A Gun Mechanic from Green Valley in the European theater – D
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 crossed the English Channel to France in July 1944. Senior commanders broke up Fred’s battalion, assigning individual batteries and platoons to specific missions in support of General Patton’s Third Army as it pushed across France in the months after the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Fred’ unit usually deployed its 40mm automatic guns and quad .50 caliber machine gun mounts to protect sites against aircraft attack. But he explained they sometimes drew other missions as well.
“We also did work, on occasion, providing cover fire for infantry. One day, D Battery got this assignment — the infantry was going to cross this river in small boats. And on our side of the river there was a dike. It was just the right height that our 40s could have the barrels over the top of the dike. So, they were firing into this village on the other side of the river. But the Germans had some 88s (88mm, high velocity canons) in the woods on the hill up above the town. They weren’t firing directly at that big dike, but they were cutting fuses and trying to get us with air bursts.
So, (my friend) Benny and I were both sitting with our back against the dike, watching, just like a fireworks display with shells popping off above. But they were going beyond us a ways, so it wasn’t really dangerous. Benny said, ‘Should we dig a hole?’ I said, ‘If they get it right and they pop one above us, a hole ain’t going to do you any good, you know.'”
“So, after a while he said, ‘Let’s go over and get a cup of coffee.’ The cook had parked the (kitchen) truck under some trees maybe 70 yards away. So, we just kind of hunched down and went toward the truck for a cup of coffee. We got about a 100 feet from that truck and one of those 88s hit in the tree right above the truck. There were tree branches coming down and the concussion knocked pots and pans up in the air. We didn’t get coffee,” Fred concluded, laughing.
Fred recalled another day when he saw one of his guns operating as an anti-aircraft weapon.
“I happened to be with this gun crew that day. We heard a small plane. It was a German reconnaissance plane coming up a valley. When they verified that it was a German plane, the gun crew took their positions. The guys on the director got to tracking the plane and the fellow responsible for tracking the range dialed in the range and said, ‘Fire one.’ They fired one shell and we watched the tracer go and we watched that plane come together. The plane disappeared. That shot got written up in the “Stars and Stripes,” the Army newspaper. The guy just happened to dial in the exact range. Usually, you fire and it’s low, high, behind, or ahead and you change the range. But he just had it right and knocked it down with one shot.
Fred had some surreal experiences as he accompanied Battery D across France. He recalled an incident with his battery first sergeant, Sergeant Frugh.
“One day we’d moved into new positions again and he was around the CP (command post) with his canteen cup in his hand. He said, ‘Braakman, get your cup. You’re coming with me.’ So, I got my cup and we walked down the lane a ways and cut into the woods. Here’s a Frenchman tending a still. He got the idea we wanted to sample his wares, so Frugh holds his cup under there and the Frenchman gives him a good snort. ‘Ah, that’s good,’ he said. I put my cup under there and I take a swig and it just takes my breath away. I mean, I’m gasping for breath. How that guy knew that still was in there, I never did know. He wouldn’t tell me. But that was wicked stuff!”
Fred’s unit crossed into Germany in mid-March 1945 in support of the 65th Infantry Division. He described passing through an area that had seen heavy combat on the German frontier.
“We hooked up with the 65th Division and they broke through the line. We had heavy fighting in the Saar Basin around Saarbrucken and Saarlouis. We were set up there for quite a while. I know when we moved out — we were following (the 65th Division) — the dead on both sides, the fields, the roads, there were dead all over, laying there.”
Fred explained that the lead vehicles in their convoy had to stop and pull bodies off the road, so they wouldn’t drive over them.
He recalled, “We were further back in the column, but we saw them all laying there, you know.”
Fred’s Battery D pressed forward in support of the 65th Infantry Division and they reached the Rhine River in April. Fred crossed the Rhine on a fragile-looking pontoon bridge at the German city of Mainz.
“It was a pontoon bridge. We went under a smoke screen while we went across there. We weren’t under fire when we went. Well, some artillery shells would land once and a while, but there was no small arms fire when we went across.”
Fred’s unit was entering the heart of Germany, but a lot of combat lay ahead.