On Memorial Day we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. I recently learned a little more about one of those fallen heroes – Private Joaquin Arambula who died November 29, 1944, in France, at age 19. Joaquin served in the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, the same Battalion as my father-in-law, Dewey Paul Whitaker.
Joaquin Arambula was brought to my attention by Darren Lanier and Tim Lanier, the grandson and son of Jacob J. Lanier who served, along with Arambula, in Battery “B” 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. Pvt. Jabob J. Lanier shared stories of his close friend Joaquin whose memory remained with him for the rest of his life.
Jacob J. Lanier told his family of the events surrounding Arambula’s death and how he mourned his friend. The 276th held a position near Freybouse, France, on November 23, 1944, Thanksgiving Day. The Germans began shelling their position and their Lieutenant called to Lanier and Arambula to go up to the road and stop an approaching Army mail truck before it came under fire. Both men ran toward the road. Pvt. Arambula was ahead of Lanier as they ran through some nearby woods when a German artillery shell came in and hit close to the two men, mortally wounding Arambula. He was evacuated to a field hospital where he died a few days later.
Jacob Lanier felt both guilt for having survived the blast and sorrow for the loss of his friend. In later years, Lanier often thought how close he came to dying that day. The fact that he didn’t run as fast as his buddy not only saved his life but also enabled him to return from the war and have a family, something his friend Joaquin didn’t get to do.
Joaquin Arambula, the son of Frank Arambula, was from Enid, Oklahoma. Since Joaquin could not see very well without his glasses, his family was upset when he was drafted. After training, Pvt. Arambula landed on Utah Beach on August 25, 1944, with the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. They journeyed across France and joined the fight in Eastern France with Patton’s Third Army. The 276th fought valiantly that fall in several engagements, including repulsing the German counter-attack at Landroff, before Pvt. Arambula’s tragic death.
Of the three Arambula brothers who served in World War II, only Joe Arambula came home after serving in Europe where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Their other brother, John M. Arambula, died November 16, 1943, age 20, while serving in the 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division in Italy.
Pvt. Joaquin Arambula is buried near Saint-Avold, France, in the Lorraine American Cemetery. His brother John is buried in the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy (Find-a-grave). To locate service members buried overseas or missing you can search on the American Battle Monuments Commission website.
So it is with sadness that we remember these young lives cut short by war. We honor their memory and their sacrifice. And we honor the sacrifice of their family, who lost so much so that we could have the freedom we enjoy today.
Many thanks to Darren Lanier for tracking down the family of Joaquin Arambula and to Joaquin’s family for sharing their pictures and their story.
My World War II romance novel, Kitty’s War, is available on Amazon, ITunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and The Wild Rose Press.
What was going on in the European Theater of Operations during the first part of October, 1944? Sometimes it’s interesting to look at what was happening in different places at the same time. In early October the European front stretched from the Netherlands/Belgian/German border in the north to the French/German border near Metz further south.
On October 2 the 30th Infantry Division launched a full-scale attack on the Siegfried Line east of Maastricht, The Netherlands. The Germans had retreated from France, Belgium and the southern part of the Netherlands to make a stand at the long string of reinforced pillboxes and tank traps along their western border. Edward Arn, in his book “Arn’s War,” describes the grisly death of his commander, Captain Melvin Riesch, that day during the attack on Rimburg Castle which caused Arn’s elevation to commander of Fox Company, 119th Infantry Regiment. Fox Company, along with the rest of the 30th Infantry division would go on to attack the German City of Aachen from the north flanked by the 29th Division and the 2nd Armored Division. The 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions attacked Aachen from the south. The city surrendered on October 16 , 1944 and was the first major German city to fall to the Allies.
On October 3rd, Lieutenant Charles McDonald crossed the German border and joined his new command, Company I of the 23rd Infantry Division in the Schnee-Eifel forest east of St. Vith, Belgium. McDonald wrote of his baptism by fire during the next few weeks in his classic memoir “Company Commander.” His account of the desperate fighting along that portion of the Siegfried line and his shockingly rapid introduction to life in combat as a Company Commander provides such a vivid picture that you feel you are there with him.
