It was a wearing war of attrition
from Bruyeres until the doughfeet broke out into the Alsatian
plain after having crossed the swollen Meurthe River and forced
the SainteMarie passes to Selestat and Ribeauville. Even after
ninety two consecutive days of combat in France, they battered
their way through the passes, in an assault on the hitherto
considered impregnable Vosges massif. In thirteen days, they
forced the narrowest and steepest pass in the Vosges Mountains
against almost fanatical opposition. Holding a line extending an
almost unheard of eighty kilometers, they captured almost
eighteen hundred prisoners in attacks often made without any
supporting armor whatsoever, so tangled was the terrain.
The attack began near Saint
Leonard, on the Meurthe River. The 143rd attacked across the
river on November 21, encountering heavy resistance from troops
concealed in elaborate trench systems, the approaches to which
were mined and heavily snarled with barbed wire obstacles. Traps
and ditches prevented armored reconnaissance, and previously
conducted feints had forced the enemy into drawing on his
limited reserves and placing them in this section of the line.
Nevertheless, in three days of grueling combat, the infantry
battered its way into the network of defenses, until the enemy
withdrew under severe pressure.
Motorized and armored, the 142nd
jumped forward to exploit the breakthrough, driving back a
desperate, lastditch stand by the Germans near Haut Mandray.
Pushing its advantage, the First Battalion moved towards La
Croix, contested by groups of Germans blocking the precipitous,
tortuous road that traversed the vicious terrain.
The seizing of Sainte Marie itself
was a highly involved, dangerous undertaking. The only road to
the town passed through an extremely narrow defile, flanked by
wild growth on harsh ridges. It was a country which lent itself
to easy defense by very few troops; and the fully garrisoned,
strengthened positions were so situated that they could only be
attacked by a minimum number of men. While Love Company attacked
the outer defenses, the remainder of the Third Battalion marched
across the crag climbing mountain trails to take the town. So
complete was the surprise, that the town fell, although its
defenders were not overcome until several hours of street
Barely a few hours after Sainte
Marie had fallen, the First Battalion made a circuitous maneuver
through terrain so difficult that it was wholly impossible for
any armor or even the lightest vehicles to support the attack.
The Germans had rushed reinforcements forward from Selestat,
however, and before the First Battalion could complete its
mission and seize Sainte Croix, the Second Battalion had to
advance along the main road in a frontal assault. Sainte Croix
fell; Hoch Koenigsburg fell to the Third Battalion, and the road
was open to Selestat, which was taken shortly after.
As the lines extended, the 141st
Regimental Combat Team was emplaced along the right flank of the
Division, while the 143rd pushed on into Ribeauville and the
small towns gathered in a semicircle between it and Colmar.
No army had ever accomplished so
much before. Somewhat less than an army, the 36th Division did
it. Reorganized regiment by regiment, as the incessant struggles
tore its ranks, tired after so long a period of arduous
campaigning, it still had spark enough to drive across the last
remaining barriers and begin its debouchment into the Rhine
Valley. That the men managed to stand the grueling beatings
which marked every slight encounter with the enemy was
remarkable. Their resources were low, but their commanders could
proudly boast that when something had to be done, their men had
the guts to go out and do it. The climax came at Selestat and
On the morning of December 13, the
Germans switched from the defensive and smashed with all their
strength at the flanks of the 36th Division line.
The first assault came in the early
morning at the very left of the Texans' line, in the city of
Selestat. Given close support by tanks and tank destroyers and
the 105 mm howitzers known as "Pete Green's Mortars"
after the 132nd's CO, the 142 Regimental Combat Team held. The
Germans struck with elements of two divisions, better than a
thousand infantrymen, but they were driven off with massed
firepower after over twelve hours of bitter fighting. The
Germans lost three hundred and thirty-three prisoners, and
reconnaissance units later on the battlefield found twenty-six
bazookas, thirty rifles, and ten machine guns that the
evacuating Germans had discarded.
It was of this attack which
Heinrich Himmler later reminded the defenders of Sigolsheim in
an official order. "What the Americans did in Selestat, you
can do in Sigolsheim," he wrote.
But the main assault broke during
the middle of the morning around Riquewihr, where the CP of the
141st Regimental Combat Team was located. The main German thrust
was aimed directly at that town. Five hundred Germans
infiltrated two kilometers up a draw from the west, overrunning
a chemical mortar platoon which had set up in the draw.
Retreating into the town, the mortar men called for fire from
their other platoon, located on the other side of town. Then
they launched an attack of their own, supported by some
volunteering wiremen from regimental headquarters, and pushed
the Germans back to retake every mortar they had lost.
The infiltrating Germans had been
spotted by Cpl. Harry Karpan, Ventura, Cal., from his
observation post in a tower in the middle of town. As he called
fire down on them, the enemy spotted him and raked his position
with small arms and machine gun fire. He called for heavy
artillery and brought down a concentration on the draw, forcing
the Germans to disperse along the ridges on either side.
Had they but known it, the Germans
could have silenced him with a pair of pliers. A wire team from
the 131st Field Artillery Battalion, led by Sgt. Bob Stamford,
Tex., had sent up communications a bare quarter-hour before the
attack had begun, and their wire lay, exposed, through the draw
in which the T-Patchers were scrapping it out with the Germans.
