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A History of the 640th Tank Destroyer…

A History of the 640th Tank Destroyer Battalion, WW-II, 1941-1946

by Claude W. Hass

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Found in Dad’s papers. A typical small unit history, put together from various reports – the bulk of which are mundane details of organization, training, issuance and withdrawal of weapons, transport to the Pacific, disembarkation and embarkation, presumably because not much was going on and the clerks had more time to write stuff down. Everything is photocopies of typed reports – and the typewriters often had blurry letters. In what is probably typical of the torpid pace of government bureaucracy, although the unit was disbanded in January 1946 the unit report wasn’t declassified (by Executive Order) until August 5th 1984.

The 640th Tank Destroyer Battalion was organized from Field Artillery units in December 1941; Dad didn’t get drafted and assigned until November 1943. The initial equipment was a M5 3” gun towed behind a half-track, but these were replaced by the M10 tank destroyer (official title 3” Motor Gun Carriage M10) in October 1944. Dad told a story about this – the towed gun units required ten men while the M10 only needed five; half the men were reassigned to the infantry and ended up in the Aleutians. Dad stayed with the unit because he had helped his older brother get an amateur radio license and therefore knew Morse, although he never actually had to use Morse for anything. However, although the battalion history mentions the transition from towed guns to M10s (while the unit was training on New Britain) there is no mention of any reduction in personnel.

The battalion was loaded on LSTs, LSMs, and APAs and departed for the Philippines on December 9, 1944, arriving at Lingayen Beach on January 9th 1945. The history notes unloading was not very satisfactory; although the M10s could wade ashore the unit’s other vehicles (trucks, jeeps and M8 and M20 armored cars) were towed in through the six feet of surf and “grounded out” – I assume either nobody thought of disconnecting batteries or there wasn’t time. It took “several days” to make things serviceable again.

The document doesn’t include a TO&E so it’s sometimes hard to keep track of what was what. There were three tank destroyer companies (“A”, “B” and “C”), a headquarters company, a repair company and a reconnaissance company; each tank destroyer company had three tank destroyer platoons (“1st”, “2nd” and “3rd”). Each platoon was one tank destroyer; Dad was the radio operator and assistant driver, 2nd Platoon, Company C, 640th Tank Destroyer Battalion, Army of the United States. At various times the battalion or individual companies were attached to the 40th Infantry Division; directly to XIV Corps, 1st Cavalry Division, directly to XI Corps, 43rd Infantry Division, 38th Infantry Division, and directly to XIV Corps. The history complains (in polite military language) that piecemeal division of companies and platoons (i.e., individual TDs) among infantry and cavalry units made it difficult to keep vehicles maintained; that the TDs were often assigned unsuitable missions (unsupported patrols on jungle roads); and that they were employed for tasks more suitable for organic infantry and cavalry assets (towed 57mm AT guns and 105mm artillery pieces). I’ve read similar things from accounts of actions in Europe (where TDs were much more abundant); because they looked like tanks, infantry commanders tended to use them like tanks; they had lighter armor than tanks and an open top turret and thus were more vulnerable to AT gunfire or infantry assaults. Dad commented that they had rigged chicken wire netting across the turret top to catch thrown grenades; the unit history doesn’t mention this but does mention other additional anti-infantry protection; the M10, although built on a Sherman chassis, didn’t have a hull mounted .30 machine gun or a coaxial machine gun. Instead there was the 3” main gun and a .50 AA machine gun (plus the crew’s personal weapons, an M1 carbine, a Thompson, or a 1911A1). The .50 machine gun was mounted on the rear of the turret facing rearward. In the tradition of American improvisation, the unit scrounged sufficient .30 machine guns to mount one on each turret facing forward.

