During Vernon Foster’s visit to Aberdeen Proving Ground, May 12, he shared details of his World War II experiences with Soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center.
By 1942, America was fighting in the Pacific. Army tank units were already fighting in North Africa. When Foster joined the 12th Armored Division for maneuvers in Tennessee and Texas, he knew combat overseas was imminent. An M-4 Sherman tank commander and platoon leader with 2nd Platoon, Company A, 714th Tank Battalion, Foster arrived in England on Oct. 1, 1944.
The Sherman had a five-man crew, which included a tank commander, gunner, loader, driver and assistant driver, Foster said, during lunch at the Ruggles Golf Course.
“We all named our tanks. I named mine for my wife,” Foster said. “It was called Dottie.”
Dottie was short for Dorotha, whom he met at Fort Knox, Kentucky, before heading overseas. They were married for 64 years, he said. He recently found dozens of his letters she had saved and that helped him remember some of the facts he shared during his visit to APG.
Foster’s platoon of tanks disembarked in France on Nov. 20, 1944 – his twenty-sixth birthday. A few weeks later, Foster’s unit was rushed to France’s Alsace Region. There, near Strasbourg, the Germans launched Operation Nordwind, with several divisions attacking across the Rhine River. At Herrlisheim, Foster’s unit saw heavy fighting.
During one battle, a shell whizzed past Foster’s head, glancing the turret and impacting near the tank’s engine. Foster leaped out, throwing off cases of machine gun bullets and gear that caught fire.
“We were in a pretty desperate situation,” Foster said.
As he and his crew put the fire out, Foster called for artillery batteries to drop white phosphorus shells to screen them from the enemy. His badly damaged tank towed away, Foster commandeered another tank and returned to the fight. Mechanics later returned his Dottie to action.
“I got it back in a couple weeks after,” Foster said. “You’d never know it had been hit.”
The APG Soldiers, most of them tankers assigned to ATC, listened intently as Foster passed around faded snapshots of his tank platoon taken during lulls in the fighting.
The worst of the war
Foster’s voice softened as he told the younger tankers about his worst day in the war, when stiff German resistance held up his platoon outside Ludwigshafen, Germany.
They faced a road block hiding a large cannon, mine fields all around, and snipers in nearby trees and houses. While he met with fellow leaders, another officer ordered his platoon to move. A German cannon shell struck
the tank of his platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Hubert Barnes of Indiana.
“It went right though the turret, cut my sergeant in half and went out the back. The other crew had time to get out and the tank exploded,” Foster said.
“They told me later, Sergeant Barnes had been killed. A fine guy. He had been with me all the time. I just thought the world of him. Everybody else did too.”
According to Foster, snipers also took out two other tank commanders that day. Another non-commissioned officer got a battlefield commission. He lost four NCOs in one day, he said.
Soldiers were wounded in nearly every battle, Foster explained. Some replacement Soldiers had just six weeks in the Army, and had never seen a tank when they faced combat.
“I hardly ever had the same crews from one battle to the next. At one point, of 25 men, only eight were not injured,” Foster said. “We were always getting somebody hit, not killed, but injured enough that they couldn’t fight, so we were always shifting positions.
Foster was also wounded. An artillery shell struck a tree limb a few yards above his head, sending shards of shrapnel into his face. A large chunk grazed his left ear and struck the turret.
Medics pulled out most of the metal and bandaged his face. A day later, he was back in his tank fighting. A piece of shrapnel is still lodged behind his eye.
Foster’s platoon crossed the Rhine near Worms on March 28. By Easter, they were in Wurzburg. While waiting for engineers to bridge a river, Foster recalls finding the local mayor and his family, dead in their beds from an apparent suicide, he said.
They believed Nazi propaganda that said U.S. troops would have treated them badly, Foster said.
They later crossed the Danube near Ulm, pressing eastward to the forced labor camps at Landsberg. When the fighting ended in early May, they were at foothills of the Alps. In all, he drove his tank 2,650 miles.
Putting the war behind him
Discharged at Fort Meade, Maryland, with the rank of captain, Foster proudly points out he was a lieutenant – the rank he wore while fighting as a tank commander. By Christmas 1945, Foster was back in Baltimore County. He eventually started a family with his wife.
Like many World War II veterans, he put the Army and the war behind him. He wanted to farm. He established a dairy farm on land along Route 83, where his family has farmed since 1730. In the 1990s, they sold the cows and now grow soy, corn and hay.
When asked about Hollywood’s take on tank warfare during World War II, Foster remarked that the film “Patton” was “lousy.” And “Fury,” the recent Brad Pitt film about tankers, had too many exaggerations, he said.
“You couldn’t possibly do what they were doing,” Foster said. “It wasn’t anything like what I did.”
By Rick Scavetta, USAG APG
Read about Vernon Foster’s visit to APG, here.