We’ve all seen these group pictures taken when the men finished training or when they returned from overseas. Often we only glance at them. But for those of us whose WWII veteran served in the unit in question, we pull out our magnifying glasses or zoom in to see if we recognize the face of that one special young man. Was he your grandfather, great-uncle, great-grandfather, father, uncle or a close family friend? What did he look like back then? How old (or young) was he?
I recently received this group picture of the men in Battery B of the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion from a family member of one of the men. My Father-in-law was in Battery A, but I still enjoy looking at all these young faces. Zoom in and look at some of their expressions. They’re priceless.
The photo was taken at Camp Phillips, Kansas, after their training had been completed. From here they would go to Fort Riley, Kansas, for testing and then on to Tennessee where they participated in the Tennessee Maneuvers. The 276th was pulled out of the Tennessee Maneuvers and sent to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, where they were converted from a regular field artillery battalion to an Armored Field Artillery Battalion. In other words, their tow-behind guns were exchanged for track-mounted 105 mm howitzers. After a few months of training on the new equipment, the battalion traveled to Camp Shanks, New York, where they sailed for England.
The below link is to a hand-written document showing the names of most of the men in the photo.
Many of us associate December and WWII with the famous Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. I was wondering what was going on the year before, in December 1943. We had been at war for two years at that point. Where were the people and units I’ve written about with Christmas 1943 approaching?
On December 19, 1943, my father-in-law, Dewey Paul Whitaker, and the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion boarded a special train at Fort Riley, Kansas, for the Tennessee Maneuver area in Middle Tennessee east of Nashville. They had been at Fort Riley for battalion tests after training in Camp Phillips, Kansas. They arrived at Gallatin, Tennessee and from there they moved to a bivouac area in a meadow near Hickman, Tennessee, where, in the pouring rain and mud, they celebrated Christmas 1943.
My Dad, Vernon R. Knight, arrived at Moore General Hospital near Asheville, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve. This was his first hospital post after completing training in rehabilitation therapy at Camp Grant, Illinois. From a letter to my mother dated December 24, 1943, (his birthday), he wrote of the loneliness and disappointment he felt at being away from home for Christmas.
My Uncle D. T. ( Boots) Knight was in Camp Roberts, California, where the 947th Field Artillery Battalion had been stationed since December, 1941. The battalion had originally been part of the National Guard activated in late 1940. After two years in California they spent Christmas 1943 preparing to ship out. On December 28, 1943, the 947th Field Artillery Battalion moved to Camp Stoneman to prepare for departure, and then, on January 9, 1944, the battalion sailed from San Francisco on the USAT Seaflasher, destination New Guinea.
My Dad’s cousin, Herman Connell, was working in Bowling Green, Kentucky, after dropping out of high school. No doubt he traveled by train down the line to his hometown of Paris, Tennessee, and spent Christmas 1943 with his family. He would turn eighteen the following spring and join the Army. In March, 1945, he was killed in Germany.
At Camp Atterbury, Indiana, Frank Towers had reported to the 30th Infantry Division. He and his bride, Mary, celebrated Christmas in Indiana as the division prepared for shipment overseas. Through final training at Camp Atterbury, the division coalesced into a fighting unit before moving to Camp Myles Standish near Boston in February, 1944. After a short stay in Boston, the division sailed for England.
Christmas 1943 was the second, and in some cases the third, Christmas away from home for many of our military after the United States entered the war in December 1941. Those I’ve written about here were finishing training and would soon depart for battlefields overseas. Some would be home for Christmas 1945, but some would not.
We should all remember those serving in the military all around the world this Christmas. Like their counterparts in World War II, they are lonely and missing their families back home during this holiday season. Pray for their safe return so they can spend future Christmas’s at home with their families.
What was going on in the European Theater of Operations during the first part of October, 1944? Sometimes it’s interesting to look at what was happening in different places at the same time. In early October the European front stretched from the Netherlands/Belgian/German border in the north to the French/German border near Metz further south.
