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 of Operations, issued by the Orientation Branch, Information and Education Division, ETOUSA... Major General Ray E. Porter, commanding the 75th Infantry Division lent his cooperation, and basic material was supplied by his staff.
THE STORY OF THE 75th INFANTRY DIVISION
These were green troops — fresh from the States — these men of the 75th Infantry Division and they suffered many casualties. But their hold was tenacious. Founded here in this icy battle of life or death was the 75th's tradition: "Always Get There Somehow." And the 75th always has gotten there somehow from this first engagement until the Germans surrendered unconditionally May 8, 1945.
Doughs of the 75th could little more than anticipate war's savage fury when they sailed from New York in November, 1944, en route to the Western Front. Behind them were 18 months of vigorous training — training in the Louisiana Maneuver Area, at Camp Breckinridge, Ky., and at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where the 75th was activated April 13, 1943. Thirty-five hundred men from the ASTP and the Air Corps replaced a duplicate number of reinforcements who went overseas immediately after maneuvers.
The Wehrmacht surprisingly had launched a surging offensive and von Rundstedt was pile-driving the Nazi juggernaut deep into Belgium. The objective was to split the Allied Armies in half, cut communications and push all the way to the Channel.
Time was a crucial factor. Tired Yanks needed assistance, reinforcements. They were to have both. The 75th, fresh and untried, switched its motor columns and trains in First Army's direction and sped more than 250 miles to the rescue. By
Next day, additional orders sent the 75th to the vicinity of Ocquier and the 289th, 290th and 291st Regimental Combat Teams moved into assembly areas a few miles from the advancing Germans. Confusion reigned during the motor march that night; no one knew exactly where the enemy was driving.
Attached to an armored division, the 290th RCT was the first 75th element to make contact with the Germans. The 289th also joined in the battle, hooking up with the 290th near Grandmenil. Together, they smashed ahead to cut and clear the Hotton-Soy road.
On Christmas Day, Co. K, 290th, supported on the flanks by
At least five panzer and four infantry divisions, the cream of the German Army, were spearheading the Bulge drive towards Liege. The eyes of the world were focused on this geographical point against which the two combat teams threw their might. There could have been no more historic moment for the men of the 75th Division to join battle.
Up to now, the division had been farmed out to other units as support or extra strength. It had fought well but never as a complete team. On Dec. 27, the 75th was attached to the XVIII Airborne Corps and the CP moved to Villers Ste. Gertrude on the northern flank of the Bulge. Within two days, all component parts were back under division control.
At first, the situation was defensive with all efforts directed at stopping the enemy's night infiltration and sabotage tactics. Many Germans were dressed in American uniforms, and confusion, as well as damage, was prevalent throughout First Army's area. The 75th resisted every attack and hung on. The days still were critical as the relative calm of the moment merely presaged another storm.
A message from Maj. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, Corps Commander, read:
I want every man imbued with the idea that here in this sector is where the decision of this war will be reached. Every man will contribute his utmost to putting the 75th up alongside the best divisions in the American Army.
Green Troops Into Seasoned Veterans
Although the next few days were comparatively quiet, the war progressed. Men still were cold, freezing; shelling never stopped.
Reassigned to VII Corps — "the Corps that always attacked" — the division was not surprised when the 290th RTC was called to support another division in its plunge across the important Ourthe River. The 289th and 291st screened the attack and strengthened their positions while Div Arty continued to maintain close support.
Although the 75th went into First Army reserve, little rest was forthcoming. Relief of another division was imminent and the 75th went back into the line to take over the 82nd Airborne's sector. Attached now were the 750th Tank Bn., 772nd TD Bn., and 440th AAA (AW) Bn. The last two stayed and fought many months with the 75th Division.
Immediate objectives were the strongly-defended towns of Salmchateau and Vielsalm. Their capture was imperative and the division, with the exception of the 290th which still carried out its previous assignment, took up positions along the Salm River.
Patrols pushed through the snow to cross the river in endless succession. Men sometimes swain the icy currents to gain valuable information. They lay in snow drifts for hours to watch the enemy.
When the 290th RCT returned to division control, the entire team was ready to roll. The jump-off was but a few hours away.
At 0914, Jan. 14, 1945, a terse message was received by the 75th:
Your division attacks tomorrow. H-Hour: 0300.
Gen. Ridgway, sent the following:
Now we propose to attack, attack and attack until a final decision is reached on the Western Front... Tomorrow morning begins the final challenge by German brutality, venality and inhuman warfare. Behind us stand 90,000 of the best manhood in the world. The outcome is certain. I should like to impress upon the mind of every individual the stake for which he fights... the future of the United States of America.
