It was a wearing war of attrition from Bruyeres until the doughfeet broke out into the Alsation plain after having crossed the swollen Meurthe River and forced the SainteMarie passes to Selestat and Ribeauville. Even after ninety two consecutive days of combat in France, they battered their way through the passes, in an assault on the hitherto considered impregnable Vosges massif. In thirteen days, they forced the narrowest and steepest pass in the Vosges Mountains against almost fanatical opposition. Holding a line extending an almost unheard of eighty kilometers, they captured almost eighteen hundred prisoners in attacks often made without any supporting armor whatsoever, so tangled was the terrain.
The attack began near SaintLeonard, on the Meurthe River. The 143rd attacked across the river on November 21, encountering heavy resistance from troops concealed in elaborate trench systems, the approaches to which were mined and heavily snarled with barbed wire obstacles. Traps and ditches prevented armored reconnaissance, and previouslyconducted feints had forced the enemy into drawing on his limited reserves and placing them in this section of the line. Nevertheless, in three days of grueling combat, the infantry battered its way into the network of defenses, until the enemy withdrew under severe pressure.
Motorized and armored, the 142nd jumped forward to exploit the breakthrough, driving back a desperate, lastditch stand by the Germans near HautMandray. Pushing its advantage, the First Battalion moved towards La Croix, contested by groups of Germans blocking the precipitous, tortuous road that traversed the vicious terrain.
The seizing of SainteMarie itself was a highlyinvolved, dangerous undertaking. The only road to the town passed through an extremely narrow defile, flanked by wild growth on harsh ridges. It was a country which lent itself to easy defense by very few troops; and the fully garrisoned, strengthened positions were so situated that they could only be attacked by a minimum number of men. While Love Company attacked the outer defenses, the remainder of the Third Battalion marched across the cragclimbing mountain trails to take the town. So complete was the surprise, that the town fell, although its defenders were not overcome until several hours of street fighting.
Barely a few hours after SainteMarie had fallen, the First Battalion made a circuitous maneuver through terrain so difficult that it was wholly impossible for any armor or even the lightest vehicles to support the attack. The Germans had rushed reinforcements forward from Selestat, however, and before the First Battalion could complete its mission and seize SainteCroix, the Second Battalion had to advance along the main road in a frontal assault. SainteCroix fell; HochKoenigsburg fell to the Third Battalion, and the road was open to Selestat, which was taken shortly after.
As the lines extended, the 141st Regimental Combat Team was emplaced along the right flank of the Division, while the 143rd pushed on into Ribeauville and the small towns gathered in a semicircle between it and Colmar.
No army had ever accomplished so much before. Somewhat less than an army, the 36th Division did it. Reorganized regiment by regiment, as the incessant struggles tore its ranks, tired after so long a period of arduous campaigning, it still had spark enough to drive across the last remaining barriers and begin its debouchment into the Rhine Valley. That the men managed to stand the grueling beatings which marked every slight encounter with the enemy was remarkable. Their resources were low, but their commanders could proudly boast that when something had to be done, their men had the guts to go out and do it. The climax came at Selestat and Riquewihr.
On the morning of December 13, the Germans switched from the defensive and smashed with all their strength at the flanks of the 36th Division line.
The first assault came in the early morning at the very left of the Texans' line, in the city of Selestat. Given close support by tanks and tank destroyers and the 105 mm howitzers known as "Pete Green's Mortars" after the 132nd's CO, the 142 Regimental Combat Team held. The Germans struck with elements of two divisions, better than a thousand infantrymen, but they were driven off with massed firepower after over twelve hours of bitter fighting. The Germans lost three hundred and thirtythree prisoners, and reconnaissance units later on the battlefield found twentysix bazookas, thirty rifles, and ten machine guns that the evacuating Germans had discarded.
It was of this attack which Heinrich Himmler later reminded the defenders of Sigolsheim in an official order. "What the Americans did in Selestat, you can do in Sigolsheim," he wrote.
