Posted in B-17, History, Research, WWII

B-17 Nine-o-Nine

This is a re-post of a post published in March 2018 after our flight on the Nine-O-Nine. I want to honor this beautiful airplane and all those who were killed or injured this morning when the Nine-O-Nine crashed in Connecticut. This is a sad, sad day.

 

As promised in my last post, here are more photos of the B-17 Nine-o-Nine that we flew on a couple of weeks ago. These were taken on the ground as we walked around and examined the plane before our flight. I’ve seen so many pictures of B-17’s, but a picture does not compare to seeing the airplane in person.

On Feb. 23, 2018, we drove out to Cecil Field to see the Collings Foundation’s Wings of Freedom 2018 tour. The main attraction for me was the B-17 G Nine-o-Nine. I’ve been fascinated with the B-17 from the time I began researching for what turned out to be my first published novel, Kitty’s War. In my novel, the hero is a navigator on a B-17 stationed in a fictitious air field in England as part of the U.S. Eighth Air Force.  

The B-17 G is a later version of the famous bomber which had the “chin” turret added in the front just below the navigator’s perch in the nose of the airplane. Since the German fighters often attacked the bombers from the front, flying straight into the formation, the designers added a gun position on the nose to fire at oncoming fighters.

 

The Plexiglas surrounding the bombardier giving him maximum visibility. He used the closely guarded Norden bomb-sight to zero in on the target and drop the load of bombs. When under attack from fighters, the bombardier fired the 50 caliber machine guns in the “chin” turret.

While the plane was still on the ground, I climbed inside to look around. This is the entrance the pilot, co-pilot, bombardier and navigator would have used to enter the plane. In movies and newsreels I’ve seen them jump up, grab hold of the top of the opening and pull themselves up into the bomber. The ladder makes it much easier.

Once inside, I moved forward into the nose. Straight ahead you see the bombardier’s seat. Note the ammo belts for the guns and the big wooden box for extra ammunition.  To the right of the bombardier’s seat are the controls for the “chin” turret guns. The navigator’s desk is behind the bombardier on the left. The navigator was also responsible for manning a machine gun.

The navigator would have carried maps marked up with the day’s mission. These would have been given to him in the briefing prior to taking off. Although the flight path for the primary target and the secondary target were already worked out, if something went wrong, the navigator would have to use the maps and his training to get the crew back to their base, or at least back to England.

Climbing back down I continued my walk around the airplane.

Behind the wing, the ball turret is visible beneath the fuselage. In this swiveling device, the ball turret gunner could swirl around and shoot in almost all directions. Shorter airmen manned the ball turret due to the cramped space in this position.

The tail gunner guarded the rear of the airplane. My husband is pointing to the gun sights in the small window. The sights would have been used to aid the tail gunner in aiming his guns. The Flying Fortress, as the Boeing B-17 was called, had thirteen 50 caliber machine guns which covered every direction to defend itself from enemy fighters.

The bomb bay doors were open as the B-17 sat on the ground. So I stooped down and looked up to get this shot of the “fake” bombs. Cool view!

Inside at the waist gunners’ positions you can see the seats added for those of us who would fly. The seats consisted of a small cushion to sit on and a larger one to lean back against. Looking through the plane from here, at the rear entrance, you can see the top of the ball turret, then through the radio room and into the bomb bay. The large yellow bottle-like container in the center of the photo is an oxygen bottle. This airplane was not pressurized. When the altitude reached about 5,000 feet the crew had to put on oxygen masks so they could breathe. The oxygen masks were attached by long tubes to numerous oxygen bottles throughout the plane. This aircraft was also not heated. The crew wore bulky, padded, electrically heated suits and gloves to stay warm and prevent frostbite at high altitudes.

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The contraption pictured here is the “put-put.”  If you have read my novel, Kitty’s War, you will remember my reference to it during a mission when the plane is damaged. It is the back-up electrical generator used to provide vital power to systems if the main power supply from the engines was lost.

Here is a close up of one of the four, powerful, 1200 hp engines.

Finally, a parting shot of this beautiful bird. We had a great day both touring and flying in this fantastic B-17. Thanks to the Collings Foundation for restoring these historic aircraft and for keeping them in flying condition so that the public can see them and experience flying in a World War II vintage airplane.

Posted in B-17, Research, WWII

Flight in a B-17

View of the St. Johns River from the Bombardier seat

What an incredible flight! My husband and I recently flew in “Nine-O-Nine,” a WWII vintage B-17 G owned and operated by the Collings Foundation. The B-17 along with a B-24 and a P-51 are touring the country as part of Collings 2018 “Wings of Freedom” tour.

Since I took so many pictures that I want to share, I will split them up into more than one post. I’ll start with the in-flight shots on “Nine-O-Nine.” The on-the-ground pictures will be in a later post.

Let’s start with me waiting to take off.  Notice that we are sitting on the floor in the waist gunner positions. No luxuries here.

Once in the air we were allowed to move around in the plane so that’s what I did. Here is the waist gun position looking out over the wing. 

Next comes a view of downtown Jacksonville way in the distance. We flew out of Cecil Field so we were a few miles west of downtown. It’s in the mist but if you enlarge the picture you can see the skyline.

