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Sgt. Lawrence Fredrick Gaffney, Jr.

Company A, 702nd Tank Battalion

1919-2009

 

By Terry D. Janes

 

 

     Until recently, I had never heard of Sgt. Lawrence F. Gaffney, Company A, 702nd Tank Battalion "Red Devils".  His name didn't appear in any records for the 702nd or the 80th Division.  That in itself, is not too surprising.  I've been lamenting for decades at the poor state of existing records and the many bits of missing information.  But, as a historian, I make do with what I have, and trudge along the best that I can.  Sometimes, things come to me in strange and wonderful ways.  Sgt. Gaffney is one of those cases.  As many of my long-time readers know, I did a story on the Battle of Welschied a few years ago.  I call it a battle, but it was in truth a deadly ambush for the Americans, and a duck-shoot for the Germans.  In short, what transpired was an almost unheard-of nighttime attack by the Americans on the Luxembourg town of Welschied.  The Americans were trying to take the mountaintop above Welschied, and thus cut off the German supply line feeding the German advance in the Battle of the Bulge.  The Americans had just taken Neiderfeulen, Luxembourg, a few miles away, and securing Welschied at the base of the mountain that soon came to be called "Bloody Knob", was the first step in achieving their goal.

 

The Germans knew the territory, and were masters at defensive warfare.  They knew exactly where the Americans were, where they were trying to go, and by what paths they would have to travel.  The Germans set up their defenses brilliantly, and made maximum use of the terrain to their best advantage.  To make matters worse, the weather served to help the German cause tremendously.  The landscape from Neiderfeulen to Welschied resembles a large bowl, with the mountain ridges as its rim.  All along the rim, the Germans had set up artillery, which had a commanding view and easy shot at anything within the valley.  In the valley itself, the Germans had troops scattered in foxholes and countless machine-gun nests.  They also had tanks roaming the area, and in Welschied itself, they had more troops stationed.  There was only one roadway leading into the valley, so the Germans knew in advance where the Americans would travel.  With the knee-deep snow on the ground outlining the Americans, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel, literally.

 

The 80th Division's 317th Infantry Regiment was to get the horrible job of taking that mountaintop.  The 319th Regiment was moving towards the northwest, to the left of the 317th, and the 318th Regiment was back in Ettlebruck, holding that major city.  As always throughout the war, Company A, 702nd Tank Battalion was supporting the 317th Infantry Regiment, B Company, 702nd Tank Battalion was with the 318th, and C Company, 702nd Tank Battalion was with the 319th Regiment.  On December 24th, 1944, a combination of the 319th and 317th Regiments had secured Neiderfeulen, and they began splitting off towards their objectives (319th-northwest & 317th-northeast).  The maps at the disposal of the 317th were leftovers from World War One, and totally inaccurate.  The maps indicated that Welschied sat at the end of the valley, at the base of the mountain, and there was just a small hill the Americans would have to go down before they reached the town.  In truth, the hill is very steep, and on that moonless night in deep snow, that small detail would be critical to what transpired.

 

The plan of the 317th on the night of December 24th, was for one platoon of A Company medium tanks, one platoon of D Company light tanks and Company G, 317th Infantry Regiment to quickly attack & secure Welschied that night, so they could safely approach Schiedel, part-way up the mountain, and then Kehmen on top the mountain, the next morning.  As the task force moved out towards Welschied, the platoon of light tanks got separated from the group, and ended up turning back to Neiderfeulen.  The platoon of A Company medium tanks led the attack towards Welschied, with the A Company Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Gifford in charge.  The Company G infantry followed the tanks close behind.  All along the American's route, the Germans watched their progress, ready to spring their trap when the time was right.  Just as the Americans reached the edge of the cliff opposite Welschied, the Germans opened up, and all hell broke loose.  The German artillery positions atop the ridges above opened fire.  German soldiers, fresh from the Russian front, and hidden in foxholes, jumped up and threw satchel charges on the tanks they could reach.  Others fired Panzerfaust rocket launchers.  Still others opened fire with machine-guns and other small arms on the American tanks and infantry.

 

The four tanks were quickly destroyed, and went off the cliff, careening down the snow-covered slopes like bobsleds, taking out trees in their paths.  Some of the tank crewmen were killed, and most were badly wounded.  Company G, who had been right behind the tanks, lost 90 men in the ambush.  32 of those men were taken prisoner, and ended up being repatriated to the 80th when they were rescued near Ettlebruck a week or so later.

 

Because the company commander of A Company, 702nd Tank Battalion had been badly wounded in the attack, and was subsequently evacuated, the command structure of the company broke down for a while, and the records for this period are extremely sketchy at best as a result.  For that reason, what transpired, and who all was involved has always been something of a historical mystery for me.  Much of what I have figured out was by using the process of elimination of whom I knew was not involved in that attack.  However, since the records were so bad, I still could not put a name to most of the A Company men.  That was further complicated by the fact that many of those men were replacements, and were not known to some of the original veterans of the company.

 

Working closely with my friend, the Luxembourg Historian-Archaeologist Jean Muller, many facts have come to light.  However, much still remains clouded in mystery.  Jean, and Captain Mark Andersen began digging at the site of the battle several years ago, and Jean has continued working at the site ever since, making detailed maps of debris from the battle, and working hard to make sense of this mystery.  Awhile back, a local man gave Jean a tanker's jacket.  Shortly after the battle, this man had rummaged through one of the destroyed tanks, and found the jacket that had been left behind by one of the crewmen.  Inside the jacket, was written the name "LF Gaffney".  Jean called me long-distance from Luxembourg one day, and asked me about the name.  With his accent, I misunderstood what he said, and thought he had said, "Gaffey".  I poured through the 702nd records, as well as the 80th Division records, and could find nothing remotely close to the name.  I assumed that perhaps someone in the tank had got the jacket from a supply depot, and the name was that of a previous owner of the jacket.

