491st AFA History
On August 15, 1942 the tall Louisiana pines stirred to the martial music of a colorful parade marching the official activation of the battalion, with Major Edward H. Guthrie commanding. At this time the unit consisted of a cadre of thirty-eight officers and one hundred fifteen enlisted men. Of the officers, the majority had been recently commissioned at Fort Sill; the remainder were principally from the Third Armored Division. From the Third, Seventh, and Eighth Armored Divisions came a capable and enthusiastic enlisted cadre.
The pleasant autumn heard the hum of extensive activity. Training of all personnel was intense in order that the expected fillers might have the best and most competent leadership and instruction. Many officers and men were sent to special training schools at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in order that they might be more fully qualified in the knowledge and performance of their duties.
The new batteries were proud to receive their guidons on September 24th, although they were not to be presented in ceremony until some six months later.
Late in October, the fillers commenced arriving-new inductees who only a few days before had cast aside the garments of peace for those of war. There was daze and bewilderment in the eyes of many. It was the look of men not quite capable of grasping the magnitude of it all. They were tired and dirty from the long train ride, but willing and conscientious. From the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky came lean, hardened men, weather-beaten and soft spoken, men who had since childhood cradled a squirrel rifle in the crooks of their arms. From the musty shafts of Pennsylvania coal mines came the rugged, stocky, second-generation Americans who had laid aside their picks and shovels to pick up the tools of war. They came from Brooklyn and Chicago, from Jersey City and Cleveland, from New Orleans and Tuscaloosa, from the Iowa cornfields and the Oregon forests, Americans all-and ready.
By the middle of November, the battalion was fifteen percent over strength and basic training commenced in earnest, with the accent on physical training. Muscles ached and at times the feet were too weary to carry the tired body to supper, but there was intense interest and enthusiasm and spirits remained unflagging in spite of many marches of five to twenty five miles. Shortages of equipment created numerous training obstacles, but they were surmounted in a manner that indicated dogged determination and ingenuity.
There was a remarkable contrast between the men who had arrived such a short time before, and those who sang Christmas carols with the waning year. Just a few short weeks and they looked like soldiers, felt like soldiers. It was apparent in their confident walk, their attitude, and the neatness of their uniforms. They sang Auld Lang Syne and bade the year goodbye with a feeling of accomplishment. One year had slipped by and the winter winds whistled a challenge that fanned the flames of determination.
The battalion commander sat at his desk thinking of tomorrow's service practice. How would the first one go? Ah, there was the morning mail. He paused over one letter. The Quartermaster General had approved the battalion shield and motto.
"The scarlet represents Field Artillery. The diagonal bend is the heraldic representation of the scarf of a military commander: the lightning flash denotes speed and striking power. The cannon barrel signifies the Field Artillery and the Silver Star is the national identification symbol. The motto is expressive of the personnel and of their certainty of an ultimate victory."
So they General had put it, little realizing, perhaps, the portent of the phrasing "speed and striking power and "personnel and their certainty of an ultimate victory.
"Battery Adjust!. The pines huddled together and shivered with the raw, wet winter, as the first service practice was conducted. It was the coldest day of the year, but to men who never before had seen cannon fire, the thrill of the deafening roar and the new sense of power forced all else into the background. There was assurance in the bellow of the T-19's and when they were replaced by M-7's during February, there was an air of confidence in the cannoneers eagerly firing away.
Right Face! Left Face! Fall in! Fall out' Hut, Tup, Thrup, Fawr! Basic training was completed and the impressive retinue of the Third Corps inspection team arrived, with grey-haired, iron-faced Major General Willis D. Crittenberger in charge. Under the critical eyes of the inspecting officers, the battalion, every man alert, justified its self-confidence by an excellent performance. The first hurdle had been cleared.
Training continued unabated with service practice at least once weekly until the end of May. Each battery spent from one to three nights weekly in the field emphasizing reconnaissance, hasty selection and occupation of position, and camouflage and concealment. Frequently vehicles broke through the thin crust of hard earth and sank deep into the underlying black mud. It was realistic training in field expedients. Hours upon hours were spent on sighting and aiming exercises, protective measures and scouting, and patrolling. The battalion became known as a "rugged. outfit.
In a stirring ceremony, complete with all the garrison frills, Colonel William N. Gilmore, Division Artillery Commander, presented the battery guidons and a proud unit marched, no-strutted, to its area, thinking of the Colonel's words concerning days and things to come, confident of its future.
Battery firing tests followed in rapid succession and each vied with its neighbor for top honors, Battery A coming through to place second in the entire Division Artillery. They were ready for the next step-the welding together of the battalion, each to become an important spoke in a smooth spinning wheel.
With spring the battalion participated in combined exercises with Combat Command "B", in addition to division field exercises. There were mistakes made, some ludicrous, others pathetic. They were all profitable, however, for the same errors were seldom repeated.
LOUISIANA-TEXAS MANEUVERS -
During the midst of preparations for the Third Army Louisiana-Texas Maneuvers, in which the Eleventh Armored, the Eighty Eighth, and Ninety Fifth Infantry Divisions participated, Major Raymond H. Lumry assumed command. There were four short flag exercises, then maneuvers began in earnest with a new "old man"-Lt. Col. James M. Worthington.
Back and forth across the Sabine River the sham battles raged, every possible realistic feature included. They sweltered and cursed as they choked in the dust of the humid summer, bathed in perspiration from early morning until late evening. Wicked looking, poisonous, coral snakes slithered about underfoot, defiant in their candystripe colors, and the ever present wood ticks buried their diseased heads in tired bodies at night. "Twist him out counter clockwise", they gibed, but the most acceptable method was to hold the lighted end of a cigarette so close it burned the skin and the heat made the ornery cuss back up.
