Lt. Francis "Snuffy" Fuller was a platoon leader in the 712th Tank Battalion. He passed away on April 19, 1997.
Aaron Elson: How old were you when you went into the Army?
Snuffy Fuller: Twenty-seven. I was older than most of the men, except John Zimmer and a couple of others. Zimmer is 83 and I’m 81. Of course I’m in pretty good shape for my age yet.
Aaron Elson: Were you from this area?
Snuffy Fuller: I come from North Tonawanda, that’s 11 miles down the line. I was manager of a chain store. In fact I resented the Army, I was making such good money at that time. Then to go down to $21 a month made a hell of a difference. I went to Fort Niagara for indoctrination, then Fort Knox for basic. Then war was declared in December, and I was shipped to Fort Benning, Georgia. I stayed there about two weeks, and shipped to Hawaii, and got there in January of ’42.
Everybody was worried about the invasion, but we had it pretty easy. We had these old light tanks, M2A2 or something like that, with a little 37-caliber machine gun.
Aaron Elson: Were those like the ones they had in D Company?
Snuffy Fuller: No, these were thinner, lighter tanks than that even. D Company had a nice little tank, those were pretty fast and light. These were old clunkers, with a Garbison diesel engine. We got set up in Oahu, at Scofield Barracks, and then they moved us to Kauai, we had to build a camp there. I enjoyed Hawaii. I made it as far as tech sergeant in operations, and this call came through that they were looking for people for Officers Candidates School, so I put in for it, and I got shipped back to Fort Knox. After I graduated from OCS, I was sent to Camp Chafee, Arkansas, and from Camp Chafee we got sent to Fort Mead, Maryland, then Camp Kilmer, then on the Queen Mary over to England.
Aaron Elson: What was it like going over on the Queen Mary?
Snuffy Fuller: That was very uneventful. It was worse going to Hawaii at the beginning of the war, they took so much time zigzagging, as safety precautions. The Queen Mary was just like a pleasure cruise, except for standing submarine watch on the deck at night. The officers had cabins instead of the troop compartments. Those were all right on the Queen Mary but not on the trip to Hawaii, those were brutal. There were were hammocks four high, and common toilets, and they had one big troth almost half the length of the ship. You would sit on one side and do your job and turn your head and puke on the other side. That was really a rough trip.
Then finally we got shipped over to France. This was way after D-Day, it was in August, and we bounced around these repple depples for a while, I think the last one was Fountainbleau. I got to see Bing Crosby there. I had a first-row seat, too. I loved his music.
When I was assigned to the 712th, they sent me to B Company. Bob Vutech was the captain. We were in a farmhouse outside of a town on the other side of Metz, doing indirect firing. So every once in a while they sent somebody up with one officer, we had to register the guns, just to see where you’re shooting. I got up there in this little town of Gravelotte, it was beat up pretty bad, but this had been my first taste of war, and we got some shelling up there.
One night I tried to walk down the road toward Fort Metz and they threw a bunch of mortars at us. We got out of there in a hurry.
There was this small group of soldiers in Gravelotte, and the infantry was down below. Somebody killed a pig one time and we had a nice pig roast. We were staying at a farmhouse, and Captain Vutech told me all about the next move toward Metz. They were gonna get a bunch of these rubber tanks and halftracks, these fake vehicles and have a sound system, and he said, "And you’re gonna lead them." He was giving me the bullshit. But they did have some of those fake vehicles, I read somewhere they used them.
We diddled around there for about a month, and then they transferred me to C Company, and they were on a break where they had run out of gas for about a month.
That would be September. Then we finally got back into the war. My first job, they gave me a platoon of C Company and told me, "You’ve got to take this town." They pointed it out on the maps, you go down here a certain distance, the infantry’s gonna meet you, and you’re gonna take the town. I’d never taken a town before. So we load up the tanks, get down outside the town in a field, and we’re waiting. No infantry. Finally, off to the right of us somebody started shooting at us, and the shells were dropping right around us in this field.
I said, "Move the tanks around so they don’t get a target."
It was almost dark, so I said to Sergeant [Byrl] Rudd, "Rudd, what are we gonna do?"
"I don’t know, Lieutenant."
I said, "Well, let’s go into town." So we saddle up, hit the road into town, come to the first house, and they’ve got a bunch of farm machinery across the road.