After getting my flight legs in the moving plane, I managed to find hand holds and made my way around the ball turret.  Looking down I could see daylight around the unoccupied gunner position. Not wanting to drop my cellphone when the plane made unexpected movements,  I decided to put it away and only use the camera hanging around my neck on what was proving to be an unsteady journey through the plane.

I moved from the waist gunner area forward into the radio compartment. There were eight passengers on board for our flight. This lady sat in the radio operators position. 

Beyond the radio compartment is the bomb bay. Notice the narrow walkway, just wide enough for my foot, and the small ropes to hold to steady yourself. The v-shape of the bomb supports made for a tight fit as I squeezed through grabbing for something solid to hold onto. Imagine having to do this at 20,000 feet with the bomb bay doors open. Not for the faint of heart.

Beyond the bomb bay is the flight engineer’s position right behind the pilots. Here the top was open. Very windy for the passenger looking out. Out to the side the flight engineer could view the engines from his spot behind the pilots.

We were told not to talk to the pilots during the flight and, believe me, we all wanted them to focus on flying this large, four-engine airplane. They did a fabulous job. Notice that the co-pilot is a woman. Reminds me that the WASP pilots flew B-17’s around the U.S. during the war.

Now down into the small passageway leading to the nose. I had to drop down to the wooden surface, and then get down on my hands and knees and crawl into the nose where the navigator and bombardier sit.

Straight ahead is the bombardier’s position surrounded by Plexiglas.  Notice the gun sight in the center and the machine gun that he operated.

On the left side of the nose is the navigator’s desk. This would have been where the hero in my novel, “Kitty’s War,” sat. Again, there is a machine gun, not in the picture, that he fired when needed.

Back in the waist gunner positions my husband and two other passengers look out the windows. 

Another view out the windows at the river below as we head back to the airfield. 

And, finally, me standing in front of the gun at the waist gunner position with my wild “bomber” hair style. What a fun, once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

 

Posted in Historical Sites, History, My Novels, Research, WWII

Elveden Hall as Setting for novel Kitty’s War

The setting in a novel can provide a unique location for events to unfold. Some authors use real places and real historic landmarks in their books. I recently read “At the Water’s Edge” by Sara Gruen and she used Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness as her setting. Other authors create completely fictional locations to suit their needs. And some create fictitious locations based on actual places. This is what I did in my novel, Kitty’s War.

While doing research for Kitty’s War, I needed a fictional location for the 8th Air Force Second Combat Bombardment Wing Headquarters where the main characters got together. I knew that during WWII the English took over large country houses and estates for use by the military and some of these were assigned to the growing American forces. These estates were ideal for the Air Force because they provided enough space for construction of air fields and temporary buildings for housing and other needs. The large homes were perfect for headquarters.

My image of an English country house was something like Highclere Castle used for the setting of Downton Abbey. I couldn’t use that one so I went in search of houses that were actually used by the military. That’s how I found Elveden Hall. It had a fascinating history including that it had been owned by Maharaja Duleep Singh, ruler of the Sikh Empire, during his exile in England. While living there he completely redesigned the interiors of the house to resemble the Moghal palaces in India.

During WWII Elveden Hall served as headquarters for the 3rd Bomb Division, also known as the 3rd Air Division. That made it perfect for my purpose. I made changes so that it is more a fictional location that a real one, such as adding a hospital and air field which were not actually on the grounds and changing the name to Ellingham Castle . For more information about the US Air Force in England during WWII, including a picture of a Women’s Army Corps corporal working at Elveden Hall, follow this link.

I have not been the only one who thought Elveden Hall would make an interesting setting. Several movies have been shot there including “Eyes Wide Shut” where director Stanley Kubrick used the interiors to create a unique atmosphere. This YouTube video of one scene shot there will give you an idea of the interior of this unique house.

Kitty’s War is available online.

Posted in History, Research, WWII

The War Comes to the U.S. East Coast

When Hitler declared war on the United States, U-boat captains delighted in the opportunity to hunt along the east coast of America. They had roamed the coast of Europe, stalked the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic and guarded the entrance to the Mediterranean. After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan and Germany declared war on the U.S. Before these momentous events there had been tension and confrontations between German U-boats and American ships as they assisted the English and Canadians in escorting ships transporting goods across the North Atlantic. When war was declared, the U-boats headed for the east coast of the U.S. where they found easy pickings in unarmed and unescorted American merchant ships. The Germans called it “Operation Drumbeat.”u48-uboat-wwii

Shipping along the east coast from Maine to Florida, as well as along the Gulf coast, became targets. Along the eastern seaboard  One hundred and twenty-one (121) merchant ships were either sunk or damaged during 1942 alone. Why were they such easy targets?

The merchant marine vessels had no protection. They were unarmed and they had no military escorts. Although the war in Europe had been raging since 1939 and the German U-boats had been attacking ships in the Atlantic headed for England, the United States was woefully unprepared to protect vital shipping along her coast line. Also early in the war the United States did not have strict black-out rules. It took a while for many areas to realize that light from the shore endangered ships at sea. German U-boats could target ships at night by tracking the vessel’s silhouette against the light from the shore.photo80mnus-torpedtankerlc

Imagine standing on the shore and watching a ship burning after it had been hit by torpedoes. That’s what happened along the shores of Florida in early 1942. Read an interesting interview with German U-boat Captain Hardegan where he tells of sinking a tanker off the coast of Jacksonville in April 1942. He saw the ship against the lights from the beach and after it was hit he said he could see the people on shore watching it burn.

