The Story Behind the Painting
Midnight Battery Defense
Springtime had finally arrived in the Bohemian Forests
of Bavaria, and so had the three regiments of the 90th Infantry Division.
Roughly paralleling the Czech border in a southeastern direction, the
Tough 'Ombres had driven deeper into Germany than any other American
Division. Organized German military operations had nearly collapsed,
leaving only scattered pockets of determined resistance. As American
forces rushed to neutralize this last corner of the Fatherland, the Russians
were rapidly approaching from the east. Defenders of the Third Reich
were quickly running out of options.
Captain Leon Crenshaw let the April sunlight warm his face as he rode
with his unit through the Bavarian countryside en route to a new battery
position. Crenshaw was the commander of "C" Battery, which
was comprised of four howitzers, four eleven man crews, and assorted
vehicles used to transport the unit. Together with two sister batteries,
the 345th provided general support to the three regimental combat teams
of the 90th Infantry Division. Typical of American divisional organization,
each of the division's three regiments of infantry were paired with a
battalion of 105 mm howitzers. The twelve 155mm howitzers of the 345th
could be brought to bear, reinforcing the fires of the individual combat
teams or the division as a whole. Orders delivered the day before had
reassigned the 345th to specifically support the operations of 357th
Inf. Reg. as they pressed deeper into Germany to the southeast.
Earlier that morning, Friday, 27 April, the three batteries of the 345th
F. A. arrived in Gehstorf near Kofzting, having been redeployed from
a position in Runding. At 1130 hrs. "A" Battery was dispatched
to Niederndorf to give general support to the 1st Battalion of the 357th
operating in that area. Still in their locations at Gehstorf, "B" and "C" Battery
placed fire on enemy troops in the towns of Kotzting, Arndorf, and Beckendorf.
Now at 1540 hours, "B" and "C" Batteries (along with
the Headquarters section), were ordered to leave Gehstorf. "A" Battery
which was being recalled from Neiderndorf was to double back toward Gehstorf,
meeting up halfway with its sister units in the little town of Grub.
(354th FA After Action reports for April 1945 from National Archives)
Traveling to the second position of the day, the prime movers of Crenshaw's "C" battery
clanked uphill through the sleepy village of Grub on Pfingstraiterstrasse.
As the road leveled out and curved to the east, the tracked vehicles,
gun crews in back and guns in tow, turned left into the thawing expanses
of Arndorfer Feld. Broad and level north of the roadway, these high fields
provided an unobscured view of the countryside. Crenshaw's compass needle
pointed straight ahead to the rounded ridge-lines of Hoher Bogen. Beyond
these mounds lay his targets, German troops building up along the Czech
border opposite the town of Furth. In the distance, the hamlet of Kotzting
was visible to the northeast. The lone spire of its parish church gestured
in the direction of its hope.
Roughly 200 meters from Pfingstreiterstrasse the fields of Arndorfer
began a gentle descent into a valley below. Known as Weiherweisen, this
low lying area crossed under Arndorfer's northern brow, winding to the
east and advancing up the evergreen slopes of a prominent mountain reminiscent
of Georgia's Kennesaw Mountain of Civil War fame. Captain Crenshaw studied
the dark shape listed on the map as Kaitersberg. It's appearance was
foreboding as it loomed above the surrounding hillsides 800 meters away,
dominating the eastern horizon. Well concealed among it's wooded features,
rogue German units were reported as a possible concern. Almost sensing
the eyes of an unseen foe, Crenshaw turned to accomplish the duties at
With only a few hours of daylight left, the men of "C" Battery
set about the task of transforming a hillside into a small firebase.
Almost by reflex, the four field pieces were unlimbered and firmly steadied
on their firing jacks. Spaced approximately 75 metres apart, the 155mm
howitzers were arranged in a zigzag formation to present a less concentrated
target for counter battery fire. Aiming stakes, painted with alternating
bands of red and white, were set out. Propellant containers, projectiles,
and fuse crates were stacked on ground tarps along with loading trays,
rammer shafts, and other accessories that were organized inside of the
trails of each cannon. Assembled between the battery position and the
road, well worn tents were pitched. Forward outposts manned with .50
caliber machine guns were dug in on the two front corners of the battery
where the hill started to slope downward. Communication wire was laid
to each gun connecting it with the fire direction center. Everything
necessary to prepare a new position for fire missions was conducted with
speed and efficiency.
