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99th author explains significance of North Shoulder years ago

Udenbreth, not Bastogne!

99th author explains

significance of North Shoulder


     When Vernon Swanson, C/395, took the floor for his presentation at the History Round Table at Minneapolis, MN, on Dec. 9, 1999, his mission was to explain the significance of holding the North Shoulder during the Battle of the Bulge.

     Swanson, who is the author of highly acclaimed books on combat in the 99th, is known as a careful researcher. He was a BAR man in a rifle company.

     In the last issue, the comments of 393rd 1st Bn surgeon, Eugene Bauer, M.D., were published. This issue will attempt to share a synopsis of what four other 99th veterans shared during the program.

     Swanson carefully presented the situation in the Ardennes in the fall of 1944. He outlines historical facts.

     He makes it clear that the Battle of the Bulge was won by Americans in the north, not at Bastogne in the south.

     In 1994 Swanson and a dozen other 99th veterans gathered to observe the 50th anniversary of that battle. They did not go to Bastogne, they gathered in Wisserstein near Udenbreth, Germany, where the decisive battle was fought.

     He quoted Field Marshall Montgomery who said the three decisive battle of the Bulge were Elsenborn Ridge (the North Shoulder), St. Vith, and Bastogne.

     Baron Hasso VanManteuffel, commander general of the Fifth Panzer Army, stated, after the Bulge, "We failed because our right flank, near Monschau (North Shoulder), ran its head against the wall."

     John Eisenhower wrote, "The action of the 2nd and 99th Divisions on the Northern Shoulder could well be considered the most decisive battle of the Ardennes campaign."

     Swanson made those points early during his presentation, so the audience would be informed.

     He highlighted the action of the 99th, but also gave credit to the 2nd (Indianhead) and 1st (Big Red One) divisions as major players in the North Shoulder action.

     Swanson illustrated his remarks with overhead projected maps and graphics.

     He told about the so-called "Ghost Front" which was static and quiet. Winter was the worst enemy, with men suffering from frozen feet and hands as well as pneumonia and dysentery. Wounded men, beyond the reach of their buddies, froze to death.

     Also, inhabitants of the area were staunch Germans. That part of Belgium had been a German province until 1919. Swanson pointed out that he was wounded by a German artillery round that had been directed by a Belgian girl.

     Also, the Germans knew the terrain like the back of their hands. They had been back and forth through the area for centuries. It is known as the classic European invasion route to the low countries.

     There were only four American divisions covering the 80-mile Ghost Front. The 99th was responsible for 20 miles, from Monschau to the Losheim Gap.

     Though the 99th was "green" to combat, being online a bit more than a month, the division was well trained.

     He used an overhead projector to display a situation map to illustrate features of the 20-mile front.

     Swanson commented, "One thing that can't be overlain on this map is the miserable, bone chilling, fog shrouded hell of the Ardennes winter."

     He described to his attentive audience that Hitler's plan called for five Rollbahns, A,B,C,D, and E. The 99th Division troops were astride Rollbahns A,B,C, and D . . . directly in the path of the German juggernaut.

     Swanson went into detail about the forest trails that lead from the International Highway toward the twin villages of Krinkelt/Rocherath. The northern trail is known as Schwarzenbruch and the southern trail is known as Weisserstein.

     Dietrich's 277th Volksgrenadier Division was ordered to quickly clear out the 99th troops in that area and converge on the twin villages.

     He also ordered the 12th Volksgrenadier Division and the 3rd Parachute Division to attack through the Losheim Gap and clear 99th troops along Rollbahns C and D. The 12th VG was well equipped and considered to be one of the crack units of the German Army.

     To the north, the 326th and 272nd VG Divisions were to attack on both sides of Monschau and to join with parachute troops. This would block American reinforcements from the north.

     The 99th was to be pushed aside by a superior force of at least 5 to 1 odds, and crushed on the morning of Dec. 16, 1944. This would make way for a flood of SS Panzer troops for a drive to the Meuse River and beyond to Antwerp.

     Swanson then explained how, earlier in December, the first and second battalions of the 395th Regiment and the second battalion of the 393rd Regiment (to be known as the 395th Regimental Combat Team) were ordered (along with two regiments of the 2nd Division) to attack toward the northeast, the Roer River Dams.

