WWII Veteran, John McCain, Wharton, Texas, 102, was the son of Joe and Sally Pearl McCain and a graduate of Wharton High School. After graduating from High School, John went to work for HL&P bringing lines to the rural communities of Wharton County. At that time, work details done by hand using a shovel and a spade. John wanted to improve his working conditions; he decided to attend Diesel Mechanic School in California for 12 months.
Upon his return to Wharton, McCain went to work for a County Commissioner as a heavy equipment operator. War was raging in Europe and with the Nazi advancements, there were rumors the U.S. would enter the War. “Some of my co-workers had been soldiers in the trenches in WWI,” McCain said, “And they kept advising me to enlist in the Army, either tanks or artillery, to avoid being drafted into the infantry! I took their advice and joined the 36th Tank Company of the Texas National Guard in 1940.
“The Armory was on Canal Street in Houston. I began my adventure in the military began by driving tanks down Canal Street to Harrisburg, to Old Galveston Rd, and on to West Ranch (now NASA Space Center) on maneuvers; ended 5 years later in Czechoslovakia.
“When anyone asks me what I did in WWII, I always tell them, I slept through it and missed the whole war,” laughed McCain. “But the reality is, I loved being in the Army. The men I served with were the best of the best, and if I could have kept all those men with me, I would never have left the Army. We were family!”
On January 2, 1941, McCain’s National Guard Company became part of 193rd Tank Battalion, 2nd Armored Division under General George Patton. McCain attended Tank Mechanic School in Ft. Knox where he learned to keep tanks operating under all circumstances. From there, he conducted maneuvers in Tennessee and Carolina before loading tanks and trucks on flat railcars headed to San Francisco.
In San Francisco, McCain and 193rd loaded on an old freighter to Hawaii for more training. After the Battle of Midway, the U.S. decided Japanese would not invade Hawaii and sent a few mechanics back to the U.S. mainland to establish a cadre for a new armored division. McCain was one of these mechanics.
“My training began on the new Sherman Tanks”, recalled McCain. “After 2 months, I was sent to join the newly formed 16th Armored Division.”
The 16th Armored Division, nicknamed Armadillo, an armored division of U.S. Army, activated July 15, 1943 at Camp Chaffee, Arkansas. “We had city Yankee draftees, who did not even know how to drive a car, trying to learn how to drive tanks and trucks. You can imagine it was a little hectic for a while, but they finally learned to drive their assigned vehicle!
“D-Day came and we were still in the US. December 1944, myself and most of my maintenance crew shipped out for La Havre, France; heading to the European Theatre.”
Master Sergeant John McCain was known to his men as Mac.
“When we arrived, the area was secured but we had to wait a few days for our tanks. Our tanks finally arrived and unloaded. We drove them into a deep wooded area for cover where we gassed them up and made sure they were in working order for the arrival of our troops. Our job for the rest of the war was to keep these tanks going. Our Sherman tanks were up against heavier weight German tanks with greater firepower.
“The most important person to have on your team is your parts man and we had the best! We called him Scrounger. We worked in a blackout tent at night with everything we needed to set up a complete shop including a generator for light. As the tanks moved forward, our makeshift shop would move with them. Scrounger could find anything; we would chip in money to help him negotiate what we needed.
“We became very inventive. Germans would string piano wire between the trees and if anyone drove their jeeps through, the piano wire, which was invisible to average sight, would cut their heads off. We came up with a way to convert our jeeps to have wire cutters at the front to cut through the wire.
“I devised a rail around the turret of the tank so our Infantry men riding on the outside of the tank had something to hang on to. Scrounger went into town and found steel we molded into a rail around the turret. We did this to all 75 of our tanks. When the Colonel saw what I did, he came down hard and started chewing on me saying, ‘I was ruining the integrity of the tanks.’ I guess it did not ruin it too much as today all tanks have a rail around the turret.
