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Posted: May 28, 2013 9:44 a.m.

Surviving the 'Burning Grave'

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During the Civil War, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman suffered a ‘‘breakdown” and was sent home on leave to recover. A sufferer of depression and mood swings, Sherman endured the humiliation of being labeled ‘‘insane’’ by the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper. At Vicksburg, journalists referred to Sherman as a “lunatic.”

Via the ‘lend-lease’ program during World War II, England named American tanks after Civil War generals. The Medium Tank M4 was christened the Sherman. The moniker stuck. So did references to their crews as “insane” or “lunatics.”

The Shermans guzzled highly flammable gasoline; the German Panzers used safer diesel. A round from a Sherman bounced off a Panzer’s thick armor, but a high-velocity round from a Panzer effortlessly penetrated a Sherman’s thin armor. The Germans dubbed British soldiers “Tommies” and their Sherman tanks “Tommycookers.”

The Ronson cigarette lighter carried by our G.I.s advertised its reliability with the phrase, ‘’Lights first time, every time.’’ American and British boys called the Sherman the “Ronson.” Polish tankers were more poignant; they called the Sherman “The Burning Grave.”

Freeman Barber survived World War II a Sherman tanker in Europe.  That he lived to tell the tale is a testament to skill, cunning, and bunches of luck.

World War II was Barber’s first time away from home.

“I sailed on a Liberty ship from New Jersey across the Pond,’’ he said.  “One night we had pork chops for dinner, hit rough seas, lost the pork chops.”

Barber disembarked at Lehavre, France, with the 8th Armored Division and entered the fray. German Panzers weren’t the only threat. Barber recalled, “Their 88mm anti-aircraft gun was a frightful weapon. They’d just level the barrel and pick off Shermans like sitting ducks.”

In early 1945 Allied forces reached the Rhine River. Freeman said, “I watched 17 Shermans attempt to cross the Rhine; only two made it.  Our company commander stated, ‘No way my men are trying that’ and we didn’t, thank God.” 

During one encounter, the 75mm gun on Barber’s Sherman jammed.

  “I tried to retrieve a bell-housing type rod we used to clear the barrel,” he said. “Machine gun rounds were ‘bing, bing, binging’ off the side of our tank. Thank goodness another Sherman neutralized that threat before one of those bings binged me.”

Weeks later on a snowy mountain route, Barber was topside when an 88mm shell whizzed over his head.

 He said, “Before I had time to react, another round hit below us. Then I saw a vivid blue flash coming right at me.  It missed my head by inches.”  The camouflaged anti-aircraft gun was quickly obliterated.

Barber was the crew’s forager. He recalled, “Moving through a German village I jumped off the tank and went inside a house to forage for food.  The phone kept ringing, so I finally answered the darn thing.  A German officer on the other end wanted the coordinates on our Sherman for his mortar crew.

‘’I spoke a little German so I told him, ‘I don’t have time to mess with you,’ and hung up the phone. Bet that upset him a bit.”

In closing, Barber said, “Uh, did I tell you how I almost burned down the General’s house at Fort Knox?”

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