Second Infantry Division veteran recalls D-Day and liberation of Europe

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Private John Colacchio. Source: John Colacchio

12 September 2015 | Celebration, Florida — The 7th of December 1941 was the day the United States was shockingly and brutally brought fully into World War II. “I was living at home when Pearl Harbor in the Territory of Hawaii was attacked,” stated John Colacchio. Now, after more than seven decades have elapsed, this signal event and those that followed remain fresh in his mind. As a member of the 2nd Infantry Division (aka ‘Indianheads’) John would participate in the invasion and liberation of Europe.

In late 1941 the U.S. Army was, some would say woefully and neglectfully, unprepared and equipped to fight a large scale conflict such as that broiling on the European continent. The attacks on U.S. Armed Forces bases on and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, jolted the United States which were being governed by the liberal (Democrat) party.

John by tent in Wales. Source: John Colacchio

Overnight nearly every loyal American wanted to aid the effort to defeat aggressors Imperial Japan and fascist Nazi Germany and Italy. Americans began to flock to military recruiting centers. Alternatively, millions of others began seeking employment in factories producing war materiel for the burgeoning military, and a number of individuals who were unable to pass the stringent military induction physicals were additionally joining the Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, and/or becoming Air Raid Wardens. Others began selling War Bonds or organizing scrap metal drives to collect materiel for conversion into war materiel.

How did John Colacchio come to join the U.S. Army? John said, “I was in the second batch of 18-year-olds to be drafted. I received the obligatory ‘Dear John’ letter in March 1943.” Afterward, “I was sent to Camp Croft in South Carolina for basic training and upon completion assigned to the general infantry.”

John Colacchio (L), William Commerford (C) & William McChesney. Photo: John Stemple

John Colacchio (L), William Commerford (C) & William McChesney (R).
Photo: John Stemple

Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to Mr. Colacchio, the 2nd Infantry Division was transferred from Fort Sam Houston to Ireland in October 1943 in preparation for the planned allied invasion of Nazi (National Socialist) German-occupied France.

RMS Mauretania II in wartime grey livery. Photo: Ministry of Defence

RMS Mauretania II in wartime grey livery. Photo: Ministry of Defence

“We were transported aboard Royal Merchant Ship (RMS) Mauretania. I recall a stormy voyage across the Atlantic and we finally disembarked at Liverpool, England,” recalled John Colacchio.

From there the men were transported across the Irish Sea to British Northern Ireland and County Down and County Armagh.

2nd Infantry Division logo.

2nd Infantry Division logo.

“It was there that I joined up with the 2nd Infantry Division and 38th Regiment,” stated John. The Second Infantry Division, which was also commonly known as the ‘Indianheads’ had inherited the nickname from the division’s World War I insignia. It seems that at some point during the Great War an American soldier and truck driver had painted an emblem of a Native American onto a Second Infantry Division truck.

When asked about the residents of Northern Ireland, John replied, “The citizenry were hard working people. They were all cordial, as were the British Army soldiers we encountered. Even social events and dances were held for our entertainment.”

However, the locale was simply a respite. Mr. Colacchio related the following: “Soon were put on a train to Newry, which was some 30 minutes distant.”

John at Bournemouth (1943). Source: John Colacchio

John at Bournemouth (1943).
Source: John Colacchio

What were conditions like in Northern Ireland? John said, “The Irish weather was cold and rainy and the ground boggy, which presented problems because our rigorous training took place in soccer fields.” In fact, John Colacchio said, “Due to the lack of suitable space various and other impediments to training, much was accomplished by small or individual units.”

Occasionally the Indianheads were given a pass and able to visit nearby Belfast or frequent pubs in close proximity to the Newry base. “Although food in the pubs was great,” John explained, “The food in the camp was also good.”

John and fellow members of B Company saw the already legendary General George Patton at the Mall of Armagh, on 1 April 1944. John recalled that “Patton was wearing his trademark Colt .45 revolvers.” With D-Day in the foreseeable future the general told the assembled division, “Give them hell!” Afterward, John added, “Patton wished us luck.”

With the advent of spring 1944 the training regimen increased. In the middle of April the 2nd relocated to Wales in preparation for D-Day embarkations. The men were transported via railroad and troopships and the outfit was spread about in South Wales, with divisional headquarters located at Tenby. “We lived in tents,” stated John.

As the weather improved vehicles were waterproofed in preparation for the channel crossing. The higher command staff learned, although the troops did not, that the 2nd Infantry Division would follow the 1st and 29th Divisions ashore on Omaha Beach. The 2nd’s mission was to therefore reinforce the 1st and 29th, assist them in securing Omaha Beach, and then attack inland.

