Bonifacio "Fish" Yraguen
Company C, 702nd Tank Battalion, 319th Infantry Regiment
In speaking of the 702nd's Cadre; "They had alot more time to train than I did. I trained seventeen weeks at Fort Knox, Kentucky. What happened to me, would be something you won't never believe. I would have been in the war, a week after the invasion, when we got our orders for thirty tanks, and drivers. And, they went alphabetically, and sent us all to the medics. I was "Y". My name started with a "Y". I am a Basque. I know there is very few of them back east. I can speak it fluently. My folks were Basque, and didn't know how to speak English. My dad did speak Spanish, but I never learned it. When I started in the first grade, in 1926, we had to walk a mile and a half, to a little country school. There were no school buses in those days. The teacher taught all eight grades. I didn't learn anything the first year, because I couldn't speak English. The teacher didn't take time to help me learn. When I had to go to the bathroom, or something, I just went. Because I didn't know a word of English.
The teacher didn't even notice I was gone, most of the time. She was sleeping most of the time. My folks never let me stray from my house, until I went to school. I didn't even get to go to my neighbors to learn to speak English. My parents thought that Basque was the whole thing. I'm proud to have been one. The second year, I still went to that country school. But that year I learned English. I learned it well. There was eight in our family.
"Boni" and Julia Yraguen
On October the 7th, 1943, I went to Ft. Knox, Kentucky, to train. It was no picnic! They meant business, and they poured it on us. I'll never forget the time that the sergeant had us all in the barracks. We were all sitting on the floor. He was telling us what we had to expect for the next seventeen weeks. Boy, he acted tough! By God, he was tough! It was kind of funny, because of some of the expressions he was using. He said; "Fellows, when I holler shit, I want every Goddamned one of you to start straining. When I blow the whistle, for you to come out for reveille in the morning, I want them hinges coming right off them doors! All I want to see is four rows of corn!" He kept on talking to us. After one of those deals, I started to laugh. I was right up in front.
He said; "Long nose, to the kitchen!" I never peeled more spuds in my life, than I did that afternoon. I got my lesson real quick! I probably had been through a rougher time than most boys that hit Ft. Knox, Kentucky. I was brought up that way. I could take it pretty good, but I still worried about it. Everything was strange. I knew that we had to do what they said. When they gave me that tank to run, I was not ready to take that tank. By God, I took it, but Jesus Christ, those other drivers would just leave me behind. I really didn't have enough training. It kind of made me mad. I just started pouring the coal to her! I made out just fine afterwards. After a week in there, I could drive just as good as any of the rest of them.
I knew the fundamentals, and that was all I knew when I got there. Driving in the front lines is a different situation, than being out where they're not shooting at you. You have got to respect Ft. Knox, for the real stern training that they gave. We probably would have made better infantrymen than tankers.
My first day, was just after the Battle of Argentan. While we were waiting, Paul Scott and I, here comes our First Sergeant with a weapons carrier, and it was dirty, and muddy, and it looked terrible. He came up to us, pulled his papers out, and asked; "Are you the two fellows I have on my list?" We told him that we were. He said; "You boys are going to the front line. You're going to the 702nd Tank Battalion, the "Red Devil" Battalion. They require good men." The Germans said about the 702nd Tank Battalion outfit; "Don't take them prisoner, kill every one of them that you can get a hold of, because they're American ex-convicts."
Driving a tank every day, sometimes you just wished for something to do when the battle was going on. There you are, just sitting helplessly on the controls of your tank. When I first went into this outfit, the first day in battle, I was a Assistant Driver. I enjoyed it! They had to slow me down on the spurts of my gun. They were too long. He said that I would burn it up. Burn the barrel off of it. I was really spitting lead to them anyway! First thing we knew, white flags were coming out of that building. I enjoyed being Bow Gunner.
Our Gunner, George Gearhart, named our tank "Mad Dog". Whenever we would get into a town, our first shot was at the church steeple. Just blew it to hell. I know that those people must have thought that we were terrible, terrible people. War is war. We went over there to win the Goddamned thing, and we were going to do it. We were determined. I guess that the Lord will have to excuse us, for what we did. We pretty well kept our name right, as Red Devils. [Author's note; The idea behind shooting off church steeples, was to eliminate the threat of German snipers, who loved to utilize steeples as a perch for their dirty work.]
In Toul, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby did a U.S.O. Show. That was the best time I ever had in the war. We were in Nancy for ten days, because of "no gas", but the boys were getting gassed, drinking cognac like crazy. There was everything in the book there. That "Four Star Cognac" is good liquor, I'll tell you! When we got our gas, we headed north.
Lt. Prestridge was having trouble communicating with the infantry that we were with. He couldn't get them on the radio, and it was necessary that he know what they planned for the next attack. He left the tank, and told us that he'd be right back. He went up there, and got in the foxhole[with the infantry officer]. While they were in there discussing their plans, from the tank, we spotted twelve German infantry coming in on them. A squad of twelve. We watched until they got fairly close. They were getting close to where our lieutenant was. The Gunner said; "Fish" [Mr. Yraguen's nickname], if you can pull this tank up a bit, I can take care of those bastards!"
We discussed it, because we weren't supposed to move a tank, without the Tank Commander's orders. We moved our tank into position. The Gunner said; "Fish, this is a good position." He moved the turret around, and waited till they were getting pretty close to the hole. He opened up with the co-axial machine gun on the tank, and wiped that squad of twelve men out! When our lieutenant, and the infantry lieutenant looked up, they saw all of these dead Germans laying all around them, right next to their hole.
