Leon Kent, who helped stop a column of German tanks at Battle of the Bulge, dies at 99

ph0001001rThe LA Times is reporting that Silver Star recipient Leon Kent has passed away at the age of 99.  During the opening hours of the German offense commonly referred to as The Battle of the Bulge, Kent’s battery of 90mm anti-aircraft guns had knocked out five tanks, including on King Tiger tank over a two hour period.  Kent and three other men in his battery received the Silver Star for their actions, although Kent did not receive his award until 1998 due to “lost paperwork.”

Kent related a detailed account of his experiences during the Battle of the Bulge in an interview in 2003 for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.   Audio of the interview as well as photos and a history of the 143rd AAA Gun Battalion are available from the Veterans History Project here.  The parts of the interview relating to the destruction of the German tanks is posted below.

Leon Kent:

That was the northern wing of the Battle of the Bulge. And as a matter of fact, there we were, we were right next door, maybe not 20 yards, 20 yards past there was an automatic weapons outfit. They were stationed there, and we found out later they were 90 percent wiped out by the Bulge. Ninety percent. We were right next to them and we had nothing to defend, you know, we were just there for radar. And we got out one day early. And those are the fortunes of war. So we knew something was up, but we didn’t know what. And we were getting ready, and then I knew something was going to be big, it was probably going to be a big battle.

We had left our previous spot where we had been pretty well off there, we had a room in a chateau and there was a bath available. I said, geez, this thing probably won’t happen for a few hours. I’m going to run back, it’s going to be my last chance maybe in a month to get a, I took a bath. I took the Jeep, took it, you know, it was only ten, 15 minutes away. I’ll be back in a half hour, 40 minutes. By the time I got back they’d had orders to immediately get out. So when I should have been reconnaissance, being the Battery Commander, my next in order, Lieutenant McGuire made, he was already out on reconnaissance.

You know, everything broke like that. And he went out on reconnaissance position, and very shortly after that we got orders to follow with the guns. So I led the convoy of the guns, we left our radar behind, just took guns, and we had orders to be at certain intersections at certain times because everything had to be coordinated. And we finally got to this place, and now we’re stuck behind this convoy of trucks and guns, it was an automatic weapons outfit, and we waited and we waited, nothing happened. I finally walked up to the head of the column, and there was, just before a bridge, it was the Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel in charge, with two of his Lieutenants, discussing. I said, I said, “What’s going on? We’re stuck, we’ve got orders to go ahead.” He says, do you know, these are his words, “Do you know where the Germans are? We don’t. They could be anywhere. They could be across that bridge, they could be anywhere.” I said, “Look, we haven’t seen any signs of them.

I sent reconnaissance out which has not — there’s been no indication of any loss or anything happening, and I’ve got orders to go ahead, and I’m going to carry out my orders. We find Germans, too bad.” And I told the Colonel, I says, “Now look, either you go forward or you turn around or you get off to the side of the road and get out of the way because my, we’ve got a right to go through.” And incidentally, I reported that guy to the Infantry Colonel when we reported in. And we went ahead and reported in to the 119th Infantry Regiment, the 30th Division. We were attached to them for that action. And the Colonel told me he wanted two guns up at Stoumont, and I sent Lieutenant McGuire up there with two guns, and two other guns at two crossroads. And I placed the other guns there, one of them with Lieutenant Kay, (ph) same Lieutenant Kay.

And the colonel asked me to stay as liaison, stay with him. Well, early the next morning, I got word that one of my guns with McGuire had been lost. I didn’t find out later, but what had happened was they were moving into position, we had what are called prime movers on tracks to pull the big guns. The gun got stuck in the mud. They put the mover ahead, put a winch on it, pulled the gun out of the mud, which is the standard procedure. Everything went fine. They pulled it out, reattached, and everything.

When they started up again they had forgotten, they were all so damn excited they forgot to disengage the winch. The winch was still running when they started the motor, the prime mover. Bam, the gun went up, jammed into the thing so hard, no way they could do anything with it. So that gun was lost. That was the one that was lost. And then they had the other gun which was lost later. I think Al Derago (ph) told you about that one. He was with that, them there. Well, anyway, time is going by. There’s a certain amount of time it takes, our guns were not the most efficient, the German 88s were much, much more efficient. They could put their guns on wheels in no time, ours took a lot of time. But too much time was going by. I went out to where Lieutenant Kay was with the gun, find Lieutenant Kay with a little buddy of his sitting off on a log joking.

And most everybody seemed to have a good time, and the Sergeant in charge of the gun, he’s the guy who’s working like hell. He shouldn’t be because he’s in charge, he’s not supposed to be the worker. Trying to do the thing, and nobody else seemed to be working. I blew my top. I busted the Sergeant, you know, I couldn’t do anything with the Lieutenant. And we got the thing up. And I took it up myself, I was in a Jeep. We went ahead, and anyway, we got to Stoumont. I knew where the position was where I was to meet Lieutenant McGuire, but the road was jammed with American troops coming down. We couldn’t get up there.

