Glenn Damron is a native Pocatellan who now splits his time between Pocatello and Spokane, Wash. He is a veteran of the 526th Armored Infantry Battalion, a unique battalion in the annals of WWII.
He served in the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon of Headquarters Company of the 526th. And in a sense he is still serving, since he is the President of the 526th AIB Association, a group of veterans who keep the memories of those who served in the 526 and their deeds of valor alive.
Damron attended Pocatello High School and was drafted after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He joined about 20 other Pocatellans in the 526th, most of whom would have been in the Class of 1942.
One of these Pocatellans was Ralph J. Bieker. Private Ralph Bieker was an ammunition handler in the 3rd squad of the Anti-tank Platoon of Company B in the 526. He and Private Francis Frazier, a cook’s helper in Company B, had an experience to remember involving a half-track, a 57mm anti-tank cannon, and a place called Trois-Ponts, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge.
Damron, who grew up with Bieker, interviewed Bieker extensively about his experiences, and wrote it all down. After Bieker died from cancer in 2002, Damron felt free to share the story of his fellow Pocatellan. The following account quotes from Damron’s writing.
“B Company, commanded by Capt. Wessel, left Comblain la Tour, Belgium, on time at 1830 hours on December 17,1944. They were to join the rest of their battalion and proceed in convoy to Malmedy, Belgium. Their objective was to help stem the tide of the German’s surprise winter offensive in the Ardennes, also known as the Battle of the Bulge.”
But things did not go according to plan for Bieker and Frazier. Their half-track vehicle towing a 57mm anti-tank cannon slipped its track and had to fall out of the convoy at Trois-Ponts. The captain in charge of a company of Combat Engineers at Trois-Ponts, who was tasked with installing demolitions on two bridges and with the defense of Trois-Ponts, commandeered the cannon.
“When daylight came and the half-track was repaired, the captain had the squad cross the river and proceed a short distance up a road which paralleled the Ambleve River. He then positioned the cannon where it could fire on anything coming from the directions of Stavelot.”
It was at this point that Bieker and Frazier were given a special assignment.
“He (the Captain) directed the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Smith, to take the half-track and two men further up the road, approximately 250 yards. They were to find a place where the river and the road came close together, a position where the two men and a daisy chain of anti-tank mines could be concealed.”
The proper spot was located, Bieker and Frazier were dropped off with the mines, then the half-track was concealed. The two men were to pull the daisy chain of mines across the road at the sight of any German vehicles, and then return to the half-track, then all the men would return to the where the gun had been positioned.
“A short time later the two privates saw the first tank in a column of tanks coming around the bend in the road. The tanks were moving rapidly towards them. They yanked the mines across the road and started for the half-track. It was not there! Sgt. Smith had moved the vehicle back to the gun position. He later told Bieker that he thought he and Frazier had been killed.”
At this point Bieker and Frazier were in imminent danger.
“The tanks were almost on them; they knew they couldn’t make it back to their gun without being seen and machine gunned. Their only concealment now was in the freezing waters of the river. They ran to it and jumped in.”
From the water the two men could see the ensuing battle. The cannon opened fire on the lead tank as it approached the mines on the road, and caused it to block the road. The tank’s crew bailed out, as the last tank in the German column opened fire on the gun position.
“They (Bieker and Frazier) were unable to see their anti-tank gun from where they were hiding but they heard some of the crew calling for help and assumed that their gun had been knocked out. After what seemed a long time, the cries for help stopped. Later, they learned that the gunner and three cannoneers had been killed.”
The men heard two loud explosions coming from the direction of Trois-Ponts, and they knew that if the bridges had been blown, then they were cut off and behind German lines. Bieker and Frazier waited in the water and counted 19 tanks passing them by on the road.
“They lay in the frigid water, half in and half out all afternoon, and into the night. When they could stand the cold no longer and they thought it was dark enough, they ran for the hills in a direction they hoped was toward the American lines. Finally, in sparse cover, the two men lay down on the side of a hill to rest and shiver the night away.”
Bieker and Frazier knew that the German must have suspected their presence because the hillside was occasionally sprayed with machine gun fire. But the pair made it through the night, and in the morning went in search for warmth and food. What they found was a farmhouse occupied by an elderly couple that they were able to convince that they were Americans. The couple sheltered the two men, warmed them, fed them, and let them sleep, at great risk to their own lives.
The next morning Bieker and Frazier left the farmhouse, hoping to avoid the enemy and move toward American troops. After several hours of careful progress, a jeep from the 30th Infantry Division picked them up. The men fought with that division for the next four weeks, and then returned to the 526. Both Bieker and Frazier were treated for trench foot, and Frazier was sent to a hospital in England where one foot had to be amputated.
