Lions In Winter: The Fighting 106th Infantry Division
A Green Division Battles For Its Life
Each December when the Battle of the Bulge is commemorated, the discussion seems to be dominated by the siege of Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne, with help from several U.S. artillery battalions, held out in historical fashion. They have been rightfully hailed for their achievements. But what about the rest of the battle? There were dozens of other infantry and armored units engaged in the struggle. The Americans contributed 600,000 GIs and suffered almost 90,000 casualties with over 20,000 captured. It was a shocking development coming so late in the war. One infantry division in particular was hit very hard and nearly annihilated the first week of battle. The 106th Infantry Division lost 7,000 captured by the end of December 1944. Because of this, many have slighted the 106th veterans. Their accomplishments were forgotten. The men who evaded the onslaught fought on, helping to upset the German timetable for the capture of St. Vith. Even those that were overrun during the first days of the battle contributed immensely to the defeat of the Germans.
Just a few months before, they had been preparing for battle in the States. For most, it had been 18 months of training. That year and a half of field exercises, drills and tests were the culmination of what Army planners had developed since the beginning of the war. The 106th was an all “draftee” division. The United States now had an Army that very few could have envisioned in 1941.
When the United States entered World War II, the U.S. Army was still woefully unprepared. In 1939, the Army had only five regular army divisions, and that’s including the Hawaiian and Philippine divisions. With the German invasion of Poland, FDR and the War Department hurriedly tried to increase its strength. Conscription was instituted, new divisions were created and the National Guard units were federalized. By the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, there were 11 Regular Army divisions. Training was still lacking and it would take years before some units were ready to fight. But the goal was to create 100 divisions. This would eventually include infantry, armored and airborne.
That first year of the war, the Army set a frenetic pace. Though it still took time to create a modern fighting force. Men signed up at their draft board and sometimes waited almost a year to be called up. Many of the divisions that would fight in Northwest Europe in 1944 and ’45 were activated in early 1943. One of these units was the 106th.
Formed in March 1943, the Division was made up of three infantry regiments, three 105mm artillery battalions and one heavy 155mm battalion, along with various other support units. Not only did the enlisted men lack any combat experience, but most of its officers did as well. Even General Jones, the division commander, had never heard a shot fired in anger; but neither had Eisenhower for that matter.
The Golden Lions, as men of the Division were known because of their shoulder patch which featured a golden lion’s face encircled by red, white and blue borders, spent the winter training in the mountains of Tennessee and the summer of 1944 sweltering at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. Army brass assumed that if recruits received the toughest training the Army could offer, it would more than make up for any lack of experience. However, during that spring and summer, the Division lost almost 7,000 of its original enlisted complement to replacement depots, 60% of its enlisted strength. Several hundred officers went too.
With the invasion of continental Europe imminent, and the Army expecting high casualty rates during the first weeks of the invasion, almost every available Army unit waiting in the States was stripped of personnel. New men were brought in, and commanders hurriedly tried to get them up to speed before deployment. But the new arrivals had trained for a very different war. Men from the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) were some of the first to arrive. ASTP was a program that sent qualified men to college to eventually train for specialties the army would need later. Many of these men were surprised by their “reassignment.” Other replacements came from the Army Air Corps and Army Ground Forces replacement depots. There were also volunteers from antiaircraft and coastal artillery units that were being disbanded along with a large contingent of service troops (supply units mostly) and military police.
The Lions headed overseas in late October 1944, first landing in England where they tried to take stock of their equipment and get some training done. They would end up spending about a month there. But the war was already changing. The headlines since June 6, 1944 had all been about a race to the German border. Newspapers reported thousands of German prisoners being taken and town after town being liberated. It was only a matter of time, many assumed, before Germany collapsed.
The failures of Operation Market Garden and the campaign in the Huertgen Forest brought a change of mood. Patton’s Third Army was meeting heavy resistance at Metz. It would take almost three months to secure the city. The once sanguine Allies now faced a grim reality. By December, the front was static; winter weather had arrived. The Germans dug in along the remaining barriers of the Siegfried line and waited for the big blow to arrive, most likely in the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of the Reich. The Allied victories of the summer and early fall were distant memories, and the war had become a slow battle of attrition against an increasingly desperate enemy.
