The Battle of Hurtgen Forest took place between September 19th and December 16th, 1944 in the Hurtgen Forest (German: Hürtgenwald), which is situated close to the western border of Germany. A number of notable army divisions took part in the battle, in particular the 1st Division (‘Big Red One’), the 4th Division (‘Ivy League’; which Lt. Irvine served in), the 8th Division (‘Golden Arrow’), and the 28th Division (‘Keystone’). As Caddick-Adams (2014, p. 173) points out, the 4th Infantry Division was “one of the most experienced in the US Army, having hit Utah Beach at H-Hour on 6 June.” The 4th Division subsequently pushed inland for 21 consecutive days after D-Day to Cherbourg, France, which it captured “at heavy cost,” and then continued on to help liberate Paris and eventually make its way into the Hurtgen Forest in November 1944 (Caddick-Adams, 2014, p. 173).
In light of the significant losses the 28th Infantry Division had sustained in and around the Hurtgen Forest, General Norman Cota (commander of the 28th Infantry Division) became concerned that if the Germans captured the town of Vossenack and moved west towards the town of Germeter, the 28th Infantry Division could become divided (Bradbeer, 2010, p. 33). As a result of this concern, General Leonard Gerow (commander of V Corps), on November 6th, 1944, ordered the 4th Infantry Division’s 2nd Ranger Battalion and the 12th Infantry Regiment to attach to General Cota’s 28th Infantry Division, in order to assume responsibility for the sector held by the 109th Infantry Regiment (Astor, 2000, p. 153). The 12th Infantry Regiment’s 2nd and 3rd Battalion moved to the Wilde Sau minefield, along the Weisser Wehe Valley (Astor, 2000, p. 153), a minefield which was, in retrospect, left out of maps (Astor, 2000, p. 178). The replacement process began the night of November 6th and continued for several days (Astor, 2000, p. 153). The 109th Infantry Regiment would subsequently move to Vossenack, to take over the positions abandoned by the 112th Infantry Regiment (Zaloga, 2011, p. 60). The 109th Infantry Regiment had been, for five days prior to being relieved, unable to advance any further than their positions south and west of the town of Hurtgen (Bradbeer, 2010, p. 27).
A day after their arrival, the 4th Infantry Division initiated an attack intended to eliminate a German salient (i.e. bulge) located in the Weisser Wehe Valley (Astor, 2000, p. 155). Pfc. Marcus Dillard, a mortar gunner with the 12th Infantry Regiment’s Company M, recalls: “as we started through a firebreak there was a minefield and barbed wire. The company commander stepped on a mine. […] We had never encountered terrain like this to fight in. We had done no prior recon of the Huertgen” (as quoted in Astor, 2000, p. 155). Bradbeer (2010, p. 25) argues that General Cota made three decisions “that would have far-reaching effects on his division’s assault into the Hürtgen,” in particular the decision that “neither he nor his staff would direct the division’s units to patrol into the forest.” As the 2nd Battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Sibert, later wrote: “God, it was cold. We were hungry and thirsty. […] The supply line was littered with dead. The men that came out with me were so damned tired that they stepped on the bodies – they were too tired to step over them” (as quoted in Astor, 2000, p. 156). It was on this day, November 12th, 1944, in the process of withdrawing to a new line west of Germeter, that Lt. Irvine died (Johnson, 1948, p. 215). A week later, the Company H commander, Captain Earl W. Enroughty was killed (Johnson, 1948, p. 219). The weakened 12th Infantry Regiment had been reverted to the 4th Infantry Division on November 11th at 7:00PM (Miller, 2003, p. 156).
The battle was one of the costliest in American history, resulting in the forest being referred to as “the Death Factory” by US troops (Caddick-Adams, 2014, p. 173). Whiting (2000, p. xii) argues that “division after division was thrown into the perfectly useless battle, which served no tactical or strategic purpose” resulting in “nearly thirty thousand young American soldiers [who] died or were wounded there” (p. xi). Following the first fourteen days of the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, where most rifle companies had nearly 50% casualties, the 9th Infantry Division’s 60th Regiment and the 4th Division’s 22nd Regiment had experienced 100% casualties (Whiting, 2000, p. xi). Between November 7th and 16th, the 12th Infantry Regiment suffered 562 casualties in its rifle battalions, of its initial complement of 2,300 (Miller, 2003, p. 87). Miller (2003, p. 87) points out that “the attack failed to accomplish its intended goal, and the regiment lost about twice as much ground as it took in its furthest advance.” General James Gavin (1992, p. 298), of the 82nd Airborne, would later write: “the Huertgen was over, and I think it is fair to say that little was learned from it and less understood. It had been our Passchendaele.”
