WAR TALES

Sgt. Mike Sovan was the commander of a Chaffee tank. He served with the 15th Tank Battalion, 6th Armored Division in Patton's 3rd Army during World War II. He lost four tanks to German 88s, received three Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, and a Bronze Star with a "V" for valor among his many commendations.

He fought “The Desert Fox” at Kasserine Pass

by DON MOORE

[Mike Sovan was the commander of a Chaffee tank in Patton’s 3rd Army during World War II. A picture of him while in the service along with his 6th Armored Division patch, Sergeant stripes and his military medals are all part of a shadowbox displayed on the wall of his Englewood, Fla. home. Sun Photo by Jonathan Fredin.]

Mike Sovan was the commander of a Chaffee tank in Patton’s 3rd Army during World War II. A picture of him while in the service along with his 6th Armored Division patch, Sergeant stripes and his military medals are all part of a shadowbox displayed on the wall of his Englewood, Fla. home. Sun Photo by Jonathan Fredin.

Sgt. Mike Sovan, a Sherman tank commander, and his men had just crossed the Nied River in France during World War II as part of Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army when their third tank was shot out from under them.

“It was right after Thanksgiving in ’44. A German 88 (cannon) was waiting for us on the other side of the river. They knocked us out,” the old soldier said recalling the deadly fight along the river that ensued after his tank was blown apart.

The high-velocity German 88 millimeter projectile went in one side of their Sherman tank and came out the other side. Three of his buddies died. The lethal enemy gun was concealed along the river bank behind a wall in front of the oncoming 6th Armored Division’s tanks.

“Me and Jonesey, my loader, survived the hit,” Sovan recalled 60 years later. “Jonesey was from South Carolina. He couldn’t read or write, but he was the best damned loader I ever had.

“We jumped out of our knocked-out tank with our grease guns and some hand grenades. We took on the German gun emplacement. Before we hit the 88 we had to knock out the enemy machine gun nest protecting the artillery piece.

“We grenaded the machine gun nest and then we hit them with our grease guns,” he said. “After that we repeated the performance on the 88 crew. There were at least a half dozen Germans working the gun when we hit them.

“The battle was over in a couple of minutes.

“You don’t think much about what you’re doing while you’re doing it,” Sovan said. “When it was all over there were dead Germans everywhere. We sat down on the wall protecting the 88 and shook like hell Jonesey and me.”

For his action at the Nied River — eliminating the German machine gun position and taking out the 88 millimeter artillery piece—Sgt. Mike Sovan, A-Company, 15th Tank Battalion, 6thArmored Division of Patton’s 3rd Army received his first Silver Star.

It had been two years since he lost his first tank at the Kasserine Pass in North Africa. At the time he was a tank commander in the 1st Armored Division that took part in “Operation Torch,” the code name for the invasion of North Africa that began in November 1942.

Gen. Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps were dug in and waiting for the 1st Armored Division in the mountain pass. The “Desert Fox” out-generaled and out-gunned the green American troops. The 1st Armored’s  tanks were no match for the Germans tanks with their heavier armor and bigger guns.

“We couldn’t go head-to-head with a Tiger tank. We were in open terrain when our tank got hit by an 88 from a Tiger,” Sovan recalled. “I never saw the German tank when I lost my first Sherman.”

He was lucky during that attack. Sovan and one other member of his tank crew escaped the carnage inside the Sherman. The other three crew members were killed by the enemy shell.

Mike Sovan is the one seated in the foreground. The other three soldiers were part of his tank crew. All three were killed in shootouts they had with German Tiger tanks.

“I’ve got no use for that SOB (British Field Marshal Bernard) Montgomery,” he said emphatically. “He sent us up ahead through the Kasserine Pass like so much cannon fodder while he and his men regrouped and did nothing. We got chewed up by Rommel.”

