491st AFA History
The 491st Armored Field Artillery Battalion was officially activated on August 15, 1942, at Camp Polk, Louisiana. It quickly grew from a cadre of 38 officers and 115 enlisted men. Most of the officers had been recently commissioned at Fort Sill, Oklahoma; the rest mostly came from the 3rd Armored Division. Non-commissioned officers were from the 3rd, 7th and 8th Armored Divisions.
In late October, draftees and enlistments fleshed out the battalion. By mid-November, the outfit was 15 percent overstrengthed. Equipment was in short supply, but the men trained hard.
Training continued into the winter of 1943. The armored artillerymen got used to T-19s, then eagerly moved up to M-7s. In late winter, Colonel William N. Gillmore, 11th Armored Division artillery commander, presented the 491st Field Artillery batteries their guidons. In battery firing contests, Battery A, 491st, finished second in the division.
In the spring, the battalion participated in combined exercises with Combat Command B and also joined division-wide maneuvers. Next on the schedule were the big Third Army Louisiana-Texas maneuvers in which the 11th Armored and 88th and 95th Infantry Divisions teamed up. Major Raymond H. Lumry commanded the 491st before the Louisiana-Texas maneuvers, but Lieutenant Colonel James M. Worthington replaced him before the exercise began.
The men and machines of the 11th Armored fought mock battles back and forth across the Sabine River. They captured and recaptured Peason Ridge. They practiced warfare at night when dark gullies, rough roads and seemingly invisible tree stumps made the going tough for jeeps and M-7s. But the men of the 491st persevered; everybody agreed they were better soldiers when the maneuvers ended.
There was little rest for the weary. The 11th Armored headed west to Camp Barkeley, Texas. The flat, rolling plains of Texas were a welcome change of scenery from swampy, sticky hot Louisiana. There was more training, especially in small arms fire. Worthington was ordered to the G-3 Section, Army Ground Forces; Lumry was back in command.
In the fall of 1943, the division migrated west again, to California's Mojave Desert, a bleak, barren land of sand dunes and prickly cactus. The 491st Battalion clambered down from a troop train at Goffs, California, and pitched their tents. Camp Ibis was strictly military, but even the army saw the need for rest and relaxation. Cactus Jim's 491 Club was a popular off duty lure. Here dusty, bone-weary armored artillerymen gathered to talk, smoke and cool off with beer, soda pop and ice cream. The "proprietor," Sergeant Jim Heely, always stayed open an extra half hour after closing time.
Training continued in the vast, arid wasteland. Troops qualified as marksmen on small -arms ranges. The battalion participated in combat command and division field exercises in the ever-shifting sand. Toughened by months of training, the 491st was more than equal to the task of practice warfare in the most inhospitable of conditions.
Nicknamed the "Thunderbolt" Division, the 11th Armored beat the almost impregnable defenses of Palen Pass in a well-timed attack that ended desert maneuvers. From Camp Ibis, the division shifted to Camp Cooke. California, where soldiering was easier. It was garrison duty, but there was no letup in training. Inspections became more and more common. Then it was get ready for overseas duty.
When the 491st boarded troop trains at Camp Cooke no Gl seemed to know where the 11th Armored was headed. East was the direction, but east to where? After the long cross-country trek, the tank division found itself at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. In late September, 1944 the division sailed for England aboard two troopships; the 491st loaded aboard the Samaria, a British steamer.
The 491st docked in Liverpool, then took a train to Trowbndge in southwest England. They were close to the war zone but there was more work to do before doing battle with the Germans. In the 491st, the men calibrated their new howitzers. Endless hours were spent rehearsing combat techniques. The training soon would be put to the test in the bloodiest battle the U.S. Army ever fought. The 11th Armored Division was piled onto LSTs and sent to France in December. The last man was ashore at Cherbourg by December 20. Their orders: help stop a massive surprise German counteroffensive in the Ardennes Forest that had driven a deep bulge in the Allied lines. History would record the bitter struggle in the snow and cold as the Battle of the Bulge.
The 11th Armored was to hold the Meuse River between Verdun and Givet, France, a line stretching 160 miles. When Allied forces drove the Germans back and eliminated the Nazi threat to the Meuse, the Thunderbolts got ready to go on the offensive. On December 29, the 491st Battalion arrived in Juseret, Belgium, ready to fire its first shots in anger. The armored artillerymen opened up on the Germans the next day. The 491st joined the 11th Division's Combat Command B which by January 4 had captured Lavaselle, Jodenville, Flohamont, Chenogne, Monty and Mande St. Etienne. The battalion had suffered casualties, but the Germans had lost far more men.
When the 11th Division was pulled off the line for a few days rest, the division artillery stayed put, firing in support of the attack by 17th Airborne Division. The 491st, bone-weary but determined, moved their M-7s up near Bastogne. where an heroic stand by the 101st Airborne Division and scattered other units turned the tide in the Bulge. The Thunderbolts rolled on, ever westward, taking Benogne, Foy, Recogne, Cobru, Noville and Wicoun. The Thunderbolts were part of Lieutenant General George S. Patton's Third Army, which joined up with the First Army at Houffalize and the Bulge was erased.
