The Half Track Postcard
As told by Ted
Fleser, WW II Ranger 1D, FSSF - Cannon Co.
to Lynn Towne, RBA
WW II Western Chapter Secretary
and Holly Fleser
Seery, daughter of Ted Fleser
Tell us about the
postcard that you received and the story behind it.
postcard is of a photo taken by a civilian photographer of our half
track and crew in Nice, France.”
The following is the history of the photograph:
It represents a point in time for a First Special Services Force (FSSF)
Half Track crew that came together from different Ranger units.
“I served with Bill
and Joe Cain (Joe is not pictured), in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.
The Cain brothers had gone into the Ranger Cannon Company before Venafro
from “D” Company of the First Ranger Battalion.
We had all been
wounded. The Cain brothers were wounded at Anzio. While still part of
the Ranger “D” Company, I had been wounded at Venafro, near San Pietro,
Italy. With a mortar bomb fragment in the jaw, and trench foot, I was
sent to North Africa for hospitalization.
After “D” Company of
the First Ranger Battalion was wiped out at Cisterna on the Anzio
Beachhead, we got together at Lucreno, the Ranger rear. Since there was
no longer a “D” Company, and the Cain brothers had transferred from the
Ranger “D” Company to Cannon Company, the three of us hitch-hiked on a
Landing Ship Tank (LST) to the Anzio beachhead. I then joined their
Company, the Ranger Cannon Company at Anzio.
While on the Anzio
beachhead, we had been absorbed as a Company into the First Special
Service Force. We broke out of the Anzio Beachhead and drove on to
Rome. Not much later came the invasion of Southern France. The
postcard photo pertains to the invasion in Southern France.”
Can you tell me about
the half-track, how you got the half-track?
“The half tracks were
acquired by Colonel Darby in Sicily during the early part of the
Sicilian Campaign. These vehicles were originally tank destroyers that
became ineffective as German tanks were improved. The Ranger Cannon
Company was formed after the Sicilian Campaign was over. Cannon Company
originally consisted of four half tracks, each named after one of the
four suits in a deck of cards. Each half track mounted a French 75 mm
cannon, a 50 caliber machine gun, and a 30 caliber machine gun. All of
which are displayed on the half track in this postcard picture. Since
we operated in mountainous terrain, in fact, all sorts of terrain, we
also carried an 81 mm mortar. You can see it on the side rack by the
bipod. That is what I refer to as the bipod and the mortar tube.”
Who is standing in
“In the foreground are
the civilians who lived in the vicinity of Nice, France. Lt. Owen R.
Haines is sitting on the hood of the half track. He was just
hitch-hiking along with us. Haines joined the Ranger Cannon Company on
the Anzio Beachhead. He and a number of personnel came in as
replacements at Anzio. All of the officers had been lost at Cisterna.”
What is his hand on?
“Bill Cain, (who by
the time he went home from Menton, had five years of continuous overseas
service, his brother, Joe, went home after Rome with four and one half
years of service), has his hand on the French 75 mm cannon, which dated
back to well before WW I. In fact, when our barrels were replaced, at
least one of them came back with an I.C. on it, “Inspected and
Condemned”. But it was better than the ones that we had. Sitting
inside, you can see the arm of the driver of the half track. His name
was Bill Ketchens. He was really the one responsible for our having
this picture. After the war, he went back to a town we had liberated
and married a girl from that town. She now lives in Florida. Her sister
saw the postcard in France, recognized the people in the picture, and
sent it to the Ketchens. It was taken by a civilian photographer. Bill
then sent it on to me. I received this photo from Ketchens almost
twenty years ago.”
Why had you taken this
out after all these years?
“My family had the
postcard enlarged as a surprise Father’s Day gift. We keep it on the
wall of our home. I thought I would bring it to our meeting for all to
I was the gunner
sitting on the gun shield in the center of the half track. Bill Cain
was Commander, and Emmett Bailey was the assistant gunner sitting behind
me on the gun shield. Since we were always short handed, as you see,
there are only four of us that would be operating the half track The
Commander would act as loader for the gun; it took three of us to
operate the gun. Ideally, we would have liked to have six of us working
the half track.”
