103d Infantry Division History: World War II

The 103d Infantry Division (Cactus) in World War II


Activated: 15 November 1942.

Overseas: 6 October 1944.

Campaigns: Rhineland, Central Europe. Ardennes-Alsace

Awards: DSC-12; DSM-1; SS-299; LM-3; SM-14; BSM-2,669; AM-92.

Commanders: Maj. Gen. Charles C. Haffner, Jr. (November 1942-January 1945),

Maj. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe (January-July 1945),

Brig. Gen. John N. Robinson (August 1945 to inactivation).

Returned to U.S.: 10 September 1945.

Inactivated: 22 September 1945.


Assignments in the ETO:


1 November 1944: Seventh Army, 6th Army Group.


6 November 1944: VI Corps.


22 December 1944: XV Corps.


9 January 1945: XXI Corps.


16 January 1945: VI Corps.


29 March 1945: Seventh Army, 6th Army Group.


19 April 1945: VI Corps


For 21 years, the 103d Infantry Division remained an Organized Reserve division. After Pearl Harbor, the nation's leaders realized the Army needed to rely on Organized Reserve and National Guard. In 1940, the National Guard mobilized and nearly doubled size of the regular Army.


On 15 November 1942, the 103d ID was activated at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. A month before the formal activation, key staff assembled at Camp Claiborneand began the arduous task of organizing the Division.  Brigadier General Charles C. Hafner, previously the Division Artillery Commander for the 33d ID, assumed command of the103d ID.  BG John T. Pierce, formerly the commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, became Assistant Division Commander.  Leaving his previous assignment as the Commander of the 78th Field Artillery Regiment, BG Roger M. Wicks assumed his new role as Division Artillery Commander of the 103d ID.


The Division started receiving filler personnel on 4 December 1942 as officers and enlisted men from the 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th were shipped to Service Command induction centers. A total of 14,654 personnel joined from these Commands.


Most men underwent Initial Basic Training at Camp Claiborne, which culminated in the Louisiana Maneuvers that lasted from 8 August until 14 November 1943. On 15 November the Division withdrew from tactical operations and preprepared to move from Camp Claiborne to Camp Howze, Texas.


General George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff said, "a soldiers life could be uncomfortable." After completing the Louisiana Maneuvers, the men of Cactus Division concurred with Marshall’s sentiment.  The men, however, were convinced that General Marshall did not personally experience that level of discomfort and seriously doubted that the good General ever marched 30 miles under a hot summer sun in Louisiana and still been able to fight. The summer of 1943 was one of the hottest on record in that part of Louisiana, but the men of the Cactus survived and were prepared to fight.


The weather at Camp Howze was an improvement over central Louisiana. Intensive training, however, did not diminish as the men of the Cactus Division prepared for the rigors of war in Europe. Field problems conducted in exotic places, such as Lake Murray, Decatur, Honey Grove, or near the Texas-Oklahoma border were only followed by more field problems. Spit and shine and parades broke the monotony.  As a result of this intensive training, the Cactus men became a well-trained team of fighting men ready for battle.


On 15 September 1944 the Division held a final review on the Camp Howze parade grounds. Folks from Gainesville, Texas visited the camp to show support and admiration as they watched "their" division demonstrate its marching prowess. The well-trained soldiers were ready for combat.


Next, the 103d ID moved to Camp Shanks where the men of Cactus Division processed for deployment to the European Theatre of Operations. Unknown to them, the men were headed for Marseille, France where they would ultimately face a determined enemy in several of the war's final battles.


On 20 October 1944, the103rd Infantry Division arrived at Marseilles, France. Moving by rail and truck, the men of Cactus left Marseille on November 1. They went just north of Dijon to join elements of Lieutenant General Patch’s Seventh Army.


The men halted at a rail junction in Docelles, near Epinal. Here, the VI Corps of Patch’s Seventh Army was preparing an offensive to the northeast of the Moselle River and the 103d ID would play an integral part in that operation.  The Cactus Division dug in on the front between the 3d and 36th Infantry Divisions. On 11 November 1944, Allied forces marched against Germany; only 26 years after the end of World War I--supposedly the war to end all wars.


From 11-15 November 1944, the 409th and 410th Infantry Regiments conducted intense reconnaissance patrols. On 15 November 1944, 103d Infantry Division recieved orders to seize and hold the high ground southwest of St. Die, France. Major General Edward Brooks lavishly praised the Cactus Division during its first week of combat; a tribute to the training the men received prior to their deployment to the front.


Meeting heavy resistance, elements of the 103d Infantry Division crossed the Meurthe River and took St. Die on 22 November 1944. The Germans, in a scorched earth mode, left St. Die burning as a vendetta against the citizens.  Symbolically, the Germans first set fire the building where cartographers had named the newly discovered land, "America."


From St. Die, the men's mission was to take Steige and capture the pass. The 411th Infantry Regiment quickly passed through Steige and launched a surprise attack on Masonsgoutte, which they captured on 26 November. The hard winter of 1944 pelted the Cactus men with cold rain and sleet during their 10 days of combat.


After 19 days of intense fighting in mountainous terrain, the Germans assumed their enemy would not be able to fight through the Vosges Mountains. The men of the Cactus Division, however, proved them wrong. To the German's amazement, the men of the 103d successfully breached the heavily defended passes.


From Maisonsgoutte, the Division marched on Hohwarth, then Eichhoffen, Epfig, and finally to Ebersheim. The Division's amazing successes were costly. Within a two week span, the Division suffered 76 killed in action, 549 wounded, and 51 missing. The toll on the Germans remains unknown, but the Division took 1600 prisoners.


