36th Division in World War II


Despite the three major battles it had fought, the Division was allowed no rest. It continued to fight, although its ranks were seriously depleted and morale at a low ebb. The equipment was largely the same as it had used in Italy. Newer divisions had come overseas with newer equipment, but the 36th continued to advance with what it had. The men slogged forward through the seasonal rains, cold and soaked. There was no letup. The Germans fought harder than ever, the terrain grew rougher, the weather turned colder. The men fought on. Severe as the Italian winter had been, the Vosges campaign was its equal. There was seemingly nothing ahead but mud and deep minefields, and the Germans and the mountains. During the Italian winter, Rome had always glittered on the horizon.

In the Vosges there was nothing ahead but another mountain, mined, defended mountains leading to the Rhine River. There was nothing across the next barrier but another barrier.

The men carried wearily forward, almost without a future, as it sometimes appeared. Their talk had one topic: "When are we going to get a rest?" Any rumor, however wild, was discussed and mulled over and accepted until another rumor supplanted it.

But no rest came. Savage battle followed savage battle. The men fought on, fighting on guts and with that unconscious skill that had become a part of them, struggling as much for personal survival as fighting an impersonal war.

Wrote Lieutenant General Alexander M. Patch, Seventh Army Commander:

"In the Vosges foothills, you dislodged a desperate and skillful foe from positions which gave him every natural advantage."

Docelles was cleared September 27, Bruyeres, seven and a half miles away, fell on October 19. It took three weeks to gain seven and a half road miles, three weeks of the most terrible fighting of the entire winter.

Every yard of the Vosges—not merely the roads, not just the towns—had to be wrenched from the obstinate enemy, and in the Vosges campaign, he possessed every advantage. The key fighting was not along the roads and in the cities, but for them, no matter how geographically insignificant. The fighting was around the hills and through the forests, in mud and swamps. Every little hummock assumed a tactical importance. The Germans had been ordered to hold as long as they could, and with the initiative of picking a battleground, they had laid a barrier across Tendon that withstood every thrust. Every attempt to force it was smashed.

For once the Germans had the artillery. They had a lot of it. Capt. Warren Ausland, Grant's Pass, Ore. had his engineer company on the line as infantry. "They had the hills and the op's," he said. "They had us where they wanted us, and they fired all the time. They fired more than we did, and it's the only time I ever saw that happen."

The Germans had the positions, too. Every rifleman and machine gunner was dug in. The foxholes were deep and covered and looked right across the lanes of approach which the Americans had to use. Anything that moved was an American. The foxholes were well camouflaged.

"Damn, were they well camouflaged," said a medico. "We never saw them, and when we got on top of them it was too late."

The bloody business of beating against the stronghold and taking it by frontal assault was abandoned. The doughboys went up into the two hills on the right and left of Tendon.

Nerving patrol warfare, replaced the assaults. The hills were crowned and packed with aging growth, so thick that the night was twenty-four hours long, crowded with the fibretearing silence of a forest. It was a fearsome forest

Every bush, every leaf hid a mine. Every knoll concealed a machine gun. If the Germans were an enemy, the woods were a more dangerous enemy, secretive and deadly, made only for animals.

The Germans and the forest seemed to be allied. German artillery bursts in the treetops rained searing shrapnel on the unsheltered patrols. The Germans sent out patrols of eight or ten men and an artillery observer. When they contacted an American party, they would melt into the brush, radio the coordinates, and let the artillery pour into the area. Other patrols went out, armed with machine pistols, with snipers outposted, spoiling for a fight. They would infiltrate the Division patrols and storm into the rear areas, firing and grenading the laying mines. Regimental headquarters was often under direct rifle fire.

There were pitched battles, firefights that lasted for hours, when patrols met, followed by cagey maneuvering, followed by another overpowering small arms clash. The Germans fought a carefully planned war, extending the division lines across an almost impassible terrain where the initiative never rested wholly with either side. They held long lines aggressively, using as few troops as possible, while grouping their armor and reserves to smash any attack against one of their centers of supplies and communications.

The first phase of the Vosges campaign ended with the capture of one of the enemy bases, in the battle for Bruyeres.

Bruyeres was not captured and entered in a blaze of flower throwing, chainpagne drinking celebration, like Louhans or Arbois or the hundred little liberated towns of southern France. With the cold methodical fury, house by house, block by block, Germans and Americans fought it out for Bruyeres.

