11. The Push into Germany – Battle of Heilbronn – VE Day 1945

En français

Saturday November 11, 2017
Battle of Heilbronn Crossing the Jagst

The map above is my guide for today and the simplicity means that I have to do a lot of advance research to find the exact venue of the last major battle for the 100th Infantry Division. 

Crossing the Rhine River in Pursuit

After the liberation of Bitche, the entire Division moved to cross the Rhine River at Ludwigshafen/Mannheim. Allied bombings had destroyed the bridges on the Rhine so a makeshift pontoon boat bridge was hastily constructed to get the troops across and head south towards the Neckar River and Heilbronn.

Company E, 398th Infantry at Hohenstadt. April 5, 1945 the day before the battle.  Captain Thomas H. Garahan is at the left, back to camera

I have been driving on the Autobahn for a few hours and stop along the Neckar River at the train station in Bad Wimpfen because the river and the rail may lead me to the battle site crossing the Jagst River, a tributary of the Neckar.  The three regiments each were positioned to attack the German forces in Heilbronn. The 398th was on the north side of the Jagst River on the morning of April 6, 1945 and their job was to cross the river and encounter the Germans. After more than seventy years have passed, this precise location may be hard to find.

As I drive a few miles south, the Neckar River and the railroad are on my left and I pull off the main road, cross the tracks in the town of Jagstfeld. All of the homes are post-war construction, a straightforward middle class suburb. Heilbronn and the surrounding areas suffered intense allied bombing in the spring of 1945 and had to be rebuilt. As I drive around, either the development is on the battle site or I have over shot the location. I return to the main road and head north with the river and rail on my right. Less than a mile away, the road crosses the Jagst River and a rail line follows the Jagst. I take the next exit on the way to Duttenberg following the river road.  This is bottomland, a flood plain and there is only one building, I have found the battle site.

The facility controls the flow of the Jagst River with a spillway and head gate. Since nothing has been built or changed in the flood plain, the scene is virtually the same as it was on April 6, 1945. The description requires some historical context.

          The eight day long battle of Heilbronn was the equivalent of a Nazi “Last Stand”. The remaining German troops were a determined collection of the remnants of the fiercest military units.  They were backed by considerable quantities of rocket launchers, artillery, and anti-aircraft guns in the direct-fire mode, banded together to defend the city of Heilbronn.

At this location, on the first day of battle the German artillery, machine guns, mortars and rifles were all on a ridge above the rail bed, overlooking the expansive open field adjacent to the riverbank. The entire 100th Infantry Division had been positioned to surround and outflank the enemy.

Tom’s Company E was part of the 398th Regiment, second battalion that crossed the Neckar River in assault boats and prepared to cross the Jagst in the same way. Companies E, F and G were all on the move at 0500, April 6, 1945.

It is Saturday November 11, 2017 and my primary reason to visit Germany is to find this location because of the documented events that occurred. The venue is pristine and preserved from an historical perspective. Once again, it is drizzling, cold, and I stand alone on a footbridge to scan the terrain and merge all I have read with the reality I see.

View from the footbridge, the spillway is upstream on the right and where I am standing is the logical place for the boats to cross.
View from the riverbank after crossing, the German force was hidden in the high ground in the distance above the rail bed and the wide-open field.
View from the riverbank after crossing, some troops opted to run to the right to find cover behind the second rail line but had to cross the open field under fire.

As companies E, F and G attempted to cross, they faced multiple challenges. Company F published a book months after the war while still in Germany, like a yearbook, that captures a firsthand account of what happened that day.

“The morning brought an order to attack; mission, Jagstfeld. In order to cross the Jagst River, it was necessary for the company to carry heavy clumsy assault boats down into a wide, unprotected valley. As the boats splashed into the water, the enemy opened fire.

The company hugged the bank of the river for only a second, and then charged across the seven hundred yards of open ground. The second platoon fell behind the steep railway embankment directly beneath the enemy’s positions. The rest of the company was forced back across the open ground. The body of tall lanky Joe Wharton lay dead on the open field between the second platoon and the banks of the Neckar River. With a rifle in his hand and a German “P38” slung on his hip, Joe had been trying to give support to the boys pinned down under the railroad.”

Lt. Adams

A book about the history of the 398th Regiment written in 1946 describes what Company E and G were facing:

“Captain Garahan of Company E had started across in the second wave and was pinned down by the fierce fire on the river’s edge just after he stepped out of his boat. Since Company E and Company G had selected crossing sites near each other, it was possible for Captain Einsman of Company G who had not crossed yet to build up one continuous firing line.”

