Serving in the United States Third Army, Pacific student Calvin Van Pelt would see action in campaigns from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge.By Sig Unander '87
Taking shoes from a dead GI and picking up a rifle, Cal advanced under fire. Four or five men joined him. They went up and around to the rear of a pillbox whose gun crew were firing down on the Americans on the beach. Kicking in its rear door, the men poured fire into it, silencing the German guns. Later Cal managed to round up a few tanks and protected the landing spots on the beach while vital supplies were unloaded and brought inland.
Moving inland to the town of Lannion, Cal met up with FFI (French Resistance) forces to coordinate and garner intelligence. His tank unit moved out to capture Nazi submarine installation on the Brest peninsula but was stopped cold at a crossroads by murderous fire from an 88mm cannon in a German pillbox. For the next month and a half the American forces battled in the Normandy hedgerow country, unable to break out of the encircling German defenders. Finally, in late July at St. Lo, American forces, led by General George S. Patton’s Third Army, to which Cal was assigned, began to move rapidly across northern France.
Attached to a small company with several tanks under his command, Cal operated under the authority of General Patton on a special assignment in which his linguistic skills proved useful. Moving with the front lines, he and his men would enter a newly-liberated French town, locate the mayor or police chief and help secure the assets in the town bank and reestablish civilian control. In one town, acting on a tip, they stopped and captured a special armored train being operated by German SS Scheutzstaffel elite troops. It was full of contraband.
As the Third Army neared the German border, it established headquarters in the French city of Metz, where Cal was called in for a briefing by General Patton’s staff and received new orders. The legendary Patton, a brash, hotheaded commander and brilliant strategist, made it clear to the men that he wanted them to “kill Germans.”
Cal and a small detachment of tanks proceeded north into the rugged Alsace-Lorraine country along the border. While they were operating in the area, he received intelligence that a convoy of German trucks carrying weapons would be coming through a certain valley. They set up an ambush.
A road ran through the long, narrow valley bordered by trees. An American tank sat hidden at each end, another in the middle. The column approached - German army trucks, loaded with scores of armed troops. When the tanks showed themselves, the trucks stopped. Cal dismounted and approached the German commanding officer. Looking over the twenty-year-old American who bore no visible rank insignia, the officer, an SS Major, said in English, “You are so young. Do you have authority?”
“We have the guns,” Cal replied. “I need you to surrender. If I hear one shot we will shoot and we will take no prisoners. This is your chance to live.”
The major barked an order to his men. There was a pause. Then, slowly, the soldiers got out of the trucks and began stacking their weapons on the ground under the watchful eyes of the Americans. The German officer took his pistol out of its holster and handed it to Cal. “I hope to meet you after the war,” he said.
As fall turned to winter, snow fell in the Ardennes Mountains covering everything in white. Temperatures dropped well below zero. The torturous terrain and twisting mountain roads where France, Belgium and Germany came together was a treacherous no-man’s land where road signs were few and unreliable and battle lines shifted continuously.