The enemy was firmly entrenched along the bank of the Salm. His bunkers were built of timber and camouflaged with snow. He lurked in cellars and stone buildings of every town and waited — waited to be ferreted out. This was an enemy composed of elements of three divisions that knew it "was now or not at all."
Artillery, tanks and TDs heralded the attack with a devastating
First Bn. stormed the high ground commanding the area north of Bech. Against murderous fire that accounted for many casualties, doughs got the job done.
Co. A, 291st, was pinned down in a draw by automatic weapons fire. The lead platoon, several hundred yards to the front, was cut off. One dough, volunteering to go for help, raced across open ground under a hail of fire. Miraculously, he got through; the platoon was saved.
The attack still roared on Jan. 16. German tanks were knocked out, prisoners taken by the score. Yet, Nazi defenders grudgingly counted inches, made the 75th pay for every step it advanced. When the division forged ahead during the early hours of the next day, the Germans had lost their punch. The 75th had broken through decisively. Patrols probed the mine-strewn streets of Vielsalm by nightfall. Simultaneously,
By Jan. 17, the 290th had seized Petite Thier, Patteaux and Neuville. More than 700 prisoners were taken in the 75th's initial drive, but this, or the river crossing, or the taking of six towns, fails to tell the story of the withering 88 and mortar barrages thrown up by the desperate enemy. Doughs, tankers and TD crews fought unflinchingly. Visibility always was poor. Mines were rendered useless only when an alert soldier found and deciphered an enemy mine chart.
Every type of resistance was encountered. In the Grande du Bois area of the Ardennes, Germans were dug in the deep snow and accounted for many casualties with small arms fire. Snow filtered into the tops of American boots. Clothing became soaked, there was no opportunity for change. Many casualties resulted from frostbite and trench foot. Against nature's white background, ODs were obvious targets. Still, no one thought of anything but going forward.
Aid men scurried about — aid men like Pvt. Carlo Salvo, who dragged three wounded tankers from their burning vehicle, administered first aid and guided them to safety.
A new attack aimed against Commanster, Braunlauf, Muldingen and Aldringen was launched Jan. 22. Artillery softened up the opposition with a gigantic barrage, but the Germans, fighting like cornered rats, had to be weeded out of each house, each cellar. Considerable booby traps and anti-personnel mines were encountered. The towns finally were cleared by a systematic house-to-house grenade campaign.
The capture of Aldringen and the severing of the vital north-south road spokes from St. Vith brought to a close the battle of the Ardennes. The Bulge was no more. The threat to the Allies was ended and the Germans driven back behind the Siegfried Line.
The 75th had fought with the finest divisions in the American Army. It had engaged the best in the Hitler fold and had emerged victorious, an integral part of the Allied team. Green at the outset, but veterans at the finish, men of the 75th never will forget those cruel, freezing days during January, 1945. Nor will any ever forget the glorious fight and the spirit of their comrades.
In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared that "this would ever be a famous American victory," and that the eyes of the world would long gaze at the heroic men who had fallen there.
On Jan. 24, the 75th learned with regret that the general who had steered them through these difficult combat days was leaving. Maj. Gen. Fay B. Prickett, who had been recalled to a higher headquarters, wrote:
I look with confidence to the future of this great fighting division and am sure that its history will be enriched with victory.
Maj. Gen. Ray E. Porter, a veteran of the African campaign and later War Department
The 75th Team Clicks with Precision
However, the German High Command planned otherwise. Striking this time at the opposite end of the front — at Strasbourg in Alsace Lorraine — the Nazis counter-attacked in force. The line, thinly defended by troops of the American Seventh and French First Armies, required immediate reinforcement. Again, the 75th was called to help flatten another bulge. Passes were cancelled, vehicles and trains loaded for what was to become the most difficult journey anyone could remember.
Moving a division isn't an easy matter even in peace time. Under ideal conditions it is a difficult job in war time. Add the coldest weather of the winter to the overall picture and the move becomes a nightmare.
This was the situation as the weary 75th headed south to help take Colmar and throw the Germans back across the Rhine River. Snow was falling when the division left Belgium and flakes still fell when the 75th arrived in Alsace two days later.
Doughs, loaded to the hilt with gear, piled into the
The remainder of the 75th moved by motor convoy which totalled more than 1400 vehicles. Roads were icy and mountain passages were made more treacherous by the necessary blackout. Sleep was virtually impossible. The nightmare ended with the troops' arrival at the edge of the Colmar pocket, high in the Vosges Mountains.
