Friday, July 26, 2019

It Shall Be Done: The 121st Infantry Regiment Enters Fortress Europe

By Maj. William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

Soldiers of the 121st Infantry Regiment conduct maneuvers in Belfast Ireland prior to the Normandy landings. The Gray Bonnet:
Combat History of the 121st Infantry Regiment

On July 4, 1944 the Georgia Army National Guard’s 121st Infantry Regiment splashed ashore on Utah Beach and entered the Normandy Campaign. Within a week of landing, the regiment would suffer its first casualties and in less than 10 months, the casualty list of the 121st would grow to 70 pages as the regiment fought its way from La Haye du Puits France to Schwerin Germany and the liberation of concentration camps near Wobbelin.[i]

Early History
The companies that would eventually form the 121st Infantry have a long and varied history. The first company to form was The Baldwin Blues, originally organized May 11, 1810 in Milledgeville, Ga.[ii] The Blues, along with other predecessor units of the 121st – the Albany Guards and Barnesville Blues were mustered into Confederate service as elements of the 4th Georgia Volunteer Infantry which would see extensive service in the eastern theater of the American Civil War.[iii]

On December 20, 1860, other early elements of the 121st Infantry Regiment were organized as the Independent Volunteer Battalion of Macon to include the Macon Volunteers and the Floyd Rifles.[iv] Mustered into Confederate service in April 1861 as part of the 2nd Battalion, Georgia Infantry,[v] the Macon unit served in the brigade of Brig. Gen. Ambrose Wright and was the skirmish element on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg in which the brigade crested Cemetery Hill.[vi] The battalion surrendered at Appomattox Court House with the Army of Northern Virginia April 9, 1865.

1874 to 1917
The 2nd Battalion was reorganized June 15, 1874 in the Georgia Volunteers, precursor to the Georgia National Guard. The battalion was expanded and reorganized January 23, 1891 as the 2nd Regiment of Infantry. Elements of the 2nd Infantry were mustered into federal service in May 1898 for the Spanish American War and returned to state control in November 1898.[vii]

BARNESVILLE, Ga., 1898 – The Barnesville Blues, then Company F, 2nd Georgia Volunteers stand in formation on Main Street in Barnesville after volunteering for service in the Spanish American War.  Their commander, Capt. John Howard stands to the left. Georgia Guard archives

On July 2, 1916, the 2nd Regiment of Infantry was mustered into federal service and dispatched to the Mexican Border. For the next eight months, the Infantrymen patrolled the border from El Paso, Texas to Noria, N.M. in support of Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing’s punitive expedition.[viii] The regiment returned to Macon in March 1917 but remained in federal service. In August 1917, Companies B, C and F of the 2nd Georgia were reorganized as the 151st Machine Gun Battalion. The 151st would serve with the 42nd Infantry Division during World War I. The remaining companies of the 2nd Georgia Infantry were redesignated the 121st Infantry Regiment in October 1, 1917.

Soldiers of Company A, 151st Machine Gun Battalion in 1919.  Georgia Guard Archives.

Colonel Thomas and the Gray Bonnet Regiment
Col. James Adrian Thomas, commanding,
121st Infantry Regiment, 1912-1918.
Georgia Guard Archives.
The commander of the 121st Infantry Regiment in the years leading up to World War I
was Col. James Adrian Thomas Jr. of Macon, Ga. Thomas enlisted in the Southern Cadets as a private in 1887 at the age of 17. In 1893 he transferred to the Macon Hussars, Company F, 2nd Infantry Regiment, Ga. Guard. He was commissioned November 7, 1895. On November 18, 1912, Col. Thomas assumed command of the 2nd Infantry. Shortly after assuming command, Thomas designated the regiment the Old Gray Bonnet after the popular song "Put on your Old Gray Bonnet" by Stanley Murphy and Percy Wenrich which was first released in 1909.[ix] 

The 2nd Georgia Infantry was redesignated the 121st Infantry Regiment in September 1917. The regiment departed for France October 5, 1918 aboard the transport USS Orizaba. Arriving in the port of Brest, France the 121st was compelled to remain on board until the ship could be unloaded. It was in the harbor that Col. Thomas, beloved regimental commander, died of pneumonia October 16 having never set foot in France. He was 48.[x]

Reeling from the loss of their commander, the Soldiers of the 121st were dealt a second blow. Having reached Le Mans October 22, the Soldiers of the 121st were informed they would be parceled into replacement units rather than enter combat as a regiment. Having trained so long for combat, many of the Soldiers of the 121st would reach the front lines just as the war was coming to a close.[xi]

Following World War I, the Georgia National Guard was reorganized. The 121st Infantry Regiment was federally recognized May 31, 1921 as the 1st Georgia Infantry Regiment. It would not regain its 121st designation until 1924 by which time the regiment was part of the 30th Division. [xii] By 1939, on the eve of war, the 121st Infantry was comprised of three battalions based in Macon, Brunswick and Dublin, Ga.

