The 36th Division Archive
Sergeant Joseph A. Pecora
Assistant Driver/Radioman/Hull Machinegun Gunner
1st Platoon, B Company 782nd Tank Battalion, 97th Infantry Division
Joseph A. Pecora was born in 1921 to a local cobbler in the small eastern Pennsylvania borough of West Hazelton. Home to a large Anthracite coal mine, Pecora’s father worked to supply the town with shoes and repairs while the children went to school and grew. In 1940 he graduated from the only local high school and began his career as a clerk with the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company which operated primarily to ship raw goods and materials throughout the region. Following the 7 December attack on Pearl Harbor and the rise to war Pecora at first remained with the railroad as it proved an essential industry, watching his brother enlist and ship overseas with the 14th Air Force, but would not remain out of the conflict for long.
On 17 April 1944 he was drafted into the United States Army and selected to become a replacement in the Armor Corps. Once completing basic training at Camp Chaffee, Arkansas, Pecora traveled to Fort Knox in Kentucky to join the tanks at the source. While at Knox he qualified as an expert with the machine gun and was slotted to train as an assistant driver in an M4 medium tank, meaning he was responsible for operating the hull machine gun, tank radio equipment, and assist the main driver in emergencies. He finished up at Knox that July and was soon assigned to the forming 782nd Tank Battalion out in California at Camp Cooke where it was completing its own shoring up. The unit spent the summer and early fall traveling across the sunshine state training for amphibious assaults and operations in the Pacific theater alongside the 97th and 86th Infantry Divisions. Like his infantry counterparts, Pecora and the 782nd were surprised to learn that at the end of November they had been rerouted to the European Theater and on 3 January 1945, set sail across the Atlantic.
Mid-January saw the battalion finally reach the French coast at Le Havre and loaded into old “40-and-8” train cars and began their trip towards the front. Unfortunately, this was the engineer’s first journey and upon reaching the dead-end station at the end of the line, pulled the brake too late. The train went careening into the station as cars piled up over on top of each other and by the end of the accident, the battalion had lost 54 soldiers with another 34 wounded. A terrible accident for a unit on its way to combat. A few days later Pecora and the other survivors arrived at Camp Lucky Strike where they finally met up with their combat mounts. Pecora’s crew received an M4A2 with a 75mm gun but roughly a week later was reassigned to an M4A1(76) when more were distributed to the unit for combat. Driving over 600 miles in a matter of days, the unit reached its final destination in the small German town of Oberkotzau on 21 April 1945 where it fought its first Germans to liberate the village. The men got only a few hours of rest before orders got the unit moving to Wundsiedel where they were attached once again to their rerouted sister unit, the 97th Infantry Division.
At this point, the fight in southern Germany was squeezing the remaining forces between the advancing Russians in the East and Americans to the west. It was the Bavarian alps and rolling hills of Bohemia that provided the final German devotees their best chance at defense. The 97th was therefore tasked to infiltrate Czechoslovakia in defense of the 3rd Army Flank and to keep up the pressure on the retreating German army. While the unit had its first casualty, a tank knocked out by a Panzerfaust, the going was quick if not dogged by mines and roadblocks. On 25 April Pecora’s platoon was attached to G Company of the 386th Infantry Regiment to support their assault on the city of Cheb. This was the first time the 386th had fought with tank support and in a single day managed to roll through several Czechoslovakian towns before they reached the primary target of Cheb. The city was known to house subunits of the German 2nd Panzer Division and bolstering Volksturm detachments.
The force advanced along the main road north into Cheb with Pecora’s tank leading the platoon which was moving ahead of the infantry support. As the lead tank his job, along with the assistant driver duties, was to keep a careful eye on the road ahead of them for enemy activity. While scanning the area ahead Pecora was shocked as a massive thud sounded as something slammed into the side of his tank. The crew had barely begun to respond when Pecora spotted a German infantryman running off down the road at full speed. Recognizing that the man had just launched a dud Panzerfaust rocket at them, he rushed to unlock the hull .30 machine gun and fire a few bursts at the attacker. Before he could respond, however, the tank received yet another “fist” from a hidden German soldier off the side of the road. This time the round penetrated the mid-section of the tank and set alight the tank’s fuel stores and began a blaze which quickly erupted throughout the vehicle. While the driver and commander were able to jump out of the burning hulk fairly quickly Pecora resulted to an attempt to shove open the emergency escape hatch underneath his seat. The door refused to budge as he banged away on the heated metal for several minutes while flames encroached upon his back, neck, and head. Eventually the door gave way and the now badly-burned crewman began to crawl away from the derelict vehicle and towards anyone that would help him. Fortunately, the infantry support had now reached the tank and medics pulled Pecora away as the ammo racks and fuel continued to go up in flame. Throwing him on a stretcher the infantry rushed him away and to an emergency aid station where his first- and second-degree burns were stabilized.
Pecora was one of three tankers to make it out of the inferno and into safety. The other two who got out first were hastily captured by the hidden Germans and taken prisoner in the confusion of the American column. Wounded only 14 days out from the end of the war in Europe, Pecora spent the rest of his war and several weeks after recovering in American hospitals. Once better he was reassigned to some light clerical work before he returned home at the end of 1945. Upon his return, he married his sweetheart and settled down in Pennsylvania where he served a long career with various local railroads.