This booklet recounts briefly the highlights of the 99th Infantry Division in combat. Our division has established an enviable record as a fighting team and has taught the German to fear the wearer of the Checkerboard. All of us – officers and men of the 99th Division – can be proud of our record. To be a member of the 99th Division is an honor. Towards our comrades who have been left on the fields of battle, we feel most gratefully humble. Their sacrifice shall be our ever constant inspiration to do our job. Now, Right, and with Steadfast Determination.
Walter E. Lauer
Major General, Commanding
Liège by Christmas, Bruxelles by New Year’s” was Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s promise to his soldiers. But his operation backfired. The Battle Babies, the men of the 99th Infantry Division know why. For two days, December 16 and December 17 1944, soldiers of the 99th Infantry stood alone at a very hot corner of the Battle of the Bulge. The Division was in position along the International Highway, B-265, facing Schleiden, Oberhausen, Hellenthal, Undenbreth, Scheid, Losheim, Hallschlag in Germany closing all the roads to Lanzerath, Losheimergraben, Hunningen, Murringen, Bullingen, Wirtzfeld, Krinkelt, Rocherath, Elsenborn in Belgium. While the German’s best troops lowered the boom against their thinly-held line. The Division was spread over a 20-mile front and without reserves. The green troops of Gen Lauer’s 99th Infantry Division mixed with Gen Robertson’s 2nd Infantry Division having on their left Gen Craig’s 9th Infantry Division, on their right Gen Jones’ 106th Infantry Division. Together they fought with the major part of SS-Oberstgruppenführer Josef Sepp Dietrich’s 6.SS-Panzer-Army. His army included the 1.-SS-Panzer Division, 3.-Fallschirmjäger Division, 12.-Volksgrenadier Division, 12.-SS-Panzer Division, 246.-Volksgrenadier Division, 277.-Infantry Division, 326.-Volksgrenadier Division and supporting units. This display of power called for a show of guts to face it, much less.
The History of the 99th Infantry Division
There was no doubt von Rundstedt was springing the strategy which he believed would decide the outcome of the war. The capture of a Nazi document by the 394th Infantry Regiment on December 16 was complete evidence. The German commander’s order read : Soldiers of the West Front, Your great hour has struck. Strong attacking armies are advancing today against the Anglo-Americans. I don’t need to say more to you. You all feel it. Everything is at stake. You bear in yourselves a holy duty to give everything and to achieve the superhuman for our fatherland and our Feuhrer.
To achieve the superhuman is difficult in any man’s league. Von Rundstedt didn’t get the job done. About 4000 “Supermen” were killed by the 99th alone. History will record von Rundstedt’s action as one of the most spectacular military gambles ever made and lost. Checkerboarders of the 99th always will remember the Bulge as the battle in which they proved their mettle as a fighting outfit.
Shortly before midnight, December 20, the 393rd Infantry Regiment reported “all quiet”. From then on, the entire front north of Butgenbach, Belgium, simmered down as the blows of German armor glanced to the southwest. The 99th had fought hard and it had thrown the Nazi’s do-or-die offensive hopelessly off schedule. Gen Lauer’s star Checkerboarders had been hit by superior numbers of men and equipment, but they had successfully defended a prime enemy objective – the Eupen – Malmedy – Butgenbach – Elsenborn road net – the key route to Liège and the great Allied port of Anvers. They had delayed what surely was the German supreme push. When the crisis was over, Gen Lauer received verbal commendations from Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, 21st Army Group Commander, and Gen Courtney Hodges, First Army Commander, on the vigorous and effective stand contributed by the 99th Infantry Division. From Maj Gen Leonard T. Gerow, then V Corps Commander, came the following commendation :
I wish to express to you and the members of your command my appreciation and commendation for the fine job you did in preventing the enemy from carrying out his plans to break through the V Corps sector and push on to the Meuse River. Not only did your command assist in effectively frustrating that particular part of the plan, but it also inflicted such heavy losses on the enemy that he was unable to carry out other contemplated missions in other sectors of the Allied front.
Gen Hasso Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel, CG 5th Panzer Army, stated in the address to his troops prior to the attack that our ground mission must be continuous; otherwise we will not achieve our goal. Due in part to the 99-ID, this ground mission has not been continuous, and he will not achieve his goal …
99th Infantry Division
The 99th Infantry Division. was activated November 16 1942, at Camp Van Dorn, Miss., and when raw recruits arrived in early December, the picture they viewed was far from rosey. Camp Van Dorn, hastily built as the Army mushroomed in every direction, was a tar paper shanty town sprawled across the red mud of southern Mississippi. Men of the division, most of whom came from northern states, not only faced basic training, but one of the most miserable winters in years. Both service clubs burned down by Christmas; there was only one small theater for 20,000 men. Any town of more than 2000 population was 50 miles distant; besides, there were no buses. Then men had to help dig ditches to drain the camp, build walks, paint signs and ready the camp for training, which began January 4 1943.
The early spring produced more than green grass and blue skies. Men of the 99th began to look like soldiers, to feel the bond that springs from the Checkerboard shoulder patch. Originally planned as a Pennsylvania outfit, the 99th had taken its checkerboard insignia from the city of Pittsburgh’s coat of arms. Meanwhile, the division underwent the various growing pains of an outfit destined for combat. Prior to its departure for the Louisiana Maneuvers in the fall of 1943, Gen Lauer assumed command. After giving a good account of itself during the maneuvers, the 99-ID moved to Camp Maxey, six miles north of Paris, Texas, and within weekend range of Dallas. Here, Checkerboarders spent nearly a year in putting on the final polish. Gen Hugh T. Mayberry, Peekskill, N.Y., who organized and served as first commandant of the Camp Hood Tank Destroyer School, joined the 99-ID as assistant division commander in February, 1944. The following month division strength was boosted by the arrival of more than 3000 men released by the Army Specialized Training Program. These men trained as a provisional regiment until absorbed by the 99th three months later in time to take part in the hasty box-building program that began in August.