So I parked the gun right there and went up on foot. It was up the hill, a slope, I remember crawling across the field. That’s where I was the most scared during the war. I didn’t know whether the field was mined or anything, and I was going ahead, my Jeep driver was a lot more scared than I was. But he, with me he would go, he wouldn’t go by himself. I borrowed his bayonet, as a matter of fact, to go ahead and check. And I finally met up with McGuire and he told me what happened. In the meantime they’d lost the second gun, I think Derago told you with —

Tom Swope:

Tell me that again. I’m not sure if you told me that.

Leon Kent:

Well, what happened was they were, they had, by this time, knocked out a German tank and they wounded another one. They didn’t kill it, they wounded another tank, and they were there waiting, and everything was jumbled up with the infantry and everything. And the infantry had left a halftrack filled with ammunition, and it was not too far from our gun. And a German mortar dropped in there, and the thing, everything started to explode, and everything, and they had to abandon the gun, and so they lost the second gun. By the time I got to them, met them, both guns were gone and I told them, “Well, you’ve got one prime mover left. Put everybody in the prime mover, come on down, join me, and we’ll go on through.” So we started to go back, and my objective was to find the — since I was supposed to be up there, to find the first flat spot that I could put my gun down.

And we went on and on, down for four kilometers, about two and a half miles, nothing, and I finally spotted this station that had a flat spot. You saw the pictures of it. And there was, the whole, we were in the middle of a retreating column, that I never figured the Americans would retreat all that way. Americans don’t do that. And so I pulled the gun around, and turned it, pulled the gun across the road, turned it around. We couldn’t dig in, obviously, we were on cobblestones, and we didn’t have time to fortify, which we usually do with sandbags.

So we were sitting up high, but I had it against the building sort of to camouflage and I had spotted that there was a curve up ahead where I might be able to get a tank sidewards if he came across. Anyway, the Americans kept streaming back and streaming back, quite a few of them, I don’t know how many minutes it was, and finally some guy, a Captain in the back of a Jeep yells across at us, he says, “That’s the last of us. The next guys you see are German tanks.” He says, “We threw a daisy chain across the road, may or may not hold them.” A daisy chain is mines stuck together, but they just lay on the surface. And he says, “You hold them, we’ll be back with reinforcements.” Well, I had no ground reinforcements at all. I was supposed to have been furnished with some of them, we didn’t get any. And believe me, it was not the most brilliant thing to do.

Anyway, so we waited a little bit and it wasn’t long before we saw a tank, but instead of presenting the side of the tank, he had presented his front. You see, the Germans were supposed to be law-abiding. Instead of coming around like this around the curve, to where I could spot them here riding on the right side of the road where the law requires you to ride, you know, he’s smart enough, he knew his tank, had decided just before the curve, he’s on the right side and he turns his tank like that to the left side and then comes around the turn with his front towards you already. He comes across the road. He didn’t get a ticket for it, but over there — anyway, so we started shooting at it first. And I was always surprised that I never heard or felt any shells — I remember thinking, if you get one shell do you feel it at all? We’d go through it, we were just sitting ducks. I was standing on the platform right next to the gun, with the gunners on each side of me. And the, and a gunner in back. The gunners are on scopes, or they can sight down the barrel.

And I was trying to spot with binoculars, and I was absolutely useless. The gun would fire, and nothing but smoke and fire, and I’m bounced on my fanny each time. And after about, I guess after we got the first one stopped I just decided there’s no purpose. And we did knock out the first one we saw. And I got off and started passing ammunition. There was only one ammunition passer, there was supposed to be two. And the second tank tried to come around the first one, but at that time he exposed his side, and we got him from the side. There was no action for a while, a few minutes. And somebody came from the, you saw where the railroad tracks were, on the other side, tanks couldn’t go down there because that was a steep slope down to the tanks. Tanks had to stay on the road. Slope up, slope down.

And he said they’re coming — they’re coming along with halftracks and with machine guns and leapfrogging. They’re planting a machine gun, and the next one shoots, and the next one goes over that. And we had nothing to defend against that, so we had to blow up the gun, and take off. I said everybody take off into the prime movers, and I was in the Jeep, and led us out. Now, we led out on the road. If we hadn’t blocked both tanks, they had, according to this book I was told about, there were seven tanks. Thank goodness they were blocked by the first two, or else they’d had a straight shot at us coming down there, trying to escape down that road. But anyway, I went back and reported it. In the meantime, since — they had been on the tail of the Americans, but I don’t know what happened after that.

