World War II in Europe

Oshkosh Eye Candy

DSC01554Last week, I was supposed to only be at Oshkosh for Monday and Tuesday.  I ended up staying until Sunday morning, shooting photos on the flight line for up to fifteen hours each day.  I was simply amazed at the diversity of aircraft coming and going in the morning, long before the official air show began. Seriously, if you love aviation, get to Oshkosh sometime in your life if you’ve never been. It is the holy grail of warbird events.

Here are some of my favorite moments from the week:

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Panchito, a B-25 belonging to the Delaware Aviation Museum, makes a pass over the field.

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A MiG-17 going for altitude

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Seriously, one look at a B-2 and I start to believe all the Roswell myths.

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The hunters warming up. Two beautiful F-86 Sabres ready to launch.

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An F4U Corsair with a Bearcat on its wing, return to Oshkosh in the rain.

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The venerable C-47 Skytrain.

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A B-52 makes a low altitude run over Oshkosh.

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At the break: A P-51 and an F-35 Lightning II during the final pass of the Heritage Flight.

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The show-stopper for me was this Douglas A-20 Havoc, the world’s only flyable one. I never got to see it fly, but it stole my heart because it represents the 5th Air Force’s 312th Bomb Group and because Pappy Gunn modified the 3rd Attack Group’s A-20s before he tore into the B-25 in the spring and summer of 1942. Hence…this next image:

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Categories: World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: | 2 Comments

The Mitchells of Oshkosh

DSC01362Last week was a very special one for me. After finishing up doing research at the Richard Ira Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior, I drove south to Oshkosh, pitched a tent and spent five days photographing the aircraft.

This was a bucket list event for me, and I’ve wanted to see this amazing event for most of my life. Being a West Coast native, getting to Oshkosh in the middle of busy summers just wasn’t in the cards. This year, it coincided with my transcontinental research trip, so I camped out, got filthy, grew an almost-beard, and shot photos fifteen hours a day.

Talk about bliss.

The highlight for me this year was the B-25 squadron that showed up. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many B-25’s. They had so many that two seemingly went into overflow parking in Warbirds Alley!

In the rain at dusk one night last week, the B-25’s lined up exactly like Doolittle’s planes had been arrayed on the U.S.S. Hornet before the April 18, 1942 raid on Tokyo. I was down right on the flight line to see this amazing tribute as, one after another, the Mitchells roared down the runway and into the air.

Breathtaking.  Here are some of the photos I took of that spectacular display, an homage to an era where our nation  produced some of the greatest aircraft and aviators in history.

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The first two Mitchells warm up before launch.

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This CAF B-25 was restored to memorialize a USMC B-25 from VMB-612 that was lost on its 23rd mission in the Pacific.

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This rare bird is the oldest surviving B-25 Mitchell. It was fourth off the North American production line, served as General Hap Arnold’s personal transport, was used later by Howard Hughes and ended up in Mexico and Indonesia before returning home to be a featured aircraft of the Long Island, NY American Airpower Museum.

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Barbie III, a 1st Air Commando B-25H Mitchell, rolled off the assembly line in 1943. Owned now by the Cavanaugh Flight Museum, it was the second H model produced during the war. Barbie III is also the only B-25H flying with an actual 75mm cannon in the nose.

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Put it in black and white, and that could be Dobodura, New Guinea, in the summer of ’43.

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This is the Yellow Rose, a B-25J also built in 1943. It served with the 334th Bomb Group stateside and was used in aircrew training as late as the mid-1950s. It belongs to the Central Texas Wing of the CAF.

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Mitchell in the Golden Hour.

 

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Oshkosh is just about the coolest place I’ve ever been. How many times do you get to look up at sunset and see this?

 

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Champaign Gal touches back down in the rain after the demonstration flight. It is part of the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio.

 

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Briefing Time, owned by the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum, is painted in the markings of a B-25 that flew with the 340th Bomb Group during the Italian campaign.

 

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The  Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum owns this beautiful eight-gunned B-25, “Hot Gen” and carries the markings of 98 Squadron, RAF in honor of the Canadian crews who flew the Mitchell in that unit.

 

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When the last B-25 touched down, it felt like I’d just seen a once-in-a-lifetime event. What an homage to an aircraft and its crews who played such a key role in winning the air war over the SWPA and in the MTO.

