Daily photo by Gary Lloyd|
Ralph Kreps at home near Hartselle. “(Gen. Patton) asked me one time, ‘What did you learn today?’ I told him, ‘I learned to respect my general,’ and he thought that was a good answer,” Kreps said.
Veteran recounts pain of losses in WWII, Korea of losing comrades
By Paul Huggins
Ralph Kreps doesn’t like to dwell on the two wars in which he fought.
As part of Memorial Day, however, he’ll allow those painful thoughts of a German artillery shell exploding his tank, killing his lieutenant and badly burning his three other crewmen.
He might also recall U.S. paratroopers hanging from trees in Cherbourg “with their guts hanging out” after the Germans cut them, or how the fighting was so intense at St. Lo, he ran his tank over dead bodies to get at the enemy.
But the 85-year-old Hartselle resident also will fondly remember the tough training under the eyes of Gen. George Patton that kept him alive in World War II, as well as how that training helped him rescue his brother in Korea.
“I don’t dwell too much on the war,” Kreps said. “You have to black out all that if you’re going to stay sane.”
That’s a lot to black out considering he served in the Army for 25 years and was part of three invasions: Sicily, France and Korea. One of the hardest is the day he was driving his Sherman M-4 tank to plug a hole in the defensive line during the Battle of the Bulge.
That’s when a German shell hit his tank, causing a gasoline fire. He escaped the flames that killed and wounded his four comrades.
“Their skin was peeling off them like potatoes,” he said.
But there wasn’t time to be shaken up, Kreps added, and that’s where Patton’s tough training paid off.
He calmly gathered the three badly burned men and led them to the medics, even pushing them in a hole and covering them with his body when enemy artillery rained on them. Given the option of taking a break, Kreps said, he decided to immediately return to the battle and he promptly got a new tank and crew.
“Every day. Every day. It was the same thing,” he said of his basic training under Patton at Fort Benning. “What to do when this came up or that came up. That’s how I got those three men back to the medic.”
Kreps served with the 66th Armored Regiment of the 2nd Armored Division that Patton nicknamed “Hell on Wheels.” He said he knew the war was coming and enlisted in 1940 — “with Dad signing for me” — before America entered so he could get his choice and serve in tanks with Patton.
Patton was only a colonel then, but already had a reputation for heroism in World War I and was considered a visionary in tank battle.
Because Patton was his regimental commander, Kreps got to interact with him occasionally.
“(Patton) asked me one time, ‘What did you learn today?’ I told him, ‘I learned to respect my general,’ and he thought that was a good answer,” Kreps said.
He made an early impression on Patton one night while on guard duty at Fort Benning. He made Patton get out of his car in the rain and show his identification before letting him continue his inspection. He said Patton later told his captain, “That’s the kind of men we need as guards.”
“And he used to tell us, ‘If you’ve been in battle, you know you’ve done a good job when you have to scrape the guts of the enemy off your boogie (tank) wheels,’ ” he added.
Besides Patton, Kreps served under two of the most revered generals in American history: Douglas MacArthur and Omar Bradley. MacArthur was his supreme commander in Korea, and Bradley was his 12th Army Group commander in Europe.
“MacArthur was aggressive but not near as aggressive as Patton. Patton took a lot of chances that MacArthur wouldn’t,” Kreps said.
Both were outspoken, controversial and didn’t want to listen to others, but only MacArthur did it to a point to get fired, he said, noting Gen. Dwight Eisenhower wanted to fire Patton until Bradley intervened.
“Now, Bradley, I liked him,” Kreps said. “He was really cautious, but he was just as determined to do what he wanted to do. And he did it without so much loss of life.”
The 2nd Armored Division fought alongside Patton’s 3rd Army through France, Belgium and Germany. Kreps was wounded in Belgium when a German bullet ricocheted off his tank and clipped his shin. Kreps said he thought the wound so minor, he refused his Purple Heart.
After the war, Kreps tried farming in Cullman for four years but returned to the regular Army in 1949. A year later he was in Korea fighting in combat tanks with the 15th Infantry Regiment.
It was there he earned a Bronze Star for exposing himself to enemy fire for an hour as he worked to repair his tank damaged by a mine. Though he couldn’t move his tank, he continued to fire in support of advancing infantry.
But his fondest memory came when his regiment had to fight to rescue the 101st Airborne paratroopers the Chinese had surrounded and trapped near the Yalu River. His brother was among the trapped paratroopers. When they reunited, it was one of the singular highlights of his 25-year career, he said. They celebrated in style, drinking corn whiskey their father had sent Kreps under the guise of a can of pickles.
Kreps said after he lowers his American flag to half-staff, he’ll have a couple beers Memorial Day and toast the comrades who didn’t come home.
The ones who didn’t come home are the true heroes, he said, and it’s times like Memorial Day he will dwell on their sacrifices in ways he couldn’t when they died.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson Kreps said he took from Patton was disconnecting from his fellow soldiers. The three burned soldiers in his tank had been with him for two years since training together in North Africa. Despite the close confines of the tank and desperation of battle, they weren’t close companions, he said.
“That’s one thing Patton drilled in our heads. You don’t get brotherly because it’s too emotional when you lose one,” Kreps said. “It jeopardizes your safety when one of them gets killed right next to you. And you’re concerned more about him than yourself. And it makes sense.”
Memorial Day, however, he said, is a time when all Americans should be concerned with those killed in battle.
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