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


Change to Dragoon/Colmar Schedule

There’s been a big change for the Dragoon/Colmar event this week. On Friday morning, we’ll be attending the Spirit of America show at George Mason University instead of conducting the third historical seminar session. That third session will now occur from 2-6pm that day.

18 Sept: 9 AM to 1:30 PM Spirit of American show at George Mason University
2 PM to 6PM Historical seminar III

Full schedule available on the 6th Army Group website



Everyone has a story: Conference Opens
30 July 2014, 20:56
Filed under: Colmar Pocket, Operation Dragoon

Everyone has a story. Once again, we’re gathered together with the veterans of Operation Dragoon and the Battle of the Colmar Pocket. Monika started the conference by talking about the grand variety of stories that belong in this story. From the artilleryman who was confined to quarters after doing KP duty too close to the Generals discussing the invasion of southern France to the men who jumped into Provence or stormed the beaches, to the folks who fought the war on the farms and in the factories during the war, everyone has a story.

This week, starting with 2 hours tonight, we’ll be covering as many of those stories as we can get to. With 2 hours tonight and 8 hours on Thursday (9am-5pm) at the Sheraton Pentagon City, we should cover a lot of ground. Friday morning, we’ll be at Arlington National Cemetery for wreath-laying at both the Tomb of the Unkown as well as the 3rd Infantry Division monument. Saturday, we’ll spend the day visiting the SS John W. Brown up in the Baltimore (with a stop at Fort McHenry) before our closing banquet back here in Arlington.

I’m especially excited to meet Boyd Lewis and and Donald Judd, who were squad mates in D Company, 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division. I also revealed to everyone that my father’s uncle Roy served in the 15th Infantry Regiment’s Headquarters & Headquarters Company as part of the 3rd Infantry Division.

It’s a jam-packed week with 14 WWII veterans, numerous family members, several historians and your humble scribe.



Veterans announced for 6th Army Group

I met with Tim & Monika to review things in preparation for the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the 6th Army Group in France, which will be held 30 July to 3 August, 2014. As part of the review, I’m able to announce the 14 expected veteran attendees. Yes, FOURTEEN World War II veterans expected.

6th Army Group veterans in attendance will be:

28th Infantry Division: Sam Ieronimo and Robert Phillips
45th Infantry Division: Robert Jackson
517th PRCT: LTG David Grange
36th Infantry Division: Donald Judd and Boyd Lewis (both 142nd Infantry Regiment)
3rd Infantry Division: MG Lloyd Ramsey, Michael Halik, Charles Phallen, Charles Condron, John Keller, John Miller II

We’ll also have two other WWII veterans who’ve attended a number of our prior events: COL John Kormann and COL Frank Cohn.

Our attendance numbers are looking very good, with perhaps 80-90 people participating.

We have confirmed that COL Paul Guajac, a retired French Army Colonel and historian of WWII, is coming from France to speak at the conference. His two best known works are Dragoon, August 15, 1944: The Other Invasion of France and Special Forces in the Invasion of France (Special Operations Series). I will be bringing my copies for signatures.



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.



Dragoon-Colmar Commemoration 2014

In a big step, we’ve combined the Operation Dragoon and Colmar Pocket Commemorations for 2014 into one event, to be held at the Sheraton Pentagon City, 30 July to 3 August, 2014.

In another big step, it has it’s own website – 6thArmyGroup.com

All scheduling information, contact info and updates will be posted there, with supportive posts here.



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)



Uncle in the 15th

A few years ago, I’d joined the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division after meeting and helping CPT Monika Stoy and LTC Tim Stoy with the Operation Dragoon and Colmar Pocket reunions/commemorations/seminars. I’d developed an affinity for the 36th Infantry Division when I was assigned that as my research task, enhanced tremendously when my good friend, SGT Russ Littel deployed with the 136th MEB, of the 36th ID, to Afghanistan.

Roy Navarre headstoneI was utterly shocked then, a few days ago when my sister dropped me a note asking if I knew anything about the 15th Infantry Regiment. It turns out that our father’s uncle, Roy Joseph Navarre, served in Headquarters Company of the 15th Infantry Regiment during World War II. My father, Russ Navarre, never met his uncle because he was raised in the St Francis Home for Boys (which unfortunately burned in 2011 and was demolished). So, this comes as news to all of us. Fortunately, Tim is the historian of the 15th Infantry, so I fully expect to be able to learn far more about Uncle Roy.

For those who don’t know the story of the 15th, or it’s parent unit, the 3rd Infantry Division, in World War II, it fought in North Africa, in Sicily, at Anzio, landed in southern France (Operation Dragoon!), fought up the Rhone River valley, then through the Colmar Pocket and into Germany. I’m not sure when Roy Navarre joined the Regiment or if he remained in Europe to the end, but it will be interesting to discover and explore.

Now, I can join the 15th Infantry Regiment Association as well!



On Green Beach

In our recent trip to southern France, I did manage to squeeze in some time down at Green Beach, where most of the 36th Infantry Division came ashore. Since our stay in France was focused on two weeks in Avignon, Green Beach was quite a long drive – over two hours from our lodgings. The short trip up to the Montelimar battle square was far shorter.