For those of you out there who want to learn more about the B-25 and some of the characters who modified and flew them in the Pacific:

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Categories: World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

The U-Boat Killer

A U.S. Navy armorer loads a long belt of .50 caliber ammo into the nose turret of an Atlantic Theater Consolidated PB4Y2 Privateer patrol bomber. Very long range aircraft like this variant of the B-24 helped ensure German U-boats had no safe place to surface and recharge their batteries while on patrol in the Atlantic. U.S. Liberators and Privateers are credited with sinking at least 23 U-boats in the course of the war.

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The last flying PB4Y2 Privateer airborne over Chino in May 2017. The nose turret was removed when it was used as a fire bomber, starting in the 1960’s.  It served in that capacity until 2006. It just went through a thorough restoration and is now on the air show circuit.

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Categories: ETO, European Theater of Operations, World War II, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Tags: | 2 Comments

Stories from Golden Gate

Today, I wandered through Golden Gate National Cemetery. Every marker tells a story. Here’s one:

 

Master Sergeant Kenji Munn Tashiro:

Sixty-one years. Three wars. Volunteered for service in 1943 despite the fact that his wife and two children were rounded up and thrown in an internment camp.

Fought with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe as part of an anti-tank gun company. Earned the CIB.

Returned home and stayed in the reserves, served in Korea and Vietnam as a military intelligence NCO. Incidentally, while he was in Korea, his son was fighting to hold the Pusan Perimeter with his brother Soldiers.

Died of stomach cancer in 1967, An American patriot to his core.AO5Y9423

Categories: Uncategorized, War in Europe, World War I, World War II, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, WW2, WWII | 1 Comment

The Planes of Fame Air Show Aviators

DSC07389Last weekend concluded one of the best warbirds air shows in the country. The Planes of Fame Air Museum puts on an astonishing display of military aviation heritage every May in what has become a major tradition within the warbirds community.

For most who attend, myself included, the amazing aircraft are the stars of the show. Thousands of photographers carrying insanely expensive gear turn out to capture these rare birds in flight. If you’re a member of any of the warbirds of WWII Facebook groups, no doubt you’ve been seeing their results.DSC07256

It dawned on me this year that the aviators and crews who keep these aircraft functional are the real stars. Who wakes up one day and says, “Gee, you know, I’d really like to spend my life working on Pratt & Whitney R2800 engines from the 1940s?” I mean, the market for that skill has got to be pretty limited. Ditto with the pilots like Steve Hinton, his son, Chris Fahey and Mark Foster. Some are prior service military aviators, others are legacies drawn to the family’s passion. It has to be something akin to a monastic calling.AO5Y3446

So today, I want to share a few moments I captured on the ground and in the air that highlight these remarkable folks who have taken the road less traveled to a unique and unusually special life. It is a dangerous one, as the many crashes, lost friends and aircraft can attest.  Jim Maloney. Jimmy Leeward.  Jay Gordon. Marcus Paine last year at Madras. The list is a long one. Yet, that does not dissuade them from climbing into the cockpit of aircraft built seven decades ago to carry men into battle at the cutting edge of their nation’s technological envelope. What a wild ride that must be.

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Here’s to a safe 2017 season and many more spectacular moments with these remarkable  historical artifacts.

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John Kerpa in period attire at the controls of an SBD Dauntless.

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When your P-63 King Cobra’s door won’t latch….who ya gonna call?

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Seriously, how cool would it be to put on your resume, “Pilot of the only complete airworthy A6M5 Zero on the planet?”

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John Kerpa channels Bill Ault on the weekend of the 75th Anniversary of The Battle of the Coral Sea.

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Mark Foster makes a low level, high speed pass in Wee Willy, a P-51 painted in the markings of the 357th Fighter Group’s Captain Calvert Williams. Willaims scored the legendary 8th Air Force group’s first kill during Big Week in February, 1944.

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In the CAF’s homage to top Navy ace David McCampbell is Chris Liguori, who has been flying since he was 14 years old. Got his pilot’s license before his driver’s license.

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Lt. Col. (ret) Robert “Lips” Hertberg in the cockpit of this AT-6 Texan. Col. Hertberg flew F-16’s, initially with the 496th Tactical Fighter Squadron, and later became an F-16 instructor.