There was sea spray in the Texas dust and the division entrained for Camp Miles Standish near Boston the second week in September. After two weeks of final preparations, Checkerboarders boarded ships including the Army transport, George W. Goethals; the ex-freighter, Explorer, and the one-time luxury liner, Argentina, and sailed for England, September 29 1944. Arriving at a number of English ports, the division assembled at Dorsetshire near the city of Dorchester where three weeks were spent in hikes and calisthenics while the job of final staging with its myriad supply problems and last-minute checks was carried on. Forty-eight hour passes, most of them to London but some to points as far as Scotland, were the rule rather than the exception. There were company and battalion parties at which English girls enjoyed the fresh doughnuts and hot chocolate.
The Checkerboard Division saw war’s ravages the first time at Le Havre, France, where it landed on D plus 5 months, between November 3 and November 7. The voyage from Southampton was made in various types of craft. Everybody who could drove trucks and jeeps during the motor march across northwestern France and southwestern Belgium. Destination was Aubel (St Jean Sart), a small farm town north of Verviers in the easternmost portion of Belgium near the Liège – Aachen Military Highway No. 3 (the Charlemagne Road). There were no delays now. With little sleep and few hot meals, elements of the division moved south from the assembly area into the line. Names like Monschau, Elsenborn and Honsfeld meant little to the Checkerboarders in those first few days. But all new as they marched into the Ardennes that the biggest chapter in their lives was about to be written.
99 Days With The Fighting 99th
As part of the V Corps, the 99th was alerted for the attack December 12 1944, and doughs moved out at 0830 the following morning. In deep snow, 1-395 and 2-395, 2-393 and 3-393, swung northeast to seize objectives in the outer belt of the Siegfried Line. These new positions were strengthened immediately despite intense enemy mortar and artillery fire. It was give and take the next two days as the Germans’ stubborn pillbox defenses slowed the progress. It was a long way from the hot training grounds of the deep south to the misty, snow-hung Ardennes Forest, smack up against Hitler’s vaunted West Wall. And it had taken some time, in November and early December, for 99th doughs to become accustomed to the freezing cold of the foxholes and the unmerciful whine of German artillery. There had been little action in this sector for some time and it was a good spot for a new division to get used to burp guns, snipers and the sounds of different shells. But, as an active front goes, there was little fighting. Occasionally, a pillbox was cleaned out and frequent patrols probed deep into the Siegfried Line. This was a quiet, strange sort of warfare.
December 16 1944 – All hell broke loose!
With lightning speed and savage fury, von Rundstedt’s forces rolled forward on the heels of a pulverizing artillery barrage. Using tanks and infantry in battalion spearheads, the fanatic Germans hurled its full force against the entire arc of the 99th Division front. Outposts and front-line companies reeled under the blow. The final effort of the Nazi war machine was under way. Striking in the same place where in 1940 the Belgian, the Dutch and the British forces had been driven to defeat, the German’s knew every road and hillock of the countryside before them. Von Rundstedt’s plan was simple : to strike a thinly-held line of a green, untried division with an overpowering force. Behind the 99th Infantry Division was the highway to Eupen; paratroopers would drop there in strength. Panzers would follow SS troops, hook up with paratroopers, and strike for Liège before the Americans could shift their forces.
The initial weight of the attack fell on the 393-ID, holding the center, and on 1/394-IR, maintaining the right of the division line. The blow was parried but the Germans came on – wave after wave. Each successive thrust was beaten off with greater difficulty. As platoons, companies and battalions faced the terrifying prospect of being cut off and hacked to pieces, many Checkerboarder heroes stepped forward. When the ring of German steel tightened around C Co, 393-IR, a makeshift relief of cooks, KPs, and Anti-Tank Co.’s mine platoon was sent to the rescue. En route, artillery blasted them from their vehicles, pinned them flat in the snow only 200 yards from their goal. Casualties mounted. It was time for inspired action or the situation was helpless. Lt Harry Parker, leader of the relief squad, rose to his feet. “Hell, there’s no use lying here and getting killed,” he said. As the lieutenant advanced, every man moved forward, although no order was given. Bayonets were fixed. Men broke into a run, yelled as they ran. It was a wild, screaming bayonet charge by desperate men. German infantrymen in the woods ahead couldn’t see what was coming, but they could here it. They fled in the opposite direction. The relief squad succeeded in saving what was left of C Co as well as re-establishing a line from the company CP to the platoons.
Still, the German attacks spread, beating with fury all along the line. Crack ski troops glided silently over the snow in one sector to be cut down by machine gun cross-fire. Half a Nazi company lay dead in the drifts. The Volksgrenadiers charged on. Some were swatted down like flies; others emptied their burp guns and surrendered. By nightfall, every available man in the division was on the line – a line that held. Before the next morning, panzers were on the rampage in the 394th’s area – the same panzers that had been held in Lanzerath up 18 hours by that regiment’s I&R platoon. Under 1/Lt Lyle J. Bouck, Jr., the platoon had fought to the last man in staving off the furious attack astride the Lanzerath – Losheimergraben road. Clerks dropped their portables and grabbed M-1s when these tanks roared up from Lanzerath on their way to Bucholz and then into towns that were rest areas only a few days before. A frenzied battle raged at Bullingen where the 801st Tank Destroyer Bn succeeded in piling up German vehicles and foxing the panzers into bypassing the town temporarily.
