DONALD F. MASTERS

Captain | Armor

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When he was just fifteen, Don Masters enlisted in the California National Guard for a ten-year service commitment.  Balancing Guard service with his humble job at his family grocery store, he managed to rise through the ranks of I Company, 185th Infantry.  After the regiment was federalized for World War II, it became clear they were destined for the Pacific theater and began training in jungle warfare.  Don spent the early months of the war in Hawaii before departing his long-served unit to attend Armored Officer Candidate School.   Due to his year of college education in auto mechanics (the Army seemingly neglecting his education in psychology during that same period at Idaho University), he took a further course in tank maintenance and naturally was assigned as maintenance officer of B Company, 740th Tank Battalion in January 1945.  About the time he was commissioned, he began grooming a moustache that would become an icon of his persona.  Though he handled his responsibilities with serious manner, he was full of amusement and frequently grinned to reveal a gold corner to a chipped front tooth.

He joined the 740th in the midst of the Ardennes when the battalion had been reduced to half strength during the winter campaign.  Dozers plowed paths through the three feet of snow to connect units to each other, but by the last days of January, rains and rising temperatures reduced the thick snow to slush and the frozen earth melted into sodden mud.  The battalion moved into Germany supporting a number of infantry units and unlike their foot soldier comrades, the tankers did not go into reserve, instead breaking only for maintenance and repairs.  The constant drive left the veterans of the Bulge campaign exhausted and worn.  The maintenance and repair crews were particularly tapped, as even when out of action they were still in high demand.  Tanks always sank along slushy roads and soggy bomb craters threatened to swallow them completely, requiring intense efforts of retrieval in the freezing sleet and rain.  It was clear to Don that he was taking over the role of a very crucial and very much appreciated section of B Company.

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Don leaning against 740th tank on May7, 1945

The losses from January fighting were evident in regiments numbered only battalion strength and typical companies of seventeen tanks mustered only seven in running condition, yet the Daredevils still rolled into action supporting the 82d Airborne.  When an infantry regiment attacked through another, they simply picked up the 740th’s tanks and kept moving forward, offering no rest for the weary armored troops who felt their only break would come if their tank was shot out from under them.  In complete darkness at 4:00 in the morning on February 2d, B Company attacked alongside the 1st Battalion, 325th Infantry against the fanatical German defenders at Neuhoff.  When they were finally relieved after crossing the Siegfried Line, they had been fighting for five days and nights without rest.  Sneaking away from the anti-tank guns trained on their positions, the 740th finally regrouped at Hebronval, Belgium and Masters’ maintenance crew serviced tanks before they finally retired for a rest they expected to last throughout the night.

Just before midnight, a message from First Army arrived and instructed the battalion to move immediately – they were reassigned to VII Corps and attached to the 8th Infantry Division.  Colonel Rubel argued against the urgency as his battalion was desperate for rest, but was told they could do that once they arrived in the new area.  The 740th departed the 82d who bid farewell to the tankers with appreciation and admiration.  Two days later, they bivouacked in a forest strewn with mines outside of the abandoned town of Schlich, which the tankers found was basically flooded by the thawing winter and many basements were filled with slush.  Colonel Rubel requested to relocate out of range of enemy fire so the battalion could better refit and rest, but Division was unsympathetic stating, of course, he should have done so before arriving.  To support the push across the Roer Valley, B Company moved to the nearby town of Gey under artillery and mortar fire and it seemed the fast-paced finale to the war was in motion.  With the 8th Division, the 740th took the Ruhr River and Erft Canal into Cologne before loading their tanks onto railcars to return to the Siegfried Line with the 63d Division.  They did not stay long and quickly returned to the 8th Division with a brief intervening attachment to the 86th.  They helped their old friends in the 82d Airborne cross the Elbe River and returned for a third time to the 8th Division to meet the Russians on the Baltic coast.

The war in Europe for Lieutenant Masters had passed at an astonishing rate.  He had not just traveled linear miles with the tank battalion, but zig zagged across each country as they joined and left units on demand.  He remained in Germany for two years, firstwith the 740th as they fulfilled their overseas tour and later with the 3d Constabulary Regiment’s light tank troop.  His duty reverted to activity much like his early war training that was busy enough to occupy an entire day, but on a predictable schedule to allow for rest and leisure.