These "Redlegs" were no strangers to the hardships of war.
Thoroughly trained on the rugged artillery ranges of Ft. Sill in Oklahoma
and Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, these soldiers landed on Utah Beach
with formidable weapons. For eleven grueling months, Crenshaw's battery
had pushed, shoved, wrestled, and dragged these sixteen-hundred pound
beasts across the battlefields of Europe. Normandie, Beau Coudray, Hill
122, Mont Castre, Metz, Bastonge, and Flossenberg were just foreign names
a year before. Nothing in all their training could have prepared these
men to understand that, for them, the names of these locations in Europe
would assume all the emotion and weight as names from American history
such as Gettysburg, Antietam, or Shiloh.
Night slipped into the troubled Bavarian region. Captain Crenshaw eyed
suspiciously the dark wall that grew up out of the landscape to the east.
Kaitersberg resembled a slumbering leviathan crouching along the horizon
and was made the more ominous by a full moon suspended in the cloudless
sky above it. Just as sleep should have embraced the artillerymen of
Charlie Battery, the hammering of heavy machine gun fire sent shock waves
pounding across the field. Spilling from the tents like hornets from
a disturbed nest, the gun crews manned their 155's and peered into the
moonlit shadows. The forward outposts had observed movement and noise
along the tree lines along the lower slopes of Kaitersberg. Lethal streams
of red tracers arched out from the American machine guns. Illumination
flares were sent aloft, adding a cold shimmering light to the scene.
Returning fire, enemy rifle rounds sprayed into the battery sending up
geysers of earth among the guns.
Howitzers, designed to hurl shells at distant targets at
high angles, usually had their tubes elevated for indirect fire. Targeting
fire was normally derived from a very complex formula involving a dozen
or more mathematical calculations, taking into account such factors as
wind direction, air temperature, altitude, projectile drift, and earth
rotation. Now, in a rare moment of World War II history, the decision
was made to lower the large barrels of the 155mm howitzers and aim them
squarely at the attackers. With infantry support miles away, the 44 gunners
of "C" Battery and a dozen or so other troops would be forced
to defend themselves against unknown numbers of enemy troops. Earlier
that afternoon, the four guns had been laid in a direction almost due
north toward the German troop build up around Vserby, Czechoslovakia.
In quick order the cannons were lowered off of their firing jacks, rotated
on their wheels to the east in the direction of the attack, and repositioned
on their jacks. With breech blocks swung open, section chiefs bore-sighted
their weapons on the muzzle flashes twinkling along the wood-line. Within seconds
a 95 lb. projectile, followed by a full white bag charge, was rammed home in
the breech. Set with fuses to explode 800 meters downrange, the huge shells
were sent screaming into the darkened hillsides with the pull of the lanyard.
Resulting explosions, powerful enough to collapse brick buildings, sent red
hot metal fragments slicing through the air. In an exposed position, regardless
of the screen of darkness, the German troops found no cover from the shower
of shell fragments and deadly rain of .50 caliber machine gun bullets that
could splinter the trunks of large trees.
At this point, looking back after 60 years, Leon Crenshaw admits that
the memory of this event becomes blurred. With his battery being involved
in literally hundreds of fire missions, the details of this event merge
into that of many others. Officially this unique battle would be remembered
only by terse short paragraphs added to the end of records of the unit's
activity for the day. As noted in the 90th Inf. Div. After Action Report, "Just
before midnight, the 345th FA Bn near Grub (U734755) were embroiled in
a fire fight with an estimated 200 Germans who attempted to infiltrate
their positions. The artillery cut their fuse and leveled their guns
in direct fire into the woods harboring the enemy. They killed several
and caused the the surrender of 150 of the invaders." (90th Division
After Action Reports for April 1945 from National Archives)
After Action Reports from the 90th Division Artillery records, "The
345th FA Battalion engaged an estimated 200 enemy in a brisk fire fight
during the night, in the 155 units' area near Grub (743755). Direct fire
from the 155 howitzers turns the tide of the battle in the favor of the
345th. Several Hitlerites are killed and 150 Nazis were taken prisoner
with the balance of the Hitlerites put to flight. none of the 345th were
injured in the fracas. (National Archive records for the 90th Artillery at the divisional level,
pages 24 and 25.)
