The Avenging Ghosts of the Ninth

This interesting story of “The Avenging Ghosts of the Ninth” by Thomas Henry was published in the November / December 1961 issue of the 9th Infantry Division Association newsletter “The Octofoil”.  Republished here with permission.

Many members of the Ninth Infantry Division Association, even at this late date, do not know of the unbelievable accomplishments of the Ninth Infantry Division. Thomas Henry’s most interesting story reads:

AVENGING GHOSTS OF THE NINTH COME OUT OF NOWHERE AND PUSHED ENEMY TROOPS BACK ACROSS THE RHINE

The Avenging Ghosts of the Ninth

The Avenging Ghosts of the Ninth.

Nobody ever knew where they were or what they were doing, but these veteran infantrymen always popped out of the night to surprise their own commanders, as well as surprising the Krauts. For 30 months an American mystery division fought from Morocco to the Elbe in fire-streaked darkness, always unhonored and unsung until the top brass counted results and totted casualties. It left its dead strewn from the black Kasba of Port Lyautey to the bewitched forests of the Harz Mountains. Only three or four times did its riflemen, wearing on their left shoulders the mystic blue red and white Octofoil of medieval heraldry, walk briefly with fixed bayonets across moonlit rifts. From Maknassy to Remagen the 9th Infantry Division emerged from the invisible in hours of crisis, struck four or five of the hardest blows suffered by the Axis in the west, and vanished again into obscurity. The Ninth swooped across North African mountains in blinding snow to save the day at El Guettar. It captured Bizerte. It flanked the German army in Sicily. It pushed the first holding force into Cherbourg and thus established the first American foothold in Normandy. It poured through and held the first break in the Siegfried Line. It rose like an avenging spirit in swirling snow to blunt the first spearhead of The Battle of the Bulge. It established the first American bridgehead east of the Rhine. Always the ghostly 9th Infantry Division materialized out of darkness in time of need and performed far beyond the expectations of the armies of which it formed a part. Its losses were heavy, between 300 and 400 per cent in the course of the war. Nearly 50.000 men wore its shoulder patch. But it seemed always the role of the 9th to be the hole ace in the poker game of war.

General Manton S. Eddy

General Manton S. Eddy

General Eddy Great Leader.
One advantage the Ninth Division enjoyed, integrity of leadership, for it was commanded by Major General Manton S. Eddy, of Columbus, Georgia, from the first landing in North Africa until it reached the Belgian border. Its chief units were the 39th, 47th and 60th Infantry Regiments, all of Army organizations with proud histories. The 60th made a fighting landing to capture the walled Arab quarter of Port Lyautey in a short, murderous battle, one of the first fought by Americans on the soil of Africa. Within three months came the first of its avenging exploits. Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps broke through the Americans at Kasserine Pass. Prospects for stopping the three-pronged drive were dim, the situation was frankly desperate. The most serious American deficiency was in artillery.

The 9th was bivouacked at Tlemcen, in Algeria, nearly 800 miles away. All its artillery and the cannon companies of its infantry regiments were ordered to the battle front in Southern Tunisia. There followed one of the outstanding heavy gun movements in history. The great convoy, 411 vehicles and 2170 soldiers of all ranks, left Tlemcen in a blinding sleet storm of a late February afternoon. Through snow and mud, and over narrow mountain roads often covered with ice, it moved 777 miles in 84 hours. There was no halt, except for 15 minute stops for refueling.