So along this “ghost front”, as it was now being called, things became routine. Rumors about Glen Miller appearing in Paris were heard everywhere. Marlene Dietrich and Dinah Shore were coming too. Ernie Pyle left for the Pacific. If the action-seeking reporters had left, there might not be much to do for a while; the Germans, with no real diversions of any kind, kept themselves busy preparing fortified positions that the Allies would have to overcome.
Against this backdrop, the 106th Infantry Division arrived on the continent the first week of December. After disembarking at Le Harve, France, their arduous trek began. They eventually made their way to the Schnee Eifel region of the Ardennes Forest, a rugged, hilly region in the tri-border area of Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. The area had a Christmas card look with its narrow winding roads, and mist-shrouded, snowy hills, interspersed with dense forests of fir and pine. The locals in their area, mostly of German descent with a sprinkling of French speaking and Flemish Belgians, were indifferent at best. The ethnic mix brought on overlapping loyalties during the war.
It was supposed to be an easy start for the green troops. The Ardennes was reported to be sparsely defended by enemy units made up of old men and others ill-suited for combat. The Division’s area of responsibility covered over twenty miles, well beyond what Army regulations stated for a division. Two thirds of the division would be located inside the German border. Despite this fact, the men of the 2nd Infantry Division, whom they were replacing, joked that the new guys were going to have it easy.
But before the men had even settled in, they were exhausted, with dozens already sick. Within a few days, trench foot would become a problem.Traveling to the front had been a cold and miserable journey. A driving rain fell. Ice and mud impeded the drive. And it was not without incident; there had been one casualty from a weather-related traffic accident. Warrant Officer Claude Collins of the 590th Field Artillery was hit by a truck and killed. Reaching the Schnee Eifel was a relief. Many of the men were billeted in farmhouses or log cabins that had been built by the previous GIs. Captured German bunkers also provided shelter. Even with the cold and snow, morale was high. By 1700 on the evening of December 9, 1944, registration by the artillery battalions was complete. Some batteries even fired a few harassing rounds at the enemy, which was part of a regular program of unobserved fire missions started by the 2nd Infantry Division.
The first few days were routine for the men. Patrols were sent out. Artillery batteries had a few more fire missions, mostly unobserved due to the weather. The enemy shot a few flares and lobbed some shells that missed. That was about it. There were some mishaps: fires broke out at a company kitchen and one of the regimental command posts; most likely due to carelessness rather than any enemy sabotage. Strangely, it elicited no fire from the enemy. Rumors ran rampant about Germans infiltrating at night. Engine noise coming from the German side of the line increased each day, which added to their general unease. As the days passed, the whistle of steam locomotives across the Prum Valley was heard with increasing frequency. At Corps HQ, no one appeared concerned even after German recon planes were heard flying over their positions. Any concerns sent up the intelligence chain by the 106th were chalked up to nerves by the VIII Corps G-2. The reports were met with much derision by the Corps intelligence staff who scoffed at the new arrivals’ reports. They told the 106th’s infantry units that the Germans were playing recorded sounds of tanks and other vehicles to scare the new men.
The sounds were all too real. Hitler had three armies massing in the Ardennes: the newly formed Sixth SS Panzer Army in the north, led by Hitler’s close confidant, General Sepp Dietrich, which had almost 500 tanks and self-propelled guns; the Fifth Panzer Army, headed by General Hasso von Manteuffel; and furthest south, the Seventh Army, made up of mostly infantry units. These combined Armies contained almost 30 infantry divisions and 12 Panzer divisions. The goal was to split the Allied armies, and retake Antwerp. The Fifth Panzer was given the job of cutting through the long, thin front held by the 106th in the St. Vith sector.
Baptism of Fire
Flares and spotlights lit up the early morning sky at 0530 on the morning of December 16, 1944. Within minutes, the shells began to fall. The terrifying sound of artillery shells and nebelwuerfers shattered the morning calm. The artillery battalions were hit first. Even St. Vith, almost 7 miles from the border, was being hit. Confused GIs at the furthest outposts tried to call their HQs. But the lines were out. Even those who got through did not get any orders. Nobody knew anything. Despite a lull in the artillery fire two hours later, the men were now keenly aware that this was more than a spoiling attack. By late on the night of the 16th, many of the Corps artillery units were ordered out while the 106th desperately hung on. The 423rd Infantry kept a foothold in the key village of Bleialf into the next morning. It didn’t last. A big push at dawn overran the defenders. Enemy armor was now making its way towards Schonberg virtually unopposed. Trapping two thirds of the Division on the Schnee Eifel was a real possibility. The bad weather made air support impossible. So the Germans could use the road network with impunity.