From September 10 through October 15, 1944, the 276th Armored Field Artillery, which included my father-in-law, was supporting the 2nd “Free” French Armored Division. They took positions near the Foret du Parroy, east of Nancy, France, on September 23 and remained in that position until October 15 providing supporting fire for the French Division as well as the nearby 79th Infantry Division. The 4th Armored Division was also in this area near Nancy. All were part of General George Patton’s command.
Back behind the lines, PFC Mollie Weinstein, had settled into her quarters in a hotel in newly-liberated Paris. The WAC provided clerical support for the Army and in her free time explored the famous city. Her memoir, “Mollie’s War,” includes letters she wrote home describing her experiences including meeting GI’s who’d landed on D-Day at a USO provided entertainment event and the plight of civilians in liberated Paris. Although news reports predicted the war would be over by Christmas, Mollie joked that she wouldn’t be home until 1946. The WAC’s instincts were right. It was November, 1945, before Mollie was shipped back to the states.
In early October,1944, the news from Europe sounded good to the folks back home. Paris and most of France had been liberated. The Siegfried Line had been breached and the city of Aachen taken. Although the port of Antwerp had fallen to the Allies in September, fortifications along the estuary leading to the sea blocked the port until November. Supplies were still being unloaded on the Normandy beaches and trucked across France by the Red Ball Express. Shortages slowed the Allies advance as the Germans fought to defend their borders. The war in Europe would go on for another seven months.
I always love to hear the stories passed down in families about how their parents or grandparents met, fell in love and started a life together during World War II. These stories reflect the realities of the time. The country was at war. Men, from age 18 to 45, either volunteered to serve in the military or they were drafted. Young men and many young women left home either to go into the military or to go to work at a defense plant or to go into some type training, such as nursing. All across the country single men and women met and dated. Couples were separated and those already married struggled to maintain a marriage through separation. Often the wife followed her husband to wherever he was stationed. It was a time of great turmoil in our country. And I find it fascinating.
A member of the extended family of the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion shared one of those stories with me. Morris Irving Grayson served in Battery B of the 276th while my father-in-law served in Battery A. Irving’s daughter, Teresa Williams, agreed to let me share her parents’ story on my website as a way to keep the memories of the war alive and to let younger people know what soldiers and their families went through.
In 1941, Irving Grayson and Doris Smiley graduated from Childress High School in Childress, Texas. Although they went to the same school in the same town, they didn’t get to know each other until the next year when Doris noticed Irving at the local open air skating rink. Irving was a skilled skater and loved to show off. The two started dating.
Irving planned to enter the military in 1942 but he had appendicitis. His illness delayed his enlistment until April 27, 1943, when he signed up in Lubbock, Texas. He went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for basic training. Before completion of the course he volunteered to become a paratrooper and was transferred to Camp Tocca, Georgia. At that time it was more prestigious to be a paratrooper and they were paid more than regular soldiers.
While in paratrooper training in Georgia, Irving complained of the extreme heat, the humidity and the miles of daily marches carrying full packs. One night his sergeant came into the barracks and said, “If you don’t want to be here, we don’t want you here, there will be a bus out front tonight. Be on it.” Irving made sure he was on that bus even though he had no idea where the bus would take him.
The bus took Irving to a train station and the train took him to Camp Phillips, Kansas, where he was assigned to the 276th Armored Field Artillery. The 276th was originally a typical field artillery battalion with tow-behind artillery pieces. Irving began training for the field artillery.
While at Camp Phillips, Doris joined Irving bringing along their new baby. Irving and Doris were married in Salina, Kansas, December 2, 1943. Housing was scarce around these new Army training camps. Irving and Doris rented a tiny apartment in what must have been an older apartment building or converted house. Doris later told her family that she found a rat in the baby’s crib one night and after that the baby slept in the bed with her.
