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741st Tank Battalion and K.V. Williams

Regular Teachingmybabytoread readers, please excuse today’s veer off the subject of early childhood education. In honor of Veteran’s Day, I’m writing a post about my Grandfather, K.V. Williams, and his service with the 741st Tank Battalion. An unexpected outcome of working so hard on my blog is that I now have a platform to share things that really matter to me, education related or otherwise. Hopefully as a result of this post, descendants and history buffs all across the globes will be able to type in “741st Tank Battalion”, and I’ll be able to share the research I compiled several years ago.

Once when I was little my Grandma Gerry told me the story of my Grandpa’s service in WW II and I didn’t believe her. I knew that my Grandpa was considered a hero, and had a purple splotch across his hand, (because he had received the Purple Heart, duh!), but the story my Grandma told was truly unbelievable. She was a well-known embellisher of ideas, and even thought I was only nine or ten, I was wise enough to be skeptical. It turns out; every word my Grandma told me was true.

The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7th, 1941 my Grandfather enlisted in the army. He was older than your average recruit (I’ll spare the exact date to preserve family privacy) and had been working for many years. The Depression had been hard on his family, forcing him to start earning a living at a young age to help his siblings. But my Grandfather was fairly well educated for the time. His letters show a man with beautiful, regular handwriting, good spelling and grammar, and well thought-out phrases. My Grandfather had options. His choice of enlisting was a choice to serve.

Grandpa’s eventual landing place in the army was as a sergeant in Company B of the 741st Tank Battalion. The best information I have ever found about their story is in the out of print book 741st Tank Battalion D-Day to V-E Day and The Story of Vitamin Baker “We’ll Never Go Over Seas”. I feel very lucky to own a copy of this book, because I do not know if they are still available.

Perhaps the most famous thing about the 741st Tank Battalion is the part of their story that I didn’t believe was true when my Grandma told me. On June 4, 1944, 32 Duplex Drive Tanks from Company B were released into the waters of the English Channel, meant to swim across to the Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach and invade Normandy as part of D Day. The tanks were “30 tons of steel in a canvas bucket” (Vitamin Baker, p 13) and had never before practiced in waters so choppy, or weather conditions so poor. When the tanks hit the rough water, the inflatable attachments were ripped off. Tragically, all but three of those tanks sank. My Grandpa’s tank was one of the only three to make it onto the beach! The two others were led by Maddock and Ragan.

My Grandpa’s tank was critical in taking out pillboxes and other anti-aircraft artillery. At some point my Grandfather was shot in the hand when he climbed out of the tank to reload, but he kept on fighting anyway. For my Grandfather’s service that day he received both the Purple Heart and the Silver Star. Here is what his Silver Star citation says:

“Sargent Kenneth V. Williams, for gallantry in action against the enemy in France, on June 6, 1944. Sargent Williams landed his tank on an enemy beach. While engaging an anti-tank gun position his vehicle was hit and Sargent Williams was wounded. Disregarding his wound, he continued the attack destroying the emplacement. He then advanced, destroying numerous machine gun positions which were holding up advance of the infantry. When his tank hit a mine, Sargent Williams, still ignoring his wound, continued to fight on with his company, refusing evacuation until the following day. His courage and devotion beyond the call of duty reflect great credit on himself and the Armed Forces of the United States.”

The 741st Tank Battalion went on to be part of several significant events in World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge and Krinkelt/Rocherath. This is what page 66 of The Story of Vitamin Baker says about the fighting at Krinkelt/Rocherath from December 17 to 19th:

“The most hotly contested place in all Rocherath was the church, the high point of the town. The battle swayed back and forth, one time the enemy held it, then we would take over. Several tanks were knocked out right in the church yard.”

