When I was 9, my grandma told me the story of my grandpa’s service in World War II and I didn’t believe her. I knew that my grandpa was considered a hero, and had a purple splotch across his hand, but the story my grandma told was unbelievable. She was a well-known embellisher of details, and even though I was only a kid, I was skeptical.
It turns out, every word my grandma told me was true.
My grandfather, Kenneth “K.V.” Williams, was lucky to return to America alive. The record of his service can be found in a couple of 1945 books, “741st Tank Battalion D-Day to V-E Day,” and “The Story of Vitamin Baker: ‘We’ll Never Go Overseas.’” These books tell a story of remarkable courage and sacrifice.
On June 6, 1944, 32 amphibious “Donald Duck” tanks from Company B of the 741st Tank Battalion plunged into the waters of the English Channel. Their mission: Swim across the channel to the Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach and invade Normandy on D-Day.
The tanks were commonly described as “30 tons of steel in a canvas bucket,” and were poorly suited to choppy waters. When the tanks hit heavy weather, their inflatable attachments ripped off. All but three sank.
One of those three was my grandpa’s tank, making him one of the first men to land on D-Day. His tank was critical in taking out pillboxes and anti-aircraft guns. Grandpa, 29 at the time, was shot in the hand as he climbed out of the tank to reload, but he kept fighting. For my grandpa’s service that day, he received the Purple Heart and the Silver Star.
The 741st Tank Battalion went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. For its service during a violent German counter-attack in the Krinkelt-Rocherath area of Belgium, the 741st received a Presidential Citation, which stated:
“Again and again the infuriated enemy threw armor and infantry against the dauntless defenders, but for three days and nights these assaults were turned back by the unwavering fortitude of the inspired position. The tank men covered the withdrawal and were the last to leave the scene of battle. During the bitter three-day engagement they had destroyed 27 enemy tanks, five armored vehicles and two trucks. Their indomitable fighting spirit and unflinching devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the armed forces.”
Days later, on Christmas Day 1944, Grandpa wrote a letter to my grandma: “Hiya Honey, Merry Christmas. It’s cold enough to snow on the ground and it could be like Christmas but instead it’s more like the Fourth of July. This finds me well and going along pretty good. Last year at this time we were thinking that maybe we would be home for this Christmas but here we are still going.”
My grandpa wrote this in the middle of terrible fighting, with bombs and artillery exploding everywhere. Did you see the miniseries “Band of Brothers?” The 741st Tank Battalion were the men coming to the rescue.
The 741st was also responsible for the liberation of Flossenburg Concentration Camp, where Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and 30,000 others were murdered by the Nazis. My grandpa also was there for the liberation. “The Story of Vitamin Baker” has this to say about Flossenburg:
“The large German concentration camp of Hasag is near Flossenburg. As such, members of the Battalion had the chance to see with their own eyes the brutal results of Nazi domination. Here huge amounts of political prisoners were kept. These were made to work the munitions factories and given the very minimum of food and care. The weak either died or were shot; the strong held on only to become sick, starving, broken. Full evidence of these inhumanities was found all about the camp. The sights were horrible and unbelievable.”
Of the roughly 80 men in Company B of the 741st Tank Battalion, 29 were killed in action, five went missing and three became prisoners of war. Only 46 came home to their families alive.
I am forever grateful that my grandmother filled me in on the details of the 741st Tank Battalion.
Like so many men of his generation, my grandpa never talked about his wartime service.
After the war, Grandpa became an auto parts salesman. He and Grandma raised their family in San Diego. He died in 1991. Grandma died in 2002.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Here’s to the brave men of the 741st Tank Battalion who helped liberate Europe from tyranny.
Correction: An earlier version misidentified the unit Kenneth Williams was in during World War II. He was part of the 741st Tank Battalion.
Edmonds resident Jennifer Bardsley publishes books under her own name and the pseudonym Louise Cypress. Find her online on Instagram @the_ya_gal, on Twitter @jennbardsley or on Facebook as The YA Gal. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.