After action reports specific to the 345th read, "From
271200 to 281200, 12 rounds were fired. These rounds were all fired by
using time fire, direct fire, ranges from 600 to 800 yards, against enemy
troops attempting to infiltrate from 272400 to 280150. Battery "C" captured
198 prisoners of war during the engagement." (345th Field Artillery After Action Reports) The 345th Field Artillery
book, published just after the war, confirms the number of prisoners
as 198. Additionally one SS officer is reported as killed. (354th Field
Artillery Battalion Book , printed by F. Bruckmann KG, Munich, Germany,
page 50 )
Differing from official records in terms of enemy numbers and prisoners
taken, Colonel D. K. Reimers, commanding officer of the 343rd FA, made
a diary entry while stationed in Wettzell at the time of the firefight
at Grub. His account for 28 April records that 55 SS troops attacked
that night with 8 surrendering. Reimer adds that a German Captain was
killed, and 75 enemy surrendered later in the morning. ( A Diary of WWII
by Colonel D. K. Reimers, Ret., page 411)
The most detailed accounting of Grub was given to author
John Colby in a post war interview with Colonel Frank Norris, the commander
345th FA. The following story was discovered in Colby's book of 90th
Infantry Division oral histories, War From the Ground Up.
"As the German resistance crumbled during March/April/May, most
of Hitler's 'supermen' ceased putting up fanatical resistance. However,
there remained a number of dedicated Nazis who refused to give up and
continued to battle against hopeless odds. These men, who were usually
remnants of once battle proven SS units, occasionally formed themselves
into small squad and platoon-sized units to carry out determined, small-scale
attacks against U.S. units, normally at night.
"By this time in our Division artillery's history we had learned the value
of strong, local security with .50-caliber machine guns as our basic outpost
weapon and solid tactical planning to support the outposts. In late April, C
Btry. received a mean attack by a couple of squads of the Nazi zealots; they
were repulsed without much difficulty. A number of them were killed or wounded,
but not before a few C Btry. men were wounded, none seriously. After the action
quieted, I went back to the aid station to see how my men were doing. Fortunately
they were fine.
"The most seriously wounded German, a young SS sergeant who looked just
like one of Hitler's super-heroes and had led the attack, had a critical stomach
wound that was bleeding copiously. But, given plasma and U.S. medical treatment,
there was no reason he should not survive. My battalion surgeon, Mitchell Weisbuch,
a top flight, Jewish doctor from Chicago, was beginning treatment of this Nazi.
The Nazi, who spoke good English, demanded to know what Mitch was doing. Mitch
replied he was going to give him plasma to replace the blood he was losing and
to help him live. The SS man demanded, 'Is there any Jewish blood in this plasma?'
Mitch replied, 'I don't know how many kinds of blood are in this plasma; it comes
from all over America.' The Kraut belligerently said, 'Well, if you can't tell
me there is no Jewish blood in it, I won't take any.' Mitch tried quietly to
explain how critical the the plasma was to no avail.
"I had been listening and had heard enough. I turned
to this SS type and in very positive terms I told him I really didn't
care whether he lived or not,
but if he did not take the plasma he would certainly die. He looked at
me calmly and said, 'I would rather die than have any Jewish blood in
me.' So he died." (War
from the Ground Up, by John Colby, published by Nortex Press, 1991, pages
461 & 462)
Although prisoner numbers and casualty accountings vary, all official
records agree on naming the same unit, the same date, and the same unique
direct fire action by 155mm howitzers. 345th FA records indicate that
Sgt. Charles A. Trimbo was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries sustained
in Germany on 27 April 1945. Additionally, the Bronze Star was awarded
to Sgt. Charles A. Trimbo, Corporal Walter J. Brent, PFC Joseph J. Kowalski,
PFC Ferdinand P. Civetti, and PFC Lewis O. Tomilson for distinguished
heroic achievement on 27 and 28 April in the vicinity of Grub, Germany.