We stayed in this one town all day. The infantry and tanks were getting ready to go. They tried to line those soldiers up. There was no way to line them up, because they were so drunk that they didn't give a damn, the infantry! They were so drunk, that they'd tell their officer to go blow it out his butt! It was funny, because those boys were drunk! They were really drunk!! They had gotten into some good booze. Part of them were on their knees. I'd never seen such a mess in my whole life! It made the officers so mad, that they were going to punish them. They called a night attack! Oh, they were hung over. From that day on, they would never let us billet in a town. They made us lay back on a hill, outside of town.
We had a big box on the back of the tank, where we kept food. We took everything out, and stocked it with liquor. We had more booze than anybody after that. Everybody used to say; ""Fish", have you got some whisky in here, or scotch, or vodka?" They were always hitting us up, because they knew we had it. I told them; "You had the same chance we did, and you could have filled up, and twenty more just like you!" There would still have been lots of booze left.
When we lost our second tank, that was a fast struggle for us. They taught me, at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, go to the lowest ground, so they can't get you. That's just exactly what I did. The Lieutenant and the other guys got out on the upper side. They were on the upper side of the tank. Which is pretty damned dangerous, when they've hit you already, and are really pouring the shells to it. First thing you know, it was afire! Every time one of the ammunition would go off, in our tank, it would blow up about two hundred and fifty feet, at least. Just a solid blaze. I guess that the 180 gallons of gas, plus everything else, was doing a good job of burning.
Boy, I ran like hell. I had big ol' boots and a combat suit on, but I sure made tracks! I ran for one of those tank destroyers, that was parked way down there. The crew told me; "You can't come in here!" I said; "The hell I can't!" Finally they calmed me down. They thought that I was hurt. They had seen what had happened. I wasn't hurt. I come out of that pretty Goddamned lucky, I'll tell you! We saved our own lives that one day, when we worked real hard, down by a river, loaded her up with sand. We had a whole bunch of gunny-sacks and filled them. We found an old plank in the river too. We laid it across the front end, over the lights. Then we started sandbagging it. Those sandbags saved our lives. Three deep, they were. By the time that 88mm went through all of them, then got to the armor, it punched a knot through that tank, right square in the middle, right where it's got the heaviest armor. You could stick your fist right in the shell hole. From there, it ricocheted up and hit the barrel of our gun, and just knocked it straight up.
The next round really went through it! But by then, we wasn't there. We got out. I think the Loader got his wrist cracked. That was the biggest casualty we had. We were leading a life, like a fantasy, I guess! We lucked out, every place we could luck out. How, I will never know why they didn't get us. Alot of places, they had a beautiful chance. But they didn't get us! I don't know how we ever survived that ordeal, because we were kind of down to the drop of the hill. This was just an easy incline, but it was uphill. The Lieutenant kept telling us to keep down low, keep down low! We were doing it! The five of us got to the top of the hill. I figured that we was some lucky boys. God must have been watching us pretty close. They should have got us there.
They had small arms fire, mortar shells coming in, and everything else. It would have been a miracle to make it, and we made the miracle. That was at St. Avold. The three tanks that I drove, I had 13,000 miles on the first tank, 7,000 miles on the second tank, and 7,500 miles on the last tank. There was alot of miles that I drove. Alot of times we would back-track. Many times! You would wonder where a guy would get that many miles on a tank. We did. When I got the last tank, I made it all the way through with it. Shortly after St. Avold, we were ordered to Luxembourg, we traveled 180 miles in one day, and my tank used 180 gallons of fuel. We put it in with five gallon cans. We knew how much went in it!
On December 22nd, 1944, we made a road march, from the Siegfried Line, up into Luxembourg. The Germans were crowding into Luxembourg City, and we were getting there as fast as possible, to stop them. We stopped them cold. We really had a battle with them. We battled for three days and two nights, without any sleep whatsoever, or anything to eat, except those chocolate bars we had in our tank. We kept that up for three days. We found out what chocolate tastes like! The people of Luxembourg were very happy to see us, when we got there. If they [Germans] had gotten into that town, it would have tore them up pretty bad. War tears places up bad.
When we got in there, battling the 23rd, 24th, and 25th, of December, it was twenty-four below zero. If you want to crawl into something cold, get into one of those tanks, when it's that cold! It's something plumb out of this world. I don't know how we didn't freeze to death! We managed to make it. One day, we told the Lieutenant that we was going to freeze to death. That we couldn't take anymore. He said; "I'll fix that! You guys might shed a few tears, but we are going to warm this tank up a little. We had a little camp stove, that we used to make our coffee on. He lit that, and we closed all the hatches, and in about five minutes, he had that tank nice and warm. But, boy we shed lots of tears. The air we were breathing probably wasn't very good for us, either. We survived! It was the coldest I have ever been, in my life, ever. I told Emil Gothier that I thought it was his duty to go up to an officer, and tell him, and get relieved.[for combat fatigue]. Emil said; "Oh no, I'll never do it again." I told him everything that he had done in battle. And how he fell asleep, and he wanted someone to kill him. He wanted somebody to shoot him between the eyes. That's true. That's getting bad, isn't it? He was forty-two years old. That was just too much stress to take. It showed in his age, that he shouldn't have been there. We were two nights and three days steady, with no food, other than those chocolate bars, that's all we ever had. We swore to Christ, that we'd never eat another chocolate bar. Then we would get so Goddamned hungry we would eat another one! Then we would swear; "I hope to Christ that's the last one!"
Damn, we'd eat another one. We kept that up, for three days, and two nights. We left out of Ettlebruck on December 23, at night. We went seven miles. I never saw the road. We got to Heiderscheid in the night. I asked the Lieutenant afterwards; "How come we came in the night? Couldn't we wait until daylight, in the morning?" He said; "Yes, we could have, but do you realize that we infiltrated through enemy lines?" I said; "Jesus Christ, did we?" He said; "We did! That's why we came in the dark." The next morning, when we got the tanks, they just thought they were just coming just as safe as they could, in God's pocket. Well, there we were, between the two buildings. They came broadside to us, about 350 yards from us. Broadside!
