Five stretches of French coastline in Normandy were selected as the sites for the landings that the allies intended as the primary effort to defeat Hitler on the western front. One of these, code named "Omaha," became the responsibility of the Regular Army's 1st Infantry Division and the 29th on the morning of 6 June 1944. The 116th Infantry received the mission of leading the division ashore, the only National Guard regiment to participate in the first wave on that historic day.
During the rest of the war the 29th Division clawed its way into western Germany. The men missed Hitler's Ardennes offensive (the battle of the Bulge) but by keeping up pressure on their own sector of the line freed other units to counterattack and defeat the Germans' last threat. In the spring the Blue and Gray finally broke through, capturing a number of cities and thousands of prisoners. Munchen-Gladbach fell to the division on 1 March 1945 which then found itself supporting other American forces mopping up resistance in Germany's industrial heartland, the Ruhr "Pocket." This operation involved little combat as everyone realized that the war was about to end. On 24 April the 116th became the first unit in the 29th Infantry Division to reach the Elbe River where the Americans halted to await their Russian allies advancing from the east.
The 29th took five weeks to reach St. Lo. Just before the final drive captured the city Maj. Thomas Howie, commander of the 3d Battalion, 116th Infantry, promised his men "I'll see you St. Lo." He was killed immediately afterwards but General Gerhardt ordered the column to carry his body into the town square. A New York Times correspondent's story of the incident immortalized the "Major of St. Lo." The division's Task Force Cota, a strike team led by the assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. Norman Cota, finally gained the objective and raised the division flag over the rubble before all the fighting ceased. The Blue and Gray's attack continued on to Vire in late July where the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry won a Presidential Unit Citation for its role in the capture of Hill 219. The Allies' need for ports to sustain the invasion led to the 29th's next assignment. Trucks shifted the division south to Brest where a bypassed German garrison was stubbornly fighting to protect a submarine base. Siege operations reminiscent of the battles of Yorktown and Petersburg started on 24 August and ran until 18 September when the battered garrison finally surrendered. The men of the Blue and Gray deserved a rest, but after only six days they moved by train across France and Belgium to a part of Holland near the German border.
General Gehrhardt decorates a 29'er for bravery
during operations in France, 1944.
The 29th Infantry Division was a Maryland-Virginia-DC National Guard unit. The 29th Infantry Division was inducted into 1 year of Federal service on 3 February 1941 at Fort Meade, MD. In February 1942 the War Department instructed the division to convert from its square configuration to a triangular arrangement best suited for fighting a modern opponent. The old formation was designed to generate frontal attacks against prepared positions akin to the trenches of World War 1. The new design cut the division by eliminating brigade headquarters, reducing the infantry to three regiments and the artillery regiments to four battalions. The support elements shrank to company or battalion size. This procedure made efficient use of men and equipment, and, when coupled with a plentiful supply of new vehicles, turned an infantry division into a highly flexible team capable of rapid movement. The 29th carried out its conversion at Fort Meade on 12 March 1942.
Between April and September 1942, the 29th Division conducted training in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, ending up at Fort Blanding, Florida. They then moved secretly by train to a staging area at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, for deployment overseas. Most of the Blue and Gray Division left the port of New York aboard the ocean liner Queen Mary on 26 September for an unescorted high-speed run across the Atlantic. The balance followed on the Queen Elizabeth on 5 October. The troops landed in Scotland and were transported to Tidworth Barracks, in southern England, where an intensive training program began.
While at Tidworth the European Theater of Operations created a provisional unit within the 29th Division, the 29th Ranger Battalion. The Army's lone ranger battalion recently demonstrated its worth in North Africa and planners in London wanted a similar elite group in England to prepare for the invasion of Europe. The picked men learned specialized assault tactics by training with British Commandos and detachments accompanied their instructors on three hit-and-run raids in Norway and in the English Channel. The 29th Rangers also performed well in allied pre-invasion exercises in England. A policy decision by the War Department awarded the ranger mission to others, forcing London to disband the battalion in October 1943. Fortunately for the Blue and Gray, the men returned to their former units and passed on their skills.
