It was the day after Christmas 1944 when the 704th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division of Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army broke through the German lines at Bastogne to rescue the 101st Airborne Division, dug in and holding back the enemy onslaught at the Battle of the Bulge.
Former Sgt. John Beck Jr. of Punta Gorda Isles, Fla. and the other four soldiers in his tank destroyer were in the thick of it.
“In the middle of the fighting for Bastogne we got word that a German Tiger tank was hiding behind a building we were approaching. He didn’t know we were coming so he pulled out of his hiding place,” Beck recalled.
“The first thing I saw was the barrel of its cannon sticking out from behind the building,” he said. “I had to wait until I could see the tread on the side of the tank before I pulled the trigger.”
Beck’s tank destroyer was no match for the 68-ton Tiger tank, with its fearsome 88-millimeter gun. A shot from the lumbering German tank’s cannon could punch a hole clean through his lightly armored American rig armed with a 76 millimeter gun that wouldn’t penetrate the 7.2 -inch armor on the enemy tank’s front.
“I shot the tread off the tank and crippled him. All he could do was go around in circles with the tread off. The Tiger crew jumped out and ran,” Beck said.
The fighting in and around Bastogne was heavy. There was a lot of small arms fire to contend with as the 704th broke the German resistance. The enemy’s Stuka dive bombers bombed the advancing 3rd Army as it came charging through the snow and cold that blanketed the Bastogne section of the front.
“Our paratroopers were cheering and yelling when they saw us. There was a fellow from my neighborhood back in Queens, N.Y. in a foxhole at Bastogne with the 101st that saw me as I drove by on the top of my tank destroyer,” he said. “I didn’t recognize him because he was covered with dirt. He told me the story after the war.”
A few days later, the German’s greatest offensive on the Western Front during World War II collapsed. What was left of 600,000 German troops fell back toward the “Fatherland” in disarray. More than 1 million men had fought in Adolf Hitler’s final failing gamble.
Patton and the 3rd Army were in Belgium when the Allies first realized the German offensive was underway. All the reinforcements that could quickly be dispatched including Patton’s army were turned around and sent back to help stop the enemy offensive.
“We traveled day and night to get there in 36 hours,” Beck said. “They said it was the greatest Army maneuver ever made in military history.”
There were some close calls for the soldiers in his tank destroyer on their way to stop the German advance at Bastogne.
“We backed our tank destroyer into the Vanholdt Woods in France. What we didn’t know was that half the German army was in the woods, too. They knocked out our tank, but the five of us got out and ran down a hill and got away,” Beck said. Two days later, we had another tank destroyer.”
The 704th Tank Battalion was also attacked while on the road, by lone Messerschmidt fighter plane.
“We were in a column on our way to Bastogne moving as fast as we could when this ME-109 made a strafing run over us. The second time around we’re waiting for him. I was on my ring-mounted .50 caliber machine-gun atop my tank, shooting away at him, when he crashed a short distance away. We all took credit for shooting him down,” he said with a smile.
“On the way to Bastogne, we would see Patton along the side of the road waving us on. I don’t know how he got ahead of us all the time, but he did. Patton was right there breaking it up and getting things moving again. He was a relentless man,” he said.
“He was a great general. Patton had a theory that the Germans didn’t shoot as well on the run. That’s why he never wanted to stop. The only time he stopped in the field was when he ran out of gas. For the amount of territory we took our casualties were less than (Gen. Bernard) Montgomery’s and he was slow in advancing.”
Before the war was over, Beck and his crew would have three tank destroyers shot out from under them. The last one was the worst. What the destroyers had going for them was speed. They were powered by a nine-cylinder radial Wright airplane engine. They could reach a top speed of 60 mph, much faster than any tank. Eventually their 76 millimeter gun was replaced with a 90 millimeter cannon that allowed them to take on the Tiger’s fire power head on,
After the 704th completed its advance at Bastogne, the battalion had been on the front lines for months. As part of the 4th Armored Division in Patton’s 3rd Army, it was moving as fast as possible across Western Europe, heading east. It had landed at Utah Beach two weeks after D-Day. The 3rd Army broke out in Normandy at St. Lo and advanced south to Avanches, Rennes, Lorient and then it turned north and took Nantes, Angers, Orleans, Tyroes, Bayen Meuse and finally Bastogne.
“After Bastogne, we got our first big rest. We hadn’t had any time off since we came ashore at Utah Beach six months earlier,” Beck said. “Then we moved on taking one little town after another. At one point we had a case of French champagne under the floorboards of our tank destroyer where extra ammo was stored. We were drinking French champagne when we ran out of water. We even brushed our teeth with French champagne.”
By March 1945 the 4th Armored Division crossed the Rhine River on a pontoon bridge at Worms, Germany.
“Sometime later, we were on high ground with our tank destroyer when a German freight train came through. It was about 1,000 yards away when I started firing at one of the passing cars. The whole train blew sky high. It was loaded with ammunition. Later we went down there where the train blew up. The hole it made in the ground was huge.”
It wasn’t long afterward that Beck and his men were seriously injured during the closing days of the war.
“It was April 2, 1945 and my tank destroyer was having mechanical problems. We had been back getting it worked on when I headed back up toward the front along the German border with Czechoslovakia. We were told there were a few lightly armed Germans in a woods we had to pass. What we didn’t know was that there was an 88 (cannon) hidden in the woods, too,” he said.
As they tried to flush the Germans out of the trees, their tank destroyer was nailed by the German 88.
“The tank caught on fire when we were hit. I was shot off the top of our destroyer and one of our drivers was killed. They kept shooting at us as we were piling out of the destroyer,” he said.
“I got hit in the shoulder by a bullet that went right through my binoculars,” Beck said. “When it did, it exploded the Bakelite from the binoculars and the glass from the binoculars went into one of my lungs. That caused me all kinds of medical problems.
“I was lying out in the road next to my burning destroyer. I could hear the Germans shooting our wounded soldiers nearby. I played dead. I was lying out there four or five hours until they knocked out the German resistance,” he said. “Eventually they put me on a stretcher on a jeep and took me back to a MASH hospital. From there I was flown to Paris and took a hospital ship back to the States.”
He spent the next 10 months recuperating from his wounds in a military hospital on Staten Island, N.Y. before he was discharged.
Sixty years later, sitting at a table in his Punta Gorda Isles, Fla. home, the 81-year-old Beck recalled the first time he got a good look at Patton.
“Patton gave us a pep talk in England before we left for France. He was like our coach. He was all decked out in his riding boots and his ivory-handled revolvers with his swagger stick standing on a stage in a field talking to us.
“I don’t want you to die for your country. I want those German bastards to die for their country,” he told us.
Beck followed the general’s instructions to the letter. He survived the war. Like other old soldiers who followed Patton into battle a life time ago, he believes the general was a great leader of men.
Name: John J. Beck, Jr.
Hometown: Halloran, Long Island, N.Y.
Current: Punta Gorda Isles, Fla.
Entered Service: Nov. 19, 1942
Discharged: March 8, 1946
Unit: Company B, 704th Tank Destroyer Battalion, 4th Armored Division, 3rd Army
Commendations: Purple Heart with three oak leaf clusters, Presidential Unit Citation, European African Middle Eastern Campaign Ribbon with five stars: Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes and Central European Campaign, World War II Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal.
Married: Rosemary Adinolfi
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida and is republished with permission.
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