there were others - other units on D-Day
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There Were Others

June 2004

The famed 29th Infantry Division helped make the D-Day landings a success, but so did 14 other non-divisional Guard units

 

By John Listman

 

At about 2:30 a.m., June 6, 1944, Minnesota National Guard Sgt. James Mildenberger, climbed onto his DUKW (DUCK) - a 2.5-ton truck with a boat's body - for the last push toward the French coast while aboard a Landing Ship Tank (LST).

 

"They opened up the doors of the LST [and]...a big swell caught us and we drifted immediately right out in the sea," he said in an oral history interview kept in the National Guard Educational Foundation archives. "We were out there by ourselves and started heading for France."

 

Mildenberger, the DUCK pilot, spent hours trying to reach the shore. But he didn't hit the beach until after H-hour (6 a.m.).

 

"We went on in and we did land, but immediately drew fire from the Germans - rifle fire and machine guns with tracer bullets," he said. "So, we no more than hit the beach with the front nose of the DUCK than we backed off again."

 

They patrolled the beach from about 300 yards, even cruising near Pointe du Hoc as the Army Rangers tackled the deadly cliffs.

 

After heading back toward Omaha Beach where the activity was heavy, Mildenberger said they decided to land and set up radio stations.

 

"We'd already transmitted some messages earlier...We got off our DUCK, went onto the beach and were immediately under fire," he said. "I know we were laying down on the sand of the beach area and I got hit [in the chest] with shrapnel."

 

Mildenberger's commander found a medic, who bandaged the wound as Mildenberger slipped in and out of consciousness. Medics took him to an aid station as more troops came ashore.

 

"I saw landing craft drop their ramp and the [Navy] guys told to them to get off, and the guys went out into about five or six feet of water," he said. "I hate to say it, but I watched troops drown but was helpless to help them."

 

Unconscious, Mildenberger was moved off the beach and back to England for treatment. He later took glider training in an airborne unit but never saw another day of combat.

 

Mildenberger wasn't serving in a mobilized Guard unit. He originally enlisted in the 135th Infantry, 34th division in 1939; however, he encountered legal trouble and was separated from his division while mobilized at Fort Dix, N.J.

 

The 34th sailed before he resolved his legal trouble and was in North Africa before he could catch up. Orders then assigned Mildenberger to the 56th Signal Battalion - a V Corps element in England in 1943 - which made him part of the D-Day landings.

 

During this 60th anniversary of D-Day, much will be written of the grit and sacrifice of the Guard's 29th Infantry Division as it clawed its way over Omaha Beach. Certainly the exploits of its soldiers are well worth remembering, especially the cost of more than 800 men from the 116th Infantry alone on June 6.

 

As Mildenberger illustrates, however, other Guardsmen and units also were involved, though with little recognition for their participation in the opening act of the liberation of Western Europe.

 

The Army recognizes these units with an "arrowhead" for their Normandy campaign streamer - a special award cited on their Lineage and Honors certificate. It was awarded only to those participating in the first 48 hours of the operation.

 

Aside from the 29th Division and its subordinate elements - all of which earned the arrowheadÑ14 non-divisional Guard units also earned this distinction. All but one were assigned to the V Corps and landed on Omaha Beach.

 

The exception was California's Battery B, 980th Field Artillery Battalion that was attached to the 4th Infantry Division, part of the VII Corps landing on Utah Beach.

 

Kansas' 635th Tank Destroyer Battalion sailed to England in February 1944. Organized from three mobilized field artillery regiments from the 35th Division in 1941, it was armed with truck-towed 3-inch antitank guns.

 

The 635th's 800 officers, men and equipment were loaded into three LSTs and arrived without loss on Omaha Beach early June 8.

 

Attached to the 1st Division through the liberation of France, it provided fire support for the breakout of the Norman hedgerows as well as supported missions to capture St. Lo, about 30 miles inland from Omaha Beach.

 

The 635th continued to engage the Germans until it crossed the Rhine on March 30, 1945.

 

The battalion lost 39 men with another 202 wounded. It destroyed 22 enemy combat vehicles and captured 4,639 prisoners. Today the record of the 635th is carried by four different elements of the Kansas Army Guard.

 

The next three non-divisional units, all engineer units, have an interesting relationship prior to the landings.

 

Ohio's 112th Engineer Regiment, part of the 37th Division, and elements of Michigan's 107th Engineer Regiment, part of the 32nd Division, both deployed to Britain in early 1942 ahead of their respective divisions.

 

But their parent divisions - expected in Britain - ended up in the Pacific.

 

So the two units became corps assets. Some elements of the 107th joined U.S. forces landing in North Africa in late 1942 while the balance was redesignated as the 2nd Battalion, 112th Engineer Regiment.

 

Engineer regiments were replaced by group headquarters, which were more tactically flexible, allowing for several battalions to come and go under their control. Thus, the 112th was restructured into the 1121st Engineer Combat Group in August 1943.

 

Among the units under its control were the 112th and the newly designated 254th (formerly 107th) Engineer Combat battalions.

 

The 1121st controlled two units on D-Day, the 112th and 146th Engineer Battalion (a non-Guard unit).

 

They landed on Omaha Beach under devastating fire at mid-morning June 6.

 

The 112th cleared beachhead minefields and came under heavy shelling as it cleared mines from the Les Moulins Draw to help the 116th Infantry advance.

 

Despite heavy fire, they disarmed mines and opened the draw to vehicle traffic by early evening. The 112th suffered 47 casualties on D-Day, including 11 killed.

