Norwich University and the Battle of the Bulge: Breakthrough

Sixty-Seven Years ago, on December 16th, 1944, the German military struck back against Allied forces in Belgium, the first major blow to the advance to Germany. During the battle, over a hundred members of the Norwich University community participated; former students who had graduated and advanced in the ranks of the U.S. military, and students who had graduated early to join the fight. They fought under some of the harshest conditions imaginable, and succeeded after a month of combat in the Ardennes. In 2010, I began a research project for the University, studying the role of the students and the school in the Battle before travelling overseas to Belgium. They played an incredible role in the battle, and undoubtably helped with many of the successes that would eventually lead to an Allied victory.

Breakthrough, December 16th - December 17th

By December, the Allied advance towards Germany had slowed down. The Allied armies settled along the German border in Belgium and France where units received replacements, retrained and waited to move forward. On December 15th, Private First Class Walter Henry, ‘45, of the 44th Infantry Division, went on leave in Paris, France where he planned on seeing Glenn Miller’s orchestra. While there, word came through that Miller’s airplane had been reported missing somewhere over the English Channel. Disappointed, Henry returned to his unit in Belgium. (Henry, Questions of Oct. 18 re: Battle of the Bulge 2011)

The German breakthrough of Allied lines began at 5:30 in the morning with an artillery barrage against 85 miles of Allied lines on December 16th. (Toland 1999, 23) At the top of the invasion near Monschau, three Norwich men were part of the 9th Infantry division: Major John Costello ’42, and twin brothers Arnold and Donald MacKerer ’46, both 2nd Lieutenants. Several miles to the south were six Norwich men assigned to the 106th Infantry Division: 1st Lieutenant Ralph H. Baker Jr, ‘43 Corporal Howard R. Clement ’32, Sergeant Edwin Seeger '46, Corporal Henry Waters, '46, Sergeant Walter H. Weatherill, '44, and Private Gregory Sarmanian, '47, who was part of the 14th Cavalry Group. In the center of the invasion was the veteran 28th Infantry division, which included Captain Albert E. Hicks, ’36, and 1st Lieutenant Carl Hughes, ’42. At the bottom of the invasion, the 4th Infantry Division included 1st Lieutenant Thomas L. Fulham, 2nd Lieutenant Robert H. Harrington and John W. Knowlton, all of the class of 1947.

During the initial attack, Sergeant Seeger of the 106th was killed in action, defending his post, while occupying a forward position that was overrun near Winterscheid.

Sergeant Seeger’s squadron was providing reconnaissance for the 106th Division on the opening day of the battle of “The Bulge”, December 16th, 1944. The Sergeant, with three other men, were occupying the most advance post of their squadron when the Germans overran their position. He was fatally wounded while “defending his position against overwhelming odds,” near Winterstchied, Germany, in the St. Vith sector on the first day of the battle of “The Bulge”. (War Whoop 1947, 30)

He appears to have been one of the first Norwich casualties during the battle, although he would not be the last: at some point on December 16th, 1st Lieutenant George Norman Anderson ’43, of the 1121st Combat Engineering Group, was captured, force marched to a prison camp in Bavaria, where he was later recovered by US forces.

Corporal Henry Waters ’46, was also reported as a casualty on the 16th: Corp. Henry C. Waters, Jr. has been reported missing in action in Germany as of Dec. 16. The son of Mr. and Mrs. H.C. Water of Marblehead, MA, has been overseas since Nov. 11, and was in a unit of the 106th Division which was rushed to the front lines following the Von Rundstedt breakthrough. (Corp. Henry Waters, '46, Missing in Action 1945, 28)

As the German military advanced, units of the 14th Cavalry Group occupied one of the key routes which stood in their way, with other units 25 miles away in Vielsalm. (Toland 1999, 27) Private George Sarmanian ’47, a member of the unit, was likely present at the first moments of the attack. By 1300 hrs, the 14th Cavalry Group had run out of ammunition, and began to retreat west towards American lines.

At the same time on December 16th, the 28th Infantry Division was hit alongside its entire divisional front. The center of the Division’s lines were hit hard by the German invaders, blowing open the route towards the interior of Belgium. (Toland 1999, 27) The two Norwich alumni were present amongst its ranks, Captain Albert E. Hicks, and 1st Lieutenant Carl R. Hughes would remain close friends after the war. During the attack, Hughes' unit, the 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, was surrounded by German forces. Hughes escaped by walking through the enemy lines, arriving back at American lines three days later on the 19th.

