Photos, Articles, & Research on the European Theater in World War II
This is one of a series of G.I. Stories of the Ground, Air and Service Forces in the European Theater, issued by the Orientation Branch, Information and Education Division, Hq USFET. Major General Allison J. Barnett, commanding the 70th Infantry Division, lent his cooperation, and material was supplied by his staff.
To those great soldiers who died fighting that this organization might have a story worth publishing, we dedicate this abbreviated story of the 70th Infantry Division. The future of the division as presently viewed makes timely this recording of its past accomplishments.
THE STORY OF THE 70th INFANTRY DIVISION
Although relative newcomers to the European Theater—their baptism of fire came at Philippsbourg and Wingen-sur-Moder—the Trailblazers were eager, confident. Fighting for the first time as a division, the men under Maj. Gen. Allison J. Barnett could hardly visualize the rugged battles that lay ahead.
Immediate objectives were the French industrial city of Forbach on the division's left flank, the town of Styring-Wendel further northeast, the Pfaffenwald stretching from Forbach east to the Saar River, the strategic high ground of Spicheren Heights. Once these heights were gained, Saarbrucken's fate would be doomed.
Over terrain ideal for delaying tactics and ambushes—countless valleys and ravines separated by thickly-forested hills—the doughs slogged along in a veritable sea of mud.
Oeting, Kerbach and Etzling fell in quick succession to the 276th Inf. Regt., which whipped along the left flank, and to the 274th Inf. Regt., which forged ahead in the center. On the right, the 275th Inf. Regt. fought bitterly for Lixing and Grosbliederstroff as it pushed to the Saar through Zingingen, Hesseling and Alsting.
The Germans must have had the 15-man patrol under observation all the time. Waiting until the patrol had formed its skirmish line, the Nazis opened up with machine guns. In a moment, all but one of the 15 men were dead or wounded. He was Pvt. Jesse D. Cain, Jr., Philadelphia, Co. A, 275th.
Lying in cover so shallow he couldn't raise his arms from his side without drawing fire, Cain's only thought was, "Wait till dark and maybe I can make it in."
But Cain's wounded buddies couldn't wait. Several prayed softly. One muttered, "Get a doctor," and raised his knees to ease his pain. The German machine gun rattled death.
Pvt. Cain didn't wait. He crept, crawled, finally sprinted for the woods. The Nazis blazed away at him; they missed. The wounded soon were evacuated.
The drive on Saarbrucken was a nightmare from the outset. The areas over which the advance rolled were heavily mined. In "Peaceful Valley," above Forbach, it was nearly impossible to set foot on unmined soil.
From a distance, the bright yellow shu-mines looked like a field of daffodils. Near Etzling, the mines were just as thick, even more potent and Trailblazer tanks couldn't move up to give pinned-down infantrymen the support they needed.
This was a job for the engineers—the combat engineers who had been building bridges under fire, removing demolition charges, filling anti-tank ditches.
Pfc Deno A. Gaffi, Kelso, Wash., Co. A, 270th Engr. Bn., was among those braving enemy fire that grew hotter as the Germans spotted them. Gaffi seemingly paid little attention to the gunfire as he worked to clear a route of advance.
"There's your path," he told the tankers as he lifted the last mine.
For two consecutive Sundays, the Army Hour broadcast dramatic enactments of the 70th's rugged fight along the approaches to Forbach. Many Trailblazers received inquiries for information regarding the struggle for this vital stronghold.
The advance had been painfully slow. Now, the 276th set its sights on Schlossberg Castle. Doughs would have to scale those rugged heights that were practically void of cover. The regiment went to work. Surprised at the outset when they failed to draw fire, the men quickened the pace.
When the 276th reached the castle, it discovered that the Nazis had pulled out altogether. Germans had withdrawn into Forbach.