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John Hinton, Steve Hinton’s brother, in the cockpit of a Desert Air Force P-40.

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Another shot of Lt. Col. Hertberg in the T-6.

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Jason Somes Taxis this beautiful late model Spitfire. Jason earned his pilot’s license at age 19 and has been racing at Reno since 2003.

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Steve Hinton watches his brother depart in the P-40.

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Jason returns from a flight to a very eager ground crew.

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Chris Fahey in the only flying P-38J left in the world.

Categories: Uncategorized, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: | 1 Comment

Chino’s Legendary Planes of Fame Airshow

AO5Y3975For one weekend every year since 1957, the skies over Chino, California fill with the sights and sounds of World War II aircraft. Nestled on an old Army Air Force base where the likes of 24 kill ace Gerald R. Johnson once trained, hosts this incredible event as one of its main fund raisers. These days, lucky visitors to Chino can see upwards of forty warbirds thunder overhead.

It is an awe-inspiring sight.

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My dad found the museum one day in the mid-1950s. He was out driving around with his best friend from high school and looked over to see a Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter just sitting in a field. Both boys had grown up on the Southern California coast during the war and had fallen in love with aircraft as they watched F4U Corsairs and P-38 Lightnings zooming over their homes. A Corsair even crash landed in front of my dad’s place on the Balboa Peninsula in 1945.AO5Y6509

So of course, they stopped. The museum back then was basically a field full of WWII aircraft discarded by the military and somehow acquired by the founder of Planes of Fame, Ed Maloney. One plane, a Japanese J2M Raiden fighter, had been a plaything for local kids at Griffith Park in Los Angeles before Ed acquired it. Rumor has it that some thief had pulled the seat out of it and pawned it, and Ed had to go to the shop and pay $50.00 to get it out of hock and re-install it in this incredibly rare warbird.

Back then, you paid a quarter at a tent that denoted the museum’s entrance, then walked through part of a bomber’s fuselage to enter the field of warbirds.

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As a kid living in the Silicon Valley, my dad would sometimes take me down to the Chino air shows. I still have snapshots I took in the 1970s with a 126 instamatic camera of the museum’s A6M5 Zero that had been captured on Saipan’s Aslito Field in 1944. Years later, while in graduate school at the University of Oregon, I discovered my landlady had been in charge of checking in and documenting captured Japanese aircraft as they arrived in Southern California. Quite possibly the initial paperwork the U.S. Navy generated on the Planes of Fame Zero had been filled out by Marge Goodman.AO5Y5847

Anyway, the trips down to Chino became a father-son thing for us Brunings. In 1986, we stopped going. I left for college that fall, and as graduate school and a career up in Oregon dominated my time, the chance to get to Planes of Fame became a pipe dream. Then came marriage, two kids and a new career as a military historian and writer.

Finally, after I came home from Afghanistan, we revived the tradition. Five of the last seven years, we’ve road tripped down to Chino for the air show. In 2013, we brought my son and made it a tri-generational road trip. AO5Y7833

This year, my dad and I returned and spent the weekend out at the Chino Airport, amazed and inspired by the thousands who turned out to see the old birds fly.

AO5Y5938World War II is slipping from modern memory as the few remaining veterans of it pass. It won’t be long before we won’t have anyone alive who experienced the war at all. But thanks to Planes of Fame, the visceral sensation, the raw power and speed of the planes our grandparents flew in defense of our nation will endure and live in the memories of succeeding generations. Ed Maloney was a visionary, and thanks to his aircraft rescue efforts long before anyone saw value in those aluminum bodies, the sounds and sights of these amazing machines will continue to fill the skies over Southern California for years to come.AO5Y2187

It is a truly special place. If you love aircraft, make a point of coming here someday. You won’t be disappointed. You’ll be in the heart of the warbirds community.

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Below are some more photos I took this weekend at the 60th Planes of Fame air show.

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The Planes of Fame P-38J Lightning in 475th Fighter Group ace Parry Dahl’s markings.

