Wilce McGaha and the Ghosts of Patton’s Third Army
“What do you do for a living?”
It’s been nearly 70 years since a drill sergeant at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina asked the young mountain man that question. To this day, it still seems to perplex Wilce McGaha how such a thing could be asked.
“What do I do for a living? I fish. I squirrel hunt. I farm. I do whatever I can to get by.” With that response, the die was cast for Private McGaha.
Looking him up and down, the sergeant told Wilce to “go sit over there” and wait. By the end of the day, Wilce was surrounded by a group of young men just like him — men that lived off the land. These men were selected for special training; these men would be the tip of the spear in Patton’s Third Army that helped to liberate Europe.
March to the sea
Prior to joining Allied Forces in England, Private McGaha and his band of mountain men endured months of grueling training that culminated in a three-day, 120-mile march from Ft. Jackson to Folly Beach, South Carolina in full combat gear.
“There were a bunch of us (the select group of mountain men)," he said. "We had boys from Western North Carolina, Eastern Tennessee, upstate South Carolina, plumb to Georgia that trained together. Most of ‘em made it through the training, but not everyone made it through the march down to the coast.”
After a few days in Charleston, McGaha returned to Ft. Jackson, and in a few weeks traveled by train to New York. He then went by ship, along with thousands of fellow soldiers, to England where he trained three more months prior to the U.S. invasion of northern Europe.
“It took a long time before we knew what we were doing," he said. "But when we went into battle we were ready."
Private McGaha was ready for battle. He was now a tanker assigned to the 2nd Cavalry, 3rd Army, XII Corps. Wilce was about to become a member of one of the Allied units the Nazis feared most: the Ghosts of Patton’s Army.
Ghosts of Patton’s Army
Weeks after the successful invasion of Normandy, Patton’s 3rd Army joined the battle in France, and with Allied forces marched across Europe fighting the Nazis. The young man from the Appalachians, who was a few months earlier fishing and hunting squirrels, was at the “tip of the spear” in combat operations in Europe.
Being part of 2nd Cavalry meant traveling fast and light. Their M-4 Sherman tanks were lightly armored and no match for heavy German tanks and 88mm guns. They should have been annihilated. Quickly overrunning lines in battle, Wilce was often behind enemy lines cut off from Allied support. These were the times the Ghosts would wreak havoc on the Germans and either force a Nazi surrender or blast their way back through enemy lines to their own units.
These Ghosts often inflicted so much damage McGaha and other tankers were not allowed to see what they had done.
“They told us to never look at the aftermath of a battle," he said. "Sometimes we did. It was horrible.”
While McGaha was spared the horror of seeing Nazi concentration camps, he did, however, see American POWs. He was a member of "E" Troop that liberated American POWs from camps in Frankfurt before the war ended. The men were starved. This is another image that haunts him from the war.
For 21 months McGaha and his comrades rolled over Europe liberating towns, inflicting death and destruction, comforting civilians and taking prisoners when possible all while doing their best to survive. Besides the combat and encounters with civilians McGaha most remembers the cold — the bitter cold. Tanks were not known for their insulation, but at least it kept them from the snow.
Although McGaha was part of the 3rd Army, he never met Patton or even saw the General. The Old Man did make it to the places where the Ghosts went into battle; however, McGaha will tell you, “we were always in front.”
Ghosts of war
McGaha has a spark of life that lights up the world and people around him. He is a man who carries a spirit and enthusiasm of someone less than a quarter of his 90 years. The love of life has served him well, yet he still carries burdens from the war.
If given the right time and moment, McGaha will tell you a few stories from the war. He is proud of his service and proud that he was sent there to “tie things up” so the war could end. He loves to tell about his M-4 Sherman tank and that no German shell ever hit it, “only struck by a few bullets.” The pride of doing the right thing does not come without a price.
His first battle
McGaha's first battle was in France.
