Staff Sergeant Fred J. Harper (1918–1944)

Fred J. Harper in 1938 or 1939 (Courtesy of Fred J. Harper, Jr.)
ResidencesCivilian Occupation
Maryland, DelawareTeacher at Seaford High School
BranchService Number
U.S. Army32158229
TheaterUnit
EuropeanBattery “C,” 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion
Military Occupational SpecialtyCampaigns/Battles
824 (mess sergeant)Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, and Ardennes-Alsace campaigns

Early Life & Family

Fred Jackson Harper was born on February 20, 1918, in Easton, Maryland. It appears that he was the only child of Garland Henry Harper (1889–1981) and Lulu Belle Harper (née Layton, 1888–1977). Harper’s father was a brakeman and later a conductor for the Pennsylvania Railroad. 

Harper in 1919 (Courtesy of Fred J. Harper, Jr.)

The Harper family had moved to Delaware on January 5, 1920, when they were recorded on the census living at 701 (North) Spruce Street in Wilmington. By the time of the next census, on April 11, 1930, the Harpers had moved to 100 West 23rd Street in Wilmington. The family was at the same address when the next census was taken in April 1940.  

Harper in July 1923 (Courtesy of Fred J. Harper, Jr.)

After graduating from Pierre S. duPont High School, Harper studied agriculture at the University of Delaware in Newark. His college yearbook stated that he participated in the Aggie Club and played intermural softball and volleyball. He graduated from college in the spring of 1940. 

Harper in his Boy Scout uniform in 1935 (Courtesy of Fred J. Harper, Jr.)

When Harper registered for the draft on October 16, 1940, he was living in or near Seaford (where he had a post office box). The register described him as standing about five feet, 8½ inches tall and weighing 150 lbs., with brown hair and eyes. His employer was listed as the State Board of Education in Dover. Journal-Every Evening reported that Harper “taught agriculture and biology at Seaford [High School] for a year before being inducted in June 1941.”  

The article added that he “was much interested in scouting and was an Eagle Scout of Troop 49 of Grace Methodist Church.  He also served as an assistant scoutmaster.  In Seaford he also assisted in Boy Scout activities and in the Hi-Y Club.” 


Military Training & Marriage

Harper was drafted before the American entry into World War II. He was inducted into the U.S. Army at Trenton, New Jersey, on June 25, 1941. Harper’s mother’s statement to the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission indicated that her son was briefly stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, before attending basic training at the Field Artillery Replacement Training Center, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he was assigned to Battery “B,” 1st Battalion, 1st Training Regiment. She wrote that Harper was stationed at Fort Bragg from July 6, 1941, to December 30, 1943.  

Sergeant Harper at a stateside installation c. 1942 or 1943 (Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives)

Harper’s mother wrote that her son was promoted to private 1st class on January 14, 1942, and to sergeant on May 1, 1942. He was promoted to staff sergeant on an unknown date.  

Harper married Helen Maude Osborne (1920–2015) on May 8, 1942, in Dillon, South Carolina. He had met his bride while they were both attending college in Newark, Delaware. She was a graduate of the Women’s College of Delaware (an affiliate of the University of Delaware that merged into that college in 1945). 

Sergeant Harper and his wife at Fort Bragg in 1942 (Courtesy of Fred J. Harper, Jr.)

Harper’s mother’s statement is not clear, but suggests he transferred to Fort Knox, Kentucky, at the end of 1943 or early in 1944. There, he joined Battery “C,” 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. The unit was a non-divisional self-propelled field artillery battalion that had been activated at Fort Knox on April 5, 1943. The battalion was equipped with the 105 mm Howitzer Motor Carriage M7, often referred to in modern histories by its British nickname, the Priest.  

Harper (top) standing in an M7 at Fort Knox on March 1, 1944 (Courtesy of Fred J. Harper, Jr.)
Harper (kneeling at right) with his crew (Courtesy of Fred J. Harper, Jr.)

Photos suggest that at least for part of his military career, Harper was part of an M7 crew. One photo, probably taken stateside, shows him driving an M7. Eventually, though, Harper became his battery’s mess sergeant. 