We don’t often think about the number of ships and the number of lives lost by the Merchant Marines. Their task was vital and their losses were higher than other military branches. But they weren’t technically military despite their critical role in transporting all kinds of materials.enroll-merchant-marine

Something had to be done to stop the loss of life and vital cargoes. Initially the focus had been on protecting the west coast, but it didn’t take long to recognize the threat of the German U-boats along the eastern seaboard. The Navy and the Coast Guard increased patrols searching for the U-boats by sea. The Army Air Corps flew patrols along the coast and the Civil Air Patrol was established to fly additional patrols searching for the enemy.

Meanwhile, shippers had to find a way to safely transport vital cargo including shipments of oil. They turned to transport through the intracoastal waterway. This protected route utilized existing rivers, waterways and canals to ship a variety of cargo in barges. Improvements to depth and width of this waterway enabled larger vessels to pass through this route.

The Navy organized escorted convoys of merchant ships traveling along the east coast. That, combined with increased Air Corp bomber activity, reduced the number of ships sunk. By 1943 fewer merchant vessels went down and numerous U-boats were sunk off the eastern coast of the United States.

The remains of sunken merchant ships and German U-boats can be found all along the east coast. See this article and photographs about ship wrecks off the coast of North Carolina.

In my novel, Kitty’s War, the hero floats toward shore in a raft after his merchant ship was sunk off the east coast. Stories of this little known part of the war inspired the opening of my novel where the hero and heroine meet for the first time. You can purchase Kitty’s War on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-million, iTunes, Kobo and The Wild Rose Press.

 

Posted in 30th Infantry Division, History, Research, WWII

The 30th Division’s Final Push to the End of the War

With this post I will finish my series of posts on the exploits of the 30th Infantry Division during World War II. I have been distracted by other events in my life (like selling my first novel). Nevertheless, I need to bring their story to a conclusion and, in doing so, tell of some interesting occurrences during the last days of the war.

After crossing the Rhine River on March 24, 1945, the 30th pushed into the heart of Germany. By the 28th, the 8th Armored Division passed through their lines and the mission of the 30th was to follow behind and mop up. After Dorsten fell on March 29, XIX Corps took command of the 30th. By April 1, Old Hickory was reassigned to following the 2nd Armored Division on a long road march eastward towards Berlin. Before them lay the Teutoberger Wald, the place where the Germanic tribal chief, Hermann, defeated the Roman legions of Varus in 9 AD. The 2nd Armored Division left the Autobahn, which veered north at this point, and crossed the long ridge of the Teutoberger Wald with the assistance of the 30th. A German Officers Training School aided regular troops to resist the Americans in the rough, steep, heavily forested terrain. They tried to take a stand on Monument Hill, the site of the Hermannsdenkmal (the statue commemorating famous battle), but Old Hickory defeated them.

On April 7th the 117th Regiment cleared Hamelin minus K Company who had been left behind to guard an Allied Prisoner of War camp. During the advance the 30th took over an assortment of installations, including airports, hospitals, training camps and German research facilities. All had to be guarded in addition to the thousands of German prisoners. Feeding the prisoners, freed POWs and slave laborers fell to the military which was unprepared to care for such numbers.

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Frank Towers talking about his experiences with the 30th Infantry Division

The 30th’s next objective was Brunswick. The German commander, General Veith, called for a truce to negotiate a surrender of the city, but after a meeting with General Hobbs, Commander of the 30th, the Germans refused the terms of “unconditional surrender.” The conference was only a delaying tactic to allow the German Army to escape. Fighting resumed almost immediately with the 117th Regiment attacking and the 120th moving into position to block escape from the city. By April 12 the 3rd Battalion of the 117th remained to mop up Brunswick while the remainder of the 117th along with the 120th pushed eastward toward the Elbe River. (The 119th was attached to the 2nd Armored Division at this time.)

After Brunswick fell, the 743rd Tank Battalion and infantry from the 119th Regiment were proceeding toward Magdeburg when they passed through the town of Farsleben. Lead elements found a long freight train stopped on the track. The Nazi guards attempted to flee from the Americans but were captured. The train had a full head of steam and was awaiting orders when the Americans showed up. It didn’t take long to determine that the old freight cars contained 2,500 Jewish prisoners who were being moved from Bergen-Belsen prison camp to some unknown location in the east. Problem was that the Russians were advancing from the east. The bridge over the Elbe had been destroyed and at one point the Nazis ordered the crew to drive the train into the river which would have killed all aboard. Shocked by their discovery the Americans could scarcely believe the condition of the prisoners. Frank Towers tells the story of the liberation of the train and the following events in a section of the book “The Fighting 30th Division – They Called Them Roosevelt’s SS” by Martin King, David Hilborn and Michael Collins. You can also watch and listen to Frank Tower’s account of the incident in an interview by University of Florida oral history program on YouTube.

Although the 30th Infantry Division had been issued maps through to Berlin, the order came down that they were to take Magdeburg and stop on the banks of the Elbe River. The Russians would proceed from the east and the two allies would meet at the Elbe. Many in the 30th were disappointed at not getting to push on into Berlin.

