Wineka column: One of Patton’s tank battalions fights a new war — a war of attrition
(Editor’s note: After this story was published Sunday morning, the Post learned that Leo Showfety passed away overnight in his room at the Hampton Inn in Salisbury. Showfety was 90.)
SALISBURY — Leo Showfety says he goes to these reunions of the 737th Tank Battalion to hear the fish stories. Each year, he says, spreading his hands wider apart, the tales get bigger.
The men spend much of their time reliving their intense training in Oregon, how seasick they were on the boat ride from the States to Europe, trying to get out of “the Hedgerows” after landing at Normandy, their brief, distant encounters with Gen. George S. Patton and how uncomfortable things could be inside a tank when German Tigers were shooting their 88-mm cannons at them.
But overall, they tend to downplay their World War II courage and heroism. They look on each other as brothers, and the reunions are simply family getting together.
“They’re closer than brothers,” says Polly Deal, wife of Faith’s Jim Deal, one of the battalion members.
Unless you ask, Jim Deal won’t tell you how shrapnel ripped into his legs after he tripped a land mine.
Showfety, who drove a light Stewart tank, mentions only as an aside how he was blinded and hospitalized for several weeks. Bob Kluttz doesn’t readily bring up the time he saw a Tiger take out the tanks in front and behind him and figured he was next.
“I just think these gentlemen were made of tougher stuff,” says Brenda Henderson, one of Showfety’s daughters.
The men of the 737th Tank Battalion are fighting a different war today — a war of attrition. Only seven men, ranging in age from 87 to 91, made it for this weekend’s annual reunion, held for the first time in Salisbury.
The numbers have been dropping steadily each year. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, when the group met in Greensboro, there were 32, 21 and 16, respectively. Last year in Columbus, Ga., there were nine.
Showfety, secretary-treasurer for the tankers, who became known during the war as “Patton’s Spearheaders,” says he is sure less than 100 of the men from the original 737th Tank Battalion still survive.
The battalion arrived in Europe in 1944 with 750 men and was replenished as its casualties mounted.
In recent years, the men’s children and grandchildren have kept the reunion going. Deal’s daughter, Melissa Waller, and his granddaughter, Jordan Waller, combined forces this year to bring the men together in Salisbury. Deal and Kluttz live in Rowan County.
“I would not have him miss one of these in the world,” says Kluttz’s daughter, Brenda Pulliam.
This is the 66th reunion, gatherings that started with a cookout in Greensboro in 1947. It was a men-only reunion at first, but gradually families became involved. In North Carolina, the reunions have been held in Greensboro, Hickory, Boone, Fayetteville, Asheville, Morganton, Charlotte and now Salisbury.
Other reunion locations have been Birmingham, Ala.; Atlanta, Ga.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Montgomery, Ala.; Bellevue, Wash.; Huntsville, Ala; Columbus, Ga.; Virginia Beach, Va.; and Louisville, Ky.
The 737th Tank Battalion definitely had a Southern flavor, comprised mainly of recently drafted 18- and 19-year-olds from North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.
“Buck privates in the rear ranks,” Showfety says, describing how green they were.
Showfety, who lives in Greensboro, says much of the N.C. contingent of the battalion came from Salisbury, Fayetteville and the Hickory/Valdese areas. Rowan County alone had 32 men in the battalion. Only about 10 were from Greensboro.
Jack Pritchett, who grew up in Albertville, Ala., says he remembers hearing at Fort Lewis, Wash., where the men received their tank training, that 600 of the battalion’s 750 soldiers were from the three Southern states.
Of those 600, 150 were from Alabama, 150 from Georgia and 300 from North Carolina. Pritchett says 85 percent of the men were 18 or 19 years old. Most reported first to Fort Bragg before shipping out for Washington state.
“That’s why Hitler gave up,” one of the reunion attendees says, “because of the farmer boys from the South.”
It’s difficult to summarize adequately what the 737th Tank Battalion accomplished. The battalion participated in five major battles, including Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland and Central Europe.
The men spent 299 days in actual combat, starting with their landing at Omaha Beach on July 12, 1944. They lost six officers and 58 enlisted men in action. In addition, one officer and 20 enlisted men were reported missing.
A tank battalion consisted of 59 medium (Sherman) tanks and 17 light (Stewart) tanks, along with the 750 men.
In brief, the 737th Tank Battalion, part of Patton’s Third Army, was the first to cross the Moselle and Meurthe rivers, the first armored unit of the XII Corps to touch German soil and the first armored unit of the Third Army to cross the Rhine River and enter Frankfurt.
It saw some its fiercest fighting during the Battle of the Bulge.
In France, the battalion was attached to the 35th Infantry Division. In Luxembourg, Germany and Czechoslovakia, it was part of the 5th Infantry Division. In German occupation duties, it was attached to the 83rd.
According to a history written on the 737th, when Patton saw the battalion crossing the Moselle River, he said, “that’s the way tanks should fight.”
In a letter sent to the officers and men of the 5th Infantry Division, to which the tanks were attached, Patton said, “To my mind, history does not record incidents of greater valor than your assault crossings of the Sauer and the Rhine. You crossed so many rivers I am persuaded you have web feet.”
The battalion’s men received 400 Purple Hearts, 22 commendations, the President Unit Citation and the French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star.
The guys attending this weekend’s reunion included Deal, Kluttz, Showfety, Pritchett, Newling Richey of Greensboro, Lloyd Helton of Lenoir and Manny Perez, who lives near Chicago.
The battalion included A, B, C and D companies, Service Co., Headquarters, Headquarters Co. and a medical detachment.
Showfety drove a light tank — fast, but not too potent with its 37-mm cannon. “I had a BB gun,” he says.
Pritchett and Richey teamed up in a tank wrecker, as part of Service Co. They became lifelong friends, often spending vacations at each other’s homes.
“I did more of the work, and Jack did more of the driving,” Richey recalls.
Kluttz and Deal were Sherman tank gunners in A and C companies, respectively. Perez drove a tank, and Helton was a loader, who recalls with a laugh the time he also was an itchy-fingered gunner.
“Wait till I tell you what to shoot at,” his tank commander yelled after Helton unleashed a round.
Most of the men arrived at Fort Lewis in 1943 and spent many months in training, including maneuvers in Oregon and artillery firing in Yakima, Wash.
Deal remembers training that included blackout driving in the dessert and how deathly close the tanks were, without ever knowing it, to a canyon-like crater.
The battalion took a train across the country to the Camp Miles Standish staging area between Boston and Providence, R.I. The men performed their calisthenics on a frozen pond.
On Feb. 12, 1944, they set sail for Europe on a liberty boat called the S.S. Exchange.
The men have no fond memories of the rolling, 12-day trip.
“We were all so sick, we didn’t care whether we died or not,” Richey recalls.
On its arrival in England, the battalion stayed at an estate called Arbury Park, near Nuneaton, Warwickshire. The men didn’t see a tank until March 22, and training followed until the men left Arbury June 23, 1944.
One big regret about leaving Arbury was saying goodbye to a local bakery that made potato bread.
“We wore that place out,” Richey says. Showfety also had his fill of fish and chips while in England. He remembers seeing the newsprint on the fish from the newspapers they always came wrapped in.
Arriving in Normandy on July 12-13, the battalion had a rude introduction to war.
“Everything was hedged in and mined,” a battalion history says. “The air was putrid from the carcasses of horses, cows and soldiers. Shells whined continuously overhead from everywhere.
“The villages were foul wrecks of hollowness. ... We lived and learned to pray in foxholes.”
Though the battalion was only 4.5 miles from St. Lo, it could hardly move until 3,000 Allied planes dropping bombs on the German defense paved the way.
Richey recalls watching those planes, three abreast, pass over him for at least an hour-and-a-half.
“From there on, it was hell on wheels,” Showfety says.
History was made, and the 737th was a major player in its writing.
The stories flood from the men — the skinning of cows for steak, the sightings of Patton passing by, being knocked off tanks by nearby shells, wearing hand-me-down leather helmets from high school and college football teams, the cold weather and suffering frostbite, driving their tanks over pontoon bridges and times in French and English hospitals.
Hardly fish stories.
Deal returned to Rowan County after the war and worked for 34 years, many of them as a car man, at Spencer Shops. The men toured the N.C. Transportation Museum at Spencer Shops as part of their weekend.
Kluttz became a brick mason and contractor here.
Helton worked in the textile industry, fixing sewing machines for Blue Bell. Perez became a printing department supervisor in Illinois.
Pritchett retired from NASA, where he built a career in its manufacturing and engineering department in Huntsville, Ala.
Richey joined a Chevrolet dealership as a service technician and eventually became a service and parts department manager. Showfety worked for Southern Bell and Sears in Greensboro.
Besides touring the transportation museum, the reunion men and their family members had lunches at Faith Soda Shop and Gary’s Barbecue, enjoyed a catered dinner by Debbie Suggs at the Faith American Legion building and visited the Price of Freedom military museum in China Grove.
Additional time was left for catching up with each other at the Hampton Inn. Almost 30 businesses and individuals made donations of goods or money to make the reunion possible, according to Melissa and Jordan Waller.
With family members who accompanied the veterans, 44 people in all took part. Polly Deal was the only spouse attending.
But in the end it was about brothers.
“We’ve been real close, and it’s been real good just to be together,” Richey says.
For Showfety, the reunions are about companionship and brotherly love.
“It’s our good luck and good fortune that we stayed together and became friends,” he says.
The good fortune is all ours.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.