At Camp Phillips Irving served as assistant to the supply sergeant. The sergeant left unexpectedly, probably reassigned, so Irving took over his duties. Although doing the sergeant’s job, Irving was not promoted as he thought he should have been. In early 1944 the 276th moved east to Tennessee for extensive maneuvers intended to simulate combat conditions. During these maneuvers, the Army decided to convert the 276th from a field artillery battalion to an “armored” field artillery battalion. They were pulled out of the maneuvers and sent to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, where they trained on the M-7 self-propelled, track-mounted 105 mm howitzer cannon. These track-mounted guns had proved to be more maneuverable in North Africa and the Army believed they would be able to keep up with the tanks after the Allies invaded Europe.
When Irving went to Tennessee, Doris and the baby went back to Childress. The couple began corresponding by letter. Doris sent him pictures of their son with notes about his progress. Irving came home on leave before he went overseas. Later Doris wrote to tell him she was expecting another child. Their second son was born while Irving was in Europe fighting the Germans. I can only imagine how difficult it was for Doris, with one baby and another on the way and her husband overseas in danger of being killed. She probably wrote cheerful letters with pictures of the babies to keep his spirits up.
Adding to the difficulty for this young mother was an especially disturbing letter she received from Irving. It had been intended for an English girl he met during his brief stay in England but the letter got switched with his letter to Doris. When Doris received the wrong letter, she of course assumed the worst, that he was cheating on her, and she did not write him for some time. Irving insisted the he and the English girl were just friends and eventually the trouble was resolved.
While in England, Irving became a jeep driver responsible for carrying messages between the battalion and headquarters. He also scouted for locations to set up the battery headquarters and drove damaged half-tracks and M7’s to the maintenance platoon for repairs. The 276th fought their way across France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany from September, 1944, until the German surrender on May 8, 1945.
On June 10, 1945, Corporal Irving Grayson was presented the bronze star for heroism by Brig. General John C. Lenz. In one of the ironies of war, Irving thought he received the medal for one action when in fact he received it for something different. He told his family this story —
As he lay in the street of a small German town, a heavy artillery shell went went over his head hitting a building in front of him and skidded along the side of the building but did not explode. Then another shell went over his head hitting the same building and again skidded along the without exploding. Irving realized you could tell where the gun firing on them might be located by the angle the shells were hitting and skidding. He crawled on his stomach a couple of blocks back to Battery B headquarters and told his commander what he had observed. The commander told a sergeant of the heavy artillery to follow Irving back to where he had seen the shells hitting the building. They crawled back and located the German gun. They crawled back to the heavy artillery and the sergeant directed his men where to fire. The German gun was hit and American lives were saved. All his commanders were congratulating Irving on what he had done, so he thought he received the bronze star for this. See the newspaper article for the account from the Bronze Star citation.
The 276th AFA returned to the states in July, 1945, as part of the experienced combat troops who were redeployed for the invasion of Japan. The men received leave to visit their families before reporting for additional training for the invasion. During this leave another child was conceived and that child, Teresa, was born in 1946. The war ended in August, 1945, after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.
Irving returned to his old job in a packing plant in Childress, Texas, and a fourth child arrived in 1947. He later trained to be a machinist, probably using the GI Bill, and in 1951 the family moved to Dallas. In 1953 the couple’s fifth child made her appearance making three boys and two girls.
Irving and Doris raised their five children and, after twenty-one years of marriage, they divorced. Both remarried and they remained close to their children.
You might say that Irving and Doris didn’t have the “typical” WWII romance. But their experiences were typical for the time. A hasty marriage with the strains of separation, fear and anxiety. Doris didn’t know if Irving would return to her, didn’t know how long he would be gone. And Irving longed for his wife and babies. He missed the birth of his second son and the experience of seeing both sons early life. He could only write censored letters and hope his parents and hers were helping his young wife and children through this difficult time. Their love, loyalty and determination brought them through the war and the years of adjustment afterwards, like so many other couples of that time.