Shortly after the American 1st Armored Division’s disaster at the Kasserine Pass in February 1943, Gen. Patton took command. The change in the division’s soldiers was swift under the leadership of  “Ol’ Blood ‘n’ Guts.”

“It was the difference between night and day in generalship,” Sovan said. “Gen. Patton told his division commanders, ‘If you can’t do it, we’ll get someone else who can.’”

It wasn’t long after that Patton and his 1stArmored Division spearheaded the Allied offensive and ran the Germans out of North Africa. They escaped by ship to Sicily.

Patton was given command of the 7th Army and he followed Rommel to Sicily along with Gen. Montgomery and the English 8th Army. It was the first step in the invasion of the European Continent.

The American general with his armored legions partially encircled the island from the west side. His objective: take Messina, one of the island’s major cities, that was held by the Germans. Montgomery attacked the “Desert Fox” from the east with the English 8th Army.

“We had the Big Red 1, the 1st Infantry Division, with us in Sicily. They were good soldiers,” Sovan said. “We beat that SOB Montgomery to Messina, but I never made it.

“I lost my second tank just before Messina when it was struck by another 88 shell. I was hit in the stomach and arms by shrapnel and pretty well torn up,” he said.

“When I came to I was on an airplane headed for England. I don’t know what happened to the rest of my tank crew. I never saw them again. I spent the next six weeks in the hospital,” Sovan recalled.

When he was released from the hospital he was transferred to the 6th Armored Division in England that was preparing for the D-Day Invasion of Europe. Two weeks after that the first Allied troops hit the invasion beaches, Sovan and the 6th Armored were part of Patton’s 3rd Army that landed along the shore of Normandy, France.

“We were involved in the breakout at St. Lo. The 6th Armored turned south toward Brest. It took us 10 days to cover the 250 miles from St. Lo to Brest, fighting all the way,” he said.

Patton’s army then turned back north across France and headed toward Nancy, which became a major resupply depot for Allied forces in the middle of the country.

“We sat there at Nancy for two months waiting to be resupplied. Gen. (Dwight) Eisenhower took all our ammunition and gasoline and gave it to that damned Montgomery.”

It would be November 1944 before Patton and his 3rd Army started advancing again. This is when Sovan lost his third tank and received his first Silver Star.

“We could lose a tank in the morning and they would issue another one to us by the afternoon. That’s what beat the Germans,” the old tanker explained.

The soldiers of the Third Reich were overwhelmed by American industrial production.

They reached Metz in Southern France by late December ’44 when the Germans went on the offensive in the Ardennes Forrest launching the “Battle of the Bulge.” Before it was over more than a million soldiers on both side took part in the largest enemy offensive on the Western Front in World War II.

The 7th Armored Division took the 6th’s place at Metz.  Sovan and his division headed toward Bastogne and the “Battle of the Bulge.” They were sent to rescue the American 101st Airborne Division encircled in the massive German offensive.

“On Christmas Day we were on our way to Bastogne. I was having Christmas dinner in my tank as we rolled along. It consisted of a can of cheese and a couple of biscuits—we called ‘em dog bones.

“When we reached Bastogne we replaced the 10thArmored Division. The 4th Armored had already broken through to the 101st Airborne,” he said.

“I was never as scared in my life as I was at Bastogne. It was freezing and I was afraid of dying from the cold. I don’t know how those 101stAirborne guys survived the cold and the snow in foxholes.”

After the German defeat at the “Battle of the Bulge,” Sovan and the 6th Armored continued advancing from town to town on their way into Germany. The division crossed the Rhine River near Worms. They fought their way through the dragon teeth, concrete pylon-type tank barriers, forming part of the Siegfried Line of enemy fortifications along Germany’s Western border.

Sgt. Sovan is pictured leaning against “Sad Sack,” his Chaffee tank that survived World War II.

It was more of the same for Sovan and his division as they advanced deeper and deeper into the Fatherland. They reached Leipzig, where Sovan received his second Silver Star.