Magdeburg appeared an easy task. There were hopes of a surrender but when men went in to discuss it with the German commander they found him either unwilling or unable to surrender the city. Before the attack by both the 30th Infantry Division and the 2nd Armored Division, bombers unloaded on the already damaged city. Within twenty-four hours Magdeburg was cleared. It was April 18, 1945.

With orders to hold at the Elbe, Old Hickory’s fighting in Europe came to an end.  While they waited for the Red Army and the German surrender, which finally came on May 8, 1945, the 30th occupied the area and took 7,468 prisoners.  Some crossed the river to escape being captured by the Russians. All along the line the large numbers of surrendering German soldiers became a burden on the Allies to feed and house. In addition, there were thousands of freed slave laborers and liberated prisoner of war camps to deal with. Contact with the Russians came on May 4th.

Old Hickory moved south from Magdeburg to Thuringia and assumed occupation duty after the surrender. Near the end of June, the 30th learned they had been chosen for redeployment to the Pacific Theater. Their orders would carry them home, to the United States, to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Those individuals with enough points to be discharged were transferred primarily to the 76th Infantry Division with lower point individuals from the 76th moving into the 30th to replenish its ranks. These transfers due to points often explain why a veteran’s discharge papers show him in a different division from the one he fought with.

In July, the 30th moved across Europe to Camp Lucky Strike near Le Havre, France. The bulk of the division crossed the channel to England to await shipment to the U.S. That’s where they got the news that Japan had surrendered August 15, 1945. The 119th Regiment had sailed from France on August 12 so they were at sea when word came. All the men of Old Hickory let out a sigh of relief.  Their fight was over. On Aug. 16th the division boarded the Queen Mary and sailed for home where the 30th Infantry Division was deactivated on November 25, 1945. The 30th Infantry Division left a glorious record of bravery, hard fighting and sacrifice in which we can all take pride.

Posted in 276th AFA, Research, WWII

Researching a World War II Army Veteran

Several people have contacted me asking how to get information about a family member who served in the military in World War II. I do not profess to be an expert on researching individual veteran’s records but since I have done some research I can provide a little guidance.

I have been immensely fortunate that I have records directly from the veteran for my most immediate family members who served in WWII. I have a copy of my father’s discharge paper and a box of letters he wrote to my mother during the war. We have my father-in-law’s copy of his unit history from the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. These histories were published right after the war and I have learned that they are both rare and valuable. The family also has his discharge paper. These can be very helpful as a starting place in searching for records.

On the other hand, last year when I was searching for information about my father’s cousin, Herman Connell Jr., who was killed in Europe in 1945, I found out just how difficult it was when you had very little specific information about the soldier. All I had was his name and the unit he served in which was on his gravestone. I was able to compile a story about his unit and the action they were in at the date of his death but I couldn’t get any specific information about his individual experiences.Finding Your Fathers War Cover

The inquiries I received prompted me to look for some guide to searching for records. What I found was an excellent book which contains an enormous amount of information. “Finding Your Father’s War” by Jonathan Gawne is a must-have book for anyone looking for information on someone who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. I would even go so far as to say that it is a must-have book for anyone writing about World War II. It deals with the Army only, no Navy or Marines. It does include information about the Army Air Corp since during WWII the fly boys were part of the Army. It wasn’t until after the war that the Air Force became its own branch of the service.

One of the main reasons Gawne focused on the Army was that a fire in 1973 destroyed much of the individual service records as well as the company level records. The Navy, Marine and Coast Guard records were not burned and are available through those branches.

Some things discussed in “Finding Your Father’s War” I had already figured out from various sources. If I’d had this book it would have been so much easier and faster. There are other useful tidbits in Gawne’s book that I did not know. If you are trying to put together the pieces of someone’s military service these little details can yield a wealth of understanding.

I’ll give you some examples just to give you a feel for what I am talking about.

One of the things that I had already figured out from the many memoirs I’ve read was the structure of an Army Infantry Division. Each division had three infantry regiments thus it is referred to as a triangular organization. A division also had division artillery and division headquarters where all the support units were attached. Continuing with the triangular organization each infantry regiment was divided into three battalions plus headquarters. Although each infantry regiment had a unique number (the 30th Infantry Division consisted of the 117th, 119th and 120th Infantry Regiments), the battalions were simply numbered 1st, 2nd and 3rd (so the 117th Infantry Regiment had a 1st Battalion, a 2nd Battalion and a 3rd Battalion plus Headquarters). Each Battalion was made up of three rifle companies and a heavy weapons company. A letter designated each company but the letter designation wasn’t the same in each battalion. Instead it went like this: 1st Battalion consisted of Company A, Company B, Company C and Company D, the last being the heavy weapons company; 2nd Battalion consisted of Company E, Company F, Company G and Company H, again with the fourth one being heavy weapons; 3rd Battalion consisted of Company I, Company K, Company L and Company M, again Company M was heavy weapons and the letter J was skipped. So if you know your Army veteran was in Company H, he would have been in the heavy weapons company of the 2nd Battalion. This can be helpful since many historical accounts of battles refer to the battalion.

Something I learned from “Finding Your Father’s War” is that the soldier’s serial number isn’t just a random number assigned when he entered the service. The number will tell you something about the soldier. Serial numbers with no letter prefix means the soldier was an enlisted man. The prefix “O” indicates he was an officer. Others with letter prefixes included nurses, warrant officers, WAC’s and others. If the first number was a “1” the soldier was an enlistee. If it was a “2,” he was in the National Guard. A “3” meant he was drafted. Late in the war some draftees were given serial numbers starting with a “4.” The second digit in the serial number tells the geographic region of the country the soldier was in when he entered the service. These numbers correspond to the service commands within the United States. A map is included in the book.

