Posted in 30th Infantry Division, History, Research, WWII

The 30th Division’s Final Push to the End of the War

With this post I will finish my series of posts on the exploits of the 30th Infantry Division during World War II. I have been distracted by other events in my life (like selling my first novel). Nevertheless, I need to bring their story to a conclusion and, in doing so, tell of some interesting occurrences during the last days of the war.

After crossing the Rhine River on March 24, 1945, the 30th pushed into the heart of Germany. By the 28th, the 8th Armored Division passed through their lines and the mission of the 30th was to follow behind and mop up. After Dorsten fell on March 29, XIX Corps took command of the 30th. By April 1, Old Hickory was reassigned to following the 2nd Armored Division on a long road march eastward towards Berlin. Before them lay the Teutoberger Wald, the place where the Germanic tribal chief, Hermann, defeated the Roman legions of Varus in 9 AD. The 2nd Armored Division left the Autobahn, which veered north at this point, and crossed the long ridge of the Teutoberger Wald with the assistance of the 30th. A German Officers Training School aided regular troops to resist the Americans in the rough, steep, heavily forested terrain. They tried to take a stand on Monument Hill, the site of the Hermannsdenkmal (the statue commemorating famous battle), but Old Hickory defeated them.

On April 7th the 117th Regiment cleared Hamelin minus K Company who had been left behind to guard an Allied Prisoner of War camp. During the advance the 30th took over an assortment of installations, including airports, hospitals, training camps and German research facilities. All had to be guarded in addition to the thousands of German prisoners. Feeding the prisoners, freed POWs and slave laborers fell to the military which was unprepared to care for such numbers.

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Frank Towers talking about his experiences with the 30th Infantry Division

The 30th’s next objective was Brunswick. The German commander, General Veith, called for a truce to negotiate a surrender of the city, but after a meeting with General Hobbs, Commander of the 30th, the Germans refused the terms of “unconditional surrender.” The conference was only a delaying tactic to allow the German Army to escape. Fighting resumed almost immediately with the 117th Regiment attacking and the 120th moving into position to block escape from the city. By April 12 the 3rd Battalion of the 117th remained to mop up Brunswick while the remainder of the 117th along with the 120th pushed eastward toward the Elbe River. (The 119th was attached to the 2nd Armored Division at this time.)

After Brunswick fell, the 743rd Tank Battalion and infantry from the 119th Regiment were proceeding toward Magdeburg when they passed through the town of Farsleben. Lead elements found a long freight train stopped on the track. The Nazi guards attempted to flee from the Americans but were captured. The train had a full head of steam and was awaiting orders when the Americans showed up. It didn’t take long to determine that the old freight cars contained 2,500 Jewish prisoners who were being moved from Bergen-Belsen prison camp to some unknown location in the east. Problem was that the Russians were advancing from the east. The bridge over the Elbe had been destroyed and at one point the Nazis ordered the crew to drive the train into the river which would have killed all aboard. Shocked by their discovery the Americans could scarcely believe the condition of the prisoners. Frank Towers tells the story of the liberation of the train and the following events in a section of the book “The Fighting 30th Division – They Called Them Roosevelt’s SS” by Martin King, David Hilborn and Michael Collins. You can also watch and listen to Frank Tower’s account of the incident in an interview by University of Florida oral history program on YouTube.

Although the 30th Infantry Division had been issued maps through to Berlin, the order came down that they were to take Magdeburg and stop on the banks of the Elbe River. The Russians would proceed from the east and the two allies would meet at the Elbe. Many in the 30th were disappointed at not getting to push on into Berlin.

Magdeburg appeared an easy task. There were hopes of a surrender but when men went in to discuss it with the German commander they found him either unwilling or unable to surrender the city. Before the attack by both the 30th Infantry Division and the 2nd Armored Division, bombers unloaded on the already damaged city. Within twenty-four hours Magdeburg was cleared. It was April 18, 1945.

With orders to hold at the Elbe, Old Hickory’s fighting in Europe came to an end.  While they waited for the Red Army and the German surrender, which finally came on May 8, 1945, the 30th occupied the area and took 7,468 prisoners.  Some crossed the river to escape being captured by the Russians. All along the line the large numbers of surrendering German soldiers became a burden on the Allies to feed and house. In addition, there were thousands of freed slave laborers and liberated prisoner of war camps to deal with. Contact with the Russians came on May 4th.