Poor communication between the infantry regiments and St. Vith led to even more confusion over what exactly to do. The 422nd and 423rd were being bypassed. Many in the 422nd had not even fired a shot yet. All hope lay in stopping the Germans at Schonberg, with its heavy stone bridge across the Our river. By midday on December 17th it was too late. The village was taken and the Germans now threatened St. Vith. Several small groups did get out over the next few days. Some fought their way right past the Germans in the village. Others made a break for the forest, and trekked to freedom in deep snow. The last known men to escape encirclement were from the 423rd's I & R platoon. Lt. Ivan Long led the small contingent across the Our River, past the German sentries and got to St. Vith, where he informed Division HQ of the mass surrender. It was a temporary reprieve. The men were thrown into the line to help defend St. Vith within hours.
Promises were made to the regiments and artillery battalions that help was on the way. Even an airdrop was mentioned. It was not to be. Division Headquarters was in disarray. The infantry regiments and the 590th Field Artillery Battalion held out for two more days. An attempt to retake Schonberg was a disaster and led to significant casualties. The men were now scattered in small groups in the hills above the village, low on food and ammo. Colonels Descheneaux and Cavender, the regimental commanders, decided to surrender. The COs of the 589th and 590th also had no other choice. Approximately 6500 men went into captivity on December 19. Word did not reach St. Vith of the surrender for another 24 hours. By the 21st, another 500 were bagged as the last holdouts gave up.
But all had not been lost. Manteuffel had expected to take St. Vith on the 17th. That timetable was permanently disrupted. It would take another week of brutal fighting before the Germans entered what was a city in ruins.
To the south, the remaining fighting units of the Division, the 424th Infantry and 591st Field Artillery fought on, making their way toward St. Vith. Once in position, they contributed mightily to what became known as the “Fortified Goose Egg,” which was the name of the defensive positions around St. Vith. The Division's heavy artillery battalion, the 592nd (155mm), evacuated the night of the 17th and had been firing nonstop in defense of the city since the 18th.
An Idyllic Land Suffers
We Go No Further: Baraque de Fraiture
The Fight Was Not Over
Approximately 100 men of the 589th Field Artillery, mostly from A Battery and Battalion HQ, fought their way through Schonberg, and headed towards St. Vith. They finally ended up at a place called Baraque de Fraiture, a strategic crossroads northeast of St. Vith.
B and C batteries had been destroyed by the 17th, most having been captured. The Battalion commander, Colonel Thomas Kelly, was listed as missing in action. Able Battery had lost both its CO and Exec in less than two days. When they reached the Crossroads, everyone was exhausted and numb from the bitter cold. But they rallied. With the help of 3rd and 7th Armored, along with the 82nd Airborne, they held out for 4 days led by the indomitable Major Arthur Parker, the Battalion operations officer and Major Elliot Goldstein, Battalion Exec. It was an extraordinary achievement. Some historians have likened it to a second Alamo. Almost half the men became casualties. The area would become known as Parker’s Crossroads. Veterans of the battle still talk about Parker’s leadership today. He seemed to be everywhere. One minute he was visiting his men; the next he was stopping GIs that were passing through and asking them to join the defense. The Major was finally wounded on the third day of the battle but refused evacuation. Major Goldstein had to wait until Parker lost consciousness to get him out.
By the end of January, the 106th was at half strength and there was a new commander. Division CO Major General Alan Jones was felled by a heart attack that first week of the battle. His stress had been compounded because his son, Lieutenant Alan Jones, was serving with the 423rd. Lt. Jones would be listed as missing in action, and it would be some time before news arrived that he was a POW. Division executive, Brigadier General Perrin, took over until February 7, when he was replaced by Major General Donald Stroh. After St. Vith was retaken, the 424th, 591st and the 592nd saw combat for another two months, fighting their way back into Germany.
