My Dad During World War II
My Dad, E.W. (Pop) Crosby, was drafted (serial #34337994) into the Army during World War II at the age of 24 (born April 5, 1919). He had attempted to enter the Air Force, Navy, and Seabees earlier, but was turned down due to his size which was only 124 lbs. He first had to report to Anniston, Alabama (Fort McClellan) and then return to Elba, Alabama to get his things in order for shipping out. He actually lived at Fort Blanding, Florida when he was drafted and was working at a PX. He had worked several jobs in Elba and in Montgomery before going to the job in Florida, always sending money home to his mother from each job. His mother, my grandmother (Gussie T. Crosby, b.1883), lived in Elba next to Mr. John Wiley English near the White Water Bridge. My Dad was sent from Elba to Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and then, to the 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One) in Oran, North Africa.
He went to basic training in Georgia with a man named Stanley Carlson, a tall Swede from Iron Mountain, Michigan. They became acquainted because they always marched in alphabetical order and therefore, were close in line on their ten mile hikes. They found if they marched close to the front of the line they could march at a steady march, whereas if you were at the rear you had a slow march and then a fast run, very sporadic. They got separated after basic training as they each went to separate units, my Dad going to ordnance and Carlson going to the engineers. My Dad received a call in 1998 from Carlson after more than fifty years. He thought he had been killed during the war. Someone had told my Dad that they had seen him disappear under the water on D-Day and not come up. This turned out to be false. He found out that he was in an engineers unit during the war and had been wounded three times, but asked to be returned to his unit each time. Carlson had been one of the ones that had to clear the path for the infantry of obstacles, such as the pillboxes. He carried a flamethrower many times. After the war he returned to Michigan, got married, and had eight girls. He now has a farm in Michigan and when he came down, he brought my Dad some maple syrup made from maple trees on his farm.
My Dad drove a Diamond T wrecker throughout North Africa and Sicily prior to the invasion of Normandy and received the Bronze Star for "meritorious achievement in connection with military operations against the enemy in the North African Theater of Operations from 30 March 1943 to 17 August 1943". When asked what he did to receive the Bronze Star, my Dad related a time that he was sent to the front lines to change out the barrel of a howitzer. He had to attach and remove the old barrel with the boom of his wrecker. He stated that a GI nearby started to light a cigarette and another GI slapped it away. He stated that the Germans could easily see that and here my Dad was that close with his wrecker which was a very big target. This was the only incident that he could remember in which he was that close to the front lines for him to have been recommended for the citation. He seemed to downplay his part in the North African campaign.
His wrecker was a 4 ton wrecker with a machine gun turret on top. One could stand in the seat of the wrecker and fire the 50 caliber machine gun 360 degrees in any direction. On each side of the rear of the wrecker were nine 5 gallon cans of gasoline for a total of 18 cans or 90 gallons. When he came upon units with GIs in foxholes, he would many times give them a can of gasoline to heat their meals. On the rear of the wrecker were acetylene and oxygen tanks for cutting and welding. If needed the wrecker could be adapted with an extended pipe from the carburetor which allowed it to be driven underwater. The pipe was extended well above the cab of the vehicle and as long as you could reach the pedals and steering, it could be driven underwater with only the pipe exposed. The spark plugs were also sealed with grease to waterproof them for this type maneuver. This procedure ended up being used on two different occasions at Slapton Sands, England and D-Day, referred to later.
My Dad was in North Africa at the same time General George S. Patton was there. As portrayed in the movie "Patton", the general had been visiting the wounded in a tent and came upon a soldier that was claiming battle fatigue from fear. General Patton became furious and slapped the soldier. He stated that this person did not need to be in the same tent with good soldiers who had been wounded in combat. He then had him removed from the tent with the wounded and called him a coward. Patton was forced to make a public apology. My Dad was ordered to attend the apology. He stated that Patton arrived in his jeep wearing his two pearl-handled revolvers and proceeded to a platform that had been constructed for him. My Dad said it was not much of an apology and the GIs booed him when he was finished. They even had balloons blown up from condoms filled with acetylene. Patton was not very popular with the GIs at the time. People called Patton old "Blood and Guts", but the GIs said it was his guts and their blood.
While in North Africa (near Tunis) my Dad came across some commando units that were utilized to fight the Germans. Many members were from South Africa and some were French. They would bivouac right up near the front lines, build bond fires, and my Dad said they were "crazy". They would go out for two or three nights on patrol. They would find soldiers and sneak up behind them under the cover of darkness. They would grab the soldiers from the rear, touch their shoulders, and look for a distinctive strap that was on all German uniforms. If they had this strap or they knew they were German by some other means, they would kill them with a knife. One GI told one of these commandos to bring him a German watch. On his next patrol he brought back a watch, but he could not figure how to get the clasp off, so he brought the watch still on the arm.