The wire was never cut, and Cpl. Karpan and Sgt. Kearney Haas,
Comfort, Tex., called down a bingo mission from three battalions
of artillery that secured the area. It also cut the wire, but
the enemy had evacuated.
Small groups of Kraut officer
candidates had managed to sneak into Riquewihr, however. While
the First Battalion of the 141st, machine guns to the fore,
ripped into the scattered enemy in fierce firefighting—at some
places hand to hand combat developed in the storm, at others
there were pointblank shooting frays, these squads tried to
establish a foothold in the town. Combat Correspondent Pfc.
Clarence Lasky, Portland, Conn., left his typewriter for a
carbine, rounded a corner, and took three prisoners. Regimental
cook Pvt. Ralph Inglese, Brooklyn, N.Y., left his kitchen to
help in the defense of the command post, wounded two more and
took them prisoner.
But the Germans had not put all
their eggs in one basket. As this attack grew in fury, a second
prong, two hundred strong, swung in from the south, struck at
and severed the supply line of the Second Battalion.
The Third Battalion had to turn and
face an attack that had already gained momentum. I. Company led
a drive to free the route to the rear while the other companies
tenaciously battled to slow up and halt the enemy. The story was
the same. The enemy were tough youngsters, seventeen to nineteen
years old with no battle experience. They had close mortar and
artillery support, but they did not use it. They tried to
intercept the Third Battalion by surprise.
Both battles around Riquewihr
continued ferociously all day. But while the assault at Selestat
died out, the effort to smash the right flank continued to
develop. A party of forty engineer officer candidates
infiltrated to cut the road between the 36th Division Command
Post and its rear. Enemy from this party involved members of the
133rd Field Artillery Battalion in a fire fight. The enemy had
been sent in with a double mission: to block the road and to
knock out the artillery. Under cover of terrific automatic
weapons fire, demolition experts set their charges, blew up one
howitzer and some ammunition. In a nearby building, Sgt.
Theodore King, Linden, Tex., massed the small arms fire from his
section in an attempt to cut down the enemy before more damage
could be done. A jeep was blown up by a bazooka. The house in
which Sgt. King's men had tried to establish a strong point was
set on fire in two places. Antiaircraft gunner Cpl. Albert
Wagner, Chicago, Ill., eased over to his multiple fifty calibre
mount, fired eleven hundred rounds from the four machine guns
into the surrounding area. The leaden spray silenced the German
The Germans went on to the second
part of their mission. Having halted traffic along the main road
to the rear, they signaled for two companies of infantry which,
according to plan, were to infiltrate the same gap in the lines
used by the engineers and come to support the road block. The
Second Battalion of the 143rd Infantry Regiment, thrown into the
gap, blocked this attempt to disrupt completely the rear area. A
severe fire fight erupted.
Along the front, the Germans
continued to attack. Heavy artillery was brought into play.
Ribeauville and the Division Headquarters were shelled. Road
blocks were established to block an enemy attack from further
along the front, but the Germans had enough. The larger group,
which had attempted to come in from the west, was thrown back
with over one hundred of its men left dead on the battle ground.
The entire day of the fourteenth was spent with all available
troops centered before Riquewihr, and the attack slowed
considerably. Six infantry battalions were thrown at the enemy,
supported by every piece of artillery. German units had taken
hills 351 and 393 between Riquewihr and Colmar, continued on to
erect strong points in the small town of Minnwihr. But that
afternoon saw the tired doughfeet fight the Germans to a
That day also saw the cessation of
German activity in the rear area. One Company from the 111th
Engineer Combat Battalion, thrown into the lines to act as
infantry, prevented their rejoining their lines as a group, and
the enemy had to split forces. Traffic was reopened along the
road, which was patrolled by engineers and controlled by members
of the 36th Division Military Police stationed on road blocks at
The next day, seven battalions of
infantry from three regiments started an offensive of their own.
The veterans of the 36th Division very slowly began to move the
Germans out of their positions. Relentlessly, but aching in
every tired limb, the doughboys carried forward in a brave
attempt to erase the German gains. They restored most of
Minnwihr, they climbed the slopes of 351 and 393, they plugged
every gap in the line. The Germans, in turn, threw heavy
artillery and mortar concentrations against them. Artillery fire
crunched the streets of every town within range, and mortars
unceasingly harassed the infantry. Deep mine fields blocked the
path. Rockets were thrown into the scrap. For three days the
Germans had their day—from the thirteenth to the sixteenth of
December they threw everything in the book at the infantrymen.
They didn't miss their chance, but it was fought out from under
them by the gutty fighting men of the 36th Division.
The Third Infantry Division began
the relief of the 36th in this Colmar sector on December 19, and
the 141st Regimental Combat Team trucked up to Strasbourg to
take over part of the quiet Rhine River line there. It was soon
followed by the rest of the Division.
The capital of Alsace, Strasbourg,
over whose liberation the members of the French Senate had wept,
was just across the Rhine from the Germans, yet Strasbourg was
peaceful compared to the rest of Germany bordering France. The
people roamed the streets. There was beer, and wine a plenty.
There were young girls, pretty and well dressed, not the
frightened, dumpy women of Selestat. Strasbourg was a thoroughly
civilized city and not a bad place to be for Christmas.