Bennwihr, seen here in the aftermath of the Colmar action, is nestled against the Vosges on the western edge of the Alsace plain.
December 22, 1944. The third Battalion, 15th Infantry had been pressing the attack on Bennwihr all day, against a ferocious German resistance. Item Company had jumped-off at 07.40 with two tanks of 2nd platoon, B Company, 756th Tank Battalion in the lead and immediately hit artillery and small arms fire. The company moved on and in less than one-half hour entered Bennwihr.
The first platoon was one of the attacking elements but, after advancing 70 yards, it came under the effective fire of a German machine gun. This strongpoint was so well placed, that it completely blocked first platoon’s advance. Pfc. Travis, one of the riflemen, began creeping and crawling under this grazing fire, directly towards the gun. Despite this almost certain death, Travis got about 20 yards closer to the machine gun position, and threw a hand grenade into it. The explosion killed or wounded all six Germans on the gun and it remained silent.
The Germans, meanwhile, were taking heavy toll on the tanks of the 756th Tank Battalion, none of which had been able to enter the town yet. Three were already knocked out by Panzerfaust fire and artillery. As the morning wore on, fighting swirled throughout Bennwihr. Reports that day indicated that the Germans had thrown two elite Battalions into Bennwihr with every intention of holding the town to the last man! Because of the narrowness of the town, only one Company could be committed. Item Company, with a effective strength of 139 men that morning, had met with a difficult situation to say the least. Facing 400 enemy troops and numerically superior armor, battered and disorganized by the fierce German fire, it attempted to withdraw so that it could reorganize, reinforce itself and strike in a new direction. Before this could be accomplished however, it was to play the leading role in a bitter and bloody battle.
At 15.40 hours the third platoon of King Company, then in the company support positions with Love Company on the MLR (main line of resistance) just south of Mittelwihr, was committed to attack south toward Bennwihr in an attempt to link up with Item Company. The route of attack was through the ruined buildings and walls in which the enemy was entrenched.
As the platoon infiltrated forward, it succeeded in flanking the enemy positions in that part of town. The Germans then brought up a tank, supported by infantry, in an attempt to stop the advance. In spite of enemy’s power in men and armor, the15th infantry men drove the initial counterattack back with a combination of rifle and artillery fire and grim determination. Three times artillery fired into the German defensive positions only 75 yards from the third platoon’s lines. However, the German tank slipped into shelter and after the artillery fire came out again and shelled the US troops further. After an attempt to bring artillery fire on the tank failed and a short firefight with the supporting enemy infantry during a reconnaissance to check a way to get around the tank and its supporting platoon leader, 2nd Lt. James w. Morris organized defensive positions that would prevent the tank from advancing.
As darkness fell, the 3rd platoon of King Company had advanced as far as the crossroads, but they were ordered to withdraw with Item Company to reorganize and prepare for a fresh assault. Both withdrew to Mittelwihr.
All night of December 22-23, a massive artillery barrage, containing many phosphorus shells, was laid onto Bennwihr, and the entire village seemed to be on fire. As seen at daylight on December 23, 1944, the village had been almost totally destroyed.
December 24, found the 15th Infantry reorganized and the Third Battalion prepared and launched its second attack on Bennwihr. King Company leaped off in the assault on 07.15 hours. The third platoon met its first resistance from a German tank destroyer. But before many minutes the enemy tank was knocked out the crew captured. The first platoon, in the meantime, slashed its way through German machine gun and small arms fire, killing every enemy that blocked its way and secured the road junction in the north-central portion of the town. Then, after a hasty reorganization and before the Germans could get its balance, King Company swung southward to clear its portion of Bennwihr.
A fast advance was scored by the 3rd platoon on the right side of the main thoroughfare, in spite of murderous small arms fire coming from the enemy located in the houses along the way. Despite the fanatical enemy attempts to hold firm, these men took suicidal risks to achieve their goal. As a result, the 3rd platoon quickly reached a secondary objective at the graveyard in the southern part of Bennwihr. When the last house on the west side of the street was taken, the men crossed over to the east side and engaged the Germans in a fierce exchange of small arms fire.
The 2nd platoon, now about 100 yards south of the church, found the going more difficult. Enemy machine gun emplacements harassed every avenue of approach. With the help of a tank destroyer, one gun was quickly knocked out and the men soon dug out the enemy and cleared the way for their final assault, which would bring them to the southern-most road junction which they were to block.
