36th Division in World War II


The troops that had fought for Naples, had spent their rest periods and pay there, were leaving Italy through the same city. Naples had been taken ten months before by the Allied Fifth Army. Now its liberators were going, as they had come, by sea, to strike a second blow across the water bulwark of the continent. It is not recorded with what emotions the men left Italy: Very few had ever liked the place particularly, for their primary associations had not been with the pseudo-prosperous Naples, but with the numbered hills and the blood-soaked valleys and shell-raped fields and the stinking nibbled towns.

The night preceding the departure had been spent north of the city, in a fertile, dust-surfaced area near Gualiano, the same place which they had left to sail for the Anzio beachhead. The atmosphere had been unwarlike; the men had sat around and joked and played cards. Some had written letters, but very few, because that had been done before. Most of them had tried to act very normal, but even veteran troops are nervous before attempting the unknown. They had sat around by their packs and rifles and gas masks and done the same routine things they had done twenty times before and would do twenty times again.

But, despite the unspoken excitement, the majority of the men had slept. The day had been long and there had been a lot accomplished. They had slept and got up to early whistles, eaten hurriedly, mounted the trucks and waited as the tree-high dust clouds settled and the sun got hot.

As always, there was waiting. The long convoys jerked and rolled down to the docks, and the troops got out and lined up on the docks, trying to act casual, and waited some more.

The columns were checked, as they had been double-checked before. Then the men arranged themselves and their loads, climbed the gangways of the LST's and LCI's and troop carriers, and went into the holds.

If there were any regrets for the departure, the troops felt them as they lined the rails of their vessels and watched the coral-green-grey shore, or the slowly assembling fleet, each ship taking its place and signaling its final message. Venturing out into the uncertain is always a chore after any sort of familiarity, and Italy, foreign, disliked Italy, the home of eleven months of discomfort, could not have appeared as lovely before as it did to those men gathered on the decks.

The 36th Division was afloat the eleventh of August. The men learned of their destination on the thirteenth. For the first days, as the ordered assembly of vessels moved out across the sea, the tension subsided. Navy men and soldiers met and compared rumors. GI's sunned themselves and read or performed their shipboard duties, slept in the shadows of small landing craft, between the complicated gear, and in the stacked, cramped beds that filled the hot holds. The ships passed between Corsica and Sardinia to enter the last leg of the invasion journey. The tension slipped in again. Maps and charts and aerial photos were studied; scale models of the approaches and beaches were examined. The complicated briefings were begun, platoon by platoon. The months of planning and the weeks of filling in every detail were brought down to the final phase, with every squad learning its mission, every man discovering the smallest part of his participation in the most precise of all military operations.

Even the greatest of intangibles had not been overlooked, for the selected divisions were not of any uncertain quality, but composed of men who, during campaigns which have since been described as the most terrible through which American soldiers have ever fought, had been tested, who knew their power, whose groups were unified; these were the finest veteran troops.

ON AUGUST 13, the following message was flashed to Major General John Ernest Dahlquist in his war room aboard the command ship;

"D-day, 15 August 1944; H-hour, 0800 hours."

D-day, 15 August 1944; H-hour, 0800 hours saw the 141st Infantry Regiment land on the extreme right flank of the Seventh Army, spearheading the 36th Division.

There were three Division beaches, identified only as Red, Green, and Blue, Reconnaissance had shown the presence of many formidable underwater obstacles, a shoreline encrusted with casements, an ingenious defense mesh calculated to intercept a landing at its most vulnerable point—when supporting fire had lifted and before the infantry could bring its weapons into play.

Red Beach, sandy and admirably situated in the San Raphael bay, was the finest landing site.

Farther east, Green Beach was a potential trap, flanked by an abrupt cliff and stone retaining wall on the left, a jutting barren rock formation on the right. There was only a single narrow dirt road leading to the main coastal road, which ran under a railroad bridge; blowing the bridge would jam all vehicular traffic. Behind the beach rose an irregular slope, broken by an easily defended granite quarry.

Blue Beach was little more than a deeply indented cove, behind which rose the Rastel D'Agay, razor-edged and formidable, a precipitous formation which commanded the entire Division landing area.

The 141st landed on beaches Blue and Green. The Germans, good troops with a leavening of second rate forces, possessed excellent defensive positions. Not all of them had been knocked out by the preliminary naval and air bombardments, and those that were left fought tenaciously, making full use of their advantageous positions. There was bitter fighting through the streets of the small towns and up the exposed slopes to root out the well entrenched enemy.