“Leipzig was bristling with anti-aircraft guns. I think they manufactured ball-bearings needed for war machinery.  It was loaded with German troops, too,”  Sovan said.

Although he doesn’t like to talk about the engagement that resulted in his second Silver Star, Sovan did say, “I put my nose where it shouldn’t have been. We had a patrol that got in trouble. I took my tank out to rescue them.

“We got shot up, too. I don’t know where it came from, but our tank was hit by another 88. Only two of us survived the attack. The other three guys were killed,” Sovan said softly.

He looked down, tightly closed his eyes, grimaced and shook his head. The 88 attack on his tank near Leipzig was a lifetime ago, but it still brought back bad memories for the old soldier.

The 6th never took Leipzig, it bypassed the city and let the infantry solve the problem.

“Patton saw our mission as coming in and disrupting everything,” Sovan explained. “If enemy resistance was too much we went around it. We were to keep going.”

“We sat at the Elbe River for two weeks waiting for the Russians to arrive on the other side. It must have been late April or early May ’45 when they showed up,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the bedraggled-looking outfits the Russians wore. They had horses pulling vehicles. I don’t know how they ever got to the Elbe.

“When they told us the war was over, you know what we all did? We laid down and went to sleep near the river. We were tired.”

Today he is long-retired and lives in a mobile home park in Englewood, Fla. Sovan spends much of his time fishing in nearby Lemon Bay for trout, redfish and snook.

Reminiscing about Patton, Sovan said of his commander, “He was Superman. A lot of people didn’t like Patton, but we did because he got things done. He was gung-ho and that’s what won the war.”

Sovan’s File

Name: Mike Sovan
Address:Englewood, Fla.
Entered service:1942
Discharged: 1945
Age: 85 (at the time of interview)
Rank: Sergeant
Unit: 15th Tank Battalion, 6thArmored Division, 3rd Army
Commendations: Three Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, Bronze Star with V for Valor, four bronze service stars and a bronze arrowhead for four major battles and a beach landing; North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Northern France, the Ardennes, Central Europe and Rhineland campaigns, European Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal
Spouse: Daisy Finch
Children: Michael
Update: Sovan died on July 20, 2004. He was 86.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Wednesday, April 2, 2003 and is republished with permission.

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.

Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.

Michael J. Sovan, 85, Englewood, died July 20, 2004, at Doctors Hospital in Sarasota.

He was born Oct. 2, 1918, in Chisholm, Minn., and came to Englewood in 1947 from Hot Springs, Ark. He was an Army veteran of World War II, serving in the Sixth Armored Division under Gen. George Patton, and was awarded three Purple Heart Medals.

He was a carpenter and a residential contractor in Sarasota and Charlotte counties and built one of the first houses in North Port.

He was a past president of the Englewood Lions Club and was active in Boy Scouts of America, serving as Scout Leader of Troop No. 26. He served in many other phases of scouting, which earned him the Golden Beaver Award, the highest award given to non-scouts.

Survivors include a son, Michael H. of Englewood; and two grandchildren. The family will receive friends from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, with a Celebration of Life service following, at Lemon Bay Funeral Home, Englewood Chapel. Private family inurnment will be later in Gulf Pines Memorial Park in Englewood. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Boy Scout Troop No. 26, c/o David Dignam, 1201 S. McCall Road, Englewood, FL 34223.

Published in Herald Tribune on July 22, 2004

Action Report - RYUKYUS Campain - Chapter 11 - Staff Section Reports - Section XIV - Ordnance


Excerpts from Action report:

  • Period – 20 April to 30 June 1945
    • Equipment & Supply
      • Supply during the Operation


( 5 )

As a result of the need for greater fire power against enemy entrenchment and fortifications, action was initiated to furnish Tenth Army units with new equipment. Light tanks, M24 (75mm Gun) were requested shipped to replace light tanks M5A1 (37mm Gun); carriages, motor, 76mm Gun, M18………….