Here is what The Story of Vitamin Baker, as described by Cpt Kelly Laymen, says about the fighting at Krinkelt, including my Grandpa’s participation as one of the last men in the area, holed up in the church, but continuing to defend the town:

“When somebody says that Krinkelt was really a Hot Spot, they aren’t kidding a bit! ’cause it really was hot enough to make us really sweat. The tank I was in, Stokowski’s tank, didn’t have any generator on the first day and we were back some little distance, where we waited all day. At about four o’clock in the afternoon, the Battalion Commander led us back into town and tried to set us up as road blocks. But every time we started out, such a barrage came in that we were forced back . Having had our motor running all day, we were just about out of gas, so we left our tank and tried to make contact with he CP. But we –Stokowski, Cheek, Williams, McCormick and I didn’t have any luck. So we sat in a big church which was nearby and waited. There were two tanks sitting outside from A Company, and they were lost too.

“We lay in the church all night listening to the guns firing, and the krauts hollering, and all that stuff just raising Cain. it started to quiet down about five in the morning, and at seven or eight I found K.V., and we started to look for the CP. We had gone about fifty yards, and were talking with some doughboys, asking if they knew where our CP was. They didn’t know and just then it started again. Somebody shouted, ‘Here comes some Panther tanks!’ We headed for a house and tried to find a cellar but couldn’t, so we just sat there and waited.

“In the same house there were some anti-tank boys from the 23rd Regiment, and they loaded up three bazookas and were waiting. As the tanks came by, the doughs let go with a round. It hit the Panther’s right side and bounced off. As the second one came by, he fired again, it too bounced off. The doughboy only had one more loaded bazooka, and when the third tank came alongside he fired, and you should have seen him go –bazooka, projectile, doughboy and all went right out into the street!”

For their service during the violent counter-attack in the Krinkelt-Rocherath area of Belgium, the 741st Tank Battalion received another Presidential Citation which stated:

“Again and again the infuriated enemy threw armor and infantry against the dauntless defenders but for three days and nights these assaults were turned back by the unwavering fortitude of the inspired position. The tank men covered the withdrawal and were the last to leave the scene of battle. During the bitter three day engagement they had destroyed twenty seven enemy tanks, five armored vehicles and two trucks. Their indomitable fighting spirit and unflinching devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the armed forces.”

Less than ten days later on Christmas Day 1944, my Grandpa wrote the following letter to my Grandma in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge:

“Hiya Honey, Merry Christmas. It’s cold enough to snow on the ground and it could be like Christmas but instead it’s more like the fourth of July. This finds me well and going along pretty good. Last year at this time we were thinking that maybe we would be home for this Christmas but here we are still going.”

My Grandpa wrote this in the middle of terrible fighting, with bombs and artillery exploding everywhere. Did you ever see Band of Brothers? The 741st Tank Battalion were the men coming to the rescue!

The 741st Tank battalion was also responsible for the liberation of Flossenburg Concentration Camp. Here is a description from page 33 of The Story of Vitamin Baker about Flossenberg:

“The large German concentration camp of Hasag is near Flossberg. As such, members of the Battalion had the chance to see with their own eyes the brutal results of Nazi domination. Here huge amounts of political prisoners were kept. These were made to work the munitions factories and given the very minimum of food and care. The weak either died or were shot; the strong held on only to become sick, starving broken. Full evidence of these inhumanities was found all about the camp. The sights were horrible and unbelievable.”

I love this letter that my Grandpa sent my Grandma. His feelings about Hitler were pretty clear.

Of the original men in Company B of the 471st Tank Battalion, 29 were killed in action, 5 went missing in action, and 3 became prisoners of war. 56 soldiers were wounded or hospitalized in the line of duty. Only 46 of the original members came home. I am very lucky that my Grandpa was one of them. As you can probably have guessed by now, I have made an album of all of my Grandpa’s letters and pictures from his service in World War II. It is one of my most treasured possessions.


30 Comments

  1. Claire H. says:

    My grandfather was a tank sergeant in WWII and was also scheduled to be part of the first wave of D-Day (not sure which unit). However, he wound up being promoted to a general’s aide-de-camp shortly prior to the invasion because he was fluent in French. He always swore that his foreign language proficiency saved his life because tragically most of his old unit did not survive the invasion 😦

    • jenbrdsly says:

      I wonder what tank unit it was? There was also the 743rd, which came behind the 741st on D Day. Once they saw all the ships sinking, I think they held off on launching (if I remember correctly).

