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From Morocco to Munich in the back of a halftrack: Major El Roy Master and the 443rd AAA


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Hey everyone. I recently expanded my 36th ID collection with a neat piece from a pretty hard to find unit. Major El Roy P. Master was a graduate of West Point and fought from Algeria to Germany with the 443rd Anti-Aircraft Battalion (attached to the 36th ID from Salerno onwards), earning a Bronze Star and 9 campaign stars in the process. I've typed a bit of his story below. It’s a lengthy read but honestly a very interesting story from a oft-overlooked AAA unit that had a very distinguished fighting career.

 

El Roy grew up the son of an auto mechanic in the small industrial town of Robesonia, Pennsylvania. A proud Boy Scout, he was happy with life until his mother passed away while he was still a boy. Saddened by her loss, he began seeking out greater aspirations than his hometown and after graduating high school, received a congressional appointment to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. Part of 4th Company in the class of 1942, El Roy enjoyed his studies and grew excited at the prospect of war on the horizon. In his senior year, his desires came true, and before long El Roy would join as an artillery officer in Uncle Sam’s army.

 

Immediately following graduation El Roy was sent to Camp Davis, North Carolina where he officially transferred into the Coastal Artillery Corps and began training for anti-aircraft and special artillery battery tactics. Only spending a month or so in the specialized school, the army saw El Roy as a potential candidate to join some of the first forces in Europe. In July of 1942 he moved to D Battery of the newly created 443rd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion (self-propelled). He proved his worth and prowess to the company commander and after a month of service was promoted to 1st Lieutenant as XO of the company.

 

The 443rd was a special outfit, specially tasked with using and testing the army’s new T-28-E1 AAA halftracks. With the growing influence of air power in military ground actions, the army hoped to develop an effective and powerful gun that could move under its own power. Based on the M3 half-track chassis, the T28 featured a 37mm M1 anti-aircraft gun and two .50 caliber Brownings on a rotating platform. This was one of the first mobile AAA platforms to be adopted by the army in large numbers and one of the most prominent to be used in the North African theater. El Roy and his company were given T28s in the summer of 1942 and grew proficient enough in their operation that they were tasked with joining General Patton for the invasion of Morocco that November.

 

After a rough ride to Africa, the 443rd made it to the port of Lyautey in French Morocco alongside the 3rd Infantry Division and got their first taste of combat against the French air forces. El Roy and his men did their job, effectively eliminating all sources of aerial opposition for the American troops. The first kill was even credited to El Roy’s company as they knocked out a French dive bomber while en route to the beach in their landing craft. The American forces knocked out most of the French military defenses and by November 11th, the French had surrendered. The army did not stop there, however, and the 443rd was pushed along to Casablanca to shore up the assault against the city. On the way the unit was pestered by French snipers, planes, and vehicles. Once the city was captured El Roy and his company were sent to join the 9th Infantry Division for defensive duty where they fought off several night bomber raids. The 37mm cannon on their halftracks, however, was able to handle every enemy the battalion came across. The T28 gained a reputation as a successful gun platform and the 443rd, as a well-oiled machine.

 

As Casablanca and the French territories fell under Allied control, the 443rd regrouped in preparation for the assault in Tunisia. Assigned to the 1st Armored Division, the men began their trek across the blistering African desert and mountains to join the Americans for the defense of southern Tunisia from Rommel’s forces. El Roy’s company specifically was sent to defend the Ousseltia valley where it successfully held off German assaults, saving nearby French and British forces. ME-109s and JU-87s became the enemy of the 443rd, with the Luftwaffe playing endless games against the AAA to attack the nearby allied ground forces. Even so, the 443rd held their own and their position earned the nickname of “The Hornets Nest” to the German pilots. Despite the onslaught, the German attack was eventually halted and the valley held.