After training in Northern Ireland and Wales from October 1943 to June 1944, the Indianheads were poised and ready to cross the English Channel. During the final days of May the 2nd Infantry Division occupied final staging areas around the Bristol Channel, and in early June components began loading onto transports, Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) and other vessels.

“On June 4, 1944, we embarked upon a troop carrier in Swansea, Wales,” stated Mr. Colacchio. “The ship was packed with soldiers, and, in fact, it was pretty tight quarters,” he added. Nevertheless, he said, “The weather window was holding and the crossing was calm.”

Ships and other craft transporting the 2nd Infantry Division steamed down the Bristol Channel, passing around Land’s End, and steamed into the English Channel. Everyone knew that debarkation would be on the European continent, but most of the men were uncertain exactly where that landing would take place.

USS Texas. Photo: USN

USS Texas.
Photo: USN

Also on course were the bombardment ships of Bombardment Group 124.9, led by Rear Admiral Carleton F. Bryant, U.S. Navy, and the old battleships USS Arkansas and USS Texas, and ten U.S. Navy destroyers. Royal Navy ships, including the light cruiser HMS Glasgow, destroyer HMS Melbreak, escort destroyers HMS Talybont and HMS Tanatside, and the Free French Navy (Forces navales françaises libres) heavy cruiser Montcalm and light cruiser Georges Leygues completed the major units of 124.9.

USS Arkansas fires at German positions.
Photo USN

On the night of 5-6 June some of the soldiers, including John Colacchio, slept on deck.” With the dawn of 6th June 1944 Bombardment Group 124.9 began its prelanding bombardment of the beaches where the American forces would be landing. “It was a constant pounding,” explained John. “On D-Day the weather was cool and cloudy,” stated Mr. Colacchio.

On that day Major General Walter Robertson officially assumed command of the 2nd Infantry Division.

William McChesney and his P-47D 'Black Magic'. Source: William McChesney

William McChesney (L) and his P-47D.
Source: William McChesney

One of the pilots going about his business early on 6 June was William McChesney, a P-47D Thunderbolt pilot flying with the 365th Fighter Group, 388th Fighter Squadron. A flight of the 388th strafed Red Sector on Omaha Beach with their .50-caliber machine guns.

Not knowing one another during that era, decades later Bill McChesney and John Colacchio would discover that their lives were in close proximity during the Battle of France and become friends.

That night Luftwaffe (Nazi Germany’s air force) planes attacked the assembled shipping. “We stayed off the coast until 7 June. We were on the ship for a day and a half, and we did not know where we were,” explained John.

Finally, the bewildered and scared men of the 2nd Infantry Division received orders and direct instructions: John related that “June 7, 1944, [D-Day Plus 1] dawned cloudy, and we were instructed to climb into Higgins Boats,” stated Mr. Colacchio. The helmeted men, with rifles and packs on their backs, descended the rope ladders to the waiting and bobbing Higgins Boats (‘Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel’ or ‘LCVP’). As the small wooden craft wallowed in the saltwater swells the “soldiers could see barrage balloons floating above many ships,” which would hopefully deter dive-bombing attacks by Luftwaffe aircraft.

Loaded Higgins Boat on D-Day. Photo: US Navy photo

Loaded Higgins Boat on D-Day. Photo: US Navy photo

As soon as each Higgins Boat was loaded, the U.S. Navy or U.S. Coast Guard coxswain in command steered the landing craft away from the ship. “We were ferried to Omaha Beach,” reported John.

Within the cramped Higgins Boat, as it pitched and rolled in the waves, John and his mates faced their uncertain and immediate future as the craft steadily approached Omaha Beach. Between the sounds of gunfire one could hear the sound of water produced as the hull of the LCVP sliced through the waves. The Indianheads were not just cold due to the cool climate, because uncertainty and fear also contributed.

Corporal John Preston, a Staff Correspondent for Yank magazine, also recorded the spectacle as witnessed by him and thousands of others, including Private John Colacchio, in a report titled Normandy Notes. He wrote:

