THE 29TH INFANTRY DIVISION IN WORLD WAR II
29 Let’s Go!
by Joseph Balkoski
On February 3, 1941, President Roosevelt called up the 29th Division’s component National Guard units from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia for one year of active service. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and America’s entry into World War II, however, would eventually extend that one year to nearly five.
The 29th Division sailed for England in September 1942 aboard the famous Cunard liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. The division began incessant training in central and southwest England, which would continue for twenty consecutive months. In July 1943, a new commanding general arrived who would instill a unique spirit within the 29th and carry it through to the end of the war. Major General Charles Gerhardt, a cavalryman and member of the West Point class of 1917, was a tough disciplinarian, but transformed the division into one of the finest fighting outfits in the U.S. Army.
The 29th Division joined with the 1st Division to assault Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The 116th Infantry landed in the first wave at 0630 hours on the western half of the beach and met unexpectedly fierce resistance from German troops entrenched on the coastal bluffs. Despite heavy losses, the 116th penetrated the enemy defenses and established a tenuous beachhead by nightfall.
The 115th Infantry landed at about 11 AM, and the 175th the next morning.
Over the next two weeks, the 29th Division advanced toward the key objective of St. Lo against stiffening enemy resistance. Only on July 18, 1944, six weeks after D-Day, did the division secure St. Lo, freeing the U.S. First Army to launch a devastating breakthrough of the German lines in Operation Cobra. After a short rest behind the front, the 29th joined in the destruction of the enemy in the Falaise Pocket by advancing southward from St. Lo, liberating the key crossroads city of Vire in on August 6. Ten days later, as the Americans raced toward Paris, General Bradley pulled the 29th Division out of the line. After a five-day break, he ordered the 29th with two other divisions to race into Brittany to seize the port of Brest, one of France’s largest harbors.
On August 25, Gerhardt’s men commenced their attack on Brest. What was conceived as a comparatively easy operation, however, turned out to be one of the 29th’s most costly operations of World War II. Defended by thousands of fanatical German paratroopers, the Americans took more than three weeks to subdue the enemy and seize the port, but by then the Germans had destroyed all the port facilities and rendered the harbor useless unless the Americans could commit months of repair work. Eisenhower decided to abandon Brest and use other harbor facilities much closer to the front, which by that time had reached the western frontier of Germany.
In late September 1944, the 29th Division was transferred 500 miles from Brittany to southern Holland, a journey that half the division took in uncomfortable “forty-and-eight” boxcars, while the other half made the move in trucks and jeeps. The 29th entered Germany on October 1, 1944, holding an extended front north of the historic city of Aachen. For more than a month, the division engaged in frustrating positional warfare as the weather deteriorated sharply and an ammunition shortage worsened to a critical level. Fully recovered from the debacle in Normandy, the Germans gave little ground and inflicted heavy casualties each time the 29ers launched an attack. In mid-October, the 29th loaned the 116th Infantry to the 30th Division, and it joined in the American effort to capture Aachen against a resolute enemy defense. Helping to close the pincer around Aachen, the 116th fought one of its most severe battles of World War II in the town of Würselen, an Aachen suburb.
On November 16, 1944, the 29th Division joined in one of the largest U.S. Army offensives of the war to date as a component of the Ninth Army. The goal was to smash through the German lines in the Rhineland, cross the Roer River at Jülich, and drive on to the Rhine by Christmas 1944. In three weeks of brutal combat, however, Gerhardt’s men only managed to advance nine miles and were halted on the west bank of the Roer just short of Jülich. The miniscule German towns through which the 29th fought—Siersdorf, Dürboslar, Aldenhoven, Bourheim, Koslar, and others—would be remembered by the 29ers as some of the most brutal fighting they experienced in World War II. Further, as cold and wet weather set in, the 29th Division lost hundreds of men due to exposure and trench foot.
The exhausted 29th Division called off its offensive on December 8. Eight days later, the massive German Ardennes offensive erupted forty miles to the south, catching the U.S. First Army by surprise. Ninth Army divisions on either side of the 29th were pulled out of the line and rushed to the Ardennes as Gerhardt extended his front along the Roer River to cover the vacated space. While the Battle of the Bulge raged to the south, the 29th Division patrolled aggressively over the Roer and prepared for the Allied offensive to resume as the enemy offensive petered out and winter weather waned.
On February 23, 1945, the 29th Division executed its most successful offensive of World War II by launching an attack across the flood-swollen Roer on either side of Jülich. That key city, which Gerhardt’s men had been within sight of for three months, fell to the 29th on the first day of the assault. The division penetrated onto the flat and featureless Cologne Plain, swung 90 degrees to its left, and attacked relentlessly to the north in an effort to link up with Montgomery’s Twenty-First Army Group, which was progressing southward in an effort to encircle German troops west of the Rhine River.
On March 1, 1945, the 29th Division seized München-Gladbach, the largest German city captured by Gerhardt’s men in World War II. Pulled out of the line for its first significant period of rest and recuperation during its time in combat, the 29th set up a headquarters in Schloss Rheydt, a castle owned by Joseph Goebbels, the notorious Nazi propaganda minister. The 29ers cleaned up, received hundreds of new replacements, and enjoyed plentiful passes to Dutch towns in the rear area. On the open pastures surrounding München-Gladbach, Gerhardt ordered several parades to honor those 29th Division units that had gained the highly prized Distinguished Unit Citation during combat in Normandy: the 115th, 116th, and 175th Infantry, along with the 121st Engineer Combat Battalion.
The 29th Division crossed the historic Rhine River on March 31, 1945, and joined in the Allied Expeditionary Force’s blitzkrieg across central Germany. The end was in sight; for the next five weeks, the 29ers mopped up scattered pockets of German resistance and exerted administrative control over thousands of displaced persons fleeing westward into the U.S. Army’s operational area. On May 2, the 175th Infantry’s 3rd Battalion encountered elements of the Soviet 6th Guards Cavalry Division on the Elbe River. The Americans and Soviets greeted each other enthusiastically, exchanging hats, weapons, and other items of military memorabilia. Five days later, Nazi Germany collapsed; the war in Europe was over.
In eleven months of nearly continuous combat from D-Day to the Elbe, the 29th Division had participated in seven major offensives, gaining a reputation as one of the U.S. Army’s finest outfits in World War II. Two members of the 29th, T/Sgt. Frank Peregory of Company K, 116th Infantry, and S/Sgt. Sherwood Hallman of Company F, 175th Infantry, gained the Medal of Honor—both posthumously. The 29th paid a severe price in the triumph against Nazi tyranny: during the European campaign, more than 20,000 29ers fell in battle; several thousand more became non-battle casualties. Among the sixty-plus U.S. Army divisions that participated in the campaign, only one other division had more losses.
After V-E Day, the 29th Division garrisoned the German port of Bremen, the point from which thousands of American troops eventually returned to the States. The last elements of the division did not depart Europe until late 1945 and finally arrived in New York City in January 1946.
The 29th Division’s remarkable record in World War II forged the high standards maintained by all post-war 29ers. Today, the young men and women populating the Maryland and Virginia National Guard units tracing their lineage back to the 29th Division in both world wars have fully lived up to those standards on the distant battlegrounds of Iraq and Afghanistan in the Global War on Terror.
29, LET’S GO!