If you want to share a family story about World War II, please send it to me along with any pictures you have. I would love to hear your stories and share them here on my website.
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.
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.
Frank W. Towers passed away July 4, 2016, at the age of 99. His beloved wife, Mary, survives him. Mr. Towers served in the 120th Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division during World War II. He landed on Omaha Beach on June 13, 1944, was wounded in Normandy and returned to his regiment to fight his way across France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany until the end of the war.
Frank Towers was passionate about the 30th Infantry Division and about remembering those who fell during the Second World War. He established the website of the 30th Infantry Division organization which I have referred to often. He was quoted in books, spoke at venues around the world and co-founded the Camp Blanding Museum.
I will never forget how Frank’s face lit up when I asked him about how he met his wife. I could tell, as he launched into it, that it was a story he loved to tell. We’d spent hours talking about the history of the 30th, the men he fought with and their exploits during the war, but when he talked about Mary it was evident that she was the love of his life.
In tribute to Frank and Mary Towers, I am posting their story again (originally posted in October 2015). This story was written almost entirely by Frank himself and I was honored that he let me post it here on my website. The story he sent me, a portion of his unfinished memoirs, is longer than what is included here. I hope to post “the rest of the story” about Frank and Mary during the war at a later time.
Frank & Mary Towers – A WWII Love Story
In October my husband and I drove down to Camp Blanding to talk to Frank Towers, a 98-year-old World War II veteran of the 30th Infantry Division. Of the many stories he told us one of the most interesting was in answer to my question of how he met his wife.
In December, 1940, Frank Towers said “Good-bye” to his girl friend and boarded a train to travel from his home in Vermont to Florida as part of Company K 172nd Infantry Regiment 43rd Infantry Division. The 43rd Infantry Division, consisting of the Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine National Guard, had been federalized and sent to Camp Blanding, Florida, for training.
I’ll let Frank continue the story in his own words. (From Frank’s memoirs which is a work in progress.)
“During the preceding months, the local social organizations and churches, wishing to show the hospitality of these local organizations, extended invitations to every unit on the Post, particularly those of the 43rd Division, with “the boys” so far away from home, they wanted to make life as bearable as possible, and prevent some from getting homesick.
Basically, each Company would receive so many invitations, and they were issued out on some unknown basis. Trucks would be at a designated pick-up point on Saturday evening and take the men to these sites from which the invitations had originated. Once inside of the building, there was no going outside, until the truck came for the return trip to Camp shortly after midnight. If one met a girl, and he wished to date her again, he would have to get her name and address and phone, number and from that point onwards, they were on their own.
Many of the guys resented this ‘Censorship” and declined any further invitations, because they could not take the ladies outside and go to other places on their own and probably drink beer. Unthinkable in a religious town like Jacksonville.
No! We were not to lead these innocent young ladies to any such immoral establishments. However, many long lasting romances resulted from these meetings.
After a few weeks of refusal to attend these functions, it was determined that the invitations would be issued on a “volunteer” basis, and if not enough men volunteered, “you were assigned” this as a duty.
The “boys” were all pretty frisky when it came to Saturday night, and they wanted to go where beer was dispensed, not to a “dry bar” of soda-pop and cookies !!
As it turned out, I was “volunteered” to go to one of these social affairs, and I went rather reluctantly, but “it was my duty !! During the course of the evening, I met one young lady that looked rather appealing, and I asked her for a dance. We danced and chatted about home and family, and had a relatively nice evening. The outcome was, I had to have her name and address, so that we could meet again, probably at her home, and meet her family.
After a week or two and some correspondence, I made the solo trip to Jacksonville, to meet this young lady, Mary-Olive Thomas, and her family, all of which went well. After one or two more such excursions, we began to get to know each other better, and enjoyed being together. On the next proposed visit, I found her not at home, but in the hospital. A few days previous, she had been struck by a speeding car, and severely injured with some broken bones, scrapes and bruises. So with a handful of roses, I trekked to the hospital and soon a “bedside romance” began to bud. So with continued occasional correspondence, we kept up our relationship.