  2. jengod says:

    Beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

  3. terryh says:

    Thank you for sharing this. You are indeed fortunate to get a copy of the book. I tried but was to late. I think the author has passed away. My father was in 741st Company C.

    • Elaine Briggs says:

      My dad was also in Company C, Joe Dew. I’m working on a book about his life and experiences during the war. It’s truly amazing what they did for future generations and all that they went through.

      • Yvette Ridenour says:

        My great-uncle, Woodrow Kitchen, was in Company C and I did a lot of research in the early 90’s, including going to a 741st Reunion. An amazing bunch of guys. If anyone would happen to have pictures of my great-uncle, I would love to see them–I am putting together a memoir of him. There was a documentary about the tanks which sank (his was one of them)–does anyone know the name of it? Thanks.

      • I wish I knew! I’d love to see that documentary.

  4. Susan says:

    Hello, my grandfather is a 741st member who is living in Indiana. I have read the book you are referring to and so have my sons. Hope we can talk sometime. Deadline Discovery flew my grandparents to Paris for the 60th anniversary of D Day. My grandfather was one of the men featured in the interview with Lester Holt from NBC. A researcher from Texas A&M University has found the tanks at the bottom of the English Channel.

    • That’s very cool, Susan. Which company was your grandpa in? Mine was in Company B.

    • Brad Kammeyer says:

      Susan
      My father was a Sgt. In the 741st. B company. His DD tank sunk off Omaha Beach on D-Day. He survived. He
      was also from Indiana,. Ft. Wayne. He was Sgt. Al Kammeyer and continued fighting with the 741st throughout the war. His tank was one of the lead tanks that led the parade to celebrate the end of,the war in France.
      I would love to talk to you about your grandfather and my fathers experiences.

      Brad Kammeyer

      • Don Janes says:

        Brad

        My godfather was Sgt . Don Lucey tank commander, Company B 741st. Don was very close to me. As a child he spoke to me about his experiences in the war. As I got older he became more graphic in describing the battles. He lost 5 tanks under his command, was wounded twice, received a bronze star, and somehow survived. In 2011 I was contacted by the Discovery channel in England about including his story and for months we shared information about his experiences at Normandy, St Lo and the Bulge. . I sent them photos of Don and the family. I was very proud to see him included in their production when it aired on the Discovery Channel They had an actor play his part. Here is the link http://chalpari.com/watch/nE3lUBoxAHM/full-documentary-normandy-surviving-d-day-new-2015.html
        He is often cited in the little Vitamin Baker book. We all should make every effort to share and preserve the memory of these brave young men.

        Don Janes
        Clayton California

      • Hi Brad
        I am fascinated about the DD tanks: I used to managed the site in England where the crews trained on their DD tanks. It was at Fritton Lake, near Greta Yarmouth Norfolk.

        I put together a small website to provide an insight into the DDs. It is http://www.duplexdrivetanks.co.uk
        I discover more about your father’s training in 1944 on the DDs. You may not be aware that the crews – as part of their training had to escape from the hull of a submerged tank, located 22 ft down a concrete shaft.

  5. I enjoyed reading this Jen, thanks for sharing. Awesome you have a scrapbook. I saw your post the other day on FB after I got back from seeing Fury with my mom. My Grandpa Clark (mom’s dad) was aboard the USS Skipjack submarine during WWII. Like your family, many amazing stories of heroism, and fortunately he survived as well. Thanks again.

    • Glad you liked it! Wasn’t President Carter on a WW II submarine too? I might be misremembering that… I’m just glad I made that scrapbook before I had kids because otherwise it would never have happened. 🙂

  6. Brad Kammeyer says:

    Susan
    My father was a Sgt. In the 741st. B company. His DD tank sunk off Omaha Beach on D-Day. He survived. He was also from Indiana,. Ft. Wayne. He was Sgt. Al Kammeyer and continued fighting with the 741st throughout the war. His tank was one of the lead tanks that led the parade to selebrate the end of,the war in France.

