743rd Tank Battalion
D-Day Invasion, Northern France, Belgium, Netherlands,
Joel Bernard Dykstra was born February 17, 1921,
on a farm north of Hull, Iowa. He attended country school about a half mile away. He worked
as a hired man for various neighbors and relatives before
getting his draft notice in the fall of 1942. Joel was deferred for
several weeks to pick corn. There was a shortage of farm labor and
there were not many corn pickers (farm machinery) in northwest Iowa at
that time. Most of the corn was still picked by hand.
During the fall of 1942, Joel Dykstra was part of the
draft call ever from Sioux County, Iowa--nearly 170 boys. A large community religious service
was held in Orange City, the county seat, before the boys and their families headed
to Alton, Iowa to board a passenger train for Fort Crook, Nebraska.
Fort Knox, Kentucky
|The next year was spent in
training at various army posts across the United States--Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas,
Ft. Knox, Kentucky, Camp Campbell, Kentucky, Camp Laguna, Arizona. At
Ft. Knox, Joel graduated from wheeled vehicle mechanic school. Joel did
have visitors while at Ft. Knox. Tracy Schenk, his fiancée, came
by train, accompanied by his parents, Cynthia and Jerry Dykstra
Camp Laguna was about 30 miles north of Yuma, where he trained for desert
warfare. It was here that he joined the 743rd Tank Battalion. This
unit had been formed at Ft. Lewis, Washington. Before coming to Arizona
desert, it had been on maneuvers in the intense heat of Death Valley in
California. The plan was that the unit would be going to North Africa.
Joel camped out in tents in the desert at Camp Laguna
They had no electricity, just a little generator that they used to show movies. Although it was hot in the daytime, at night it was cold. "You couldn't
get enough blankets to keep warm."
Joel Dykstra and his fiancée, Tracy Schenk.
took a troop train from Arizona to Camp Shanks,
a staging area in New York City. "It was dark and everything was blacked
out and we didn't even know we were near the ship. We were just marching
from Camp Shanks during the night and all at once we walked right into the side
of the ship. They had a piece taken out...a door on the side of the ship. We just walked right in there. We didn't even know we were on a ship until
we got into the place where we were going to stay."
They were on the
Aquitania, a British
luxury liner that had been converted into a troop ship. The ship was
carrying 11,000 men though it had originally been made for only 7000 passengers. It was terribly overcrowded and every available space was used. There also
was barbed wire in parts of the ship. The ocean liner had been used to
transport German POWs to the United States and troops back over to Europe.
Zigzagging across the Atlantic in November was
rough and they did go through a storm. "They always said that the ship was
90 feet down to the waterline. Sometimes it would splash over the top. We couldn't even be on the deck one day. To make matters worse, Joel's
bunk was near the propeller on G Deck, where there was little ventilation.
Some of the soldiers were so sick by the time they reached land that they
had to be carried off the ship.
They arrived in Scotland on Thanksgiving Day and
were treated to a big turkey dinner. The entire 743rd Tank Battalion had
been on the ship. The unit had been Minnesota National Guard when it was created and they kept
adding replacements from other states. The cadre of officers were mostly from
Minnesota and Iowa. The battalion took a train down to southern
England where they began military exercises in preparation for the invasion. They
trained at a number of locations including Camp Chiselden in Wiltshire, England, an
old British cavalry post. They also drilled at Gosport, Torcross, South Wales, Barton Stacy, Southborne and Portland
The battalion was split up into
different units. The three tank companies were training with DD
tanks, the floating tanks. "And they were top secret. They
were isolated from everybody."
In V-Mails back home, he would describe the countryside and
especially the tractors that he saw in the fields such as McCormick Deering. Many of
the tractors in England were exports from the U.S. such as Massey Ferguson.
Joel did get a pass to go into London one
weekend. German bombers dropped bombs on the city nearly every night and
that weekend was no exception. He didn't have to go into a bomb shelter
when the sirens went off. They took refuge in the hotel center corridor. The hotel was not hit but the next day they could see the fire down the street
where the bomb had struck.
Back at camp, he walked guard. "Everything
was pitch dark and we could hear the bombers going over. You didn't know
whose bombers they were."
They didn't know when the
D-Day invasion was to take place until it actually began. One of their
last training areas was at Bournemouth, right on the English Channel and
normally a resort town. "We could see what was going on. I mean, we
couldn't see the invasion, that was too far away but the whole channel was full
of ships anchored out there ready to go. The next day they were all gone."