Since half of both companies were still on the other side of the river, crossing in the boat was too dangerous. The river was flowing swiftly with spring runoff, too swift to walk across. Fortunately, a member of Company G noticed the water flowing over the spillway and realized that if the head gate could be opened, the water level would drop and they could cross to the other side away from enemy fire.

The head gate on the left was raised that day to allow the remainder of both companies to walk across the spillway.

The History of the 398th Regiment continues:

“In the meantime Captain Einsman went upstream in hope of finding another place, perhaps more secluded, where the rest of the troops could cross. Upon reconnoitering the dam which was across the river he found that the water flowing over it could be reduced by raising the headgates, and a few minutes after the gates were raised the water level had dropped. Plans were made to take the Company H heavy machine guns across in boats above the dam and the remainder of the men of Company E and Company G would infiltrate across the river on the dam itself. Because at least one automatic weapon was still being fired on the men as they exposed themselves the Company H weapons were left in place until the last minute, so that they could cover the men as they ran across the open field after crossing the river. As the men who had been pinned down on the water’s edge and the men who were crossing on the dam ran across the open field toward the railroad embankment, Company H’s mortars and machine guns fired all along the wooded area to keep the enemy down and permit a safe crossing. After most of the riflemen had crossed, the heavy machine guns were loaded in the boats and taken across above the dam. As the mortar barrage continued, the machine gunners made their way to the safety of the railroad embankment even though snipers were still active. It was 1030 hours by the time all of Company E and G personnel reached the railroad embankment and reorganization could take place.”

While Companies E and G were making progress towards the protection of the railroad embankment, Company F was pinned down. This is the account of one soldier:

Objective Jagstfeld

“It was about daylight on the morning of April 6. Our objective for the day was the town of Jagstfeld about a mile from the Jagst River.

After the rifle platoons had gotten across the river, we undertook and completed the operation without mishap. Upon reaching the field, on the enemy’s side of the river, we took off on the double as Lt. Horler had instructed. Running just ahead of me were two men and right behind were “Con”, Super and Wade. We were about halfway across the field when trouble started. I was carrying the mortar and the others had the ammo but we were in no position to use it. I did the next best thing, which was to hit the dirt using the mortar base plate as a shield in front of me.

As I hugged “old mother earth”, I thought of how in basic they taught us to dig in when forced upon. I wonder if those boys were ever in a spot like that and if they were, how in hell did they dig in. It seemed as though every time I moved a Jerry took a shot at me. Being as scared as I was, was hard enough, but the rain and cold made the situation almost unbearable.

Dirt flew up besides Super, so I asked him if he was hit. “Hell no, but you should see my rifle!” He seemed more worried about his rifle than he was his skin.

We laid out in the open, pinned down for nearly four hours before we were able to move back to where we could find cover. It certainly was a relief to get the kinks and numbness worked out after laying in one position for so long.

Late afternoon found us heading for the town again. It took a lot of fighting but we finally captured it, just as we had done with all the others before it.”

J. Gibson

As the battle intensified, the US artillery fired on the German nests, yet German fire was preventing Company E from advancing along the embankment and a solution for cover was successfully employed as the story continues:

“Now that the enemy could be seen shifting their strength to the right so as to block Company E from reaching Heuchlingen, Company H began laying down intense concentrations in the corner of the woods just above the railroad. As one section laid down repeated barrages in the woods, another section began to fire smoke so as to screen the path that Company E had to take along the railroad. Two hundred rounds of smoke were fired, thus protecting Company E and the section of heavy machine guns from Company H as they made their way into Heuchlingen. Before starting behind the smoke screen for Heuchlingen, Captain Garahan ordered Lieutenant Pittman to take his platoon plus one section of heavy machine guns and skirt the woods on the company’s right to give some protection to the flank and knock out anything that might be in the lower corner of the woods. The main body of the company moved on into Heuchlingen about 1540 hours under the protection of the beautiful smoke screen laid down by Company H, and upon arriving there found that the tanks which were supporting the company were already in the little settlement and had captured thirty-eight enemy who had been sniping from their excellent position high above the river. Eight members of the 2d Battalion’s antitank platoon had come in on the tanks and helped round up the enemy scattered throughout the buildings. Captain Garahan ordered his platoon to organize a defense of the town and prepare to hold it until further orders.”

The rain has stopped and before I leave, I take one long last look at this site. A river flowing, a peaceful place, perfect for a picnic on a sunny day, it keeps its stories to itself.

Saturday November 11, 2017
Heilbronn to Stuttgart

My departure from the site takes me through the village of Duttenberg up and over the Jagst River in search of Heuchlingen (Hoosh-lin-gen). I am driving on Heuchlingen Strasse and my mind is alternating between the events of 1945 and just another day somewhere in Germany.