When the Trailblazers went into their first action as a combat division, The Stars & Stripes of Feb. 25, 1945, reported:
"A brand new American infantry division, the 70th Trailblazer, was revealed on February 23 to be spearheading the Seventh Army drive into Germany, south of Saarbrucken.
"The 70th, which first went into action on
In the center, between the other two regiments, the 274th pushed steadily ahead toward the town of Spicheren and Spicheren Heights, which overlooked the first belt of the Siegfried Line forts and dragon's teeth.
He was leading a patrol when the machine guns opened up. He fell, badly wounded. Knowing he would be a handicap to his men who insisted that they evacuate him, he said:
"Leave me here and go back. That is a direct order."
As a final gesture, be gave his carbine—his sole protection—to a soldier who had lost his weapon. The men withdrew reluctantly. The last time they saw 2nd Lt. Bernard Brons, Paterson, N.J.,
Battle Axe Slashes Into "Holy Soil"
When Capt. Herbert J. Andrews, Colton, Calif.,
The Nazis' small arms and automatic weapons fire diminished as the mortar and artillery shells pounded in. The wild, screaming charge ceased. Next morning, 40 dead Krauts were counted on the hillside.
Next, the Trailblazers swung down into Forbach, slugging ahead and battling for each house as enemy screaming meemies blasted unmercifully.
Sgt. William P. Henry, Jr., La Habra, Calif., Co. F, Bloody Axe Regiment, was posthumously awarded both the Silver and Bronze Star medals.
He was awarded the Silver Star for clearing Germans from houses beyond the Forbach underpass. He went into the houses alone, killing two Nazis and capturing two others. When his squad, engaged in similar work, lost contact, the sergeant worked his way through enemy occupied areas to reestablish contact.
Sgt. Henry won the Bronze Star for his action when, with another
As the 70th's flanks swung inward, it became apparent that the Germans would defend Spicheren Heightsat all costs. With some portions of the lofty ridge facing Saarbrucken already in Trailblazer hands, the full fury of Nazi counter-attacks burst against the men fighting for Spicheren, Feb. 22.
Known as "Hitler's Holy Ground," the heights had sentimental as well as military value. German soldiers were buried here where they fought the French in 1870. And on Christmas Day, 1939, the Fuehrer had timidly walked a few hundred yards across the frontier as the Nazi propaganda machine trumpeted the incident as a triumphal march into France. Since then, this soil became a Nazi shrine and small urns of the earth were sold to devout followers as revered souvenirs.
Germans had contrived every device to defend this "sacred soil." Rotating and elevating pillboxes, mortars and artillery cascaded fire in every direction. Counter-battery fire was ineffective. A persistent low ceiling prevented air support.
This was a job for the infantry.
As the Trailblazers approached Strying-Wendel, German guards fled, allowing Allied prisoners to escape and make their way to American lines. Crippled, diseased and suffering from malnutrition, PW's streamed in a long column to the 274th's positions.
Even then, liberty was hard-bought. As the PWs hobbled along the Metz highway, German machine guns opened up, wounded many of them. Wearing the tattered uniforms of Soviet Russia, France, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, the 951 men were among the first Allied PW's to be liberated in this sector.
Savage fighting raged as Trailblazers wrested Spicheren Heights from the Germans.
Sgt. Elmo Chappell, Marietta, Ga., and two of his buddies discovered that their weapons were sluggish from the mud and ice and would not fire semi-automatically. Pushing his buddies to cover where they could load their rifles by hand, the sergeant took up an exposed position and fired each rifle as it was loaded and handed to him.
Sgt. Chappell accounted for eight Germans. With the counter-assault squelched, 70th doughs continued their relentless attack on the Germans.
These infantrymen were doing themselves proud. The 274th eventually scaled Spicheren Heights, then pushed on beyond Styring-Wendel; the 276th stormed through Forbach, scrapping through street after street; the 275th poked all the way to the Saar.