On October 2 the 30th Infantry Division launched a full-scale attack on the Siegfried Line east of Maastricht, The Netherlands. The Germans had retreated from France, Belgium and the southern part of the Netherlands to make a stand at the long string of reinforced pillboxes and tank traps along their western border. Edward Arn, in his book “Arn’s War,” describes the grisly death of his commander, Captain Melvin Riesch, that day during the attack on Rimburg Castle which caused Arn’s elevation to commander of Fox Company, 119th Infantry Regiment. Fox Company, along with the rest of the 30th Infantry division would go on to attack the German City of Aachen from the north flanked by the 29th Division and the 2nd Armored Division. The 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions attacked Aachen from the south. The city surrendered on October 16 , 1944 and was the first major German city to fall to the Allies.
On October 3rd, Lieutenant Charles McDonald crossed the German border and joined his new command, Company I of the 23rd Infantry Division in the Schnee-Eifel forest east of St. Vith, Belgium. McDonald wrote of his baptism by fire during the next few weeks in his classic memoir “Company Commander.” His account of the desperate fighting along that portion of the Siegfried line and his shockingly rapid introduction to life in combat as a Company Commander provides such a vivid picture that you feel you are there with him.
From September 10 through October 15, 1944, the 276th Armored Field Artillery, which included my father-in-law, was supporting the 2nd “Free” French Armored Division. They took positions near the Foret du Parroy, east of Nancy, France, on September 23 and remained in that position until October 15 providing supporting fire for the French Division as well as the nearby 79th Infantry Division. The 4th Armored Division was also in this area near Nancy. All were part of General George Patton’s command.
Back behind the lines, PFC Mollie Weinstein, had settled into her quarters in a hotel in newly-liberated Paris. The WAC provided clerical support for the Army and in her free time explored the famous city. Her memoir, “Mollie’s War,” includes letters she wrote home describing her experiences including meeting GI’s who’d landed on D-Day at a USO provided entertainment event and the plight of civilians in liberated Paris. Although news reports predicted the war would be over by Christmas, Mollie joked that she wouldn’t be home until 1946. The WAC’s instincts were right. It was November, 1945, before Mollie was shipped back to the states.
In early October,1944, the news from Europe sounded good to the folks back home. Paris and most of France had been liberated. The Siegfried Line had been breached and the city of Aachen taken. Although the port of Antwerp had fallen to the Allies in September, fortifications along the estuary leading to the sea blocked the port until November. Supplies were still being unloaded on the Normandy beaches and trucked across France by the Red Ball Express. Shortages slowed the Allies advance as the Germans fought to defend their borders. The war in Europe would go on for another seven months.
I always love to hear the stories passed down in families about how their parents or grandparents met, fell in love and started a life together during World War II. These stories reflect the realities of the time. The country was at war. Men, from age 18 to 45, either volunteered to serve in the military or they were drafted. Young men and many young women left home either to go into the military or to go to work at a defense plant or to go into some type training, such as nursing. All across the country single men and women met and dated. Couples were separated and those already married struggled to maintain a marriage through separation. Often the wife followed her husband to wherever he was stationed. It was a time of great turmoil in our country. And I find it fascinating.
A member of the extended family of the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion shared one of those stories with me. Morris Irving Grayson served in Battery B of the 276th while my father-in-law served in Battery A. Irving’s daughter, Teresa Williams, agreed to let me share her parents’ story on my website as a way to keep the memories of the war alive and to let younger people know what soldiers and their families went through.
In 1941, Irving Grayson and Doris Smiley graduated from Childress High School in Childress, Texas. Although they went to the same school in the same town, they didn’t get to know each other until the next year when Doris noticed Irving at the local open air skating rink. Irving was a skilled skater and loved to show off. The two started dating.
Irving planned to enter the military in 1942 but he had appendicitis. His illness delayed his enlistment until April 27, 1943, when he signed up in Lubbock, Texas. He went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for basic training. Before completion of the course he volunteered to become a paratrooper and was transferred to Camp Tocca, Georgia. At that time it was more prestigious to be a paratrooper and they were paid more than regular soldiers.
While in paratrooper training in Georgia, Irving complained of the extreme heat, the humidity and the miles of daily marches carrying full packs. One night his sergeant came into the barracks and said, “If you don’t want to be here, we don’t want you here, there will be a bus out front tonight. Be on it.” Irving made sure he was on that bus even though he had no idea where the bus would take him.
