Monday, October 18, 2010

Daddy at War

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Date: Thu, 25 Dec 2008 06:35:03 -0600

My father was Platoon Sgt. Robert H Watson Troop F of 88th mec cav, 8th armor div. He served from the formation of the unit as a training battalion in 1942 until it was disbanded in dec 1945. The men who served with Daddy called him "Pop" because he was 28 in 1942 and was much older than most of the troops he served with. I have a few short stories (usually only one or two sentences) from my father. that I am willing to share.
I found your name and email in the 8th armor website.

Rob Watson

Dear Rob,
What a great way to start a Christmas morning...thanks for writing. My father died in 89, when I was 30. He was 18 when he went in via the draft. He first went to a special school in Illinois before joining the armor, but he was with them the whole time in Europe. I think he was the gunner on his tank crew. After the war he graduated from Mississippi State and worked about 35 years as an engineer for IBM. I have lots of photos with names on some. I will go back see if your dad's name is written on any. They are all on my computer if you would like for me to e-mail them or send a disc.
Dad spoke very little of his wartime experiences, so I have always been hungry to hear about it all. When I was in my early college years and could not decide what I wanted to do he would chide me that by the time he was my age he had won a war! Our family roots are all in north Mississippi, near Memphis. I have never lived more than 100 miles from that area except for a couple of short stints in NY and CO.
Have you ever been to one of the reunions? This year is the last, I hear. and I may try to go and meet some of the men they served with.


My dad was from Lake Charles La. He joined in April 1942. He was sent to Ft Knox Ky. for training. While there, he met a man from Morgan City La. who was in the training battalion. Daddy said he knew the guy from before the war (I think). This guy got my dad transferred into the training battalion. Otherwise he would have been in the first combat units to go over seas.

When the 8th armor was formed Daddy became Platoon Sgt. for second platoon and "commanded" two tanks. The platoon officer commanded the other three tanks in the platoon.(called a troop back then)

Daddy's bitterest memory was of the mine explosion that killed a lieutenant and (he said 9 men) 10 men. I copied the official report below. I have a photo, Daddy took, after the fighting was over, of the cemetery in France where the men were buried. there are 8 crosses and a Star of David between the two standing soldiers. He said they went there right after the men were buried and it was a huge muddy mess. On the second visit they were amazed at the difference. The picture showed a neat well manicured cemetery. They had been given leave in Paris and chose to take their day to find the graves of their friends.

Copied from an after action report: {22 Jan 45, An accident killing 10 EM and 1 officer and injuring 4 EM, all from the 2nd plat., "F" Col, occurred when the officer was conducting training on foreign mines. Remainder of Sq – no change. c. The accident resulting in the deaths of 10 EM and 1 officer of the 2nd platoon of "F" Co. as a result of a booby trapped mine would not have happened if the officer had followed his instructions as taught in standard mine schools. Namely, do not handle foreign mines remaining on the battle field.}

A few months ago I was looking through a box of Daddy's stuff and found the picture and a map of the cemetery. I went to Google and found the satellite photo. The cemetery is no longer there. I began researching the postwar disposition of graves and found an interesting story: The army contacted the family, of soldiers killed, and gave them the option of returning their loved ones to any place in the US or leaving them in Europe. Apparently the original burials were done ASAP. When the army went to move the men they found live ammunition and grenades had been buried with them. They had to get ordinance disposal to check each body before prepping it for transport.

Those left in Europe were consolidated into a few cemeteries in Normandy and Belgium. The one in Belgium has an event annually where the school children, from the nearby city, all go out and decorate the American and other graves to show their thanks for what these men had done for them. I once read a comment that said: "Whenever you begin to think this is a mean and selfish world, go to Normandy and see what a group of young Americans did for a nation of strangers." (referring, of course to the 12,000 graves that are still there)

Daddy ran a feed and seed store in northwest Louisiana for more than 30 years. He died in april 2005 at the age of 93. He would wake up screaming at night... especially if there was a thunder storm. He would never say what the dream was about, until a couple of years before he died. For all the horrors tankers faced in that war, his dream was about a german soldier walking up to him and was about to shoot him.

I am looking for stuff on 2nd platoon, F troop, 88th Mec Cav Re-con Sq. I have a scanner on my PC so am eager to exchange stuff... if you can recognize your dad... I have some pics, no names on them. I am considering going to the reunion... taking a blowup of Daddy to see if anyone remembers him. I have a company picture from the 8th armor... I will see if I can find your dad.

Your new friend, Rob Watson


Thanks for the photo, it is one I have not seen. I cannot recognize my dad in it yet. I was familiar with the mine incident from postings on the 8th armored website, but not all the detail you gave.

One of the men that my dad was friends with at MSU, Leon Standifer, has written a few books about his wwii experiences. He mentioned my dad in one book, as they were in a special training program together that I mentioned before. You can check out his books:
He was a rifleman in the infantry. He was a professor at LSU.

Many, but not all, of my photos are posted on the 8th armored page
One we are particularly proud of is the chalk drawing done on browm wrapping paper by a German POW after the war in Poland.
Is this the unit you are talking about? I do not see any references to platoons. I am not familiar with military organization.
When I first contacted the reunion website a few years ago, one of the men my dad served with actually called me to tell me a little about the unit and answer any questions I might have had, I think it was Seldon Jones. I did not really know what to ask, but it meant a lot to hear from him.
I have a pretty high resolution scanner and will try to get my other photos to you soon.


