Joseph Balkoski and 29th Division in World War II
With the publication in 2015 of The Last Roll Call: The 29th Infantry Division Victorious, 1945, Joseph Balkoski has completed his remarkable five-volume history of the 29th Division in World War II as it fought its way from Omaha Beach to the Elbe River. Balkoski’s work has enriched the nation’s memory of the courage, tenacity, and spirit of American fighting men waging war in a just cause with much of the world’s freedom at stake.
It all began in 1989 with the publication of Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy, where Balkoski described the pre-war assembling and training of the Division’s units (the 115th, 116th, and 175th regiments) at Ft. Meade, Maryland, A.P. Hill Military Reservation near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Camp Blanding in Florida. After Pearl Harbor, training intensified and in September-October 1942, the soldiers of the Division departed from Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, for England. Training continued in England for the next 19 months, and on June 6, 1944, the Division embarked for Omaha Beach. Balkoski described the harrowing experiences of individual soldiers (that he fondly calls “29ers”) during the first hours of the invasion.
The bulk of Balkoski’s first volume, however, told the story of the fighting beyond the beaches where the Division’s soldiers (including my father, Frank Sempa, a sergeant in the 175th regiment), fought in the bocage of the Normandy countryside where every field was bordered by earthen hedgerows that served as natural defensive positions for the Germans. “Combat in the bocage,” Balkoski wrote, “was like fighting in a maze.” “[W]herever a soldier stood,” Balkoski noted, “his view was blocked in all directions by walls of vegetation.” General Omar Bradley called it “the damnedest country I’ve seen.” The 29ers slugged it out fifty yards at a time, suffering terrible casualties, on their way to capture the French town of St Lo. In the fight to reach St Lo, the 29th Division was on the front lines for 44 days.
Beyond the Beachhead ends with the capture of St Lo. Most World War II histories proceed from St Lo to the breakout known as Operation Cobra, in which Allied forces surge eastward, capture Paris in August 1944, and prepare to attack the German Reich at the Siegfried Line. The 29th Division, however, moved west toward the Brittany peninsula and the French port of Brest. Balkoski covered this important, but often neglected aspect of the war in northwest Europe, in From Beachhead to Brittany: The 29th Division at Brest, August-September 1944, which was published in 2008. Balkoski described the fighting there as a “vicious, close-range melee” and “an unadulterated slugfest, one in which the resolution and fortitude of the common rifleman was almost entirely responsible for the 29th Division’s success.” The courage and ferocity of American infantrymen was on display at long forgotten places like Ft. Keranroux, Ft. Montbarey, and “Sugarloaf Hill.” Brest and its German submarine base fell on Sept. 18, 1944, but Allied bombing and German sabotage had rendered the port unusable to Allied forces.
Traveling by train, truck, and jeep, the soldiers of the 29th Division moved from the tip of the Brittany peninsula to Holland and then to the Siegfried Line, the German “West Wall” that was designed to prevent the Allies from reaching the Rhine River and the heart of the Nazi Reich. Balkoski’s third volume, From Brittany to the Reich: The 29th Infantry Division in Germany September-November 1944, focused on the “violent vortex of combat” faced by the Division in the relatively flat landscape dotted with small villages where “the open ground could be covered by deadly crossfires.”
He described in great detail the rugged fighting in Schierwaldenrath, Hatterath, Kreuzrath, Saeffeler Creek, Breberen, Geilenkirchen, Baesweiler, Wurselen, and other towns unknown to most Americans and whose names are rarely found in general histories of the Second World War. The main Allied target at that time was the city of Aachen, once capitol of Charlemagne’s empire. The 29th’s area was a diversion, a sideshow that was starved of artillery and air power. That changed in November when the 29th, now assigned to the Ninth Army, was poised to play its role in a November offensive to breach the Siegfried Line, cross the Roer River, and march to the Rhine.
Balkoski’s next volume, Our Tortured Souls: The 29th Infantry Division in the Rhineland, November-December 1944, began with the November offensive in the Rhineland, and the 29th’s attacks on Siersdorf, Setterich, Bettendorf, Schleiden, Durboslar, Niedermerz, Aldenhoven and Bourheim; many of these attacks were spearheaded by my father’s regiment, the 175th. Balkoski noted that the fighting at Bourheim “would strain the 175th Infantry members beyond the limits of their physical and emotional endurance.” That regiment’s “epic stand” at Bourheim earned a Distinguished Unit Citation. Our Tortured Souls ends in December 1944, with the 29th Division poised to attack across the Roer—an attack postponed by the surprise German offensive in the Ardennes Forest known as the Battle of the Bulge.
In The Last Roll Call, Balkoski completes the chronicle of this great American infantry division, starting with its role in Operation Grenade, the Ninth Army’s huge offensive across the Roer River to Julich, then on to the capture of Munchen-Gladbach, across the Rhine River in late March-early April 1945, stopping at the west bank of the Elbe River where an entire German V-2 Rocket division surrendered to the 29th.
With his diligent research, dogged determination to tell the Division’s story from the varying perspectives of political leaders, commanding officers, and individual soldiers, and his flair for the written word, Joseph Balkoski has kept faith with the men who performed heroic deeds from Omaha Beach to the Elbe.