[…] After getting those rations we felt we could lick the world and we knew damn well the entire army was behind us. 1/Lt Martin J. Higgins, commenting during a BBC radio interview about the supplies dropped to the Lost Battalion by the 405th Fighter Squadron. To my father, Martin J. Higgins, a consummate leader of men, citizen soldier and gentleman warrior, who bore so much with such grace and humility. To the men of the 1st Bn, 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division. To the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT). To the men of the 405th Fighter Squadron, whose steadfast, perseverance and courage will ever remain a source of inspiration […]
Michael P. Higgins
Like the ancient Celts who believed so long as the exploits of one’s warrior ancestor were told to new generations, that person, in one sense, never really died. So too, must we tell of the trials, ordeals, successes and failures, victories and defeats of those who came before us and struggled so valiantly to give us what we, more often than not, take for granted. Except to their families and comrades, with the passage of time, the men of the Lost Battalion saga fade into nameless, faceless men who fought against overwhelming numbers of the enemy in the vicinity of the towns of Bruyères – Biffontaine in the French Vosges. They must not be forgotten – we owe them too much. On December 8 1941, the chaplain of the US House of Representatives, Reverand James S. Montgomery, offered an eloquent prayer immediately prior to opening the joint session of Congress. During this joint session of Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would ask Congress to declare war against the Empire of Japan. An excerpt of that prayer seems a fitting epitaph for the men who took part in the Lost Battalion engagement :
Eternal Father, strong to save, hold us steadfastly to the realization, that the richest garments of our country’s character are often sewn with the crimson threads of sacrifice and suffering …
During the course of researching this archive I encountered many people who offered their insight into the Lost Battalion engagement, thus filling-in the missing pieces of the puzzle. I am indebted to so many. On the eve of World War II, John Dos Pasos, author of The Ground We Stand On, wrote :
… when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present
A knowledge of History serves as a source of strength and solace during times of uncertainty and danger. To my father, Martin Higgins, who, on his many trips to the US Military Academy at West Point during my childhood, would drop me off at the US Military Academy Museum. The experiences of my father during WW II coupled with my visits to the Museum in Thayer Hall inspired me at a very young age and instilled in me a profound respect for America’s warriors. I would like to acknowledge the following people for their kind assistance :
From the 36th Infantry Division : Able Co, 141-IR, Martin J. Higgins, Arthur Cunningham and Eddie Guy; Baker Co, 141-IR, Harry G. Huberth; Dog Co, 141-IR, Jack Wilson; Item Co, 141-IR, Joseph Parks; Recon Co, 636-TDB, Rufus (Les) Leggett; Division Artillery, 36-ID, L-4 Pilot, Brig Gen (then Captain) Bo Foster. From the Japanese American Veterans Association : Terry Shima, Kelly Kuwayama, Joe Ichiuji, Jimmy Yamashita, George Oye, Susumo Ito. To Terry Shima, a special ‘thank you’ for persuading Dad to jot down his recollections of the war for posterity – Dad’s recollections were priceless in compiling this account. From the (Active Duty) 36th Infantry Division : CG – Maj Gen John T. Furlow; CO 141-IR – Col Alan C. Huffines; CO Able-141 – Capt Ed Limbo; Senior NCO Able-141 – Sgt John Sampa. From the 36th Infantry Division Association : Ray Wells and Jacqueline Jordan. From the Texas Military Forces Museum, Camp Mabry, Jeff Hunt. From the AFHRA/RSA, Maxwell AFB (USAAC and USAF Archives), Lynn Gamma and Toni Petito. From the American Fighter Aces Association : Harold Rubin and Marshall Lumsden. From the 522nd Ftr Sqdn / 27th Ftr – Bomber Grp : Charles Dills. From the 404th Ftr Sqdn / 371st Ftr Grp : Vic Kramer and Jack Pitts. From the 405th Ftr Sqdn / 371st Ftr Group : Eliel Archilla; Art Day; Louis Cellitti; Robert Dixon; Howard Camp; Robert Griffith; Sam Howell; Robert Lindsay; Harry Sarno; Milton Seale; Richard Leonard, (nephew) Lt Col John W. Leonard (405th FS-CO). To Franz Steidl who wrote the definitive text of the Lost Battalion, and challenged my to keep the tradition alive, a A Special Thank You. Thank you also goes to : Vicky Mitchell (BBC Rights & Business Affairs); Elaina Brodie (NBC Archives); Gerome Villain; Gilles Guignard; Dan Gilberti; Didier Badique; Tom Kripisch; Mark Douglas.