 

A quote from a C Company member summed up the actions well:

 

“During the day we were constantly on alert for planes and we moved in blackout at night, to new positions. Everyone was worn out but we kept awake. I can still see those planes overhead. We fired and fired. We were scared! There were raids every 20 minutes and we thought the day would never end. They kept this up for days but did little damage as we kept knocking them down. They began to respect our guns and stayed out of range. But those 88 mm shells! The whole crew was really afraid of them. No sooner did we move to new positions than the Germans would start shelling us and we leaped into our foxholes, saying our prayers.”

 

Throughout the desert campaigns, El Roy and the 443rd men endured many evening sandstorms when the fine sand and grit sifted into eyes, nose, food and clothing, and sand clouds were churned up during all vehicle movements. Gun crews had to constantly clean and grease the 37 mm guns, the .50 cal. machine guns and small arms. Parachute silk was cut and used as neck scarves to try to keep the sand out of clothing. Water was at a premium and baths were a forgotten luxury except for those rare occasions when old Roman baths were discovered, such as those at Constantine and Gafsa. The battalion spent most of its days amongst the 1st Armor shooting down dozens of 109s and Stukas of Rommel’s desert Air Force. Playing crucial roles at Faid and the Kasserine pass, without the 443rd, it is doubtful the 1st Armored could have been as successful against Rommel under constant Luftwaffe firepower.

 

Proving their mettle under the African sun against Rommel, the 443rd became known as a crack AA unit amongst the American Mediterranean forces. As generals began planning for the invasion of Sicily, El Roy and his men were specially chosen to join the assault forces. After some much needed refit and repair, El Roy and the battalion joined the 3rd Infantry Division for the assault on Sicily. With airfield day priority for the invading infantry, the 443rd was tasked with defending several small airfields from German strafing and bombing attacks, and did so successfully. As the advance continued, the 443rd often followed the attacking troops and got some of the best treatment from the happily liberated Sicilians. After the initial German air power had been dealt with, the campaign was pretty smooth for the AAA men.

 

While recovering from Sicily, the 443rd got word that they would soon be joining the 36th Infantry Division in the fall of 1943. They had heard of the division’s exploits at Salerno. First seeing action with the unit during the Naples-Foggia campaign, the AAA distinguished themselves for their defense of the division artillery units at Mt Maggiore. With the infantry heavily engaged in the uphill battle, the Germans sent wave after wave of ME-109s, FW-190s, and medium bombers to destroy the 36th artillery pounding their own ground troops. The 443rd refused to let it happen, during nonstop in the face of direct anti-personnel strafing and bombing attacks, shooting down over a dozen German craft and fending off many more to protect the vital artillery. Several men of the battalion were awarded the Silver Star for these actions.

 

The Italian campaign was spotty for the AAA. Air attacks were much less frequent and intensive as they had been in Africa and the Luftwaffe had primarily been driven to attacking by night due to American air superiority. The 443rd continued supporting the 36th throughout, however, and marched through Rome on the day of its liberation with flowers and wreaths adorning their many half tracks.

 

Eventually El Roy and the troops made their way to mainland Europe following the establishment of the beachheads in Southern France. It was fighting through the breakout of Dragoon that the 443rd began changing its tactics to adapt to an evolving battlefield. With German air power now fairly limited and both M16 and the original T28 halftracks bolstering the battalion, the troops began training for infantry support tactics. Using new ammo and methods to act as defensive strongpoints or offensive heavy weapons. This new style of thinking saw El Roy and his company closely linked to the various infantry regiments of the 36th in support of major operations throughout France and Germany.

 

Below is a pretty interesting account of the ground assault tactics in use in the Rhineland and German campaign.