S/Sgt Elmer E. Keener, 393rd Unit Personnel Section clerk, was so busy firing at Mark Vs that he was left behind when the remainder of his section, alternately loading service records and firing at Germans, pulled out. Keener then teamed up with two doughs and the trio, blazing away with a bazooka, knocked out three tanks before rejoining a division unit. While German infantry and armor roared ahead to the Elsenborn – Eupen road where they were to join forces with their paratroopers, Nazis cut off and surrounded the 1/393-IR and the 1/394-IR. The 324-ECB (Engineer) was split, nearly trapped. Although most of the artillery planes got off the ground, pilots underwent fire from a German tank at one end of the field. S/Sgt Richard H. Byers, 371-FAB, whisked his artillery survey section out the back door of a house as Krauts entered the front.
Green Troops Build Stone Wall
But what was happening didn’t make sense to the Germans. They slugged this green division unmercifully, yet it still jabbed back. Cut off and surrounded in part, these newcomers to battle were fighting like veterans. The going was bitter, but the division began regaining ground. By Sunday night, December 17, Germans were using every trick in the book to make their last-stand offensive click. English-speaking enemy donned US uniforms, rode in captured vehicles. Division doughs couldn’t be sure who was in the next foxhole. At the extreme northern tip of the line, 3/395-IR, gave such an account of itself between Saturday and Monday that it was awarded the Distinguished Unit Badge. The citation read :
During the German offensive in the Belgian Forest, the 3/395-IR, was assigned the mission of holding the Monschau – Eupen – Verviers – Liège Road. For four successive days the battalion held this sector against combined German tank and infantry attacks, launched with fanatical determination and supported by heavy artillery. No reserves were available, and the situation was desperate. On at least six different occasions the battalion was forced to place artillery concentrations dangerously close to its own positions in order to repulse penetrations and restore its lines. The enemy artillery was so intense that communications were generally out. The men carried out missions without orders when their positions were penetrated or infiltrated. They killed Germans coming at them from the front, flanks and rear. Outnumbered five to one, they inflicted casualties in the ratio of 18 to one. With ammunition supplies dwindling rapidly, the men obtained German weapons and utilized ammunition obtained from casualties to drive off the persistent foe. Despite fatigue, constant enemy shelling, and ever-increasing enemy pressure, the 3rd Battalion guarded a 6000-yard front and destroyed 75 percent of three German infantry regiments.
Throughout the division, this extraordinary record was duplicated in spirit and to a degree in fact. South of the 395, two companies of the 324 Enginers (Lt Col Justice R. Neal), were cut off. Sunday night alone, these companies knocked out 16 self-propelled guns and killed 400 Germans. Then they built a road back to Elsenborn and pulled marooned 99-ID vehicles out of the snow with their “cats.” The 394 fought on the south flank where it battled strong Nazi patrols and tanks. When his unit was pinned down by machine gun fire from a round house, T/Sgt Savino Travellini, picked up a bazooka and crawled towards the German gun. His first bazooka shell silenced the enemy fire. When some of the round house occupants fled, the sergeant dropped them with his M-1. Travellini duplicated the procedure four times, neutralizing the strong-point.
1/394 (Lt Col Robert H. Douglas), also received the Distinguished Unit Badge. The citation read :
The Germans’ Ardennes offensive was spearheaded directly at 1/394-IR, which was defending a front of 3500 yards. The enemy launched its initial attack against the 1st Battalion with an unprecedented artillery concentration lasting approximately two hours, followed by an attack of six battalions of infantry, supported by tanks, dive bombers, flame throwers and rockets. For two days and nights the battalion was under intense small arms fire and continuous artillery concentration, with little food and water. This battalion repeatedly beat back the superior numbers of the enemy forces. Many times the men rose out of their foxholes to meet the enemy in fierce hand to hand combat. By its tenacious stand, 1/394 prevented the enemy from penetrating the right flank of an adjacent division, and permitted other friendly forces to reinforce the sector.
When the panzers hit Krinkelt, the 393-IR communications were cut off. Lt Col Thomas E. Griffin, regimental executive officer, drove his C&R to a high terrain point as shells fell on all sides and relayed messages with his radio until an enemy tank drove him away. The 99-QM Co entered the battle at Krinkelt when it sent a convoy of trucks into the town to evacuate the wounded. At Elsenborn, the company suddenly found itself in a hot spot during an air raid. While some members of the unit issued clothing over truck tailgates, others manned the ring-mounted machine guns on the front of the 6-x-6s and poured a steady stream of lead into German planes. Fresh infantry from rest camps and A/T outfits arrived Sunday evening, December 17. Artillery reinforcements pulled in to back up the division’s 370, 371, 372 and 924-FABs. Time was running out for the Germans as panzers were shoved from Krinkelt and Bullingen.