As the convoy, commanded by Brig. Gen. S. LeRoy Irwin, approached the American headquarters at Tebessa, it found the one road jammed with ambulances and service vehicles streaming toward the rear. This was essentially a routed army. Vehicles loaded with soldiers warned, “You are too late. Rommel is moving forward and we haven’t got a chance“. The clogged road was a river of mud. Heavy guns slipped over banks and rolled down the mountainsides. One battery commander lost every gun in this way. But the surviving guns went into position and plastered the Germans with a completely unexpected torrent of howitzer and mortar fire. General Irwin brought to a cold stop the most dangerous prong of Rommel’s three-pronged drive. The Ninth then shifted northward to Sedjenane Valley. Attached to it were two regiments of Goums, fiend faced, brown turbaned Moroccan highlanders. They went into battle wearing black and white striped, goat-wool robes. Between their teeth they carried long, sharp, curved knives. They were pre-eminently throat cutters. Silent as cats, they crawled through thistle-filled gaps among the speckled rocks in the eerie blackness of desert nights when hyenas were howling. Then they would fall on enemy outposts, leave behind them a dozen throat-slashed corpses, and depart as silently as they came. The tactics of the Goums added immensely to the aura of mystery which enveloped the 9th as its regiments seemed to materialize out of darkness and vanish into darkness again.

60th IR men on hills outside Bizerte on May 7, 1943

60th IR men outside Bizerte, May 7, 1943

No Roads.
General Manton S. Eddy was engaged in moving the division along a 28 mile front through extremely difficult mountain country, with the object of outflanking the Germans and cutting them off on the north and northeast, that is, getting between them and the sea. There were no roads. The maneuver was hampered by almost complete lack of communication. Success required that an entire division be moved around the flank of a hostile army without detection.Complete silence, invisibility and Goum operations on sentries were essential. Eddy was completely successful. The campaign was over when the 60th Infantry marched into Bizerte on the afternoon of May 7th.

On To Sicily.
The scene shifts to Sicily. There the wearer of the Octofoil arrived in time for the 39th Infantry Regiment to take the desperately held mountain city of Troina, the key to Messina. But history will record the “march of the 4000 silent men”, Colonel Frederick de Rohan’s 60th Infantry Regiment, as probably the most colorful episode of the Sicilian campaign. For nearly 100 hours the regiment moved over mountain slopes thick with thorn bushes and across stony mountaintops capped with thin clouds in what essentially was absolute silence. It was a masterly tactical move to cut the one road supplying the city of Randazzo from the northeast. The movement required that 4000 men with all essential supplies and equipment slide through inhabited mountain country without being seen or heard. The march covered approximately 40 miles. Where short roads were marked on the map, it was necessary to avoid them. About the closest approach to roads which could be followed at any time were goat tracks. Only a minimum of equipment was carried; one blanket and a few rations by each man. Nights were bitterly cold in the high ravines and among the clouds. All progress was at night. A brilliant full moon made concealment much more difficult. At one time, Colonel de Rohan recounts whimsically, the whole strange line was led most appropriately by a “ghost,” a role filled by Capt. W. H. Barnwell of Burlington, North Carolina. The night was very cold. Barnwell preceded the leading company by a few yards, an olive-drab blanket draped over his head. Clouds gave the blanket an ectoplasmic appearance. The captain took slow, measured steps, so as not to knock loose a stone. The idea that the line was led by a supernatural figure seems to have come simultaneously to everybody.

Considered a Miracle.
Achievement of nearly complete silence of 4000 marching men for four days and nights is still considered a tactical miracle. The men had to move without disturbing the scenery familiar from childhood to all the local farmers, and also without disturbing the ordinary rural sounds, as the singing of the birds in the bushes or the tinkling of cowbells. The latter, by the way, were a serious problem. A favorite ruse of German scouts in the mountains was to wear cowbells.  Thus any noise made while moving through the bushes would be attributed to cattle. Day after day the soldiers, hidden in brush patches, had to listen to those tinkling bells without daring to shoo the cows away, and not knowing whether they were bovines or Boche. Before starting, every bit of equipment was examined to make sure there were no loose parts which would rattle.

