An Interview with Buddie V. Branch, "B" Company, 761st Tank Battalion
Part I: The Dayton Boys Go To War, By Wayne D. Robinson, 761st Tank Battalion Historian
Buddie V. Branch was inducted on August 9, 1943 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was drafted along with Dayton childhood chums Odell Williams, Clarence Copeland, and Henry Middlebrooks. Another friend, Jovan Council, had been drafted a year earlier and sent to Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. Middlebrooks eventually served with the 784th Tank Battalion and was killed in combat. Williams and Copeland served alongside Branch in "B" Company of the 761st Tank Battalion.
After taking an apitude test at Fort Thomas in Covington, Kentucky, Branch was selected for training at the Armor School at Fort Knox Kentucky. There, he and his fellow recruits received training in the use of pistols, carbines, rifles, and basic operation and maintenance of the M4 Sherman Tank.
In November of 1943, Buddie was transferred to Camp Hood, Texas, and assigned to "B" Company of the 761st Tank Battalion.
"Fort Hood was where we trained on the Shermans in earnest. We had three companies of Shermans, 17 tanks apiece, plus one company of 17 light tanks, M-5 Stuarts. We lived on the tanks in the field. We went on tactical maneuvers, practiced gunnery with the 75mm main gun, fired the fifty caliber and thirty caliber machines guns, and learned to field strip and re-assemble the weapons blindfolded. Every man learned to fight as Loader, Driver, Gunner, and Co-Driver. My main job was Gunner, but we were also trained to take over as Tank Commander in case of trouble."
In June of 1944, Branch went home on leave for one week. When he returned to Hood, the Battalion had been alerted for overseas movement. Another month of intense combat training followed.
"In August of 1944 we boarded a troop train for Camp Shanks. When the train went through towns in Louisiana we had to draw the window shades because some white people would throw rocks at the train when they saw black G.I.s.
We sailed from New York Harbor to Dorset, England on August 27, 1944. When we landed in England on September 7, 1944, we drew brand new tanks and all the other gear. From there, we crossed the English Channel to Omaha Beach. There were wrecked trucks, tanks, and everything else all tangled up in the water. Seeing those knocked-out tanks was a real wake-up call."
The tankers spent two days preparing the vehicles for action, then made the 400-mile road march from Omaha Beach to St. Nicholas du Port, east of Nancy, France.
"We drove through all these towns, where the French people cheered us on in a most welcoming manner. When we got to Saint Nicholas, the rain and mud made for miserable going. We had to ignore the wet conditions, load armor piercing rounds, High Explosive rounds, thousands of rounds of machine gun ammo, not to mention tools, batteries for the radios, checking the radios, and cleaning and checking all weapons. We were working hard to make sure the tanks were ready for battle. We were less than fifty miles from the front lines. You could hear artillery, and sometimes even small-arms fire.
In the middle of all this, General Patton visited us one rainy day just before we went into combat. He said, "I would never have asked for you if you weren't good. I have nothing but the best in my Army. I don't care what color you are as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sons of bitches." At the time, I thought he was a funny guy with the six guns and stuff, but hell, we didn't need him to tell us that. our motto was "Come Out Fighting." Didn't I tell you that?"
On the same day, we were joined by the war correspondent, Mr. Trezzvant Anderson. He stayed with us for the rest of the war and helped us to write the best book about the 761st, Come Out Fighting.
I will never forget the night before we went into battle. It got real cold. We checked and re-checked everything on the Sherman, then got together and said a prayer. Just then, Moses Ballard, our tank commander, came running back from a meeting at headquarters with Captain John Long, our company commander. He gathered us by the tank- me, George Gaffney, Driver; George Coleman, Loader, and a guy we called "Chops," the Assistant Driver. Ballard said we were going into a town called Morville. We had orders to support the infantry by killing any enemy troops, and blowing up anything that could be used for an observation post- steeples, high windows, everything. He told us to watch out for the infantry on our flanks, the Yankee Division guys."
Branch and "B" Company were assigned to one of two task forces going into the attack. The task force was led by Colonel Peter Kopcsak, commander of the 602nd Tank Destroyer Battalion, one of the first four tank destroyer battalions in the U.S. Army. Kopcsak had personally written the book on tank destroyer tactics at Camp Hood.
"At about five a.m, we climbed in the tank and moved out, just after a big artillery barrage. We had infantry and a Tank Destroyer outfit with us. I think "A" Company was somewhere on our right, "C' was on our left. At the time, we did not know much about where the other tankers were, but later on I heard the "C" Company tankers got hit pretty hard.
I remember when we moved out of St. Nicholas. The rain had turned to snow. Inside the tank, there was a steady grinding noise, a vibration though you the crew compartment. You couldn't hear anything because of the engine noise, except over the intercom. Ballard sat up and behind me. Coleman was on the left side of the gun, I sat on the other side. The driver and co-driver were down in the hull. Just as I pressed the tank helmet onto my head and braced my forehead against the browpad on the Gunner's sight, Ballard buttoned up, got on the intercom and ordered Coleman to "load H.E." Coleman pulled a round from the ready rack and slammed it into the breech. When I heard the breech slam shut, I knew we were getting ready to cut loose on that town.
From what I could see through my periscope, Morville was a mess. The Jerries were caught out in the open at first, because the noise of the artillery barrage covered our approach. I was ready to step on the firing switch when Ballard said: GUNNER- COAX- TROOPS. I answered IDENTIFIED. Ballard said FIRE. I said ON THE WAY, stepping on the foot trigger on the "Y" of WAY. We just tore them apart with the co-ax machine guns. Three other tanks were firing to our left. The combined tracer fire looked like a swarm of fiery bees. The Jerries ran for the buildings, I saw a bunch of overcoats trying to jump through basement windows. Some didn't make it."
Up ahead, the column was stalled when when the leading tank, commanded by Sgt. Roy King, was disabled by enemy anti-tank fire. According to Anderson, the Germans laid on mortar, anti-tank and artillery fire, setting the tank ablaze. When the crew attempted to bail out, King was killed by machine gun fire and tumbled into the street to the right side of the tank; Corporal Herbert Porter made it out despite severe wounds sustained inside the tank; Pfc. Nathaniel Ross was hit twice. Pvt. John McNeill and Tech 5 Jack Whitby crawled out through the tank's escape hatch in the bottom of the hull. They brought their submachine guns and used them to kill Germans attempting to fire an anti-tank gun. Whitby re-entered the burning tank and opened fire with the coax machine gun, enabling the task force to pass through the center of town.
"Ballard told Gaffney to hit the gas and we rolled right through the other side of town. There was a roadblock; the Sherman busted through like it was on rails. In the turret, there was a smell sort of like cap gun smoke. Coleman opened the pistol port, then reached over and tapped me on the shoulder, motioning for me to look left. I stood on my seat and squeezed up to where Ballard made room in the commander's hatch so I could look out to the side. We passed a halftrack with five dead GIs in the back, sitting there looking normal, except they were burned up.
At the time, I did not pause to think much about what we had done. That came later. We were lucky to drive through the town without getting hit by an 88 or a mortar."