World War II veteran shares story as gunner aboard M-18 “Hellcat”
By Jeremy P. Ämick
“The World War II folks are getting pretty scarce,” said Norbert Gerling, 95, during a recent interview at his peaceful, rural home near Henley, Mo.
But the cacophony of chirping birds and crickets that provides the soundtrack for his country surroundings is a luxury he was rarely able to enjoy when traveling across Europe inside a tank seven decades ago.
Raised in the southern section of Cole County, Mo., Gerling left school after completing the eighth grade to help his father work the family’s farm.
Yet in late 1941, he received a letter that would tear him from his farming endeavors and thrust him into the center of a conflict raging overseas.
“We were actually drafted for one year,” said Gerling, discussing the receipt of his draft notice. “But it ended up being a lot longer than that,” he smiled.
While in basic training at Ft. Bragg, N.C., the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, which “stepped up” the training cycle for Gerling and his fellow veterans.
“They formed us into a brand-new organization—a group of about 641 soldiers to be trained as a tank battalion,” he said.
The group became the 609th Tank Destroyer Battalion.
Gerling notes that the group moved to Ft. Hood, Tex., where he trained as a gunner on the M-18 “Hellcat”—a high-speed tank destroyer armed with a 76mm cannon. Though having thin armor, the tank relied on speed and maneuverability to minimize becoming a target for enemy tanks.
The battalion then traveled to Louisiana and spent several months performing maneuvers before moving to Camp Shelby, Miss., for additional training. In August 1944, after more than two years of preparation, the battalion received orders for overseas duty.
“We had been specifically trained to perform this one mission: after they established the beachheads at Normandy (on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and the weeks following), we were to come in and join Patton’s 3rd Army and roll across France.”
Arriving at Camp Shanks, N.Y., the battalion boarded a troop ship bound for Liverpool, England. Upon arrival, they remained for several days to pick up their new equipment including tanks, guns and supplies.
In late August, they crossed the English Channel and entered France through the landing site designated as “Utah Beach.”
“The battalion linked up with Patton’s Army—oh, probably 15 or 20 miles into France,” Gerling said. “We just drove in … there was no opposition (on the beach) at that time.”
His tank—which Gerling estimates traveled nearly 1,200 miles across Europe—began its passage through France to help in the drive to push back the German army.
“We passed through France so fast that we outran our supplies,” the former soldier explained. “We wound up in Metz (France) and had to wait 2-3 weeks for our supplies to catch up to us.”
On one occasion, German aircraft strafed a small group of tanks with whom Gerling was traveling, requiring them to stay back for repairs while the rest of the battalion traveled to Bastogne where the Germans had surrounded American forces.
His own entry into the “Battle of the Bulge” occurred when two tank gunners were needed to replace those wounded or killed in combat. Of the four gunners available, they drew straws to determine who would enter Bastogne.
Gerling drew one of the short straws.
“I entered the city on Christmas Eve… they drove us in with Jeeps,” he said. “I ended up staying on with a new gun crew for about 30 days defending the city before returning back to my original crew.”
The German offensive was eventually overcome and American forces—including the 609th—continued the push into Germany.
The combat veteran said, “We started south and went all the way to Worms (Germany) and crossed the Rhine River. “It was a battle here, a battle there—the same ol’ thing,” he added.
The war wound to a close with Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945 and Gerling remained part of the occupational forces for a few months thereafter, eventually returning to the United States when he was discharged in October 1945.
In later years—like many returning World War II veterans—Gerling was married, purchased his own farm and raised a family. He has also maintained contact with those with whom he served.
The former soldier acknowledged that it is not only the friendships he cultivated during his time in the military that he views as notable, but the changes that have occurred regarding the way veterans are now recognized.
“There’s only three of us actual vets remaining (from the 609th),” said Gerling. “And for the first few years after (World War II), we never really received any recognition; but the longer we were home, the more we began to talk about it—to share—our experiences.”
Adding, “Now there’s a lot more fanfare … a lot more welcoming when our troops come home, which is recognition that they certainly deserve.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick
Public Affairs Officer
Silver Star Families of America
Cell: (573) 230-7456