In addition to this book there are numerous resources online that can help you. The National Archives, the Center for Military History, division organizations websites and Facebook pages, and even sites like Ancestry.com and Fold3.com. Local historic societies and local newspapers may be a source since many servicemen had articles written about them during the war. Family stories and even old pictures can provide clues especially if you know what to look for.

Good luck in searching for your WWII veteran’s records. It is always fascinating to learn about an individual’s service during the war when millions were in uniform and had such a variety of experiences.

Posted in 30th Infantry Division, History, Research, WWII

30th Infantry Division – From the Roer to the Rhine

By the end of January 1945 the Allies had fought their way back to the positions they occupied before the Battle of the Bulge. Six weeks of fighting in the worst winter many had ever seen where the weather was as much of an enemy as the Germans. The 30th Division assembled near Liernieux, just west of St. Vith, Belgium, where they had been sent to recover from both the cold and the battle casualties. Rumors abounded about what would come next. Would they tackle the Sigfried Line again? Or was something else in store?

After months of fighting the 30th had become a well-oiled fighting machine. Experienced officers and non-coms knew how to plan an attack and how to carry it out. With replacements coming up they knew how to train and quickly assimilate them in with the more experienced soldiers. So it was no surprise when they were reassigned to the Ninth Army and trucked north to take part in clearing out the section of the Rhine valley facing the industrial center in the Ruhr valley.Arns War Cover

Returning to the Aachen area and the flat lands of the Cologne plain, Old Hickory received a tough assignment – a treacherous stretch of the Roer River between Julich and Duren, due west from Cologne. The Germans flooded the river by blowing up the control sluices on one of the dams upstream so the Roer crossing, originally planned for February 10, was delayed. Knee deep water covered the lowlands on either bank of the Roer. Like the previous fall when Old Hickory sat facing the Sigfreid Line for two weeks, now they faced the Roer waiting for it to subside. They again used the time for training the men, for reconnaissance and planning.  But this time the attack would be across a river rather than against the pillboxes of the Siegfried line.

When they left the Ardennes, the 30th Division along with the entire Ninth Army traveled in secret. They removed shoulder patches and vehicular markings. They assigned code names to roads and telephone exchanges. All to keep the Germans from knowing the Allies exact plans. Although Axis Sally spoke of the 30th returning to the Aachen area, the tactic worked. For once the Germans lost track of Old Hickory.

Roer%20River%209th%20army%20crossingWaiting for the river to subside didn’t mean the division was without casualties. German artillery pounded the western bank and the Luffwaffe flew regular missions including the first sightings by 30th Division men of German jet-propelled aircraft. Edward C. Arn, in his memoir “Arn’s War,” tells of being wounded by artillery fire while reconnoitering one of his platoon’s positions near the Roer.

Before the 30th finally crossed the Roer on February 23, 1945, the biggest artillery barrage in Europe up to that date pounded the Germans on the Eastern shore. The 30th’s assigned 8,000 yards of front received fire from the Division Artillery, plus three 18-piece battalions of 2nd Armored Division’s self-propelled artillery, the 823rd Tank Destroyer’s 36 guns and guns from Corp and Army battalions totaling 246 guns firing. Wow!XVI%20Corp%20photo%20Alligator%20on%20Rhine

While part of the 234th Engineer Combat Battalion ferried men across in Alligators, armored amphibious vehicles, and in assault boats, other engineers struggled to build a footbridge across the Roer, all under the cover of a smoke screen provided by the 82nd Smoke Generator Company.  On the far shore the 30th faced little resistance, thanks to the artillery, and quickly accomplished their assigned tasks.

Meanwhile the intrepid engineers completed a treadway bridge in just twenty-one and a half hours allowing tanks and trucks to cross the river. In the next few days Old Hickory took town after town as they moved ever closer to the greatest obstacle between the Allies and the heart of Germany – the Rhine River.

Rhine1 practice on MaasOn March 6, 1945, the 30th Division returned to Maas, Netherlands, to prepare for their next assignment – spearheading the Ninth Army’s attack across the Rhine. Again preparation made all the difference.

It was March 24, 1944, when all three regiments of the 30th crossed the great river at the same time along a five mile stretch from south of Wesel to Mehrum. Naval assault boats ferried, tanks, tank destroyers and infantry men continuously across the great river. That’s right – the U.S. Navy hauled boats inland for this vital operation. XVI%20Corp%20photo%20landing%20craft for rhine crossing

Engineers constructed a pontoon bridge for the tanks and other vehicles in record time again under cover of a smoke screen.Rhine2 smoke screen

The 117th history says the First Battalion of that regiment went first with the Third Battalion carrying the stormboats to the river’s edge so the assault troops would be fresh. It was 2:00 AM on March 24th. With little resistance by midnight the 117th had reached their assigned positions and moved on toward the next town.

For the first few hours after the crossing Old Hickory encountered only light German resistance. Then the 116th Panzer Division moved into their path. One of only two German mobile divisions available, the 116th focused on holding back the 30th while the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division spread out facing the British and Canadians further north. The enemy’s backhanded compliment to the 30th Division wasn’t appreciated by the men on the line.