Able Company of the 143rd Infantry Regiment, under Capt. Thomas Brejcha, Chicago, led the assault.

Wrote George Dorsey in Stars and Stripes:

"Captain Brejcha's men had been subjected to a pounding from every kind of gunfire the Germans could bring to bear ... Exploding shells made a constant furor, occasional duds slithered insanely through the mud, and some areas were raked with a fire so intense as to make them impenetrable."

Wrote Joseph Palmer in the Beachhead News:

"Veteran observers who witnessed the battle, fought in some of the worst weather yet encountered in France, compared it to the fighting on the Anzio beachhead."

But the Americans came, as they came to many towns, blew the Germans out, and advanced wearily into the still higher mountains to the east, Belmont fell to a task force of infantry and armor. Then the doughboys of the 141st Infantry Regiment and the 442nd Japanese American Regimental Combat Team, attached to the 36th, advanced into the hill mass of the Foret Domaniale.

Then the 141st Infantry Regiment sent its First Battalion forward to take the high ridge and the ground overlooking La Houssiere.

The coded message that came into regimental headquarters that night said simply: "No rations, no water, no communications with headquarters . . . four litter cases."

Not too many miles away, on the bald top of a thickly wooded hill, a battalion of 275 soldiers was spread out in an area 300 by 350 yards, digging their foxholes deep, using knives to whittle down trees to use as cover, folding blankets around the trees so that they wouldn't make much noise when they came down.

They were quiet because surrounding them on all sides, somewhere among the closelygrouped tall pines were approximately 700 Germans. They were quiet because they knew they were a lost battalion, and they didn't want the Germans to know it.

They had already had their first taste of the hell to come. Not only was their CP overrun, but the Nazis had thrown two full companies at them, coming from different directions, followed by an immediate buildup. That, plus heavy shelling, intense small arms fire, concentrated counterattacks, that had somehow managed to beat off.

Now they were digging in, tending the wounded, sending radio messages.

One of those wounded was the communications sergeant who had composed the first message. Artillery observer Lt. Erwin Blonder, Cleveland, Ohio, took over, hugged the only 300 radio, slept with it, prayed over it, from then on.

From then on . . .

"Do you know what I kept thinking?" said Pvt. William Murphy. "I kept thinking how wonderful it would be back on my old job as street car conductor in Chicago. And I kept thinking that now I had finally something to tell my three kids when they grew up. Y'see, I've never been in combat before. I'm a replacement. This was my first time. But I'll tell you something funny ... honest to God, I wasn't scared ... I really wasn't."

But a lot of guys were scared. The old-timers knew what the score was. There's not much you can do when you're cut off like that, with only so much ammunition, with no water, no food, no nothing.

Still, there were simple, essential things to do. The four lieutenants on the hill formed an advisory council with Company A's Lt. Martin Higgings having the final say. A little guy from Jersey City, a 28yearold cavalry officer who had come to the infantry only five months before, he had a lot of decisions to make.

First came the defense problem. Quickly, the companies spread out in a complete circular defense, with light and heavy machine guns strategically distributed. There would be no surprise attack.

Then came the shakedown. Every soldier emptied his pack so that the battalion could pool everything. They collected everything from small stoves to gasoline and a few precious chocolate bars.

But these things didn't last long. And then, very soon, the water situation became critical, more critical than the food shortage. Finally they found a mud puddle out of their area. It was dirty stagnant, but it was water. They could boil some of it for the medicos—not much. Even the smallest fire caused smoke, which might give away their position.

They couldn't get this water whenever they wanted it. They had to crawl quietly during the blackest part of the night, with their fingers itchy on their triggers. The Germans were using the same water hole.

During all this, all day long, Blonder kept busy on the radio, sending one message after another emphasizing the desperation of the situation.

Not that he had to. Headquarters understood the full significance. Already different sets of alternate plans were being made, different battalions were pulling into line. Headquarters was figuring out just how much strength was needed to punch a hole and make the junction.

To the 275 lonely men on the hilltop they radioed: "Hold on ... heavy force coming to relieve you."

Headquarters threw in crack troops, the men of the 100th and 3rd Battalions of the 442nd Regimental Combat Teams, wiry little men who went into battle carrying twice what they would need, just in case, tough fighters who were fighting a war for a cause, adaptable, certain soldiers. with them S/Sgt. Eino Hirvi, Daisytown, Pa., had volunteered to lead his platoon of light tanks, carrying rations and medical supplies. Tanks had never fought in such terrain before. Along their flank drove the 2nd Battalion of the 141.

