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Crossing The Our River

By Terry D. Janes

 

Very little is written about the Our River crossing on February 18, 1945.  This action involved the 317th Infantry Regiment crossing at Bollendorf from Luxembourg into Germany through the beginnings of Hitler's vaunted "West Wall".  The German side of the river was peppered with pillboxes guarding every approach, combined with anti-tank weapons and tanks hidden in the forests on the German hillside.  The Americans had "softened up" the Germans as much as possible with artillery and tank fire prior to the attack.  The Germans, for their part, were determined to keep the Americans out of the Fatherland.  On that fateful, frosty morning the Americans moved toward the bridge leading over the Our River into Bollendorf.  Infantry scouts had already crossed and ran into stiff resistance.  The main force consisted of ten tanks of Company A, 702nd Tank Battalion followed by the main force of the 317th Infantry Regiment.  The tanks were under the command of Lt. Ike Walker.  Ike was a solid leader, loved and respected by his men, and later retired as a major.  Ike's tank, "Rollin' Rhino III" led the attack.  The tank was named "III" because its two predecessors had carried that name and had been destroyed by enemy fire.  The first was knocked out and burned during the awful German SS counterattack at Farebersviller, France on November 28, 1944.  At that time, it had been under the command of Sgt. Mark Larkin, another able leader.  Larkin had received a battlefield commission and been transferred to B Company.  Now they had Ike.  The men were confident in Ike's judgment, and would have been proud to have the honor of leading the attack.

 

Two of Ike's crew were battle-hardened tankers, Cpl. Howard Daniels, Gunner and newly promoted Sgt. Joseph DeLaurentis, Driver.  PFC James Tondreau, Bow-gunner/Asst. Driver and Cpl. Jack Edwards, Loader were relatively new, having come in as replacements.  Both however, were considered able men.  Ike was "all-business".  Two tanks behind Ike Walker's tank was the tank driven by Sgt. John Pertschi.  He made notes in a book he'd found about the upcoming attack.  They read "40 rounds of H.E., 100 rounds of A.P, 30 rounds of A.P.C., 10 rounds of smoke, 50 boxes of 30 cal., 50 boxes of 50 cal., Full Load, T-Time - 06:00, 5 – tanks-Baker Co., 1 tank-Dog Co., Our River At 0630, Radio Call Sign Wilco-A Co., Roger out–Tower on B.-hill, Off set beam 20 N.E. BYE–C–26, Chart–4, Grid–26, Con-Germany.  The attack began a little before 5:00 am.  They were to be in Bollendorf and across the river by 6:00 am.  The sunrise hadn't begun yet.  Sgt. DeLaurentis drove "Rollin' Rhino III" in the dark with no lights, towards the bridge, until Ike Walker ordered him to halt.  They stopped at the crest of the incline or hill leading to the bridge itself.  Lt. Walker got out of the tank and went back to verbally relay orders to the tanks following them about what he saw ahead.  Still in "Rollin' Rhino III", Daniels, Edwards, DeLaurentis and Tondreau waited for Walker's return.

 

The following describes what happened next.  Howard Daniels no doubt told it to his wife who relayed it to the writer from the Philadelphia Inquirer many years later.

 

From the Philadelphia Inquirer

(Dated March 24, 1984 in ink handwriting)

 

By Burr Van Atta

Inquirer Staff Writer

 

Howard Daniels, a hero in WWII

"Howard Daniels, 60, should have been killed when the Germans in a hidden Tiger Tank fired an armor-piercing shell into his Sherman tank.  But he was not.  With feet dangling from shattered legs and the bodies of neighborhood friends surrounding him in the tank, he remained in place and fought on.  His medical struggle, caused by those wounds, kept him hospitalized for a time after World War II.  But shortly after his retirement from a factory job in Philadelphia in the late 1970's, Mr. Daniels, a resident of Juniatia Park, experienced renewed medical difficulties.  Yesterday he died at Metropolitan Hospital, Parkview Division.

 

No clear record remains of the battle in which the 21-year-old corporal, who grew up around Sixth and Venango Streets, was wounded.  The details disappeared somewhere in the bloody, brawling confusion known as the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler's final lunge to win the war.  Officers who recommended decorations for the corporal were not inclined to be picky about detail.  They noted that Mr. Daniels, a tank gunner who was assigned to Company A, 702nd Tank Battalion had gone far "above and beyond duty".  He was awarded the Silver Star, the Purple Heart with two oak leaf clusters and three battle stars.  And he received wounds that put him through rounds of hospital treatment, including 14 operations.

