Veteran of the Month: Behind the front lines

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 10, 2006

Special to the Time-Journal

Writer’s Note: J. Thomas Sherrer is Post 20 Veteran of the Month for September.

Not everyone who served during World War II, or any other war for that matter, did so in one of the front line units. There were those who worked closely behind the lines keeping the front supplied with weapons, ammunition, food, clothing, medical aid and securing those areas already deemed cleared of organized resistance.

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Cities and towns gained in combat during World War II had to be stabilized and new governments established after liberation or capture. Some of the towns were little more than rubble heaps to be cleared so life could once again flourish.

In the case of German occupied cities as well as German cities subjected to the Third Reich’s police state authority, an entirely new system had to be implemented sensitive to individual rights. Police were trained and given supervision to deal with the new democratic order. The retooling of all functions of government from clean-up to policing came under the men serving in the Civil Affairs and Military Government Division of the military.

A plan was in place and Civil Affairs and Military Government personnel moved in sometimes before the front line troops pulled out. I think it’s safe to say, looting and gang rampages were not tolerated.

J. Thomas Sherrer was chosen to serve in the Civil Affairs and Military Government Division during the war. He may not admit it, but I think it was a very good fit. In my opinion, Sherrer possesses the unique ability to charm “Axis Sally” if the opportunity had presented itself. He has a warm gentle personality coupled with strong convictions and the stamina to get things done. Choosing Sherrer for this mission sure made the Army look good.

Raised by loving parents, Sherrer was the youngest of

five children born to the late Otto and Mary Lou Sherrer. The Sherrers lived and operated a combination service station and convenience store in Plantersville.

Sherrer spent afternoons after school and summers working at the family operated service station. Service stations back then pumped the gas, cleaned the windshield, checked the fluid levels and checked air pressure in the tires. There was no shortage of work around the Sherrer business.

After graduating from Dallas County High in the Class of 1942, Sherrer decided he had enough of the service station and joined the Army Air Corps at Craig Field on Sept. 15, 1942. It seemed to be a good decision for about 17 months. Then in February 1944 under secret orders, Sherrer was ordered to Camp Reynolds in Greenville, Pa. At Camp Reynolds he received training to eventually become a part of the Army’s Civil Affairs and Military Government Division.

The Civil Affairs and Military Government Division enlisted the services of former mayors, police chiefs, fire chiefs and sanitary engineers into their ranks. They were recruited as officers and given the rank of captain, major or lt. colonel depending on their civilian experience. It didn’t really upset the enlisted men like Sherrer, since they knew the Germans had rather shoot at bars than stripes.

The purpose of these units was to establish civil order, services, and government to the liberated or captured town or city. The priorities for the civilian population were food, health and housing.

Civil Affairs was charged with the distribution of supplies, maintenance of order, establishment of municipal and public utility services, and supervision of civil government personnel in liberated friendly cities.

Military Government provided the same functions for captured enemy cities. However, the military provided the government until appropriate civilian control could be established. The ultimate goal was to return things to a state of normalcy as soon as possible ensuring the well being, safety and confidence of the civilian population. Restoration of civil control over the area in question was the long term goal after termination of hostilities.

After completing training requirements at Camp Reynolds, Sherrer was sent to Camp Kilmer, N.J. to await shipment overseas. The Lle de France, a converted French luxury liner, was transportation across the Atlantic. The journey was made without an escort therefore evasive maneuvers called zig zags were made all the way to Greenwich, Scotland.

After a troop train ride from Greenwich to Manchester, England, the Division was organized. The Division moved from Manchester to South Hampton by way of London. During the stop over in London, Sherrer experienced the first, of many more to come, buzz bombs overhead. One buzz bomb fell within a block of the Divisions bivouac area while at South Hampton.

The Division loaded on LST’s at South Hampton for the ride across the channel. They disembarked on Omaha Beach D-Day+18 and force marched with full field gear to a bivouac area on the Cherbourg Peninsula. Omaha Beach was filled with debris from the invasion and returning wounded soldiers. Balloons with long tag lines filled the sky to deter German fighter planes from strafing the beaches.

Over the next few months, Sherrer and the Division slept under the stars in bivouac areas selected in apple orchards. Slit trenches were dug as some protection from German artillery and Luftwaffe strafing. On one particular site the strafing was exceptionally bad and eventually they determined the Germans were actually trying to hit the ammunition depot nearby. Without due delay, another site was chosen.

The Division was assigned to and followed al Patton’s surge through France, Belgium and Germany. A detachment was sent from the Division’s three Regiments to each town or city along the way. In addition to taking care of civilian needs, one of the first orders of business was to post leaflets demanding all weapons, cameras, or anything else that might be used to aid or abet the enemy, be turned in immediately. Also, restrictions were placed on civilian travel to allow the unimpeded flow of supplies along the Red Ball Express.

Following Patton was no easy task, especially after the break out at St. Lo. But, the Division was always right behind bringing order and stability to chaos. The 2nd Regiment Headquarters was at Verdun, France during the Battle of the Bulge. There was a constant rumbling of tanks and equipment headed to stem Hitler’s offensive launched during the bitter cold of December 1944.

Being in close proximity to Patton’s supply lines, Sherrer’s Regimental Headquarters could hear the strafing by the Luftwaffe from their farm house location. Bullets from Luftwaffe planes were dancing off the pavement along the supply line and storage areas.

Of course Hitler’s advances during the offensive were halted and the Allies soon regained the lost territory. Shortly after regaining control, Patton along with other allied units pushed into Germany eventually ending the war in Europe on May 7, 1945. Although the war was over, the job of reconstruction and rehabilitation continued for the Civil Affairs and Military Government Division.

Shortly after the war ended, Sherrer was transferred to the 36th Infantry Division to fill some of the vacancies there. Combat causalities had depleted the 36th ranks during the last few months of the war.

Finally fulfilling his point quota, Sherrer was transported back to the United States by one of the Liberty Ships. A ship President Roosevelt had dubbed “A real ugly duckling.” They were originally designed as cargo ships built on an assembly-line style. Some were not very well constructed with welds replacing much of the riveting. The storms in the North Atlantic weren’t kind to Liberty Ships in December.

Sherrer was separated from active duty at Fort McPherson, Ga. on Dec. 21, 1945. Before release, he joined the Army Air Corp Reserve mainly to preserve his rank in case of a recall. The Army Air Corp had been his branch of service before being assigned to the Civil Affairs and Military Government Division.

He returned to Selma and began a long and distinguished career in Civil Service. The Veterans Administration, Craig AFB, and Gunter AFB Computer Center are among his 37 years and 3 months of service. Along the way, he married and raised a family of whom he speaks proudly.

Oh, by the way, he did get recalled to active duty, but it wasn’t until the Korean War began. This time he only made it as far as Pope AFB, Fayetteville, N.C.

Sherrer is still active today working a full time job and being involved in civic clubs and causes in the community. Just like the energizer bunny, Sherrer just keeps on going.