Raleigh Hill: Veteran helped make history
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Staff photo by Aaron Street. Raleigh Hill of Texarkana, Ark., is a former U.S. Army corporal and served as an assistant tank driver in the 761st Tank Battalion in Europe during World War II.
Men like Raleigh Hill are rare.
Rarer still are the history makers who went where no one had ever gone before and blazed a trail for others to follow.
Before studying history and mathematics for four years and going on to teach both subjects in public schools for 36 years, former Army Cpl. Raleigh Hill was helping make history.
As an assistant driver of an Army Sherman tank and .30-caliber machine gun operator stationed in Europe during World War II, Hill was a member of the 761st Tank Battalion -- the first U.S. black armored unit to see combat in that theater of the war.
"Our tanks weren't built as tough as the Germans built theirs. Basically, we just had a lot more of them than the Germans had and we were able to overwhelm them with our numbers. We had about a dozen of our Sherman tanks to go against every one of their King Tiger tanks."
The 761st was one of three segregated black tank battalions that fought in World War II. The other two, formed by the Pentagon and designated for black soldiers, included the 758th Tank Battalion assigned to North Africa and the 784th Tank Battalion assigned to the Pacific.
"Back during that time, black soldiers were mostly used as quartermasters and supply clerks who loaded and unloaded Army supplies. But at about that time, there were two black newspapers (the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender) which advocated putting black soldiers in combat."
Besides these three tank battalions, the Pentagon also designated only two all black-infantry divisions for combat -- the 92nd and the 93rd, Hill said.
Born March 21, 1924, in Nashville, Ark., Hill was one of seven children -- five boys and two girls. His family moved to Texarkana, Ark., in 1929 when he was 5 years old.
Hill started public school at College Hill Elementary and eventually went on to Washington High School for the seventh through 12th grades. He graduated in 1943.
Hill started public school at College Hill Elementary and eventually went on to Washington High School for the seventh through 12th grades. He graduated in 1943.
During his senior year, Hill was earning $5 a week working at Buhrman-Pharr Hardware. Then one day he received his draft notice.
Upon looking at the notice, his employer, Mrs. F.E. Pharr, appealed his draft to the local draft board headed by Luther Lowe, a prominent Garland City, Ark., farmer and rancher.
"At the time (November 1942), a lot of my classmates had to leave high school and go into the service. But Mrs. Pharr called the board and asked them to let me finish high school first. So I graduate May 27, 1943, and the next day I got my greeting from Uncle Sam, and I reported to the Miller County Courthouse to take the bus to Little Rock."
Hill and about 18 others rode to Little Rock to be sworn in.
At the time, qualifying for military service had a social advantage, Hill said.
"If you were 4-F (disqualified from military service), it meant the government didn't want you, and if the government didnt want you, the women wouldn't have you."
After induction, Hill reported to Fort Knox, Ky., for basic training. There he started drawing his starting GI salary of $21 a month before going on to Camp Hood, Texas, which is known today as Fort Hood.
"You had to know how to take your gun apart and reassemble it piece by piece. There at Camp Hood we went through some intensive battle training. We went on forced marches 14 miles with a 113-pound field pack on our backs. We also crawled on the ground under live machine gun fire."
By December 1943, Hill, now a corporal, was earning about $40 a month. He reported to Camp Shank in New York, where he was stationed for a few more months before eventually boarding an old supply ship named the Espire Bay in late August 1944.
Arriving in England on Sept. 11, 1944, Hill was assigned to the 761st. His unit soon crossed the English Channel and landed in northern France. There it caught up with the rapidly advancing Allied ground forces.
"When we landed on the Normandy beaches you could still tell there had been a violent battle there because there were still bodies of American GI's floating, as well as GI combat helmets still floating off shore. Somehow the salt water helped keep the bodies preserved."
Hill's tank crew consisted of five men -- commander Herbert Hayes, driver Willie Price, Hill as assistant driver and machine gunner and shell gun loader W.O. Turner. Landis Scott was the tank's 76mm gunner.
"When we got to France, we had to weld cleats to our tank treads as well as do a lot of other improvising to keep our tank on the move."
Hill's gun was a .30-caliber machine gun that he fired as he moved it from side to side through a slit in the tank.
"We all had earphones on in our helmets so we could hear our commander's instructions. I held and moved the machine gun in place by holding my elbows against my hips as I moved the gun from side to side. Our leather helmets resembled leather football helmets of that time."
Hill and his crew each had a hand-held M-3 automatic "grease gun" that they carried over their shoulders.
"These grease guns weren't really all that accurate, but they kept the enemy at a respectable distance because you could spray bullets and get a lot of lead out in front of you."
