First published on Warfare History Network on November 15, 2016, the article, “The 90th Division Comes of Age” by our historian Kevin M. Hymel, tells the little known story of the one of the worst infantry divisions in the U.S. Army, which turned itself around during the drive across France.
The 90th Division Comes of Age
Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. First Army, considered his 90th Infantry Division a problem unit. Its performance in the first part of the Normandy campaign was so poor, its leadership so bad, and its morale so low that Bradley’s exasperated staff recommended breaking up the division and using its soldiers as replacements. Bradley, however, believed that proper leadership could save the division and make it a fighting machine.
The 90th had landed on Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and attacked a veteran German division four days later. In the tight hedgerow country, the inexperienced Americans made little progress but took heavy casualties. The unit’s poor fighting ability was noticed by more than senior American commanders. The Germans also took note. An American paratrooper, making his way back into the American lines one night, walked right through the 90th’s front line and was neither shot at nor challenged. He noticed infantrymen digging foxholes in the middle of open fields and piling up the dirt on the sides of their holes; he tripped over a number of trip wires without drawing any attention, and he kept walking until he reached the division’s artillery, where he was finally challenged.
The unit’s crest, T and O, stood for Texas and Oklahoma, the home of the division’s officers in World War I. The men, however, preferred the letters to stand for Tough Hombres. But the division’s leadership failed to live up to the aggressive title. Brig. Gen. Jay W. MacKelvie had taken command of the unit two months prior to the Normandy invasion. After the first failed attack, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, the division’s corps commander, replaced MacKelvie with his deputy corps commander, Maj. Gen. Eugene Landrum, who had fought in the Aleutians and captured Attu.
Landrum promised to clean house and get the division moving, going so far as to promise Bradley a “saltwater cocktail” from the other side of the Cherbourg Peninsula. But Landrum failed to get results. His July 22 attack on St. Germain-Sur-Seves was thrown back by fewer than 30 German paratroopers, and 250 Tough Hombres surrendered, the largest surrender of Americans in Normandy. An unsatisfied Bradley relieved Landrum after only two weeks in command.
Bradley next picked Brig. Gen. Teddy Roosevelt to revive the division. Roosevelt, the tough-fighting son of former President Theodore Roosevelt, had fought in North Africa and Sicily. He returned to the war with the 4th Infantry Division, landing with the assault troops at Utah Beach on D-Day, personally exposing himself to fire and leading men forward. Unfortunately, Teddy Roosevelt died on July 12, two days before Bradley’s request reached General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied commander.
Bradley finally found a solid leader on July 30. Brig. Gen. Raymond S. McLain made a name for himself with the National Guard serving on the Mexican border and in Europe during World War I. He proved his leadership abilities in Sicily as the artillery commander of the 45th Infantry Division, where he spurned his command post in favor of spending time with the troops. McLain quickly proved himself to the Tough Hombres. When returning from a visit to his frontline troops, he and his jeep driver blasted through a German roadblock with McLain firing his mounted .50-caliber machine gun at the enemy. The 90th had found its leader.
To aid McLain, Bradley sent Brig. Gen. William Weaver to serve as assistant division commander. Weaver had been the chief of staff for Services of Supply. Despite his seemingly inconsequential position, Weaver was a no-nonsense warrior who led by example. McLain and Weaver went to work immediately. McLain would introduce himself to the troops and then yank Weaver over to him and say: “This is Wild Bill Weaver, with a rugged face and a rugged character.” Within two days, they had relieved 16 field officers.
“Put on Your Neckties”
Things were beginning to change for the 90th. McLain also had a fresh set of commanders to answer to. The 90th was placed under Maj. Gen. Wade Haislip’s XV Corps in General George S. Patton, Jr.’s newly activated Third Army. One of the first messages sent from Patton read: “Put on your neckties.”
The terrain also changed. With the capture of Avranches the 90th was out of the hedgerows and fighting on open land. Additionally, Avranches’s capture ripped open the German left flank, resulting in an opportunity to prosecute Patton’s style of mobile warfare. Patton put the foot soldiers into trucks racing eastward, and the 90th had yet to prove itself in a fight.
Change was not instantaneous. On August 1, the day Third Army became operational, Patton came across some 90th men lying in a ditch and asked, “Who’s in charge of this recon?”
A shaken sergeant spoke up: “I am, sir.” Patton then impatiently asked, “Can you tell me, sergeant, why you’re stopped here, sunning yourself in a ditch?”
The nervous sergeant stumbled over his words, “To reload and regroup, sir.” Patton was not satisfied. “Bullshit!” he snapped, and laid into the NCO with a string of curse words. Finished, Patton climbed into his jeep and sped away.
Things did not go much better the next day. Patton visited the division along a road east of Avranches. He yelled at officers who jumped from their vehicles at the sight of high-flying German planes. He walked two miles down the road, talking to the Tough Hombres as they passed. He called men riding on tanks babies and waited as they dismounted.
