Escaping Nazi Germany

Military Training

The M4 Sherman Tank

Arrival in France

Promoted to Tank Commander

Alsatian Villages and Facing a Tiger

Comparing the Sherman to German Tanks

Breaking Through the Siegfried Line

Retreat from Rittershoffen

Rescuing Friends and Taking Ingolstadt

Combat Fatigue and General Patton

Liberating Dachau and POW Camps

War's End and Postwar Life

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Fred Hirsekorn was born in Schonlanke, Germany in May 1924. There were about five generations of Hirsekorns who were born in the town. Over the years his family built up a business which included a restaurant, hotel, and butcher shop. The business was located right next to the market square. The Hirsekorn Hotel was the watering hole for the farmers who came to town on Fridays to sell their produce. Things went well for them until Hitler came to power. Then, in January 1933, things changed. The Hirsekorns, who were Jewish, were persecuted. On numerous occasions Hirsekorn was beat up by other kids. He was kicked out of the Protestant school he was attended when the school became an Adolph Hitler School. His father always believed that since he had been awarded two Iron Crosses that his family would be left alone. They were not. People, including the Brown Shirts of the SA, continually broke in the business. The police would not do anything about it. One night someone went to his father and warned him that he and his family would be arrested if they did not leave. Hirsekorn was sent to Berlin and was joined there less two weeks later by his parents and grandmother. The family was forced to abandon everything. In March 1936 the family moved to the United States. After 7 December [Annotators Note: 7 December 1941] he wanted to enlist. He was 17 going on 18 when he volunteered for the navy's V12 program. He wanted to get into the war. He passed the written exam and his physical. After the physical he was pulled out of line by several officers who told him that since he had only been a citizen for one year that he was not qualified to become an officer in the US Navy. He went home very disheartened. Then, in early 1943, he was drafted into the army. Hirsekorn does not recall exactly where he was when he learned about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor but he does recall that he took it very personally. He was hopeful that the United States would get into the war to keep the Nazis under Hitler from overcoming the world. His father was working as a butcher but quit his job and went to work for North American Aviation at a bomber assembly plant. They all wanted to do their part.

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Fred Hirsekorn was drafted in early 1943. After induction at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas he was sent to Camp Campbell, Kentucky with the 20th Armored Division. The underlying training was to learn how to follow orders. They also trained to assemble, disassemble, and fire various types of weapons. Hirsekorn also learned to drive a tank. Hirsekorn was just learning how to drive a car when he went into the service. He had never driven a tractor or a truck before but he now found himself in a tank. Eventually he got the hang of it. Other training taught them to identify enemy aircraft and tanks. They did a lot of physical training and had to go through a gas chamber. They crawled under barbed wire with machine guns being fire above their heads. They also learned to fire their cannons. Basic training at Camp Campbell took six months. When his basic training was completed, Hirsekorn took the advice of his captain and applied for the ASTP, Army Specialized Training Program. He was accepted and sent to Ohio State University. Hirsekorn had two roommates who helped him get through calculus. The ASTP broke up a number months after Hirsekorn started his classes. He was sent back to his company which was then undergoing maneuvers Louisville. From there they went back to Camp Campbell to get reequipped then headed overseas. This was in October 1944. When Hirsekorn left the ASTP he returned to his old unit which was Company C, 25th Tank Battalion, 14th Armored Division. To prepare for overseas deployment they conducted a few more maneuvers and had a couple weeks of additional training. They practiced firing all of the weapons on the tanks. They also took this time to get acquainted with their crew members. It was a very short time before they headed to New York and shipped out.

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Fred Hirsekorn started out as a gunner on an M4 Sherman medium tank. He had made PFC by the end of basic training. He had lost his stripe when he went to the ASTP but when he joined the 14th Armored Division he was promoted to corporal and gunner. As a gunner Hirsekorn did a lot of training on properly aiming the cannon. Communication among the crew was also practiced. There were new platoon leaders in the unit it took a little while getting used to them. Hirsekorn initially believed that the Sherman tank was totally invincible however some of its shortcomings became evident even before they went into combat. The tanks were stocked with three types of 75 millimeter projectiles. They carried smoke, armor piercing, and explosive. The ammunition was all stored under the turret. There were three crew members stationed in the turret. In order to get to the shell they wanted they had to rotate the turret. The Sherman also had an escape hatch in the bottom. It was a tight squeeze but they learned to use it to get out. The driver and the bow gunner, who was also the assistant driver, could not get out of the hatch in the bottom. They had to go out of the hatches above their positions, which was difficult if the turret was over them. The Sherman was very susceptible to the fire of the 88 millimeter guns on the German Tiger tanks. Those rounds would go right through their tanks. The 75 millimeter armor piercing rounds they fired would just bounce right off the sides of the Tigers. Hirsekorn experienced that first hand.