At various times, the 761st was on loan to Lt. Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army, Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges' 1st Army and Lt. Gen. Alexander Patch's 7th Army that advanced up southern France.
After playing a suppporting role for the U.S. ground forces rolling forward across northern France for the next two months, Hill first saw combat Nov. 7, 1944, during the battle for the French city of Metz, not too far from the French-German border.
"Our first battle was near the city of Metz in France's Lorraine Province. That city and that area, along with the city of Nancy."
Hill said the area became a heavily contested combat area at that time.
"We ran into a lot of German artillery as well as a lot of their concrete pillbox defense fortifications. Our infantry had to crawl over the dead bodies of other infantrymen as they worked their way up to throw hand grenades in the open gun slits and windows of these pillboxes."
At the time, some advanced U.S. units reached a defense line of German fortifications, along the French-German border, known as the Siegfried Line. The line mostly consisted of waist-high iron and steel anti-tank obstacles or posts covered with concrete. They resembled giant teeth protruding up from the ground, Hill said.
"These were called tiger's teeth," Hill said as he attempted to draw them on paper. "The area became a tank graveyard. The infantrymen had to shove tubes full of explosives in and around these teeth. We called it pulling the teeth of the Siegfried Line."
Besides the fortifications, the German tanks proved to be a more formidable foe.
"The German tanks had 6-inch armor on the side and 12-inch armor in front."
Hill also said he could tell the difference between American artillery fire and German artillery just by the sound of the shells.
"The German 88 mm anti-tank shells could come toward us in a straight line of fire whereas the American shells would arc toward their target. The GIs up there would talk about how they would wine and dine on the Siegfried Line and dance to the music of the 88 mm band because of the sound those German guns made."
The day after Hill's tank engaged in its first field battle, he got wounded and nearly lost his life as a German armored piercing shell struck his tank and immediately ignited fires on the inside. The date was Nov. 8, 1944.
"We had just started our first week of combat to help pave the way for ground forces to take the city of Metz. The tank blazed up after the shell hit and all the rest of the tank crew got out, ran to the back of our tank column -- all except our tank commander, Herbert Hayes, who panicked and ran to the front. We never saw him again, and we never knew what happened to him because he wound up missing in action."
Meanwhile, Hill was dazed and confused by the shell's impact. He suffered shrapnel wounds to his left foot and left arm. He also received second-degree burns to his face and head.
"The shrapnel that went into my foot is still in there to this day," Hill said as he removed his shoe to show the scars.
Hill said he would have lost his life that day had it not been for the quick thinking and bravery of tank driver Willie Price.
"Willie named our tank the Crescent City Kid since he was from the Crescent City black neighborhood of New Orleans. Willie Price helped get me out of the tank just before all the live ammunition in it started to explode."
Hill said Price then shepherded him down and back to where the rest of the tank crew had fled.
"After helping me out of the tank, Willie Price herded all of us together and lead us to a roadside ditch. We must have crawled in the ditch for a quarter mile until we popped up out of it safe from enemy machine gun fire."
As the crew crawled through the ditch, the Germans zeroed in their mounted machine guns on where Hill and his tank crew were moving.
"You could feel the heat of the bullets whizzing around your head."
When Hill and the rest of the tank crew moved far enough away from the shooting, they emerged from the ditch and Hill discovered he was limping from his shrapnel wounds.
Fortunately, a U.S. Army ambulance soon appeared on the scene and medics treated Hill's wounds and eventually took him to a hospital in Paris.
"As I was lying on the emergency room table I looked over and saw a white soldier who was laying on another table with a severe throat wound and undergoing surgery. I could see the surgical balloons collapse as he stopped breathing. Then the nurse closed a cloth curtain between us, but it was too late. I had already seen what happen. He died."
After recovering in the hospital for three days, the Army transported Hill to England on a U.S. C-47 troop carrier and cargo plane.
Once in England, Hill spent the next few months recovering from his wounds before being flown back to France and put up in a replacement center in early 1945.
During his recovery, his unit changed directions -- from heading west toward Germany to pushing north toward Belgium. It was an attempt to help relieve the 101st Airborne Division holding the town of Bastogne amid a strong German counteroffensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was Christmas 1944.
"When I got back to France and reassigned back to the 761st, they gave me a choice of either going back to combat or becoming company clerk and keeping up with the unit's payroll records. I chose company clerk."
Although officially not assigned to combat and stationed in rear area tents, Hill was still close enough to the action to hear the exchange of fire between U.S. and German artillery batteries.
