Less than twelve months after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the 100th Infantry Division was activated at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, with an enlisted cadre principally from the 76th Infantry Division and an officer cadre from the Army at large. From activation through V-E Day and beyond, the 100th was commanded by Major General Withers A. Burress, and was thus of only 11 U.S. Army divisions to be led by the same commanding general throughout the war.
In late 1943, the Division moved from Fort Jackson to winter maneuvers in the Tennesee mountains, before moving to Fort Bragg, for further training in early 1944.
While at Bragg, the Division received, retrained and integrated as infantrymen over 3,000 replacements from the disbanded Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP)- an organization designed to train America’s “best and brightest” young men for service in technical military occupations. Also while at Bragg, Technical Sergeant Walter L. Bull of Company A, 399th Infantry Regiment earned the Army’s first Expert Infantryman Badge, a badge still earned today by the most technically-competant Infantry men and certain Special Operations personnel in the Army.
The Division went into combat in early November as part of the U.S. Seventh Army’s IV Corps, with the mission of penetrating the German Winter Line in the High Vosges Mountains on the egde of the oft-disputed province of Alsace.
The Vosges terrain was formidable and the severe winter weather added hundreds of casualties to those inflicted by the tenacious German defenders. Nevertheless, the 100th led the attack through the Vosges Mountains as, for the first time in history, an army succeeded in penetrating that vaunted terrain barrier to the Rhine Plain and Germany. While falling back toward Germany, the enemy bitterly defended the modern Maginot fortifications around the ancient fortress city of Bitche. Just after reducing these intimidating defenses, in the last hour of 1944, the Division was attacked by elements of three German divisions, including a full-strength SS-Panzer Grenadier division, heavily supported by armor, in Operation NORDWIND, the last German offensive on the Western front. As the units on the left and right gave ground, the men of the 100th stood fast and the Division quickly became the only unit in the Seventh Army to hold its sector in the face of the massive enemy onslaught. In the brutal fighting which ensued, the Division stubbornly resisted all attempts at envelopment and despite heavy casualties the 100th completely disrupted the German offensive.
Ultimately, the 100th Infantry Division captured the Citadel of Bitche in March, 1945 and passed through the Siegfried Line into Germany.
The Division’s last major battle was the attack on Heilbronn in April 1945, which required an assault crossing the Neckar River in small boats, in full view of the crews of dozens of German artillery pieces which laid fierce direct fire over the crossing site. In over a week of savage urban combat, the Division defeated elements of several German Army and Waffen-SS divisions, seized the key industrial city and pursued the beaten foe though Swabia toward Stuttgart.
For these combat actions, the 100th Infantry Division received streamers for the Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland and Central Europe campaigns; its subordinate units garnered a total of eight Distinguished Unit Citations.
Among the men of the 100th Infantry Division honored for heroism were three who earned the Medal of Honor: Lieutenant Edward A. Silk, Technical Sergeant Charles F. Carey and Private First Class Michael Colalillo. In addition, Centurymen earned 36 Distinguished Service Crosses, over 500 Silver Stars and well over 3,500 Purple Hearts.
In all, in 185 days of uninterrupted ground combat, the 100th Infantry Division liberated and captured over 400 cities, towns, and villages. Defeated major elements of eight German divisions and took 13, 351 prisoners. In doing so, it sustained 916 soldiers killed in action, 3,656 wounded in action and lost 180 men missing in action.
Perhaps the story of the most recently accounted for of the Division’s MIAs is illustrative of the spirit of the Century Division during WWII. While doggedly defending his position during Operation NORDWIND on January 1, 1945, Private First Class Maurice Lloyd, Company L, 399th Infantry Regiment of Rock Island, Illonois, fired his Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) against the onrushing German Grenadiers until he was shot through the head. By the time the Americans recovered their lost ground later in the winter, new snow had fallen, concealing Lloyd’s body and he was listed as Missing in Action until 1976. In that year, a French hiker taking a cross-country route through the woods in the Low Vosges near Lemberg found Lloyd’s remains still in his foxhole, and still clutching his BAR with which he had so defiantly spat death at the attackers over 31 years before. The remains of this soldier of the Century, which remained “face toward the enemy” for over three decades, were finally laid to rest in honored glory amongst his comrades in the U.S. Army’s Ardennes Cemetery.
Born in war, manned by many of America’s best, trained to high standards and consistently victorious in battle, the legacy of the 100th Infantry Division is one of singular excellence: its soldiers earned the first EIB, were the first to ever fight their way through the Vosges Mountains, seized the Citadel at Bitche for the first time in its 250-year history and were the only unit to hold its ground during the last German offensive in the west of World War II.
By Lieutenant Colonel Keith E. Bonn, Infantry US Army (Ret.), military historian whose father, Keith J.M. Bonn served in the 100th during World War II. Keith E. Bonn is the author of When the Odds Were Even: The Vosges Mountain Campaign.