Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Christmas in Combat: Georgia Guard Soldiers Observe Christmas in 1944

By Major William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

A cartoon depiction of the rapid mobilization of the Georgia National Guard’s 179th Field Artillery Battalion and 4th Armor Division to the Ardennes 
in December 1944 as drawn by a Soldier of the 179th. 179th, 17.

Seventy-five years ago, seven battalions of Georgia Guard Soldiers spent Christmas engaged in the Ardennes following a surprise German counterattack remembered today as the Battle of the Bulge. This chapter of the Georgia Guard History Blog takes a brief look at how each Georgia Guard unit passed Christmas 1944.

945th Field Artillery Battalion

When the Germans launched the Ardennes Offensive, the 945th Field Artillery Battalion was engaged with the IIX Corps, 3rd Army in the Lorraine Campaign near Nancy. In action throughout December, the battalion had taken severe casualties with just 72 men remaining for duty in Battery C.[1] On December 19, Lt. Gen. George Patton ordered the XII Corps to move via Luxembourg to the Ardennes. The 945th, still recovering from the counterbattery fire of December 18, did not get started until the next day.[2] Due to the heavy snow and unbearable cold, the route of march was torturous and delayed. A Soldier in the 945th recalled that the mud froze to their boots and that men clustered to ride on the hoods of M5 tractors in order to stay warm.[3]

On Christmas Eve, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton 
distributed these personal messages to the Soldiers
of the 3rd Army including members of the Georgia Army National 
Guard’s 945th Field Artillery Battalion.
The 3rd Army was moving to first stabilize the German penetration, then counterattack.[4] The American counterattack brought with it 108 artillery battalions with nearly 1,300 guns.[5] The guns of the 945th FAB went into action December 23 in Luxembourg targeting roads, bridges and enemy counterbattery fire. The next day, the 945th fired 549 high explosive rounds and 17 white phosphorous rounds.[6] That evening, Patton distributed a personal message and prayer written by Chaplain James O’Neill to the Soldiers of the 3rd Army.

On Christmas Day, the Soldiers of the 945th received turkey dinner. Patton circulated through the divisions of the 3rd Army congratulating the men for their efforts. He subsequently wrote that “No other Army in the world except the American could have done such a thing.”

179th Field Artillery Battalion[7]

A communications section of the Georgia Army National Guard’s 
179th Field Artillery Battalion struggles against the elements to 
set up a relay station in this humorous cartoon generated 
by a 179th Soldier. 179th, 16.
Also moving out with the 3rd Army on December 20 was the 179th Field Artillery Battalion, a Georgia Guard unit which had been based in Atlanta prior to the start of the War. Moving with the 4th Armored Division, the 179th arrived in Nagen, Belgium where the Georgia Guardsmen delivered their first salvos into German flank positions on December 23, 1944. From their firing position, the 179th Field Artillery Battalion supported the 26th Division and would continue to do so through Christmas. In January, the 179th, moving with the 4th Armored Division advanced to Bastogne to relieve the encircled 101st Airborne Division.

121st Infantry Regiment

The 121st Infantry Regiment had spent November and December in the bloody Hurtgen Forest, an experience one Gray Bonnet Soldier recalled as “hell with icicles” During the fighting, Staff Sgt. John Minick led an element of Soldiers through a minefield, silenced an enemy machine gun, killed 20 Germans and captured 20 before he was killed by a mine explosion. For his valorous actions, Minnick posthumously received the Medal of Honor.[8]
A mortar crew from Company D, 121st Infantry Regiment, Georgia National Guard fires rounds at a German observation post across the Roer River. National Archives.
In late December, the objective of the 121st Infantry Regiment was the town of Obermaubach, east of Hurtgen. Near Obermaubach was a dam on the Roer River. If the Germans destroyed the dam the resulting flood would hamper 1st Army efforts to cross.[9]

The 121st attack jumped off on Dec. 22, 1944. Company B, under command of Capt. William McKenna achieved early success, driving 300 yards through enemy mortar and machine gun fire. Company C gained a foothold in the town and the 121st began clearing operations. An enemy sniper felled Maj. Joseph Johnston, commander of 1st Battalion but he refused medical evacuation until the engagement was decided.[10]

Christmas Eve and Christmas came with the infantry still heavily engaged. Company F
Men of Company I, 3rd Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment eat 
their first hot meal in 15 days after fighting in the Hurtgen Forest 
in December 1944. National Archives
cleared four bunkers while Soldiers of Company K knocked out two enemy strong points and cleared an approach for armor forces to move forward in support.

