The placid, modest, friendly exterior of this Officer disguises the fighting heart of a lion and the tenaciousness of a bulldog, all seasoned with an engaging personality. - Lt. Colonel Creighton W. Abrams, Dec. 31, 1944
Tanker Jimmie Leach:
One of Patton's
Last WWII Tank Commanders Tells His Story of War
assembled by: Matthew Hermes, PhD
Colonel James H. Leach -
Colonel James H. Leach was born in Houston, TX on April 7, 1922. He began US Army service when he joined the Texas National Guard on June 19, 1938 at the age of 16.
When Gen. Patton began his summer dash across France in 1944, Jimmie Leach was commander of Company B, 37th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division, serving under the legendary Lt. Col Creighton Abrams. He had trained for four years as a tanker. He was uniquely prepared.
Jimmie was wounded five times in Europe, received the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism at Bigonville on Dec 24, 1944 and three days later he captured and guarded the entry of the 37th into Bastogne in relief of the 101st Airborne.
After WWII, Jimmie served in Korea on the island of Cheju, moderating the angry wrath among island natives, off-island Koreans and returning Koreans who had served in the hated Japanese Army.
He married Marion Heirs Floyd in 1951 and spent four years in Germany guarding the Fulda Pass against the seemingly inevitable roll of Russian tanks west into the Rhineland.
He assumed Armored Brigade Command as a Colonel in the late 1960's, was assigned to Vietnam as senior advisor with the 5th ARVIN division, then, in 1969 assumed command of the 11th Armored Cavalry, replacing George Patton III His aggressive leadership of the 11th is still remembered with awesome respect by his subordinates and his peers. For the second time, in his second war he heard the report that, "Jimmie Leach is the bravest man I ever knew."
Jimmie Leach led the Army's Armor Branch with skill and compassion in the early 1970's, managing the portfolios of some 6000 Army officers. Men like Gen Fred Franks and the current Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Gen Eric Shinseki, report that Jimmie was responsible for their very careers as he fought to keep these future General Officers in the Army although each had lost a limb to wounds in Vietnam.
His defense of one young officer earned him the enmity of Gen William Westmoreland and he was passed over for promotion as General Officer. His son describes the scene at his home, with great friend, Gen Creighton Abrams on hand offering support, but not interfering with this final decision, as a wake.
Jimmie Leach retired from the Army and worked for Teledyne for 13 years from 1972-1985. He kept his service to the Army paramount and carried out the legislative and financial work leading to the United States Armored Forces Monument near Arlington National Cemetery.
Jimmie Leach now lives in South Carolina where, over the last twenty-plus years he has supported the causes of soldiers and soldiering with unflagging zeal. He has visited the battlefields of France and the Ardennes more than ten times, placing monuments and memorials to the men who came there with him - and never came home. He has made peace with his enemies in Germany - and Vietnam and traveled through both South and North Vietnam to relook at the places and events there.
Jimmie works hard still to effect the expansion of the Beaufort National Cemetery in Beaufort, SC, a cemetery established under President Lincoln whose growth is threatened by neighborhood encroachment.
In 2006, Jimmie Leach spoke at the James H Leach ReadinessCenter, a new SC National Guard facility built with funds wrested from Congress through Jimmie's unremitting pressure on the late Sen. Strom Thurmond. He reminded the local Guardsmen, who were on their way to Afghanistan, that they continued a proud National Guard tradition of more than two centuries, to which he had been attached for nearly 70 years. And his message was clear: soldiers must train for war and never become complacent with the present situation.
Jimmie Leach and I have spent hundreds of hours recording his story. In September 2007 I was with him in the Galt Hotel in Louisville when a middle aged man approached me and said, "Is that Col. Leach?" I said yes and he said to Jimmie, "I want to thank you for saving my life in Vietnam."
Col. James H Leach died at 87 on Dec. 17, 2009. He was driving his car near his home in South Carolina when he suffered a heart attack. He was with us for 32031 days. Very few of them were wasted.
