Big Red One 1945 Part II

The 1st Division’s drive from Aachen to Bonn.

On 26 December 1944, the great Allied counter-counteroffensive began; the 1st Division’s part in it did not commence until 15 January, but the violence of it shattered the soldiers’ peaceful Christmas reveries. Hundreds of thousands of half-frozen GIs and British Tommies threw themselves at enemy positions all along the Siegfried Line in a maximum effort designed to gain ground and destroy German forces. When the 1st Division finally stepped off, Major General Andrus noted, “Most of the attacks were at night and the blizzards, rains, fogs, mud, ice, sleet, and enemy resistance did not let up as the division, with the 16th in reserve, fought ahead relentlessly.” Steinbach fell the first day, and a passage was opened for the 7th Armored Division to drive toward St.Vith.

The weather was worsening. The 16th Infantry Regiment’s historian recorded, “Snow was knee deep on the level and drifted to two and three times that depth where the wind could get at it. To make matters worse, it continued to snow so hard that it assumed the proportions of a blizzard. . . .Walking through the drifts was exhausting in the extreme and the troops halted frequently to rest. . . . The condition of the men was terrible.Wherever possible, men were in houses, but hundreds had to remain in the open. Wet clothes froze on them, there was a shortage of blankets, and it was impossible to keep socks dry. Men were coming down with bad colds, were developing trench feet, and when neither of these two illnesses occurred, they were so miserable in general that their continued determination to fight is one of the finest evidences of the quality of these American infantrymen.”

On at least one occasion, the bad weather actually worked to the advantage of the Yanks. On 19 January, while trying to take the town of Schoppen, less than three miles southwest of Dom Butgenbach, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Horner’s 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry, had been thrown back by determined German resistance and needed to come up with a better assault plan. According to the division’s newspaper, “Col. Horner thought up some free-wheeling tactics, though there was a raging blizzard which had stopped all vehicular traffic, even couriers. Before daybreak, in the worst conditions that Americans ever fought under on this front, Col. Horner sent a company commanded by Captain Karl E. Wolf over a ridge and around the town to take it from the rear. It was a hazardous maneuver, storming an enemy-garrisoned town in pitch darkness. But the Americans found the entire enemy garrison sound asleep. Col. Horner’s men are campaigning to rename Schoppen ‘Horner’s Corners.’”

About the same time that Horner and his men were taking Schoppen, another battalion, the 1st Battalion of the 26th Regiment, was also battling the elements and the enemy. The division’s newspaper reported: “The battle of Learnard’s Gulch is over, and American infantry, not supposed to be such great shakes at snow fighting, has added one for the books. Until two days ago, Learnard’s Gulch was an unnamed 2-mile-long defile. Germans were perched firmly atop a 5,000-foot-long rise commanding it, and a 1st Division battalion under Lt. Col. Henry G. Learnard was going nowhere trying to get through. Then Col. Learnard had an idea. He asked and received permission from the 30th Division on his right to swing around and pass through its lines to hit the Germans from the rear. . . . By night, through a marrow-chilling snowstorm, Col. Learnard’s men made a forced march, going by truck part of the way, and trudged through drifts sometimes chest deep up the side of the rise. The Germans did not know what hit them. Those not killed were stunned, incredulous, and surrendered. Now the defile is down on 1st Division records as Learnard’s Gulch.”

The 1st continued to push back the enemy and drive through a second line of Westwall fortifications and into the Buchholz Forest. On 28 January 1945, the British Broadcasting Corporation aired a tribute to the 1st Infantry Division by NBC war correspondent John McVane.He told his listeners:

The American 1st Infantry Division has done it again. . . .We heard that in a situation where all seemed fluid and changing, two points held firm as a rock—the shoulders of the [German] drive and Bastogne.Without knowing, I was sure the 1st Division would be in one place or another—the roughest part of the battle. Well, Bastogne was the job of the 101st Airborne. But my guess was right; the 1st Division took over one shoulder of the drive, stopped the Germans cold, and turned what might have been a wide-open hole into a tight corridor that could be handled, cut into, chopped up when the time came. In this last exploit, the 1st has gone right on with the job it has been doing for more than two years—taking on the best German divisions, the cream of Hitler’s army, and pinning their ears back. I think there’s no doubt that the men with the Red One on their shoulders have broken the hearts of more German divisions than any other single unit in the American Army.

