641 Tank Destroyer Battalion I Blue-water Odyssey to Battle

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with Captain Bennett Saunders, 641 TD S-3

The blue-water odyssey of 641 Tank Destroyer Battalion is in many ways high Army comedy. Yet underlying this comedy is the deadly seriousness of men striving to battle for their country. We worked hard to get into position to fight!

In December 1941, about Pearl Harbor time, 641 TD Battalion was organized at Fort Lewis. Formerly, we belonged to antitank units of the 41st's 66 Field Artillery Brigade, which disappeared when the Division became triangular. The only non-Field Artillery part of 641 TD was Recon Company - originally in 116 Engineers.

Although supposedly an outfit of self-propelled tank destroyers, we never saw combat as a Yellow Tiger unit. At Fort Lewis, no tank destroyers were available. Principal weapons were towed 37mm AT guns.

Two months after Pearl Harbor, 641 TD was 50 percent below strength. Suddenly on 19 February 1942, our half-manned outfit boarded a gigantic train with all our equipment and rumbled all the way across the USA to Fort Dix, NJ.

It seemed like a great emergency run to save the Union. We halted only at RR division points to change train crews and engines.

We made a fast run to Fort Dix-to a dead stop. For our ship to battle had been "La Normandie." But alleged trouble with electric wiring had caused it to burn at the dock in New York City.

With impact of this news came another impact. To put the battalion on a war footing, we received 500-600 of the New York national guardsmen from Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont Brooklyners seemed predominant. In the same barracks, we heard the clear, ringing tones of Montana and the softer, quicker music of Brooklyners with the "R2" flattened out.

            At first, older TD men and new easterners did not get along well. We were Americans of two different regions and two different American accents. Brooklyners called old-timers "Cowboys," and themselves, "Battling Bastards of Brooklyn." We called them "Dodgers," but disrespectfully. Some of them dodged off at once.

In two hours after arrival some 40 percent of them were AWOL in Brooklyn. We placed armed guards to hold them, and some guards made a grapevine to Brooklyn to alert AWOL's on our day of embarkation. Since a mess officer never knew how many would be present for a meal, he usually requested too many rations. We ate like kings.

Then 641 TD entrained from Jersey to embark on the "SS Uruguay". Most AWOL's returned to 641 TD - a few actually on the pier as we loaded that night. All companies had lost men; but Headquarters Company heard 35 "silences" at gangplank roll call.

Instead of the luxury liner "Normandie ", now canted and charred at her dock, we boarded the rust, medium-sized old "Uruguay." She was a 35,000-ton relic of Latin American cruises, but had to serve 5,000 Yanks bound to Australia for 37 days of travail. Carpenters still hammered when we boarded.

First general quarters was called for an emergency. All former plumbers were requested to help get toilets in working order. We needed them badly come Easter!

            On 4 February 1942, "Uruguay" left New York Harbor. We saw Liberty's statue sink slowly below the horizon-faced the open Narrows and the gray North Atlantic. Rumors were that a German sub had torpedoed a destroyer off Jersey last night. We had orders to look out for life rafts or floating corpses.

Before Transportation Corps know-how, our units were badly mixed - 641 TD, 162 Infantry and 41 Recon. For two days at sea, reloading gave us something to do.

The antiquated "Uruguay" slowed the whole convoy to a maximum of 10 knots. We were sitting ducks. Yet, along with "SS Santa Paula", we were part of perhaps the most heavily armed convoy of the U.S. Navy. Two cruisers and the old carrier "Hornet" guarded us-with destroyers in large numbers, especially at dawn or dusk. Several times, a Navy dirigible monitored us a few miles. Although depth charges boomed on the horizon, we got safely through the Atlantic.

 After sighting the great land mass of Cuba to port, "Uruguay" anchored at Colon on the ninth day, next morning locked through the Panama Canal and into the blue Pacific.

Sailing west in the desiccating heat of the equator, we got dire news. Since the "Uruguay" condensed only 60 tons of water daily and we consumed 90 tons daily, we were rationed on half a canteen every 24 hours.

            On 25 March, we had landfall at Bora Bora in the Society Islands. U.S. cruisers "Richmond", "New Orleans" and a naval supply ship gave us water, while repairmen labored all night on our defective condensers. No one could go ashore, but we could trade with natives, even swim. Suddenly the natives headed for shore. Six moss-covered submarines rose from the waves. We almost panicked, but these were Yank submarines.

On 3 April, Good Friday, we sighted the long blue foreshore of New Zealand and anchored 24 hours in Auckland's fine harbor. Natives waved bottles from the docks. That night, Brooklyners yearned for home when they heard the bells of harbor ferries. But nobody went ashore; this was just a water stop. The crew had given up on the condensers. A strange-looking New Zealand auxiliary cruiser escorted us west into the Tasmania Sea. We longed for firm land in Australia and escape from this prison ship.

But Easter was agony. A roast turkey banquet was tainted. Everyone sickened with diarrhea. Like athletes trying out for the Olympics, we raced for the toilets, but half of them jammed.

Next day came our first storm in that turbulent Tasmania Sea. When the storm peaked, our turbines quit. For two hours, "Uruguay" was dead in the water while our New Zealand escort angrily flashed signal lights and made circles around us.

On resuming our 10-knot speed, we loafed into Melbourne after a voyage of 10,000 miles in 37 days and nights of sweltering blackouts. Diarrhea, dehydration and despairing boredom had so weakened us that we had trouble even carrying barracks bags to the waiting trucks. Our destination was Seymour, 60 miles northwest of Melbourne.

At Seymour, we began training. During our first field exercises, the command radio carried Tokyo Rose's welcome to 641 TD. We had our first casualties. Staff Sergeant Maurice Johnson died in a Melbourne hospital. On the return trip, Major Swift's car ran off the road. Swift was injured seriously; his passenger, Lieutenant Carl, was killed.

            Some three months later, 641 TD accompanied the Division north to Rockhampton and trained again, while other units moved to New Guinea. Then came 641 TD's great jungle "circus"for the general.

Tech Sergeant Deane Flett still believes that because we were among the last 41st units to go to New Guinea, we got the chore as guard of honor to 6th Army's new Lieutenant General Krueger.

At 2359, before midnight, 641 TD rose and entrucked for Rockhampton Schoolyard. For three hours then, we waited for Krueger and marched or marked time in various military formations.

When Krueger finally appeared at 1100, he saw 641 TD in all our glory-850 men, 35 officers, awkwardly marching in outlandish garb. Like men from outer space, we shone in green and brown jungle zoot suits. We wore long-legged green jungle boots - "like tennis boots'" said Flett. Men still laugh at our appearance. As for Krueger, his only comment was, "I guess you haven't done this before."

 

CREDIT: Main source is Captain Ben Saunders' 23-page typescript prepared in 1974 from his huge collection of documents. Supporting details came from Tech Sergeant Deane Flett's three-page typescript "The 641 Tank Destroyer Battalion".