During the last week of May, and throughout the entire month of June 2007, it was my honor and pleasure to make contact with Vic Kramer and Jack Pitts of the 404th Fighter Squadron; Art Day, Howard Camp, Robert Griffith, Eliel “Arch” Archilla, Milton Seale, Louis Cellitti, and Robert Dixon of the 405th Fighter Squadron. Pilots Eliel Archilla, Robert Dixon, Robert Gamble, Robert Griffith, Arthur Holderness, Leon Hooper, John Leonard, Gavin Robertson, Milton Seale, and Paul Tetrick of the 405th Squadron were among those who flew the air-drop missions to the “Lost Battalion” during the period 27-29 October 1944. 405th Fighter Squadron ground crew armorers Harry Sarno, Robert Lindsay, and Louis Cellitti, were among those who rigged aircraft with ammunition for the air-drop missions.
As a child I read about the “Lost Battalion” in my father’s copy of The Fighting 36th, a Pictorial History of the Texas Division in Combat, and wondered who the P-47 pilots of the XII Tactical Air Command (TAC) were. I wondered who supplied my father and the men of the 1st Battalion during those desperate days in the Forêt de Champ, thus keeping them a viable and effective fighting force. As a result of the conversations I have had with these men, their story, and a clear picture of the events of 27-29 October 1944 has emerged.
Michael P. Higgins
Son of Captain Martin J. Higgins (then 1st Lt.)
Acting commander, “Lost Battalion”, 24-31 October 1944
5 September 2007 – Richmond Hill
The 405th Fighter Squadron and the Lost Battalion
24 October – 31 October 1944
Michael P. Higgins
The Third Week of October 1944
On the US home front, America was on a complete war footing, mass-producing war matériel for our boys overseas. Many Americans were cultivating their own Victory Gardens and enduring the rationing in effect on a wide variety of items from food to gasoline, to tires. By the third week of October in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) the Allied troops of Operation Overlord had pushed the Germans from the Normandy beachheads to the eastern borders of France and Belgium. Optimists concluded, at this rate, the war might be over by Christmas. On September 4 1944, British and Canadian troops took the port of Antwerp, Belgium. British Lt Gen B. G. Horrock’s XXX Corps were next engaged in clearing the Scheldt River estuary of German troops. On 21 October Gen Hodge’s US First Army had captured the ancient German city of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) – the birthplace of Charlemagne, and was making its way through the morass of the Hürtgen Forest.
Gen Patton’s US Third Army, in Lorraine, had captured Nancy on September 15. On October 21 he received orders to resume full-scale operations (continuing his siege against the fortified city of Metz) on or about November 10. Gen Patch’s US Seventh Army and Gen Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s French First Army troops of Operation Dragoon (comprising Gen Devers’ 6th Army Group), had pushed the German 19. Armee from the Mediterranean beachheads of Fréjus, through the Provence, up the Rhone River valley, and into the Vosges Mountains in Alsace. For Gen Devers’ 6th Army Group, the Southern France Campaign was accomplished and the Rhineland Campaign was about to commence. Patch’s Seventh Army advanced nearly 400 miles up the Rhone River Valley in less than a month. They linked up with Patton’s Third Army on September 11, creating a solid wall of Allied forces stretching from the Belgian port of Antwerp to the Swiss border. The success of the operation was impressive. Within two weeks the Allies had captured 57,000 prisoners and opened the major ports of Toulon and Marseilles at a cost of less than 7,000 casualties. There was just cause for optimism, but the German army was far from being a beaten army.
