Ninety-one-year-old former Sgt. Roy Kroesen of Rotonda commanded “The Priest,” a 105 mm, M-7 self-propelled Howitzer in World War II that looked a lot like a tank. He served with the 696th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, which came ashore at Pont-Scorff, France, on Aug. 7, 1944, and fought through France, Belgium and Germany, eventually meeting the Russian Army at the Elbe River near Berlin.
But the blue-eyed, bright-faced smiling former soldier remembers little about the major battles in which he and his unit took part during the Second World War. An elaborate map produced by his outfit after the war showing the circuitous route the 696th took as it fought its way across Europe was given to the survivors. Framed on his wall at home, this was the old soldier’s most specific reminder of where he was and what he accomplished during the war.
The 696th Armored Field Artillery was attached to Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army during the Battle of the Bulge. His unit helped rescue the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, Belgium, during the Bulge.
“All I remember about the Battle of the Bulge is that it was cold as hell,” Kroesen said. “We drove the Germans back at the Bulge. They were running away when we finished with them there.”
Long before his unit reached Belgium, and the biggest battle on the Western Front, it saw action at Chateaubriant, La Fleche, Zedome, Orleans, Sens, Troyes, Houdelain Court and Nancy, the elaborate map on Kroesen ‘s wall notes.
At Nancy, Patton’s 3rd Army — including Kroesen ‘s 696th Battalion — was held up waiting for more ammunition and gas. In November 1944, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander in Europe, gave the goods to British Gen. Bernard Montgomery, commander of the 21st Army Group, on Patton’s flank.
Asked about these battles, Kroesen smiled and said, “I don’t remember; it was all so long ago.”
What he does recall is going into every French town and city on their way through Europe, and he and his buddies being met by greeting committees.
“The French had bottles of wine for us in every town we went into. Then one day we got to this town and there was no wine for the liberators and no committee to meet us. It was Aachen, Germany, the first enemy town we captured along the Belgium-German border,” he said.
On through Germany his unit fought as it captured Waldenburg, Pommelte, Barby and Winterswick. The 696th finally reached the Elbe River near Berlin.
“From March 27 to April 20, the 696th Battalion fought in support of the 2nd Armored Division. On April 21 to May 3, it supported the 83rd Infantry Division, and on April 15, it became the first American armored battalion to cross the Elbe,” according to the map.
Kroesen ‘s unit made contact with the Russian Army at the Elbe on May 4, 1945 — four days before Germany surrendered.
The map also notes he and his unit fought in the Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland and Central European campaigns. The 696th Armored Field Artillery Battalion was on the front line for nine months, drove 2,275 total combat miles and fired 75,974 rounds of 105 mm shells at the enemy.
All Kroesen is certain about is that he was there on the front line in his M-7 self-propelled Howitzer fighting through it all.
For the past few years he has lived with his daughter, Mary Hutchinson, and her family in Rotonda. Almost 30 years ago, Kroesen and his wife, Mary, moved to this area from Pennsylvania; she has since passed away. He was born in Trenton, N.J.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009 and is republished with permission.
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