I had originally planned to post this on Memorial Day, but decided to save it until today, the 67th anniversary of th D-Day invasion of Fortress Europa.
“Dad? What did you do during the war?” I imagine I was like many young boys my age when they first learned that their fathers had served in the military during World War II. My father would occasionally share some of his stories although I was perhaps too young to understand just what he was telling me or how painful these memories might have been for him. All sons look up to their fathers as heros. I did. It was not that many years earlier that he and his buddies, following the massive D-Day invasion, were slogging their way across northern France in late 1944, slowly pushing the Germans back to their own border. Dad never really went into many details about the war, or exactly what he did, but there were a few stories and I still remember them as clearly as the day he told them to me. Perhaps the most vivid of these, the one that still stands out in my own recollections of my childhood, was Dad’s participation in the Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Offensive, the greatest land battle ever fought by the military forces of the United States between December 16, 1944 and January 25, 1945. This great battle halted the final Nazi juggernaut to defeat the Allies and turned the tide of war against the Germans who would surrender just six months later.
I wrote briefly about Dad’s wartime service shortly after his death, in October 2009. He had served in the104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry (Yankee) Division in General George Patton’s Third Army during the northern European campaign, in 1944-1945. During my recent spring sojourn in Florida I visited Dad’s grave for the first time since his memorial service at the Florida National Cemetery the previous spring. It was my first opportunity to see the inscription on the marble tablet marking the niche containing his ashes. It was then and there that I learned for the first time, and much to my complete surprise, that Dad had received the Bronze Star, the fourth highest decoration awarded for distinguished, heroic or meritorious achievement or service in combat. He really was a hero even if not that many people knew it.
A few days later my wife and I visited with one of just a handful of surviving members of Dad’s unit. I first learned about Harry a few years ago when I was doing some online research on the Ardennes region of eastern Belgium and Luxembourg. I came across a photo essay on the area by a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge who had returned to visit the places he knew from the war. Many of the places and events he described seemed very similar to the ones my Dad had told me about when I was a kid. I called Dad up and asked him whether he knew the guy who had posted the photos. “Why sure,” he said.” Harry was one of my closest buddies during the war.” They had not seen each other since the early days of 1945, in the immediate wake of the battle, and, as it turned out, they lived only a few miles apart in Florida. Dad gave Harry a call and over the next few months they renewed their old friendship. Harry and I also exchanged occasional notes and we planned to meet one day when my travels took me to Florida. I regret that I was not able to meet with Harry when Dad was still alive, but over our recent lunch I told Harry what I knew of Dad’s wartime exploits and Harry was able to fill me in on many more details. He answered a lot of questions I had about that chapter of my Dad’s life.
Dad was drafted into the US Army on April 3, 1943, just a couple months shy of his 19th birthday. He left his native Michigan and did his basic training at Fort Jackson, in Columbia, South Carolina, where he was eventually assigned to the 104th Infantry Regiment of the 26th Infantry (Yankee) Division. He underwent training there , at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and participated in the Second Army’s maneuvers in Tennessee the winter of 1943/1944. Shortly thereafter Dad and Harry were both assigned to the regimental band at Fort Jackson. As Harry told me, the band was formed in early April 1944. It was originally established as a drum and bugle corps and the men were issued plastic bugles. Later they all sent home for their own instruments and became a band. Dad played the bass drum and Harry played the trumpet. The army’s table of organization had no provision for a regimental band (they were only authorized at the divisional level), but the regimental commander wanted a band “and by God he got one.” Tearing up a little, Harry told me that most of them, including himself and Dad, would not have survived the war had they not been plucked from their rifle companies and transferred to the band. Maybe so, but they saw combat once they arrived in Europe. There was plenty of death and destruction, but the band played on.
They finally left Fort Jackson, in August 1944, upon completion of basic combat training, and from there Dad and his unit were sent to the huge Camp Shanks - Last Stop USA” - in New York’s Hudson Valley. It was time to go to war. Dad would serve until his discharge in early January 1946 and he and Harry and their buddies would grow up fast in those years of hardship not knowing if they would survive. A lot of the brave men who went to war never came home. Dad and Harry were lucky.
The Yankee Division was originally formed out of Massachusetts National Guard units for service in World War I as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force. It has had a long and distinguished history. In World War I, its 104th Infantry Regiment became the first US Army regiment to receive the fourragère of the French Croix de Guerre after showing “fortitude et courage” in repelling a German attack at Aprémont on April 10-13, 1918. These words have been the regiment’s motto ever since.