The three tank companies of the 743rd Tank Battalion with the DD floatable
tanks were part of the first wave on Omaha Beach. According to a
Stars & Stripes newspaper article written by Earl Mago on Aug. 11, 1944,
"This unit fought its way ashore 10 minutes before H hour on D-Day."
The 741st Tank
Battalion came ashore before the 743rd and lost almost all their tanks.
Somone from the 741st contacted the 743rd to let them know what
happened. "The 743rd commander made the boats that took the tanks
in come in closer to the shore so that we wouldn't lose any more."
Back home in Iowa, Joel's family anxiously
listened to the WNAX radio station in Yankton, South Dakota. There was no electricity on the farm. A few years before, Joel and his brother, Donald, had picked corn by hand to
raise money to purchase this combination wet cell/dry cell battery operated
radio. The family could not afford a daily newspaper. Joel's
brother, Leroy, and both his sisters, Elizabeth and Marlene, recall listening
all day to the war news. They assumed Joel was part of this invasion
On June 19 (D-Day +13) the
rest of the battalion including Joel Dykstra's 81 mm mortar platoon came
ashore. His motorized vehicle was called
a halftrack. It was a mechanized vehicle that contained both wheels and a
were on an LST. We had tanks on the bottom and our halftrack was way on
the top deck."
"By this time they had these bridges
built into the channel onto pontoon boats. They had a ramp on the
end of it and the ship came right alongside that ramp. They cut the
rail off the ship and we drove the halftrack right over the side."
Joel commented, "The beaches had already been
cleaned up pretty well. I didn't see any bodies." There also had
been a storm in the area after the D-Day invasion but before Joel Dykstra came
ashore on June 19, 1944. He could tell, however, that something had happened.
There were burned out tanks and trucks littering the beach.
The 743rd was awarded the Presidential Unit
Citation for its part in the D-Day invasion.
Joel's platoon was reunited with the rest
of the 743rd
near Isigny. The town was mostly rubble by this time "but it still had a
name." They camped out in the field and ate supper from their own kitchen
trucks. He was standing in line when the Germans began shelling them.
They were still under artillery range. "Everybody just hit the dirt." Because their unit was beat up pretty bad in the invasion, they remained at Isigny for a few days waiting for new tanks and a bunch of replacements.
He noted the local French population. "Some
of those who were farmers felt they had to take care of the livestock. There were dead cows and horses." The smell was bad. One day
they were trying to buy some eggs from a French farmer's daughter. They
were having problems with the French language. Suddenly she said in English, "Oh, you want to buy
some eggs?" Unfortunately for the soldiers, all they had for currency was
Military scrip, which the French would not take.
The Allies were trying to capture the Cherbourg
peninsula in order to gain access to an English Channel port to offload supplies.
The 743rd Tank Battalion
was made up of many farm boys from the Midwest. The battalion's
original commander had been hit by shell fragments during the invasion so
Lt. Col. William D. Duncan assumed command. Duncan was a high school
biology teacher from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The farm boy ingenuity took over when
they got off the beach at Normandy and their tanks began having
problems getting through the hedgerows. One of their own ordinance
guys from the motor pool devised a way, using debris from Omaha Beach, of
creating prongs modeled after a cattle manure loader scoop and welded onto
the front that helped to stabilize the tanks as they punched through the
Joel first ran into combat around the beginning of
July in the Vire River crossing. Joel's company had its first casualty
the day they crossed the river. Their platoon sergeant was killed. Joel did not know how he died. It was rather unusual.
|"I don't know. He
was laying in a trench and I don't remember seeing any blood or anything.
He was just dead. One guy was laying right next to him and he was
okay. He was terribly afraid when we went into battle. He was
afraid of what was going to happen. It was almost like he was scared
to death. I don't know if he had a heart attack or what happened. He must have been hit by a shell fragment or something."
|Joel was in a mortar platoon. Their
platoon's job was to support the tank battalion. "In the battalion they
had three halftracks with 81 mm mortars. They used them for firing smoke
shells up ahead of the tanks when they had to make an attack in open country." On July 7, the Vire River attack started and lasted for 11 days and nights.
This battle was around the town of St. Jean de Daye. It was a very fierce
battle and they advanced only 7 miles in 11 days.