Kitchens, moving alone at night, became lost and when they did arrive, it was hard to convince the boys that the cooks hadn't cooked some of those tender. looking wild hogs for chow. Or was it "chameleon stew" they served? Three mouthfuls and a fellow turned green in the face. '
Water supply was difficult and the men became accustomed to getting along on half a canteenful per day. The solution? It was easy. First, brush the teeth and shave, then wash the socks and underwear. Strain it through a handkerchief' and drink with gusto.
Shadeless Peason Ridge was taken, lost, and retaken, and the black stumps in mockery ripped the bellies out of peeps and hung up the M-7's in the blackness of the moonless nights. The whispering pines chuckled at the discomfiture of the crews.
The battalion commander wearily looked at his column as he closed in the bivouac area after a long dusty march He tore his hair. Where's the rest of the battalion? Only six vehicles were behind him. But soon, coughing and spluttering, and blinded by the red dust, the rest of the drivers piloted their panting vehicles in through the dense forest.
Maintenance breaks between problems brought no respite, for maintenance of equipment was of prime importance. The fine clay dust was unusually hard on vehicles, and fuel systems frequently became hopelessly clogged after three or four hours of marching.
Eight weeks of discomfort and sleepless nights, of wearying marches and sultry, burning days, terminated with a flourish as the combat command completed a wide, hundred and ten mile envelopment, marching at night and going into concealed bivouac during daylight hours. The muddy Sabine was crossed tactically for the last time and the weary but hardened battalion marched triumphantly back to the green lawns and white buildings of Camp Polk. General Crittenberger, straight and stern, stood by the side of the road as the long, dusty column passed by, saluting proudly. And the familiar flag in the square brought a lusty hail of cheers.
The dashed wildly to the showers-the first in two months.
There was movement in the air, and the Brooklyn cowboys hummed snatches of prairie tunes. Orders had been received shifting the division down Texas way. There was no rest possible, for maintenance must be completed and vehicles either turned over or loaded on the long chain of flat cars. Tighten a wire here, a few more spikes in this chock block, load the baggage car, and prepare the mess car.
Buddies, we're on the way.
The familiar scenes faded from view as the long train moved out for the open plains -and Camp Barkeley. There was no feeling of sorrow. This was excitement and adventure, and it was also the Army. The flat rolling plains of the Lone Star State were a novelty to most men and the two day trip was thoroughly enjoyed.
Warm, hospitable Abilene, with its high heeled boots and ten gallon hats, was a welcome change for men who had yearned for the lights and movies and pretty girls for dancing partners.
There was fascination in the great expanse of rolling prairie and the limitless, cloudless skies 'where you could stand on a hill and see nothing for three days ahead.. Sometimes, all alone in the quiet of evening it was almost possible to believe the many tall Texas tales. But the pretty girls were no myth and an evening in Abilene was a real treat.
Numerous service practices and many hours on the small arms ranges high-lighted the training, and even the untrained eye could readily discern the organizational pride in the trim, erect soldiers standing formal retreat two or three evenings a week.
Lt. Col. Worthington was assigned to the G-3 Section, Army Ground Forces, and again Major Lumry assumed command.
Almost unnoticed the summer slipped into autumn and the vagabonds stowed their gear and looked ahead with a bit of trepidation. They were going to the colorful wasteland, the stark, stony mountains, the endless dunes of shifting sand, and the bristling cacti of the Mojave Desert.
The train ground to a halt at Goffs, California, a whistle stop or the Santa Fe, and they marveled at the endless desert and forbidding mountains, glaring balefully and defiantly; What mortals were these who dared encroach on the land that God forgot?
Within hours the dry chill that came with the sunset became a penetrating cold and the suddenly weary men huddled together in their new tent homes in the middle of nowhere.
Morning broke clear and cold on the orderly rows of pyramidal tents, and it was hard to realize that the Dead Mountains to the East were over eight miles distant. In the crystal air, they appeared to be only three or four miles away.
The harsh desert life separated the weak from the strong as they were buffeted about by the elements and sifted through the mesh of rigorous training. There was little wood available for the pot-bellied stoves and cold men grubbed in the sand for the last particles of the meager coal piles. Nights were dreaded, for the cold set in when tile sun suddenly disappeared over the rim rock. Heavily wrapped in blankets, they would sit in the sand drinking beer or coke from the crude exchange, watching a movie.
Almost overnight there appeared makeshift conveniences-washing stands, dressers, a barber chair. One night the unused stage disappeared from the open air theater and the next day the exchange boasted the only wooden floor in the area. Cactus Jim's 491 Club became the center of spare time activity. There was plenty of coke and beer or ice cream and genial Sergeant Jim Heely always added half an hour to closing time.
Training continued unabated-service practice on the wide open wasteland, small arms qualification on the crude, home made ranges, and scouting and patrolling among the eerie shadows of cacti and mountains. The battalion participated in combat command and division field exercises over trackless miles of barren sand. Grueling physical fitness tests held no terror for these men, hardened by months of rugged living in rugged country, where at night there was a silence you could almost hear, broken only by the occasional melancholy wail of a coyote.
The Commanding General of the Army Ground Forces, Lt. Gen.. Lesley J. McNair, expressed approval and gratification with their progress upon his visit shortly before Christmas.
Another Christmas was here and after the usual turkey dinner, complete with all the trimmings, the thought of home and their loved ones, and of past Christmases as they sat by the tinseled tree in Cactus Jim's. They awaited the coming maneuvers with the confidence born of thorough training and past experience. It had been an eventful year, full of those things that help to make the American soldier what he is -the best in the world.
