Brig. Gen. Albin F. Irzyk, Commander, 8th Infantry Battalion, 4th Armored Division, Third Army
born Jan 2, 1917 Salem, Massachusetts
died Sep 10, 2018 West Palm Beach, Florida
The last of Patton’s Third Army tank battalion commanders standing died last year at 101 years old. The last time I talked to him on the phone was Sept. 14, 2015. He always sounded alert, and exhibited a faultless memory for details. I pointed out that the M5 Stuart tank which had been his home for the first half of his WWII had a certain deficiency: if the turret should freeze in the straight ahead position the driver would be trapped inside. This was from Leo Barron’s book Patton at the Battle of the Bulge recommended by him to me in an earlier phone call on Feb. 11, 2015. Gen. Irzyk admitted that he had been unaware of this problem.
Since 2005 I have been privileged to know Gen. Irzyk by telephone, by the letters and emails we’ve exchanged, and by a visit to his home in Florida. When I needed an authoritative answer to the firing sequence of an Assault Gun for our screenplay Patton’s Secret Mission, Gen. Irzyk has always been there as an eyewitness consultant. At 5’ 8” he is not a tall man, but from his appearance, his handsome face, and his penetrating blue eyes, he makes a stunning impression.
He is everything a dedicated and highly professional U.S. Army Officer should be. He has been through Hell and back, both in WWII and Viet Nam, gathering the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts and more. His introduction to combat was as quarterback of the football team at U. Mass Amherst (playing both offense and defense). His 8th Tank Battalion did much of the heavy lifting in the liberation of Bastogne, like the linemen on a football team. When Lt. Col. Creighton Abram’s 37th Tank Battalion did an end run and crossed the finish line first, Maj. Irzyk’s unit was overshadowed, but he takes great pride in his contribution. He is intense, scrappy, passionate in his beliefs, and deeply religious. I sense that part of his longevity is that he is on a mission: to tell the story of WWII from his viewpoint and to set the record straight. He is a family man, a clear communicator, inspirational, and loyal to a fault. The kind of leader you would want to follow into battle.
Here is the citation for the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism. The citation for that honor included this description of his actions on March 18, 1945:”During the advance of Colonel Irzyk’s battalion against Wolfsheim, Germany, four of the assaulting tanks were knocked out in a sudden enemy attack, and the leading company was disorganized. Colonel Irzyk immediately advanced to the head of the column, and with all guns firing charged headlong against the opposing anti-tank guns. The guns were overrun, and pushing rapidly ahead, Colonel Irzyk led his command on into the town. When his tank was destroyed by enemy rocket fire, Colonel Irzyk dismounted, and although wounded, led infantry forces forward through a hail of fire. He continued to direct the attack until the mission was accomplished.”
I was very impressed with his 1995 book He Rode up Front for Patton. For somebody who is curious about what it felt like to live and fight inside a tank in WWII, this is by far the best first-person account of a man who was in the thick of America’s finest tank action as a tank battalion S-3 and commander. I wrote to him and told him so:
A portion of my letter of July 21, 2005 to Gen. Irzyk:
Your book is a valuable treatise on military leadership and organization, strategy, tactics, logistics, weaponry, communications, medical care, food supply, service units, billeting, etc. I have never read elsewhere about the nightmare of tank refueling in combat areas. Your detailed description of tank hardware and how the crew lived in tanks — what you ate — how you relieved yourselves.
As valuable though as are the nuts and bolts of war, what you are especially good at communicating is how it all felt. Exhilaration, frustration, boredom, bafflement, terror, satisfaction, pride, confusion, affection. Many books have been written by soldiers about their combat experiences, but few have been able to put into words their emotions as expertly as you.
What I see in you is a person of exceptional inner strength and balance. When you win a battle or receive a promotion, you express justifiable pride. You don’t go nuts, or power-happy, or lose your equilibrium, but you aren’t afraid to acknowledge that you deserve it. (It is rightly said that the two hardest things for most of us to accept are criticism and praise.) You are also unsparing in your after-action self-analysis. Not to beat up on yourself for any mistakes, but to learn for future reference.
When you and your men got upstaged liberating Bastogne after doing most of the heavy preparation, you took it rather calmly and stoically, without feelings of vengeance or sour grapes. It has not made you bitter, but it may have helped you to channel any such feelings constructively into setting right the historical record.