 

It began for Mr. Daniels when the German breakthrough came in late 1944.  The hills and forests around places such as Bastogne seemed to hold a special promise at that time because everybody figured the war would soon end.  They changed their minds when German tanks and infantry punched through the lines, threatening to crush the Allies.  The only force in the field that held the promise of stemming the Nazis was Gen. George S. Patton Jr.'s Third Army.  And Mr. Daniels was a crew member in one of Patton's tanks.  The Third Army rolled north out of France, far faster than tacticians on either side thought possible.  Mr. Daniels later recalled keeping an eye on the general as he repeatedly rode by in his jeep, urging everyone on, ignoring orders and taking the lead position in the column, outrunning his own armor so he could personally chart the best and fastest course for them.  And so they went, carrying the fight to the Germans.

 

Mr. Daniels was in the gunner's position when his tank topped a hill, scouting ahead of the advancing infantry.  Somewhere from the right, from woodland with an outline of World War I trenches where his father had been wounded, an 88mm cannon roared.  No one in his Sherman tank heard it.  The high velocity shell came far too fast for that.  It blew through the armor and killed everyone else inside, the young men from the Olney and Hunting Park sections of Philadelphia.  But Mr. Daniels endured.  The shell hit his seat and nearly blew off his legs.  Somehow Mr. Daniels roused himself and tried to fight back.  He had to search to find the Tiger and when he found it, he began to load and fire.  For what seemed an eternity, he loaded and fired, knowing that his was the only weapon that could keep the Tiger from slaughtering the infantry behind him.  When winter darkness ended the firefight, the infantry commander and his men pulled the corporal out of the steel hulk.  Hours later the fight to salvage his battered body began.

 

The doctors won.  He was finally released from the hospital and went to work as a hat finisher at the Stetson plant in Philadelphia.  At the plant, he met a woman named Mary, whom he eventually married.  He retired when the plant closed.  The former corporal, never without pain, remembered the place names, Hurtegan Forest, the Ardennes, the Rhineland, the hedgerows of France.  He remembered Patton with the fondness that old soldiers have for commanders who led well.  He became a major collector of military insignia and a member of the Liberty American Legion Post his father had helped found.  But then old problems surfaced and new ones developed and for the last eight years, he was bedridden much of the time.  He protested his uselessness, but he fought on.  But it all ended on Friday.  His wife is his only survivor.  Services will be Tuesday at the Kester Funeral Home, 609 E. Allegheny Ave.  He will be buried with full military honors at Sunset Memorial Park."

 

The morning of the Eighteenth, two tanks away from “Rollin’ Rhino III” sat Sgt. John W. Pertschi of Philadelphia, Pa.  Feeling that he might die at any moment, John took out a book he’d picked up for it’s blank pages, which would make great writing paper.  He wrote a letter to his mother Dorothy.  If he was going to die, he wanted to say goodbye.  He wrote:

 

Feb. 18, 1945

Time 05.00

 

"If I Sgt. John Pertschi of Phila. should never return from this attack please send this book to my Mother.  Mom we are in a hell of a spot and I want you to know just how I feel.  All the years you saved and tried to make a chance in life for me.  It just seems to be worthless.  I don't think I'll get back.  But I really do love you very much.  You see, we left the T.[tank] area with 10 tanks to try to cross the Our River.  The infantry is just ahead and getting everything.  I can hear them as they get hit.  On my right I can see two tanks burn.  I am just waiting for the next one to get us.  But we were told to hold and cross the river.  The rain and snow has made the river rise 10 feet above.  Every time something moves they open up with the 88's.  From our side we have been firing everything we have.  But what good is it when they are in pillboxes?

 

It is 06:00 and dawn is coming up.  My bow gunner is about out of his head.  In the past hour we have moved about a half-mile. We are now on the riverbank; I can see a man running around the other side.

 

07:00 The bridge is in.  My orders are to move up.  We are over and they got the bridge dead center.  If we can't get help soon we'll have to swim for it.  I am now in the gunner seat trying to write.  The Gunner is on lookout.  I have a flashlight, which is hard to write with.  Mom, we are going to fight our way back and swim for it. The Dough's are getting it right and left.  We can hear the Jerries massing tanks.  So please pray for me if I don't come out.  I love you so very much I can never put it in words.

 

Please send this book to: Mrs. Dorothy Pertschi, 3064 N. 7th St, Phila 33 PA. U.S.A."

