The 85th Infantry Division in World War II
|The Custer Chronicle, Part 2
The 339th Infantry, the first troops of the division to arrive in Italy, landed in Naples on March 15, 1944 and moved to a bivouac area north of the city. Though most believed they would have a few days to get acclimated to a combat zone, the Polar Bears were suddenly marched north and placed in front line positions in the Minturno-Castelforte front overnight of March 17, replacing troops of the 88th Infantry Division. This was the "Gustav Line" front, which stretched across the breadth of Italy at the base of the Liri Valley. It's most notable position was Monte Cassino, a towering height in the center of the valley which featured the ancient monastery over which Fifth Army and German forces had been fighting for several months. The Custermen found themselves facing German positions barely a few hundred yards away, divided by a no man's land through which patrols of both sides probed at night while artillery and snipers ruled the day. The two weeks spent here were invaluable to the 339th's first experience with combat.
Aerial view of Minturno with the Gustav Line beyond.
(U.S. Signal Corps Collection, NARA)
The remainder of the 85th Division arrived in Naples and concentrated in designated bivouacs until division headquarters arrived on March 27 and assignment of the division was formally made to Second Corps. The 85th Division was formally committed to action as a division in the Minturno-Castelforte area on 10 April 1944, north of the Garigliano River and facing the Gustav Line. The Custermen held defensive positions in this area for a month, the division's regiments rotating on and off the line during this period.
On 11 May, the division launched its attack in conjunction with the Fifth Army assault on the Gustav Line, taking Solacciano, Castellonorato, and finally Formia. Itri fell on 19 May, and the 85th continued to mop up the Gaeta Peninsula. Terracina was taken by the 338th Infantry and the road to the Anzio beachhead was opened. The Division pursued the enemy to the hills near Sezze until pinched out by friendly forces of IV Corps pushing inland from Anzio. The Gustav Line had been smashed and the 85th started for a rest area on 29 May, but was ordered to the Lariano sector which the Division cleared by the 31st. Driving on Rome, the 85th pushed through Monte Compatri and Frascati, and entered Rome on 5 June 1944. The Custermen advanced to Viterbo before being relieved on 10 June.
After rehabilitation and training near Lido di Roma and two other training areas, the 85th Infantry Division took over a defensive sector of the Arno River line from 15 to 26 August. The division was aligned west of Florence and assigned a long stretch of the river for observation and containment of enemy forces. The division was relieved by the 6th South African Division on 27-28 August and bivouacked south of Florence for training and recuperation.
The Custer Division was committed to the fall campaign in September 1944 and sent to attack the mountain defenses of the Gothic Line (or "Green Line") at the Il Giogo Pass beginning on 13 September 1944. German forces had used Italian laborers to construct fortified troop emplacements and gun positions, bordered with thousands of mines, wire and other obstacles. Intense contact began in the early morning hours with most of the 339th Infantry assault companies stalled by strong defenses and heavy enemy fire. Fortunately, the 1st Battalion, 338th Infantry made excellent progress in its opening attack when A Company was able to infiltrate the right section of the German positions on Mount Altuzzo and held that position against enemy counterattacks meant to destroy the GI's. The Custermen could not be denied and tenaciously held onto the ridge for the next four days. Repeated attacks against Mount Verrucca in the 339th Infantry's zone finally paid off when the Polar Bears took the mountain after being reinforced by the 337th Infantry.
Il Giogo Pass in the North Apennines, 1944
(U.S. Signal Corps, NARA)
The enemy's "Gothic Line" finally fell on 17 September and Fifth Army forces moved into Il Giogo Pass that night as the enemy forces withdrew. The 85th Division immediately pursued the retreating enemy northward, the 337th Infantry spearheading the crossing the Santerno River at San Pelligrino on 20 September and the city of Firenzuola fell to the 338th Infantry on 21 September. Dismal weather began to play a major role in slowing the advance as rain, fog, and mud hampered the allied drive. After a bitter and heavy fight, the 338th Infantry secured Mount Canda on 28 September. The 337th and 338th Infantry combined assault on the enemy reinforced ridge called Torre Poggioli led to an intense battle for La Martina, a crossroads village of prime importance to enter the Idice River and Sillaro River valleys. Flanking the two regiments, the 339th Infantry secured a series of hills west of La Martina and all three were subjected to heavy enemy counterattacks and artillery. La Martina was finally secured with the enemy withdrawal on 2 October, gaining the Idice River Valley Road that same day. Despite worsening weather conditions and stiffening enemy resistance, the division fought the battle for Mount Bibele and Mount delle Formiche, when it reached Mount Mezzano on 24 October, overlooking the Po River Valley. From 27 October to 22 November 1944, the division was placed in a defensive posture near Pizzano, a combination of weather, shortages, and exhaustion playing into the decision. On 22 November, after sixty straight days in combat, the 85th Infantry Division was relieved from the front line and ordered to a location near Gagliano and Montecatini Terme for a period of rest and rehabilitation.
Artist's depiction of Il Giogo Pass and troops moving through it, September 1944.
(U.S. Army in World War II)
A brief period of rest and training followed for the Custer Division until mid-December 1944, when an unexpected German attack in the Serchio River Valley against the 92nd Infantry Division caused a break in Fifth Army defenses. The 399th Infantry was immediately sent to the area to reinforce the 92nd Division, followed soon after by the 337th Infantry. The Custermen reached the scene and recovered lost equipment and territory as the enemy forces retreated. The two regiments remained in this area after the new year when they were ordered to an area south of Bologna preparatory to manning portions of the Winter Line.
