Lieutenant Leach Heads for War
(An excerpt from Tanker Jimmie Leach. In this brief segment new Lt Jimmie Leach describes tanker training across the US and in England waiting for the coming war in France.)
Jimmie Leach graduated in the ninth 1942 Ft. Knox Armored Officer’s Candidate School. The Army OCS program was huge. From 1940-1947, more than 65,000 officers, were commissioned through the Army’s Infantry OCS at Fort Benning. Four hundred and forty eight batches of “ninety-day wonders", officers who would soon become indistinguishable from West Pointers as they were fed out into the battlefields on three continents and oceans. Armor and Artillery had their own, separate OCS schools from infantry; Armor formed its officers with its own rigorous twelve week program at Ft Knox. “Now they worked our butts off, I want to tell you,” Jimmie Leach said. “It was as tough a ninety days as I ever had in my life.” Jimmie was never a good academic student. Classrooms and study inhibited action. Jimmie says that during OCS, “I went before the board twice for academic failures. I failed military engineering and I failed military law. And I had to go before the board whether to bounce me or not. Well they knew that I had a good background, I already had three years as a non commissioned officer, sergeant, acting platoon leader.”
At the end, Lt. Leach was offered a choice of units that needed tankers: light tank battalions, medium tank battalions. He listed five choices – four of them would return him to Texas, at least temporarily. The fifth was the 4th Armored Division located in the forests of northern New York at Pine Camp. “All of them were light tank units and I was smitten with the light tanks – they could move 45 miles an hour – shoot and scoot,” Jimmie said. “My roommate, a fellow named Castine, a New Yorker serving in the 35th of the 4th Armored Div before he came to Ft. Knox, kept bragging so much about this new 4th Armored Div so I put it in as my last choice and when the orders came out they flipped my list upside down and the 4th Armored became my assignment.”
This would have been Jimmie Leach’s first cold winter. Snowflakes were falling when he arrived in September 1942 after a ten day’s leave in Houston. But on October 2 the newly constituted 4th Armored left for the 1942 I Corps Tennessee maneuvers, never again to return to Pine Camp. “We had eight officers in the Company, we had more officers than we were authorized, and we were authorized five. So there were two officers for each platoon leader’s job. So what they did they would rotate us. One day one officer would go out on maneuvers and the next day another one would go out. We were in the Telehoma area, Nashville area. Because of the traffic problems in the metropolitan areas in these big towns we maneuvered through the area villages and towns at night to avoid civil traffic so we would attack in that manner,” Jimmie said. Eight officers in the tank company. It must have seemed foolish to have so many men training as tank company officers. But in just two years the fates would select Jimmie to be fighting in France as a Company Commander - and be the sole surviving officer in the Company.
As the 4th Division left Tennessee in late 1942 the state of US ground war across the Atlantic was much as it had been since the entry of the United States into the conflict. The US Army was not on the ground anywhere in Europe or Africa. After six weeks in Tennessee the 4th Armored was on the move again, and so was Gen George Patton. While the 4th was entrained for the Mojave Desert, the US Army was finally marching in Africa; Patton had landed in Morocco and taken Casablanca. The 4th Armored Division was working toward its fateful linkup with Gen Patton in 1944. It was in a base near Needles, CA, a base camp, a tent city in the desert. The 4th Armored Division spent six months in the Mojave. Much of the simulated warfare pitted Gen Bob Grove’s 6th Armored Division against the 4th Armored commanded by Gen John Shirley (P) Wood. Jimmie Leach called them, “great maneuvers, we had a wonderful time, we fired real bullets.” The cannons shot blanks but the buttoned up tanks pelted each other with real ball ammunition from their machine guns. Night and day, it was delightful, macabre, play, the bullets pinged off the armor; they knocked off an antenna or smashed a periscope but the pockmarked tanks kept the young soldiers safe from injury. A platoon of tanks from Jimmie Leach’s new 37th Tank regiment went off to the south, toward the Salton Sea on a secret mission. They helped Humphrey Bogart and his film crews make the movie, Sahara. Later the movie makers filmed the energetic combat between the 6th and 4th Armored for use in the film.
