Part 44: The battle for Epinal, France (Sept. 21-23, 1944)
From the accounts of Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek as shared by his son, Glen Palecek
Most battles Dad was part of in France had to be fought with infantry as bad weather constantly kept Allied planes grounded. Cities usually had to be taken block-by-block and house-to-house. I would like to tell you, as best I can, details about the battle for Epinal, France.
First, it is a city General Patton falsely claimed he had taken. The newsmen of the day repeated his lie and even today many of Patton’s lies are repeated as fact. On September 11, 1944, Patton’s Third Army met up with General Patch’s Seventh Army, but none of Patton’s divisions had anything to do with the battle for Epinal, which began on September 21, eight days after Patton claimed his Third Army had captured the city. You can even find a map in General Bradley’s book, “A Soldier’s Story,” which shows Patton’s Third Army taking the city, although there is no other mention of Epinal in the book. Dad wrote in one of his papers that he “well-remembers the bitter all night and dawn battles that were necessary to capture the city of Epinal.”
It rained hard off and on throughout the three-day battle. While the other two regiments of the 45th Division advanced around the city, Dad’s 180th Regiment was tasked with going through the heart of Epinal and engaging three battalions of over 3,000 SS troops defending the city. These troops were supported by heavy artillery.
Epinal was an extremely heavily fortified military city. The French had built up these fortifications for decades to use against the Germans, but now the Germans were using them against the invading Thunderbirds. Mines and booby-traps were everywhere and had to be cleared under fire before an advance could be made. The Moselle River runs through the middle of town; it is a swift-flowing, 80-foot-wide river with 20-foot vertical concrete walls on each side. The bridges across the river had been destroyed by the Germans. It’s impossible for me to understand how the Thunderbirds were able to make a beachhead-style crossing of the Moselle River under heavy fire from SS Division troops. As they had in Italy, brave individuals from the rifle companies snuck behind enemy lines to take out machine-gun nests and other fortifications. Dad’s Third Battalion, together with the Second Battalion, played the key role in defeating the Germans at Epinal. Although the First Battalion was brought in later for support, it is well worth noting that two Thunderbird Battalions were able to over-match three battalions from Hitler’s feared SS troops even though the Germans had the advantage of fighting from dug-in positions. It’s no wonder Hitler ordered the 45th Division to be wiped out at Anzio. Now, once again, the Fighting 45th proved they were among the finest soldiers of this war. Because of their many beachheads across both rivers and ocean beaches, somewhere along the line they picked up the nickname “Paddlefeet.” I don’t know how widely the term was used, but for a while at least, men from other divisions affectionately spoke of “Thunderbird Paddlefeet” for their ability to forge beachheads across rivers, like the Moselle in Epinal, before bridges were built. Only after the Moselle was crossed did 45th Division engineers construct a Bailey bridge at the crossing site. (A Baily bridge is a temporary bridge made out of pre-constructed panels.)
Patton may have taken the credit for taking Epinal, but detailed Army records prove otherwise and today there is an American cemetery at Epinal as final proof of which soldiers took the city. Fifteen locomotives, numerous railroad cars, and huge supply stashes of SS ammunition, food, and other necessities were captured at Epinal, greatly hindering Hitler’s Armies’ support.
Here is a very odd story from Epinal: after the Thunderbirds took the city, Dad’s Headquarters Company set up their headquarters in a building that included an apartment occupied by a French woman who was suspected of cooperating with the Germans. Her apartment was searched and she complained to Army officials that soldiers were going through her stuff. She was told to put the complaint in writing and she did. When the Army officials turned the paper over, they found the other side was a mimeographed copy of a letter from Adolf Hitler! The letter was dated January 1940, more than four and a half years before the Thunderbirds arrived and well before France fell to the German Blitzkrieg, proving she had been friendly with the Nazis since before France was occupied by the Germans. Now the French had proof of her long-term collaboration. As was done with other French women who had collaborated with the Germans, her head was shaved in public. Dad told me of a French woman with her head shaved, perhaps this one, who was driven by French guards to a quarry just outside town where she was unceremoniously shot.
The French faithful had no use for those who had collaborated with the Germans. French men who sided with the SS were often shot without trial and women collaborators had their heads shaved, and sometimes, like the one mentioned above, they were also shot. There was a lot of finger pointing as the French turned on each other — just another example of the horrors of war.
I finally finished reading all of Dad’s letters from the battlefields. There are many things in these letters that will surprise you. I hope to write a review soon. They show some of the good times that were had, but mostly they reveal just how awful and miserable this war was and why the soldiers wanted out so badly. If you want to read about glory in battle, read fiction. There was no glory in this war. Bravery? Yes! Heroism? Yes! But glory? No! Dad said it best when he wrote that there is no glory in the butchery of your fellow human. War is not a game – war is hell!
I am finding some of this difficult to write, but want to thank all of you who continue to encourage my efforts. I have a good start on the next episode. It continues with more examples of Patton’s lies and false reports, plus the story about his meeting with Dad’s friend, Sergeant Bill Mauldin.