Will Rogers was a man for all seasons — a Cherokee Indian and a cowboy, a champion roper, a leading master of ceremonies and raconteur, a top box office draw and the writer of a daily newspaper column. Born in the Cherokee Nation in 1879, he traveled far and earned the affection of audiences worldwide before his untimely death in a plane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska, in 1935. To this day, he remains a household name.
Following in the footsteps of his famous humorist father proved challenging for Will Rogers, Jr. Nonetheless, the young Rogers strove mightily to match his father’s accomplishments. The eldest of four children, he was born in 1911 in New York City while his father was performing with the Ziegfeld Follies.
After graduating from Beverly Hills High School, Rogers attended Stanford University, where he edited an off-campus newspaper, captained the polo team, served on the debating team and set a backstroke swimming record. At college graduation in 1935, Rogers was commissioned a second lieutenant of field artillery. Letting his commission lapse, he purchased The Beverly Hill Citizen newspaper and covered the Spanish Civil War as a correspondent during 1936 and 1937.
Rogers’ response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was twofold. First, as a Democrat he filed for a seat in the 78th Congress, representing the 16th Congressional District of California. Second, he enlisted as a private in the Army. After Officer Candidate School training at Camp Roberts, Calif., Rogers was again commissioned a second lieutenant of field artillery. He was posted to Camp Hood, Texas, where tank-destroying weapons were being developed and units trained.
Election to Congress required Rogers to leave active service. While in Congress he served on the Foreign Affairs Committee, visited England during the Blitz and helped write the Soldier Voting Bill. Once again seeking military service, however, he resigned from Congress in May 1944 and received reinstatement to active duty and his third commissioning as a second lieutenant. Pressing for combat duty, Rogers was attached to the 814th Tank Destroyer Battalion, which had reached England in mid-February 1944.
Activated on May 22, 1942, at Camp Polk, La., under the command of Colonel Severen T. Wallace, the battalion had moved to Camp Bowie, Texas, then to Camp Hood, where specialized individual and unit training prepared the soldiers to’seek, strike and destroy.’ At Camp Hood the 750-man battalion came under the command of Lt. Col. Robert Bruce Jones, a Georgia attorney and reserve officer. The 814th completed maneuvers in Louisiana in late 1943.
When it reached England, the 814th, equipped with 36 M10 tank destroyers, constituted a powerful anti-tank force. The M10 was diesel-powered and thinly armored, with an open-topped turret based on a standard Sherman M4A3 medium tank chassis. It was highly mobile and sported a 3-inch anti-aircraft gun. The Reconnaissance Company’s main weapon was the Greyhound M8 light armored car, equipped with a 37mm gun and a coaxially mounted .30-caliber machine gun, while Headquarters Company had the M20 armored car, equipped with a .50-caliber machine gun.
Second Lieutenant Will Rogers, Jr., arrived shortly before the 814th moved from the English Midlands to a marshaling area on England’s southern coast. Word spread that Will Rogers’ son had joined the battalion, and many of the 814th gathered to watch him take command of 1st Platoon, Reconnaissance Company. The troops had a deep respect for Will Rogers, although they wondered whether his son could handle a combat leadership role.
The 814th acted as service troops in England during the Normandy invasion in June 1944, but their time came in August, when they loaded up on LSTs (landing ships, tank). On August 8, 1944, the 814th landed at Utah Beach, and on August 11 the battalion was attached to the 7th Armored Division, part of General George Patton’s Third Army. Major General Lindsay MacDonald Silvester, commander of the 7th Armored, split the 814th among his three combat commands, and the division began its advance across France. On numerous occasions, Rogers’ 1st Platoon was assigned to lead the armor in the breakout from the hedgerows of Normandy.
When the artillery of the 7th Armored fired on the city of Chartres, the order was passed down to spare its historic sites. Many former members of the 814th believe that the word to spare the Chartres cathedral came from none other than Lieutenant Rogers.
After reaching the World War I battlefields of Château-Thierry and Verdun, Patton’s Third Army ran out of fuel. Members of the 814th Tank Destroyer Battalion later related how, encouraged by Rogers, some soldiers took advantage of this interlude to tour the historic site. They first visited the American Cemetery at St. Mihiel, then moved on to La Tranchée des Batonettes, where a trench cave-in during the Battle of Verdun had left no trace of the French soldiers in it save for their bayonets. Leading his reconnaissance platoon on patrol over a road through the World War I battlefield, replete with shell-pocks, trenches and barbed wire, Rogers conducted an impromptu history lesson over his radio. As he was explaining how a million men fell in the conflict between the French and the Germans, the sharp bark of his task force commander interrupted him: ‘Lieutenant Rogers — let’s fight one war at a time!’
When it was once again able to advance, the 7th Armored Division, including the 814th Tank Destroyer Battalion, suffered heavy losses in its attempts to take the fortress city of Metz on the Moselle River. Relieved by the 5th Infantry Division, the 7th Armored was attached to the First Army and, on September 25, began convoying to an assembly area near Maastricht, Holland.