Old Hickory moved south from Magdeburg to Thuringia and assumed occupation duty after the surrender. Near the end of June, the 30th learned they had been chosen for redeployment to the Pacific Theater. Their orders would carry them home, to the United States, to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Those individuals with enough points to be discharged were transferred primarily to the 76th Infantry Division with lower point individuals from the 76th moving into the 30th to replenish its ranks. These transfers due to points often explain why a veteran’s discharge papers show him in a different division from the one he fought with.

In July, the 30th moved across Europe to Camp Lucky Strike near Le Havre, France. The bulk of the division crossed the channel to England to await shipment to the U.S. That’s where they got the news that Japan had surrendered August 15, 1945. The 119th Regiment had sailed from France on August 12 so they were at sea when word came. All the men of Old Hickory let out a sigh of relief.  Their fight was over. On Aug. 16th the division boarded the Queen Mary and sailed for home where the 30th Infantry Division was deactivated on November 25, 1945. The 30th Infantry Division left a glorious record of bravery, hard fighting and sacrifice in which we can all take pride.

Posted in 30th Infantry Division, History, Research, WWII

30th Infantry Division – From the Roer to the Rhine

By the end of January 1945 the Allies had fought their way back to the positions they occupied before the Battle of the Bulge. Six weeks of fighting in the worst winter many had ever seen where the weather was as much of an enemy as the Germans. The 30th Division assembled near Liernieux, just west of St. Vith, Belgium, where they had been sent to recover from both the cold and the battle casualties. Rumors abounded about what would come next. Would they tackle the Sigfried Line again? Or was something else in store?

After months of fighting the 30th had become a well-oiled fighting machine. Experienced officers and non-coms knew how to plan an attack and how to carry it out. With replacements coming up they knew how to train and quickly assimilate them in with the more experienced soldiers. So it was no surprise when they were reassigned to the Ninth Army and trucked north to take part in clearing out the section of the Rhine valley facing the industrial center in the Ruhr valley.Arns War Cover

Returning to the Aachen area and the flat lands of the Cologne plain, Old Hickory received a tough assignment – a treacherous stretch of the Roer River between Julich and Duren, due west from Cologne. The Germans flooded the river by blowing up the control sluices on one of the dams upstream so the Roer crossing, originally planned for February 10, was delayed. Knee deep water covered the lowlands on either bank of the Roer. Like the previous fall when Old Hickory sat facing the Sigfreid Line for two weeks, now they faced the Roer waiting for it to subside. They again used the time for training the men, for reconnaissance and planning.  But this time the attack would be across a river rather than against the pillboxes of the Siegfried line.

When they left the Ardennes, the 30th Division along with the entire Ninth Army traveled in secret. They removed shoulder patches and vehicular markings. They assigned code names to roads and telephone exchanges. All to keep the Germans from knowing the Allies exact plans. Although Axis Sally spoke of the 30th returning to the Aachen area, the tactic worked. For once the Germans lost track of Old Hickory.

Roer%20River%209th%20army%20crossingWaiting for the river to subside didn’t mean the division was without casualties. German artillery pounded the western bank and the Luffwaffe flew regular missions including the first sightings by 30th Division men of German jet-propelled aircraft. Edward C. Arn, in his memoir “Arn’s War,” tells of being wounded by artillery fire while reconnoitering one of his platoon’s positions near the Roer.

Before the 30th finally crossed the Roer on February 23, 1945, the biggest artillery barrage in Europe up to that date pounded the Germans on the Eastern shore. The 30th’s assigned 8,000 yards of front received fire from the Division Artillery, plus three 18-piece battalions of 2nd Armored Division’s self-propelled artillery, the 823rd Tank Destroyer’s 36 guns and guns from Corp and Army battalions totaling 246 guns firing. Wow!XVI%20Corp%20photo%20Alligator%20on%20Rhine

While part of the 234th Engineer Combat Battalion ferried men across in Alligators, armored amphibious vehicles, and in assault boats, other engineers struggled to build a footbridge across the Roer, all under the cover of a smoke screen provided by the 82nd Smoke Generator Company.  On the far shore the 30th faced little resistance, thanks to the artillery, and quickly accomplished their assigned tasks.

