A gun mechanic from Green Valley in the European theater – C
We’ve been learning about Green Valley’s Fred Braakman and his transition from the family farm in northern Iowa to training at Camp Haan, California and deploying to Europe as a gun mechanic with Battery D of the 546th Automatic Weapons Battalion (AWB). The 546th AWB landed in France in mid-July of 1944 as part of General Patton’s Third Army.
Fred’s unit moved through the French city of Saint Lo, scene of heavy fighting and destruction. The devastated city left an impression on Fred.
“It looked like there was not one brick attached to another. Just rubble. They had a bulldozer clean out a path through the street so you could move through it. It was just blasted apart.”
The 546th AWB was an anti-aircraft unit, deploying its 40mm guns and quad .50 caliber mounts against aircraft attacks. Fred explained how this mission impacted the unit.
“From the time we left St. Lo until the end of the war, our battalion was never all together. I mean this battery would get an assignment or this platoon would get an assignment . . . We got a lot of duty protecting gas dumps, ammo dumps, bridges.”
Fred’s job as gun mechanic for Battery D meant he kept the battery’s 40mm guns operational. He explained that the guns did not give him much work.
“Normally, those guns were foolproof. I mean they hardly ever had any problems with them. So, I was always available for other duties because I didn’t have to fix guns most of the time.”
This availability for other duties got him into some tight situations.
“We were in France and had moved up this day. We climbed a long rise and at the crest of the hill was a grove of trees. I always rode with one of the gun crews and as our truck pulled under the trees, I noticed a recon unit sitting there. Of course, that was something different and exciting, so I bailed off that truck and started walking over there.”
Fred’s battery commander wanted to join the recon unit going into the valley, but his driver didn’t want to because German troops on the opposite hillside would see them. Fred agreed to drive the commander’s jeep.
“So, I hopped in the jeep behind the wheel and the recon outfit took off. We pulled in the column and headed down the hill into the valley. You know they’re watching you. When we got down near the bottom of the hill, the mortars start falling around. We just happened to be on a field approach, so I pulled in behind there . . . but they knew where we were and they were starting to get the range. One hit on the other side of the bank and a dirt clod hit my helmet.”
Fred laughed as he recalled that incident, “I looked at the Captain and he looked at me and said, ‘I think we better get the hell out of here!’ And we did, right now!”
General Patton’s Third Army was constantly moving forward throughout the late summer and fall of 1944, pushing German defenders back across France. So, Fred’s Battery D was also on the move into areas that had been held by German defenders.
“Patton, just wanted to go. Get those tanks in the lead and just go. We’d just get in these trucks and go behind them, but it wasn’t cleaned up. There were enemies all around. One day we pulled into a small village and the truck I happened to be riding in was pulling one of those M-51’s. (quad .50 caliber gun mount) A young French girl came running up to the truck. She pointed to a nearby barn and said, “SS.” German SS troops were in that barn. The guy climbs in the seat of the M-51 and hoses (the barn) down with that M-51. Took the fight out of them right now. They left their rifles in the barn and marched out with their hands up.”
Fred described another, searing memory of combat in France.
“Another day we were following tanks. It was like any other day, except all the sudden there was firing where the tanks were ahead of us. We didn’t even stop. Maybe five minutes later we got to that area and there were three German half-tracks sitting on the edge of the road and they were on fire.
The one had the driver and the front seat passenger still sitting in the seat and it’s all just flames. But it was the odor that got me. I didn’t think I’d ever get rid of that odor once it got in my nostrils. That burning flesh was horrible.”
Fast-moving armies can lead to strange situations. This is particularly true during night movements. Fred described one such encounter.
“We had to move one platoon and it had to be a night move because we didn’t want to be seen . . . but we drove right into the middle of a German bivouac area. There was maybe a platoon of Germans sleeping there. There was much confusion, shouting, but not a shot fired and they all gave up. We loaded them on our trucks and there were just as many of them on the trucks as us. If it had been a firefight right there, it would have been a different story for a lot of guys.”
Fred’s Battery D of the 546th AWB was helping liberate Europe from Nazi Germany, but they were still in France and a lot of fighting lay ahead.