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

Camp Blanding And Its WWII History

Recently my husband and I drove down to Camp Blanding and toured the Camp Blanding Museum located just off Florida State Road 16 at the entrance to the base. Since it was a typically hot and humid Florida day, we spent most of our time inside the museum building. Before leaving we walked around viewing the monuments for each division that trained at Camp Blanding and looking at some of the WWII vintage equipment on display. We hope to return when it is cooler so that we can venture further and see more of the equipment including some more modern tanks, helicopters and planes.Barbara at Camp Blanding

Our original intent was to learn more about the 30th Infantry Division since we knew that Old Hickory had trained at Camp Blanding before going overseas. What we learned was that nine full divisions trained at Camp Blanding before it became a replacement training center.

Camp Blanding is situated in Clay County, Florida, near Starke. The 73,000 acre military reservation, which includes Kingsley Lake, is the training facility for the Florida National Guard as well as a Joint Training Facility for U.S. military, international forces and various other agencies. In 1939 Florida established the base for training the Florida National Guard. At the beginning of World War II the U.S. Army took it over to train the federalized national guard units as well as portions of the regular army.

Once under the control of the federal government, Camp Blanding rapidly expanded so that it could accommodate at least two divisions for training. Construction boomed, employing thousands. As the troops moved in the area soon grew to be the fourth largest city in Florida.

The first housing for the troops consisted of pyramid tents, to which wooden floors and walls were added. Due to the ankle-deep sand, wooden walk-ways were constructed and drills had to be conducted on the paved roads.31st Div at Camp Blanding

In the beginning, the 31st Infantry Division made Camp Blanding its home. The 31st, known as the Dixie Division, consisted of the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida National Guard. With capacity for two divisions to train, the 43rd Infantry Division moved to Camp Blanding. The 43rd, or Winged Victory Division, was made up of the Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island National Guard. Thus streets were named for the respective states, both north and south, and locations within those states. With units from the deep south and the northeast training at the same base, the old north-south rivalries emerged, but remained relatively good-natured.36th Div at Camp Blanding1st Div at Camp Blanding

When the 31st Division and the 43rd Division left Camp Blanding to eventually serve in the South Pacific, the 36th Infantry Division, made up of the Texas National Guard, moved in. They were soon joined by the First Infantry Division, the only Regular Army division to train at Camp Blanding. These two divisions ended up in North Africa, then Sicily and Normandy for the “Big Red One” and Italy for the Texans.IMG_1412

By August of 1942 the 79th Division, an Army Reserve unit, occupied Camp Blanding. And the 29th Infantry Division, also known as the “Blue and Gray” since it was made up of the Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and District of Columbia National Guard, arrived in the Florida camp.

It wasn’t until October 1942 that the 30th Infantry Division came to Camp Blanding for training. The North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee National Guard, all components of the 30th, remained in Florida until May of 1943. From Blanding Old Hickory participated in the Tennessee Maneuvers, then moved on to Indiana and Massachusetts where they shipped out for Europe in February 1944. A few days after D-Day the 30th landed in Normandy and fought almost continuously until they met up with the Russians in May 1945.IMG_1415

Two other U.S. Army Reserve Divisions also trained at Camp Blanding. The 66th Infantry Division, called the “Black Panthers,” was activated in April 1943 at Blanding. In June 1943 the 63rd Infantry Division was formed at Camp Blanding. They used the nickname “Blood & Fire.” Both went on to fight in Europe.

In 1943 the Florida base took on a new role as an infantry replacement training center, soon becoming the largest such training facility in the country. With the fighting going on in the Pacific, North Africa and Italy, it became clear that replacements were needed to fill the ranks depleted by casualties, so bases like Camp Blanding became vital to the war effort.  And with the capture of prisoners on the battlefields the need for Prisoner of War camps arose. So a portion of the military reservation was converted to a prison camp and eventually housed some 378,000 German POW’s.

The inauspicious Camp Blanding with its pine trees, sand and picturesque lake played a major role in training U.S. troops during World War II. An estimated 800,000 soldiers trained at the Florida base during the war.  Although now it has reverted back to its original purpose, we should not forget what the base contributed during the desperate years when the world struggled to defeat the Axis powers.Jeep Display at Camp Blanding

The Camp Blanding Museum pays tribute to all the divisions who trained here. Exhibits tell of each divisions training and combat experiences. Uniforms, weapons, medical gear, and much more provide the WWII amateur historian ample food for thought. To read more about Camp Blanding’s history, read the article by Jim Ashton on the 30th Infantry Website.Patches at Camp Blanding

In the book store I purchased a book about the 30th Division and another about Florida’s role in WWII. My husband got another “Old Hickory” hat. He loves wearing the 30th hat with their eye-catching insignia because it spurs so many comments and has started several long conversations on a subject he thoroughly enjoys.Pat at Camp Blanding

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

117th Regiment 30th Infantry Division – Siegfried Line to Aachen

Many historical accounts or discussions about the Second World War in Europe skim over the events of the fall of 1944. They focus on the D-Day Landings and the battle in Normandy. Next comes the liberation of Paris and the race across France to the German border. From there they jump to the Battle of the Bulge and cover the terrible winter of 1944-45. Yet from the first of October through mid-December, 1944, intense battles raged all along the German border.

