Warriors in their Own Words

Remarkable stories of war told by the men who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.

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Sgt. Aurio Pierro: Under Attack From All Sides

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Sgt. Aurio Pierro: Under Attack From All Sides

Sergeant Aurio Pierro served as a Tank Commander in WWII. He fought amongst the notoriously difficult hedgerows during the Invasion of Normandy, and in the Battle of the Bulge.

During the Battle of the Bulge, Pierro and his platoon were under heavy fire in an extended battle with the Germans. After their tank was heavily damaged and they ran out of ammo, they left their tank and took cover in a bakery, but Pierro was injured in the process. The bakery was shelled relentlessly from all sides, and soon caught on fire, so they were forced to move down to the cellar. The Germans told Pierro and his platoon to surrender, but they refused. They spent the night in the cellar, and in the morning, fought their way back to their tank, suffering heavy casualties.

Ken Harbaugh:

Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.

I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Today, we’ll hear from Sergeant Aurio Pierro, who served as a Tank Commander in WWII. He fought amongst the notoriously difficult hedgerows during the Invasion of Normandy, and was trapped in the cellar of a bakery during the Battle of the Bulge.

Sgt. Aurio Pierro:

Well, I was born in 1917. I believed I went in the service in January '42. I was 25. Before Pearl Harbor, I was in the selective service system. I had my exam and I got my classification and was waiting for a order to report for duty at the time of Pearl of Pearl Harbor. I got my report and I was inducted at Fort Devon's, Massachusetts on January 15th, 1942. I took my eight weeks basic training at Fort Knox and went to Camp Polk. There, I became part of B Company of the 33rd Armored Regimen of the third armored division, and I remained with that B company until end of my service.

When we arrived in England, we were stationed at Warminster, which was, we took that over from a British tank training center. We were equipped with the M5 light tank, which was the Stuart. That had been improved from the previous models. We had in that tank, a system of balance of the cannon, so that you could supposedly fire on the move. It had automatic drop type breach so that when you fired the round, it automatically ejected into a canvas bag. You get ready to put in another round. In the tank setup itself, in the turret, the tank sat on the right side of a gun. The gun was on the left side and you had forward of the gunner, the driver, and forward of the tank commander, the assistant driver who would when necessarily, man that 30 caliber machine gun in front of him.

Of course, the tank commander had an added duty not only commanding the tank, but also to load the 37 millimeter. I had a driver who kiddingly called me the assistant loader of the tank commander. That was the duty. Of course, we had internal communication system along with the radio system, where we could communicate with the other tanks, and which was necessary, because in combat of course, you wouldn't get up and wave your hand at some other tank to tell them what to do.

As a tank commander, I was a sergeant, buck sergeant.

The Germans had been at war for several years and they had a chance to improve their tanks. They had learned. They had, I think in Normandy timeframe, still some of their smaller tanks, which were even better than ours as far as fire-power and protection for the crews, because of the thickness of the armor, and high velocity guns. At that point in Normandy of course, we had so much forest area, that we didn't really have much chance to observe the German tanks. Their tanks, I believe at that point were not ... they didn't have the tiger tanks or the panther tanks, which were their heavier tanks. Whatever they had was a lot better than we had, a lot better in the way of muscle velocity and ability to withstand impact with an anti-tank projectile.

That was also evident… in another area where we knew we were out-classed as far as firepower, was the bazookas. The Germans had a ... well, two types. One is the type where they had a big bulbous forward end of the bazooka that they could fire under the arm. Favorite way of doing it was to drop down to one knee and have that bazooka under their arm and fire it. Fortunately, they were not as accurate as their so-called stove-pipe type of German, which was very accurate. I found that out later. In the close quarters, really the bazookas were something that we had to be on lookout for, even more than the German tanks. They really didn't have that many tanks in that phase.

