Gamecocks at War: The 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion
During World War II, only a handful of African American combat units were formed, and still fewer actually saw combat. Today, the “Black Panthers” of the 761st Tank Battalion and the “Tuskegee Airmen” of the Army Air Forces are the best known of these units, but there is another that deserves a place alongside them—the “Gamecocks” of the 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion.
The 614th was activated at Camp Carson, Colorado, on 25 July 1942 with an original cadre of five officers and 172 enlisted men taken primarily from the 366th Infantry Regiment (Colored). The rest of the enlisted men were drawn from other Army installations. Only five of the battalion’s officers were white; the rest, including the company officers, were African American. Under Lieutenant Colonel Blaisdell C. Kenon, the battalion began its basic training as a mechanized unit equipped with half-tracks carrying the antiquated M1897A4 75mm gun. In December 1942, the 614th transferred to Camp Bowie, Texas, for additional training, and the following March moved further south to Camp Hood for advanced training. There the battalion was reorganized and equipped with the M5 3-Inch Gun (towed). Lieutenant Colonel Frank S. Prichard assumed command of the battalion on 16 October 1943.
In June 1944, the 614th received orders to prepare for overseas movement to the European Theater of Operations. Spirits in the battalion soared with the expectation of finally getting into combat, but plummeted when the movement orders were abruptly cancelled. Morale quickly improved when the battalion began training to master the complexities of indirect fire. After only three weeks, the 614th was judged “very satisfactory” following a field test of indirect fire tactics and techniques. New movement orders arrived in early August, and after a brief stay at Camp Shanks, New York, the battalion boarded the troopship Esperance Bay and sailed for England. Also onboard were the “Black Panthers” of the 761st Tank Battalion. The two battalions disembarked onto British soil on 7 September and resumed training. In early October, the 614th loaded its equipment into LSTs and sailed for Normandy. The flotilla crossed the English Channel in rough weather, and arrived off Utah Beach the following day with every man in the battalion suffering from seasickness. Due to the high winds and heavy surf, the battalion was not completely ashore until 10 October.
In mid-November, the 614th was assigned to Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s Third Army and attached to the 95th Infantry Division. After a few days the battalion was transferred to Task Force (TF) Polk, which was organized under the 3d Cavalry Group. Each of the 614th’s gun companies was attached to one of the group’s three cavalry squadrons. TF Polk was situated on the left flank of MG Walton H. Walker’s XX Corps opposite the German defenses of the Orscholz Switch Line, a strongly fortified zone roughly parallel to the Saar River. On 22 November, the 614th came under fire for the first time while operating in support of an attack by TF Chamberlain, a strong force built around Combat Command A, 10th Armored Division. While moving across an exposed area between Büschdorf and Mittel-Unter-Tünsdorf, Germany, 1st Platoon, Company C, came under heavy mortar and artillery fire. After an initial panic, the men rallied to the calls of their officers, and despite the loss of one man killed and several wounded, resumed an orderly advance, as one of the award citations later described, “through a hail of fire.” First Lieutenant Lt. Walter S. Smith and Staff Sergeant Christopher J. Sturkey, were awarded the Silver Star for their gallantry during this action.
A few days later, near the town of Borg, Germany Company A engaged in a direct fire mission against enemy pillboxes. After receiving several direct hits on their positions, the Germans indicated a desire to surrender, but opened fire again when troopers from a nearby cavalry unit approached. Company A resumed firing, and the surviving defenders surrendered after being forced from their positions by a barrage of accurate fire from the 3-inch guns. Later the same day, the gunners of Company A engaged an 88mm gun and destroyed it with three well aimed rounds. Overall, the 614th’s performance in its initial engagements was satisfactory, and the conduct of its officers and men under fire provided a glimpse of how they would handle themselves in future engagements.