Below are letters of condolence, written by family friends in December 1944, to the parents of First Lieutenant John W. Irvine (O1289736), Harry and Myrtle Irvine, of Denver, Colorado, USA. Lt. Irvine was born on July 25th, 1915 in Finlayson, Minnesota, USA. He served as a platoon leader, and later company commander, in Company H, 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, V Corps. Lt. Irvine was assigned to his regiment less than two weeks before D-Day. He served as a platoon leader in the assault landings at Utah Beach, and during the early stages of the Normandy campaign as both a platoon leader and as company executive officer. In early July 1944 he was appointed commander of Company H, 12th Infantry. In August 1944, Lt. Irvine was wounded in action, suffering a broken jaw and a piece of shrapnel through his hand during a German attack near Avranches. In October 1944, after a period of hospitalization, he returned to his regiment, which was stationed on the Siegfried Line. He did not immediately resume command of his company, but rather was initially assigned to Regimental Headquarters. A short time later the 4th Infantry Division moved into the Hurtgen Forest. At the age of 28, Lt. Irvine was killed in action by a German artillery shell on November 12th, 1944, during the Hurtgen Forest battle, while organizing a defence against a heavy German attack. Lt. Irvine was married shortly before he went overseas on leave in 1943, while still assigned to the 94th Infantry Division. In September 1944, his wife, Shirley, gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Sherry, while he was in a French hospital recovering from his Normandy wounds. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for valour in action. Lt. Irvine had also previously been awarded the Bronze Star, for valour in Normandy, and the Purple Heart, for wounds sustained near Cherbourg, France.
Lt. Irvine wrote home frequently, providing details on his health (given his combat injuries), his state of mind and perspective on the war, and the environment and locale he found himself in. For example, Lt. Irvine provided details in a September 6th, 1944 letter about how he was in hospital recovering from his Normandy wounds:
“They rewired my teeth this morning so I could eat soft food, but I can’t chew anything yet. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here, but probably not too long.”
He explains in a letter later in September 1944 that he had been re-admitted to hospital with an infection of the shrapnel wound on his hand (and that he preferred being in hospitals to living on the ground in the field):
“Well, I’m back in France again, and it’s a lot different than last time. At the moment I’m back in hospital for a few days with an infected hand. It’s nothing serious, but they have it bandaged, which accounts for poor penmanship. […] Seems like I’ve always got something wrong with me these days, but I will say I manage to keep more comfortable in hospitals than on the ground.”
And, on September 11th, 1944, he wrote:
“Well, I think I’m going to get out of this morgue tomorrow, but it will still be a while before I go back to France. My jaw is quite well now and I also had a small piece of shrapnel in the back of my hand, which has healed up.”
Lt. Irvine wrote a letter on October 24th 1944, detailing his living conditions and the desire that the current offensive would end the war:
“It has cleared up a little today but the mud is still pretty bad. I have made a stove for my tent and manage to keep fairly warm. […] Hope this new drive will end the war and we can get home soon.”
In a letter dated a week later, October 30th, 1944, Lt. Irvine states that he wished a battle would start so that they could feel that they were making some progress:
“Another day and not much accomplished – I wish somebody would start a battle around here so it would seem like we were getting some place.”
Macdonald (1963) has an anecdote about such a view, writing:
General Barton issued his orders. His subordinates passed them down the line. ‘Well, men,’ a sergeant said, ‘we can’t do a [*******] thing sitting still.’ He got out of his hole, took a few steps, and started shooting. His men went with him. That was how this weary division resumed the attack. (p. 471)
In the same letter of October 30th, Lt. Irvine also states that the German civilians he encounters are hostile, and that he never went out in the towns unless he was well-armed:
“The people are very hostile – many of them cross the street when they see us coming. I’m afraid it’s going to take a long time to get them in line. Personally I carry a tommy gun and two pistols – not that I don’t trust them or anything like that.”
Another condolence letter sent to Lt. Irvine’s parents around December 7th, 1944, contained the following passage:
“Sure was shocked to hear of Jack being killed. So this is just a line to let you know I am thinking of you. There is so little one can say or do at a time like these. Little did we dream when we were trying to raise them and give them their start there would be a war to end it.”
The newspaper clippings about Lt. Irvine’s death:
A transcript of the newspaper articles (lefthand article is first):
LIEUT. JACK IRVINE
Of Denver, who gave his life to help the Twelfth infantry, Fourth division, to victory in the Huertgen forest. With all but a single, dangerous route cut off, he volunteered to get supplies thru to embattled Twelfth troops. He fell after his second trip, but he had saved the units. The Silver Star was awarded posthumously.
First Lieut. Jack Irvine Is Awarded Silver Star Medal
First Lieut. Jack Irvine, 28, who was killed in action in Germany Nov. 12, 1944, has been awarded the Silver Start posthumously, his parents, Mr. and Mrs. H. A. Irvine of 233 East Colfax avenue, have learned.
