Articles

The 'Nightfighters' attacked Nazis with empty rifles and grenades

In the final six months of World War II, the 104th Division — "The Frontier Division" — launched a series of night attacks against German troops while equipped with only empty rifles, bayonets, and grenades, slicing and exploding their way through enemy lines on the drive to Berlin.


The 104th Division was stood up in Oregon on Sep. 15, 1942, around the same time that its future commander, Maj. Gen. Terry "Terrible Terry" Allen, was loading the 1st Inf. Division into ships for the invasion of North Africa.

A 1st Infantry Division tank in Germany in world War II. Maj. Gen. Terry Allen left the 1st Inf. Div. to command the 104th Inf. Div., a unit which quickly proved itself after arriving in France in 1944. (Photo: U.S. Army Tech. Sgt. Murray Shub)

One of Allen's big takeaways from commanding the 1st in Tunisia was that night attacks were generally less costly than daytime assaults, especially against fortifications and massed guns. So, when he handed the 1st over to Maj. Gen. Clarence R. Huebner and was sent to take over the 104th, he insisted that the Frontier Division learn to fight at night.

According to a 1946 news article about the Division, Allen required the men to train 30-35 hours a week at night, well above the Army standard of eight to 12 hours.

American troops march in the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. Tunisia was a formative experience for Maj. Gen. Terry Allen who took lessons from the battlefield there to the 104th Infantry Division. (Dept. of Defense photo)

After training in the U.S. and England, the 104th finally landed in France in September 1944 and was sent to Antwerp a month later to help capture the port there. In two weeks of bloody fighting that included multiple night assaults, the Timberwolves worked with the Canadians and British to eliminate Nazi defenses.

And some of those night assaults were conducted with only cold steel bayonets and the explosive fire of hand grenades.

Even when the "Nightfighters" had rifle ammunition and permission to use it, they seemed to prefer their bayonets and explosives, likely in a bid to reduce tell-tale muzzle flashes that would give away their position.

The bayonet has served the U.S. from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan, but was especially useful in World War I. (Photo: U.S. Defense Visual Information Center)

During the Battle of the Dykes near Antwerp, then-1st Lt. Cecil Bolton tried to use mortars to knock out enemy machine gun positions raining fire on his unit. After being knocked unconscious by German artillery, he awoke and led a two-man volunteer bazooka team against the German lines by sneaking through chest-deep, nearly frozen water in the canals to the enemy positions.

The three men took out one position with grenades and an artillery position with the rockets, only using rifle fire to take out a sniper and machine gun position who spotted them before they could attack. Bolton was wounded a second time while returning to U.S. lines and was later awarded the Medal of Honor.

The night attacks were usually reserved for positions in relatively open terrain, but were sometimes conducted against cities. The city of Eschweiler was captured in November thanks to a pre-dawn insertion of troops into the city center. Those men raised hell inside German lines at sunrise while the rest of their unit attacked from the outside.

104th Infantry Division soldiers drive a captured German tank in 1944 after painting it with U.S. markings. (Photo: U.S. Army)

A midnight attack on Lucherbourg went south when the Americans were spotted immediately after crossing a river, but the men pressed on anyways, seizing four houses at the edge of town and holding them against enemy counterattacks, including armored assaults, all night and the following day.

Then-Maj. Gen. Joseph "Lightning Joe" Collins praised the men for their daring and success during the campaign:

The second phase, involving the crossing of the Inde River and the advance to the Roer, was even more difficult, but with characteristic skill and dash, in a series of brilliant night attacks, the 104th Division forced a crossing of the Inde, and in a few days had cleared its entire sector to the Roer River.  I regard the operation which involved the seizure of Lamersdorf-Inden-Luchererg as one of the finest single pieces of work accomplished by any unit of the 7th Corps since D Day.

German mortars fire towards American positions during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. (Photo: German Army Archives)

On Oct. 23, 1944, the division deployed to the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, the longest single battle in which America ever fought.