Messerschmitt Bf 109E-4 Trop. Photo: Australian War Memorial photo 29670

Messerschmitt Bf 109E-4 Trop.
Photo: Australian War Memorial photo 29670

“D-Day for my outfit was a long, dull 24-hour wait. We spent the whole day marooned in the middle of the English Channel, sunbathing, sleeping and watching the actions miles away on the shore through binoculars. We could hear the quick roars and see the greenish-white flashes of light as Allied battleships and cruisers shelled the pillboxes and other German installations on the beach. On D-Day-plus-one we took off for shore. Four Messerschmitts dove down to strafe the landing craft as we headed in, but a Navy gunner drove them off with a beautiful burst of ack-ack. The broad flat beachhead was a scene of well-organized chaos. Trucks, bulldozers and jeeps drove over the dunes in steady streams. The jeeps had the worst of it. A lot of them were stranded the minute they took off from the landing craft. All the drivers could do was to wait helplessly on the beach for the nest low tide. There were hundreds of prisoners waiting on the beach to be taken off in LSTs and transported to England. . . There were still plenty of dogfights overhead the day we landed. Once a Thunderbolt pilot bailed out right over us. His plane came screaming down, hit the water and burst into flames a few feet away from the line of trucks. Out at sea there were still mine explosions.”

The Second Infantry Division was landed on Omaha Beach. The 38th Infantry Regiment was one of the first divisions ashore and to move beyond the beaches. The Second infantry Division short history booklet titled From D+1 to 105 records that “[I]n the teeth of vicious, accurate enemy shellfire which blanketed the shoreline, the Indian Head boys hit the beach at St. Laurent-sur-Mer.”

Wermacht sniper aiming Karabiner-98k. Source: German Federal Archives.

Wermacht sniper aiming Karabiner 98k. Source: German Federal Archives.

The 2nd Infantry Division tried to organize on the beach. From D+1 to 105 states, “Preassigned assembly areas, when eventually located in the confusion of battle, were packed with snipers.

2nd Infantry Division troops file up the bluff from Easy Red sector Omaha-Beach D-Day plus 1 - June 7, 1944. LOC image 47832-004-557D0F4B

2nd Infantry Division troops file up the bluff from Easy Red sector Omaha-Beach D-Day plus 1 – June 7, 1944.
LOC image 47832-004-557D0F4B

Before moving in, one regiment was forced to blast out a company of Germans. Vehicles, infantry supporting weapons and communications equipment remained aboard craft off the beach. Three days were to pass before these vital supplies began rolling inland. Communications were established with salvaged wire found on the beach and abandoned enemy equipment. The only vehicle in the division was a jeep loaned by another unit to Division Commander Major General Walter M. Robertson. By midnight the CP [Command Post] had been established and assembly areas largely cleared of enemy. The silence of darkness was shattered by heavy anti-aircraft fire when German planes zoomed overhead.”

Those Wehrmacht (Nazi Germany’s army) snipers who still remained in the area were located and killed the next day.

Although still largely lacking automatic and other grenades, weapons and adequate communications equipment, a 2nd Infantry Division regiment attacked the town of Trevieres on 9 June 1944. Supporting artillery units fired rounds into Trevieres, which was defended by an infantry battalion that had been ordered to ‘fight to the last man.’

Moving across the Aure River on 10th June the men encountered persistent and accurate German rifle and machine gun fire which held up many of the Indianheads. John remembered what a tough fight it was: “Supply lines were stretched or non-existent at that point, and therefore during the assault ammunition had to be carried by soldiers across a river and our” wounded were removed on the return trip across the waterway.” As a result of these difficulties Trevieres was not secured until the next day when some machine guns finally arrived from the rear area.

With the liberation of Trevieres the Americans were struggling forward in the face of determined resistance from the Wehrmacht. By foot and truck the men moved toward their objectives. Rain and mud intermittently slowed their progress but the weather never stopped the momentum.

The 2nd Infantry Division proceeded to prepare, after three weeks of fortifying their positions, for an assault and to secure Hill 192. It was a key enemy strongpoint on the road to Saint-Lô.

Lockheed P-38s. Photo: USAF

Lockheed P-38s.
Photo: USAF

John vividly remembered seeing Lockheed P-38 Lightnings bombing Wehrmacht artillery and fortified positions around St. Lo. “I saw one Lightning get hit hard by anti-aircraft fire. He must have crashed,” said Mr. Colacchio.

Commanding General Walter M. Robertson finally gave the order to take Hill 192. On 11 July the 38th Infantry Regiment under the command of Colonel Ralph Wise Zwicker, and in conjunction with the 9th and the 23rd regiments the battle began at 0545 hours. Using an artillery concept termed a “rolling barrage” developed in World War I and, after the expenditure of some 25,000 rounds of high explosive and other shells fired by eight artillery battalions, the hill was taken.