As the 761st eventually crossed the Rhine River and steadily advanced into Germany, Hill said combat basically became limited to mopping up a few pockets of enemy resistance in some towns.
"Most of the time, the Germans would surrender a town by hanging white flags or bed sheets on sticks and place them out the windows. But sometimes they would fight for the town."
But by this time for Hill and the rest of his tank crew, the only serious threat to life came as the occasional German fighter plane would swoop down and strafe the tank columns.
"We had just crossed the Rhine River and moved to the roadside when an American Piper Cub reconaissance plane came flying over us just before evening. I later found out it was actually a German pilot flying one of our planes they had shot down and captured."
Hill found out because later that night a German fighter appeared.
"That night, the German fighter strafed our tents as we were laying on the ground inside them. He made three passes as I tried to unzip my sleeping bag open. I finally tore the sleeping bag open and took out running for cover under our tank."
Some days later, another strafing followed. This treated Hill and others to a strange sight.
"The second time we were strafed, it was about 10 or 11 in the morning when we had just pulled off onto the side of the road, at the edge of the woods, for a break," Hill said. "It was one of those German jet fighters they built just at the end of the war. We had two 45-year-old men in our outfit that just tore out running and vaulted over a wire fence to escape. I had never seen anyone that age, run that fast and jump that high before, but it happened."
As the jet passed over again, Hill said he could see black smoke pouring out one of the engines as a flight of U.S. P-51 Mustangs gave pursuit.
"The P-51s thought they hit him, but it turned out just to be regular jet engine smoke."
Finally, the war ended.
"On that day, May 8, 1945, the announcement came that the Germans had surrendered and the war was over. It became one of the happiest days of my life. Everybody started throwing their helmets up in the air and yelling and drinking Schnapps."
Once the war ended, Hill continued to serve in the U.S. occupation force until November 1945.
During that time, Hill said he saw many of the German prisoners of war being released.
"But even dressed as civilians, you could always tell who the Germans were because of their blond hair and steel-blue eyes."
Hill said many of the Germans, particularly those in the former SS military units, remained fanatical so it was dangerous for members of his tank unit to wander into towns alone.
"I remember finding one of our guys winding up dead and floating in a river not far from where we were stationed. We never knew exactly what happened to him, but he wound up dead."
Hill said he would have been forced to stayed in Europe longer had he not come up with a clever scheme to get back home.
"At that time, most of the other black men in the service had not finished high school. Since I did, the Army considered me what they called 'critical personnel,' so I couldn't leave. They told me I was still needed to do the payroll, but I told them I made arrangements for someone else to take my job even though I knew he couldn't hardly spell his own name."
The ruse worked. After sticking the Army with an intellectually lighter-weight clerk, Hill hurriedly boarded a troopship docked in Rotterdam, Holland, and made for the English Channel and eventually out to the Atlantic Ocean.
"At that point, I knew I was home free because I knew the Army wasn't going to have the ship turned back just so they could arrest me for sticking them with someone who couldn't do the job," Hill said with a hearty laugh. "Up until that time, Europe was as far away from home as I had ever been in my life."
Arriving in Newport News, Va., to a crowd of tens of thousands of patriotic supporters, Hill said he never felt better about being back home in his life.
"The crowds were clapping their hands and patting us on the backs as we disembarked. One of the military bands was playing ‘Stars & Stripes Forever.' It was a great moment in my life even though I was hungry and feeling malnourished from not eating while we were crossing the Atlantic. There was a lot of sea sickness going on and I just didn't want to get sick, so I didn't eat on the way back."
Upon arriving at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, Hill received his honorable discharge and application for his GI Bill. He entered college at Pine Bluff, Ark., in September 1946. He earned a bachelor of science degree in history with a minor in mathematics in the spring of 1950.
Hill then returned to Texarkana, Ark., where he had a teaching job waiting for him at Douglas High School in the Texarkana, Ark., School District, starting in September 1950.
Hill later went on to teach at Mandeville Elementary School before teaching algebra at Washington High School in the fall of 1963.
When the school district integrated in 1964, Washington High School consolidated with Arkansas High. Hill went on to teach at Jefferson Junior High for a brief time before transferring to Union Elementary School. He eventually wound up at Washington Elementary School, where he taught until he retired in 1986.
"I got out at a time when the kids were pretty well starting to run the schools," he said.
Looking back on his life's experience, Hill said cooperation with other people was perhaps the most valuable lesson he brought home from Europe and applied to his life.
"I learned to get along with a lot of different people and work with a lot of different people -- Americans, French, British, Dutch, Austrians and Belgians. It's been an experience I would never want to trade."
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