In early December, the 614th was transferred to Lieutenant General Alexander M. Patch’s Seventh Army and assigned to the 103d Infantry Division commanded by Major General Charles C. Haffner, Jr. The following week, Seventh Army began operations to push the Germans northward out of the Alsatian Plain and the mountains of eastern Lorraine. Company A was initially attached to TF Forrest operating on the division’s right flank. When the task force was dissolved, the company moved to the 410th Infantry. For a time, Company B was used for security by division headquarters, but it was also attached to the 44th Infantry Division, and the 106th Cavalry Group for short periods. Company C was attached to the 411th Infantry. The 103d attacked across the Zintzel du Nord River on 10 December, and the 411th soon encountered strong enemy resistance at the town of Mertzwiller. After several hours of house-to-house fighting, during which Company C fired its guns in direct support of the infantry, the town was taken.
Under heavy pressure, the Germans withdrew towards Wissembourg where they could cross the Lauter River, and find refuge behind the Siegfried Line. To reach safety, German units on the mountainous right flank had to use the road network which ran west to east through the French town of Climbach. Situated at the north end of a long, narrow valley bordered on each side by high mountain ridges, the town provided excellent defensive positions. Elements of the veteran 21st Panzer Division were ordered to hold the town until the withdrawal panned could be effected.
American intelligence mistakenly believed there were few enemy troops in the town, and light resistance was anticipated. Realizing the importance of capturing Climbach as expeditiously as possible, Haffner formed a small, motorized task force to race forward, take the town, and hold the important road junction. The task force was commanded by the 411th Infantry’s Executive Officer, Lieutenant Colonel John P. Blackshear. Hastily formed, TF Blackshear consisted of Company F (+ 1 platoon, Company E); 1st Platoon, Company C, 47th Tank Battalion; 3d Platoon, Company C, 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion; and one platoon from the 328th Engineer Combat Battalion. Company F was so badly under strength that a temporary reorganization using the extra platoon from Company E produced a total of only three platoons.
The task force left the town of Preuschdorf at 1030 hours on 14 December, and moved north toward Climbach. First Lieutenant Charles L. Thomas, the commander of Company C, 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion, led the column in his M20 scout car. The task force met no resistance until it crossed Pfaffenschlick Pass roughly two miles south of Climbach. As the vehicles entered an open area on the far side of the pass the column came under high velocity antitank fire which caused several casualties. The incoming fire ceased after the column cleared the exposed area. Dropping down to the valley floor, the task force proceeded up a narrow, two-lane road towards Climbach with Thomas still in the lead.
The temperature hovered just above freezing, and recent rains had soaked the fields on each side of the road preventing off road movement even for tracked vehicles. As Thomas’s scout car crossed over an intervening ridge approximately 1,000 yards from the town, it hit a land mine. The damaged vehicle was struck moments later by antitank fire. Everyone in the vehicle was wounded. While assisting his men from the wreckage, Thomas was hit several more times in his chest, legs, and left arm by small arms or machine gun fire. The rest of the column halted behind the ridgeline, while the situation was assessed by the task force commander. It was discovered that Climbach was defended by at least a company of infantry supported by several medium tanks and self-propelled guns positioned in and around the town where they could maneuver on higher, firm ground, and take advantage of the buildings and terrain for cover.
Lieutenant Colonel Blackshear hastily devised a plan of attack. The tanks and tank destroyers would go over the ridge onto the exposed slope where they would engage the enemy as a diversion. Meanwhile a platoon of infantry from Company F would move to higher ground on the right, and attack the enemy from the flank. However, the 32-ton Sherman tanks could not leave the road without becoming instantly mired in the mud, and they could not advance along the road because it was obviously mined. As a result, the tank platoon leader argued against taking his tanks over the ridge where they would be stuck in the deep mud, and present targets for the German gunners. Blackshear decided to proceed without the tanks. The tank destroyers would go forward into the open, and engage the enemy alone. A platoon of infantry would follow the tank destroyers to provide support. In hopes of minimizing the risk to his men, Thomas refused to be evacuated for medical treatment until he had personally selected the best possible positions for the guns. The attack began at 1335 hours.
The platoon moved forward over the crest along the road in single file with Thomas in the lead. As soon as they appeared on the exposed slope they came under heavy fire from mortars, machineguns, small arms, tanks, and artillery. Ignoring the incoming rounds, Thomas oversaw the placement of two guns, and assured himself that they were returning fire effectively before turning command over to the platoon leader, First Lieutenant George W. Mitchell. Only then did he allow himself to be moved to safety behind the ridge for medical treatment. (While recovering from his wounds, Thomas was promoted to captain. He left the army in 1947 with the rank of major).