The 85th Division relieved the 1st British Division on 6 January 1945 near Mount Grande and limited its activities to cautious patrols and probes of enemy defenses until 13 March. Soon after, Fifth and Eighth Armies began their final drive into the Po Valley against a weakened and under strength enemy. Some units fought stubbornly while others gave way and retreated in the face of allied air power and armored ground forces, which could now maneuver on the level terrain of the valley. After a brief training period, the 85th thrust southwest of Bologna on 14 April, pushing through Lucca and Pistoia into the Po Valley as enemy resistance collapsed. The Panaro River was crossed on the 23rd and the Po River was reached the next day. On 25 April, the 85th Division crossed the Po River at several points by raft and pontoon bridges.
Company A, 310th Engineer Battalion captured a bridge over the Po River in tact that opened the roadway to armored forces. After establishing a bridgehead, the infantry regiments were organized into mounted task forces that drove directly on to Verona and the city was taken on 26 April by a combined force from the 1st Battalion, 339th Infantry and elements of the 1st Armored Division. Troops from the 1st Battalion, 339th Infantry were the first to cross over the Adige River on a makeshift bridge where they captured a number of prisoners, stores of German equipment, and a large German hospital. After crossing the Adige River, the remaining combat arms of the division took up defensive positions north of Verona until 28 April when motorized task forces drove into the Italian Alps to close the Brenner Pass.
Tanks of the 1st Armored Division at the Adige River in Verona, 26 April 1945.
(U.Ss SIgnal Corps Collection, NARA)
The Division mopped up fleeing Germans until the mass surrender of German forces in Italy on 2 May 1945, and halted in the Belluno-Agordo area. The Custer Division performed garrison and guard duty for the next two months in northern Italy until mid-July when orders were given for rotation of soldiers based on the points system, from the division into other units. On 16 August 1945, the division boarded the USS West Point and was shipped back to the United States, arriving at Hampton Roads, Virginia on 25 August 1945. The division was deactivated the following day at Camp Patrick Henry.
Division Time Line
- April 15, 1942: The 85th Infantry Division is authorized for re-activation and training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.
- May 15, 1942: Division activated at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.
- August 1942: The Division reaches its authorized strength.
- October 1942: The three infantry regiments begin battalion-level maneuvers in Camp Shelby's training areas and nearby DeSoto National Forest.
- March 1943: The Custer Division is transported to Louisiana to begin army-level maneuvers.
- June 1943: The Division is shipped by train to the Desert Training Center at Camp Pilot Knob, California to begin desert training.
- October 1943: The Division completes desert training, transported by train to Fort Dix, New Jersey.
- December 1943: 85th Division arrives at Camp Patrick Henry near the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation.
- Debarkation: 24 December 1943.
- January 1944: First elements of 85th Division land in North Africa.
- February 1944: Amphibious training on the North African coast.
- March 15, 1944: First elements of the 85th Infantry Division arrive in Naples, Italy.
- April 1944: The Custer Division is committed to a combat area around Minturno as a complete division.
- May 11-16, 1944: Operation Diadem, assault on the Gustav Line.
- June 5, 1944: The 85th Infantry Division marches through Rome.
- June-July 1944: Training in mountain and river crossing tactics.
- August 1-16, 1944: The Arno River
- September 13-October 1944: The Gothic Line assault into the North Apennines above Florence.
- November 1944: 85th Division relieved from front line duty.
- December 1944: Combat Team 9 is sent to the Serchio Valley to reinforce the 92nd Division.
- January-April 1945: 85th Division committed to the Winter Line near Mount Grande.
- April-May 1945: Po Valley Campaign. 85th Division committed to center of Fifth Army drive toward Verona.
- May 2, 1945: Hostilities cease in Italy.
- Returned to United States: 25 August 1945
- Inactivation: 26 August 1945
Commanders: Maj. Gen. Wade H. Haislip (May 1942-February 1943), Maj. Gen. John B. Coulter (February 1943 to inactivation).
Division Casualties: 1,156 killed in action, 6,314 wounded in action, and 175 mortally wounded.
Campaign Honors: Rome-Arno, North Apennines, Po Valley.
Presidential Unit Citations: 5
Meritorious Unit Plaques: 12
Individual Awards in the 85th Infantry Division
A total of four soldiers in the 85th Infantry Division received the nation's highest honor-
S/Sgt. Christos Karaberis, 337th Infantry
Lt. Orville E. Bloch, 338th Infantry
S/Sgt. George D. Keathley, 338th Infantry
Lt. Robert T. Waugh, 339th Infantry
A compilation of individual awards to servicemen in the Custer Division, 1942 to 1945:
3 Distinguished Service Crosses
31 Legion of Merits
2 Distinguished Service Medals
545 Silver Stars
5,883 Bronze Stars
125 Air Medals
37 Soldiers Medals
8,895 Purple Hearts
Sources: Paul Schultz, The 85th Infantry Division in World War II, Infantry Journal Press, 1947
Shelby Stanton, World War II Order of Battle, Galahad Books, 1984, pp. 156-157.
Chester Starr, From Salerno to the Alps, A History of the Fifth Army, Battery Press reprint, Nashville, 1986