The division was assigned to the French First Army for tactical purposes and to the American Seventh for administration.
The role of the 75th was to jump off from a point just south of the Colmar Canal and forge ahead along the Horburg-Andolsheim-Appenwihr-Wolfgantzen axis. When these strategic places were taken, the objective would be to close up along the west bank of the Rhine.
Mountain snow had transformed the valley into a lake of oozing mud. Artillery and vehicles found the going rugged, but the infantry got away on schedule. As the two regiments advanced abreast, 1st Bn., 289th, closed on Horburg and immediately engaged in a fierce house-to-house struggle. Germans were in every cellar; even a church steeple was a snipers' nest. Several rounds from a bazooka eliminated the riflemen in the steeple and the town was cleared after doughs went to work with grenades.
But enemy resistance stiffened and the regiment found itself in the midst of a strong counter-assault. Waves of German infantry, tanks and self-propelled guns were flung at the 291st. Second Bn. did itself proud by holding its ground, repulsing every thrust.
The battle raged for three hours. Then, 1st Bn. rushed forward, slicing its way to the east. Tiger tanks slowed down the battalion's rush but couldn't completely stop the hard-charging doughs — doughs like S/Sgt. Erich Schwarz, Chicago, Co. A, who knocked out a pair of machine gun nests with grenades, or Lt. (then T/Sgt.) Odilo N. Bonde, Valders, Wis., who captured 23 prisoners single-handed. Sometimes, bazookamen fired at tanks only 10 yards away.
Enemy aircraft used every trick in the book to knock out supply line bridges. The 440th AAA was ever alert and its marksmen, driving off constant threats, blasted from the skies one of the first jet-propelled planes shot down on the Western Front.
The mission may not have been spectacular, but the fighting was. Eventually the division cleared the entire northern and eastern approach line to Colmar. Elements of the French First Army drove on to capture the city proper.
Meanwhile, 2nd and 3rd Bns., 289th, struck toward Appenwihr. The 2nd Bn. worked into the heart of the town, but the Germans threw in a heavy concentration of artillery, followed by tanks and infantry, and doughs were forced to pull back.
Two members of the 289th Med. Det., Capt. William T. Leslie, New York City, and Cpl. William I. Sloan, Los Angeles, wrote a stirring chapter in the 75th's book when they braved enemy fire to drive back into the town and set up an emergency aid station. These medics went from house to house administering first aid and then loaded wounded aboard a truck for evacuation. Their job completed, the pair walked out of the town.
Getting support from the 290th, the 289th again trained its sights on Appenwihr. This additional strength turned the trick and the regiment moved back in to stay.
Holland — Op in an Easy Chair
Many doughs fought beyond the call of duty as the 75th redoubled its efforts to crack the defenses. S/Sgt. Samuel W. Cathcart, Long Beach, Calif.,
When it seemed impossible for 1st and 3rd Bns. to take Wolfgantzen, a ruse was employed. Information revealed that Germans had set up their defenses along the south and west edges of the town. By feinting in these directions and sending one company along the canal to the east, while simultaneously hitting the city from the remaining directions, the 291st was able to move in.
The enemy was unable to fight in all directions at the same time. The 291st was. The difference spelled victory for the doughs.
The 289th and 290th continued their sweep, crossing the Rhine-Rhone Canal. Overpowering several villages, the 290th swung east and closed on the Rhine. Infantrymen looked across the river and saw German soil for the first time.
The enemy had been driven out of eastern France. It was a great moment and from Gen. Delattre de Tassigny, French First Army Commander, came the message:
...I have not allowed you any respite, and night and day have ordered you harshly "en avant!" This had to be done. No task was more imperative nor more lofty than saving Strasbourg and finally, liberating Alsace. You understood this and, covered with mud, numb with cold, exhausted, you found in yourselves the supreme strength necessary to overcome the desperate resistance of the enemy.
Thanks to you, my beloved American comrades, who had brought us your courage and who have spared nothing to help us — neither your arms nor your blood... The German has been driven from the sacred soil of France. He will never return.
Two campaigns in seven weeks entitled the 75th to a well deserved rest and it enjoyed a short breather, followed by a not too difficult assignment in Holland. Guns were cleaned, vehicles loaded and the division moved to the vicinity of Luneville for a few days' break. There were baths, clean clothes and Red Cross clubs. But it didn't last long. Orders were received by the 75th to report to the opposite end of the line. Another long trip was in prospect.
The winter had lost its bitterness by now and the division, imbued with self-confidence and high in spirit, had time to reflect as it took the long journey in stride.