But reading from the book, they apparently were able to push one of the tanks out. Well, the tank, the first tank we hit was still there, and go around this first tank, but that took them a few hours to get it out of the way. And they tried to attack with five tanks that were left. They had started with seven. And by this time the Americans had been able to get up a strongpoint about five hundred yards back of where we were, it’s called Zavromp ferme, f-e-r-m-e, Z-a-v-r-o-m-p, I think it was. And it was flat land, and it was about five hundred yards back of us. They had set up all kinds of anti-tank guns and so forth. And were able to stop them, it’s not sure whether they stopped them there or artillery got them, but anyway, three of the five tanks were destroyed and the other two turned tail and went back up. And that was the end of the German thrust entirely. If we hadn’t delayed them or stopped them where we did, they would have been right through, on top of the Americans.

Tom Swope:

You told me you went and checked the damage of that first tank?

Leon Kent:

Well, I went up the next day, we didn’t, we only had one gun left at a crossroad now, I’d lost three guns already, out of four. And the Colonel put us up with infantry, we marched up past there, past the station. There was this one tank left. And I looked on top of it and there were dents about that deep on the surface, you know, it goes down in a V like that, you’ve seen these pictures of these tanks. There were dents all along, we must have hit it with almost every shot, and there was one hole right just below where it comes to a V like that, the hole was right there.

And that must have been unintended, a lucky shot where the guy was shooting too low, skipped on the road, and came into the, because that’s softer than the top metal. And the gun was straight up in the air, vertical, completely vertical, with the flash hider Knocked off, and a chip off, a chip about this big off the end of it. And then my guess is that one of our first shots, can you imagine a shell hitting the end of a gun? It had to be, because I never saw, because if he had taken one shot at us we were dead ducks. And that must have stopped him. And anyway, it had frozen the gun.

And with the shell going through, that killed them all. We never saw anybody come out. And then with the second tank you can get them from the side, they’re softer there. And the 90 millimeter, you know, we’d normally have — what you see in the flack, the burst, we had — the 90 millimeter gun is a very powerful gun. I think it’s a 2700 muzzle, 27000 muzzle velocity. Because you have to, we shoot, ten, 12 miles in the air. And when we’re bouncing off a tank, that tank is armored. I put my hand in the hole, I’ve got a big hand, as you can see, and that’s how thick the armor was, from here to there. A good six inches, I would say.

Tom Swope:

This is a Tiger tank, I assume, right?

Leon Kent:

It’s Tiger, Panther, I can’t swear, they look the same except one’s bigger. I didn’t know the difference at the time, but it was in the shape of a Tiger, same shape, and the Panther had pretty much the same shape. But it had a big long gun, it looked like an 88, it might not have been. And so we next went up as infantry and then we were called back that night, had a Battery Commanders’ meeting, and were ordered to go to another position, which was, turned out to be near Stavelot. You’ve heard of that, Stavelot, they had a little massacre there, a civilian massacre.

Tom Swope:

Oh, yeah. I think I have heard of that, yeah.

Leon Kent:

There was the Malmedy massacre with soldiers.

Tom Swope:

Right.

Leon Kent:

And then Stavelot right in the center of town they had a civilian, they massacred a bunch of civilians. Anyway, we’re sent to this position on the map, and since again we didn’t know where the Germans were, there was very bad intelligence during that time, nobody knew where anybody was, things were in such a state of flux back and forth. We said we’ll have to go in as far as we can go, in other words, we’d go leapfrogging again. Last, first one in gets the last position in back and no opposition. Next one leapfrogs, and so forth, up to the front. And so I told my guys, I says I think we’ve had enough action for today, let’s get there first, which we did. And we had the rear position, plus another crossroad.

And which was at a crossroads, and we were right in the vee of the crossroads. There we had time, so we had sandbags around the gun, we had good fortification. The gun was there covering both crossroads. And actually, the next day they reorganized, and A Battery, which was at the front, now going to go somewhere back to set up antiaircraft, and we replaced them. So we went from the rear position to the front position, which were actually the front lines. We could hear shells going over, and so on. And that next day after we left, we simply left the fortifications the way they were, we pulled the gun back. One of our own P-47s put a bomb right in there, thinking it was a German gun.

And the MP on the corner at the crossroad was killed. Some of our Battalion officers were in a house across the road from where the gun was. And they got sadly Little splinters or something, and they got the Purple Heart. I think that’s a disgusting thing to do. Compared to some guy who is badly wounded, he gets the same Purple Heart. You get a splinter, scratch or something, you don’t take a Purple Heart. But anyway, that’s — from there on, we had various positions back and forth. We went to the Remagen Bridge, I guess it was March.

Or April, I’m not sure. And we were setting up with a lot of other antiaircraft outfits on the ends of the Remagen Bridge. Let’s see. After the war was over, we didn’t do anything there except one day they had all the heavy artillery in the entire area concentrate on an area in Germany. They wanted, and that thing must have been obliterated for I don’t know how many miles around. Because they had an awful lot of big guns all around, all the AAA outfits, all the field artillery and everything, they gave us the coordinates, we set them, and then they gave us the order to fire.

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