In early February we got our “priority” shipping orders to go to Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, Miss., to do some advanced training and some marksman training there, then to proceed to Fort Ord, Calif., and await embarkation to the Pacific Theater, to become embroiled in the battles that faced the 43rd Division. This I thought, would end my relationship, with Mary-Olive Thomas, so I forgot about her.
In March, while still at Camp Shelby, Miss., I was called in for an interview by my former C.O., Maj. Tudhope and the Regimental Commander, Col Buzzell, and others, acting as a Review Board, to interview prospective applicants to go to the Officer’s Candidate School at Ft. Benning, GA. Here we were to take further advanced infantry tactics and weapons training, and to become a commissioned officer. I never really got any basic infantry tactical training, and precious little weapons instruction, although I did fire all weapons and qualified with each one, as a Sharpshooter. I was selected and shipped off to Ft. Benning, GA to upgrade my status in life and to become a commissioned officer.
Upon graduation, I became a 2nd Lieutenant, a 90 Day Wonder, and much to my disappointment at the time, I was assigned to Camp Wheeler, GA as a Basic Training Instructor of draftees, just coming into the military for 12 week basic training cycles. Many of my graduating classmates were assigned directly to the 1st Infantry Division, which was preparing to pull off the invasion in North-Africa. That is where I wanted to be at the time! “We’d” win this war and get it over with in a few months. Little did we know of the heartbreak and suffering to come in the next many, many months.”
(During these months of training Frank received a “Dear John” letter from his girlfriend in Vermont breaking up with him.)
“Now from the time that we left Camp Blanding, I wrote very little to Miss Mary – there was nothing serious going on, and I was just too busy with my new academics at Ft. Benning, GA, and I just didn’t have time, and neither one of us felt any obligation to write. I really didn’t have time to do much letter writing, as having become a Platoon Leader in M Company of the 13th Training Battalion at Camp Wheeler, I had to do a lot of homework in preparation for the next days’ session of instruction. But, as time went on, I began to feel lonesome, and perhaps homesick, and started writing to her again. As time went on, I made 2 or 3 trips down to Jacksonville to see her.
While at Camp Wheeler, GA, I received my promotion to 1st Lieutenant, and then I asked Miss Mary-Olive to come up to Camp Wheeler to celebrate New Year’s Eve, 1942-1943. I gave her an engagement ring at midnight that night, and we were married there in a military wedding on 1 March 1943. To this girl that I had met in Jacksonville, FL, (Mary Olive Thomas) while I was at Camp Blanding. Here it is 72+ years later, and we are still hanging around together!!”
In our discussion that day at Camp Blanding, Frank continued his story about he and Mary. He said that Mary’s parents didn’t particularly approve of the “Yankee” dating their southern daughter. It didn’t help that he was Catholic and they were Primitive Baptists. That’s why Mary came to Camp Wheeler for their wedding instead of having it in Jacksonville with her family.
At this time (October 2015) Frank Towers is 98 1/2 years old and his wife Mary is 96. They have been together since 1943. Congratulations to them both for their many years together. It is an honor for me to share their story.
As a post script to Frank and Mary’s story, when Frank left Camp Wheeler he was assigned to the 30th Infantry Division and served with them in the European Theater until the end of the war.
Several people have contacted me asking how to get information about a family member who served in the military in World War II. I do not profess to be an expert on researching individual veteran’s records but since I have done some research I can provide a little guidance.
I have been immensely fortunate that I have records directly from the veteran for my most immediate family members who served in WWII. I have a copy of my father’s discharge paper and a box of letters he wrote to my mother during the war. We have my father-in-law’s copy of his unit history from the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. These histories were published right after the war and I have learned that they are both rare and valuable. The family also has his discharge paper. These can be very helpful as a starting place in searching for records.
