Robinson resident R.D. “Joe” Cotten, 95, is the last of nine siblings. He also is one of two men remaining in the military company in which he served during World War II. And he’s not alone. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notes that of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, just 558,000 remain as of 2017.
Perhaps that’s one of the best reasons to share the stories of veterans. Not only are they fascinating — they’re also important. As participants and witnesses to history, theirs is a legacy worth preserving.
Cotten’s WWII service falls into this category. Born and raised in Franklin County, Mississippi, he moved to Waco after high school to attend Baylor University. But his schooling was quickly interrupted by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and by 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Cotten went to basic training at Fort Smith, Arkansas, where the 14th Armored Division was activated at Camp Chaffee, followed by advanced training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He became a tank commander and was sent overseas to Marseille, France, where in the latter part of 1944 he joined the 47th Tank Battalion, first with Company A and then Company D. They were joined by the 48th and the 25th Tank Battalions.
As a tank commander he stood in the turret, where he could see what was ahead. “I had a seat too, if it got too hot up there from machine gun fire,” he said, laughing.
The entire division traveled to Nice, Cannes and along the French Riviera, then turned back to Marseille and Aix. From there, they went all the way to Belgium. Although by this time the Germans had mostly been driven out of France, “there was scattered resistance all the way up,” Cotten said.
Most men were in tanks and heavy vehicles and moved by rail, as they were a mobile unit. When they arrived at the Belgium border, Cotten had been commander of one tank. Now, as staff sergeant, it was five.
They joined up with, and attacked, the Germans with the help of French allies and additional American divisions in one of the deadliest battles — the Battle of the Bulge.
“We met the brunt of the final German push,” Cotten said. “They were really aiming to get back to Paris and recapture France.”
Cotten and his men were assigned to the southern edge of the Bulge in a static position, to ensure no German troops could move south farther into France. They would sit and fire; there was very little movement, which is bad for tanks, he said. They stayed in that position several days. “There was a constant barrage of artillery from the German side every night,” he said.
Up to now, Cotten’s tank had been hit many times with machine guns, but so far, “nobody I knew was ever hit all the way up to Belgium,” he said. That would soon change.
On Jan. 14, Cotten was hit by two pieces of shrapnel. While there was a lot of bleeding, it wasn’t the biggest problem. Frostbite was — on his hands and feet. It was so bad he was hospitalized at the 136th General Hospital in Dijon, France, where it was six weeks before he could take his first steps. Thankfully, nothing had to be amputated, but he did lose some toenails.
He eventually recovered and was sent back to his division. By now, the division had moved from the Bulge to along the France/German border, where they were absorbed into Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. Cotten would stay with the 3rd Army until the end of the war.
The next target was the bridge at Remagen. The American forces needed the bridge to cross the Rhine River and establish a foothold on the German side of the river. Even though Hitler had ordered many bridges to be destroyed as the Germans retreated, the Ludendorff railroad bridge was still standing — for now.
As they encountered fierce fighting at the bridge, many were able to make it over before it was damaged by the Germans. The bridge collapsed some days later, but by this time, Cotten had crossed in his tank on a floating pontoon bridge.
“We went across one tank at a time because the weight of the tank would push the bridge down," he said.
In two weeks: Part two of R.D. Cotten’s story, a World War II and Korean veteran, will continue in the Nov. 19 edition of the Waco Tribune-Herald, where he becomes part of the “Liberators” who freed hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war.
Next Sunday: Don’t miss a special Veterans Day story.