I said, "Put a shell in the first house." We put one in and these farmers come tearing out. I could speak German, so I asked them if there are any Germans there.
They said, "No, they went."
I said, "Okay, then get this stuff out of the road," which they did, so we rolled into this town with no opposition. We got to the center of town, started outposting the tanks, and found a command post for the night. This is all without infantry yet.
Just beyond the center of town you could see the mines right in the road, so I said, "That’s as far as we go for the night."
Around 9 o’clock I said, "I’ll go out and check the tanks." So I went out and got to this one tank, there was a Corporal Wac [Wes Harrell], the reason we called him Wac, he used to wear these fatigues, and they were a little too big, they bagged out and looked like a skirt almost.
I said, "How ya doin’, Wac?"
He said, "Fine, Lieutenant, but give me a magazine for this gun."
He had about a hundred prisoners standing in front of him and no ammunition.
Well, let’s see now, you want to hear something else, I suppose. How about the time Gibson and I got stuck in the chicken coop, have you heard that story?
Aaron Elson: Bob Rossi said it was a coal bin.
Snuffy Fuller: No, it wasn’t a coal bin. This was after crossing the Rhine. Lieutenant [Max] Gibson’s platoon and mine were put together for the Rhine crossing. We got to the first town, and went in to see the colonel and were told we’re supposed to go up to this next town and take it over from somebody that had made the initial crossing.
So we take off, going down this road, and we see all these soldiers coming this way. It was dark, but finally we determined they were American, that’s the outfit we were relieving. So we get into this town of Erfelden and outpost our tanks. Gibson and I said, "We’d better go down and see what the colonel’s got for tomorrow morning." So we go into this big house, and the colonel and the majors are all in there having coffee. We have coffee and we’re talking about what we’re gonna do the next morning, and this guy comes running in and says, "Colonel, the lines are out from F Company!" A couple of minutes later, "The lines are out" on this company. Then they said, "They’re shooting over" around one of the other outfits.
I said to Gibson, "We’d better get back to the tanks." So we walk out the back door of the house, there’s a driveway, and we peek around the corner of the house, here’s about 40 Germans marching down the street, four or five abreast.
I said, "Gib, what are we gonna do? Throw a grenade at ’em?"
He said, "Hell, we wouldn’t stand a chance." There were too many. So we scoot back in the driveway and hit the first door we come to, we figure we’re gonna hide.
In the meantime, all the brass had run into the cellar.
I said, "I’m not going in the cellar." If they throw a grenade in the window you’re done. We went into this first doorway, and we started looking around and the only thing in there was one of these big dirt ovens they had in the old country there. And there was no way out of the place. Now what are we gonna do?
Up near the ceiling there was a hole, maybe two feet square. Somehow or other, I think he boosted me up, we got up, crawled through this damn hole, and here we’re in a chicken loft.
We could hear the Germans hollering, "Hande hoh" out in the street.
Aaron Elson: Did they capture the officers in the basement?
Snuffy Fuller: No they didn’t. They got the medical platoon, and I think some of the MPs. We got them back the next day, but they captured about twenty people.
So we’re up in this chicken coop and we’d been there all night. Towards morning we hear some vehicles, and I said, "Wait a minute, Gib, that’s one of our tank destroyers."
So we get down out of the chicken loft. We’d spent a lousy night. We look out in the driveway, here’s GIs shaving out of their helmets, they’ve got the radios going, everything’s back to normal. And we were covered with birdshit and spider webs. We get down to see if they’re our guys, they were glad to see us, they thought we had been captured.
In the meantime, they’d found some beer taps still running in the town, they had a pretty good time, and we spent the night in a chicken house.
The story of Doncolz, I guess, that’s the next one. That’s where [John] Zimmer comes in. The night before, we had been in the town of Berle, this was toward the end of the Battle of the Bulge. We had terrific artillery going over up there, then they told us the next morning we’re heading for this little town of Doncolz. Berle was up on a hill and Doncolz is down in the valley, and you could see across there all right, but it was too steep for the tanks to get down. And there was just one road going in there, so the strategy was we’d hit this road and barrel ass as fast as we could into the town. Lieutenant [Ray] Griffin’s platoon went first, and I was second. He got into town and pulled behind the first set of barns and was waiting there. I got down right behind him, and said, "Well, what are you gonna do, Griffin?"