When the 70th had time to take stock, it counted 18 captured towns, 2034 prisoners and repulsed 29 counter-attacks. Its actions produced such accolades as the statement issued by Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery while decorating Capt. Joseph K. Donahue, Rolla, Mo., Co. I, 275th, who was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action at Spicheren. Said the British officer, "I want to pay tribute to the gallantry of the American soldier. He is an excellent fighting man."
13th Unlucky Day for Retreating Nazis
S/Sgt. Joseph Kohn, St. Louis, 3rd Bn., 274th, the medic in the rifle platoon, saw the man fall. Although he had lost his identifying arm band and no Red Cross flag was available, the sergeant dashed across the open ground to the wall through fire pouring from factory buildings.
Advancing beyond the wall into the yard, Sgt. Kohn reached the wounded dough, carried him back to the wall, across the ditch, to safety. Later, he received a battlefield commission and was awarded the Silver Star.
Pressure exerted by Third Army's penetration into the Palatinate forced Germans to withdraw; Trailblazers increased the pace of the retreat with their hammering blows March 13. By next day, the division had cleared all the area up to the Saar.
During the next week, patrols frequently crossed the river to determine the disposition of enemy forces. Considerable casualties were caused by snipers and mines as preparations were made for the drive into Saarbrucken.
The first wave of Co. C, 276th, crossed the Saar near Hostenbach late March 19, followed by the remainder of the company the next morning. The 274th was transported across the river by boat while all other elements of the division used a foot bridge built by the engineers.
Supporting the Battle Axe regiment's crossing was the 433rd AAA Bn. Even ahead of the anti-tank guns, the ack-ack men lowered their guns within 200 yards of the river so they could fire point blank. So accurate was their rolling barrage that the entire third battalion crossed the river while the Germans, in their buttoned-up pillboxes, failed to get off a single round of small arms fire.
The 275th began its advance through Saarbrucken at noon, March 20. This city, with a pre-war population of 133,382, was the center of Saarland administration as well as an important industrial and cultural center. Simultaneously, the 274th, by-passing the city, slashed through the dragon's teeth of the Siegfried Line.
The push on Saarbrucken was aided by the First and Ninth Tactical Air Forces, whose planes plowed a furrow of flames from the city all the way to the Rhine. Three hundred medium and light bombers smashed communications from Saarbrucken to Siegen as Trailblazers surged forward.
A miniature train is painted on the fuselage of an 882nd FA Bn. liaison plane and another on a gun of the 494th Armd. FA Bn. The grasshopper plane, flying low over Saarbrucken, spotted a German locomotive streaming towards the city and called such accurate fire directions to gunners that the entire train was destroyed.
Trailblazers — Ready, Willing and Able
When Saarbrucken fell, it marked the end of 86 consecutive days in the battle line for Trailblazers who had landed at Marseilles just before Christmas, 1944. They had been committed to action in Alsace less than a month from the day they walked up the gangplank at Boston.
In the thick of the 274th's fight in Alsace, Lorraine and Western Germany was one of major league baseball's most promising young pitchers. Cpl. Alden J. Wilkie, formerly of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was
The 70th Division was activated at Camp Adair, June 15, 1943, the day citizens of the state hailed the centennial of the Old Oregon Trail. "Trailblazers" was the appropriate name taken by the new outfit, claimed as "Oregon's Own."
Its red, white and green shoulder patch bears an axe in recognition of the pioneers who travelled the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley (site of Camp Adair), a snowy mountain for Oregon's Mt. Hood, and a green fir, symbolizing the 91st Inf. Div. (Fir Tree Division), from which officers and NCOs of the 70th were drawn, prior to its activation.
Recruits came largely from New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio and Missouri. They learned their first lessons as infantrymen in the hilly forests of the Valley, not unlike those wooded hills along the Saar. Under Maj. Gen. John E. Dahlquist, later CG of the 36th Inf. Div. (Texas Division), they sweated and froze their way to trained soldierhood. In July, 1944, they moved to Fort Leonard Wood where the final polish was added in the Ozark terrain under Gen. Barnett, who took command of the division Aug. 24. Gen. Barnett had served for 21 months as Chief of Staff, U.S. Army Forces, South Pacific Area.
