Marvin Clay Chandler sits on the back porch of his home in McKinney, TX and watches the squirrels play in the trees. He spits tobacco into a plastic cup and wipes some dribble from his timeworn face. His back is permanently hunched, as if the weight of the world had once rested on his shoulders. He doesn’t move as quickly as he used to, but he still gets around much better than many men of his 80 years. His easygoing nature would suggest a peaceful life. However, in the winter of 1944 Clay Chandler and other tankers of the 748th tank battalion followed General George S. Patton on a mission to halt the last desperate advance of the Nazi war machine.
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On December 16, 1944, the supposedly dying German army showed that it would not go quietly. In a desperate attempt to seize the Belgian port of Antwerp, the Nazis caught the Allied forces completely by surprise and by Dec. 25 had almost reached the Meuse River. After the initial shock, the Americans regrouped and successfully held the Germans, but members of the 101st Airborne Division were trapped in the small Belgium town of Bastogne, with no relief or rescue in sight. Gen. Patton and his 3rd Army raced to cut the German advance off at its source, severing supply lines and trapping the enemy between his forces and the rest of the advancing Allied armies. On the tip of the 3rd Army spear was the 4th Armor Division along with Clay Chandler and the rest of the 748th Tank Battalion.
On Dec. 20, the men of the 4th Armored Division headed north across the frozen countryside toward the Ardennes. The going was slow, as the saturated ground had become so frozen that the metal tracks of the tanks could not dig in. Whenever the road would become uneven, at least one tank almost always slid into a ditch or into the hedgerows. Once a tank became stuck, it was a colossal undertaking to get it underway again. Since the tanks could hardly get enough traction for themselves, towing a stranded tank was an absolute impossibility in most cases. As a result, the stranded crew would be forced to dig and loosen up the frozen ground enough to get back on the road again. Despite these setbacks, the men of the 748th Tank Bn. were determined to reach the Ardennes as soon as possible and do their part in stopping the German advance.
On Dec. 21, the 4th Armored Division assembled in the Leglise-Arlon area and learned that their mission would be to advance north and relieve the 101st Airborne Division holding Bastogne. Rumors began to circulate about the forces encircling Bastogne and the reactions were as varied as each individual soldier. Some were eager to show the Germans what American boys in American tanks could do. Others were fearful that they would never see home again. Regardless of their gut reactions to the mission, almost all of them wanted to even the odds at Bastogne and give the men of the 101st a fighting chance.
The soldiers of the 4th Armored Division were allowed to relax a bit on the night of the 21st. Most men sat talking with one another or writing letters home. Sam Rogers, the gun loader and assistant driver in Chandler’s tank crew, had scrounged some white paint from the supply trucks in the rear, but failed to acquire a brush. As a result, he dipped two fingers into the small can of paint and scrawled the words “Hun Hunters” on the barrel of the tank’s 75mm gun. By giving the crew and their tank a moniker, it seemed a little more likely that they would survive the coming battle.
The 3rd Army launched its counterattack to the north at the appointed hour on 22 Dec. The 4th Armored Division fanned its tanks out in a line 5 1/2 miles long and advanced toward the source of the German aggression along the Arlon-Bastogne road. Chandler pushed the fear back by constantly checking the esoteric gauges in front of him. After a year and a half of driving a Sherman tank, he knew all but three of the instruments had been put there to impress the army. Nevertheless, looking at the extraneous dials and gauges had always kept him from thinking about what would happen if a 88mm shell punctured the 2 1/2 inches of armor surrounding him and the rest of the crew.
As the 748th neared the German lines, the convoy stopped; there were 15 – 20 mounds of loose soil in the road, a possible indication of mines. The men sat and waited for mine sweepers to come from the rear to clear the mines. No one felt safe sitting still so near the advancing Nazi forces and every minute wasted was possibly another American life lost in Bastogne. After about 20 minutes, a black truck driver, whose name has been lost to memory, came up with a solution to the standstill. He offered to drive his supply truck in the grass just off the road to get around the apparent landmines.
“If I make it, you fellas follow me,” he said.
