Seventy-five years ago this month, World War II’s Battle of the Bulge began, on Dec. 16, 1944. So-named because the German army was able to push through a “bulge” in the allied lines on the Western Front, the action took place in Eastern Belgium, northeast France and Luxembourg, and lasted until Jan. 25, 1945.
Veterans of the Ninth Armored Division’s Combat Command A earned the Presidential Unit Citation for stalling Hitler’s all-or-nothing attack through the frozen Ardennes Forest. It is the highest award given a military unit for exceptional valor.
Among the numerous local soldiers who were part of that Combat Command A unit were six native area men that became known as “The Marysville 5 Plus 1.”
On April 21, 1942, five guys from the small town of Marysville, and another from the Helena Valley, enlisted in the U.S. Army and within a week embarked on a train for Camp Funston (Fort Riley) Kansas.
“These six young men — Bob O’Connell, brothers George “Bus” Surman and Tom Surman, Ray Smigaj and Roger “Rog” Williams (all of Marysville), along with Carl Strandberg (of Helena) — were seldom separated from that date until their discharge in November 1945, which is extremely rare considering the numerous dangerous situations they were exposed to,” wrote Ruth O’Connell, Bob’s wife, in 2001.
After extensive training in Needles, California, and maneuvers in Louisiana, the men shipped overseas with the Ninth Armored, under the command of Major General John W. Leonard, to England in August 1944. The outfit crossed over to France a month later.
They received their baptism of fire in October when, according to the Independent Record, “the division crashed head-on into the armor of the Rundstedt offensive and emerged with the admiration of even the enemy themselves.”
The Nazis, fighting the Ninth’s Combat Command A teams on many widely separated sectors of the front, called the Americans “the Phantom Division.” They said the GIs were everywhere, and they could never tell where the blows would be felt.
“In the battles of St. Vith, Bastogne and Echternache, the doughboys wiped out large numbers of hardened German troops,” the IR reported. “They captured hundreds of prisoners and destroyed numerous Panzer tanks. Twice during the offensive the German radio reported the Ninth Division ‘destroyed.’ The Germans don’t mention it anymore. They think they are seeing ghosts.”
Another story several days later in the paper bore the headline: “CPL. BOB O’CONNELL SEES PREDICTION THAT NINTH ARMORED DIVISION WOULD MAKE BIG NAME COME TRUE.”
The article quotes from the Stars and Stripes newsletter, that “Combat teams from the outfit held the elbow of the German bulge in Luxembourg and barred the way to the city until relieved. For 10 wild days sleep was compounded of Benzedrine sulfate tablets. In at least one instance, nobody told the doughs to pull out, so they stayed and fought until word finally got through.”
Stars and Stripes described how the soldiers were trapped deep in enemy territory, and a few days later worked their way through German lines, disguised in Nazi helmets with blankets draped around their shoulders, their rifles slung with bayonets fixed.
“In the dark it was hard to tell their identity as they marched through Beaufort, where a German regiment was celebrating the capture of the town,” the newsletter continued. “A German sentry challenged the shadowy forms. A doughboy responded ‘Heil Hitler,’ and they kept going back to U.S. lines, where they re-joined the fight.”
The Combat A team proceeded to delay the German steamroller for 48 hours, enabling the 101st Airborne to dig in the defenses at Bastogne.
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In a letter back home to his parents, the 23-year-old O’Connell wrote, “We knocked the best Hitler has to offer all over the lot.”
On March 7, 1945, Combat Command B electrified the world with its daring capture of the Ludendorff Bridge near Remagen, Germany. As the Ninth advanced from the Ruhr River, they learned that the Germans intended to blow up the old railroad bridge at 16:00 hours.
Arriving only 10 minutes before the deadline, the 27th Army Infantry Battalion’s Company A rushed across the bridge, dislodging the explosives while at the same time engaging the enemy on the opposite bank of the Rhine River in a withering firefight.
After securing the bridge, the division’s next challenge was successfully staving off German bombers, artillery and floating mines for the next 10 days in the enemy’s continued attempts to destroy the bridge.
Thanks to the Ninth’s defeat of — and defense of the bridgehead against— the Nazis, the American armored juggernaut burst east and then north into Germany. The Ruhr was sealed off, trapping more than 300,000 German troops.
Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley declared his “greatest admiration for the Ninth Armored Division for the skill and daring with which they have crossed the Rhine to seize and establish the first bridgehead for the Allied Armies.”
The Battle of the Bulge was the largest land battle the Americans fought during WWII, involving over 1.1 million men — 600,000 Americans, 500,000 Germans and 55,000 British.
The battle was also the costliest to the U.S., in terms of loss, with 81,000 casualties, including 19,000 killed in action and 23,500 captured. The Germans sustained 100,000 casualties, killed, wounded or captured.
After the Ninth helped the Allies’ victory at the Battle of the Bulge and the war ended on VE Day, the Marysville Five Plus One returned stateside.
Ray Smigaj spent his later years in Spokane, Washington, while and Rog Williams operated American Sheet Metal here for many years before retiring to Aberdeen, Washington.
Carl Strandberg was employed as a longtime boiler maintenance man for the Welfare Department, and later delivered Meals-on-Wheels to East Helena. Bus Surman drove truck for Tucker Distributing, while Tom Surman became a policeman. Tom later died in a tragic accident while working on the Hungry Horse Dam.
Bob O’Connell, an outstanding semi-pro baseball player, worked as a cowboy, a rancher and car salesmen.
“These men maintained a strong alliance as long as they lived,” Ruth O’Connell penned. “It was a joy to listen to them reminisce of the crazy times, but the wounds were still too fresh for them to talk about the tough times.
“They all agreed that their greatest accomplishment was the defense of the Remagen Bridge.”
This story first appeared in the Independent Record in December 2001.
Curt Synness, a Navy vet and a fifth generation Helenan, writes occasional articles for the Independent Record about local veterans, longtime residents and Helena sports history.
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