Jimmie’s unit was now the 2nd Battalion of the 37th Armored Regiment. Just after Sept. 9, 1943, when Jimmie Leach’s old Texas National Guard unit, the 36th Division went ashore at Salerno on the Italian Coast, the 4th Armored was in Texas, arriving at the potential home of the 36th at Camp Bowie, TX. Texas land was cheap. In 1940 the government purchased 120,000 acres of central Texas soil for Camp Bowie. That’s 200 square miles: 20 miles long, 10 miles wide. At times there were up to 60,000 men training on the huge, temporary encampment. Texas was a new environment, nothing like the Mojave. Trees, lots of trees at Camp Bowie, and the tree tops were in blossom. Unfortunately these small treetops were the same height as the turret of the tank. The commanders couldn’t see very well so the tankers had to rely on the drivers and bow gunners to maneuver through the wooded areas. “At Bowie we maneuvered against each other in this scrub oak area,” Jimmie said. “We lost one man, a tank went across a bridge and the bridge collapse and we lost the tank commander in my unit. He was not in my platoon but in my battalion.” More training, new lessons, the war would be three dimensional. At times the tank commander, standing in the turret well, his head 10-11 feet off the ground, would carry a great sight advantages distance and perspective. At other times it might not be convenient to roll through town with the commanders eyes at the same horizontal level as a German soldier at a second story window with a rifle in his hand.
At Bowie the Division reorganized its components. The 37th Tank Battalion that Creighton Abrams would command was realized in its war-fighting form from the combination of three medium tank companies equipped with the new Sherman Tank, one light tank Company, three Sherman tank assault guns in the headquarters company, a service company that would take care of the food and lube and fuel and everything else the tankers needed. “The assault gun platoon was commanded by Bernard Souixsavage, an old OCS classmate of mine and the recon platoon was commanded by Marion Harris, a Tennessee boy, a crackerjack and both of them were killed in the war,” said Jimmie.
It was at Bowie that Creighton Abrams directly entered Jimmie Leach’s life. Jimmie knew Abrams as a Captain and adjutant of the 37th when it was a Regiment. Abrams was promoted to Major to command the 3rd Battalion of the regiment. On Tennessee maneuvers in September 1943, two of Abrams tanks went overboard on a pontoon bridge across the Cumberland River. This rapidly assembled field bridge was designed to hold up to 40 tons. But as with any water supported structure that would bridge a flowing stream or river, there would be risks, particularly in rapidly moving currents. Even with the pontoons extending far from the two tracks across the obstruction, the upstream side might be lifted – or it might be pressured into the stream under these dynamic conditions. Or the bridge could twist in sinuous fashion with one of the tracks breaking loose. The rubber pontoons could rip or be fired into accidentally. A tree or log or even a boat could wash into the pontoons, or it could be rammed or blown by enemy action. And any load, particularly the concentrated positioning of one or even two 30-ton tanks guided by commanders and drivers who might be inexperienced, who might have limited visibility because of the hatch being down, the sighting prisms being dirty, heavy rain and weather, or nighttime, on this unsteady bridge, any load could be steered or drift to the low side, off the narrow gridded running surface and all too easily the center of gravity of the mass could move to the outside, and once that started it might well be impossible to correct the rolling rotation of the bridge and its load so that the tanks would slide away and now be underneath the bridge. In fact eight of the men were unable to free themselves from the overturned tanks and the men drowned. Jimmie remembers the pall of mixed grief and reality that hung over the division and, more particularly, Abrams’ battalion as result of the accident. It was at night; they were crossing the Cumberland River, Jimmie said. He said his unit faked a nighttime crossing later on and waited until daylight. This accident was more serious than Jimmie's turning a tank over a stump. Army officers like Abrams and Leach must expect the unexpected, they must be ready, and they had to understand the obstacles they would encounter in war. We guess Abrams learned to evaluate, to think through this difficult and complex warfare in a superior manner, Leach, too, learned to avoid the nighttime hazard. There would be thousands of these “treadway” pontoon bridges in Europe within a year. One Engineering Company, the 989th, set more than 60 treadway bridges across France and Germany from June 1944 to April 1945. Major Abrams and Lieutenant Leach would perform extraordinary feats of heroism with skills honed in the pain of death by error, death by foolishness and carelessness, sometimes even death by design. Who can determine if Abrams or Leach thought back to the Cumberland disaster as they drove across three successive bridges to ford the Moselle River in France on Sept 13, 1944, crossing directly into a field of German fire. The significance of a crossing mishap that 1944 September day would not have been limited to the involved tanks. The bridge could have been destroyed, trapping the bridgehead with no means of supply or retreat.