 

Back in England, Michigan Guard Sgt. Edward Vickstrom of the 254th loaded an LST with trucks and bulldozers June 7 and sailed across the English Channel that evening. Hitting Omaha Beach on D+2, he saw wrecked equipment and bodies still floating in the surf.

 

The 254th encountered no enemy fire until it moved up the Vierville Draw to support operations for the 29th Division under the direction of the 1121st Group.

 

Its first mission required construction of a temporary bridge over the Isigny Causeway, linking the beach assault units with airborne soldiers dropped inland.

 

Both Guard battalions remained with 1121st into Belgium in December 1944. They were heavily engaged in combat during the Battle of the Bulge, where Company B of the 254th repelled three attacks from the elite 1st SS Panzer Division.

 

Today Ohio's 112th Engineer Battalion carries both 1121st's and 112th's lineages, while the 254th's lineage is perpetuated once again in Michigan's 107th Engineer Battalion.

 

The branch with the largest number of Guard elements getting arrowhead credit was field artillery (FA), represented by seven different units.

 

Five were actual firing battalions; two were command-and-control organizations. Headquarters and Headquarters Battery (HHB), V Corps Artillery, was the mobilized HHB, 76th Field Artillery Brigade of the California Guard.

 

The 76th was reassigned to control V Corps Artillery in February 1944.

 

Landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, it immediately began deploying field artillery battalions to the front.

 

At a lower level was Pennsylvania's HHB, 190th FA Group. It directed three to six battalions, depending upon their mission. Neither the 76th or 190th is perpetuated in the Guard today.

 

All five FA firing battalions of non-divisional artillery were armed with 155mm howitzers, which could hit targets up to seven miles away.

 

California's Battery B, 980th FA Battalion, which landed on Utah Beach, is the only firing element to actually hit the beach on June 6. Ohio's 987th FA Battalion landed on Omaha Beach early June 7 and was firing missions in support of the 1st Infantry Division by early evening. Neither is perpetuated today.

 

Two Pennsylvania FA battalions - the 190th and 200th - both landed June 7 under command of the 190th FA Group. They moved in behind the 29th Division and began firing missions.

 

The group and both FA battalions supported different divisions, including Pennsylvania's 28th Infantry during the Normandy campaign. Today, only the record of the 200th FA is perpetuated by Battery D, 229th Field Artillery Battalion, an element of the 28th Infantry Division.

 

New York's 187th FA Battalion drove their tractor-towed guns onto Omaha Beach on the morning of June 8. Known as the "Washington Greys," this unit dated from 1809, making it the oldest non-divisional Guard unit to earn an arrowhead for Normandy.

 

The 187th originally was supposed to land to the left of the 29th Division on D-Day. But due to equipment littering the beach, it was held until D+2.

 

The battalion caught up with the 29th late in the day and began firing missions that night. During the Normandy campaign, the 187th supported numerous U.S. attacks - and once even advanced in front of the infantry it was supposed to support.

 

Today, the 187th's record is perpetuated by the 258th Field Artillery of the 42nd Infantry Division.

 

The 102nd Cavalry Regiment (Horse-Mechanized), the famous "Essex Troop" from New Jersey, deployed to England in 1942. In January 1944, it was reorganized as the 102nd Cavalry Group (Mech.).

 

Two new units - the 102nd and 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadrons - were split from it. The 117th served in North Africa, Italy and southern France. By D-Day the 102nd Group controlled two cavalry reconnaissance squadrons - both with Guard connections - though only one is a Guard unit.

 

The 38th Squadron was a new unit containing a number of Guardsmen from Iowa's former 113th Cavalry Regiment.

 

Each squadron consisted of 818 men divided into three line troops along with headquarters and service troops. As scouts, they were armed with a variety of light vehicles including 40 M-8 six-wheeled armored cars ("Greyhounds").

 

The 102nd Squadron landed without a loss on Omaha Beach on D+2 and moved near Isigny in support of the 29th Division.

 

Over the next two months both squadrons of the 102nd Group played an important role in scouting enemy forces and often giving fire support to infantry pinned down by enemy machine gun nests.

 

Near the coast, hedgerows, the centuries-old stone and earth walls overgrown by small trees and bushes with few openings, provided a perfect ambush spot for Germans just inland from the coast.

 

Tanks revealed their weak underside trying to drive over them, and engineers often were shot trying to blow holes in them.

 

But Guard Sgt. Curtis G. Culin of the 102nd Squadron suggested that German iron beams used in roadblocks could be fashioned into blades on the front of a tank allowing it to cut its way through.

 

Tests proved so successful that 600 tanks were modified, earning the name "rhino." They allowed the American advance to gain momentum, and Culin was awarded the Legion of Merit for his idea.

 

There is no question that the first U.S. unit into Paris was from the 102nd Group. But veterans of both the 38th and 102nd squadrons claim bragging rights.

 

Each has evidence to support its claim, and the final determination may never be settled. Elements of the group marched in the "Liberation Day" parade, held four days after the city's fall on August 25, 1944.

 

The Guard contribution on D-Day - whether as part of the 29th Infantry Division or one of the 14 non-divisional units or even as a member of two Air Guard squadrons flying overhead - can't be underestimated.

 

John Listman is a retired chief warrant officer 2, Vietnam veteran and Virginia Army National Guard command historian.

Marion J Chard
Proud Daughter of Walter (Monday) Poniedzialek
540th Engineer Combat Regiment, 2833rd Bn, H&S Co, 4th Platoon
There's "No Bridge Too Far"
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