The following is an excerpt from an autobiographical piece my father wrote which gives a full account of his experiences in the 698th Field Artillery Battalion during World War II.
By J. Phillip Harris – his son.
Wilton Neville Harris: In His Own Words
A few days later 3 of us were to load on a truck and be carried to our outfits that were at the front a few miles away as we had heard the noise of battle when we came off the ship. My orders were to report to the “A” Battery, 698th Field Artillery Battalion the others were going to the same place but different parts of the Battalion. When I arrived it was an awesome sight that I encounted the gun was the biggest that I had ever seen and I could not believe that we had a Howitzer this large as we had not been told about it in all our training. The bottom base weighing 15 tons set over a hole that had been dug using a crane with a bucket to dig for a recoil when the gun was fired, it was hinged in the middle so there were two trails that formed a “V” when opened. From these there were two sets of spades as they were called that fastened on either side of each leg going against the pit that had been dug so the whole gun would not move when fired these were large enough that they had to be lifted by the crane. This bottom mass rode on a trailer with large earth moving tires and pulled by a tank with the turret removed and seats inside for the crew to ride. The barrel of the gun weighing 12 tons rode on another trailer pulled the same way and handled by the crane to set in place this would move up and down and swing left and right as needed to hit the target. This was picked with the aid of a piper cub airplane or a forward observer who would let the fire control center at headquarters figure the settings up and down or left and right and relay them to our fire control Sgt. who called out the settings. The projectile that this gun fired was also large it was 9.45 inches in diameter and with the fuse stood 3ft high and handled with a tray carried by two people from the powder area then placed to another tray which went to the breach of the gun. Here it had to be pushed into the gun with a ramrod with enough force to seat the copper band around the projectile into the lands of the gun; this was done with 4 to 6 people as needed. Then followed the powder charges which were in bags made of nylon and silk the first charge was 6ft long known as number one, the other charges were a foot long and could be separated by untying from number 1 a full charge was all four bags. The full charge gave the gun a 15mi range so we could get behind enemy lines and with different fuses destroy what we were shooting at. Remember the crane it was motorized 20-ton unit that was made by Lorain Co. and was very useful in digging us foxholes to sleep in as well to handle the gun placement.
Around the gun we had to build sandbag walls for the front of the gun and around the projectiles and powder to protect them from getting hit by shrapnel if time was allowed we built it around the whole gun. The protection was an oil reservoir, which had a motor to open the breach and close it with push buttons on the right side of the gun where the crank in form of a wheel was located to raise and lower the barrel.
One of the men that was on the catwalk would let the breach down help place the tray in its groove after the projectile and the powder were pushed in upon closing and locking the breach he would insert the firing cap that looked like a rifle cap. The gunner on the left had a seat to aim the gun by aligning two stakes that had been put in by a survey transit so it had a base line for the gun and for the fire mission at Headquarters.
Our crew consisted of 22 men a Tech. Sgt. that had the responsibility of the upkeep of all moving equipment and the gun he was a tall guy from Georgia named Ralph Marchman, and he would keep our morale up with his jokes, songs, and dances. Beside our Gunnery Sgt. Paine we had 3 Corporals one who was the man to fix the proper fuse in the projectile and powder that was needed given by Headquarters for each mission. The other two were responsible for raising and lowering the barrel and swinging it left or right in response to he coordinates given in the fire mission. When all these things had been done they would holler out READY, SET, and the Sgt. would say FIRE whoever was too pull the lanyard at this time gave it a jerk and another big projectile was on its way to destroy something the Germans wanted to keep.
I explain this working of the crew so later you will know what takes place each time we were given a fire mission and if the mission was for longer than 16 hours we would divide down to 11 men on shifts so everybody had to know their jobs.
You will recall that the day I saw this gun for the first time that I could not believe what I was looking at and while standing there they were given a fire mission so I saw and heard the noise that it made when fired. I could not believe that you could sleep with this going on but you can get use to it and very shortly I was doing just that. At this time we were just North of Naples in a town called Aversa we were trying to move up towards Rome but it was slow going and many fire missions before we would get there. The size of the gun would let you think that we were not on the front line but this was not the case. We were moved up as close so that we were sometimes under mortar attacks, the reason being to disrupt the flow of materials to the German and Italians we were fighting. You cannot believe the noise that these mortars would make they always sounded like they were chasing you. It did not matter where you ran it was in your hip pocket, The best thing to do was hit the ground and lay still until they would finish firing, then work until the next round of incoming “screaming-meanness” as they were called, would be fired.