 ( 6 )

To further increase fire power particularly of infantry units, shipments of 57mm recoilless guns, 75mm recoilless………As new items of equipment, carriages motor twin 40mm, M19 have been requested shipped to replace carriages motor, multiple guns M15A1 and carriages motor, 105mm How, M37 have been requested to replace carriages motor, 105mm How, M7. As a result of experience on this operation, study of new items of equipment is being continued and as they become available, consideration will be given to their use in replacing older types of equipment where necessary.

 

Ryukyus Campaign: late September 1944 the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in Washington decided to invade Okinawa, the largest island in the Ryukyu Islands, as part of a strategy to defeat Japan. The effort was code-named Operation ICEBERG. Okinawa had initially emerged as an objective in the spring of 1943, when the Allies believed that an invasion of the home islands might be necessary to force Tokyo's surrender. Possession of Okinawa would give the American forces additional, better-positioned air bases for intensifying the air campaign against the home islands and also provide important anchorages and staging areas for the huge, ambitious effort needed to invade Japan.


I still have no pictures or actual references to the M24 being used by the US Military in the South Pacific. I also have no evidence as of yet that the M19 or M37 actually made it to the Pacific theater of operations, before the end of the war.


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M19 Dual 40mm Story

By Charles

Brady, PFC, USA, 1950

To USS
Begor Shipmates: 

I
recently discovered your ship's website. I have a story involving your ship...a
vessel I remember with great fondness. On December 24, 1950, I was a Private
First Class on an T-141 Tank (I manned the anti-aircraft artillery weapon, twin
40mm cannons in an open turret atop the tank). We were the last combat vehicle
evacuated from Hungnam. Four of our weapons had been dug in at the Hungnam City
Dump adjacent to the dock and the long train that had been rigged to explode.
For several days, the Battleship Missouri had fired over our heads...at night,
their huge shells glowing and looking about the size of VW Beetles. (We
rummaged through that train...with its bombs and other explosives...to get
warmer clothing and covering for ourselves; it was horribly cold that winter!)
Originally, we were to blow up our vehicles and catch a Korean fishing boat out
to a waiting LST, but at the last minute a tank recovery vessel arrived and
took our tanks. The crews were taken out to the few remaining ships in the
harbor. My crew was taken aboard your ship, where we were given clean clothes,
showers and a wonderful hot Christmas dinner (with homemade ice cream)… our
first real meal since September! An Army unit, we had been assigned to the
Marines, landing with them at Inchon and then going to Iwon with them in the
north. Our A Battery was with them at Chosin. 

Anyhow, we stood on the ship at Hungnam and
watched the explosion depicted on your website. We spent a couple days with
your ship and then were transferred to another ship and sent back south to
Pusan. I will never forget the kindnesses shown by everyone on the USS Begor
and that wonderful Christmas of 1950. 

I later received a battlefield commission but
chose "ten to out," staying in the reserves. I was recalled to active
duty for Vietnam and served until retirement in January 1974. 

Happy reunions, USS Begor Shipmates! 

/s/Charles Brady, Major, US Army
(Retired) 

(PS: I have been a school administrator and
teacher since retirement, still teaching part time in San Francisco, and I make
my permanent home in Pacific Grove, on Monterey Bay, California.)

[To all our Website
visitors: It is a real pleasure to post stories from those who have rubbed
elbows and shared a cup of Joe with us aboard USS Begor. If YOU have a story
about our ship and crew, please share it with us, so we can relive the moment
together! See instructions for submission in red text near the top of the Sea
Stories Page! 

Charles Brady has shared some additional details about his unit, their tanks
and their service in Korea. I think this material provides great background on
how one PFC came to ride Begor and to enjoy his visit so much (as he so
beautifully expressed in his story above).]