Until my husband got me interested in researching the 30th Infantry Division, I knew little about the fight to breach the Siegfried Line. I had heard of Aachen but didn’t really understand what happened there or its significance. So in this post, I will continue my discussion of the 30th Division’s combat experiences beginning where I left them along the infamous Siegfried Line not far from the historic city of Aachen.

30th Infantry Division Patch
30th Infantry Division Patch

At the beginning of October, 1944, the 30th Infantry Division faced the German border from southernmost Holland only a few miles from Belgium. Before them lay a section of what the Germans called the West Wall, a series of pill boxes, trenches, tank traps and dragon’s teeth built in the 1930’s to defend Germany from the French. The West Wall, also known as the Siegfried Line, was intended to provide a defensive position from which the Germans would attack, rather than fortifications to defend like the French Maginot Line.

After the German invasion of France, Belgium and Holland, the Third Reich no longer needed the West Wall defenses, so they stood unused and neglected. But when the Germans rapidly withdrew to their borders in the summer of 1944, the Wehrmacht again occupied the West Wall fortifications. They quickly repaired and reinforced the last line of defense of their homeland. In the area around Aachen the West Wall extended from the north around both the eastern and western sides of the ancient city.

Aachen held great significance as a symbol of German supremacy. The city had been Charlemagne’s capital during the time of the Holy Roman Empire or the “First Reich.” Determined to hold the city, Hitler and his henchmen moved more troops into the area for its defense. On the other side, the Allies were just as determined to make Aachen the first German city captured.

In the last half of September the 1st Infantry Division and the 3rd Armored Division crossed into Germany from Belgium south of Aachen and attacked through a gap in the West Wall fortifications. By the end of September they reached the southern edge of the city, but determined German resistance brought them to a stand-still. To relieve the pressure on the forces of VII Corps the XIX Corps attacked from the north through the heavily fortified Siegfried Line or West Wall. The 30th Infantry Division led the way followed by the 2nd Armored Division while the 29th Infantry Division guarded their flanks.

On October 2, 1944, the 117th and 119th Regiments of the 30th launched the attack. The 117th on the left attacked through Marienberg while the 119th on the right went through Rimburg. The Americans crossed the Wurm River under heavy German fire. After crossing the narrow, steep-banked stream, they climbed up to the railroad track just beyond. Ahead lay the numerous pill boxes of the Siegfried Line. One by one the 30th captured or destroyed the German fortifications which were barely touched by the pre-attack bombing. Old Hickory sharpshooters took out numerous German machine gunners by firing through the narrow pillbox ports. On October 3rd the 117th took Palenberg and controlled much of Ubach. By October 7th the 117th occupied much of the city of Alsdorf opening the way to Aachen.

The 2nd Armored Division followed the 30th’s initial attack and swept north and east to Frelenberg and Beggendorf expanding the bridgehead into Germany. With their objectives met the 30th and 2nd Armored hoped for a break to rest and regroup. It was not to be. XIX Corps and VII Corps wanted to press on and link up thus surrounding Aachen and forcing its surrender. So Old Hickory pressed on southward to Wurselen where the intense German resistance halted their progress. Both sides utilized everything they had from artillery barrages to bombing to tanks and anti-tanks to house-to-house fighting.

Meanwhile the 1st Division fought off repeated counter attacks to hold on to the ground already taken. On Oct. 8th the First Division began an offensive to take the high ground southwest of Aachen including a high point dubbed “Crucifix Hill,” where they were to link up with the 30th Division.

To break up the 30th’s stalemate, on Oct. 16th the 117th and the 120th Regiments undertook a diversionary attack east of the main force which successfully drew the German artillery fire away from the 119th and 116th Regiments. That afternoon Company E 117th Regiment attacked through a wooded area held by the Germans toward a railroad. The intent was to convince the enemy that it was the main attack. Despite heavy casualties the 117th repeatedly attacked the German forces successfully diverting them away from the 119th pushing south toward the 1st Division positions.

Elements of the 30th from XIX Corp and the 1st from VII Corp finally linked up on October 16th. Street fighting continued in Aachen for another week. Finally, on October 21st, the last garrison in Aachen surrendered.

From the kickoff on October 2 to the final surrender of Aachen the 30th Infantry Division suffered approximately 3,000 casualties. Few of the old National guardsmen remained. Not many who landed with the Division on Omaha Beach were still with the division. Some who had been wounded along the way and sent to hospitals to recover would rejoin the 30th in later battles. Despite the turnover in personnel the 30th Infantry Division proved to be a formidable force in Europe. For their “Diversionary attack in the Battle of Aachen Gap” Company E, 117th Infantry Regiment received a Presidential Citation.

The first breach of the Siegfried Line and the battle to capture the first German city, Aachen, in October gave the Allies hope that the war could be won by Christmas. Little did they know what Hitler had planned.

Read more about the battle for Aachen on the following sites:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Aachen

http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/Siegfried/Siegfried%20Line/siegfried-ch13.htm

http://www.oldhickory30th.com/Aachen%20Gap%20Closing.htm