But the main assault broke during the middle of the morning around Riquewihr, where the CP of the 141st Regimental Combat Team was located. The main German thrust was aimed directly at that town. Five hundred Germans infiltrated two kilometers up a draw from the west, overrunning a chemical mortar platoon which had set up in the draw. Retreating into the town, the mortarmen called for fire from their other platoon, located on the other side of town. Then they launched an attack of their own, supported by some volunteering wiremen from regimental headquarters, and pushed the Germans back to retake every mortar they had lost.
The infiltrating Germans had been spotted by Cpl. Harry Karpan, Ventura, Cal., from his observation post in a tower in the middle of town. As he called fire down on them, the enemy spotted him and raked his position with small arms and machine gun fire. He called for heavy artillery and brought down a concentration on the draw, forcing the Germans to disperse along the ridges on either side.
Had they but known it, the Germans could have silenced him with a pair of pliers. A wire team from the 131st Field Artillery Battalion, led by Sgt. Bob Stamford, Tex., had sent up communications a bare quarterhour before the attack had begun, and their wire lay, exposed, through the draw in which the T-Patchers were scrapping it out with the Germans. The wire was never cut, and Cpl. Karpan and Sgt. Kearney Haas, Comfort, Tex., called down a bingo mission from three battalions of artillery that secured the area. It also cut the wire, but the enemy had evacuated.
Small groups of Kraut officercandidates had managed to sneak into Riquewihr, however. While the First Battalion of the 141st, machine guns to the fore, ripped into the scattered enemy in fierce firefightingat some places handtohand combat developed in the storm, at others there were pointblank shooting frays, these squads tried to establish a foothold in the town. Combat Correspondent Pfc. Clarence Lasky, Portland, Conn., left his typewriter for a carbine, rounded a corner, and took three prisoners. Regimental cook Pvt. Ralph Inglese, Brooklyn, N.Y., left his kitchen to help in the defense of the command post, wounded two more and took them prisoner.
But the Germans had not put all their eggs in one basket. As this attack grew in fury, a second prong, two hundred strong, swung in from the south, struck at and severed the supply line of the Second Battalion.
The Third Battalion had to turn and face an attack that had already gained momentum. I. Company led a drive to free the route to the rear while the other companies tenaciously battled to slow up and halt the enemy. The story was the same. The enemy were tough youngsters, seventeen to nineteen years old with no battle experience. They had close mortar and artillery support, but they did not use it. They tried to intercept the Third Battalion by surprise.
Both battles around Riquewihr continued ferociously all day. But while the assault at Selestat died out, the effort to smash the right flank continued to develop. A party of forty engineer officer candidates infiltrated to cut the road between the 36th Division Command Post and its rear. Enemy from this party involved members of the 133rd Field Artillery Battalion in a fire fight. The enemy had been sent in with a double mission: to block the road and to knock out the artillery. Under cover of terrific automatic weapons fire, demolition experts set their charges, blew up one howitzer and some ammunition. In a nearby building, Sgt. Theodore King, Linden, Tex., massed the small arms fire from his section in an attempt to cut down the enemy before more damage could be done. A jeep was blown up by a bazooka. The house in which Sgt. King's men had tried to establish a strong point was set on fire in two places. Antiaircraft gunner Cpl. Albert Wagner, Chicago, Ill., eased over to his multiple fifty calibremount, fired eleven hundred rounds from the four machine guns into the surrounding area. The leaden spray silenced the German small arms.
The Germans went on to the second part of their mission. Having halted traffic along the main road to the rear, they signaled for two companies of infantry which, according to plan, were to infiltrate the same gap in the lines used by the engineers and come to support the road block. The Second Battalion of the 143rd Infantry Regiment, thrown into the gap, blocked this attempt to disrupt completely the rear area. A severe fire fight erupted.
Along the front, the Germans continued to attack. Heavy artillery was brought into play. Ribeauville and the Division Headquarters were shelled. Road blocks were established to block an enemy attack from further along the front, but the Germans had enough. The larger group, which had attempted to come in from the west, was thrown back with over one hundred of its men left dead on the battle ground. The entire day of the fourteenth was spent with all available troops centered before Riquewihr, and the attack slowed considerably. Six infantry battalions were thrown at the enemy, supported by every piece of artillery. German units had taken hills 351 and 393 between Riquewihr and Colmar, continued on to erect strong points in the small town of Minnwihr. But that afternoon saw the tired doughfeet fight the Germans to a complete standstill.