The importance of your bonds with your fellow soldiers, both junior and senior, is also very revealing. You suffer and grieve for the losses of all your men, both officers and enlisted men. You have real empathy for the lowliest in the chain of command—the cooks and truck drivers. You really cared about the misery of the doughs who spent the night outdoors in water-filled foxholes. By showing respect for your underlings, taking joy in the promotions and honors given to those ranking both above and below you, you reveal that your true humanism and egalitarianism. This must have been one of the keys to your natural leadership, along with expertise in the fine points of tactics and administration. Somehow you were able to become battle-hardened without becoming callous or unfeeling. You do not seem to hate your German opponents, with the possible exception of those responsible for the concentration camps. In several places you give the Germans full credit for their fighting qualities.
Then on July 28, 2005 I emailed the General with several questions about tanks: attacking at night, lack of heavy US tanks, and tank firing sequences. I must have touched a nerve when I mentioned Cooper’s book Death Traps about the inadequacies of the Sherman tank. Here is Gen. Irzyk’s reply:
31 July 2005
I received your e-mail, but I am answering by USPS. I will comment about your questions, and will endeavor to answer them
Per Patton’s order we moved all night before the next day’s vicious counterattack at Chaumont on 23 December. The night’s advance was minimal, and only greatly wearied an already very weary bunch. Patton later admitted that he made a bad mistake.
We also moved under total blackout conditions on the night before we reached the outskirts of Bastogne after our 161 mile approach march from France. These were emergency conditions.
There were many instances when we continued operating after darkness settled, when we had a bright moon. However, there can be no aimed fire from a tank when it is pitch black. Thus, except for an emergency, we would not attack at night.
During the latter weeks of the war, we were offered M26’s. Without hesitation we turned them down flat. At that point in the war we were in the exploitation phase. Mobility, movement, maneuver were important. We were pleased with our M4A3E8 easy eights. They had performed to our complete satisfaction. That was not the time to switch to an unknown which at that time was not needed.
I will have some lengthy comments. First, I have enclosed an article that was published in January 1946. As you know, it often takes many weeks from written to published. In this case it was written overseas, so it was probably well back in 1945 when it was completed. I wrote it because of criticism that was appearing about the inferior American tanks. The final straw was adverse comments from that highly respected military analyst and critic of the N.Y.Times, Hanson Baldwin. (He wrote a biography about my Gen. Wood, and he visited me when I was commanding the 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment along the Iron Curtain.)
With that as a background I will comment upon your honored visit with Belton Cooper. You have met him and interviewed him. You have an advantage over me. All I know about Belton Cooper is that he is the author of “Death Traps.” I have not read his book. I read a review of his book and what the reviewer described made me angry. I am just distressed at all the readers who will believe what he had to stay. My heart goes out to poor Belton Cooper who is haunted by the 500 or 600 shot up Sherman tanks that his out- fit had to repair, and that he had to scrape out human remains.
Let’s put this in perspective. Belton was a junior officer deep in the rear with his Ordnance outfit. Did he tell you how many hours he spent inside a tank? Did he tell you how many hours he spent in a tank out front engaging enemy tanks? I would like to know. He must have forgotten that the tanks were in a war. Tanks get hit during a war. I was in a tank. My men were inside tanks. Every one of us knew that if we were hit by an enemy tank, that might be it for us. We endeavored to knock him out before he hit us. The infantry men that worked with us called our tanks moving coffins. Fighting a tank was our job .It goes without saying that if we had tanks that could not be shot up even by Tigers, they would require so much steel that they could not move. So there were tanks that were bound to be shot up.
I wonder what he would call the 200 plus shot up Panthers that littered the hills of Lorraine after the Arracourt Tank Battles in September. Were they also ”Death Traps?”
I wonder what he would call the field jackets of infantrymen with rifle holes in them. Would they be “Death Jackets.”
You give great credence to Cooper’s authoritative opinion of the Sherman when you say that he is far less generous in his opinion than I am.
That requires one final comment. I rode an AMERICAN tank from Devizes, England to Volyne, Czechoslovakia. I not only rode, but I fought, ate, slept in the tank. Never once did I bemoan my tank as being inferior. Never once did I envy the Germans for their tank. And I am particularly angry that some rear echelon service soldier would label my tank a “Death Trap.”
With that off my chest, a comment about your firing order.
The Gunnery Department at the Armor School taught a suggested fire order. As I mentioned to you previously, after a crew worked together, particularly the tank commander and gunner, they developed their own “shorthand.”
Here is a sample of a tank fire order-GUNNER TRUCK, 1200, HE, TRAVERSE RIGHT, STEADY, ON, FIRE, DOWN 100, FIRE. Once a gunner latched on to his target he made his own adjustments until the target was destroyed.
