March 15, 2018

World War 2 Hero

My great uncle Donald’s first cousin, Richard, enlisted in the army straight out of high school in WW2.   He entered the service on 11/27/1943 and was shot by Germans on 11/27/1944, dying of his wounds the next day.  He was just 19 years old. The funeral was held by my great uncle Fr. Cogan and is buried at St. Stephen's Cemetery in Hamilton.

He died in one sense simply because General Patton wasn’t in charge, as he ought to have been had the army been truly a meritocracy.  Instead you had the mediocre Omar Bradley, who let the carnage go on in an unwinnable situation (horrible terrain of deep forest and mud towards the goal of a useless target against dug-in German defenses – basically a foreshadowing of Vietnam.   Patton was not in favor of 'exposing oneself to the prolonged enemy fire', had recommended against it, and blasted the Hurtgen forest battle as a “collossal waste”.  

Richard, the son of an Austrian immigrant would die at the bloody Battle of Hürtgen Forest, a three month protracted battle, the "longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought."   In Richard's German heritage he was not alone – ironically half the U.S. fighters had German blood. 

He was a member of the 18th infantry, company M, in the elite First Division (“The Big Red One”, mordantly referred to colloquially as “The Big Dead One”) and survived the D-Day invasion at Omaha beach.

The Hürtgen Forest cost the U.S. First Army at least 33,000 killed and wounded; German casualties were 28,000.   The Battle of the Bulge gained widespread press and public attention, leaving the battle of Hürtgen Forest largely forgotten, although in 1998 a movie was made about the battle, “When Trumpets Fade”, and in 2016 another titled “1944”. 

The commander was Major General Clarence R. Huebner (from Wikipedia):

“In 1943, General Huebner relieved the popular commander of the 1st Infantry Division, General Terry Allen, in a move engineered by General Omar N. Bradley. While the 1st ID, aka The Big Red One, had enjoyed considerable combat success under Allen's leadership, Bradley was highly critical of both Allen and Roosevelt's wartime leadership style, which favored fighting ability over drill and discipline: ‘While the Allies were parading decorously through Tunis,’ Bradley wrote, ‘Allen's brawling 1st Infantry Division was celebrating the Tunisian victory in a manner all its own. In towns from Tunisia all the way to Arzew, the division had left a trail of looted wine shops and outraged mayors.’  Despite this, Bradley admitted that ‘none excelled the unpredictable Terry Allen in the leadership of troops.’

Upon assuming command, General Huebner immediately ordered a series of close-order drills, parades, and weapons instruction for the 1st ID, including its veterans, who had just finished a bloody series of engagements with German forces in Sicily. This did not endear him to the enlisted men of the division, who made no attempt to hide their preference for General Allen. As one of the men of the Big Red One said in disgust, ‘Hell's bells! We've been killing Germans for months and now they are teaching us to shoot a rifle? It doesn't make any sense.’  Supported by Bradley and Eisenhower, Huebner persisted, and the morale of the division gradually recovered. As the commander of the Big Red One in World War II, Huebner led the 1st in the assault on Omaha Beach, followed by a successful infantry attack at Saint-Lô. The 1st would later repel a German counteroffensive at Mortain, and pursue the German Army across France, culminating in the Battles of Aachen and the Huertgen Forest.”

And what was gained in this battle?: 

“The Americans conquered 50 square miles of real estate of no real tactical value to future operations, and they had destroyed enemy troops and reserves, which the other side could ill afford to lose.  The Germans, on the other hand, with meager resources, had slowed down a major Allied advance for 3 months. At the end of November, vital targets, dams along the Roer River, the importance of which were not realized until late in the fighting in the the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, were still in German hands.

Had the First Army gone for the Roer River Dams early in the fighting, there would have been no battle of Hürtgen Forest.  That men must die in battle is accepted, and some fighting will always be more miserable and difficult than others.  If there had been a push directly from the south to take the Roer River Dams, the cost of lives could have been just as costly.  However, if that had been done, at least the objective would have been clear and accepted as important. 

Those who fought in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest fought a misconceived and basically fruitless battle that could have, and should have been avoided.  That is the real tragedy of the Battle of Hürtgen Forest.”

By late August 1944, the “Allied logistics system was stretched to the breaking point, and the advancing armies were on the verge of running out of ammunition and fuel. Allied military planners were faced with the two strategic options of attacking Germany - on a broad front or on a narrow front. General George S. Patton and field marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery were the two leading advocates of the narrow-front approach… Pressed hard by Montgomery, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces General Dwight D. Eisenhower agreed in September 1944 to support the British plan for a combined ground and airborne thrust into Holland and then across the Rhine River at Arnhem. It soon failed and with supplies starting to dwindle to a trickle, the western Allies had no real choice other than to revert to the broad-front strategy of applying even pressure against the Germans all along the line.”  After the war was over, a Nazi general stated, “I have engaged in the long campaigns in Russia as well as other fronts and I believe the fighting in the Hurtgen was the heaviest I have ever witnessed.” 

The question of “why” is very similar to what would happen with Vietnam: 

“To some at the time and to many after the event, the question occurred: why did the First Army keep feeding more and more units into the Huertgen Forest? Throughout the fighting, the army commander, General Hodges, was acutely conscious of the difficulties his troops were facing in the forest… When the First Army first entered the forest, nobody expected any real trouble. After the hard fighting developed, the Germans had to endure the same kind of hardships as the Americans did and were infinitely less capable of replacing battle-weary formations with rested units. The expectation was always present that one more fresh American division would turn the trick.”

 Historian Ernie Herr writes: 

“Those that fought the battle from the American side were mostly from the high school classes of 1942, 1943 and 1944. These mostly still teenagers included championship high school football teams, class presidents, those that had sung in the spring concerts, those that were in the class plays, the wizards of the chemistry classes, rich kids, bright kids. There were sergeants with college degrees along with privates from Yale and Harvard. America was throwing her finest young men at the Germans. These youths had come from all sections of the country and nearly every major ethnic group.

 British General Horrocks (one of the few generals, if not the only general to do so) made a surprise front line visit to the 84th division and described these young men as ‘an impressive product of American training methods which turned out division after division complete, fully equipped. The divisions were composed of splendid, very brave, tough young men. ‘But he thought it was too much to ask of green divisions to penetrate strong defense lines, then stand up to counter attacks from first-class German divisions. And he was disturbed by the failure of American division and corps commanders and their staffs to ever visit the front lines. He was greatly concerned to find that the men were not even getting hot meals brought up from the rear, in contrast to the forward divisions in the British line. He reported that not even battalion commanders were going to the front.

These were the magnificent kids of the American high school classes of 1942, 43 and 44 and while over 50,000 German soldiers were executed for desertion during this time period, only one American soldier was executed for the same offense, remarkably demonstrating the patriotism and devotion to duty of this group.

That this patriotism and devotion was so abused and never recognized even to this day, should be cause for a heavy heart. If there were ever a group of Americans for which a tear should be shed, this would be the group.”

On 27 November the 18th Infantry renewed its attempt to take Hill 203, which for more than three days had stymied an advance into Langerwehe, Germany.  He likely took fire in the attempt, probably from German paratroopers or the German 47th Division, and died the next day in newly conquered Langerwehe.  

He posthumously received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

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