 

  PFC Charles Brady, USA, atop M19 Tank in Korea
 
 

QUOTE. Our "tank" was initially a
"T141"...later it became an M-19 and then later still an M-42. It was
nicknamed "The Duster". It was new when my unit, the 50th AAA AW
Battalion - then at Fort Bliss, Texas - was alerted when the Korean War began.
We were told to leave our antique half-tracks carrying quad fifty calibers and
that we would pick up our T-141s in Japan...being shipped separately. We saw
movies about the 40mms and vehicles during the two weeks before shipping out
and on the Liberty Ship (taken out of mothballs for us) from Seattle to Japan.
We trained for two weeks, then shipped from Sasebo, Japan.... transferred to
LSTS and landed with the Marines. We were with them thru Seoul then up near the
38th...then back with them to catch LSTs for the invasion at IWON. When they
started withdrawing from Chosin, my tank was sent out to cover them. After all
US and South Korean personnel passed, we followed as rear-guards and became the
ultimate rear-guard unit at the harbor shore, dug in (not really...the ground
was frozen solid) on the Hungnam city dump. It was so cold that, when we heard
about a nearby US supply train a couple hundred yards away, we sneaked…a few at
a time...over to free up parkas, ponchos and canned food. We figured we'd need
supplies since we were told that we would have to use thermite grenades on our
guns and burn our tanks, then catch waiting fishing boats and SAIL out to catch
waiting navy vessels! Of course, on the 24th of December, a tank recovery
vessel picked us up. We went by a small boat to the Begor where we were given
clothing, showers and that wonderful food I mentioned (since September, we had
been eating C rations warmed by the exhaust of our twin-Cadillac engines on our
tanks. I did not learn, so could not recall, the name of your ship, but
remember it had a three-number designation ending in "7". I also know
it was the Begor that we were on because, when we watched the explosions, there
were no other vessels between us and the shore (as shown in the series of photos
on your website). That Christmas remains special to me and I remain grateful to
everyone aboard and attending your great ship. 

Sincerely, Charles Brady ( brady150@aol.com.)
UNQUOTE.]

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Stories as told by the service men who used these vehicles.

M24 Chaffee - G200 Series of Vehicles

M41 155mm HMC Story


Sixty-Five Years Ago, an All-Black U.S. Army Artillery Unit Endured Hell in Korea
The 999th Armored Field Artillery fought through a bloody ambush

by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN

In April 1951 the African-American soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 999th Armored Field Artillery charged their ungainly self-propelled howitzers past a hundred Chinese infantry waiting in ambush.

Thanks to the interviews of Army historian Edward Williamson, we can share their story.

Dating back to the 19th century, the U.S. military had a policy of placing African-American soldiers in segregated units led by mostly white officers, a reflection of the racist social order of those times. Most these black units were given supporting roles away from the front, as white commanders doubted their fighting ability.

Exceptions to this policy grew over time, such as the 54th Massachusetts in the Civil War, and the Harlem Hellfighters in World War I. By World War II, there were black artillery, tank, anti-aircraft and anti-tank units in the Army, and black fighter squadrons in the Army Air Force.

When the Army suffered manpower shortages during the Battle of the Bulge, it began temporarily admitting black soldiers into white frontline formations.

The 999th Field Artillery was a black unit equipped with enormous eight-inch towed howitzers specialized in demolishing heavily fortified targets with 200-pound shells.

Landing in France a month after D-Day, the unit performed with such distinction that it received commendations from both French and American commanders and was accorded the right to include the arms of the French city of Colmar, which the 999th had helped to liberate, into its insignia.

The unit’s motto was “Never Die.”

Buy ‘U.S. Field Artillery of World War II (New Vanguard)’

In 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9881, mandating that all branches of the U.S. military desegregate. The military was to abolish racial distinctions, even if they persisted in civilian society. But integration was slow to begin — all-black units remained in the Army’s order of battle until 1954.