The 99-ID drew back to form a defense line east of Elsenborn the next few days as the enemy kept up his terrific artillery spree. But the new line held fast and every German infantry attack was repulsed. All around the Elsenborn corner, Nazis could count the cost of the futile effort. More than 4000 dead; some 60 tanks and self-propelled guns knocked out. Checkerboard doughs, even when their lines were pierced, had kept on slugging, died on their guns, had neither given way nor given up. After five days and nights of hell, the Germans, tired of beating their heads against the 99ths stone wall, turned south. Two months later, when the division transferred to VII Corps, Gen Huebner, V Corps Commander wrote Gen Lauer :
The 99th Infantry Division Arrived in this theater without previous combat experience early in November 1944. It was committed to the attack on December 12. Early on the morning of December 16, the 6. SS-Panzer-Army launched its now historic counter-offensive which struck your command in the direction of Losheim and Honsfeld. This armored spearhead cut across the rear of your division zone with full momentum. During the next several days, notwithstanding extremely heavy losses in men and equipment, the 99th Infantry Division re-disposed itself and succeeded in establishing a line east of Elsenborn. Despite numerous hostile attempts to break through its lines, the 99th Infantry Division continued to hold this position until it was able to pass to the offensive. On December 18, the 3/395 Infantry gave a magnificent account of itself in an extremely heavy action against the enemy in the Höfen area and was the main factor in stopping the hostile effort to penetrate the lines of the V Corps in the direction of Monschau.
The 99th Infantry Division received its baptism of fire in the most bitterly contested battle that has been fought since the current campaign on the European continent began. Your organization gave ample proof of the fact that it is a good hard fighting division and one in which you and each and every member of your command can be justly proud. German prisoners volunteered praise of the 99th’s effective work. A Nazi lieutenant colonel said the division was the best American outfit he ever had faced. At the 99th’s PW cage in Linz, a German lieutenant asked his interrogator the name of the “elite” American unit that had defended Hofen during the Battle of the Bulge. This regiment, the 395th, had allowed his company to come within nine feet of its lines before opening up with such terrific small arms and machine gun fire that the Germans couldn’t even remove their dead and wounded in their rapid retreat.
Höfen, Germany, 3-395/99-ID
November 10 – December 18 1944 – Capt David A. Beckner
On October 28, CCB-5-AD returned to division control and immediately relieved CCR in the Höfen area. The 15-AIB took over the positions which the 47-IR had occupied along the border. During this period the first snow fell on this sector of the front. 5-AD men in this area also were becoming accustomed to hearing overhead the roar of the buzz bombs which the Germans were launching. CCB remained in position until November 10 when it was relieved by the 395/99-ID and moved to the Moderscheid – Schoppen area and after a seven-day stay in the snow there it was sent to the border town of Roetgen. In early November CCA assembled in the vicinity of Neudorf, Belgium. Here it prepared to plunge through the Siegfried Line at Lammersdorf : this operation was to be carried out in conjunction with other V Corps troops which were attempting to capture Vossenack and Schmidt to the north.
Plans called for the Combat Command quickly to overrun the towns of Simmerath, Kesternich, and Konzen to the high ground east of the German border. The attack was not to be launched, however, until the troops on the north had succeeded in taking their objectives. Although Schmidt fell on November 3, the town was recaptured the next day by a German counterattack. In this section, the 707-TB., which had been 5-AD until September 1943, was partially overrun. The planned attack at Lammersdorf was then postponed from one day to the next and finally was abandoned on November 10. CCA moved to Walhorn on November 17 and remained there on a six-hour alert until the end of the month. After it had completed its mission in the Höfen – Kalterherberg area, CCR had been placed in VII Corps Reserve. Then on November 19 it was attached to the 8-ID to take part in the drive through the Hürtgen Forest. On November 19 the division, minus CCR, was attached to the VII Corps and on the following day CCA was further attached to the 4-ID.
On November 10, the 3-395/99-ID, relieved elements of the 15-AIB in the defense of Höfen. The new battalion area consisted of a long narrow hill mass, about 6000 yards in length, which dominated approaches from both the east and west. The slopes of this hill were very heavily wooded and, except for the roads, impassable to armor. Höfen was important to the Americans because of its dominating position overlooking lines of communication several miles to the rear; its loss would force the Americans several miles back. To reduce confusion and facilitate the physical relief, the battalion initially occupied the positions of the unit being relieved. I Co, with a section of heavy machine guns attached, took over the left of the battalion; K Co, with a platoon of heavy machine guns attached, took over the center of the line while L Co, with a section of heavy machine guns attached, occupied the right of the line.
It was soon apparent that the battalion’s dispositions were not tactically sound and could not be held under a sustained attack. The battalion front was held by a thin line of riflemen and automatic weapons with no reserves backing them up, the battalion mortars could not cover the front without shifting base plates, and communications between units was unsatisfactory. Work was begun at once strengthening the defensive positions. A series of mutually supporting strong points replaced the thin line of riflemen. The strong points consisted of a squad or a half squad of riflemen and an automatic weapon of some type. The riflemen were normally placed in position to the flanks and rear of the automatic weapon to provide all around protection for it. Alternate positions were prepared to the flanks and rear of each strong point to facilitate withdrawal to the flanks and/or rear. In almost all cases the machine guns were employed singly, even the .50 cal machine guns were put in positions to bolster up the fire-power of the MLR.
