From the 9th Ward to the Army
From Normandy to the Bulge
Breakout at Saint Lo
Friendly fire at Saint Lo
Last Weeks of the War
[Annotators Note: Interview begins with the interviewer and George Wichterich talking about a tank that was knocked out by members of Wichterich’s unit and looking through a book on the 30th Infantry Division.] Shortly after the Normandy invasion they were pulled into the area of Mortain and Hill 314. During the evening hours the 1st Division was pulled out. Wichterich’s unit was armed with towed guns at the time. They did not get the M10s until after the Bulge. They had towed 76 millimeter guns. That is how they fought the Germans tanks. They had to shoot the German tanks in the side because the shells would just bounce off the front of the tanks like tennis balls. George Wichterich was born and raised in the 9th Ward [Annotators Note: the 9th Ward is a district in New Orleans, Louisiana]. He attended Holy Cross High School then went to work for Delta Shipyard on the Industrial Canal until he saw that there were more men dying there than on the battlefield. The deaths were caused by inexperienced people operating the heavy equipment. Every day there was an ambulance. One day Wichterich was watching as the aft end of a liberty ship was being hoisted and moved. The rigging broke and the ship fell on seven guys and killed them. Wichterich quit that day and two months later he was in the army. There were a number of ways for men to get hurt or killed. Wichterich was inducted into the army on 22 December 1942 and was put in tank destroyers. Tank destroyers were a new concept at the time. They had people from New Mexico who mainly spoke Spanish and Cajuns from Louisiana who spoke French as well as Mormons from Utah and people from California and Montana. There were some Native Americans as well. They had a good outfit. They knocked out 125 or 130 tanks. They also knocked down church steeples. The day Pearl Harbor was attacked Wichterich was working with his uncle building a house out in Metairie [Annotators Note: a suburb of New Orleans] when they learned of the attack. Wichterich was 19 years old at the time and had registered for the draft but had not given any thought to joining the military. Wichterich sung in his neighborhood Catholic choir and got the opportunity to go to Saint Louis through the organists sister. They stayed up there over a month and got to go to some ball games. Wichterich was up there for over a month and when he returned his draft notice was waiting for him. On 29 December Wichterich reported to Camp Beauregard in Alexandria [Annotators Note: Alexandria, Louisiana]. Camp Beauregard is still in operation. Wichterich was there about a month before this interview and there is still 1 of the 3 inch guns they used during the war. The three inch guns weighed about two and a half tons. They were taught to fire with the artillery in addition to their training as antitank gunners. During maneuvers they towed those guns all over the State of Louisiana but never fired a shot. In training they removed the stock from a .22 caliber rifle and attached it to the barrel of the three inch gun. The gunners trained by firing that 22 at targets. They never actually fired their guns until they got to the English Channel where there were targets towed by tug boats. They could not have fired the armor piercing and high explosive shells back in Louisiana.
When George Wichterich got in [Annotator’s Note: in the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, 30th Infantry Division] he was a gun commander. He had a half track and two machine gun crews. He was a gun commander until right after Mortain. When they pulled into position in Mortain to replace the 1st Division [Annotators Note: US 1st Infantry Division] they asked how things in the area were going. The 1st Division guys said things were ok. At about two o'clock the next morning they heard people speaking a funny language coming down the highway. They chased them back with 50 caliber machine guns firing. When they went to check things out the next morning they found one or two dead.
Lieutenant Miller sent Wichterich and another soldier named Jacobson into town to check and see what the lieutenant wanted them to do. Wichterich and the other GI took off toward the town and ran right into a German ambush that knocked out the jeep. Wichterich was holding a carbine when he bailed out that a German bullet went through that missed both him and the other GI. They made their way to the 1st Platoon and hooked up with a Lieutenant Springfield. They stayed there for about two weeks surrounded at Mortain. They were on a hill and could see a highway out in front of them. They could see them [Annotators Note: the Germans] coming up with half tracks and other things and even had a half track with a red cross painted on the side like an ambulance. They knocked it out and discovered that it was full of ammunition. They had plenty of ammunition and the guns were pretty accurate. When the Germans came in that night Wichterich’s unit was on a cross road and were trying to cut them off. Wichterich and the other GIs knew it was not Americans approaching by the sound of the hob nailed boots and the funny language. Wichterich had spent some time in the hedgerows. He had landed with the 29th [Annotators Note: US 29th Infantry Division] and stayed with them for about two weeks until the 30th [Annotators Note: US 30th Infantry Division] landed and after that they stayed with the 30th all the way to Magdeburg. The thing that scared Wichterich more than anything was mortar fire because they could not hear it until it was almost in their back pocket. They dug foxholes while they had their half tracks. They were in the hedgerows which had been set up to protect the apple orchards. In the hedgerows the Germans knew where they were but they did not know where the Germans were. They did alright but they did have a lot of people captured or killed. Not too long after that the platoon sergeant ran over a mine in his jeep and lost his leg and Wichterich got his job. Wichterich was a platoon sergeant for the remainder of the war. For the Normandy landing the whole 1000 man battalion [Annotators Note: 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, 30th Infantry Division] went over in 3 LSTs [Annotators Note: landing ship, tank]. The battalion was made up of 4 companies but the Reconnaissance Company was divided up among the line companies sometime after the Normandy landings. Each of the line companies had their own built in recon. They were used where they were needed. They would be pulled out of the line and shifted from army to army. Wichterich did not experience cheering civilians as he moved through France because the Germans would push the civilians behind their fighting forces to keep them out of the way. Wichterich’s unit was close to Paris but had not yet crossed the Rhine. They were supposed to go into Paris but it was decided to have De Gaulle go in instead. Wichterich’s unit was moved to the Ruhr Valley where they crossed the Rhine. They went through Wessel and Dusseldorf. They made a forced march driving all night and the next day to get through Belgium and into Holland. When they arrived in Heerlen they were greeted by people handing them Heineken beer with the ceramic bottle tops. Then a man approached and asked if they wanted to take showers. He allowed Wichterich and some others to shower and sleep at his house. Tom Blakey [Annotators Note: Tom Blakey was a volunteer at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. During World War 2 Blakey served in the US 82nd Airborne Division and made multiple combat jumps] says that the paratroopers were the first into Holland but the book [Annotators Note: the 30th Infantry Division’s divisional history] says that they were.
