There Were Rivers To Cross . . .



There Were Rivers To Cross . . .


There were deep--gorged rivers to cross. There was a fortified countryside to subdue. There was a fanatic enemy to put down. And, at the very outset, there was the mighty Siegfried Line to penetrate. Here were obstacles, the confident Wehrmacht boasted, which would form an impassable barrier to the advancing Americans. Yet these Americans sped onward over every obstacle, not without bitter and costly battles, but with the swiftness and precision of a Rose Bowl performance.
Four hundred miles in fifty days!
This is the story of the 304th Infantry Regiment's thrust into Nazi Germany. But its beginnings are to be found in a backlog of tradition spanning two wars, without which the march through Germany could never have been.


Birth

THE regiment which the Nazi Army faced at Preist and Kyll and Orenhofen in 1945 was born in another season of German aggression. In August, 1917, the same month that Field Marshal von Hindenburg was preparing his last grand bid for German victory, men of the state of Connecticut were streaming into Fort Devens, Massachusetts, to join the 304th Infantry, newly activated under the command of Col. Joseph S. Herron, as a regiment of the 76th Infantry Division.
An outfit with high morale and fighting spirit, the new 304th was recognized during its training days as the crack regiment of the 76th. Less than a year from the time of its activation it was ready for overseas duty. On July 7th, 1918, the regiment sailed from Boston Harbor. The landing in England and subsequent crossing of the Channel to Le Havre, France, marked out a route which was to be followed by another 304th twenty-six years later.
In France, the regiment suffered the same fate as many other organizations ready for front-line action. It became a replacement regiment, feeding officers and men to divisions on the line. Opportunities for more active service were swiftly curtailed when the Armistice came. Earning credit for service in France from July 27th, 1918, the 304th left France in January, 1919. Demobilization came January 20th. The peace years rolled on and the regiment was re-constituted as an organized Reserve Unit of the 76th Infantry Division.
It was left for another generation to carry the regimental colors onto the field of battle.

Rebirth

HITLER was on the way to Stalingrad. Over the Pacific the Japanese were roving high, wide and handsome. The United States was up to its neck in military commitments on a world-wide scale. 1942--time for the 304th to be on the march again! So it was that on June 15th, 1942, the regiment reactivated together with the 76th Infantry Division at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland.
Meade's sand-lot cantonment area had already been teeming with activity for two months. A regiment on paper was being transformed, under the command of Col. William P. Scobey, into a living organization. From the 1st, the 36th and the 7th Divisions came an enlisted cadre of 212 non- commissioned officers. Then, from the Eastern seaboard, from New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts and other states streamed the men to fill the ranks.
In a hundred identical cream-colored barracks men were learning the fine art of making hospital beds. Along the broad avenues of the camp, men were trading in their Main Street shuffle for a brisk military step. There were obstacle and bayonet courses to run. There was rifle marksmanship to master. There was, in short, that experience vivid to the memory of every soldier--basic training. But this was super-basic training. The men of the 304th, along with the rest of the 76th, were the first among infantry divisions to be given ranger training. Throughout the summer, under Maryland's burning sun, they sweated out close combat, hand-to-hand fighting, commando tactics. These were to be first-class fighters.
It was September, 1942. Swiftly, the regiment was maturing into an outfit of soldiers. Larger events were in the making. There was the impending invasion of North Africa. There were plans for the Pacific theater. The high-strategy schemers were searching for a quick supply of completely trained combat soldiers for overseas shipment. These the 304th was prepared to offer.
Thus, from September, 28th, 1942, until February 25th, 1943, the regiment went on "casual" status. There was nothing


nothing casual in the processing--at emergency speed--of hundreds of men for an overseas assignment. Regimental supply had its first real workout. Administrative personnel, from executive officer to company clerk, worked on a twenty-four-hour-a-day schedule. This was the first class of thousands of trained combat men which the regiment would send to fighting fronts before it would be released for its primary mission--combat service as a unit.
It was during this period that Col. Scobey was succeeded as regimental commander by Col. Leander R. Hathaway, and he in turn by Col. Don N. Holmes, who assumed command January 8th, 1943. A few weeks later, on February 28th, the regiment completed its replacement function and reverted to combat status.

Transfusion

NOW there was the task of starting from scratch--almost but not quite. Ready and fully trained was a corps of officers and non-commissioned officers with a rich background of experience in turning civilians into fighting men. What was needed was working material, and that was available. Throughout March, 1943, the half-deserted barracks at Fort Meade gradually filled up with fresh-faced American lads from Camp Robinson, Arkansas, Fort MacClellan, Alabama, and other basic training centers. The ranks of the 304th began to represent not only the East, but West, North and South as well. Each state in the Union claimed its share of the regiment.
By April a new cycle of combat training was in full swing. Each unit of the regiment tackled the job of perfecting itself in its own job. Medics, Anti-Tankers, Cannoneers, Service and Headquarters men had their individual training programs. Riflemen prepared for their important role. Machine-gunners and mortar-men practiced and "rehearsed" ad nauseam. Commo men and sections unwound and rewound reel after reel of wire. Radio men tramped over mile after mile of terrain, testing, experimenting and learning the best manner of applying what they were learning in other hours. Roll after toll of bandage was wrapped around splints and legs until men could almost do this work in the dark--as they eventually would have to do.
For these men, Fort Meade will always be the spiritual home of the 304th. Probably no other training camp in the United States was so pleasant during those long, spring days in Maryland's rolling, wooded countryside. And playing host to them during their free time was Baltimore in one direction, Washington, D. C., in the other, and the famed "Boomtown" skirting the cantonment area. But as the regiment made preparations for field exercises, it became evident that training facilities at Meade were inadequate. It was at this point that the 304th made its first change of station.