While in the training battalion Daddy would go driving around the woods and hills of Kentucky teaching men how to drive the tanks. He would sit in the turret with his feet on the driver's shoulders. The driver had two levers. One was forward, neutral, and reverse on the right track and the other the same for the left track. A tap on the left shoulder meant “turn left”. A tap on the right shoulder meant “turn right”. Tapping on both shoulders meant “stop”. On one particular day Daddy had an officer as trainee. They were speeding (top speed of his tank was about 40mph) through unfamiliar territory. As they topped a rise, there was a large gully directly ahead of them. Daddy kicked the officer in both shoulders to signal “stop”. They crashed into the gully because there was not time enough to react. In his excitement Daddy had broken one of the officer's shoulders.

Daddy's unit trained in central Louisiana at, then, Camp Polk. In the movie “Patton” he got a kick out of a quote Patton made about “...shoveling shit in Louisiana...”

In the convoy from New Jersey to La Harve, France, Daddy's ship had engine trouble. It had to drop out of the convoy because the convoy would not wait for them. He said they spent several anxious hours waiting for the thing to be fixed, fearing submarine attack. They eventually caught up with the convoy to the relief of all aboard.

Daddy spoke about being quartered with families in Holland. His family was poor and had suffered many hardships. He gave them food and other necessities, mostly provided by the army. They gave him very fine handmade lace doilies. These doilies were used as decorations around our homes for many years. I am sorry I do not know what happened to them.

Daddy told of driving all over Europe in vehicle convoys. They were frequently stopped, then would rush forward for a ways then stop again. Daddy was tank commander for his two tanks and sat in the turret directing the driving. One night after many hours of this, he fell asleep at his position. When he woke up the convoy ahead of him was gone. Not just gone but gone gone! He climbed down onto the front of his tank, holding on to his main gun and using a flashlight, followed the tracks of the tanks ahead of him until they caught up. He always claimed that if he had been caught he could have been shot. (military historians will tell you that Private Slovac was the only man actually shot for dereliction of duty, during WWII. Eisenhower's aid witnessed the execution and advised against the practice. Eisenhower ended the practice.)

The mission of the 88th Mech Cav. was reconnaissance. When the army approached a town, the 88th was to drive their little tanks into the town and look around... presumably for the enemy. After the Germans had abandoned a town, they would zero their artillery in on the highest thing in town... the church steeple. The purpose was to shell the incoming Americans. Daddy always called the German 88mm artillery “the 88's”. One day as he was snooping around a town, “the 88's” began to zero in on the town. A shell hit the church just as Daddy was driving by, and buried his tank under a huge pile of bricks. It apparently took the other elements of his unit a while to figure out where his tank was, then four hours to dig and pull them out.

The first tanks Daddy drove had a 37mm main gun. The shell was about the size if a 4oz fruit juice glass. The whole cartridge, slightly larger than a 1/10 liter wine bottle. One night his unit watched an engagement between 5 big German tanks and 5 American Sherman tanks. He said it was like watching a huge fireworks display. The Americans were destroyed and the Germans were essentially unharmed. I asked why he did not fire on the Germans. His reply: “Our little guns would not have scratched the paint on those Germans.”

Later the frontline tank units were equipped with new bigger guns, “76mm” Daddy called them. His unit then got the old frontline tanks with the “75mm” main gun. This shell was about the size of a one pound coffee can and the whole cartridge was almost 2 feet long. One day his unit was given orders to drive up on the side of a hill and shell a town, an unusual assignment, considering their “mission”. After they had been at this task for a while, they suddenly got radio orders to button up and get out fast. As they drove away the whole hillside blew up. Daddy always believed his unit had been sent out as bait for one of those big German guns. He said the army never found it.

The German V1 rocket made a distinctive buzzing sound and was universally called the “Buzz Bomb”. The rockets were launched from Holland and directed at England mostly. It would buzz in flight then the engine would shut off and the device would fall to earth and explode a 2,000 pound warhead. In his first encounter with the buzz bomb, Daddy heard the thing buzz over them then shut off and later explode. About the same time, a pilot was seen parachuting from the sky. Everyone thought it was just an airplane that had been shot down. They later learned what it really was.

The Rhine River was always seen as a huge obstacle to the advance into Germany. Most attempts to capture a bridge across it ended in failure. Usually the target bridge blew up in the face of, or under, those trying to capture it. (The first bridge to actually be captured was a railroad bridge just outside of Remagen, Germany. The explosive charge on the bridge failed to explode when the Germans tried to destroy it.) Needless to say there was desperate fighting to defend and to capture any bridge. Daddy's tanks were near another such bridge when an infantry unit captured it. They were ordered to  be the first armored unit to cross this bridge to help hold it against the German counter-attack. They were lined up to do their duty, but were greatly relieved when ordered to pull back and allow a unit with bigger tanks, that had just been found, to be sent across first. This bridge did not blow up either.

There is a unit history of the 88th Mechanized Cavalry, It mostly follows Troops A, B, C, and D. Troop E, and Daddy's Troop F are hardly ever mentioned. He was exceedingly irritated about that. I followed the unit by looking up the towns described in the unit history. They landed in La Harve, France and drove north through Belgium and Holland into western Germany. They then turned east and were engaged in combat north of Cologne. One time he said they had spent a lot of time assigned to the British as the reason they were not in the unit history much.

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