The 30th doggedly fought their way eastward against armor and anti-aircraft guns lowered to fire at ground troops. After days of continuous fighting fatigue added to the stubborn enemy resistance to slow down Old Hickory. Plans for the 8th Armored Division to pass through the 30th and take on the fight called for the 30th to advance far enough to allow the armor to take over in open country. Old Hickory’s boys fought on taking Gahlen in street fighting against determined resistance. Finally on the morning of March 28, 1945, the 8th Armored Division came forward and took over the fight. Nearly 100 hours after their assault across the Rhine, Old Hickory finally got some much needed rest.

The 30th Division wasn’t through fighting. It would be over a month before Germany finally surrendered. Even at this late date, more would die before the war was over.

Posted in History, Research, WWII

Company Commander by Charles B. MacDonald

I’m a writer. So when I read a memoir or a historical account I’m always looking for something I can use in my writing. Sometimes it’s a story idea. Sometimes it’s how the person reacts to the situation. Sometimes it’s how two people meet. And sometimes it’s very specific details of the combat experience that can be used to recreate a realistic combat scene in a story.Company Commander book cover

In reading Company Commander by Charles B. MacDonald I discovered incredibly rich detail about his combat experience. In addition to detailed descriptions of terrain, weather and military procedures, MacDonald relayed his feelings during each episode, not just saying “I was frightened,” but saying “My body began to shake uncontrollably. My voice trembled despite my efforts to control it.” These realistic and vivid descriptions are all through the book.

Captain MacDonald joined I Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division in September, 1944, as a replacement Company Commander just after they had captured Brest on the French coast. Almost immediately they were loaded in French forty-and-eight freight cars and transported across France to Longuyon. From there they convoyed by truck to Belgium where they relieved elements of the 28th Division along the Siegfried Line near St.Vith.  Along the way MacDonald got to know his more experienced men, both his platoon leaders and the men who would man his Command Post, and worried about gaining their acceptance.

MacDonald describes the procedure of taking over the positions including the guides assigned to walk them to their positions, the discussion with the Company Commander he was relieving, and an account of the defensive positions themselves. My writer’s eye marveled at the detailed description of the interior of the pillbox used as their command post, at the explanations of the deployment of his men, at his impressions of how the combat veterans accepted their new, twenty-two-year-old, inexperienced captain who felt so insecure in his first combat experience. Then later, during German attacks, he describes the process of communicating with the battalion to call in artillery fire to protect the riflemen in forward foxholes and the problems with broken phone lines and dying radio batteries at critical times.

The book follows MacDonald’s journey from the pill boxes on the Siegfried Line on to other defensive positions along the Belgium-German border as the autumn progressed and the weather deteriorated. In early December, the 2nd Division was ordered further north for an offensive against the Roer River dams. They were relieved by the 106th Division, newly arrived from the U.S. MacDonald describes them as “equipped with the maze of equipment that only replacements fresh from the States would have dared to call their own… and horror of horrors, they were wearing neckties!”  The 106th took over positions in the proximity of St. Vith, Belgium, on December 11, just five days before the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge would begin.

The 23rd’s new positions were located in “a giant fir forest” where they de-trucked “half-frozen from a five-hour nightmare of cold, snow and hazardous blackout driving.” They were greeted by “a foot of frozen whiteness covering the ground.” They then hiked a mile along an icy highway, crossed a small, icy stream and up-hill on a one-way trail to a point in the snow-covered forest designated as their new home. MacDonald said “I felt like crying.” This was a far cry from the comforts of their last positions. Yet their kitchen truck was able to follow them and provide a hot breakfast.

After word filtered in about a German attack, MacDonald tells of his meeting at battalion headquarters where he received orders to move to an assembly area in support of the 99th Division whose area had been penetrated. “We would take blanket rolls, three meals of K-rations and packs.” These scenes of meetings with commanding officers and discussions of details about deploying his men on short notice along with his anxiety about going on the offensive after only defensive action bring the reader into the moment. And they help me as a writer, and non-military person, visualize the situation.

I Company would go on to frantically try to hold their assigned positions against the German onslaught and ultimately have to scatter and withdraw. In the mêlée MacDonald is wounded and berates himself for not holding while worrying about his men who he can’t account for.  Again the reader is right with them.

In March, after recovering from his wounds and receiving a medal, MacDonald is reassigned to Company G as the Americans push into Germany and cross the Rhine. He recounts the anxiety as they enter each German village never knowing whether they would meet gunfire, surrendering German soldiers or gawking civilians. More than once large anti-aircraft guns fired at them as a few Germans tried to desperately fight on.

MacDonald had an extraordinary memory to be able to recall so many details included in the book, written in 1947, three years after the events. It was not surprising to learn that MacDonald became a military historian after the war. He wrote two of the U.S. Army’s official histories of the European campaign.

I’ll mention what I thought was an interesting tidbit. MacDonald mentions many men by name along with their hometowns. At one point he mentions meeting Captain John M. Calhoun of Athens, Tennessee, who was then commander of F Company 23rd Regiment. Knowing that Athens, Tenn. was the headquarters of B Company, 117th Regiment, 30th Infantry Division when they were federalized in 1940, I went to their history which lists all the members of B Company at the time of federalization. Sure enough, John M. Calhoun was listed as a Private First Class. The B Company history states that in 1942 twenty-two of its enlisted men were sent to Officers Training School. Captain Calhoun was apparently one of those and he ended up in the 2nd Division as a Company Commander.