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A great deal of camaraderie had been established in the unit, especially among the guys Fred Hirsekorn had been in the ASTP with. The vast majority of them were all ready to get into the fight. Leaving family was tough but it was minor compared to the feeling they had that they were going overseas to beat those guys [Annotators Note: the Germans]. Hirsekorn went overseas with 5000 other soldiers aboard the converted luxury ship Santa Rosa. They were not far out of New York when the food began to deteriorate. The bad food combined with the motion of the sea caused a great deal of seasickness. Eventually, they joined a convoy for the seven day trip overseas. None of the men knew where they were going but with the exception of the food problem the guys were a very upbeat bunch. Finally, they arrived at Marseilles but had to wait to disembark because damage done during the landings was still being repaired. Hirsekorn knew that that if he were captured he would not have survived because he was Jewish and that fact was marked on his dog tags. Still, it did not matter to him. When they first went ashore in Marseilles they had to clean the Cosmoline out of their guns. A camp site was set up by the engineers where they got their tanks prepared for combat. They had no toilets, only boxes set up on a hillside. Hirsekorn was sitting on one of the boxes one day when a French woman with a little girl approached him. The little girl asked him for cigarettes. In addition to cleaning their weapons they also test fired the guns. Eventually, they loaded their tanks up on some flat cars and moved about ten or 12 miles to the front.

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Fred Hirsekorn's first combat was in the Vosges Mountains. They moved so much and so fast that they all lost track of exactly where they were and where they were going. It was not until Hirsekorn looked at the maps after the war that he realized where they were. At Epinal they did some more test firing then moved into the line. Their first engagement was to take a small town. Hirsekorn was a gunner at the time. The proceeded down the line to an area where there were some woods to their left and as they prepared to enter the town an antitank gun fired on them from the woods. The tanks all turned their guns on the woods and fired into them. The commander of Hirsekorn's tank told him to turn his gun to the right which he did. The tank commander thought that the Germans were trying to trick the American tankers. After they got into the town Hirsekorn's tank commander jumped off the tank and went to talk to a woman he saw on the road. Moments after he left a call went out for everyone to mount up and move out immediately. A German counter attack was coming. Right there on the spot Hirsekorn was made tank commander. After the battle the tank commanders got together to talk about their experiences and joke around a little. Hirsekorn never saw his original tank commander again. In the Vosges Mountains they did very little cross country maneuvering. They typically stuck to the roads and supported the armored infantry which also supported the tanks. Hirsekorn's roommate was in one of the units he supported, the 62nd Armored Infantry. The armored infantry battalions swept the flanks for the tanks as they advanced. They did encounter some resistance when they got into clear areas. Sniper fire was present everywhere. It was dangerous for men to be exposed. After clearing the Vosges Mountains they broke out onto the Alsatian Plain. There, they encountered more enemy tanks. The fighting became fierce. If they captured a village in Alsace there was no doubt that they would immediately receive German artillery fire.

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[Annotators Note: Fred Hirsekorn served in the army as a gunner, then tank commander, and finally tank platoon commander in Company C, 25th Tank Battalion, 14th Armored Division.] After clearing the Vosges Mountains they broke out onto the Alsatian Plain. There, they encountered more enemy tanks. The fighting became fierce. If they captured a village in Alsace there was no doubt that they would immediately receive German artillery fire. As they entered the villages American flags would appear. If they were driven back the German flags would reappear. Hirsekorn's bow gunner was a guy named Joe Colderella [Annotators Note: unsure of spelling]. Joe was a character. They fought their way into a village one time and during a lull in the fighting Joe jumped out of the tank and began to scrounge around for eggs that had been preserved in salt water. It was a nice change from the C and K rations. Later that night, Joe told them that he had found something and had cooked it up for them to eat. When they bit into it they discovered that it was not chicken. Joe had cooked a cat. About this time they started losing tanks here and there. They also soon discovered one of the problems with the M4 Sherman tank. They were very vulnerable to the 88 millimeter guns on the German Tiger tanks. On one occasion two of their tanks, Hirsekorn's and one other, spotted a Tiger tank moving across and open area. They fired two rounds of armor piercing rounds into the side of the Tiger tank. They followed the tracer element in the tail of the armor piercing rounds and saw them bounce off the side of the German tank. They then watched as the turret on the German tank swung around toward them Hirsekorn's driver reversed behind a hill but the other tank was too slow. The German tank round slammed into the tank and decapitated the tank commander. The trauma was very significant.

