Paul Cannarella said he was lucky as he spoke about his service in the U.S. Army’s 2nd Armored Division during World War II. The division, bearing the famous “Hell on Wheels” insignia, saw action in North Africa and Sicily before its deployment in Normandy.
Cannarella was there through it all.
He was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, and was one of three brothers. His parents owned a Turkish bath business.
Cannarella said he was in Wheeling when he heard a radio broadcast about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“It came on in the afternoon — about 4 o’clock Sunday afternoon we heard it,” Cannarella said. “Six months later, I was in the Army. ‘Another year and I’ll be home,’ you know? It turned out to be three years.”
Photo by Brian Louwers
Cannarella said he volunteered for the Army and hoped that his older brother, who worked in a coal mine and made more money, would be deferred in the draft and could continue providing for the family.
“I was always interested in airplanes. I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” Cannarella remembered. He said he longed to fly planes in the Marines but joined the U.S. Army Tank Corps when he was told his less-than-perfect eyesight made that dream impossible.
Before heading to Europe, he arrived in Casablanca on Christmas Eve 1943 and watched the Germans greet the Americans by bombing the harbor, while the division waited safely in the hills outside of the city. He later drove 2 1/2 ton trucks loaded with fuel and ammunition across the desert and through the narrow mountain passes of Sicily.
Cannarella landed at Utah Beach on June 9, 1944, and the division was involved in fierce fighting around Carentan and Saint-Lô. He recalled an incident that took place on his first night in France, while he guarded his truck in a field where the division camped.
“I’m standing by a tree. Pitch black, can’t see a thing. Everybody’s sleeping. I’m standing there with my Tommy gun. I heard footsteps,” Cannarella said. “I turned off the safety, put it on rapid fire. I couldn’t see a thing, but I heard footsteps. This was June. Cold sweat was running down my arm, you know, and I waited and waited. Could you believe a cow walked by? I almost shot a cow.”
The division later raced across the fields of Western Europe under the fiery General George Patton.
Cannarella said spirits were high when the tanks and trucks were charging ahead, but that the mood darkened in December 1944 when he found himself driving a half-track through the frozen Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge.
“It was cold and snowy. We were lucky. New Year’s Eve, we found a beet factory to sleep in,” Cannarella said. “We had an old-timer with us. He was 48. He brought out cognac and wine.”
The men had to buy it, of course, and it was payday.
Cannarella said he spent that night in the factory writing a letter by candlelight before rejoining the advance toward Nazi Germany in 1945.
The 2nd Armored Division was nearing Berlin when the war in Europe ended, as the Russians approached the German capital from the east.
After the war, Cannarella moved to the Detroit area to pursue an automotive apprenticeship. He married twice and retired in 2000 after a long career as a toolmaker. He has five children, 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“I did what I was told. I did my part,” Cannarella said of his experiences during the war. “I’m proud of it. You can’t change it.”