Another thing particularly prevalent in North Africa and throughout most of the war was the poor communication. For instance, rolls of wire had to be strung manually for telephone communication. My Dad came upon a GI in North Africa that pointed out a gruesome scene next to the road. The advancing army had already moved on, but a soldier was on a hill in the crawling position. He still had one of the rolls of telephone wire in his hand, but he had been shot between the eyes and was dead in the exact position of stringing the wire. Later in the war, the communication problem did improve; however, this really drew home the need for a better method and less hazardous method.
Following his duty all across North Africa, my Dad returned to Oran to re-supply and re-equip for the invasion of Sicily. He then moved up the coast by land to eventually ship out near Bizerte, Tunisia. This invasion of Sicily was wrapped up very fast with the defeat of the Germans in a short period of time. One unfortunate thing happened with this invasion concerning a squadron of American planes carrying paratroopers. The squadron was mistaken for the enemy because of confusion on both sides and the squadron was completely destroyed by anti-aircraft weapons from our own invasion forces.
While in Sicily, my Dad had another close call. He had been picked since he was a private to be sent behind enemy lines by glider. The advancing army had slowed down and this was thought to be the next tactic to try. My Dad had been trained getting in and out of the glider, and they had even removed their insignia so they could penetrate behind the lines more discreetly. Before they could carry out this mission; however, a more strategic landing was successful in Italy making the glider mission unnecessary. This was another example of where my Dad was blessed since the glider missions proved throughout the war to be fairly unsuccessful. Many times these gliders would not land where expected and would even crash in trees.
Toward the end of his duty in Sicily, my Dad had to cross a mountain to turn in his wrecker at Palermo before catching a ship to England. His last mission was to tow a tank with his wrecker over the mountain to the point where all vehicles were to be transported. His wrecker had ten wheels operating independently and a transmission in double low, but this was still a very difficult mission. The roads were wet and slippery in many locations making the trip very hazardous. According to the specifications, the Diamond T wrecker could tow as much as 10 tons with the double boom in the rear. It could also pull 15,000 lbs. with the winch in the front. He was able to complete the trip without major difficulties and catch a ship to England.
My Dad's Division was transferred to England to prepare for the Normandy invasion. General Patton had gotten himself in trouble with General Eisenhower as a result of his outspoken, brash attitude in North Africa. According to my Dad when his unit, the 1st Infantry Division, arrived in England, Patton's Third Army was their "dog-robbers" as my Dad put it. In other words, Patton's Army prepared their meals. Also, while in England, my Dad's Division was loaded onto a ship thinking they were leaving for the invasion of Europe. It turned out to be a mock invasion at a place called Slapton Sands, England. He learned later that the 1st Division was not suppose to land at Normandy on D-Day; however, during the mock invasion a German U boat (learned later to be German surface boats) sank two of the ships involved. As a result of this sinking, my Dad's unit was moved up to a landing on D-Day.
During the European Theater of Operation (ETO) beginning with D-Day (June 6,1944), my Dad drove a Diamond T wrecker and actually went through three wreckers during the course of the war. He came ashore at Omaha beach late afternoon of D-Day after watching the invasion all day through field glasses. Through the glasses he could see the cliffs with the pillboxes (containing German machine guns) on top. He could also see the sand and dust kick up all around the GIs as they went in and then many would fall, wounded or killed. He had observed a battleship next to his ship rock back and forth as it fired shells from all the guns on the side facing the beaches. It was beginning to look like the invasion would fail, therefore one means to aid the invasion was to bring the battleships in to very shallow water and fire at the German machine gun nests at point blank range. This was very dangerous for the advancing soldiers on the beach, but they were being picked off by the Germans in vast numbers, keeping them pinned down practically all morning. They finally broke through for a successful invasion, but at a very high cost of young Americans. Upon arriving on shore at dusk, my Dad saw a long stack of bodies and made the statement "we really killed a lot of Germans!" A soldier told him that those bodies were Americans. According to Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2400 Americans were killed at Omaha Beach on June 6, alone.
My Dad came into shore on a "Rhino" which appeared to be a floating pontoon bridge with two large outboard motors on the back, one on each side. It carried my Dad's wrecker and another wrecker driven by a man named Wilson Booth. His unit also had a large 10 ton wrecker, Ward La France, that could haul almost anything. According to my Dad, this wrecker was so powerful that at one point they were trying to pull a vehicle out of the mud and the wrecker pulled the vehicle apart leaving the wheels stuck in the mud.
He also noticed about the time he came ashore, two German planes flying parallel to the shore. This was especially difficult for the Germans since the Allies had thousands of "barrage balloons" flying above with steel cables attached to prevent the Luftwaffe from flying. These two planes flew by, trying to dodge the cables, occasionally dropping small grenade-like bombs. They flew down and turned around for a return pass. As they reached the location my Dad was at, one of the pilots lost his nerve flying through the balloons and went into a vertical climb to escape the cables. At this point he was more exposed to fire from the Allies and therefore, blown from the sky.