Since the village was so narrow the Main Line of Resistance was, for the most part, in front of the town; however, on the left several of the strong points were placed in buildings on the forward edge. All along the front machine guns were placed in cellars of houses on the edge of town to provide supporting fires for troops on the MLR. Within the town itself a large number of buildings were prepared for defense, and gun emplacements were constructed in the streets but were not occupied. The general plan was that if the units on the front line were driven back they could carry on the fight in town. Alternate positions were not prepared to the rear of town since the terrain there permitted no defense. An emergency assembly area was selected in a covered position about a mile to the rear of town for use in the event the battalion was forced out of Höfen. The battalion commander withdrew one platoon of L Co from the line to form the nucleus of the battalion reserve. In the event of an emergency all battalion and company administrative personnel were to be attached to this platoon, so actually the reserve numbered slightly over 100 men. Several counterattack plans were worked out to seal off penetrations at what appeared to be the most dangerous points. The battalion reserve force, including the administrative detachments, rehearsed each of these plans several times.
Communications were improved by the addition of a large number of phones and radios. Eventually a network of fifty-two telephones connected every strong point, observation post, and command post in the battalion. Wire was also laid to tie the battalion in with units on its right and left. Though good approaches for enemy armor were limited, antitank defenses were not neglected. Antitank mines were laid over and adjacent to all the roads leading into the position, furthermore, trees were felled across the roads to further restrict armored movement. During the period of preparation A Co, 612-TDB was attached to the battalion. The armament of this company included twelve towed three inch guns which were used to cover the roads leading into the position. These guns were employed by platoon, four to a road, with one pair placed behind the other to provide defense in depth. Most of the guns were placed inside of houses or barns, with the corners ripped out to allow traverse. These positions were then reinforced with sandbags and camouflaged with natural debris. Personnel obstacles were prepared all along the battalion front, AP mines were laid in large numbers to cover all possible avenues of approach, and barbed wire was strung around the strong points on the MLR. While the battalion was improving its defenses the 81-MM mortar platoon was brought up to a strength of ten mortars, and the 196-FAB was placed in direct support. During this period patrolling was active on both sides, with American patrols penetrating as far in as Rohren. German patrols found it tough going since the battalion policy was that every sentinel, except those in automatic weapons emplacements, would engage enemy patrols.
At 2300 on December 15, the outposts began reporting unusual noises and activity in the vicinity of Rohren. Friendly artillery and mortar fire soon brought a stop to this and all was quiet again. At 0525 on December 16, Höfen was rocked with German artillery, mortar, and rocket concentrations. For twenty minutes the barrages walked over the battalion causing tremendous destruction. The Battalion CP was badly damaged; many of the personnel on duty there were either killed or wounded, while almost all the wire lines were knocked out. At 0550 the Germans illuminated the entire front with artificial moonlight. Though the locations of the searchlights were quickly determined, they were allowed to remain in operation since the company commanders reported that visibility along the front had been considerably improved. At approximately 0600 large numbers of German infantry could be observed moving up the slope toward the MLR. The bulk of the forces was directed at the boundary between I and K Cos and the left flank of I Co. Fire was withheld until the Germans were within 200 yards of the MLR, then every weapon opened fire almost simultaneously with devastating results. The Germans tried in vain to overrun the positions, but the system of mutually supporting strong points prevented them from isolating any small units. At 0655 the Germans withdrew into the woods to the front of the battalion, leaving well over 100 dead plus some forty prisoners of war behind them. At 1235, a German rifle company launched an attack against K Co. This attack was easily stopped by artillery and mortar concentrations and a little small arms fire. The remainder of December 16 and December 17 was spent in repairing damaged installations, clearing away the debris, and bringing up fresh supplies of rations and ammunition.
At 0345 on December 18, the Germans mounted an attack against I Co. In spite of heavy protective fires a small force of Germans succeeded in breaching the defenses and established themselves on the edge of the village. I Co successfully sealed off this force, and with the coming of dawn attacked and destroyed it. The Germans had not given up, for at 0330 they began to rain artillery, mortar, and rocket barrages onto the defenders. About a half hour after the shelling commenced the German infantry, supported by twelve tanks and seven armored cars, struck at I and K Cos. The German armor was never able to make its weight felt or to assault the defenses since the three inch guns forced them to keep under cover beyond a small ridge line to the front. Along the K Co front the Germans made a penetration of about 100 yards. Previously planned mortar and artillery concentrations soon limited this attack and forced the enemy to flee to the rear. In the meantime the Germans made another small penetration in I Co’s area from which they were also forced to withdraw by the weight of close-in defensive fires. As soon as the enemy infantry withdrew the German armor lost no time in pulling out.
No sooner had this attack terminated than another heavy attack was launched against I Co by an infantry battalion. After heavy fighting the enemy made a penetration 100 yards deep and 400 yards long. About 100 Germans occupied the four large houses in this area and began firing in all directions from the doors and windows. Again heavy artillery and mortar concentrations were brought down to destroy this force, however the protection afforded the Germans by the houses made the fire ineffective. The battalion commander then ringed the penetrated area in with artillery fire and ordered the battalion reserve into position to seal off any infiltration. Two 57-MM antitank guns were moved in and, under the cover of small arms fire of the battalion reserve, commenced firing AP ammunition into the German held houses. Within a few minutes the walls were riddled with holes, while blood-curdling screams could be heard from within testifying to the effectiveness of the fire. The battalion reserve moved in for the attack under the cover of machine gun and antitank gun fire. With the aid of white phosphorous grenades the houses were quickly reduced. Twenty-five prisoners were taken, while in the battered houses were seventy-five bodies, literally shredded by the antitank gun fire.