Other towns in the area were Hebecrevon, Mortain, and St. Lo. On July 24, a breakthrough was
planned and the mortar platoon mission was to fire the smoke shells that were to
be the markers for the bombers. By the time that the 1800 planes arrived,
the smoke had drifted over the American lines and the bombs fell on American
troops. No one from the 743rd had any casualties but the infantry was
almost wiped out.
General Leslie McNair was killed in
that action and Pfc
Dykstra's mortar platoon leader covered his body with his raincoat.
The 743rd had around 1000 men, full strength. There were other tough battles around Tessy and Mortain that lasted six days. Throughout the war, the 743rd Tank Battalion would be
attached to different units such as the 1st Infantry Division, the 29th Infantry
Division and the Rangers. By August, when the Stars & Stripes article by
Earl Mago was published, they were with the 30th Infantry Division. Mago
743rd received the Presidential Citation for subsequent operations and since has (rested) altogether about 5 days. A regular hell-for-thunder outfit which has developed tank operations in support
of doughboys to a fine art."
It is interesting to note the term doughboys in
reference to these soldiers. This word was a WWI term for GI's and it is
obvious that this was Earl Mago's frame of reference when he was writing the
|A book has recently been published about this unit. It
is called The View from the Turret: The 743rd Battalion During World War II
William B. Folkestad. In 1944, Earl Mago wrote about Orlyn Folkestad,
a youngster from Clinton, Minnesota, who had received a battlefield
commission. Orlyn Folkestad later became the father of William B.
On August 19, 1944, the battalion was on the
move towards Belgium and then on into Holland. Joel's paternal grandfather came to
Iowa as a Dutch immigrant in 1873. When the 743rd reached the Netherlands,
Joel remembers seeing some GIs bothering some Dutch girls who were washing
clothes by hand. He asked them in Dutch if they were teasing them. The girls were so surprised to hear an American GI speaking Dutch that they
invited him to their house. He couldn't do that. He gave them a bar
of army issue Palmolive soap. It was the first soap they had seen in
years. In return, they gave him a little ribbon from the House of Orange,
the color of the Dutch Royal Kingdom.
On the night of October 1, 1944 Pfc Joel Dykstra
was in his foxhole. It was the best foxhole he had had up to this point in
the war. A mortar hit a tree nearby and both he and another guy in the
same foxhole were wounded by shell fragments. It was around 2 a.m. A
medic crawled down in the foxhole to put a bandage on Joel's wounded ankle. The Germans were still shelling. The medics were working under fire.
Joel was given a shot of morphine. He doesn't know how he got to the
He was evacuated to a field hospital in Heerlen where the nurses were swamped with casualties. The cots were so
close together you could hardly walk between them. The guy next to him had
both arms injured and he could not feed himself. Joel helped feed him. He was then moved to a larger hospital in Maastricht, Netherlands. From
there he was then taken to Paris where he had his first and only plane ride to
England. By the time his personal effects caught up with him...the Dutch
House of Orange ribbon was missing.
The family back home in Iowa
was notified by telegram. Joel wrote a V-mail as well that got home around
the same time.
Joel Dykstra received the Purple
Heart for wounds that still bother him fifty years late He walks
with a slight limp. The three battle stars shown on his uniform reflect that he had been in three
battle campaigns in the European theater (D-Day, Northern France,
Belgium-Netherlands-Germany). He also received the Distinguished
|Joel had a long
hospital ordeal. After several surgeries, his left ankle was fused. He stayed in an English hospital until February of 1945 and then was
loaded onto the H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth to sail for New York.
Once in the States, he was put on a
train to Barnes General Hospital at Vancouver, Washington. In May, he came home on leave from the hospital to marry Tracy Schenk
from Carmel, Iowa. He had to return to the hospital after the
wedding. He was discharged on December 9, 1945.
They began farming in 1946.
The 743rd Tank Battalion was part
of the Army of Occupation immediately following the war. The book
at the left was published at that time as well as the unit campaign
maps, some of which are shown elsewhere on this webpage.
In 1991, Joel received a phone call
one day. It was his fellow foxhole buddy, Merlin Harris, who was injured by the same
mortar shrapnel. After 46 years of not knowing what happened to the other,
they got together for a reunion in Fairbury, Illinois.
Though an Iowa farm boy,
Joel Dykstra does have Wisconsin ties. His
grandfather, the son of a Dutch immigrant, was born in a log cabin near Cedar Grove, Wisconsin.
interviewed 26 July 2002