Another incident occurred as my Dad moved inland through France following D-Day. He was in a small town when the Germans fired artillery at his position next to a church. He stated that the Germans usually fired artillery in groups of three at meal time. He had been in a field behind the church going to a "cat hole" (latrine) and had returned when the firing started. He jumped behind some air compressors by the church. His maintenance unit had just received several wooden cases of air compressors and they were stacked next to the church. The compressors were stacked eight cases wide in front of where my Dad was positioned. One shell landed in the field where he had been and one hit the steeple of the church above my Dad's position. The shell that hit the church steeple did send out a lot of schrapnel. One GI with my Dad said, "Bing (my Dad's nickname during the war), one of those pieces of schrapnel had your name on it!" He showed my Dad that it had penetrated 4 cases of the air compressors before being stopped. The third shell hit a manure stack near the mess tent while several soldiers were eating. The manure pile kept the schrapnel from scattering and probably saved several GIs in the mess tent. Another piece of schrapnel penetrated one of their wreckers and clipped one of the spark plugs from the engine.
Another pivotal point of WWII was the crossing of the Rhine River in Germany at Remagen. This has been mentioned in many books as one of the most important accomplishments of the war. My Dad crossed the bridge one morning to pick up a weapons carrier and came back across a pontoon bridge only about 30 minutes later. The railroad bridge, Ludendorff Bridge, that he crossed in the morning fell the next day. Many GIs were killed when the bridge fell due to so many hits by both sides. The Germans had attempted to blow the bridge earlier, but failed in their mission. He stated that there were soldiers positioned on the pontoon bridge about every 15 ft. with rifles to shoot any explosives floating downstream. The Germans were attempting to blow up the pontoon bridge in this manner.
Prior to the crossing of the bridges at Remagen the Allies were having a lot of trouble crossing the Rhine. One of my Dads' missions was to return to Paris and bring amphibious jeeps to aid in the crossing. Also, after the crossing, the Third Army led by General George Patton was running low of fuel. My Dad was sent back to Paris with a convoy of 100 trucks for fuel. It was a one way route in and a one way route out. Special permission was given to allow my Dad and the 100 trucks to take the "Red Ball Express" in reverse in order to get the fuel for Pattons' tanks.
According to a source on the internet, the "Red Ball Express" was a supply line that had been set up with over 5,000 trucks to bring supplies to the front line depots. The name came from a railroad term to "red ball" or to ship it express. The express only operated from August 25 to November 16, 1944 after completing its mission in the German retreat. Many of the drivers on the express were black, since blacks were not allowed to fight on the front lines. They were also suppose to drive at 35 mph and haul no more than 5 tons. Most drivers took the governors off their trucks and drove much faster. The Express due to the great demand for the supplies was more like a "free-for-all at a stock car race" than the slow convoys. They also hauled more weight than ordered. According to the source the Red Ball Express drivers wore out 40,000 tires in the first month of operation. The biggest problem with the tires were the ration cans carelessly thrown from the vehicles. Drivers were to wear helmets and carry rifles, but the helmets most often wound up on the floor next to the rifles. Also, drivers on the express sand bagged the floor to protect against land mines. Most of the jeeps and trucks like my Dad's unit drove with their windshields down. This was mostly because a glint off the windshield could bring a hale of German artillery fire.
Many times my Dad would be on the road day or night hauling vehicles that were disabled for whatever the reason. His unit was on the move and on many occasions, vehicles had to be carried to a more permanent location for repair because they were moving out. The weather conditions were very bad particularly in Germany. Many times in the morning the tires of the vehicles would be stuck solid in frozen mud and they would have to heat water to put around the tires. This was necessary to move the vehicles or the transmissions would be ruined trying to free them. Many trucks were assembled in the United States and sent to the front lines with wooden wheel bearings that did not last long. Due to this poor planning, he had to salvage wheel bearings from other vehicles to replace the wooden ones.
At night, a shelter half was placed over the booms of the wrecker to sleep under and for protection from the rain or snow. Also, a camouflage cover was used as a hammock for sleeping. Shelter halves were issued to GIs which were actually half of a pup tent. A cot was also available for sleeping on some occasions. Even though these conditions at night were better than frontline foxhole duty, he still had to deal with extremes of rain, snow, ice, and mud, night and day. My dad had to deal with these harsh conditions on three continents and through seven battles. He was in two invasions and the battles as listed on his discharge were Tunisia, Sicily, Normandy, Northern France, Central Europe, Rhineland, and the Ardennes. He had served for 37 months and ended his career in September, 1945. Actually, he served from his official date of induction on 8-15-42 until his date of separation on 9-28-45. During this period he was awarded the Distinguished Unit Badge, the Good Conduct Medal, and the European African Middle Eastern Service Medal with 1 silver and 2 bronze stars as well as the Bronze Star mentioned earlier. The sacrifices of my Dad and every member of the armed forces during World War II should never be forgotten and hopefully, never have to be repeated again on this scale or in this manner.
Charles E. Crosby