John Parsons Wheeler Jr., a retired Army colonel, authority on armor operations and veteran of three wars, died Sept. 29 of heart failure at Perry Point Veterans Medical Center. He was 77.
Perhaps the highest-profile venture in his career was heading the American tank unit during World War II that discovered the damaged, Remagen rail bridge in 1945. Allied troops used the bridge as one of the spearheads to cross into Germany near the end of the war.
"His unit found the bridge intact and then spent the next several days defending it from air attacks by Messerschmitts who tried to destroy it in order to keep Allied forces from crossing the
Rhine into Germany," said a son, John P. Wheeler III of Washington.
Colonel Wheeler, an Aberdeen resident, was the son of a cavalry officer at Fort Bliss, Texas. He was descended from a family with military roots going back to 1653 when Thomas Wheeler was a member of the British royal army.
"The irony is that he grew up riding ponies as a child with one of the last cavalry units and came to be one of the last experts who fought in the great tank battles of World War II," his son said.
Colonel Wheeler, who graduated from West Point in 1943 and was tank company commander of the 19th Battalion of the 9th Armored Division, went ashore at Normandy on D-Day and participated in the Battle of the Bulge. His unit also participated in the liberation of the Nordhausen death camp.
He served with European occupation forces and in the demilitarized zone in Korea.
"During the Vietnam War, he ran the secret war against the Ho Chi Minh trail from Laos and also served as an adviser," said the son, who graduated from West Point in 1966.
An authority in armor operations and training, Colonel Wheeler was director of materiel testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground and retired in 1971. His decorations included the Legion of Merit with Oakleaf Cluster for outstanding service in Southeast Asia, the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, Purple Heart and Air Medal.
For the past 20 years, he was a consultant with Cypress International of Virginia on the development of military weapons. He had made contributions to the development of the M-1 Abrams tank, which was used during Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf war.
An avid horseman, Colonel Wheeler played polo during th1950s with the Washington Polo Club. He also enjoyed sailing and was a member of the Army and Navy Club.
Services with full military honors are scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday at the Old Post Chapel at Fort Myer, Va., with burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Colonel Wheeler is also survived by his wife of 52 years, the former Janet Conly; another son, Robert Wheeler of Wilton, Conn.; a daughter, Janet Marie Wheeler of New York City; and three grandchildren.