There was one hill in Normandy that was held by the Germans, and because of elevation, of course, they had command of view of a large area. We had our chance in helping to assault that position. It was really perhaps one of our first major assaults, the platoon. It was difficult because the fields, you had a field where there may be low brush, a foot or two, surrounded by high brush of 10, 20, or even trees. You had an enclosed area and you didn't know what was beyond the next hedgerow. All the Germans had to do was to be in the hedgerow part of it and pop out, as we saw in ... I remember that first assault we had there, where for the first time I saw a German come in front of the hedgerow and drop to the knee and fire the bazooka at us. Fortunately, he missed, but that was the ... You couldn't see maybe a hundred yards beyond the next hedgerow, which made it difficult to know what was beyond there. Of course, when you're in those hedgerows, you have an area of maybe a hundred yards by a hundred yards, which would've been probably pasture for the cattle. You didn't know what was going on in the next hedgerow area.

Well, the problem of course was on the hedgerows. It was elevated land, which was with trees and brush, so it would always be difficult to get up over them. They designed this plow, really a plow or prow, I guess, in front of a medium tank to bust through a portion of the hedgerow. That would give you an opening to go through on level land, or pretty near level land. That was the purpose of that.

See, we were the light tank, so we didn't have that push that the mediums had. What we did there, or start to ... because of the bazooka problem, a lot of the tanks had logs attached to the sides and things. We had sandbags in front, on the front plate of the tank. That was to explode the bazookas, if it hit the sandbag and hopefully exposed them before it penetrated the metal.

Sometimes we were used as security to protect a building or so forth. Other times when we were moving, we would be with the task force and our mission at times was, if the lead tank, it would be a medium tank, is knocked out, then Colonel would call us up to take care of whatever knocked it out. I know that was, several times that was the mission that I was on.

One in particular, I can think of right now, was where there were ... It eventually turned out there were 2 88 multi-purpose anti guns that had knocked out the lead part, the lead tank. Colonel Lovely called me up, "Take the first platoon" on a mission on the left, which was open land. Infantry were going to try to get, take on the right side, which had some brush and so forth. But our mission was to sweep across an open field to proceed to flank the guns. At that point, I had some infantry on the ... I was leading the first platoon at that point. That was in Germany. I was in the middle going across, and when we raced across with infantry on the back of the tanks, we raced across the field, this open field. We didn't know that there was a big ditch in the middle of this field. We hit that ditch. I remember when infantry got knocked off and I got bumped around a bit. We were approaching the area where the guns were, and it was a little raining in a orchard. As we approached, apparently the German defenders of the gun thought it wise to surrender, so they surrendered. I remember there was still one round in one of the guns, and the infantry of course, got off the tanks. Once we get into the tree area, the infantry get off the tanks to move along with us. Someone got on one of the 88 guns. Good thing it was elevated to shoot the sky, and they pulled the lanyard and boom, went off. If they were both working, and I'm sure they could have knocked all five tanks out going across this field, but they were wise to give up, I guess.

You see, in that situation at the crossroads, open land, the enemy was in slit trenches, and light tanks were great because we had the ability used two 30 county machine guns and a cannon, to destroy the Germans in the slit trenches. That of course, that was how we did it there. I think perhaps visibility was better in the light tanks. In that position, I could see everything. I was a believer in keeping my head up. That was danger for the tank commander. More tank commanders, I think, got shot right through the head than any other group of people, but at least we had a chance of seeing what was going on better.

Down inside the tanks, you were very limited as to what you could see, unless you moved that periscope, physically moved it, you'd be looking straight ahead. With your head out, all you had to do was just turn your head. It was a quick way of identifying where the enemy was. Of course, that's what happened. That's why I did it. There were a few occasions when I had to put my head in, but most of the time I had my eyeballs hanging over the top of the turret. I attribute a lot of my success in that, really?

