Sunday, March 24, 2013


Sgt. Whitie: Somewhere in France.
A few choice anecdotes, a repeated repetoire, that was about it, the full extent of what we ever knew of Sergeant Whitie’s war. But that wasn’t—couldn’t possibly have been—all there was to it for that young NCO, shipped off in his early twenties for several long years to face unimaginable tasks, inescapable responsibilities and unspeakable horrors. And no matter whatever else he did, became or was in his life afterward, Sergeant Whitie would be part of it and everything would be sifted through the jaundiced eye of that combat-hardened veteran, who could hardly help but have to look at the present against the backdrop of the endelible battlefield world he hid inside him, a world in which he would forever be who he was back then—whoever else he might be.
If it was hard to know what Sergeant Whitie’s personal story was, the story of the Army he shared that journey with is clearly documented. The men of the Seventh Army were among the first US field army troops to see combat. At first under the command of General George S. Patton and boasting the brand new seven-step-A shoulder patch of their outfit, they arrived by sea, direct from Stateside, on the southern shores of Sicily, in July of 1943, and captured Palermo. Less than a month later, in joint combat operations with Britain’s Eighth Army, they also took Messina. During this invasion, elements of the Seventh Army killed or captured some 13,000 enemy troops. Though the modification was never officially authorized, the newly tested combat veterans would add an embroidered slogan to the foot of their Seventh Army emblem, reading: Seven Steps to Hell. After taking Messina, they would set up a new Seventh Army headquarters in Italy while they awaited further orders and mobilization, following Patton’s reassignment to the Armored corps. Those orders didn’t come until early the next year, but when they did, they were for an operation that would last practically until the end of the war. It was called Operation Dragoon.
They came wearing the new seven-step patch of the US
Seventh Army, and after Sicily, although it was never
officially authorized, they added the slogan, 7 Steps to Hell.
Operation Dragoon. The mission of Operation Dragoon, which began on August 15, 1944, with the Seventh Army now under the orders of General Alexander Patch, was to land on the beaches of the South of France, push northward and complete the liberation of France from Nazi control—a task which had begun with the Normandy invasions two months earlier—continuing, once France was secured, across the Rhine and into Germany proper. With the Normandy troops moving into France from the north and the US Seventh Army and France’s First Army moving up from the south, the Germans were forced into the Vosges Mountains.
While at first glance this might have given the impression of an allied rout of the retreating German troops, it was anything but a walkover. What ensued were months of grim and savage mountain combat in impossible weather conditions—torrential rain, mire, ice, snow and slush—that plagued the combattants on both sides. But in principle, the Nazis, militarily speaking, had the upper hand, having fled before the Allied advance and dug into the high ground in the mountains to make a stand against the Seventh Army troops and their French allies advancing from the low ground.
Anybody with a passing knowledge of military history would have known that this would be the case. The Vosges Massif is the natural north-south boundary between the German-speaking Alsace and the French-speaking Lorraine and had been, for centuries already by then, the scene of repeated bitter fighting for control of the entire Alsace-Lorraine region. During World War I, barely a quarter-century before, this rugged terrain had witnessed almost continuous heavy fighting and killing between German and French troops throughout the confrontation.  Coincidentally, this too was the very region from which Sergeant Whitie’s wife’s family, the Webers, had emigrated to America, just a generation before her father’s.
Savage mountain combat in imposible weather conditions.
(Photo: WWII Letters of Wm
Although in the telling of contemporary history, Operation Dragoon has often been eclipsed by the more massive Normandy landings, it played a crucial role in the defeat of Nazi Germany and included some of the most intense fighting of the war. Of this first decisive battle in the Allied push to cross the Rhine and definitively crush final German resistance, author Keith Bonn writes that despite how little known this campaign was, the Seventh Army accomplished what no other army in history ever had before: vanquished an enemy defending the Vosges Mountains. In his book, When the Odds Were Even (Ballantine Books, 2006), Bonn calls the Vosges the toughest terrain on the Western Front. The title of his book refers to his claim that the Germans here were still well organized, well armed and well supplied, evenly matched with the invading US Seventh Army and its French allies, but dug in on the high ground with the mountain range as their seemingly invulnerable fortress. Motivation was high on both sides of the fighting since the Allies had to capture those mountains in order to continue their run through central France, across the Rhine, and into Germany, while the German G Group troops holding the range knew that they were the last line of defense between the Allies and the Rhine.
