of course, we had a very big celebration on the ship, jumping and hollering. I’m surprised the boat didn’t sink! We were going home for good!

I believe that our troop ship was the very first ship to arrive at Boston after the war was over, perhaps the first one to arrive in the USA. When we reached the harbor, we were met with fireboats shooting their jets of water into the air, and a flat-top aircraft carrier with a Broadway musical being performed on deck for us to see all the way in to the landing!

I’ll never forget when we put our foot for the first time on good ‘ol USA soil, the Red Cross handed us a tall glass of ice-cold MILK! This was a treat, because we were not allowed to have milk overseas due to the danger of poisoning.

I was bedded down at Camp Miles Standish in Massachusetts until I could return home.


 

I’d like to say that I am very grateful to the United States Government for the G. I. Bill, which allowed me to get an education and have a professional career that I otherwise may not have had the opportunity to enjoy.
 

Georgetown, Texas
May, 2005

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