     The situation had now changed. The Germans were not aware that only six battalions (about 5,000) men were guarding the eastern line of the 99th Division. The odds were even worse.

     The artillery attack of the morning of Dec. 16, 1944, was described by Swanson as "Armageddon." He said the barrage was so furious that the ground shook and whole trees came down around the dug-in infantrymen.

     "The intensity and duration of the shelling came as a particular surprise in one sector where the last intelligence report indicated that the Germans had only two horse-drawn artillery pieces. After an hour of such non-stop shelling, an American battalion executive officer said, 'Christ, they sure are working those to poor horses to death.'"

     Then came the attack. The initial attack Germans in winter camouflage charged the 99th lines. The initial weight of the attack fell on the 393rd and 394th Regiments, straddling four of the planned routes.

     Swanson describes the scene in graphic detail. It has been suggested that he and others will present a program at the convention in Philadelphia. It would be appreciated.

     American artillery, well dug-in, survived the German barrage but communications wires became spaghetti. This was a major blow, because artillery fire depends on coordination by communication.

     The 1st and 3rd battalions of the 394th, near Losheimergrabben, came under intense attack. The 1st Bn. protected the road toward Bullingen and the 3rd Bn. protected to road toward Honsfeld. Both eventually went toward Malmedy. The roads were absolutely vital to the Germans, and had to be captured. More than 15 miles of tanks, half-tracks, and armored cars were waiting to rush through the breach and dash toward Antwerp.

     He tells how the mortar men of D/394 protected their Losheimergraben crossroads position by firing at an angle of 89 degrees and repelling the powerful German assault a mere 25 feet away.

     The first battalion 394 held its position, but was severely shaken. There were many casualties.

     This story does not do justice to Swanson's presentation. He presents the story in a manner which makes a great impact.

     He tells the story of the valor of the 394th Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon, stationed on a hill overlooking Lanzerath.

     He tells about Hofen, Buchholz Station, and Bullingen. And he presents the story of the German searchlights.

     He also speculated about Kampgruppe Peiper's decision to leave Bullingen and roll toward Malmedy, instead of turning north toward Wirtzfeld and Krinkelt. Such a path would have made it possible for Peiper to surround the bulk of the 99th and 2nd Division artillery and tanks.

     He also explains in detail how Sgt. Vernon McGarity was wounded, then exhibited bravery and leadership which earned him the Medal of Honor, awarded following his release as a prisoner of war.

     Swanson also unfolds the history of the 2nd Division, a story of valor.

     And he vividly portrays the gallant stand made by 3rd Bn. 395 at Hofen.

     Troops then formed to defend Elsenborn Ridge, which is another story. By Dec. 20 the Americans had completed a continuous line of defense on the ridge.

     Swanson said the 99th received its baptism of fire under the worst of combat conditions and experiences. The division suffered more than 2,400 combat casualties.

     He quotes from noted author Stephen Ambrose who summed up the Battle of the Bulge by writing: "between Monschau and Losheim, the 99th Infantry Division, newly arrived in Europe, and the 2nd Infantry Division, which had come ashore at Utah Beach . . . did not simply delay the German advance but stopped it along the critical point of the whole battle, Elsenborn Ridge."


     Elsenborn Ridge has been described as "The Little Round Top" of the Battle of the Bulge.

     Swanson said, "In the vast literature on the Battle of the Bulge, Elsenborn Ridge always yields pride of place to the far more famous action to the south, at Bastogne. Everyone knows about the 101st Airborne at Bastogne, almost no one knows even the names of the 99th and 2nd Infantry Divisions. Yet it was along Elsenborn Ridge, on the first and second day, these two ordinary infantry divisions, largely out of touch with their commands, outnumbered five to one and, worse, outgunned and surprised, managed to stop the Germans in their main line of advance. Dietrich drove his troops mercilessly but could not take it. The Germans never did take the ridge."

     He sums it up by saying Von Rundstedt and Dietrich realized that their offensive no longer had a strategic objective. "Thus did a bunch of junior officers, noncoms, and privates, many of them new to battle, some of them exhausted by six months of continuous warfare, prove that Hitler was wrong to think that the American GI could not fight."

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