The 143rd Infantry Regiment followed the first assault waves onto the Green Beach as soon as its immediate defense positions had been cleared. Disregarding the battle raging not five hundred yards away, it swung off the beach to the west and the pastel colored summer resort towns on the road to San Raphel. It's mission to pinch off the defenders there as the 142nd Infantry Regiment sailed in to Red Beach.

The 142nd never landed on Red Beach. The demolition boats were unable to force a passage through the underwater obstacles that lined the bay. The formations of landing craft were forced to put about and make for Green Beach.

Green Beach had become the only Division landing site. In less than ten hours, twenty thousand troops were finally put ashore there, over a boulder strewn area less than eight hundred yards long and fifty yards deep; the entire strength of an infantry division, reinforced by heavy artillery and combat engineers, tank and tank destroyer battalions, signal and quartermaster attachments, was landed on Green Beach.

It was a magnificent accomplishment, for the landing strip and its approaches were too small and too shallow to afford adequate space for other than the assault echelons and their immediate reserves. Shuttle convoys of small vessels and dukws raced in and out, bringing in material, while the larger ships edged in one and two at a time to land their heavier cargos. On this one beach rested the success of the Division's invasion, and across it were put every vehicle, every gun, every piece of necessary equipment, all the tons of supplies.

There were casualties. With the landings so confined, the Germans were able to mass their forces, but the Riviera invasion was not the debacle of Salerno, where the 36th received its baptism under fire. The regiments cleared their first objectives by 1600. Nine hours after the initial landings, the beaches were secure.

The strongest opposition came at the flanks of the beachhead. The 143rd had driven to the left, towards San Raphel. Easy and Love Companies ran into trouble.

Easy Company found the Germans barricaded in a large courtyard. They had machine gun nests all over. Behind these were heavy concertinas of barbed wire fronting a house which sheltered mortar positions. It was impossible to get at them without presenting a silhouetted target. Pfc. Lewis H. Rose, Conneault, Ohio, climbed the high stone wall in front of the court and fired twelve boxes of ammunition at the enemy, thirty yards away. Cradling his machine gun in his arms, he fired until his gun barrel burned out and his heavy leather gloves caught fire.

Pfc. John Neves, Fairhaven, Mass., led a tank up to the wall. When it was halted by a trap, he blew out the obstacle with twelve pounds of dynamite. For six hours, the mortar and tank support and the riflemen fired away, literally blasting the Germans from behind the wall. The courtyard fell and the company stormed into San Raphael.

Love Company edged into position near German barracks on the outskirts of the town. Capt. Zerk Robertson, Merkel, Tex., worked his platoons forward until they had surrounded the encampment. The next morning, after a short fire fight, a German battalion commander surrendered with one hundred of his men. But a large group had slipped out of the trap and set up positions several hundred yards away. There was constant activity and firing. Tech. Sgt. Thomas Wooldridge, Royse City, Tex., squeezed the enemy out, with one squad to supply a solid base of fire while the others worked their way in from the flanks. For three hours they fought. Then the Germans surrendered. Love Company had killed a dozen of the enemy, knocked out two machine gun nests, taken 244 prisoners.

Meanwhile, on Green Beach, heavy artillery, ammunition, special units were unloaded as rapidly as the ships could be brought into the limited landing space. At dusk, the Germans staged their only successful air raid on the fleet standing offshore. A glider bomb from a low flying plane caught an ammunition loaded LST. The ship blazed up rapidly. Shouting to his engineers to stay away, Capt. Thomas B. Gautier, Charlestown, S.C., raced into the water to give aid, braving exploding ammunition and fire and flying hot steel. His men followed and from sundown to midnight they worked, swimming, using makeshift rafts to get to the ship and back with over one hundred injured men.

Campaigns may move by weeks or months, but invasions move by hours and days. No matter how successful may be the outcome, the first few days of a landing are like the first seconds of aerial flight: they determine the success of the operation. There is no comparative success in an invasion. It is, tactically speaking, either a success or a failure. So, on August 16, although the beaches had been secured and the inland positions consolidated, the battle for the primary objective, the establishment of a firm beachhead, was still on.

Red Beach was reported open for clearing parties; Frejus was taken; the 43rd Infantry Regiment cleared a roadblock at Bourlouis after a stiff fight with infantry and tanks. Contact was made with the 45th Infantry Division beachhead, on the left flank. On the right flank, the 141st Infantry Regiment continued to press eastward to make contact with the force of French commandos operating in the Cannes area.

Nineteen hundred prisoners had been taken by noon, August 17, and, as the line extended, growing numbers were brought into the Division cages. They were taken under many varied circumstances.

