directory
WWII Tank Commander: Memories fresh as yesterday
by Bill Clough
Jul 13, 2014 | 317 views | 0 0 comments | 0 0 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Viggo Gruy recounts his experiences with the U. S. Tank Destroyer forces in Europe during World War II, including earning a Silver Star.
Viggo Gruy recounts his experiences with the U. S. Tank Destroyer forces in Europe during World War II, including earning a Silver Star.
slideshow
Viggo Gruy and his tank destroyer somewhere in Europe. Although the manual claimed its top speed was 28 mph, Gruy and his crew one clocked 52 mph in Belgium.
Viggo Gruy and his tank destroyer somewhere in Europe. Although the manual claimed its top speed was 28 mph, Gruy and his crew one clocked 52 mph in Belgium.
slideshow
The emblem of the force, including the 814th Tank Destroyer Battalion in which Gruy served. He trained with the unit at what was then called Camp Hood.
The emblem of the force, including the 814th Tank Destroyer Battalion in which Gruy served. He trained with the unit at what was then called Camp Hood.
slideshow
When he joins other members of the “Know It All” club for lunch at the Country Club, Viggo Gruy sits near the wall. He often laughs when appropriate but, says fellow member Kinkley Handly, doesn’t join in the conversation much, kind of withdrawn.

Gruy is 90, and even though his blue eyes have seen a lot, maybe too much, they don’t show it. They gaze at the other club members with the certainty that actions speak louder than words.

He made his fortune in oil and gas. His office is in the Petroleum Center, a complex of buildings, equally withdrawn, on Business 181.

But in that office, a discerning visitor, noticing a polished artillery shell, begins to realize that in the past Gruy learned to live with the violence of war.

Or in his home, a framed portrait of Gruy hangs in a quiet corner, drawn by a German SS colonel who survived a head wound in both world wars and who, between the wars, was the head of the art department at the University of Heidelberg.

Gruy was the commander of a U.S. tank destroyer during World War II. The Army cited him for bravery by awarding him a silver star.

He was born in Beeville in 1924. Eighteen years later, he attended Texas A&M University, studying animal husbandry. As were all who attended A&M then, he also was in ROTC.

“The Army took the entire junior and senior class in 1943,” Gruy says. “Not many people remember that.”

He was sent to what then was called “Camp Hood.” He opted to join a new branch of the Army called the armored cavalry. Instead of riding horses, he would command a tank destroyer (TD)—a tank designed to counter the German blitzkrieg. Each TD carried a crew of five: a commander, a driver, a radioman, a gunner and a loader.

“The loader wore an asbestos glove,” Gruy demonstrated. “The gun had only a 12-inch recoil. It would eject the empty shell, the loader would catch it with his gloved hand, toss the hot shell casing over the side and with his other hand ram another shell home.

“That doesn’t seem like much, but it’s pretty hard to do.”

Even in 1943, anyone could guess that Britain and the United States were planning a second front in Europe. The only question was when.

“The first tank destroyers only had a 37mm gun,” he says. “That was like a BB gun,” he winces. “Those TDs were sent to Africa.”

For the European campaign, he commanded an M10. “It had a 90mm gun, which was competitive with the German 88mm. The original M10 could hold 40 shells. A lot of guys outfitted them to hold 140. The only time I thought I might run out of ammunition was during the Battle of the Bulge.”

Gruy—with 13,999 others—left Halifax in 1944 to cross the Atlantic on a commercial liner converted for wartime use. “It was the Ile-de-France. It took us 4-1/2 days.”

To protect the tanks from seawater, they were covered with a waxy substance called “Cosmoline.”

“Once we were in England, it took us about a month to clean the TD to get it ready,” he says.

“In March, there was a meeting of all the officers,” he remembers. “We were told that the First Army was going to invade. We were in the Third Army, which was going to join Gen. George S. Patton.

“So,” Gruy recalls, “we were sent to Dorchester, England. That meant putting Cosmoline back on the tanks.”

It also meant unpacking boxes and boxes of a document signed by Dwight Eisenhower that began: “Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!”

A month after D-Day—the invasion of France—Gruy’s 814th Tank Company boarded a Landing Ship Tank (LST) to cross the English Channel and then to land at Utah Beach.

By August, his group was ordered to join Patton’s 7th Armored Division. “I saw Patton once or twice,” Gruy says. “He always had his command vehicle accompanied by cars full of military policemen. Some drove in front of him, others behind him. They always had their sirens running.

‘I was 20, but I didn’t look more than 15. I was sent to be the rear guard,” Gruy says, “where I guess they figured I couldn’t mess anything up.

That rear-guard position would become familiar. Not that the rear was any guarantee of safety.

“On the second day, my TD was right behind some ambulances. A shell went right through the middle of the red cross painted on the side.

“The German tanks were behind us. It’s a strategy they used many time—to let the first vehicles pass and then attack.”

Gruy left his vehicle to direct concentrated fire against the German tanks, destroying three. The other three disappeared.

From the BEE-PICAYUNE, Nov. 30, 1944:

Gruy “dismounted from his tank destroyer and ‘without regard for his personal safety, and at close range, directed fire of his platoon.

“He then led his platoon in surprising and ambushing an enemy column, thereby succeeding in the destruction of four heavy field pieces, two armored cars and five supply trucks.”

By such actions are silver stars earned.

The TD manual gave a top speed of 28 mph. Gruy’s crew once hit 52 mph. It also managed to roll one over in Belgium.

“We had to repair a mechanical problem,” he says. “We were racing to catch up with our column. We were on a cobblestone road when we had to swerve to avoid a man on a bicycle.”

The TD slid into a ditch. All but the driver were thrown from the vehicle.

“The road was lined with trees. The gun hit one right in the center of the trunk. It went right through the tree. The gun was filled with wood all the way to the turret.”

“We crossed the Elbe on May 5,” Gruy says. Three days later, “we were ordered to stop. “All of a sudden we saw all these German troops marching down the road. They had given up. We didn’t know a thing. We didn’t even know that Hitler had committed suicide.

“The look on their faces was tragic.”

With war’s end, the Army sent troops home according to a point system—so many points for being in certain campaigns, certain battles.

“You needed 84 points to go home immediately. I had 79. Those five points kept me over there until 1946. I was back in the rear again.”

This time, he crossed the Atlantic in a Victory ship—cargo ships hastily constructed toward the end of the war. “They had a flaw,” Gruy says. “They would capsize if they rolled more than 23 degrees. We encountered a storm near the Azores. There was a comedian aboard who would get on the public address system and say, ‘Oh, that one was only 22.7 degrees.’”

When the ship arrived at New York, they were stuck in the bay for another day because of a tugboat strike. “Back in the rear again,” he says.

“Of course, when we got there, all the parades were over.”

Gruy was discharged as a full captain in 1953. Today, his wartime experiences are half a century away, and as close as that artillery shell he keeps in his office, next to file folders that would do a historian proud.

“I think about those times every day,” he says.

A curious sidebar: According to the Camp Hood newspaper, THE HOOD PANTHER, while Gruy was at Camp Hood a famous writer also was learning to become an officer: Louis L’Amour.

Days before Gruy reported for duty at Camp Hood, motion picture actor Burgess Meredith, now an Army lieutenant, reported on a training exercise for a program called “Army Hour” broadcast on NBC.

Although Gruy never met famed correspondent Ernie Pyle, he was one of 16 million U.S. servicemen who considered Pyle a buddy.

In April 1945, when Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper in the Pacific, he was working on a story—about tank destroyers.

Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.
Comments
(0)
Comments-icon Post a Comment
No Comments Yet