Meanwhile the intrepid engineers completed a treadway bridge in just twenty-one and a half hours allowing tanks and trucks to cross the river. In the next few days Old Hickory took town after town as they moved ever closer to the greatest obstacle between the Allies and the heart of Germany – the Rhine River.

Rhine1 practice on MaasOn March 6, 1945, the 30th Division returned to Maas, Netherlands, to prepare for their next assignment – spearheading the Ninth Army’s attack across the Rhine. Again preparation made all the difference.

It was March 24, 1944, when all three regiments of the 30th crossed the great river at the same time along a five mile stretch from south of Wesel to Mehrum. Naval assault boats ferried, tanks, tank destroyers and infantry men continuously across the great river. That’s right – the U.S. Navy hauled boats inland for this vital operation. XVI%20Corp%20photo%20landing%20craft for rhine crossing

Engineers constructed a pontoon bridge for the tanks and other vehicles in record time again under cover of a smoke screen.Rhine2 smoke screen

The 117th history says the First Battalion of that regiment went first with the Third Battalion carrying the stormboats to the river’s edge so the assault troops would be fresh. It was 2:00 AM on March 24th. With little resistance by midnight the 117th had reached their assigned positions and moved on toward the next town.

For the first few hours after the crossing Old Hickory encountered only light German resistance. Then the 116th Panzer Division moved into their path. One of only two German mobile divisions available, the 116th focused on holding back the 30th while the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division spread out facing the British and Canadians further north. The enemy’s backhanded compliment to the 30th Division wasn’t appreciated by the men on the line.

The 30th doggedly fought their way eastward against armor and anti-aircraft guns lowered to fire at ground troops. After days of continuous fighting fatigue added to the stubborn enemy resistance to slow down Old Hickory. Plans for the 8th Armored Division to pass through the 30th and take on the fight called for the 30th to advance far enough to allow the armor to take over in open country. Old Hickory’s boys fought on taking Gahlen in street fighting against determined resistance. Finally on the morning of March 28, 1945, the 8th Armored Division came forward and took over the fight. Nearly 100 hours after their assault across the Rhine, Old Hickory finally got some much needed rest.

The 30th Division wasn’t through fighting. It would be over a month before Germany finally surrendered. Even at this late date, more would die before the war was over.

Posted in 30th Infantry Division, History, WWII

30th Infantry Division – Battle of the Bulge

During the months of December 1944 and January 1945, an enormous battle raged in Europe – the well-known German offensive called the Battle of the Bulge. On December 16, 1944, with the Allies believing that the Germans were beat and the war would soon be over, Hitler’s massed armies attacked through the thinly defended Ardennes. The attack caught the Americans manning the eighty-mile stretch of border between Belgium and Germany by surprise. The Germans smashed through the American lines and pushed deep into Belgium and Luxemburg creating a “bulge” in the lines, thus the name given to the battle.

When the Battle of the Bulge is mentioned, many people think of the battle for Bastogne where the Germans had the 101st Airborne surrounded. But the battle was much bigger than that. It involved many divisions across a wide front. On the northern portion of the bulge the 30th Infantry Division stopped the German advance blocking a critical path to Liege and Antwerp.

After Aachen, the 30th Division came off the line and moved back to Holland for a much-needed rest. Then the Germans attacked on December 16th. When the Allied command realized that they were facing a major offensive, the 30th was called back into action. Loaded on trucks the 30th’s three combat regiments reached the front in Belgium on December 18th. The 117th Regiment encountered the enemy first near Stoumont in route to their assignment of Stavelot. The 120th proceeded to Malmedy while the 119th took up positions near Spa, where First Army Headquarters was being hastily dismantled and moved to the rear.

Spa, Malmedy and Stavelot form a rough triangle of roads suitable for an armored force to use in a winter offensive. Stoumont lies further west along the road running through Malmedy and Stavelot. Von Rundstedt planned to use these roads for the main German thrust to Liege where the Allies had huge stores of fuel, ammo and essential supplies. Thus the Germans would split the Allied forces and push on to recapture the port of Antwerp.

During their drive to the front lines, the men of Old Hickory first heard Axis Sally call them the “fanatical 30th Division, Roosevelt’s SS troops.” She also told them they would once again face the 1st SS Panzer Division spearheaded by Lt. Colonel Joachim Peiper. This was the same division they had stopped at Mortain months before.