    Brad Kammeyer

  7. John C. Pansmith says:

    Jennifer –
    Some further details you probably never knew about your grandfather’s tank on D-Day:
    Four tanks were loaded onto LCT600. This platoon of 4 tanks was commanded by my cousin 2ndLt. Patrick J. O’Shaughnessy, who lead the “first off” tank of the 4. His tank was launched into a rough sea, and the LCT commander, Navy Ensign Sullivan, saw it “swim” a short distance and swamp, then sink. All five crew managed to get out and four were rescued back onto LCT600. The other crew member (Sgt Crouse) was rescued by another craft. Sullivan then decided not to launch the three remaining tanks into the rough seas. He instead proceeded directly to the beach and discharged your grampa William’s tank, SSgt Richard L. Maddock’s tank and 1stSgt Paul Ragan’s tank.
    He backed off the beach and returned with survivors to an offshore hospital ship.
    Company B was scheduled to launch another 12 total tanks from 3 other LCT’s, to “swim” in. They did indeed launch them, into rough seas. Only 2 made it into the beach. All others swamped and sank. The two “swimmers” that made it in were commanded by SSgt Turner G. Sheppard and Sgt George R. Geddes, both of whom received battlefield commissions as a result of their actions on DDay.

    • Thank you so much, John! I’ll share this info with my family. What an amazing story of survival.

      • Barry Barcellona says:

        My Father was a platoon Commander in Co. A. of the 741st Tank Battalion on D-Day. His name was Gaetano R. Barcellona Maj. Cecil D. Thomas was their Co.A. Commander. When they landed on Easy Red,my Father said there were no tanks on the beach–his tank took several direct hits, he kept his tank in operation. When his ammunition supply became exhausted, Lt. Barcellona, completely disregarding his own safety,dismounted from his tank and moved across the fire-swept beach to secure another supply of ammunition. He then returned through heavy enemy fire to his tank and continue to carry on the fight.
        Pvt. Lawrence G. Sweeney was my father’s gunner who also ran across that beach that day . They both received The Distinguished Service Cross for their actions that day.
        When their radios became inoperable My father sent Pvt. L.G. Sweeney to find the remainder of the tanks in his platoon that had become separated and guide them to a rallying point. Sweeney moved ahead of the tanks dragging the dead and wounded out of the way. Sweeney was sent on another mission to see what fortifications were along the E-3 (I believe) exit route toward Colleville. On arrival, he found the the E-3 exit well fortified and under terrific enemy fire which had the infantry pinned-down. Fearlessly ,he crawled to the position which were under direct enemy fire in order to determine where the enemy positions were located. He then proceeded under heavy enemy fire to an abandoned tank and secured another man to load the gun while he himself engaged enemy targets. He then returned to Lt. Barcellona tank. As one can imagine, much action took place from June 6 trough June 19 but In an area between St. Lo and Caen on June 19, 1944 My father was severely wounded. As best as I can recall the story, there was an effort to take a hill ,capture the high ground. My father was in front of his tank with two other officers looking at a map when they came under heavy enemy mortar fire. A mortar round exploded in front of my father’s tank killing the two officers and severely wounding My Dad.
        Even as late as the 1980’s My Dad would have to go and have an annoying piece of German metal removed from somewhere. Private First Class Lawrence G. Sweeney had come to Lt. Barcellona’s aid. Sweeney then ran to get a blanket or medical supplies . As he returned, a mortar shell landed directly in front of him. Lt. Barcellona witnessed him being launched into the air. They both were evacuated to the beach and then across the channel to England where he recovered. For a while he was in charge of German prisoners in Paris. He returned to his unit in December and was in Krinkelt-Racherath, Belgium. In the early hours of
        December 16,1944 The First,a

    • Daniel V. O'Shaughnessy says:

      Patrick J. O’Shaughnessy was my grandfather and I can confirm the above story to be true.