Posted in 30th Infantry Division, Historical Sites, History, Research, WWII

Camp Blanding And Its WWII History

Recently my husband and I drove down to Camp Blanding and toured the Camp Blanding Museum located just off Florida State Road 16 at the entrance to the base. Since it was a typically hot and humid Florida day, we spent most of our time inside the museum building. Before leaving we walked around viewing the monuments for each division that trained at Camp Blanding and looking at some of the WWII vintage equipment on display. We hope to return when it is cooler so that we can venture further and see more of the equipment including some more modern tanks, helicopters and planes.Barbara at Camp Blanding

Our original intent was to learn more about the 30th Infantry Division since we knew that Old Hickory had trained at Camp Blanding before going overseas. What we learned was that nine full divisions trained at Camp Blanding before it became a replacement training center.

Camp Blanding is situated in Clay County, Florida, near Starke. The 73,000 acre military reservation, which includes Kingsley Lake, is the training facility for the Florida National Guard as well as a Joint Training Facility for U.S. military, international forces and various other agencies. In 1939 Florida established the base for training the Florida National Guard. At the beginning of World War II the U.S. Army took it over to train the federalized national guard units as well as portions of the regular army.

Once under the control of the federal government, Camp Blanding rapidly expanded so that it could accommodate at least two divisions for training. Construction boomed, employing thousands. As the troops moved in the area soon grew to be the fourth largest city in Florida.

The first housing for the troops consisted of pyramid tents, to which wooden floors and walls were added. Due to the ankle-deep sand, wooden walk-ways were constructed and drills had to be conducted on the paved roads.31st Div at Camp Blanding

In the beginning, the 31st Infantry Division made Camp Blanding its home. The 31st, known as the Dixie Division, consisted of the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida National Guard. With capacity for two divisions to train, the 43rd Infantry Division moved to Camp Blanding. The 43rd, or Winged Victory Division, was made up of the Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island National Guard. Thus streets were named for the respective states, both north and south, and locations within those states. With units from the deep south and the northeast training at the same base, the old north-south rivalries emerged, but remained relatively good-natured.36th Div at Camp Blanding1st Div at Camp Blanding

When the 31st Division and the 43rd Division left Camp Blanding to eventually serve in the South Pacific, the 36th Infantry Division, made up of the Texas National Guard, moved in. They were soon joined by the First Infantry Division, the only Regular Army division to train at Camp Blanding. These two divisions ended up in North Africa, then Sicily and Normandy for the “Big Red One” and Italy for the Texans.IMG_1412

By August of 1942 the 79th Division, an Army Reserve unit, occupied Camp Blanding. And the 29th Infantry Division, also known as the “Blue and Gray” since it was made up of the Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and District of Columbia National Guard, arrived in the Florida camp.

It wasn’t until October 1942 that the 30th Infantry Division came to Camp Blanding for training. The North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee National Guard, all components of the 30th, remained in Florida until May of 1943. From Blanding Old Hickory participated in the Tennessee Maneuvers, then moved on to Indiana and Massachusetts where they shipped out for Europe in February 1944. A few days after D-Day the 30th landed in Normandy and fought almost continuously until they met up with the Russians in May 1945.IMG_1415

Two other U.S. Army Reserve Divisions also trained at Camp Blanding. The 66th Infantry Division, called the “Black Panthers,” was activated in April 1943 at Blanding. In June 1943 the 63rd Infantry Division was formed at Camp Blanding. They used the nickname “Blood & Fire.” Both went on to fight in Europe.

In 1943 the Florida base took on a new role as an infantry replacement training center, soon becoming the largest such training facility in the country. With the fighting going on in the Pacific, North Africa and Italy, it became clear that replacements were needed to fill the ranks depleted by casualties, so bases like Camp Blanding became vital to the war effort.  And with the capture of prisoners on the battlefields the need for Prisoner of War camps arose. So a portion of the military reservation was converted to a prison camp and eventually housed some 378,000 German POW’s.

The inauspicious Camp Blanding with its pine trees, sand and picturesque lake played a major role in training U.S. troops during World War II. An estimated 800,000 soldiers trained at the Florida base during the war.  Although now it has reverted back to its original purpose, we should not forget what the base contributed during the desperate years when the world struggled to defeat the Axis powers.Jeep Display at Camp Blanding

The Camp Blanding Museum pays tribute to all the divisions who trained here. Exhibits tell of each divisions training and combat experiences. Uniforms, weapons, medical gear, and much more provide the WWII amateur historian ample food for thought. To read more about Camp Blanding’s history, read the article by Jim Ashton on the 30th Infantry Website.Patches at Camp Blanding

In the book store I purchased a book about the 30th Division and another about Florida’s role in WWII. My husband got another “Old Hickory” hat. He loves wearing the 30th hat with their eye-catching insignia because it spurs so many comments and has started several long conversations on a subject he thoroughly enjoys.Pat at Camp Blanding

Posted in 30th Infantry Division, History, Research, WWII

117th Regiment 30th Infantry Division – Siegfried Line to Aachen

Many historical accounts or discussions about the Second World War in Europe skim over the events of the fall of 1944. They focus on the D-Day Landings and the battle in Normandy. Next comes the liberation of Paris and the race across France to the German border. From there they jump to the Battle of the Bulge and cover the terrible winter of 1944-45. Yet from the first of October through mid-December, 1944, intense battles raged all along the German border.