A large number were taken at Callian, at the eastern tip of the beachhead. Item and Baker Companies of the 141st were in the town, straddling the only major route along which the Germans could bring reinforcements from their reserves near Cannes. They had a fight on their hands protecting the flanks. Supported by tanks on the line, by tank destroyers, by naval artillery and heavy land guns, they had fought house-to-house through part of Callian, been forced to withdraw, then fought their way back. Only after two days of bloody close combat was Callian secured. Its garrison, except for six officers and two hundred men who chose the PW cages, was wiped out.

Many prisoners were taken more easily, however.

Company A of the 143rd Infantry Regiment, led by Lt. Henry Kahn, Allentown, Pa., attacked German positions in a valley. Concentrated fire greeted the T-Patchers as they jockeyed into commanding positions. Then every gun on the hills—machine guns, mortars, rifles, tommy guns—opened up simultaneously on the enemy. Pvt. Heinrich J. Strohaecker, New York City, called to the Germans to surrender. There was no reply. The barrage continued for another quarter hour. Even the ammunition carriers popped away with captured pistols. That was too much for the Germans, and their commander sent word that he was willing to surrender provided that the Americans treated him with the respect due his rank.

"What the hell," said Lt. Kahn. "We've got nothing to lose being nice to a first lieutenant. Tell him to come up."

He came up.

"Holy cow," gasped Lt. Kahn. Able Company had bagged a full colonel. The colonel was followed by a major, who was followed by three captains, who were followed by a string of lieutenants and one hundred and fifty men.

The Seventh Army Beachhead, firmly consolidated along its entire span, sprang into violent life when Task Force Butler pounded north towards Lyons. Hastily organized on D-plus-three, Task Force Butler was made up largely of 36th Division components: the Second Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment; Baker and Charlie Companies, 753rd Tank Battalion; Charlie Company, 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion; and one collecting platoon and clearing platoon of the 111th Medical Battalion, plus reconnaissance, armored artillery, and ordinance units.

The 36th Division charged after it, carrying the right flank of the army around like a hinge to block the only German escape routes to the northeast. Under the command of Brigadier General Robert I. Stack, two battalions of infantry and a battalion of artillery—the advance guard for the Division as it drove parallel to the Rhone River Valley—cleared Digne, pressed through the mountains, and arrived at Sisteron, reeling off ninety miles in fourteen hours. With the 142nd protecting the long, lengthening flank of the army, the 143rd Regimental Combat Team lanced deeper into enemy territory.

This was a dangerous, gambling attack. In one day the Division had increased its lines of supply and communication by one hundred miles, and it continued to press its advantage by slashing at the German rear areas with speed and vigor. CP's moved hour by hours. Every column was mechanized and reinforced by armor, high-power and antiaircraft weapons, and mobile artillery. Every unit gave trucks for a Provisional Trucking Company to augment the overworked Quartermaster Company. Jeeps and trucks and prime movers were pressed into extra service; drivers worked twenty and twenty-four hours a day, leaden-headed, numb-bodied from the fast, hard runs to the beaches; mechanics performed miracles to patch the wearing vehicles.

"22 August 1944," reports the official journal," elements of RCT 143 had occupied Grenoble without resistance."

At first no one dared to believe it. The Americans? They are here? Already? They are here? At last, astride their funny little jeeps, perched high on their heels, reminding one of the far west, piloting their General Sherman tanks, henceforth so well known along the Route Napoleon.

The crowd massed all along this fine avenue, just as it used to do in the good old days of the Tour de France. What a glorious Tour de France is this . . . the wildly enthusiastic crowd, which had shouted its welcome to the liberating troops of the FFI, triumphant with its tricolors waving in all the streets of the town, found fresh vibrant voices to shout an enthusiastic welcome to the big attractive giants.

Welcome to you all! You who have come from the distant provinces of Illinois, Ohio, Alabama, or Texas . .. Welcome to the citizens of New York and San Francisco, you all who have come after a stage in our North Africa to help France get rid of a nightmare which has lasted four interminable years, and to aid her to rediscover her true soul.

Welcome to Grenoble, our town. Welcome to the Dauphine, our province:

But the 36th Division left Grenoble as rapidly as it had come. A buildup of enemy forces was reported in the vicinity of Montelimar. Artillery ammunition was low, infantry was needed. The 36th Division was assigned the mission of dealing with the enemy threat and made for a time responsible for virtually the entire sector from the Rhone to the Swiss and Italian borders.

The Division was already in contact with the enemy at three widely separated points, near Grenoble, near the Rhone, and at Gap. Its troops were scattered from Grenoble to Digne. It had less than sixty per cent of its organic transport, and neither army nor corps had supply or transportation elements available. The first decisive battle of the campaign was beginning.

On the 23rd of August, the Division began to move its forces to meet the enemy.


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