Richard Carl Allen will turn 91 on May 15. He’s still sharp physically and mentally. He keeps busy with one little project after another around the mobile home of Beatrice Shields, his niece whom he lives with in a trailer park just south of Piketon. He built a picnic shelter at the trailer where they can enjoy breakfast. He can tell what’s wrong with a car by listening to it run.
His memories of his fighting days with the U.S. Army in World War II, however, are a bit hazy.
He was born at Letitia, Ky., on Schultz Creek, southwest of South Shore and grew up around Beauty Ridge, where he attended a one-room school until he completed the sixth grade. He dropped out to help his parents, John Simpson Allen and Ellen Bethany Fraley Allen, with making a living.
His Army papers show he was drafted in August 1941 and discharged Oct. 17, 1945.
He was trained in mechanics, gunnery and tanks. His first action came in 1942 in the Northern African Campaign, where the American M-4 tanks and the British Crusader tanks proved their worth in desert fighting against the tanks of German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who was reinforcing Italian forces in western Libya.
Allen was a member of the 757th Tank Battalion.
“We went in 10 days after the main amphibious invasion. I drove a tank from the landing craft onto the beach. I did not drive very long,” Allen said.
He doesn’t recall much about fighting the Germans and Italians, or maybe he just doesn’t recall the parts he doesn’t want to recall.
“There’s some things I do not care too much about talking about,” he said.
He said there were several instances in North Africa when he thought his “number was up. Especially when those German bombers and fighter planes zeroed in on us.”
He remembered one morning listening in on the company radio and hearing Rommel and American commander Gen. George Patton “cussing each other out.”
The Axis powers had big plans to dominate the Mediterranean by controlling Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. A successful campaign in North Africa would be followed by a strike north to the rich oil fields of the Middle East.
This would have cut the Allies off nearby oil supplies while increasing the oil supplies available for the Axis war machine.
The campaign was equally important to the Allies. They used it as a step towards a second front against the Axis powers in “Fortress Europe,” and it helped to ease Axis pressure on the Eastern Front.
By the beginning of March 1943, troops with the British Eighth Army had advanced westwards along the North African coast until they reached the Tunisian border.
Rommel found his forces in an Allied “two army” pincer. They were outflanked, outmanned and outgunned. The Eighth Army shattered the Axis defense on the Mareth Line in late March and the First Army in central Tunisia launched their main offensive in mid-April to squeeze the Axis forces until their resistance in Africa collapsed.
The Axis forces surrendered on May 13, 1943, with more than 275,000 of its troops becoming POWs. All of the Italian colonies in Africa were captured.
It was a tremendous loss, but even so, the largest percentage of Axis troops escaped Tunisia to fight another day in Italy.
Following this victory by the Allies in the North African Campaign, the stage was set for the Italian Campaign to begin. The invasion of Sicily followed two months later.
“Sicily is an island just off the boot of Italy. I took part in that invasion, which didn’t last long,” Allen said. “By then I was out of the tank battalion and assigned as a mechanic to the 3023rd Ordinance, a maintenance company. I worked not only on our equipment but on German equipment. We shipped a lot of captured German materials — yes, German stuff — back to the United States.”
The Sicily conquest was followed in September 1943 by an invasion by the Western Allies of the Italian mainland. They were going to drive Germany out of Italy following an Italian armistice with the Allies.
Hitler’s forces responded by disarming Italian forces, seizing military control of Italian areas and creating a series of defensive lines.
German special forces troops then rescued Mussolini, who set up a “client state” in that part of Italy occupied by German forces. It was called the Italian Social Republic.
The Western Allies fought through several lines until reaching the main German defensive line in mid-November.
Allen crossed the Mediterranean to the Italian coast but did not go up the “boot.” He would spend more than a year as a mechanic at the maintenance base set up on the coast. He was in France when Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945.
His medals, still in their boxes, include the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign, the American Defense, the World War II Victory and the Good Conduct medals.
Following his discharge, he came to Portsmouth, where his parents had moved during the war.
He married and moved to Texas, where he would live for more than 50 years, working for a roofing construction company.
“After my wife died, I lived with another woman and we traveled quite a bit in a motor home, including one trip into Alaska,” he said. “Then we pulled in here in 2002. She’s dead now, and this is where I’ve stayed.”
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.