The Red Circle’s ’45 European Vacation
Activated 15 July 1943 at Camp Carson, Colorado– some 79 years ago this week– the U.S. Army’s 71st Light Division (Pack, Jungle) was a rarity when it came to WWII infantry divisions as it was not descended from units that had a Great War history. Formed from two regiments of regulars– the 5th and 14th– that had long been assigned to defend the Panama Canal, augmented with new units such as the 66th Infantry Regiment, it was originally meant to fight in the triple canopy green hell of the South Pacific.
With a TO&E that included hundreds of horses and mules to carry and support 75mm pack guns– rather than the more standard 105mm howitzers and trucks– it had a small footprint, just 9,000 men, only about two-thirds the size of a traditional “leg” infantry division.
However, the 71st (L) never did make it to New Guinea or the Philippines.
Proving a bad idea in stateside tests in California, the 71st (L) was recast as a standard 14,000-man infantry division, sent to Fort Benning for additional training, and left its 75mm guns and beasts of burden behind.
This put it late to mature and the outfit only reached the European Theatre of Operation (still with jungle-trained Panama regulars of the 5th and 14th Inf Rgts making up two-thirds of its combat force, because this is the Army we are talking about!) in the Winter of early 1945.
Hitting France on 6 February 1945, some 245 days after D-Day, it would enter combat on 10 March and spend 49 days engaged, suffering 1,879 total casualties in that short period, some 13.3 percent of its strength. The division earned two battle streamers, for the Rhineland and Central Europe Campaigns, and notably took 107,406 enemy POWs, including bagging most of the battered stragglers of the dreaded “Black Edelweiss” of the 6th SS Mountain Division Nord.
In doing so, the men of the 71st earned over 800 individual awards including 166 Silver Stars and 651 Bronze Stars. In the final days of the war, on 4 May 1945, the Division liberated Gunskirchen, one of the many subcamps of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Three days later they made contact with advancing Soviet Red Army elements near Waidhofen after capturing Steyr and were already making merry by the time VE-Day hit on the 8th.
The most excellent war chronicle map below, drawn by T4s Emil Albrecht and Roland Wille, covers the 71st 49-day war with the Seventh and Third Armies from Limesy, France to Sierning, Austria.