On Dec. 1, 1944, the initial contingent of Trailblazers trudged up the Boston POE gangplank. The long training days were ended. The big fight loomed ahead. Trailblazers were ready, willing and able.
Shortly after midnight on New Year's Day, 1945, the 275th—the Eagle Regiment—was ordered to attack. The day before, the American defensive line in the mountains fringing the northern Alsatian frontier had been breached by German SS mountain troops, supported by strong armor and artillery. For American forces battling on the Continent, it was a crucial week. Pinched in the Bastogne Pocket, tanks were trying to stave off encirclement. The Battle of the Ardennes still was in a decisive stage. Nazis held the initiative from Belgium to Strasbourg on the Rhine. From Bitche to Haguenau, Krauts smashed south, plowing over snow-covered hills.
The three Trailblazer infantry regiments—the 274th, 275th and 276th—had landed at Marseilles in two shipments, Dec. 10 and 15, 1944. Less than three weeks later, Dec. 28, they were hurled into the line along the Rhine near Bischwiller as Task Force Herren, under Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Herren, assistant division commander, former commandant of Fort Riley's Cavalry School. When the Nazis struck to the west, TF Herren units rushed to help blunt the attack.
Courage Sharpens Eagles' Claws
He won the first Silver Star awarded by the 70th.
He was too old, they told him back at Magnolia, Ark., in 1942 when he tried to enlist. He was 40. Later, however, he was accepted for OCS at Ft. Benning, Ga. In January, 1944, it was Capt. Edwin B. Keith—still "too old"—who led his company up the snowy side of an important hill at Philippsbourg, under direct fire from entrenched SS troops. When the company had taken the hill, doughs counted their catch: 51 dead, 21 captured, more than 100 wounded.
No more was he "too old."
While headquarters tried desperately to re-establish contact with the lost companies, the battalions struck at the enemy in Philippsbourg. The town was of strategic importance. Lying in a deep defile in the hills, its main street wound through the mountains to open country beyond.
Machine guns set up in houses and on the outskirts of the town swept every angle of approach. German 88s were zeroed in on the crossroads. When Lt. Col. John T. Malloy, Paso Robles, Calif., 275th executive officer, reached Philippsbourg, he found five tanks and 75 men clinging to the edge of town but disorganized and ready to withdraw.
Ordering the tanks to follow him, he marched up the middle of the street through a hail of lead, guiding the tanks to the most important enemy position, a machine gun nest at the upper end of the block. Just beyond the crossroads he was wounded by fragments of an 88. At 150 yards, however, the lead tank fired point-blank at the machine gun, blowing off a corner of the house and wiping out the emplacement. With this threat gone, elements of the 275th and the Battle Axe Regiment—the 274th—stormed through the rest of the town in savage house-to-house fighting.
Late that night, Cos. A and L made their way to safety; next day
TF Herren's victory brought quiet to the sector. Philippsbourg had been a bitter, bloody introduction to battle for untried troops fresh from the States. Good leadership, training and courage had won the day.
Pay-Off Punch Launched at Saarbrucken
With another soldier, he took shelter in the cellar of a nearby house. An upper floor had been converted by Nazis into a gun nest and the house now was a target for American artillery. After three days, the house was demolished, the Germans killed. Lt. Lewis A. Dougherty, San Francisco, 275th Med. Det., crawled out of the debris, made his way through the lines, shook off the effects of hunger and exhaustion, accepted relief only after all wounded had been treated.
The confused, seemingly patternless fighting along the northern front—the Battle of the Bulge—raged during the first few days of the new year, but on Jan. 4 the Germans tipped their hand. Striking 10 miles south of their Maginot Line bastion city of Bitche, the Nazis infiltrated an estimated 800 SS troopers into the town of Wingen-sur-Moder. The mission was to establish contact with enemy forces to the north and hold.
