Dec 17, 1944, defying the murky skies, the tiny liaison plane circled low as Lt David E. Runden dropped a note in the battalion area. Kraut Tanks in Setz Heading our Way the message read. The Battle of the Bulge was on! Marshaling his crack troops for a last, all-out offensive, FM Gerd von Rundstedt wheeled his panzers west in a surprise move that was designed to split open the Allied forces, drive through to Liège, and on to Antwerp. The 561-FAB backing up the 106-ID at the exact spot where the Germans chose to break through the line. Btry C dug in atop a hill and poured direct fire on German tanks in the valley below. Lower and lower the tubes were depressed. Gun crews were forced to dig away the earth so the tubes could be dropped even further down. Then came orders from the Group to displace to the rear. Col Robert C. White, battalion CO, told battery commanders to evacuate all guns, vehicles, and personnel; to destroy all equipment that could not be pulled back in time.
Btry A, with all of its vehicles at the ordnance, was forced to leave all personal and organizational equipment behind. Btry C, which covered the withdrawal for the remainder of the battalion, found it necessary to destroy three guns. Not only did the battery keep the 155-MM Long Toms blazing until the last possible moment, but it was hopeless to move the guns in the mud. One AN-M-14 (TH) incendiary grenade ruined one gun; the others were disposed of by firing them after a recoil nut was removed. This threw the tubes off the slides and ruined the recoil mechanism. By 1200, the battalion had moved back through St Vith to Crombach. Two hours later, the Close Station march order was given just as Btry B, which had withdrawn the previous night, received an urgent fire mission by radio from the 9-AD in position near Winterspelt Germany. Capt Victor A. Woodling, relaying the fire commands from Fire Direction Center to his battery by radio, ended his commands with ‘Battery 15 volleys, when ready CSMO’ (Close Station, March Order). Without observation and through the mud, the cold, and the fog, the men of the 561-FAB grimly pulled back, taking up positions next to Neudorf. The deadly game of keeping a jump ahead of the Germans was to continue for the next several days. Often no more than half a mile separated the battalion from enemy forces. The move to the next stop was getting underway just as a column of enemy tanks clanked down the road to the old bivouac area. La Roche en Ardennes, Ronchampay, and Bande also were stopovers as the withdrawal continued and the men yearned for the opportunity to crack back. The ration truck was ambushed – the battalion had only one meal left at the time, in the afternoon of Dec 20, near La Roche en Ardennes.
Pvt Leonard Maitland was captured with Pvt William Kohl and S/Sgt Eldon Hill, all three Service Btry men, were wounded. Kohl and Hill later were picked up by the Medics of the 7-AD and evacuated to the rear. After moving on to Ochamps and Libramont, the battalion was transferred to the III Corps of Patton’s 3-A on Dec 21. Stockem, near Arlon, was the next bivouac area before the 561-FAB hit Luxembourg and took up firing positions at Ospern. This marked the beginning of the road back. However, it would be Feb 4, 1945, before the battalion returned to positions it had left at the time of the breakthrough and there were multiple missions and hard work remaining before the German acceptance of the unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945. Thus went the Battle of the Bulge, the high point of the battalion’s activities during eleven months of combat which began in June 1944 and fully reflected the battalion’s proficiency and almost a year’s thorough training.
The 561st Field Artillery Battalion was activated on Jul 9, 1943, at Camp Joseph T. Robinson, Arkansas, with Col James F. Kerr in command. Officers came from the Field Artillery Replacement Training Centers (FA-RTC) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as well as Fort Bragg, North Carolina, from the Officer Candidate School (OCS) and older combat units. The cadre was comprised of men from the Division Artillery units of the 37th Infantry Division (Ohio National Guard), one division, which had served in the South Pacific for nearly a year. Fillers arrived in two groups, Aug 9, and Aug 11, 1943, and the training and equipping process began immediately.
Col E. A. Nealy took command of the battalion in September as the training program got under full steam. Following the completion of basic training tests, field exercises, and the Army Ground Forces tests, the battalion moved to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, in early December, where live ammunition was handled and fired in large quantities for the first time. The battalion shifted its sights to the Louisiana Maneuver Area in February and had been at work only two weeks when orders arrived to pull the unit back to Camp Polk, Louisiana, in preparation for an overseas movement. Despite the short notice, the 561-FAB made its way to the Port of Embarkation on schedule.