The bus took Irving to a train station and the train took him to Camp Phillips, Kansas, where he was assigned to the 276th Armored Field Artillery. The 276th was originally a typical field artillery battalion with tow-behind artillery pieces. Irving began training for the field artillery.
While at Camp Phillips, Doris joined Irving bringing along their new baby. Irving and Doris were married in Salina, Kansas, December 2, 1943. Housing was scarce around these new Army training camps. Irving and Doris rented a tiny apartment in what must have been an older apartment building or converted house. Doris later told her family that she found a rat in the baby’s crib one night and after that the baby slept in the bed with her.
At Camp Phillips Irving served as assistant to the supply sergeant. The sergeant left unexpectedly, probably reassigned, so Irving took over his duties. Although doing the sergeant’s job, Irving was not promoted as he thought he should have been. In early 1944 the 276th moved east to Tennessee for extensive maneuvers intended to simulate combat conditions. During these maneuvers, the Army decided to convert the 276th from a field artillery battalion to an “armored” field artillery battalion. They were pulled out of the maneuvers and sent to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, where they trained on the M-7 self-propelled, track-mounted 105 mm howitzer cannon. These track-mounted guns had proved to be more maneuverable in North Africa and the Army believed they would be able to keep up with the tanks after the Allies invaded Europe.
When Irving went to Tennessee, Doris and the baby went back to Childress. The couple began corresponding by letter. Doris sent him pictures of their son with notes about his progress. Irving came home on leave before he went overseas. Later Doris wrote to tell him she was expecting another child. Their second son was born while Irving was in Europe fighting the Germans. I can only imagine how difficult it was for Doris, with one baby and another on the way and her husband overseas in danger of being killed. She probably wrote cheerful letters with pictures of the babies to keep his spirits up.
Adding to the difficulty for this young mother was an especially disturbing letter she received from Irving. It had been intended for an English girl he met during his brief stay in England but the letter got switched with his letter to Doris. When Doris received the wrong letter, she of course assumed the worst, that he was cheating on her, and she did not write him for some time. Irving insisted the he and the English girl were just friends and eventually the trouble was resolved.
While in England, Irving became a jeep driver responsible for carrying messages between the battalion and headquarters. He also scouted for locations to set up the battery headquarters and drove damaged half-tracks and M7’s to the maintenance platoon for repairs. The 276th fought their way across France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany from September, 1944, until the German surrender on May 8, 1945.
On June 10, 1945, Corporal Irving Grayson was presented the bronze star for heroism by Brig. General John C. Lenz. In one of the ironies of war, Irving thought he received the medal for one action when in fact he received it for something different. He told his family this story —
As he lay in the street of a small German town, a heavy artillery shell went went over his head hitting a building in front of him and skidded along the side of the building but did not explode. Then another shell went over his head hitting the same building and again skidded along the without exploding. Irving realized you could tell where the gun firing on them might be located by the angle the shells were hitting and skidding. He crawled on his stomach a couple of blocks back to Battery B headquarters and told his commander what he had observed. The commander told a sergeant of the heavy artillery to follow Irving back to where he had seen the shells hitting the building. They crawled back and located the German gun. They crawled back to the heavy artillery and the sergeant directed his men where to fire. The German gun was hit and American lives were saved. All his commanders were congratulating Irving on what he had done, so he thought he received the bronze star for this. See the newspaper article for the account from the Bronze Star citation.
The 276th AFA returned to the states in July, 1945, as part of the experienced combat troops who were redeployed for the invasion of Japan. The men received leave to visit their families before reporting for additional training for the invasion. During this leave another child was conceived and that child, Teresa, was born in 1946. The war ended in August, 1945, after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.
Irving returned to his old job in a packing plant in Childress, Texas, and a fourth child arrived in 1947. He later trained to be a machinist, probably using the GI Bill, and in 1951 the family moved to Dallas. In 1953 the couple’s fifth child made her appearance making three boys and two girls.
Irving and Doris raised their five children and, after twenty-one years of marriage, they divorced. Both remarried and they remained close to their children.