Cadre came from the 83rd Inf. Div., then stationed at Camp Atterbury, Ind. Training in the rugged Ozark Mountains began April 19, and proceeded vigorously until July 24 when the conclusion of the Mobilization Training Program was marked by inspection of all units by XI Corps. Gen. Paul wrote at this time:
Throughout unit training, during our combined training, and finally during combat, let us cherish and keep alive this spark, this 75th's way of doing things. I give you a battle cry: "Over, Around, Under, or Through."
A cadre of officers and men from the 5th Inf. Div., stationed in Iceland, arrived for temporary quartering Aug. 1 and later was absorbed by the division. On Aug. 18, Gen. Prickett took over command of the 75th. Approximately a year later, with the final polish of Louisiana maneuvers and a stay at Camp Breckingridge added, the division shipped overseas.
Now, as the 75th set its sights to the north its assignment was to relieve the British 6th Airborne Division near Panningen, Holland, and to take up positions along the west bank of the Maas River. By Feb. 21, 1945, relief of the British troops was complete and the 75th occupied a 24-mile stretch of front. The position was strictly defensive, the object being to keep the Germans from spanning the river and, by use of patrols, to gain any information.
Patrols crossed the Maas nightly for information on German actions and plans. Psychological warfare was carried on with Div Arty firing occasional broadsides of leaflets and surrender propaganda on German positions.
Doughs lived in reasonably comfortable homes along the edge of the river, within sight of the enemy. There were observation posts in upper story windows where men sat in easy chairs and looked over window sills at German emplacements.
The Holland campaign was easier than anything experienced thus far by the 75th. During this phase, the division served under the British Second Army. In its short two and a half months of combat operations, this was the fourth Army and third nation to which 75th had been linked.
Across the Rhine, Into the Ruhr
The division was assigned to a sector which extended from a point opposite the town of Wesel, later seized by British commandos, to Dulsburg. Doughs were to play both a vital offensive and defensive role.
Attached to XVI Corps, the 75th's task was to help liquidate the important Ruhr industrial area where 80 percent of Germany's coal, iron, steel, synthetic rubber and chemicals were produced. Here were the great war plants that nourished the Wehrmacht. Without the Ruhr, Germany could not hope to continue the war.
Nazis knew the score. They also knew that if Ninth Army attacked across the Rhine, elements undoubtedly would launch the attack from the area now held by the 75th. In order to set up a defense, Germans had to know American plans and strategy. Adequate defenses could spell disaster for Allied crossing attempts.
The job of veiling operations, to prevent the enemy from learning the methods to be employed, fell to the 75th. So far as is known, no German patrol ever returned across the river with any information concerning the movements of XVI Corps. Not only did the division successfully screen all troop movements in the rear, but 75th patrols, sent out by division
Night after night, small groups crossed the Rhine's swift currents to probe enemy defenses. Patrols learned the disposition of German pillboxes, mortars, 88s, wire entanglements. It was dangerous, daring work and the swirling waters tossed the tiny assault boats around helplessly. Black nights and freezing water made missions doubly dangerous. On the far shore, the presence of sentries made landings difficult; further in, man-made obstacles made even Indian tactics a touch-and-go affair. Experience gained from the many patrol missions along the Maas in Holland eventually turned the trick. The framework for spanning the Rhine was complete. This patrolling soon would realize a pay-off.
Meanwhile, engineers constructed and launched an anti-submarine boom across the river. Made of materials found in the area — Jerricans, wire, timber — the boom stretched more than 1200 feet. Enemy fire cut down several attempts to stretch it across the river, but after three days and nights of work the job was completed.
On March 26, the 290th crossed to the east bank to support the 8th Armd. Div. Hunxe was cleared, followed by the important assault on Dorsten. Artillery slammed in shell after shell, then the 290th sliced in behind the armor to take the ruined town. Familiar house-to-house fighting raged.
After a careful reconnaissance by the division recon troop, the remainder of the 75th moved into an assembly area near Imloh four days later. The 30th and 79th Inf. Divs. were tiring and the attack into the Ruhr had begun to slow. It was time for the 75th to go into action again.
With regiments abreast, the division advanced on a line towards the Dortmund-Ems Canal. Huls, the Die Haard Forest, Kol Brassert, Oer, Alt, Horneburg were cleared. Hundreds of thousands of slave laborers were freed, prisoners of war released and Volkssturmers sent home. Factories, refineries, one of the world's largest synthetic rubber plants — all vital tools of Hitler's war machine — were seized. Never before had the division seen such booty.
