Remembrances: Ed quick: Memories of an Old Artilleryman
We called the two and a half ton truck that pulled our howitzer across Germany in 1945 a "six by six" (six wheels on the ground and six wheels driving) or a "deuce and a half" (the tonnage capacity of the truck.) We always kept the wooden seats along the sides of the truck bed folded up so we could carry more cargo. Ammo boxes took up most of the room, but tarpaulins, shovels and all of our personal belongings were also piled onto the steel bed, and along with the rest of the gun crew, I jolted along uncomfortably on top of the pile.
When we pulled into a position and piled off of the truck, an orchestrated chaos began. I had no particular job to do at that time and neither did anyone else. We all knew what had to be done and each of us just did whatever work happened to be the nearest or whatever job the sergeant yelled at us to do. Some of us unhooked the howitzer from the truck and manhandled it into position. Others dumped ammo boxes, tarpaulins and tools onto the ground and began to sort them out. The gravelly voice of the section chief rose above the noisy confusion.
"Get onto that right wheel goddamn it, Quick! Get onto that goddamn right wheel!"
When the howitzer was positioned to the sergeant's liking, Harley, our gunner corporal, began to "lay" the gun by looking through his panoramic sight toward our executive officer's aiming circle. Gunners on the other three howitzers were doing the same. With shouted commands back and forth and a series of adjustments to the sights, all four howitzers were soon aligned exactly on the same compass heading and parallel to each other. Wiremen ran spools of telephone wire between each of the guns and the executive officer's position. When the wire arrived at our gun, I hooked up my telephone and checked to make sure I had a live line. "B' Battery was then ready to fire.
Preparing the gun to fire was supposed to come first, but I soon learned that getting myself under ground was even more important. As quickly as I could, I dug my foxhole, well aware that German eighty-eight fire could come in at any time, especially if our arrival had been detected. I learned never to dig my foxhole under a tree. Incoming shells detonating in the canopy of a tree will shower deadly fragments onto the ground and into any hole dug below. I also learned from an infantry dogface one day that it was not a good idea to pile rocks around the edge of a foxhole, as they would just become more fragments if a shell exploded nearby. I had thought as I dug into the rocky ground that piling the rocks in a kind of wall around the lip of the hole would have the effect of making it deeper and thus safer. Experience was a teacher that made veterans out of new arrivals like me.
When a fire mission was called, my number two gun was usually the only one to fire while the forward observer adjusted on his target. The other three guns followed the changes on their sights, but did not fire until our shells had found the target. Then the entire battery fired with deadly effect. The commands from fire direction sounded something like this:
"Fire mission!...............battery adjust................shell HE...............charge five........fuse quick.........base deflection..........right two niner five..........SI three zero two.....number two one round..... ELEVATION - THREE SEVEN ONE!" As the telephone operator on number two gun, my job was to listen to instructions like those and call them out to the gun crew.
We fired mostly HE (high explosive) shells, although we carried WP (white phosphorous) and AP (armor piercing) rounds. The 105mm cartridge brass contained seven nylon bags of propellant, tied together with nylon cord. A "charge five" command meant that the last two bags were to be removed before assembling the shell into the brass. The most common fuse that was screwed onto the tip of the shell was a "quick" or impact fuse, but "delay" fuses for timed air bursts over the target were also in our arsenal. The three aiming commands were "deflection" (horizontal angle or azimuth) "SI" (the difference in altitude between gun and target) and "elevation" (vertical angle.) In the absence of a "Do not Fire" instruction, the word "Elevation" was an automatic fire command.
Soon after we crossed the Rhine River, we fired a T.O.T. (Time on Target) "shoot" at some 88's that had been harassing us. Our entire Corps Artillery was involved, consisting of 105's, 155's and even 240's from behind the Rhine. It was after dark, and I remember lying on my back, phone to my ear, waiting for the barrage to begin and to hear the "Fire" command for my gun. In a T.O.T., the biggest guns - the ones farthest back, would fire first.
The rumble of those big 240's announced the start of the "shoot." The 155's added their clamor and soon I heard the fluttering whistle of all that heavy freight going overhead. Our 105's fired last. I surely would not have wanted to be on the other end of that barrage. The 89th History relates that a number of 88's were destroyed that night and the remainder took off in full retreat.
Our forward observer called fire missions into our battery executive officer's position and the "exec" (Lt. Wolbert) calculated the firing commands for the howitzers. During the latter weeks of combat, I was Lt. Wolbert's "recorder," a job that put me on the other end of the telephone line between the gun and the executive officer. Wolbert gave me the firing commands as he worked them up and I telephoned them to the four gun sections. I also kept a running record of what the settings should be on their sights at all times. In a letter home, I said that I liked the recorder's job a lot better than that of telephone operator on a gun crew. For one thing, I rode in a weapons carrier (a much smaller truck) with only five other guys - on SEATS! My official title had become "instrument operator," but my rank remained just the same - pfc!
These are just a few recollections of this old artilleryman. Many memories, once so sharp and clear, are becoming increasingly difficult to conjure up. Some of them, however, are permanently etched in my mind. I remember clearly the weariness, for example - the cold - and the fear - especially the fear. It was a kind of low grade uneasiness most of the time but it was always there, walking with me every day. On occasion, like when those 88's came shrieking in, it escalated into real terror. After my combat days were over, fears of the unknown that had frightened me as a boy never frightened me again, for I had experienced very real fears of very real dangers. As all of us shared these same experiences, we young soldiers matured very quickly and as we grew up, we grew together - until finally we became almost like members of the same family. I remember once saying to my good buddy, Marty Martinez, that a person who had not actually been there could never really understand what our combat days were like.
Battery B, 340 FA