Combat histories of individual companies note a lot of direct fire missions against pillboxes, bunkers, and gun emplacements, or sometimes against “troop concentrations on hillsides”. The history notes primly that the infantry units TDs were attached to sometimes did a poor job of identifying targets. The Company “C” history reports that on 14 February 1945, while attached to 149th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Platoon destroyed “1 enemy medium tank, 3 pill boxes, 8 light machine guns (aircraft type)”. Dad’s handwritten note in the margin is “THAT’S OUR TD”. A later part of the history discussing ammunition effectiveness doesn’t mention this action specifically but when suggesting a greater HE loadout notes an AP round passed completely through an enemy medium tank and exploded in a dirt embankment, while a round of HE exploded inside the enemy tank and did much more damage; I assume this is the same action (although I suppose it could be accounts of firing at a captured target); in a summary of enemy equipment destroyed in action the history reports “1 medium tank”. A later note, underlined by Dad, reports that on 13 March 1945 the 2nd Platoon was attached to 1st battalion 149th Infantry Regiment:

“While on patrol duty with the infantry, TD Commander J. Tice and tank drivers [sic] Newel C. Wright were caught in a mine explosion. They were just passing a cave when the explosion occurred. Shell fragments caused Sgt. Tice to be slightly wounded while Tec 4 Wright was seriously wounded. They were rushed to a portable surgical hospital and treated. Tec 4 Wright died of his wounds 24:30 [sic] the same day”.

Dad reported this story differently; the “patrol duty with the infantry” was a souvenir hunting expedition, they were inside the cave, not “just passing” it, and Tec 4 Newel Wright tripped a booby trap. Dad was supposed to go along on the souvenir hunt but got assigned to stand with his carbine and guard a bridge instead. There but for the Grace of God and all that.

The 640th TD Battalion lost ten killed (one encephalitis, one land mine, one “explosion of demolition in cave” (see above), five sniper fire, one mortar shell, one run over by a tractor). Personnel were awarded 1 DSC, 3 Silver Stars, and 13 Bronze Stars.

After the Luzon campaign the 640th was moved to Mindanao to train for the invasion of Japan. That turned out not to be necessary (thanks, Los Alamos) and the mission was changed to occupation. It was noted that the area to be occupied wasn’t suitable for tracked vehicles (the history doesn’t mention where that was) so all the tracked equipment was turned in, just keeping trucks, jeeps, and armored cars. Then it was decided the 640th wasn’t needed in Japan at all. Dad was unmarried and hadn’t served very long so was low on points and had to wait a while before return to the States; he got a promotion to Staff Sergeant in compensation and was discharged on November 1945 (this doesn’t square with the unit history which has the 640th still overseas until 1946, but maybe returns were piecemeal). He worked a series of machinist jobs (he used his GI Bill money to complete an apprenticeship), married Mom in November 1946, fathered me in 1951, bought a tract house in Villa Park, Illinois in 1953, produced my sister Jane in 1957, retired from Central Shops at Argonne National Laboratory in 1987, moved to Loveland, Colorado to be close to me (no accounting for taste) in 1993, developed a series of medical conditions in the 2000s and 2010s, was hospitalized in December 2014, returned home from rehab on December 24th 2014, was admitted to the ER on January 9th 2015, was transferred to hospice the same day, and died sometime between 06:30 (when he said hello to a nurse) and 08:15 (when Mom and I came to visit and found him already gone) on January 10th 2015, age 90 years, 2 months, 28 days. The funeral service was at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Loveland, on January 22nd 2015, at 13:30; Mom keeps the ashes at home.

He was rather scared of dying and didn’t want a DNR; I got him to sign one at his last hospital stay but one by not telling him what it was. The hospice staff didn’t have this right away, since he had come from the hospital so recently (I had to go back the next day and finish signing all the admission papers). Mom and I talked them out of CPR – which wasn’t very hard to do – until somebody came running in with the DNR form.

One of many of his generation that did what they thought were fairly ordinary things but which are hard for subsequent generations to even imagine doing. I am honored beyond what I can express to be his son.
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  setnahkt | Dec 2, 2017 |
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