Assigned to plug the gap between British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s Twenty-First Army Group and General Omar N. Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group, the 7th Armored shuttled among the First Army, the British Second Army and the Ninth Army, all the time fighting against a stronger enemy force than Allied Intelligence had estimated. Two months after the 7th Armored began trying to clear the Germans west of the Maas River, two full British corps finally overcame the stubborn enemy holdouts. Casualties in the gun companies ran high in the peat bogs of the Peel Marshes because equipment had to stay on the roads, allowing no chance to maneuver. In later years Rogers recalled the sporadic enemy shelling and the patrols along the Asten-Nederweert road, even at night, to counter enemy mine-laying attempts. Nederweert, he said, was his platoon’s town, and he spent three nights in the church tower observing the Germans across the canal before they put a shell through the tower on the fourth night.
During November, the 814th began replacing its M10s with the M36 tank destroyer, a gasoline-powered vehicle also built on a Sherman M4A3 medium tank chassis but mounting a 90mm gun. Assigned to the Ninth Army, the 7th Armored moved elements to attack Geilenkirchen on Germany’s Roer River. Their advance toward the Roer halted when the 814th received orders to move out at 7:30 a.m. on December 17, 1944, and join the 7th Armored’s convoy to Vielsalm, Belgium. Hitler’s last gamble had begun. Destined to be the largest battle ever fought by American troops, it was dubbed the Battle of the Bulge by British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill.
Major General Robert W. Hasbrouck, having assumed command of the 7th Armored, ordered Brig. Gen. Bruce C. Clarke’s Combat Command B to defend the French town of St. Vith. Bolstered by elements of the 9th Armored Division and remnants of the 106th Infantry, Clarke formed a horseshoe defense, with reconnaissance elements patrolling the flanks. According to battalion supply officer J. William Goodwin, after a hurried briefing by Colonel Jones, Reconnaissance Company Captain John P. Reed issued an urgent call: ‘Get me Lieutenant Rogers!’
The mission given Rogers included reconnoitering Poteau, a village between Vielsalm and St. Vith. An early morning incident at Poteau was described years later by Rogers during the filming of the military documentary The Battle at St. Vith. Rogers’ platoon had stayed overnight in Poteau, and early the next morning the men discovered a German tank parked nearby. Rogers and one of his men went to their jeep and, after some effort, disentangled the rocket launcher from the camouflage net. Trying to pull the frozen rockets off the jeep, they chipped the ice away, pulled off the bag and the rockets fell into the mud. They managed to load the rocket launcher, but their first attempt to fire failed. They had forgotten to attach the wires. After connecting the wires, Rogers aimed, fired and his rocket hit the tank. When the smoke began to clear, Rogers saw the tank commander open the hatch and look around as the tank backed away…undamaged.
Enemy pressure mounted on the St. Vith horseshoe, and the perimeter during the six-day defense shrank to what historians would call a fortified goose egg. Montgomery, commander of the northern sector of the Bulge, countermanded the First Army’s order that the defenders of St. Vith hold their line and await resupply by air. His message to the 7th Armored read: ‘You have accomplished your mission — a mission well done. It is time to withdraw.’
A hard freeze on the night of December 22 made withdrawal possible, since the tanks were able to pull out of the mud and snow. By dusk on December 23, most of the 7th Armored had passed over the Salm River and through the lines of the 82nd Airborne Division. Task Force Jones, commanded by the 814th’s Colonel Jones, fought the rear-guard action that had allowed the successful daylight withdrawal.
As Task Force Jones prepared for withdrawal, reconnaissance platoons maintained defensive roadblocks. An article in the Kansas City Star of January 2, 1945, reported: ‘Will Rogers Jr. — found his reconnaissance platoon engulfed in Germans December 23 and had to retreat. But he left the enemy a warning in red letters. [He] obtained a 4-foot sheet of wrapping paper, nailed it to a big tree in the middle of the road and printed with a red grease pencil: ‘Beware! We will be back in two weeks with our new secret weapon.”
The loss of Task Force Jones’ four M36 tank destroyers at the rear of the column increased pressure for the remainder of the force to speed up movement along the Salm River and through Vielsalm, the only escape route. At Vielsalm, two of the column’s leading light tanks were hit with anti-tank fire, setting them ablaze. Enemy fire on the front and rear of the column created havoc. Some vehicles plowed ahead; others turned around and moved to the rear. Most of the vehicles pulled off the road and into narrow clearings in the forest. Dismounting, some of the trapped troops planned an escape, while those still in their M8 armored cars heard the voice of Colonel Jones blaring over their radios, ‘Burn your vehicles and get out of there on foot!’
