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THE LAST ROLL CALL
The 29th Infantry Division Victorious
January 1945 - January 1946

by Joseph M. Balkoski

Author of Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, and Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy



The Last Roll Call is the fifth and final installment of Joseph Balkoski's history of the 29th Infantry Division in World War II.

Selected Excerpts From The Last Roll Call

FROM CHAPTER 1: WE'VE COME A HELL OF A LONG WAY

No one could deny that on January 1 the 29th Division was a badly beat-up outfit. But if that classification had spared it deployment to the Ardennes, then all 29ers agreed there was a silver lining to that dark cloud. Actually, the 29th had been much more severely beaten up in the past—it had lost 9,100 men in forty-six days in Normandy plus another 3,000 in twenty-six days in Brittany—but amazingly had always come back a week or so later ready to absorb more punishment and accomplish the sometimes illogical goals of its leaders. That flexibility, according to the generals, was the beauty of the American military system: a timely infusion of well-trained replacements could rejuvenate a battered division in just a few days. How many times, however, could the 29th Division be rejuvenated and still fight on? Army doctrine claimed the number was limitless; veteran infantrymen knew it was not: it took much more than fresh bodies to make a first-class fighting unit. So far the number of times the 29th had bounced back and continued to fight with impressive tenacity had given U.S. Army generals the accurate impression that it was indeed a first-class outfit. The downside of that lofty reputation was that whenever the division completed its rejuvenation, it was certain to be in the thick of the fight again, in all likelihood in the decisive sector of the front where Ike and Bradley always wanted their best units to be. As the Allies were not even across the Rhine yet, and Berlin was a long way beyond that, the 29ers dreaded when their inevitable reentry into combat would come.

One 29er, division commander Maj. Gen. Charles Hunter Gerhardt, Jr., assuredly did not dread that moment, as he was convinced that the fastest way the GIs could get home was to pummel the enemy into extinction—and if pummeling was required, the 29th Division would be one of the best units to do it. Many 29ers were convinced that “Uncle Charlie” Gerhardt had infused the 29th with the high spirit it needed to bear the many traumas of modern warfare; probably a far greater number believed that spirit merely covered up a casualty list of inconceivable length, and even worse obscured the appalling detail that many of those casualties were suffered in battles that should not have taken place at all. Indeed, as a consequence of those high losses and some unrelated shenanigans beyond the battlefield, Gerhardt’s former boss in XIX Corps, Maj. Gen. Raymond McLain, had only recently endeavored to fire him unceremoniously. However, Gerhardt’s career—at least temporarily—had been saved by West Point classmates, the most important of whom was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Memories of school-time camaraderie and glorious days on the football gridiron and baseball diamond, some cynics thought, could bail out a troubled West Pointer long after he removed his cadet-gray uniform.

The general gave the 29th Division a New Year’s Eve pep talk. “We’ve come a hell of a way,” Gerhardt affirmed. “This division is in no mood to release any ground it has gained. The situation here is well in hand… The division is building up its strength; this is a fortunate situation for us. We’re learning some defensive stuff. The team is working together extremely well. In talking to individuals scattered all through the outfit—we’re doing all right… If we can get the people who are actually up front comfortable so they can get along, nobody has any squawks.”


FROM CHAPTER 4: HITLER - KAPUT!

Paul Joseph Goebbels could not go home again. Not even to the city that just a few years ago had changed the name of the street on which he was born, from Prinz Eugenstrasse, to Josef Goebbelsstrasse in his honor. The 29th Infantry Division currently occupied Goebbels’ hometown of Rheydt, a state of affairs that produced cracks in the emaciated Reich propaganda minister’s rigid faith in Nazi ideology. The sycophant who had once gushed, “Adolf Hitler, I love you because you are both great and simple at the same time—what one calls a genius,” had recently railed in his diary, “The news that the town of Rheydt received the Americans with white flags makes me blush. I can hardly realize it, especially not the fact that one of those white flags flew from the house where I was born.”

Goebbels would blush even redder when he discovered that Schloss Rheydt, a sixteenth-century castle presented to the propaganda minister by the citizens of Rheydt at a time when the cult of Nazism was much more popular in the Rhineland than it was in March 1945, had been converted into a U.S. Army regimental command post. (The castle caretaker, Heinrich Furst, claimed, “Leaders of the [Nazi] party came around to the people of the city and said, ‘The Reichsminister for Propaganda was born here, and you should be very grateful, so you will raise money to buy Schloss Rheydt and you will give it to Joseph Goebbels out of gratitude.’”) Had Goebbels learned of the recent handiwork of a creative 29er in Schloss Rheydt, he would have positively erupted in fury. Armed with a paintbrush, a can of black paint, and a wooden signboard, that anonymous GI had marched boldly into the castle’s cavernous dining hall and headed straight to an enormous painting of Hitler, in martial pose and Nazi regalia, that hung over the fireplace. Stepping up onto a chair, he affixed the board across the painting and gleefully slathered paint on it, spelling out a German word that required no translation: KAPUT. Later, he attached a large cardboard cutout of a scruffy 29th Division GI and hung it adjacent to der Führer’s portrait.


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