Jimmie Leach remembers that when the 4th Armored got to the Mojave Abrams, whom he describes as a “fair haired boy” quickly moved to executive officer for the regiment and then at Bowie to commander of the 37th Tank Battalion. That Battalion; Major Creighton Abrams, Battalion Commander, 1st Lt George Tiegs, B Company Commander looked almost like the unit that would fight across France, Germany, Belgium and Luxemburg from July 1944 until March 1945. 2nd Lt. Jimmie Leach had a few more steps to take before he took his place on the trains and steamships that would bring the 37th to Europe.
That fall of 1943 Jimmie Leach became communications officer, a staff officer, away from the tanks. He applied for entry to gunnery school at Ft. Knox and was sent for this new training component. It was at Knox that Jimmie learned of the reorganization of the Division and the establishment of the separate medium/light tank battalion. “Please don’t leave me out,” he wrote Maj. Ed Bautz, Adjutant of the 37th Reg. “I want to stay with the 37th.” He was ordered back to Bowie and installed as platoon leader in B Company of the 37th Tank Battalion, under Lt Tiegs. Jimmie was platoon leader along with a fellow National Guard soldier, Sgt. Preston Buret Mixon, and two Lieutenants, Bill Bohn and Moose Marston.
By December 1943 the 4th Division was on the trains again. Just the soldiers, not their equipment. They arrived in Taunton, MA at Camp Myles Standish on Dec. 20 and waited for the day they would board a ship for England. This meant home leave for the many men from New England and New York but for Texan Leach, Christmas 1943 was a cold holiday season, requiring patience to stem building anticipation. Jimmie remembers one of the other platoon leaders tussling with Lt. Bohn for the honor of Company tough guy. It was a serious battle, to a draw, Jimmie says but it had the effect of subduing this young Lieutenant’s preening attitude. Every soldier knew he was but one of more than a million men who were being funneled to England. Each knew he would then, in some as yet unknown fashion, have the opportunity to ferry tanks and guns and themselves to the European mainland where awaited the Army of Germans reinforced by millions of conscripted or enslaved men and women from the overwhelmed mainland.
On Dec 29, 1943 the Division steamed away on the USS Barnett, a 460ft long troopship that was built in England in 1928 and had served as a passenger liner under the name Santa Maria. The Navy had bought the ship in 1940 and reconditioned it at Norfolk. The Barnett was a typical workhorse of naval transport and carried men and equipment first from Guadalcanal in 1942 and then until the end of the war. It was a patched up Barnett that carried the men of the 4th to Europe. The ship had been damaged in September 1943. Fortunately the list to starboard from the hole in the bow after a bomb blast in Salerno Harbor raised the blast hole above the water line and the Barnett was repaired and returned to service. The Division reached England on the Barnett at Swansea about Jan 11, 1944.
Jimmie Leach said, “We did not take any equipment at all. We were separated from our equipment, we were bare-assed. Just soldiers with our personal gear and that was it. We were issued trucks, tanks and equipment in England. First we had to draw these tanks. And the tanks because they had to cross the ocean to get there were coated with a heavy grease called Cosmolene and every damned exposed part of the tank was covered with Cosmolene, the guns were Cosmolene, the machine gun was dipped in that stuff so we had to boil the stuff off the machine guns and the tanks the same way so preparing the tanks to use them took a couple of weeks. We were on the outskirts of Devizes and Devizes had the Wilshire Regiment of the British Army. But all the British troops except a rear guard watching over the barracks were overseas fighting. So we moved into their billet areas, we moved into the Prince Maurice Barracks. We occupied wooden one story barracks of the Wiltshire Regiment which was serving as I recall in Italy. We officers, five or more, shared a single room with one wash basin and a single wood stove. Our tanks to the three battalions were parked on concrete hard stands with ample wash racks. The town of Devizes was a mile or so from Prince Maurice Barracks. The barracks were prefabricated huts with a small cast iron stove in each room. The stove took off the chill but the soldiers were cold and wet most of the time. The British had one room they called the drying room, the British were smart in this respect, it was damp and frequently you got your clothes real wet and they had this room about 4 times the size of a car and you could go in there and put your clothes around and dry them out and warm yourself up. So after these exercises, it was so damn cold you would get chilled to the bone and we would pile into there to get warm. That was Prince Maurice Barracks,” Jimmie Leach said. “We stayed there the six months before we landed in France. We did a lot of maneuvers.”