 

“Their first opportunity came when each of the four line batteries provided a gun section to fire across the Vologne River into German positions in the Bois Boremont while the 143rd Infantry attacked Bruyeres from the south and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team attacked from the forest and hills on the west. The enemy must have been surprised and dismayed when several kilometers of hillside in front of them suddenly belched 37mm and .50 cal. fire at irregular intervals throughout the three days of the attack. Even though the 443rd guns were firing from one flank of the attack the Germans reacted by firing their artillery at the 443rd gun-tracks. In spite of the enemy shells falling around them the 443rd men continued to fire upon call from the Battalion Fire Direction Center, manned by the 443rd Operations Officer and Operations Sergeant. Their fire was of enormous value in supporting the attack. Much SP and artillery fire was diverted from the attacking infantry and enemy observation was greatly hindered by air and tree bursts over German positions. Many of the enemy defenders were so unnerved by the rain of lead that they were still unable to function effectively when the first 143rd infantrymen reached their positions. Since that initial ground support mission, 443rd gunners have fired again and again in support of the 36th Division Infantry.

 

Battery D’s first platoon fired into Laveline de Bruyeres early one morning and received mortar fire in return. However, they were rewarded by seeing their shells start a fire which increased in intensity and culminated in an explosion just before dawn. The 443rd men, returning from their mission, were bemoaning their bad luck, believing that they had blown up the only distillery in the valley. They were considerably relieved when they later learned that they had blown up an ammunition dump.”

 

The 443rd men found joy in their new role, despite firing large guns five feet off the ground in a lightly armored vehicle. Firing directly at a target rather than a plane “did something” to the 443rd guys and really upped their attitudes from boring work of firing pot-shots at the 3-5 fighters they saw a week. This work continued up through the drive into Germany. Occasionally a fighter would be shot down, including a few ME262s on occasion, but their major role was supporting the division infantry for the final push.

 

At the conclusion of the war the 443rd found its much needed relief. In near constant action for over 3 years, El Roy and his men enjoyed their time in Munich before heading back home. During their time in France and Germany El Roy had been promoted to Captain and received the Bronze Star medal for his valiant efforts in leading the transition of his company from AAA to ground support in countless assaults. Sadly he left his home unit of so many years to oversee occupation with the 19th AAA group before heading home in late 1945 for a brief visit before heading back to Germany as a Major to command further organization of AAA units for long-term occupation duty.

 

El Roy left the army in 1946 a long-seasoned veteran, having saw action from Morocco to Munich. He returned home to Pennsylvania and married his sweetheart before settling down in Reading. For work, El Roy joined the Textile Machine Works as a lowly engine technician and in less then 10 years had made his way to president of the entire company, the largest producer of textile machines in the nations. He served on the board of American bank and spent his free time golfing and hunting. He and his wife also became avid antique collectors and had gathered one of the largest collections of fine art in the east coast. Upon El Roy’s passing in 2008, where this jacket was acquired, his antiques sold for over $2,000,000.

 

I am very proud to now take care of this uniform from a salty and well-seasoned T-Patcher. With 9 campaigns stars and three invasions under his belt, he is easily the most impressive in my collection. I hope you all enjoyed his story and the overlooked story of the 443rd AAA, a truly under-appreciated but important piece of the army advance from the Mediterranean to Germany.

 

-Alex

 

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A T-28 of the 443rd in North Africa

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A battalion M16 near the Moselle

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A long-surviving T-28 of the 443rd guarding the St. Raphael air base during Operation Dragoon

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GEN. David R. Atchinson- MO State Guard              ACW

PVT. John H. Drury- Co. A, 27th Ky IR                      ACW               Died of Typhoid

PVT. Henry E. Thomas- Co. I, 17th Ky IR                  ACW

PVT. Joseph E. Drury- Co. E, 356th IR, 89th ID       WWI                WIA

SGT. Edward P. Drury- 51st QM Training Co.           WWII

PFC. Delmer C. Koonter- Co. I, 142nd IR, 36th ID    WWII              WIA

SC3c Michael C. Drury- LCS (L) (3) 70                     WWII

SGT. Steven D. Koonter- 5th Cav, 1st Cav Div         Vietnam

SGT. John M. Drury- 227th AVN Bn. 1st Cav Div     Vietnam

 

Contact me with items from the 36th Infantry Division or any IDd uniforms of European Theater Infantry Divisions

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