Until my husband got me interested in researching the 30th Infantry Division, I knew little about the fight to breach the Siegfried Line. I had heard of Aachen but didn’t really understand what happened there or its significance. So in this post, I will continue my discussion of the 30th Division’s combat experiences beginning where I left them along the infamous Siegfried Line not far from the historic city of Aachen.

30th Infantry Division Patch
30th Infantry Division Patch

At the beginning of October, 1944, the 30th Infantry Division faced the German border from southernmost Holland only a few miles from Belgium. Before them lay a section of what the Germans called the West Wall, a series of pill boxes, trenches, tank traps and dragon’s teeth built in the 1930’s to defend Germany from the French. The West Wall, also known as the Siegfried Line, was intended to provide a defensive position from which the Germans would attack, rather than fortifications to defend like the French Maginot Line.

After the German invasion of France, Belgium and Holland, the Third Reich no longer needed the West Wall defenses, so they stood unused and neglected. But when the Germans rapidly withdrew to their borders in the summer of 1944, the Wehrmacht again occupied the West Wall fortifications. They quickly repaired and reinforced the last line of defense of their homeland. In the area around Aachen the West Wall extended from the north around both the eastern and western sides of the ancient city.

Aachen held great significance as a symbol of German supremacy. The city had been Charlemagne’s capital during the time of the Holy Roman Empire or the “First Reich.” Determined to hold the city, Hitler and his henchmen moved more troops into the area for its defense. On the other side, the Allies were just as determined to make Aachen the first German city captured.

In the last half of September the 1st Infantry Division and the 3rd Armored Division crossed into Germany from Belgium south of Aachen and attacked through a gap in the West Wall fortifications. By the end of September they reached the southern edge of the city, but determined German resistance brought them to a stand-still. To relieve the pressure on the forces of VII Corps the XIX Corps attacked from the north through the heavily fortified Siegfried Line or West Wall. The 30th Infantry Division led the way followed by the 2nd Armored Division while the 29th Infantry Division guarded their flanks.

On October 2, 1944, the 117th and 119th Regiments of the 30th launched the attack. The 117th on the left attacked through Marienberg while the 119th on the right went through Rimburg. The Americans crossed the Wurm River under heavy German fire. After crossing the narrow, steep-banked stream, they climbed up to the railroad track just beyond. Ahead lay the numerous pill boxes of the Siegfried Line. One by one the 30th captured or destroyed the German fortifications which were barely touched by the pre-attack bombing. Old Hickory sharpshooters took out numerous German machine gunners by firing through the narrow pillbox ports. On October 3rd the 117th took Palenberg and controlled much of Ubach. By October 7th the 117th occupied much of the city of Alsdorf opening the way to Aachen.

The 2nd Armored Division followed the 30th’s initial attack and swept north and east to Frelenberg and Beggendorf expanding the bridgehead into Germany. With their objectives met the 30th and 2nd Armored hoped for a break to rest and regroup. It was not to be. XIX Corps and VII Corps wanted to press on and link up thus surrounding Aachen and forcing its surrender. So Old Hickory pressed on southward to Wurselen where the intense German resistance halted their progress. Both sides utilized everything they had from artillery barrages to bombing to tanks and anti-tanks to house-to-house fighting.

Meanwhile the 1st Division fought off repeated counter attacks to hold on to the ground already taken. On Oct. 8th the First Division began an offensive to take the high ground southwest of Aachen including a high point dubbed “Crucifix Hill,” where they were to link up with the 30th Division.

To break up the 30th’s stalemate, on Oct. 16th the 117th and the 120th Regiments undertook a diversionary attack east of the main force which successfully drew the German artillery fire away from the 119th and 116th Regiments. That afternoon Company E 117th Regiment attacked through a wooded area held by the Germans toward a railroad. The intent was to convince the enemy that it was the main attack. Despite heavy casualties the 117th repeatedly attacked the German forces successfully diverting them away from the 119th pushing south toward the 1st Division positions.

Elements of the 30th from XIX Corp and the 1st from VII Corp finally linked up on October 16th. Street fighting continued in Aachen for another week. Finally, on October 21st, the last garrison in Aachen surrendered.

From the kickoff on October 2 to the final surrender of Aachen the 30th Infantry Division suffered approximately 3,000 casualties. Few of the old National guardsmen remained. Not many who landed with the Division on Omaha Beach were still with the division. Some who had been wounded along the way and sent to hospitals to recover would rejoin the 30th in later battles. Despite the turnover in personnel the 30th Infantry Division proved to be a formidable force in Europe. For their “Diversionary attack in the Battle of Aachen Gap” Company E, 117th Infantry Regiment received a Presidential Citation.

The first breach of the Siegfried Line and the battle to capture the first German city, Aachen, in October gave the Allies hope that the war could be won by Christmas. Little did they know what Hitler had planned.

Read more about the battle for Aachen on the following sites:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Aachen

http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/Siegfried/Siegfried%20Line/siegfried-ch13.htm

http://www.oldhickory30th.com/Aachen%20Gap%20Closing.htm