On the other hand, last year when I was searching for information about my father’s cousin, Herman Connell Jr., who was killed in Europe in 1945, I found out just how difficult it was when you had very little specific information about the soldier. All I had was his name and the unit he served in which was on his gravestone. I was able to compile a story about his unit and the action they were in at the date of his death but I couldn’t get any specific information about his individual experiences.
The inquiries I received prompted me to look for some guide to searching for records. What I found was an excellent book which contains an enormous amount of information. “Finding Your Father’s War” by Jonathan Gawne is a must-have book for anyone looking for information on someone who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. I would even go so far as to say that it is a must-have book for anyone writing about World War II. It deals with the Army only, no Navy or Marines. It does include information about the Army Air Corp since during WWII the fly boys were part of the Army. It wasn’t until after the war that the Air Force became its own branch of the service.
One of the main reasons Gawne focused on the Army was that a fire in 1973 destroyed much of the individual service records as well as the company level records. The Navy, Marine and Coast Guard records were not burned and are available through those branches.
Some things discussed in “Finding Your Father’s War” I had already figured out from various sources. If I’d had this book it would have been so much easier and faster. There are other useful tidbits in Gawne’s book that I did not know. If you are trying to put together the pieces of someone’s military service these little details can yield a wealth of understanding.
I’ll give you some examples just to give you a feel for what I am talking about.
One of the things that I had already figured out from the many memoirs I’ve read was the structure of an Army Infantry Division. Each division had three infantry regiments thus it is referred to as a triangular organization. A division also had division artillery and division headquarters where all the support units were attached. Continuing with the triangular organization each infantry regiment was divided into three battalions plus headquarters. Although each infantry regiment had a unique number (the 30th Infantry Division consisted of the 117th, 119th and 120th Infantry Regiments), the battalions were simply numbered 1st, 2nd and 3rd (so the 117th Infantry Regiment had a 1st Battalion, a 2nd Battalion and a 3rd Battalion plus Headquarters). Each Battalion was made up of three rifle companies and a heavy weapons company. A letter designated each company but the letter designation wasn’t the same in each battalion. Instead it went like this: 1st Battalion consisted of Company A, Company B, Company C and Company D, the last being the heavy weapons company; 2nd Battalion consisted of Company E, Company F, Company G and Company H, again with the fourth one being heavy weapons; 3rd Battalion consisted of Company I, Company K, Company L and Company M, again Company M was heavy weapons and the letter J was skipped. So if you know your Army veteran was in Company H, he would have been in the heavy weapons company of the 2nd Battalion. This can be helpful since many historical accounts of battles refer to the battalion.
Something I learned from “Finding Your Father’s War” is that the soldier’s serial number isn’t just a random number assigned when he entered the service. The number will tell you something about the soldier. Serial numbers with no letter prefix means the soldier was an enlisted man. The prefix “O” indicates he was an officer. Others with letter prefixes included nurses, warrant officers, WAC’s and others. If the first number was a “1” the soldier was an enlistee. If it was a “2,” he was in the National Guard. A “3” meant he was drafted. Late in the war some draftees were given serial numbers starting with a “4.” The second digit in the serial number tells the geographic region of the country the soldier was in when he entered the service. These numbers correspond to the service commands within the United States. A map is included in the book.
In addition to this book there are numerous resources online that can help you. The National Archives, the Center for Military History, division organizations websites and Facebook pages, and even sites like Ancestry.com and Fold3.com. Local historic societies and local newspapers may be a source since many servicemen had articles written about them during the war. Family stories and even old pictures can provide clues especially if you know what to look for.
Good luck in searching for your WWII veteran’s records. It is always fascinating to learn about an individual’s service during the war when millions were in uniform and had such a variety of experiences.
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.
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.
Waiting 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!
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.
On 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.
Engineers constructed a pontoon bridge for the tanks and other vehicles in record time again under cover of a 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.