In retrospect, it may be said that small towns and villages are areas of great defensive value, and often occupy critical points which may be of tactical or strategical value. Villages offer many distinct advantages to the defender, the principal advantage being the protection they provide against armor when property utilized. Most buildings provide an amazing degree of protection against tank, artillery, and small arms fires. The contrasting defenses at Schmidt and Butzdorf offer sufficient proof of this. It can be readily seen from this study and the small unit actions used as illustrations, that the defense of a village is organized and conducted as for any other position. However, certain aspects of the defense of a built-up area merit special attention. When a village is defended it must be incorporated into the overall defenses and any nearby terrain dominating it must be secured. Failure to do this will allow the enemy either to by-pass the position or make it untenable by occupying the commanding ground. It can be stated as a rule that the enemy will not make a frontal attack of a built-up area if he can avoid it – one aim of the defense is to make it impossible for him to avoid it. The failure to secure the ridges around Butzdorf made life for the defenders a living hell, and seriously handicapped the defense at every turn.
Perhaps the most important consideration in the defense of a town is that of control. Once contact with the enemy has been made, control of the defending units becomes very difficult. Observation is impossible, communications are unreliable, and combat action invariably breaks down to a number of somewhat unrelated small unit actions. The surest way to maintain control is the preparation and dissemination of detailed plans to provide for every contingency. A comprehensive plan will permit all units to act in accord, even in the absence of communications, and will be a steadying influence at the more critical moments; for panic usually starts when men become frightened and have no plan or instructions to guide them. The collapse at Schmidt may be largely attributed to the failure of the commander to issue a plan governing the conduct of his units in the event the Germans overran some of the positions. On the other hand, the organization of the defenses at Hofen and Boos are excellent examples of the type of planning recommended.
Reserves are an important element in any defense, but particularly so in this type of action where it is necessary to prevent the enemy from establishing himself within the position. Commanders must insure that adequate reserves are withheld in spite of what may appear to be extenuating circumstances. Weakness is not an excuse for failure to constitute a reserve element, but a reason why a reserve must be organized. Reserves must be so located and rehearsed that a counterattack may be launched without needless delay. The examples at Boos and Höfen indicate that sound commanders provide for reserves regardless of the strength of their forces or the tactical situation. The most important of the physical aspects of the defense are the antitank measures that are employed. It is paradoxical that villages and towns are the strongest areas for antitank defense, yet the tank is the most effective weapon that can be employed against them. It has been repeatedly emphasized throughout this study that the organization of the antitank defenses must have first priority if it is within the enemy’s capabilities to employ armor. Antitank defenses are effective only when they are organized in depth, from well beyond the perimeter to the heart of the town. Tanks must not be allowed to systematically destroy the village defenses at long range – which they did at Butzdorf; or allowed to roam unchecked through the position which they did at Schmidt. The action at Schmidt all too well illustrates the fate of a unit that completely neglected its antitank defenses.
Obstacles are an integral part of antitank defenses that are frequently neglected or slighted. The Germans and Russians made extensive use of elaborate obstacles when organizing their defenses in and about villages, yet few examples can be found of the construction of obstacles, worthy of the name, by American units. Antitank fires alone only provide a half-way defensive system, such fires are much more effective when tied in and coordinated with obstacles. The organization of Boos was, in a small way, an example of the type of antitank plan desired; though there were not nearly enough obstacles, particularly outside of town, for the conduct of a protracted defense.
Summarizing, the salient points of the defense of a village or a small town are :
1 – A flexible and comprehensive plan governing the conduct of all subordinate units.
2 – Antitank defenses in depth in which antitank fires and obstacles are carefully coordinated.
3 – Reserves prepared for speedy counterattack.
4 – Application of accepted principles of defenses.
The 99th Drives on to Fatherland
After the fury of the first week of the breakthrough, men of the 99th hugged their snow-filled foxholes in the open land before Elsenborn, repulsing weakening German thrusts until the division switched to the offensive in late January. Col Robert B. Warren, joined the division as chief of staff. Limited patrolling, then more and more aggressive forays into the enemy-held woods beyond Elsenborn revealed a thinning Nazi line and signs of withdrawal. The Bulge was becoming a complete bust. Constantly hammered by artillery and bombings, the Bulge was flattened out until it ran parallel to the line so valiantly held by the 99th in front of Elsenborn. Reinforced by new men from training centers in the States, the 99th received the order to advance at 0300, January 30. In a concerted attack with divisions on either flank, Checkerboarders moved out through hip-deep snow for the Monschau Forest. Their mission : to recover the ground they had so bitterly contested the month previous. So fast were Germans pulling out of some sectors that a M Co, 394-IR, machine gun squad under Sgt Richard Daugherty, advanced 8000 yards through waist-deep snow and took its objective without ever spotting the enemy. Daugherty’s squad carried a gun, tripod and tool kit weighing a total of 160 pounds but didn’t fire a shot.
It wasn’t all that easy. The 393-IR, moving along a draw towards Krinkelt and then swinging north into the woods, was caught and pinned down by rear guard action of retreating Germans. Only through sheer guts, advancing through murderous small arms fire, did the regiment reach the edge of the woods and clean out the Nazis. In early February, 1945, the division wheeled across the country through the bitterly-remembered towns of Wirtzfeld, Rocherath, Bullingen, Krinkelt. CPs were set up again. Then, Checkerboarders ripped anew into the Siegfried Line, past Losheim and Hollerath and through the first belt of pillboxes to points in advance of their past drives. Battle Babies probed inner defenses when, after three months of continuous action, the 99-ID was relieved by the 69-ID on February 13 1945. By the last week in February, all three regiments had arrived at Aubel, which the division previously used as its assembly point before going into combat in November. It was a country of long, soft ridges, sloping pastures and wide valleys. The sun was shining and the grass in the apple orchards already green when the soldiers moved in to rest. During the 10 days the 99-IR stayed in the area, it engaged in mild doses of training, principally for the benefit of the reinforcements, and in rehabilitation of equipment. Showers, haircuts, movies and food—pies baked by Belgian farm wives, and eggs “liberated” from farmhouse coops—featured the stay. Meanwhile, the 799-OBB had the opportunity to give division vehicles and weapons their first thorough checkup. The pass percentage was increased and men went to the UK, Paris, Brussels, and the VII Corps “Jayhawk” Rest Camp at Verviers. Battle Babies, (so dubbed by AP War Correspondent John McDermott) knew that big things were ahead and when the order came, February 27, to move out, they were rested, ready.
