Baptism of Fire

Cleo Coleman

Cleo Coleman of Phelps, Ky., was a loader, and then a gunner, in B Company of the 712th Tank Battalion. During the battalion’s 1994 reunion at Fort Mitchell, Ky., he told me of his first day in combat, on July 3rd, 1944, in the hedgerows of Normandy.

I was a loader, and I couldn’t see out of the tank very well. Right at the side of my tank there was a mine explosion, they said this jeep blew up. I couldn’t see it. And the front tank was hit by an 88. They had told us, they went out on reconnaissance the night before and said, “You’re not going to face heavy arms.” But we ran into roadside guns.

We spotted an ammunition dump in front of us and to our left, so my tank commander said to fire on it. We opened up, and to our right there was an 88 that opened up on us, and Sergeant [Leslie A.] Vink said to back up and get under cover. So the tank driver started to back up and we bogged down, and Vink gave the order to abandon tank.

We all got out, and I lost my helmet. Louis Gruntz, he was the assistant driver, he was scared, we were all scared, he left his gun. And he grabbed mine out of my hand, he says, “Coleman, you have to go back there for your helmet. You pick my gun up.”

I said, “No way.”

Freddy Bieber was the driver. He always told me, “Coleman, if we ever get in a tight spot, we’ll stick together,” because he could see more when he was driving than I could. I got out of the tank and he said, “Follow me.” And we went to a ditch. I was going toward some Germans, and he said, “Hey, Coleman, this way.” So I followed him. Machine gun fire was cutting twigs out over my back.

I had to get as low as I could. Him and me both. So we went onto the hill where our infantry was. We crawled, pulling with our arms. But we got over to our doughboys, and they were shelling the place terrible and the doughboys were trying to dig in.

One of the boys saw that I didn’t have a helmet or a gun, he says, “One of our boys is laying over there, he doesn’t need his helmet and gun. Why don’t you go over and get them?”

I said, “No way!” That’s out in the open.

He’d been in combat for a few days probably. So he said, “I’ll get them for you,” and he runs over to get them. The boy had a death grip on the gun. He forced it out of his hand and got his helmet. It had blood all over it.

I took some leaves and wiped it off, put that helmet on my head, and Bieber says, “We’ll go behind the lines.” I didn’t know where I was going. He didn’t either. But we went back, evidently, where we’d been. The Germans had been knocked out. We saw our vehicles that were burning and everything. Finally we got to a new outfit of our own, that had just arrived, and they asked us how it was up there.

“Oh,” I said, “I’m too scared, I’m scared to death, too scared to tell you. It is rough.”

And they said, “Well, here’s a shovel. Dig in.” We dug in. I didn’t sleep all night, I was so scared.

The next morning they contacted our company and trucked us back to our outfit, so the next day we were right back in it. It was 53 days, I believe, before we got our first break.

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