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Saturday, February 12, 2005

The Sergeants' War, Part I.

In mid-December 1944, the 12,000 men of the newly-formed 106th Infantry Division--nicknamed "the Lion Men" for the divisional shoulder patches--arrived in Western Europe to battle Nazi Germany. Brought to the front with their equipment in the famous Dodge 2 1/2 ton truck all the way from the ports of Normandy, the Lion Men were spread across a 27 mile long front running roughly along the border of Belgium and Germany. What was interesting about the 106th was that, like other American divisions raised late in the war (and unlike the British and Commonwealth forces), the division did not represent "scraping the bottom of the barrel" quality-wise. In fact, it was the opposite: the troops of the 106th were assembled from the closing down of the elite and advanced training programs established by the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor to provide for innovative leadership. With the war nearing the end, the schools were closed, and the bright, ambitious soldiers from these programs shifted into combat units. The Army's experience with these men showed that with seasoning, they made magnificent and flexible troops.

The 106th was given the task of replacing the crack, but exhausted veterans of the Second Infantry Division, and they did so on December 11-12, 1944. Most of the men of the 106th (average age: 22, making them the youngest division in the line) had no combat experience whatsoever--just a few weeks of basic training. They were also not particularly well-equipped for their mission, being deficient in anti-tank weapons (especially low on bazooka rounds), mines, machine guns and automatic weapons.

Furthermore, that 27 mile line they were expected to man was by any acknowledged military standard far too long--especially for untried troops with inadequate equipment. But the big brains at HQ in Paris reasoned that since it was a quiet sector, this would not be a problem. After all, springtime was coming, and the Germans were beaten--everyone knew that. The American Army had enjoyed an unbroken chain of victories in Europe, and the Nazis were beyond mounting a counterattack.

This was exceptionally fortunate, because, as noted above, almost none of the men of the 106th had any combat experience at all. Again, basic training and some brief in-theatre orientation when they arrived was the extent of their "experience." Their commander, Maj. General Alan Jones, was no incompetent and knew of their inadequate equipment, but his efforts to remedy this would, as military bureaucracy dictated, take time. This was made much worse by the fact that their nearest supply depot was almost forty miles away through the bad and narrow roads of the rugged Ardennes forest. Somehow worse yet, the green troops were deployed by their green officers in the worst possible way--if a serious, heavy assault happened--right up against the front with no depth or reserves to deal with a breakthrough or threatenened encirclement.

Yes, it was extraordinarily fortunate, indeed, that the Germans no longer posed a significant offensive threat.

Unfortunately, no one told the Germans that.

You see, they had managed to assemble a massive force behind their lines, nearly 2,600 tanks and 250,000 men. About half this force was poised to smash into the unprepared 106th.

As they did, at four o'clock in the morning on December 16, 1944. For two grim, agonizing days, the brave but overmatched men of the 106th fought fiercely against odds that ranged up to 8 to 1 against them. Gen. Jones desperately tried to arrange resupply and reinforcements, to no avail. Two of the division's three regiments were surrounded, quickly ran out of ammunition and were forced to surrender late on the 18th. In two days, almost 9,000 men of the 106th had been killed, wounded or captured.

The remainder, more often than not small groups of men led by corporals and sergeants, fought desperately to delay the Germans or battle through the enemy's nets. In the short, desperate and almost unknown skirmishes, the men of the 106th demonstrated unbelievable heroism and cleverness.

During the early hours of the Nazi assault, the 423rd I & R Platoon, under 1st Lt. Ivan H. Long, of Pontiac, Mich., effectively held a road block. The Germans, learning at great cost that they could not smash through the block, went around. The platoon was faced with the alternative of surrendering or making a dash through enemy territory. The men were without overcoats or blankets. Among the 21 dough[boy]s were only four "D" ration chocolate bars. They had little ammunition. But they fought their way through the snow and gnawing cold to rejoin the division with every man safe.
Cpl. Willard Roper, Havre, Mont., led the group back as first scout. After 72 hours of clawing through enemy patrols, tank and machine gun positions, the exhausted and footsore men, some of whom had lost their helmets, could still grin and fight.

One of the most noteworthy efforts at St. Vith was the leadership of Lt. Col. Thomas J. Riggs Jr. of Huntington, WV, commanding the 81st Engineer Combat Bn. Once a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. Col. Riggs first won fame as an All-American fullback at the University of Illinois.
On the morning of Dec. 17, Col. Riggs took over the defense of the town. He disposed his limited forces, consisting of part of his own battalion, the Defense Platoon, the 106th Headquarters' Co. and elements of the 168th Engineers and waited for the coming blow. The wait was short. Soon a battalion of German infantry attacked behind Tiger tanks. Time after time, more tanks and infantry tackled the engineers' line, probing for a weak spot. During these attacks, Col. Riggs was in the center of the defense, rallying his men and personally heading counter-thrusts to keep the enemy off balance.
Col. Riggs was captured while leading a patrol in the defense of St. Vith. Marched across Germany, he escaped near the Polish border and made his way to the frontier. He was sheltered three days by civilians and then joined an advancing Red Army tank outfit. After fighting with it for several days, he was evacuated to Odessa and from there was taken to Marseilles. He rejoined the 81st, in the spring when it was stationed near Rennes, France.

Cpl. Lawrence B. Rogers, Salt Lake City, Utah, and PFC Floyd L. Black, Mt. Crab, Ohio, both members of the platoon, along with two men whose identity never was learned, successfully held a vital road junction against Tiger tanks supported by infantry with a machine gun, rocket launcher, two rifles and a carbine. The four man volunteer rear-guard stopped the advancing force. They held the enemy at bay for two and a half hours, retreating only when their machine gun failed to function.

T/5 Edward S. Withee, Torrington, CT. 81st, Engr., volunteered for what seemed to be a suicide mission. His platoon was pinned down in a house near Schoenberg by four enemy tanks. All were doomed unless escape could be made while the enemy's attention was diverted.
Withee attacked the four tanks and the supporting infantry with a sub-machine gun. His platoon withdrew safely. When last seen, Withee was pouring fire into German infantry. He was listed as missing in action until April, when he turned up in a POW camp. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

There was the magnificent bluff of 220 pound Capt. Lee Berwick, Johnson's Bayou, LA. of the 424th [Regiment]. He talked 102 Germans and two officers into surrendering an almost impregnable position to a handful of men. He boldly strode to the very muzzle of enemy machine guns to warn of the "huge force" supporting him and ordered the senior officer to surrender. It worked.

Enemy artillery fire on the second day of the attack damaged a mortar base manned by Pfc. Harry V. Arvannis, Moline, IL, 424th. He resumed fire holding the tube between his legs and aiming by hand. After firing about 10 rounds, he saw a squad of Nazi infantrymen creeping towards his position. Training the mortar on them he shot his last 30 rounds of ammunition, killing or disabling eight of his attackers. The other four rose to their feet and lunged at him in a bayonet charge. Arvannis and his assistant gunner emptied their service pistols, stopping three of the four. The fourth was upon them, bayonet gleaming.
Pfc. Arvannis threw his four pound revolver at the German, hitting him squarely in the forehead, killing him instantly.

There's much more at the site--a truly inspiring look at men whose gallantry deserves to be remembered--but isn't. This was a defeat, after all--the worst the Army would experience in Western Europe during the Second World War. Such stories are invariably, and just as wrongly, overlooked. And what is also striking about the accounts of the courage of the 106th is this--it is an account of men reacting as best they can to a disaster, trying to salvage what they can and get themselves and their buddies out. Their leaders, while well-intentioned, can do nothing for them.

The men of the 106th were on their own.

On to Part II.

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