Half-track driver recalls D-Day, time with Patton
- Susan Matheny
- Madras Pioneer - News
Veteran's Day Tribute
In 1942, Clinton Crandall was a 22-year-old Army infantryman being trained for desert combat in Northern Africa, when plans suddenly changed and he found himself on the way to storm the beaches of Normandy.
Now age 82, the Madras resident said he is one of nine members still living from the group of 187 he trained with for the D-Day invasion.
Back then, he was farming in Iowa with his brother, and joined the Army in December 1942. His training started out in Georgia, but he was rotated through 13 different camps before it was all through.
They started training with the Coast Guard, then were sent to the deserts of California to train with General Patton's Army for the invasion of North Africa.
"Halfway through the training, they changed and sent us east to New Jersey to train for the amphibious landing of Europe," Crandall said, noting, "It was quite a switch to go from the hot desert to back east where it was cold."
His group was the 467th AAA (antiaircraft artillery) automatic weapons battalion, and Crandall was assigned to be a half-track driver and extra gunner when needed.
Right after Christmas 1943, they were loaded on a ship in New York City and sent to Scotland, then England for six more months of amphibious training.
"We had our own invasion force. The British were with us, but we trained separately," he said, adding, "We knew from the time we were in New Jersey we were going on an invasion of Europe, we just didn't know where."
Of the four battalions in his outfit, the C and B batteries did the invasion, while the other two stayed in England and came over 17 days after the invasion. Crandall was in the C Battery.
The D-Day invasion had been scheduled for June 5, 1944, a day earlier than it actually occurred, but foul weather interfered. In Poole, England, his group was loaded onto a barge.
"We got within sight of the French coast before turning back because the weather was so bad. They couldn't radio us because of radio silence, but British ships waved us back to South Hampton. I was seasick all the way and the barge was bouncing up and down like a cork," he said.
The next day, June 6, they again set out for Omaha Beach, where they were scheduled to land on the "Easy Red" section of the beach.
"Our barge operator went towards that area, but there was so much wrecked stuff on the beach that he backed out and landed at `Dog Green' on the west end," he said.
Instead of being on the beach, the barge had gotten hung up on a sandbar, so the half-track vehicles had to be driven off into shallow water, which caused problems. Their motors had been waterproofed, but the voltage regulators had not, so the batteries went dead and only three of the 37 half-tracks were left operational.
From a German pillbox up on the bluffs, machine guns were firing down the beach, raking them with bullets.
"The lieutenant told us to get off our vehicles and dig in. We jumped in a shell hole at the high water line. It was heavy gravel and behind it was a mine field and behind that a big trench along the foot of the bluff (filled with German machine gunners).
Mortars were coming in six at a time and were either hitting the bluff or 20 feet below where Crandall's group was dug in. They radioed out to the battleship Texas to raise its fire, because the shells were dropping on them, he recalled. Finally, the D Battery gun knocked out the pillbox and they received orders to get up the road and get out.
Meanwhile, they couldn't figure out how the German soldiers had disappeared from the big trench on the beach. "A Frenchman told us there were tunnels. So we set a dynamite charge and blew the tunnel shut so we didn't have them coming back on us," he said.
Up above, they drove German forces out of the towns of St. Laurent sur Mer and Vierville sur Mer.
The next evening, some men and the three functioning half-tracks returned to the beach to try and salvage the other vehicles.
"All I had was a fingernail file and a small screwdriver, but being a farm boy, I tore my half-track apart and filed the points and got it working. A sergeant came around and jumped on me, but the lieutenant said `He's a farm boy and knows what he's doing,' then asked me if I could help on some of the other vehicles, and we got most of them running," he said.
Mine fields were a problem, but Crandall said they diffused them by hand by probing for them with a bayonet, and unscrewing the detonator cap when they found one. "They were big tank mines," he said, indicating a bowling ball size with his hands.
One time, he said, "We had three sections of boys digging the mines out and I was on a radio back to the ship. All at once, German mortars started dropping on the road behind us." After it was over he said he looked around and the boys had all jumped into trenches. "They thought I'd cracked up for sure and was shooting at them," he laughed.
From then on, Battery C operated as a mechanized infantry unit and traveled through the hedgerow country of Normandy. Operating with the First Army, they captured the town of St. Lo in a battle with heavy casualties. Moving across France, they were headed for Paris, "But they swung us out so the Free French Army could take it. All I got to see was the Eiffel Tower from a distance," he said.