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Warming up the CAF Mitsubishi A6M Zero on Saturday May 6, 2017

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Pilot Chris Fahey at the controls of the POF P-38. The sound of this plane’s twin Allison engines is like crack to your friendly writer.  After spending nine years researching and writing a biography on P-38 ace Col. Gerald R. Johnson, this aircraft became very dear to my heart. In the 90’s, I interviewed a lot of men who flew them in New Guinea and the Philippines during the war, and they swore by its firepower, range, speed and one-engined flight abilities.

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Mark Foster at the controls of this beautiful P-51 Mustang. It wears the markings of the 357th Fighter Group, a crack 8th Air Force unit that included Chuck Yeager and ace Bud Anderson.

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The Planes of Fame B-25 Mitchell making a pass over the Chino airport. This bird’s been used as a photographic aircraft for various aerial scenes in movies for several decades. After writing Pappy Gunn’s story in Indestructible, the side pack .50 caliber machine guns endear this bird to me. Every time I see it fly, I think the spirit of Pappy Gunn flies with it.

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A Red Air Force Yak prepares for a flight with the Korean War demonstration part of the air show.

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This year’s show included this stunning bird, a Consolidated PB4Y2 Privateer U.S. Navy patrol bomber. 

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I’d never seen a PB4Y in flight before. The first pass it made during the airshow left me absolutely speechless. Loud, slow and huge, the plane is a dominating presence. I checked my Fitbit after it thundered by and saw my heart rate was at 150. I got credit for cardio, so props to the pilots for bringing on the work-out inducing excitement in their low-altitude passes.

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When I was in 3rd grade, my Uncle Dean gave me a book for my birthday entitled, “Greatest Fighter Missions of the Top Navy and Marine Aces.” I read it in a recliner next to the T.V. for hours every night after school. I still have it, though it is beat up and missing its dust jacket. One of the chapters is called, “Trapped By Zekes at Rabaul” and details one of ace Ike Kepford’s most harrowing missions in the South Pacific. This weekend, a Corsair in Kepford’s markings went blasting past me, and I was taken instantly back to those nights curled up in that 70’s-era chair, engrossed by Edward Sims’ recounting of Ike’s miraculous escape from pursuing Japanese fighters.

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Morning on the flight line, Saturday’s sunrise shoot.

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Steve Hinton piloting an F4U in Korean War markings from VMF-214’s 1950-51 deployment. 

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A bit of movie history. This was a modified BT-13 trainer altered to look like a Japanese Aichi D3A Val dive bomber, then used in the film, “Tora Tora Tora.”

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The only place I know of where you can see two Japanese A6M Zero fighters fly. The bottom one is Planes of Fame’s Saipan Zeke.

Categories: Uncategorized, World War I, World War II, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

The Image Maker

val c pope one of first combat cameramen to land at Normandy seen in france june 44651 8x10Val C. Pope served with a U.S. Army Signal Corps company during World War II. He was one of the first combat cameramen to make it ashore on D-Day. He landed on Omaha Beach with still photographer Walter Rosenblum sometime during the morning of June 6th. Armed only with a movie camera, Val and Walter set about capturing the chaos on Omaha as it unfolded around them. One of the most gripping movie clips Val shot that survived the landing was the rescue of several drowning GI’s. Their landing craft was hit and sinking, and as they ended up in the water floundering, a young lieutenant saw their plight from shore. He grabbed a cast away life raft, jumped into the surf and swam out to them. Val’s footage shows the men being helped ashore.omaha beach 1157

For the next several days, Val remained right in the thick of the fighting, filming some of the iconic scenes of the early days of the invasion. While walking past a couple of buildings in search of a Red Cross aid station, he was ambushed by a German machine gun team. Hit in the head, he fell back unconscious as a fellow combat camerman dove for cover. A few minutes later, a group of GI’s rushed out and pulled Val out of the line of fire. He died as medics worked furiously to save his life.

Today, as we remember the June 6th landings, let us not forget those who carried cameras instead of guns, whose images have become a timeless–and priceless–part of our national heritage. Without them and their selfless spirit to capture history as it unfolded, future generations would have had no window into those momentous events in 1944.omaha beach dday first wave going ashore iii212

 

 

 

Categories: ETO, European Theater of Operations, War in Europe, World War II, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Sky Above Southern California

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The Planes of Fame Republic P-47D Thunderbolt with a replica Fw-190 on its wing. Chino Air Show, 2016. If you are a lover of warbirds and have not made the trip to Chino, do so. The museum’s collection is simply incredible.