Colonel Lewis Pope, The Gray Bonnet Insignia and Federalization
Colonel Lewis Cleveland Pope in 1941.
Georgia Guard Archives.
In September 1940, the 121st was accepted into federal service under the command of Col. Lewis C. Pope. Pope was born June 23, 1884 in Laurence County, Ga. and enlisted in Company A, 2nd Infantry, Georgia Sate Troops November 24, 1899. He served through the ranks from private to sergeant before commissioning as a second lieutenant in Company K November 7, 1906. Pope was appointed captain of the Dublin Guards August 28, 1919, was promoted to major January 25, 1921 and lieutenant colonel July 22, 1922. Upon the unexpected death of Georgia’s Adjutant General, Brig. Gen. J. Van Holt Nash, Pope was promoted to brigadier general and appointed as Nash’s successor by Governor Thomas Hardwick. Pope served as the adjutant general until January 13, 1923 when he was appointed colonel, commanding the 121st Infantry Regiment.

During a ceremony in Macon, Ga. October 14, 1928, ten years after the regiment sailed for France, the 121st regimental colors were presented amidst much fanfare. The ceremony also marked the first appearance of the unit’s distinctive insignia as described by Capt. Charles F. Stuart, regimental adjutant:

“All of the men were equipped and wearing the Old Gray Bonnet insignia, and it looked mighty good in its first appearance.”[xiii]

Twelve years after the first appearance of the Gray Bonnet Pope was still in command
The 121st Infantry Regiment marching through Manchester,
Tenn in 1941 during the Tennessee Maneuvers. Georgia Guard
of the 121st Infantry Regiment when it was dispatched to Fort Jackson, S.C. for sixteen weeks of initial training.[xiv] In June, the 121st participated in the Tennessee Maneuvers followed by the Carolina Maneuvers. In September, Col. Pope was succeeded by Col. Aaron J. Becker.[xv] Shortly after Becker assumed command the reorganization of Army divisions resulted in assignment of the 121st to the 8th Infantry Division.[xvi]

The 8th ID participated in the Second Army Maneuvers in Tennessee in September 1942 before transferring to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. In December.[xvii] After wintering at Leonard Wood, the regiment departed for the Desert Training Center in Yuma, Arizona where they would endure combat training under harsh drought conditions before returning to Camp Forrest, Tenn. in August 1943. Finally, on November 25, 1943, the Soldiers of the 121st boarded a train bound for Camp Kilmer, N.J. before embarking from Brooklyn, N.Y. aboard the U.S.S. Beanville and Columbia. After a ten-day voyage, the Gray Bonnets arrived in Belfast Harbor.[xviii] Over the next six and a half months, the 121st conducted field problems and combat training in anticipation for the Normandy Invasion.

Nissen Huts in which the Soldiers of the 121st lived in Belfast. Chaplain Peter Wiktor noted that these
huts “wouldn’t hold heat in hell.” Georgia Guard Archives.

On June 30, 1944 the 121st began loading transports in Belfast Harbor. Five days later, on July 4, the first Soldiers of the Gray Bonnet Regiment splashed ashore on Utah Beach.[xix] Leaving their landing crafts, the troops marched 22 miles to Monte Bourg, north of Ste. Mere Eglise in full gear in one of the hottest Julys on record. From Monte Bourg, the 121st was dispatched south to La Haye du Puits where the U.S. VIII Corps was attempting to dislodge German forces and advance out of the swampy lowland terrain. Three American Divisions, the 79th, 82nd Airborne and 90th, had thus far been unable to effect a penetration of German lines and establish a crossing of the Ay River east of Lessay. Arriving on July 8, the 8th Division was assigned as the main effort of the attack which would strike a narrow front between Lessay and Perriers.[xx]

Operations in the vicinity of La Haye du Puits July 8-13, 2019.  Blumenson, 1961.
The next morning, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 121st assaulted La Haye du Puits from the northeast moving out under cover of artillery. Having advanced perhaps 500 yards, the Gray Bonnets were checked by withering German machine gun fire. The 1st Battalion, in the vicinity of Hill 95 found itself in a particularly desperate situation with elements of Company A temporarily isolated. Though outnumbered, the German Infantry were well entrenched in strong hedgerow positions with interlocking fields of machine gun fire and mortar coverage.[xxi]

The attack resumed at 6:00 am the next day with the 3rd Battalion entering combat in
Medics of the 121st Infantry Regiment attend to casualties of the 
early fighting in the vicinity of La Haye du Puits, France.  
Georgia Guard Archives.
support of its sister battalions. By the end of the day, the 121st had advanced another 200 yards. Blame for the slow progress was placed at the feet of the 8th Division commander whose troops were encountering the enemy for the first time. In short order, the division commander was relieved as were two regimental commanders including Col. Albert Peyton of the 121st. With new leadership, the 8th continued to move cautiously and methodically through the hedgerows.[xxii] The new commander of the 121st, Col. John Jeter, continued to direct his battalions forward in the face of punishing enemy resistance. A key piece of terrain, Hill 112 which came to be known as “Purple Heart Hill” was taken on July 13 following an all-out assault.