On Apr 7, 1944, the battalion with the Mission Essential Equipment (MEE) only sailed from the New York POE aboard the French liner Ile de France. Men tasted previously unknown discomfiture such as seasickness, crowded and overheated sleeping quarters, and inadequate mess facilities. The sight of land, on Apr 14, was most welcome as the ship docked near Greenock, Scotland, in the Firth of Clyde. For the majority, this was the first opportunity to set foot on foreign soil; it was a memorable occasion for those who merely wanted to stand again on just any soil. Next followed the train trip to England where the 561-FAB took up its new station at Doddington Park, near Nantwich.
Additional training and the drawing of equipment was the program as the battalion was assigned to the 174th Field Artillery Group, VIII Corps, Patton’s 3-A. During this period, the unit participated in two maneuver exercises in South Wales. Transferred to Gen Huebner’s 1st Army on Jun 21, the battalion moved then to Llypiatt Park near Stroud where all the final preparations were made for crossing the Channel.
A week later, the outfit was broken up into three groups and loaded on LSTs at Southampton. The lead group, consisting of the Staff, Headquarters, and Service Batteries, pulled out in convoy the following morning. By dusk, it was anchored off Utah Beach. The first unit stepped ashore at 1100, Jun 30 (D+24), with the other groups coming along within the next 24 hours and proceeding to a de-waterproofing area at Les Mesnil, France. By the next day, the battalion had moved up to its first position near St-Sauveur-le-Vicomte where it was in general support of the VIII Corps and reinforcing the fires of the 79-ID. On Jul 3, at 0515, this was it – the McCoy! Battalion five volleys was the order and the 561’s 12 guns rocked the ground as their projectiles of death and destruction zoomed into the enemy. This was the battalion’s first action in WW-2 and excitement, coupled with pride, shone in all eyes as the first rounds whammed home. The mission was to soften up the opposition to the dough of the VIII Corps. The battalion fired from positions approximately five miles north of La-Haye-du-Puits, each battery having a separate RJ. A continuous roar was maintained throughout the day. By nightfall, 500 rounds had been expended. Any troops that came on the line from this day on were recruits to the veterans of the 561-FAB.
Promptly at 1200 Jul 4, all guns in France fired a volley at the enemy in celebration of Independence Day. Forty-eight hours later, men began acquiring a good idea of what to expect in the many months of combat that were to follow. Shoving ahead to a position near Hill 121, the battalion sat parked along a narrow road all night in the rain as one of B Battery’s guns had slipped into a ditch. But all guns were in on schedule by 0800 the next morning. A heavy firing schedule of counter-battery, harassing and long-range interdiction missions were resumed. The first enemy fighter-bomber attack was experienced on Jul 10. One bomb hit fairly close to the area but no casualties were incurred. The next night the fighters roared in again and one aircraft – it crashed up on Hill 121 – was shot down. Every single gunner within a radius of a mile claimed credit for the kill. When the battalion moved within half a mile of La Haye du Puits, the Germans began returning the fire. Without direction or officer supervision, foxholes were dug deeper and made more elaborate.
Once, during the excitement of the firefight, Sgt John W. Schmidt’s section attempted to load two projectiles, one behind the other, in the same tube. The battery crew didn’t need a lot of time to find out that this could not work. During the 16 days in this position, the total missions were increased to 350 and the total rounds fired to 6130. Meanwhile, American lines had gradually advanced from hedgerow to hedgerow.