His battalion pushed on into Belgium and Holland in September, and he remembers being pinned down east of Holland in a tank fight for 12 to 14 hours.
In October, he was among the troops that took the city of Aachen, Germany in a 10-day siege, then they were sent to guard General Eisenhower's headquarters in Luxembourg until the Battle of the Bulge, which was fought in east Belgium in December.
Fighting with (Patton's) Third Army, his group helped liberate the 101st Airborne Division, which had been surrounded by German forces in the city of Bastogne, Belgium. Next, they fought with the 12th Army and took the town of Arlon, where 300 airplane pilots were freed from a prison camp.
They fought battles in Liege and St. Vith, Belgium, then in March 1945, captured a crucial bridge at Remagen, Germany. Hitler had ordered all bridges on the Rhine to be destroyed, and it was the only one left standing.
"With the bridge secured, we were able to get enough troops across the Rhine River to make a run across Germany," Crandall said.
That same month, as they prepared to capture the city of Frankfurt, Germany, Crandall said the Germans put thousands of U.S. prisoners of war at the city's airport so U.S. forces wouldn't bomb it.
That was the second prison camp Crandall got to help liberate.
"All the German guards took off and the boys and I were trying to figure out how to unlock the gate, when somebody yelled, `Crandall!' I located the voice in the crowd, but didn't recognize him until he told me who he was. It was Two-Gun Noly, a boy I used to play ball with who always carried two popguns on his hip," Crandall said.
He hadn't recognized his friend because the American prisoners had been nearly starved to death.
"He was nothing but skin and bones so we invited him out to our camp for dinner, but were careful not to let Noly eat too much at first," he said.
Patton's plan to have his Third Army link up with the First Army at Kassel, Germany, required both groups to make a marathon nighttime drive.
"We connected with the 777th armored tank battalion, and guarded the highway in the east. Then to catch up, we drove wide-open for 135 miles. I never drove so hard in my life. It was daybreak when we took the town," Crandall said, noting Patton came in from the south, while they came in from the north.
After the Rhine River invasion, the British Army liberated the Belsen concentration camp, and Crandall saw the devastation.
"They took some of us up to see it and that was a sight, I'll tell you. There were rows and rows of the dead laying ready to go through the burner," he said.
In April, they made a run to Berlin, but were halted 13 miles out of the city. "We were held up for three days until the Russians came. An agreement had been made that the Russians would take Berlin," he noted.
His group was then sent to Czechoslovakia, where they took control of the small town of Pilsen the day before the war in Europe ended.
Crandall remembers that evening, a plane was spotted heading for their camp.
"We had one fellow, Eldon Gaughan, who liked to steal airplanes and could fly anything. We saw a Gulf 109 winging over the treetops above us and the boys were ready to shoot, but I yelled `Don't fire,' and sure enough, it was Eldon. He'd found a German plane and flew it back to camp," he laughed.
Shortly after that episode, on May 8, 1945, they heard on the radio that the war had ended. His group celebrated VE-Day in Pilsen by having their photo taken.
Of the 187 men in Battery C with which he made the D-Day invasion, only 29 remained at the end of the war. Many were killed or injured on D-Day, and those who survived went on to fight in five major European battles.
Crandall remained in Germany for six months as part of the military government, then returned home Dec. 1, aboard a Liberty Ship. He received his discharge Christmas Eve 1945, then returned to his farm in Iowa.
In 1953, Crandall moved to Oregon, where the rest of his relatives had relocated, and farmed and ranched in the area. Today, at age 82, he and his brother, Carol, continue to raise cattle at Round Butte, Crescent and LaPine.
There have been regular reunions of the men from Battery C 467th AAA and Crandall attended the first one in 1950, and two others in 2002 and 2004 with his brother Carol and sister-in-law Jean.
This year's reunion, held in September in Indianola, Iowa, marked the 60th anniversary of their landing at Omaha Beach, and the men were presented commemorative D-Day coins and certificates from the American Legion.
"At the first reunion, all 29 of us were there and it was quite a get-together," Crandall said, noting, "There are just the nine of us left now." Both he and Jean agreed that the reunions have been so enjoyable that the people there "seem like family."