The first one, he [Lt. John Prestridge] kind of let it go by. Then he whammed at it, the second one. God, he knocked it right out! Then he whammed at that first one that went by. He could have got him in a closer position. Wham, one shot, and he got him. Another one come through. It was a big one, and two or three shots, dead in a row. He hit it with every shot. We knew the yardage. We guessed the yardage. It was perfect! The Lieutenant was dynamite up to 1000 yards. Right on, every time. They just kept on coming. Until we got six of them. Then they quit coming. Boy, we was looking and waiting. We wanted to make sure that they weren't coming in behind us or something. The Lieutenant jumped out of the tank, and he looked behind. He sneaked between the buildings to have a look. They had taken a great wide circle, and went where we couldn't see them."
We got seven armored vehicles at Heiderscheid. Then later, we got two Tiger tanks one day. Which I thought was pretty damned good. "Pappy" Beard, from Texas, was the Tank Commander, after our Lieutenant [Lt. Prestridge] got wounded at Kassel. He did a pretty good job as Tank Commander, but he could never fill the shoes of Lt. Prestridge. That man, was something else. He was damned smart. He knew how to fight a war! He was a damned good Commander. Everybody thought alot of him. Especially the infantry! When they got into the bad spots, Lt. Prestridge did his level best to get up there and help them, as soon as he could. We did! We helped them out of a hell of alot of places. I figured that we did a real good job for the 80th Infantry Division. This was the top notch infantry division, the 80th!
If we hadn't infiltrated the enemy lines, from Ettlebruck to Heiderscheid, that night, we would have never got that many tanks. They didn't even know we were there. When they came road marching on by us, we got them just like a bunch of sitting ducks. We damn well took care of them. I wished that we could have gotten them all, but we didn't. We sure as hell got a good part of them. I'll bet those were some surprised Germans! They thought that town belonged to them. It did, except for our tank. It was there by itself, and ready! Ol' "Mad Dog" got 'em! That was the name of our tank, "Mad Dog". I'm sure those Germans didn't know what in the hell was going on, until they got three quarters of them wiped out. Then their tail end turned on us, and went back the other way.
We would have been firing on them, but there was buildings in between us. We couldn't see what the hell happened. They re-routed, and never showed themselves around us anymore! I still remember driving from Ettlebruck to Heiderscheid, which is right close to seven miles. I never once saw the road. I went strictly by the commands of the Lieutenant. "Right rudder. Left rudder. That's enough right. That's enough left." That's the way we went in there. It was kind of a spooky deal, I'll tell you! We were ready for them, when they came. General Patton once said; "Don't let those Germans slip in behind you, and hit you with a sock of shit. Well, we just reversed that. And we hit them in the back of the head with a sock of shit!
They were real go-ers, those boys were. They were fighting under terrible conditions. The weather was against us. We had problems of being frozen out, in the Goddamned tanks. It was so damned cold! It was twenty-four below zero at Heiderscheid. I want to tell you, that was damned cold in a tank! There is no heat. From nowhere. The motor is in the back. They never put any heaters in those tanks. They probably never figured that we'd be fighting at twenty-four below zero. We had quite an ordeal there. On Christmas Day, we were guarding the right flank, so no German tanks could get in. About 2:00 that afternoon, Lt. Prestridge got an order to bring his tank in, and go to Headquarters, "White Five", to receive orders. We jumped into the tank and headed over there. We sat in the tank, in front of Headquarters, the only tank that was left out of "C" Company!
The Lieutenant went in, and talked with them. They were in there, for quite a little while. Then he came back to the tank. He had a very grim look on his face. I knew there was something bad coming up. I just felt it! He didn't say a word. He just said; "Fish, fire it up!" I did. He said; "Go right on up this road." Away we went. We didn't know that we were completely by ourselves, until it was all over. We must have went pretty close to a half a mile. We got up to the top of this ridge, and the Germans were in there. The infantry had tried to take the high ground three times, and the Germans beat them back. We went up there where they were, and the Lieutenant exposed himself to the Germans. He hollered for them to give up. All at once, one of them was raising a rifle.
Boy, he ducked down as fast as he could, but that bullet hit him right in the earlobe. He said that he had never had anything that hurt so bad. He said that it felt like a hundred bees had stung him right there. That burning sensation. His ear was completely black, because it had come from so close. When that happened, he closed his hatch, and he told the Gunner; "Kill every Goddamned one of them!" I want to tell you, we started in on them! I was looking out there, to the left and right of me. It was steep right there. The road bank was almost straight up. If you went off the roadside, it was straight down into the canyon. We didn't have much room to maneuver on. They started firing. You wouldn't believe the noise of the machine gun bullets hitting right above my hatch.
When I looked out to the right, I saw this guy raising up with a bazooka. "Jesus Christ", I thought. "I hope they get him, before he gets that bazooka zeroed on us. By God, they did! He just got up about halfway out of that hole, and they had him. Those Germans could have got us with that bazooka too. For some unknown reason, they didn't use it. The Lieutenant said; "Pull up." I didn't have anyplace to go, except over dead Germans. I was going right over their dead. There was one that jumped right up in front of my tank track. He had blood from his head to his toes. I don't know if it was from him, or another German soldier, but he was a bloody mess. If I had kept going, I would have run right square over him. By God, I didn't have the heart. I pushed the clutch in.
You are supposed to go, until the Lieutenant said to stop. The Lieutenant must have seen it too. He never did question me. All of a sudden, we saw one of these Germans going down the road. It was a black-top road. The Lieutenant ordered; "Fifteen hundred yards. H.E. Fire!" When it hit under his feet, you could just see him disintegrate. You can't believe the sight of a man like that! His arms were going up in the air, twenty-thirty feet, separated. His head was going another way. His whole body was just disintegrated. There must not have been much left of him, because that round landed right square under his feet! After we got through, the infantry came up. Any of the Germans that were still wiggling, they B.A.R.'d them. Every one of them. Boy, they made sure that they were all dead!
