The Half Track Postcard
circa August/September 1944 Nice, France
Top left: Emmett (Bill) Bailey (Assist. Gunner) 1/RFHQ & FSSF
Top right: Ted Fleser (Gunner) 1/D Ranger & FSSF
Above door: Bill Cain (Track Cmdr. and Loader) 1/RFHQ & FSSF
Inside window: Bill Ketchens (Driver), 1/RFHQ & FSSF
On hood: Lt. Owen R. Haines (“Hitch-hiker”) 1/RFHQ. 4 & FSSF
Not pictured: Joe Cain 1/RFHQ & FSSF
The Half Track Postcard
And also First Special Service Force (FSSF)
As told by Ted Fleser, WW II Ranger 1D, FSSF - Cannon Co. to Lynn Towne, RBA WW II Western Chapter Secretary and Holly Fleser Seery, daughter of Ted Fleser
Tell us about the postcard that you received and the story behind it.
“The postcard is of a photo taken by a civilian photographer of our half track and crew in Nice, France.”
The following is the history of the photograph: It represents a point in time for a First Special Services Force (FSSF) Half Track crew that came together from different Ranger units.
“I served with Bill and Joe Cain (Joe is not pictured), in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. The Cain brothers had gone into the Ranger Cannon Company before Venafro from “D” Company of the First Ranger Battalion.
We had all been wounded. The Cain brothers were wounded at Anzio. While still part of the Ranger “D” Company, I had been wounded at Venafro, near San Pietro, Italy. With a mortar bomb fragment in the jaw, and trench foot, I was sent to North Africa for hospitalization.
After “D” Company of the First Ranger Battalion was wiped out at Cisterna on the Anzio Beachhead, we got together at Lucreno, the Ranger rear. Since there was no longer a “D” Company, and the Cain brothers had transferred from the Ranger “D” Company to Cannon Company, the three of us hitch-hiked on a Landing Ship Tank (LST) to the Anzio beachhead. I then joined their Company, the Ranger Cannon Company at Anzio.
While on the Anzio beachhead, we had been absorbed as a Company into the First Special Service Force. We broke out of the Anzio Beachhead and drove on to Rome. Not much later came the invasion of Southern France. The postcard photo pertains to the invasion in Southern France.”
Can you tell me about the half-track, how you got the half-track?
“The half tracks were acquired by Colonel Darby in Sicily during the early part of the Sicilian Campaign. These vehicles were originally tank destroyers that became ineffective as German tanks were improved. The Ranger Cannon Company was formed after the Sicilian Campaign was over. Cannon Company originally consisted of four half tracks, each named after one of the four suits in a deck of cards. Each half track mounted a French 75 mm cannon, a 50 caliber machine gun, and a 30 caliber machine gun. All of which are displayed on the half track in this postcard picture. Since we operated in mountainous terrain, in fact, all sorts of terrain, we also carried an 81 mm mortar. You can see it on the side rack by the bipod. That is what I refer to as the bipod and the mortar tube.”
Who is standing in front?
“In the foreground are the civilians who lived in the vicinity of Nice, France. Lt. Owen R. Haines is sitting on the hood of the half track. He was just hitch-hiking along with us. Haines joined the Ranger Cannon Company on the Anzio Beachhead. He and a number of personnel came in as replacements at Anzio. All of the officers had been lost at Cisterna.”
What is his hand on?
“Bill Cain, (who by the time he went home from Menton, had five years of continuous overseas service, his brother, Joe, went home after Rome with four and one half years of service), has his hand on the French 75 mm cannon, which dated back to well before WW I. In fact, when our barrels were replaced, at least one of them came back with an I.C. on it, “Inspected and Condemned”. But it was better than the ones that we had. Sitting inside, you can see the arm of the driver of the half track. His name was Bill Ketchens. He was really the one responsible for our having this picture. After the war, he went back to a town we had liberated and married a girl from that town. She now lives in Florida. Her sister saw the postcard in France, recognized the people in the picture, and sent it to the Ketchens. It was taken by a civilian photographer. Bill then sent it on to me. I received this photo from Ketchens almost twenty years ago.”
Why had you taken this out after all these years?
“My family had the postcard enlarged as a surprise Father’s Day gift. We keep it on the wall of our home. I thought I would bring it to our meeting for all to see.
