Hitler’s troops out of France and back to Berlin.
They weighed 32 tons and could move at nearly 30 mph if they had to.
They had a 75 mm canon mounted on a turret on top and three 50-caliber machine guns, one on top of the turret for antiaircraft use and two on the sides.
The advancing tanks, each with a five-man crew, served as a shield for the foot soldiers who crouched behind them. It was a bitter, grueling slugging match,
flailing heavily away and inching forward, from town to town and house to house, each defended by the Germans as if they were the final fortress.
The tanks used huge amounts of gasoline, getting less miles per gallon than a large motor home. And ammunition. They could carry only so much
at a time — of anything. The crew could not go long without fresh supplies of food and water.
Without the essentials, these instruments of war became sitting ducks, a pillbox, easily destroyed by the larger and more powerful German Panther and Tiger tanks.
Someone had to keep these supplies coming.
That’s where Ray Mullen came in.
Mullen, 85, of South Webster, retired superintendent of Bloom-Vernon Local School District, drove a supply truck for the 743rd Tank Battalion.
He and two other truck drivers, Joe and Woody, were responsible for supplying 15 tanks, which constituted a tank company. They dodged artillery fire along bomb-pocked roads during the U.S. Army’s advance across France, into Belgium, across the Siegfried Line, through the Battle of the Bulge and finally into Germany itself — across the Rhine River and right on up to the Elbe, where they met up with the Russians.
“Supplies were kept moving in from the beach and advancing. At company headquarters, we were the last to handle them,” Mullen said. “We loaded our trucks
and physically put supplies in the tankers’ hands. I gave them enough food for five men for one day. There was very little room for anything extra. I carried ammunition for them, too. The other two trucks in my group carried gasoline.”
The 743rd Tank Battalion — battalion, not the larger division — was made up of about 500 soldiers all together. At war’s end battalion members had been awarded 13 Distinguished Service Crosses, 97 Silver
Stars, 286 Bronze Stars, 333 Purple Hearts, the Presidential Unit Citation and the Arrowhead (for participating in the Normandy invasion).
Mullen was one of the winners of the Bronze Star, which is given for “heroic or meritorious achievement during military operations.”
He’s lost the citation that came with the medal and said he doesn’t recall exactly the circumstances that saw him win it.
“For doing a little beyond what I was supposed to do, I suppose,” he said. “We went through some dangerous places making sure supplies got to the tankers. This was through the Battle of the Bulge.”
The Shermans simply could not penetrate the front armor of the German Tigers, which could easily destroy them from long range.
But the Shermans could out-maneuver the bigger Tigers and Panthers and had them out-numbered.
The M4 Sherman was the winner by quantity, not by quality. Germany produced 1,835 Tigers and 4,800 Panthers. The United States cranked out 40,000 Shermans!
“The Germans thought we were a division because of the speed with which we could bring up new tanks to replace those that had been knocked out of action,” Mullen said. “We at one point had about 50 of our tanks put out of action in one week and had replaced them all. We heard that the Germans put out the word to ‘take no prisoners from the 743rd.’”
Mullen graduated from South Webster High School in May 1942 and registered for the draft when he turned 18. The Army called him in February 1943. He trained with the 743rd Tank Battalion at Camp Hood (now called Fort Hood) in Texas and later in Arizona.
“We trained for desert warfare and were destined for North Africa,” Mullen said.
But the 743rd never went to Africa because that campaign ended in May 1943 with victory for the U.S. and its allies.
Mullen wound up in Great Britain in late 1943 and spent the spring of 1944 on the coast, around Plymouth, training for amphibious landings.
In those days Mullen’s fellow soldiers hung the nickname of “Bonnie” on him. That was because he carried a photo of his sweetheart, Bonnie Delaney of Oak Hill, in his billfold and was always showing it to anyone who would take time to look.
In the weeks leading up to D-Day, he knew something big was about to happen. The channel was filled with ships.
The troops in training learned one early lesson about moving tanks from boat to beach.
“We lost 11 men when we put a 30-ton tank on a 10-ton barge,” Mullen said.
Tanks, and trucks alike, were transported in LSTs (Landing Ship, Tanks) and smaller LCTs (Landing Craft, Tanks). They arrived off the beaches of Normandy on D-Day between 6 and 6:30 a.m.
Because of German artillery at the tops of the cliffs firing on them, plans called for the ramps to be dropped and the tanks released about two miles from shore.
The first tanks arriving, referred to by military officials as DD Shermans and by GIs as “Donald Ducks,” had temporarily been turned into amphibious vehicles. They had flotation collars installed all the way around and were propelled by a screw on a shaft turned by the tank’s engine.
There were 112 tanks involved in that first wave at Omaha Beach – 56 of them assigned to the 743rd Tank Battalion and 56 to the 741st Tank Battalion.
The 741st went in first. Of the 29 tanks it unloaded into the sea, which had waves reaching 6-feet high, 27 sank. The crews had been riding on top of the tanks, and as far as could be determined only five tankermen were lost. The others were rescued by the landing craft.
Part of the problem involved the landing craft carrying the 741st tanks dropping their ramps early and releasing the tanks when they were still about three miles from shore. The German shore emplacements were starting to zero in on the landing crafts.