Checkerboarders Span the Rhine
Since the fall of Aachen, there had been no impressive gains on the Western Front. Soldiers under Gen Hodges sensed that 1A was winding up for a Sunday punch, but there was no assurance that it would smash open the West Wall or that Germany would not defend every inch of ground, as Goebbels had promised, to the last man. There still was little indication of a walkaway when the jump across the Roer River was made. The spearheading 3-AD threw a bridge across the Erft Canal near Bergheim, whose ancient gates stand astride the road to Cologne. Then the 391-IR (98-ID) took over the job of enlarging the bridgehead. When it had finished clearing the town and de-Krauting the woods, up went the sign : You are now entering Bergheim, courtesy of the 395-IR.
Meanwhile, the 393-IR and 394-IR bridged the Erft further downstream, all set to battle their way to the Rhine where it curves northwest from Cologne to Dusseldorf. Goebbels’ “last man” also was on the run for the Rhine, and he had a pretty good headstart. The 393-IR, on the division left flank, swung. in a 20-mile arc toward Dusseldorf, spearheaded by Task Force Lueders, a specially designed armored unit commanded by Capt Roy C. Lueders, 99th Recon Troop, which included elements of the 786-TB and the 629-TDB. As the task force whipped northeast toward the Rhine, Sgt Cliff “The Chief” Etsitty, herded a column of PWs as he rode on the back of a tank. The sergeant, a veteran of Attu and a member of 2/394-IR, was without a weapon. He had lost his rifle when an artillery shell landed near the tank and blasted off the other doughs riding on the armor. Because the tank was buttoned up, Etsitty couldn’t inform tankers he was unarmed.
Almost before doughs could catch their breath, they had staked out a claim on the Rhine’s west bank at Grimlinghausen. Capt Felix Salmaggi’s, K Co 393-IR, filled a bottle with Rhine water and sent it to Gen Lauer as a memento of his return after 20 years to this world-famed and war-famed river. It wasn’t easy pickings. The 394, in the center, was slowed up in the woods below Gohr while the 395 put up a stiff scrap before taking Delrath. Artillery changed the Germans’ mind about defending the town and the regiments rolled through the ruins. It was on the Rhine that the big guns of Lt Col John R. Brindley’s 370-FAB, with 1/Lt Percy J. Pace directing fire, caught two German ferries and a houseboat, sinking the craft for the division’s biggest naval victory. Checkerboarders were the first infantry division in 1A to reach the Rhine. They moved so fast that when a phone rang at a coal briquet factory at Neurath with the home office at Dusseldorf calling to find out where the Americans were, a lineman from the 99-ID Sig Co offered first hand information. Beer still was on tap where division headquarters set up its mess at a gasthaus. The Battle Babies approached so fast that Germans had time to plant only a dozen mines between the Erft Canal and the Rhine. The night was wet, miserable as doughs climbed on trucks and headed southeast. As they reached the hills above Remagen, they could sense history was being made nearby, that an ordeal was ahead.
The crossing of the Ludendorff Bridge was a nightmare. Every 99th soldier who hiked or rode across this spidery steel framework with its squat brownish towers long will remember this operation. Underfoot were but a few unsteady planks and rails; overhead, nothing. Doughs felt naked in the sights of enemy guns. 1/Sgt Vernon A. Selters, L Co 393rd, said : The closer we got to the bridge the more scared I got. I wanted to run across but couldn’t. The captain ahead of me had to walk, and I had to walk, and every man behind me had to walk. I’d heard of foxhole religion. Well, I believe that day I had bridgehead religion. It was Saturday, March 10, the fourth day of the bridgehead drive, when the 394 led off across the river to relieve the 9-ID just south of Linz. Division CP was set up the next day at the Gebrueder Blumenthal winery at Linz. Meanwhile, the 393 took up the left flank of the division zone and hurled back two counter-attacks within a half hour. The 395 was held in Corps reserve. Besides caring for the division’s casualties at Linz, the 324-MB (Medic) furnished medical supplies and equipment for several hospitals filled with German soldiers and civilians. As tired Battle Babies plunged on into the hills, they could well recall the perilous hours of forcing a foothold on the east bank of the majestic Rhine, as no invader had done since Napoleon’s white-gaitered grenadiers. It had been a harrowing, frightening experience.
In the week that followed, the 99 played a vital part in expanding the bridgehead from a precarious grasp to a broad, firm grip on Festung Germania. The 394 drove south beyond Honningen. Col James K. Woolnough’s 393-IR pushed east to the Wied River over the toughest terrain it ever had encountered. In advancing two miles, the regiment covered four miles uphill, another three miles down. The Wied was no bed of water lilies, either. By midnight, March 22, the three regiments were abreast and after Brig Gen Frederick H. Black’s artillery unleashed a 30-minute barrage, doughs slid down cliffs and waded the hip-deep river. Taking a brief but heavy shelling as they sloshed up the east bank toward their first objectives, the regiments gained momentum. By dawn, these same Battle Babies reached the Cologne – Frankfurt superhighway. With this last ribbon cut, the prize package of the inner Reich was ripped wide open.