We stayed in this area for about a week then we ended the fire mission and moved up the road to another place to set up the gun again each time we were working toward the north for Rome. The kitchen was set up away from the guns as there was a “B” Battery some times as much as 10 miles away from our position. To get there we had to eat in shifts and used jeeps and personnel carriers to get our food, which was very good or else, we were hungry, and this was twice a day. Morning breakfast we were given a sandwich for noon meal and then back for the evening when we had to take a pill called “atabrane” which was to prevent us from getting malaria, if you did not take the pill you could not have any supper. This pill had a side effect in that after taking it for a week you begun to turn yellow and the longer that you were on it you looked like you had a good suntan.
We finally had some news that another invasion had taken place on a beach called Anzio the reason for this was to come in behind the German lines that was holding every thing up because we could not get pass the Abbey at Monte Cassino. This mountain was higher than others in the region, and the Abbey had been built right on top, and it was a fortress with thick walls and shear so you could not scale them. We had guns of all sizes in the valley below and they were with us in fire missions aimed at the Abbey but nothing caused the walls to fall or even show signs of any damage. The Germans used the Abbey as there forward observer and they would fire back at us causing casualties and damage to some of the guns. We were setup behind a small mountain and they had to fire over it to get to our position but they did try and it was times that I laid in our foxhole and shook from fear. There was another soldier that joined our outfit the same time I did his name was Pvt. Donlin and so we made our sleeping hole together as every body else had a bunk mate. Donlin was 33 years old and married with children but he had been drafted like everybody else, he was miserable and very angry at the system. We became good friends even with the differences in our ages and I tried to help him to try and make the best of the situation, so that if he had guard duty I would take his place at night.
The holes that were dug for sleeping were in the hillside toward the enemy with the dirt being used for the sandbags that we put on top of poles. The sides not in the hillside were built up with sandbags to form a cave with an entrance large enough to stretch out, and for two people. You felt safe in these and wished that you could move them with you as you moved with the front but this was impossible so you made another one at the next position. To keep the rain out we would fasten our tent halves then putting a short stick in the front and back place this over the sandbags and stake the corners, and no matter how hard it rained we were dry. These holes were always dug deep enough to be able to set up in them and with flashlights we were able to see and read along with the natural light that came in the opening. Some life, yes! In the valley at Cassino we stayed a long time so we were glad for these homes, and did it rain it would last for days and nights until the mud would be up to your knees. Then it would get hot and dry and the ground would harden and crack like a mud flat.
We were to stay in this place for awhile because of the Germans offering much resistance and it did not seem that anything could make any difference. The firing and bombing did not cause them to move off the mountain and all the Infantry that tried to assault them suffered many casualties. They even had British troops and French but all were at a stalemate and nothing moved. Then for two nights we had a fire mission that was something to behold we were given the coordinates and the orders to Fire at Will which meant as fast as we could load and fire. The other guns in the valley were doing the same and so from 6pm to 6am there was flashes so close together that you could read a newspaper and not miss a word and a roar that was deafening. On the second night of this firing at 6am it was quite and the word came down that the Abbey had surrendered do to the soldiers from India called Skis. These soldiers wore turbans on their heads and had a curved knife at their side and they only drew it to draw blood even if they had to cut themselves. So every German that morning had there throat cut that were still alive after the shelling and we were able to move on to the next mountain. This was on March 26, 1944 in Italy.
On April 2, 44 we were under a 24 round shelling of our howitzer when it was over we had no casualties, but a damaged camouflage net. This net was used to cover the emplacement each time we set up with the entire gun being covered except the barrel when we were firing. This net was held up by tent poles and was draped over the sandbag wall that was around the gun; it was netting with different colored cloth woven in to make it look like ground from an airplane. The part covering the barrel was fixed with closures to fasten and unfasten as was needed when firing which meant that someone had to climb up the barrel to take care of this job.
We stayed in this area but shifted the howitzer around so that we could fire on a town called Ausonia, the shifts being needed for the forthcoming attack by the Allied Forces in Italy. “H”-Hour was on 11, April when the combined forces of the Fifth an Eighth Army, French Corps, first Canadian Corps, XIII British Corps, and the II Polish Corps.
We moved to a position near Mt. D’Oro to be able to fire on and destroy the bridges in the Ceprano in support of the French Corps. Then we moved to a position near the town of Pico and later to rendezvous near Prossedi and the entire battalion became attached to the VI Corps. From here we rendezvous 2 miles west of Rome on April 6 and North of the Tiber where we were given 1 day passes into Rome which was not bombed or shelled by either side. It was some experience to see the Sistine Chapel. Coliseum, St Peters, and the Fountains that we had seen in the Geography Books in school and to see people that looked like our streets back home. I was able to get other passes to see this city and to meet people and be invited into there home, it did not seem like there was a War going on.