This time it was a crack SS Panzer division. The 1st was resting when the action began. They went to work quickly and efficiently, as they always do. A forest area was cleared of German paratroops. Then the 1st hit the panzers. In two days, the 1st got forty-one tanks. A German infantry division came to the Panzer unit’s support and together they attacked the 1st. The men of the 1st are used to having the Germans gang up on them. They just went on fighting their way ahead and retook Weismes.

January passed into February, and the 1st was given a few weeks off the line by the 99th Division, which had regained its equilibrium after the Battle of the Bulge.

On 25 February 1945, the 1st relieved the 8th Infantry Division and was ordered to head for the university town of Bonn, on the southern edge of the heavily industrialized, densely populated Dortmund-Essen-Dusseldorf-Cologne metropolitan area.Once Bonn fell, the commanders decided the 1st would cross the Rhein River and drive for the Ruhr area. Harold Monica thought it sounded easier said than done. He remembered being told that, “The top-grade troops that might have opposed us now had been committed in the Battle of the Bulge, and we were advised only inferior troops of security and static level were between us and the Rhein.Maybe so, but somebody forgot to tell the Germans they were inferior troops.”

Besides an enemy that refused to give up, natural obstacles blocked the 1st’s advance. Halfway between Aachen and Bonn flows the Roer River, which had risen nearly three feet in thirty-six hours, thanks to heavy rains and intentional flooding by the Germans who controlled the sluice gates upstream; the normally sluggish current was clocked at twelve miles an hour, too swift for bridging. In the middle of February, the division started crossing the river in boats under cover of darkness. Meanwhile, to the north of the 16th’s position, elements of the 8th Infantry Division were crossing the Roer near Düren. It was finally decided that throwing a bridge across the Roer in the 16th RCT’s sector was too hazardous, and so the regiment was moved north and used the same bridge as the 8th Division.

As with every kilometer in Germany, the road to Bonn—less than thirty miles away—was long, painful, and hampered by the delaying tactics of a retreating enemy. The 1st entered Bonn on the cold, overcast morning of 8 March 1945; unlike the bloody meat grinder at Aachen, the capture of Bonn was almost textbook in its execution. Yet, strange incidents took place. In one, a column of American soldiers marched side by side down a dark street in Bonn next to a column of German troops. “Lieutenant R. H. Smith, platoon leader of the First Platoon in column,” wrote the 16th Regiment’s historian, “quickly decided against a fire fight lest more enemy be aroused, so the German squad and the American flying column marched side by side down the streets of Bonn. It seems impossible that after a few yards, [the Germans] should not have realized they were marching with Americans. However, after a block or two, one of the Germans asked, ‘What panzer division is this?’” The confusion was due to a Sherman tank armed with a new 76mm main gun that was at the head of the U.S. column; the gun had a muzzle brake on it that, in the predawn gloom, resembled the ones on German tanks. “At any rate, the two opposing forces marched side by side down Köln Strasse. At Rosental Strasse, the Americans turned left and the Germans continued down Köln Strasse.”

As the day became light, the city’s defenders suddenly discovered Americans in their midst and the fight for Bonn erupted. The battle was sharp and, given the size of the city, exceptionally short; two days later Bonn was in 1st Division hands. American casualties had been blessedly light, especially when compared to Aachen.

The division was given a few days to rest and recuperate. Harold Monica recalled that his company’s CP was set up in an abandoned German house with, for a war-weary soldier, luxurious accommodations: soft beds, overstuffed chairs, a kitchen, even a wine cellar. “The best week of the war, for me, was NOW,” Monica noted. Here the war seemed to stop; enemy resistance was nil, and the 1st enjoyed the opportunity to rest in place. And rest it did. “I established a very strenuous routine,” he admitted. “Wake up call for breakfast, eat, then park in the chair next to the phone and smoke cigars, with a bottle of wine to keep me company. Once the bottle was empty . . . like magic, a full bottle would arrive. Then lunch and return to the above procedure. After dinner, cigars and wine until sleep time. Tomorrow, just like today. What a life. This is the way war should be. Would be nice to sit here and let someone, anyone else, finish the war. But someone upstream, the 9th Armored Division, got the Remagen Bridge intact and were across the Rhein.” The good times in Bonn ended, and the Big Red One was soon back on the road to Remagen, where it crossed the river and headed into the heart of Germany, protecting the left flank of the 3rd Armored Division.

