Black Soldiers of the Ardennes
Black Soldiers of the Ardennes
by Major Gerald K. Johnson
Reprinted with permission from Lieutenant Colonel Richard F. Machamer, Jr., Editor-in-Chief Soldiers Magazine, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
The service of Black soldiers in U.S. military conflicts has been distinguished. They earned proud reputations in frontier battles to open the American West; they fought alongside Gen. "Blackjack" Pershing in Mexico; contributed their skills and lives in the Spanish-American War, and charged up San Juan Hill. But less is generally known about their valiant service during World War II.
The Black soldier of World War II was, for the most part, the faceless supporter of America's war effort, at least initially. He was the supplyman, the ammunition handler and the engineer. Only occasionally was he an artilleryman, infantryman or tanker.
Those Black combat units that existed were mostly corps troops sent to add firepower at the toughest point in the fight. As corps artillery units and non-divisional tank and tank destroyer battalions, they were attached, not assigned, and thus were not identified as participants in hundreds of battles except in their own unit histories.
This article spotlights the actions of Black soldiers during one short period in one major battle - the "Battle of the Bulge."
The winter in Europe in 1944 was the meanest in 38 years. The ground throughout the Ardennes was covered with a thick blanket of snow which was maintained by constant sub-freezing temperatures.
The Ardennes counter-offensive, the "Battle of the Bulge," started at dawn December 16, 1944. It was a counter-offensive launched at the weakest sector of the Allied front, a quiet area manned by units resting and refitting with new men who had yet to see combat.
The offensive by 29 German divisions and brigades, in its first 17 days, destroyed one American infantry division, badly crippled two others, cut one armored combat command to pieces, and caused 41,315 American casualties. Total casualties in the 42 days the battle raged topped 80,000.
The personnel situation at this time, throughout the theater, was grim. The week before the Ardennes counter-offensive, the European Theater of Operation estimated an overall shortage of 23,000 riflemen by the end of the month. The 106th Infantry Division, an untried division that was to bear the brunt of the initial attack in the Ardennes, had already had its combat training practically negated by having to provide 60 percent of its enlisted strength as individual replacements for other units prior to and after D-Day.
From the beginning of World War II to 1945, the strength of Black troops in the Army grew from less than 4,000, primarily in the four regiments of the "U.S. Army Colored Troops" (the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry), to almost 700,000 in all types of units, even some integrated ones.
Official integration of U.S. Armed Forces didn't take place until July 26, 1948 when President Truman issued Executive Order No. 9981. However, Black soldiers had served in platoons and sometimes squads or less in otherwise white companies beginning with the Ardennes.
The attack began the morning of December 16, 1944 in the VIII Corps sector with the 106th and 28th Divisions taking the brunt of the attack. During the daylight hours, the direction and size of the German attack was only vaguely perceived. VIII Corps was deployed over such an extended front that it was impossible to provide a defense in depth. The defensive plan was to defend in place all along the front as long as possible and to deny the enemy use of the Ardennes road net. The Corps reserve was an armored combat command and four engineer battalions.
There were nine Black Field Artillery Battalions in VIII Corps. Four of the seven Corps Artillery units supporting the 106th Division (the 333rd, 559th, 578th and 740th) were Black.
The 333rd Field Artillery Group, which had been in support of the 105th Infantry Division at the beginning of the battle, was attached to the newly arrived 101st Airborne Division and ordered to move to the vicinity of Bastogne on December 19. This was a unit with a Black Headquarters and Headquarters Battery which was used interchangeably with white units as the need arose. When they received orders, the group moved to Bastogne with one white (the 771st) and two Black battalions (the 969th and 333rd Field Artillery Battallions).
The 333rd Field Artillery Battalion moved to Bastogne at less than full strength. It had fought so far forward in support of the 106th Division that, after the evening of the 16th, the entire battalions had only five guns. This Battalion sustained heavier losses defending Bastogne than any other VIII Corps Artillery unit. It lost six officers, 222 enlisted men, nine guns, 34 trucks and 12 weapon carriers.