That was an interesting phase, and maybe I'm picking that up because of what we ran into at that point, not only the dug in infantry, but we were getting anti-tank fire and we had a German tank come out of that town on the right, to come up to reinforce the dug in infantry in front of us. As soon as we had cleared the area, I had my tank knocked out there. I got the first shot off at that German tank coming up. Luckily, it was not one of the bigger tanks. When I saw the bazooka German come up out of his [inaudible], he had the stove-pipe bazooka, accurate, hit the right side of the tank, but he didn't come out of that foxhole because we poured most of the belt of ammunition in there. Nobody came up any foxhole in front of my tank. As soon as that happened and we're close to the road, Colonel Lovely called over the radio, "Fix Pierro up," and off the task force went down towards [Ragoon].

In that particular case, it knocked the track off. I don't know what other exterior damage, but we could still use the guns. We couldn't move, but at least we were able to use the guns and I could use the radio. We were very fortunate. If it hit center either on the turret or down below where the driver was, it would've penetrated the tank. The funnel part of the turret, where I was, I wouldn't be here today, but luckily it hit the right side, right track of the tank.

In the Bulge, we were hit at night at [inaudible]. It was somewhere on the side; it was dark. I know we had sparks and fumes come into the tank, but we were still able to function. It all depends on where it was hit. But the bazooka, that made a penetration that could continue on. With the high velocity anti-tank projectile, it would not only penetrate the outer compartment, but go through the tank. With most of the German anti-tank guns, they could have penetrated my tank from one side or the other and gone through another light tank through that.

The anti-tank projectile would be just to penetrate. That would go through any area without any explosive, unless it hit, say, the gas tanks. That was the danger of hitting gas tanks. It'd set you on fire. Couple of times when I got over the radio, my tank was on fire. It was… The baggage I had in the back of the tank, luckily, that was on fire. That happened in Normandy, and later, at I think [inaudible] we were, mopping up dug in infantry again. That was our mission at that point, to mop up infantry who dug in, in slit trenches. We were, I think, very well-equipped for that. The projectile being a solid metal pot, was built to penetrate. Now, the explosive shells, they would explode perhaps on the outside and explode, but if that penetrated and that is not built for penetration and explosive inside. That's what would happen. Of course, the danger in a tank-

We were in Germany. We had penetrated the minefield there at the approach to Scherpenseel and Hastenrath, which is east of Stolberg. We were there when the boats started and we left that area, took it down into the bulge, and we get downed south of La Glaze. The main task force had gone further south down towards Trepon. The first platoon or B Company was dropped off. The task force commander had with the medics had set up, taken over one building, small building as the first aid station. We were left behind five tanks at that point, and to just stay in that area, offer some protection. There were two German vehicles knocked out in front of the building and German dead behind on the railroad tracks. That was a place where coming down from the north, we crossed the river and crashed over a railroad bridge.

Then the road proceeded towards Trepon. At the time, we were not that familiar with the area. We was there for a while. Then in the afternoon, the Germans came over the hill. They came to our north and to our left, heading towards a place to our north. We saw them; they came down over the hill. There must have been 50 or that many. We started to fire at them, the machine guns mostly. We drifted back to where the bridge was. Apparently, that was their objective, because that would be the way over the railroad bridge and over the river. It was late afternoon and the bazookas started to fall all around us. We went back to there and we stopped. I radioed headquarters as to what was going on. I was told, wait there and infantry would come up to help us.

We spent there, maybe a couple of hours. I don't know what time of night it was then. They came up. I took over the platoon. My friend Alfred Bell was the platoon sergeant. He was back at the first aid station. I took over the platoon and led the attack back to the first aid station, and I put the platoon in a position where we would fire on both sides of the road, at houses to set them on fire. We'd get back to the first aid station. I'd get out of the tank and started on the door, and my friend came to the door. All I remember was that don't hurt these German. They were good to him or something like that, and a bazooka hit the tank behind me, knocked me down to the ground, helmet rolled off, and I got some shrapnel in my back. Went back into my tank and started to fire back.