The Lieutenant was fair with all people. he didn't want to kill them, but when they got the chance to surrender, and they didn't, he got mad. I didn't want to talk about it, but I was curious how many we had killed. After we came down from that high ground at Heiderscheid, it was almost dusk. They had a turkey dinner for us. In fact, they had waited on us. When we were in the chow line, the infantry boys got out of line, so we could eat first. I thought that was damned nice of them. I ate in the infantry kitchen, a hell of alot more times than I ate in our kitchen. They did a fine job, but they never knew where in hell we were going to be. It was a rough day. They called us the Red Devils, and we damned well fit that name. We were Red Devils.
While we were eating dinner there, nobody felt like talking. We were all sick about it. I was real curious how many we killed that day, because I didn't know. I asked the infantry guy with the little mustache; "How many?" He said; "Forty-three." But I don't think he counted the one we shot with the cannon. He'd have done something, if he had counted that one! Later we found out that we were completely by ourselves on that ridge. The infantry couldn't support him, and the Lieutenant wanted support. The Lieutenant asked "D" Company, the light tanks, to support us, and they said that wasn't a light tank job! We just wanted support. Later, we realized that we had taken a suicide mission. The bad part was that it was Christmas Day! "D" Company refused to go up there. They just didn't have enough guts to go up there. There was enough of them to cover us. They turned that order down. I didn't think you could turn an order down, in the United States Army, by God, in war! I think that was plum cowardice!
General McBride went to go see Colonel Talbot. He walks through, and I mean there was a bunch of us. He come walking down the sidewalk, and we were completely out of uniform. Some of them had ties around their neck, and I had a black hat, and a red silk tie around my neck. He came walking by, real close. There wasn't a Goddamned one of us that saluted him. Not one! I didn't salute him either. I didn't figure he needed any. The son-of-a-bitch, that's the way I felt about it! We're out there fighting the war, and he comes around trying to get some sympathy from us? He should have saluted us!
Then he went in and asked Colonel Talbot; "Jesus Christ, what kind of Goddamned soldiers do you have? They don't even salute a two star general!" Colonel Talbot told him; "I'll tell you one thing, they are some fighting sons-a-bitches!" And when he came out, we still didn't salute him! Talbot came out, and was going to ream our ass, for not saluting. He said; "Fellows, I don't give a Goddamn if you ever salute me, but Christ's sake, when you see a two star general, or up, salute him!"
On January 6, 1945, we made the attack on Goesdorf, across the Sure River. We well knew that we were going to get some hard opposition over there. Recon had been there and reported the day before. Lt. Prestridge told us to send all of our personal belongings home, because we're going to go into a mission, that we're going to lead on, across the Sure River, and we're going into Goesdorf. We didn't sleep very well that night, but I didn't let it bother me, because I figured they were going to kill me anyway, so why worry about it?
I started the tank up the next morning. I said to myself; "I guess this is it!" There was two foot of snow on the ground. I told the Lieutenant, "I cannot see the road." He said; "Just keep it in the middle of the road, about six feet from the ditch line. We got to the bridge at the bottom, and crossed the bridge, and started up towards Goesdorf. My tank went up that hill, and into Goesdorf. As we were entering Goesdorf, we looked off into a field to our left, and there's three big Tiger Tanks, right there! We moved a little further, and to our right, we saw four more.
Lt. Prestridge said; "Put this tank right up there, between those two buildings, and stop it right there." The Lieutenant jumped out of the tank, and was going between houses and stuff, he worked his way around to the back end, and found four more Tiger Tanks. Boy, they could have wiped us out and the whole outfit coming up the hill. One of the boys asked the Lieutenant; "Aren't we going to fire at them?" He said; "Do you think we are crazy? We are the only ones up here, and we are going to wait till the rest of them get up here, before we do anything!" We waited, and waited, and waited. Nothing coming! The Lieutenant got a call on the radio, saying that it was absolutely impossible to make it, because they were just spinning out in two feet of snow. All we did was sit there, smoke cigarettes, and sweat! Our troops didn't get in there, until way after dinner.
There was no infantry there with us, we were alone. That was the scariest part of the whole war, for me. Just waiting there, knowing that at any minute, they could come and attack us, and waiting! If they had, we wouldn't have stood a chance. We were just waiting for them to come and kill us! We figured this is why the Lieutenant told us yesterday to send our belongings home. I didn't have any belongings, so I didn't send any home. We were ready to defend ourselves as best we could, because we wasn't going to give up to them! By God, we was going to defend! One tank rolled off the cliff trying to get up there. Then they got a big bulldozer on a tank. Sgt. Beard, "Pappy" used to run that blade, like a D8 Caterpillar, except this one was angled. Which was just perfect for that job. Until he got that road cleared, they just did not stand a chance of getting up that hill. "Pappy" Beard also remarked; "There isn't no tank that could go up here!" They said; "Yes, there is one, us!" Mad Dog!
Lt. Prestridge was the bravest man I ever met in my life. I stayed right with him. We went on up into Dahl, and stayed there overnight. It was just a nice big flat town, on top of a big plateau. During the night, we had a hell of a strong barrage of artillery. Just a terrible one. They were hitting every two or three feet! In fact, one hit our tank right in the back, towards the motor. We didn't know exactly where it hit, but we heard it! We were afraid that it might catch afire. We all got into positions to defend ourselves. After that big, heavy artillery, everything went quiet. Just real quiet! Man, I knew something was coming, you know! I jumped out of that tank.