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Wartime and pre-war images from Don's collection.

Five years after his combat in Europe, Masters entered the Korean theater with his old California National Guard.  His wild moustache had aged best of all his features and he frequently rolled the tips between his fingers to keep up his Dali-esque appearance.  He was a bit more worn, his eyes crinkling behind half frame glasses, but his insatiable spirit had only grown during the war years.  Still holding just one silver bar of lieutenant, he was executive officer of B Company 140th Tank Battalion when the 40th Division was federalized for Korean service.  He was a very senior lieutenant at thirty-six and had adopted signing photos to his wife as ‘your old man.’

The 140th replaced the 6th Tank Battalion during the first days of February and began supporting the 40th Division’s infantry regiments.  Immediately after landing at Inchon, Masters transferred to battalion headquarters to fulfill the role of maintenance officer, a position he was all too familiar with.  The job came naturally and he frequently reflected on the problems encountered during the European winter of 1945.  The Korean winter, though much drier, would eventually thaw and the mud it produced was no more forgiving than that in Europe – it would eat tanks when they moved out of their static positions.  The roads, if one could call them that, were so underdeveloped they were virtually unsuitable for two-way traffic.  The country was not conducive to armored warfare, nor was the static entrenchment that became the way of life after 1951 where tanks served more as mobile artillery pieces than mechanized war machines.  When they did operate on reinforced patrols or move from one place to another, the Chinese seized the opportunity to disable a tank and possibly inflict more casualties when a recovery party came.

After a few months, Masters was keen for adventure and the fixed positions, particularly those of the battalion headquarters, did not deliver much variety.  As stressful as the race across Europe had been, he held an expectation of war would bring.  He gladly offered to head a tank recovery mission on June 2d, excitedly gathering his equipment and jumping onto the M32 recovery vehicle. 

The abandoned tank lay in enemy territory and a detachment of tanks preceded Masters’ recovery vehicle to open fire.  Knowing the Americans would return for their abandoned armor, the Chinese had the area zeroed and unleashed heavy weapons and artillery into the position.  Despite their use of the old tank as obvious bait, the recovery party proceeded with their mission and under Masters’ direction, began setting up their vehicle to tow the disabled Sherman.  Artillery and small arms ripped into the area sending shrapnel whizzing by and stirring up a screen of dust.  An occasional bullet pinged off the hull of one of the tanks or impacted gear and equipment fixed to the side.  It was a harrowing situation for men who were not subjected to such conditions every day, but everyone maintained their composure.

Once the M23 was in position, Sergeant Davis began to couple the vehicle to the abandoned tank when he sliced his hand struggling to manipulated the couplings.  Don immediately leapt from the hull of the vehicle to take over the operation and get the crew out of there.  He quickly understood what Davis was struggling with when he became pinned by the tow bar.  The immense weight of both vehicles slowly crushed his legs.  He, too, had to be pulled away from the task despite his refusal and he continued to supervise the operation while tending to Davis’ hand.  After recovering from the initial shock of his injury, he pulled himself to a standing position in order to direct the operation.  They succeeded in pulling the crippled tank out, but at the cost of evacuating Davis for a two month hospitalization and leaving the Lieutenant with very sore legs and a lingering limp for many weeks following.

It was a long day that became the most memorable one of Don’s Korean tour, particularly because he received his Bronze Star for the action along with a Purple Heart that a he did not find necessary, but accepted regardless of the circumstances.  He returned to the drab tent city of HQ Company and, satisfied with the height of adventure in June, remained there contentedly until his return home to California in October.  It was not the last time he would see Korea – he would spend another year there from 1955 to 1956 as motor transport officer with the Military Armistice Commission and then with the 34th Infantry’s Tank Company.  The country had hardly changed at all, though it was a bit greener without constant artillery, but the atmosphere was just as tense.  The North Koreans snuck along the DMZ constantly and it was not unusual to experience a few concussion grenades at night.  Don continued to stay active throughout the remainder of his twenty years on active duty, first a short tour to Iran and then an enjoyable year in Germany.  By the time he retired, he had, with some remorse, trimmed his iconic moustache to a less conspicuous style, but his smile had not dimmed.

In the field with the 140th Tank Battalion in Korea

Japan before deployment to Korea

I Company, 185th Infantry 1939

B Company, 140th Tank Battalion 1951