New Year's resolutions scarcely had time to be broken before the battalion began the long, dusty march to the concentration area for maneuvers with the Ninety Fifth Infantry Division, and the Battle of Southern California was on.
There were days of scant water supply and long night marches into the teeth of the bitter winter winds, and tears from watery eyes rolled down cheek stung and bitten by the flying sand. The winds howled and screamed their defiance and vehicle tracks quickly disappeared. It was difficult to follow the vehicle ahead and "flying columns" of scores of vehicles rapidly dwindled to a mere four or five, finally coming to a bewildered halt, their wings closely clipped. In the midst of it all, the rugged, stone faced mountains, in cold and forbidding beauty, looked down upon the futile mortals and laughed.
The head of the column called the tail. Hello, Poke Five. This is Poke Six. I am leading the column due South."
"Hello, this is Poke Five. Cripes! The section I'm tailing is heading North.
So it went, nip and tuck, man against the elements, the McCoy Mountains, the hollow basin of Ford Dry Lake, and the wind, the cold, and the ever shifting sands.
The Thunderbolt Division bucked the almost impregnable defenses of Palen Pass in a well coordinated attack, and desert maneuvers were finished. Tales of those weeks will remain among those that will be told and retold, and relished in the telling, for it was man's victory in the end.
The mirage of a tent city became a reality as the canvas walls of Ibis came within view. Countless acres of wasteland were policed for the last time, and Ibis became a memory.
Eastern eyes gazed in wonder and admiration at the luxuriant beauty of the California coastal region. Perhaps the Chamber of Commerce was right. At any rate, here were fertile valleys and lush vineyards and endless miles of citrus groves, heavy with golden fruit. The cool picturesque pastel cities with broad, palm lined streets were a novelty and the girls were as pretty as those in Texas.
As the miles rolled by, the serene Pacific appeared and the site of America's only enemy shelling was passed. The General ushered his men through the gates of Camp Cooke.
After many months of exacting training, the battalion settled down eagerly to the comforts and enjoyment of garrison life. Long awaited furloughs were granted and three day passes almost invariably meant a visit to Los Angeles and its many attractions. A weekend was something when it could be enjoyed in Santa Maria or Santa Barbara.
Post-maneuver training directives established many objectives, and all were successfully attained. The Third Corps' Firing Battery Tests and the Army Ground Forces' Battalion Tests were taken in stride with gratifying results. Any doubts of readiness were erased when the results were published. The Division Commander announced that the artillery was one of the first elements of the division fully qualified for combat.
Numerous additional tests were included on the schedule. Physical fitness, combat intelligence, and tank crew firing tests were credibly passed. The lads were good. Better than that, they were ahot4.
Small arms firing was emphasized and soon every member of the unit was qualified to wear a marksmanship badge for his individual weapon. Many hours were spent on the anti-aircraft ranges and the rocket launcher ceased to be a mystery.
The months at Camp Cooke marked the most intensive service practice schedule the battalion had ever followed. Errors made in the past had accomplished their end for they failed to reoccur. Frequent combined field exercises helped develop a well-knit, hard hitting outfit. After a much publicized incident on one of these exercises, it became customary for all Thunderbolt artillerymen to carefully note the daily passing of the Daylight Limited and govern their firing accordingly.
Inspections became almost routine and stars became a common sight as more and more important visitors and inspection teams came to witness the activities of the division. Among these were Peter B. Kyne and Congressman Cain of New Jersey. General George C. Marshall paid a brief visit and a team from the Armored Center made a detailed inspection. Lt. General Ben Lear was followed by the Inspector General's team. It seemed every star in the War Department firmament had come to observe and commend.
Inspections completed, recreational activity came to the foreground. Softball and volley ball games helped while away many leisure hours and the battalion ball club gave an excellent account of itself in many hard fought games. There were parties and dances-Army life wasn't so bad.
Strength was brought up to T/0 by the assignment of new men from ASTP units, the Sixteenth Armored Division, and the "repple depple" at Fort Ord.
Preparation for overseas movement rounded out the final months at Camp Cooke. Training films were shown and reshown. The dentists finished their drilling and the doctor pumped in more shots. Numerous showdown inspections of clothing and equipment were followed by intense activity, packing and crating equipment. Finally, the multitude of details completed, the battalion was ready to take into combat its training and' experience of two long years.
All Aboard! The long train chugged slowly out of the rail yards and the first leg of the final trip was begun. Every man had a feeling of confidence born of capability. They had marveled at the remarkable success of the Allied armies during the summer and were eager to get into the fray before the ninth inning. An important part of a great division was ready in all respects to perform its mission-to assist in the utter defeat of the enemy.
Destination unknown-Eastward, but where? The broad California plains gave way to the familiar stony wastes and sands of the desert. Reminiscing, they looked out over the expanse of nothing which had been Camp Ibis. It was desolate with but a few bleak, black shacks left standing. Wilted men in wilted uniforms sweltered in the oppressive heat. There was little interest in cards or games of amusement. Here and there, a soldier leafed idly through the limp pages of a magazine, but the majority relaxed in their seats, thinking and speculating on the future.
The engine ran out of fuel and the cars had flat wheels, but with all the numerous delays involved in a troop movement, the train finally squealed to a halt at the immense staging area at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.
Shots- more shots. Oh, my aching arm! P. O. M., censorship, ship drill, and more training films. Three days of whirlwind processing, then passes were issued to visit New York and nearby towns and homes.
The uninitiated stood awed by the magnitude of the city, the bustling crowds and the perpetual hurry that is New York. Gaiety and entertainment took a heavy toll of sleeping time, but who wanted to sleep? One could doze with his girl in a hansom cab, riding through Central Park, or spoon on a park bench until the MP's came along at midnight.