I was on guard with Tom Winford on the tank. Tom said; "Boni, you better go in there and wake that Lieutenant up, and get that tank crew back here!" I said; "That's a good idea, cause sure as hell, we are going to get a counterattack!" I went into the building, and the Lieutenant was tired, asleep, hard. I shook him, and I shook him, and I shook him, to wake him up. I got him awake, and I told him; "Lieutenant, there is a counterattack coming." He said; "Oh Jesus Christ, there isn't going to be such a thing." I said; "By God, there is too, Lieutenant!" I went back to the tank. A couple minutes, three minutes, five minutes, here starts the attack on us.
They come in with infantry, against our tanks. They didn't stand a chance. We mowed them down. Then their tanks came in, and by God, we knocked the hell out of their tanks too! These were all big tanks, Panthers. Their infantry, oh man, did they come at us! They got to within ten to fifteen feet of our tanks. One wave, then two more. Boy, we just kept mowing them down. There was one of those infantry men that got to within ten to fifteen feet of us, and he could still shoot at us. The damned dummy, he should have known he couldn't penetrate that tank. We couldn't get our tank guns down low enough to get him, so the Lieutenant got him with the .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun. When we woke up the next morning, there were dead Germans laying all over that field, laying like a band of sheep would, all close together.
On another occasion, we come up on a town, with buildings twelve stories high. Without fear for his life, Lt. Prestridge jumped out of that tank, walked right down the middle of the street, with his .45 cal. pistol, and those guys had many chances to snipe him, or kill him. He was doing it for our whole platoon's protection. He'd go up to each intersection, look up and look down, to see if there was any anti-tank guns there. He did that clear through the town. That evening, I asked Lt. Prestridge; "Why did you do that, Lieutenant? I wouldn't do that." He said; "I did it for the safety of the men. I would rather give my life, than for you boys to give yours." I think that's a pretty damned big remark! I think he should get some medals for that. They give Medals of Honor for less than that!
One time, I was packing straw, or hay, into this old chicken house. I had just went through the door, and was coming back out the door to get some more, and a mortar shell hit right in the doorway of the place I was taking the straw. A piece of shrapnel hit me in the lip. Man, I was bleeding like a stuck hog. I went back, and got in line for the Medics. I was standing in the line, and looked in back of me, and there was an infantry guy that had his arm blown off just right below the shoulder, and was just barely hanging there by the skin. When I saw him, I got out of the way. I said; "You go ahead of me, fella!" I went back to the tank. I used my fingers, and kept pressing, and pushing, and finally got that piece of shrapnel out. I put some iodine on it, which we had in the tank.
When we were finished with the Battle of the Bulge, in Luxembourg, the attack was on Germany. The infantry went in two days prior to us. We were going to cross the Our River, there. They had to lay smoke on the river, because they had direct fire on the bridge, with heavy guns. We proceeded to go in, on a pontoon river crossing. We had to go in low gear, to get up this steep slope.
Lt. Prestridge, my Platoon Leader/Tank Commander, who I drove for, and we were first across that bridge. When we got to the top of the slope, levelled off, into the town, and there was a U.S. Photographer there, with a tripod. The Photographer asked us to move the tank back down the hill, because he missed his shot of us coming over the top, and he wanted to get our picture as we came over the top. Lt. Prestridge asked that Photographer if he couldn't take the next tank that was coming up behind us. The Photographer said; "No way, I want you to back down! I am a superior officer to you, I am a Lieutenant Colonel! I want you to back your tank back down that hill, and come up again, so I can get you!" Lt. Prestridge said; "O.K., we will do it." The Photographer got his picture, but by the time we got into the little country town, the 80th Infantry had taken a beating from direct fire.
When my tank got into the town, the infantry boys came up and kissed my tank, because they were so happy that we got across the river. Those poor guys hadn't shaved, and had to eat "C" rations. They had tried to take the high ground, but couldn't take it. They were waiting for support, and my tank was there to support them.
They had to have it desperately. They were taking big losses, the 319th Regiment of the 80th Infantry Division. That night, these infantrymen were in this house. They were all in this one room, sitting around it, talking the deal out. Those poor boys had been over there, without any hot food for three days. The kitchen was across the river, on the other side. I felt sorry for the infantry there.
They were telling stories. They were very unpatriotic, I'll tell you. "What the hell are we doing here!?" "We are fighting this war, while those businesses are reaping millions of dollars over there!" "Here we are, tired, hungry!" I'll tell you one thing, the 80th Infantry Division was a good, good division. Not because I was in it, but for what they did. That will tell the story! I heard alot of complaints from those poor boys. Patriotism just goes to hell, when boys are getting killed. By God, it makes you start to wonder; "What the hell are we doing here, anyway?" We were drafted to go over there. That was the law of the land. So, we had to follow it. I'm very proud that I did follow it.
After we crossed the Our River, we were heading for the Rhine. General Patton gave General McBride the order to get to the Rhine, "Even if it takes six by six trucks to bring back the dog-tags." Boy, at that time, we didn't like to hear that, but I know why he said that. At the Battle of the Bulge, I was bringing my tank into Ordnance. It was missing and just wasn't running worth a damn. It was the first time I had to bring it in. All at once, we saw a bunch of shining clean vehicles. Boy, you could see them glistening a half-mile away. Just about two hundred feet from us, he put his arm out, and wanted us to stop.