Just about this time, the Germans launched a counterattack with fresh troops from Sigolsheim in a company in strength supported by five machine guns. One platoon of Love Company, then fighting ferociously in the northern sector of the town, sent a force of platoon strength to the aid of King Company, and successfully outflanked the attack. Together, King Company and the platoon from Love Company pushed the Germans back, inflicting many casualties. No sooner was this counterattack repulsed when King Company met the remnants of a German Battalion which had been disorganized by artillery fire and infiltrated into the town. Their original mission had been to attack Mittelwihr and bottle up the American forces in Bennwihr but the American artillery cut them to pieces and it fell prey to King Company. Meanwhile, 2nd platoon of King Company, using hand grenades, antitank grenades and point-blank rifle fire, seized and established their objective – the road junction just north of the southernmost tip of Bennwihr – which they blocked and secured.
At about 16.00 hours, Staff Sergeant William F. Sallette’s platoon was being held up by a combination of machine gun, sniper, Panzerfaust and rifle grenade fire, coming from five or six German occupied houses. Although tanks had been brought up and fired point-blank into theses houses, the Germans continued their resistance. Sergeant Sallette requested and got white phosphorus rifle grenades and working his way forward. He fired ten of these into the houses. Each time he fired, he was subjected to intense small arms fire and enemy Panzerfaust shots. When one of the enemy held houses caught fire, Sallette ran 75 yards through intense German fire, leading four of his men in an attack on the house. There he personally killed at least two of the departing enemy snipers and his men cleared the house of all Germans – capturing 35 and wounding 21 enemy soldiers. Almost an equal number of dead were also found in the area.
All this time, Love Company had been clearing the southern portion of the town. The three platoons worked their way slowly through the main street, hacking their way against the stubborn German resistance in deadly house to house fighting. Germans were shot out of their positions in the windows and dug out of their emplacements in the shell scattered rubble.
On one occasion, Love Company ran into a house occupied by a German machine gun crew and protecting riflemen. Between the Company and the house was an open area, 50 yards in width, which the enemy continuously raked with machine gun and rifle fire. To reach a position on the flank from which he could fire his rifle grenades effectively, Pfc. Augustin Ramos of Love Company, crawled over this bullet-swept death ground for a distance of fifty yards to a position at the side of the enemy held house, opposite a window. The Germans directed a constant hail of bullets at him, grazing his head and digging into the ground around his body, but somehow Ramos remained unhit. Opening fire, he placed one rifle grenade through the window, killing three of the enemy and causing 14 others to surrender. For these actions he was awarded the Silver Star. Following these events, he was nicknamed "One-Man Army" by his comrades. With this strongpoint removed, Love Company was able to advance.
Another German stronghold – a schoolhouse just above the town center – was by passed and Love Company continued its advance to the south, meeting the same German “Hold or Die” attitude. However, it succeeded in clearing the town to the southernmost tip, and then gave its full attention to the trapped Germans in the schoolhouse. The building was surrounded and fired into by rifles and machine guns. The Germans answer was by heavy automatic fire and Panzerfausts. Love Company called for tank support and moved one tank into firing position, about 100 yards away from the schoolhouse. Shell after shell was fired into the windows, giving the remained alive Germans only two options – Surrender or Die! Meanwhile, company grenades and bazooka men moved into position and opened fire, forcing the Germans to surrender. Thirteen enemy soldiers were taken prisoner; three others were killed. As darkness came on, Bennwihr was in the hands of the Third Battalion!
Christmas Day rolled around. Instead of “Peace on earth, Good will toward men” it was “Kill or be killed” and in Germany, Goebbels called it the worst Christmas of the war.
Gus J. Kefurt - Company K, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division
Medal of Honor for heroism actions in Bennwihr on December 23 and 24, 1944
Early in the attack Staff Sergeant Kefurt jumped through an opening in a wall to face about 15 Germans. Although outnumbered he opened fire, killing ten and capturing the others. During a seesaw battle which developed he adjusted artillery fire on an enemy tank close to his position. That night he maintained a three-man outpost in the center of the town and fought off several hostile patrols. Assuming command the following day he led in hand-to-hand fighting through the town until blocked by a tank. Using rifle grenades he forced surrender of its crew and supporting infantry.