Once the 1st was across the Rhein, resistance again stiffened. Tanks, artillery, and infantry seemed to be encountered at every bridge and crossroads, at every bend in the road, at every stand of trees, at every tiny hamlet along the way. Had Terry Allen still been at the head of the 1st, he would have undoubtedly been very proud, for the men were living up to the division’s motto: “Nothing in hell will stop the 1st Infantry Division. ”Town after town fell to the Big Red One—Maren-bach, Rimbach, Niederkumpel, Werkhausen, Kuchhausen, Koppingen—as the division headed for its next major objective,Hamm, northeast of Dortmund.

Medic Allen Towne reported that his aid station began to see a lot of casualties, including a number of African-American soldiers assigned to the 18th Regiment. As the American military would not be racially integrated until after the war, this was quite a noteworthy event. He wrote,“Up until a few weeks ago, there had been no black soldiers in the 18th Infantry and perhaps in the entire 1st Division. There was now one platoon in B Company of the 18th Infantry. They had been in a firefight and performed well. Several men had been wounded. Before this incident, I had not realized there were not any black soldiers in the regiment. I had never thought about it.”

A desperate struggle took place near Hamm on 30 March at the village of Eisern. Here, elements of the 18th Infantry Regiment were attacking a well-entrenched, battalion-size enemy force. During this action, two members of K Company performed actions so heroic on the same day that both were awarded the Medal of Honor. Staff Sergeant George Peterson of Brooklyn led a platoon in an attempt to outflank the German positions when he was severely wounded in the legs. Peterson continued to crawl forward and knocked out two machine-gun nests with grenades. Although wounded again, he went after another machine-gun nest and silenced it with a rifle grenade. Only then did he allow himself medical treatment. As his citation read, “He was being treated by the company aid man when he observed one of his outpost men seriously wounded by a mortar burst. He wrenched himself from the hands of the aid man and began to crawl forward to assist his comrade, whom he had almost reached when he was struck and fatally wounded by an enemy bullet.”

During this same attack, First Lieutenant Walter J. Will, although hurt and bleeding profusely, brought three wounded men to safety. He then led the rest of his platoon in an attack on two machine guns that had his men pinned down, and destroyed the first position. “He continued to crawl through intense enemy fire to within twenty feet of the second position,” reads his citation, “where he leaped to his feet, made a lone, ferocious charge, and captured the gun and its nine-man crew.” Will then noticed that another platoon was pinned down by two additional machine-gun nests. He led a squad and lobbed three grenades at the Germans, silencing one gun and killing its crew. “With tenacious aggressiveness, he ran toward the other gun and knocked it out with grenade fire. He then returned to his platoon and led it in a fierce, inspired charge, forcing the enemy to fall back in confusion. During this final charge, Lieutenant Will was mortally wounded.”

Once Hamm was captured, the 1st Division moved on, taking other hamlets, where resistance varied from none to fierce. They were just dots on the map, of no military, cultural, or political importance, but each one represented a place where more GIs would be wounded and where more American families would lose more sons.

On 31 March, elements of the division were rushed to Buren to participate in the closing of the “Ruhr Pocket,” caught between the First and Ninth Armies; more than 300,000 of the enemy were taken prisoner in this pocket. In early April, the division crossed the Weser River, where strong enemy resistance was anticipated but failed to materialize.

General Eisenhower noted in his memoirs, “During the First Army’s advance, more than 15,000 of the enemy were cut off in the Harz Mountains. The defenders fought stubbornly and held out until April 21. The country was exceedingly difficult. The week-long fighting to reduce the pocket and to beat off other German troops who attempted to relieve the garrison was of a bitter character.”34 The 1st Infantry Division could certainly relate to Eisenhower’s words for, by 12 April, the 1st had reached the Harz Mountain region, and there was no sign that the Germans were on the verge of collapse. “The Harz Mountain campaign, while short, was a tough grind for the infantry,” reads the 16th Regiment’s history.“ Some days the going was so hard over rough, mountainous terrain that 500 yards an hour was the limit for foot troops even when unopposed. In the heavily forested mountains, road blocks were particularly effective. Sometimes the enemy would have blown trees down across the road for hundreds of yards. The terrain offered perfect positions for hundreds of strongpoints. Had the enemy been well-organized instead of in a state of confusion, it might have taken weeks to dislodge him from these gloomy mountains.”