Captain Wright, in command of D company, agreed and the man took off through the grass. After a few tense moments, he emerged safely on the road past the mines. As soon as the truck was back on level ground, the driver opened his door and waved the OK to the tanks. One at a time, the tanks trudged over the trail blazed by the courageous truck driver. 59 years later, Chandler remembered the man “was so scared, he was the bravest one of us all”.
On that same day of Dec. 22, General Anthony McAuliffe gave his famous response of “Nuts” to the German request for his surrender of the town of Bastogne. When word of this colorful retort reached Gen. Patton, he made sure that the men of the 4th Armored Division knew about it to motivate them. Chandler had never heard of Anthony McAuliffe, but was nevertheless motivated by concerns for his brother Tommy, who was somewhere to the east of him with the 80th Infantry Division. He knew he would rather face the German army in the relative safety of his tank than have his brother take the risk.
The column of tanks trudged along as rapidly as they could over the frozen earth. Many of the newer men were afraid the fighting would be over before they got there, but the men who had seen heavy combat in North Africa or Sicily were praying for the opposite.
Late in the afternoon of the Dec. 22, the 4th Armored Division reached the Sure River to find that German troops had already demolished the bridges. The town of Martelange, on the opposite banks of the Sure, still contained an unknown number of German riflemen. The enemy would take occasional shots at exposed personnel from across the river and even shoot at the tanks, as if to ridicule the Americans for their inability to cross the river.
However, the Germans’ assurance was brought to a crashing halt. Several tanks equipped with 13 million-candle power carbon arc lights lined up along the shore and pointed the intense beams into the city. As the powerful lights blinded the Germans, a company of American riflemen crossed the Sure via the broken span of one of the demolished bridges.
The unmistakable bark of an M1 Garand is heard repeatedly from across the river. At 0300 on Dec. 23, the rifle company signaled the all clear and work began immediately to reconstruct one of the bridges and get the armor across the river.
The first half of Dec. 23 was spent trying to bridge the Sure River. The steep incline of the banks and the swift current would not allow for pontoons or treadway. 3rd Army engineers came up from the rear and constructed a 90-foot Bailey bridge across the river and, by late afternoon, the tanks began to stream into Martelange. The men did not get a chance to rest. The delay at the river had cost too much time and Patton had his eyes on the 4th Armored Division. Light resistance was met while passing through the town. Small squads of Germans were cleared out or suppressed by infantrymen before the tanks passed.
The tanks moved onward to Chaumont, reaching the village around 1330 on Dec. 23. As the afternoon sun thawed the frozen earth, many tanks were soon churning in the mud and making little or no headway. Since the tanks were unable to enter the village as rapidly as they had hoped, many crews began trying to free themselves from the mud with shovels, while others took a stance of guarded relaxation. Other crews, including Chandler’s, lobbed high explosive 75mm shells into the village to soften any resistance that might be waiting for the rifle platoons advancing on foot and without the benefit of armor. A company of German paratroopers made an attempt at house-to-house fighting, but was rounded up in a few hours with minimal losses on either side.
Once inside the village, the American troops went about the business of searching for remaining German soldiers. In the process, they would help themselves to whatever wine and liquor they could find in the basements of the destroyed homes. 59 years later, Chandler remembers how the troops would put the German prisoners to use by having them test the contents of unlabeled bottles. At gunpoint, the Germans would take a generous swig from a bottle. If the prisoner did not drop dead or become ill in about five minutes (none of them did), the Americans would then greedily empty the bottles until many of them were stumbling drunk.
The ease of taking Chaumont had lulled the Americans into a false sense of security. This feeling was about to be shattered. The 26th Volks Grenadier Division, responsible for the Chaumont-Martelange sector, placed the 11th Assault Gun Brigade on the surrounding hills north of the village. Behind the concealment of artillery smoke, ten to fifteen 75mm assault guns rolled down the slopes and towards the unwary American forces.