The soldiers drove their half-tracks as close to the assigned positions as possible before they bogged down in the soft mud. They manhandled the 5,800 pound guns into firing position, split trails, and prepared to open fire. One crew managed to get their gun into a shallow draw on the left side of the road which offered some protection from the enemy guns. The other three were on the right, and in full view of the enemy. Subjected to a withering volume of fire, several men were wounded while unlimbering their guns. Despite the losses, the remaining crewmen opened fire on the German positions.
They succeeded in their mission of diverting the attention of the enemy, as all available weapons were soon brought to bear on their positions. Two of the guns were quickly destroyed by direct hits. As each gun was knocked out, the surviving crewmen moved to help man those guns still in action, or returned fire with their personal weapons. The crew of one gun was down to a single man who continued to load, aim, and fire the weapon until he too fell seriously wounded. When the German infantry counterattacked, and began to close on the remaining gun positions, some men repelled the attack with their small arms, while others returned to the half tracks and opened fire with machineguns. One soldier was seen firing his .50 caliber machinegun even after his half track was hit by mortar fire and began to burn.
The supporting infantry had not followed the tank destroyers into the open, and were firing over the crest of the ridge. In spite of the heavy enemy fire, four infantrymen carrying Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR) crawled forward to help fight off the German infantry who were threatening the gun positions. Moving closer they found it was impossible to dig-in because the soil was so wet the holes filled with water when they were only a few inches deep.
When ammunition for the guns ran low, the driver of the platoon’s supply truck drove his truck to the rear. He soon returned, driving the ammunition-laden truck forward over the ridge, and into a hail of gunfire. He got as close to the surviving guns as possible before his truck became stuck in the mud, and then joined others in carrying ammunition to the guns. As the battle raged, the remaining gun in the open was down to a single crewman, who continued firing until he too was killed. The only gun remaining in action was the one in the small draw. The surviving crewmen continued to pour fire into the enemy, while their comrades carried ammunition through the deep mud or fired at the enemy infantry. Meanwhile the flanking attack along the high ground had stalled.
At the command post behind the ridge, a new plan of attack was hurriedly formulated. It was decided that following an artillery preparation, the remaining infantry would cross the ridge, and attack the town from the front, while the infantry platoon on the high ground resumed its flanking attack. The single tank destroyer gun would remain in action, and support the attack by direct fire.
Shortly after 1500, the supporting artillery battalions opened fire. The fires of the 928thField Artillery Battalion were reinforced by the 155mm howitzers of the 384th Field Artillery Battalion and three battalions of corps artillery. They fired a devastating Time on Target (TOT) on the German positions, which was immediately followed by an additional five rounds from each gun in supporting battalions. Enemy fire was dramatically reduced. The 928th then fired a rolling barrage in front of the infantry platoons as they advanced, while the remaining tank destroyer gun poured fire into the enemy positions. Behind this curtain of fire the infantrymen forced their way into the town as the surviving defenders withdrew towards the northeast. By 1730 hours Climbach was in American hands.
The battle had been costly for the tank destroyer platoon. More than half of its officers and men were casualties. Three of the platoon’s four guns had been destroyed along with two half-tracks, an armored car, and two jeeps. The enemy suffered losses as well. During the engagement the “Gamecocks” stopped two armor supported counterattacks, and knocked out two medium tanks that made the mistake of exposing themselves in the forward edge of the town. Their guns also destroyed a pillbox camouflaged as a house, and killed and wounded an undetermined number of enemy soldiers.
The extraordinary conduct of the tank destroyer men at Climbach did not go unnoticed. Blackshear commended the 3d Platoon, writing: “The unflinching determination of this group constituted the most magnificent display of mass heroism I have ever witnessed.” The officers and men of the platoon were awarded four Silver Stars (two posthumously), and nine Bronze Star Medals for their actions at Climbach. In addition, the unit was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. Lieutenant Thomas received the Distinguish Service Cross for his heroism, but fifty two years later, following a review of his actions by the Army, he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
Word of the action spread quickly. The next morning, Seventh Army Commander, Lieutenant Patch made a surprise visit to one of the battalion’s platoons. He must have wanted to see for himself what sort of officers and men he had in this outfit that performed so admirably against the veteran 21st Panzer Division.
Operations by the Seventh Army against the Siegfried Line began in earnest on 17 December, but the effort was cut short when General Dwight D. Eisenhower soon ordered a halt to the offensive in response to the heavy fighting in the Ardennes. Seventh Army withdrew from Germany, and moved into defensive positions. The 103d and the 614th were transferred to XV Corps on the army’s western flank.
Late on the night of 31 December 1944 the Germans launched Operation Nordwind, the last major German offensive of the war in the west, against the thinly stretched lines of Seventh Army. On New Year’s Day an outpost manned by thirteen men from the 614th’s Company A was attacked and surrounded by German infantry. After an hour of heavy fighting, the enemy withdrew leaving behind nine dead. Company A also mounted indirect fire missions in support of the 928th Field Artillery Battalion, firing thousands of high-explosive rounds against enemy positions. By the second week of January, strong enemy attacks against VI Corps threatened its very existence. The 103d and the 614th were rushed eastward to bolster the beleaguered corps’s defenses on 14 January. Relieving the battered TF Herren, the bulk of the 103d assumed positions in what would prove to be a relatively quiet portion of the line. However, the 614th again had the opportunity to again demonstrate its prowess when a German patrol encountered an outpost manned by one of the battalion’s reconnaissance platoons. With aplomb, the battalion after-action report simply noted: “Last night a 6 man German patrol tried to infiltrate our out post line. But they were all killed.”
On the night of 20-21 January, under heavy pressure from Army Group G, reinforced by elements of Army Group Rhine, Seventh Army’s VI Corps was finally forced to withdraw to defensive positions along the Moder River. The bitter cold and icy roads made the retrograde movement difficult. In one instance, two of the 614th’s half-tracks and their towed guns slid off an ice covered road into a creek. Unable to retrieve the vehicles with the equipment at hand, the officers and men of 2nd Platoon, Company C, saved what they could. Working with considerable ingenuity and perseverance in sub-zero temperatures, they managed to winch one of the heavy guns back onto the road, and towed it slowly into the lines behind a jeep. Captain King and eighteen enlisted men from Company A demonstrated a similar resolve by working unassisted to get their equipment back onto the road.
In early February, two of the battalion’s reconnaissance platoons led by Lieutenant Colonel Prichard executed a raid on a German held mill between Bischoltz and Mulhausen. The raid was a resounding success. They killed eight enemy soldiers, and returned with six prisoners. In recognition of their actions during the raid, one officer and four enlisted men were awarded the Bronze Star by the newly appointed commanding general of the 103d Infantry Division, Major General Anthony J. McAuliffe. Less than two months earlier, as the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, McAuliffe had famously responded “Nuts” to the German demand that he surrender the American forces in Bastogne. He knew good combat units when he saw them, and McAuliffe would soon come to respect the 614th.
In mid-March 1945 Seventh Army launched Operation Undertone. The goal of the operation was to clear northern Alsace and northern Lorraine, breach the Siegfried Line, and overrun the Sarr-Palatinate Triangle in preparation for crossing the Rhine River. Early in the advance, Company A and the 1st Reconnaissance Platoon were ordered to capture Kindwiller, France. King personally led the attack. As the small group approached the town, the captain was severely wounded by machine gun fire.
Despite his wounds, he urged his second in command to continue the attack saying: “Don’t stop for me—finish the job.” Kindwiller was taken. King and two enlisted men were awarded Bronze Stars for this action. The 1st and 2nd Reconnaissance Platoons were then ordered to capture Bischoltz, about three miles northwest of Kindwiller. Again they were successful, taking forty-one prisoners without losing a single man. Company A was in action again on the 16 March. During a successful attack on another town in the area, the 2nd and 3d Platoons fired forty rounds of high explosives. They killed fourteen enemy soldiers, and captured thirteen more.
