My Father’s War
During WWII, my father, 1st Lt. David J. Read, served as a forward air observer in Battery B, 551st Field Artillery Battalion, under the command of Gen. Courtney H. Hodges, whom Gen. Eisenhower referred to as the “spearhead and the scintillating star” of the US advance into Germany.
The battery trained on 240mm howitzers – the largest gun in the US Army, at Fort Bragg, NC, before final processing March 17-19, 1944, at Camp Shanks, NY, on the Hudson River. On March 19, they boarded the Queen Mary, spent two nights aboard before sailing – arriving at the Firth of Clyde, opposite Greenoch, Scotland, on March 27.
Landing in France
After further training near Dorset, England, the battery embarked for duty in France on June 26 at 05:45 and debarked from the landing craft on June 27 at 09:30, then marched to the vicinity of La Combe, France an hour later.
In the European Theatre, against the German Army, from June 27, 1944 until the war’s end on May 12, 1945, Battery B supported every major battle staged by the First United States Army, firing 2,697 rounds of 240mm howitzer ammunition, a total weight of 937,835 pounds of steel and TNT.
Each battery member received campaign ribbons with battle stars for the following campaigns: Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes, and Central Germany. My father also was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal, with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters, and Distinguished Service Cross.
Transcription of text from the campaign map:
Operations of the First United States Army in Europe, June 6, 1944 – May 9, 1945.
– Cross-channel assault, establishment of a firm lodgement on the continent, and the capture of Cherbourg and St. Lo.
St. Lo Breakthrough
– Destruction of the German armies at St. Lo, Mortain, and the Falaise Gap.
Northern France pursuit
– Capture of Paris and the pursuit across France, Belgium, and Holland to the German border.
– Assault of the west wall, capture of Aachen, drive to the Roer River, and the first battle of the Hurtgen Forest.
Ardennes Counter Offensive
– Reduction of the Ardennes bulge, second battle of the Hurtgen Forest, and capture of the Roer River dams.
Crossing of the Rhine
– Attack across the Roer River, capture of Cologne, and the seizure of the Remagen Bridgehead.
– Eastern and northern drives into central Germany, encirclement and capture of major German forces in the west.
The Bridge at Remagen
Early in March 1945, his unit was among the first to reach the Remagen Bridge, the only bridge remaining intact on the Rhine. The Germans had failed to destroy it during their retreat and it was fully loaded with dynamite when the Yanks seized it.
From The New York Sun, March 13, 1945
CUB PLANE FIRST TO LAND EAST OF RHINE
Grasshopper pilots report bridgehead zone is really hot territory.
With the First Army on the Rhine, March 13 – What the major was really saying in effect when he came into the warm tent and sat down on a folding chair was that the United States now had its first airfield east of the German Rhine.
“It’s just a little pea patch,” the major said. “It seemed prepared already for cultivation.” “Why that makes you,” somebody said, “the first American pilot to land the first American plane on the first American field east of the Rhine.” “I guess it does,” the major laughed, “but I never would have thought of it that way.”
The major was James Townsend of Kentucky, and he had just come back after flying over the Remagen bridgehead and landing his Piper Cub observation plane in the pea patch on the other side of the river and bringing it back again. He said that he and Lieut. David Read of Syracuse, his observer, had been out looking for a field over there in case they had to use it sometime.
FIRST FIELD A LITTLE SOFT
“We landed in one field but found it so soft that we had to go out on a ground reconnaissance to find another and taxi over to it.” he said. “It’s a very short strip.”
There is straw on the muddy floor of this tent and cots around the sides, and there is one automobile light shining down from the center pole. This field is a field artillery brigade. The major has been flying for the unit continuously since the second day we won the bridgehead.
“We’ve had planes out every daylight hour that the weather permitted,” he said. “And there’s been a helluva lot of hours when it didn’t permit.”
To understand what that means you have to understand that this bridgehead area, on both sides of the bridge, has for the past five days been the hottest spot on the world map. What may well prove to have been the greatest duel of the war has been going on. The Heinie planes have been coming in and straffing and dropping their bombs. It hasn’t exactly been a picnic for the boys in the kites with the paper sides.
OWN ACK-ACK IS DANGEROUS
“We’ve also had to watch out for our own ack-ack,” said Capt. Robert Maxwell of Pittsburg, “but twice now they’ve given our boys a lane of safety to come right down to the ground when there have been Krauts out.
Major Townsend is 28 years old and used to be a steel worker. He said that a couple days ago he saw one German plane make a dive on the bridge and score a hit on the pier. “I thought that would damage the bridge but the vehicles kept right on moving,” he said. “We’ve certainly got things well controlled over that bridge and there’s a lot of credit coming to those guys that are running that thing down there.”
Capt. Maxwell said that one German plane had chased Lieut. Read right down to the ground, and the Cub had to go through a hole in the hedge fence to keep from cracking up. The major said that the observers had a tough time with the German artillery batteries because they are well hidden in the hills and because visibility has been so poor. Somebody asked him if the Cub flyers ever watch the German shells hitting around the bridge or on the river’s west bank.
“Well, our job is watching for the guns and not for the shells,” he replied. “Shelling is old stuff for us. But out here we are all wrapped up in this bridgehead thing we can’t help but look back once in a while.”
“Say,” said the captain, “if you want to write about somebody, you ought to check up an M.P. lieutenant who has been on that bridge since the Ninth Armored Division first went across. Lieut. Read was telling me he was down there the other day and heard this lieutenant ask for volunteers to go out and get a major whose leg had been blown off, but it was too hot for anybody to volunteer so this lieutenant went himself.”
“Yeah,” said Major Townsend, “those guys who have been keeping that traffic moving on that damn bridge are really brave guys.”