In May 1943 the division moved to the Devon-Cornwall peninsula and started conducting simulated attacks against fortified positions. Assault landing practice followed at the theater' 5 amphibious training center at Slapton Sands. In July 1943 while in Devon the 29th changed commanders with Maj. Gen. Charles Gerhardt. "Uncle Charlie" and his dog "D-Day" would become familiar sights to all who served in the Blue and Gray.
They suffered more losses getting ashore than any other unit of the 116th. Forty-six guardsmen from Bedford were in the company, but only twenty-three survived that day. Within ten minutes every officer in the company was a casualty and the survivors found themselves pinned down by Germans shooting from the tops of nearby cliffs. The other three companies in the first assault group fared somewhat better, in part because many of their boats were pushed off course or because smoke from fires started by naval gunfire hid them from the defenders. The second wave started landing troops at seven. These companies encountered many of the same problems and also became pinned down. Maj. Sidney Bingham, commander of the 2d Battalion, finally organized men in the center of the zone and captured a large stone house dominating the beach near Les Moulins draw, but heavy fire again blocked further movement.
The third wave came ashore twenty minutes later and benefited from the sacrifices of those who had gone before. This element, mostly from the 1st and 3d Battalions and the attached 5th Ranger Battalion, finally fought their way to the crest of the bluff between the beach's two draws and, led by Company C, became the first element of the 29th Infantry Division to penetrate the first zone of defenses. Shortly thereafter a second force punched through further east. Ten minutes after the third wave landed the last elements of the regiment started reaching shore, including Col. Charles Canham who remained in command despite a painful wound. The 1l6th's artillery support on D-Day was supposed to come from the dozen howitzers of the 111th Field Artillery Battalion. Unfortunately, all of the amphibious trucks (DUKWs) transporting the guns to the beach either swamped or suffered hits. The dazed survivors struggled ashore near Les Moulins at 8:30 and were told by Lt. Col. Thornton Mullins "To Hell with our artillery mission, we're infantrymen now!" A sniper soon killed the colonel, but his troops assisted their fellow Virginians in the drive inland. By nightfall American forces controlled the key terrain at Omaha and plus the cliffs on the right. The drive for their next objective began, the communications and traffic crossroads in the city of St. Lo. The Germans tenaciously defended and forced the Americans to fight for each hedgerow. During this combat Tech. Sgt. Frank Peregory of Charlottesville's Company K, 116th Infantry, earned his Medal of Honor by capturing an enemy strongpoint single-handed. Unfortunately, he was killed a few days later.
The 16th Infantry of the 1st Division landed to their left and the 2d Ranger Battalion was assigned to capture the cliffs on their right. The 29th had responsibility for a section of beach 3,000 yards long but containing only two passages inland. The unit had the task of opening both routes so that succeeding units could drive inland.
Planners counted on heavy naval and air bombardment to neutralize the defenses just before the boats carrying the first wave hit shore. Intelligence expected the Germans to use inferior quality troops along the coast and keep their best divisions inland to counterattack. On D-Day, however, fate had placed a crack unit on the cliffs overlooking Omaha as part of a training exercise. This development cost the 29th dearly. The first assault wave of the 116th consisted of Companies A, G, F and E. They loaded into landing craft at 4:00 in the morning. Difficulties began as soon as the small boats started towards shore and encountered large waves.
At 6:30 the first craft approached the beach and came under fire from German gunners. Some boats suffered direct hits or sank when near misses flooded them with seawater. Obstacles stopped others offshore and forced the men to wade in while exposed to fire, often at locations far from their assigned sectors. Company A was hit hardest.
29th Division troops embark transport ships, Normandy, 1944.
29ers move through St. Lo, France, 1944.
The first Soviet unit (5th Guards Cavalry Division) reached the 29th's sector on 2 May. The following day Brig. Gen. Sands, Division Artillery commander, crossed the river to greet them. With Germany's surrender the men of the Blue and Gray moved west again to assume occupation duties in the region around the ancient city of Bremen and its port, Bremerhaven, where they remained until it was time to ship home.
Facts about the make-up of the 29th, its campaigns, awards and units can be found here.