The 405th Fighter Squadron and the Lost Battalion
The saga of the “Lost Battalion” is well known to members of the 36th Infantry Division. This engagement, part of Operation Dogface, calls to mind images of those beleaguered elements of the 1st Bn, 141st Inf Regt’s Able Co, Baker Co, Charlie Co, and a platoon of Dog Co making a gallant stand against the German 338. Division, specifically : the 933.Vlks-Gren-Regt and the 198.Fusilier Bn in the Forêt de Champ during October 23-30 1944. It recalls the valiant efforts of the 2/141-IR, the 3/141-IR, and the heroic sacrifices made by the men of the 442-RCT. The breakthrough of the 442 RCT to relieve the “Lost Battalion” is considered one of the fiercest combat engagements fought by the US Army during World War II. However, another unit made a critical contribution to this engagement. Their efforts have gone largely unheralded. That being, the 405th Fighter Squadron, 371st Fighter Group, 70th Wing, US Ninth Air Force; which was then under operational control of the XII TAC (Tactical Air Command).
The 405th Fighter Squadron flew the versatile P-47-D Thunderbolt. The P-47-D was a fighter-bomber superbly suited for close ground support. It was affectionately referred to among the Allies as the Jug. In flight, the P-47-D aircraft instilled abject fear in the hearts of the German infantry and armor alike because of the eight .50 caliber machine guns it carried, each of which were capable of firing eleven rounds per second. The Germans had their own name for the P-47, Jabo, an abbreviation of Jagdbomber (Fighter bomber) or Jäger-Bomber (Hunter bomber). Many ex-Wehrmacht and Waffen SS veterans would emphatically add : Die Verdammte Jabos (The damn fighter-bombers.
The P-47D was an excellent weapons platform and was renown for the pounding it could take from anti-aircraft batteries. Jack Pitts, a pilot with the 404th Squadron, described the P-47-D thus, in his excellent book, P-47 Pilot : Scared, Bored, & Deadly : It was 36 feet (10,97 M) in length, stood over fourteen feet (4,26 M) high, and had a wingspan of forty feet (12,19 M). 12.602 of the P-47-D models were built with a Pratt & Whitney eighteen-cylinder radial engine developing 2.000 horse power. It weighed 10.000 pounds (4535,92 Kg) empty but rigged for combat it weighed about 14.000 pounds (6350,29 Kg) not including external appendages which might add from one to three thousand additional pounds. The top speed was 365 miles (587 Km) per hour and its maximum ceiling was 42,000 feet (12801 M). My first impression was Wow ! Its big, it was ! My first impression on my first flight was Wow its heavy, it was that too ! My first impression on seeing shot-up P-47’s return and land safely was Wow ! It’s rugged. No other fighter plane could withstand the amount of damage and still fly.
The 371st Fighter Group, call sign “Van Dyke” with their mascot “Frisky,” was comprised of the :
– 404th Fighter Squadron
– 405th Fighter Squadron
– 406th Fighter Squadron
371st Fighter Squadron
The 371st Fighter Group’s primary mission was to support Gen George S. Patton’s Third Army, then situated to the north, on the Seventh Army’s left flank. However, from time to time, squadrons of the 371st Fighter Group also flew close ground support missions for Gen Alexander M. Patch’s Seventh Army. At the time of the Lost Battalion engagement, the 371st FG was based at Airfield Y-7, Dole – Tavaux, on the Doubs River 25 miles southeast of Dijon. The distance from Dole to the Forêt de Champ is approximately 100 miles. The 371st’ FG’s close proximity to the 1st Battalion, plus their reputation as one of the best Fighter Groups earned them a place in this mission. The air drop missions would fall to the 405th Squadron.