Carl Hughes described his experiences in a letter for the Norwich Record:

Here’s a bit of news. I was in Luxembourg when the breakthrough came. My unit was surrounded for three days, and then we made a break for it. We lost our wheels, so I walked through the German lines three days and nights. Now am getting a few days of rest after 170 days of combat. I saw Al Hicks ’36, in Germany during the battle of Hurtgen Forest. We were working side by side. (Lt. Carl Huges, '42, with Capt. Al Hicks, '36, At Hurtgen Forest 1945, 31)

At the same time that the Record received Hughes’ letter, further news arrived about Hicks:

“The squadron commander had my troop fall out into formation while he pinned by captain’s bars on me although the Germans were shelling about 400 yards away.” Capt. Hicks wrote his wife, “so you see I got my promotion on the battlefield after all.”

Attached to the 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, Capt. Hicks at one time pursued the Germans for 140 days with only little rest. Up to this time, he has been decorated with the Silver Star for gallantry in the face of the enemy, the Bronze Star for meritorious achievement and numerous other citations. (Lt. Carl Huges, '42, with Capt. Al Hicks, '36, At Hurtgen Forest 1945, 31)

At the bottom of the German invasion, the 4th Infantry Division met elements of the German military’s attack head-on near Echternach, where they held onto their territory, backed up by the 5th Infantry Division and Patton’s Third Army. The 6th Armored Division, with 1st Lieutanant John F. Hammell ‘44, 1st Lieutenant Donald F. Wing ‘44, 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Pottle ’44, and Sergeant John H. Pimm ‘47, was located in the same area, between the French-German border, where they faced off against German forces on the other side of a river.

The northern most section of the invasion was held by the 9th Infantry division, who arrived near Monschau by the 20th of December. It helped to contain the enemy advance towards the north and limited their movement around the center of the invasion. 2nd Lieutenant Arnold ‘Bill’ MacKerer ‘46, had recently earned the Silver Star medal for his actions in Schlick, Germany, ten days earlier:

Lieutenant MacKerer was awarded the Silver Star Medal for gallantry in action on December 11, 1944, near Schlick, Germany. He crawled forward, under enemy fire and observation, to within twenty-five yards of a machine gun. With complete disregard for personal safety, he threw two grenades, destroying the gun and killing the entire crew of the machine gun. (War Whoop 1947, 29)

His twin brother, Donald, would survive him after the war, and described his brother as “a very strong person, totally fearless in combat, and he took more chances. He was much less bothered by the terror of warfare than I was” (Dean 2006).

The unit would stay in place for the battle, keeping the German advance back from Holland in the battle’s northern shoulder. (Cole 1964, 134) As the German military advanced, Bill MacKerer’s five man patrol was tasked with finding the whereabouts of the Germans in their area: His brother’s patrol performed its mission all too well, Don said. It turned up a nest of German machine-gunners, and Bill, struck by a burst of machine gun fire, fell mortally wounded. (Dean 2006)

His actions were reported in the Norwich Record:

Ten days after the action for which he was posthumously decorated, he was hit by machine gun fire while on a reconnaissance patrol near Monschau, died as a result of the wounds, and was buried in the Henry-Chapple Cemetery near Leige, Belgium. (Lt. Arnold MacKerer, '46, Dies of Wounds 1945)

Following the death of his brother, Donald took command of the same platoon, which he remained in charge of until he himself was wounded shortly after the end of the Bulge, on February 2nd, 1945. (Lt. Arnold MacKerer, '46, Dies of Wounds 1945)

By December 17th, most of the Allied forces had to pull back: The 106th Infantry Division pulled back towards St. Vith, while the German advance went through the 28th Infantry Division’s lines. One of the units that had moved following the attack was the 44th Infantry Division, along with a newly promoted Staff Sergeant Walt Henry. While the Germans had not yet hit their area in the south, they moved quickly to better ground. As they moved out, Henry recalled leaving with only their guns and ammunition. Left behind was a newly arrived package from his wife, Edith: “Some lucky German [son of a bitch] enjoyed all the goodies that Edith had so lovingly packed and sent me. I’ll never forgive them for that.” (Henry, World War II Years n.d.)

The Axis advance was aimed straight in towards American lines, uncontained.

Tomorrow, The Drive to the Meuse River & Bastogne.