The 743rd learned from 741st mistakes and got its tanks in closer. It lost only four tanks and those were on an LCT that was hit by German artillery fire.
Mullen and the truckers crossed the channel on LSTs later in the day.
“The landing ships took us in as close as possible before releasing us,” Mullen said, “Our trucks’ engines had been waterproofed, with the exhausts projecting above our roofs. I drove my truck ashore by standing up on the seat, my head through the roof where the 50-caliber machine gun was mounted. The water was up to my chest but our trucks never faltered.”
The sight that greeted him on Utah Beach that day is one of at least three memories of the war he wishes he could forget.
“Bodies of young American soldiers floated in the water and the waves lapped at bodies strewn across the beach,” he said.
The other was the “Malmedy massacre.” It was in December 1944, in the Belgium village of Malmedy, during the two-month Battle of the Bulge, in which 19,000 American soldiers were killed.
“We pulled in there at daylight, and they were loading the bodies of young Americans on trucks like so much stove wood,” Mullen said. “They had been taken prisoner, but instead of taking them to a POW camp, the SS Troops lined them up and shot them down – several hundred of them.”
Another bad memory came as the 743rd was drawing close to the Siegfried Line, on the border between Belgium and Germany.
“We came into little towns abandoned by the retreating Germans and we would stay in houses at night. Other times we slept in the trucks or under them. Anyway, we were sleeping in the basement of this one house when artillery rounds started coming in. A house about 1,000 feet from me took a direct hit and eight of our mechanics were killed. Our trucks were parked outside the house we were staying in. My truck was hit and destroyed. A friend of mine, Joe Patcorni, moved our trucks and helped us escape from that basement. He saved our lives. And he got the Silver Star (given for gallantry in action).”
Other memories of the war Mullen recalled:
• In mid-July, watching from a safe distance as American bombers unloaded on St. Lo, France. It was during this assault that a misdirected bomb from a U.S. Army Air Forces plane killed Lt. Gen. Leslie J. McNair, commander of the U.S. Army Ground Forces.
“One of my friends picked the general’s helmet up off the ground,” Mullen said.
• At Mortain, the 743rd became attached to the 30th Infantry Division – “Old Hickory,” the Tennessee National Guard.
“We wore the patch of the 30th on our right shoulder and the patch of the 743rd on the left,” Mullen said.
• It was at Mortain that a U.S. infantry unit was surrounded and badly in need of medical supplies.
“We had a 105 mm Howitzer mounted on a tank chassis,” Mullen said. “We loaded medical supplies in those projectiles and fired them in to them. I helped select the right amount of powder. Everything had to be precise.”
• One time, after the tanks had crossed the Roer River, they ran out of fuel and ammo in a small town a mile beyond.
“We had to cross an open valley to get to them. The Germans had their artillery set up along the mountainside. We moved out in single file, Joe went, then Woody went, then I went. I don’t know how fast those trucks (6X6s with three axles and 10 wheels) would go. We had taken the governors off when we reached the beach. We had them wide open. We saw the flashes from the artillery guns, but the shells were falling just short of us. We made it in and back without a scratch.”
Mullen and the other truckers were assigned 50-caliber Thompson sub machine guns, but they never used them.
“I’m not even sure what they expected me to do with that,” he said. “We had the machine gun mounted on top of the truck, too, but I never used it either.”
Once during a lull in the action, Mullen and the others were watching a movie in an abandoned house.
“They called us out to paint over the numbers on all our trucks,” Mullen said. “Then we pulled out and drove through the night. We had stopped for a break when we were called to gather around a radio and listen. On the air was Axis Sally. We listened as she said, ‘We know you painted out your numbers, but we know you’re the 743rd, and we know where you’re going.’ She was right, too. It was when we were heading up to Malmedy, where the massacre of the American soldiers took place. It was scary to realize that they knew so much about our movements.”
Mullen’s outfit advanced to the Elbe River, just 70 miles from Berlin. There they were instructed not to cross. The Russians were on the other side. The U.S. and the Allies had worked out an agreement where Russia would go on in from there.
Germany surrendered May 7, 1945. As the 743rd disbanded, Mullen had taken part in the five major campaigns of World War II in Europe: Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes and Central Europe. But he had accumulated only 70 merit points and 85 were needed to get an early out and go home. He was assigned to an infantry division and began training to take part in the invasion of Japan. The dropping of the atomic bomb in early August changed all that.
“I love Harry Truman,” Mullen said.
He spent the rest of the summer and fall as part of the occupation forces in Germany.
“We were involved mostly in transporting refugees and POWs back to where they came from,” he said.
He was discharged at an Army camp in Indiana on Nov. 11, his 21st birthday.
He wasted no time in marrying Bonnie Delaney. She died in 1999. They had a happy marriage that produced two daughters, Libby and Gina; a son, Danny; seven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
Mullen took advantage of the GI Bill to earn a bachelor’s degree from Cedarville College and a master’s degree in education supervision from the University of Tennessee.
He spent 13 years as a classroom teacher and basketball coach, three at Rarden and 10 at South Webster. He was principal at South Webster High School for four years and then served 15 years as superintendent of the school district.
He remembers his time in the Army and 11 months of combat as “a million dollar experience.”
Then he added, “But I wouldn’t give 10 cents to repeat it.”
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.