He continued his attack from house to house against heavy enemy fire. Advancing against a strongpoint that was holding up the company, his platoon was subjected to a strong counterattack. Suffering heavy casualties the men remained there due to Sergeant Kefurt's personal example of bravery, determination and leadership. He constantly exposed himself to fire going from man to man to direct fire. During this time he killed 15 of the enemy at close range. Wounded in the leg he refused first aid and resumed fighting. When the forces to his rear were pushed back three hours later, he refused to be evacuated, leading and encouraging him men until he was himself, killed. His final resting place is at the American Cemetery in Epinal, France.
Hill 216 – The first blood bath of the 254th Infantry Regiment
Dominant among all of the terrain features in the area was Hill 216, which lay southeast of Bennwihr. The German defenders of the hill held a commanding view of the surrounding country, including the Colmar plain and the heavily fortified town of Jebsheim, each of which was susceptible to their artillery. Since these were keys to the German defensive positions in the Colmar area, the possession of Hill 216 was considered vital to the success of the 3rd US Infantry Division attack. It must be mentioned, that two attempts to capture the hill had been made before by the 15th US Infantry Regiment, a veteran unit of the 3rd US Infantry Division prior the time, the mission was assigned to the 254th US Infantry Regiment.
The attack of the 25th Infantry Regiment (less 2nd Battalion) on Hill 216 at daybreak of January 23, 1945 was made extremely expensive in casualties by the inability of elements of the 3rd Division to advance south along the east bank of the Fecht river in time to support left flank.
At 06.45 on January 23, 1945 all available artillery and mortars began a fifteen minute preparation on the enemy front line positions on Hill 216. After this artillery barrage, A and B company of the 1st Battalion, 254th Infantry Regiment, crossed the line of departure toward Hill 216 at 0700. Initially the companies advanced without resistance. Then along the line of the advance, dull, muffled explosions from below the snow announced the penetration of the Schuh-Mine fields which protected the area. Numerous casualties occurred before it came apparent that the advance could continue only by the slow process of probing the ground with bayonets carefully ahead of each forward movement.
Alerted by the sound of exploding mines, the defending Germans reacted immediately by directing concentrated mortar and artillery fire on the mine field and its occupants. US casualties mounted as daybreak provided the German machine gunners and snipers with the visibility needed to add their fire power to the curtain which held the men of the 1st Battalion, 254th Infantry close to the ground. At around 0900, A company was approaching the second mine field on the crest of the hill. However, its sister companies were not advancing as rapidly because of the determined resistance and the flanking fire from the Fecht river area. By noon, after a series of attacks and counterattacks, it was evident that some means for relieving the defensive pressure was required if the 1st Battalion was to occupy the hill.
At 1400 the 3rd Battalion of the 254th Infantry moved through a draw to the west of Hill 216. They were to seize the Weiss river line from a power line to the junction of the Weiss and Fecht rivers. That effort, in concert with the 7th Infantry’s occupation of the east bank of the Fecht river would effectively isolate the defenders of Hill 216 and eliminate any reinforcement which might come to their assistance. K Company reached the river at 2100 and I company, two hours earlier at 1900. The consolidation of the river lines allowed the 1st Battalion to effectively occupy the hillcrest positions and eliminate Hill 216 as an effective German defensive position. Just before midnight on January 24, the 254th Infantry Regiment was relieved by elements of the 28th US Infantry Division in its defensive positions on Hill 216 and along the Weiss river.
Hill 216 meant much to the 254th Infantry Regiment. Casualties there had been very heavy but units of the regiment never faltered and there was never a moment of doubt, that the objectives would be taken. A new spirit was awakened in the survivors of the regiment’s first great blood bath. It was a great regiment and all hands knew it.
I would like to thank the following persons and friends for helping in my research:
- Fred Clinton, veteran of the 254th US Inf Rgt and Webmaster of www.63rdinfdiv.com
- Mr Jeff Danby, 15th Infantry Association
- Mr Tim Stoy, 15th Infantry Association
Source of the Photos of 1944/1945:
Some of the 1944 images used for the “Then and Now” comparison photos on this site are part of a collection archived by William J. Toomey of Everett, Massachusetts while serving with the Third Signal Company of the U.S. Third Division during WWII. Bill was a member of a five-man crew of photographers along with William Heller, John Cole, Robert Seesock and Howard Nickelson. The photographs from this unit form a major part of the visual history of the Third Division in WWII.
Other photos of 1944/1945 taken from www.ecpad.fr the French Department of Defense and the National Archives.
Some text taken from: