The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Remembering Our Heroes

October 17, 2011

Riding with Patton: WWII-era tank commander shares story of advancing into Germany with the 3rd Army

ENID — Bill Pospisil, 92, has enjoyed a long life farming the land he loves and raising a family outside of Carrier.

That life nearly was cut short in the Second World War, when a much younger Bill Pospisil was commanding a tank in the 3rd Army’s thrust into Germany.

Pospisil entered the Army before the attack on Pearl Harbor, when men were being drafted as “selectees” to receive training that could be used in the event America entered the war.

“I had a pretty low number, so I came up pretty quick,” Pospisil said. He was inducted into the Army on March 18, 1941.

Pospisil was assigned to receive one year of active duty training at Fort Sill, then return to civilian life to await possible future service.

“I didn’t really care at the time,” Pospisil said. “I just figured I’d get a year’s training and then return to the farm.”

His years of working on farm equipment were put to work at Fort Sill, where he was trained as a mechanic for the Army’s Sherman tank.

His plans to return to the family farm were put on hold when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, nine months into his one-year tour.

“They tacked three years onto my obligation pretty fast,” Pospisil said.

The Army began scouring the young recruits at Fort Sill for replacements to be sent to fight in the Philippines.

“One day they came and lined everybody up and asked for two volunteers, and I shot my hand up as fast as I could,” Pospisil said. He was selected, but it turned out to not be for service in the Philippines. Rather, Pospisil was assigned to receive advanced tank training at Fort Knox, Ky.

Pospisil was assigned to a specialized unit of the 748th Tank Battalion, developing tank night-fighting tactics.

The tanks had their main guns removed and replaced with powerful searchlights meant to illuminate enemy tanks.

Pospisil spent the first three years of the war training in the night-fighting tactics at Fort Knox and later at a secretive base at Camp Bouse, Ariz.

Pospisil rose to the rank of sergeant and became a tank commander, in charge of a Sherman medium tank and its five crew members.

The 748th Tank Battalion was detached from its training duties to deploy for Europe in April 1944. Pospisil embarked on the RMS Queen Elizabeth, a British luxury liner converted to serve as a troop transport.

“We loaded on the Queen Elizabeth on Palm Sunday morning, and by Holy Saturday evening we were in Scotland,” he said.

From Scotland, the 748th Battalion moved to southern England, where troops were amassing for the D-day invasion.

On D-Day, Pospisil’s tank, along with the other tanks outfitted with lights instead of main guns, were held in reserve aboard ships in the English Channel.

“Things got pretty bad on D-Day, and they just kept us anchored out there in case they needed to put us in somewhere to fight at night,” Pospisil said. He landed at the Omaha beachhead about one week after D-Day.

When Pospisil and his crew landed, American troops were busy fighting through Normandy’s bocage country, farmland broken up by ancient hedgerows and stone walls that restricted movement and offered the Germans a seemingly endless series of defensive lines.

The 748th’s night-fighting tanks were held in reserve during the fighting at Normandy and much of the drive toward Germany due to not having a mounted main gun. The lack of a main gun and light armor would have made the tanks easy prey for German Panzer tanks.

Pospisil said he and other Sherman tank commanders were well aware of the odds they faced if they engaged German tanks in a gun battle.

“We knew they had a better tank than we did, and they had a better gun than we did,” he said. “If those Germans would have had the money and the materials we had available in the U.S., we never could have whipped them.”

Pospisil and his crew were assigned with the 748th Tank Battalion to Patton’s Third Army after Allied troops broke out of Normandy and began advancing toward Paris.

Pospisil remembered Patton as a tough-talking general capable of living up to his words.

“He was rough and we all respected the man,” Pospisil said. “Patton was smart ... if they had let him run the war instead of some of those other guys, it would have been over quicker.”

Patton’s troops, including Pospisil, were called into one of the most dramatic episodes of the war in December 1944, when the German army launched a last-ditch offensive in the Ardennes region.

The 101st Airborne Division was surrounded and cut off at Bastogne, and German troops were threatening Allied supply lines. The Third Army was sent north to break through the German attack at Bastogne and relieve the 101st Airborne troops. By then, Pospisil’s tank had been refitted with a main gun, but he luckily never had to directly engage a German tank.

“We got shot at plenty of times, but we didn’t get hurt,” Pospisil dismissively said of his combat experience in the Battle of the Bulge.

Defeat in the Battle of the Bulge sent the German army into a fighting retreat that ultimately would end in Berlin.

In March 1945 Patton sent the Fifth Infantry Division across the Rhine. Pospisil’s tank, outfitted for amphibious operations, was one of the first American tanks to enter Germany.

Pospisil had only ever used the amphibious rig, consisting of an inflated canvas skirt and temporary propellers, once before when he set out across the Rhine.

“You wouldn’t think you could float a 30-ton tank across a river like that, but it worked,” he said.

Pospisil remembered the Germans’ desperate attempts to slow down the American offensive as it breached Germany. Those attempts included mining roads upon which the American troops would have to travel.

“They would usually send the infantry out in front of us to probe for mines, but sometimes they’d miss one,” Pospisil said. “One day we were stopped for the engineers to clear mines in front of us and one of them stepped on a mine. We saw a leg go this way, arms go that way, and that was it.”

Pospisil said the threat of such a violent end always was near.

“There were risks at all times, all around you,” he said.

But, even with the constant risk, Pospisil said he and his crew were optimistic about their chances.

“We knew the war was going to end soon, and we were looking forward to going home,” he said.

The combat risks caught up to Pospisil and his tank crew in April 1945, less than a month before the German surrender, during the fight for the city of Neumarkt.

“We were at an intersection, and there was another tank a block away, and a German 88 got us both,” Pospisil said. Both tanks were struck by shells from a German 88 mm gun, one of the Germans’ deadlier anti-tank weapons of the war.

The round went through Pospisil’s tank driver and struck the gunner, instantly killing both men. Shrapnel from the round sliced open Pospisil’s arm.

He had little time to mourn the two crew members lost in the attack.

“You train with those guys, and you know them really well, and then you see them die with an arm’s reach of you ... but they toughen you up for things like that, I guess,” Pospisil said.

He was left in a disabled tank, with no radio or usable gun, still in the Germans’ line of fire.

With few other options, Pospisil climbed out of the tank and took his chances on foot.

“Those Germans saw me trying to get across the street, and they started shooting at me with a machine gun,” Pospisil said. “There was a big tree planted right there in the middle of the street, and that tree saved my life.”

He took cover behind the tree until the German gun crew shifted its fire to another target.

“Then I just got up and ran as fast as I could the rest of the way across that street,” Pospisil said.

He made it on foot to an aid station and was transferred to a hospital behind the lines in Nancy, France.

Pospisil still was recuperating in that hospital when Germany capitulated on May 8, 1945.

Following the war, Pospisil made good on his plans to return home. He picked up where he left off, farming outside Carrier, and later met and married his wife of almost 65 years, Elverda. The couple raised two children and still reside on their farm north of Carrier.

Pospisil said he considered his brief career in the Army “a good education.”

“I learned a lot of things, and I got to see a lot of country at government expense,” he said with a laugh.

In a more somber tone, he reflected on the dangers he faced, and the price paid by the many men who never returned home.

“I wouldn’t ever want to go back through all the stuff I went through,” Pospisil said, “and I wouldn’t take a million dollars for what I’ve been through, either.”

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Remembering Our Heroes