TYLER (KYTX) -- Imagine working in an office every day, having a wife and two children to take care of, and suddenly Uncle Sam sends you to a foreign country to spend two years in a war firing ammunition out of a tank. It happened 71 years ago to L.T. Phelps of Tyler.
"After you were assigned duty on that tank you stayed on that tank until you were relieved or got killed," Phelps told us.
But L.T. Phelps was never relieved in World War II. For a year and a half he was responsible for artillery in an Army tank company in Germany. And he did come close to death more than once. One day a mortar shell nearly took the husband and father from his family. He said, "it hit 6 feet in front of the tank and instead of exploding and killing all of us, it hit the ground and just (rolled) over like that."
It was a dud fortunately for his wife Vesta and their two children. Phelps was 24 in the summer of 1943 when he got the draft notice that turned his world upside down. After basic training he was sent to Europe on a 5-day boat ride across the Atlantic he and his fellow soldiers would never forget. Phelps said, "all of them were seasick! You could see them leaning over the rails."
When they arrived after the invasion of Normandy in 1944 and started heading to the front lines in a convoy, the Germans gave them a not-so-warm welcome. "Planes from out of Germany would strafe us, just come over and get close to the ground as they could," Phelps said, "they'd start shooting at us before we ever got up on the front lines."
But he and Company F, a crew of 6 tanks, made it to the front lines. His job was to load and fire cannons and machine guns. Despite the stress of battle he remembered his training. He said, "you had to know what you were doing and where to put that stuff where it wouldn't be overloaded."
As allied forces pushed through Europe Phelps and his tank company made their way from one war zone to the next. There was very little peace. "I would sleep in those tanks at night, gun ready, ready to start the engine on those and be ready to defend ourselves," Phelps told us.
And even the act of the firing those weapons was dangerous. Phelps said, "they would tell you to put your ear plugs in because it would damage your ear drums. I've been done that way lots of times. That's the reason I'm a little hard of hearing now."
Phelps saw many of his fellow soldiers die including his captain who was shot while looking for a missing soldier in their company. But after victory was achieved in Europe in May 1945 he could finally go home. He returned to Tyler and met some family downtown then took a cab home to see his beautiful wife and children. Phelps said, "when they saw me getting out of that taxi the oldest one was a boy and he ran out there and said, 'Daddy's home!'"
He went from office boy to tank machine gunner and at the age of 94 he says he'd answer America's call again. "If they need me right now I'd be ready to go," he told us.
And that what makes L.T. Phelps an East Texas Hero.
Phelps ended up spending 40 years with the Cotton Belt Railroad. He retired as a chief clerk overseeing two offices.