So, we stopped. Well, we knew then that we had to talk to the BIG Wheel, Patton. We jumped out of the tank and walked up to him, and saluted. He asked immediately; "Where are you going with this vehicle?" I said; "We're taking it to Ordnance , sir." He said; "Do you think this vehicle should go to Ordnance? Don't you think it will last a little longer?" I said; "No way, sir. This thing will barely run, and we're getting it to Ordnance so it will run, on the next run. "He looked right at me, and said; "Where is your overshoes soldier?" I said; "We don't have any, sir." He said; "This is the 702nd Tank Battalion, isn't it?" He could see that written on the tank. I told him it was. He asked me where we were stationed. I told him we don't ever know where we are stationed. He said; "I went through the hospitals, and I find a lot of frozen feet, and you can't cure them. The Dough's that get hit with bullets or shrapnel can get well, but those boys in there that have frozen feet have no way of ever getting well. You'll have overshoes there tonight. How far is it to the front line?" I told him that it was six miles. He had his white dog with him, next to him in the seat. There was a major driving, a lieutenant colonel with one machine gun, a full colonel with the other machine gun. There was also a two star general with him. He was done with me, and I saluted him, and went back to my tank. We got overshoes that night, there was six by six trucks brining them in. By the next morning, everyone of us had overshoes, and boy were they welcome, our feet were sure cold.
About capturing that prison camp, near Munich. I remember leading the attack in there. When we got there, we didn't have any opposition. They didn't give us any trouble. We just drove right in there. We were ready, but there was nothing happening. The sights that we saw in there, was clear out of this world! That was Buchenwald. Those poor guys had been in there a long time, they were just skin and bones. You never saw anybody deteriorated as bad as they were! Those big ovens they had there, where they would cremate them, really looked rough.
The next day, we got those people [Germans] out. We proceeded on north, about forty or fifty miles into a town called Bitburg. We were on top of this big ridge, early one morning. We were drawing alot of heavy fire. We could hear them moving in the forest on the other side. We heard a shell come screaming in. Then another one screams in. Lt. Prestridge said; "There's fire coming in from in front of us, and we've got to find it!" For some reason, I was looking into it, the driver's periscope, and I saw a ball of fire coming. I thought it was going to hit me right between the eyes!
When it hit the tank, which we had sandbagged, it hit the heaviest part of the armor, ricocheted straight up into the bottom of our cannon and blew it clean off. We had that tank sandbagged three layers thick. I was supposed to have my crash helmet on, but I did not have it on. I had a G.I. cap on, and had my earphones in. Boy, when that thing hit, all I can remember is it wasn't the bomb that hit. It was the heat! It must have been 1500-2000 degrees. It hit instantly. I'll tell you, I bailed out of there! I went to the lower side of the tank, and started running. The rest of the crew bailed out, and they were on the upper side of the tank.
Sam Graf was a damned good radio man. He was only nineteen years old. We went on up north, and into Kassel. The worst part we were getting, was alot of snipers. This was the Third day of April, 1945. Lt. Prestridge had his head sticking out of the turret, shoulders and all. A sniper got him with a machine gun, or semi-machine gun, across the shoulder. He had about four or five bullets in his shoulder. He jumped out of the tank, and got down on the other side, where they couldn't hit him. I remember moving our tank along in front of him, and the blood was squirting through his fingers, which he was holding over his wound. I was just hoping that we could get him there in time to get him some help from the Medics. We got the Lieutenant to the Red Cross truck, and we backed away. We lost the best lieutenant that ever was. "Pappy" Beard took over as our Platoon Leader, and received a field commission.
"Pappy" was a good man, but he took chances, like exposing himself when he shouldn't have. One time we objected. We were up on this ridge, like the one at Bitburg. The Germans were over there, and we knew it. We just sat there, and sat there, high up on that ridge, and we looked like a mountain sitting there. "Pappy" said that we were going to sit up there, until we spotted the Germans. I said; "You might sit here, but I think the boys think different!" There was four of us that got on him. "Listen "Pappy", we've fought this whole Goddamned war together, and we are not going to stay here exposed, like you've got us. We are going to back this tank back over the hill." He said; "You and who?" Right there, all four guys jumped on him. "We are going to move this tank off of here!" He said; "It'll be against my will if you do!" My ol' Gunner said; "Back 'er off of here, Fish!" I put her in reverse, and I backed it off of there. When we knocked out those two Tiger Tanks, on April 4th, 1945, we were shooting from one ridge to the other, approximately four to five thousand yards. It was a long shot. And we got them too, in the side!
When we were coming into Chemnitz, and we got into town with little opposition. We got up to a building, about three stories, we started drawing fire, but it was small arms fire. They were killing our infantry. They made two or three passes at that house, but they couldn't make it in there. We called our 105mm Howitzer in, and he came right alongside of me. He let her go right into the corner of that building. He blew a twelve foot hole through three feet of rock. I'll tell you, the noise that made was terrific! It made a hell of a noise. Infantry started through there.
When the infantry was in the house a little while, I heard some shots going off, at least one anyway. Then it got real quiet in there. Here comes out, thirty-five SS officers. And they lined them up right in front of my tank, and the other tank. I got out of my tank with that little "grease gun". Everybody took one, and I took this one. He looked like a high ranking officer. I don't know their rank, but he was dressed sharp! And he looked like he would be the prominent leader. I walked up to him and said; "Drop your gun!" He had a couple of pistols on his belt, and a sword. He said; "I want to see your Company Commander.", in the best English you ever heard. Boy, that tee'd me off! I pulled the bolt back on that "grease gun", and said; "I am your Company Commander man! Drop those guns!" And by God, he dropped them then. I told him to drop his sword right onto his guns.
We were in Chemnitz, the 13th day of April, 1945. If they hadn't put a hold on us, we could have been in Berlin, at least two weeks ahead of the Russians. I know that for a fact. It was clear sailing then. We could have covered a hell of alot of miles in a day. We would have been in there. Opposition was completely gone. We had a hard deal there at Chemnitz. We captured those thirty-five SS Officers. After we got them, I think that was the end of them. But we weren't allowed to go any further. We had to turn around, and go into Nuremberg, and Munich, and into Salzburg, in Austria, and into Gmunden Lake. We were at Gmunden Lake when the war ended. We were happy about it! In a day or two, we were restless. We were hyper. We had been at that traveling game, that excitement game for nine and a half months. When we came to a dead standstill, we didn't know what to do with ourselves. We Red Devils just didn't know what it was, not to do anything.