Selected scouts went ahead of each platoon, feeling every step to make sure of not breaking a twig of kicking a loose stone. The others, in single file, stepped precisely in the footsteps of the scouts. All orders were in low whispers. Hardest of all were the necessary halts through more than 12 hours of daylight. The men, already cramped by the cold of the mountain night, had to crouch in cramped positions, almost motionless. Wagon wheels were wrapped in Army blankets. Colonel de Rohan was forced to use relentless discipline. Never once was there the slightest suspicion, in this hostile countryside, that a reinforced regiment was passing through. Perhaps never before or again did the 9th Infantry Division demonstrate so well its specialty. After the fall of Messina, the anonymity which had veiled the mystery division since it landed in Africa, had lifted for a few days. There was no other rift in the blackout until Normandy.

Normandy Hedgerows.
In the Gethsemane of Normandy hedgerows, the Ninth Division reached true greatness. For nearly a month the American 1st Army clung to a barely tenable toehold, for the most part less than ten miles deep. With the single exception of the 1st Division, General Eddy’s men were the only American battle seasoned veterans in France. They were given the all-important job of cutting the Cotentin Peninsula and taking Cherbourg.

47th Infantry Regiment Hedgerow warfare

47th Infantry Regiment hedgerow warfare.

The 47th and 39th Infantry Regiments swept into the old port city from the west and north in one of the most brilliant military maneuvers of the war. General Eddy was his own leading scout. Several hundred yards ahead of his own advanced troops, the 9th Infantry Division Commander crawled over the slate roof of a French house to survey below him the red-roofed Villa Maurice, set in a rose garden on a hilltop. Here, according to intelligence reports, was the command post of the German general, Von Schlieben, commander of the city.

General Von Schlieben

General Von Schliebenand General Manton S. Eddy.

Smoked Out.
Seeing no signs of life, General Manton S. Eddy and a couple of newspaper reporters went through every room of the elaborately furnished villa.All the time Von Schlieben and 800 men were hidden in the tunneled hill under their feet. Two hours later, the Krauts were driven out when tank destroyers were drawn up before the tunnel entrance and poured in fire from three-inch guns.

Germans in Cherbourg surrender to 9th Infantry Division men

Germans in Cherbourg surrender to 9th Infantry Division men.

The Germans came crawling out with white flags, and soldiers of the 39th Infantry Regiment entered to find themselves amidst stores of fur coats, silks, cosmetics and cognac beyond their wildest dreams. For a few days after Cherbourg the men of the Notorious Ninth were the most publicized division in the American Army. General Eddy was hailed as probably the country’s most brilliant division commander. Then once again the Octofoil wearing infantrymen marched forward into the cloud of anonymity, not to emerge until the end of the war.

The Ninth Division was then part of the infantry spearhead of the St. Lo – Perriers breakthrough. It skirted south of Paris and raced across France. The 60th Infantry Regiment crossed the Belgian border, the first Allied troops by twelve hours to bivouac under the black, gold and red of the hungry little kingdom.

Through the hole in the Siegfried Line punched by the 3rd Armored Division at Roetgen, the regiments of the “Avenging Ninth” pushed into the Hurtgen Forest in early autumn. In the pine-scented dusk of the Hurtgen Forest valleys the men of the 9th remained hidden until just before Christmas, out of the darkness filled with swirling snow and the roar of falling waters, the Division again materialized for one of the most dramatic single actions of the war.

Von Rundstedt’s troops had smashed against the thin lines of the 1st Army. Directly in their path was the ill-fated 106th Infantry Division, composed largely of green troops, fresh from the United States. Few of them ever had heard a shot fired in anger. Most of the facts which follow are from the personal recollections of Colonel Rossberger, Von Rundstedt’s chief operations officer. Much nonsense has been written about The Battle of the Bulge and some quite synthetic heroes have emerged from the confused picture.

Colonel George W. Smythe

Colonel George W. Smythe

Feared Colonel Smythe.
We could have succeeded” Colonel Rossberger told me, when I interviewed him in a prison camp, “if it not had been for an American colonel named Smythe. He is the one American officer I would like to meet“. The whole move, he said, had been planned in the minutest detail, but Von Rundstedt had realized from the start that is was a gamble with a slim margin of success. Everything depended on the American 1st Army moving according to classical military tactics.The German commander was fully aware of the green American troops. He also was aware that on the northern flank based around the picturesque little town of Monschau, was the 9th Infantry Division.