 

Jean's and my investigations moved on, and we followed many other aspects of the battle.  From the tank the jacket was found in, we knew that as it went down the cliff, the tank turret was blown off and landed a ways away from where the tank hull ended up.  We knew that at least two, but likely three of the crewmen escaped from that tank.  One man, likely the tank commander, fired his .45 Colt 1911 automatic pistol as he retreated back up the hill.  The man shot all of his ammunition, the pistol locked open and he tossed it away.  Jean found the gun right where the man had dropped it.

 

Colt 1911 Pistol Dropped By The Tank Commander

 

Jean continued his digs around the other three tank locations, as well as German positions, and little by little, we continued piecing together the various bits of the story of this battle.  In the process, I'd totally forgotten the tanker jacket.  Well, forgotten isn't really accurate, but I'd long since chalked up the name inside the jacket as meaningless, and not relevant to the 702nd Tank Battalion.  I had bigger fish to fry, and far too many other promising clues to track down.  Jean, on the other hand, was not so convinced that this jacket had been picked up at a supply depot, or acquired in trade from some other soldier as so often happened in the war.  One day recently, he decided to investigate the name further.  Having the jacket in front of him, he had an advantage that I didn't; namely, the correct spelling of the name.  Jean did a Google search for the name "LF Gaffney", and found a website from North Carolina in the US.  This website is for a US Civil War re-enactment group.  This group portrays a North Carolina Artillery Unit from the Civil War.  (See Reilly's Battery)

 

On a page in that website, the patriotic webmaster had created a Wall Of Honor tribute to people from that area who'd served in our military.  One of the people in that Wall Of Honor was Lawrence Fredrick Gaffney:

 

Lawrence Fredrick Gaffney, Jr.

1919-2009

 

"Lawrence F. Gaffney, Sr. was a tank commander in General Patton’s 3rd Army, 702 Tank Battalion; frequently supported by the 80th Infantry Division in World War II. The 702 Tank Battalion, also known as “The Red Devils” was not involved in the D-Day landings; they came later after July. The Tank Battalions had a high loss of men right after D-Day and replacements were requested from England. Gaffney was a “volunteered” replacement and was selected as tank commander. He never had any tank training, as he was a radio operator in the Signal Corp. Gaffney served in a tank outfitted with a rocket launcher. He was not thrilled with this as it attracted a lot of German fire.   Gaffney also served as personal guard to one of Hitler’s SS men, Rudolph Hess while Hess was imprisoned prior to the Nuremberg Trials. He was chosen because of his fitness to jog handcuffed to Hess every morning. He was given the choice of staying on as Hess’s personal guard during the trials or coming home. He came home to his wife and two children. Lawrence Gaffney passed away one month and two days after his 90th birthday in 2009. He was the father of Diane G. Brooks, President of the SBS, father-in-law of Capt. Dennis Brooks, grandfather of Private Jeb Brooks and grandfather of Denise Brooks Barnwell of the SBS."

 

Jean emailed me the website address, and I immediately checked it out.  That explained the "LF Gaffney" name in the tanker jacket Jean found, and verified that yes, there had indeed been a man in the 702nd Tank Battalion by that name!  Needless to say, I was excited!  I immediately began trying to locate someone from Mr. Gaffney's family.  I came across some old addresses and disconnected phone numbers for the names mentioned, but didn't get far.  I did locate a woman by the name of Diane Brooks in the area, but she was the wrong person.  She was very kind when I explained what I was doing, and why I wanted to find this family.  I spent a good half-hour on the phone with this lady, as she poured over the local phone books trying to help me locate someone from the correct family.  In frustration, I finally gave up on this line of research, and instead switched to tracking down the owner of the website, in hopes that he would know how to reach the family.

 

It didn't take me long, and I located a phone number for the website owner, David Stanley.  I called David, and spent another half hour or so explaining to him whom I was trying to contact, and why.  Mr. Stanley kindly agreed to contact Lawrence Gaffney's Daughter, Diane Brooks, and have her contact me.  A week or two passed, and one morning I got a call from Diane.  We had a long talk and from our discussion, I was able to discern that her father was the tank commander, which meant that the pistol Jean found was his, and he'd mentioned his tank being on fire.  She also gave me the name of one of his crewmen, and his best friend in the Army, a Mr. Canales.  I told Diane that Jean would be sending her father's jacket to her.  As promised, Jean Muller did send Sgt. Gaffney's jacket to Diane, and the photos below show Sgt. Gaffney's very proud Grandson, Jeb wearing the jacket his grandpa left behind in his burning tank during that horrendous ambush on Christmas Eve, 1944.  On behalf of Captain Mark Anderson, USN Retired, Jean Muller and I, we are very proud and delighted to have played a part in reuniting the Gaffney Family with Sgt. Gaffney's long-lost jacket.  Jean Muller deserves special recognition for locating the jacket, locating the website Sgt. Gaffney was mentioned on, and then sending the jacket to Diane at his own expense.  This is just another example of the great things Jean does, and why I always tell people what a special human being Jean Muller is.

 

 

 

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