Loaded high with clothing and equipment, they left the staging area behind. A train ride to Hoboken, the ferry across the shimmering blue of the Hudson, and there was the pier. Unloading to the stirring tempo of the "Caisson Song", they were served hot coffee and doughnuts' by the ever smiling, ever friendly Red Cross girls. Solemnly, stooping under the heavy load of equipment, they filed up the gangplank of His Majesty's Transport The Samaria.
"All present and aboard, Sir." The last man was aboard ship.
With the first gray rays of a reluctant daylight cautiously peeping over the horizon, the pulsating engines moved the ship quietly and serenely out of the harbor. Many men, awakened by the gentle rocking, crowded the rail for a final look at the shoreline and the majestic lady holding high the Torch of Liberty. Many eyes were moist, and as the lumps arose in many throats they asked themselves, When, if ever again ?"
Out into the vast unrelenting Atlantic, dipping and cavorting in the rolling swells, she sailed, single loaded but crowded, and then as far as the eye could see in any direction the were ships. Far on the horizon, splitting the sea into wedges of creamy foam, there were U. S. Navy destroyers, shepherding their flock to a safe landing.
Movies and cards, reading and care of quarters, or just standing by the rail, gazing out over the trackless waters (sometimes a little green in the face) helped pass away the long day. The attendance at church services was always large.
If you liked herring for breakfast, "corn willie" and boiled potatoes, or spam and mash for other meals, the food was excellent. Of course, if you didn't like it, the Chaplain would cheerfully write out a "ticket". The unanimous opinion was that a Yankee diet was much preferred.
The weather remained fair throughout the uneventful trip and the only sign of the submarine menace was the inevitable rumor. There was no hostile air in evidence. They would have received a warm welcome had they come, for the decks bristled with anti-aircraft armament.
Suddenly the gray mist that was England loomed through the murk off the starboard bow and early the next morning, sea weary men debarked at the great port of Liverpool, a bit unsteady on their land legs. Even the grueling march to the railway station was welcome. It was good to feel solid earth underfoot again, and see those smiling American Red Cross girls with their inevitable coffee and doughnuts. It was tea time, anyhow, and after a brief pause, they boarded the train for Trowbridge.
Trowbridge Barracks was an aggregation of Nissen huts, sprawled in the mud just outside the picturesque village with its narrow winding streets and hospitable people. In no time at all the spontaneous Yankee grin had melted away the traditional English reserve and many friendships were established. There were dances at the Town Hall and St. James Church, and there were Mrs. Halliday and Magdalena (Maggie Brown from Manhattan) at the Donut Dugout. Cheez, it was good to talk to a real American girl.
Many spent weekends in Bath and Bristol or Oxford, looking into the dim past of England's scholars and poets, and Avon, strongly reminiscent of Shakespeare and Bacon. The magnificent square at Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and endless wandering trough St. James Parkway, occupied many leisure hours. The King always seemed to be at Windsor Castle, though many waited for hours outside the iron Palace Gates for a glimpse of the Royal Family.
The great city, battered and torn by endless chains of bombers and V weapons, seemed to shrug off each new attack, and thousands of war workers stuck doggedly to their tasks. It heartened these boys in a strange land to see the indomitable spirit and quiet determination that was the savior of England:
And, of course, there was Piccadilly, wicked and inviting in the blackout, 42nd Street and Broadway transplanted.
Camp Sutton Veny was a short distance away and the finishing touches of combat preparations were started when the battalion moved. Vehicles not brought from the States were issued and combat loaded. The American soldier will not be disassociated from his humor and Battery "B" turned up with some artistically fanciful characters painted on their vehicles. There was a gent called "Broadway, right out of Li'l Abner, and a haughty fellow named the Baron.. The female art (there must always be female art) was a bit on the buxom side, but worthy of a subdued whistle nevertheless. Battalion maintenance put in many twenty four hour days, cutting, altering, and welding, but in spite of the many sarcastic comments, the extra racks were handy. At Bastogne they were-called Lumry's Gypsies, but the extra stoves and coal and straw and a hundred other little items In the racks were a godsend.
The new howitzers were calibrated and endless hours were spent in combat technique. Then one day it suddenly seemed they were completely combat loaded and they were saying goodbye to Sutton Veny and their English friends. In a way it was like leaving home. A soldier is always saying goodbye.
They said, "The sun never sets on the British Empire but it never shines on England", but like the people, the sun was shining to wish them well when they departed for Weymouth. That night in the midst of a driving rain, chilled to the marrow by the penetrating dampness, tired and hungry, they unloaded at the marshaling area. The next day they were aboard three LST's and on the sea slipping quietly across the Channel to Cherbourg, with its shattered piers and blasted German fortifications. Hundreds of craft waited in the immense harbor for their signal to disgorge their troops and supplies.
Somehow things seemed strangely incongruous. This was France, this was War, yet vehicle headlights blazed and not one man carried a loaded clip in his weapon that 20th of December, when the last man had set foot on land.
The long march had begun when the first vehicle rolled off the boat, and strung along the road for miles, they finally assembled in the vicinity of Fierville. The next day the battalion bivouacked near Falaise in the field which a few months before had been the scene of the historic meeting of the American and British forces, forming the pocket where over 100,000 prisoners were bagged. The next day it was Damville. That day was the last day of non-combat service although a week more was to elapse before the actual front was reached.
Men, this is it! This was the first step on the bloody proving ground. This was the beginning of the final test. Had they learned thoroughly and well?