Battle Babies Now Combat Veterans
In 99 days, the 99th Infantry Division had learned much, done plenty. It was a green outfit when the last iron-spiked thrust of the Wehrmacht caught it smartly on the chin in Belgium. But even after von Rundstedt’s panzers were blasted, the world still wondered when the big crackup would come—the fatal blow to Nazi might and morale. It was the Rhine crossing that broke the German back; in this important action the 99 took effective part. On March 24, 1945 – 99 days older and wiser – the Battle Babies were seasoned fighting men who saw before them the demoralized, shriveled forces of their enemy running away. Disappointed because it wasn’t included in the drive to Berlin, the division suddenly faced west and was assigned the important job of helping to liquidate the Ruhr pocket. Spearheaded by the 7-AD, the regiments roared across the province of Hesse-Nassau, through Wetzlar and Giessen.
Between 25,000 and 150,000 Germans were cut off in the Ruhr pocket. No one bothered to count the number of steep-wooded hills and valleys the Checkerboarders would have to travel to sew them up. Soldiers prayed with Lt Col Henry B. Koon, Division Chaplain, at services in Krofdorf. The 99th’s sector in the Ruhr drive followed the twisting Eder River towards its source in the Rothaargebirge (Red Hair Mountains), and wound down the north slope along the Lenne River to the Ruhr. When time permitted, using grenades instead of Royal Coachmen, fish lovers caught trout for breakfast. It was steady day and night fighting through the mountains; rugged terrain added to the tough going. Because Germans chose to do most of their fighting in towns and on every hillside, doughs had to head straight up fir-clad hills and across crooked ridges. Air and artillery put the “convincer” on such villages as Oberhundem, Altendorf and Bracht before infantry went in to mop up. The division now set its sights northwest on Iserlohn, largest Ruhr city in the 99th’s path. When 7th Armd. right-hooked the middle of Field Marshal Model’s Army Group B, the Battle Babies moved on as fast as they could march. By April 13, PW counts doubled; the Nazi cave-in was under way. More than 1200 PWs were taken that day followed by a 2315 count on Saturday, 9043 more Sunday and a staggering total of 23,884 on Monday. Overwhelming loads of Krauts, many driving their own vehicles, including horse drawn carts, converged on the PW field at Sundwig, outside Iserlohn. In four days, the division had corraled and processed 36,453 Germans. Monday’s catch included three lieutenant generals, eight major generals and a land-locked rear admiral. The famed 130th Panzer Lehr Div., credited with the finest soldiers, equipment and highest morale of any unit in the pocket, surrendered intact to the 393rd. The roundup also included the 22nd AA Div. Luftwaffe), the 338th Volksgrenadier Div. and the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Div., an old enemy from the breakthrough days.
Iserlohn gave up at noon, April 16, when a battery of 128-MM “Jagdtiger” self-propelled guns surrendered to Lt Col Robert L. Kriz, CO 2/394. Unlike other last-ditch artillery units, the “Jagdtigers” still had plenty of ammunition left. At Hemer, the 99-ID and the 7-AD set free more than 20,000 Soviet and Polish PWs, who had gone without food for a week. In a building sheltering the sickest Red troops, Lt Col K.T. Miller, Detroit, Division Surgeon, found them three to a bed while two German soldiers shared a room. Col Miller immediately corrected the situation much to the dismay of the Nazis. As the Battle of the Ruhr ended, before the division could collect all its prisoners, the 99 was shifted to the farmlands of Bavaria to smother more German resistance. Checkerboarders now came under Gen George S. Patton’s 3A, leaving Gen Hodges, under whom the division had trained and maneuvered in Louisiana in 1943, held the shoulder of the Belgian Bulge in 1944 and crossed the Rhine in 1945.
The 99 entered the line again April 21 near Schwabach, with the Austrian border and Salzburg as its objectives. With the 86-ID on its right and the 14-AD on its left, the 99 was the veteran division in III Corps. Now came the fast drive across such barriers the Altmuhl River, where the 99 forced a crossing against stiff resistance. 3/395, waded the neck-deep river while 2/394, held the enemy’s attention on the opposite bank. Doughs forced another breakthrough and a fast drive across the Ludwig Canal down to the Danube. As the division neared the Danube, the end of World War II in Europe was near. Far to the north, Red troops had joined hands with the Americans; Berlin was being pounded. To the south lay Munich, and Alpine Berchtesgaden, the heart and home of National Socialism. Time means nothing to the infantry, but men of the 99 were certain time was running out fast for the “Supermen.”
Fight and drive… Day and night… No rest for the Germans… No rest for the 99… Keep going fast… The Nazis were off-balance… Keep them that way… That was the spirit!… Down to the Danube… across the Danube… Landshut was captured… but not without a fight… Moosburg, another big PW camp, cleared… On to the Isar River… Keep hammering… across the Isar… Clean up the area and on to the Inn and the Austrian border.
Then it came. “Halt in place!”
In years to come, men who wear the Checkerboard patch will recall May 8 1945, the day Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally, as the climax to the titanic European struggle of World War II. Proudly they can recall their individual efforts. The Battle Babies were in on the kill.