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Thursday, July 12, 2012

The “other” Heroes of the Battle of the Bulge

The “other” Heroes of the Battle of the Bulge
(I should preface this with how big a supporter of the military I am. I had a grandfather serve in WWII and am justifiably proud of his accomplishments. I read Band of Brothers multiple times and I am a great admirer of Stephen Ambrose's writing in general. But something struck me as wrong when one considers the subject of this post and when one contrasts it with the 101st Airborne.)
Ask most anyone 40 years and younger about the 101st Airborne and especially those who play Call of Duty in its various incarnations and they can probably tell you chapter and verse on Easy Company, 501st PIR. Ask them about who the 106th Infantry Division is or what they did and most couldn't tell you much past the Wiki entry.

I'll try to draw everything to together here, but you'll need to stay with me. Much like Captain Charles Butler McVey III, Captain of the USS Indianapolis, the 106th Infantry is a prime example of the flip side of glory in World War II. If the 101st Airborne represents everything that the US did right in WWII in terms of training, the 106th Division represents everything that it did wrong. In no fault to the men who served in it either, but when you contrast this with the statements of the 101st veterans in terms of their elite status compared to the draftees...well you are looking at World War II through two VERY different lenses.
The exploits of the 101st are something akin to legend now, it serves no purpose rehashing them so I won't and again I'm not writing this to disparage them. In fact I'm not sure even the US Army was to blame for the fate of the 106th in late December 1945. If anything its a case of dots that weren't apparent at the time and the US doing what it could to plug combat loses that it was ill-prepared for.

The 106th was in trouble from the start. Battlefield causalities in World War II were horrific and on a scale that could not be imagined. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall wanted nearly 213 divisions for fighting World War II and he got somewhere around 90. As a result when causalities mounted the army did as best as they could by shipping out men from the divisions training stateside, this stripped away around 60% of the 106th manpower. The problem became that the divisions were often left understrength went the finally did reach combat or at least deficient in areas such as the NCOs and junior officers.

The problems of training aside the 106th was also headed into the largest battle of the western front, the Battle of the Bulge. Obviously it was not know prior but the countdown is like a recipe for disaster:
  • 106th arrives in England in the Fall of 1944 (11-17-1944)- trains for 19 days
  • Crosses to France (12-6-1944)
  • Moves to Belgium (12-10-1944)
  • Battle of the Bulge begins (12-16-1944) and the 106th is directly in harms way.
In the center the lines were held by two regiments of the 106th the 422nd and the 423rd.
Now here is the part that sticks out. Was the 106th any “less brave” then the 101st? Hardly; the stand around St Vith should be mentioned along with Bastagone, but yet it's not. The 101st is famous for saying “We didn't need rescuing.” Anyone care to debate the wisdom of that? Of course they did, its more of no one wants to be the ones hunkered down in the fort, they want to be the ones riding in with the cavalry. This brings me to one of the moments in the Band of Brothers (in the book and TV mini series) that rankles me the most: the depiction and disdain that the 101st has for the retreating US soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge. Point being that the 106th was the polar opposite from the 101st in morale, training and in every way imaginable. Now there is no way that the members of the 101st could know that the training that these troops received was on the opposite end of the spectrum from themselves, On top of that they trained as a cohesive unit for nearly two years, the 106th was parceled out to back-fill other divisions in the Army.

In a sense its not even the Army's fault per say; the questions of manpower requirements to fight World War II were made at even higher levels. Possibly presidential with an eye to keep enough men to work in the factories on the home-front?
In any even it is a disservice in my eyes to glorify the 101st so highly. Were they brave? No doubt. Were the men who served in other units besides the 101st brave? Again, I have no doubt. But, to so lionize the efforts of the few against the whole gamut of the army does a disservice to every man who served. The 106th is a forgotten page in history, but an important one. But for a twist of fate it could have been the men of the 101st hurled back by the German juggernaut.
For more reading take a look at the magazine “Armchair General- American Tragedy: 106th Infantry Division's Battle of the Bulge." January 2012 Issue, article by Jerry D Morelock, PhD and Editor in Chief.
In closing I have tremendous respect for all of our veterans of the Greatest Generation. The point needs to be made that TV and even the recollections of the 101st don't tell the true story of what the 106th went through.
For details on the 106th history, check out this excellent website: http://106thinfantry.webs.com/historyofthe106th.htm

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