55th Armored Infantry Battalion (AIB)
The 55th armored Infantry Battalion was created from part of the 55th Armored Infantry Regiment. The regiment was activated at Camp Polk, Louisiana on August 15, 1942 as part of the newly formed 11th Armored Division. Colonel Virgil Bell was named regimental commander.
The officers and enlisted cadres came from other armored divisions. Recruits began to arrive in October. Together the veterans and rookies trained hard at Camp Polk. In June and August of 1943 the 11th Armored Division participated in the Third Army’s Louisiana-Texas maneuvers. Afterwards the division moved west to Camp Barkeley, Texas.
On September 20th the three battalions of the 55th Regiment became independent units. The 1st Battalion became the 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion, the 2nd Battalion became the 21st Armored Infantry Battalion and the 3rd Battalion became the 55th Armored Infantry Battalion. Lieutenant Colonel Fredrick K Hearn was named Commander of the 55th. Later in the ETO the casualties suffered in combat were almost equally divided among the three Battalions.
The division trained at Camp Barkeley about two months then moved west again to Camp Ibis, California for rigorous desert warfare training. In the summer of 1944 the Thunderbolts shifted farther west to Camp Cooke, California on the Pacific Ocean.
On September 13 and 14, 1944 the division began the long move east, boarding trains for Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. The division did not tarry, the Army had immediate need for them in Europe.
On September 28th the division sailed for England with 5000 aboard the U.S.S. “Hermitage” and 4800 aboard the HMS “Samaria” The troopships docked at Southampton and Liverpool. The 11th Armored troops moved inland to Camp Upton Lovell and other locations in the County of Wiltshire. The 55th Battalion moved into Nissen huts at Tisbury.
It was almost winter before the division was ordered to France. The 55th left Southampton with 39 officers, 3 warrant officers, and 979 enlisted men on December 15th and was ashore at Cherbourg, France the next day. The battalion was ordered to move south and clear a large pocket of stubborn German resistance at St Nazaire, France from where a sizeable fleet of German submarines roamed the Atlantic.
News from the battlefront was not good on December 16th. The Germans had launched a massive surprise attack on a 50-mile front in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium Spearheaded by armor, the German thrust drove the American front lines back in what would be called the Battle of the Bulge. Reinforcements were desperately needed so the 11th Armored Division was ordered on a 500-mile dash across France to help plug the gap. The orders were to hold the Meuse River Line some 160 miles from Givet to Verdun.
The 55th Battalion would go into battle as part of the division’s Combat Command Reserve under Colonel Virgil Bell. On December 24th the 55th AIB readied its equipment but took time to celebrated Christmas Day with coffee, doughnuts, a Christmas tree, and Catholic and Protestant services.
The key to the battle was the town of Bastogne, Belgium where the 101st Airborne Division and other troops were surrounded but refused to surrender. On December 26th the 4th Armored Division broke through German lines to relieve Bastogne. The 11th AD was ordered forward to attack the Germans and to protect the vital Bastogne-Neufchateau Road.
On December 29th the 55th left its bivouac near Guignicourt, France and moved to Ebly, Belgium. On December 30th it moved on to Vaux Les Rosieres, Belgium. The next day the 55th attacked near Magerotte with the objective being the high ground near Acul. The attack succeeded and the Thunderbolts pressed on to take Acul despite strong German resistance.
On the same day the Germans counterattacked with four tanks and about 100 infantrymen. The battalion stood firm and the Germans retreated. The 55th had fought well in its baptism of fire although there were heavy casualties: 27 killed, 68 wounded, and 19 missing. The battalion also lost two halftracks and a 57mm anti-tank gun. The Germans lost an estimated 180 men and 47 enemy soldiers were taken prisoner.
On January 1st the battalion remained in defensive positions at Acul. On January 3rd the 17th Airborne Division relieved the 55th Battalion, which pulled back to Magerotte.
But not allof the 55th fought at Acul. On December 31st, the First Platoon of 'A' Company of the 55th attacked the Remer Brigade on the western outskirts of near-by Tillet. The platoon held its position on January 1st, and was shelled by the enemy on January 2nd when it was ordered back into Tillet. The platoon was relieved by the 17th Airborne on January 3rd, and returned to Magerotte to join the rest of the 55th.
In recognition of its "Baptism of Fire" at Acul and Tillet, on December 31st, the 55th was awarded the Combat Infantry Streamer.
Next, still part of CCR the battalion was ordered to support the attack of CCA in the vicinity of Longchamps. To get into position the battalion moved to Hermroulle, then to near Longchamps on January 13th. CCA attacked with the 55th battalion and Co A 42nd Tk now attached. When the attack reached Bois De Nom DE Falaize Co A and Co B were deployed abreast with Co C in reserve. Withering artillery, mortar and small arms from well entrenched German forces inflicted heavy casualties. 21 officers and enlisted men were killed and 78 wounded but the Germans got the worst of it losing 150 killed and wounded with 61 prisoners taken. In this action Bronze Stars were awarded to Major Hill Blalock, Battalion Executive Officer. Capt Charles Houy,CO Co A, Capt George Reimer, CO Co B, T/Sgt Robert Phillips Co B, S/Sgt Douglas Sammak, Co A, Sgt Anibal Fernandez, Co B, S/Sgt William McNulty and two attached Medics Pfc Raymond Rigsbyand Pfc Ray McBen.