By now they already carried the nickname “Notorious Ninth”. Von Rundstedt knew the record of the ghost division. A frontal attack against these troops, even with a greatly superior force, was unthinkable. But once the center of the 1st Army was cut to pieces, the textbooks called for a tactical withdrawal of this division to straighten the line. Such a withdrawal would have given the Germans control of the vital Monschau-Roetgen-Eupen highway as a supply road. With plenty of gasoline, Von Rundstedt probably would have been able to push his tanks into Liege where the 1st Army headquarters were established.

But, the German troops never reached the road. In their path stood the 47th Infantry Regiment, the conquerors of Cherbourg. The commanding officer, Colonel George W. Smythe, who had been one of West Point’s outstanding football players two decades before, was ordered to co-ordinate all American troops in the sector for a last-ditch stand. He had no information of the depth or strength of enemy penetration. Through the winter forest, Colonel Smythe set out in a jeep with only a driver and radio operator. Stopped at the outskirts of Eupen, he was warned that he could not get a mile east of the town before he would be killed or captured. “At least I will know where the krauts are then” he said. He found his radio was tuned in the wrong channel, so that he was completely out of touch with Major General Louis A. Craig, who had succeeded General Manton S. Eddy in command of the 9th Infantry Division. Soon he ran into roads clogged with American troops retreating towards Eupen. The night was dark and filled with swirling snow – typical 9th Division background.

Organizes Troops.
Colonel Smythe quickly organized these retreating troops, mostly leaderless and terrorized, around the nucleus of his own regiment. He simply took over command of all American soldiers in the area. That night he organized the equivalent of a full division from stragglers. It became known popularly as the “47th Division”. The American stragglers wanted to flight; instinctively they sought a leader. Colonel Smythe learned from prisoners that German paratroopers had been dropped behind him. This demanded extreme measures. He ordered all suspicious persons encountered on the roads seized and all cars stopped. Scouts were ordered out in the darkness to pick up all American stragglers. Sergeants and Corporals organized companies. Wire men, following closely behind them, set up a communications system. All this was accomplished in pitch darkness, in densely wooded terrain. Still there was no contact with the enemy in force. A German paratrooper lurking in the woods was shot. Before dying, he revealed that a force of 300 had been dropped nearby. Strong combat patrols were sent out to find them.

At dawn, Colonel Smythe had a fairly clear picture of the situation. The main German force had penetrated within 1000 yards of the foremost new American position set up during the night. The enemy was advancing through a dense pine forest. There was no longer any question but that the vital supply road was one of his main objectives. Colonel Smythe organized defensive positions which made the attainment of this objective impossible.
Heavy artillery batteries poured shells on German concentration points. The batteries were supplied for the first time with the new proximity fuse shells from the United States, just released for use of ground forces. The slaughter in the swirling snow was such as never before had been known in battle. The enemy paratroopers were mopped up in groups in the forest where they wandered in confusion.

Distorted Stories.
In three days it was all over. By that time, American newspapers were printing their distorted stories about The Bulge. Actually, Colonel Rossberger says Von Rundstedt never dreamed of success after that. His only object was to save what he could from the debacle.

After The Battle of the Bulge, the Notorious Ninth moved over the rain soaked Cologne plain to another rendezvous with destiny. In a foggy late afternoon, a task force of the 9th Armored Division, swooping down the valley of the Ahr, came to the little pilgrimage city of Remagen. There, in front of the armored cars, lay an intact railroad bridge across a broad river. It apparently was unguarded. Within the next half hour, an infantry company, charging across with fixed bayonets while delayed dynamite charges exploded around them, had seized the Ludendorff Bridge. For the first time since Napoleon, soldiers of an invading army had crossed the Rhine in combat.