Burnt out Panther Ausf G Battle of the Bulge. Photo: US Army

Burnt out Panther Ausf G Battle of the Bulge.
Photo: US Army

The Division was on the defensive until 26 July and afterward fighting through the hedgerows of the Normandy bocage commenced. John stated that the going was slow: “We had to take each and every hedgerow.” The Germans would ambush us from behind a hedgerow and then retreat after inflicting casualties. “Wehrmacht tanks, many of them Panthers with some Tigers, utilized the protection and camouflage provided by the obstacles,” he said.

M-10 tank destroyers in central France - August 1944. Photo PD USGOV-MILITARY ARMY

M-10 tank destroyers in central France – August 1944.
Photo: PD USGOV-MILITARY ARMY

American forces, largely relying upon Sherman medium tanks and M-10 tank destroyers, had their hands full as indicated on the TanksEncyclopedia.com page titled M4 Sherman.

M-4 Sherman with hedgerow cutter in France 1944 - US NARA

M-4 Sherman with hedgerow cutter in France 1944 – US NARA

The webpage states the following: “The [Shermans’] 76 mm (3 inches) frontal glacis just couldn’t stop the most recent German AT [antitank] guns, not to mention the sides, just 50 mm (1.97 inches) thick. The Tiger proved especially difficult to engage. The tactic consisted of out-running and flanking the Tiger and hitting it in the weaker rear or side.” Notably, Allied air forces fighter-bomber attacks on the German armor proved invaluable and expedited the advances into enemy held territory.

A Tiger captured in in 1943. Photo: US Army

A Tiger captured in in 1943.
Photo: US Army

The 2nd Infantry Division afterward advanced across the Vire River to take the French town of Tinchebray on 15 August 1944. The division then raced toward Brest, France which was a heavily defended port fortress where German U-Boats were based. John noted that “Allied bombers would bomb the submarine pens with bunker-buster bombs in efforts to damage or sink Kriegsmarine (Nazi Germany’s navy) U-Boats moored within the protective concrete pens.”

September brought yet another tough battle. After a fierce 39 days of fighting the 2nd Infantry Division, forced to fight in streets and alleys, finally liberated Brest on 18th September 1944.

Once mop-up operations were complete in the Normandy region, the Second Infantry Division turned west and moved forward across France. The Indianheads took a brief rest from 19th–26th September 1944, but on 29th September 1944 the Indianheads moved into defensive positions around St. Vith, Belgium. The Second Infantry Division entered Germany on 3 October 1944 and on 11 December 1944 was ordered to attack and seize the Roer River dams from their basing areas in the vicinity of St. Vith, Belgium.

After penetrating the famous and feared Siegfried Line, the Second Infantry Division was attacked by forces under the command of Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt. The Wehrmacht hit hard within the Ardennes forest, and the mid-December offensive forced the Indianheads to withdraw to tenable positions near Elsenborn Ridge east of Elsenborn, Belgium. The desperate and intense struggle would become known infamously as the Battle of the Bulge. John recalled, “It was very cold. Fighting in the frigid temperatures and snow was not easy. In addition to the German we were fighting frostbite and exposure.” Some American units were overrun and captured, but, despite the determined German onslaught, the Indianheads held their positions and prevented the enemy from reaching roads that led to Liege and Antwerp.

A Hawker Typhoon. Photo: RAF

A Hawker Typhoon.
Photo: RAF

Again, Allied airpower proved decisive. With the advent of clearing weather swarms of fighter-bombers, including U.S. Army Air Forces Thunderbolts and Royal Air Force Typhoons, relentlessly pounded German positions and armor. Finally, on 6 February 1945 the Second Infantry Division began the pursuit fleeing Wehrmacht units.

In February 1945 the Second infantry Division attacked, recaptured lost ground, and then on 4th March seized Gemünd, Germany. The Rhine River was reached on 9 March. The Indianheads then advanced south to take Bad Breisig, Germany over 10–11 March and to guard the Remagen Bridge between from 12 to 20 March.

The Second Infantry Division crossed the Rhine River on 21st March and advanced to Hadamar and Limburg an der Lahn on 28 March. “Crossing the Rhine was a milestone,” reported Mr. Colacchio.

The Indianheads crossed the Weser River at Veckerhagen from 6th to 7th April and took Göttingen on 8 April 1945. A bridgehead was established across the Saale River on 14 April and Merseburg was captured on 15th April.

On 18 April the Indianheads took Leipzig, mopped up in the area, and established an outpost at the Mulde River. Those Second Infantry Division units that had crossed the river were withdrawn on 24 April and from 1-3 May relocated to positions along the German-Czechoslovakia border near Schonsee and Waldmünchen.

As the Indianheads moved across Germany in early April 1945 the German town of Hadamar was taken. John remembered that within this town there was a psychiatric where thousands of men, women and children were killed between 1941 and March 1945. It was learned that the facility had operated as part of the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ program. The encounter was a first shock to John and his mates. There would be more to come.