The all-black 24th Infantry Regiment was one of the first American units to deploy to South Korea in 1950 as part of the United Nations’ response to a devastating North Korean invasion. Unfortunately, it was made a scapegoat for the calamitous U.S. retreat at the beginning of the war.

The 999th therefore remained a predominately black unit with some white officers at the beginning of the Korean War — though it would integrate more and more white soldiers over time.

In Korea, the unit was re-designated an armored field artillery battalion, equipped with M41 Howitzer Motor Carriages, also known as Gorillas. These were basically Chaffee light tanks with the turrets replaced by heavy 155-millimeter howitzers.

The crew of five operated the howitzer from an open-top compartment at the back of the vehicle, lobbing 95-pound shells at targets more than 14 kilometers away. Only lightly armored to protect against small arms, and lacking defensive weapons, the M41s were intended to shoot from the rear, out of sight of the enemy.

The mechanization of warfare in World War II resulted in armored artillery that could move and deploy for battle a lot faster than could towed guns that took hours to set up. Mobile, armored vehicles also had a better chance of evading enemy counter-battery fire, and surviving any unplanned firefights.

Some self-propelled artillery, such as the ubiquitous M7 Priest, were flexible enough to serve as thin-skinned tanks in a pinch, but the M41 still required time to deploy before firing and was intended to stay well away from direct combat.

Chinese troops cross the Imjin River

The Battle of Imjin River

Starting in October 1950, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army launched a massive counter offensive to prevent the conquest of North Korea by U.N. forces.

The 999th was immediately in the thick of the fighting during the freezing Korean winter, supporting the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment as it covered U.S. forces desperately falling back to avoid encirclement in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.

The South Korean capital, Seoul, was recaptured for a second time by U.N. forces in March 1951 and a new defensive line was established along the Imjin River, including the elite 1st Republic of Korea Division.

The American 999th Field Artillery was attached to provide fire support for the Korean infantrymen — just at the moment that the Chinese army launched its spring opffensive in a new attempt to seize Seoul.

On the afternoon of April 22, Warrant Officer David Reed and three fellow soldiers departed from B Battery’s bivouac in the village of Taech’on and climbed up Hill 128, which afforded a good view of the Imjin River. He was joined by a squad of South Korean soldiers. His job was to keep the river under observation, and call down artillery fire from the big guns of the 999th in the event of an attack.

At 8:00 that evening, a heavy artillery bombardment began. Nearly 200 shells rained down to Reed’s east. Then near midnight, two enemy machine guns began spitting fire from across the river. Reed called B Battery and requested a single spotting round using a glowing white phosphorous shell.

“On the way,” the operator said. A white phosphorous round dropped about 400 yards short of the target. “Add 400, fire for effect,” Reed commanded. “Battery gave me six rounds, one volley, all at one time,” Reed told Williamson. “It was a target hit, and the shells fell squarely on top of the machine gun.”

Enemy infantry, however, were already sweeping across the river, and by 1:30 Reed was told he should abandon his position. The next bombardment was targeted on top of his position.

Instead, Reed dispatched the South Korean detachment to drive off attackers on the western flank while friendly shells rained on the eastern slope.

A corporal named McCall potted away with his carbine. Enemy rifles and “four or five” machine guns were soon rattling away at Hill 128.

Reed finally fell back at 2:30 in the morning and set up a new observation post at the 1st Korean Division’s main defensive line. A mass of Chinese infantry assaulted at dawn. As sniper fire ricocheted around his jeep, Reed tried calling down another bombardment — but was told that B Battery was on the move and unable to provide fire support.

The 999th. U.S. Army photo

Battery B is forgotten

The six M41 howitzers of the 999th’s B Battery had been firing continuously from the start of the Chinese attack when it commander, Capt. James Welden, received orders to fall back to a new position at 2:00 in the morning.

The unit continued firing as it stowed its gear into M41s, trucks, jeeps and M39 armored utility vehicles. The M39s were tracked Hellcat anti-tank vehicles that had had their turrets removed in order to serve as utility transports, retaining .50-caliber machine guns on pintle mounts.

