You will never convice a surviving member of the late Wehrmacht that lightning can’t strike twice.
He knows it can, because he and his fellow Nazi soldiers were struck again and again by the 78th (“Lightning”) Infantry Division.
It was in the morning mist of March 8, 1945, that the 78th, made up chiefly of men from Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York, struck its most brilliant blow. While tracer bullets ripped the air in wild zig-zag patterns, shells splashed against the abutments, and flying metal ricocheted off steel girders, Lightning Doughboys crossed the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen—and earned the honor of being the first infantry division troops to span the Rhine.
The crossing marked an important turning point in the war against Germany. The “impregnable” Siegfried Line had been torn open; the German defenses along the Roer had been smashed, and the stage was set for the final, crushing blow of the Allied offensive.
It was fitting that the 78th—the Division which, by its capture of Schwammenauel Dam, had made possible the great drive to the Rhine—was the first to cross the Nazis’ last great natural obstacle.
The capture of the dam played a tremendous part in enabling the Allies to move onto the offensive after Rundstedt’s mighty counteroffensive had failed. Its 22,000,000,000 gallons of water, once unleashed by the German demolitions, would be sufficient not only to submerge and destroy all the towns along the Roer from Heimbach to Doermund, but to sweep away like matchsticks men and equipment in a river-crossing operation. Its capture was imperative.
The 78th took the dam, but only after one of the fiercest battles of the war. The attack was launched in mid-winter, with the men ploughing through waist-deep snowdrifts. Fortified positions and pillboxes studded the path to the dam. The Infantrymen worked 100 yards behind the artillery as it smacked at some of the heaviest fortifications in Germany. The 78th Doughs worked from town to town, and the fight in each one was the same. They moved from hedgerow to hedgerow, from cellar to cellar, from rubble heap to rubble heap. The final city assaulted was the much-attacked, never captured stronghold of Schmidt. The Lightnings thrust aside their weariness. The prize was only a few miles beyond Schmidt. The Lightnings fought their way through savage fire to the dam. While the fight raged unabated, engineers explored the dam for demolitions, knowing that 22,000,000,000 gallons of water were straining against the structure and that even as they searched a fuse might be burning toward a charge. The dam was taken intact.
Following seizure of the dam, the Division received a commendation from Major General C. R. Huebner, V Corps commander, which stressed the strategic importance of the accomplishment “without which further contemplated winter operations against the enemy on the northern front would have been impossible.”
The Lightnings, who did not go overseas until October 1944, got their first crack at the Germans in early December, when they went in the line nine miles southeast of Aachen. Their first take-off was against the Siegfried Line. Their mission was to take the towns of Bickerath, Rollesbroich, Simmerath, Witzfall, and Kesternich—all lying within the belt of fortifications. By nightfall all but Kesternich had fallen. Three days of furious fighting ensued before this key town capitulated. It was near Kesternich that 70 men of the 310th Regiment were trapped in a cellar. They refused to surrender. Nearly every man in the Division- including cooks and clerks—volunteered to go to their rescue, and one group of cooks made several valiant attempts and almost turned the trick. Finally, a patrol reached the trapped men and got them out.
The 78th was in action only a short time, but the men who wear the lightning on their shoulder proved to the world that they were worthy successors to the men of the 78th in World War I, who performed so brilliantly in the St. Mihiel drive and the greate Meuse-Argonne offensive.
From Fighting Divisions, Kahn & McLemore, Infantry Journal Press, 1945-1946.
There are 12 soldiers of the 78th Infantry Division World War II still listed as missing in action.
|Private First Class Robert T. Cahow 311th Infantry Regiment 12/13/1944|
|Private First Class Francis N. Dempfle 311th Infantry Regiment 12/14/1945|
|Private James L. Dobson 311th Infantry Regiment 01/23/1945|
|Technical Sergeant Robert J. Fitz Gerrell 311th Infantry Regiment 01/30/1945|
|Staff Sergeant Leo J. Husak 309th Infantry Regiment 01/30/1945|
|Private Alex Jackovich 311th Infantry Regiment 02/03/1945|
|Private First Class Edward Kallenberger 310th Infantry Regiment 01/09/1945|
|Sergeant Eugene G. McBride 311th Infantry Regiment 01/30/1945|
|Private Arthur W. Mueller 310th Infantry Regiment 03/24/1945|
|Private First Class Richard H. Quick 103rd Engineer Combat Battalion 12/15/1944|
|Private First Class Oscar E. Sappington 309th Infantry Regiment 01/11/1945|
|Sergeant Paul Shann 309th Infantry Regiment 01/12/1946|
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