On a warm, quiet morning in September of 1944, Tom Austin boarded a Higgins landing craft and crossed the English Channel for the shore of Normandy, France, with a loaded M1 carbine rifle and Thompson submachine gun hanging off his shoulder, unsure of what to expect.
Three months earlier, the stretch of beach codenamed Omaha had been the site of the D-Day invasion, during which roughly 20,000 soldiers had been killed.
Austin’s older brother, Benton, an engineer serving with the Army National Guard, had barely survived the invasion and was still fighting his way east toward Berlin, Germany. Luckily, though, Austin, a staff sergeant with the U.S. Army’s 12th Armored Division, wasn’t heading into combat.
He was instead one of the tens of thousands of personnel supporting the front lines from the rear, sent to Normandy to establish an Allied command post for his division.
Although more than seven decades have passed since the war, Austin is still able to recall vivid memories of his time overseas. During a recent interview with the Greenville Journal, the 96-year-old agreed to speak about his wartime experiences and reflected back on his remarkable two-year journey across Europe: from the southern coast of France to the outskirts of Austria.
As Austin discussed his time overseas, he got up from his couch and pointed to a framed map of Europe hanging on the wall above his kitchen table. Squinting his eyes, Austin traced his index finger along the glass frame, stopping on each location where his division saw combat.
“We were just a bunch of kids. But we sure did whoop them,” Austin said, pointing to the city of Rouffach in northern France, where the 12th Armored Division defeated the German army in 1945.
Shipping out for war
Like many others who served, Austin’s life was never the same after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Shortly after graduating from high school, Austin, who was 19 years old at the time, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corp. with his friend, Joe Watson.
“We thought they had the better-looking uniform,” Austin said with a laugh.
Unfortunately, though, Austin never got a chance to wear the iconic dress blues as he was medically discharged several weeks later due to severe asthma.
When he returned home to Charlotte, N.C., Austin gave up on joining the armed forces and began looking at colleges. But then he was drafted by the Army several months later and assigned to the 12th Armored Division, also known as the Hellcat Division.
“I didn’t tell them about the asthma this time,” Austin said.
Austin and the rest of his division, which consisted of approximately 11,000 soldiers, were sent to Fort Campbell, Ky., in September 1942 for 13 weeks of basic training. After learning to shoot a rifle and dig fox holes, they were sent to Camp Barkeley in Abilene, Texas.
While many of the soldiers were assigned to infantry and tank battalions, Austin was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant and assigned to division headquarters, where he was tasked with overseeing the management and distribution of supplies.
His promotion also came with a special assignment, however.
In the summer of 1944, shortly after the invasion of Normandy, Austin was tasked with accompanying the division’s assistant commander, Brig. Gen. Riley Ennis, to France to establish headquarters and prepare for the arrival of infantry and tank battalions.
Austin, along with others assigned to the advanced detachment, eventually departed from Texas and traveled to New York, where they set sail for Europe with thousands of soldiers aboard a massive ocean liner called the SS Île de France.
“I was responsible for all the supplies on the ship,” Austin said. “If you needed to smoke then you came to me for cigarettes.”
After six days of sailing, the SS Île de France entered the English Channel and docked at the Firth of Clyde off the southwest coast of Scotland, according to Austin.
While most of the ship’s soldiers were sent off to war, Ennis and his entourage toured the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, and then boarded a train for Southampton, England.
Their trip, however, was delayed when Ennis decided to stop in London for lamb mutton sandwiches, a dish Austin wasn’t too fond of.
“I looked at them and said, ‘Boy, if this is what the English eat then no wonder they need our help winning the war,’” Austin said. “It tasted horrible.”
Once the detachment reached South Hampton, Austin and others boarded a Higgins Boat landing craft and set sail across the English Channel for Omaha Beach, one of two American landing areas in Normandy.
Austin and the rest of the detachment landed several hours later and then traveled to Auffay, a commune in northern France, where they established headquarters and prepared for the rest of the division, which arrived in November 1944.
