« We blocked the Bulge », story of the 39th Infantry Regiment in the Ardennes (December 1944)

Speaking about the Battle of the Bulge in the 9th Infantry Division history is quite incorrect. The official name for their actions fits better, since it is called the Ardenne Campaign. On the early morning of 16 December 1944, the U.S. Army encountered a massive German offensive with as northern limit the Elsenborn ridge, and as the southern limit the town of Diekirch. At that time, the northern part of the U.S. defense was the most defended one, which could explain the German breakthrough south of this position. Moreover, the units that suffered the morning attack on 16 December were stationed, while the northern units were fighting around the Hürtgen Forest for months (since 12 September) and on the Roer River. The 16 December did not change anything for these veteran units; it was still a day of fighting.

jugendorf_12dec44Men of I Company – 39th Infantry Regiment stand guard over exhausted and cold German veterans of the Hurtgen Forest campaign. Captured at Jungersdorf on December 12, they were organized and marched out of the front lines that morning by the equally exhausted survivors of I/39th.

In December, the 39th Infantry Regiment was located in the town of Langerwehe, 6 miles west of Düren on the Roer River, which was the VII Corps objective since… 14 September. On 8 December, a field order is issued in order to prepare a new attack, giving the objectives to the different combat teams attached, and for few days, the combat teams of the divisions were fighting in the vicinity of Langerwehe. The day before the 16 December, the division was still fighting to have control of the west bank of the Roer River. The 39th Infantry was on the right of the division, and its direct neighbor was the 329th Infantry (83rd Infantry Division). Main activity that day was sending out patrols to estimate the presence and the strength of the enemy. On 16 December, while that the lines of four divisions U.S. are pushed by the 6th SS Panzer and 5th Panzer Armies, the 9th Division sees no real action. Frontline units are carrying their patrols on, and rear units in Langerwehe are conducting training. Only the 60th Infantry encountered a German attack within its company’s lines, strong of about a company. The division stayed in this area until 18 December, 48 hours after the major German attack in the Belgian Ardenne.

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On 18 December, in view of the German breakthrough in V Corps ‘area, the Division is ordered to redeploy its units to the south in order to stop the German attack. The 9th Division is to be relieved by the 104th Infantry Division on the Roer, and will enter the Battle of the Bulge. The 47th Combat Team was already attached to the V Corps and committed in the Monschau area since 17 December; the 60th Combat Team stayed attached to the 104th Infantry Division to hold the sector on the Roer River; and the 39th Combat Team moved in the morning of 18 December via Gressenich, Stolberg, Aachen and Eupen, to occupy defensive positions in the Kalterherberg-Elsenborn area, an area they already know since it was their rest area one month before.

On 19 December then, the 39th Combat Team (which consisted on 39th Infantry Regiment, C/746th Tank Battalion and its Assault Gun Platoon and heavy mortar platoon, a platoon of A/15th Engineer Battalion and the 26th Field Artillery Battalion) de-trucked in the village of Sourbrodt to take position along the ridge, south of Kalterherberg. The 39th R.C.T. had an area of responsibility east of the former Belgian army camp of Elsenborn which was on a thin frontline but organized in depth. Before the night, the combat team’s units were on position, and on the frontline, the men were re-occupying former 99th Infantry Division’s positions.

On 20 December, around Monschau, in Germany, the 47th R.C.T. that was holding the line nearby sent out patrols and all of them met small groups of three German paratroopers. They were the retreating elements of the failed operation Stösser, led by the famous Colonel August von der Heydte and his Fallschirmjäger. This operation was launched on 16 December and their objective was to regroup in the woods near Eupen, to open and secure the road leading Malmedy to Eupen for the SS tanks. The bad weather conditions and the rough and wooded terrain disorganized the paratrooper landing: on 870 paratroopers that took off, only 450 jumped and around 100 of them gathered at the rendezvous point. They have light weapons and food for 24 hours, only little ammunition and only one mortar as heavy weapon. Moreover, no radio is working. After three days, on 19 December in the evening, von der Heydte understands his mission failed, and that the 6th SS Panzer Army’s offensive is stuck. He decided to organize his retreat eastward to reach their line. The American unit around were aware of the paratrooper drop few days before and were searching for Fallschirmjäger… These German troopers were sent by teams of three soldiers to avoid any important capture, thru the American lines, and the majority reached Monschau as from 21 December. On the night of 21/22 December, von der Heydte reaches the outskirt of Monschau, and rushes into the first house, exhausted by the five last days he went through, but in the mean time, the 47th R.C.T. that held this area, sent out patrols to search the town, and captured 80 Fallschirmjäger, and the Colonel von der Heydte… Only a third of his men succeed in reaching their line back. The others were captured, killed or they might have died because of cold, lost in the forest.

vonderheydteand9thmedicAfter he was captured by patrols of the 47th Infantry Regiment, Colonel von der Heydte, the famous leader of the Fallschirmjäger who defended the town of Carentan, was then transferred to the 9th Medical Battalion. 