I'd like to tell the story of Gmunden Lake. We went from Gmunden, to another little town, clear on up, above the lake. We stayed there that night. The next morning, we took off, and went right around the lake. It was just a real narrow road. The tank just covered it all. It was pretty rocky there. I guess that's all they wanted to cut out. Just enough to get through. They had a few little turn outs, not very many either, in case two cars, or a car and a bicycle happen to meet from opposite directions. We got up to the end of the lake. The war ended there. I remember the German soldiers coming through. It was a beautiful lake. They had these big swans in there. With big long necks. Just a sailing along in the water. I never could forget that.
We knew the war was over, but it wasn't over till they declared it. We had rows and rows of Germans going past us. They were giving up. They didn't want to get captured by the Russians. They were coming into our lines. I can't say that I blame them, because if the Russians got a hold of them, they were just likely to massacre the whole damned bunch!
We finally calmed down. We got ready to come home, but I didn't have enough points. I had to stay there, for six solid months more! After putting nine and a half months in the front line. If I could have got some of the medals that I truly deserved, I could have come home alot sooner. But it didn't happen that way, so we'll just have to forget that!
About Colonel Talbot, I don't know. I never saw him enough to know. After the war, he had the whole 702nd Tank Battalion right in front of him. It was about a month or two after the war. He said; "Do you guys know, that our 702nd Tank Battalion has got more venereal disease than any other outfit?!" Then one guy, somewhere in the middle, pops up, and he says; "Yeah, and we get more fuckin' than they do!" Colonel Talbot took an about face, and started to walk off the stage. Just before he went off the stage, he said; "I'll tell you fellows, a stiff prick has not got a conscience!", and he walked off the stage.
Our Lieutenant's name was John Prestridge, from New Orleans, Louisiana. Our Gunner was Cpl. George Gearhart, from Danville, Pennsylvania. Our Tank Gun Loader was Tom Winford, of Knoxville, Tennessee. Our Assistant Driver was T/5 Emil Gothier, from Richmond, Virginia. I was the Driver, T/4 Bonifacio Yraguen, from Winchester, Oregon. When I joined the Army, I took an oath to never be a coward. And I never was! I'm sorry that I don't remember who was in Paul Scott's and Mike Miklos' tanks, but they were damned good guys. The guys that meant the most to me were Paul Scott, Mike Miklos, Lieutenant Prestridge, Tom Winford, Sam Graf, Emil Gothier, George Gearhart, and Bill House. The men of the 702nd , and the 80th , were all damned good fighting bastards, and men that I was honored to be associated with.
I would like to comment on our Historian, who made this all come true for us, by telling what we did over there. His name is Terry D. Janes, from Kansas City, Missouri. He did a real good job laying out the books. I don't know how in the world he could have ever done it. It took him about four and a half years of research work to put it together. I can see why. I was very happy when he came out with these books, because I never, ever thought that anybody would ever know what we did over there, while we was in war. Terry Janes made this all come true for the whole 702nd Red Devil Battalion and 80th Infantry Division. Which I thought was very, very nice. He can never be re-paid for what he did!
We were Red Devils. But, we were also damned loyal Americans. I'm very proud that I was able to fight for the United States of America, the finest country in the damned world, bar none! I hope that I did it some good. I hope and pray that we do not have any more wars, and young boys have to give up their lives. I know they would, if they had to do it, just like I did, and everybody else over there did. It was a cause we had to do. I just hope we never have that cause again, and they keep the peace forever. As the years go by, an old tank driver never dies, he just keeps rolling on.
I am going to tell you about an incident that happened in Germany. We were stopped alongside the road, just taking a break, until they got our orders straightened out. While we were there,(there were two of us in the tank, on guard.) these German airplanes hit us. They made about three stabs at us. Well, when the plane was coming right square towards me, I just ducked down into the turret. As soon as they got by, I just jumped up, and turned that .50 caliber machine gun(anti-aircraft gun mounted on top of the tank's turret.) around and fired at them. But, I wasn't doing any good that way. So I turned the turret around backwards. Here comes the planes again. The planes went over, and that one, went right square over us, and just strafed us good with it's small arms fire. Just as he got by, I just wheeled right up on that gun and started pouring the lead to him. By God, he just went out a ways, and all at once I could see the smoke coming out of him. Pretty quick, down he went. I'm damned sure that I got that one! I was pretty damned happy. Another thing, they didn't come back again!"
At the time Mr. Yraguen gave his taped interview, neither he or I were aware of the fact that at Heiderscheid, Luxembourg, his tank, "Mad Dog" had knocked out the two Tiger Tanks in addition to the other seven armored vehicles of the "Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade. According to Ms. Tilly Kimmes, Secretary of C.E.B.A., a Luxembourg based society devoted to remembering the Battle of the Bulge, there were no Tiger tank wrecks left in Heiderscheid after the battle. What became of the knocked out Tigers? A logical answer could be, that as was their inclination, the grenadier crews managed somehow to remove their knocked out (but not completely destroyed) Tigers from the scene. "Mad Dog" was beyond any doubt, the first American presence in Heiderscheid. When the 319th Infantry troops reached the town and relieved "Mad Dog's" crew, there followed a series of counterattacks, and the town officially went from German to American hands several times. Whether the Tigers left immediately after being hit, or while the town was in German hands, no one seems to know. In any case, they are clearly and duly recorded in the 702nd Tank Battalion S-2 or Intelligence Journal.