You might say that Irving and Doris didn’t have the “typical” WWII romance. But their experiences were typical for the time. A hasty marriage with the strains of separation, fear and anxiety. Doris didn’t know if Irving would return to her, didn’t know how long he would be gone. And Irving longed for his wife and babies. He missed the birth of his second son and the experience of seeing both sons early life. He could only write censored letters and hope his parents and hers were helping his young wife and children through this difficult time. Their love, loyalty and determination brought them through the war and the years of adjustment afterwards, like so many other couples of that time.
If you want to share a family story about World War II, please send it to me along with any pictures you have. I would love to hear your stories and share them here on my website.
Several people have contacted me asking how to get information about a family member who served in the military in World War II. I do not profess to be an expert on researching individual veteran’s records but since I have done some research I can provide a little guidance.
I have been immensely fortunate that I have records directly from the veteran for my most immediate family members who served in WWII. I have a copy of my father’s discharge paper and a box of letters he wrote to my mother during the war. We have my father-in-law’s copy of his unit history from the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. These histories were published right after the war and I have learned that they are both rare and valuable. The family also has his discharge paper. These can be very helpful as a starting place in searching for records.
On the other hand, last year when I was searching for information about my father’s cousin, Herman Connell Jr., who was killed in Europe in 1945, I found out just how difficult it was when you had very little specific information about the soldier. All I had was his name and the unit he served in which was on his gravestone. I was able to compile a story about his unit and the action they were in at the date of his death but I couldn’t get any specific information about his individual experiences.
The inquiries I received prompted me to look for some guide to searching for records. What I found was an excellent book which contains an enormous amount of information. “Finding Your Father’s War” by Jonathan Gawne is a must-have book for anyone looking for information on someone who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. I would even go so far as to say that it is a must-have book for anyone writing about World War II. It deals with the Army only, no Navy or Marines. It does include information about the Army Air Corp since during WWII the fly boys were part of the Army. It wasn’t until after the war that the Air Force became its own branch of the service.
One of the main reasons Gawne focused on the Army was that a fire in 1973 destroyed much of the individual service records as well as the company level records. The Navy, Marine and Coast Guard records were not burned and are available through those branches.
Some things discussed in “Finding Your Father’s War” I had already figured out from various sources. If I’d had this book it would have been so much easier and faster. There are other useful tidbits in Gawne’s book that I did not know. If you are trying to put together the pieces of someone’s military service these little details can yield a wealth of understanding.
I’ll give you some examples just to give you a feel for what I am talking about.
One of the things that I had already figured out from the many memoirs I’ve read was the structure of an Army Infantry Division. Each division had three infantry regiments thus it is referred to as a triangular organization. A division also had division artillery and division headquarters where all the support units were attached. Continuing with the triangular organization each infantry regiment was divided into three battalions plus headquarters. Although each infantry regiment had a unique number (the 30th Infantry Division consisted of the 117th, 119th and 120th Infantry Regiments), the battalions were simply numbered 1st, 2nd and 3rd (so the 117th Infantry Regiment had a 1st Battalion, a 2nd Battalion and a 3rd Battalion plus Headquarters). Each Battalion was made up of three rifle companies and a heavy weapons company. A letter designated each company but the letter designation wasn’t the same in each battalion. Instead it went like this: 1st Battalion consisted of Company A, Company B, Company C and Company D, the last being the heavy weapons company; 2nd Battalion consisted of Company E, Company F, Company G and Company H, again with the fourth one being heavy weapons; 3rd Battalion consisted of Company I, Company K, Company L and Company M, again Company M was heavy weapons and the letter J was skipped. So if you know your Army veteran was in Company H, he would have been in the heavy weapons company of the 2nd Battalion. This can be helpful since many historical accounts of battles refer to the battalion.
Something I learned from “Finding Your Father’s War” is that the soldier’s serial number isn’t just a random number assigned when he entered the service. The number will tell you something about the soldier. Serial numbers with no letter prefix means the soldier was an enlisted man. The prefix “O” indicates he was an officer. Others with letter prefixes included nurses, warrant officers, WAC’s and others. If the first number was a “1” the soldier was an enlistee. If it was a “2,” he was in the National Guard. A “3” meant he was drafted. Late in the war some draftees were given serial numbers starting with a “4.” The second digit in the serial number tells the geographic region of the country the soldier was in when he entered the service. These numbers correspond to the service commands within the United States. A map is included in the book.