From that point on for several hours, there was a little high ground on the left side, turn the turret around and they were firing bazookas at the left side from the front. I opened the radio up so headquarters could hear me and the tank behind me, there was nobody in there left. We fired. We're firing back every time we see a bazooka flash, and we could hit and have the smoke and sparks come in, and the gunner wanted to get out. If he left, there'd be nobody to man the cannon there on that side, so I held him back in. We kept firing. I guess we almost ran out of ammunition. We finally had to go into the building. At that point, we were in the building, and the infantry had already been in it. As soon as we got to the buildings, the infantry had gone into the buildings.

We were up on the ... it was a one and a half story building. We found out later it was a bakery, and they had a big oven. We got up on the first floor and we were under attack from all sides at that point. I recall a projectile coming through the brick wall on the floor. I remember putting my over shoe foot on it, trying to put it out. There was no reason for that, but it was just one of those natural things. As the top of the building started burning, we had to go down in the cellar. At that point, there were two rooms in the cellar. One was a back room there and the wound and so forth get in that building. There was a big oven on the front side. I remember at that point that one of the infantry took a position on one side and I took a position on the other side with a Tommy gun, waiting for the Germans come through. Well, the German had asked us to surrender. I'll call it surrender. We didn't. There was some firing. We were in the cell until the next morning. I always believed that the German that asked us to surrender was the one that was German dead, right outside the back door. There was a tank around the back there, that the next day, I get in there and called headquarters. I got orders to, or authority to ... The men didn't want to, couldn't stay there any longer. They had to get out. As soon as I came back in the building, because the burning had gone down. The first floor was on fire. There was nothing left at the top. They started to leave one foot.

We got back to down railroad tracks and there was firing. We had lost a lot of people outside. Back there, there was a medium tank, and told them what story was. As a result of that, my friend who had still in the building, was brought out. That took ... the whole laps time was a day and a half. He had been badly wounded. He can show you his hands. They were mangled, and his other wounds. I guess he was just out of it after we first got there in that cellar.

He was a prisoner of the Germans. It was so important because that was a place we were supposed to defend. Also, of course, he was still there. At that point we, I'm quite sure we had heard about Malmedy. At that point, I certainly was never going to be taken a prisoner. I'm sure that he would never have survived if left the Germans. They would not have treated a man that had his arms almost chopped off and other wounds. They were not going to pay much attention to him. That just happened to be just one of the incidents that a lot of things happened after that.

I think we knew what we had as far as the tanks. We were outgunned and we didn't have the protection. Do it again? I don't know. We were young and we had ideas and I guess we were doing a job. Perhaps if we knew more about what they had in the way of their anti-tank guns and and tanks, it would've made it harder. It would've made it harder because they had tanks ... The tiger tank was the size and weight of what we have today. They're still, the only German tiger tag that I understand is left, there was a battle tank, is at La Glaze in Belgium. It's in front of the museum in La Glaze. I understand that it's there because one of the Belgian women, after the battle area left there, was in the field. She asked if she could have that tank. It was given to her and there it is. It's in front of the museum and it still has the 88.

We thought everything about the German equipment was perfect, but it wasn't, as we learned later on. We probably would've been more frightened if we'd known how powerful they were, really.

I must say that it was a very emotional experience for me, last year when my friend Alfred Bell came with his wife and we met. Last time I saw him was in that building at [inaudible] I hadn't talked with or heard from him since that time.

What he did after the war is, he told me ... “Before,” he said, "I made my living with my hands." After, well he couldn't. He went to school. He wound up as a superintendent of a school district in Texas, and he's a nice guy. He thanked me before that. That was the emotional part. I've met a lot of the guys that I hadn't seen for a lot of years, but that was the most emotional one, really.

Ken Harbaugh:

That was Sergeant Aurio Pierro.

If you missed it, make sure to check out the first part of his interview, where he talks about serving on the USS Tennessee during the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Tarawa.

Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.

Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.

Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

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