World War II

Short Vignettes from the Experiences of Thornton F. Clark 

... a big mistake and other stories

Thornton F. Clark

A Big Mistake

It was a dark and rainy night. We were in position shelling the town of Aachen. We were cold and wet and the guns were barking loud and clear. After about an hour of firing, our switchboard lit up. The gun position wanted the command post in a hurry. We wondered what the heck happened. We threw open the command post line and heard the gunner say that they had just fired a shell and, as they ejected it from the barrel, they saw the marking on it was gas. They had just broken an international code not to use gas. We carried gas shells just in case. The one thing we didn't want to do was to start a gas war. We stopped firing at once and signaled the German lines that we wanted to talk. When they got the message, the war stopped from both sides.

A squad of our guys went out with a white flag to meet a group of Germans. We explained that we had fired a gas shell by mistake and apologized for doing so. The German officer accepted the apology. Both groups returned to their lines and the war started all over again.  

Too bad we couldn't have settled the whole war that easily.

A Close Shave

In open country in North Africa we were laying telephone lines. We had poles along the road, so we were stringing the lines overhead. We were along a fairly well traveled road. We had to be careful of the trucks going by. I put on my spikes. Because of the traffic, I started to hurry up the pole. About halfway up on a fast climb, I pulled out one spike before I had the other one set. To my surprise that spike hit a steel rod and went nowhere, but I did.

I was about 15 feet off the ground. I didn't have my belt on so I was about to hold myself away from the pole with my arms. The bad thing about that was the pole was all rough from spike holes. I landed with my legs spread so I wouldn't spike myself. Except for losing the skin on my arms, I was able to climb back up. After half way up it was a double whammie. I had the line tied to my climbing belt. I looked around to check the line and saw it looped just about 5 feet off the road. Then I spotted an English truck with a high back coming down the road. I could see myself flying off the pole if he caught the wire.

I waited till he was almost on top of the line. Then with a big snap I popped it up in the air. With a sigh of relief, I saw it loop over the top of the truck without the driver even seeing it. I made the tie-in and got off that pole quick. Two encounters with that same pole was enough.

I Still Don't Know What to Think

We were positioned in North Africa behind a farm house about a quarter of a mile down the road in a firing position. We were firing from that position for a couple of days.

One night our executive officer, a sergeant, and myself went to scout the area in front of our gun position. It was real dark. On the way back on the little road into the farm house, which was nothing better than two tire tracks, we could see very little. We couldn't put our lights on because the Germans would be able to spot us without any trouble. I was driving by the light of the moon which was quite bright.

As we drove about half way into the position, we came upon a motorcycle driver coming down the track right at us. I thought I was seeing things but before I could speak or react both the officer and sergeant yelled look out. They had seen him the same moment I did. I didn't have time to pull off the track even if I wanted to. He seemed to drive straight through us.

I stopped as fast as I could. I asked them what they saw and they related to me they saw the very same thing that I thought I saw. We got out of the jeep thinking that we had knocked him off the road. We listened to see if we could hear his motor, - we should have heard a motorcycle motor for miles in the quiet dry African air. We heard not a sound, so we each took a side of the track and followed it back. There was nothing to be found on the side of the road or in the surrounding field. We all had a funny feeling as we got back in the jeep and finished the rest of the way into our gun position. You can believe in ghosts (ok) or you can believe it was a mirage.    (Your Choice)

Lost in the Desert

One thing is for sure, all sand dunes look alike. I found that out one day as I was driving from one battalion to another all alone in my jeep. I took a wrong turn and realized I didn't recognize the surroundings. I drove to the top of a dune but all I saw was another dune. I didn't know if I was going deeper into the desert or not. It seemed that each dune was the one I wanted. As each dune was wrong I drove faster and faster. My heart was going the same way because I didn't want to end up out in the hot desert.

I stopped to decide what to do and I spotted a telephone wire in the sand. I was grateful for that, at least it had to lead somewhere. I put on a leather glove. I then took the line in my hand because most of it was buried in the sand. I let it slip through my hand as I drove. My big concern was whether or not it would be our boys or Germans on the other end. You can imagine my relief when after a few miles, I found one of our outfits on the other end. I guess I wouldn't make a very good camel driver.

Two Cities

High up in the northern mountains
Where the sky is an ocean of drab
There's a crumbling city in ruins,
The place known as MEDJEZ EL BAB
Its streets are pock-marked with shellholes
Most natives have long since fled
And Death hovers over its alleys,
Marking those who are dying and dead.
And south of the edge of the desert,
Where the sun is the hottest by far
There's a mosquito-infested oasis,
A place they call EL GUETTAR.
There's the grime of the years on its houses
And the filth of an age on the floors.
And lean hungry faces keep peering
From sagging, bomb-shattered doors.
They're places that no one will visit
They're blasted and empty and bare
For men have forgotten those cities,
And God doesn't know they are there.

El Guettar, North Africa

El Guettar was a village on the edge of the little Sahara. It was behind a row of low hills that divided it from the sandy plains of the little Sahara. We were told that General Rommel and his entire 10th German SS Panzer Division were coming up the plain. We were told we had to go through Djebel Onk Pass, a small gap in the low hills, and set up our 105 howitzers in the Qudi in front of hill El Keddab on the open plain side. We set up our 105 guns and put in a wire net and waited. The wait wasn't long.

As we looked down the valley we could see dust rising in the distance. As the dust came closer, we could see black dots in the dust. It wasn't long before we could tell that the black dots were tiger tanks. When they were in range of our guns, about 7 miles maximum, we opened up and hit them which made the tanks disperse and speed up heading for the foot hills that we were in. It wasn't long before we were in range of their 88 millimeter guns, which were very effective tank guns. We soon had high velocity 88 shells bursting all around us. As the tanks started in between the dunes, our guns were at max elevation, almost straight up and the tanks were inside the guns capability of hitting them. At that point their infantry started filing in front of their tanks. We could see that we were helplessly out numbered. The only thing for us to do was get out of the valley called El Keddab by going up and over the ridge behind us.

As we were making for the top of the ridge, the tank machine guns were kicking dust up all round us. By the time we got over the ridge, we were so winded that we just about rolled down the other side. We then had to worry about the air burst that the tanks were firing at us. As our carbines were no match for their tank guns, we were likely surprised beyond belief. As we went over the ridge, we saw that our Sherman tanks had moved up and were starting to head through the gap in the hills. Quite a battle began but our Shermans finally beat the Tigers back down the valley leaving a lot of the foot soldiers behind. One thing that sticks in my mind, although very small, is that, as we passed a halftrack, the driver gave about 5 of us a can of drink. It was about the best two mouthfuls of drink I ever had.

The next day we were able to move back to our gun position as the Shermans had cleared out the Jerries. We were glad to see when we got back to our position that the Shermans had got the Jerries out before they could do any damage to our equipment. The second piece of good luck was that the explosives that the gunners put down the barrels of the 105's had been done in such a hurry that they failed to destroy the guns.

So the war continued.

February 27, 1999

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