Belgium, Winter, 1944 – Staff Sgt. Harold Scarbrough drove a Pershing tank through a night so black he couldn’t even see. His commanding officer stood near him in the cramped confines of the tank, half-exposed through the tank’s roof hatch, peering through the murk to guide Scarbrough along a road through a heavy forest near the Ardennes Mountains.
Scarbrough – at the head of a column of tanks of the 9th Armored Division – was trying to get closer to the rest of his unit, who were in harm’s way.
Even worse, from the soldier’s point of view, they were hungry. Scarbrough’s tank column was escorting an armored “kitchen truck,” laden with ham hocks and beans, bacon, eggs, pancake mix, and other fuel to keep the 9th fighting.
Suddenly a cacophony of small arms fire ripped through the night. Scarbrough gritted his teeth and kept driving. Then came the low whine of incoming artillery shells. Before Scarbrough knew what hit them, a high-explosive round smashed into the tank. He and the rest of his crew were violently knocked around, but the tank’s armor held.
“All I remember at first was the noise,” Scarbrough recalled. “I couldn’t hear anything for three or four days after that, just a constant high-pitched ringing noise.”
When he came to his senses, Scarbrough, still half-dazed and shell-shocked, looked down to see all that was left of his commanding officer: his shoe.
Doing what he had to do that night, Scarbrough, temporarily deaf and covered with blood, took his commander’s place and kept going. He had to find – and feed – his “boys.”
“The thing is, we were there to fight,” Scarbrough said. “Sure, we were scared. But we were there, and we did what we had to do.”
Although the incident occurred over 60 years ago, Scarbrough still recalls his role in World War II with strong emotions. The South Kansas City resident’s memories of the tank explosion bring to life a part of the historic Battle of the Bulge, a series of conflicts late in World War II.
When the U.S. first entered World War II, Scarbrough was working with the Civilian Conservation Corps and courting Aletha, his high school sweetheart.
“I realized I was fit, white, and 21, and I was going to get drafted,” Scarbrough said. “So I volunteered.”
He was trained as part of a machine-gun unit attached to a cavalry squadron – that’s cavalry with horses. It wasn’t long, he said, before horses were exchanged for tanks.
An accident almost kept Scarbrough out of the war. He was kicked by a horse, breaking one knee.
“They weren’t going to let me go,” he said, “so I re-trained as a cook so I could go with them.”
Days before he left, he married Aletha, and soon after he arrived in Europe he got the news that she was pregnant.
“That keeps you going,” he said.
Scarbrough and his buddies in the 9th Armored Division hadn’t seen much combat before they got to Europe, and they were baptized with shrapnel and fire. Almost as soon as they arrived, they were involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the war. They fought at St. Vith, holding off a German attack for several bloody days before being forced back. They fought in the streets of the Echternach, watching priceless medieval architecture explode into fragments. Scarbrough was with part of the 9th that joined with the 10th Armored Division and elements of the 101st Airborne when they heroically held the city of Bastogne, fighting off fierce German attacks for some 17 days in blistering cold.
“We were surrounded,” Scarbrough recalled. “We were trapped. You talk about being scared? We were. But the boys kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, be calm, we’ll get out of here. If you see anyone, shoot ‘em!’”
Scarbrough remembers the cold being a worse enemy than the Germans at Bastogne.
“You couldn’t light a fire, or you’d give away your position,” he said.
To keep warm, the men dug holes in the ground, filled them with straw, and covered them with brush – and they stayed inside their little man-made caves as much as they could.
“We didn’t get out and mosey around,” Scarbrough said. “There were snipers.”
At one point, the Germans called for the Americans to surrender, to which General Anthony McAuliffe famously replied, “Nuts!” But soon enough, the troops of General Patton came to the rescue, breaking through the enemy lines and driving the Germans back.
“We were sure glad to see ‘em,” Scarbrough laughed.
The 9th pushed on, and eventually fought their way across the Roer River to Rheinbach, where they stopped to send patrols to the city of Ramagen – that was their prize, because it was the home of the Luddendorf Bridge, the last remaining German-controlled route over the Rhine River.
Scarbrough and the rest of the 9th smashed through Nazi forces and captured the bridge, just minutes before detonation charges were set to explode.
“I was in the fifth tank across the bridge,” Scarbrough said with pride. “When we got across, and the people (of Ramagen) realized they were free from the Nazis, they ran out and lined both sides of the road and we drove through. They were waving flags and hollering how happy they were.”
It was a major turning point in the war, and the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
“That broke the Germans’ back,” Scarbrough said. “After that, we were fighting in Germany. The Nazis didn’t like that one bit. We traveled a lot faster after that because we were chasing Nazis.”
One incident was so harrowing Scarbrough says he blocked it from his mind and couldn’t remember it until decades later. He was with a group that liberated a Nazi concentration camp near Dusseldorf.
“There were dead bodies everywhere, all piled up and half-burnt,” Scarbrough said, his voice catching and tears filling his eyes. “The Jews who were alive were so starved they were just skin and bones. How can a person be so mean, to put millions of people in that kind of shape? I don’t know what was in his (Hitler’s) mind. He was a maniac, that’s all I can say.”
Scarbrough said the Americans were so disgusted by what they found that they had a tough time allowing the German soldiers who ran the camp to surrender.
“One of the Germans made a smart remark,” he said, “and my captain grabbed him by the collar and beat him to death with his fist. I blocked this out for many years.”
Scarbrough and the rest of the 9th Armored Division didn’t stop until they got to Berlin, and victory.
“It was a beautiful city,” he said, “what hadn’t been destroyed. As we rolled in, thousands of Germans came running up to us, begging to surrender because they were more afraid of the Russians.”
Scarbrough stayed for a bit longer as the war wound down and pockets of resistance were mopped up. But when the time came to board transport ships to go home, Scarbrough was ready.
“They offered me a chance for promotion and to stay in,” he recalled. “I asked what I’d be doing. They said, ‘You’ll probably go to Korea.’ I said, ‘You can jam it. I’m goin’ home.’”
After the long trip back to the states, Scarbrough couldn’t wait to see his wife. He also couldn’t wait to see the little 18-month-old son he’d never met.
“She (Aletha) showed Charlie my picture every day while I was away,” Scarbrough said. “When he saw me, he…” Scarbrough paused as tears of joy welled up in his eyes. “When he saw me he went like this.” He held his arms out for a hug. “He knew who I was. He knew me.”
Scarbrough settled down with Aletha in South Kansas City in 1957, and he’s been in the same house ever since. After Charlie, the couple had two daughters, Anita and Marilyn. Aletha passed away after battling breast cancer in the late Sixties, and in 1973 Harold remarried. He was with his second wife, Maxine, until she passed away a few years ago.
Scarbrough applied the can-do ethic he learned in the CCC and the Army to a career at Menorah Medical Center, where he handled carpentry, maintenance and locksmithing for the hospital. He retired in 1979.
Now, at age 93, Scarbrough is the patriarch of an extended family that includes a half-dozen grandchildren and so many great-grandchildren that he loses count of them“There’s a whole mess of ‘em,” he laughed.
For his role in World War II, Scarbrough earned numerous medals and citations, including the Presidential Unit Citation for the taking of Ramagen, and the American Defense Medal.