On July 12, 1944 we were ordered to begin a march to the North Italy a distance of 220 miles of which we did not do in one day but stopped in Montalto Di Castro and from here to Cecina. July 19th our position was near the town called Cevoli and at the same location on the 26 we had a muzzle burst while firing. This means that the projectile had something wrong and it exploded as it left the guns muzzle it was costly in that 4 people were injured. Our Sgt. Payne was hit in the knee, 2 of the men who lowered the barrel were hit in the side and neck area, and Donlin who was in front of me was hit in the back with all being rushed to the Hospital. Sgt. Payne was the only one who would return later the others received their Purple Hearts and then transferred back to the States. I was lucky in that Donlin took what could have hit me and even that did not spare me from being pinned to the sand bag wall with a piece large as my hand going through my fatigue shirt under my left arm. The only reason that it did not hit me was that I had my hands up covering my ears as we fired and the Lord was protecting me.
On the 27th we fired as a battalion 10,000 rounds of 240mm ammunition in Italy and during the month of July we had 21 direct hits on gun positions, 2 bridges were wiped out, and 3 were rendered unserviceable. One house, a German CP, was reduced to rubble and a second CP was hit, and with support of the 361st Infantry we destroyed 2 houses, 1 Tiger tank and personnel that were giving them trouble.
Then we moved to a position near San Minato on August the 1st; here we received 60 rounds of counterbattery fire on the 6th that destroyed 30 rounds of powder and had us in our holes shivering from fear. It always sounds that the shells are after you but the one thing that we were taught as long as you can hear them its not going to hit you. The fire lit up the whole valley and hillside where the gun was but it did not hit the gun. On the 27th we moved toward Florence; and occupied a position near Galuzzo so that we could hit targets in the Arno River area. This was the place that I was scared out of my wits as I pulled guard duty on the 24:00 hrs. to 4;00 AM shift. We had been warned to be on the lookout for German paratroopers who had been dropped and were intent on destroying anything they could. That night was drizzly and I was under the powder cover to stay dry when I heard something hit the cable holding the camouflage net opposite from where I was sitting. Then I heard heavy breathing that would lead me to believe something was coming in back of me. I pulled the bolt back to get the carbine ready to fire and every thing got real quite, but it started again after a few seconds, so I decided to see what was in back as it was the closes to me. Just as I stuck my head out I felt this hot breath hit my face and I was frozen for a few seconds and if it had been a German he would have killed me but it was not, it was only a cow that had wandered into the area with others. You should have seen me chasing those cows with my limited Italian but I was able to do it. The Sgt. had heard the commotion and he came to see what was taking place and after it was over we both had a good laugh.
On September 5th the Battalion moved across the Arno River doing the night with our battery setting up near the town of San Piero A Sieve. The night of the 25th we moved through the mountains and the main mass of the Gothic Line to the town of Mulinuccio. This was a night to remember as it was raining, foggy and cold you could not see how to drive the movers and trucks on the narrow road. Now remember headlights were not allowed every thing had to be done under blackout conditions so two people with flashlights walked in front of each vehicle. This was very scary and slow but we made it without any loss of vehicles or men. Also some times we had to double up on the primemovers to slide the guns around the curves plus the crane slid over on its side and had to be pulled upright. On September 30th the six howitzers had occupied 32 positions and had fired 2135 rounds of 240mm ammunition in direct support missions against strong points of the Gothic Line. We had destroyed 7 pillboxes and 4 bunkers and others considerably damaged so the line was broken and the 5th Army was able to continue up the Italian country towards Austria.
October 16th the Battalion ended a 5-day period of firing over 400 rounds each day; one of these was a record day of 503 rounds. On the 17th the command came down to all components of the Battalion of “Close Station, March Order” which means that we were to cease firing in the war in Italy. The S-3 report on this date said “entering combat for the first time with the 2nd Corps at Cassino on the 8th February 1944, the outfit has totaled 223days in the line, almost continuous except for 30 days after the fall of Rome. Support has been rendered to the following Corps: II, VI, IV, CEF, New Zealand, II Polish, XIII British and I Canadian. During April, May, and June parts of the Battalion were both at the Anzio and Cassino Fronts. A total of 16,576 rounds of 240mm howitzer and 2,880 rounds of 8-inch gun were fired. In making this effort the unit has become indebted to all headquarters which helped solve the problems connected with introducing new and untried material in combat."
The Battalion began its march to Leghorn on Oct. 19th and began arriving in bivouac 4 miles north of the city at 1600 hours. On the 23 we began to load on 3 Landing Ship Tanks and joined a convoy headed for Marseille, France arriving on the 25th at 1700 hours. We moved to a bivouac area in eastern Marseille convenient to an Ordnance Base Shop for repairs to the guns and equipment. After so much use in Italy the barrels had to have the old liner removed and another put in so as to give more accuracy and other repairs on the prime movers was needed. This was done and on November 3rd the primemovers were loaded on a train to go to the Luneville area and the guns were pulled by Ordnance heavy trucks to the same place.. The rest of us followed in trucks convoy style behind the guns arriving in Luneville on the 8th . We were now attached to the 7th Army and after arriving to pick up the guns we were given a position north of Marrainviller. The Battalion set up a rest center similar to what we had in Italy so that you could get a hot shower and clean clothes at least every two weeks.