That night he confided to his diary, “The division is bad, the discipline poor, the men filthy, and the officers apathetic, many of them removing their insignia and covering the markings on their helmets.” He concluded: “They seemed normal but are not in hard condition.” But Patton did see some positives. The next day, while visiting McLain’s headquarters, he monitored General Weaver’s attack on St. Hillaire, which was soon captured.
Task Force Weaver Advances on Mayenne
With St. Hillaire in American hands, the 90th attacked toward Mayenne, a town 30 miles southeast of Avranches and a key objective for the encirclement of the German Seventh Army. With most of Patton’s armor heading west into Brittany, the capture of the town and its three vital bridges over the Mayenne River would give Patton an excellent location to begin the western encirclement once Bradley consented. McLain put Weaver in charge of a special task force to advance quickly to seize the town.
Task Force Weaver was composed around the 357th Infantry Regiment, with the 712th Tank Battalion, a company from the 607th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and the 345th Field Artillery Battalion providing fire support. The 90th Recon Troop acted as the task force’s eyes, and the 315th Engineer Battalion cleared mines and obstacles. A squadron of Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers provided air support, and a company from the 315th Medical Battalion cared for the wounded.
As the sun rose on August 5, the task force headed out from St. Hillaire with the armor and reconnaissance cars up front, acting as a screen, while the infantry-laden trucks followed close behind. Other elements followed, averaging 20 miles an hour. People lining the streets threw flowers at the advancing soldiers. When the columns slowed, the locals ran forward and offered bottles of wine. Members of the French Resistance offered information on enemy positions.
“The men seemed to sense the fact that something big was in the wind—an undercurrent of excitement seemed to go down the column and you could almost see the men’s spirits rise,” reported Colonel George B. Barth, the regiment’s commander. “Morale was on the way up.”
Clash With German Armor
Around 2:30 pm, the task force reached the outskirts of Mayenne where two reconnaissance vehicles blew up at a mined roadblock. German infantry opened fire with machine guns and antitank weapons from the woods on either side of the road. Barth rushed forward through enemy fire to direct his mortar teams, then followed with a company-strength assault. The men quickly took the roadblock. The battle to capture Mayenne was on.
Weaver, scouting up front with carbine in hand, decided on a two-pronged attack, sending a battalion under Major Edward Hamilton to attack the only remaining bridge in the center of the city, while two other battalions under Colonel Barth headed south to cut off the routes leading out of the city to the east.
Hamilton pushed his men and tanks forward, encountering only slight resistance. To ensure no surprises, his artillery and tanks blasted the suspicious-looking high ground on the western edge of the city. Hamilton’s men captured the western section and discovered the Germans had destroyed two of the three bridges spanning the Mayenne River.
To get a better view of the remaining bridge, a lieutenant set up an observation post in the attic of a house fronting the river. He found the position by shooting the locks off the doors leading upstairs. From this vantage point, he could see that the bridge was rigged for destruction with eight 500-pound aerial bombs. On its eastern edge the Germans had posted two 88mm guns, a 20mm weapon, and a few tanks.
As the Americans pondered the best way to capture the bridge, they came under fire from the Germans on the east bank. On the west bank, a German tank rolled south, heading for the Americans. Hamilton called artillery on the tank and ordered his antitank platoon north to block any other attempts to flank his left. As the men rolled their weapon across the street, German artillery opened up, killing one man and wounding two others. The German tank was quickly dispatched.
Sherman tanks then took up positions along the river and began firing at the Germans. Behind Hamilton, a lone German vehicle rolled up, intending to cross the bridge. The occupants did not realize they were now in American territory. A single blast from a tank destroyer at point-blank range ended the vehicle’s journey.
“The result,” reported Hamilton, “was carnage.” When a French civilian was hit by the exchange of fire, Staff Sergeant Charlie Lancaster broke cover, raced over to him, and carried him to safety.
Hamilton’s men readied for their assault. He planned to hit the far bank with a 10-minute artillery barrage. As soon as it ended, infantry would rush across the bridge, followed by a squad of mine-detecting engineers who would precede the tanks, making sure the bridge was safe for the tanks’ advance. Machine gunners firing from buildings lining the river and a wall along the west bank would provide covering fire.
The plan soon broke down. The artillery pieces began pounding away at the German positions at 5:50 pm. One round hit the 88mm ammunition, sending a huge blast into the air and a pall of smoke over the attack route. When the artillery fire lifted, the lead infantry platoon froze and would not move. The first tank, commanded by Lieutenant Charley Lombardi, had already cornered the road paralleling the river and was heading over the bridge, cannon firing.
Seeing this disaster in the making, Lieutenant Burrows Stevens called, “Follow me!” and ran out behind Lombardi’s tank. He followed it over the bridge, emptying his only weapon, a German Walther P-38 pistol.
Inspired by Stevens’s courage, the platoon and two engineers followed…
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