ByCapt. Jane Wilson, 157th Infantry Brigade
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (Nov. , 2012) — “It was 1942 the last time I was there,” Leon Tarter remembered about Camp Atterbury, Ind. “They asked if anyone wanted to be a truck driver. Well, I was only eighteen years old, and I said yes, I wanted to be a truck driver. So they asked me if I could drive a big truck, and I said, ‘yes I can.’ The next day they had me pushing a wheel barrow while we were picking up trash.”
The year was 1942 and Tarter, a new Soldier, had just begun his military service at Camp Atterbury. Over the next several months, Tarter would go to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and Southhampton, England and several other places on his way to Utah Beach in 1944 with the 79th Reconnaissance Troop. Today, he is the last known surviving member of the original unit.
Recently, the 157th Inf. Bde. Commander Col. Brandt Deck, his senior enlisted advisor, Command Sgt. Maj. Everett Clark, and seven noncommissioned officers met Tarter and other members of the 79th Reconnaissance Troop’s World War II veteran’s association. The Association presented Deck and his Soldiers with a World War II helmet signed by members of the original unit and members of the Association.
“I am personally honored to have been a part of this ceremony,” Deck said. “I am glad that our Soldiers had the opportunity to meet someone who served in combat during World War II and hear his stories.”
The 157th Infantry Brigade, stationed at Camp Atterbury Ind., traces its lineage to the 79th Reconnaissance Troop, and their Brigade guidon is decorated with five campaign streamers from the 79th Reconnaissance Troop’s service during World War II. Today, the 157th Inf. Bde., part of First Army Division East, mobilizes, trains, validates, deploys and demobilizes Reserve Component Soldiers for missions around the world.
While the 314th Infantry Regiment Association started as a way to remember members of the original unit, it expanded significantly to now include the roughly 150 members of the 79th Reconnaissance Troop. Both units served under the 79th Infantry Division during World War II and the 157th Infantry Brigade during World War I. The current association includes members of the original units as well as current units that trace their lineage back to either the 314th Infantry Regiment or the 79th Reconnaissance Troop.
As everyone began to arrive in the event hall Eric Gill, whose father served with Tarter in World War II as a medic, introduced everyone.
“This ceremony is really about you,” Gill said to the 157th Infantry Brigade Soldiers as the ceremony began. “Members and family members of the World War II 79th Recon Troop have signed this helmet, and we are going to pass it on to you, our unit by lineage.”
Gill handed the helmet to Tarter, along with a gold paint pen and Tarter slowly added his own name to the helmet before giving it back.
After the helmet was signed, Tarter and Sylvia James, the widow of Lt. Col. Leon James, a battalion commander of the 314th Field Artillery Brigade and an honorary member of the World War II Association who was killed in Iraq in 2005, then passed the helmet to each of the Soldiers present for the ceremony. Each took a moment to hold the helmet and thank Tarter and James for their service to our nation and for the helmet. Gill presented the helmet on behalf of the association to Deck to keep at the unit headquarters at Camp Atterbury, Ind.
“This is a very important moment,” Deck said. “These streamers were paid for in blood by those World War II veterans, and we are extremely grateful for your sacrifice and service.”
“It was an honor to be in the presence of a World War II Veteran,” said Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Satterfield. “There aren’t many people left who can tell us what happened there. It was very interesting and I feel honored to have been chosen to attend and be able to meet everyone here.”
The ceremony concluded with an exchange of certificates, coins, and small tokens of appreciation. After the ceremony, Gill and Tarter continued to share stories about what happened during World War II. Gill’s father Valentin “Harry” Gill was a medic and significantly older than most of the men in the unit. Although Soldiers were not supposed to have cameras in combat, Gill said his father carried one anyway.
“As a 36 year old corporal he felt there were a lot of orders that didn’t apply to him,” Gill explained. “He took pictures of the recon troop as they would have looked prior to Stattmatten.”
Stattmatten was a city near the border of Germany and France, in the Alsace region, the 79th Reconnaissance Troop went into to rescue 44 men from another unit who were cut off and surrounded by the Germans.
“There were 12 of us acting as an armored infantry foot patrol, a 50-caliber jeep, an M-8 armored car and a light tank borrowed from another unit,” Tarter recalled. “We were five miles behind enemy lines and there were a lot of Germans.”
During the battle the 50 caliber jeep gunner was killed, the tank was destroyed by an anti-tank weapon killing it’s entire crew and killed or wounded five from the 79th Reconnaissance Troop’s foot patrol.
“[Gill] started going down the street with a white flag hollering in German,” Tarter remembered. “We thought that he was going to surrender us, and we just sat there like kids. He disappeared for five or ten minutes inside the building from which the anti-tank weapon was fired and came back with two German officers with waving white flags. Sixty-eight Germans and two officers surrendered to us.”
Gill’s father spoke fluent German from when he lived in Russia as a child. His father had convinced the Germans that there were reinforcements very close and that if they didn’t surrender to the small group outside, the next unit would create a great deal more destruction. He promised them they wouldn’t be harmed if they did. The Germans surrendered and the 79th Reconnaissance Troop rescued the prisoners they were sent to take back.
“Boy, they were pretty mad when they found out that those other men were about 10 miles back,” Tarter said with a smile. “He saved our life that day. If [the Germans] would have taken us, we would have been killed for sure.”
“Were you at D-Day?” someone in the group asked Tarter. “No, we landed at D plus three,” Tarter responded quietly. “I wouldn’t be here if we landed on D-Day.”
Commenting on the coincidence that nearly 70 years later the last known surviving member of the World War II 79th Reconnaissance Troop and it’s successor the 157th Infantry Brigade would just happen to be so close together geographically, while Gill, a Florida resident, was in Bowling Green on business Gill said, “Sometimes when you drop a pebble in a pond and the concentric rings go out, and then someone else drops a pebble, it’s sometimes amazing how those rings can intersect much later on.”
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