Company E’s mission after crossing the river was to secure the town of Heuchlingen, which is adjacent to Jagstfeld. After securing the area, Company E spent the next day, April 7, attempting to pinpoint the German artillery in the wooded high ground nearby.

The History of the 398th Regiment continues:

“The following morning, 8 April, Company E was ordered to clear the woods northeast of Jagstfeld of the enemy that had been firing on Company G and holding up their advance. At 0830 hours the 1st and 2d Platoons moved into the woods and before they had gone over three hundred yards they were fired upon by a flakwagon, and soon enemy rockets and mortars were falling on the riflemen as they were deployed through the woods. Before the entry into the woods, the two TDs fired and artillery shells came down on that sector of the woods, but apparently, the enemy observers were well dug in and had no thought of withdrawing. Realizing the futility of trying to clear the woods with only two platoons and with the terrific mortar barrage protecting the area, Captain Garahan withdrew his company to the north side of town and called for more artillery to be thrown into the woods. He also asked the artillery to see if they could locate the flakwagon with their reconnaissance plane, but this attempt proved useless for the woods were offering excellent camouflage for the wagon”.

As they moved from house to house in Heuchlingen on April 8, Tom stood inside a doorway when incoming artillery exploded in front of him. As he stepped back from the blast, he fell backward down a flight of stairs into the basement. He was quickly evacuated for medical attention. His Executive Officer, Lieutenant Jim Kiddie assumed command of Company E.

Captain Garahan is evacuated across the Neckar River to the 2nd Battalion medical unit after he is injured. A medic, Douglas Smyth, took the photo

The following day, Tom writes to Kate to explain…


“My Darling Kate,

What am I doing? I’m lying here in bed, back at clearing station, smoking my pipe, (I got another one while I was in Paris) and wishing the war to end so I can get back to you and the kids.

Why am I here? (Just anticipating that inquisitive mind of yours) Well— it’s really nothing serious. I was in a house in a town that was being shelled. I had gotten indoors to escape flying fragments. I was standing with my back to a flight of cellar stairs. A shell landed fairly close by and I instinctively stepped back. The next thing I knew I was lying at the foot of the stairs wondering what had happened.

I’ve had an X-ray taken and the results proved negative. The doctor says I probably have a sacroiliac strain and that I’ll be alright after a few days’ rest. Personally – all I know is that I have a very sore, stiff back and thanks to my fat ass, no serious spinal injury.

Before I forget it, when I write to Mom I’m just going to tell her that I fell down a flight of stairs and omit any reference to how it happened. Please don’t say anything more to her because I know she will worry if she thinks I was anywhere near the receiving end of an artillery shell.

I do not remember just when I wrote you my last letter so I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve gotten from you since then. I did receive one the other day written on March 27th telling about Artie being in on the Iwo Jima operation. That must have been quite an experience, even from the last row of the second balcony. The Marines did a damn fine job there. It is a blasted shame so many fine young American kids had to give their lives to take that piece of volcanic rock. But in the scheme of things in the Pacific theatre, evidently Iwo Jima was of great strategic importance. Their lives may be the basis for saving thousands of others.”

Tom is awarded the “Purple Heart” for his wounds that resulted in lifelong back pain.

Over the next several days, the US forces battle and push the German forces over the Kocher River. Jim Kiddie does a commendable job while Tom is recovering. On April 13, Heilbronn is captured, endless allied bombing has decimated the city and the final eight days of battle with the 100th Infantry Division cause capitulation and surrender for what was left of the German army in the area.

Heilbronn in Ruins
The Division’s final battle was toughest

On the day the Heilbronn falls, Tom learns about another significant event. Tom writes about it in a letter to Kate:

THG Letter 4-13-45

“Dearest Kate,

The rumor at breakfast this morning is that Roosevelt had died yesterday, but no one believed it. It wasn’t until the eight o’clock news broadcast that the shocking news was confirmed.

I think regardless of political beliefs or personal prejudices, most people will agree that Roosevelt’s death at this time is quite a blow to America. So far as the conduct of the war is concerned I doubt that his loss will affect the victory to any great extent. —————–But as far as winning the peace is concerned! There’s the rub. With the San Francisco conference coming up in less than two weeks, and with personalities like Churchill and Stalin to be coped with at the final peace table, a man of Roosevelt’s genius and inspiration will be sorely missed.