That day also saw the cessation of German activity in the rear area. One Company from the 111th Engineer Combat Battalion, thrown into the lines to act as infantry, prevented their rejoining their lines as a group, and the enemy had to split forces. Traffic was reopened along the road, which was patrolled by engineers and controlled by members of the 36th Division Military Police stationed on road blocks at the crossroads.
The next day, seven battalions of infantry from three regiments started an offensive of their own. The veterans of the 36th Division very slowly began to move the Germans out of their positions. Relentlessly, but aching in every tired limb, the doughboys carried forward in a brave attempt to erase the German gains. They restored most of Minnwihr, they climbed the slopes of 351 and 393, they plugged every gap in the line. The Germans, in turn, threw heavy artillery and mortar concentrations against them. Artillery fire crunched the streets of every town within range, and mortars unceasingly harassed the infantry. Deep mine fields blocked the path. Rockets were thrown into the scrap. For three days the Germans had their dayfrom the thirteenth to the sixteenth of December they threw everything in the book at the infantrymen. They didn't miss their chance, but it was fought out from under them by the gutty fighting men of the 36th Division.
The Third Infantry Division began the relief of the 36th in this Colmar sector on December 19, and the 141st Regimental Combat Team trucked up to Strasbourg to take over part of the quiet Rhine River line there. It was soon followed by the rest of the Division.
The capital of Alsace, Strasbourg, over whose liberation the members of the French Senate had wept, was just across the Rhine from the Germans, yet Strasbourg was peaceful compared to the rest of Germany bordering France. The people roamed the streets. There was beer, and wine a plenty. There were young girls, pretty and well dressed, not the frightened, dumpy women of Selestat. Strasbourg was a thoroughly civilized city and not a bad place to be for Christmas.
The Division remained in Strasbourg for five days. It moved the day after Christmas, the day after Lt. Col. Herbert E. MacCombie, Lynn, Mass., and M/Sgt. Downing Smith, Galveston, Tex., had thrown a party for the city orphanage and all the GI's had chipped in from their Christmas packages.
The Division moved into a rest area near Sarrebourg, except for the artillery.
The rest did not last long.
The Division had barely begun to train its reinforcements when the first infiltrated the XV Corps in the vicinity of Montbronn. It was necessary hasty summons came from from Seventh Army.
German action quickened at the bridgehead across the Rhine. Fresh troops poured forward in an offensive to retake the important cities of Strasbourg and Saverne. The 143rd was rushed into position to blunt the attack which threatened the entire VI Corps front, and it was immediately followed by the 142nd. Barely had the shift been accomplished when the units were committed against the driving Tenth Panzer Division, which had gained considerable ground the day before.
The defensive line was an arc from Rohrwiller to Weyersheim, and the enemy slammed squarely into the middle of it. It was partly wooded, but the woods gave way to wide spaces ideal for armored warfare. In the woods, the infantry fought tenaciously, but when the enemy tanks came into range in the clearings, the tank destroyers cut lose.
Outnumbered five to one, the 636th Tank Destroyer's gunners drove off the enemy, cost him seven tanks, never gave him a chance to fire a single retaliatory round. The Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Charles Wilber, Hollywood, Cal, explained the battle: "We had to be geared for extremely fast action," he said. "It was a case of the guy who got in the first round being the victor. We got in the first round. Jerry never even got a chance to fire back."
The warning net had alerted Charlie Company three hours before the German tanks ground into range. The Third Platoon, commanded by Lt. Lee S. Kiscadden, Lebanon, Pa., was emplaced along a heavy thicket with a clear field of fire in three directions. Two guns were there, about twenty yards behind the infantry. Six enemy tanks slid out of a tree line about two thousand yards to the east. The TPatch TD men moved forward to the edge of the woods and sat there, waiting.
