Surratt among those who fought for every foot of French soil
Twenty-year-old Private First Class James “Jim” W. Surratt drove his U.S. Army M8 “Greyhound” light armored 6-by-6 car ashore on the beach at Normandy only days after the initial assault on June 6, 1944 with nervous anticipation.
He was the driver on a scout vehicle attached to the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion. It was his crew’s responsibility to seek out German Panzer tank units only miles inland from the toe hold Allied Forces had wrestled from the Germans on D-Day and to call in support from the unit’s M18 Hellcat tracked anti-tank vehicle crews. Jim enjoyed driving his Greyhound because it was the very first vehicle that he had ever rode in that could reach highway speeds of 55 mph. A big improvement from his earlier days back home in Davidson County, where mules and horses were still a familiar sight on family farms.
His unit had to fight for every foot of French soil that they covered in the weeks and months ahead. Today Jim recalls that it was one of the most difficult and trying experiences of his life. “It was hard on us. So hard.”
It was also frightening. Jim related that on one eventful day in the hedgerow line fields, not far inland from the Normandy beach staging area, that his crew took advantage of a small building nestled against one such hedgerow to take shelter and a very brief respite from the day’s fighting. He parked the Greyhound beside of the building using it and the hedgerow as cover from German units in the area.
Suddenly the ground began to shake and the air filled with the unmistakable sounds of a German tank pulling up on the opposite side of the hedgerow. Jim’s fellow crewmembers all looked at each other in total surprise as the massive gun barrel on the German tank slid through an opening in the hedgerow and came to a stop only feet away from their vehicle! Jim says that his crew just knew that it was all over for them; however, heartbeats passed and his crew realized that the German tank crew had no idea that the American Armored Scout vehicle was on the other side of the hedgerow.
What to do? Jim’s crew made the decision to fire off as many rounds as possible from their main gun directly at the concealed German tank and retreat back around the shelter to relative safety to avoid the German’s return fire that was sure to come. Jim’s crew fired off three rounds in seconds directly at the German tank, watching them ricochet off into the air as they bounced off of the superior German tank’s heavy armor. “We figured that would give them something to think about long enough for us to get out of there!” Jim says now from the safety and comfort of his room in the N.C. State Veterans Home in Salisbury.
Jim is now 90 years old and his life is far less nerve wracking than it was in the days following D-Day. He still tells others about his experiences in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge as his unit helped defend the 101st Airborne in the siege at Bastogne. The infantry had learned to open holes in their lines and to allow the German tanks inside, then shut the trap behind them, effectively closing off any chance of German infantry support. Jim’s anti-tank units would then begin firing round after round into the trapped German tanks. In the end the score card read 39 German tanks and numerous other German vehicles lost to less than eight of the 705th’s vehicles lost.
Jim is proud of his service in World War II, as are most all of State Veterans Home residents who served during WWII. There are currently 53 such honored guests in the Salisbury facility, each with their own stories of courage and the hardships that they endured so that others might enjoy freedom. Today I take a moment to share just a small part of that history and specifically that pertaining to the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Our WWII veterans are a national treasure and I encourage everyone to take a moment from our busy lives to talk with these men and women while we can still enjoy their memories one-on-one. Too soon that chapter of our nation’s history will be forever closed to us and the Americans whom Tom Brokaw named “The Greatest Generation” will be just a memory to those of us who live on.
Over 42 years, Ronnie Miller has built many a brick wall. For the past 17 years, the masonry instructor has... read more