Categories: Uncategorized, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Chino Air Show, Day 2

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Categories: Korean War, Uncategorized, World War II, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Knives and Bayonets Against the Waffen-SS:

82nd airborne bulge155 8x10The American paratroopers moved swiftly through the darkness, their speed and effort keeping the bitter cold at bay. Through thick woods they’d captured earlier that day, they would soon break out into flat, open ground broken only by rows of heavy barbed wire fences. Four hundred yards across that dead space, two companies of elite SS panzergrenadiers waited for them. Supported by heavy tanks, half tracks, 75mm gun carrying armored cars and 20mm flak wagons, the entrenched SS troops possessed the kind of firepower that could utterly wipe out an infantry assault.

The paratroopers had waited for the pre-attack artillery bombardment, but it didn’t happen. They waited for the two tank destroyers assigned to attack, but the LT in charge of them refused to move forward, arguing his M36 Jacksons were no match for the German armor on the other side of the open ground.

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A German 20mm flak half track. Cheneux was defended, in part, by a Luftwaffe light flak battalion equipped with eighteen of these deadly vehicles.

Without artillery or armor, the paratroopers attacked anyway. The situation was desperate.

Bulge359It was 1930 hours, December 20, 1944. Christmas season in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest. The 82nd Airborne reached the battlefield only two days before after a wild drive up from France. Thrown into the path of Kampfgruppe Peiper, the men of the 82nd had no time to get oriented, lacked winter clothing and carried nothing heavier than bazooka rocket launchers.

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An 82nd anti-armor bazooka team covers a road near Cheneux on December 20, 1944.

The Peiper’s panzergrenadiers represented the best troops left to Nazi Germany. Fiercely loyal to the Reich, they fought with tremendous intensity and determination with the best equipment in the world. Equipped with Tiger II heavy tanks, Panther medium tanks, self propelled guns and half tracks, Peiper’s kampfgruppe was supposed to lead the way to the Meuse River in the opening days of the German Ardennes offensive. Getting across the Ambleve River was a key step toward the Meuse, but furious counter-attacks by the 30th Infantry Division had stopped Peiper’s spearhead at Stoumont. To the south, at Cheneux, the Waffen-SS troops seized two bridges, crossed the Ambleve and prepared to drive on.

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Men of the 82nd moving into forward positions on December 20, 1944.

The 82nd’s 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment reached the front and its regimental commander, Colonel Tucker, realized the gravity of the situation. The panzergrenadiers had to be driven back across the Ambleve and their bridgehead destroyed. Cheneux had to be seized and the river used as the main defensive line against further German armored thrusts.

The responsibility for taking Cheneux fell to the 1-504. Second Battalion had pushed to within a half mile of the town earlier on December 20, 1944, their advance aided by a captured German half track armed with a 77mm field gun, which a scratch American crew put to good use until they ran out of ammunition. Shortly after, the attack stalled and 1-504 was ordered to attack through 2nd battalion’s lines and take Cheneux in a night attack.

Nothing went right at first. Bravo Company 1-504 formed the right wing of the assault, while Charlie was the left.  Each company went in with four waves of men with fifty yards of space between each wave.

They barely made it into the open terrain when the Germans opened fire with every barrel. Mortar round rained down on the Americans. Artillery soon followed. Struggling through the indirect, the first waves crawled to the barbed wire fences. The Germans had them zeroed. Suddenly, yellow glowing 20mm anti-aircraft shells streaked overhead, exploding among the troops.  The zipper-fast sound of MG-42’s going cyclic erupted across the German main line of resistance. The Americans, caught against the barbed wire, out in the open without support, were cut down relentlessly.

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The deadliest machine gun of World War II, the German MG42.

Trapped in the kill zone, the veteran NCO’s and officers of 1-504 realized they had to close with the enemy or die in the terrible crossfire. On the right, 1st platoon Bravo Company’s commander, 2nd Lt. Richard Smith and Staff Sergeant William Walsh stood up in the tracer-light night and urged their men to charge.  They hurdled the barbed wire fences, 20mm flak rounds savaging their ranks. Sprinting through the fusilade, Walsh was seriously wounded in the hand. He kept going, urging his men as the MG-42’s raked through them.