Armored elements of the VIII Corps now were pushing ahead to a line east of Coutances as the enemy began to weaken and pull back to the south. The battalion’s heavy counter-battery fire was changed to the interdiction on road junctions and escape routes. A Btry was attached to the 202nd Field Artillery Group on Jul 29 for a special mission and the remainder of the 561-FAB shifted to La Quieze. One of the early casualties was sustained two days later when Sgt John W. Calvin, B Battery, was killed by a plane bombing. Calvin dashed into a field to put out a flare dropped by one of the planes and was struck by fragments of an AP Buterfly Bomb. Four other men were wounded during the same attack. Assigned to the 3-A on Aug 1, the 561-FAB shoved onto St-Aubin-des-Peaux, then ahead to an area east of Pontaubant where a group headed by Capt Fred F. Huson, CWO Robert J. Burke, and 1/Sgt Edward McCartney captured the battalion’s first prisoners (Bedcheck Charlie well known to American troops in the European Theater, when lone German planes appeared over their lines in the late afternoon or evenings, was making his nightly run over the area by this time.
Also by now, Gen George S. Patton’s armor was well on its way across France. The battalion maintained its heavy firing schedule as it turned, Aug 5, to the Brittany Campaign. Still in general support of the VIII Corps, but now reinforcing fires of the 83-ID, the 561-FAB focused its attention on the coastal town of St-Malo. Four days later, the Citadel was the only strong point in the area and the outfit moved up five miles to La Motte where it shifted guns 400 miles left to fire across the estuary on the town of Dinard.
Lt Everett W. Andrews (pilot) and Lt Robert L. Ravey (observer), were killed Aug 10 when an enemy shell struck their aircraft. Andrews’ plane then veered into another liaison aircraft that was flying alongside and both planes crashed near Tremeruc. The battalion centered then its attention on the Citadel on Aug 14. B Battery moved Sgt Otis Keadle’s and Sgt James R. Williams’ gun sections forward for direct firing on the strong point, while Sgt Laverne Diebel’s gun section, C Btry, approached the estuary from the St-Malo side. Beginning at 1000 on Aug 17, the three sections fired a total of 188 rounds at the massive doors and gun emplacements. The Citadel surrendered early that afternoon.
In a letter of commendation to Col Nealy, the Commanding General of the 83-IR wrote:
I desire to commend most highly, yourself and those officers and men who participated in the emplacement of firing, by direct fire, of the three 155-MM guns before the Citadel of St-Servan. The task set was a dangerous and difficult one and the energy and enthusiasm shown by all were of the highest order. The effect the guns had on the fortifications was tremendous and I am sure that their fire played a great part in causing the surrender of the Citadel before the final assault of the infantry. With this achievement behind you, I hope that all your future actions will be characterized by the same enthusiasm and zeal.
A sidelight in conjunction with this action was written by Francis Chase Jr in a July issue of the Saturday Evening Post:
During the reduction of the Citadel at St-Malo, the besieged Nazis within the fort radioed for air support and got it. The first night Jerry came over, I was billeted with a 561-FA Battery in an old wooden house at the edge of the town. Next to me, in a similar wooden house, lived a large French family, seemingly impervious to the war all about them. Boys from our battery used to visit the family and drink the hard cider that the old Frenchman would bring out of hiding for them.
The first Nazi flight let go with Butterfly Bombs, AP affairs which flutter down in a hundred little packages of sudden death. They landed all around our battery. The next flight was loaded with incendiaries. They set our roof afire in twenty different places and we had a bad half-hour putting out the flames. Then someone noticed that the house next door was burning hopelessly, with roof timbers already beginning to crash and fall. We rushed over to see if we could help the family and saw the old man and one or two of our soldiers yelling and pointing to the burning house. Then we heard the voices of two more soldiers inside. ‘Ready heave!’ they were shouting, and again, ‘Ready heave’. It was easy to figure out what was happening. A blazing roof timber had fallen and trapped some members of the family inside. The boys were trying to raise it and free the luckless victim. We rushed inside too. Flaming wood and falling plaster rained about us. At any moment we expected the roof to come tumbling in. And then, by the light of the fire – the only light there was – we saw our two cannoneers, stripped to the waist, black and shining with mingled soot and sweat. ‘Ready heave!’ they yelled again, in unison – and the barrel of cider they were so busy rescuing from the basement cleared the last step up to the ground floor. From there they rolled 15 barrels out of the house easily, and we saw then that the family was all safe, as they gathered around to cheer the rescuers and kiss them on each blackened cheek…