Damron concluded his account of Bieker’s story with this note.
“Unfortunately, Ralph is unable to remember the names of the Belgian couple who gave them shelter, food and warmth. He may never have known their names. They were probably in their sixties and surely are no longer living, but they will live in Ralph’s heart forever.”
Who were the 526?
In the August 2012 issue of the 526th AIB newsletter, The Pekan, Thomas F. Hanchett described the history and make-up of the 526th AIB. The 526th was a unique entity during WWII, as it was the only separate armored infantry battalion, while all other armored infantry battalions were attached to armored divisions. As such, the 526th went wherever they were needed, and did whatever needed to be done.
For example, in the fall of 1944, some 526 personnel were attached to an intelligence organization called the T Force. In the aftermath of the Normandy Invasion, the T Force rushed into captured towns, to seize intelligence info, as well as factories, government offices and German personnel.
The 526th AIB was comprised of three rifle companies, A, B, and C, a headquarters company and maintenance or service company, with a total of 1031 soldiers. The battalion had 72 half-tracked personnel carrier vehicles, 56 other vehicles and a variety of anti-tank weapons, mortars and machine guns. Most of the men were from California, Idaho and Washington, and most were born in 1923. The battalion did their basic training it Fort Knox, Kentucky, and served overseas in England, France, Belgium and Germany, and the battalion played an important role in the Battle of the Bulge.
Glenn Damron complied a list of Pocatellans that he was aware of, who also served in the 526, to include James R. Brenneman, Raymond (Randy) Dykes, Ernest Carranza, Joe F. Borowy, Paul Dudenake, Robert A. Rasmussen, Leonard Cerda, Floyd Exeter, Xavier F. Servel, Keith E. Corbridge, Wesley Glenn Damron, Robert F. Bertasso, Ralph J. Bieker, Thomas Croxall, Clyde Ashcroft, Tom Clark, and Clint Blackwood. To the best of Damron’s knowledge, none of these Pocatellans died in WWII, but Randy Dykes was killed in Korea.
Gizmos in the desert
The 526th was the only Armored Infantry Battalion to train with the top secret CDLs, or Canal Defense Lights, also known as gizmos. Private Glenn Damron was one of those members of the battalion that trained at a secret desert installation in Arizona, called Camp Bouse. He and his colleagues involved in the CDL project went to Camp Bouse in mid-September 1943, and for the personnel of the 526, it was five months of intensive training in what they jokingly called Happy Valley, an area personally scoped out by George Patton himself.
In the August 2012 Pekan Thomas F. Hanchett described the CDLs. Canal Defense Lights were originally proposed by British Royal Navy Commander Baron Oscar de Thoren in 1916, as exceedingly bright lights mounted on vehicles, used to blind and confuse the enemy during night operations.
It was thought that lights of this nature could also be used to help guard the Suez Canal, so they were called Canal Defense Lights, although this explanation of the name of the secret weapon is not entirely accepted. It has also been postulated that the name was meant as a ruse, to misrepresent their purpose if word of the secret development got out.
The WWII era CDLs that the 526 AIB trained on at Camp Bouse in Arizona featured a special light apparatus that replaced the gun turret in an M-3 Grant tank. The light was a 13 million-candle power carbon arc lamp, including a mirror, an automatic shutter that would cause a flickering effect, and several colored filters. The filters could make it difficult for the enemy to track the position of the tank.
In battle, a row of tanks equipped with CDLs would advance abreast of each other with 30 yards between each tank, using their lights to blind and disorient the enemy. The regular tanks would advance in the cone of darkness behind the tanks.
The CDL system was not used in combat during WWII, partly because officers who planned battles were not completely familiar with their use and potential. In the aftermath of D-Day, the lights were used to help illuminate bridges that Allied troops had already captured.
Interestingly, the training program caused light effects in the skies above the Arizona desert, no doubt causing anyone who happened to see them wonder what was going on out there in the sand.
For the last 10 years, Sherrie Morrison of Yolo, California, has been the editor of the Pekan, the newsletter of the 526th AIB Association. She also acts as the group’s Secretary and Treasurer.
“My father-in-law was in B Company,” Morrison said, as to why she is involved with the group of veterans. “He has passed away since, but my cousins and I went to one of the Association’s reunions, and I’ve just kind of adopted the whole group. They seem like family to me, and we just clicked.”
Morrison continued, “I never in a million years thought I would be doing such a thing. They are great people, and it’s turned out to be quite rewarding for me.” Morrison prepares a 30-page newsletter every three months, and helps plan the Association’s reunions.
The Pekan Newsletter is named for the fisher, a mammal native to North America, closely related to the American marten, also known as the pequam or wejack.