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Fred Hirsekorn's battalion [Annotators Note: Company C, 25th Tank Battalion, 14th Armored Division] was made up of four tank companies and a headquarters company. The division had several tank battalions, three armored infantry battalions, and engineers. Their battalions were often broken up into smaller sections. One time Hirsekorn's two tanks were detached and assigned to an infantry division. When they first landed in Marseilles one of their infantry battalions was diverted to Italy to guard the Italian French border. The advantages the American tanks had over teh German tanks were speed, number of tanks available, and the speed of the turret. The disadvantage was the ease of the 88 millimeter guns on the German tanks to penetrate the American tanks where the guns on the American tanks could not penetrate the German tanks. Near the end of the war they received two tanks with 76 millimeter guns which were a little better. Another disadvantage was that they 75 millimeter guns on the American tanks did not have flash suppressors on them like the German tanks. When they fired their guns at night the Germans could see where they were. The 76 millimeter high velocity guns on the later tanks did have a flash suppressor. The German tanks could also fire faster than the American tanks. It seemed to Hirsekorn that the German tanks could fire three rounds to every one of the American tanks.

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When they attacked the Siegfried Line Fred Hirsekorn and his fellow soldiers knew they were attacking into Germany. On 13 January 1945 they reached the dragon's teeth at Kapsweyer. They were the first battalion to reach the Siegfried Line. The dragon's teeth were concrete obstructions to prevent tanks from passing. In addition to the dragon's teeth there were antitank ditches, minefields, concrete bunkers armed with antitank weapons and cannons, and in many cases, tanks that only had their turrets exposed. All of the weapons in the Siegfried Line emplacements had already been zeroed in. The 1st Battalion got to Kapsweyer and was ordered to line up at two in the morning and prepare to assault the Siegfried Line. They followed their commanding general's orders but knew they would have very little engineer or infantry support for the attack. Their battalion and company commanders convinced the commanding general to postpone the attack. They pulled back to Kapsweyer to wait for some support. For several nights the circled up like a wagon train. When they began taking accurate artillery fire they realized that there were most likely spotters hiding in the local church steeples. After that, the first things they knocked down were the steeples. After that they climbed out of the tank and tried to get their replacement bow gunner out of his foxhole under the tank but he was dead when they found him. A small piece of shrapnel had hit him in the chest and killed him. Eventually the engineer support arrived. At night they snuck up to the German positions to do their work all the time under enemy fire. Hirsekorn drove his tank across one of the tank traps and pulled up next to one of the Siegfried Line bunkers. He knew that the engineers had begun welding the steel doors on the bunkers shut and looked to see if that had been the case here. Instead he saw a huge pile of dynamite right outside of the bunker door. He rapidly cleared the area and continued on with breaking through the Siegfried Line at Kapsweyer. Hirsekorn believes that the commanding general of his division did not believe that the German positions in the Siegfried Line were fully manned. By the time their engineer, infantry, and air support arrived and they began their breakthrough of the Siegfried Line the Germans were ready for them. They took a lot of fire from the German positions. Breaking through the line into Germany was a very emotional experience for Hirsekorn and his fellow soldiers. The weather was cold and icy. The tanks slid on the ice because their steel treads could not grip it. Keeping good hygiene was very difficult during this time. Some of them men came down with trench foot.