On the morning of March 29, 1944, the 400th Field Artillery Battalion departed Fort Knox by train, arriving the following day at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. Harper shipped out from the New York Port of Embarkation aboard the British ocean liner turned troopship R.M.S. Mauretania on April 22, 1944, arriving in Liverpool, England six days later. The battalion continued training in England, visiting various artillery ranges with borrowed vehicles, since they went overseas without any M7s. 

Harper’s wife was pregnant when he went overseas. On June 6, 1944, D-Day in Normandy, she gave birth to a son that he never had the chance to meet: Fred Jackson Harper, Jr. 


Combat in the European Theater

During the first week of July 1944, the 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion drew new equipment including its allotment of M7s. The battalion arrived in Southhampton on July 16, 1944, shipping out for France the following day. Battery “C” arrived at Utah Beach, Normandy, on July 18, 1944. 

The 400th saw relatively little action during its first few weeks in France. The breakout from Normandy began one week after its arrival in France and the Germans were limited to performing rear guard actions in the 400th’s area. One officer was killed by a land mine on July 21, 1944, and a noncommissioned officer was accidentally shot and killed by another member of the unit pulling guard duty on August 1, 1944.  

A camouflaged M7 from the 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion (National Archives)

As a non-divisional asset, the 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion was attached to a variety of different units during its time in combat. The battalion was attached most frequently to 5th Armored Division but was occasionally attached to corps level artillery or mechanized cavalry groups. The battalion first fired its guns in anger, with enemy armored vehicles as the target, on August 11, 1944.  

During the summer of 1944, the battalion was involved in the rout of German forces from most of France. By September, however, Allied supply lines were stretched to the limit and the Germans reconsolidated their forces. On September 9, 1944, the battalion moved into Luxembourg. About one week later, on September 15, 1944, while attached to the Division Artillery, 5th Armored Division, the battalion crossed a pontoon bridge over the river Sauer (Sûre) into Germany at Wallendorf. They continued to advance another few miles into Germany. 

On the night of September 16, 1944, the Germans launched a counterattack. During the next few days, the battalion was subjected to regular counterbattery fire. Two men were mortally wounded on September 17. On September 19, enemy artillery fire was especially heavy. Three men were killed or died of their wounds and another 16 were wounded. That evening, the battalion withdrew back into Luxembourg. During subsequent days, the 400th was called upon repeatedly to fire across the river as the German counterattack attempted to annihilate the Wallendorf bridgehead. On September 23, Germans (presumably a patrol from the other side of the river) snatched two men manning an observation post, taking them prisoner. 

Posed photo of a 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion crew loading their howitzer (National Archives)

The 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion was briefly pulled out of the line on September 27, 1944, to rest and perform maintenance. The following day, the American Red Cross served doughnuts before the battalion went back into action on September 29. During October 1944, the battalion was busy with regular fire missions. On October 2, the unit moved north to the area of Wirtzfeld, Belgium, and on October 8, crossed back into Germany near Kalterherberg. The battalion would remain in the vicinity of that village for the next two months. 

On October 10, 1944, counterbattery fire hit Harper’s Battery “C,” forcing them to move but inflicting no casualties. That same day, Battery “A” lost one man killed and two wounded when accidentally hit by a shell fired by another American artillery battalion to the rear. 

Beginning in mid-October 1944, the battalion was employed against German border fortifications known as the Siegfried Line (Westwall). The weather was frequently rainy, limiting both observation of the enemy and movement of the battalion’s vehicles. The company history stated that during this static phase, small groups of soldiers were rotated back to Kalterherberg from the front line “to enable men to get out of mud, dry their clothes and sleep in beds.  Moving pictures shown and shower facilities available in afternoon.”  

November 1944 was a quiet month for the 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. The first snow of the season arrived on November 8. The 400th continued firing regular missions in support of the 5th Armored Division and (from November 16 onward) in support of the 395th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division. There was virtually no enemy counterbattery fire and the closest call the battalion sustained during the month was when a German V-1 flying bomb landed half a mile away.  

Journal-Every Evening reported that Harper “took part in the fighting in the Hertgen [sic] Forest where he and his men had built themselves a log cabin and had a black rabbit for a pet.” (The 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion was in fact well south of the Hürtgen Forest until the closing days of the battle there. This anecdote more likely occurred sometime during the static period between October 8, 1944, and December 8, 1944.) 