(General Orders Number 14, 15 May 1945, Section I & II )
The rain began at some point that Saturday morning of the 28th of April.
By 1030 hrs the prisoners were turned over to division for processing.
The sleep deprived "C" Battery packed up and broke camp. The
155mm howitzers of the 345th headed north toward Furth to support operations
of the 90th Inf. Div. that would bring a quiet end to a long war. As
their muddy tracks were washed away by the spring rains, so would the
memories of this seemingly insignificant engagement. The children of
the area would quickly scour Arndorfer Feld for trinkets and for metal
to be sold in town. The sounds of the battle passed largely unnoticed
by the exhausted women and children that were left to work the farms
and fields. By this time in the war, loud explosions and gunfire had
become expected. And, other than a few young boys who had broken the
night time curfew to witness the firefight, few of the inhabitants of
the Kotzting area knew anything unusual had occurred.
The mystery of the action at Grub involves the intentions
and composition of the attacking force. There was possibly a communications
SS stationed in this area because of it's commanding view and the advantages
associated with high ground. It is rumored that a guest house, "Kötztinger
Huette", which had been recently destroyed by artillery fire, served
as a command post. As other SS units fell apart, it is reasonable to
suspect that they regrouped in this remote area. We can only speculate
at this point as to the motive for the attack. According to American
records for the 27 April actions, the 357th Inf. Reg. was aligned along
the road from Grub starting at Steinbuhl, going through Arnbruck down
to Mooshaf in a diagonal from the northwest to the southeast. Parallel
to this line, further north, was the 359th Inf. Reg. starting at Gleissenberg
going southeast through Rankham, Asnschwang, Trettling, Rimbach, anchoring
their line at Hohenwarth. The U.S. troops were basically lined up along
roads that ran through the valleys paralleling the Czech border. However
from Hohenwarth to Steinbuhl there was a gap between
the 357th and the 359th regiments. Kaitersberg is situated between these two
towns. With Russians threatening from the east and American troops pushing
the remaining Germans against the border, it may naturally follow that these
SS troops saw a gap in the line at Kaitersberg and decided to infiltrate through
this position and disappear into the interior of Germany. Or lusting for one
last fight, they assaulted a weak point in the line with no infantry troops
to defend the artillery position. For the present time the mystery remains.
Dr. J. Edward Johnston, Jr. of Maryland served during the
war with the 345th FA as a Fire Direction Computer. Johnston survived
Utah Beach through to the final actions of the 90th Division in Czechoslovakia.
Maintaining a vague recollection of this unique event in field artillery
history, Johnston hired military artist, Britt Taylor Collins, to find
written documentation to support his recollections. Working with researchers
across the country, Britt received copies of after action reports written
during the war. 90th Division researcher Tyler Alberts was particularly
instrumental in finding actual footage of the 345th FA in combat. Traveling
to Germany on two separate occasions, Collins, metal detector in hand,
conducted research in Grub to find the actual battlefield. Work in Grub
was only made possible by the careful work and translation skills of
Kotzting's city archivist Inge Pongratz. Leon Crenshaw, residing in Pennsylvania,
provided invaluable information relating to his experiences commanding "C" Battery.
The Adler Planetarium provided a detailed schematic drawing showing moon
and star positions for the
night of 27 April 1945 at 2400 hrs.
As a result of the confirming research,
a large oil painting, 96" by 30", was commissioned by Johnston to
memorialize this rare engagement. The artwork alone took 9 months to complete.
The original art was entered into the permanent art collection of Snow Hall
at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma in August of 2004, later to be moved to the proposed
Field Artillery Museum. In early September a large museum quality print was
given to the 90th Regional Readiness Command Headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas,
the modern equivalent of the 90th Infantry Division.