The other Black unit in the 333d Group, the 969th, entered the defense of Bastogne by chance. It had been assigned to support the 28th Division and had been ordered to move west. When the enemy broke into the open, the battalion was already moving out of the Bastogne sector.
On December 21, under heavy fire, it moved a half mile west of Bastogne where it manned the guns another unit had abandoned along with the remaining elements of the 333rd Battalion.
The 969th was later recommended by Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, commander of the 101st, for the Distinguished Unit Citation for its actions around Bastogne. The February 7, 1945 citation was the first award of a distinguished Unit Citation to a Black combat unit in World War II.
Another Black battalion that took part In the Battle of the Bulge was the 578th Field Artillery which was attacked at Heckhuscheid. The men armed themselves with small arms then fought as infantry with the 424th Infantry Regiment whom they were supporting. On December 20, the battalion reverted to control of its artillery group and picked up a white howitzer battery and anti-aircraft platoon. On December 22, the battalion was attached to III Corps. Despite the long road marches required by these orders, the battalion fired 3,455 eight-inch rounds during the next few weeks.
There were three Black Tank Destroyer Battalions in the Ardennes; the 630th, 701st and 502d. Gunners of the 630th formed a roadblock in Sibret and fought as infantrymen to delay a company of the 5th German Parachute Division on December 20. Elements of the 701st fought with B Company, 35th Tank Battalion west of Lutrebois on the 30th and ambushed a German Panzer Company that was attacking Alpha Company. A platoon of the 502nd provided the majority of the firepower remaining in the 28th Division's reserve when the division commander combined it with survivors of the 110th infantry and 28th Division stragglers. On the morning of December 22d the unit beat off the first attack by lead elements of the German 5th Parachute Division.
After the Americans realized, on December 17, that a major attack was in progress, more than 60,000 men and 11,000 vehicles were on the move to reinforce the First Army. Over the next eight days, three times that number were diverted to meet the Germans in the Ardennes. Among the units diverted was the 761st Tank Battalion, the first Black tank battalion to see World War II action.
The 761st was initially assigned to the 26th Division of XII Corps in the Third Army and spent 183 consecutive days in action after being committed in Morville-les-Vic in November 1944. The unit ended its commitment when it met the Russians at the Enns River in Austria, March 29, 1945. Ten 761st tanks were part of the honor guard when the German forces surrendered.
The 761st fought mainly in platoon or company sized elements attached to various infantry regiments or divisions. Piecemeal employment was not unusual for separate tank battalions. It was attached at various times to the 26th, 71st, and 87th Infantry Divisions, the 17th Airborne Division and the 17th Armored Group. The battalion was committed with the 345th lnfantry around Bastogne and had successful operations at such places as Bonerue, Recogne, and Tillet. During operations in the Ardennes, when trucks could not reach elements of the unit, the light tanks of Company D towed ammunition trailers from ammunition dumps to supply the medium tanks.
The 761st motto, "Come Out Fighting," exemplified the spirit and the attitude of Blacks in World War II. It was an opportunity to show what Black soldiers could do.
Captain John Long, commander, Company B, 761st, called "the Black Patton" by the white infantrymen he supported, personified this spirit with his statement: "Not for God and Country but for me and my people. This was my motivation pure and simple when I entered the Army."
Mary Motley, in her book "The Invisible Soldier," quoted Eddie Donald, a member of the unit. He said, "The Ardennes was one of our roughest fights. The 761st had just punched a hole through the Siegfried Line. It had taken ... days of Steady fighting and then Patton's 4th Armored Division started pouring through that hole Into Germany. As the 4th entered, the General and the 761st was diverted north along with other Patton tankers. The 761st was given as its objective a town called Tillet. It took one week to drive the Germans out of this town ... I mention Tillet because every group that had been assigned to it had taken a severe beating. Of all the tankers with Patton it was the 761st that was given Tillet. We took the town."