The period from December 23rd to the 28th saw the completion of an historic march across France from Damville to Jonval. Three hundred and fifty miles, the division moved in less than six days. It was bitterly cold and the raw wind lashed out until faces were beaten and numbed. The bivouac area was an apple orchard off the main road, and the people were hospitable and friendly. Freely, they gave champagne, cognac and last fall's apples. Grinning urchins stood by begging, Cigarette pour papa? (No Chelsea, please.) Any gum chum? For a package of butts or a bar of soap-anything.
The German mid-winter offensive had driven a fifty mile wedge into thinly spread Allied lines in the Ardennes sector, and the battle raged in bitter fury. With whirlwind speed, reinforcements were rushed to contain the flanks and blunt the nose of the thrust. Stopped on the west, the German offensive threatened to burst out on the south, where the Fourth Armored Division had driven a slim spearhead along the Bastogne-Neufchateau road to the "Battered Bastards of Bastogne. The narrow lifeline was under constant pressure from strong counterattacks, but the heroic defenders hurled them back as they came. Those were grim, solemn days and a heavy toll had been levied on the American forces.
These days marked the first visits of that nightly visitor, "Bed check Charley", and the first combat mission.
Participating in the defense of the Meuse River included reconnaissance between Given and Mouzon, and preparation to meet any breakthrough in that sector, then they pressed on, apprehensive but confident.
This Christmas was far different from the last, and no one seemed to care that the turkey and dumplings were several hours late. The throb of enemy aircraft engines filtered through the blacked out windows of Foch Barracks at Laon, but the reverent carols continued on. Many men who thought they had forgotten to pray, suddenly remembered that night.
The threat to the Meuse River eliminated, the division prepared to take up an offensive mission. Green, untried and unproven in combat, they were thrown into the most critical spot in Europe since Omaha Beach. Jones, Nusbaum, Marcheschi, Faggiano; they were all Americans, guns and guts. They were ready.
On the fateful 29th of December, numb from exposure, and frozen to the narrow, the battalion pulled up at Juseret, Belgium, having completed a forced march of one hundred and three miles. Men did not smile as they moved past the bristling gun emplacements and trees prepared for blasting across the road, should the Germans break through.
Due to the fast developing situation a night reconnaissance for position was necessary and early the next morning, under cover of darkness, the first firing position was occupied near Morhet. They were on the front. Combat Command "B" would attack at dawn. The stage was set, the players ready, and a breathlessly waiting world the audience.
At 0830 the morning of December 30 it came, "Fire mission -fire mission". The Old man" was calling for fire on Lavaselle.
Battery Adjust! Shell HE, Charge fi-yiv, Fuse quick, Base deflection left fo-wer ze-ro, Sl thuh-ree zero fi-yiv, Battery fi-yiv rounds, Elevation too nin-er ate."
Tense hands leveled the bubbles. Gone were the penetrating cold and the slashing wind. There was a keen sense of tightness. Set-Ready", "Fire, Baker, On the Way".
"It was icy cold but the hot sweat rolled
Down my face, I don't know why,
And the greasy smoke like an inky cloak
Went streaking through the sky"
Foxholes were a problem. First, clear away two feet of snow, then wield the axe through two feet of solid earth. After that it was easy digging. Put six inches of straw on the bottom, erect a shelter half overhead, camouflage it with snow, and there you had it.
There were many "firsts that day. The position area was bombed and Pfc. Vincent K. Cutshall, of Battery C, was nicked by a shell fragment to become the first man in the battalion to be authorized the Purple Heart. Lt. William Kiefer was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action when his tank was knocked out and he remained in observation with it under intense fire and kaputed beaucoup Krauts. The liaison and forward observer sections were consistently under heavy fire. Yes, they were battle inoculated. The transition from rookie to veteran is accomplished in short time in situations such as these.
They will not forget concentration 205, where the enemy had dug in positions covered with two layers of six inch logs topped by mounds of earth. An artillery concentration had caught them outside their holes and devastated the resistance. Wild eyed, trembling prisoners spoke of what they thought was automatic artillery, so accurate and quick was the incessant rain of high explosive and phosphorous shells.
During those first five days the combat command captured Lavaselle, Jodenville, Flohamont, Chenogne, Monty, and Mande St. Etienne. The Thunderbolt had struck, and there was sudden death and destruction in its wake.
There had been heavy casualties from enemy action and the excruciating cold, but the German losses were staggering. A radio commentator called the division "Patton's Merciless Killers and they took a grim pride in the cognomen, for in their first engagement, the green division had been credited with having been highly instrumental in saving the thin thread that was the lifeline to Bastogne, and turning back the bulge on the south."
Jokingly, they called themselves the Battered Bachelors of Bastogne..
It was at Monty that Mike Marcinko, the tobacco chewing sergeant from Helen, West Virginia, in a few simple words expressed the sentiment of the close knit battalion. The forward observer tank was out of action, and the observer was ready to send half the crew back to the battalion before moving in with the infantry. Sir, he said simply, "I came with you and I'll stay with you." This was their sentiment. They had come a long way together, come what may they would stay together.
The observer lay on the shattered roof, adjusting fire as the infantry attacked, while a light snow sifted softly to the ground. Sgt. Marcinko operated the radio from the attic floor just below. "Sir, them §t!°/o() sons of §t!°lo() is shooting' at us. (The good sergeant was not a man given to mild expression ) Chips from the stone chimney flew and futile bullets buzzed angrily through the shattered window as the snow thickened. Soon, unable to observe more than a few yards, they clambered down the rickety ladder which served as steps. An artillery shell tore through the roof showering debris through the house. As the sergeant picked himself up from the floor and brushed the straw from his hair, he spat lustily into the corner, then turned to the lieutenant and grinned. "Sir," he wailed, I been trying' so hard to take care of myself and you keep trying' to get me killed! A little humor helped in those hectic days, albeit grim.
