The ‘music man’ goes to war – Les Barth was gunner in tank destroyer
Les Barth was no soldier. He was a music man.
Being a gunner in a tank destroyer in Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army during World War II was the furthest thing from his mind a lifetime ago. He was 19 years old when drafted in January 1943. Before Uncle Sam got a hold of him, Barth was an entrepreneur with an accordion school in Frond du Lac, Wis., making big bucks.
“I taught accordion. I had a real good business for 11 months until I got drafted,” said Barth, now 80 and living in Port Charlotte, Fla., “I was making more money than my father who was the head man at a big feed and grain business in our town. He got $26 a week and I was making $38 teaching.”
Like a lot of other Johnnys who marched off to war, Barth wasn’t happy about it.
“Until I got wounded at Metz, France, I was a poor soldier. I spent a lot of time at the front bitching about the U.S. Army that took my accordion business away from me back in the States when it drafted me,” he said. “Once I received the Purple Heart, I was a new soldier.”
Barth was a gunner in a 90 mm tank destroyer. These were tank-like vehicles capable of destroying the Germans’ famed 68-ton Tiger tanks with their 88 mm guns. The Tigers were more than a match for the Americans’ Sherman tanks with their 37 mm cannons. But the American tank destroyers were another story.
Barth was the first gunner in Company A, 1st Platoon of the 774th Tank Destroyer Battalion attached to various units in Patton’s army. The 3rd Army dashed across Europe during the closing year of the Second World War, playing havoc with the German war machine.
By the time the war was over, Barth had seen a lot of killing. He had received five battle stars for action during the invasion of Normandy, northern France, the Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe.
The high-water mark for Barth’s unit was at Metz, France and the Moselle River the 3rd Army was crossing. It was facing stiff German resistance from Fort Driant on the far bank of the rain-flooded river.
“This fort hadn’t been taken in European battles in 1,000 years. Our Air Force dropped great big blockbuster bombs on the fort and they just bounced off,” he said. “The Germans had also fortified all of the islands in the river, and our engineers had to somehow build a bridge across the swollen river while being fired on by the enemy. As fast as they built a pontoon bridge, it would get knocked out by the enemy. The weather was rainy and muddy. It was cold and miserable.”
Despite the Germans’ superior position and an almost impregnable fort defense along a flooded Moselle, Patton moved ahead with the assault on the German defenses.
“We lost a lot of men taking Fort Driant,” Barth said. “We fought the Germans at the fort from Sept. 17, 1944, until just before Thanksgiving, about two months. We kept shooting into the German gun emplacements in the fort with our 90 mm gun.
“Once our infantry reached the other side of the river, they attacked the fort with their flamethrowers and burned ’em out. Eventually the Germans, who were left in the fort, surrendered.”
But not before Barth was almost killed.
“I was so skinny I had my dog tag chain doubled up around my neck. I was lying on the ground beside the 90 mm gun we were hauling during a German artillery barrage. An incoming mortar shell killed all three of my buddies who were lying on the ground right beside me. I was hit in the neck with a piece of shrapnel when the mortar shell exploded,” he said. “I didn’t know I was hurt until I looked down and realized the whole front of my shirt was covered in blood. I had been hit in the neck next to my aorta. If the battle had gone on 15 minutes longer, I would have bled to death. If the piece of shrapnel hadn’t hit the double chain on my dog tags first I wouldn’t be here today.”
He was patched up by a medic in the field and sent back to the front.
By the time the 774th Tank Destroyer Battalion reached Cologne, Germany, Barth and his unit had been on the front lines for nine months without a break. They hadn’t had a bath or a hot meal during all that time.
“We ran into this big, beautiful stone house for cover. The Germans were shooting at us with machine guns,” he said. “One guy in our unit who was a farm boy who knew how to butcher and cook decided he was gonna cook us a real dinner. He killed a cow and butchered it. Then he cooked us a wonderful dinner with the best cuts of the cow, potatoes, gravy and vegetables.
“There was a big dining room in this house with a fancy table that could seat about 15 people. Our cook covered the table with a white tablecloth. We used the silverware, china and crystal we found in the house. When we were finished with our feast, we threw the dining room table through the front plate-glass window and destroyed the house.”
The reason his platoon gutted the house is because they found some German SS uniforms in an upstairs closet. The place apparently belonged to a storm trooper with connections.
By the time the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, Barth had fought his way from Utah Beach at Normandy, France, shortly after the D-Day invasion all the way to the Elbe River in Germany, where his unit and the rest of the 3rd Army hooked up with the Russian Army fighting its way west. He and his unit became occupation troops.
“We were stationed in Furth, a suburb of Nuremberg. We became MPs, and I was sent to the Nuremberg Colosseum with a detail of 10 SS men who were chained together with leg irons. Their job was to clean up the cigarette butts on the ground, and my job was to guard them,” he said. “I got up on the podium where Hitler stood to give his speeches while all these SS guys were down below picking up cigarette butts.
“I gave them the Hitler salute and then yelled, ‘Hitler Kuput! Deutchland Kuput.’
“Those SS guys were snarling at me. If they could have gotten their hands on me they would have torn me apart. But I pointed my rifle at them and told them to get back to work picking up the butts,” Barth said.
While performing his MP duties in and around Nuremberg after the war, word circulated that the powers-that-be were looking for some typists.
“I was the only guy in our unit that could type, kinda. I had taken typing in high school, but my girlfriends did most of the typing. I could type a little. So I volunteered my services,” Barth said. “Immediately after I volunteered to be a typist I had to get up before everyone in the morning and our company cook had to get up before me to make me a special breakfast every morning. He wasn’t too happy about it.”
Barth was driven to Nuremberg and taken to the building where the war trials would be held. Everything in all directions around this one large building had been bombed into rubble. There were still dead people and body parts in the rubble of the devastated buildings in the area.
“The building where the Nuremberg war crime trials were held also had a jail where they held the prisoners. I sat at the front door with my Underwood typewriter, typing identification tags for everyone who came through the front door. I would type their name and the country they were from on their tag,” he said.
One day, Reich Fuhrer Hermann Goering walked in escorted by an American intelligence officer.
“He was a big guy in a white military uniform,” Barth recalled. “He had been stripped of his medals. I asked him his name and his country. He replied, ‘Herr Hermann Goering of Germany.’ I typed his name tag. Then they whisked him away.”
In the closing days of the first trial in which Goering was a prime defendant charged with crimes against humanity, he was found in his cell dead. He had taken cyanide.
Barth continued to type name tags all day long for a week. He provided name tags for beautiful French, Italian and Hungarian movie stars accused of collaborating with the Nazis. He typed name tags for other German officers accused of war crimes. He typed name tags for ordinary citizens accused of collaborating with the Nazis.
By the time the trials began, he was transferred to another post. Eventually he returned to the States and began teaching accordion to many of the students who had taken his classes before the war. He did this for 15 years.
“When Elvis came along with his guitar, I could see the handwriting on the wall,” Barth said. “I gave up teaching accordion and opened a music store in Fond du Lac, Wis.
“We sold everything from church organs to guitar picks. I had my store 33 years until the doctor told me I had to retire at 52 and find some place warm to move to because of my high blood pressure.”
Barth and his wife, Gladys, moved to Port Charlotte 28 years ago.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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my dad dick fifield served in patton’s 3rd army 774th tank destroyer batallion. he died oct 24,2013