While the 761st and the rest of Patton's Army were coming north to provide relief, the VIII Corps was in dire straits. The 106th Infantry and the 28th Infantry Divisions had been at the spear point of the attack and the entire VIII Corps was reeling. Confusion reigned.
By dusk, December 17, the German advances at the expense of the 28th Division were formidable.
VIII Corps had a last combat hope - the rear echelon soldier, headquarters, supply and technical service troops, and those men who show up during every battle, the lost, the separated, the stragglers. Although poorly armed and hastily organized, they could, if effectively used, make the difference between effective reserves and none, between a line holding and being broken through.
Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton, VIII Corps Commander, was called upon to use all of these black and white reserves. Their total effect in the fight to delay the German forces ripping through the VII Corps center was extremely important.
During the fight for Sibret, the German 5th Parachute Division broke into the town and occupied the police station. Maj. Gen. Norman D. Cota, commander of the 28th Division, went through the streets rounding up all the troops he could find for a counter-attack. When the building could not be taken by unsupported riflemen, he maneuvered a battery of the 771st Field Artillery (a Black unit) into position to fire on the building. This action caused the German Panzer Corps to retract the earlier report that Sibret had been taken and told of heavy fighting in the "strongly garrisoned village." When German tanks moved in on the American artillery battery, Cota ordered his small force to retire south of Vauxlez-Rosieres where he set up his division command post.
His command's residue had one more battle to fight. The night of December 21 some 200 survivors of the 110th Infantry fight at Wiltz reached the 28th Division Command Post. Cota also had an engineer light pontooc company retained as riflemen, a few howitzers sited as single pieces around the outpost position at Vaux-lez-Rosieres on the Bastogne-Neufchateau Road, and a platoon of SP 76mm tank destroyers from the 602d Tank Destroyer Battalion (a Black unit).
This conglomeration of soldiers covering key points was probably a continuation of the "every soldier an infantryman" requirement which began in the 106th Infantry sector at the time of the initial breakthrough. Policy or not, the idea continued throughout the war.
The integration of Black and white troops happened out of necessity and did not occur only with combat troops under fire. During the siege of Bastogne when many units had lost their service personnel and equipment, Technician 4 Beoman Williams of the 333rd Field Artillery Group headquarters set up an improvised kitchen and fed over a thousand men daily. Among the first ambulances to reach the besieged troops at Bastogne were those of the 590th Ambulance Company (Black). Necessity had broken barriers that were thought to be unbreakable.
Lt. Gen. John C. H. ("Court House") Lee had proposed the use of physically fit Black soldiers from his communication zone (COMMZ) units to help solve the shortage of riflemen.
On December 26, 1944 Lee sent out a letter that basically said he would offer colored privates and PFC's who had had infantry training the opportunity to join units at the fronts.
The letter said the plan was to assign these replacements without regard to race or color. It expressed the Supreme Commander's and Lee's confidence that the offer would be accepted and the troops would carry on in keeping with the glorious record of "our colored troops in our former wars.".
However, the plan represented a major break from policy. Before It could be carried out, a number of changes occurred. The proposal to mix Black soldiers into otherwise white units without quota on an individual basis caused some apprehension.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, when reminded that segregation was official War Department policy, personally rewrote the letter and dropped the reference to the assignment plan.
By February 4, 4,562 Black troops had volunteered for infantry duty. Many were noncommissioned officers who took a reduction in rank to volunteer. By March 1, 1945, the first 2,253 men were ready. Although the Battle of the Bulge was over, these soldiers were divided into 12 platoons for the 12th Army Group, who assigned them as the fourth platoon in a company of each regiment, and 12 platoons for the 6th Army Group where they fought for the remainder of the war.
A month after the employment of these platoons, the division commander of the 104th Infantry said: "Their combat record has been outstanding. They have without exception proven themselves to be good soldiers."
The Black soldier was a vital factor in winning the Battle of the Bulge and World War II.
(NOTE: When the article was published in Soldiers magazine (February, 1981), the author, Major Gerald K Johnson was assigned to the Office of the Project Manager, Saudi Arabian National Guard Modernization Program)
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