Stories of individual heroism were replete during the Christmas Day attack of the 121st against Obermaubach. Technical Sgt. Raymond Kommer moved out ahead of his squad which had been pinned down by machine gun fire. Incredibly, Kommer managed to crawl within arms reach of the enemy machine gun position. When the enemy gunner paused to reload, Kommer reached into the machine gun nest and unceremoniously pulled the gun right out of the gunner’s hands.[11]

While leading Company B, Capt. McKenna low crawled through enemy minefields within sight of enemy positions and called in artillery fire. He remained in an exposed position calling in targets before machine gun fire compelled him to return to his men. Still, he moved from foxhole to foxhole encouraging his Soldiers through personal example. During the attack that followed, McKenna was killed by small arms fire.[12]

118th Field Artillery Battalion

The Georgia Army National Guard’s 118th Field Artillery Battalion went into 
position near Malmedy, Belgium in which American Soldiers had been 
murdered by the Waffen SS days previous. 230th FA, 54
On December 16, 1944, the Soldiers of the Georgia Army National Guard’s 118th Field Artillery Battalion, part of the 30th Infantry Division, were in Langweiler, Germany when they received the order to be prepared to mobilize following the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes. Hastily loading personnel, equipment, and Christmas souvenirs onto trucks, the battalion moved out of Langweiler at 8:00 p.m. into darkness and swirling snow.[13] The vehicle column endured a night attack by the Luftwaffe the next morning and by December 18, the 118th was passing through Malmedy. Going into position near the town of Spa, Belgium, the Soldiers would soon find themselves firing at their old nemeses from Mortain, the 1st SS Panzer Division.[14] The resolve of the Soldiers was strengthened after learning of the American Soldiers who had been ambushed and murdered along the road in Malmedy through which they had passed just two days previous.

On December 19, the 118th batteries received fire missions and began firing at the rate of one round per minute against the advancing German vanguard. Presently, the batteries were ordered to increase their rate of fire to two rounds per minute. This rate of fire was sustained until the guns became red hot and the falling snows sizzled on tubes. Soldiers of Service Battery were hard pressed to keep up with the ammunition requirements of the line batteries and were compelled to race about on steep, icy roads bringing ammunition forward.

Over the next several days, the 118th fought the Germans and the elements with freezing cold temperatures and low clouds preventing American aircraft from flying over the lines. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the clouds lifted, and allied aircraft were soon bombing German positions and strafing supply lines.

The fighting continued in earnest on Christmas and the Soldiers had to rotate from their positions to enjoy their turkey dinner. From December 19 to 25, the battalion fired approximately 20,000 rounds.[15] They would continue to fire with deadly effect into the New Year and halfway through January before the Allies began to push the Germans back.

230th Field Artillery Battalion
Georgia National Guard Soldiers of Battery A, 230th Field Artillery Battalion in action near Malmedy, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944.  230th, 50.
Like its sister battalion, the 118th, the Georgia Guard’s 230th Field Artillery Battalion received an urgent alert to move while stationed at Langendorf, Germany[16]. Shortly before midnight December 17, the battalion abandoned their comfortable houses with decorated fir trees and began the movement to the Ardennes. Along the route, the 230th experienced the same Luftwaffe attacks as related by the Soldiers of the 118th. Moving south from Aachen, the 230th established firing positions near Malmedy. Although in proximity to the 118th the 230th did not receive the same quantity of fire due to the terrain of the valley in which they were emplaced. Nevertheless, the guns of the 230th supported the 120th Infantry Regiment was positioned to their front.
Happy Soldiers of the Ga. Army National Guard’s 
230th FAB receive Christmas packages from
 home Dec. 24, 1944 near Spa, Belgium. 230th, 54.

The 230th had perhaps the most fortunate position on Christmas of any Georgia Guard unit in Europe. The battalion’s headquarters was near the Belgian town of Spa. The Soldiers were able to rotate from Malmedy to Spa where they enjoyed Turkey dinner along with the hot bubbling mineral springs. Without ornaments, the Soldiers decorated small fir trees with bright paper and bubble gum wrappers. Not content to enjoy the blessings of Christmas by themselves, the Soldiers collected truckloads of candy and food to provide for the children of nearby Malmedy. Having enjoyed a relatively peaceful Christmas interlude with the moonlight reflecting of the quiet snowy valley, the Soldiers would soon advance to provide artillery support as the Infantry Regiments of the 30th Division pressed east.[17]

[1] Cosgrove, William M. Time on Target: the 945th Field Artillery Battalion in World War II. Place of publication not identified: W.M. Cosgrove, III, 1997, 111
[2] Cosgrove, 125
[3] Ibid
[4] Cosgrove, 126
[5] Cosgrove, 127
[6] Ibid
[7] History and Battle Record of 179 F.A. Bn., 1857-1945. Regensburg, Germany: Frederich Pustet, 1945, 16.
[9] Gray Bonnet, 41
[10] Gray Bonnet, 42
[11] Gray Bonnet, 43
[12] Ibid
[13]Smith, Gordon Burns. History in Action: 118th Field Artillery, 30th Infantry Division 1942-1945, 2nd Edition. Washington, D.C.: Florida “Gator” Chapter, 1988, 83
[14] 118, 85
[15] 118, 88
[16] Jacobs, John et al. On the Way: A Historical Narrative of the Two-Thirtieth Field Artillery Battalion Thirtieth Infantry Division. Poessneck, Germany: F. Gerold Verlag, 1945, 48
[17] 230th, 54

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