The soldiers practiced war on Salisbury Plain, the chalky grasslands in central England that have been populated since ancient men built Stonehenge and Romans built roads through the plain. By the beginning of the war, English military units had been training on Salisbury Plain for more than 40 years and Jimmie says, “But it also had real beautiful grass that the horses of the cavalry and the civilian fox hunters used so we were told to avoid those trotting areas, we were told it was the King’s property.”
"We maneuvered against each other and again we had live fire from the machine gun. But we also dual trained to support the artillery which we never did. But they trained us to shoot indirect fire with our tank guns; a round disc to get your guns fired in the right directions, and we had a compass to get the elevation and we fired indirect fire. An embarrassing thing happened to me and Col. Abrams. We traveled 35 miles to get to this area and the three medium tank Companies went on line one behind the other. This was going to be a grand maneuver, the 8th and the 35th were to make the tank attack with the infantry and we were to augment the artillery, the 37th. Major Abrams set it up for all the platoon leaders and Company Commanders to come to this hill he was on and he said when I raise this flag I want you to load and when I lower this flag I want you to fire and we’ll do that until I wave the flag horizontally which means cease fire.
“Well, I had the 1st platoon and I was at the far end of this thing and I guess we were 25-50 yards apart – each tank so it was about half a mile up to this hill and then run back to the tanks. Well, rather than wisely assembling all my other four tank commanders and repeat Abrams instructions once and then get any questions, I ran to all four tanks and issued the instructions. When the Col raises the flag you load, when he lowers the flag you fire, BOOM. See? All together we will fire. Three Companies, 17 tanks each all shooting. Well believe it or not when the Abrams raised the flag, Sgt. Kobiela and Sgt. Fitzpatrick fired. Boop, boop. Then he lowered the flag and BOOM went the rest of them. This was just in my GD little platoon of five. He raised the flag and these two sergeants went boop-boop. He lowered the flag and WHOOM. And that went on for five goddam minutes and those characters never got the message in their minds. And I think I tried to radio and get them ceased but I never got to them. Abrams sent for Tiegs and chewed Tiegs out very well but he never once reprimanded me or talked to me about this incident. Tiegs chewed my butt out because I had made a mistake. I repeated my instructions four times after running about a mile and I was out of breath. The other two platoons did it the same damn way but they got it right, I didn’t,” Jimmie said.
There was a war in England, too, but there were moments of relief. “Yes, sir. London. I saw some buildings collapsed here and there. They ordered us to go into the cellar of the hotel during the bombing. I stayed at a Red Cross billet. Fred Eyle our motor officer and I went to London. British whores there, how bout it? How much? Few pounds, you mean a few 5 dollar bills? That was big money you know. We did not take them up on it. We had our offers.”
“Pat Donnelly, my OCS classmate told me one day he had a date with a girl back in Bristol or Bath, and he was going to stand her up and I felt bad for her and I told him I’d lie for him and say he had duties and couldn’t come. Well, thank you Jimmie. So I met the girl and thank God I went. Because she was there with her father and he had his gas mask and his WWI helmet on and he was ready to go on duty as a skywatch and we had a drink together and the girl and I went on to dinner and she took me home and I met her brother at her house and we had a nice little family visit. And I went there by Peep, we called them Peeps. Rest of the Army called them Jeeps. And Jim Farese drove me, he was the first man I gave a battle field commission to. We only had 2 Peeps in England and they would lend them to us on the weekend. Farese drove me around.
“Coming back from London one time, separate from Fred Eyle, as I go through Paddington Station to get on my train, a young female Air Force enlisted person heard me say I was going to Devizes. She says, ‘I say sir, you are going to Devizes?’, ‘Certainly am.’ ‘Well, I am, too. Maybe we can sit together in the train.’ ‘Fine, let’s do that.’ Well what she really wanted was a ride from Devizes to her airbase two miles out of Devizes. Well when we got there, and there was a mile and a half walk to my base from the train station and she kept putting coppers in the phone trying to get help for a ride to her place, she was unable to break through. Well, I said I may be able to help. If you walk with me to my base I will see what I can do. And when we got there, she couldn’t come in, she stayed at the MP station and the duty officer that night was Preston Mixon so I prevailed on Mixon to loan me the guard vehicle with Hoffman as the driver and we did that and I never saw her again. It was a risk. Hofmann, Mixon and I could have gotten in trouble but we did the good deed, took the young lady home to her gate. Officers were not supposed to drive but usually the officers had a driver,” Jimmie remembers.
Publication Granted by The Leach Family and Matthew Hermes PhD.