36th BeachWe drove into the area Frejus, having used the A8 highway to come east from Avignon. Having spent a lot of time in rural France, enjoying the quaint and quiet villages, Frejus itself is something of a shock. We kept saying to each other how much it reminded us of going to Ocean City or the Outer Banks of North Carolina, since it was so Americanized. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say Americanized, just commercialized. The long plage in front of St. Raphael is a marvelous sandy beach and bikini-clad ladies parade past statues to the Senegalese troops, to General de Lattre de Tassigny and to Charles DeGaulle. It’s hard to argue with the people enjoying the beaches that were used in the liberation of France, since the soldiers fought exactly so that the beaches could be used this way. It’s still a little jarring to see a band playing for a crowd next to the statues of 5 soldiers who landed here.

Nonetheless, seeing Frejus Bay, you can understand how this soft sandy beach could have been a nightmare to assault. With the curve of the coastline and the rough terrain on anything that is not a sandy beach, you’d be landing troops into a kill zone. As they’d attack into Saint Raphael, they’d be exposing their backs to gun positions directly to their west. Since the remote-controlled explosive boats sent in to attempt early destruction of the obstacles were unsuccessful (radio interference likely helped scramble the signals and lead to some of these “drone” boats heading back at the fleet instead of into the beach), the Navy wisely decide to divert the planned landing of the 142nd Infantry Regiment from Red Beach and land them on Green Beach, secured hours earlier with the landings of the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 141st Infantry Regiment.

Green BeachBecause the 142nd diverted to Green Beach, where the 143rd Infantry Regiment had followed the landings of the 141st, all of the troops of the Division, other than the 1st Battalion of the 141st, ended up landing on Green Beach. So, it comes as no surprise that when it came time to commemorate the landing of the Division in France, that the monument went up on Green Beach. Of course, when we go to the parking area, I had to race to the beach first (and not just because there was a restroom down there, but that did spur me forward).

The shocker: it’s not a sandy beach. The entire landing area is covered with gallets, stones from the size of your hand to the size of your head. Needless to say, on the day that all the other beaches were swarmed with sun-worshippers, this beach had only a few dozen families. Melissa and I took off our shoes and gingerly approached the water, standing to allow the waters of the Mediterranean to wash over our feet. I raised my hands and shouted, “Lafayette, nous sommes ici!”

The map above does not at all convey what the terrain in the area is like. It’s rocky and hilly, imposing and difficult terrain, even with modern roads in place. Looking at the arrows on that map, you get no sense whatsover of how challenging the route along the coast eastward to Cannes really is. Some the materials I’ve read point out the challenge facing the 141st heading along that road. If you drive it, you can certainly understand how a few determined soldiers with machineguns and some explosives could halt a battalion-sized advance. The Germans, having been at war for half of a decade were experts at such actions. Thus, in this terrain, and later in the war in the Vosges Mountains, during the Battle of the Colmar Pocket, small groups in an army which some thought was already beaten, could inflict devastating casualties. This may help explain why, when General Truscott visited General Dahlquist’s headquarters during the battle of Montelimar, saw the terrain and the condition of the 36th Infantry Division troops and refrained from relieving Dahlquist on the spot.

As I find so often, when you walk the ground, you gain an understanding that is simply impossible to acquire from books and maps. I wish we’d had more time at Green Beach and been able to visit the drop zones, but mostly, I wish we’d been able to do so with a guide. I could relate some of what I’d read to the places, but it really takes significant study of the history and the terrain to be able to do more than scratch the surface.



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.



Task Force Butler turns to block

According to the history of the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, on the 19th, Truscott prepared to set his trap at Montelimar, sending Task Force Butler to block the route of escape for the Germans. General Dahlquist of the 36th Infantry Division would receive the orders, but not General Butler.

As we’ve noted, Task Force Butler was an ad hoc unit and the headquarters had no equipment of it’s own. It was simply superimposed and co-located with the 117th’s command group. This meant that communications equipment had to be scrounged and, with the difficulties of communications in mountainous terrain, they were doubly-challenged. (I expect the same problems are experienced in Afghanistan today.) As such, Butler continued acting on his prior orders (which labelled Grenoble as his goal) and reacted to emerging threats (an apparent German threat against Gap). So, Task Force Butler was also not quite prepared to shift toward Montelimar.

“at 2045 hours on August 20th[, 1944], he [Truscott] radioed specific instructions to Butler directing him to move to Montelimar at dawn with all possible speed. He was to seize the town and block the German routes of withdrawal. The 36th division would follow the Task force ASAP. Truscott then sent Lt. Col. Conway of his G-3 Section with more specific written instructions, instructing Butler to seize the high ground immediately north of Montelimar before dark that day, but not the city itself.”

While the history indicates that Butler gathered his troops at “Apres” before heading west to Crest, I suspect they mean Aspres-sur-Buëch located just north of Sisteron and at an intersection of roads heading to Sisteron, Gap, Grenoble and Crest. Butler basically had only his reconnaissance squadron (and not all of that) to send west.

Crossing the DromeBy afternoon, C/117 had attacked from Crest toward the Rhone near Livron, destroying a convoy of over 50 vehicles and sowing panic among those troops. B/117 would move into the heights along the N-7 highway, providing them a vast shooting gallery as the German 19th Army retreated northward. Unfortunately, this meant General Butler had two reconnaissance troops (with his third, “A” Troop hurrying over from the deployment to Gap) and some artillery to face every German stationed in the south of France. The mountainous terrain and rivers would aid him, but the odds were against them.

As MAJ Volpe’s map indicates, Butler’s men were spread widely as the Germans came streaming north, with most of the weight in the still-intact 11th Panzer Division.




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