Harper sawing wood c. November 1944, likely outside the cabin mentioned by Journal-Every Evening (Courtesy of Fred J. Harper, Jr.)

An incident from November 22, 1944, illustrated the frustrating nature of the fall combat along the Siegfried Line. The 400th expended more than 100 rounds to suppress an enemy pillbox—their 105 mm shells were not powerful enough to destroy it outright—while a combined team of infantry and engineers approached to demolish it. The team was driven off, with the 400th covering the retreat. 

On November 23, 1944, presumably during a brief respite on pass off the line, Staff Sergeant Harper sat for a portrait drawn by Elizabeth Black of the American Red Cross. The portrait, apparently drawn in charcoal, is a serious one. As was customary for Black’s drawings, it contained a message to the subject’s family: “All my love, Fred” is written in the lower left corner. The Red Cross mailed the drawing to Hurlock, Maryland, where his wife and son were living, but many months passed before it arrived. Tragic news got there first. 

Portrait of Fred Harper by Elizabeth Black drawn on November 23, 1944 (Courtesy of John Black and David Solomon)
Staff Sergeant Harper wrote this message to Elizabeth Black after sitting for a portrait (Courtesy of John Black and David Solomon)
Elizabeth Black drawing a portrait (Courtesy of John Black)

On December 8, 1944, the 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion was attached to the 5th Armored Division again and moved north to Zweifall, Germany. From December 11–18, 1944, the battalion was in Großhau, a town reduced to ruins during the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, a costly battle of attrition which produced few gains for the Americans. 

On December 12, 1944, counterbattery fire hit Batteries “A” and “C,” wounding two men. A sniper wounded a third man. Three days later, another two men were wounded: one when his halftrack detonated a land mine, and another from mortar fire. 

Ruins of Großhau, Germany, on December 1, 1944 (Official U.S. Army Signal Corps photo 111-SC-197536 by Technician 5th Grade A.J. Gedicks. National Archives, courtesy of Wim Doms)

Journal-Every Evening reported that Sergeant Harper had received some Christmas presents and photos of his young son by mid-December.


The Battle of the Bulge

On December 16, 1944, the Germans launched a massive counteroffensive through the Ardennes Forest to the south of where the 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion was fighting. As a result of the salient into American lines that resulted, the offensive came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. The scope of the German offensive was not immediately evident to Allied commanders and the 400th initially continued to support offensive action in the Hürtgen Forest. As Allied commanders gained a better understanding of the situation, the 400th was one of many units ordered to help contain a breakthrough by a German armored force known as Kampfgruppe Peiper. The ultimate German goal was to seize the vital Allied port of Antwerp, Belgium. Although that was never a realistic objective barring a total collapse of the Allied forces, the German advance on the north side of the bulge did threaten the logistical center of Liège. 

During its advance, Kampfgruppe Peiper had left a trail of atrocities in its wake, including the infamous Malmedy massacre on December 18, 1944. That same day, the German task force pushed through Stavelot, Belgium, but their route west was blocked when American engineers demolished bridges at Trois-Ponts. On December 19, the Germans continued northwest toward nearby Stoumont. With darkness approaching, the Germans did not press forward, giving American infantrymen from 3rd Battalion, 119th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division time to get into position at the town. Meanwhile, Staff Sergeant Harper and the rest of the 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion spent that entire night moving southwest toward the Amblève Valley. The unit lost cohesion when several batteries took a wrong turn at a crossroads.  

A 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion crew, presumably from Battery “B,” stand near an M7 nicknamed Bat Out’a Hell during the winter of 1944–1945. (National Archives)

Battery “C” was the first to arrive at Chession, Belgium, on the morning of December 19, and immediately went to the aid of 3rd Battalion, 119th Infantry Regiment in nearby Stoumont. Under ordinary circumstances, field artillery units like the 400th set themselves to perform indirect fire guided by forward observers and light spotting aircraft, and coordinated by the Fire Direction Center (F.D.C.). The situation was desperate enough that there was no time to perform these preparations.  

