The Battle for Bruyères, Biffontaine and The Lost Battalion
The Vosges Mountains in north-eastern France have seen some of the most vicious fighting. Most notably among those fights were the Battle for Bruyeres and the Rescue of the Lost Battalion. Its location near the French-German border and the topography formed a natural barrier used by the Germans to keep the Allies away from the Rhine.
What followed in the fall of 1944 was 3 months of savage fighting through miles of German defences made up of thousands of pillboxes, acres of barbed wire, mines and hundreds of roadblocks.
Battle for Bruyères
The Nisei arrived from Italy in the south of France by ship in early October of 1944.
Both the 100th and the 2nd Battalion made their way from Marseille north by road, while the 3rd Battalion made its way up the Rhone valley by rail. Upon arrival in the Vosges, the 100th/442nd was attached to the 36th Infantry Division.
The Nisei were used to spearhead the attack on Bruyères. The town’s natural defenses were very good: the Vologne river to the southwest of town and 4 hills lining the valley to the northeast.
As if those features weren’t challenging enough, the Nisei on their advance also had to contend with a number of irrigation ditches running through the land along the river, limiting their movements to the roads.
Add to that the tall pine trees covering the heights splintering in to additional shrapnel during the shelling as well as providing material to construct road blocks, and it becomes evident this was by no means an easy task.
To complete the picture, the German defenses also made extensive use of mines and interlocking machinegun positions to cover the road blocks.
Moving into position
After some recon missions on 13 and 14 October, the 100th and 2nd Battalions moved to the jump-off position on the Helledraye Heights on 15 October.
The 100th was heading for the key road running northwest to Grandvillers, while the 2nd moved towards the railway passing Bruyères to the south.
After a day of heavy fighting, the advance was only 500 yards. The next day, 17 October, presented a very similar scenario. The attempts to resume the offensive were halted as soon as the assault companies moved out into the open. Both battalions were still aiming for their objectives – the 100th for Hill A and the 2nd for Hill B – but struggled to get past the numerous road blocks.
Cleared of enemy presence, the engineers would come to remove the road blocks. However, enemy troops who had gone into hiding until the attack had passed soon covered them again. This in turn made additional fighting by the engineers necessary to clear the road blocks once again.
Elements of the 2nd worked their way around to the bottom of Hill 555, where they managed to clear a few houses. A further advance was halted under heavy automatic weapons fire.
By mid-day on the 17th of October, after driving back two counter-attacks, the 100th has reached the bottom of Hill A.
During the night, the 3rd Battalion moved into position to the right of the 2nd.
Hills A and B
On the morning of the 18th, all 3 battalions launched an attack behind a screen of artillery provided by the 522 Field Artillery Battalion. By 2 pm, the 100th controlled Hill A and Hill B fell to the 2nd when they knocked out a key machine gun position.
With Hill B cleared, the 3rd Battalion’s L company moved into Bruyères, engaging in bitter house-to-house combat, until they linked up with the 1/143rd which had moved onto the town from the south.
The house-to-house fighting continued for the remainder of the afternoon and part of the 19th when the last pocket of resistance in the center of Bruyères saw elimination.
Hills C and D
Hill D fell to the 3rd Battalion on the afternoon of the 19th. Hill C meanwhile had been bypassed in the initial attack and was now sitting somewhat to the rear of both the 2nd and 3rd. On 20 October the 100th’s B Company unleashed a vicious attack that drove the Germans from it. Resistance continued along the railroad embankment, but their elimination finally concluded the operation to capture Bruyères.
The taking of Bruyères was not the end of the Nisei’s engagement in the immediate area. The Germans continued to push back against every attempt of the assaulting troops to drive them out. With Bruyères lost, the enemy showed sheer determination to hold on to all high ground surrounding neighboring towns Belmont and Biffontaine.
