By Andy Adkins & Madeline Hanson
The 80th Infantry Division’s lineage goes back to the First World War. It was first organized at Camp Lee, Virginia, on August 5, 1917. Originally consisting of men mostly from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, the “Blue Ridge Division” nickname seemed apropos, as does its motto, Vis Montium—Latin for “Strength of the Mountains.”
The 80th sailed to France with 23,000 soldiers, landing on June 8, 1918, and joined the Allied Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.), fighting in the Somme Offensive of 1918 and in the Meuse-Argonne. The division returned to the states in May 1919 and was deactivated at Camp Lee on June 26, 1919.
Twenty-three years later, July 15, 1942, the 80th Infantry Division was again ordered into active service. Soldiers initially reported to Camp Forrest, Tennessee. The Division later moved for training at Camp Phillips, Kansas, then to “Camp Laguna” (California-Arizona Desert Training Center).
The division set sail aboard SS Queen Mary on July 1, 1944, landing five days later at Greenock, Firth of Clyde, Scotland. The 80th, under the command of Maj. Gen. Horace McBride, was now part of the European Theater of Operations (E.T.O.). After a month of training and organization, the division proceeded south to Southampton and crossed the English Channel in LSTs and Liberty Ships, with initial troops landing on Utah Beach at Transit Area “B” shortly after noon on August 2, 1944—D-day plus 57.
Argentan—Baptism of Fire
After arriving at Utah Beach, the 80th was assigned to George Patton’s Third U.S. Army and Maj. Gen. Walton H. Walker’s XX Corps (“Ghost Corps”), and assembled near Saint-Jores, 15 miles from the beach sector. Within a few days, Third Army was directed to move eastward to the line of the Mayenne River, crossing the river at Laval, France, August 7-11.
The 80th now had its first combat mission—to assist in stemming the powerful counterattack of five panzer divisions that were trying to cut Patton’s tenuous supply line at Avranches.
Once the division reached Sillé-le-Guillaume on August 11, they discovered several other Third Army divisions had already engaged the enemy. The 80th designated three combat teams based on the 317th, 318th, and 319th Infantry Regiments. Combat Team (CT) 317 included the 315th Field Artillery Battalion (FAB), as well as a company each of tanks, engineers, medical aidmen, and Tank Destroyers (TD). CT 318 employed the 314th FAB together with armor, TD, and combat support elements. For CT 319, the 905th FAB (105mm towed) provided artillery support. The 313th FAB’s powerful 155mm howitzers remained under division control.
The three combat teams surrounded the area and met only scattered resistance in the town.
On August 11, Combat Team (CT) 319 arrived in Le Mans in the early afternoon. Its mission was to outpost the town, safeguard the vital installations in the town, maintain law and order, and maintain the routes of communication in the vicinity. Two days later, CT 317 and CT 318 were ordered to advance northeast in three columns at 8 a.m. and contact and destroy any hostile forces in the zone of advance.
The advancing elements encountered enemy minefields and, even though engineers removed mines, the Germans replanted them during the night. These minefields and blown bridges hindered thedivision’s advance.
Field Order Number 6, issued at 6 p.m. on August 17, ordered the division (less CT 319, which remained in Le Mans) to attack and seize Hill 213, the high ground north of Argentan, France. The ultimate objective was to seize Argentan and participate in the closing of the Argentan-Falaise Gap and, by doing so, perhaps destroy the entire German Seventh Army.
The city of Argentan and the high ground to the north were strongly held by elements of the 116th Panzer Division and the German 728th Infantry Regiment. The enemy numbered between 2,000 and 2,500 seasoned soldiers, and were well dug in. They occupied the best defensive positions, protected by tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft guns, automatic weapons, barbed-wire entanglements, and well-placed minefields.
The terrain was also tough, favoring the enemy in defense, with its hedgerows and sufficient open spaces offering good fields of fire for tanks, and mutually supporting automatic weapons. In addition, the enemy had zeroed in every key avenue of approach to their positions for accurate artillery fire. Colonel Harry D. McHugh’s CT 318 faced a difficult task.
CT 318 jumped off on the attack at 7 a.m. on August 18 in a column of battalions and encountered the expected heavy resistance almost immediately; 1st Battalion was forced to withdraw south of the Argentan-Le Bourg Leonard Highway, where they dug in for the night to consolidate and prepare to continue the next day.
Second Battalion moved west along the highway and was also stopped by extremely heavy firing coming from Argentan and the high ground northeast of the town. Third Battalion succeeded in cleaning out the enemy resistance in the vicinity of Sai, occupying the area by 3:30 p.m. Ninety minutes later, the 3rd Battalion was on its way to Bordeaux.
On August 19, Colonel A. Donald Cameron’s CT 317 was ordered from division reserve to be committed to the attack, firing in support from Hill 171 and advancing on Argentan from the north, while at the same time lending support to CT 318’s 3rd Battalion.
Despite terrific resistance from enemy infantry, artillery and armor, CT 317 passed through CT 318 at 5:30 p.m. to assume the initiative. Advancing in a column of battalions with the 2nd Battalion leading, the Combat Team launched an attack on Argentan and the high ground near the city. By 8:30 p.m., CT 317 had advanced to the southern outskirts of Argentan, despite heavy fire from the west edge of the Forêt De Gouffern, which made progress slow and difficult.
During the hours of darkness between August 19 and 20, the enemy had secretly withdrawn most of its forces from the area, leaving only delaying forces for rear-guard action. During that same time frame, seven battalions of the 80th Division and attached artillery blasted the city, setting it afire.
Amid this barrage, the enemy suffered great casualties and had chosen to withdraw most forces from the shell-torn city. The roads and fields were littered with thousands of dead and wounded, wrecked and burning vehicles, smashed artillery pieces, overturned and smoldering carts laden with the loot of France, dead horses, and cattle swelling in the summer heat.
By 3 p.m. on August 20, CT 317 and CT 318 had cleared the enemy out of Argentan and had it under control—in spite of the Germans’ earlier boast that they would throw the Allies back into the sea. The three-day battle for Argentan was the first test of the 80th Infantry Division against a seasoned enemy in force.
The division’s contribution to the closing of the Argentan-Falaise Gap resulted in the destruction of large numbers of enemy forces as well as the capture of huge stores of equipment, supplies, and ammunition. During the operation, more than 1,000 prisoners were taken and 27,000 tons of ammunition captured. Several enemy tanks and self-propelled guns were destroyed. But the victory was not without a cost, as more than 400 80th Division soldiers were killed or wounded.
Colonel Orion L. Davidson’s CT 319 had slightly different orders, but its objectives were similar to the other combat teams. His regiment headed nearly 90 miles south to Angers, between Nantes and Le Mans, with a mission to defend the inner defenses of the medieval-walled town and prevent the enemy from crossing the Loire River. There were reports of a pair of large-caliber railroad guns located at the station at Cholet, 30 miles southwest of Angers, that harassed CT 319 throughout the day and night.
Despite this, Davidson’s men secured Cholet. On August 21, they received orders to move and rejoin with the rest of the division, but this was quickly changed; CT 319 was needed elsewhere. They headed northeast toward Orleans to create a defensive line between Orleans and Gien. In their path were small pockets of Germans with four machine guns, three 75mm anti-tank guns, one tank, and two halftracks.
CT 319 remained in this area and held tight until August 26, when they moved to help take the town of Châlons, between Paris and Metz. Once the town was secured, they crossed the Marne River and headed to Fresnes, a southern suburb of Paris, linked up with the 4th Armored Division, and eventually rejoined the rest of the 80th. During this month-long action, CT 319 captured 2,172 prisoners and destroyed 18 enemy tanks.
For most of the men, these battles were their first time in action. There is no way to know how a soldier will react when the enemy begins firing. The men of the 80th acted with bravery, but most remember feeling scared out of their minds.
“It is a pretty frightening experience for the first shot, when the bombs are dropping all around you,” said Henry C. Einolf, Jr. of Company L, 319th Infantry. “The first shell [hits] beside you … you maybe messed your pants.”
During this action, Einolf remembered his company was heading into a wooded area. The Germans were zeroed-in and threw everything they had at them. There was nothing they could do but turn back and find cover. He recalled that they lost their company commander and 10 other soldiers that day.
Despite the heavy casualties and tough new reality of constant active combat, the 80th Division moved forward to face their biggest challenge to date: crossing the Moselle River.
Over the Moselle
The Moselle would be 80th Division’s first major river crossing under enemy fire. The M2 assault boats carried a crew of three engineers and a 12-man rifle squad, complete with weapons and equipment. Seventeen M2 boats would be required to carry an entire rifle company of 193 officers and men.
Normally, river crossings were planned in several phases and usually done under the cover of darkness. First, the troops would assemble to complete preparations for the crossing. Next, they would move closer to the river in attack positions. Then, with the guidance of the engineers, they would slowly and steadily travel down the riverbank and board the assault boats to be ferried across the river by the engineers.
Once across the river, they would attempt to capture the area around the varying crossing sites. After securing the sites from enemy small-arms fire, the engineers would first build foot bridges, then larger treadway bridges, allowing more troops and equipment to cross, thereby expanding the bridgehead. At least, that was the plan on paper.
During the initial advancement toward the Moselle in early September 1944, the 1st Platoon of the 80th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop moved to Martincourt in the Toul region of Lorraine. Here, the Germans had burned the village to the ground with flamethrowers on September 4, killing 15 civilians and wounding many others.
Martincourt, along with the towns of Nettancourt and Laheycourt, was the 80th’s first encounter of German vandalism. Word quickly spread through the division and the troops were determined the Germans would pay for their crimes.
The 80th first tried crossing the Moselle River on September 5 in the vicinity of Dieulouard and Pont-a-Mousson. However, the Germans had finally reorganized to make a stand against any Allied advance. The terrain on the east bank of the Moselle offered the enemy excellent fields of fire and observation. The high ground concealed troop movements, allowing the Germans to organize a defense line.
One company made it across in their first effort, but with devastating results. Eugene Patrick O’Neil, Jr,. of Company L, 319th Infantry, remembers this costly crossing well: “Once you went in the river, it was over with.”
Despite the intense enemy fire, he and his company made it across, “and fortunately, with the river being swollen, we went in the area above where the mines had been laid along the riverbank. We were organized and, there on the other side of the banks, 20-25 of us got across, walked across this flat ground that was loaded with minefields, and settled into the high ground of the bank.
“From there, we went up on the bank and dug in our foxholes. And once we dug in the foxholes, we were pinned down for five or six days. We couldn’t get anybody else across the river and we couldn’t evacuate the wounded. We were pretty much isolated for that time. We couldn’t get any armored across because there were no bridges.”
O’Neil continued, he “watched as the engineers tried to put a bridge across . . . every time they tried to get the last link in, the Germans had an artillery observer and would call it in. They must have blown six bridges. The engineers finally used it as a decoy and built another bridge at another spot.” It would be days before the rest of the division would be able to make it across and relieve the stranded company.
To reach the Moselle River, the troops first needed to cross the Rhine-Marne Canal. That in itself was a challenge, since most of the bridges had been destroyed and the Germans were watching every move. Even though several companies managed to cross the canal, most were held back by artillery and small-arms fire. The 80th’s higher command decided to hold and attempt the crossing at a later date.
It was later determined that the 80th had advanced so quickly across France that they reached the Moselle before the Army could properly support them. When the division initially arrived at the Moselle, they didn’t have enough time for proper reconnaissance or sufficient supplies of food and ammunition.
Intelligence, normally gathered from reliable sources, underestimated enemy strength, both in men and artillery. Lack of air support and minimal artillery support certainly didn’t help. But, with lessons learned, the next attempt would see the 80th better prepared.
After several days, division staff finally completed plans for the river crossing, which included placing some 50 heavy machine guns on the high ground near Bois de Cuite, on the west side of the Moselle near the German border, to provide overhead fire. Eight battalions of artillery were made available to help cover the crossing. The engineers would once again ferry the men across in assault boats.
The date and time of the crossing was closely held for security reasons and not disclosed until the last minute. At 6 p.m. on September 11, word was passed to prepare to move out at dark. The men were tense, but ready and determined to succeed.
The plan was for the artillery to lay down a 15-minute concentration beginning at 4:30 a.m. According to Regimental S-2 (Intelligence), 5,000-6,000 enemy troops from the 29th Panzer Grenadier Regiment and the 3rd Motorized Division were waiting on the other side of the river.
The mission was to cross the Moselle River between Metz and Nancy and take Genevieve Hill (Hill 382), the high ground east of Dieulouard.
The canal crossing turned out to be anticlimactic. The men expected to be met with heavy artillery and machine-gun fire like they encountered several days before, but that resistance failed to materialize. However, it was known that the Germans had placed anti-personnel mines all around. But the engineers from the 305th Engineer Combat Battalion made sure the locations were known and well-marked; they removed 44 booby traps.
Brigadier General Edmund Searby’s division artillery opened up right on time—4:30 a.m.—and did its job. The heavy pounding pulverized the German defenders and drove most of them out of the way. But the few who remained fired machine guns and 88s at the river crossing, causing casualties among the boats loaded with soldiers.
The current was stronger than expected and some of the troops grabbed a paddle and pushed harder to reach the eastern bank. The 80th completed its crossing of the Moselle on the morning of September 12.
Lieutenant Charles Coward, Company I, 318th Infantry, remembered the crossing well, and wrote about it in his journal, describing the journey and the heavy equipment each man had to carry across: “It was a bright day, although the entire Moselle River was at flood stage!
“Upon arrival to the river’s edge, we were confronted by a narrow canal with what appeared to be a dam beyond leading across the river proper. Our outfit forded the canal in water up to our armpits, and once we made it to the dam we climbed up and shuffled across, single file with shells exploding in the river nearby. The top of the dam had wide, wooden planks placed on top, thus making it easier for us to navigate with all our equipment.
“The light machine guns were ‘broken down’ into smaller parts, as were the 60 mm mortars to make them easier to carry. The larger problem was having each GI carry as much ammo/mortar rounds as he could, plus his own rifle, belt, and bulky jacket. You name it, we carried it!”
Battle of the Bulge
Much has already been documented and written about the Battle of the Bulge. The 80th Division experienced much the same as other divisions: a sudden call to arms, an unknown mission, and the harshest winter Europe had experienced in more than 50 years.
The 80th had been in reserve at Saint Avold, France, scheduled for two weeks of rest, training, and reorganization when they received their initial orders to move without delay.
Field Marshal Karl Gerd von Rundstedt, the German commander in the West, launched his big Ardennes counteroffensive. Under the cover of snow, fog, and freezing cold, the Germans moved up three field armies, surprised the Allies, and overran part of the front, heading for Antwerp to cut off the Allies’ supply port and supply lines.
German infantry and tanks attacked along a 90-mile front in an effort to split Allied armies on the Western Front. This caused a “bulge” in the American lines, and the battle to flatten out this bulge by troops for the next month was to become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
One of Rundstedt’s spearheads headed for Luxembourg City, to capture the city and its famous radio station, Radio Luxembourg. The 80th Division was given the mission of holding Luxembourg City “to the last man,” as General Patton put it.
General McBride’s men began moving out from Saint Avold on December 17, traveling 45 miles to the north in open trucks, and stopping only for fuel. The men, unequipped for the frigid weather, had only a few blankets and huddled close to keep warm.
There was an endless stream of military vehicles. The 305th Engineers led the way, checking the roads and bridges for mines. The MP Platoon acted as road guides to keep the convoy as closed up as possible so no one would get lost.
Next came the deuce-and-a-halves carrying the three infantry regiments (317th, 318th, and 319th), followed by the 702nd Tank Battalion, the 633rd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion, and the four field artillery battalions (313th, 314th, 315th, and 905th). Last in the convoy were the service companies, headquarters units, and the division headquarters.
Normally, travel at night would require vehicles to use “cat’s eyes”—headlight covers to point the beam downward toward the road. However, because General Patton ordered the division to travel as quickly as possible, the convoy traveled with full beams. A full moon improved visibility.
For most of the men, the cold is one of the most memorable parts of this battle. Some days only saw a high of 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Henry S. Burch of D/319th, remembered it was nearly impossible to dig in, and the best bet was to try to dig out a mortar-shell hole. “The little shovel they provided us would almost bounce back in your face,” he said.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the 2nd Battalion, 318th Infantry, was heavily engaged with the enemy in the vicinity of Ettelbruck, Luxembourg. It was withdrawn from the front lines for movement to the Bastogne, Belgium, area to help relieve the 101st Airborne Division.
Attacking on Christmas Day after several days without rest, the battalion began its assault on the enemy positions encircling Bastogne. Through the next four days and three nights, the depleted battalion (its effective rifle-fighting strength had been reduced to 20 men—about half a platoon) battled its way in freezing temperatures through the strongly held woods and villages separating them from the besieged forces in Bastogne.
The enemy’s stubborn resistance and well dug-in positions required constant use of the bayonet and hand grenade in their destruction. Suffering heavy casualties, constantly exposed to raking enemy machine-gun and small-arms fire from flanking positions, the 2nd Battalion fought with an unrelenting determination that overcame all obstacles, routed the enemy, and established contact with the forces within Bastogne.
Richard Radock remembered this attack to relieve the 101st Airborne: “We attacked and advanced 14 miles in 48 hours in deep snow and caught the enemy by surprise and slaughtered about two-thirds of a grenadier division of the Wehrmacht Seventh Army.” This aggressiveness of the heroic infantrymen of the 2nd Battalion, 318th Infantry, earned them a Unit Citation.
The official end of the Battle of the Bulge was January 25, 1945. Yet the men of the 80th Division would continue to endure the freezing cold and extreme weather for several more weeks.
Sauer River Crossing/Siegfried Line
On February 1, 1945, the 80th was manning a line running northwest of Diekirch southeast to Beaufort, along the south bank of the Sauer River (also known as the Sûre River). The weather remained frigid, with occasional snow flurries. Cold, intermittent rain began to drench the sector. Soon thereafter, the division received orders directing them to attack what the British and Americans called the “Siegfried Line,” also known as the “Westwall.”
Years earlier German engineers had constructed concrete “dragon’s teeth” in parallel rows across hills and valleys, forming the Siegfried Line. In some cases, the dragon’s teeth were only heavy posts or steel beams embedded in the ground. More commonly, they were five rows of pyramid-shaped, reinforced-concrete projections resting on a concrete mat, 10 to 30 meters wide and sunk a meter or two into the ground.
The dragon’s teeth were staggered and spaced in such a manner that a tank could not drive through. Interspersed among the teeth were minefields, barbed wire, and pillboxes that were virtually impregnable to artillery and set in such a way as to give the Germans interlocking fire across the entire front. (See WWII Quarterly, Spring 2023)
To get to the Siegfried Line, the division would have to cross the Sauer and Our Rivers, just west of the ancient German town of Wallendorf, northwest of Trier—both of which were twice their normal size and very swift, estimated at about 10 miles per hour, because of the massive snowmelt from the historic European winter of 1944-1945. The men knew the crossing would be more difficult than prior river crossings.
The three 80th Division regiments were spaced several hundred yards apart, each with their orders of where and when to attack. As Colonel Ralph E. Pearson so eloquently stated in his book, Enroute to the Redoubt, “The battle-tested 80th was again moving forward. The impregnable Siegfried Line was to feel the onslaught of the men who in two World Wars had never failed to take an objective and never retreated from one they had gained.”
At 3 a.m. on February 7, the 318th Infantry jumped off in the attack across the Sauer River, near Haller. The order of attack was the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Battalion, with the 1st Battalion in regimental reserve to move on orders.
While Company F was able to cross and move out against light opposition, other companies in the battalion reported difficulty launching their rubber and wooden boats into the debris-filled flood waters. At daylight, enemy small arms, mortar, and artillery fire increased in intensity at the crossing point.
During the day, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions established a bridgehead across the river. However, due to exceptionally heavy artillery and mortar fire, the engineers were unable to construct a bridge; the engineer assault boats were continuously riddled by machine-gun fire.
Many lives were also lost as men waited to cross. Olander Jack Barrett, Jr., of L/319th, remembers losing buddies right next to him, and also being wounded while trying to make the crossing. “The engineers were supposed to have built a pontoon bridge that night. But every time they almost got it built, the Germans would send a barrage—they had it pinpointed. They could see what was going on down there. I don’t know if the moonlight was shining or what, but they kept knocking it out.
“We laid there in a ditch … laid there for a long time. The boy right next to me … a shell hit him dead center and turned him into hamburger meat, but I didn’t get a scratch. They gave us orders to withdraw. I had a squad of men, and two of them were missing, so I went back to look for them. But after I couldn’t find them, I was turning back and a big shell hit right behind me, and it got me. Blew me up with some thirty-some shrapnel wounds. I went numb all over and couldn’t feel anything. Laying there like a drunk man.”
The 319th was also making a crossing early on that same morning. Troops moved from the assembly area at Bettendorf into Moestroff and Kleinreisdorf, preparatory to the crossing. The 3rd Battalion, 319th Infantry, began to move to its crossing site, but a few minutes after six in the morning, only 27 men had made it across—the enemy artillery concentrations had wrecked most of the boats at the crossing sites. Even though additional boats were brought up, crossings at 9:15 a.m. and again at 4:05 p.m. proved unsuccessful.
Burt Marsh of M/319th, remembered the three days it took the company to get across the Our River: “We spent three nights trying to get across the Our. The engineers were trying to get a bridge up for us … they just had an awful time … the river was flooded and swift. We received many casualties due to the heavy artillery fire and strong resistance on the German side.”
The 317th Infantry was in division reserve at the village of Dillingen, Luxembourg, and would cross after the 318th and 319th. At 9 p.m. on February 9, the Regiment received instructions to move Company F to Beaufort on the Sauer to be attached to the 318th Infantry, arriving by 1:25 a.m. on February 10, and in position to cross at 7:55 a.m. Two platoons made the crossing in assault boats by 1:35 p.m. and a perimeter defense was set up around the crossing site. This site was to be used in new attempts to bridge the river about 400 yards below Dillingen.
Despite the high, swift water and the continuous enemy shelling and machine-gun fire, by February 11, the majority of the 80th had crossed the Sauer. The 319th continued to supply units across the Our River by boat. That morning, Companies F and G, 319th, were released from attachment and reverted to battalion control.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Battalion, 319th Infantry had discovered the organization of the German pillbox defenses. The primary pillboxes were strongly built of reinforced concrete and located to give each other mutual support. They were usually found three to a group, each of which housed about eight men. A command pillbox in the rear completed the setup and formed more or less the outline of a kite on the ground.
Adjacent to the command pillbox was a bunker for personnel, having from 18 to 20 men. In the rear of the primary command pillbox was a secondary row of pillboxes, less strongly reinforced, and behind these was still another command pillbox. Underground communications connected the defensive pillboxes to the command pillbox. The command pillboxes were also connected for control purposes.
Having discovered the nature of the Siegfried Line installation, the 2nd Battalion, 319th, began a systematic assault. First, artillery would hit around the box or boxes being attacked on a perimeter of about 200 yards square. This usually drove the defenders to the field fortifications adjacent to the pillbox.
Then accurate mortar fire would saturate the fortifications, driving the Germans into the pillbox. Meanwhile, tanks jockeyed into position in Hoesdorf and, where possible, fired directly into the pillboxes, assisting to keep them buttoned up. It was noted that 76mm fire seemed to have no effect on the primary pillboxes, but machine guns and small arms accomplished the job.
Sometimes it would take a few assaults to finally achieve capturing a pillbox, and often a different company would have to help by attacking it from the rear, as Burt Marsh remembered. “At daybreak, we ended the attack [on a previous pillbox] only to come under mortar fire from a pillbox about a quarter mile in front of us. Since we had heavy casualties during the night, we set up a defense line for three days.
“We attacked the pillbox that was firing mortars on us on February 2, only to retreat because of heavy mortar fire, and we were under-manned. We never did capture that pillbox. Our first gunner was killed during this attack. Another company worked their way around us and captured it, taking 47 prisoners.”
Once the box was buttoned up, the assault squad would move in on the rear. Few boxes had to be taken by use of explosive charges. Of the first 20 taken, satchel charges were used only on the first. Thereafter, once the initial phases of the reduction had taken place, a representative talking to the German occupants usually succeeded in bringing about their surrender.
The Germans would occasionally set up their machine guns in the corridors of the pillboxes and ricochet the bullets off the walls to the exterior of the box after the embrasures had been buttoned up by the fire. The concussion of the satchel charges usually took care of the gun. Those boxes holding out were in almost every case controlled by an officer.
Although difficult, this was also an opportunity to try and get the Germans within the pillbox to surrender. Once the division started to take more and more pillboxes, the hope was to neutralize them simply by talking the enemy into giving up.
Charles Robert Harmon, assigned to the Anti-Tank Company, 319th Infantry, spoke a little German. He was sent to climb atop one of those pillboxes and try to talk sense to the Germans inside.
“The war is over, save your life,” he said, quoting the propaganda leaflets that the Allies had been dropping on the area. It certainly was a tense few minutes while Harmon laid on top of this pillbox. Finally, those Germans surrendered and came out with hands up.
This certainly was not always the case and most pillboxes had to be taken by force. But as the war was crawling to the finish line, the men of the 80th would do what they could to preserve their lives and the lives of their buddies.
Liberating the Concentration Camps
As the 80th Division entered and continued into Germany and Austria, they would encounter two of the Third Reich’s worst concentration camps. For the men who witnessed the inhumanity of these camps, the memory would stick with them forever.
The first camp they encountered was Buchenwald—one of the largest camps established within German borders. With the fall of the city of Weimar, the 80th was sent in to relieve the 6th Armored Division, which had first discovered the camp, which held over 20,000 living skeletons. Immediately, all possible steps were taken to relieve the suffering of the inmates.
The SS guards had begun to evacuate their camps with the news of the advancing Allied forces. The Buchenwald prisoners used the opportunity to storm the watchtowers and take control of the camp prior to liberation.
Upon entering the camp on April 11, Pfc. Don Schoo of the 633rd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion described what he and the others smelled and saw. “Everyone got sick from the stench … bodies were stacked up on each side of the road.”
These soldiers had seen some of the bloodiest combat to date, yet they described Buchenwald as hell on earth, and the worst they had seen in the war’s entirety. As Schoo said, “If I live to be 100 years old, I will never, never forget the day I spent at Buchenwald. Hell on earth. I saw it. I smelled it. And I am still doubtful—how can anyone treat another human being that way? They have got to be a monster.”
In early May, the division encountered yet another camp, Ebensee. Located in Austria, Ebensee was a sub-camp of the larger Mauthausen camp. The prisoners of Ebensee were being used for forced labor during the construction and maintenance of an underground rocket factory.
The 80th found 16,000 prisoners still alive, but on the edge of death; the SS had fled the region the day before liberation. The army brought in portable showers and doctors in attempts to clean and heal the prisoners. Large tents were set up as field hospitals. They could only feed them liquid soup; anything more substantial would have killed them.
The soldiers, eager to help, were warned not to feed the prisoners anything. Isadore Zaritsky of the 80th, recalled the experience. “I could not be but astounded at the look of many of the inmates. They were actually walking skeletons made of skin and bones.”
Many of the soldiers walked throughout the camp and discovered the crematoriums with human remains still within the ovens. For most of the GIs, the feelings did not sink in until later because they were just so shocked at what they saw. In their testimonies, men questioned how it was humanly possible to treat other humans this way.
The 80th Infantry Division would be recognized as a liberation unit by the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1985.
End of the War/Austrian Alps
The troops received word on May 1 that Hitler had committed suicide the previous day. After enduring months of fighting fanatic Germans in the cold, living in rain-filled holes, seeing so much death, and witnessing the horrors of the concentration camps, the end of the war couldn’t come soon enough. It was a rat race now. Armored columns were everywhere, and all the Allied troops could do was to jump into their jeeps and trucks and drive like hell to catch up.
During these long trips along the autobahns or other roads, the division didn’t even bother with prisoners—there were too many, giving themselves up by the thousands. Wives walked with their soldier husbands while they turned themselves in. No one paid attention to these defeated Germans. If Hitler was dead and the Germans were retreating, then the surrender couldn’t be far off, could it?
In early May, the 80th crossed the Danube River and moved into Austria, close to Vöcklabruck. Over the next few days, the three regiments moved through various picturesque small towns.
The morning of May 8 found the 2nd Battalion, 317th Infantry settled into Spital, Austria. Lieutenant A.Z. Adkins, Jr., CO of Company H, remembered that day: “I was sitting under a tree and cleaning my rifle. I took my shoes off. It really felt good to wiggle my toes in the grass. [A.Z. Adkins is the father of author Andy Adkins–Ed.]
“Sergeant Albert Melcolm came out and said there was a conference call for all COs. The Battalion CO read a message to us and said that an order would be down in a few minutes. I prayed to God. I asked Sergeant Zane Turner to assemble the company.
In a letter dated May 8, 1945, Adkins wrote his parents in Starke, Florida:
Dearest Mom & Dad,
Shortly after I wrote to you the day before yesterday, I received the cease-fire order. At that particular time, I had my shoes & shirt off & was playing with a little dog on the grass of some Austrian’s yard. My men were all in houses taking it easy. “My battalion had momentarily stopped in a little mountain village. I told the first sergeant to assemble the company. As my men came marching up, a big lump formed in my throat because many familiar faces were missing from the files of men who were to hear me read to them General Eisenhower’s order that hostilities had ceased.
I told my men to sit down & take it easy & that I had something to tell them. Then I read to them General Eisenhower’s order telling of the unconditional surrender. When I finished no one said a word. Finally, one man said, “Lieutenant, read that again please.” The day that we had died & bled for so long had finally arrived.
No one knows what the word “peace” means except those who have been at war. As yet, I feel no great emotional change. But gradually I am beginning to realize that there will be no more suffering & no more dying & the sensation is truly wonderful.
Tonight, I am in another mountain village high in the Bavarian Alps. I have a radio & can listen to the celebrations that the people in England & America are having. Here, we are having a different type of celebration. Ours is a quiet celebration. We still have to maintain order, but we are so happy & it’s hard for us to realize this mess is over.
I love you both dearly.
The division’s official history notes, “By the end of the war, May 7, 1945, the 80th Division had seen 277 days of combat and captured 212,295 enemy soldiers. However, it cost the 80th 17,087 men killed and wounded.”
Four members of the 80th received the Medal of Honor: Sergeant Day Turner (B/319th) for action in Dahl, Luxembourg on January 8, 1945; 1st Lt. Edgar H. Lloyd (E/319th) for action near Pompey, France (KIA, September 14, 1944); 2nd Lt. Harry J. Michael (L/318th) for action at Neiderzerf, Germany (KIA, March 14, 1945); and Private Paul J. Wiedorfer (G/318th) for action near Chaumont, Belgium on December 25, 1944.
Clearwater, Florida, resident Andy Adkins is a U.S. Navy veteran (’73-77) and the author of several books, including You Can’t Get Much Closer Than This: Combat with the 80th “Blue Ridge” Division in World War II Europe, published by Casemate Publishers (2005) and selected as the Book of the Month for the Military Book Club. His newest novel, NEVER FORGET, is the story of A Vietnam Veteran’s Journey for Redemption & Forgiveness. NEVER FORGET is offered as a free (PDF, eBook format) download. Adkins also writes a weekly blog, “A Veteran’s Journey.” Visit www.azadkinsiii.com for more information. Madeline Hanson is a high school history teacher with a Master’s in History, focused on Holocaust and Genocide history. Her master’s thesis, “Memories of War: The Stories of the 319th Regiment of the 80th Division during World War Two,” covers how the men of the regiment remember their time in war. This is the regiment and division in which her grandfather, Richard F. Mangan, served during the war.