During April 1945 the Indianheads entered Leipzig-Schönefeld, which was a subsidiary of the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. In early April the SS transferred and/or many of the internees to prevent them from falling into Allied hands and therefore by the time the 2nd Infantry Division arrived on 14 April only about 200 prisoners remained in the camp. Personnel of the 2nd Infantry Division arranged for proper burial of the dead and collected evidence to be used in the future prosecution of the German offenders.

In the middle of April 1945 the Indianheads liberated approximately a thousand prisoners from the labor camp at Spergau/Zöschen. As they had done at Leipzig-Schönefeld, Second Infantry Division soldiers interviewed the prisoners in an effort to identify and locate the most brutal Nazi SS personnel and to collect evidence for future war crimes prosecutions.

In the waning days of the war in Europe the Indianheads were transferred to Patton’s Third Army and the Second Infantry Division crossed over into Czechoslovakia on 4 May 1945. The Indianheads then attacked in the direction of Pilsen and assaulted the city on Victory in Europe (VE) Day. It was here that the 2nd Infantry Division encountered Communist Soviet troops from the east.

John in August 1945. Source: John Colacchio

John in August 1945.
Source: John Colacchio

John Colacchio lived to tell the Second Infantry Division saga. Sadly, many of his fellow Indianheads were not so lucky. During the months of fighting Second Infantry Division casualties included more than 3,000 killed in action and in excess of 400 perished as a result of wounds.

On 20 July 1945 the Second Infantry Division returned to the Port of New York, and the Indianheads arrived back at Camp Swift at Bastrop, Texas, on 22 July 1945. Once home, the Second Infantry Division commenced training designed to prepare them to participate in the scheduled invasion of Japan. The Indianheads were still at Camp Swift on Victory over Japan (VJ) Day.

John (left) and Bill in France - 2014. Source: John Colacchio

John (left) and Bill in France – 2014.
Source: John Colacchio

In June 2014 John Colacchio joined William McChesney and hundreds of other battle of France veterans as they returned to be honored by French citizens for their service on D-Day. The Americans were welcomed and rightfully treated as heroes wherever they traveled.

For Mr. Colacchio the war was a terrible and unforgettable experience. Moments of sheer terror and fear were interjected into a monotonous routine of marching through dirt, mud, fields or riding in the back of trucks as they pursued the Wehrmacht.

John Colacchio is a living testament to, and a member of, what many journalists and historians deem to be the “greatest generation.” And to them we of subsequent generations say, “Thank you for your service and sacrifices. Without you evil may have prevailed.”

Legion d’Honneur.

Legion d’Honneur.

In 2014  John Colacchio was awarded the Legion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor for U.S. veterans), France’s highest distinction for American servicemembers who risked their lives on behalf of France.

______________

The authors (John Stemple and William Commerford) thank John Colacchio and William McChesney for their assistance and cooperation and assistance during the preparation of this article. The textual content is based upon a series of interviews between October 2014 and April 2015.

Suggested Viewings

The History of 2nd Infantry Division

2nd Infantry Division in Brest

2nd Infantry Division in World War II, Europe, 1944, Combat Film DVD

Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley visit US 2nd Infantry Division in France

The True Glory: From D-Day to the Elbe (Digitally Restored)

WWII Retaking France 1 of 3 Rare Color Film 1944

WWII Retaking France 2 of 3 Rare Color Film

Sources & Suggested Readings

2nd Infantry Division
http://www.armystudyguide.com/content/Unit_history/Division_history/2nd-infantry-division.shtml

2nd Infantry Division
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2nd_Infantry_Division_%28United_States%29

Second Indianhead Division Association
http://2ida.org/index.htm

2nd Infantry Division NCOs use history’s lessons to prepare for today’s challenges
http://ncojournal.dodlive.mil/2014/08/05/2nd-infantry-division-ncos-use-historys-lessons-to-prepare-for-todays-challenges/

D-Day Plus 1
http://www.oldmagazinearticles.com/D-Day-Plus-One_history#.VUKy_ZMfDIU

From D+1 to 105
http://www.lonesentry.com/gi_stories_booklets/2ndinfantry/

History of the 2nd Infantry Division:
http://secondinfantry.com/history.php

Luftwaffe during D-day/Normandy campaign
http://www.feldgrau.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=26632

Omaha Beach – Assault Force ‘O’
http://americandday.org/D-Day/Force_O-Order_of_battle.html

The 2nd Infantry Division
http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10006133