Allen Crabtree: For local GI, war was a tankless job

September 26, 2005 

Allen Crabtree needed a mission, any mission. His stateside orders had been clear: Join a light-tank battalion and help push the German army closer to surrender.

At a replacement depot near Luxembourg, he waited. Nobody sent him to any M24 Chaffee tanks, the ones he trained on for eight weeks. The war went on without him.

He waited some more. One morning, the call went out for a volunteer. Crabtree didn't hesitate.

"I said, `I'm sick and tired of sitting here. What do you want?' " he recalled.

That's how a second lieutenant from State College found himself delivering green troops to Austria.

Back at Fort Knox, he had taught guys like that as an infantry instructor. Then the Army put him through a crash course on the M24, made him a tank commander and shipped him to Scotland on the Queen Elizabeth.

In the late winter of 1945, he marched ashore from a landing craft at the French port of Le Havre.

"That's where I looked at my buddies and said, `Fellows, we have made a serious mistake,' " said Crabtree, now an 84-year-old retired jeweler in State College. "There were boats sunk. The place was all blown to bits. When you go through training, they never shoot back at you."

Seeing the famous World War I Flanders Field American cemetery from his troop train didn't calm his nerves.

"I thought, `This is a heck of a place to take a bunch of guys that are supposed to be up on the front,' " Crabtree said. "There were nothing but row after row of crosses and Stars of David."

After a week of eating C-rations in boxcars, he arrived at one of the "repo depots" for assigning fresh troops. He and his close friend, a former college lacrosse star named Harry Leopold, prepared to join tank outfits.

More than a week later, they were still there. Leopold lost patience and agreed to go with an infantry unit to the front lines. When Crabtree came back from a three-day pass, his buddy was gone.

"Apparently, he said, `Oh, to heck with it,' and they sent him right into battle, and he was killed within a couple of weeks," Crabtree said.

It might have been a mix-up, or perhaps Gen. George Patton's Third Army was racing toward Berlin too fast to catch up. Crabtree bounced from one depot to another. He waited, a tanker without tanks.

In a truck full of soldiers, he finally pulled into a tank battalion, the 709th -- for all of a week. Battalion officers ordered him to load about 100 bedraggled German prisoners of war on his trucks and take them to a processing center.

Back on the road Crabtree went. At the center, a captain asked for papers for each prisoner. Crabtree couldn't believe his ears.

The captain was adamant: No papers, no POWs. And, no, he didn't care what Crabtree did with them.

"So I went back to the truck and told the driver, `I'm going to get into an argument with this guy,' " Crabtree said. "We were on the other side of the barracks. I said, `I'm going to keep him entertained for at least 15 minutes. Get all those guys off the truck. Line them up back there. And when I come back around, you be ready to roll.' "

They did just that, dozens of Germans milling about in gray uniforms and one irate captain in their rearview mirror. Throughout April, Germany kept crumbling. Crabtree kept chasing phantoms.

As the war ended, he hooked up with the 16th Tank Battalion in Czechoslovakia. But instead of leading armor into combat, he fed emaciated Polish, Russian and French nationals in a displaced-person camp.

As the battalion's athletic officer, he wrestled in tournaments across Europe. He even picked up a German Luger pistol. A sergeant traded it for a wristwatch a civilian had given Crabtree in exchange for GI coffee and sugar packets. The swaps foreshadowed his next posting.

When the Japanese surrendered, Crabtree was in Le Havre, set to return to the States. The Army transferred him to the 72nd Quartermaster Base Depot in the German city of Bremen.

"I ran all the storage and distribution of supplies for the British enclave in Berlin for a couple of months," he said.

In 1946, he left the occupation and returned to a wife, Phyllis, he hadn't seen in 17 months and a baby daughter he had never met. A few elusive tanks no longer mattered. But decades later, he finally caught up with them.

"I went back to Fort Knox right after I retired," he said. "There, in the museum, were my M24 tanks."

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

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