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1-504th’s machine gun teams suffered catastrophic losses. Five of eight supporting the initial night assault into Cheneux were wiped out by German counter-fire. This M1919 LMG team belonged to the 82nd Airborne Division’s 325th Glider Infantry Regiment. The photo was taken at Odrimont, Belgium a couple weeks after the Battle of Cheneux on January 6, 1945.

The battalion’s .30 caliber machine guns did their best to suppress the Germans, but the American gunners didn’t stand a chance in the face of so much firepower. Panzers, flak wagons and mortars concentrated on those support by fire positions and took out five of the eight machine gun crews before the night was over.

That left the paratroops on their own in the kill zone. Some tried to provide their own suppressing fire while others charged forward. Ammunition ran low; the men pulled guns and ammo off the wounded and the dead to keep going. Driven forward, the first wave finally reached the German lines. On 1st Platoon, Bravo’s section of the front, Staff Sergeant Walsh had his men prep grenades for him (he couldn’t pull the pins out with his wounded hand). Holding the spoon in place, he charged toward a German 20mm flak half track and chucked the grenade onto its bed. The weapon detonated beside the 20mm gun, wiping the crew out.

Other paras surged into the German trenches and foxholes, clubbing the panzergrenadiers with rifle butts and  beating them with bare fists. The fighting devolved into vicious man-t0-man battles to the death.

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A captured panzerschrek under investigation by U.S. troops at St. Mere Eglise during the Normandy Campaign. Captured panzerschreks were sometimes used against the Germans since they proved more effective than American bazookas.

Sergeant Edwin Clements reached one of the flak tracks. Out of ammunition, he drew his combat knife, jumped onto the back of the vehicle and killed the three man gun crew. Nearby, Private Mack Barkley did the same, slitting a 20mm gunner’s throat then grabbed a German panzerschrek and put two rockets into another armored vehicle before being wounded in action.

The fighting coalesced around the armored vehicles. The panzergrenadiers, overwhelmed in their trenches by the desperate American assault, gave ground. Twenty of them were killed in hand-to-hand fighting as the others fell back into Cheneux’s buildings. Meanwhile, the vehicle crews found themselves surrounded by paratroops willing to do just about anything to knock their guns out. Staff Sergeant Walsh was seen climbing onto a German tank and–in true Hollywood fashion–dropping a grenade on the crew from the track commander’s hatch. Others followed suit. Private First Class Daniel Del Grippo of 2nd Platoon Charlie earned a Distinguished Service Cross for knocking out an MG-42 nest, then tommy-gunning a flak track’s 20mm crew.

First Platoon Bravo made it into the west side of Cheneux with twelve men standing. Walsh and Smith urged them forward toward’s the town church, only to run into another flak track parked in an intersection. Sergeant Dock L. O’Neil, who had splintered his M1 Carbine’s stock on an SS Soldier’s head, led the attack against this vehicle and knocked it out with a bazooka just as the gun crew wounded him in the leg. As the track burned, one of the Luftwaffe gunners jumped clear, only to be cut down by O’Neil’s Model 1911 Colt .45. Smith was killed soon after while leading the remains of his platoon.

An hour into the attack and every B Co officer had been killed or wounded except the company commander. The sight of his men being slaughtered in the 400 yard kill zone proved too much for him. He went berzerk, suffering a mental breakdown and a few of his surviving men had to physically restrain him. Command fell to the XO, who pressed the attack forward.

Bulge135 burnGerHTJan6On the left, Charlie Company ran into multiple barbed wire fences. Every time the assault waves climbed over them, the Germans smothered the Americans with explosive shells and machine gun rounds. Stubbornly, the surviving Americans closed with the panzergrenadiers and drove them out of the foxholes–or killed them in place.

As the attack neared the west side of town, Charlie’s lead elements ran into a Puma armored car equipped with a short barreled 75mm infantry support gun. The vehicle had been taking out the battalion’s heavy weapons crews, but now it shifted fire on the advancing paras. Corporal Harold Stevenson tried to knock it out with a bazooka, but the Puma’s gunners cut him down. The vehicle backed away into the night to continue the fight elsewhere in town.