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Fred Hirsekorn's unit [Annotators Note: Company C, 25th Tank Battalion, 14th Armored Division] had a tough time at Rittershoffen. It was Christmas time and the Germans had pulled back. Hirsekorn and the others of his outfit got together with the people of Rittershoffen to sing Christmas songs. Then they got word that a German counterattack had been launched and that they had to pull back. It turned out that it was part of the Battle of the Bulge. Hirsekor's unit returned to Rittershoffen. The battle raged for days throughout the town. Anything that moved in Rittershoffen was fired on. They ended up firing on the same people who had showed them so much hospitality during Christmas time. The town was pretty much destroyed. It was one of many traumatic experiences. They had to retreat one night during the Battle of the Bulge. They pulled back at night so the Germans would not know that his whole battalion was retreating. They retreated to an area down the road where Hirsekorn was told by his captain that a rear guard of two tanks had been left to protect the retreat. Hirsekorn was then ordered to take up positions on side of the road. The captain told the rearguard platoon to cross the field when it fell back and not to fall back down the road. Hirsekorn was ordered to fire at anything coming down the road. Hirsekorn got out of the tank and lay down in the snow and ice in a ditch alongside the road to wait for the sound of the rearguard platoon to come down the road. Hirsekorn's gunner, George Moulder [Annotators Note: unsure of spelling], crawled into the ditch with him and told him that he would not leave him out there by himself. Touched as he was by the show of compassion, Hirsekorn ordered Moulder to get back in the tank because if anything happened to him Moulder would become the new tank commander and responsible for getting the tank out of there. The snow was blowing so hard that he could not see more than 20 yards in front of him. Hirsekorn heard rapid fire machinegun fire behind him. He knew it was German by the rapidity of the fire and thought that they were being surrounded. Then he heard tanks coming down the road. He did not know what to do. Should he order Moulder to fall back or should he wait. Hirsekorn finally recognized the sound of the tanks as being American. He stopped the tank and told the tank commander to follow him and they started heading out of the area. As they went along the tanks slid around on the hilly ground. Hirsekorn got out of the tank to guide the drivers. Moulder ran up to Hirsekorn and told him that a lieutenant had broken radio silence and called the captain to complain that Hirsekorn was going to get them all killed because he did not know where he was going. The lieutenant decided that he was going to go around Hirsekorn because he was moving them too slow. The captain ordered them all to keep going and stay off the radio. He continued on to tell them that he could hear them and that they were getting close. Hirsekorn managed to lead them back to his own company.

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Fred Hirsekorn had been assigned a Buck Rogers tank. The Buck Rogers tank was an experimental tank with 60 four and a half inch rockets mounted right above the tank commander’s head that could be fired as a full salvo in about a minute. They entered a village and got word that German tanks were massing ahead of them. Hirsekorn's tank moved up and fired a barrage of rockets. It started to fire but then stopped. Hirsekorn went to investigate and discovered that many of the wires that ignited the rockets had been broken. He told his guys to cut the power off to the rockets so he could try to fix them. He hooked up one of the wires and it went off knocking Hirsekorn right off the back of the tank. That disclosed one of the flaws with that tank. It was sent back and Hirsekorn received another tank. On another occasion they were attacking in an echelon shaped like an arrow. To the left, Hirsekorn could see American prisoners being taken about 1000 or more yards away. To the right he could see tanks moving toward them. The lead tank in Hirsekorn's formation radioed the captain asking if the tanks moving toward them were friendly or not. Moments later the lead tank was hit. Two fo the tankers got out of the turret and laid down on the back deck of the tank. When they did machinegun fire erupted. Hirsekorn immediately jumped out of his tank and ran to their aid. Both of the men were wounded and one was missing a foot. Hirsekorn got the two men off the back of their tank and over to the back of his where some of his crewman helped get them up onto the back deck. For the first time in the war Hirsekorn got sick from seeing his friends shot up like that. Fortunately for Hirsekorn a bullet had passed close to him too. It had gone through the seat of his pants without touching him. For his actions that day Hirsekorn was awarded the Bronze Star. As they continued the advance, the two tanks of Hirsekorn's section were sent to support the 342nd Infantry Battalion [Annotators Note: 342nd Infantry Regiment, 86th Infantry Division] in the area of Ingolstadt. as they neared Ingolstadt German troops opened fire on them. The inexperienced infantry unit scattered. Hirsekorn climbed out of his tank to see where the fire was coming from. He had one of his tank lay down covering fire which caused the Germans to reply, giving away their location. Hirsekorn then located the infantry commander and told him that his tanks would lay dawn covering fire so the infantry could advance into the town. The infantry managed to take Ingolstadt.

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After the fighting [Annotators Note: in Ingolstadt] lulled, Fred Hirsekorn got a call to look at one of his men. It was the first time he saw someone with combat fatigue. The man was shivering and shaking so Hirsekorn, then only 20 years old, called the medics to treat the man. Hirsekorn assured the man, a tank gunner called Doc, that when he recovered he was wanted back. Hirsekorn had another encounter with George Patton that he did not realize. As the Germans had retreated through the town and villages they left piles of panzerfausts [Annotators Note: single shot antitank rockets] on side of the road. Children would pick these weapons u and fire them at the American tanks. Not wanting to have to shoot children even if they were armed the tankers decided to weld angle iron on the tanks to hold sand bags that would prevent the rockets from penetrating the vehicles. Shortly before they pulled out a jeep arrived with three men in it. One of the men got out and started chewing out the tankers then called for their company commander. It was at that point that Hirsekorn noticed the stars on the bumper of the jeep. Moments later Hirsekorn and the other tankers got a call from their company commander ordering them to remove the sand bags and angle iron. The company commander went on to tell them that the order had come directly from General Patton. From that point on they had little choice but to defend themselves if they encountered a child with a panzerfaust.