But the Germans had a heavy force, too. They had self-propelled guns parked all over the hillside, the whole area planted with every kind of mine, they had thick concentrations of mortars and machine guns and supporting artillery and tanks and fortified road blocks.

The first attempted breakthrough was thrown back.

On the hill the men tightened their belts, crowded together to keep warm, to talk.

Behind the lines, every night, trucks loaded with field stoves and rations moved up the broad zigzag engineer road and waited, just in case.

"We used to talk about food, mostly," said 1st Sgt. William Bandorick, Scanton, Pa., smacking his lips unconsciously. "We talked about chocolate cakes and bacon and eggs and everything that our mothers and wives used to make for us back home. I remember once we spent a whole afternoon just talking about flapjacks ... golden brown, with butter."

They starved for five full days. Some of the men grubbed for mushrooms, trapped birds. They had very little luck. There was absolutely no food at all. The shelling got heavier. On the third day up there, they buried three more dead. It was a simple service, just a few prayers. Somebody marked down the location for the GRO.

Nobody talked about it much, but inside themselves, everybody kept wondering: How much longer . . . who next . . .

Still morale was high. There wasn't even the faintest whisper of surrender among the men. And anytime Higgins asked for a volunteer patrol, he had his pick of the whole battalion. He sent a thirtysix man patrol out on one flank. It walked straight into a trap. Five men got back to the besieged companies. One, Pvt. Horace Male, a replacement from Allentown, Pa., got through. It took him five days of wandering through German positions, of not allowing himself to relax for a moment, but staying on his feet for five foodless days of anguish. On the fifth day, a patrol found him and brought him in. No one else got out.

Blonder kept tapping out the coded messages: "Send us medical supplies, rations, water, blood plasma, cigarettes, and, for God's sake, send us radio batteries."

Back at headquarters, they tried to use the big guns to shoot shells loaded with Drations and aid packets. The first attempts didn't do well. The precious packets buried too keep in the ground or the shells burst in the treetops, scattering the supplies.

Then they tried to use P47 fighter-bombers of the XII TAC to drop supplies from the air.

To signal the planes, the doughboys chipped in underwear and the white linings of parkas and maps, all of which were stretched out in a long white strip. As a doublecheck, they tied smoke grenades to saplings, so adjusted that when the planes came over, the doughfeet could release the bent saplings and pull the grenade pins, so that the smoke would explode just as it topped the tall trees.

The first try missed, by one hundred yards.

"We were just praying, that's all," said S/Sgt. Howard Jessup, Anderson, Ind. "We just sat in our foxholes, listening hard, not saying a damn word ... and we just prayed."

On the afternoon of the fifth day the food-loaded shells and the belly tanks of medical supplies and rations and batteries began hitting the target at the same time.

They could loosen their belts, but they couldn't relax. They were still completely cut off, they were still the "lost battalion".

On the morning of the sixth day, Lt. Higgins was writing a letter to his wife when he suddenly signed off. "Time out for a while, Marge, I've got work to do."

It was more than work. It was the strongest attack the Germans had made. The planes and the shells had finally told them the story. They attacked, certain of easy meat. As a prelude, they dumped a terrific artillery barrage on the area. Then they rushed one sector of the defensive circuit. Fortunately, the Germans picked the one spot where the battalion had concentrated most of its heavy machine guns. The guns were shooting single fire until the Germans came close. Then they cut loose with everything. The gunners had been told not to fire until they were sure they had a good target in their sights.

"We weren't fire-powering, we were collecting," said Lt. Higgins.

The collection was phenomenal. The Germans took an awful beating. In the fringes of the small brush, just where the forest ended, there were dozens and dozens of dead Germans. The artillery made a fine collection, too. Spraying the whole wooded area with tree bursts when the Germans left their covered holes, the artillery accounted for one pile which had two hundred and fifty Germans stiff in it.

On the afternoon of the sixth day, Sgt. Edward Guy, New York City, was on outpost when he saw somebody. He strained his eyes looking and then he raced down the hill like crazy, yelling and laughing and grabbing the soldier and hugging. Pfc. Mutt Sakumoto just looked at him with a lump in his throat and the first thing he could think of to say was: "Do you guys need any cigarettes?"


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