The division was pulled off the line for a few days, but the Artillery, almost never in reserve, went into support of the 17th Airborne Division, which continued the attack.
The next day saw the weary cannoneers nodding sleepily as they moved at night, half frozen in their M7's, to a position just north of Bastogne. The division had received well deserved commendations for its part in the defense of the city, and was now to assist in cutting off the Bulge at the base.
The battalion moved to a new position south of Foy, which was held by the 101st Airborne Division, and prepared for the attack which would be launched in the morning.
A wounded officer on his way back to the aid station stopped at the firing position. We can't hold the town. You'd better get the hell out of here in a hurry.
It would take two hours to get the battalion on the road and to fall back at night would invite disaster. Their own division was to the rear, moving up. The old man issued an order, We will remain in position!"
Hard pressed by superior strength, the airborne men grudgingly yielded the town, and yard by yard they dropped back, fighting as they went. The battalion laid its guns for direct fire and they waited-waited for the first gray uniforms to advance over the crest of the knoll. But they did not come. Five hundred yards in front of "C. Battery's position, the line held and their own infantry pushed through to regain the village. The threat was eliminated and the immediate pressure relieved, but heavy fire fell on the position area throughout the day. And the bombers, a hovering menace. sent screaming tons of destruction into the earth.
Forward observers and liaison officers fired in their defensive fires at dusk, then sat shivering in their tanks, holding a hand grenade in readiness, waiting for the counterattack which was certain to come.
And the grinding steam roller moved on -Bertogne, Foy, Recogne, Cobru, Noville and Wicourt.
Patton's Killers" joined forces with the First Army at Houffalize and the Bulge had become a pimple. The greatest challenge to American arms since the War of 1812 was successfully met, and the war entered a new phase.
There followed a fifteen day respite from combat, and a degree of shelter from the numbing cold, for the thankful civilians of Belgium cheerfully "moved over" and shared their shattered homes with the Yankee liberators. They cried when the American boys moved on.
Fresh and well rested, the division again pressed the attack into the vaunted Siegfried Line. At 1231 hours the 6th of February, Btry. C fired the first rounds onto German soil. The battle was on for the formidable barrier the Germans boasted no army could penetrate, and indeed it looked formidable with its rows upon rows of dragons teeth, road blocks of concrete and steel, and its barbed wire entanglements. The squat, ugly pill boxes of reinforced concrete six feet thick commanded all approaches. That line would be tough.
In the initial engagement, a toehold was seized with the capture of Lutzkampen and the battalion moved to a position north of the town. The incessant hammering continued through night and day, and the battalion was commended for its very effective support. The three medium tanks were laid as an additional battery. There was ample white phosphorous ammunition and the already burning town in the line were kept ablaze. On one occasion, to facilitate a tactical movement, a smoke screen was established and maintained for seventy seven minutes.
The intermittent rains and snow turned the earth into a sticky morass. It was impossible to keep dry, let alone clean. Vehicles became mired and wallowed helplessly in the thick ooze until towed out. Everywhere the stench of dead horses and human beings assailed the nostrils. When the German forces had broken through in their December push, they had not buried the American dead and the black, decaying bodies fell apart as they were gathered for burial.
Two lieutenants dashed hurriedly around an exposed corner, hitting the mud at the sound of incoming shells, then disappeared into the house which was the observation post. That was a hot corner. Having fired a mission from that spot they approached the same corner, diving into the filth again as the shells whistled in. This, they decided, was getting decidedly uncomfortable. When necessity dictated another trip around acof6n corner., splashing through the mud, they dived full length and waited. The flutter of an outgoing shell with a bad rotating band was the only sound. One lieutenant, his features obscured by the slime, shook his fists and mumbled, the dirty bastards. A fellow spent enough time in the mud on his belly without making an unnecessary dive, They looked at each other and laughed.
Berg, Grosskampenberg,. Liedenborn, Sengerich, Eschfeld - one by one they fell, bastions of concrete with the approaches heavily mined and defended by fanatical troops.
The artillery reduced the villages to heaps of smoking rubble and the tanks charged the pillboxes, firing point blank through the firing embrasures.
Artillery, mortars, and small arm peppered the OP where the forward observers developed an effective technique. All day long enemy troops in very small groups were visible going from bunkers to pill boxes. The observer would adjust the fire of two or three guns on the spots they must pass, then cease firing, leaving the guns laid on the future targets. As the men approached, Fire 209!. and Adolph could eliminate a few more from his dwindling roster. They called it sniping with 105's.
With the capture of Reiff, the great Siegfried line was penetrated and, with the division pulled off the line for a maintenance period, the battalion went into general support of the Eighth Corps.
Early one morning the great iron steam roller of the Third Army got under way on its first historic dash to the Rhine barrier, through bewildered but stubborn opposition.
Being a typical Armored Division action, cutting, slashing far to the enemy's rear, disrupting his supplies and communications, the battalion was frequently exposed to direct hostile fire from pockets which were bypassed by the elements ahead. Their position was generally at the head of the main body. At Niederober Weiler, security patrols from the battalion captured three officers and one hundred fifty five enlisted men. Whenever there was a temporary halt at a town, military governments for control and security were established. The rain and snow continued to harass, but on March 9, the division had slugged through to the Rhine at Brohl and Andernach. Again there had been a link-up with the First Army cutting off a huge pocket, trapping six divisions Nest of the river.
On March 17th the advance was resumed, south to another point on the Rhine. The churning wheels of destruction an the chattering guns went into action again.