Copyright 2009 Matthew E Hermes
6. Utah Beach; Jimmie Leach in Combat
(An excerpt from Tanker Jimmie Leach. In this segment Jimmie Leach crosses into France as a Platoon Leader in the Co. B of the 37th Tank Battalion. He is uncertain, cautious and is wounded. He tells us how spiritual contact and physical action suppresses his fears.)
In early July the 37th Tank Battalion with 1st Lieut. Jimmie Leach in command of the 1st Platoon, backed its tanks onto Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) at Portsmouth Harbor. It was so orderly. The Battalion, its three medium tank companies, its light tank company, headquarters company, quartermaster and maintenance company counted more than 150 vehicles and nearly 70 tanks. In 1979 Sgt Francis Magliozzi, Harvard, 1936, Company Clerk turned tank gunner who was denied promotion to 2nd Lieutenant only because he was seriously wounded on Nov 11, assembled the roster of Company B tanks and crew that left Portsmouth. There were 116 men in Jimmie Leach's Company B. The Company Commander, Capt. Tiegs, had a headquarters platoon with two tanks, an assault gun, two peeps, a cook truck, a tank retriever and a half-track. And there were 15 Sherman tanks in three platoons. Never again would there be a full complement of 15 tanks with full crew of five men each:
37th Tank Battalion, 1st Platoon. Platoon Leader Lt. Jimmie Leach seated on cannon
This Portsmouth roster was a snapshot, of course. Within weeks tanks would be lost; some were replaced but the Company would not ever be restored to full strength. Within weeks men would die; the three of the first four would die without any intervention by the German Army. Eighteen of these original 75 would be left dead in Europe along with Blume, Connelly, Kaplin and Tuchinsky from the HQ platoon. Some would be replaced, and the replacements, too, would die.
Jimmie remembers his channel transport was LCT838 and the small craft was loaded with his platoon of five tanks under the watchful eyes of three British crewmen who leaned on the gunwale above the deck and smoked cigarette after cigarette. “We had a mock-up of an LCT at Ft Knox and they trained the tank crews there to load up and so some were familiar with that system,” Jimmie said. The LCTs rested off Portsmouth for a time as the flotilla assembled then they set off for France, for Utah Beach. It was July 13, five weeks after D Day and the beaches were clear of Germans. “There was a squall on the crossing and my tank crews were in and under the tanks but I was up on the bridge with the three British officers and they set a mattress down across the bridge so I could rest a little bit but they had to hot bunk it because they were on duty all the time,” Jimmie said. Their landing at Utah was not without complications and it is certain Lt. Leach’s platoon was thankful they were not under direct fire. “When we landed at Utah we were stopped because our vessel hit the edge or a berm of a bomb crater and we let the ramp down and it went straight down into the crater so we had to wait for low tide and a bulldozer came out and scraped sand into the hole and we could get our tanks off.”
Company Commander Tiegs was to land on a later LCT and for a time Jimmie and his tanks were lost. ”Tiegs came on a separate boat. I arrived first at Utah and no one knew where I was supposed to go so I flagged down an 82nd airborne sergeant in a Jeep and asked them where I was supposed to go. It was a waste of time and I got into his Jeep and we went to find where we were to go. There was fighting nearby with the 79th Infantry Division and I remember that when I was sure where I was supposed to go I was so afraid we might step on some mines so (when we got there) I ran my tanks round and round behind the hedgerow so that my soldiers could go back there safely,” Jimmie said. So the 37th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division was on the ground in France. For these young men, for Lt. Jimmie Leach, platoon leader, Company B, the sounds of combat were real. Jimmie Leach’s training that had begun so long ago in the scrub of Texas as a 16 year old with World War I uniforms and broken down combat cars was to be tested but there would be no certainty how Lt. Leach or any individual soldier would fare when they knew they were in sight of an enemy intent on killing them.