The 104th later took part in Operation Grenade, the late-February 1945 crossing of the Roer River and the drive into the heart of Germany as well as the March 22 crossing of the Rhine. Over the following week, they captured important strategic points like airfields and created blocking positions to stop the escape of Nazi units.

On April 11, the division arrived at Nordhausen, Germany, and found a German concentration camp with 6,000 survivors and 5,000 corpses. The inmates of the camp had been forced to manufacture V-2 bombs until the American approach forced the Germans to withdraw.

This is the underground facility in Germany where prisoners of the concentration camp near Nordhausen were forced to create V-2 rockets for German use against the Allies. (Photo: German Federal Archives)

On April 26, the 104th met up with Russian troops that had been pushing the Germans west from Moscow. The Allied forces continued to hunt German units until May 5 when they ran out of Nazis to fight. Thus ended 195 days and nights of continuous combat, some of it conducted at night against machinegun nests and artillery positions by attackers armed only with blades and grenades.

The Timberwolves were scheduled to take part in the invasions of the Japanese home islands as part of Operations Olympic and Coronet. The operations were made unnecessary by Japan's surrender on Sep. 2, 1945.

A memorial plaque for the 104th Infantry Division in Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo: Tim1965 CC BY-SA 3.0)

The 104th is now a training unit in the Army Reserve. It still proudly carries the names "Timberwolves" and "Nightfighters."

History

This pilot shot down an enemy fighter at Pearl Harbor in his pajamas

Comfort is important when doing a hard job. If it's hot on the work site, it's important to stay cool. If it's hazardous, proper protection needs to be worn. And comfort is apparently key when the Japanese sneak attack the Navy. Just ask Lt. Phil Rasmussen, who was one of four pilots who managed to get off the ground to fight the Japanese in the air.

Rasmussen, like many other American GIs in Hawaii that day, was still asleep when the Japanese launched the attack at 0755. The Army Air Forces 2nd Lieutenant was still groggy and in his pajamas when the attacking wave of enemy fighters swarmed Wheeler Field and destroyed many of the Army's aircraft on the ground.

Damaged aircraft on Hickam Field, Hawaii, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There were still a number of outdated Curtiss P-36A Hawk fighters that were relatively untouched by the attack. Lieutenant Rasmussen strapped on a .45 pistol and ran out to the flightline, still in his pajamas, determined to meet the sucker-punching Japanese onslaught.

By the time the attack ended, Wheeler and Hickam Fields were both devastated. Bellows Field also took a lot of damage, its living quarters, mess halls, and chapels strafed by Japanese Zeros. American troops threw back everything they could muster – from anti-aircraft guns to their sidearms. But Rasmussen and a handful of other daring American pilots managed to get in the air, ready to take the fight right back to Japan in the Hawks if they had to. They took off under fire, but were still airborne.

Pearl Harbor pilots Harry Brown, Phil Rasmussen, Ken Taylor, George Welch, and Lewis Sanders.

They made it as far as Kaneohe Bay.

The four brave pilots were led by radio to Kaneohe, where they engaged 11 enemy fighters in a vicious dogfight. Even in his obsolete old fighter, Rasmussen proved that technology is no match for good ol' martial skills and courage under fire. He managed to shoot down one of the 11, but was double-teamed by two attacking Zeros.

Gunfire and 20mm shells shattered his canopy, destroyed his radio, and took out his hydraulic lines and rudder cables. He was forced out of the fighting, escaping into nearby clouds and making his way back to Wheeler Field. When he landed, he did it without brakes, a rudder, or a tailwheel.

There were 500 bullet holes in the P-36A's fuselage.

Skillz.

Lieutenant Rasmussen earned the Silver Star for his boldness and would survive the war, getting his second kill in 1943. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965, but will live on in the Museum of the United States Air Force, forever immortalized as he hops into an outdated aircraft in his pajamas.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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