Between respites, to breathe in much needed pure Oxygen, from a tank besides his chair, Jim started to recount his harrowing tale of survival, during WWII. (As stated previously, I have temporarily misplaced his story, this post is strictly from memory. He may have been with the 752nd or 753rd Tank Battalion that invaded Sicily. I don’t recall the village where the action occurred-Could have been around Salerno or Anzio-even Ciceno).
Jim was a crew member on a Sherman Tank. The crew consisted of a Tank Commander, a gunner, driver, assistant driver and loader. My recollection is, that they met light opposition while landing, and quickly made their way inland.
He stated that they came upon a small village at the base of a steep mountain range. They were surprised that their was no resistance in the village. After carefully moving through the town, they made their way along a narrow curving road, at the base of a steep mountain range.
At a certain point, they came upon a small bridge. As I recall, he was one of only a few tanks moving up the road-in advance of infantry. As they reached the bridge, all hell broke loose. The Germans, knowing of the landings, had retreated inland and took up positions on high ground, where they could watch the action and set up a counter-attack.
Suddenly Jim’s tank began to take fire. He recalls rifle fire bouncing off the tank, like stones being thrown against a tin can. Without warning, the whole tank shook violently. Jim said that whatever hit their tank-most likely a shell from a Panzer tank-hiding in the woods above them, penetrated the tank, going straight through one of the crew and then exploding inside, setting the whole tank on fire.
My recollection, is that he had great difficulty getting out of the tank, his skin melting from the intense heat from the exploding shell. Once outside, he helped the rest of the crew. They took positions on the tank and returned fire, as German troops stormed down the hillside towards them. Their immediate worry, was that their own shells would explode, blowing up the tank, along with them.
Because of incoming fire, they were unable to escape. They clambered down the sides of the tank and took positions underneath. They returned fire at the charging German troops, until they ran out of ammunition. Before their tank exploded, someone spotted a culvert, under the bridge they had been trying to cross and crawled inside to hide. They could hear the Germans yelling at each other and searching for them. Finally, they were discovered and captured.
My recollection is that Jim and the others spent the rest of their time in a German POW camp, until released at the end of the war. I know they received medals for their actions that day, but not sure what kind. I’m told, there is a written account about his experience, which I would like to find.
The worse part he states, was the horrible burns he suffered, while escaping the exploding tank. He has had numerous skin grafts over the years and suffered great pain. At the time we met him, he was 90 or 91 years of age. Although he could still walk, he was slow and hooked up to an Oxygen bottle. The last thing he asked of us, was could we repair his back steps, as they were hard for him to climb. We gladly complied with his request, free of charge. It was our pleasure to help such a great hero of the Second World War!
Sherman Tank in Sicily-Wikimedia Commons/PD