John, who passed away on October 8, 2005, was one of the many
heroes of World War II that put their lives on the line so that
you and I could enjoy the freedom that they fought so bravely
to protect. I am very proud indeed to say that John was my brother.
He got the nickname, "Johnny Boy", at a very young
age growing up in Pennsylvania. Friends and neighbors often heard
my mother or father yell, "Johnny, boy, if I get hold of
He was 18 years old when he entered the United States Army. He
bravely served with the 3rd Armored Division, one of the most
aggressive of the American divisions. He fought in France, Belgium,
and Germany and was wounded twice. John was in many major battles,
including The Battle of the Bulge, and was on the crew of the
new 90mm Pershing tank that destroyed a German Panther tank in
front of the Cologne Cathedral in that famous and dramatic movie
footage by Sgt. Jim Bates. (CONTINUED below photos)
||ABOVE PHOTOS on March 6, 1945
(from top): John DeRiggi's 90mm M26 Pershing tank in Cologne,
Germany, (arrow points to John); John with German rifle in Cologne
Cathedral Sqaure after destruction of Panther tank; John and
tank crew; Pershing a moment after firing at another German tank
prior to Cathedral Square shoot.
While in France, John and a buddy single-handedly captured about
twenty German soldiers. He and his buddy had decided to check
out a farm on the French countryside. To their surprise, two
young French women approached and offered them some wine. As
they stood next to a hay wagon talking, one of the young ladies
alerted them that she had spotted about twenty Germans. The Germans
were approaching along a dirt road toward the farm. John and
his friend each had two pistols and a rifle. They thought quickly
and placed the weapons on the hay wagon, spaced a few feet apart
from each other. As the Germans got closer, they started to fire
at them, rushing from one weapon to another. The Germans thought
that it was a whole squad of Americans and decided to surrender.
I guess watching those Saturday afternoon cowboy movies paid
off. Maybe it was the French wine or maybe it was just because
they were two brave young men. What do you think?
John was the only man alive out of a crew of five in an M4 Sherman
that had been knocked out shortly before The Battle Of The Bulge.
John's tank had advanced into an open field after exiting from
a tree-line. A German Mark V that was camouflaged in a tree line
on the opposite side of the field fired one round from its high
velocity 75MM, knocking out the Sherman. John had been rendered
unconscious by the concussion of the blast and was slumped in
the gunner's seat. When he regained consciousness after a few
moments, he learned that the tank commander, the loader, and
the assistant driver had been killed instantly. He heard a moan
from the driver's compartment and, laying on the turret floor,
he stretched forward into the compartment. The driver was slumped
forward in his seat, so John reached forward and placed his hands
around the drivers waist to pull him rearward. To his horror,
his right hand went right into a gapping wound in the driver's
stomach. The driver's head flopped backward and he looked up
at John for a moment. His eyes rolled upward and he died in John's
It only took a few moments for John to realize that the German
Mark V could fire another round at the Sherman. So he climbed
up into the tank commander's seat and peered out the vision blocks.
The Mark V had pulled forward from the tree-line and was perched
on a bluff about seventy-five yards to his left. John grabbed
a .45 caliber machine gun, nicknamed a grease gun, and perched
himself on the seat. He was in a stooped position and, putting
one hand on the hatch lever, he flung open the hatch and propelled
himself out of the tank. He landed on the ground next to the
Sherman, keeping it between himself and the Mark V. The tree-line
that the Sherman had exited from was about forty or fifty yards
away. It didn't take a genius to figure out that he had to make
it to those trees.
Peeking from behind the Sherman, John could see the Mark V. Its
75mm main gun still pointed at the Sherman. John took a deep
breath and started to sprint toward the tree-line. With his first
steps, a searing pain shot up his left leg from his foot. It
wasn't until he started to run that he realized that he had been
wounded in the foot. Pain or not, he ran as fast as he could,
zigzagging, as he sprinted toward the trees. Suddenly there was
a load swoosh and he was pelted with dirt as a round from the
Mark V tore into the ground next to him. The tank was apparently
out of small arms ammunition and was firing its 75mm at John.
Fortunately for him, they were apparently out of high-explosive
shells as well. Two or three more armored-piercing rounds tore
into the ground as he ran toward the woods. I'd hate to tell
you what would have happen if the Mark V's gunner was having
one of his better days.
John eventually made it back to the American lines and, after
mending for a short period of time, was reassigned to a new tank.
It was one of those long-awaited M26 90mm Pershing tanks that
had just arrived in Europe. He was naturally grateful for surviving
his ordeal, but was hell bent on revenge for his fallen comrades.
As he once told me, "I shot at anything that moved!!"
John was seriously wounded sometime after the battle for Cologne.
As a tank crewman, one knows all jobs associated with the tank.
On this occasion, John was driving the tank. As they entered
a wooded area, they could see some infantrymen that were pinned
down by sniper fire. The tank commander asked John if he could
see a particular sniper that was perched high in a tree. John
replied, yes, and the tank commander asked him if he could get
a shot at the sniper. John opened the hatch of the driver's compartment
and raised his seat. Almost simultaneously with emerging from
the hatch, a mortar round struck the tank next to the hatch.
The shrapnel from the mortar round tore into John's face. He
was unconscious and in shock. The crew members checked for a
pulse, but couldn't detect any. Seeing all of the blood, being
able to see his teeth through the side of his face, and not detecting
a pulse, they thought that John was dead. They pulled him from
the driver's compartment and placed him in a gully, along with
some other casualties.
But John regained consciousness and tried to crawl from the gully.
An infantryman, seeing his movement and under fire, crawled to
John's aide. The infantryman kept John from crawling out of the
gully and called for the medics. Unfortunately, we do not know
who that brave infantryman was. I sure hope that he survived
the war and that he tells his grandkids about the tanker's life
that he had saved.
John's wounds this time were his ticket home, but not for about
a year. He spent about a year in Army hospitals, first in Greenland
and then in Valley Forge. PA. The Army doctors did a good job
with plastic surgery and his wounds were barely discernable.
There was still shrapnel in his face and, being too close to
his optic nerves, the doctors left it in place. From time to
time, John had a difficult time breathing through his nose, because
of growth around the shrapnel.
Sometime after the war, John's original 3rd Armored Division
unit, the 32nd Armored Regiment, became the 32nd Medium Tank
Battalion at Ft. Knox, KY. Little did I know at the time, but
nine years after the war, I was to take tank training in that
very same outfit at Knox. It was a real coincidence, and I was
surely proud to have had that good fortune.