As this Writer was assembling the material for this book, I came upon the S-2 Journal entry regarding the Tigers, for the first time. This is significant in that, in the last year, I had the very great pleasure of nominating "Mad Dog's" crew for the Combat Tank Ace Award, at the Armor School, Ft. Knox, Kentucky. The crew was given this award, the highest ranking of the four awardees at the time. When I read the 24 December, 1944 entry in the S-2 Journal regarding the knocked out Tiger tanks, I immediately called the Armor School to make them aware of the additional armored vehicles. The officer in charge of the Hall of Honor, where the awards are held, assured me that the Combat Tank Ace Award Citation for "Mad Dog's" crew would be changed to reflect the "kills" of the two Tiger tanks. This brings the war-time total for "Mad Dog's" crew to four Tiger tanks, two Panther tanks, two MkIV tanks, three armored personnel carriers and hundreds of German troops killed or captured.
The actual citation, written by the officials at the Armor School, at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, reads:
"The German winter offensive of 1944, better known as the Battle of the Bulge, was the scene of some of W.W. II's fiercest fighting. Many heroic deeds were performed on both sides. The crew of C-11, an M4A3 tank nicknamed "Mad Dog", of Company C, 702nd Tank Battalion exemplified the uncommon courage, skill, and discipline displayed by the American soldiers who fought in that battle. The crew consisted of Lt. John Prestridge, Tank Commander, Cpl. George Gearhart, Gunner, Cpl. Tom Winford, Loader, Cpl. Emil Gothier, Bow Gunner and Assistant Driver, and T/4 Bonifacio Yraguen, Driver. On Christmas Eve, 1944, Lt. Prestridge received the order to conduct an assault on Heiderscheid, Luxembourg. Despite the fact that his was the only tank left from his platoon, and that the infantry assigned to support the assault failed to show up, the crew of "Mad Dog" faithfully executed the mission. Once in Heiderscheid, the crew spotted a column of eleven German armored vehicles approaching their position. After allowing the Germans to come within close range, the crew fired a devastating volley which destroyed the lead tank, a Panther, as well as the last vehicle, a troop carrier. The engagement was short but deadly. The final tally revealed two Panther Mk.V's, two MkIV's, two Tiger tanks, and three troop carriers destroyed. Approximately fifty-three enemy soldiers died in the encounter.
On Christmas Day, after several failed attempts by an infantry regiment to secure a heavily fortified and well dug-in German position, "Mad Dog", once again alone and without support, was given the order to attack. With all guns blazing, the tank rolled forward. Those Germans who got in the way were crushed beneath the tracks. Forty-four Germans died resisting "Mad Dog's" successful assault.
Lt. Prestridge was wounded in April, 1945. S/Sgt. "Pappy" Beard replaced him as the tank commander. Under his leadership the crew received credit for knocking out two [more]Tiger tanks. In Bitburg, Germany, "Mad Dog's" luck ran out when a Tiger tank ambushed and destroyed it. The crew survived. By war's end, the crew had eight confirmed tank kills as well as numerous pieces of equipment, pillboxes and enemy soldiers to it's credit. Regarded as one of the finest tank crews in the 702nd Tank Battalion, these men epitomized the courage, discipline, and teamwork required of armor crews for survival and success in battle."
For a tank crew to receive the Combat Tank Ace Award, it's "kills" must be documented. Which this Writer was able to do here, but this makes for a very difficult criteria to fill. Undoubtedly, there were many, many other 702nd Tank Battalion "Red Devil" tank crews who would qualify for the award. However, during the war, nobody was concerned with awards. Records were rarely kept, and even when kept, were generally sketchy at best. If the truth were known, there would be many Combat Tank Aces in the "Red Devil" Battalion. However, the proof of that truth has been lost to history.
The interview with Mr. Yraguen, was taken forty-odd years after the war. His statements coincide with those of others, as well as with official documents. Although Mr. Yraguen would not be one to blow his own horn, he certainly deserves a medal for his many exploits in battle. There were many times, in which he did something deserving a medal, but each time he was overlooked. Colonel Talbot was not one to give out many medals. Which is a shame, because many of the men of the 702nd Tank Battalion deserved them, while men of lesser caliber in other units did get medals.
It is this Writer's humble opinion, that Bonifacio Yraguen, Emil Gothier and "Tennessee" Tom Winford deserve the same Bronze Star and Soldier's Medal, as awarded to George Gearhart, or the Silver Star awarded to Lt. Prestridge, for the destruction of nine enemy armored vehicles on December 24, 1944, or the action of Christmas Day, 1944.
Mr. Yraguen is a true gentleman though, and if asked, probably would not say that he deserved a medal. This is a man that thinks of the other guy first. If he had received a medal, it would have meant more to him, as a means of going home earlier, than of a symbol of heroism. Mr. Yraguen doesn't consider himself to be a hero. It is this Writer's firm opinion that each man of "Mad Dog's" crew is a hero. I feel honored to know such a man as this, and call him friend. In these pages, may he get the full credit that he so richly deserves.
In all fairness to "D" Company, 702nd Tank Battalion, this Writer questioned Milton Still(former Lieutenant, "D" Co.), who had been in "C" Company when the incident described by Bonifacio Yraguen took place on Christmas Day, in which "D" Company's light M-5 tanks did not support Lt. Prestridge's tank in the attack. Milt pointed out that the armor plate on the front of a light tank was one inch thick, three quarters of an inch on the side, and one quarter inch in the rear. None of the light tank's armor was case hardened.
Milt went on to state that an armor piercing rifle bullet, or machine gun bullet, could easily penetrate the light tank's armor, and this may have been a factor in "D" Company's failure to provide support. Mr. Still did not doubt that "C" Company's men did not salute General McBride, as related by Mr. Yraguen. He pointed out that in combat, front line officers did not expect salutes, nor did they wear insignia of rank, so as not to reveal themselves as officers to the enemy. If General McBride got his feathers ruffled by not getting saluted, it is probably due to the fact that he was unaccustomed to being on the front lines.
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