The next day the battalion improved its defensive positions and patrolled the woods to complete the destruction of enemy forces. That afternoon the 55th under TF Stubbs was ordered forward to seize the high ground near Bertogne. The Germans halted the attack 1,000 yards short of the objective, which the battalion seized early the next day. The 55th pursued the Germans through Compogne and on order assembled in the vicinity of Mabombre.
On January 17th the battalion, again under CCR, moved from Mabompre to near Cobru, Belgium, under orders to relieve the 502nd Parachute Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. The battalion was also to establish a defensive position from Hardingy to Bourcy. The period January 18-25 was used to make improvements in defensive positions, maintain liaison with adjacent units to the north and south, retain contact with enemy forces to the east, and integrate 149 reinforcements most fresh from the States with a minimum of training
The battalion spent the rest of January patrolling and improving defensive positions around Magerotte. Another 106 reinforcements arrived to bring the battalion strength to 33 Officers and 1042 Enlisted Men Weapons and vehicles were repaired and tested. Combat Infantry Badges and Purple Hearts were awarded on January 26th by the Battalion Commander Hearn and on January 27th Commanding General Kilburn awarded Silver and Bronze Stars.
In early February the battalion trained in the field. Emphasis was placed on tank-infantry coordination. Having lost the Battle of the Bulge, German forces had retreated eastward behind the Westwall; a massive belt of pillboxes, bunkers, and other defensive positions the Americans and British dubbed the “Siegfried Line”. As part of CCR the 55th moved out on February 4 to attack the Line. Overcoming German forces at Heckhuscheid and Burg-Lutzkampen where they were hard hit by artillery , mortar, and small arms fire the battalion arrived at Berg, Germany at 0530 February 18th .
The 63rd AIB and the 55th swept forward through “dragon’s teeth” concrete obstacles, destroying or neutralizing 19 pillboxes supported by tanks of B Co 22nd Tank Battalion. After seizing Leidenborn, the battalion was given the mission of taking Herzfeld, Germany. After destroying or neutralizing 23 pillboxes, the entire area was swept clean of German resistance
On February 21st the battalion was ordered to capture Roschied and clear all nearby pillboxes. In order to accomplish the Division objective of capturing Reiff, Germany the town Eschfeld and the high ground surrounding it had to be taken. The 55th accomplished this mission by 1000 on February 22 with a minimum of casualties allowing the 63rd AIB to proceed with their objective of securing Reiff. 74 German prisoners were taken in Reiff. According to Rog Mockford of the 2nd Squad of the 2nd Platoon, they had “captured prisoners who had been seeking shelter in the hay in a barn. There was 6 to 8 inches of snow all around. All of the prisoners claimed to be a ‘Pollock’ drafted into service by the Germans. We did not want them digging around in the hay looking for their shoes so we marched them back to town and headquarters without their shoes. The Battalion Officer was very upset with us for marching prisoners bare footed through the snow so he made us march them back again to get their shoes!”
On February 23rd the battalion was moved back to nearby positions in Sevenig, Eschfeld, Herzfeld, and Lutzkampen. 160 reinforcements were received on Feb 23rd and 26th Five men were killed and 93 were wounded in the assault on the Siegfried Line. One man was reported missing. The battalion also captured 187 German soldiers and killed or wounded an estimated 185 Germans.
March 1st the battalion as a component of CCB departed the billet area of Berg-Reuland, Belgium and marched mounted to an assembly area 3 miles northwest of Prum, Germany. Task Force Chico was formed under the command of Lt Col Hearn for an attack on Prum and after crossing the Prum River taking the town of Dausfeld with the final objective of seizing and holding Lissingen, Germany. Chico was formed with the 55th AIB and companies or platoons of the 22nd Tank, 705th Tank Destroyer, 56th Engineers, 1 155mm SP Gun, and 575th AAA . A formidable force for sure! Enemy resistance varied from light to bitter during this period. The weather was cold and snowy taking its toll on the men and equipment. Casualties for the battalion March 1-10 were 26 killed, 88 wounded, and 16 missing. Enemy losses were considerably higher.
Task Force Chico left defensive positions near Weinsheim on March 4th and moved to the high ground west of the Kyll River. The weather was cold and snowy but the Thunderbolts rolled vigorously against determined resistance to near Budesheim where it was relieved by elements of the 4th Infantry Division. On March 6th attacking northwest the unit took Neider Bettingen and threw a bridegehead over the Kyll River. The doughs were raked by murderous enemy fire and met bitter resistance as they waded across the shallow river and dug in to hold its shallow bridgehead. Elements of the 4th Infantry accomplished relief of the battalion by 1630 and our troops were drawn back into Neider Bettingen for the night.