A driver, Cpl. Lem J. Luke, Tifton, Ga., marked the enemy's progress. "Yonder they go. Yonder they go." He repeated excitedly. "Yonder they go. . . The enemy tanks kept coming. They crossed a small bridge and stopped.
Col. Wilber was standing next to Lt. Kiscadden. "When are you going to shoot?" he asked impatiently. Lt. Kiscadden was standing next to the mount driven by Sgt. Rufus Brantley, Tennille, Ga. He called to Gunner Cpl. Wiley Johnson, Alpine, Ala. "Whenever you're ready."
The enemy tanks were sitting ducks, halted just across the small bridge twelve hundred yards away. It was Sgt. Brantley's first action as a tank commander. The day before he had been a private first class and a medico. He spotted "the biggest damn tank on this earth." Two rounds smashed into the target, two columns of orange flame and black smoke roared into the grey snowy sky. The monster was two Mark Fours sitting hull to hull. Both were destroyed. Sgt. William B. Rutledge, Houston, Tex., spotted two other tanks at the same time. Short a loader, he had to observe fire and handle his gun alone. Two Tiger tanks had forced their way past the infantry defense line and were two thousand yards across the plain, going away toward the rear. Sgt. Rutledge poured three rounds into one, shifted his fire to hit the second. The second tank withdrew; the first was crippled. Another round disabled it.
Lt. John Kehoe, New York City, had his Second Platoon on the edge of a town where his three guns covered the open space from the right flank. He was in an observation post directly behind his mounts when he saw two groups of enemy medium and heavy tanks come into sight in front of the tree line, at this point about four thousand yards away. The first group was larger, seven tanks. All told, there were twelve. It was a large order for the three guns of the platoon, but the men had been waiting to even an old score. In their last action, their platoon sergeant had been shot out with his fourth tank destroyer.
Sgt. Claude Stokes, McAllister, Okla., watched from the turret his "Oklahoma Wildcat," driven by twin brother Sgt. Clyde Stokes. The enemy were still over three thousand yards away when he opened fire. "We had to peel them off," he said later. "They were shooting up our infantry." He spotted a Panther tank just when the artillery dropped a smoke shell behind it. Silhouetted, it made an ideal target.
But the first kill went to S/Sgt. Leonard Collingworth, Dodd City, Tex., who had been sitting watch in the "Oklahoma Wildcat." It was another sitting duck, twentyfive hundred yards away.
It looked like easy shooting. It was phenomena]. Across the snow and against the grey sky, the tanks were barely visible. The range, while not excessive, was very long. As the colonel said: "But those boys, they handle that threeinch gun like it's an overgrown rifle. They're deadly accurate."
When Sgt. Stokes took over the "Wildcat." Sgt. Collingsworth led two mounts down to an alternate position where they had a better field of fire. Frustrated, German tanks and infantry had shifted their attack and were trying to slip into the town from the flank. Sgt. Hester Bentley, Cullman, Ala., and his gunner, Cpl. Harry L. Beatty, Saxton, Pa., caught two tanks out of eight that had stopped to fire at the infantry. They drove the first back to the tree line, knocked out another with three rounds. The others left the position, taking their supporting foot troops with them. Sgt. Harvey Hale, Fairmont, W.V., spotted another tank that tried to lead a large number of infantry flanking the town. As it stopped to fire on American troops dug in along the road, Sgt. Hale pumped five fast rounds into it at the almost impossible range of thirtyfive hundred yards. When the tank caught fire, he traversed to pile up the enemy infantry around the tank.
On the right flank, the three guns had accounted for four tanks and countless enemy infantry, plus one tank damaged. On the left flank, the two guns had knocked out three tanks, crippled another. S/Sgt. Warren G. Stedman, Warren, Ark., had gone to lead up supporting tanks, but by the time they got there, the area had been secured. The Germans never attacked again.
Up in the north, there was sensational fighting; back in the States there were screaming headlines. Patton drove in from the south and Montgomery smashed in from the north, and the German bulge was eradicated. The entire line from the Netherlands to Luxembourg was ablaze. The Seventh Army front was the quiet front. The newspapers howled with black, bold letters about the fighting and printed long communiques about the Third Army and the First Army and the Ninth Army, and then a few words about the fighting in Alsace.