[Annotators Note: This segment begins with the interviewer asking George Wichterich about the hedgerow fighting in Normandy.] They were at a disadvantage at Mortain. The division that had been there before them was equipped with the M10 [Annotators Note: M10 tank destroyer]. Wichterich’s unit had to dig a hole or trench through the hedgerows so they could fire their guns. Wichterich thought that the German soldiers they were facing were very good soldiers. They fought like hell. Some of the units they encountered had Polish soldiers. Wichterich’s unit did not take many prisoners. Those they did capture they would usually turn right over to the infantry. They were always intermingled with the infantry units. They were in many instances in the same foxholes with the infantry. After they broke out of Normandy and headed toward Paris the terrain was hillier and there were no more apple orchards. This terrain was more conducive to tank warfare. Wichterich did some work with the 2nd Armored Division. The big German tanks were good. The best place to hit them was in the side or the back. During the Bulge [Annotators Note: Battle of the Bulge] they were set up where a single road cut through the forest. The German tanks were forced to stay on the road and that made them targets. It was also very foggy. When they would see the muzzle of an 88 millimeter gun from a tank sticking out through the fog they had to do something. At La Gleize an antitank gunner bounced around off the road that bounced up into the underside of a tank and knocked it out. It was very scary hearing those tanks coming toward them. They could hear those metal tracks on the black top road. The Germans used a big blow torch to heat their tracks up. One American crew got one and was heating up coffee inside their tank and accidentally set the tank on fire. Wichterich did not see much combat in Holland. They had gotten into a quiet area until they crossed the Maginot Line and the Siegfried Line. They were back cleaning their equipment when the Germans broke through in the Ardennes [Annotators Note: starting the Battle of the Bulge]. They got their marching orders and moved all through the night. Throughout the night the Germans were dropping flares on them trying to locate them on the road. The vehicles used their blackout lights to move at night. As they were moving north they were not issued heavier clothing. Wichterich had an overcoat but that was it. They were always in waist deep snow and it was freezing so when Wichterich had to report back to his officers to let them know where the guns were set up he would put the windshield of his jeep down so he could see. It was so cold that when he got tot headquarters he could not talk because his jaw was frozen. It was very hard for them to get into their half tracks when they were wearing their over coats. Once they got the M10s they threw their overcoats away because they could not fit through the hatch. They were issued the tanks [Annotators Note: M10 tank destroyers] right after the Bulge. Right after the Bulge they pulled some of the drivers back and trained them on the M10s.
[Annotators Note: George Wichterich served as a platoon sergeant in the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, 30th Infantry Division.] It was their job to try to get around through La Gleize and Malmedy. Malmedy is where the massacre was. They also went through Stoumont and Stavelot. All of the rich people used to go to the big hotels in those towns. If they could locate the hotels after they had been bombed to the ground Wichterich and the other GIs would get into the cellars and would find good wine down in them. Where Wichterich was they were fighting the SS. It was a little different fighting against them because they had been trained to fight to the death. Some of the units had Polish troops and they wanted to stay alive for the most part. They were pulled back behind the line to fire flare shells for the artillery. They were about 200 yards behind the lines. This was at Saint Lo. The bombers came in to bomb Saint Lo. The first bombers dropped smoke shells to mark the targets. The wind changed and blew back over the American positions. The following bombers came in and bombed the 30th Infantry Division killing a three star general [Annotators Note: Lieutenant General Lesley McNair, Commanding General of Army Ground Forces] and a lot of soldiers. In the book Work Horses of the Western Front there are some images of George Wichterich’s men digging out some of the infantry after the bombing. It was friendly fire. [Annotators Note: Wichterich talks about the German King Tiger tank in front of the old city hall building in La Gleize, Belgium. The old city hall is not a museum.] How they set their guns up depended on the situation. During the battle they set one gun up on the road and another on the flanks of the road. They had to get out of the town of Stoumont because the Germans over ran them with three or four tanks. They were able to knock out the first tank but the Germans got around it. In La Gleize the infantry left them in the town. This all took place right after Christmas [Annotators Note: 1944]. Wichterich went back to Belgium about 20 years before this interview. During the fighting around Stoumont they were fighting alongside the 2nd Armored Division. They were good. Wichterich’s most vivid memory of the Bulge was the cold weather. He had an overcoat that looked like a sheet of ice. It was the coldest winter in 40 years. The SS were the prize troops. They were all blonde hair and blue eyes.