 

One of the two tanks John described as burning was Sgt. George Williams' tank, nearest him.  It had backed up in an attempt to get into a better position after the first tank got hit, and it was hit as well.  Sgt. Williams' fingertips were chopped off when the commander's hatch slammed shut.  His crew was unharmed and bailed out.  “Black John”, the company mascot dog was riding in Sgt. Williams' tank that day.  The human crew pushed him out of the tank and he was machine-gunned by Germans as he hit the ground.  The human crew escaped.  The other tank was in the lead position, nearest the bridge spanning the Our River at Bollendorf, Germany.  From the wooded hills across the river in Germany, an 88mm had hit “Rollin’ Rhino III” dead-on in the welded-on extra armor plate on the right side.  Instead of boring a neat hole through the tank as most armor piercing projectiles would, and exploding inside, this round exploded between the outer and inner armor, cracking a large section out of the side, and blowing it inward.  The huge chunk of steel slammed into the crew inside.  Lt. Ike Walker was spared because he had left the tank to go discuss the attack plans with the commander of another tank.  Cpl. Howard Daniels, Jr. and Cpl. Jack Edwards were wounded badly in the lower parts of their bodies.  PFC Jim Tondreau and Sgt. Joe DeLaurentis were killed instantly.  Sgt. Tom Barry remembered Howard Daniels, Joe's Gunner returned fire on the German position, and continued firing the crippled tank's cannon until Lt. Ike Walker forcibly pulled him from the hatch.  With his lower body crushed, Jack, his Loader in similar shape, and Joe and Jim dead below him, it had to have taken super-human resolve to continue trying to kill the unseen enemy who had just killed his crew.  In the early morning light, the men of A Company could see Jim and Joe’s bodies lying face down on the ground as the medics hauled Howard and Jack away, never to return.  Tom Barry later saw Howard at Camp Pickett General Hospital.  Howard had grown up in the same Philadelphia neighborhood as Tom and Joe.  Howard was in a body cast from his armpits to his ankles.  He had been pretty badly hit.  Tom was at the convalescent hospital recuperating from his wounds in another part of Camp Pickett.  At one point, he had to go to the general hospital for treatment.  Walking down the hall, Tom met Al Swiegert from A Company.  Al told Tom what room Howard was in, and Tom went to see him.  Howard was in fairly good spirits, considering his poor condition.  Howard eventually learned to walk with a cane.  No one from the 702nd ever saw Jack Edwards again.

 

Many years later, in response to an inquiry from Lela Eitel, Fiancée of the late Sgt. Joseph DeLaurentis about how Joe had died, Ike Walker, now deceased wrote:

 

April 1996

 

"Dear Mrs. Eitel:

         I hope what little I can tell you will be a little help.  I received a Battle Field commission on 12 January 1945 and was assigned to "A" Co. on 13 Jan. 1945.  So I only knew Joe DeLaurentis and Jim Tondreau for a period of about 6 weeks before our tank was hit and both were killed.  Cpl. Daniels and Cpl. Edwards were seriously injured and myself not so serious.  I radioed Headquarters and reported I had 2 dead and 2 seriously injured.  I requested medical evacuation immediately.  I knew I had 2 dead, as soon as I could I opened the driver's hatch and then the other side.  Believe me I never seen anything like it.  Both had died instantly from their wounds.  When the medics arrived I called for another one of my tanks to come to my position.  I gave the tank commander instructions to stay with the crew till they were evacuated and ride back to the company HQ: with them.  I then departed with the other tank and continued on with the mission, which I was assigned. That's the details of the incident.  When our mission was over and returned to the company all  I could find out was that Cpl. Daniels & Cpl. Edwards had been evacuated to the US and the 2 bodies had been shipped to Luxembourg for interment.  From what I can remember from 51 years back I never had any troublemakers in my platoon.  I remember the other crewmembers speaking highly of both of them and that I had inherited a good crew when I was assigned.  When Fita and I attended reunions many complementary remarks were made about the two of them.  I am enclosing a few photocopies of some of the actions we were involved in between 13 January and 18 February 1945.  I hope this will be of some help in enlightening your mind a little.

Sincerely,

Ivan (Ike) Walker

 

P.S.  I finished out the WWII war and was sent to Korea. Still in tank corps, assigned company commander TK Co..  Finished that.  Back to Europe, some State side assignments and retired as a Major.   After retiring I taught ROTC 11 years in the Denver public schools before retiring for good."

 

John Pertschi did survive the battle that day, and after the war, took that book home with him.  I am grateful to his Grandson Eric for locating me and sharing it.   Most of the veterans I spoke to agreed that they had similar thoughts as they went into battle.  They just didn't have the presence of mind or the means to write it down.  I am glad that John Pertschi did.

 

Thus ends this vignette of the action that day, although I suspect that the infantrymen have their own horror stories of that day.  Each one of these pieces to the puzzle, of what occurred that frosty morning, came to me by chance.  Or was it divine will, that almost sixty years later, these men's separate stories about the same event, so obscure till now, should happen to "fall into my lap"?  None of them communicated with each other after the war, and each went to his grave with the horrors and valor of that day burned into their memories.  You be the judge.

 

 

 

 

 

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