On 4 December 1944, the Allies liberated the city of Selestat--the third time in less than a hundred years that the city had been liberated during wartime. The Germans had occupied Selestat for four years, using it as a supply and evacuation depot.  Furthermore, the city housed five German hospitals.  As a strategically important location, the Germans defended the city and offered strong resistance.


On 10 December. the Division crossed the Zintzel River at Griesbach. Then, the Division pushed through to Climbach, where they met a determined enemy that was well equipped with armor, artillery, and infantry. The brutal fight for Climbach inflicted heavy losses on the 103d Infantry. The attached 614th Tank Destroyers provided tremendous support. The story of the 614th Tank Destroyers is chronicled in the history of 1LT Charles L. Thomas, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1997, he was posthumously awarded Medal of Honor for his gallant efforts in the defense of Climbach.


Just three days before its first Christmas in combat, the Division received a well-deserved break. They were trucked from Wissembourg to Hillimar, France where they spent the 23rd of December and then moved to Guenviller and Cappel for Christmas Day.


Battle of the Bulge, however, had begun, which brought little good news Christmas Day 1944. Enemy threat grew, the Battle of the Bulge raged,and Germans sent saboteurs and infiltrating, including English-speaking agents who were familiar with American slang, into the the American forces.  American GI responded to the increased threat with ingenuity. Everyone faced questions: “Where do you put the quarterbacks?” “What is a juicy fruit?” “What is a Baby Ruth?” The wrong answer could get someone shot.


The Division hunkered down in the defensive. December was a bloody month for the Cactus men with 244 killed in action, 1048 wounded, 291 missing in action. On New Year’s Eve, the Germans mounted an attack against the Seventh Army front. The 103d Division was deep concerned that the Germans would push an attack into their rear, cutting the 103rd off from retreat. If the Germans mounted a simultaneous attack on the Colmar Pocket to the south, moving through Selestat to the Saverne Pass, such an attack could cut off the VI Corps forces, including the 103d Infantry Division, in Alsace. Americans stopped the German advance after penetrating the lines at Bitche, which was later dubbed the “Bitche Salient” by American troops.


On 8 January 1945, Major General Haffner, due to health concerns, relinquished command of the Division to Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe, who previously emerged victorious at the Battle of the Bulge. BG McAuliffe had responded to the German demand to surrender at Bastogne with the simple term, “nuts.” BG McAuliffe would receive his second star on 6 February 1945 and command the 103d Infantry Division until its deactivation.


On 14 January 1945, the 103d Infantry Division moved to Reichshofen, taking positions along the Saner River. The Division withdrew to the Moder River and set up a defensive line. On 19 January 1945, supported by A Company, the 781st Tank Battalion received orders to roll into Sessenheim. To the north of Sessenheim, German 88mm fire destroyed four of the American tanks and, in under 30 minutes, a German Tiger tank took out the remaining four American tanks. Both sides took heavy casualties, but the Cactus men held and the Sessenheim battle crippled the enemy and broke their push south.


On 15 March 1945, the 103d's offensive began with Operation Undertone. The men crossed the Moder and Zintzel Rivers before capturing Muhlhausen against sharp opposition. The Division then moved over the Lauter River and penetrated the defenses of the Siegfried Line. As German resistance disintegrated, the 103d reached the Rhine Valley, 23 March, and engaged in mopping up operations in the plain west of the Rhine River. Operation Undertone ended 31 March 1945 when the 103d Infantry Division  recaptured territory that had been lost during the German’s NORDWIND offensive, drove the enemy out of Alsace; penetrated the “impenetrable” Siegfried Line; pushed the German Army out defensive positions into vulnerable locations, brought the war directly to  German citizens, and prepared for the Third Army to cross the Rhine and the Seventh Army to cross at Worms and Mannheim.


In April 1945, after a brief occupational force mission, the Division resumed the offensive, pursuing a fleeing enemy through Stuttgart and taking Munsinger on 24 April. Elements of the Division crossed the Danube River near Ulm on 26 April 1945.


On 27 April 1945, the 411th Infantry Regiment advanced south along the Lech River, cleared the Buchlo, and then moved on to Landsberg. The 3d Battalion surprised  200 Germans who were manning an ambush point. The fight, lasting only minutes, permitted the Americans to capture the bewildered Germans. Shortly after taking the German prisoners, a Hungarian officer stated he wanted to surrender his men. The Cactus men followed the Hungarian and were shocked to see over 900 Hungarians, in formation, at attention, with clean uniforms. The Hungarian officer faced his men, did an about face, saluted the Americans and stated unequivocally, “they are all yours, sir.”


At Landsberg,103d Division uncovered the real horror of German policy. The Cactus men found six concentration camps where thousands died. Upon arrival at the camp, the the soldiers saw the bodies of German victims all over the camp. In one camp, over 300 lay dead and 600 more individuals wandered around the camp, starving and exhausted from over five years of forced labor.


On 1 May 1945, the 409th Infantry crossed the Austrian border. The unit advanced from Mittenwald, the historic point where centuries of crossings had been made from Germany into Austria. The 410th Infantry remained at Oberammergau, the town that hosted the historic Passion Play since the mid 1600s. The 411th Infantry remained in position at Garmish-Partenkirchen.


The 103d Infantry Division reached Innsbruck where BG Pierce, Assistant Division Commander, received a formal surrender on 4 May 1945.


One of the world’s greatest wars ended when the German High Command signed an unconditional surrender on 7 May 1945 and peace formally declared at 0001 9 May 1945. The 103d Infantry Division had been in combat a scant six months, but faced a fierce and determined enemy. For the remainder of their time in Austria, the 103d Infantry Division (Cactus) performed occupational duties and assisted Military Government organizations in starting the long road to recovery in Europe.


During the first week of September 1945 the 103d Infantry Division began processing for return to the United States. The Division was deactivated on 22 September 1945.

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