The POWs captured in the Bulge suffered enormously. They were in bad shape when captured, hungry and suffering from frostbite. Many died on the way to the camps. Stuck in boxcars for days, they were bombed by the Allies as they sat in rail sidings. It took a month for the POWs to be processed and placed in stalags. Conditions at the camps had only gotten worse as the war went on. They were overcrowded and the lack of food was becoming a crisis. Best estimates say that around 180 died in captivity. Noted author Kurt Vonnegut, a member of the 422nd, vividly described his experiences during the Bulge and as a POW in his classic work, Slaughterhouse Five.
The 590th's hard luck continued as they lost seven of their men as POWs. One of those, Morton Goldstein, was executed at a concentration camp for a minor infraction.
Most of the Division’s officers ended up at Hammelburg prison camp (Oflag XIIIB), where they witnessed Patton’s ill-fated raid on the camp to rescue his son in law. During the attack, Col. Kelly led two other officers of the 106th on a miraculous escape back to American lines. Unfortunately, they were just a few who got out. Most were recaptured and moved to other camps. In an added tragedy, while being shuttled to other locations, several of the men died at Nuremberg during an Allied air raid. They were the last victims of Patton’s hubris.
The remnants of the division stayed on the line until March when they were withdrawn to France for reconstituting. In a final bit of irony, the Division’s final mission was processing German POWs after April 1945.
By war’s end, the Division’s killed in action numbered approximately 550, along with nearly 1300 wounded in action in only 63 days of combat. When compared to other infantry units like the 1st and 3rd, it may not appear to be a lot. But when you consider their actual days in combat, it was a major contribution.
Many of the men returned home wanting to forget what happened. Some were embittered about their experiences and resented their commanders for many years. Others spoke of not wanting to meet with other vets that served in combat because of the negative connotations associated with the Division after the war. But the passage of time has helped healed those wounds. A strong division association was formed and it remains active today. The men’s actions have been reevaluated by military historians and their contributions have been getting acclaim over the past 20 years. In the late 1980s, as the men retired from their civilian careers, they sought out their fellow vets and many formed bonds that lasted the rest of their lives. A small group returned once again to Parker’s Crossroads in May 2012 to celebrate the 67th anniversary of their struggle.
General Manteuffel wrote a letter to a retired 106th artillery officer in 1970 in which he stated how wrong it was for the 106th to get the majority of the blame for the debacle in the Ardennes. He went on to state that the Division held up an entire Corps for five days, forcing many of his troops to go north in their attempt to reach the city. Eastern Front veteran Horst Gresiak, a Battalion Commander in the 2nd SS Panzer, the unit which overran Parker’s Crossroads, commented to his American interrogators that the battle at the Crossroads was the most violent and toughest battle he had experienced during the entire war.
The GIs of the 106th were victims of an intelligence failure on par with Pearl Harbor. Overconfidence on the part of the Allied High Command was the chief cause. Of course, none of those intelligence chiefs paid a price for their failures. Omar Bradley called the thinly-held front in the Ardennes a “calculated risk.” No matter what you call it, it was the GIs on the ground who suffered. The Golden Lions earned 325 Bronze Stars, 64 Silver Stars and one Distinguished Service Cross during their time in combat. The men of the 106th Infantry Division deserve to be remembered for their bravery and determination in the face of the German onslaught. Their actions helped end the last hopes of the Nazi regime.
Astor, Gerald. A Blood Dimmed Tide. New York: Dell, 1993.
Dupuy, Ernest. St. Vith: Lion in the Way. Nashville: Battery Press, 1986.
MacDonald, Charles B. A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge. New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1985.
Raymond, Richard. "Parker's Crossroads: The Alamo Defense," Field Artillery, 1993.
Schaffner, “Army Daze – A Few Memories of the Big One and Later Returns.” 106th Infantry Division Association. 1995. http://www.indianamilitary.org.
Gatens, John. Author Interview. 22 October 2011 (Fair Lawn, NJ).
Gatens, John, “John Gatens, 589th Field Artillery Battalion, A Battery,” www.indianamilitary.org. 106th Infantry Division Association. 2006.
For more information, see these links:
More by this Author
During the Battle of the Bulge, one segregated unit nearly lost all its men and it took years to be recognized. By helping to defend both St. Vith and Bastogne, it deserves its place in history.
Was the recklessness showed by Custer at the Little Bighorn fueled by a humiliating rebuke from President Grant?
The artillery personnel in World War II were some of the most skilled soldiers in the US Army and their Battalions were built to fight.