World War II veteran Richard Mossner, 91, of Reese lives in a house he built — just down the road from the 90-acre farm he grew up on — after he returned from war on Easter Sunday in 1946.
The cozy home — where he and his wife, Patricia, raised four children: Elizabeth, Alice, Stephen and Greg, and that he has shared with son Greg since Patricia’s death — is a far cry from the cramped, cold M-18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer that he drove and essentially lived in from 1944 to 1946.
Hellcats were designed to be relatively light and are still considered the fastest tank ever built — their mission: to hunt and destroy German tanks.
The most important aspect of the Hellcat for Mossner was its reliability. “I never, never had a mechanical breakdown with that tank,” he said.
Mossner has lots of stories from his days as a tanker with the 602nd Tank Destroyer Battalion, and he’s a skilled storyteller.
There’s the pig pen conflagration, when he and the rest of his five-man crew had to evacuate the loft over a pig pen they were sleeping in when it caught fire in the middle of the night.
In Mossner’s rendition, it’s amusing that the men escaped into the street in their long underwear and without their guns.
And there’s the time Mossner’s unit received orders to “get them tanks moving and don’t stop until you get orders to stop.”
On that cloudy day, they were moving so fast — Hellcats had a top speed of “about 24 mile an hour wide open,” Mossner said — that the tanks were soon out of fuel and stuck.
“I mean tanks was out, jeeps was out, everything,” he said.
When the skies finally cleared enough, supply planes dropped gas and the crew trudged back and forth across a muddy field to retrieve the fuel and fill the Hellcat’s two 250-gallon tanks five gallons at a time.
“The thing only got, if you really babied it, about 2 miles to a gallon,” said Mossner. “Every time we seen a gas truck, we was pouring gas into it.”
He almost makes it all seem like a lark, but being caught without clothing or fuel near the front lines in the middle of winter are the kinds of things that are probably only funny in hindsight.
And it’s clear that Mossner — just 20 years old when he returned home to Reese — doesn’t make light of war.
His unit wasn’t the one that liberated Mauthausen (a concentration camp near Linz, Austria), but it was only a day or two behind the unit that did.
“I seen bodies piled up,” said Mossner. “You wouldn’t believe.”
“Just worked to death,” Mossner continued. “(The survivors) said they got potato peelings to eat from the guards. They (the guards) got the potatoes and the prisoners got the peelings. They said they’d reach through the fence and get grass and stuff to eat.”
Hellcats were so fast and maneuverable that they could often evade the slower, more poorly designed German tanks.
Mossner described his tank-driving skills as “being sneaky” and said that he preferred to come up on German tanks from behind.
When that happened, Mossner said, a German tank “was like a lot of these deer hunters that shoot where the deer was. We could move faster than they could rotate their gun.”
Another part of being sneaky was hiding the white star painted on the side of the tank.
“That sucker was a target,” said Mossner.
German tanks could only rotate their guns 180 degrees.
“They never thought that anyone was going to be behind them,” Mossner explained. “When you’d get behind them, that’s the soft part.”
With their relatively lighter armor, the Hellcats tried hard not to get in front of the German tanks’ heavy guns.
On one occasion Mossner’s crew caught up with some Schutzstaffel (SS) soldiers who were retreating into Germany with a group of prisoners.
“They were shooting the prisoners to get rid of them,” Mossner said. “We caught up to them and we just — they took off.”
Mossner said the prisoners they had come across could barely move.
The tank crews gave them their rations, but the prisoners were so hungry they were cutting pieces of flesh out of dead horses that had been pulling wagons and eating it raw.
“My God they was hungry,” said Mossner.
The 602nd Tank Destroyer Battalion was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for its actions at the Battle of the Bulge where in late December 1945 it held the line at Bastogne.
“There was four of us that took out 14 German tanks at Bastogne,” Mossner said.
Mossner’s son, Stephen, saw combat as a Marine in Vietnam, and the two have a special bond because of it.
“Not only is he my dad, he’s my brother, too,” said Stephen Mossner.
For Richard Mossner, who chose to enlist in the Army because he couldn’t swim and didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was until he heard over a State Police radio that it had been bombed, coming home to Reese and making a life with Patricia — the two married in 1948 — was all he wanted to do after the war ended.
He settled down to a 43-year career at Saginaw’s Grey Iron Foundry and enjoying his wife’s famous butterhorns.
He didn’t talk much about his experiences until he was 88 years old and Stephen began to ask questions.
Recently Tuscola County Veterans Affairs Director Mark D. Zmierski presented Mossner with a special cane to commemorate his World War II service.
The head of the cane was carved by a member of the Michigan Wood Carving Association as part of its Patriot Cane Memorial Project, which since 2004 has provided 2,800 custom-carved eagle head canes for Michigan combat veterans.
Mossner, who made his own insulated boots with straw and blankets to fix the problem of cold inside his Hellcat, and who cheated death when a bullet went in one side of his helmet, made a crease around the inside, and went out the other side, doesn’t think war changed him all that much.
But he’s still not able to reconcile what he saw at Mauthausen and the prisoners he and his crew came across that day.
“I couldn’t believe one person could treat another one like that,” Mossner said.
Caroline Goetze is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org