Rogers later jotted down a few cryptic notes about Task Force Jones’ withdrawal: ‘[We] joined a column going down to the Salm River, and went into a deep canyon. Road block ahead [the burning light tanks], and being shot at in the rear. Beautiful moonlight night. Took out a patrol to find out what the roadblock was, and a trigger-happy G.I. shot Sgt. Simmons; however [he] didn’t flinch, and merely yelled to have the shooting stopped. Also ran across a German SS soldier leaning up against a tree, and took him prisoner. Finally got back to vehicles after finding out the roadblock couldn’t be passed, and took winding ‘glorified cowpath’ out of the valley. Then came up to a quiet small stream, but only tanks could make it across. Lost all [my] vehicles, and destroyed them with grenades….After crossing the stream jumped on a tank and hung on like a bunch of monkeys while the tank rolled towards and through the 82nd Airborne lines, and that was a very great relief.’
Lieutenant Rogers received a Bronze Star for this action, and his citation reads in part, ‘…for heroism in leading his patrol against an enemy force threatening to cut off part of an armored column retreating from St. Vith.’ During this withdrawal, 20 men of Task Force Jones went missing and were later reported captured.
Within two days, portions of the 814th rumbled back into action at Manhay, and on January 23, a month to the day after the 7th Armored’s withdrawal, General Clarke led the force in taking back St. Vith. The 814th engaged in small-unit actions with the 75th and 99th Infantry divisions before reaching the Rhine River at Remagen, and on March 12, 1945, its 90mm guns began indirect firing missions at targets across the Rhine. From March 23 until the 25th, the 814th and the 7th Armored crossed the Rhine and then began pushing from the bridgehead toward the Ruhr and the industrial heart of Germany. The Ruhr Pocket action consisted mainly of taking prisoners, and the 7th Armored captured more than 45,000. This action resulted in casualties among the attacking troops, however, and one of these was Lieutenant Will Rogers, Jr., who had recently been given command of a tank destroyer platoon. He wrote about the shrapnel wound to his hip: ‘Wounded in the Ruhr Pocket…and evacuated to England…never did get north to meet the Russians. Bounced around in hospitals and replacement depots until war’s end, then discharged (third and final?) at Ft. MacArthur January 1946.’ Rogers also reported his reconnaissance platoon’s total combat casualties: ‘Of the 21-man 1st Platoon, four were killed; seven, including myself, wounded.’
The 7th Armored, including the 814th, moved on toward the Elbe River, meeting little resistance before crossing it on May 2 and 3. Attached to the Second British Army, the 7th headed for Lübeck and the vicinity of the Baltic Sea. As the British and American troops approached the Baltic, they encountered thousands of German soldiers surrendering to anyone other than the Soviets. There were also thousands of displaced persons from almost every country in Europe, as well as German civilians seeking refuge in the West. V-E Day brought a feeling of great relief.
Once the situation stabilized, formal occupation duties began. By December, most of the 814th’s soldiers had returned to the United States and were discharged from the service. Many veterans of the 814th maintained contact with each other over the years, including Rogers, who often met in Kansas City with former members of his reconnaissance platoon.
In January 1946, Rogers entered the California race for the U.S. Senate, won the Democratic Party’s nomination, but lost in the general election. Shaking off his disappointment, he jumped into politics again and managed the victorious presidential campaign of Harry Truman. Setting politics aside, he starred in three films: The Story of Will Rogers (1952), with Jane Wyman; The Boy From Oklahoma (1954), with Nancy Olson; and Wild Heritage (1958), with Maureen O’Sullivan. On radio Rogers became known as ‘Rogers of the Gazette,’ while he also hosted CBS-TV’s morning show in 1957 and 1958. It was broadcast from New York with Andrew Rooney as head writer, assisted by Barbara Walters.
Drawn to public service for most of his life, Rogers served in many capacities, including chairman of the California State Park Commission and assistant to the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Periodically, he served as special consultant to the U.S. Department of the Interior. As the eldest Rogers son, he also acted for 46 years as the family representative on the Will Rogers Memorial Commission of Oklahoma. In later years, Rogers retired to his ranch in the Tubac artist colony south of Tucson, Ariz. At times he appeared on television as a product spokesman, and he continued filling speaking engagements.
The Will Rogers Follies opened on Broadway in 1991, reviving interest in the late humorist. When contacted about the June 1993 reunion of former members of the 814th in Savannah, Mo., Rogers replied that he was not well and seldom traveled, but that he would be attending a Will Rogers Follies reception in New York. A month later, while in a pasture near his retirement home at Tubac, the 81-year-old Rogers died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A family spokesman explained that Rogers had recently suffered strokes, had heart problems and had undergone hip implant surgery. Following a military graveside service, his body was interred next to his wife, Collier, in Tubac Cemetery. Survivors included his two adopted Indian sons, Clem and Carlos, both of Tucson; his brother Jim Rogers, of Bakersfield, Calif.; and three grandchildren.
At their reunions, former members of the 814th tell stories about the dashing commander of a reconnaissance platoon who led an armored force into action. Many recall the words of his captain, spoken when the going got tough: ‘Get me Lieutenant Rogers!’
This article was written by Calvin C. Boykin, Jr. and originally appeared in World War II magazine.
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