New Camp and --

ON July 4th, moving by motor convoy, the regiment proceeded to the A. P. Hill Military Reservation near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Here were 80,000 acres of sandy soil and rugged country to play with.
On a high plateau, near that cross roads known to the natives as "Skinner's Corner," the 304th pitched camp. Row on row of pyramidal tents arose across the field, each row with its company kitchen at one end and company latrine at the other. A capacious old barn served as the regimental P-X, complete with juke-box, beer and ice cream. Bathing facilities were quickly transformed from a dammed creek to showers on the reservation. An outdoor theater offered the men more movies per week than they had seen as civilians. For most of the men it was an introduction to out-door camp life. The dust hung in clouds. The rains came. The mosquitoes were christened "P-38s." The days were red hot and the nights were chilly. But the men liked it.
Training accelerated from squad problems to platoon problems to company Problems. Regular training hours, punctuated by reveille and retreat, were set aside for a maneuver-type of schedule. Here, step by step, they were learning to function as a team, applying to group action the lessons of basic training.
Coincidentally, they were learning to live and operate in the field. Chow out of marmite cans; tactical feeding; moving out at night; attacks at dawn; night withdrawals; sentry duty on position; broken snatches of sleep on a hard ground. They were becoming acclimated to a fighter's life.

A New Colonel

IT was during this phase of training, on September 28th, 1943, that Col. Wallace A. Choquette, who was to lead the regiment into battle, assumed command.
From July until September the troops used A. P. Hill as an over-simplified battleground. The time was fast approaching when the component parts of the regiment would need to coordinate. A first-class combat team was to be formed. And a new training area was needed. So the pyramidal tents went down. The regiment packed its equipment. Troop trains assembled at a nearby loading point. The advance party set out on September 28th for Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, which was to be the new home of 76th Division and of the 304th Infantry Regiment.




TENT CITY

Heretofore, the traditions of the division and regiment had been intimately bound up with the eastern part of the United States, along the Atlantic seaboard. They were now to be transplanted to the heart of the Midwest. And here they were to flourish and prosper as well if not better than in the original surroundings. The climate was different. The soil--for digging--was different. The scenery was different. The surrounding towns and the people were different. But the men who came here and the job they had to do were still the same. And "adaptability" was part of the training these men were receiving. That was one lesson the American soldier always learned rapidly and well!
Camp McCoy, the advance party found, was a modern, almost deluxe camp situated in the beautiful LaCrosse River valley. Its gray-shingled, red-roofed buildings, separated here and there by silver birch and pine groves, and surrounded by blue-misted hills, had an appearance foreign to most Army installations. But there was little time then to explore the natural beauty of the camp. The 2nd Division was still there, in the final stages of preparation for overseas movement, and the advance party was to take over its equipment. And in another week the entire regiment was due to arrive. The new home must be in order.

Combat Team

THE first of six troop trains pulled into a siding at Camp McCoy on October 3rd. A brass band from the post complement greeted them, and they had actual transportation to their assigned barracks-not the usual "Adam's shanks." In the company area every bunk was ready with clean linen and comforters. Cooks of the advance party were waiting with coffee and doughnuts. But the troops had no opportunity to exclaim over these miracles. The Colonel and his staff had already prepared and had practically in high gear a vigorous training program to whip the regiment into a full-fledged combat team, using attached Artillery, Engineers, Tank Destroyers and Medics. Eight days after their arrival the troops were in the field, engaging in the first of regimental combat team problems, running four days and nights successively. For command groups there was a series of Command Post exercises for commanders and staffs of all units.
Another task lay ahead. The regiment was to become a winterfighting outfit! Preparations were already afoot for extensive training and maneuvers adapted to extreme cold. The first step was to select from the regiment a group of officers and enlisted men familiar with living an outdoor life in a zero climate. These men left Camp McCoy for the North Woods, near Watersmeet in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan on November 12th. A 2nd Army Mountain Training Group, comprising Norwegian ski experts, instructors from mountain divisions, and specialists in the technique of arctic living, was there to meet them and put them through a six-week training period. It was a school for instructors.
Meanwhile, Camp McCoy's warehouses were being crammed till they bulged with mountains of winter equipment. Skis, cargo sleds, snow-shoes, ski pants, pile-lined jackets, parkas, down-filled sleeping bags, mountain tents, shoepacs, arctic boots, rucksacks and packboards came in by the carload. When the training group returned to McCoy, the men of the 304th had been issued their equipment and were ready to begin winter basic training on the Camp McCoy reservation. This was the prelude to a move by the entire regiment to the North Woods. For a month before Christmas and a month alter, the men were experimenting with their new equipment. This was now really CT 304.




CAMP McCOY


WATERSMEET C. P.


next page: There Were Rivers To Cross . . . (continued)

previous page -- contents