“In order to make sure our tanks would start during the freezing winters, we had to keep one running at all times to charge the others. Our hands got so cold we had Scrounger find German heaters with German generators to plug them into to keep us warm; it worked!
“What I consider one of my most famous inventions was the hot and cold toilet seat. When we set up camp at night, a slit trench was dug for use as a toilet in squat position. This was not very comfortable. We got Scrounger to find us 1x12s and hinges to make us a 4-holer. After we set it up, the Infantry, who was close by, would use our facilities and hog the 4 seats preventing us from using it. We decided we had enough of that. I had my Model T coil; I never left home without it.
“We hotwired a couple of the seats by running a wire into the backend of a truck and attaching it to my Model T Coil, battery and switch. One of our guys would sit on the ‘cold’ seat. When any infantry man came to have a seat, he was told the last guy that sat there got bit by a black widow. We would then flip the switch and fire some juice to the ‘hot’ seat shooting electric charge through that soldier’s rear; he would fly off the toilet! Our Captain even got in the fun and shot some juice to the seat of an infantry lieutenant, zapping him good. Boy was he mad!”
Per the 16th Armored Division
During final days of battle in Europe, the final stronghold of German armed forces was a pocket in Czechoslovakia. As Soviet Red Army and American forces moved to the area, there was a debate between U.S. and British leaders regarding attempts to deny the Soviets a post-war foothold in Czechoslovakia. It was decided American forces would help Soviets subdue estimated 141,000 German troops before exiting the area.
The 16th Armored Division assigned to the V Corps advancing to launch an attack on Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. General Patton ordered the 16th AD to move towards Prague, where the German commander was waiting to surrender to US forces; however, the American troops were recalled to Pilsen per agreement with Soviet Union. The German forces wanted to surrender to U.S. to avoid capture by Soviets and even aided takeover. The fanatical German SS Troops continued to fight both Czechoslovakian and American forces to gain territory they wanted to claim and keep under their control in the future.
“When we got to Czechoslovakia, we met the Russians. Many German soldiers were in Prague and wanted to find the Americans to be taken prisoner by Americans verses Russians. We were allowed to take prisoners who crossed the bridge into Pilsen to surrender then throw their guns in a pile. We had approx. 10,000 German prisoners; aka POWs.
“We put them in a field surrounded by our tanks. Interrogators would interview each soldier to determine who was a member of the dreaded SS and who was not. Non-SS soldiers were given a food ration and turned loose to walk home; SS were held captive.
“One last assignment in Czechoslovakia was to round up all German vehicles within a 50 mile radius.We ended up with approx. 250 deserted vehicles of various sizes and uses. War in the European Theatre was over. I thank God we were able to liberate Europe and come home in one piece.
“When I returned to United States, I was discharged in Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. I rode a train to Houston and arrived in the early morning hours. I slept in the depot waiting room until the train left for Wharton at 9:15 a.m. We arrived in Wharton about 11:00 a.m. Sunday morning. I grabbed my duffle bag and walked down Caney Street to the Presbyterian Church where I knew my mother would be.
“The preacher was in the middle of his sermon about the return of the prodigal son when I walked in the door. His eyes lit up and he hollered, ‘Our prayers have been answered! The prodigal son has indeed returned!’ He ran down the aisle and grabbed me. I had people hugging me, crying, and laughing. I am fortunate my mother did not faint. Wharton was (and is) a wonderful place to come back to.”
Sarah’s Note: June 6th is celebrated as D-Day – a Day that brought hope to all who lost everything; to those forced into concentration camps, to those that were in hiding, and to those living in fear. Our brave men gave their lives to bring freedom and liberation to people they did not know because, we are All One Nation, Under God! God Bless and thank you Mr. McCain for all you gave to our country.
Publisher’s Note: John N. McCain passed away on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020. At 102 years old, he will be forever remembered as a true American Hero and a true Patriot to Wharton, Texas. Our condolences are passed to the family, friends and community in mourning.