Knowing roads were essential to the German tanks and trucks in the hilly, forested area, the 30th focused on blocking roads and destroying bridges across the many streams. The 291st Engineers blew up several key bridges early in the offensive essentially stopping Peiper’s advance. Two huge fuel dumps, one close to Stavelot and the other between Stoumont and Spa, could have provided the Germans with much-needed gasoline if captured. While the 30th fought to halt the German advance, supply units began moving the gasoline back out of danger. When elements of Peiper’s force neared the fuel dump near Stavelot, portions of the fuel were set ablaze to prevent their capture.

From December 18th through Christmas eve intense fighting ensued throughout the area assigned to the 30th. They fought bravely with Congressional Medals of Honor earned by Sgt. Frances S. Currey and Staff Sgt. Paul L. Bolden, both of the 120th Regiment. A Presidential Citation was awarded to the 119th Regiment and the attached Company C 740th Tank Battalion and 2nd Platoon Company A 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion for their battle with the 1st SS at Lorce-Chevron and Stoumont, Belgium.

Despite heavy losses on both sides, the Americans stopped the German advance. The strong resistance along the German’s preferred route to Liege and its supply depots forces Von Rundstedt to shift his focus further south toward the area around Bastogne where resistance was less – except for the stubborn 101st. The unmovable “Old Hickory” Division had blocked their path once again.

Reading accounts of the 30th’s action in those early days of the battle brought to mind scenes from the movie “The Battle of the Bulge” starring Henry Fonda. Although much of the movie is fictional and lacks historical accuracy, it is clear that the action portrayed is mainly in  the 30th’s area, including the fuel dumps, the Malmedy massacre, and the intense fighting to block the roadways. The movie might have been better if the makers had included more of the real events. They avoided topics like the Army Air Force bombing our own troops in Malmedy, several times, because the communications was so bad. Another dramatic episode revolved around Americans captured by the Germans, including a major who gathered intelligence before escaping. Some of these prisoners were released when Peiper’s men abandoned their tanks and vehicles. Another dramatic episode would have been the tale of the 740th tank battalion with no tanks who raided a repair depot for anything that would run, taking a hodgepodge of equipment to valiantly fight the enemy.

The end of “The Battle of the Bulge” movie implies that the battle was over when the Germans retreated. This was far from the truth. Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge say that the fighting after Christmas and into January to recapture the ground lost was rougher and the weather worse than those first days stopping the German advance.

I’ve never understood why Hollywood hasn’t made a movie about the 30th. Either the fighting around Mortain or the action in the Malmedy-Stavelot-Stoumont area of Belgium would have made great movies.

Old Hickory played a key role in halting the last great German offensive. Many months of bitter fighting remained before the final surrender in May. The battle hardened troops of the 30th division would go on to take the fight onto German soil once again. Many proudly repeated the nickname given to them by their enemy – “Roosevelt’s SS.” Knowing that the most elite German forces were the SS, it was the highest compliment the enemy could give.

Posted in 30th Infantry Division, History, Research, WWII

117th Regiment 30th Infantry Division – From Mortain to the Siegfried Line

This is the second post in a series following the 117th Regiment (originally the Tennessee National Guard) of the 30th Infantry Division through their World War II combat experiences. My primary reference has been an excellent and detailed account of the 30th entitled “Workhorse of the Western Front – The Story of the 30th Infantry Division in World War II” by Robert L. Hewitt. I have also gleaned valuable information from the Unit History of Company B, 117th Regiment and the 30th Division Old Hickory websites. As I continue to research the 30th, I find their story more and more fascinating. I hope you do, too.aubel-30th-inf-div-0003

The fighting around Mortain ended on August 13, 1944. With no time to rest the 117th Regiment and the entire 30th Infantry Division moved northeast encountering some enemy opposition but nothing substantial. After crossing the Seine near Mantes-Gassicourt, some 25 miles west of Paris, the 117th relieved the 79th Division. It took them two days to clear the German defenders from the high ridges on the north bank. By August 30 enemy opposition along that section of the river collapsed.