The confusion of battle was vividly illustrated with the breaking of the crackling dawn of March 19th. After a two hour march over rugged terrain and poor trails, the battalion went into position to support the attack. Then came the knowledge that they were far ahead of the combat command. They hid led the attack instead of supporting it.
One position the following day was thickly infested with enemy infantry on a ridge. Gunners bad a field day as the battalion fought to occupy their position. It was considered decidedly advisable to displace as Combat Command A, on the other side of the ridge, unknowingly returned the fire which was ricocheting over their column.
Long lines of surrendering Germans lined the road, marching back to the rear, bewilderment and disbelief, and fear in their faces. The attack had been too rapid, too devastating. Herr Goebbels had said the Americans were soft, the children of a decadent democracy. It was not right. Someone had made a horrible mistake. Except for a sneering, haughty face here and there, the supermen were beaten and cowed.
As the dying day slipped into the deepening shadows of night, the Thunderbolt was again on the Rhine, just south of the battered city of Worms, having advanced the amazing distance of one hundred sixty one miles in ninety eight hours. Combat Command B had captured twenty two towns.
The clatter of horses' hooves jarred the hush of the calm spring night. A horse drawn enemy ration wagon was attempting to dash through their position to the security of its own lines. But there was no security, nor were there any lines. The enemy had been decimated to the Rhine. The metallic clatter commenced in sudden fury, and the horses and men lay among the twisted ruins of the wagon by the road.
Enemy air was active in force for the first time since the Bulge, and several casualties were sustained. Friendly anti-aircraft guns followed the swooping menaces and on one occasion, firing low, riddled the S-3 tent.
The division was again allowed a much needed maintenance break and the battalion was attached to the Fifth Infantry Division. They moved to the site of the proposed Third Army bridgehead. The mission, unique for artillery, was to take under direct fire any floating objects or power craft approaching the bridges. This necessitated the placing of the firing batteries directly on the river bank. Battery B, with their usual eye for comfort and alcoholics, established a CP in the largest winery.
The dry Rhine wine is delicious. Any member of the battalion will vouch for it, although they might have acquired expensive peacetime drinking habits. In luxuriant abundance, the terraced hills, basking in the warm sunshine; nourished the vines for this year's wine.
During this operation, the bridge site was continuously 'harassed by artillery and aircraft. The engineers set up their chemical generators and established a dense smoke screen which obscured the entire valley. In record time, ponton and treadway bridges were in use, pouring the might of the Third Army through Germany's last natural barrier. The Navy, dressed in khaki, established and operated a flourishing ferry service. The hell-for-leather commander of the Third Army arrived at the bridge site. Where in the hell's the other bridge?" the General demanded. In eight hours there was a third bridge in use.
Two armored divisions and three infantry divisions raced across into the flat plain, deepening the bridgehead, and they advanced twenty seven miles before the Germans, caught off balance, could rush in enough reserves to stop them temporarily.
The Division Commander spoke many words of praise as he presented decorations to fourteen officers and men' and as he departed, these words were left ringing in their minds: "We are about to cross the Rhine, on the last lap of this campaign. Whenever so much as one round is fired on us from a German town, give it everything you've got!" They did.
From the crossing to the end of the war, operations were mad, wild, dashes. Wherever it was possible, resistance was bypassed, as the division struck at the nerve centers of the Nazi supplies and communications. With dazzling speed they sliced around the enemy's flanks and dealt him disastrous blows from the rear. Generally the procedure was to advance as rapidly as possible, often sixty or seventy miles ahead of the closest supporting infantry, then wait two or three days for the infantry to mop up in their zone and reopen supply lines which had closed behind them. Many times critical supplies were delivered, and wounded evacuated by air. During most of this time the Thunderbolt enjoyed the discomforting distinction of being the farthest East of any troops in the ETO, spearheading General Patton's drive across the belly of Germany.
The monotony of "iron rations" or "K" rations three meals (if there was time to eat) a day was broken, for eggs and wine and "Kartoffels" were plentiful. In the rural areas there was an abundance of staples and the men who were beating a stubborn Germany into submission acquired their needs as they advanced.
The morning of March 29th saw the battalion across the Rhine, wound up for a dash, which carried them two hundred miles in six days. Unique in artillery employment was the occasion when all batteries fired different targets simultaneously. e battery fired a mission for the forward observer with the advance guard, while the second fired an air mission to the left flank. The third battery meanwhile was g direct fire into a town on the right flank. The battalion commander wishfully ought of having two more firing batteries, for there were also profitable targets to the rear.
The personnel section was no longer accused of having a nice soft job in me rear as they were ambushed at a bridge, on their way up front with the payroll. It was April 1st, but the Krauts weren't fooling. The section was awarded more Purple Hearts proportionately than any other section in the unit.
One liaison plane was shot down by an enemy fighter and Lt. Ola Seger, though wounded, successfully landed his fragile craft, saving his own life and that of his observer, Lt. Byron Peacock. The clanking iron monsters passed through the warm sunshine of the spring and gradually climbed in altitude as they captured successive objectives. The narrow, precipitous roads led to the heart of the Thuringian Wald.
It was Easter Sunday and the narrow roads through the thick forests were infested with Nazi die-hards. The bellowing tanks crashed a path of devastation through their ranks, spewing death to either flank. Twisted German bodies, grotesque in death, lied the roadway, struck by the flash of the Thunderbolt. Snipers screamed in mortal agony as they pitched from their perches on the high bank overlooking the road. Dog tired, the battalion licked its wounds and the blazing spearhead moved on.