B Battery redeployed to the village of Kumgong-Ni by 8:00 in the morning and fired volleys of air-burst shells for the rest of the day as the Chinese attack drove back the South Korean defenders.

By evening, the guns were lobbing direct fire at enemy machine guns and infantry visible on hills just 4,000 yards away — and successfully cleared an escape route for the trucks of the South Korean 17th Field Artillery Battalion as it retreated through a mountain pass.

Alarming reports multiplied that night. Another observation post was overrun. The communication wires stopped working. A repair team sent to investigate discovered they had been crushed by retreating friendly tanks, which were seen streaming away from the front line.

“I don’t like it,” a private named Lewis remarked. “They’re leaving us stranded.”

By midnight, headquarters told Reed and his men that there should be a battalion of South Korean infantry 1,000 yards to their west. A lieutenant named Buonocore reconnoitered 2,000 yards in that direction, finding only a single South Korean soldier … and enemy infantry approaching in the distance.

Battalion ordered B Battery to pull back again to the village of Pobwon-Ni just as a volley of enemy mortar shells landed around the battery. The artillerymen quickly set off down the road. Passing the position of Battery A of the 999th, they approached Pobwon-Ni but could see the flashes from a firefight ongoing in the village.

Welden ordered the convoy to stop and checked in with battalion headquarters— which insisted it was actually a skirmish happening further down the road. Bursts of automatic fire from a village to their west began arcing towards them, pattering short of their position.In 1941, Royal Navy Biplanes Crippled the World’s Most Powerful Warship
Iain Ballantyne’s new book recounts daring air raidwarisboring.com

Weary of the danger ahead, Welden had two M39s, armed with .50-caliber machine guns, to lead column. He climbed into the lead vehicle. Then the drivers hit their accelerators … and rode straight into Hell.

All at once, green tracers raked the convoy from six machine guns and the small arms of more than a hundred Chinese infantry hiding in rice patties on either side of the road. Mortar shells began exploding down the line of vehicles.

Welden ordered the column to stop and dismount to repel the attack. B Battery blazed back with .50-caliber machine guns and carbines, some of them modified to use .30-caliber machine gun belts.

The second M39 in the column exploded, blocking the vehicles behind it. Sgt. Eldrich Henley jumped out into a nearby ditch and was hit by submachine gun fire in the legs. Sgt. Bell, commander of one of the M41s, was shot and his vehicle careered into an M39 from behind. The rest of the crew dismounted and clambered on board a nearby M39 — but not before Pvt. Maurice Henry was killed trying to pull Bell’s body out of the hatch.

Though the heavy howitzers mounted on the M41s were among the deadliest weapons on the Korean battlefield, they could not be fired without minutes of set-up — and they lacked defensive weapons of their own. They were useless in a close firefight.

Incendiary grenades sailed through air, setting another M39 and a maintenance jeep alight. Some of members of the column crawled away toward the positions of Battery A. But Welden decided B Battery should mount back up and charge through the ambush.

A U.S. Army M39. Army photo

B Battery charges through

“We received orders to mount on vehicles, that we were going through the ambush,” reported Cpl. Oscar Spraglin, a gunner.

“This Korean truck blew up in front of us,” Spraglin continued. “A mortar hit it. To avoid running into the Korean truck, we went into the rice field. While going through the rice field, Chinese were jumping up. The driver ran over about four Chinese. We were somewhat crowded on the vehicles. Bullets were hitting close.”

An ammunition trailer exploded “like Harlem, New York.” A mortar shell flipped a jeep over into a ditch. Pvt. Anthony Jackson abandoned his own jeep as it came under fire, and barely escaped by grabbing on to the legs of a crewman on a passing M41. Another M39 was knocked out, so a sergeant named Scow drove his vehicle up to rescue the crew.