Many of the American troops were sleeping off the excessive booze or the 2-day non-stop drive to Chaumont. Chandler was sleeping beside the driver’s seat in his tank, being too tired to unfurl his bedroll. At first, he didn’t recognize the report of the German anti-tank gun, but the fog of his sleep-deprived mind quickly cleared as he hears the cry of “Incoming!” He started towards the turret hatch, where the .50 cal. machinegun was located. Before he could get his feet under him, the mass of the tank shook violently and filled with smoke and the smell of burning paint. A 75mm shell had pierced the turret, leaving Chandler inexplicably unharmed. Without thinking, he grabbed his Thompson sub-machinegun and headed through the escape hatch located under the driver’s seat. In an instant, he had been converted from a tank driver to an infantryman.
He took cover in the remains of a shop right next to the burning hulk of his tank. He blindly emptied two magazines towards the belching of the German 75mm gun.
Thick smoke from the burning tanks began to provide cover for the withdrawal of the American men. They fell back to their original position in the woods South of Chaumont, leaving 11 Sherman tanks and about 65 men as casualties.
Since Bastogne was the objective, not Chaumont, it was decided to bypass the German-held village through the woods. That night, as the remaining men and tanks moved around the village, Chandler developed a new appreciation for the life of an infantryman. The snow quickly melted into his boots and his feet went numb. Even when riding on the outside of one of the remaining tanks, the frigid wind chilled him to the core. “I was shaking like a dog trying to shit a peach seed,” he remembers.
The threat of sniper fire from the surrounding woods was another concern he had never had to seriously consider. 24 hours earlier, he had been complaining about the Sherman’s cramped interior and thin armor. That night, he realized that the tight confines had kept him relatively warm and the thin armor was still good enough to stop a bullet.
When they had reached a safe distance from Chaumont, the battalion took stock of its remaining men and equipment. Several crews had lost men in the surprise barrage by the Germans and Chandler and Rogers were assigned to another tank. Much to their delight, they were now manning Capt. Wright’s brand new M4A3E8 Sherman, which was armed with a 76mm gun capable of penetrating German armor. Both men knew that certain privileges would come with manning the company commander’s tank, as well.
The battalion got back on the road and continued north. As the sun faded behind the trees on Dec. 24, the head of the task force neared the village of Warnach. It was here that the 748th would see its hardest fight. As armored infantry neared the village, Germans quickly knocked out two half-tracks with anti-tank rounds. The thick forest and marshes around the village made bypassing at night impossible; the town would have to be taken.
While Shermans armed with 76mm cannons shelled the houses, a light tank platoon and a rifle platoon made their way into the village. After about an hour, only one tank came back, although the majority of the infantry was able to safely retreat. Sometime after midnight, a platoon of Shermans
attempted to enter the town, but were stopped by anti-tank fire.
At daybreak, the assault on Warnach continued. During the night, a few tanks and rifle platoons had made their way around the town and were positioned to attack from three sides. Chandler, now driving the CO’s tank, was not a part of the main assault. He and his crew stayed on the fringes to keep German anti-tank crews from flanking the attacking Shermans. Once the artillery had been eliminated, vicious house-to-house fighting ensued. The German troops showed little interest in surrender and tried several times to escape the confines of the village and surround the American forces within. A few German tank destroyers had survived the initial onslaught and made desperate attempts to get behind the advancing Shermans.
“Every time we saw one of those little bastards come out of the village, we’d blow it straight to Hell,” Chandler remembers with pride. His crew destroyed two of the Marder tank destroyers and crippled a third.
By noon, the battle was over. The Americans had killed 135 Germans and taken an equal number prisoner, while losing another 68 men and four tanks. The battle weary men and tanks of the 748th Tank Battalion were relieved and moved to the rear in order to let them rest before the intense battle predicted at Bastogne.
The battles of Chaumont and Warnach were the heaviest fighting seen by the 748th. Other battalions of the 4th Armored Division pushed on towards Bastogne, taking heavy losses again at Bigonville. As the 748th moved into position to take part in the assault on Bastogne, the weather that had been keeping Allied planes grounded broke and the battle was won before they were able to get there. Once Bastogne had been secured, the 748th remained there as an occupation force, which would be their duty for the remainder of the war in Europe. Shots would still be fired and men would still die, but Clay Chandler never again saw the hell of combat he witnessed on those two days before Christmas 1944.
"It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything."