We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


Five Years, Four Fronts

BGEN Theodore Mataxis was asked to write a foreword for Georg Grossjohann’s “Five Years, Four Fronts” and nearly turned it down. He felt he’d have little in common with the Major. They hadn’t fought in the same battles and their careers hadn’t been similar.

However, because of my keen interest in and bias in favor of “eyeball accounts” by combat participants, I finally agreed to read the draft manuscript. At worst, I thought, it would confirm my doubts, and I would simply have to decline the opportunity to pen the requested foreword. The more I read, though, the more engrossed and intrigued I became. I found this was not just another war story of campaigns during WWII, but the author’s detailed account of his experience at small-unit level during peace, mobilization and war.

Mataxis truly enjoyed the book and his foreword becomes an enthusiastic endorsement of the work. Grossjohann rose from the enlisted ranks to Major while fighting in the aforementioned four fronts, including fighting in Operation Dragoon and the Colmar Pocket, finishing as a regimental commander in mid-January of 1945.

The more I read, the more I realized that I did, in fact, have much in common with Grossjohann, although not just from the war in which we shared only a common theater of operations. Later in my Army service, I served as executive officer for – and then commanded – an infantry regiment in the Korean War and served four tours in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Altogether, I spent about five years in combat, as did Grossjohann. Although I gradually recognized that we had a lot in common in other ways, it was in these combat tours that I acquired the “mindset” which I think is what most closely links George Grossjohann and me across space and time – the critical importance of “bonding” in combat, and the soldier’s warrior ethos. That is what transcends our different nationalities, causes and theaters of war. Neither of us had much time for fripperies or superficialities. The trappings of things militaristic or the transient fads of the moment – be they the transparent nonsense of National Socialism for Grossjohann, the trumped-up bodycount game of my Vietnam tourss, the “Zero Defects” philosophy of my last years of service, or the “Consideration for Others” claptrap of today’s Army, none of them held or would have held the slightest interest for either of us. Indeed, because such things often get in the way of more important endeavors (training, learning, fighting), we despised them and ignored them when we could. The author’s unconcealed loathing of equivocation, moral cowardice, professional vanity, and selfishness among some of his fellow officers – the same kind of things scorned by Anton Myrer’s archetype of the Good Office, Sam Damon in “Once an Eagle” – struck a sympathetic chord with me. Been there, seen that – far too much of it! Take the time to perceive the author’s unabashed esteem for those – of all ranks – who exhibited anything approaching the unspoken passion the author had for soldiering, and you’ll discover the frank admiration of a kindred soul. All good soldiers can identify with the warrior ethos that is the basic cornerstone of espirit and high morale.

He finished with truly high praise.

If I ever get around to writing my memoirs, although they will be mostly about other wars and other times, I hope I can tell my story with as much honesty, class, and plain truth as this one.

Unfortunately, the final seven years of his life after penning this foreword appear not to have allowed Mataxis time and energy to write those memoirs, but I suspect reading Grossjohann’s work will give us the sense of what it would have been like.



Top-ranking posts

Being the end of the year, I thought I’d look at some statistics and share them.

My top-ranking posts since I started this blog is dominated by one post, but the top 5 are all good posts:

Thanksgiving 1944         1,413

This got a huge number of hits due to being linked at Ace of Spades, thanks to our friends at Bring the Heat. On Thanksgiving of 1944, Eisenhower ordered that all soldiers have a turkey dinner. For airborne engineer John Carter, that provided a very humorous story that I was able to post the video of. I have some further videos of an interview with Carter and a couple of other stories. He’s quite a comedian.

Young Marine Passes         297

While the Marine Corps is made up of strong men, they also have strong hearts. A couple of times recently, they’ve made young men with terminal illnesses honorary Marines. The story of Cody Green and his honor guard, SGT Mark Dolfini, can’t help but move one to tears.

Denzel Washington at the Fisher House         236

Denzel Washington is among my favorite actors. He has great range and conveys the emotions of his characters very well. Some of his roles have been as military men and he’s gotten attached to the Fisher House. Fisher House Foundation is best known for a network of comfort homes where military and veterans’ families can stay at no cost while a loved one is receiving treatment. When Washington visited the Fisher House at Brooke Army Medical Center in 2004, his generosity launched an urban legend.

The Beast of Omaha         148

Heinrich Severloh was a German machine gunner at Omaha Beach and the horrors he helped inflict that day stayed in his dreams until his death in 2006.

The end of an era         136

For about a decade, Paul Woodadge built up a battlefield tour business in Normandy, expanding from a one-man operation, hiring several others to lead tours. Battlebus was the best tour company in Normandy and even had tours in Bastogne. Unfortunately, running a complex business and dealing with French tax and employment laws meant that Paul stopped being able to lead tours himself. While I lamented the end of an era, it meant that Paul could go back to doing what he loved. He also had time to publish Angels of Mercy: Two Screaming Eagle Medics in Angoville-au-Plain on D-Day (Normandy Combat Chronicles) (Volume 1)



Visiting the battle box at Montelimar

As I’ve said many times, there is no substitute for walking the ground. Looking at maps, reading unit/battle/campaign histories, or even using my new favorite tool, my tablet, never give you the same understanding as actually being on the ground where the fight took place.

We’re over in France and this time we’ve come to the south. This has given me an opportunity to walk the ground at Montelimar. Before we arrived, I’d contacted retired French Army Colonel Pierre Balliot to see if he could recommend a guide. He volunteered himself, driving 200+ kilometers to show us the ‘battle box’. The Colonel has written a marvelous book, of which I now possess a signed copy, entitled La Drome dans la Guerre: La bataille de Montelimar, which details the battle. So, my wife, our friend Tom and I got a half-day tour of the 20 km by 20 km ‘battle box’ in which Task Force Butler, the 36th Infantry Division and French partisans attempted to block the escape of 130,000 men of the German Army from southern France.

The battle of Montelimar had the same goal as the sealing of the Falaise Pocket in Normandy, trapping an entire Army Group. So, for me, the Battle of Montelimar is the most important action of the campaign.

Walking the ground here, you get a far better sense of why they chose the ground they did, what worked and what did not. The first thing to note is the height of the high ground. While the tablet and Google maps did point out the value of Hill 300, it gave no real sense of the true height or the slope. Somehow, I thought of 300 feet when I read about the Hill. It’s 300 meters or about 1000 feet. The slope is also extreme, making it difficult to dislodge any defenders. The Hill is so tall and long that it completely shields any troops coming up the Rhone valley through that choke point from observation or attack from the east. While there is plenty of high ground north of this, none overlooks such a tight passage as this. Thus, it comes as no surprise that there was tremendous fighting at La Coucourde, where the main road, Route Nationale 7, emerges from behind Hill 300 and where General Truscott had directed General Dahlquist to ‘put the cork in the bottle’, entrapping so many Germans.

Dahlquist and Butler faced many challenges here. The terrain that provided such an opportunity was itself a great challenge. The mountains restricted movement, inhibited communication, and provided endless opportunities for ambush. The narrow roads were difficult for armored vehicles and the slopes a great challenge as well. The vast distance from the landing beaches made resupply slow and the lack of sufficient transport compounded that.

The rivers helped, but not nearly as much as one would think when looking at the map. Walking the ground at the same time of the year, you see how low they are, how much vegetation would conceal movement and how challenging defending along those lines would be. Looking out from Dahlquist’s headquarters you see how broad a front he needed to defend.

Dahlquist himself may have been a part of the problem, never seeming to move fast enough for Truscott’s taste – Truscott flew to his headquarters twice during this campaign to hasten him along.

The few troops that reached the fight first shocked the Germans, but a few hundred men, even at strategic points, can only do so much to stop an Army Group.



One-day Normandy tour choices: Omaha Beach sector

Earlier today, someone asked me about tours in Normandy and, while they are not using one of my three favorite guides, I provided some commentary on places to see. Most guides will tailor their tour at your request and there are some places I see as better spots to visit than others. There are some sites that are basically meaningless without a guide and others in which you’re not really using the guide’s knowledge.

If you have a single day to tour the battlefield with a guide, you want to maximize your time with the tour guide, sticking to sites that are close to each other and where the guide can provide the most impact. Each guide’s knowledge and enthusiasm is different, so I’m just providing my commentary.

I would say that due to the stark images and the general silence and emptiness of the German military cemetery at La Cambe, that it is a must, especially if your guide has stories to relate while you’re there. The small museum there is very well-done. Every guide should be able to relate some of the story of the cemetery and place it in context, so it is better with a guide. You might find it odd that I place this first, but I think that you don’t get as much of both the German perspective and a reminder of the horror that is war anywhere else in Normandy.

Now, since I’m looking at all this from an American perspective, I will only talk about the American sector in this post. My experience in the British and Canadian sector is far more limited, so I can’t speak as well to that.

Pointe du Hoc is absolutely required. If you’re not read The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion by Douglas Brinkley or watched Reagan’s historic speech in 1984 (speech written by then-unheralded Peggy Noonan), you really ought to do so before you go. Reading that will give you the structure and provide an emotive basis for your visit, but nothing really can prepare you for the level of destruction visited upon the landscape by the bombardment. Going down into one of the craters will truly give you a sense of it, but you’ll also get to see how most of the fortifications survived intact, requiring the Rangers to root the Germans out the hard way. Some guides will go with you into the bunkers and continue to explain, while others will simply let you wander. I prefer those who have more stories to tell, so it might be useful to determine in advance which kind of visit to Pointe du Hoc that the guide plans on.

Of course, as an American, you must visit the American cemetery. It is incredibly moving and feels like you’re back in the US, in a good way. You’ll note that all of our boys are facing home. The American cemetery does not allow guides to conduct tours on the grounds, so you are generally given some guidelines and advice, then explore on your own. I prefer to tour that by myself rather than using the guide’s time.

The Church at Angoville au Plainis one of the more moving stories in Normandy and if at all possible, you should try to visit there with Paul Woodadge, whose book, Angels of Mercy: Two Screaming Eagle Medics in Angoville-au-Plain on D-Day, details the experience of two American paratrooper medics caring for the wounded between enemy lines during the battle. Since this is more in the northern, airborne sector of the American battle zone, I would suggest it only be done as part of an American airborne tour rather than combined with the American cemetery or Omaha Beach. While someone who has read Paul’s book will understand what happened here, someone who has not will have no real understanding without a tour guide to explain. Similarly, having the guide present will make one who feels familiar with the story learn far more.

On Sunday, they were showing Tom Brokaw visiting the village of Graignes with three veterans of the fight there. A number of paratroopers of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment were mis-dropped by about 20 miles and gathered at the village. They held off the 17th SS Division, helping their comrades secure Carentan, allowing a link up between the landings at Utah and Omaha. It would be particularly hard to experience this without a guide, even if you read Tragedy at Graignes: The Bud Sophian Story. It is also remote from much of the other sites.

If you’re only doing a one-day tour, I would recommend you visit Omaha Beach, the American and German cemeteries and Pointe du Hoc. If you manage to study Angoville au Plain or Graignes, you might seek one of those, but likely need to skip something. If you’re seriously into paratroopers or gliders, or have a veteran or other link to Utah Beach, visit those with the guide rather than thinking you can visit everything.



Mattis on reading

There’s no mistaking the respect of the Marines for many of their Generals and high in the pantheon must be General James N. Mattis. Back in 2004, “a colleague wrote to him asking about the ‘importance of reading and military history for officers,’ many of whom found themselves ‘too busy to read.'” Mattis responded in an email that has since gone viral. Mattis continues the grand tradition of well-read Marine officers who also excel in combat, following the example of none other than Chesty Puller, who carried a copy of Douglas Southall Freeman’s “Lee’s Lieutenants” with him in the Pacific. In his email, he dispenses with those who think there is nothing to learn for the modern warrior from books:

For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say … “Not really”: Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us.

Unfortunately, Mattis had been planning on retiring this year. Evidence of the regard in which he is held are two hilarious articles posted on the military satire site, The Duffel Blog: Chaos: General James Mattis Announced As Next Commandant Of Marine Corps and James Mattis Retires To Search For Ancient Artifact.
At the Iwo Jima Alumni Association‘s annual reunion, Mattis spoke and I asked him if he’d ever had the chance to visit Iwo Jima or other Pacific battlefields with veterans of WWII. While he had done so on Okinawa, he’s not been to Iwo Jima. Mattis’ retirement may enable him to make that trip during the 70th anniversary of the battle with the IJAA. It might be the last trip authorized by Japan, as it may be the last trip involving veterans of the battle.


Dahlquist: A first evaluation

In my continued research for our WWII seminars, I’d picked up a copy of Franz Steidl’s Lost Battalions, which details the encirclement of the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment just prior to the Battle for the Colmar Pocket. Steidl explains the events leading up to the “losing” of the battalion, making sure that the reader gets a sense of the complexity of the fight of the 36th Infantry Division in the Vosges. He also provides information on a German battalion that was similarly “lost” in the same area, allowing us more insight by seeing both sides.

Steidl has extensively interviewed members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the storied Japanese-American unit that fought to relieve 1/141 when it was trapped, so his book provides excellent detail on their role. It also shaped his original view of General John E. Dahlquist. Many soldiers and historians felt that Dahlquist over-used the 442nd in that fight and some speculated that it was because they were Japanese.

In my initial view of Dahlquist, he seemed a pretty unremarkable man for someone who was awarded a 4th star in 1954. He’d served in the Army since the close of the First World War, attending and teaching in various Army schools. He even authored an Army manual on the machinegun before serving on theatre staff in 1942. Nonetheless, little stood out about him, except a photo of him chatting amiably with Goering after the 36th had captured him. Dahlquist generated quite the controversy with Goering. That photo didn’t look like a captor and his captive, but, rather, two equals conversing. When Goering had been brought to Dahlquist, the General had dismissed his translator, as he spoke fluent German, so perhaps it is what it looked like.

I’d read previously how decimated the 442nd had been in the Vosges and the animosity some of them held for the General. Steidl’s work does reveal how hard Dahlquist pushed them. They were most certainly over-used, but looking at the 36th’s fight, it seems that all of the organic battalions of the 36th were over-used.

The Division had been in the fight since 15 August 1944, without relief. At Montelimar, elements of the Division tried to stop the escape of two German Divisions and elements from every other unit fleeing southern France. The 36th suffered mightily in that fight, though it did inflict many casualties and capture many troops. As it fought north, the Germans took advantage of every piece of terrain, keeping the door open for others to retreat. When the 36th hit the Vosges Mountains, the fight transitioned from some kind of chase into a slugging match. The Germans felt their were fighting on their home ground and the Alsatian towns in the area have a distinctively German look and feel to them. Dahlquist began pleading with higher command for some kind of relief, but there was none.

Steidl recounts multiple instances of Dahlquist coming out to the front lines and one instance of him leading an individual platoon into combat. Personal bravery and a commitment to the fight were not qualities that Dahlquist lacked. His Division was stretched and he was being pushed by higher command to keep moving forward in spite of it.

More than once, Dahlquist seems to have over-extended his Division. At Montelimar, his regiments went in piecemeal, with the 143rd accidentally heading north instead of west to Montelimar, requiring them to loop back west. The Lost Battalion (1/141) pushed beyond the range of its supports. At Sigolsheim, he again had units cut off – they fought until they were forced to surrender. How much of these instances can be blamed on Dahlquist remains to be seen. Shortages of supplies and troops, coupled with aggressiveness, certainly contributed.

Looking at his post-war career, Dahlquist certainly must have impressed the right people and, in war time, that’s usually the sign of a darn good officer. For me, the book is still out on Dahlquist, but he’s far from the enigmatic cypher that I’d first imagined.



Naval Institute Annual Meeting
11 April 2012, 15:49
Filed under: Books, Navy | Tags: ,

Today, I spent the day in Crystal City, attending the 138th Annual Meeting of the US Naval Institute. I had joined the Institute a few years ago, after getting Gators of Neptune as a Christmas present. I’ve joined a few other organizations to help increase my knowledge, get exposure to veterans and, perhaps, an audience for this blog and future writings. I belong to the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division due to the Operation Dragoon and Colmar Pocket seminars that I help out with, and I belong to the Marine Corps Association & Foundation due to my interest in their history. I expect I will continue to add to this list as time passes.

The meeting was terrific. VADM Daley started the meeting by reading the Mission and Vision statements of the Institute aloud. This was music to my ears, as last year there was a tremendous alarm when the Board had decided to reword the mission to identify the Institute as an advocate for sea power (I read about it first on CDR Salamander’s blog.) The mission has returned to proper focus after much pressure from the membership:

To providing an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense.

I think the experience of the past year has done a great deal to improve the Institute. The uprising of the membership may have served as a reminder of exactly what it is that the Institute is – a membership organization. The strength of the Institute is its members, as VADM Daley pointed out in his comments. He noted how the staff has been energized by the feedback from the membership and that communication is central to the completion of the Mission.

One of the key goals of this association of naval minds (officer AND enlisted) is to expand the active duty membership. It was noted that USNI is basically invisible to the junior officers and enlisted personnel of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. That needs to change. With the recent update of the website (launched last Friday) and with plans to roll out an app with the next 2 to 2-1/2 months, they’re making strides to reach them. The Admiral also noted that members could sponsor undergraduate gift memberships ($20 for students, about 5000 students in NROTC, USNA and USCGA) to expand exposure to new officers. So, if anyone has about $100,000 and wants all those undergrads to become members, bring it on!

In the discussion about the prime value that the Institute provides, RADM “T.C.” Cropper cited “Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal”, which he uses every day to train his leaders how to fight. Of course, there was a little chuckle at this moment, because that particular book is not published by the Naval Institute Press, though it does exemplify the type of books the Press publishes and, as another member in attendance noted, the Institute “owns the bibliography” having published so many books on naval history in the past.

Admiral Daley noted that he expects a rich harvest of leadership lessons from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from junior officers who fought those wars and the Naval Institute Press stands ready to publish those works. A common theme of the day was that the Institute is a dynamic entity that is dependent upon an engaged membership. Having met a few of the younger authors at the Awards Dinner (CDR Matthew Harper, who wrote “Chinese Missiles and the Walmart Factor” and CDR In H. Ha, who wrote “Away All… Hovercraft!“), I know that they’re already engaging some bright young minds. I have great expectations going forward.

I would encourage everyone to go check out the Institute, read some articles, buy some books (eBooks even!) and consider joining. You’ll find a serious-minded dedicated community standing ready to share knowledge and welcome new ideas.

For another report on the meeting, check out the Steel Jawed Scribe’s blog.




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