Lieutenant Irvine, a purchasing agent in Denver for the NYA before entering the army in July, 1941, was a platoon leader in the Twelfth infantry regiment in the Fourth division. He held the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for wounds suffered near Cherbourg, France. His wife, Shirley Irvine, and 9-months-old daughter, Sherry, whom he never saw, live in Salina, Kan.
He was killed in the Huertgen forest campaign. The citation presented with the Silver Star read in part: “Lieutenant Irvine volunteered to direct the delivery of desperately needed supplies to assault companies located in practically inaccessible terrain. The enemy, attacking on the flanks, had left only one possible supply route, which they constantly blasted with heavy fire. Reaching the front lines after traveling thru mined area and dense underbrush, Lieutenant Irvine delivered the supplies to each company, despite the fact that two of them were virtually cut off and isolated. Later in the day he again volunteered to organize a new line of defense. He moved from group to group, placing the men in the best possible position, despite murderous enemy fire. While on one of these missions he was fatally wounded by a bursting shell. The defense line and supply route pioneered by Lieutenant Irvine made possible the holding of the battalion’s position in the critical days that followed.”
The condolence letters:
Shigawake is a municipality in the Gaspésie–Îles-de-la-Madeleine region of the province of Quebec in Canada.
Transcriptions of the letters’ contents:
December 7th letter:
Muriel [?????] just called me. She had letters from home, telling about your Jack. I’m just stunned with grief about the darling And all my heart goes out to you in sympathy. Dear Folks – in this really sad news that has come to you. I had prayed – he could come thru this awful war – and come home to you all again. It’s hard to reconcile our-selves to this awful sacrifice of our men & boys, & we are so helpless to do anything about it. There is so little I can say to comfort you – but I know you know I’m grieving with you about your grand Boy. I do wish I could be near you Dear folks – just to take your hand so you could feel how I long to comfort you in any way I could in your deep sorrow. All I can do is pray – God Bless Jack – let his soul rest in Peace. And please God comfort you all in your Heart-Broken sorrow in this sad loss, of Son, Brother, Husband, & Dad.
December 19th letter:
Dearest Myrtle, Wouldn’t I love to put my arms around you and tell you how sorry we are for you and yours in the great tragedy that has come to sadden your home and hearts. But Myrtle dear, death is sometimes sweet… As I have just said to your Dad, Jack paid the supreme sacrifice, so all his sufferings are over, better, much better, than a prisoner of war, or in a military hospital for the end of his life, like our dear brother. For 30 years nearly we go to bed with the war of 1914, and we get up in the morning with it. It has saddened our lives, but yet we try to be brave and ‘carry on’. The hospitals (military) all over both our lands are filled with wrecks of the Great War who are going through each day a living death. Would you like your dear boy to be one of the inmates? I do not think so. Try to be brave dear, for the sake of the little wife and dear baby. You will derive much joy in looking and caring for their needs and helping them be brave. When I had my great sorrow years ago a friend of mine sent me a little poem which has been a great comfort to me, I will pass it on to you. “He dropped the shuttle, the loom stood still, The weaver slept in the twilight grey. Dear Heart! he will weave his beautiful web In the golden light of a longer day.” Dear Jack has left the twilight grey for the beautiful dawn and I know you would not wish him back. I wish you were near us Myrtle dear, so we could know each other better. Sorrow has seemed to bridge the thousands of miles between and to draw us closer together. Our deepest sympathy & love to you and all your dear ones.
Astor, G. (2000). The bloody forest: Battle for the Hurtgen: September 1944-January 1945. New York City, NY: Presidio Press.
Bradbeer, T. (2010). General Cota and the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest: A Failure of Battle Command? Army History, 2010(75), 18-41. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26298911
Caddick-Adams, P. (2014). Snow and steel: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-45. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Chapman, C. S. (2017). Battle hardened: An infantry officer’s harrowing journey from D-Day to V-E Day. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Gavin, J. M. (1992). On to Berlin: Battles of an airborne commander. New York, NY: Random House.
Johnson, G. F. (1948). History of the Twelfth Infantry Regiment in World War II. Boston, MA: National Fourth (Ivy) Division Association.
MacDonald, C. B. (1963). United States Army in World War II: Vol. 3. The Siegfried Line campaign. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army.
Miller, E. G. (2003). A dark and bloody ground: The Hürtgen Forest and the Roer River dams, 1944-1945. College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press.
Whiting, C. (2000). The West Wall series: Vol. 4. Battle Of Hurtgen Forest. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
United States War Department. (1946). World War II honor list of dead and missing Army and Army Air Forces personnel from Colorado, 1946. Washington, DC: War Department, Adjutant Generals Office. Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/research/military/ww2/army-casualties/colorado.html.
Zaloga, S. J. (2011). Siegfried Line 1944–45: Battles on the German frontier. Bloomsbury Publishing.