T/Sgt. David K. Lunsford, Louisa, Ky., 370th Med. Bn., wanted to be an infantryman. He was willing to take a break to buck private. He became the first man in the division to win an Oak Leaf Cluster to a Bronze Star. At Wingen, he knocked out a machine gun with a bazooka; when another machine gun held up his platoon, he exposed himself to fire to aid in adjusting mortars; when mortars failed to do the job, he crawled forward and silenced the enemy crew with his M-1.
He's now a T/Sgt. again—in the infantry.
Nearly 150 men of the 276th—the Bloody Axe Regiment—were captured when the Germans cut TF Herren's main communications which channelled through Wingen.
The Nazis' strategy made imperative the recapture of Wingen by the Americans. The Germans planned to strike south and hook up with their forces moving up from below Strasbourg. If this could be accomplished, the entire Seventh Army east of the Saverne Gap would be isolated.
As Army headquarters shifted from Saverne to Luneville, the 276th was ordered to retake Wingen. Gen. Herren assigned the job to 3rd Bn. Jumping off before noon, Jan. 4, the attack made slow progress against withering automatic weapons fire.
The two Trailblazer platoon leaders, 1st Lt. Glenn Peebles, La Mesa, Calif., and 2nd Lt. Edwin David Cooke, Los Angeles, decided to play "dead."
In making their way through the underpass on the road leading into Wingen, they had been pinned down by heavy automatic weapons fire. With darkness came the Germans. Throughout the night, the two 276th platoon leaders lay in the snow, playing "dead," while the Nazis searched their pockets, kicked them, took their weapons and wrist watches.
"When they took Peebles' knife from his belt, we thought sure we were done for; and when they took my wrist watch I thought they would discover my pulse beating," said Lt. Cooke later.
When the Trailblazers took Wingen the next day, the two lieutenants were returned to the regimental CP at Zittersheim.
On Jan. 5, 70th doughs completely surrounded Wingen.
"Give us riflemen to go in with our tanks," asked the commander of the armor which had been assigned to slash into Wingen.
The only force available was the Guide and Guard Platoon—mail clerks, motor pool personnel, cooks' helpers. But the G & G men went in. Germans went out. Only when darkness forced the tanks to withdraw did the platoon come back out.
Preparations then were made for the pay-off punch. Anti-tank guns were hauled over mountain trails—only routes available—and lowered from the icy cliffs.
Spearheaded by a 274th battalion, the attack was launched at dawn. The powerhouse thrust ripped into the heart of the town. By afternoon, the enemy was kaput. Trailblazer prisoners, who had been forced to serve as litter bearers for Nazis, were freed. SS men wearing American uniforms were captured. The Nazi attempt to cut off Seventh Army was halted.
Lt. Hugo Seren, Jr., Seattle, Hq. Co., 176th, had watched the rabbits all afternoon. Now, as he advanced into the Alsatian village, the lieutenant saw the rabbits stop near the doorway of a courtyard, raise their ears.
"I knew someone was in there," Lt. Seren later said, "otherwise the rabbits wouldn't have stopped. Since I was the first Yank in town, it couldn't have been anyone else but Germans."
It was Germans. A grenade lobbed over the wall took care of them.
Those first days of combat at Philippsbourg and Wingen were rugged but they did provide seasoning. Trailblazers were veterans when they kicked off for Saarbrucken
While the division stormed into the city, the 70th Recon Troop swooped northeast in a lightning-fast reconnoitering move. Anti-tank ditches, road blocks and demolitions failed to slow the troopers who seized several hundred prisoners along with two 88s and their crews at Holz.
So swiftly did the mechanized cavalry move that the Reconmen, running off their maps, had to rely on captured German motorists' maps. By the time these troopers had made contact at Neunkirchen with Third Army forces—the 26th Inf. Div.—they had covered all main and secondary roads and villages in a zone 40 miles long and six to 10 miles wide.