For the papers Alsace wasn't big news, but for every last muckeating, shellducking doughfoot, Alsace was tough sledding.
"What about Oberhoffen?" cried one. "What about Hagenau?"
"For five days and nights," wrote Stars and Stripes correspondent Ed Lawrence, "a smallscale battle has been raging with fantastic drunken violence in a row of 11 houses on the German bank of the Moder River in Hagenau."
The men in Able Company say no sober Krauts ever fought like this.
Monday after dark, S/Sgt. Roy (Chief) Chiatovich, copperskinned Piute Indian from Bishop, Cal., with six riflemen and a heavy machine gun squad, crossed the plantbridge over the creeksized Moder. They moved into house 5 while other doughboys took over houses 2 and 4.
The Germans had been caught napping.
While the other soldiers went downstairs to fry some spuds, Pfc. Ralph Couture, Berlin, N.H., on guard at the cellar door, saw Kraut silhouettes behind a chicken coop. They fled when he fired, but returned to take the first and second floors with bazookas and tommy guns. The six Yank riflemen set up their heavy machine gun in the cellarway and sprayed the back yard.
Two German bazooka shells tore the cellar door from its hinges and it fell on the machine gunner, stunning him.
The yard was mined, so the Americans kept fighting from the house, which was by now quaking and crumbling under artillery fire.
Pfc. O'Neal Jones, Scottsboro, Ala., watched a bazooka man crawl forward, fired, and heard him squeal. Pfc. Joseph Grant of Tuscarora, Pa., hit another one. That was all for a few minutes.
They went into the basement and resumed eating fried potatoes when a runner came with an order to scout the next three houses. "We lost our appetites," Chief says.
Jerry mortars were spilling all over the neighborhood when they went out. They found houses 6 and 7 vacant. Eight was spraying gunfire. They moved into seven.
"Then things happened so fast we didn't have time to think," says Grant. "We just tried to stay alive."
One doughboy, watching at a window, was thrown down and badly hurt when a shell plowed through the wall near him. The Germans attacked with machine pistols and bazookas, probing the building from attic to basement with their fire.
A bazooka lay beside a dead German and Couture, crouching in the doorway, saw another German pick it up and run behind the wall bisecting the garden. He waited while the German helmet rose from behind the wall. Then he tossed a grenade. The German helmet jerked down and potato mashers began coming from over the wall. Couture tossed another and he heard the German scream.
The house was rapidly disintegrating under the combined blows of mortars, artillery and bazookas. Grenades were rolling down the cellar steps and flying over windowsills. Chief and his men moved back to number five and joined forces with Sergeant George C. Cassidy, Norwood, Ohio, and his squad.
A couple of heavy shells tore away part of the the upper story. A German soldier came bounding down the cellar steps, his gun spouting. BAR man Pfc. Arthur LaMountain, Barrington, Ill., shot him in the stomach. Another German followed the first, shouting "Hello."
The BAR man missed. Other soldiers seized the German but he kept shouting and they couldn't make him shut up. Cassidy backed him against the wall and slammed him on the head with a gun stock. The Kraut lowered his head and charged like a bull. Cassidy hit him again, but the Kraut kept going and ran upstairs with bullets nipping all around him.
They couldn't follow him to the attic, because the roof was torn away and other Germans had been shooting from the roof of number one. They could hear him shouting above. "Ya Ya, Das ess Goot."
An American TD opened up from across the river on number six, and the Germans set fire to the house.
Chief sent instructions across the river for S/Sgt. Willie Calhoun of Norfolk, Va., to listen for small arms fire around number 5 and deluge the house with mortars if he heard any. The attack came soon and Calhoun began pouring them in. "Was a nice feeling to hear those shells," said Chief.
Thirtysix hours had gone by since they had crossed the river. It was only the beginning. During the next eightyfour hours they got as far as number eleven, but today they were in the ruins of number 5.