I was the gunner sitting on the gun shield in the center of the half track. Bill Cain was Commander, and Emmett Bailey was the assistant gunner sitting behind me on the gun shield. Since we were always short handed, as you see, there are only four of us that would be operating the half track The Commander would act as loader for the gun; it took three of us to operate the gun. Ideally, we would have liked to have six of us working the half track.”
Can you tell me the story about how the half track became the “Ace in the Hole”?
“The half tracks of Cannon Company had been referred to as “Darby’s Ace in the Hole.” Therefore, we had an insignia on the side of the gun shield, a picture of a hand pulling an ace out of his sleeve. Over it you can see the Ranger scroll.”
You had this sort of thing because you couldn’t have Ranger insignia on you so this was a replacement for that?
“We had been told that we would have to get rid of the Ranger insignia. We obliged by obliterating the lettering, but leaving the scroll.”
This is because you were First Special Service Force?
“Yes, this was a Canadian – U.S. outfit. Similar capabilities of the Rangers, so they were happy to absorb the Cannon Company as a unit into the First Special Service Force. The other Rangers, as they came out of hospitals, etc., were absorbed into the First Special Service Force also, but were dispersed throughout the organization.
As you can see, the machine guns have canvas covers to protect them from the elements. Normally, we would have a canteen cover over the muzzle of the 75 mm gun barrel. If the gun was being fired, the air that was in the barrel would be compressed and blow the canvas cover off. So even if it was left on, or someone forgot to take it off, it would be blown off.”
After this picture was taken, did all of you men stay together in Cannon Company?
“Yes, until they were wounded or something else happened to them. This picture was taken in Nice, France. We continued taking various towns up to the French / Italian Border (Menton, along the Riviera, and the Maritime Alps).”
Is there another story you would like to tell me?
“We would get fire missions. In other words, make a nuisance of ourselves and draw fire. A battery of American 90 mm cannons would counter battery, that is, fire on the artillery that was firing on us. One such firing mission was in Menton, France. Using the 75 mm gun, we picked off a “jerry” (German) forward artillery observer who was operating on the skeleton work of a hotel’s external elevator in Ventemiglia, Italy. The elevator ran from the building on down to the beach. We had to position ourselves so that our projectile would hit him, or the skeleton work of the elevator structure, otherwise the projectile would continue on parallel to the cliff. Each of the steel skeleton structure sections were about 6 inches wide. We managed to hit our target at 900 yards. However, the next time we went to use any of our firing positions, we could see that they had been zeroed in on.
We had a change of personnel. Emmet Bailey (aka Bill Bailey) wasn’t with us. He would be operating with us when available; he had been wounded during the Anzio breakout. Bailey was no longer part of our normal crew. Bill Cain had gone home after 5 years. I then became Track Commander as well as gunner. Bill Ketchens was being introduced to the position of replacing Bill Bailey as assistant gunner. Ketchens was also breaking in a new driver as he was being broken in as assistant gunner. We had a replacement aboard as a loader.
Unfortunately, you see how in the photo there are archways in buildings; there was an archway that we had to go through to get into firing position. It was too narrow for a ¾ ton weapons carrier, similar to a pickup truck to go through. The archway was just barely wide enough for a half track to go through with our bogey nuts (the nuts on the wheels that you can see) cutting grooves in the wall. It took close maneuvering to get through the archway. Unfortunately, the replacement driver, after we had pulled a firing mission, panicked when the half track got hung up and they were firing on us. It was a tight squeeze going through the archway.
A shell landed behind us. Bill Ketchens, who was assistant gunner at the time, was wounded in his thigh. He didn’t know it at the time. The replacement loader received a piece of shrapnel in his kidney. He had a ship tattooed on his chest which was dismasted by the shrapnel. I received a hip pocket wound and now have a dimple on my cheek. Another piece ricocheted off the wall, and hit my glasses at an angle. The cross-sectional density of the lens deflected it somewhat, lacerating the area around the glasses, but saved my eye. Bill Ketchens got back in the driving position, the replacement driver had panicked and left the vehicle, so Ketchens went over the gun shield into the driver’s position and got the vehicle moving ahead again. I tended the wounded replacement loader on the way to the aid station. He later died at the aid station. This occurred in Menton, Southern France, on the French / Italian Border.”