The fighting grew more intense when the 103d reached the Siegfried Line. The guns of the 614th systematically pounded individual pillboxes into submission, forcing numerous German soldiers to surrender. In one engagement, the 3d Platoon, Company C, took thirty-three prisoners from a single pillbox. Not far away, at the town of Bobenthal, Sergeant Dillard L. Booker of the 3d Platoon and his men, under the cover of darkness, moved their gun into a position directly in front of a concrete fortification. With the coming of dawn, they opened fire on the surprised Germans. As each round hit the target, “….the infantrymen, who were watching, began to dance up and down as the structures began to crumble.” The attack was a success. The 103d succeeded in breaching a portion of the Siegfried Line on 22 March, and sent TF Rhine, organized around a battalion of the 409th Infantry, through the gap to exploit towards the Rhine River. The 614th’s 2d Reconnaissance Platoon under First Lieutenant Serreo Nelson joined the task force along with two medium tank companies and other elements of the 761st Tank Battalion. During the advance, the task force ran into a series of strongly defended road blocks. Several times, while under heavy small arms and automatic weapons fire, Nelson and his men dismounted to remove obstacles from the road so the advance could continue. By late afternoon on the next day, TF Rhine reached Klingenmuenster where it was halted to allow Combat Command B, 14th Armored Division, to race forward to the Rhine. Nelson and two enlisted men of the 2d Reconnaissance Platoon were awarded Silver Stars for their actions with TF Rhine.
After a brief time on occupation duty, the men of the 614th rejoined their comrades of the 103d Infantry Division for the final attack into the German heartland. The advance into Bavaria was so rapid that battalion headquarters had trouble keeping up with its gun companies. The battalion’s reconnaissance platoons, attached to the 103d Reconnaissance Troop, surged ahead, and crossed into Austria. Near Scharnitz on 2 May, the battalion suffered its last casualties of the war when Lieutenant Keeby’s reconnaissance platoon ran into heavy fire at a roadblock. His armored car hit a mine and was destroyed. As he worked to dismount the wrecked vehicle’s machine gun so he could turn it on the enemy, Keeby was fatally wounded. Also killed in the action were three enlisted men. Near Innsbruck, Company C observed a German train leaving the area. They quickly “split trails” and opened fire, stopping the train with a few well placed rounds. Leading elements of the 103d, including the reconnaissance platoons of the 614th, entered the Brenner Pass and, on 4 May, made contact with Fifth Army’s 88th Infantry Division.
The war in Europe came to an end on 8 May 1945. 12 May was a special day for the men of the 614th. In a formal ceremony, McAuliffe presented Silver Stars to Captain Smith, Lieutenant Nelson, and Lieutenant Christopher J. Sturkey. In the same ceremony, the officers and men of 3d Platoon, Company C, were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their action at Climbach. The citation ends with these words: The grim determination, the indomitable fighting spirit and the esprit de corps displayed by all members of 3d Platoon reflect the highest traditions of the Armed Forces of the United States. With these words, the 614th became the only African American ground unit to receive a Presidential Unit Citation during World War II. (The 761st Tank Battalion, the only other African American ground combat unit recognized in this way received its Presidential Unit Citation in 1978 by order of President Jimmy Carter.)
Shortly after the awards ceremony, orders came to break up the battalion, and send its officers and men to service units. Hearing about these orders, McAuliffe and Colonel Chester Sargent, who had commanded a tank destroyer group in Europe, interceded and the 614th was told to stand by in Marseilles and await orders to move to the Pacific. After V-E Day, the 614th returned to occupation duties in Germany, and early the following year while on occupation duty in Germany, the battalion was ordered to return to the United States. The battalion was inactivated on 31 January 1946 at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.
The officers and men of the 614th had created an exemplary combat record, but their accomplishments are perhaps best summed up in the battalion’s unofficial history, Three Inch Fury:
Other battalions had done more in this war than the 614th, but the 614th had done, and done well, everything that had been asked of it. It had won the esteem and affection of the 103rd Infantry Division, …. It had won the respect of Corps and Army commanders and their staffs. It had merited a visit from the Commanding General of the Seventh Army, Lt. Gen. Alexander M. Patch, who had watched its record develop. …. No friendship could be stronger between groups of men than the friendship that existed between the colored gamecocks of the 614th TD’s and the white officers and men of the 103rd Infantry Division.