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.

 

 

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

117th Regiment 30th Infantry Division – Tennessee National Guard

The 30th Infantry Division’s record in World War II garnered them the title of “Workhorse of the Western Front” by the Allies and “Roosevelt’s SS” by the German high command. Since the “SS” were Germany’s most elite troops, this reference by the enemy was high praise. The 30th’s nickname “Old Hickory,” in honor of Andrew Jackson, and their distinctive patch originated during their service in World War One where they fought with distinction. Since the division was originally created from National Guard units and since I am from Tennessee, I’ll focus my comments on the 117th Regiment made up of the Tennessee National Guard.

30th Infantry Division Patch
30th Infantry Division Patch

 

The unit history of Company B of the 117th Regiment, based in Athens, Tennessee, provides an interesting insight into the men who made up the Tennesseans in the 117th Regiment of “Old Hickory.” These were men who grew up together, some were related and many had fathers or uncles who had served in the 30th Division during WWI. In 1938 Company B had an authorized strength of three officers and sixty-one enlisted men. Federalization came in September 1940 and the strength increased to five officers and one hundred men.  There were eight groups of brothers on Company B’s roster at that time.

Originally authorized for one year under Federal control, world unrest led to an extension. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the National Guard remained part of the U.S. Army for “the duration.” Under federalization enlistees, draftees and officers transferred from other divisions diversified “Old Hickory” with men from all over the country.

In September, 1940, the 30th Infantry began three and a half years of training, preparing for the fight everyone knew would eventually come. During this time many of the 30th’s officers and non-coms were transferred to other divisions as cadre (experienced soldiers responsible for turning new recruits into battle-ready soldiers). All of Company B’s original five officers were sent to officers training and reassigned to other divisions. In addition twenty-two of the company’s enlisted men were trained as officers and reassigned. These reassignments spread the influence of this small company of Tennessee National Guardsmen throughout the Army.

117th Regiment in NormandyThe 117th Regiment arrived in England in February, 1944, along with the rest of the 30th Infantry Division and its support units. They landed in France on Omaha Beach in mid-June. Although they came under enemy artillery fire in their assembly area, Company B’s first real combat came in early July, 1944, with the crossing of the Vire River. They fought through the hedgerows of Normandy learning the essentials of live combat that could not be taught in training. Due to casualties four different officers commanded Company B 117th Regiment  in the nine day period July 7-16. On July 20th St. Lo was taken and the Allies took this opportunity to “break out” of the small area they held along the Normandy Coast.

In the Normandy hedgerows
In the Normandy hedgerows

On July 24, 1944, three divisions, the 30th, 4th and 9th, comprised “Operation Cobra.” The 30th lined up its regiments for the attack – the 119th and 120th Regiments and two battalions of the 117th, with the remainder of the 117th held in reserve. The massive bombing by the Army Air Force preceding the infantry’s attack went badly. Bombs fell short and landed on the 30th, causing 152 casualties. Command stopped the main body of bombers and delayed the attack for a day. On the next day the Army Air Force made the same disastrous mistake, bombing short and causing 662 more casualties for the 30th. That day the operation proceeded with the remnants of the 30th plus reserves attacking in their sector as planned. Despite heavy casualties from “friendly fire,” the remaining men of “Old Hickory” pulled together and did their job. Although the Germans survived the bombing with little damage, the American attack was successful. By the end of July the Allied armies had “broken out” of their limited foothold on French soil and had opened a narrow corridor along Normandy’s western coast allowing Patton’s Third Army tanks to pour into the interior.

In the three weeks from the crossing of the Vire to the capture of Tessy-sur-Vire, the 30th Infantry Division suffered the most casualties of their entire combat experience in WWII. Other more famous battles lay ahead for the division but none would be as deadly. After the fight for Tessy-sur-Vire, the 30th rested for a few days. Replacements arrived but not near enough to make up for the men who had been lost.

On August 6th, orders came for “Old Hickory” to take over 1st Division positions in and around Mortain so the 1st could pursue the Germans further south. The American lines faced the German-held territory to the east with the 30th’s position around Mortain  on the southern end. Beyond Mortain small, mobile Americans units chased the Germans further inland.

A short distance to the west of the 30th’s position was Avranches and the narrow corridor supplying the Third Army and elements of the First Army pushing further into France. Unknown to the Allies, the Germans were massing forces for a counter-attack. They saw their chance to cut off Patton’s army by attacking west to the coast at Avranches, cutting the American supply lines, and thus bottling up Patton in Brittany and restricting the rest of the Allies to Normandy.  The German plan could have worked – if the 30th Infantry Division hadn’t stood in their way, blocking key roads and holding the only high point in the area.

Location of Road Block Near Mortain - Current
Location of Road Block Near Mortain – Current
Road block Near Mortain - 1944
Road block Near Mortain – 1944

The 117th Regiment took up positions around St. Barthelemy just north of Mortain. They set up road blocks using anti-tank guns, established their headquarters, and occupied positions vacated by the 1st Division. No tanks were available. German aircraft attacked before the 117th could settle in, followed by heavy artillery bombardment. Early on August 7 the tanks of the 1st SS Adolf Hitler Division encountered the road blocks and knocked out the anti-tank guns, but not before some of their tanks and other mobile equipment were destroyed. The 1st Battalion of the 117th took the brunt of the attack. Although the Americans scattered and sought shelter, they did not withdraw. Without tank support, the infantry men used bazookas, machine guns, mortars and rifles to fight off the German onslaught and blocked one of the main routes to the coast. With limited communication with each other or their headquarters, small units fought ferociously. A squadron of British Typhoons provided the only effective air support by flying low and destroying German tanks, troops and vehicles. Read a fascinating account from the RAF at http://www.oldhickory30th.com/RAFatMortain.htm.

