Thunderbolts To The Rescue

Richard Byrne was born in 1919 on a small farm near the village of Arcola in Loudoun County.  He was one of twelve children.  Growing up on a family farm, he learned early that work was important, and chores must be done.  Since animals as well as family members depended on him, he learned responsibility and to do what needed to be done on time.

When the United States entered World War II, Richard was working as a hired hand on a Loudoun County dairy farm owned by his future wife’s family.  He registered for the draft and got married while he waited for his induction notice.

On November 9, 1942, he was inducted into the Army at Fort Lee and sent immediately to Camp Polk, Louisiana, for basic and advanced training as a tank gunner.  He was assigned to the 22nd Tank Battalion of the 11th Armored Division, nicknamed the “Thunderbolt” Division.

At the end of basic training, his battalion was given a three-day pass to go to the nearby town of Leesville.  Since the town had a bad reputation, Richard decided not to use his pass.  However, one of his fellow soldiers talked Richard into loaning him some money so he could go.  The soldier used the money to go AWOL and return home to Georgia.  A few weeks later, he turned himself in, and Richard and another soldier were sent by train to return him to Camp Polk.  Ironically, Richard was unknowingly responsible for helping him to go AWOL and then was charged with returning him to the Army.

On the left, Richard Byrne standing in front of his Sherman Tank, Head-Hunter, and on the right, a portrait taken in France in 1944. He traded a photographer six cigars for six copies of the portrait.

Richard was assigned to Headquarters Company as the gunner for the battalion commander’s tank, a M4 Sherman nicknamed “Head-Hunter”.  The Sherman had a crew of five–commander, gunner, loader, driver, and co-driver.  In the absence of the colonel, Richard also served as the tank commander.

After basic training, his unit participated in Third Army maneuvers in Louisiana, Texas, and California.  This included desert warfare training in the Mojave Desert.

In September, 1944, his unit moved back east to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, to await overseas shipment.  They boarded a troop ship for England, landing at Southampton.  They moved inland and awaited orders for France.

On December 16, the 11th Armored Division was needed and sailed across the English Channel to France.  The Germans had launched a surprise attack on a 50-mile front in Belgium and the American lines were in danger of collapsing.  Richard and his unit would soon be involved in one of the most important battles of the war–the Battle of the Bulge.

Richard recalls that they had just been served a Christmas dinner of canned turkey when the commander announced that they would be moving out in ninety minutes.  The “Thunderbolts” were ordered to travel all night to halt the German advance at the Meuse River near Bastogne, Belgium.  They raced fifty miles across France to plug this gap in the “Bulge”.

On December 30, his battalion was attached to an airborne infantry unit which was ordered to attack the German lines near Flamierge, Belgium.  His unit was ordered to follow the infantry in a supporting role in the event of a German counterattack.  Richard remembers the spirit and bravery of the infantry units as they marched toward the German lines.  The American forces suffered heavy casualties but succeeded in forcing the Germans to retreat.  A few days later, he saw a large convoy of trucks carrying the dead bodies of hundreds of these young Americans back to the rear.

Richard realizes how fortunate he was to be assigned to the battalion’s Headquarters Company and the commander’s tank.  His tank usually remained away from most of the heavy fighting until the commander needed it.  The battalion commander spent only one night in the tank.  This was on New Year’s Eve when the Germans were shelling their position with heavy artillery.

After stopping the German counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge, U. S. forces started the long push through Germany to join up with the advancing Russian forces.  Richard’s unit joined this assault and attacked the wide-belt of German pillboxes dubbed the “Siegfried Line” where they inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.  They pursued the retreating Germans across southern Germany and into Austria.

In early May 1944, they finally made contact with Russian units.  After Germany surrendered, his unit occupied Munich, Germany for several months, and awaited orders to return home.

The Sherman tanks always carried two five-gallon cans of water strapped to the back of the tanks.  One day the Sergeant Major asked Richard if he could borrow one of the water cans.  He returned later with the can filled with German wine and it was placed back on the tank.  Every few days the Sergeant Major would stop by for “a drink of water”.

Since Japan had not yet surrendered, volunteers were solicited from the units in Germany to form a new tank battalion for the possible invasion of Japan.  They were promised a thirty-day leave to go home before being shipped out to the Pacific.  Richard decided to volunteer and gamble that the war with Japan would end before he was needed.  His gamble paid off and Japan surrendered before they were shipped out.

In November, 1946, Corporal Byrne boarded a troop ship in Germany and sailed for New York.  On December 15, 1946, he was discharged at Fort Meade, Maryland, and headed home to Loudoun County and his wife Marie.

After the war, Richard returned to farming.  He remembers that he was back milking cows on the first morning back at home.   Richard worked as a dairy farmer until 1968 when he sold his herd and went to work for Southern States as a salesman.  He retired in 1992 and moved to Berryville.

Richard maintains an active life with his family and community.  In addition to being a member of Post 41, he is the “chief cook” for the Methodist Men at Duncan Memorial United Methodist Church.  He and Marie, who recently celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary, also manage the church’s famous Ice Cream Social.

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