In addition to this book there are numerous resources online that can help you. The National Archives, the Center for Military History, division organizations websites and Facebook pages, and even sites like Ancestry.com and Fold3.com. Local historic societies and local newspapers may be a source since many servicemen had articles written about them during the war. Family stories and even old pictures can provide clues especially if you know what to look for.
Good luck in searching for your WWII veteran’s records. It is always fascinating to learn about an individual’s service during the war when millions were in uniform and had such a variety of experiences.
My husband and I recently traveled to Tennessee for a sad event – a family funeral. While driving through Tullahoma, we passed the Tullahoma Army National Guard Armory and out front sat an M-7 track-mounted 105 mm artillery piece like my father-in-law’s gun from WWII. Of course, we stopped and looked it over and took pictures.
This was only the second time we have seen an M-7, also called the “Priest,” in person and needless-to-say we were excited. We never imagined seeing my father-in-law’s gun so close to home. We quickly spread the word among the family members so that they too could share the experience. My father-in-law, Paul Whitaker, trained on the M-7 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, then shipped out to Europe where he was in combat from July 1944 until the end of the war in Europe in May 1945.
Finding the gun in Tullahoma was ironic because in early 1944 my father-in-law’s outfit was taking part in the “Tennessee Maneuvers” in the Tullahoma/Coffee County area near Camp Forrest, Tennessee. They were pulled out of the maneuvers and sent to Fort Campbell where they were converted from a standard field artillery battalion to a mobile field artillery battalion. As part of the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion my father-in-law fought his way across Europe for the most part under the command of Patton’s Third Army.
The M-7 is in front of the “old” Army National Guard Armory in Tullahoma. This facility is utilized by the 1176th Transportation Company of the Tennessee National Guard. Nearby stands the brand-new Tullahoma Readiness Center dedicated in August 2012. This new facility houses the 30th Troop Command of the Tennessee Army National Guard, the latest generation of the “Old Hickory” legacy, descendants of the WWII era 30th Infantry Division.
The plaque in front of the M-7 in Tullahoma describes the gun pretty well. It states – “The M7 “Priest” 105mm howitzer had a 7 man crew that fired artillery rounds to a range of 11,500 meters during WWII and the Korean War. It was powered by a 9 cylinder Continental engine and had a range of 200 miles. A total of 3,490 M7’s were built from 1942 to 1945.”
Several years ago we saw an M-7 at a VFW near Flint, Michigan. We were visiting my sister and brother-in-law when he told us about seeing the gun at the VFW. He wasn’t sure if the gun was the same as my father-in-law’s gun so he took us out to see it. That time my husband climbed up on top just to get a feel for what it was like up there. He didn’t attempt to climb aboard the one in Tullahoma. I’m afraid we’ve gotten too old for such adventures. Never-the-less we were both thrilled to see the gun.
I have written about this gun and the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion several times before. If you are interested, check out my posts in the Category “276th AFA.”
After leaving I-40 we wound our way along the Foothills Parkway, a crooked, two-lane roadway through heavily wooded mountainous terrain. The quiet beauty calmed us after the nerve-wracking drive crushed between semi’s and the concrete wall dividing the interstate as it snaked its way over the mountains. Our destination awaited only a few miles away in Gatlinburg. We soon reached the congested streets of the vacation mecca atop the mountains. Turning left, we climbed, passing motels and restaurants, until we reached the narrow, steep, winding driveway up to the top where our hotel, the Park Vista, stood overlooking the narrow valley that is Gatlinburg.
This was where the 276th Armored Field Artillery chose to hold their final reunion. The destination for five aging WWII veterans to reunite once more. Time may have reduced their numbers but not their spirits. The dwindling group of veterans and their families were joined by sons, daughters and wives of other, already deceased veterans – all coming together to remember and celebrate their service so many years ago.