There was snow at the famed resort town of Oberhof perched in the pines, some three thousand feet up. It had been a Nazi government center until the ever pressing tanks moved in. There was ample evidence that it had been a beautiful town at one time, but the artillery had taken a heavy toll. The largest hotel lay a sprawling heap of smoldering rubble, but there was adequate quartering space in the many hotels and the cellars were well stocked with that smooth Rhine wine.
Guns were laid to cover the thick fir forests bordering the village and maintenance occupied much time while, stuck out like a sore thumb, they waited for the Twenty Sixth Infantry Division, some sixty miles to the rear, to catch up a bit and reopen supply lines. Advance elements of the doughs arrived. "Yes," said the commander, "you had a spearhead. Hell! It was sixty miles long but only eighteen feet wide. You fellows should put up signs reading, "Roads and shoulders cleared of live Krauts"
The avalanche of destruction moved on to Coburg, which was persuaded to surrender after a thousand round shelling. The castle overlooking the city was severely damaged, and the town trembled under the fury of the assault. On to Bayreuth, capital city of Bavaria and home of the internationally famous Wagner Memorial, they pushed.
The five day period beginning April 22nd marked a one hundred fifty five mile advance to the east and southeast. On the 23rd as the column approached Cham, it overtook a column of slave laborers and political prisoners being marched to the rear under an SS guard. Hundreds upon hundreds of starved, emaciated bodies lay by the side of the road, where they had been shot through the head when they could no longer maintain the pace, and the pitifully wasted forms of the living, clad in gray and black striped rags, presented a sight which was almost unbelievable. These starving men had been marched, unfed and unsheltered, for five days and nights by their guards fleeing in the path of the Thunderbolt. During the years of captivity, their diet had been but a thin slice of moldy bread and a cup of watery soup daily. Many spoke of having supplemented their meager diet by eating grass roots and by creeping at night to the body of one of the dead, and eating the liver or the heart, or a piece from the thigh. This they did at night for they would have been punished for procuring food illegally had they been apprehended.
An old man on hands and knees by the road raised his hand and feebly shouted, "God bless America! I die a free man", and tumbled lifeless into the ditch.
Two scrawny, wasted Jewish lads, branded on the forearm with a "J and serial number spoke of uncles in Brooklyn and Chicago and cried that they could again, after six years, "lift up their eyes to a free God and take their place in the world of free men".
This first hand view of wanton Nazi atrocity did more to show them what they were fighting for than all the orientation talks they had heard and all the films they had ever seen. To the American mind it was almost unbelievable, but the reasons for fighting were indelibly etched on every mind.
That night three Jerry planes landed at the airfield at Cham, not knowing it had been captured by the lightning thrust. They were met by a hail of hot lead as they landed.
Unsmiling, grimly determined, the division lashed out at dawn in a cold blooded fury that carried them over thirty miles in three hours, a record advance against opposition.
Patton's Merciless Killers. forged on, and the battalion suffered a costly day on April 25th. Two men were killed, fifteen wounded, and two vehicles were knocked out.
There was a much heavier enemy toll however. This day they suffered what was probably the greatest damage inflicted in a single day by one artillery battalion.
From the position at the head of the main body, four raging infernos which had been defended German towns were visible, and the isolated buildings along the road, where the Germans had hidden, were blasted and burned as the machine guns maintained an incessant metallic chatter.
On the 26th, the Eleventh Armored became the first of the western allies to cross the Austrian border. Patrols moved out to establish contact with the Russian forces, but there was still a substantial gap, and the grinding wheels moved again.
The Hungarians were well groomed and smart looking soldiers but they had no stomach for the fight. There was something of Gilbert and Sullivan in the scene they presented, parading in to surrender, violins tucked carefully under their arms, plumed caps jauntily perched on the side of the head, and the women and children hurrying along behind.
Battery "B" captured eight hundred and sixty prisoners and Headquarters Battery added thirty to the total, as, like a baying hound close upon the heels of its quarry, through road blocks and around blown bridges, they pushed relentlessly forward. The heavy snowfall during part of the advance was reminiscent of the Bulge, and at Altenfeld, for half an hour screaming shells rained down on the position area. The war was not finished and the advance continued to Gallneukirchen and Linz, where the division pulled up and again sent patrols to contact the Russian forces.
Throughout this entire period, the Nineteenth Tactical Air Force, fondly known as Finnegan", rendered inestimably valuable service. They helped greatly to speed the advance and reduce casualties by softening up successive objectives in the path of the advance. As never before liaison planes proved their worth. In addition to firing most registrations and many targets of opportunity, they provided air cover for the head of the column and dropped surrender leaflets on almost every town approached, before the combat elements reached it. Many war weary towns surrendered without firing a shot and white flags blossomed as the leaflets were dropped.
Patrols east of Linz uncovered new horrors at the Hell camp at Mauthausen, where it was said each of the thousands of stones in the huge parapet represented one life taken. Civilians were compelled to bury the hundreds of dead stacked like so much cordwood beside the filthy barracks. These people had paid a horrible price for opposing the policies of the corporal with the inhumanly warped brain.
On the 8th of May patrols from the division met the Russian forces at Amstetten to establish the first Third Army contact with the eastern ally. "Tovarich! Tovarich".
That afternoon they crowded about the radios to hear the President officially announce the cessation of hostilities in Europe. After a brief period of wild, exultant jubilation, there followed a deep silence, pregnant with thanksgiving. It was hard to realize that there would be no attack in the first gray light of dawn-that the days of nerve wracking shelling and the bitter, bloody fighting had ended. After one hundred thirty seven days of almost continuous combat, it was strange to think of a quiet, peaceful Europe.
Thus was a proud chapter written in the history of American arms. Thus they fought and bled and died. Thus, in the highest military tradition, they justified the hopes and prayers, and the confidence placed in them. God bless them all.
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