"Always Get There Somehow"
Every factory, village and crossroad was a potential strongpoint for snipers and anti-tank guns. Each had to be reduced; the 75th not only was willing but able. At higher headquarters, officers and correspondents watched the 75th's ever shifting phase lines. But they couldn't see the bristling guns in the Ruhr or the 50 or more bridges blown by the retreating enemy. They did know that engineers somehow repaired these bridges so that lumbering QM trucks could roll to the front.
Second Bn., 291st, closed in on the important town of Datteln April 2. Fighting until their ammunition was gone, Germans surrendered in droves. Lt. Stephen G. Lax, Philadelphia, Co. L, reported that "as we closed on the town, two German 40mm AA guns fired point blank." Despite six casualties, 1st and 2nd platoons rushed into the town. The other two platoons were pinned down for nearly an hour before they charged ahead in support. A flushing party, scouring the northeast section of the town for snipers, rounded up 1200 Germans — all in civilian clothes. The 75th now was at the banks of the Dortmund-Ems Canal, the last large water barrier it had to cross in Europe.
Two days later, the stage was set for an assault crossing. It looked tough, was tough and also important. The Ninth and First Armies had met in the east and if the now encircled Ruhr-Germans learned of the hookup they might try to break through. The fringe surrounding the Nazis had to be widened. A quick decision was urgent. The first phase of the Ruhr campaign was complete. Now for the second, which was to carry the 75th to the banks of the Ruhr and to final victory.
Patrols again shoved across water to locate possible crossing sites. Men did strange, brave deeds. S/Sgt. Alfred J. William, Farmington, Mo., calmly walked down to the water's edge, in full view of Germans who were sunning themselves. He broke off a tree branch and measured the water's depth. Then he wiped off the stick and nonchalantly repeated the performance until he was sure of his gauge. The Germans apparently were too surprised to fire.
The new attack jumped-off with infantry scaling ladders to cross up and over the canal. Bulldozers followed to hew a path for tanks and TDs. But this was a slow process and doughs on the opposite bank were without supplies. Cub planes of the division went to the rescue, landing necessary supplies and evacuating wounded.
With the 291st on the left, the 289th on the right and the 116th Inf., 29th Div., in the center, the drive rolled ahead to crush the town of Waltrop. As the 289th shoved forward to seize Ickern, the old story of clearing coal mines, factories and houses was repeated. Co. K, 289th, captured or killed a German platoon on meeting the Nazis in an underpass along one of the super highways.
Even after heavy artillery had been poured on the city, March 6, it became apparent that the enemy still was determined to fight. Second Bn., 291st, was pinned down by fire which preceded a counter-attack by paratroopers, but artillery broke up the duel. On a flank, the 290th cleared several towns, then encountered heavy resistance and was forced to dig in for the night. The 2nd Parachute Div., which had caused so much trouble for American ever since the days of Normandy, employed some of its old tricks, but this time the 75th beat off every thrust.
Frohlinde and Kirchlinde proved excellent artillery and air-strike targets and fell to the 290th. Simultaneously, the 291st surged ahead to capture Castrop Rauxel against heavy and medium tank resistance.
As the 290th neared Dortmund, the enemy gradually relinquished its grip. Prisoners poured in, filling the division cage. The battle carried one town after another. On all sides were rubble and ruin.
With Dortmund surrounded, the Ruhr ceased to exist. Hitler's breadbasket was empty. Booty ran high — flak trains, guns, ammunition, supplies.
At the little town of Herdecke, the burgomeister formally declared:
I surrender the town of Herdecke to the Allied military forces at 1000 April 14, 1945. It is understood that from this time forward, control of Herdecke will be by the Allied forces.
Within several days, First Army units in the south had closed to the other side of the Ruhr. The battle was over. Germany could no longer hope to continue the war.
At the same time, Allied forces whipped east, met Red Army troops near the Elbe at Torgau, Germany, cut into pockets, resisted feebly. At 1500, May 8, 1945, official announcement of unconditional surrender was made.
Although Germany is soundly beaten and Naziism stilled for all time, the mission of the 75th Division still is incomplete. Occupation of Germany and the defeat of Japan remain on the Allied agenda. Whatever the new role for the division may be, men of the 75th know their record is strong — a record that speaks for itself. Whatever the job, steeped in their tradition — "Always Get There Somehow" — men of the 75th are determined to report as before:
The performance of the 75th Division reflects the highest credit... You can be justly proud of the part played by the Division in... victory.
Printed by Desfosses-Neogravure, Paris.
Photos: U.S. Army Signal Corps.