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Rockdale vet recalls tank battles in WWII

Rockdale County resident Freeman Barber fought with the 8th Armored Division of the U.S. Army during World War II. He saw combant action across northern Europe against German panzer tanks.Pictured is a Sherman tank in Barber's division pushing into emeny lines.

Rockdale County resident Freeman Barber fought with the 8th Armored Division of the U.S. Army during World War II. He saw combant action across northern Europe against German panzer tanks.Pictured is a Sherman tank in Barber's division pushing into emeny lines.

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Rockdale County resident Freeman Barber fought with the 8th Armored Division of the U.S. Army during World War II. He saw combant action across northern Europe against German panzer tanks. Here, he is pictured in an undated photograph during the war.

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Freeman Barber at the Citizen offices.

Rockdale County resident Freeman Barber described his time serving in a Sherman tank during World War II as being part of a team out of necessity. "Only the tank commander with his head popped up from the top hatch knows what's going on," he said.

Barber spent his childhood in Rochester, N.Y., searching for arrowheads and exploring Native American Indian caves. He was 16 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. "I remember my dad saying, 'Oh boy, we're in it now.'"

Barber turned 18 when he joined the Army. An only child, it was his first time away from home.

Barber trained at Ft Knox, Ky., in 1943 as a gunner and radio operator on the iconic Sherman tank until sidelined in with pneumonia. "I spent four months in the hospital," he said. "Pneumonia saved my life. The tankers I trained with were part of the Normandy Invasion. Many of those boys drowned when their tanks sank."

Barber recovered and joined the 8th Armored Division at Camp Polk, La., to complete his training. The four-man crew -- tank commander, driver, assistant driver, and gunner -- used an unreliable intercom system to communicate. Even when it did work the incredible noise level inside the tank forced the crew to improvise.

"We tied a rope to the driver and steered him like a horse," he said. "Pull left to go left, right to go right, pull back to stop, and kick him in the back to go forward."

Barber and his division shipped out and landed at LeHavre, France. He recalled, "That night we slept under a tarp in freezing weather and deep snow. The next morning the tarp was frozen solid."

Seven variations of the Sherman tank were built by the U.S. Army. Barber's tank was armed with three machine guns and one main 75mm gun. The 75mm ammo was stored in the bottom of the Sherman, theoretically held in place by a "Chinese finger" expansion device, but tank crews often heard a "clicking" sound during turret rotation. Barber said, "The 'clicking' noise was solid metal striking the fuses on the 75mm ammo. A few tanks disappeared because of that," he said.

Newly arrived Sherman tankers soon realized they were out-gunned by the heavy German panzers. "Their shells ripped right through us," Barber said. "Ours just bounced off the panzers. We had to use our superior speed to out-flank them and target their weak spots, the sides and rear."

The Germans' infamous 88mm anti-aircraft gun was also a Sherman killer. "The 88s were deadly," Barber said. "Thankfully, our speed and maneuverability saved a lot of lives, but I've seen a 30-ton Sherman going downhill at 45mph, no way to turn, and go right through a farm house, the cellar, and pity the poor chickens."

The Allies reached the Rhine River in early 1945. Barber's division stayed back in reserve and watched the Germans' 88s cut through 17 Sherman tanks in the first assault. "Our company commander said, 'No way my men are trying that,' and we didn't, thank God."

Barber recalls the dangers. "The Germans hid machine guns and large caliber weapons in hay stacks. In one fight we engaged an 'armed haystack' but our 75mm gun jammed. I tried to retrieve a bell housing type-rod from the side of our tank that we used to clear the barrel, but kept hearing machine gun rounds 'bing, bing, bing,' off the metal."

Thankfully, another Sherman neutralized the threat before one of those bings binged me."

As the crew's "forager," Barber was always looking for food. "During a battle for one town, I jumped off our tank and entered a house to search for food," he said. "Well, the phone rang. I spoke a little German so I answered the darn thing. It was a German officer wanting coordinates for his mortar crews. I told him I didn't have the time and hung up."

Sent wherever needed, Barber and his crew fought through several towns, manned machine gun emplacements, blasted snipers hiding in church towers, pulled further duties with the 35th Infantry, the 99th, the 8th Army, and even put up with the exploits of Gen. George Patton.

"We were nomads," Barber said. "We drank vodka with Russian troops at an impromptu wedding, stole chicken eggs, bartered cigarettes for bread or wine, drank tea with the Limeys, stole a few barrels of green champagne from a train ... shoot, I reckon we just did what we had to do to survive the war."

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at aveteranssstory@gmail.com.