No doubt many crocodile tears will be shed by those who opposed Roosevelt’s every move and policy over the years, now that it costs nothing to be a mourner. “Nil nisi bonum mortuit.” (Latin – Nothing if not good dead) will be the style and they will live it up now but the day may come when their tears will be real, when they realize that even a great nation like ours needs a great leader in times like these.

And what of Harry Truman? No one knows. I doubt that even his closest associates can foresee what kind of President he’ll make. Rising to an occasion like this is little short of expecting a miracle from the man. I only hope and pray that he surprises all of us.

All I can say is that personally this is a sad day for me, because I firmly believe that history will prove that Roosevelt was one of the greatest statesman and practical theorists that ever lived.

But so much for that before you tear up this letter and heave it into the wastebasket.”

After several days, Tom returns to his command of Company E and more events hasten the end for the Nazi regime. On May 1, Hitler’s death is announced and Tom speculates on the outcome in his letter to Kate:

THG Letter 5-1-45

“Dearest Kate,

Not five minutes ago the Hit Parade Program was interrupted on the radio and the announcer stated that the German Radio had just broadcast that Hitler was dead. The news was not as startling as it might have been because there had been rumors that he was either dead or close to death recently. My reaction was one of relief and yet of doubt. I immediately wondered if this might not be a part of a disappearance act to save his neck. I also wondered about the feelings of average Germans in the matter. Was he now a martyr, a Teutonic saint? I imagine so. History will tell the story.”

Just over one week later, breaking news:

In his letter to Kate that day, his response is measured and joyful:

Victory in Europe – VE Day
May 8, 1945

“My Darling,

I know you’re happy tonight and so am I. Today sees the culmination of years of bitter struggle and unhappiness. True, this isn’t the end of the road, but the home stretch is in sight. The most dangerous, resourceful and intelligent enemy has been beaten. Many more will die before the last shot is fired on this sorry world of ours, but peace seems so much nearer and so much more attainable than it ever has been previously.

There were no Huzzahs or wild rejoicing when the news was announced. We were quite certain a while ago, that our job as combat troops had finished here; we were just sitting around for someone to make it official.

But even had we been actually engaged with the enemy I don’t believe our merriment would have been long-lived, because we all could think of someone who had stepped off the boat with us, dived in the holes in the ground beside us, ate cold rations, slept in the muck and hoped to see the day arrive but wasn’t here to share that heavenly feeling of relief and relaxation that the end of the hostilities has brought.

All I can say is, “Thank God that the ordeal is over. May it never happen again.”

I am enclosing an excerpt from a General Order that came out today awarding me the Silver Star. It’s pretty much exaggerated and I was completely surprised at the award. I’ll send you the medal when I get it. I understand that we’ll get the actual decoration as well as the ribbon to wear.”

Tom’s self-effacing comments about the award of the Silver Star are reflective of the person he was but are out of alignment with the General Order.

Office of the Commanding General
7 May 1945
AWARD OF THE SILVER STAR……………………………………………………. II

Under the provisions of Army regulations 600-45, as amended, a Silver Star is awarded to the following named individual for gallantry in action:

THOMAS H. GARAHAN, 01296510, Captain, 398th Infantry Regiment, for gallantry in action on 15 March 1945, in the vicinity of Bitche, France. Assigned the task of seizing the bitterly defended Freudenberg Farms, two platoons of Company E were subjected to direct fire from enemy and contact was temporarily lost with the platoon that was defending the left flank. Realizing that this strong point was holding up the entire battalion advance, Captain Garahan, the commanding officer, organized his company command group and the sixty-millimeter motor section into several rifle squads and prepared them for an assault on the position. When the column began its advance, with Captain Garahan directing its movements, an enemy sniper suddenly fired upon him. Taking careful aim with his carbine, he killed the sniper allowing the column to move forward and forcing the enemy to retreat in disorder. Captain Garahan’ s courageous and gallant actions serve as an inspiration to his men and are in keeping with the finest traditions of military service. Entered military service from New York, New York.

By Order of General Burress:

Col. Richard G. Brather

Chief of Staff

Of my many trips to Germany, today was unique. It was all a bit dreamlike, being at a place, alone, knowing in detail what happened in the spring of 1945. The setting was undisturbed and visualizing the battle movements took little effort. The firsthand accounts were haunting and telling of the emotional and physical damage. There are no markers or mementos here. My sense of opening this unpleasant chapter in history is like a family secret that everyone knows about but no one wants to talk about. When I was developing my travel itinerary, I felt compelled to include Germany in the plan. The final weeks of the war were the crescendo of the 100th Infantry Division’s combat experience. My research and subsequent visit have given me a fuller understanding of their efforts and accomplishments.