Reliving the past
Copyright Times News 2009
World War II veteran John King's Message to America: "To really enjoy your freedom; Your freedom of religion, freedom of speech. Get a good education and make a good life for yourself."
"I served with General Patton all the way," John King says with pride as he sits in his immaculate home in Coaldale. On a nearby side table is a model of a Sherman tank, the same kind that carried and protected him during his tour of duty with Patton's 702nd "Red Devils" tank battalion in Europe during World War II.
The Red Devils were part of Patton's Third Army. King's company was a special tank force, a fast strike force used as a spearhead.
King, now 86, talks with a visitor about his tour of duty in World War II Europe as though it had occurred last week - every memory, every battle, every bullet - crystal-clear.
He joined the Army armored force in March of 1943, a year after graduating from high school.
"There were 250 of us inducted at the same time," he says. "We were transported by train from Tamaqua to Allentown, and were sworn in. There they took the men for the Marines, the Navy and the Coast Guard, and the rest of us stayed in the Army."
King's enlistment came as no surprise.
"I had three uncles who were in the military prior to World War II. One, John Lack, was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed.
"When he would come to visit us on furlough, he brought military books, Army books that I could get my nose in," King says with a smile. "I used to read them over and over and study them. I had some knowledge of the military - the routine and the life.
"I wanted to get in there, too. I was adventurous," he says. King also wanted to use his gunnery skills: "I was a crack rifle shot," he says. "In fact, in the Army I was captain of the rifle team."
His military service began at Ft. Campbell, Ky. There, he learned combat skills, including how to operate tanks under all conditions and how to dismantle and put guns back together blindfolded.
"If you are in combat at night, you can't light any lights. You have to do everything by feel," he says. "I could tear a machine gun apart and rebuild it in a matter of minutes."
Each man learned how to do the job of the others, knowledge that would save the team should one member fall.
When the time came to ship out, King boarded the British ship, the Mauritania, bound for Europe.
"The ship was the third-largest ship in the world at that time," he says. "We had 10,000 troops on there. My battalion had to sleep on the promenade deck in hammocks."
They landed in Liverpool, England, eventually heading to Bristol to pick up tanks, which they drove to Southampton. On the journey, King was Sargeant of the Guard on the train. He had three anti-aircraft guns mounted on a flat cart in front of the caboose.
"There were eight of us, and we took turns on the guns in case of aircraft attack," he says.
The trip went smoothly until they arrived in London. There, two German buzz-bombs came over.
"They went right over us - they missed us by about 1,000 yards," King says.
One bomb hit a house and "blew it to smithereens," he says.
They landed in France a couple of weeks after the legendary D-Day invasion, June 6, 1944.
Among King's memories is a brilliant trick, in which Patton had a hand, to detract the Germans from his real invasion plans for France.
Patton was in England, "up where the narrowest part of the channel is between England and Europe. The Germans figured Patton was going to invade there because they had built replicas of tanks out of wood - hundreds and hundreds of them. They had them out there in the open, and some of them were camoflaged," King recalls. "The German aircraft photographed all those tanks out there. They figured that's where the invasion is going to be. But it wasn't."
When Allied troops landed at Normandy, "all the German armor was up there (because that's where) they saw those (fake) tanks," he says.
Patton, he says, "was the best strategist going. I liked the man. He got things done for us."
From Omaha Beach, on the northern coast of France, Patton ordered his men east.
"We went to the Argenton-sur-Creuse. We closed the trap up on 300,000 German troops," King says.
Toward the end of the war, King was injured when he caught a riccocheting bullet in his left hand at Erfurt, Germany.
"It could have been my head," he says.
"The town before it, we captured was Castle. That's where they manufactured their tanks," he said.
Alongside a rail track outside of town, there was a factory.
"There were brand-new German tanks, still on board the flat-cars that got into combat," he recalls.
On the outskirts of Erfurt, King "noticed there was German activity. I radioed in to the company commander to get permission to attack the German convoy coming up. I didn't see any tanks in the beginning, but there were two in there."
The commander gave his OK.
"The first shot I fired, I hit a German staff car (carrying) high-ranking officers," he recalls. "I don't know who was in there, but whoever it was, they never got out. I hit it square."
King then started picking off trucks.
"We got the two tanks besides," he says. "There were 13 vehicles we destroyed in just a matter of minutes."
He caught the bullet as he was climbing out of his tank.
The bullet hit his left hand, went through his watch and his wrist and tore through his arm up to the elbow.
The next day, "I was lying in a bunk in the hospital in Nuremburg airfield," when in walked a Lansford lad, Major Bill Whildin.
King was in substantial pain. Whildin, a radiologist, had another X-ray taken.
"He took a picture of the whole arm. He said I have two doctors - you're going in for an operation," King recalls. "I said OK."
The surgeons cut out the bullet fragments, but the bullet had shattered nerves in King's arm.
"So they shipped me off to Paris. Two doctors there worked on me. They operated on me."
But after a week-and-a-half of recuperation, King signed himself out and hitchhiked his way across Germany back to Erfurt - and combat.
From there, his unit headed east, toward Czechoslovakia, then to Austria as the war ended.
King grows somber as he remembers arriving at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
"Oh God almighty, you could smell the stench 20 miles away," he says quietly.
The German officers had fled.
"If we had caught them, we would have annihilated them right there," he says, anger still simmering 65 years later.
"When we opened the gates, all the ones that were alive were just skin and bones, laying on bunks. They were starving."
Patton, knowing medics were on the way, ordered his men out.
"We couldn't afford to lose any men to any kind of diseases," King says. "We had to go."
While Buchenwald embodied horror on a grand scale, the anguish of war hit closer to home with the death of a Coaldale neighbor, Albert "Albie" Ossana, one of 291,557 Americans who died in that war.
"We were going into Weisbaden, a town the size of Tamaqua. The Germans fired a bazooka, caught his tank. He was wounded. He got out of the tank, unarmed, and was trying to get to cover and they machine-gunned him," King recalls. "We just destroyed the town. Burned it down to the ground."
After the war was over in Europe, King was among those billeted in Frankford, Germany.
"We were getting ready to go fight the Japanese. But after a few weeks of getting organized, the war ended in Japan. The B-29 bombers that dropped the atom bombs, my brother Nick was in that unit," he says.