Friday, June 6, 2008

D Day and DD Tanks

It wasn’t until I was middle aged that I realized I had an uncle that was on Omaha Beach on D Day. I knew I had an uncle that had been killed in the war but nobody ever talked about him. The reasons might have been long lasting grief or that they just didn’t know any details of his service. I happened to be home for a visit and at the some time I was reading Stephen Ambrose’s book on D Day. Someone mentioned that Uncle Philip had been in the 743rd Tank Battalion. Stephen Ambrose’s book had a diagram that showed the landing order of the assault units. The 743rd Tank Battalion was the lead unit, 10 minutes ahead of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division, on the right hand side of Omaha Beach opposite Vierville sur Mer. The beach assigned to his company, Company B, was code named Dog Green.

As I started doing research, I was surprised to find that little was discussed in the popular literature about the 743rd Tank Battalion and their position in the assault on D Day. There was almost nothing about them in the exhibits in the World War II Museum in my own hometown of New Orleans. Yet they were a unique secret weapon that military planners relied upon very heavily for close infantry support. It seemed to me that more should be known about them.

The 743rd Tank Battalion was made up of modified Sherman tanks. The tanks were equipped with a double drive unit so that the engine could provide power to the tracks or to two propellers. The tank was also equipped with a canvass flotation shroud that was inflated using a small air compressor. Once erected, the canvass shroud would keep the tank afloat, barely. The idea was that the tanks would use their propellers to drive themselves on the beach. It was hoped that the tanks would look like innocuous rubber boats from the German perspective thereby giving them a big surprise when the tank was revealed. Their mission was to provide close in support to the infantry by engaging machine gun bunkers and other targets of opportunity.

There were two tank battalions on Omaha Beach that day: the 741st and the 743rd. Their orders were to launch from their LCT several miles out to sea and then proceed to the beach. The seas were still rough from the storm the day before. The 741st launched according to their orders and were quickly in a fight for survival against the sea. The tanks had about 1 foot of freeboard and the waves quickly overwhelmed the canvass shroud sending the 35 ton tanks to the bottom. This was observed by the LCT drivers carrying the 743rd. (How they learned of the situation of the 741st is not known. There may have been radio transmissions via tank radio alerting the 743rd to the problem.) The LCT driver made an on the spot decision to ignore orders and take the tanks all the way to the beach. His initiative may have saved many lives that day. (Recently declassified documents indicate that the decision to launch or not was up to the senior Army and Navy personnel on site)

My uncle survived D Day. Elements of his company went to Pont du Hoc to relieve the Rangers on June 9. I’m not sure, but I’d like to think he was part of that. Any letters he may have sent to the family regarding his experiences have been lost, if they ever existed. He was killed in Normandy on July 9 when his company was ambushed by tanks from the 2nd SS Panzer Division.

There is little documented about the independent tank battalions. There were approximately 37 of them in total including a couple of all black units. They were formed for the sole purpose of infantry support and were disbanded after the war. They were not stand alone units but were meant to be attached to infantry units as needed. Tank companies were split up and tanks were often out of contact with their company commander for weeks as they were shuttled between units. They could be fighting with different units on different days which gave them no time to develop coordination procedures with the unit they were fighting with. Ambrose discusses how unit cohesiveness was a key ingredient for building a soldier’s morale. Familiarity with the men you were fighting with gave the soldier a level of confidence as each man knew what the other would do. But Ambrose ignores how the combat vagabonds of the tank battalions coped with being separated from their command structure and shuttled between infantry units. They were dependent upon the kindness of the unit they were attached to for support. It must have been a lonely existence.

I have been to Normandy twice but could find no monument to either of the tank battalions that assaulted Omaha Beach that day, even though they were the first to land. There are almost no examples of DD tanks existing today even though it was considered to be an important secret weapon. (A couple of tanks from the 741st have been recovered and are on display at a museum in Port en Bessen, France. These still have the tubing for the inflation mechanism and pieces of the shroud on them.) And as I said earlier, the World War II Museum in New Orleans, our National WW II museum, has almost nothing about these unique units. Steel Victory: The Heroic Story of America's Independent Tank Battalions at War in Europe is a very good source of information regarding all the tank battalions. The View from the Turret: The 743rd Battalion During World War II is an excellent source for history about the 743rd. The 30th Division Association also has reprints of the unit history, Move Out, Verify.


The survivors of these units are passing from us quickly and a key piece of history will be lost with them. I hope this serves in some small way to keep their memory alive.

11 comments:

TB said...