Orders came for the 30th to proceed to the French-Belgium border as part of a First Army task force commanded by Brigadier General William K. Harrison Jr. Without enough trucks to transport the entire division, the 117th remained behind in reserve while the 119th and 120th along with various support units – 125th Calvary Squadron, 30th Reconnaissance Troop, 743rd Tank Battalion, 118th Field Artillery Battalion, Company “A” 105th Engineer Battalion, and Company “A” 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion –  headed for Tournai, Belgium.  After beating back the German rear guard, who attempted to delay the Americans while the bulk of their army retreated, the 30th Infantry Division became the first American division to enter Belgium on September 2, 1944.30th Inf Div artillery

The 117th Regiment followed on September 4, camping near the famous Waterloo battlefield. Assuming the Germans would take a stand at the Meuse River, command ordered “Old Hickory” to proceed across Belgium toward the Meuse and the southern border of Holland. Lack of gasoline forced the soldiers to go on foot, slogging through the rain and mud for the over one hundred mile trek. What would have taken one day by truck became an exhausting three-day march.

Anti Tank gun going to MaastrichtOn the west bank of the parallel waterways of the Meuse/Maas River and the Albert Canal, the 30th poised west and south of Maastricht, Holland, readying their attack on the most heavily fortified area along the border between Belgium and Holland. Organizing the scattered units of their retreating forces, the Germans scrambled to man the natural and man-made defenses in an effort to slow the Allies advance.Crossing Meuse near Vise

Attacking on September 10, “Old Hickory’s” regimental columns moved forward with the 117th to follow the 119th. Despite the enemy blown bridges at Vise, Belgium, south of Maastricht,  the 119th managed to cross the dual waterways. At the same time the 120th took the locks on Maastricht Island, further north, and then proceeded to capture the famous Fort Eben Emael finding the Germans had deserted it. By the morning of the 12th the 117th streamed across the river at Vise. Company A of the 117th pushed northward and became the first Allied unit to cross the Belgium-Holland border and enter Holland.30th Crosses Meuse

Lieutenant Elwood G. Daddow, Company B, 117th Regiment, defied the danger of a German counter-attack to retrieve a dispatch case from a damaged German command car. The case contained papers and maps indicating the German plans for withdrawal and deployment of their forces along the Siegfried line as well as other pertinent data. With the extensive enemy reorganization due to their rapid retreat to the German border, this intelligence proved invaluable.

The battle for Maastricht and the surrounding area continued through September 14th with ongoing counter-attacks by the Germans. Pressing eastward “Old Hickory” pushed on toward the Siegfried Line also known by the Germans as the West Wall. Significant enemy artillery fire greeted the Americans for the first time since Normandy. On September 18 the 117th took up positions facing the Siegfried Line near Scherpenseel.Monument to 30th at Maas River

In the weeks since leaving Mortain, the fighting and the casualties had been light compared to Normandy. The demonstration of welcome in the towns liberated along the way was different as the 30th moved from France and its wild hugs and kisses to Belgium with its enthusiastic greetings to Holland with its smiles and waves. All were equally glad to be freed from the German occupation but the Americans learned quickly that the cultural differences between the countries meant there were differences in how they showed their gratitude.

In mid-September, with supplies still being brought ashore on the landing beaches of Normandy and supply lines stretched for hundreds of miles across France and Belgium, the shortage in all essentials from fuel to ammunition to food forced the Allies to halt their advance. An attack on the German homeland called for not only sufficient men and equipment but also the essential supplies to sustain the push into Germany. So the 30th settled in waiting for the Red Ball Express to deliver the much-needed materiel. They utilized the time in planning and training for the coming battle, along with a little rest and relaxation for the men, including hot showers, hot food and movies.

Although the 30th had trained in the U.S. for three and a half years before embarking for England and had trained for months in England before landing in France, the tremendous casualty rates left few men who had specialized training in weapons like the flame-throwers, bazookas, or demolition charges that would be needed in assaulting the Siegfried Line pill boxes. Command decided that everyone should be trained in all weapons and instituted an intense training program. This training allowed the replacements and the recently promoted non-com’s and officers to forge themselves into effective fighting units.

To prepare for the assault on the Siegfried Line specific information on the terrain ahead was compiled utilizing aerial photographs and reconnaissance patrols into dangerous enemy territory. With this information an elaborate sand table model was constructed in the command post. The sand table gave the men a visual representation of what lay ahead and what their specific objectives were. Men were rotated off the line to study the terrain depicted on the sand table. This detailed preparation would prove invaluable in the assault into Germany.

The 117th would breach the Siegfried Line and go on to help take Aachen, but more about that in the next post.