After Camp Shanks the division embarked from Fort Miles Standish, at Boston, in late August 1944. It crossed the Atlantic on the SS Argentina, an old Moore-McCormack passenger liner built in 1924 to accommodate 750 passengers. As a troop ship plying the North Atlantic between 1942 and 1945, it carried almost 5000 fully armed troops on board as it transported the division directly to Cherbourg, France where it landed on September 7, 1944, some three months after D-Day. The division was attached to III Corps, Ninth Army at the Valognes staging area where it underwent extensive combat training and was assigned to local security duties along the Cherbourg peninsula and the Normandy beachheads used on D-Day.
Following this training the 26th Infantry Division was assigned in October 1944 to XII Corps in General George Patton’s Third Army which had been deployed to France after D-Day to support the Allied offensive. Third Army moved so quickly across northern France that it soon out distanced its supply line and had to slow down its advance. The division departed Normandy for the Third Army operational in the Lorraine region in northeastern France, the same area where it had served with distinction in World War I. There it took up a defensive position on Third Army’s right flank, relieving the 4th Armored Division near Salonnes. The 104th Infantry Regiment had its baptism of fire in an action against the German 11th Panzer Division in the Moncourt Woods, northwest of Bezange-la- Petite, in late October. This si where their training paid off as these green soldiers went up against a seasoned German division.
During the first week of November, Third Army prepared to launch a large-scale offensive along the front near the German border. The first major offensive action by the 26th Infantry Division was against German positions in and around Moyenvic and Vic-sur-Seille on November 8. The 104th Regiment advanced on the left flank toward Hampont and the Houbange Woods, and it captured Bennestroft two days later. The regiment proved it was up to the task assigned to it and it added a second regimental Croix de Guerre to its colors for service at Vic-sur-Seille.
The division continued to advance on Saar-Union in late November and into early December with the 104th Regiment crossing the Canal du Rhin au Marne on December 1. Just a few days later the regiment reached the Maginot Line, a system of concrete fortifications constructed by the French near the border with Germany after World War I. Thereafter the regiment regrouped and conducted mopping up actions in le Grand Bois before launching an attack against heavy German resistance at the Maginot Line near Kalhausen as part of Third Army’s assault on the Saar River basin and Germany. The 26th Infantry Division was relieved by the 87th Infantry Division in XII Corps sector on December 10, the day the rest of Third Army crossed into Germany. It was reassigned to III Corps and transported to a rear area near Metz for some much needed R&R.
But there was no rest for the weary. During the early morning hours of December 16, the Germans launched a surprise major counteroffensive through the Ardennes of Luxembourg and eastern Belgium in a last ditch effort to divide American and British forces advancing toward Germany. The Germans quickly advanced westward creating a large “bulge” in the Allied lines while never actually breaking out. Third Army was forced to suspend its offensive in the Saar Basin and reposition its forces in order to address the new German offensive. All units of Third Army would be thrown against the southern shoulder of the bulge. III Corps, including the 26th Infantry Division, was transported from Metz to the vicinity of Arlon, in southeastern Belgium, on December 19. The division found itself at Eischen, Luxembourg on December 21.
III Corps launched an assault northward through western Luxembourg the following day to help relieve American forces under siege at Bastogne, Belgium. Not knowing for certain where it would encounter the German salient, the 26th Infantry Division, with the 104th on its right flank, first encountered German resistance near Rambrouch some 16 miles north Arlon and Eischen. By December 23 the 104th was advancing through the hills and gorges of the Ardennes toward the Sûre (Saar) River north of Grobus where the Germans had counterattacked. III Corps met heavy Germany resistance throughout December 24 and Christmas day as it continued to advance northward. There was intense combat on Christmas morning in Eschdorf which fell to the 104th on December 26. Still on the division’s right flank, the 104th then moved up to Esch-sur-Sûre to establish important bridgeheads over the Sûre on the 27th. While the 104th secured the bridgehead, the remainder of the division continued its northward advance on the Wiltz River, in northern Luxembourg, in the closing days of 1944 in an effort to break the German siege of Bastogne. Dad and his unit remained in Esc-sur-Sûre for several day securing the regimental headquarters in the Hotel Ardennes. It was here that he won his Bronze Star.