Four Trailblazers were posthumously awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star following the Saar Basin action. They were: S/Sgt. Clarence Jacobson,
Jacobson single-handedly obstructed an enemy counter-attack on his unit's position near Spicheren for 20 minutes, ample time for his outfit to prepare to repel the assault.
Walter exposed himself repeatedly to enemy fire while checking the platoon position near Styring-Wendel. Although wounded, he refused to be evacuated until he had completed his job.
Spudick returned to a previously evacuated mortar position with weapons and ammunition, near Offweiler, inspiring his buddies to do likewise. Pfc Ward was killed when his platoon was isolated for seven days and under constant attack near Spicheren.
The Trailblazers' offensive concluded with the meeting of Seventh and Third Armies, ending 86 days of continuous contact with the enemy. During the climactic four days of March 20-23, the division took 668 prisoners, liberated 58 towns, freed several hundred Soviet laborers and captured large quantities of enemy materiel. Later, Prince August, son of the former Kaiser, and Julius Lippert, Lord Mayor of Berlin, were among the captives who passed into the PW cages.
70th — Forever in the Hearts of Fighting Men
Across this bridge and over the bridgehead which Trailblazers were guarding, swept the full force of Seventh Army's power. The 70th kept supply zones open, besides mopping up, patrolling, guarding vital communications, administering military government, maintaining PW enclosures and establishing facilities to care for thousands of Allied displaced personnel.
The Trailblazers became well-known to the American public for their action in the Saar Basin. The New York Post devoted a full column to the division's part in the Saar breakthrough. Other large metropolitan newspapers carried stories of the attack. The Minneapolis Tribune printed a front page map of the 70th's assault on Saarbrucken.
The 70th was stationed in the Frankfurt-am-Main sector when Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945. Trailblazers accepted the news calmly. There was no celebration. The wet misery and shrapnel of the Pfaffenwald, the 88s crashing into Forbach, the bitter cold and snow of Philippsbourg and Wingen, the tortuous days of Haguenau Forest were too close.
Too close, too, was the memory of the 714 Trailblazers who died in the hills and forests of Alsace, of Lorraine and in the Saarland; of the 2763 wounded, of the 395 who were taken prisoner, of the 89 listed as missing in action.
The 70th observed June 15, 1945, with double significance. Not only was this the division's second birthday anniversary, but it also was Infantry Day. Memorial programs were held. At ceremonies the year previous, a ship named SS Trailblazer in honor of the division was launched at Portland, Ore.
The highest decoration to be awarded in the Trailblazer Division—the Distinguished Service Cross—was received by Capt. Donald Pence, West Point, N.Y., 275th, and Lt. Claude J. Haefner, Bethlehem, Pa., 276th. Pvt. Samson J. Stephens, Fernandia, Fla., 274th, was given the award posthumously.
Long training periods followed through June and July, 1945. Combat problems were enacted with seriousness. Although the Trailblazers were combat-wise, there was reason enough for additional training. It was essential that the division be prepared for any or all future assignments.
The people of Nassau, Germany, had reason to believe the war was starting again one day in June when a Trailblazer rifle company, Co. K, 276th, carried on an offensive problem through the town. As machine guns chattered and men shouted for medics, white flags appeared in windows, people dashed for cover.
One woman asked Squad Leader S/Sgt. Mike Brebenie: "This fight a real war?"
"Darned right it is," replied the sergeant. The terrified German scrambled for a nearby building as the infantrymen probed on to "capture" the high ground ahead.
Shortly after V-E day came the news that Trailblazers whose brevity of service precluded discharge were to be sent to other outfits.
Wherever Trailblazers are scattered, there always will be a 70th Infantry Division. It will live forever in the hearts of men who fought with it.
Photos: 70th Inf. Div., U.S. Signal Corps.
P. Dupont, Paris.