  8. richard case says:

    my father millard i. case jr. was firends with k.v. and a tank commander in b company.

  9. Jochen Reinders says:

    Hello, i adopted a grave of Kenneth W. Nickel from Guthrie Center Iowa. he was a cpl in the 741th. He died april 18th 1945 In Leipzig. His tank was the last tank that knocked out by enemy fire. Panzerfaust from Hitler youth boys.
    He and 2 of his tankmembers are burried in Margraten WWII US Cemetery in the Netherlands. I once got my copy of the book from Mr. Heintzleman but unfortunatly is gone lost. I would love to get a new copy of this book for my collection and the family from Kenneth in Iowa.

    Thank you.

    Jochen Reinders

    • Hi Jochen,

      Thank you so much for your volunteer work! Unfortunately, I don’t how to get copies of Mr. Heintzleman’s books. Sometimes they come up for auction on Ebay, but that’s it.

      • Don Janes says:

        Jennifer

        My name is Don Janes. My god father was Sgt Don Lucey , tank commander Company B 741st Tank Battalion. My “Uncle Don” was my best friend. He shared all of his war experiences with me in private. We were very close. As I got older, he gave me the more graphic details (age appropriate). Wow, not like the movies. He lost 5 tanks under his command, wounded twice, bronze star, 2 purple hearts. I was the only one he would discuss this with. When he died, I called Sgt Heintzleman in Arizona. He said that he was amazed that Don had survived the war.
        In 2011, I was contacted by The Discovery Channel in London. They were doing a special for the D Day anniversary. For several months they talked me by phone and email regarding Don’s participation. I sent photographs and excerpts from letters and conversations. The documentary was entitled “Surviving D Day”. I was shocked when it aired on TV. Don was played by an actor, but the information was accurate.
        I have a lot more to share. I even recall the conversation regarding Jochen’s post about Cpl Nickel. Don was there when it happened.

        Thanks so much for honoring these brave young men

        I will find the link for the Discovery Channel production for you

        Don Janes
        Retired: College Instructor, Computer Science

        God-son of Sgt Don Lucey , Tank Commander 741st Tank Battalion Company B

        Concord California

      • Thank you!!!!I’ll keep my eye out for the Discovery Channel episode.

      • Jochen Reinders says:

        I am realy Lucky to get a new copy of Mr Heintzlemans book “the story of vitamin B” Did a lot of research on the tour they went by looking at the after batlle reports. They are in a very bad shape en with the help of Google maps i recreate a lot of places in Germany where they fought during WWII. realy small villages and big towns. I started my search of the route after they where in the liberation parade in Paris France. I found a lot of pictures and drawings from the 741th. Special things like the secret training facility’s in England. And the dates when they trained there in ’44.

    • Don Janes says:

      Jochen

      Although the conversation took place many years ago I believe my uncle, Sgt Don Lucey a tank commander in Company B 741st described to me the incident regarding Cpl Nickel’s death.

      Don Janes (God son of Sgt Lucey)

  10. Daniel V. O'Shaughnessy says:

    Patrick J. O’Shaughnessy was my grandfather and I can confirm the above story to be true.

  11. I discovered your page about your father, and his involvement with the 741st Tank Battalion. I managed the site in England where the crews trained on their DD tanks. It was at Fritton Lake, near Great Yarmouth Norfolk.

    I put together a small website to provide an insight into the DDs . It is http://www.duplexdrivetanks.co.uk I would very much like to link your page to my site, but I would also like to find out more about any knowledge you or your colleagues have pertaining to the Crew training in 1944 on the DDs. You may not be aware that the crews initially trained on Valentiens at Fritton for 2 weeks, prior to attending a Saltwater school at Stokes Bay, Gosport Hampshire. From here the US tanks crews mostly trained in Devon, continuing to launch their DDs from Landing Craft during March 1944. In addition, as part of their training crews had to escape from the hull of a submerged tank, located 22 ft down a concrete shaft. I have a copy of the film of this training.

    I would be delighted to hear from any relatives of those brave men who operated the DDs. Thank you.

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