Although it was already dark on the evening of July 6, 1944, Lieutenant Jim Flowers, a platoon leader in Company C of the 712th Tank Battalion, volunteered to take two of his tanks and carry some badly needed supplies to a battalion of the 90th Infantry Division. Flowers tried twice to reach the battalion, but, hampered by a combination of darkness, a sometimes driving rain, and an inability to see the enemy that was firing at his tanks, he was unable to break through the German lines. At dawn, with the advantage of being able to see, the two tanks reached the beleaguered battalion.
While they were there, Flowers would recall many years later, an officer asked him if he could take his tanks and check on a foxhole into which he thought he had seen an enemy soldier fall. When the tanks returned from this brief mission, they learned that an infantry sergeant who had accompanied them was missing, so they went back out to look for him. They found the sergeant, uninjured but huddled in a foxhole. He scrambled out of the foxhole and into Judd Wileys tank.
As the tanks headed back to the command post, two enemy soldiers "raised up out of some weeds," Flowers says, "and fired a panzerfaust" an anti-tank projectile that was launched from a shoulder-held tube. It struck a thick steel pin that connected two track blocks on Flowers' tank, and burned clear through to the next steel pin, but didnt penetrate the tank.
Flowers and Wiley immediately backed their tanks over a hedgerow, while scouring the woods. When the rear of Wileys tank struck the ground, at about a 70-degree angle, half of the turret hatch cover, which was open, broke loose from the pin holding it -- a common occurrence that resulted in injury to many tank commanders -- and slammed down on Wileys left hand.
The injury was painful, and his fingers were bleeding, but Wiley says that he acted as if nothing had happened. Flowers bandaged his hand, and Wiley remained with his crew.
On the morning of July 9th, Wiley and Flowers went scouting. Flowers liked to survey at least some of the ground his tanks would be covering on their next mission. On this particular "personal reconnaissance," the two soldiers came upon a railroad depot with a single track. Some GIs from the 90th Division were dug in on one side of a field beside the tracks.
The difference between potato and potahto, and even between night and day, does not do justice to the difference between Flowers and Wileys recollection of what happened next.
They both agree that there was a German vehicle in the field. It had a motorcycle assembly in the front, and tracks in the rear, above which was a compartment that could be used for hauling such things as railroad ties or artillery shells.
According to Wiley, there was a German soldier on the back of the vehicle, and he was dead. According to Flowers, there were two Germans -- one on the motorcycle seat and the other on the back -- and he and Wiley "ended the war" for both of them.
Flowers says he had visions of liberating the vehicle, taking it apart, and shipping it, in pieces, back to Dallas, where he would put it back together. Wiley says Flowers must have been crazy to think such a thing, but reluctantly admits he got caught up in the spirit of the moment, made all the more exciting by an infantrymans warning that if they spent more than a minute in no mans land they would be subject to a mortar barrage.
According to Wiley, he and Flowers made three trips to the vehicle. On the first trip, Wiley checked the ignition to see if it would start, and Flowers dumped the body off the back. Then they ran back to the ditch as mortar shells began dropping into the field. When things quieted down, they ran out to the vehicle, started the motor, left it to warm up, and returned to the ditch, again under incoming fire. On their third trip, Wiley hopped on the motorcycle seat and raced the engine, Flowers jumped on the rear compartment, and they headed for the road as the mortars started dropping in.
According to Flowers, they made only one trip, there were two bodies to remove, Flowers drove, Wiley sat on the back, and the people shooting at them were not Germans but Americans.
Wiley says the road was "horribly crowned," meaning the surface was uneven and sloped to allow the runoff of the areas frequent rain, and it was impossible to control the vehicle. He says he looked behind him and saw that Flowers had jumped off. As Wiley jumped off, his left foot got caught. He dangled in midair and his leg twisted as the motorcycle tipped over. His foot came free, and he fell to the ground.
Wiley says he and Flowers left the vehicle in the ditch and headed back to the tanks. Flowers says they picked the vehicle up, walked it to an infantry command post, tagged it with a sign saying "Property of first platoon, Company C, 712th Tank Battalion," and said they would send somebody back to pick it up.
Wiley says Flowers walked ahead as they returned to the tanks. Wileys left leg was stiff, and he tried not to let the lieutenant see him limp.
He says he tried twice to climb into his tank, but was unable to scale the side with his stiff leg. He gave no thought to what might happen if he managed to get into the tank, and then had to get out in a hurry. The crew was cleaning the 75-millimeter gun, and nobody noticed him trying to get a foothold.
Finally, he shouted for Tannler to toss him his musette bag, and said he was going to an aid station.