Hill 314
Hill 314

Meanwhile, the 2nd Battalion of the 120th Regiment occupied Hill 314 (named for its height) which overlooked the plain east and south of Mortain. Surrounded by the Germans, artillery Forward Observers called in fire almost continuously and men fought hand-to-hand as the Germans repeatedly attempted to take the hill. Isolated and low on supplies, the Americans held out on the hill for six days without reinforcement or resupply.

Photo NARA Mortain 12 Mark V & TDPhoto NARA Mortain 2 Mark V at St. BThe 117th stopped the German advance in the area around St. Barthelemy, an action for which they received a Presidential Citation. The 119th defended the road  through Juvigny and the ridge road through Le Mesnil-Adiele which represented the deepest German penetration toward the sea, while the 120th clung to the high ground on Hill 314.

By August 12th the German offensive lost steam and they pulled back. The 30th drew a deep breath of relief as reinforcements rolled in. But there would be no rest. With only a day to regroup and receive replacements, “Old Hickory” pushed eastward chasing the withdrawing Germans.

After the war the importance of the battle surrounding Mortain became clear. Surviving German commanders cited the loss at Mortain as critical to holding France and defeating the Allies. The German counter-offensive was their last chance to stop the invasion. Afterwards their focus became the defense of their homeland.

Monument Near Mortain
Monument Near Mortain

The exciting story of the 117th Regiment 30th Infantry Division continued on until the final German surrender. In my next post I will continue to discuss the 30th and their exploits after Mortain.

 

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

Summer of Sorrow and Excitement

This summer has been tumultuous, filled with sorrow and excitement. The sorrow was the unexpected death of my brother-in-law and the expected loss of my uncle. The excitement came at the Romance Writers of America Conference in Atlanta.

In the latter part of June my husband got the call telling him he’d lost his brother. Quite a blow for brothers so close. We live seven hundred miles apart but they talked so often that it seemed they were together all the time.

Dwight & Pat - Brothers Working Together
Dwight & Pat – Brothers Working Together

Dwight had a rare disease and we knew each day was a gift. After being diagnosed with heart failure we thought he had only a few months. But the specialist he saw at Vanderbilt happened to have worked with a physician in Boston who was on the forefront of research about the disease. Dwight went to Boston for treatment – chemo and stem cell transplant. It almost killed him. But he responded well to the treatment, returned home and gained strength. They  told him the damage to his heart could never be reversed but it would not get worse. That was six years ago. Six precious years – a gift from modern medicine with help from a higher power.

Dwight
Dwight

Dwight had a military funeral. We were grateful for the honor shown to him for his service in the Tennessee National Guard. Both Dwight and my husband served in the National Guard during the Vietnam War era. The. National Guard wasn’t appreciated back then (that’s putting it mildly). But their father, having served in Europe under Gen. George Patton during World War II, swore his sons would not go through what he went through. Without their knowledge he arranged for the brothers to join and brought them the paperwork to sign. They really didn’t have a choice. There was no arguing with their father about it. He understood why the National Guard would not be sent to Vietnam. They didn’t. They just knew they were in.

The Tennessee National Guard was part of the 30th Division. As such, they were pledged do defend Europe as part of our NATO treaty agreements. They couldn’t be sent to Vietnam because they had to be available to be sent to Germany if the Russians attacked. Back then, the Cold War was on and at times heated up when tension rose between the two super powers. Some believed that the Russians would take advantage of our involvement in Southeast Asia and would make advances in Europe while we were otherwise occupied. It was important that we did not forget our committment in Europe.

As part of the Tennessee National Guard, Dwight and my husband saw action keeping the peace on the streets of Memphis after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King. Frightening times with rioting in the streets of almost every major city in the country. Snipers shot at firemen and the Guard had to stop the snipers. And the looting and the violence. They did a good job and were commended for their handling of the situation in Memphis.  Years of  intensive training followed so that the Guard units would be able to handle any domestic situation from flooding rivers to riots.

Dwight deserved the honor. So did my uncle who passed away the day we buried Dwight. Uncle Roland served during World War II. They say on the news that we are losing these veterans every day. I can personally vouch for that. Uncle Roland was ninety and had been ill for some time. Like my other family members who served in that war, by the time I realized I should talk to them about it (if they would have talked to me) it was too late. I do know that Uncle Roland was in the Pacific Theatre and served as part of the first occupation forces in Japan. I was pleased to learn that his children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren are interested in preserving the WWII memories of our family. So I plan to pursue research into Uncle Roland’s service as well as my other uncles who served.SONY DSC

I mentioned at the beginning the excitement of the RWA Conference in Atlanta. Wow! It’s hard to convey the experience. My first national conference turned out better than I imagined. Frightened at the prospect of stepping way out of my comfort zone, I made up my mind that I was going and that I was going to get as much out of the event as possible while trying to remain calm. Everyone told me to have fun but I didn’t really believe I would. I was pleasantly surprised that I did. I cannot describe the feeling of being surrounded by two thousand plus talented writers, both published and unpublished. And sprinkled throughout were literary agents and editors from numerous publishing houses. I’m please to say that I pitched my WWII love story to both editors and agents and now I’m busy sending it off – synopsis, partial manuscript and full manuscript to the ones who wanted to see it. No guarantees – but I’m thrilled to have these professionals look at it. Putting me a big step closer to being published.

We have to celebrate our triumphs while we can. Life is too short, even if you make it to 90. Every day is precious. And sorrow comes to us all. We must have the strength and the courage to keep going. And for me, that means keep writing.