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[Annotators Note: Fred Hirsekorn served in the army as a gunner, then tank commander, and finally tank platoon commander in Company C, 25th Tank Battalion, 14th Armored Division.] On 2 May [Annotators Note: 2 May 1945] they were told to stand down. The division had gotten word that Hitler's forces were going to retreat to the Eagle's Nest. They moved out to support the infantry and made it as far as Bad Reichenhall when they learned that that the war was over and they were to stand down. The war ended on 8 May. The 14th Armored Division got the name the Liberator Division because it was the first division to hit the Dachau concentration camp. Hirsekorn was with the first group to enter the camp they found. What he saw there was indescribable. There were piles of bodies there and people who looked like skeletons walking around. One of Hirsekorn's first cousins was in that camp. Hirsekorn would not have recognized him f he had seen him. Hirsekorn could not even feel good about being a liberator. What he saw in that camp made him so sick that there was no joy left in him. It was such a tragic thing that he does not recall having the sense of jubilation that should accompany such a task. It was overwhelming. In addition to liberating the Dachau camps, Hirsekorn's unit also liberated a number of prisoner of war camps. As far as feelings go, liberating those camps was more of a relief. The emotional swings were unbelievable. The fatigue, stress, fear, and adrenaline made him want to keep going and going. There were also comic things that happened in between the horrific events. It was an unbelievable maturing experience that made him appreciate so much more the things and opportunities he has. Hirsekorn has travelled the world and there is no place he would rather be than in the United States.

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Fred Hirsekorn's unit [Annotators Note: Company C, 25th Tank Battalion, 14th Armored Division] did not engage German tanks on a massive scale. The route they took through the Vosges Mountains was not conducive to tank warfare. In Alsace they began to run into more tanks but the encounters were usually one on one fights and not the kind of massed tank battles seen in the North African Campaign. As the war neared its end they were told to stand down. Then, on 8 May they received a radio message telling them that the war had ended. There were feelings of jubilation and relief which were quickly followed by a desire to go home. The manner in which they rotated back depended upon the points they had accumulated. Points were awarded for years of service and medals received. It was the first time medals meant anything to Hirsekorn. Hirsekorn had about 64 points accumulated as a result of his two Bronze Stars and campaign ribbons. He was taken out of Company C, 25th Tank Battalion, 14th Armored Division and transferred to the 753rd Tank Battalion. This battalion was made up of veterans from the North Africa Campaign who were eligible to go home. Hirsekorn had been promoted to First Sergeant and became the administrative NCO for the 753rd Tank Battalion. They were shipped from Marseilles in cattle cars to Cherbourg where transport to the United States was waiting for them. This was in the winter of 1945 and 1946. The trip took three days in the cattle cars. There were scabies in the cars and several cars worth of men came down with scabies. They were supposed to be treated with sulpha powder and showers but there was no sulpha and the showers were frozen. Hirsekorn and the others were put back on the cattle cars and spent another three days going back to Marseilles. By the time they arrived in Marseilles the 753rd Tank Battalion had already departed out of Cherbourg. Hirsekorn and the others in his group were assigned to the 191st Tank Battalion. Hirsekorn then became a First Sergeant in one of that battalion’s companies. After they were treated they were put aboard a little Liberty ship. Hirsekorn had been seasick on the way over and that was aboard the large ship Santa Rosa. When he saw the little Liberty ship he got seasick right there on the pier. The trip back to the United States took about 14 days. During the trip one of the Liberty ships lost its propeller. Hirsekorn's ship was forced to stand by incase they were needed to offer assistance but eventually got the work to continue on. They put in at Newport News and from there Hirsekorn was sent to Jefferson Barracks in Saint Louis, Missouri where he was discharged in January 1946. After leaving the service Hirsekorn took advantage of the GI Bill and went to the University of Kansas. The GI Bill was such a blessing. If not for the GI Bill he would not have been able to go to college. He eventually got a Master's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Kansas. His first job was in New Martinsville, West Virginia with the company that became the chemical division of Pittsburgh Plate Glass. From there he went to the Frontier Chemical Company in Wichita, Kansas. After spending seven years there Hirsekorn took advantage of an opportunity in Saint Paul to run a small company as executive vice president while the president of that company was away. After the president of the company returned Hirsekorn found a job with Economics Laboratory and worked for them for 20 years, eventually becoming a vice president. After retiring in 1986 he started his own consulting company which he operated until 1994 when he retired.

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