This area was cold as it set at the foot of the Alps and we had to get out our winter underwear and coats, the temperature could and did go down into the –25 degree range, and did at night so pulling guard duty was hard and miserable. From this position we moved to Autrepierre on the 18th then to a position on the 22nd to Foret de Phalsbourg. Al of this movement from Marseille up the center of France to the Rhine River had been accomplished with out mishap under trying conditions of mud and rain in the Appenines to Lorraine approaches to the Vosges, and Alsatian Plain. December 5th we were in position near Winterhouse and Batzendorf, and on the 13th we were attached to the 575th FA Battalion to occupy positions near Seltz and Wintzenbach. Christmas day was spent in the Alsace, France area with a complete Christmas meal even though we had fire missions during the day. On the 27th we were ordered to displace to the rear in accordance with the planned withdrawal of the VI Corps from the Seigfried Line to positions along the Moder River at Haguenau. The 28th found us sweating it out as 10% of our men from the Battalion were ordered to be sent to a Replacement Depot to be retrained as Infantrymen this order was from the 7th Army.
January 1945 found us in Alsace with orders to firing positions that would support the Vosges Mountain Line we moved to Still, then to Gunstett. The 13th we were ordered to vic Schirrhien to fire on a railroad gun firing into Haguenau. The mission was not successful, as the gun did not fire from that position for the two nights that we were emplaced, and enemy activity between the howitzer and the Rhine River became too active, forcing us to retreat to its previous position in Gunstett. When we were going up the hill about a football field back the Germans were at the spot we had just left they fired with small arms fire and machine guns but we were out of sight over the hill. The 42nd Rainbow Division was being pushed back under heavy fire and casualties, and on the 19th we were ordered to withdraw to vic Hochfelden to support the Moder River Line. We then moved to Mittlehausen on the 21st then on the 28th we occupied a position in the lumberyard that was at Brumath. While here on a rainy cold night that ended up turning to snow I heard the same scream that happened in Africa, turning to the sound and using my flashlight there in the building rafters that protected the wood was a mountain lion. This one jumped down and ran towards the woods, which was close to the lumberyard before I could get a shot, and disappeared we never saw it again. It was here that we received two M-6 movers to pull the guns these were similar to the modified tanks that we had been using. The difference was that these had a windshield across the front and seating space for 12 men on padded cushions one in front and the other in back all facing the front. We still had treads like the tanks but they were suppose to give us more power from the two Allison Chalmers airplane engines that gave us more noise, which we did not, need. The Battalion had to learn how to use them and repair them if they broke down.
The 23rd we completed a move of a few hundred yards to cover another zone and to open the doors of a building that was used by the Germans as a headquarters when they occupied the area. These doors were steel and had been locked with no keys, and this building was in the line of our muzzle blast, one firing opened all the doors and took out the windows as well. There were some papers that were helpful to tell our people what to expect later in the battle for the Rhine River. Things were so quiet at this time that training exercises were initiated and performed for four hours per day for the last half of the month.
On March 12, 1945 we finally were given orders to move to a position near Altdorf, and on the 15 “D” Day and ”H” Hour for the VI Corps attack on the enemy lines along the Moder River. We then moved to a position near Griesbach, and after this A and B Batteries were moved by March Order to a rendezvous near Preuschdorf, and then to Bremmelbach to set up position for firing. On the 25th we were to rendezvous near Eschbach, Germany when we were told at 1730 hours to be in position for firing that night near Schwegenheim which was about 30 miles away. All the guns were in place and ready to fire by 2300 hours the fastest occupation made as a unit overseas. This was also the day that the Battalion passed through the Siegfried Line. The month of March saw static situation to a fast moving one of the total 1221 rounds fired during the month, 1035 of them were fired in nine days from the 14 to 23 at the Siegfried Line. For months we had been firing across the Rhine River and on the last day of March we crossed it at Mannheim.
Easter Sunday we were detached from the VI Corps and attached to the 421st FA group at Heidelberg Germany to begin work as Seventh Army Security Troops. Thus ended our Battalion and the Howitzer we had fell in love with and was sorry to not be a part of it. We had completed 372 days of combat, defined as being either in firing position or in rendezvous area ready to occupy positions upon orders, 438 days before that in Banoll, Italy we were in combat this equates to 85% of the time in combat is a creditable record. 20297 rounds of 240mm howitzer and 3974 rounds of 8-inch gun were fired, with 72% being fired in Italy. The words that we wanted to hear came on MAY 8, 1945, the GERMANS SURRENDERED this meant that the War had ended for us now.