405th Fighter Squadron
The 405th Fighter Squadron’s call sign was “Discharge.” Their squadron identification code was “8N,” which was displayed on the port and starboard side of the fuselage, just aft of the cockpit. Their squadron cowling color was medium blue. Once in France, the squadron converted to a “factory aluminum” fuselage with “Invasion stripes,” rather than the British RAF green-camo scheme with “Invasion stripes” on the wings and fuselage employed when they flew out of their base in Bisterne, England. This conversion was further advanced as the squadron made the transition from the original P-47-D “razorbacks” to the new “bubble tops,” or “super T-bolts.” The green-camo scheme is visible in photographs taken during the early days in Normandy. During October 1944, most aircraft in the 405th would sport partial “Invasion stripes” aft of the cockpit – only under the squadron markings on the fuselage. By mid-November, 1944, any vestige of the “Invasion stripes” would be gone. The 405th Fighter Squadron claims the honor of being the first to fly over France on June 6 1944. They led the way during the pre-dawn hours of D-Day as they escorted C-47s towing Glider planes and troops to the fields beyond the Normandy Landing beaches.
The Vosges Mountains of eastern France cover 2800 square miles and run some 90 miles between Strasbourg in the north and Mulhouse, near Switzerland, in the south. Winding through the Vosges are trails used by the ancient Celts and roads built by the Romans. Over the centuries, many wars have been fought in the Vosges, including the :
– Roman-Germanic Wars
– Religious struggles of the Thirty Years War
– French Revolution
– Franco-Prussian War
– World War One
The western slopes of the Vosges are covered with deep ravines topped with narrow ridge lines. The eastern slopes with their numerous Riesling vineyards form the Meurthe River valley, the last river between the Germany and the Rhine River. The Vosges town of Bruyères, liberated on October 18, was less than 45 miles west of the Rhine. Desperate German troops were determined to make the Americans pay dearly for this territory. In recorded military history, no army had been able to do what the US Seventh Army was about to attempt to do : Defeat an enemy force defending the Vosges Mountains. Enter Operation Dogface.
Situated directly in the path of the Americans lie the Forêt Domaniale de Champ. Forests in the Vosges were the model for the forests inhabited by the witches, goblins, and trolls so vividly described in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm – who had learned of the Vosges forest in the fairy tales of French Huguenot refugees in the early nineteenth century. The Forêt Domaniale de Champ in October was a cold, dark, nearly impenetrable place covered with fir trees from 60 to 200 feet tall. In some places, little sunlight reached the forest floor – here the forest resembled a dark green cavern. A near constant rain added to the gloom. Numerous fir trees greatly reduced fields of fire – but offered exceptional cover for German snipers. The weather during the last week of October 1944 included a persistent near-freezing rain and scattered dusting of light snow. Operation Dogface in the Low Vosges was a coordinated US Seventh Army spearhead engaging all three divisions of VI Corps the :
– 45th Infantry Division (Thunderbird)
– 3rd Infantry Division (The Rock of the Marne)
– 36th Infantry Division (Texas)
The tip of the 36th’s spear was Able Co, 1/141-IR. Leading Able Co, was a 28 year-old former Horse cavalryman 1/Lt Martin J. Higgins Jr. Son of a postmaster, Higgins was an Irish – Catholic from Jersey City, New Jersey. Martin “Marty” Higgins joined Troop B (machine gun troop) of C Squadron, 101st Horse Cavalry Regiment, New York National Guard (at the Bedford Avenue Armory in Brooklyn) as a Private immediately after graduating from St Peter’s College, in 1939. During this time he worked as an accountant. After rising to the rank of sergeant, he attended Officer Candidate School at Fort Riley, Kansas; graduating as a 2/Lt in 1942. Higgins served with the famed ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ of the 10th (Horse) Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Cavalry Division, until the unit was disbanded in North Africa during March 1944. Higgins and three other officers, Lt Col James H. Critchfield, Lt Col Donald J. MacGrath and Lt Harry G. Huberth; formed a cadre of officers, who joined the 141-IR or the 36th “Texas” Infantry Division in Italy. Lt Higgins would incorporate cavalry combat tactics into the execution of his missions whenever possible.