“At that time the 79th Infantry was fighting ahead of us and I remember the 749th Tank Battalion was their support. And their truck drivers would come back and come past us. Tell us about the war we would ask them. We wanted info from a PFC truck driver. We were so concerned about mines and booby traps. There was a gate in the hedgerows so the farmer could get in there so I examined the latch, looking for wires and I unlatched it, and it didn’t blow up so then I had my tank come up and push it open, go in the field. Then we would go all the way around in the field to find mines so the soldiers could walk in there.
“So that first night, someone started shooting, then a lot of sympathetic firing and I got my guys ‘If you are not seeing anything, stop shooting,’” Jimmie said.
The 4th Armored was stalled in the hedgerows of Normandy for about two weeks after the landing. There was sporadic fighting, small actions to take and hold the rectangles of land separated by narrow lanes and surrounded by impenetrable hedges. On July 22nd the Germans were shooting into his area and Jimmie Leach and his corporal moved up to investigate. They were new to this fighting, perhaps they went to get a peek at the field of fire. They were walking along next to one of these stout hedges; a shell exploded in the hedgerows. Jimmie felt a stinging in his calf and said, “I think I’ve been hit.” The Corporal said, “Me too!.” The two men suffered similar shrapnel wounds in their left leg. Medics scraped at Jimmie’s wound to clean it and remove imbedded dirt and uniform cloth. The wound was treated with sulfa and bandaged. This wound, for which Jimmie Leach received his first Purple Heart, did not heal until the next winter. Every day it hampered Jimmie when he mounted his Sherman Tank. “Step here, step to the fender, hold on to the thing next to the light and pull yourself up. There was an escape hatch under the driver and you could pull this lever and the armor would drop to the ground. Otherwise the only way out was through the turret hatch."
“Our Company had a maximum of 17 Sherman tanks. (Including the two that Lt Col Abrams commandeered) They were absolutely quite good. The tanks were a tribute to the manufacturers; Chrysler, Ford and Budd Locomotive made them. From an automotive standpoint they were very good. Engines good, transmission, good, suspension good. But the guns weren’t powerful enough and they didn’t have enough armor. When I went back to the US in Feb 1945 we still had a number of tanks that we brought over from the mainland.
“Early on Geuderian was the father of the German light tanker force. As they grew they changed the suspension. They eventually had the Panther 4. Their 75 mm shell would stand waist high. This gun would penetrate our tank from any angle. Our shell was much smaller than theirs so they had longer range and could kill us. We could fit around 50-60 rounds in thetank, each weighing about 20 pounds. Theirs could kill a tank from front or rear but I would have to close in quite a bit closer. The Panther had a front slope on the armor and the shell would ricochet. We had to hit them right in a crevice and that would kill the crew. Their Tiger had an 88mm gun and it could do so at greater range. I could kill the panther from the side or the rear but from the front, no.
“We had three types of rounds: shot – solid bullet, super shot for the .76, the High Explosive with a fuse on the end of it; delay and super-quick that you set with a screwdriver. We put all our rounds on delay so that if it fell short it might bounce and explode over the target. In addition we took 6-10 rounds with a concrete-buster fuse. That one would permit penetration before explosion. Then we had white phosphorous (WP). We had a WP in the breech when reconnoitering to mark the target, screen the target or smoke it. The smoke allowed you to hide from the other tanks. Shell cases got thrown overboard. Ejected hot and thrown overboard. Throw them out the pistol port. With a platoon of 5 tanks as I got the replacement with the 76mm guns I always made certain I had one 75 in a platoon because only the 75 mm had the WP and I wanted each platoon to have the advantage of this shell.
“I can’t personally claim killing any tanks. It was a group effort. We knocked out 9 at Richecourt and lost three from A Company. In the Arracourt battles our C Company under Lamison must have knocked out about a dozen panthers of the 113th Panther brigade. I participated in taking out some of the nine. We must have killed 20-25 at Arracourt. My own tank was taken out at Lissez, killing my two men. You know I lost two tanks and I was not in either one, I was on the ground. At Lissez I was on the ground and they were shooting at them and I was out of the tank backing them up and they stopped and a round went right into the side of the tank and killed the driver and the bow gunner.