By early January 1945 III Corps and the 26th Infantry Division had reached a virtual standstill just south of the Wiltz River. Heavy snow and German resistance stalled the drive to reinforce American forces that had finally broken the siege of Bastogne. The 104th was positioned north of Nothum and on the high ground above the river in the vicinity of Mon Schumann. The division would remained in this general vicinity until January 20 when the German offensive had all but collapsed. The division finally crossed the river on January 21 and secured the town of Wiltz. By January 25 the German offensive in the bulge was over and Third Army resumed its eastward advance from northern Luxembourg.
The 26th Infantry Division was transferred from III Corps to XX Corp in western France. The 104th, which had been held in reserve, departed Niederwiltz on January 27 and was sent to Boulay, in northeastern France. It was the first element of the division to arrive back in the same area of the Saar Basin where it fought back in November and early December. Never able to enjoy their relief from front line action, the division was sent to relieve the 95th Infantry Division and was on the right flank of Third Army near Saarlautern as it again entered Germany for the second time. The 26th Infantry Division had finally made it to Germany and it would not leave until the job was done.
The division’s regiments took turns securing the bridgeheads over the Saar until early March 1945 when it resumed the offensive in the vicinity of Saarburg. Third Army was already well on its way to the Rhine River and the heartland of Germany. The division continued eastward in mid-March as it met scattered yet heavy resistance as it moved ever closer to the Rhine. By March 21 Third Army was preparing to cross the river.
The 26th Infantry Division passed to XII Corps and on March 23 the 104th was the first of the division’s regiments to cross the Rhine at Oppenheim, south of Mainz, where it was supporting the 4th Armored Division, the same division it relieved when it first entered combat in Lorraine the previous October. German resistance diminished and the division advanced quickly south of Frankfurt to the bridgeheads over the Main River east of that city, reaching Fulda some 60 miles to the northeast by April 1. From there the division moved southeast with the 104th in reserve conducting mopping up operations near Meiningen and Suhl. On April 15 the entire division was approximately 10 miles from the Czechoslovakian border where it advance was intentionally halted.
XII Corps, including the 26th Infantry Division, was tasked with the pacification of eastern Bavaria, and it quickly advanced southward toward the Danube River and the Austro-German border near Passau. The division moved into Austria in early May and elements of the division took Linz on May 4. On the following day divisional units overran the Gusen concentration camp, part of the Mauthausen camp complex, east of Linz, and on May 6 it continued north into Czechoslovakia. Third Army had moved farther east than any other American unit in the European theater.
Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 7 and hostilities officially ended on May 9. The following day elements of the 104th Infantry Division made contact withe advanced elements of the Soviet Red Army in the vicinity of Ceske-Budejovice, Czechoslovakia. Since the autumn of 1944 the 26th Infantry Division had been in combat for 210 days; the 104th for 177 days. But the war was not over; the 26th with the 104th returned to the area around Linz to train for eventual deployment in the Pacific. Luckily the war ended there before they had to go and finish the work it began in the forest and hills of north eastern France almost a year earlier.
When I was attending university in Germany in 1971-1972 I had an opportunity to visit some of the areas where the Yankee Division and the 104th Infantry regiment had served. During the war Dad had plotted the movements of his unit on various maps he had found along the way. He had also kept a small journal in his boot and I had all of these with me during my time in Europe. I spent quite a bit of time in the area of northeastern France, visited the Moncourt Woods where Dad first saw combat, and then traveled throughout the Ardennes looking for the various places Dad had told me about. Recalling some of the more vivid stories Dad had told me about his time in Esch-sur-Sûre, I visited the town several times. On one visit I managed to identify the house in the rue de l’eglise where Dad and his buddies bunked. I knocked on the door to discover that the family to whom the house belonged during the war, still lived there and they gave me a tour and invited me to stay for coffee and cake. Later that evening I had dinner at the Hotel Ardennes. When I told the waiter why I was there, he brought me a bottle of wine and my entire dinner was on the house. The American liberators were still looked upon as heros. And so were their sons. I can’t think of a time I was prouder to be an American.
It was a real treat to finally meet Harry. While Dad never really involved himself in veteran affairs and unit reunions after the war, Harry jumped in with both feet and even today he works hard to make sure younger generations never forget what he and Dad and so many like them did to preserve our way of life in this country. We remember and salute them all.
1 week ago