[Annotators Note: George Wichterich served as a platoon sergeant in the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, 30th Infantry Division.] After the Battle of the Bulge they were able to maneuver better. They were not restricted to the little narrow highways with trees on both sides. After they got into Germany it was more like tank country and they had the tanks by then [Annotators Note: M10 tank destroyers]. Their last attack was at Magdeburg on the Elbe [Annotators Note: Elbe River]. This is where the incident with the train took place. The 743rd Tank Battalion and the 823rd Tank Destroyers were like brother and sister. When they went into Magdeburg they went in side by side. They were spread out and had two tanks knocked out. Wichterich was in an M10 and had a couple wheels shot off of it. The M10 did not have a top on it. After they started taking air burst fire they welded flip tops on them which worked well. They eventually got through the town and were notified that the lock had been cut off the gates at the prison camp. They had stopped a train and overcame the German guards on it. The Germans were planning to use the train as a bargaining chip if they were caught. There had originally been three trains but this was the only one they found. The train was full of Jewish people on their way to the gas chambers. Wichterich met seven of the former Jewish prisoners during the last division reunion he attended. One of the ladies who attended had been 14 years old at the time of the train incident and had been in the camp next to Anne Frank. When they got to the train it was all ready to go. The Germans did not want to have anything to do with the Americans when an entire armored division showed up. Wichterich had no idea something like the camps or this train existed before they saw it. They could not believe the condition of the 2500 people who were on the train. The people were in terrible shape and needed medical attention. They did what they could and got the got the people to the medical clearing stations. When Wichterich met the seven people at their reunion in South Carolina all of their stories were different but the same. They were all young. After liberating the train they set up a military government to relocate the people coming back. He had ended the war in Magdeburg. From Magdeburg they went to Regensburg and that is where they set up a government to relocate all of the displaced persons. There were a lot of people. About 2500 of them. Wichterich does not know where the other two trains were. Wichterich stayed in Regensburg for about two months after the war ended. It was pretty good duty. They set up camp in the woods and were able to go into town or send a truck into town to get barrels of beer. The guys who did not have enough points to go home were sent somewhere else. Wichterich had 85 points. That was enough to go home. When it came time to leave he was sent to the Riviera to a cigarette camp, so called for their names. There was Chesterfield, Camel, and Lucky Strike. Wichterich thinks he went to Lucky Strike for about three weeks before heading home. After getting home Wichterich went to work at the post office and worked there for 40 years. When he first started there his father was his boss.
Before George Wichterich went overseas he was in Camp Miles Standish near Boston for a couple weeks getting his shots and getting ready. From Miles Standish they boarded a liberty ship. When Wichterich went aboard they were on the only ship around. The next day there were ships everywhere. During the trip over they zig zagged the whole way. There were destroyers running around looking for submarines. Wichterich spent most of the trip on deck. Everybody below decks was sick. The best memory Wichterich has from the war is pulling into New York Harbor. Coming home was great. After going through the cigarette camp on the Riviera they boarded ship and steamed into the Mediterranean. When they passed the Rock of Gibraltar someone was playing a Spike Jones record. The music echoed and it gave the guys a great feeling that they were going home. When they got to New York Harbor it was very foggy and that held them up a bit. The Missouri [Annotators Note: the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63)] had returned and there were about ten tug boats trying to get that big ship in there. The boat Wichterich was aboard was anchored in the middle of the river and the passengers were put on ferry boats to Camp Shanks, New Jersey. From Camp Shanks Wichterich was sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi for discharge. The worst memories he has are the cold, watching his friends being killed and wounded. At Mortain a friend of Wichterich’s, Rivers Daigle from Morgan City [Annotators Note: Morgan City, Louisiana], had his leg blown off. Wichterich believes that having museums like The National WWII Museum is very important. Wichterich has been a volunteer at the museum for nine years. He and other volunteers travel to schools and talk about the war. The war did not have much of an effect on Wichterich. He went to Delgado College before he went into the service and took a machinist course. In Wichterich’s words the tank destroyers were a different breed of dog. The Shermans [Annotators Note: American M4 Sherman medium tanks] of the time had a 75 millimeter gun and the rounds from them would bounce off of the King Tiger tanks like tennis balls. The 76 millimeter gun that Wichterich’s unit first used had a shell that the British had developed. It was an armor piercing round with an aluminum nose. They worked ok but the German tanks were just superior. The Germans ran into problems when they were fighting the Russians because of the cold and the problems with their supply lines. That is why they lost.
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