“My M39 ran up in back of the knocked-out one and switched to the right,” Scow said. “In it one was man wounded. Three others, not. The knocked-out M39 blocked the bullets … I grabbed him [a wounded man] by the seat of his pants put him up on the right front of the M39. Then the three other men crawled up themselves.

Inside the compartment it was now full, so I started for the back. I went to step up on the trailer tongue to get on the back of the M39 and looked on the other side of the road, seeing two enemy close enough to get up on the trailer tongue. I got off and hit the ground down on my stomach right in the gully. I lit those two up.

The driver took off. Myself, I got up beside the ammunition trailer in a crouch. I stayed alongside the ammunition trailer until I could run up to the coupling and lie across the tongue. That is where I rode until the first position we went in.

As fighting died down at roadblock, Sgt. Henry Laws, a mechanic, dragged a wounded soldier missing half his foot into an abandoned M41 with the help of a South Korean soldier and they drove off toward Battery A’s position.

The four remaining M41s of Battery B reassembled at the headquarters of the 999th. Welden organized a roll-call and then got back in touch with battalion to arrange a new assembly point.

South Korean troops succeeded in securing Pobwon-Ni and drove out the Chinese ambush force, capturing some, while the remainder withdrew carrying their dead. At 6:00 in the morning, Welden returned to the site of the ambush with some M39s and towed away any vehicles in recoverable condition.

The column had lost two M39s and five trucks and jeeps. Another six vehicles were damaged but usable. Seven soldiers had been killed by grenades and small arms fire and another 31 were wounded. The captain estimated they had inflicted 100 casualties on the ambushers.

Morale was low after the incident. Support staff — cooks and ammo carriers — had to replace many of the gunners in the battery. The men of B Battery had not slept for 72 hours.

But B Battery’s guns remained at full strength and were able to resume providing artillery support for the remainder of the battle, helping the Korean troops to withstand the Chinese assault.

U.N. forces ultimately held the line in the Battle of Imjin River — the line that roughly defines the border of the two Koreas today.

Without the armored hulls and tracked mobility of their M41s, the artillerymen of the 999th might have fared considerably worse in the ambush. But the exposed open tops of the vehicles and their deficit in defensive weapons, were vulnerabilities that resulted in many casualties.

Based on its experience in the Korean War, the Army would eventually decide to replace almost all of its towed artillery units with self-propelled howitzers, culminating in the M109, which situated the cannon in a fully enclosed turret. Introduced in 1963, it remains in service today in heavily upgraded form.

Not all Army M41s escaped unscathed. At least two M41s from another unit were captured by the Chinese and used in battle. Reports of heavy Chinese self-propelled guns at the battle of Maryang San correspond to their description. Of the three remaining M41s, one of them can be found today at the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing.

The 999th went on to serve in many of the major battles of the Korean War, including at Pork Chop Hill, working with French, Turkish, Philippine and South Korean units until the end of the war. The unit endured a disastrous friendly fire bombing that killed a dozen personnel.

The 999th began to integrate more white soldiers starting in 1951. In an interview, Charles Day of the 999th recalled that he was “probably the second white man in A-battery.”

“I said, ‘My Lord, what have I got into?’” Day told Williamson. “But after I learned some of their key words, everything smoothed out. But it was rough there for two or three months.”

Samuel King, a black veteran of the 999th, recalled that when the first white soldier, Lucas, joined their unit, black soldiers would borrow his girlfriend’s picture. “So Lucas looked at us and it might have been because he was the only white in the outfit with 20-some other guys — black — so maybe he didn’t say anything. You know, so then the others started coming in and Lucas was kind of old hat.”

When African-American soldiers returned from Korea, they found a country which had yet to make significant progress toward racial equality. Having experienced combat, worked alongside soldiers of other countries and, in Korea, worked in racially integrated units, black veterans would go on to play a major role in the civil rights movement that would transform the United States.