On March 7th the battalion headed for the Rhine via Kalenborn-Budesheim-Lissingen to the Kyll River crossing at Gerolstein. Attacking through the 90th Infantry Division bridgehead at the battalion advanced through Pelm, Kelberg, Hirten, Weyberg, Wehr, Glees, Burgbrohl and thence to Neider Lutzingen. Neider Lutzingen overlooked the town of Brohl on the Rhine. The Thunderbolts also took Brohl, where the Germans had been escaping across the river on ferryboats. Many did not make it to the river; the battalion alone bagged 508 prisoners.
Meanwhile, the division was ordered to turn south and cross the Moselle River and reach the Rhine again, upstream at historic Worms. The First and Third Armies were to join at Worms trapping large numbers of Germans troops still west of the river. Eager to surrender, thousands of German soldiers waited by muddy roadsides. Their weapons were thrown down; their hands were up. “This was something new to the men,” a battalion veteran recalled. “Never before had they experienced the feeling of such a grand superiority in strength. They had read about our mad dashes through France in the summer of 1944; they were living them now.
The drive which began on March 7th linked the 11th Armored Division of Patton’s Third Army with the First Army at Worms trapping 6 German Divisions west of the Rhine. The 55th was credited with capturing 1460 Germans and 393 killed or wounded before crossing the Rhine River. Crossing the Moselle River at Bullay the battalion marched mounted 35 miles to Hahn closing at 1530 on March 18th. Casualties were light as the Combat Commands moved rapidly against light resistance capturing hundreds of prisoners. Many towns and villages such as Gangloff, Breitenheim, Rockenhausen, Oberndorf, Wurzweiler, Insweiler, Langmeil, Imsbach,and Darmstadt were taken. The batallion crossed the Rhine by pontoon bridge at 1530 on March 29th at Nierstein after a 67 mile march mounted from Kircheim-Bolanden.
On April 1st the battalion was part of CCR as the division attacked toward Fulda with combat commands abreast. The battalion was given the mission of clearing the woods northeast of Uterweid and setting up defensive positions for the night on the high ground northeast of town. The men also evacuated Allied prisoners liberated by CCA at Grimmenthal.
On April 4th the battalion rolled through Steinbach-Hallenburg to Schmalkalden and west to the Werra River. Two task forces were formed into tank-infantry teams under command of Lt Col Hearn and Lt Col Wingard with the mission of capturing Zella Mehlis, home of the Walthar Small Arms Co, Meiningen, and surrounding towns. With that accomplished, the Thunderbolts cleared extensive roadblocks and numerous small pockets of resistance in the area for the next several days.
On April 10 the division was ordered to renew the attack to the southeast to capture Coburg and Neustadt. Enroute, the 55th battalion as part of Task Force Hearn captured Rodach, Einberg, and Kronach, and Gesthunghausen Enemy resistance was quite strong at Gesthunghausen. Another task force under command of Major Hill Blalock, battalion executive officer, secured Weisenbrunn, Hills 410 and 513, and high ground east of Kronach. The battalion also captured Kulmbach without resistance on a square-mile ammunition dump containing large amounts of chemical weapons. Co A and Co C with attached machine gun and mortar platoons seized the dump which also contained large quantities of artillery ammunition.
Two days later the battalion was on the road again headed for Weiden, Namburg, and Pfremid, where a large force of over 500 Hungarian soldiers surrendered. Later, at Nieder Murrach, the battalion built a compound to house the growing numbers of prisoners. By the time the 55th reached Cham, it had captured an additional 150 prisoners.
On April 24th the battalion left Cham, moving behind TF Wingard to near Viechtach. Serving as a reserve task force for CCA it reached Grafenau on April 25th and Furholz the next day. An estimated 210 enemy prisoners were taken.
On April 29th the battalion was still at Furholz probing for suitable routes to the southeast while the division headquarters remained in Freyung. When headquarters was threatened by enemy forces from the north, a task force of infantry, tanks, and artillery under the command of Major Hill Blalock was dispatched quickly to Kreuzberg. This task force was relieved by elements of CCR at 1800 and it proceeded to Wollaberg.
The battalion left Furholz on April 30th as the leading unit for CCA and moved through Waldkirchen, Stubhauser, and Kashburg to Wegscheid, where the Germans fought stubbornly. The town was finally cleared and a defensive perimeter set up by 2300 hours. Our losses- 1 EM killed, 1 Officer and 9 EM wounded, and 5 medium tanks lost. Estimated enemy losses-74 killed and 84 PWs taken.
The next day the battalion crossed the border into Austria at Kramerschlag. A well defended road block slowed entrance into Peilstein 4 EM were killed and 8 wounded by this stubborn but futile German resistance. Advancing through Rohrbach, Neufelden, Bauer, Rotten Egg, Walding, and Reichenau continued resistance was encountered The City of Linz, Austria surrendered to Task Force Wingard on May 5th. On this same date a unit of the 41st Cav liberated Mauthausen and Gusen Concentration Camps. The battalion was in Reichenau, Austria when the war in Europe ended on May 8th. During World War II the 55th battalion lost 121 men killed, 575 wounded, and an unknown number captured, missing in action, and evacuated for various reasons.