On 21 December, the 39th Combat Team experienced its first attack of the battle of the Bulge. During the afternoon, two regiments of the 3. PanzerGrenadier-Division launched an attack onto the 1st battalion of Colonel Bond’s regiment and I/39th Infantry (led by Captain Anthony V. Danna) that was filling the gap between the 1st and the 2nd Battalions. The German attack was soon stopped by the brilliant artillery defense made of 2nd, 9th and 99th Infantry Divisions ‘Artillery located on the high grounds east of Kalterherberg, and what whas first a terrific armored attack became a slaughter of German troops in the cold forest. Captain Danna’s company reported the German first-aid men so numerous that it seemed as though the Americans had fired upon a large hospital group!

Donald E. Lavender recalls this episode:

“We were increasingly angry when we heard of the mass murder of GIs at Malmedy – less than fifteen miles from us. Revenge was ours a few days later, however, when my company, which was on the line, called artillery fire on an entire battalion of German and received credit for annihilation of the complete outfit. Our artillery in the Bulge was murderous. Much more than average supporting artillery had been brought up to contain the Bulge. This battalion annihilation of the Germans was accomplished through time over target artillery fire. It was handled through a mass radio net and the higher coordinator began a count-down by seconds. The largest guns furthest in the rear fired first. As the count-down reached the proper second for each successive and closer artillery unit, that unit would fire also so that all of the massed fire reached the target at the same time. This one particular barrage included the massed fires of all artillery pieces from the largest guns down to our 60- and 81-mm mortars which were just behind the hill.”

60-mm-mortars-deployed-in-the-bulge60-mm mortars of the 9th Division deployed in the Ardennes Forest, December 1944.

This unexpected defense did not discourage the German. On the 22 December, they hit the 99th Reconnaissance Troop (at that time attached to the 9th Division), and as from 13h00, signs of infiltration started along the 39th Infantry’s area. In the afternoon, a important artillery barrage felt upon the 39th Infantry lines as well, and around 1735, when darkness was settling down, the German launched an important armored and infantry attack. Their main effort felt down the positions of E/39th Infantry, but the strength of the attack forced the Germans to spill over and enter the sectors of I and G/39th Infantry. E/39th Infantry (led by Captain Kenneth W. Hill) felt under the German pressure. 1st Platoon Sergeant, Technical Sergeant Peter J. Dallessandro, stayed on position and called for a mortar fire on his own position to stop the enemy. For this action, he has been awarded the Medal of Honor. Eventually, the 39th Combat Team succeed in repealing the attack, even if Captain Hill’s company stepped back from 500 yards, thank to Dalessandro’s actions that that, the enemy stopped his attack. At the end of the days, 14 Germans were captured by the men of the regiment.

backfromwarPeter J. Dalessandro (see his story here)

On 23 December, the 3rd battalion started an attack at 07h50, with L/39th Infantry leading, in order to recover the ground lost the day before. E/39th Infantry stayed in reserve at the rear while L/39th took the former position of Hill’s company. But once again, a counterattack felt on the very same position, but this time against L/39th. And once again, this counterattack was broken by the artillery, placed with good effect on 5 tanks, 4 half-tracks and approximately 100 infantrymen further east, in the thick woods east of Camp Elsenborn. At that time, on the whole U.S. front, it was clear that the German massive offensive was losing its strength, and that the U.S. troops were taking back the advantage. 23 December was the last time the Germans tried to breakthrough in the 9th Division’s area.

On 24 December, the situation of the regimental combat team remained unchanged. The line was reinforced by 2/395th Infantry (99th Infantry Division) that was attached to the combat team in vicinity of the southern edge of Kalterherberg. The usual patrolling was carried on and obstacles were strengthened with the addition of wire and mines. Six prisoners were taken by the patrols. On Christmas day, there was a little activity on the division sector, which allowed the men to keep patrolling and improve their defensive positions. On 30 December, the 2nd Battalion sent a combat patrol reinforced with tanks to clean out an enemy pocket in front of F/39th. Opposed by small arms and machine guns, the patrol eliminated the pocket and established an outpost on the enemy former position. That was the very last action of the 39th R.C.T. for the year 1944. Only relieve shifts and patrols were performed.

camoedintheardennesA combat patrol finding its way through the dense Ardenne forest, with white camouflaged equipment and helmets.

The battle of the Bulge, for the men of the 9th Infantry Division, wasn’t comparable to the experience suffered by the “battle babies units” or the airborne divisions that were sent into the battle to avoid the German’s breakthrough. The 9th Division’s units were used as a defensive stronghold along the Elsenborn-Kalterherberg Ridge, and achieved all the objective given by the division: no enemy succeed in passing through the defense, and the German plan to push north through Eupen failed thank to the veteran infantry units deployed in the north of Malmedy: 1st, 2nd and 9th Infantry Division. Once again, experience paid off. But on the other hand, the reader should be aware of the fact that the division was fighting without rest since 10th of June, and that the last battles were highly violent (Hürtgen Forest and Roer River battles)… They were not in a rest area, since England !