And he didn’t really know. We can’t all stay here. So I headed into town, and the tanks are in a string, and we see this sucker off to our right with a panzerfaust. I couldn’t get my gun around fast enough and he let go, but he didn’t hit my tank, he hit the second tank, hit it right in the sprocket, the track came off, and the tank rolled to the left, right into a goddamn manure pile.
That’s the tank Zimmer was in, he could probably tell you more about it. They were immobilized, and somebody came along and told them they had to guard prisoners. So he got stuck all night guarding a bunch of prisoners.
Aaron Elson: What do you think when you see a guy holding a panzerfaust?
Snuffy Fuller: You try to get the bastard, you don’t think too much of anything I guess. That happened in Pfaffenheck, the guy was pointing it right at me and I couldn’t get my .50-caliber gun around to get at him, see, the tank commander’s only got the .50-caliber up there, I couldn’t get it around fast enough, and he must have got rattled too, because he let fly and it went over the top of the tank so that was all right with me, or I’d have got it.
Aaron Elson: In Doncolz, did you get a shot off after he fired?
Snuffy Fuller: One of the tanks did, oh yeah, they got him. One of the tanks behind me, because I went ahead. They fired the machine gun.
Aaron Elson: How did you come to speak German?
Snuffy Fuller: My grandparents are German. My grandmother was from Koenigsburg, and my grandfather came from Alsace-Lorraine, and they spoke quite a bit of German at home. I picked it up when I went to high school. I took three years of German at North Tonawanda High.
I don't know why I took German. It was easy because I knew some of it I guess. My other grandfather was French but I never took up French. When I got over to France I was lost, I only knew as much as the other GIs. Combien, you know.
Aaron Elson: How did your grandparents come to America?
Snuffy Fuller: My German grandparents came in 1862 I think. My French grandfather was an orphan, he was adopted by some American people, and that's where the name Fuller came from, otherwise Fuller’s not a French name.
And my grandmother, her father was an Indian. His name was Sensabaugh, he came from Canada. I remember my great-grandfather the Indian, he used to walk from Dunville, Ontario, to Tonawanda to see my grandmother. It would take him just about all day, about 50 miles, but he walked that. I was very young, but I can still remember. He’d come over and have his visit, have his cup of tea and head back again.
Aaron Elson: What can you tell me about the guys who were in the platoon? Otha Martin...
Snuffy Fuller: He was a great guy. One story about Martin that I can remember, we were taking this little town, it was an L-shaped town, the back of the L was ahead of us over to our left, and as we were going up the main street, somebody fired at us. We had the infantry on the back of the tanks, and they piled off, and I told Martin to go around the back there and put a white phosphorous shell into every other house. Evidently Martin misunderstood me, I think he put a white phosporous into every house. The first thing I know, the whole town is burning, and the cows are coming out in the middle of the street, we had one screwball, I was trying to think of his name, I can’t think of it, he had a sawed-off shotgun. The guy with the shotgun was riding in the front of the tank shooting at these cows. I said to save one house for a command post for the night so we’d have a place to sleep.
In the meantime, one section of the tanks went up to the end of town and made the left turn, and I don't recall who it is right now, but they were going past this one house and a guy looked out the window, he moved the curtain or something and they shot at him. This girl comes tearing out, "You killed my father!"
I said, "He shouldn’t have been looking out the window." You see it moving, you’re gonna fire.
That was unintentional, but it happened. I could see why it happened, because I’d have done the same damn thing if I saw a movement there, and that had been where the shots had originally come from that caused us to burn the town down. It was only a couple of shots, but dammit, if they hadn’t done that we’d have just walked into town peaceful like. And these poor bastards out there, they had one of these old hand pumpers, two men on each side, going up and down trying to get water to these houses. That was sad. It’s their own fault.
Aaron Elson: Were you married at the time?
Snuffy Fuller: No. I was writing letters, but after the war, that was the end of that. She didn’t like my drinking. It’s so hard to try to remember anything. I’m getting old. My memory’s slipping.
It’s funny, the one company, you’ve got three platoons, you hardly knew anybody in the other platoons even. You were with your own 25 men continuously, you slept and ate together, lived together, and that was it.