True Heroes

october-tank-division
These members of the 740th Tank Battalion attended the 43rd reunion of the unit: (back row, left to right) Kenneth Wallott, Arlington; George Donoghue, Oklahoma City; Jack Fryrear, Oklahoma City; and Harry Miller, Washington, D.C.; (front row, left to right) Carl Vinson, Allen, Okla.; Chigger Webster, Celina, Texas; Doug Tanner, Athens, Texas; and Jim Holley, Enid, Okla. The reunion was organized by Mark Hatchel (inset), son of battalion member Joe Hatchel.

This past Labor Day weekend,

eight World War II veterans and another 50-60 family members and friends met at the Embassy Suites Outdoor World Hotel in Grapevine for the 43rd Annual Reunion of the 740th Tank Battalion Association. Arlington residents Kenneth Walcott (WWII veteran of the tank battalion) and Mark Hatchel (son of Joe Hatchel of the 740th) were in attendance. The group’s previously oldest attending veteran Arlington resident, Larkin Dilbeck (age 96), had attended reunions until he passed away early this year.

Mark Hatchel, secretary of the 740th Tank Battalion Association, says the 740th “Daredevil” Tank Battalion was formed in 1943 from draftees primarily from the States of Texas and Oklahoma. “The men did their basic training at Fort Knox, Ky.,” he says, “and then were designated ‘Top Secret Special’ and sent to Patton’s Desert Training Center in Arizona.”

At Camp Bouse, the 740th was part of the 9th Armored Group that was being trained in a top secret program to use tanks equipped with search lights (the men called them Gizmos) to blind the enemy on the battlefield in desert warfare. All the men had to swear an Oath of Secrecy and for years they would not talk about what they did in the desert.

The 740th got off to a rocky start

until they got a new commander, Lt. Colonel George K. Rubel. “Rubel was a hard- boiled former Arizona National Guardsman that had trained with General George Patton to go to North Africa with the 1st Armored Division,” Hatchel says. “The desert training took many months to complete but made the 740th Tank Battalion a much better trained [group] in working in small units, marksmanship, and map reading, and in coordinating day and night attacks with infantrymen.”

Because of the desert training, the 740th did not make it back to Fort Knox until June 1944 and did not go overseas until October 1944 (after the D-Day landings). After landing at Utah Beach, the battalion was sent across France to a small village called Aubin-Neufchateau, Belgium.

The battalion was there waiting for tanks when the Germans attacked in December 1944 at the Battle of Bulge. The 740th was sent up the line where it met and stopped the 1st SS Panzer Division under the command of the infamous Nazi Colonel Joachim Peiper. “Following the battle,” Hatchel says, “several HQ men were sent to Malmedy to see if any of the American soldiers massacred there by Peiper’s men were members of the 740th Tank Battalion. It was a tragic site, and the men did not like to talk about it for years after the war.”

The 740th then fought virtually non-stop supporting the 82nd Airborne Division, the 63rd Infantry Division, and the 8th Infantry Division. Hatchel recalls that General James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne said the 740th tankers were the best they ever served with.

At the end of the war,

the 740th crossed the Elbe River with General Simpson’s 9th Army and met the Russians at the Baltic Sea in Schwerein, Germany. When that area was assigned to the Russians, the 740th was assigned to the Army Occupation in Witzenhausen, Germany and then Limburg, Germany.

“While in Witzenhausen, the 740th guarded Werner von Braun (the famous German missile scientist) for two weeks as the battalion helped round up the key technicians and scientists to relocate them to the United States for further missile development,” Hatchel says. “Von Braun, who dreamed of going to the moon as a young man in Germany, was head of NASA when the first lunar landing occurred in 1969.”

Thirty years after the 740th Tank Battalion was formed in 1943, a group of officers and enlisted men held their first reunion at the Patton Museum at Fort Knox, Ky., and formed the 740th Tank Battalion Association that has continued to this day.

Mark Hatchel’s first reunion with the group was in 1975 in Dallas with his father. In 1996, Mark went with a small group of veterans back to Belgium and Germany. “In 1999, the Battalion erected a large monument in Aubin- Neufchateau, Belgium dedicated to the men who were Killed in Action and to the Belgians who welcomed them into their homes on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge,” says Hatchel. More than 100 tankers and family members attended. Since that time, Hatchel has led veterans, friends and family back to Belgium and Germany every couple of years.

As the veterans have aged,

the family members have taken over hosting the reunions, and the 43rd Reunion marks the 15th that Hatchel has hosted at the Embassy Suites in Grapevine. The group voted to do another reunion in 2017 in Grapevine and plans to go back to Belgium to rededicate the monument (after 20 years) in 2019.

While many WWII veterans groups have disbanded, the 740th Tank Battalion and their families have kept going. Hatchel attributes this to the close bond of the men and family members through the many reunions and trips back to Europe together. He says his next challenge is to complete a book about the men, their stories, and memorabilia from his beloved “Daredevil” tankers, and to help find a permanent home for the unit’s museum.

“As the 740th tankers’ Belgian friends say, ‘Freedom isn’t free,’” Hatchel says. “So, unless we know our history, our future generations may be challenged – as were those young Texas and Oklahoma Tankers were in WW2 – to fight again so that we can remain free.”