“I took Company command in August. Capt. Tiegs had been wounded and he came back to join us and we had these double hatches on our turrets and they would slip and slam closed," Jimmie said. Then Tiegs had his hands broken when his hatch fell on him. Tiegs told Jimmy to take over because he needed to be evacuated.
The 37th drove across to Brittany, then back east, always on the move.
When Jimmie Leach landed in France, how would he behave?
Fear Jimmie? “Well (pause) I don’t know. Somehow or other I did not avoid dangerous spots. If there was a contact I would quickly go there to see if I could influence it one way or another. By adding more troops or changing the tactic or something. The only fear I had in WWII primarily was the fear of antitank weapons because I knew how vulnerable our tank was. Soft armor you know. And they could penetrate us with anything they had almost. Our guns could knock out the lighter armor, the self propelled guns and could knock out the Mark 4 but to get a Mark 5 we had to hit them on the flank or rear. And we did knock out nine of them and I hit them all on the flank. They just happened to engage A Company and I hit them on the flank. Begagng-Le_Petit about Sept 18.”
Fear, Jimmie? “I prayed for it. I prayed
every night. Now it’s an interesting thing but I prayed for guidance every
night. As I said I was afraid of antitank weapons I wasn’t so much afraid of
mines although we would hit them occasionally I didn’t personally run over
any. I wasn’t in the two tanks I lost. I was dismounted on both of them.
But nevertheless I felt very vulnerable to the antitank weapons.”
Fear, Jimmie? “When I went to Vietnam and all of a sudden I was in combat again, 25 years after the first time, I asked for guidance every night, dear Lord. And I believe the Muslims and the Jews all of us have a Supreme Being and we’re all talking about the same guy! In all cases. Whoever God is, he’s up there someplace in our minds but he doesn’t tell us to kill other people. We are forced to do it. I had wonderful chaplains, too. One of my Catholic Priests in one of my Squadrons wrote me a formal note about his service in the regiment. And how it was a pleasure to work for me. But there’s where my conscience comes in. I failed to recognize so many soldiers that should have been decorated for good works. And my chaplains were outstanding. They were front line soldiers.
Fear, Jimmie? “A nervous soldier that broke down and started whimpering and crying, and I had several, both in Vietnam and WWII, I sensed I had more of them in WWII than in Vietnam, I had no sympathy for them. For some reason. I think you bite your lip and push yourself on through this affair. And I relieved a forward observer, artillery, a lieutenant, who cowered. I relieved an assault gun platoon leader who cowered. Nothing in their records, I just took them out of action. And sent them to the rear. Gagliardi, one of my Italian American guys from Brooklyn accidentally shot his own tank driver, Peck. The driver was standing in front of the tank, and that bow gun. Gagliardi was a bow gunner and he was messing with his gun and two rounds went off bip-bip just like that and went through Peck's back and the bullets came out his chest. He himself hollered medic twice and then dropped. Gagliardi went to pieces. Well, I had no sympathy for him. He was a careless damn fool. Here was this man right in front of him. He had to know it because the hatch was open and why he was on his gun I don’t know. Why he was messing with it with the man standing right in front of it is beyond me. So I blessed him out to a fare-the-well and Scotti our surgeon came up while I’m thrashing him about saying you SOB you’ve killed a good man. The surgeon said, Jimmie you are going to have two casualties, your own men got killed. I was furious. This was a worthless son of a gun compared to Peck who was an outstanding soldier. An older man. Good tank driver. Tank crewman, good soldier. And this other bird I wanted to keep a boot in his tail to make him work. So I didn’t have much sympathy for those breakdowns. In Vietnam I don’t remember running across any of them but I remember several from WWII.”
(An excerpt of a work in progress)
Questions or comments: Contact Matt Hermes