Instead, 11 of the 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion’s M7s were ordered to perform direct fire missions against a reported 40 King Tiger tanks. That assessment overestimated the enemy strength: Steven Zaloga wrote that by that morning, Kampfgruppe Peiper had just 31 operational tanks including six King Tigers. The 400th claimed at least one German tank destroyed, losing one man wounded when a forward observer’s vehicle was hit. After heavy fighting, one company from 3rd Battalion of the 119th Infantry was captured and the rest forced to retreat. The 400th supported the 119th at nearby Stoumont Station, the furthest west extent of the Kampfgruppe Peiper advance.  

However, American reinforcements were approaching the Amblève Valley, and the exhausted Germans were nearly out of fuel. The Americans soon turned the tables, beginning the encirclement of Kampfgruppe Peiper by recapturing Stavelot. On December 20, 1944, the 400th moved to the area of Neuville, several miles north of Stavelot.  

Detail from a 1/100,000 U.S. Army map illustrating events involving the 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion’s role in the Battle of the Bulge. The hills of the Amblève Valley confined the German armored force to the roads. Driving southwest from the vicinity of Malmedy, Kampfgruppe Peiper pushed through Stavelot (1), but were blocked at Trois-Ponts (2) when American engineers destroyed bridges over the river. The Germans diverted north and west through La Gleize and Stoumont (3). After traveling all night from Germany, the 400th’s M7s took up positions west of Stoumont in support of the 119th Infantry. The German drive was stopped further west at Stoumont Station (4), and they retreated to La Gleize (5). American forces retook Stavelot, eventually encircling the Germans around La Gleize. The 400th moved (via a roundabout route north) to the area of Neuville (6), where they supported the reduction of the German forces in the area. When other German forces proved unable to break through to La Gleize, the remnants of Kampfgruppe Peiper eventually broke out of the pocket on foot without their vehicles or wounded. (Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collections, University of Texas at Austin, annotated by the author)

During the next week, the 400th supported the 30th Infantry and 3rd Armored Divisons as American forces pressed Kampfgruppe Peiper in a pocket around La Gleize. On December 21, the battalion was issued top secret POZIT (proximity fuze) ammunition for the first time, which had previously seen only limited use in the European Theater out of concerns that the Germans would capture and reverse engineer the technology. Very little information was available to Harper and his comrades about the enemy or course of the campaign. Even as the situation began to stabilize, the men of the 400th remained on guard due to largely overstated reports of German paratroopers and Germans wearing American uniforms causing havoc behind American lines. An officer serving as a forward observer was wounded by mortar fire on Christmas Eve, the same day remnants of Kampfgruppe Peiper began a breakout to return to German lines. 

Despite the ongoing operations to reduce the German salient, the battalion history for the month reported that on Christmas, a “Hot turkey dinner served for all troops.” Staff Sergeant Harper was killed in action the following night, December 26–27, 1944. The entry in the battalion history for December 26 stated: “S/Sgt Fred Harper, 32158229, killed by explosion of undetermined type of shell while sleeping.” A Battery “C” morning report stated that Harper suffered a fatal head injury on December 27. 

400th Field Artillery Battalion history for December 25–28, 1944 (National Archives)

Despite the ferocity of the combat that month, Staff Sergeant Harper was the only man from the 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion killed in action during December 1944. The package with the portrait by Elizabeth Black arrived shortly after his family learned of his death. On March 2, 1945, Helen Osborne Harper wrote her a letter, which read in part: 

For some time, I’ve been meaning to write and tell you that the sketch you made of my husband arrived all right and was viewed rather sorrowfully by his many relatives. Shortly before it came I received word that he was killed in action Dec. 27th, a month after the sketch. […] I am having the sketch framed so his 9-month son may have it some day, the son he never saw. 

Staff Sergeant Harper was initially buried in a temporary military cemetery overseas. After the war, his family requested that his body be repatriated to the United States. Following services on November 23, 1947, Harper was buried at Washington Cemetery in Hurlock, Maryland. His parents were also buried there after their deaths. 