They were scheduled to take number 8 this afternoon.
The 36th Division closed the Germans out of Alsace along the Rhine and Moder Rivers. It was a sluggish unrewarding grind, just a succession of tough battles, town after town, which the German troops had been ordered to hold. The Texans plugged through town after town, taking on SS troops and Volkssturmers alike who faithfully tried to carry out orders.
Even saying that such battles were victorious would be contested by the men who fought them. Nothing is an absolute victory unless it is onesided, and the men who fought through those shellbattered houses and across those bullet-fanned streets, knowing what they went through to take every heap of rocks and broken glass, a good many of those men must believe that, fighting under the conditions they did, they took nearly as much as they gave out. But the battles were actually more onesided that it would have appeared to the doughboys whose view was obscured by a logged roadblock, or by the corner around which a Tiger tank had just struck its nose.
The men of the 142nd Infantry Regiment slaughtered their way through Oberhoffen, taking four hundred and sixty prisoners in six days. The 257th Volksgrenadier Division took a worse beating than any 36th Division unit ever had, losing two battalion commanders and a third of its combat strength.
In Roihrwiller, the First Battalion of the 143rd Infantry Regiment captured one hundred and forty more prisoners, killed a battalion commander as he fanatically tried to shoot an escape route through an entire platoon.
The Division never faltered in its advance. It pushed up to the Moder River and grouped its forces in Pfaffenhoffen and Hagenau. The 103rd Infantry Division on its left flank, the French on the other flank, gathered themselves, and then the entire front cracked wide open.
It was the last big push in France.
The primary objective of the drive was to capture Wissembourg, last large French town still in enemy hands, uncovering the Siegfried Line, penetrating it to seize Bergzabern and Landau and reach the Rhine River at a point deep inside Germany. The coordinated attack along the entire Seventh Army front was aimed at establishing a consolidated front along the Rhine River, seizing a great portion of highlyindustrialized western Germany, and rendering useless the last heavilyfortified positions in the Siegfried Line.
On the left, in the vicinity of Pfaffenhoffen, was the main task force, the 143rd Regimental Combat Team augmented by three companies of tanks and td's, an engineer bridge train, and other mobile troops.
The first day, the task force drove five kilometers to Gunstett. On the right flank, a task force from the 141st Infantry Regiment freed the Surbourg road and cleaned out a pocket in the Hagenau forest.
The second day, the 142nd Infantry Regiment moved through the 143rd and advanced ten kilometers, with the 141st racing along beside it.
On the third day after the jumpoff, Wissembourg was in American hands, and Col. Charles H. Owens had personally led the 141st into Germany.
Ahead was the Siegfried Line.
The 142nd drove forward. There was strong enemy fire, artillery, mortar, tank, waiting for the Second Battalion as it stormed the high ground north of Schweigen.
The 141st pushed up one thousand yards, probing for cavities in the dragon's tooth tank defenses. It was met with furious nebelwerfer, small arms, and artillery fire.
The day it hit the Siegfried Line, the Second Battalion of the 142nd took out eleven pillboxes. The next day it took out twelve more. It was slow, deadly work. Special "knockout" squads of infantrymen and engineers had to drag themselves up to each pillbox under cover of heavy supporting fire. One man would make his way to the rear and plant a "beehive"a high explosive cone which directed all its force downward into the concrete and steel of the pillboxto blow out the defenders. Then the squad or another one would go on to the next pillbox. Every pillbox covered the ones around it in a complicated system of interlocking fire. An entire sector had to be knocked out at a time, not merely one fortification or several.
As the Germans in their supposedly unbreachable defense line wavered, more pressure was applied. The 143rd stormed back into the line and made its way into Bergzabern, which fell after a furious, lastditch defense was shattered. The 141st engaged the Line's defense, then broke a battalion away to race into Bergzabern.
Resistance slackened, then suddenly virtually disappeared. On the 22nd of March, the artillery had fired 198 missions. On March 23, it fired ten. That day the 143rd secured the ferry sites as the 141st and 142nd cleared the last small towns and closed up to the bank of the Rhine River.