The Ludendorff bridge at Remagen

The Ludendorff bridge at Remagen

Blackest Night of all.
Then came one of the blackest nights imaginable. Cold rain fell in sheets. Mud was hub deep. Communications back to 1st Army’s 5th Corp at Bad Neuenahr was almost entirely by jeep-riding couriers. Capture of the bridge was unexpected. But as soon as the news was received, it was appreciated that this was potentially the greatest stroke of fortune of the entire war. If a bridgehead could be held on the east bank of the Rhine, thousands of American lives, which would be sacrificed in a forced crossing over ponton bridges, might be saved. However, the 3rd Corps commander, General John Milliken, realized also that the enemy would make extraordinary efforts to retrieve an incomprehensible tactical blunder.

Deployed southward from Bad Godesberg, taken by the 39th Infantry Regiment, at an average distance of about fifteen miles from the west bank of the river, were the three regiments of the 9th Infantry Division. Closest to Remagen was Colonel Smythe’s 47th Infantry Regiment. It was ordered to cross the bridge, hold the little town of Erpel, which lay under a towering mountainside, and proceed immediately to enlarge the bridgehead north and south. Meanwhile the 39th and 60th Infantry Regiments were started in the direction of Remagen. This night rises in memory now as perhaps the weirdest of the war, with the 9th Infantry Division in its customary role of an avenging spirit materializing out of solid darkness. In ghostly silence, rain-soaked troops marched through ankle-deep mud. The 47th Infantry Regiment, with its supply train and cannon companies, poured across the Rhine into Erpel. They moved along strange trails. Maps were few and inaccurate. Flashlights were prohibited. Orders were given in whispers.

Over the Rhine.
By noon next day the regiment was over the Rhine, clinging tenaciously to the east bank under perhaps the fiercest artillery bombardment and jet-plane strafing experienced in the war. The Germans tried desperately to redeem their fatal blunder. Before the day was over, Nazi engineer officers who had failed to blow the bridge died before a firing squad. Every enemy resource in the area was mobilized the drive the 47th “Raiders” back across the Rhine. But Colonel Smythe’s men held, despite heavy losses. Within 24 hours, the 39th and 60th Infantry Regiments had joined them, after crossing the tottering bridge under heavy artillery fire. Then General Craig moved his headquarters to Erpel and became temporary commander of all American troops across the Rhine. The infantry regiments started driving immediately north and south to enlarge the bridgehead for other 1st Army divisions.

“Erpel Hearts”.
The Ninth sustained some of the heaviest losses of the war during those black nights when they were under a constant rain of death. The men still call the Purple Heart wound decorations “Erpel Hearts”.

It was during the next few days, pushing mile by hard-fought mile eastward into the Rhineland hills, that the 39th Infantry Regiment, in which the already semi-legendary Paddy Flint had been succeeded in command by Colonel Van H. Bond, introduced a new kind of night fighting. They started capturing towns by artificial moonlight. Beams of giant searchlights were projected through the solid blackness of the forests. The effect was like that of a full moon behind low clouds. The whole battle area was covered with a weird white light in which the soldiers could see dimly 100 feet ahead.

Beyond Erpel, the role of the 9th Infantry Division as the American Army’s mystery division ended. It moved northward and occupied the headwaters of the Ruhr River until the Ruhr Valley pocket was closed. Then, driving eastward and clearing the enemy resistance pockets out of the Harz Mountains, it effected a junction with the Russians at the Elbe.

Following V-E Day, Victory in Europe, the Ninth settled down on the Danube as one of the American occupation divisions. The ranks were filled largely with recruits recently arrived from home. Veterans of the “Avenging ghosts of the Ninth” were transferred to return to the United States.

The “Notorious Ninth” Infantry Division, the “Old Reliables“, surely earned their nicknames during outstanding performance during World War II.

Advertisements