After some much needed rest and relaxation in Belgium, the Thunderbolts joined the attack on Hitler's vaunted "Westwall" defense line. better known among Allied troops as the Siegfried Line." On February 6, C Battery fired the 491st Battalion's first rounds onto German soil.
The Siegfried Line was a belt of pillboxes, tank traps, barbed wire, mine fields and concrete obstacles known as "dragon's teeth " The Germans fought stubbornly, but the Thunderbolts pressed on, capturing Lutzkampen, Berg, Grosskampenberg, Liedenbom, Sengench and Eschfeld. With the capture of Reiff, the Westwall was breached. The 11th Armored pulled off the line for maintenance but the 491st Battalion was ordered into general support of VIII Corps.
The weather was terribleŚrain, snow, mud and fog. But the Thunderbolts rolled on toward another German defense barrier, this one natural: the Rhine River. On March 9, the division was on the Rhine at Brohl and Andemach. The Third and First armies linked again, trapping six German divisions on the west bank of the wide river.
The advance continued with the 491st firing support for hard -charging Combat Command B. On March 19, the armored artillerymen found themselves in front of the combat command; they had led an attack, not supported it. As the Americans pushed forward, hundreds of German soldiers surrendered. On March 20, CCB was nearing historic Worms on the Rhine.
While the division again got a maintenance break, the 491st Battalion was attached to the 5th Infantry Division and ordered up to where Third Army was planning a bridgehead. The armored artillerymen could hardly believe their orders: blast out of the water any enemy craft that approached the bridgehead which held.
Soon thousands of Gls and hundreds of vehicles were pouring across. They raced 27 miles before German reinforcements stopped them, but only temporarily.
The 491st Battalion was over the waterway on March :9. What followed was a six-day dash in which the armored artillerymen covered 200 miles. The 491st employed unique tactics: all batteries would tire on different targets at the same time.
Casualties began to mount in the 491st; Germans ambushed the personnel section on the way to the front with the battalion payroll. The section won more Purple Hearts than any other section in the unit.
The Nazis also shot down the battalion observation plane. The 491st had two Piper Cubs, L4s. usually called "Flying Grasshoppers". Lt. Ola D. Seger of North Hollywood, CA, was wounded, but managed to land his damaged plane, saving his own life and the life of the observer Lt. Byron I. Peacock of Fountain Valley, CA.
On Easter Sunday, the battalion was rumbling along narrow roads in the Thuringian Forest The 491st swept aside German anti-tank gunners and snipers.
The battalion bivouacked in snowy Oberhof, 3,000 feet up. CCB moved on to Coburg which surrendered after a l,000-round barrage from 491st gunners. Next to fall was Bayreuth, Bavarian home of the German composer Richard Wagner.
From April 22-27, the Thunderbolts slashed 155 miles to the southeast, deep into Bavaria, the Nazi heartland. Near Cham, they saw Nazi atrocities first hand: the Americans overtook a column of ragged, nearly-starved slave laborers and political prisoners force-marched along by SS guards. Hundreds of prisoners lay dead by the road: the Nazis murdered them.
Two soldiers of the 491st died from enemy gunfire on April 25, a costly day in which 15 others were wounded and two vehicles were knocked out. Still, there was no stopping the 491st. Ahead was yet another objective: the Czech border.
On April 26, the 11th Armored Division was the First American unit to cross into Czechoslovakia. Patrols fanned out. hoping to make contact with Soviet armies advancing from the east. The war was almost over.
In Czechoslovakia, the 491st Battalion captured a force of Hungarians that had been fighting in the German Army. They marched up to surrender, some with violins tucked under their arms. Their wives and children brought up the rear.
Battery B bagged 860 prisoners; headquarters battery added 30 more. It was still snowing when the division pushed on into Austria. The Thunderbolts arrived at Gallneukirchen and Linz, where the division paused and sent patrols scouting ahead for the Russians
East of Linz, Thunderbolt patrols uncovered even more horrible Nazi atrocities at the Mauthausen concentration camp. Hundreds of bodies were stacked like cordwood in the camp where Nazis had brutally murdered them.
Finally, on May 8, patrols from the 11th Armored met Soviet troops at Amstetten. It was the first Third Army linkup with the Russians. That afternoon, soldiers of the 491st Battalion and the rest of the division crowded around radios to hear President Harry S. Truman announce the war was over in Europe.
The 491st went to war with 510 men. It suffered seven killed in action and 31 wounded. Another 30 were injured.
The battalion also earned its share of decorations including a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster. 41 Bronze Stars, 5 Air Medals (4 with one or more clusters) and 3 recommended French Croix De Guerre medals. Also, the battalion's Service Battery won a Meritorious Service Unit Plaque.
The battalion coat of arms and mottoŚ"Wisdom-Power-Victory" were approved on January 11, 1943. A cannon barrel, star, victory wreath and lightning bolt appear on a red, gold and blue background.
Red is the traditional army color for artillery. The lightning flash symbolizes speed and striking power while the cannon barrel represents the armored artillery.
The star, in silver, represents the national identification symbol, which appeared in white on battalion vehicles. The battalion crest includes symbols and colors that represent Bastogne, campaigns in the Rhineland and Central Europe, the breakthrough at the Siegfried Line and the crossing of the Danube.