October 15, 2013

By Dan Aznoff

Gas station attendant turns war hero to lead his troops to victory in Europe

Reality struck quickly for 22-year-old George Westlake when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in July 1941. It did not take long for the Seattle gas station attendant to realize the American military was not prepared for the war it was about to enter.

When he arrived at Fort Riley, Kan., for basic training, he was shocked there were no barracks, but instead an assortment of World War I surplus tents in the middle of an old farm. He was thrust into an even more unfamiliar situation six months later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when he was assigned to Officer Training School at Camp Brown, Texas.

CONTRIBUTED George Westlake displays his uniform in 1941 in Kansas before World War II broke out.

George Westlake displays his uniform in 1941 in Kansas before World War II broke out.

“Our unit was part of the Cavalry, but I did not expect to find officers still riding horses,” the 94-year-old Westlake said. “We were told that America would need 12 million trained soldiers to defeat the enemy. But there were no manuals on how to train soldiers or instructions on what to do once we get into combat.”

Westlake and his troops played instrumental roles in the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach and the infamous Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944. He spent the war as part of the illustrious V Corps and had 800 soldiers assigned to the 3rd Tank Destroyer unit under his command.

Westlake said his troops were forced to develop more sophisticated battlefield techniques and additional firepower to defeat the Panzer tanks used by Germany in Europe. Carbine rifles, he said, were no match for the armored vehicles the Germans used to invade France and Poland.

After intense training in the States, Westlake and his unit were sent to Northern Ireland to train with other Allied troops for the massive invasion of Europe. The Tank Destroyers were not part of the first wave of troops to storm the beaches of Normandy on June 6. They were forced to wait on the converted cargo ship until the beach was secured and engineers created makeshift roads to get their truck-mounted artillery over the cliffs.

“It was only one day, but the noise of the RAF (Royal Air Force) planes overhead and the big guns from the battleships all around us made it impossible to think about anything else but our brothers fighting for their lives on the beach,” he remembered. “Sure, we were scared. But we also knew what had to be done.”

When the roads were opened, Westlake ordered his troops to board the landing craft. The tanks and armored vehicles had all been wrapped in protective tape to prevent water from leaking into the crew compartments.


‘Big fat sitting ducks’

The tape was a good precaution, because many of the tanks rolled off the landing craft and immediately sank into water higher than the treads.

“There was no way to know exactly how deep the water was along certain sections of the beach. There were times when the deep water was right beyond the breakers,” Westlake said, “and I’m sure the sailor in charge was anxious to get the heavy gear off of his craft so he could get back to the ship for another load.

“Besides, we were big fat sitting ducks for the heavy guns the Germans had built into the cliffs.”

The soldiers peeled away the tape and headed up the steep embankment into the forest, their first objective being to knock out bunkers that protected the heavy German artillery. From there, Westlake said, there was nothing the enemy could do to stop the V Corps’ march across France to liberate Paris and the towns of Sedan and Ardennes.

The American troops were halted by a lack of supplies after they had driven the Germans out of Belgium. The Allied Forces advanced faster than anticipated, creating a shortage of supplies and manpower. The V Corps bunkered down for the winter in a forested region near Wallonia in Belgium to wait for re-enforcements.

“We had no food and we were basically out of ammo,” Westlake said.

Gasoline was transported by courier to the front lines in 5-gallon drums. Poor weather prevented aerial reconnaissance, leaving the Allied Forces vulnerable to the counter-offensive in winter 1944 that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Westlake said the enemy used the poor weather to disguise their movements. The Germans broke through a thin line of defense to split the American and British troops, and held out hope that recapturing Brussels would force the Americans and British to negotiate a ceasefire. The German attack was led by three elite Panzer divisions, including more than 4,800 Nazi troops and 600 armored vehicles.


Out of gas, weapons and food

Cold weather and white-out conditions put extra pressure on Westlake and his command officers to devise ways to stop the Panzer tanks with a minimum of ammunition. Many Germans were captured after their tanks ran out of gas.

The fierce fighting and severe weather put extra strain on both sides’ supplies. Some German troops resorted to stealing weapons and food from American supply depots. Westlake remembered one intense exchange of small weapons fire with a German squad that had broken into his unit’s ammunitions supply. Bullets flew in both directions over crates of supplies.

Westlake remembered holding his breath several times when incendiary devices fell dangerously close to the stockpile of weapons.

“The fighting was fierce,” he said with a far-away look in his clear hazel eyes. “But I’ll never forget watching the taillights of the German vehicles high-tailing it up one road as our reinforcements were arriving from the other direction.”

The skies cleared over the battlefield just before Christmas. Good weather allowed the Americans and British to resume aerial attacks behind enemy lines that cut off the last of the German supplies. More than 19,000 American soldiers were killed and 89,000 injured in the bloodiest battle of the war.

Once they crossed the border from Belgium, Westlake said, the V Corps marched across the German countryside all the way to the Czech town of Plzen on the Elbe River. German resistance was light, he remembered, but the Nazi troops remained dedicated to their futile cause. When the V Corps arrived at the river in May 1945, they could see soldiers from the Russian Red Army on the other side.

“That’s when we knew we had squeezed the enemy into surrender,” he said proudly.


Coming home

Westlake returned home as a captain, and got back into the automotive industry by opening a wholesale distributorship for wheels and tires. He remained active in the Army Reserve for another 25 years until he retired as a colonel in 1979.

Westlake was quick to point out he was married for a total of 58 years, the first 24 years to Adella and another 34 to Bonnie Jean.

His passion for automobiles was apparently passed on to his children. His son Tony Rehn is general manager of Evergreen Ford. Rehn and his wife Lynn are partners in the Issaquah dealership with Dan Rowe.

Westlake’s sister, Virginia Frost, who passed away recently, and her husband Bob, lived on Tiger Mountain and owned a drug store on Front Street during the 1950s and 60s until their retirement.

Westlake’s mother Maude owned property with a log cabin and her own pond on Tiger Mountain. According to Rehn, his father made use of his experience with artillery on summer afternoons when Westlake and his brother Bob conducted target practice over the pond with a small cannon.

“There may have been a cocktail or two involved,” Rehn said with a smile.


Dan Aznoff, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the toxic waste crisis in California, is now a freelance writer with a passion for capturing the stories of past generations. Reach him at da@dajournalist.com.

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