The ferocity of the action in the vicinity of La Haye du Puits is written in the blood of those who fell. In five days of combat, 26 Georgia Guard Soldiers were killed in action. Lieutenant Colonel Burton Morrison, commander of the 2nd Battalion, was killed July 9. His successor, Maj. James Mallory was killed four days later. The commander of 1st Battalion, Lt. Col. Robert Jones was killed July 11. Captain William McKenna, a native of Macon, Ga. received the Silver Star for leading 2nd Battalion Soldiers in restoring a battle line and destroying an enemy strong point with hand grenades.[xxiii]

Capt. William Andrew McKenna, Georgia Guard Archives
Having secured La Haye du Puits, the 8th Division continued moving south to secure a crossing of the Ay River. The ensuing offensive would take place across a narrow division front. With the 79th Division to the right confronted with impassable swampy terrain and the 90th Division facing heavily mined terrain choked with obstacles to their front on the left, the 8th Division would be called upon to strike enemy forces and establish a breach for the follow-on divisions.

First Lieutenant Richard Blackburn joined Company A, 121st Infantry Regiment as a replacement officer July 13, 1944 along with other officers and 30 to 40 enlisted men. Blackburn was appointed executive officer of the company and experienced his first combat the following day as he later recalled:

“On July 14, the 121st was ordered to attack to the south toward the Ay River. From its mouth west of Lessay to a bridge southeast of St. Patrice de Claids, the river was a continuous stretch of swampland that was firmly held by the German Army. Bands of enemy small arms fire, throngs of mortars, and repeated German 88 artillery fire pushed us deeper into the mire. At first, the mud was only ankle deep; but as we pushed on through the swamp, the muck was soon knee deep. Teamwork from the 79th and 90th Divisions was of great help in winning the battle and the Germans eventually pulled back.”[xxiv]

Staff Sgt. Carl Gowan in 1941. Georgia Guard
Staff Sgt. Carl Gowan of Company F was particularly notable for his actions in the face of the hedgerows. When his company was held up by machine gun fire, Gowan crawled forward on his stomach with a satchel of grenades. He single-handedly destroyed a machine gun nest and killed several snipers that were holding up his company’s advance. Gowan was killed before he could return to his company. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his actions.[xxv]

The actions of McKenna, Blackburn, Gowan and others propelled the 8th Division and its sister divisions across the Ay River. In the final days of July 1944 the 121st Infantry was poised to break the back of the German Seventh Army and clear the way for Lt. Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army and the breakout that would herald the liberation of France.

Next Chapter: Operation Cobra

[i] The Gray Bonnet: Combat History of the 121st Infantry. Baton Rouge, LA: Army & Navy Publishing Company, 1946, 85.
[ii] Gray Bonnet, 18.
[iii] Lyle, Thomas E., Larry O. Blair, Debra S. Lyle, and J. Harmon. Smith. Organizational Summary of Military Organizations from Georgia in the Confederate States of America. Marietta, Ga. 1999, 61.
[iv] Lyle et al,40-41.
[v] Center for Military History. Lineage and Honors Certificate, 121st Infantry Regiment
[vi] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol XXVII/2. -- SERIES I--VOLUME XXVII/2: JUNE 3-AUGUST 1, 1863--The Gettysburg Campaign. Washington DC: War Department, 1897.
[vii] CMH
[viii] Carraway, William. We Are Having a Big Time Now: January-March 1917. April 17, 2017.
[ix] The first official authority for this designation appears March 24, 1924 in GO No. 1 in which the 121st Infantry was officially designated the Old Gray Bonnet Regiment. This much was affirmed in an October 28, 1926 outline of the history of the 121st Infantry certified by Charles H. Cox, Georgia's Adjutant General.
[x] The Georgia State Memorial Book Adopted as the Official Record by the Military Department of the State of Georgia. Atlanta: 1921, 31.
[xi] Gray Bonnet, 18.
[xii] Pictorial Review of the National Guard of the State of Georgia, 1939, 44.
[xiii] Gray Bonnet, 17.
[xiv] Pictorial Review, 45.
[xv] Gray Bonnet, 20.
[xvi] Ibid
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] Ibid, 8.
[xix] Ibid 11
[xx] Blumenson, Martin. Breakout and Pursuit. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. of the Army, 1961, 124
[xxi] Gray Bonnet, 27.
[xxii] Blumenson, 125.
[xxiii] Gray Bonnet, 30.
[xxiv] Berry, Jerald W. In the Company of Heroes: The Memoirs of Captain Richard M. Blackburn Company A, 1st Battalion, Xlibris Corporation, 2013, 153-154.
[xxv] Gray Bonnet, 30.

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