Staff Sergeant Harper is honored at Veterans Memorial Park in New Castle, Delaware, and on a plaque on the Green at the University of Delaware commemorating the college’s World War II fallen. His story was also featured in the 2013 documentary Portraits for the Home Front: The Story of Elizabeth Black


A crew from Battery “C” poses with a shell and cake celebrating the battalion (or battery’s?) 100,000th round. The shell includes the message “Heel Hitler,” a play on the Nazi greeting “Heil Hitler!” (National Archives)

Notes

Date of Death 

The battalion history noted Staff Sergeant Harper’s death on December 26, 1944, while his headstone and a battery morning report listed December 27, 1944. The discrepancy is most likely due to his death occurring during the night of December 26–27.  

Widow 

Helen Osborne Harper remarried to John G. Bush (1916–1988). The couple had three daughters. 


Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Fred J. Harper, Jr. and to the Delaware Public Archives for the use of their photos. Thanks also go out to David Solomon of WQED in Pittsburgh, who produced and wrote the documentary Portraits for the Home Front, and Elizabeth Black’s son, John Black, both of whom provided valuable information, documents, and the use of a scan of Elizabeth Black’s drawing. 


Bibliography

“4 Delaware Men Killed; Two Missing.” Journal-Every Evening, January 19, 1945. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/111056674/fred-jackson-harper-kia-1/, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/111056823/fred-jackson-harper-kia-2/  

The 1939 Blue Hen. Courtesy of the University of Delaware. https://udspace.udel.edu/bitstream/handle/19716/9756/1939_03_Classes.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y  

“Battalion History, 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion.” World War II Operations Reports, 1940–48. Record Group 407, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. 

The Blue and Gold 1940. Courtesy of the University of Delaware. https://udspace.udel.edu/bitstream/handle/19716/9887/1940_02_Personalities.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y  

Harper, Fred J. Entry in Elizabeth Black’s guestbook. Courtesy of John Black and David Solomon. 

Harper, Helen O. Letter to Elizabeth Black, March 2, 1945. Courtesy of John Black and David Solomon. https://delawareswwiifallen.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/harper-letter-small-courtesy-of-john-black-and-david-solomon.pdf  

Harper, Lulu B. Fred Jackson Harper Individual Military Service Record, December 18, 1945. Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II.  Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/19034/rec/1  

Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531893_00258 

Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4295770-00229  

“Fred J. Harper.” Portraits for the Home Front: The Story of Elizabeth Black. WQED website. https://www.wqed.org/elizabethblack/ww2portraits/content/harper-fred-j-ssgt 

“Funeral Rites Held In Hurlock for Soldier.” Journal-Every Evening, November 24, 1947. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/111052321/fred-j-harper-funeral/  

“Helen O. Bush.” The Star Democrat, November 10, 2015. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/111051961/obituary-for-helen-o-bush/  

McLean, John R. “Statistical Summary of the Operational Period, 29 March 1944 to 12 May 1945, Fort Knox, Kentucky, to Happury, Germany.” Headquarters 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, May 23, 1945. World War II Operations Reports, 1940–48. Record Group 407, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. 

Morning Reports for Battery “C”, 400th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. November 1944 – December 1944. U.S. Army Morning Reports, c. 1912–1946. Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration. National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri. 

Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2442/images/m-t0627-00551-00531 

“S/Sgt. Fred Jackson Harper.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/51075928/fred-jackson-harper  

“Table of Organization and Equipment No. 6-167: Battery, Armored Field Artillery Battalion.” War Department, November 22, 1944. Military Research Service website. http://www.militaryresearch.org/6-167%2022Nov44.pdf  

“Weddings.” Wilmington Morning News, May 21, 1942. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/111052815/harper-osborne-wedding/  

World War II Army Enlistment Records. Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://aad.archives.gov/aad/record-detail.jsp?dt=893&mtch=1&cat=all&tf=F&q=32158229&bc=&rpp=10&pg=1&rid=2805128  

WWII Draft Registration Cards for Delaware, 10/16/1940–3/31/1947. Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System. National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44003_08_00003-00439  

Zaloga, Steven J. Battle of the Bulge 1944 (1): St Vith and the Northern Shoulder. Osprey Publishing, 2003. 


Last updated on November 17, 2022

More stories of World War II fallen:

To have new profiles of fallen soldiers delivered to your inbox, please subscribe below.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s