Can you tell me the
story about how the half track became the “Ace in the Hole”?
“The half tracks of
Cannon Company had been referred to as “Darby’s Ace in the Hole.”
Therefore, we had an insignia on the side of the gun shield, a picture
of a hand pulling an ace out of his sleeve. Over it you can see the
You had this sort of
thing because you couldn’t have Ranger insignia on you so this was a
replacement for that?
“We had been told that
we would have to get rid of the Ranger insignia. We obliged by
obliterating the lettering, but leaving the scroll.”
This is because you
were First Special Service Force?
“Yes, this was a
Canadian – U.S. outfit. Similar capabilities of the Rangers, so they
were happy to absorb the Cannon Company as a unit into the First Special
Service Force. The other Rangers, as they came out of hospitals, etc.,
were absorbed into the First Special Service Force also, but were
dispersed throughout the organization.
As you can see, the
machine guns have canvas covers to protect them from the elements.
Normally, we would have a canteen cover over the muzzle of the 75 mm gun
barrel. If the gun was being fired, the air that was in the barrel
would be compressed and blow the canvas cover off. So even if it was
left on, or someone forgot to take it off, it would be blown off.”
After this picture was
taken, did all of you men stay together in Cannon Company?
“Yes, until they were
wounded or something else happened to them. This picture was taken in
Nice, France. We continued taking various towns up to the French /
Italian Border (Menton, along the Riviera, and the Maritime Alps).”
Is there another story
you would like to tell me?
“We would get fire
missions. In other words, make a nuisance of ourselves and draw fire. A
battery of American 90 mm cannons would counter battery, that is, fire
on the artillery that was firing on us. One such firing mission was in
Menton, France. Using the 75 mm gun, we picked off a “jerry” (German)
forward artillery observer who was operating on the skeleton work of a
hotel’s external elevator in Ventemiglia, Italy. The elevator ran from
the building on down to the beach. We had to position ourselves so that
our projectile would hit him, or the skeleton work of the elevator
structure, otherwise the projectile would continue on parallel to the
cliff. Each of the steel skeleton structure sections were about 6
inches wide. We managed to hit our target at 900 yards. However, the
next time we went to use any of our firing positions, we could see that
they had been zeroed in on.
We had a change of
personnel. Emmet Bailey (aka Bill Bailey) wasn’t with us. He would be
operating with us when available; he had been wounded during the Anzio
breakout. Bailey was no longer part of our normal crew. Bill Cain had
gone home after 5 years. I then became Track Commander as well as
gunner. Bill Ketchens was being introduced to the position of replacing
Bill Bailey as assistant gunner. Ketchens was also breaking in a new
driver as he was being broken in as assistant gunner. We had a
replacement aboard as a loader.
Unfortunately, you see
how in the photo there are archways in buildings; there was an archway
that we had to go through to get into firing position. It was too
narrow for a ¾ ton weapons carrier, similar to a pickup truck to go
through. The archway was just barely wide enough for a half track to go
through with our bogey nuts (the nuts on the wheels that you can see)
cutting grooves in the wall. It took close maneuvering to get through
the archway. Unfortunately, the replacement driver, after we had pulled
a firing mission, panicked when the half track got hung up and they were
firing on us. It was a tight squeeze going through the archway.
A shell landed behind
us. Bill Ketchens, who was assistant gunner at the time, was wounded in
his thigh. He didn’t know it at the time. The replacement loader
received a piece of shrapnel in his kidney. He had a ship tattooed on
his chest which was dismasted by the shrapnel. I received a hip pocket
wound and now have a dimple on my cheek. Another piece ricocheted off
the wall, and hit my glasses at an angle. The cross-sectional density
of the lens deflected it somewhat, lacerating the area around the
glasses, but saved my eye. Bill Ketchens got back in the driving
position, the replacement driver had panicked and left the vehicle, so
Ketchens went over the gun shield into the driver’s position and got the
vehicle moving ahead again. I tended the wounded replacement loader on
the way to the aid station. He later died at the aid station. This
occurred in Menton, Southern France, on the French / Italian Border.”