Despite the historical odds against victory, Bonn writes, the US Seventh Army, fighting both the enemy and horribly inclement weather, overran thousands of pillbox gun emplacements, tore through miles of barbed wire and rolled over every other obstacle the enemy erected in front of it, eventually blasting the German defenders out of their mountain fortifications. And once that was done, the Seventh Army and the French First Army stayed and held onto the ground they had gained in the face of a new German offensive known as Operation Nordwind.
US Army tropos on the move in the Vosges Mountains. (Photo WWII in Color)
Operation Nordwind. This campaign was a powerful last ditch effort by Hitler to regain control of the Alsace and of France. Now attacking General Patch’s Seventh Army defenses were Germany’s First and Nineteenth Armies under the command of four ranking Nazi officers, one of whom was the notorious Heinrich Himmler. Imparting instructions before launching Nordwind, the Führer admonished his generals: “The attack has a very clear objective: namely, the destruction of the enemy forces. There is not a matter of prestige involved here. It is a matter of destroying and exterminating the enemy forces wherever we find them.” 
The Germans launched their attack on the heels of orders from Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower that the US Seventh Army should divide its strength in the Vosges and send troops, supplies, equipment and arms north to Ardennes to reinforce American lines in what would later be known as the Battle of the Bulge. The now severely understrength US Seventh Army and its small detachment of French Army allies suddenly found themselves trying to hold a 68-mile-long line of defense in the Upper Vosges against everything Germany could think of to throw at them—air cover, tank divisions, what was left of the the G Group that had been resisting American advances from the outset, plus massive reinforcements from the German First and Nineteenth Armies and specially trained SS mountain troops. The fighting began on New Year’s Eve 1944 and continued until nearly the end of January 1945. The battles were so intense and casualties so high, that General Eisenhower began to fear the total destruction of the Seventh Army, reconsidered his original move and rushed battle-weary reinforcements back from Ardennes to the Vosges, where, its strength bolstered, the Seventh Army went on the offensive, retook ground lost and drove the Germans out, containing their advance. In the fighting, German losses numbered some 23,000, while combined American and French fatalities totaled over 30,000.  The following month, with the arrival of new American and French reinforcements, the Allies were able to secure the west bank of the Rhine and prepare to cross it, beginning their push into Nazi Germany.
Cold weather and cold rations to match. (Photo: Toledo Blade)
Now, with a bridgehead established on the Rhine, the Seventh Army was able to regroup and, in late March, it broke through south of Frankfurt. From there, it captured the city of Aschaffenburg some 35 miles east of the Rhine in a week of fighting before reaching Heilbrom in early April. Just as Sergeant Whitie would tell it many years later when he complained about Patton’s doing a drive-through and leaving Whitie’s outfit to clean up the mess, the Seventh moved in here behind a swift push by armored units to isolate and destroy enemy defenses. But as foot soldiers marched into the area, they faced harsh and unexpected resistance, and were pinned down in heavy fighting for well over a week before finally taking Heilbrom. This was, indeed, about the same time that Eisenhower had ordered Patton to take the Third Army, which he now commanded, and make a swift drive southeast through the Danube Valley, first to take Linz and then to push on into Austria.
Ugly house to house combat in bombed-out cities.
Nuremberg and Beyond. Later, elements of Patch’s Seventh were also ordered to wheel south by southeast and take Bamberg and, eventually, Nuremberg. In this last city, which the Nazis were trying to hold onto at all costs, the Seventh Army again came up against heavy fire and only took the city on April 20, 1945, after laboriously breaching a dense ring of gun emplacements and then securing the city in ugly, close-quarter, house to house combat.
It was a long, dangerous, costly and bitter road, but by late April, it was clear that the war in Europe was nearly over. The Seventh joined the Third Army in carrying out clean-up operations in southern Germany and Austria and German troops were now surrendering by the thousands to the invading Allies. Back in Italy, where the story of World War II had begun for the men of the Seventh Army, Il Duce had already been executed and strung up by his bootstraps in the town square and there too the last German defenders had thrown down their weapons, raised their hands and surrendered. On May 7, 1945, Germany signed its unconditional surrender.
Sergeant Whitie’s Private War.
Show lesThere’s an old saying that it isn’t weakness that causes mental breakdowns, but rather, having to be far too strong for far too long…

(To be continued)