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.