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Vosges Mountains (The Lost Battalion)
National Archives 111-SC-195666
Japanese-American soldiers of the 442nd RCT advance up a steep hillside in France. November 4, 1944
Vosges Mountains (The Lost Battalion)
(29 August-15 September 1944)
Allied campaign following the 15 August 1944 ANVIL-DRAGOON landings in southern France. The Allied landings opened a new phase in the war in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). One day after the surrender of Toulon and Marseille on 28 August 1944, American and French troops commenced a campaign northward up the Rhone River valley, linked up with Lieutenant General George S. Patton's American Third Army, and halted at the Vosges Mountains passes on 15 September.

The ensuing campaign was a joint American-French effort. Lieutenant General Alexander M. Patch, commanding the U.S. Seventh Army, led the American troops. Directly under Patch was Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott Jr., who commanded VI Corps. Truscott's corps consisted of three American infantry divisions - the 3rd, 36th, and 45th. General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny commanded the First French Army, which ultimately was divided into I and II Corps. Facing this array of Allied forces was the German Nineteenth Army under General der Infanterie (U.S. equiv. lieutenant general) Friedrich Wiese, with eight divisions, the most reliable of which was the 11th Panzer (the "Ghost Division").

The Allied plan was to strike quickly up the Rhone River valley, trapping as many Germans as possible in southern France and closing off the Rhone as an escape route. By forcing Wiese's troops northward, the Allies hoped to either push them into Patton's advancing Third Army or place themselves between the Germans and the Reich. By 25 August, General Patch had finalized his plans for the campaign. The American VI Corps was to drive up the east bank of the Rhone to Lyon, proceed on to Dijon, and then head northeastward toward Strasbourg on the Rhine. The French II Corps was to advance up the west bank of the Rhone, and the I Corps would guard the right flank of VI Corps.

The VI Corps jumped off on 29 August, and by 1 September, the 36th Division reached the high ground overlooking Lyon. By 2 September, the Germans had all but abandoned the city, and on the next day, the 1st French Infantry Division had the honor of liberating France's third-largest city. By 3 September, it was obvious that the German Nineteenth Army was in full retreat, so General Truscott requested permission to press on without pause and close off the Belfort gap in the Vosges Mountains. In short order, the 3rd Division accepted the surrender of Besancon on 7 September, and on 10 September, the French II Corps captured Dijon. Later that evening, elements of the American Seventh and Third Armies linked up, forming a united Allied front. Truscott then ordered his troops to wheel eastward to take Vesoul, which the Germans evacuated on 12 September. On 13-14 September, the VI Corps pivoted again, this time in the direction of the Belfort gap.

The advance against the Belfort gap was not carried out, as the U.S. Seventh Army and French First Army came under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF). The troops were realigned so that Truscott's three divisions were on the left, connected to Patton's forces, and the French troops were on the extreme right of the Allied line. The campaign to the Vosges Mountains, sometimes called the "Champagne Campaign," was over.

But by late October, 1944 -- after the Allies had pushed almost 400 miles, taken 89,000 German prisoners and linked up with elements of Patton's Third Army to finally complete the continuous line Eisenhower now believed essential to the Allied cause -- thousands of Germans had retreated into the Vosges where they dug in, ordered to halt the Allied advance into Germany.

American units that had already fought in the mountains of Italy were sent to France and ordered to battle their way through the Vosges. One was the 36th "Texas" Division, the same outfit that had nearly been destroyed at Monte Cassino the previous winter. Another, attached to it, especially requested by headquarters, was the 100th/442nd Combat Team -- Japanese-American troops, most of them recruited from internment camps in the United States.

Major General John E. Dahlquist, commander of the "Texas" Division, was relatively new to combat and had nearly lost his command twice during the drive north from the Riviera for allowing his men to lag behind.

The village of Bruyeres was the 442nd/100th RTC's first target. Dahlquist assured them the surrounding hills were only lightly defended. In fact, they were filled with well dug-in Germans. The 442nd cleared them off in four days despite the terrain, the steady icy downpour that filled their foxholes, and the rain of artillery shells bursting among the tree-tops. As soon as they had taken Bruyeres, General Dahlquist insisted they push further into enemy territory, to seize another heavily-defended hill overlooking Biffontaine, a tiny village with no military importance, and then to take the town itself. They did it all in just two days, but their losses were heavy in part because the inexperienced Dahlquist first gave them an unrealistic deadline for taking the hill, then ordered them off it, then forced them to retake it when the Germans returned.

Meanwhile, General Dahlquist had sent a battalion of his Texans along a densely forested ridge toward the important town of St. Die. Again, veteran officers warned him the woods were full of Germans. Again, Dahlquist insisted there were none. Within an hour, the Texans were under attack. Two hundred and seventy-five of them were cut off and surrounded by the Germans who zeroed in on them from three sides. For two days, shells blasted their positions. The Texans began to run out of food and ammunition. Two attempts to break through to them failed. Finally, on October 26, Dahlquist ordered the exhausted men of the 442nd to return to the wooded slopes, rescue the Lost Battalion, as the Texans would come to be called, and restore his reputation.

For five days, fighting from tree to tree in heavy fog, they tried to get to the trapped men. On the morning of October 30 they were just 1,000 yards from the survivors -- but pinned to the steep slope by artillery and machine-gun fire. Finally, they had had enough. I Company and K Company rose to their feet and charged up the hillside, hurling grenades into German machine gun nests and firing from the waist as they climbed. I Company had started into the forest with 185 men; just eight walked out unhurt. K Company had begun with 186 men; only 17 emerged on foot. All the rest were dead or wounded or missing. On November 12, General Dahlquist announced he wanted to review the 442nd, to thank them for what they had done. When the battered unit appeared, Dahlquist grew irritated at their sparse numbers, ignorant at how much they had sacrificed.

Christopher C. Meyers

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Citations:

Clarke, Jeffrey J., and Robert R. Smith. United States Army in World War II: The European Theater of Operations--Riviera to the Rhine. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1993.

de Lattre de Tassigny, Jean M. G. The History of the First French Army. Trans. Malcolm Barnes. London: Allen and Unwin, 1952.

Weigley, Russell. Eisenhower's Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.

Wyant, William. Sandy Patch: A Biography of Lt. Gen. Alexander M. Patch. New York: Praeger, 1991.


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Tucker, Dr. Spencer C.; Roberts, Dr. Priscilla Mary. Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social, and Military History (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. 2005).