Hello, I have been doing some research for my husband on the 743rd battalion. His grandfather, Eston Collins, was part of that division. I was glad to find there was some information on this unit. Eston Collins is still alive today. I feel so privelaged to be able to hear some of the stories, which he says he's forgotten most of.
I would love to get any more information about the 743rd battalion, and any of the living survivors. Thank you,

Lauren said...

Read "Hell Has No Heroes (Original Title: "Barbara") by Wayne Robinson. He was there with the 743rd and with this novel writes some of the best historical facts into his novel that I have ever read. I hope before I die to see Hanks and Spielberg do a movie from this book. It certainly deserves it.

Unknown said...

I can tell you that the book View from the turret is a very good account of the 743rd my grand father was tank commander at the time they hit normandy the pics in thats book I helped my father with and the maps in there are no reproductions we have the actual maps in preserve amongst us but any information you look for please ask it is a big part of our family

Dave said...

Best books available regarding the 743d's actions are two by Harry Yeide: "Steel Victory" and "The Infantry's Armor." Exceptional research and narrative. My father-in-law was Captain Edward D. Miller of HQ Company of the 743d from inception to deactivation, seeing every major action.

Dayton Turner said...

Looks like this blog has been dormant for a while, but maybe someone is still watching it.

My (much older) brother was 1st Lt. Donald Floyd Turner and was a platoon leader in B Company. He was KIA on Omaha Beach although I do not know at what point in the battle it may have been.

Tom said...

Hi! Thanks a LOT for posting this info. I lost a cousin on D-Day who was in B Company of the 743rd, Sgt Ross Kendle, who's buried at the Normandy American Cemetery. I've only been to Normandy a couple times, but never knew about the 743rd then. Next trip I WILL be looking for anything on their actions / history. Thanks also to the people who've listed books on the 743rd history.

BobPilot said...

I am the son of Pfc W.A. Robinson, G Co/2nd Bn/120th Regt/30th Inf Div, who was the radio bearer of Cpt Walter Bunch, G Co, along with Runner, Pfc Robt Shine on 9 July '44 when they encountered multiple Panzer Attks vicinity Farm Le Muserand, & L'Orangerie. This was the time when B Co, 743rd was inveigled by decoy panzers with loss of a couple of tanks. In the attack, an 88mm shell landed near Capt Bunch, Dad and Pfc Shine. Shine was killed, the Capt severely wounded died shortly afterwards, Dad rec'd severe spinal injuries, evac'd to Swindon, UK, 217th Gen Hosp, underwent major surgery, was unable to recover and died 13 July.
I was oldest son, 10, next was 8, then third was 6. Have been to Normandy 12 times and found where he fell in battle, met the owner of the farm Louis Guenier, who was 15 at the time of the battle, just died this past January "14". I am familiar with the exact locations of B Co's encounter and will be glad to share info I have developed on the battle.
Am now 80 yrs old, trying to complete a book about Dad and the 30th Div units in WW II. I personally knew Ltc Duncan who took the 743rd from Omaha Beach to the Elbe River in 1945.
I have been truly blessed.
BOB L. ROBINSON, 730 LAKE CREST COVE, ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, FL 32701; Tel 407-260-9653; email: BobPilot@cfl.rr.com

Ray said...

This board has been dormant, but I could not hesitate to add that the Action against enemy report for July 9, 1944 lists your Uncle, along with the entire tank crew as casualties. Here is a link to the After Action Report for the 743rd June through Sept of 1944: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bw6df6MPJqhyZkw1ek4xOW0wWjQ/edit?usp=sharing

Page 23 of 37 lists your Uncle.

Anonymous said...

I posted the first comment in this thread asking about Eston Collins. Unfortunately, he passed away on June 25th, 2015. He was a wonderful man. Strong, stoic, and endured an unimaginable amount of pain with no complaints. My husband, his grandson, gave the most beautiful eulogy I have ever heard. Some words form the euglogy: "He taught me how to love, live, and be a man. He was a great man from the greatest generation. He was my hero from the time I could speak his name."

Ray said...

Those are touching words. My condolences to your family

Teresa Shane said...

Not sure if you are still monitoring this blog. My VFW Post is holding a POW/MIA recognition ceremony where we will also present a new service flag and replacement medals to the sister of PVT William S. Adams who died on Oct 5 when ABle Company went in to take the direct fire that was being fired on the 117th Infantry troops at Urbach. The ceremony will also recognize two soldiers who are still MIA: Blonde Neal and Le Roy Pierce. The 743rd has not been forgotten.
Teresa Shane
Commander, VFW Post 2513
Warrensburg MO