My husband was one of those sons of deceased 276th veterans. We were newcomers to the reunions yet we were welcomed into the fold like long-lost relatives. The people who gathered at the Park Vista, related only by the service of a group of young men almost seventy years ago, were the most gracious, most friendly and warmest group of people we have ever encountered.
Organized in 1943, the 276th AFA Battalion was one of several artillery units converted to mobile, track-mounted 105 mm Howitzers (M-7’s) to provide mobile artillery support to infantry and armored divisions. In the summer of 1944, after the D-Day invasion at Normandy, the 276th crossed the Atlantic, landed in England, then crossed the channel to France. The Battalion fired its first combat round in September, 1944. From that point they were in continuous combat, battling their way across Europe, until the Germans surrendered in May, 1945. By July, they were again crossing the Atlantic, but this time their destination was home, not for good, but for additional training before being sent to the Pacific. The war with Japan still raged. Fortunately for these combat weary young men, the Japanese surrendered before their unit was redeployed.
The veterans of the 276th fascinated us with their positive, even joyful, attitudes as they answered questions, re-told old stories and remembered their fellow soldiers who had passed away in the intervening years. Sons and daughters shared stories their fathers had told to them. None of the five were officers. Their military jobs ranged from clerk to radio man to mechanic to driver yet they told stories of bullets that came within inches, artillery shells bursting nearby, encounters with enemy soldiers and freezing weather.
Of the five Batteries in the Battalion, four were represented at the reunion – Headquarters Battery, Battery A, Battery C, and Service Battery. Pictures of earlier reunions, with the participants all decked out in their finery, relayed the history of these events. A map detailed the Battalion’s journey as it fought its way across France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Czechoslovakia. Old pictures were perused for familiar faces. Watching a taped interview with one veteran brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. Such amazing men who went off to war at such a young age leaving their families and loved ones behind.
They journeyed from various locales to reunite with old friends. For these elderly men and their wives the trip could not have been easy nor possible without help from their families. The devoted son of one veteran organized the event and, despite his father’s failing health, drove from Indiana so there could be one last reunion. The eldest veteran, at ninety-seven, flew in from Massachusetts accompanied by his daughter and son-in-law. Another man from Georgia brought his wife, children, grand-children and great-grandchildren. And a former Tennessean and his wife were transported from Cincinnati by their son and daughter-in-law.
The son of a deceased veteran drove down from Milwaukee. This faithful son told of his trip to Europe to retrace the route of the 276th. He and his father, both devoted history buffs, had attended previous reunions and the son had known many of the 276th veterans. They planned to take the European trip together but his father did not live to make it so the son went alone in honor of his father.
Another son, daughter and son-in-law journeyed across the mountains from North Carolina for the reunion. Like my husband’s father, their father never came to any of the reunions. He talked of his service but would never contact any of the men he served with. After his death his son decided to meet some of the men his father fought with so many years ago and participate in the reunions. Knowledgable and friendly, these North Carolinians shared stories from former reunions, of other veterans now gone and reenactments. They generously shared their photos, too.
The reunion was a special time for the aging men to reconnect and remember their youth. As Tom Brokaw said of the WWII veterans in his book “The Greatest Generation,” these men did not brag about their service. They quietly spoke of events but always expressed that they were just doing their job, doing what they had been trained to do, doing what they had to do. It was touching to watch them talk, and laugh and reminisce about those times.
In their young, formative years these men forged a bond like no other – the bond of combat. And they became our heroes. By doing their jobs, they enabled us, their children and grandchildren, to live the lives in a free, democratic society. They freed the world from the tyranny and dictatorship that threatened to engulf the globe. We so often forget that in 1943 when these young men first came together, the Allies were losing the war and it looked like it would take many years of fighting to defeat Germany and Japan. They had a big job ahead of them but they knew they would win – eventually. That faith in themselves, in this country, was remarkable. And we saw that same positive attitude in the remaining veterans that we met in Gatlinburg.
Too soon it was time to leave. Each of us going back to our own part of American. I hope we can stay in touch with these wonderful people, each fascinating in their own way. As we drove down out of the mountains and south toward Florida, we agreed that it had been a wonderful experience, a chance to touch the past, to talk with those who had lived it. Too soon they will all be gone, but they will never be forgotten.