Supplying the troops
Once the division arrived in France, Austin was once again assigned to headquarters and tasked with managing supplies throughout the war.
“My job was to keep a record of who had what weapons,” Austin said. “Most soldiers were given a rifle and submachine gun, while officers usually had pistols. I had all three and drove a 2.5-ton cargo truck with a trailer attached on the back. It was a rolling inventory.”
Moving across central and western Europe, the 12th Armored Division participated in more than 150 days of combat, overtaking numerous strategic strongholds and capturing more than 70,000 enemy soldiers, according to Robert Scherer, a historian with the 12th Armored Division Association.
Austin said despite being stationed at division headquarters, he experienced a number of close calls during the war, even surviving sniper fire on his first day in France. He also experienced the horrors of the Nazi death camps.
When the 12th Armored Division secured the town of Landsburg in Germany, Austin and his comrades participated in the daunting task of liberating several sub-camps surrounding Dachau concentration camp, where 32,000 documented deaths occurred.
“It was quite an ordeal,” Austin said. “The prisoners were absolutely pitiful. They had been starved to death. They were eating sawdust and anything else they could find.”
After liberating the death camps, Austin and the rest of the 12th Armored Division pushed south and crossed into Austria. The war came to an end shortly after, but the division established headquarters in Heidenheim, Germany, on May 5, 1945, and continued occupation duties until November, when the convoys left for France.
During the division’s six-month occupation of Heidenheim, Austin said he had a lot of spare time. But then he was asked to play tennis with Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, the beloved star of the 1942 American romantic drama film, “Casablanca.”
Bergman was visiting Heidenheim with Jack Benny and Larry Adler as part of a six-week USO show tour of military posts throughout Europe, according to Austin.
“There was a big auditorium in town with two tennis courts,” Austin said. “So with me being the division’s supply sergeant, they came to me and said she wanted to play tennis. I went to the depot and got two rackets and some tennis balls and went out there. I ended up playing tennis with her over the course of three days.”
Coming back home
Once the division’s occupation ended, Austin boarded a ship in Marseilles, France, and set sail for home. He was officially discharged in February of 1946.
With his military days behind him, Austin enrolled at Wake Forest University, where he studied business and met his wife, Mary Ann. The two married several years later and eventually had two sons, Thomas Graham Austin Jr. and Lee Austin.
Austin said he briefly reconnected with his friend, Watson, when they returned from the war. Their careers, however, ultimately took them in different directions.
Following graduation, Austin took a job as a salesman with the office supplies division at Remington Rand in New York. He then transitioned into the building-materials industry, which led him to relocate to Greenville in 1968.
Austin is now long retired as vice president and general manager of Dealers Supply and Lumber and Co. in Greenville. His wife died about 10 years ago.
Though four years less than a century old, Austin is full of energy, is a good walker, and keeps himself busy by playing golf at least once a week.
He also remains an active member of the 12th Armored Division Association, a nonprofit that aims help those who served with the division stay in touch with one another.
The nonprofit, which has more than 400 members across the country, has organized an annual reunion since 1947. Next year’s reunion will be held in Colorado, according to Austin, but he’s campaigning to bring the event to Greenville in 2020.
“I’m not on the planning committee, but I’ve asked them to come down here to take a look around,” Austin said. “I’m really proud of how far we’ve come over the years. Greenville has really evolved thanks to Mayor Knox White.”
Peggy Anne Vosseler, secretary of the 12th Armored Division Association, said Austin’s commitment to the organization is one of the many reasons he was recently named Mr. Hellcat.
“To be named Mr. Hellcat, a veteran shows great commitment to the organization and its members,” Vosseler wrote in an email. “In Tom’s case, he works tirelessly to keep younger generations of his own family involved in the association. He submits material for his unit column in the Hellcat News, participates in the booster program on a regular basis, and puts his hand up any time help is needed. We are all truly blessed to have been graced with his friendship and sense of humor.”
For more information, visit www.12tharmoreddivisionassociation.us.