Charlie penetrated the town, fighting room to room with the panzer grenadiers inside the buildings while simultaneously battling the Luftwaffe’s flak tracks in the streets. The two companies of SS panzergrenadiers lost half their men and began to pull back against the Ambleve to defend the two bridges.

Three hours into the fight, one of the 504th’s senior officers discovered that the two M36 Jackson Tank Destroyers assigned to the assault waves had not gone forward. Demanding an explanation, the airborne lieutenant colonel was outraged to hear a young LT explain how his tracks didn’t stand a chance against the German panzers defending the town.

The LTC stormed over to a platoon of 60mm mortars and ordered the men there to start dropping rounds on the tankers if they did not move forward. Under that threat, the LT gave the word to go get into the fight. They rumbled up the main road into Cheneux, the fighting raging in chaotic clumps on either side without any clear front line remaining. As the Jacksons neared the town, a German half track roared right at them. Surprised, the lead Jackson’s crew trained their turret on the track–only to have their 90mm gun barrel smack the German vehicle. Stunned at this collision with an American AFV, the half track crew bailed out while the Jackson’s driver backed up far enough to allow his gunner to put an HE shell into the German rig. It blew up as the M36’s killed its fleeing crew.

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The M36 Jackson sported a 90mm gun, the largest and most powerful anti-tank weapon to be widely employed by the U.S. Army in WWII.

Late that night, a few of the survivors of 1-504th’s attack reached Cheneux’s picturesque church on the south side of town. Surprisingly, it was one of the few intact buildings left, and the men approached it cautiously. Led by Lt. Howard Kemble, a light machine gun platoon leader whose men were thrown into the assault as reinforcements, the small band of Americans opened the church’s front doors and found an elderly priest presiding over a congregation of terrified, traumatized civilians. Though in the midst of battle, some of the Americans–Lt. Kemble included–entered the church, knelt beside the Belgians and prayed together with them. A moment later, they slipped back out into the fight where Lt. Kemble led the men into a bayonet charge. He was killed not long afterward by German Soldier he thought was an American. Kemble received a posthumous Silver Star for his actions.

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504th paratrooper Walt Hughes at Cheneux after the night assault.

 

 

By the end of the night assault, the 1-504 secured half of Cheneux. They clung to their foothold and awaited reinforcement. The next day, the 504th’s 3rd battalion joined the fight and finished the job, clearing the town and forcing the Germans across the Ambleve in bitter fighting.

The Germans lost at least a hundred and fifty men, four flak tracks knocked out or captured, one Tiger II lost, two Pumas, six half tracks, a 105mm howitzer and two other vehicles. The bloody coup de main forced Peiper to abandon his only bridgehead across the Ambleve. He withdrew to La Gleize to await relief that never came. Ultimately, his kampfgruppe was surrounded and virtually destroyed. The 504th’s action at Cheneux played a major role in blunting the main armored spearhead on the northern sector of the Battle of the Bulge. That strategic victory came at a terrible cost. By the end of the first night of the Battle of Cheneux, Bravo company had twenty men standing, no officers. Charlie had three officers, forty men left.

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Men of the 82nd Airborne examine an abandoned Tiger II.

In the days that followed the Battle of Cheneux, the 82nd Airborne Division fought against no fewer than three Waffen-SS Divisions, only retreating after General Bernard Law Montgomery ordered them to do so. Within days of that withdrawal, the division returned the offensive and played a key role in the American counter-punch that regained in January all the ground lost in December.

The 504th had not just achieved their military objective that December 20th. Their furious attack against entrenched, elite troops backed up by heavy weapons and armor–succeeded against all odds because of their sheer courage, professionalism and determination. These men exemplified the best tradition of American combat arms and proved that man-to-man, the Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne were more than the measure of the Waffen-SS.  The assault at Cheneux represents one of the most heroic and determined in the U.S. Army’s history. It has become part of the long and proud legacy of the 82nd Airborne– a legacy that our current generation has added to on the battlefields of the Global War on Terror.

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The 504th Parachute Infantry advancing to another assembly point prior to an assault on German positions near Heersbach during the final days of the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945. The 504th saw near-continuous action for almost five months following the devastating battle of Cheneux.

 

 

 

 

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