In honor of Memorial Day I decided to write about my cousin who was killed in action during the Second World War. So many Americans died in that war, over 400,000 gave their lives. Another 670,000 were wounded. The war touched nearly every family in the country. My family was no different.
Pfc. Herman E. Connell Jr. was my father’s first cousin, his mother’s sister’s boy. Herman Jr. was born March 2, 1926. He turned eighteen in March 1944. Only four days after his nineteenth birthday, on March 6, 1945, Herman E. Connell, Jr., died – killed fighting the Germans.
According to Ancestry.com, he enlisted in the Army on June 6, 1944. Did he know about the Normandy invasion that took place the same day? It was front page news and broadcast on radio across the country. Perhaps that spurred him to join the Army. Or maybe he knew he would be drafted and decided to go ahead and enlist. We will never know. What I do know is that Herman Jr. enlisted and reported to Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana for training.
Herman Jr. was the only son of Herman E. and Hattie L. (Roby) Connell. His only sister, Elizabeth, was four years his senior. Although the 1940 Census shows their residence as Paris, Henry County, Tennessee, Herman Jr.’s enlistment record states that his place of residence in 1944 was Warren County, Kentucky. The county seat is Bowling Green. At that time Bowling Green was just a train ride up the L&N Railroad toward the northeast from Paris, Tennessee. Since his father, Herman Sr. worked as a brakeman on the railroad, it makes sense to me that Herman Jr. would have traveled to Bowling Green to find work.
I have fond memories of visiting Aunt Hat and Uncle Herman in Paris, along with Elizabeth, her husband Milton, and their two sons Randy and Donnie. I vaguely remember a photo of a soldier and being told he had been killed in the war. Years later I found myself wondering what happened to him.
Unfortunately many of the service records for World War II veterans were lost in a fire. I found his name listed on the U.S. Roster of War Dead. The only information given there is his name, rank and serial number. Thanks to someone who photographed Herman Jr.’s grave marker and uploaded it to Findagrave.com, we know that when he died he was with Company L, 310th Infantry, 78th Division. I don’t know where he received his training after Fort Benjamin Harrison. I don’t know when he shipped out to Europe or when he was assigned to the 78th Division. After the war my father made some inquiries about Herman Jr. for his parents. I remember my father saying that Herman Jr. was in a group of replacements needed because so many men were being killed and wounded.
The information on Herman’s grave marker gave me a starting point to search for where his Company and Regiment would have been at the time of his death. I discovered a very detailed account of the 310th Infantry Regiment online as part of the Bangor Public Library’s digital collection. “The story of the 310th infantry regiment, 78th infantry division in war against Germany, 1942-1945” tells of their combat activities. In an appendix a list of men killed in action includes Herman Jr.’s name.
At the beginning of March, 1945, the 78th Infantry Division, as part of First Army, had reached the Roer River and was poised for the attack east toward the Rhine. On March 2, the 310th crossed the Roer River in support of the 9th Armored Division. The 3rd Battalion, which included Company L, was attached to CCA (Combat Command A) with Wollersheim their first objective. The men had not rested for 40 hours by the time they cleared the Wollersheim woods. The next day the 3rd Battalion captured three towns with Company L taking Merzenich while Company K took Sizenich and Company I captured Florin. Then on March 4, they attacked the important road, rail and communications center of Euskirchen, the largest city encountered by the 78th Division to that date. Thick mud in the recently plowed fields and steady rain made the five miles to the objective difficult and exhausting. During the advance they were subjected to artillery fire, mortars, machine guns, small arms fire and snipers.
“Even when the enemy fire was heaviest and casualties highest, the men kept moving toward their objective, seldom hitting the ground and urging one another on with shouts and jests. Not one squad scattered, and not a man dropped out, unless severely wounded. Most of the weapons became clogged with mud. There was neither time nor place to stop. The men attempted to clean them while marching.”
Company L’s casualties were extremely heavy. (Herman Jr. could have been mortally wounded during this advance on March 4th.) With friendly artillery out of range, 3rd Battalion continued with some tank support. They reached the city by dark and then fought their way through the night. By eleven Company I had reached the southwest edge of town. On the morning of March 5 the 3rd Battalion continued to mop up Euskirchen.
Still with no rest, elements of the 3rd Battalion moved on to the Erft Canal and Roitzheim, taking the vital crossing point on the canal. Other elements remained in Euskirchen to search every room in every building. Due to an expected counter-attack during the night of March 5 no one slept, instead they manned defensive positions throughout the night. On March 6, with Euskirchen and Roitzheim secure, the 3rd Battalion finally got their much deserved rest, their first since the beginning of their attack on March 2nd.
Although Herman Jr. died on March 6th, it is important to know what his unit accomplished in the days following his death. The 1st Battalion of the 310th Regiment was attached to CCB while the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were part of CCA. On March 7th CCB captured the intact Ludendorff bridge at Remagen. With that fortuitous event all plans changed with the Americans focusing on getting troops across the bridge and into the heart of Germany. The 1st Battalion of the 310th was the first infantry battalion across the bridge. The 3rd Battalion followed a few days later on March 10th. The 310th helped establish and hold the vital bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Rhine.
For their action against the enemy from the Roer River to the Rhine during the period from March 1, 1945, to March 15, 1945, the Third Battalion of the 78th Division received a Presidential Unit Citation. Reading this high military award gave me goose bumps knowing that my cousin gave his life in this action. A young, nineteen-year-old with his whole life ahead of him sacrificed that future for his country and for the world. I am sure that the Presidential Unit Citation did little to comfort his mother’s grief or to make his family’s life without him any easier. But it made me very proud, of Herman Jr., of my father and my father-in-law, and of all my uncles and cousins who served in the military during that terrible and truly world-wide war.