At a briefing for Operation Dogface, Higgins learned his orders were to lead the 1/141-IR, on foot, up the trail into the Forêt Domaniale de Champ, move east, and take the heights above La Houssière. Higgins advised 1/141-IR’s Commander, Col William Bird, whom he greatly admired : If a strong force did not stay close to the 1/141, a gap could form which the Germans might easily exploit and surround his unit. Col Bird took that observation under advisement and told Higgins : A strong force will follow, move out. The goal of Operation Dogface was to eject the 19.German-Army from the Vosges Mountains and move on to the Alsatian plain where terrain would allow the American advantages of armor, artillery, and air-support to be bought to bear. If Dogface succeeded, it would position the Germans with their backs to the Meurthe River. However, in the Vosges, the advantage fell to the well-entrenched German defenders. The rugged terrain of the western Vosges limited the movement of American armor and artillery, while the weather would negate American air support. After the company commanders of 1/141-IR briefed the non-commissioned officers they jumped-off from their line of departure and proceeded along the axis of attack. The mission commenced under leaden skies and intermittent rain at 1158 on October 23.
After Action Report
141st Infantry Regiment
October 1944 – France
Headquarters 141st Infantry Regiment
Subject : Transmittal of Regimental History for Month of October 1944 (part one)
Unknown to the US Seventh Army, the German 19.Army was to receive 3000 reinforcements during the next two days. Able Co 1/141 was heading into a trap. Two miles up the trail Able Co encountered a Jerry force on its right flank armed with automatic weapons. Able Co destroyed the German force and continued toward its objective. By 1745 on October 23, Able Co was on hill 624. They consolidated their position with the remainder of 1st Bn. On the morning of Oct 24, one platoon of Able Co stayed behind to assist with the battalion command post to be established where Able Co had just spent the previous night. Meanwhile, 1/141 proceeded toward the heights above La Houssière in the following order :
– Baker Co
– Charlie Co
– Able Co
Two hours later, Able Co sent a patrol from its 2nd Plat to ensure its supply route. About this time Baker Co was attacked by two groups of Germans that Lt Huberth and his men repulsed after an intense firefight. Able Co encountered the enemy in the Bois de Biffontaine, near Hill 665. Lt Higgins and his men repelled the German force. The enemy attacked the 141-IR along its flanks all day. Later that afternoon, Able Co (minus its mortar platoon) engaged in a firefight with a large enemy force, estimated at Company strength that had worked its way up a trail (Chemin des Freys – further to the south). Meanwhile, near Hill 645, Baker Co and Dog Co, were also hotly engaged. All elements of 1/141 had been attacked on their flanks by a numerically superior enemy force, comprised of the 933.Volksgrenadier-Regiment and the 198.Fusilier-Battalion.
With this action, the enemy separated an estimated 270 men of the lead Companies (Able, Baker, Charlie, and weapons platoon of Dog Co) plus their two forces of FFI (Force Françaises de l’Intérieur) guides (Henri Grandjean and Pierre Poirat), from the rest of the battalion. The Germans overran Hq 1st Bn. This assault overwhelmed the Americans, forcing Col Bird and his men to fall back. The Germans quickly set up a formidable roadblock made by felling approximately 80 huge fir trees that fell in interlocking order. They covered the road with ‘box’ mines or ‘Shumines’, and constructed a gauntlet of machine guns, Panzerschrecks, and Panzerfausts (bazookas) on both sides of the road – ahead of, and behind, the roadblock. This further isolated the lead elements. The reduction of this roadblock would keep the 36-ID’s 111th Engineer Combat Battalion and elements of Charlie Co, 232nd Engineers Combat Battalion busy for several days. The 1/141 command elements were now separated from the lead companies. This left the three company commanders :
– Able Co, 1st Lt Martin J. Higgins
– Baker Co, 1st Lt Harry G. Huberth
– Charlie Co, 1st Lt Joseph P. Kimble
– Dog Co, 2nd Plat CO, 1/Lt Gordon E. Nelson (senior ranking officers)
Also with the battalion was 2/Lt Erwin H. Blonder, a Field Artillery Observer, whose radio would provide the only communications with the outside. The batteries on Blonder’s 300-MC (megacycle) radio had a life expectancy of two days. Blonder nursed them to last six.