With his battalion temporarily detached from the 18th Regiment and attached to the 3rd Armored Division as part of Task Force Y, Harold Monica noted in his diary that the task force commander, a full colonel, called all the officers together and announced, “‘Gentlemen, your objective is Berlin!’ Then complete silence for a minute or so to let this sink in. What a feeling. . . . I started to tingle everywhere, the stomach tightened up; maybe not tears, but plenty moist eyes. After thirty months over here, the end of the war is now in sight.”

The task force roared eastward, with troops riding atop Sherman tanks and in trucks through towns and villages where the retreating enemy now put up half-hearted resistance. However, Major General [Maurice] Rose, the 3rd Armored Division commander, was killed in an encounter with enemy tanks. In ten days, Monica’s task force advanced 150–175 miles and was approaching Dessau on the Elbe River, some forty miles from the outskirts of Berlin.

“The Dessau area was home to three German officer-candidate schools; these guys were not about to give up without a fight,” he said. “After a preparatory artillery barrage, two companies of tanks and infantry were deployed for the attack, one company in reserve. So 25–30 tanks and 400 infantry, all firing at the edge of town, crossed the 500 yards of open terrain. The tremendous machine-gun, rifle, and tank cannon fire kept the enemy down. . . .We were in the western edge of Dessau. As we proceeded to clean up the town, you never knew where a group of those young fanatics would show up. One of them got close enough to one of our tanks and knocked it out with a panzerfaust. . . . Still not far into town, Captain Jessie Miller, B Company commander, was shot and killed.”

Monica noted that Miller had been with the division ever since its landing in North Africa and was engaged to marry an English girl.More tragedy was to follow. “My friend, Tommy Yarborough, who had been the B Company Executive Officer, took over command of B Company. Two days later the last enemy pocket had been squeezed up against the Elbe River and B Company, with a couple of tanks, was attacking them. Tommy was shot and killed during this action. In less than an hour, thirty-five or so Jerries surrendered and resistance in the 3rd Armored Division sector ceased. . . .Dessau was secure and we had been ordered not to cross the river.

“On occasion, the thought had occurred to me: who would be the last to die? Now we knew. . . .Tommy Yarborough was the last man from the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, to be killed in World War II. In fact, he may well have been killed by the last bullet fired at the Battalion.Why Tommy’s luck ran out so late is anybody’s guess. Dessau, Germany, to me was, and is, a terribly expensive piece of ground.”

Just as they did not get to Paris, the men of the 1st Infantry Division did not get to Berlin. The division was detached from the First Army and attached to Patton’s Third Army, which was poised to enter Czechoslovakia. The Big Red One now encountered little resistance as it chased remnants of German units into Czechoslovakia. The “privilege” of taking the capital of the Third Reich was given to the Russians, which was probably just as well. Of all the World War II belligerents, it was the Soviet Union that had suffered the most: over 20 million dead.

The worst was saved for last. The battle for Berlin turned into a building by building, block by block meat grinder in which no quarter was asked and none given. On 30 April, as Russian troops closed in on his chancellery in Berlin, Adolf Hitler died by his own hand. Still, the fighting, sporadic though it was, continued. It is estimated that 300,000 Russians perished or were wounded in the battle of Berlin that lasted from 16 April to 2 May.37 Had the 1st been required to assist in the taking of the sprawling city, the division’s casualty lists would have, no doubt, reached catastrophic proportions.

American and Russian forces linked up at Torgau on the Elbe on 25 April. Two days later, the 16th Infantry Regiment made a long, deep plunge into enemy territory, bypassing recently captured Leipzig, and then thrusting toward Selb, on the German-Czechoslovak border. On 7 May, the 16th Regiment was in Kynsperk; the 18th was in Sangerberg and Mnichov; and the 26th was in Shön-bach when the division received orders: “All troops halt in place and maintain defensive positions. Effective at once. Details to follow.”

The next day, the orders read: “Cease firing.” A terse, bland message, conveying none of the pent-up emotion of a joyful, war-weary world, was broadcast from Eisenhower’s headquarters: “The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241 local time, May 7, 1945.”

Hitler was dead, the Third Reich was defunct, and the war in Europe was, at long last, well and truly over. A very strange sound came over Europe: the sound of silence. It was as if the war switch had suddenly been turned to “Off.” There was no more rattle of machine guns; no more pop-pop-pop of small arms; no more whistle of falling bombs; no more scream of incoming artillery and mortar shells; no more skull-splitting explosions. It was a deep and profound silence, punctuated only by church bells in the distance, tolling that peace, after nearly five years of continuous bloodshed, had finally returned to the Continent.