World War II Veteran Harry Chipp

Veteran Harry Chipp of Rock Springs recounts his time spent in World War II.

Kerry Huller

The tank in Veterans Park was facing backward, and Harry Chipp would have none of that.

He knew tanks front to back, inside and out. Nearly 70 years ago, he repaired and maintained them.

And so this tank pointing in the wrong direction, as if retreating into the hills, had to be turned around. He spent

12 years trying to get someone to listen.

Back in the 1940s, when Chipp registered for the draft, he was called up to city hall and told his name was fifth in the whole county. Wouldn’t be long before he had to go.

He was drafted at age 21, while he was working as a grease man in a garage.

First he went to Fort Riley, Kan., and was later transferred to Louisiana, to a maintenance company of the 32nd Armored Regiment, Third Armored Division. The division was called Bayou Blitz for its training in the south.

After mechanics school in Georgia, maneuvers in the California desert and stops in Virginia and Pennsylvania, the division shipped to England. One day, when it was clear, Chipp counted 57 ships in the convoy.

The choppy seas made many men sick. In the tight quarters below deck, sometimes the soldier on top bunk would vomit, spraying the men below. Chipp slept on the deck to avoid that. In the morning, a deckhand with a hose would wake him up.

“He’d shoot you with the damn hose if you didn’t get up,” Chipp said.

Chipp saw 231 days of combat in Europe. After landing on Omaha Beach, moving through Saint-Lo, France, “We were the first troops in Belgium, first across the German border, the first troops to capture a major town, Cologne,” Chipp said.

The division earned a new nickname: Spearhead, the division of the First Army that was first on the front lines overseas.

In California, Chipp had been put in charge of maintenance for one of the battalions. Overseas as a tech sergeant, he served as maintenance inspector for the whole regiment. Chipp had a crew and, as he remembers, 567 units to care for.

“Anything with a wheel on it, I was to see it got repaired,” he said.

When a tank broke, the soldiers tried to pull back a half mile to fix it. Often they had to make repairs in battle under fire, replacing engines and tracks.

The division had a high casualty rate and went through waves of replacements. When Americans died, the soldiers placed a sheet over them and marked the bodies so they could be picked up later.

Chipp burned his hand in a bombing and was hit twice by shrapnel. Once, hit in the leg, he tended to his wounds himself.

“You’re just lucky, that’s all,” he said. “I’ve seen them get hit. I’ve had them hit just as close as we are a couple times.”

One time at daybreak, after advancing for several days, a bomb hit a tank carrying a soldier Chipp knew well. The two men were in different companies, but they played volleyball together in England. The top part of the soldier’s body was blown off.

A priest read the casualty list and came to the tank. He was a friend of the family. He married the soldier and his wife back home. He wanted to gather the man’s personal effects, but there was blood all around.

Chipp went in the tank for him.

“I found his hand,” Chipp said. “He had his wedding band on.”

He gave the ring to the priest.

Another time, Chipp set his pup tent in a truck with a camouflage net over it. It was a nice night, and he took his shoes and coveralls off.

Planes flew overhead, bombing and strafing.

Chipp jumped in a foxhole. The truck caught fire.

He grabbed his shoes, bedroll and gun and spent the night underneath a tank. The next morning, his coveralls were riddled with bullet holes.

Chipp asked a supply sergeant for a new pair. He said yes and told Chipp to come back tomorrow. He’d have an extra pair then.

The next day, new coveralls in hand, Chipp looked at the fabric. The soldiers could get their items laundered if they wrote their names in their clothing. On these coveralls was the name of the soldier killed in the tank.

“That made you have a funny feeling,” Chipp said, “wearing a dead man’s clothes.”

Once an American shot a German riding a bicycle with a tank’s 75mm. Inspecting a tank that had caught fire one time, Chipp found the back completely charred to ashes. The driver was dead, head to the side, legs and arms burned off.

“You see dead every day,” Chipp said. “... Somebody could be laying there dead and you’d be eating over here.”

Through all of it, Chipp didn’t expect to come home.

Toward the end of the war, Chipp’s division stumbled upon a concentration camp in Nordhausen, Germany. The soldiers called for assistance. Chipp saw piles of dead men and women. A man kneeled down, Chipp said, and kissed his feet.

“Boy, that’s a sight to see,” Chipp said. “And the worst thing, smell it. I can still smell it.”

He has pictures still, taken at the camp by the division camera.

Chipp remembers when the fighting stopped. He was sitting on a rock by the Elbe River when he was told war was over.

He describes the way he felt by asking a question: Ever seen the movie “Saving Private Ryan?” Remember how that soldier shook?

“I was the same G—damn way.”

I’m going to have a chance to come home? He thought.

“You didn’t figure to come home,” Chipp said. “You just think when is it going to be your time?”

After all he saw, more than six decades later Chipp was set on getting that tank in Rock Springs turned right-side forward.

“They had this tank turned around so the front end was to the hill. The back end was to the public. The gun was to the back like a retreat,” he said.

What did that suggest, he asked, a tank in retreat?

“The people that put it there, they weren’t no tankers,” he said. “They didn’t know what the hell was going on, see.”

After 12 years of talking to anyone who would listen, “I finally got it turned around.”

“Some people call it the Chipp tank,” he said.

Chipp was there when a giant crane lifted the tank and changed its direction.

There was no fanfare.

He didn’t make a speech.

But it gives him peace of mind knowing the tank is presentable. Always moving forward, never retreating to the hills.

They served with honor

Some have said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day in United States. History dies with each one.

"They Served With Honor" is a special project by the Star-Tribune to collect stories from Wyoming World War II veterans. We will feature one story each week through Veterans Day 2011.

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