The fight continues
It was during the push towards Belmont that a K Company soldier shot a German officer and captured a complete set of German defence plans. Based on these plans, Task Force O’Connor – made up out of F and L Companies – penetrated the German lines during the night. At dawn, they attacked the enemy position from behind. Meanwhile the 2nd and 3rd Battalions launched a frontal attack, assisted once again by the deadly accuracy of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion. By late afternoon on October 21, the hamlet of La Broquaine fell, and a supply of German arms and equipment changed owners. Both F and L Companies earned a Presidential Unit Citation for their actions.
Glenn Hajiro holding up a picture of his father, Medal of Honor recipient Barney Hajiro, at the unveiling of a memorial plaque near Biffontaine in the Vosges during the 100th/442nd 75th Anniversary Tour of France in 2019.
The 100th Battalion meanwhile received orders to march east and take the high ground overlooking the village of Biffontaine. After reaching the ridge they dug in, but soon took more hits by German artillery. Nevertheless, they held the ridge until the order came to descend and take Biffontaine. While the 100th managed to occupy a number of houses, the pushed back enemy re-grouped. Throughout the night, they subjected the 100th to anti-aircraft and tank fire.
Pushing on from the Battle for Bruyères, exhaustion was starting to set in. Supplies were running low and casualties were mounting, but still the 100th held the town.
The 3rd Battalion finally broke through in the afternoon of the 23rd to free the 100th. It put Biffontaine firmly in Allied hands. The cost to the 100th of taking a farming village of around 300 people with no railway line or other tactical advantages totalled 21 killed, 122 wounded and 18 captured.
All 3 battalions of the 100th/442nd returned to Belmont for a much needed recovery.
The Rescue of the Lost Battalion
Out of all engagements by the Nisei troops during World War II, the Rescue of the Lost Battalion is undoubtedly the most notorious. Featured in the 1951 film, “Go for Broke!”, it counts as one of the most notable military achievements.
The rest granted to the 100th/442nd at Belmont after Bruyères and Biffontaine did not last long…
A trapped unit, the 1st Battalion of the 141st Regiment was cut off behind enemy lines. Surrounded on 3 sides by 6,000 German troops with orders to hold their position at all costs, the more than 270 men of the 1/141st were pounded on for two days by enemy fire. Rescue attempts by the other two battalions of the 141st were unsuccessful.
After barely 2 days rest and still heavily depleted in numbers, the Nisei set off again on October 25. Their 4-mile advance across steep hills, deep ravines and mine covered fields took them by early afternoon on October 27 toward the narrow ridge with the trapped soldiers.
The 100th ran into an artillery barrage during the pursuit of the Germans. The 3rd’s K Company was held up by heavily entrenched positions. By nightfall, both Battalions had gained only a few hundred yards.
In the 2nd Battalion, E and F Companies succeeded in circling behind the enemy near Hill 617. Meanwhile G Company spread out to create the impression that they were a full battalion. When G Company launched a frontal attack at dawn with E and F storming down the hill from the west, they took the enemy by surprise and captured Hill 617.
The situation turned rather desperate for the Texans in the Lost Battalion, after beating off 5 assaults in 6 days. Supplies were dwindling and casualties mounting… The terrain made up of steep slopes covered in tall trees made accurate artillery extremely challenging. Nevertheless, the 522nd FAB once again made good on their reputation. They hit the Germans without endangering either the Nisei or the trapped Texans.
After five days of fighting, progress was still very limited. I and K Companies found themselves on an exposed ridge with steep drops either side. It left them with little option but to Go for Broke. I Company’s Barney Hajiro once again led the charge, eliminating 2 machine gun nests and jolting his comrades into action. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. The distinction was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor, along with George Sakato’s for his actions near Hill 617.
After 6 long days of desperate combat by the whole of the 442nd RCT – infantry, artillery, engineers, medics, … – they finally broke through the enemy line and reached the Lost Battalion. The rescue of 211 men had caused a staggering casualty rate among the Nisei soldiers.
And yet, after a gruelling 16 days of heavy combat, the Nisei still did not get a reprieve. This in contrast to the men of the 141st who were taken out of the line. Instead, the 100th/442nd received orders to secure the rest of the forest, so they continued for another 9 days. When finally relieved on the 8th of November, the casualties far outnumbered those still standing.