A tank fire order is different for an Assault Gun. Although on a Sherman chassis, it did not have a turret. It was open, had a 105mm howitzer, and was really an artillery piece. In my Battalion I had an Assault Gun Platoon of three guns. Each of the three medium tank companies had one Assault Gun. I did not believe that a single Assault Gun was of much use, so I was innovative and placed all six under the command of the Assault Gun Platoon Leader. Thus, I had my own artillery battery immediately responsive to me. I was seemingly the only one to do this, and I wrote about it after the war.
Reference your suggested sequence.
It appears that Sgt. Graham is firing his guns
individually, not as a three gun battery.. It appears that he calls his guns A, B, C. You have Gunner Stanley telling Loader White to load after each round. What would have happened is that when the command high explosive was given the loader would have popped the round right in. As each round was fired, he would immediately shove a new round in. He did not need a command for each round. If White waited for Stanley to say load each time, they never would have gotten off the 10 rounds per minute. If you need to, we can discuss this further.
My comments and answers were lengthier than I expected, but I hope that they were of some help.
Gen. Irzyk enclosed a copy of a 6 page article he had written for Military Review, Jan. 1946, Vol. XXV, No. 10 entitled “Tank vs Tank.” Clearly the General has defended the quality of the Sherman tank against its critics for many years. Based on guns, armor, and flotation (track width), Irzyk concedes the Tiger tank beats the Sherman. But when you get into factors such as fuel capacity, range, reliability, ease of field maintenance, endurance, track lifetime, and ability to cross bridges, the comparison gets closer.
Where does the emotion come from when Irzyk feels angry about what reviewers of Cooper’s book said? As a tank battalion commander, Irzyk had to instill confidence in his men that they had the best equipment available. They had to be realistic about making use of what they had. Furthermore, Irzyk is very proud of his own valorous achievements in this tank. Irzyk is by nature a positive, optimistic man, and for him regarding WWII tanks the glass was half full. (In defense of Belton Cooper, I recently read in Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers, p. 283 that the number of battlefield casualties in the 3rd Armored was almost double that of the 4th Armored (10,105 vs. 5,988 respectively). For whatever reason, the 3rd Armored had quite a blood bath in comparison.)
In Sept., 2005, my fiancée (now wife) Gillian and I were invited to visit Gen. Irzyk and his wife Evelyn at their home in West Palm Beach, FL. We were attending the Annual reunion of OFLAG 64 in Ft. Lauderdale. It was a great honor and an unforgettable feeling to experience the Irzyks’ warm hospitality. We had a lively conversation and the General showed me many of his wartime memorabilia, including the 1:100,000 scale topo maps he had used in the liberation of Bastogne. Months later I was able to find a collection of maps of Belgium from the 1940’s in a 1:25,000 scale, which I sent to the General. He responded as follows:
4 September 2006
Evelyn and I were talking about you recently. I greatly enjoyed, “Patton’s Task Force Baum Lives Again!” in the recent issue of “Rolling Together.” Evelyn read it after I did, and, also, enjoyed it immensely. We both agreed that it was extremely interesting and very well written. I know quite a number of dedicated reenactors, and have watched some of them at work. However, I did not know that the Germans were in it so deeply, particularly with Task Force Baum. The reenactment which you described has to be one of the best of which I am aware.
Then some days later the mailman brought to our door a very large tube. Of, course, I was very curious and wondered what it was. Then lo and behold, I saw, of all things, the name, Jim Sudmeier on the return label. That piqued my curiosity even more. After I opened it, I found sheets of maps, and as I unrolled them the first map heading said, “Bastogne!” I said Wow! I soon learned that I had 27 sheets of 1/25,000 Belgian maps of WW II vintage of the Bastogne area where I moved and fought. I quickly looked for Chaumont where on the 23rd of December my battalion received a vicious counterattack, during which my tank was hit, and I was superficially wounded. It was the worst day of my life.
The maps we tankers operated with were 1/100,000. The maps you sent have almost four times more detail. So as I study them, I will be able to see things that were not available during my “adventures” in the area.
I am deeply grateful for your great thoughtfulness in providing me with such a very special gift. It will be a very valuable addition to my collection of WW II memorabilia. I recognize that it took you a great deal of effort to obtain the maps and to package and mail them to me. Please accept my warmest, sincerest thanks.
Evelyn and I, also, enjoyed your visit to our home. We hope that you will again be able to stop by.
The last item. We send our heartiest congratulations on winning the platinum award [at the 2006 Houston Film Festival for our screenplay “Patton’s Secret Mission”]. What a tremendous achievement and honor! We know that you are very proud of it, and we are proud for you.
We send our very best wishes and regards.