"They wanted us to take this town the Americans had taken two or three different times . . . there were horses and cows lying out in the field, dead," he said. "After about two hours into battle, we were on foot, and I went inside a building that was partly standing. I was scared to death, to tell you the truth. I was looking around to see what I could see, and inside was a mother and baby face down in the dirt. They were probably killed about 10 days ago or more.”
McGaha paused, and his face had a look of grief that one would express for their own family or friend.
“That stayed with me the entire war and with me to this day,” he said.
The German refugees were nomadic, starving, and he never knew what would happen to them next.
“Those poor old people were starving to death," McGaha said. "One afternoon, 20 to 30 civilians, mostly women and children, came by in a wagon and asked if they could spend the night next to us (our unit). That night we watched them kill their horse so they could have something to eat. The next morning they packed up the remaining food and kept on moving.
“Another time I was in a chow line and a German woman attacked me. She was desperate for food," he said.
This action could have easily resulted in a bullet to the woman’s head, something she must have known but decided the chance for food was worth risking her life.
“I just let her take my biscuit. Then I gave her a cup of coffee,” he continued.
These stories are typical of German refugees he encountered near the end of the war.
Hilliard McGaha and the Battle of the Bulge
McGaha was the middle child of eight children: three sisters, an older brother, Hillard, and three younger half-brothers. Hilliard had joined the Army soon after the attack of Pearl Harbor, and while McGaha was training in the U.S. and England, Hilliard had already fought in the North African and Sicilian campaigns. Once on the continent, McGaha experienced his share of combat including a battle that sent him back to England to convalesce after receiving shrapnel to his leg. The wounds were serious enough that McGaha was given the opportunity to return to the home.
“I didn’t want to leave,” McGaha said. “I could do more for my family by fighting in Europe. At least that way I could send as much money home to my family as I could.”
As quickly as his wounds would heal, McGaha returned to his unit.
By December 1944 the brothers joined forces as they were both ordered to repel the German wintertime offensive that would soon be called Battle of the Bulge. For over a month, Allies fought through densely forested Ardennes region of Belgium and when the battle was over, more than 45,000 men laid dead, including Hilliard.
The loss of his brother was devastating, and McGaha was once again given the opportunity to return home. He didn’t take it.
“I was staying until it was over,” he said.
During his years of service, McGaha displayed unrelenting bravery. He continually fought for his country, his unit and most importantly, his fellow soldiers. He also retained his compassion for people — even the enemy that had killed his brother.
“The thing I regret the most was killing those who were innocent, those who were forced into service in the Army," he said. "A lot of them did not have a choice. I hate that.
“I am most proud of being able to save the folks I could save. I could have killed a lot more, but I did not want to. I captured as many as I could.”
Civilian Wilce McGaha
The transition back to civilian life was not easy. As he will plainly tell you, “my nerves were shot.” His family says that after the war anytime he was startled or touched unexpectedly McGaha would go full tilt into “combat mode.” This made life especially hard for McGaha and his family. Veterans during the 40s and 50s who were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder received little understanding or sympathy from the VA or society in general. Finally after years of mental suffering, McGaha sought treatment and was given the counseling and therapy he needed.
McGaha now lives a quiet life not far from his childhood home. The battles of Europe left him almost deaf and time has slowed the once spry mountain man. He is a joy to be around and almost always positive, grateful and full of life. He thanks the Lord for the comfort (and now the VA) for the help he receives.
There are moments, however, when he reminisces about his time in the 2nd Cavalry and you can see a look of sadness on his face that comes from carrying a heavy burden. Then he will tell you a story about meeting some ladies in France (before he was married), and the smile returns bigger and better than ever.
Passing through Maggie Valley, you might drive past his home with little notice because the nondescript house blends into the landscape of Western North Carolina. But after meeting McGaha, you get the feeling a roadside historical marker should be placed in his front yard that simply reads, “Hero Among Us.”