Mapleton man drove critical half-track transport, survived Battle of the Bulge
It’s been over 70 years since Wally Frank, 94, of Mapleton, bounced around Europe driving an Army half-track transport supply vehicle, but memories of surviving WWII battlefields, including his participation in the Battle of the Bulge, remain clear in his mind as if it all happened yesterday.
Born in Prescott, Wis., Wally was about seven years old when he moved with his family to Mapleton after his dad Edward came to town to operate a grain elevator business.
He worked for his father at the elevator everyday after school until he graduated from high school in 1941. By 1942 he was drafted and inducted into the Army at age 21. For the next four years he would be joining millions of other Americans fighting in the second world war.
Wally reported to Ft. Snelling in St. Paul and went by train to Ft. Benning, Ga. for basic training. The 10th Armored Division (“Tiger Division”) was activated July 15, 1942, and Frank was assigned to the 419th Field Armored Artillery Battalion.
Wally Frank, age 94, can still fit into his Eisenhower-style waist-length Army jacket 70 years after his WW II service with the 419th Field Armored Artillery Battalion of the famed 10th Armored Division in Europe. Photo by Steve Palmer
After participating in the Tennesse Maneuvers June to September 1943 under the Second Army Command, the division transferred to Camp Gordon, Ga., where intense training continued. Frank left with his unit for overseas duty from New York on Sept. 13, 1944.
The 10th Armored arrived at the port of Cherbourg, France, on Sept. 23, 1944, and waited for their vehicles to assemble, including M7 tanks, half-tracks, artillery pieces and support supplies to arrive.
Wally was assigned to be a driver of a half-track, which were vehicles with wheels in front and two rolling tracks in the rear. As a driver, it was his mission to deliver ammunition and supplies to the front and assist in evacuating the wounded. He also was part of the mechanics corp that kept vehicles in running condition. Wally said his knowledge of vehicles was mostly gained from servicing trucks for his dad’s elevator business.
If temperatures were chilly with rain at Cherbourg, Frank was about to get introduced to one of Europe’s worst winters in 40 years. His unit entered combat on Nov. 1 at Metz, France, and by mid-December 1944, he was helping hold defensive positions in support of 101st Airborne troops and 10th Armored against a heavy German offensive near Bastogne and the famous Battle of the Bulge.
For most of a month the battle continued and became the largest one fought by American forces during the war with heavy casualties reported on both sides in brutal weather conditions. When the Battle of the Bulge ceased it marked the beginning of the end as German forces were pushed back into Germany, and the war eventually stopped five months later.
Frank said the half-tracks had no heat in them, and he recalled the weather was very cold, 10 to 20 degrees below zero, heavy snow and wind. “We’d pick up some straw that we could find in a barn on local farms and put it in the half-tracks to help us, or we slept in improvised shelters made out of wooden ammo boxes which was better than being in a frozen foxhole,” he commented.
Frank said frostbite was always a constant enemy and it was important to try and stay dry. To win that battle many men would put their extra pair of socks under their armpits for safekeeping until the soggy ones were changed out of boots.
Most of the time Frank transported white phosphorus and 50 pound, 105 Howitzer shells along with ammunition from supply depots to restock infantry and M7 tanks.
The Germans knew this and often the half-tracks would be targeted on the roads and shelled by lethal 88 artillery guns that exploded at tree-top level. If Frank’s half-track was hit, the highly explosive cargo he was hauling would’ve had a devastating consequence.
“All we had was a mounted 50 caliber machine gun and one guy to man it while I drove,” Wally recalled. “At one point during the Bulge Battle a lot of our unit was pinned down for five days.”
When it was over, the 419th received several unit citations from commanders, including the Third Army’s Gen. George Patton Jr., for superior performances at Bastogne. Later, the 10th Armored distinguished itself as the first division of the Third Army to enter Germany.
In the 419th Field Artillery After Action Report, it listed 3,144 enemy soldiers killed during the war and 931 captured prisoners. The 419th also destroyed 118 vehicles and tanks, 52 artillery pieces, 27 anti-tank guns, 18 mortars, 31 machine guns, sunk four assault boats and destroyed one railway train.
Frank received the Army Good Conduct Ribbon and Medal, Victory Ribbon, American Campaign Medal in the European Theater for action in the Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe. Those areas covered many miles of riding in a half-track for Frank.
“We moved fast when orders came down, and we were almost constantly on the move,” he stated. “Many times we traveled at night and drove our ammo supplies to wherever help was needed,
“Once we got strafed by German planes while we were spearheading a movement. Then we ran out of gas and supplies for two days before we could get resupplied and going again,” he commented.
Frank completed 31 months of service, eight months in combat and received three battle stars. He finished as a Corporal T-5 and was with two different tank destroyer outfits and later an infantry unit.
When hostilities in Europe ended in May 1945 he was able to visit Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest while his unit was training to go to the Pacific Theater and participate in the planned invasion of Japan. But two atomic bomb blasts in August finally put an overall conclusion to the war.
Frank recalls traveling by train in boxcars to southern France before boarding a ship for home on Oct. 18, 1945. “It felt damned good to get home to Mapleton,” said Frank, who would meet his future wife Bertha, raise a family of four children and own and operate a successful elevator business for over 50 years.
In the aftermath of the war the 419th would hold numerous reunions and many of its former soldiers would gather together and recall old times. One of Frank’s friends who used to attend was Homer Holmes of Kentucky who was a forward observer for the 419th when he was captured by the Germans and held as a POW.
“But the reunions stopped being held a while ago…I’m one of the few guys that’s still alive,” Wally grinned.
Throughout his military service Frank secretly kept a small camera with him which was against regulations and took numerous photographs from basic training and while in Europe which fill a couple of albums.
Some of the medals and foreign money from Wally Frank’s days in the military. Contributed photo
Just recently he discovered a treasure chest of memories packed away in an old suitcase full of the letters he wrote inside the envelopes he mailed home to his parents during the war. Much mail has traveled between the Frank families from far away military locations over the years as Wally’s uncle was a WW I veteran, a brother served in Korea and Wally’s son who went to Vietnam.
After retiring from his business, Wally and Bertha did extensive traveling for several years in an RV camper criss-crossing the entire U.S., parts of Canada and driving around Central America and the circumference of South America for five months and 22,000 miles. They were robbed twice and had a vehicle accident in Columbia during the adventurous trip.
Bertha died after 67 years of marriage, but Wally still takes care of himself in his neat Mapleton home, not far from the tall grain elevators that was a big part of his life. He likes to stay fit by walking a mile each day on his treadmill, recently completing 280 miles in three months. He weighs about the same now at 155 pounds as he did when discharged from the Army.
“We are all very proud of him,” said his daughter Lee Rosten. “He’s accomplished so much during his life, is very disciplined and did a lot of wonderful things. And he’s still very concerned about our country too.”