1st Infantry Division led assault on D-Day
Stars and Stripes August 28, 2006
Part II of a three-part series, “The Big Red One: Nearly a century of war”.
Joe Argenzio didn’t give much thought to what he’d be doing when he joined the Army in January of 1944. He just knew he wanted to be a part of all the patriotism, and that he couldn’t wait to get into uniform.
So at age 16, he altered his birth certificate and enlisted.
After an accelerated basic training program, the Brooklyn native went to England and trained further at a replacement depot. “We were told we would be the replacements for D-Day casualties,” he said.
But on June 2, 1944, mere days before the Allied invasion of Europe, Argenzio was told that he was going “to the big show.”
“Being 16 years old and very naive, I thought ‘the big show’ would be Bob Hope, or the Glen Miller band,” the 79-year-old recalled. “I was shocked when they took me to get on that ship.”
As he walked up the gangway of the vessel that would take him to the French coast, older 1st Infantry Division veterans laughed at him and mocked his small stature.
Argenzio was about to become a part of 1st ID history as the youngest soldier to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day.
“A lieutenant gave me a carbine and some .30-cal ammo,” he said. “And that’s all I knew.”
By June 1944, soldiers from The Big Red One already had seen a lot of action in World War II. The division had landed in North Africa in November 1942 with other Allied units, fighting its way east and helping the Allies force the surrender of Axis troops in May 1943. After that, the division had taken part in the amphibious assault against Sicily in July 1943, forcing the withdrawal of German forces from the island.
According to Ian Westwell’s “Spearhead: 1st Infantry Division,” Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, then commander of the U.S. First Army, realized that having the men of the 1st ID lead part of the D-Day assault at Omaha Beach was asking a lot.
“Much as I dislike subjecting the 1st to still another landing, I felt that as a commander I had no other choice,” Bradley said. “My job was to get ashore, establish a lodgment, and destroy the Germans. In the accomplishment of that mission, there was little room for the niceties of justice.”
Having those division veterans around gave Argenzio a bit of comfort during the ride across the English Channel.
“As we approached the beach, I said to one fellow on my right, ‘Thank God I’m with you veterans,’” Argenzio said. “He said, ‘Kid, the minute the ramp drops, you’re going to be a veteran.’”
Argenzio and other soldiers from the division’s 16th Infantry Regiment weren’t supposed to walk into a hail of German gunfire at Omaha Beach. By the time soldiers were to hit the beach at about 6:30 a.m., an intense naval and aerial bombardment should have taken out the heavily fortified German defenses, and troops were to scramble up the beach and take out any lingering opposition.
Instead, air assaults were hampered by bad weather, with bombs falling mostly inland, while naval attacks failed to break the fortifications. Argenzio and others would face an intact and stiff German defense.
Intelligence had stated that only one battalion of a subpar German division would be holding Omaha, when in fact three battalions of a better-trained division were waiting.
The amphibious tanks that went in before the first infantry wave had sunk or become lodged in the sand, and as Argenzio’s landing craft approached the beach, arms fire, artillery and mortars exploded all around the boat.
After their boat hit a sandbar, the first soldiers down the ramp were mowed down, and Argenzio said he remembers somebody telling him to go over the side. In a flash, Argenzio found himself struggling to make his way ashore in water that was over his head, while watching soldiers fall in every direction as rounds buzzed furiously everywhere.
“To this day, it haunts me,” he said. “God was with me, because I didn’t get hit. But I lost the weapon, the can of ammunition. I lost my helmet. And every time I’d come up, the smell of cordite was unbelievable.”
Argenzio finally got his feet under him and scrambled onto shore, hanging on to the preplaced German beach obstacles and making his way to the relative safety of a sea wall that provided cover from enemy fire.
After grabbing some gear from a dead soldier and getting rallied by the regiment’s commander, Argenzio and the other men began making their way up one of the gullies, off the beach and up on to the mainland. Crawling through cut wire, burning grass and mine-laced trails, the Allies slowly took out the German forces.
As more division forces and other soldiers made their way onto Omaha later that morning, the tide came in, providing less and less space for the continuously arriving troops and equipment. But Argenzio and the other men at the forefront of the assault were making headway as the fierce fighting continued.
By the end of D-Day, the beachhead at Omaha was not as large as had been planned. Nonetheless, the continent had been breached, and the monumental first step in taking out the German army was complete. Omaha had been the most heavily fortified beach assaulted on D-Day, and 2,400 allied troops were killed, wounded or missing.
After a few more days of fighting, the division was relieved by the 5th Infantry Division. But it wouldn’t take long for the 1st ID to get back in action.
Days after D-Day, Argenzio had been linked back up to his company, and within a few short months, due to attrition, the teenage Argenzio was a platoon sergeant.
“It was really comical because replacements would come in and they would say, ‘Hey kid, we were told to report to Sgt. Brooklyn,’” Argenzio recalled. “I said, ‘You’re looking at him. Now go report for latrine duty.’”
In the late summer of 1944, after breaking through German defenses around Normandy, the division and other Allied forces moved toward Paris and the nearing German frontier.
As fighting continued into August, Argenzio was hit, catching flak in his back and being thrown up in the air and knocked unconscious. He recuperated in England before rejoining his unit. He didn’t know that his injuries entitled him to a noncombat position, he said.
“Little old me, I went right back,” he said. “I wouldn’t have taken it anyway.”
In early October, the division took part in the effort to wrest Aachen away from the Germans, the first city that would fall to the Allies. With other forces, division units first helped encircle the town before going in. Intense street fighting followed as the ground assault got under way. Soldiers used flamethrowers, hand grenades and bayonets to root out enemy forces hiding in buildings.
“Going in there, that was heavy,” Argenzio said. “We weren’t trained in actual street fighting, and we’d go doorway to doorway. There was tanks coming at us, our tanks trying to compete, rooftops being blown off. It was one hell of a battle.”
And despite all the mental and physical exhaustion, the Big Red One soldiers would soon help to repel the last efforts of a crumbling German army during the Battle of the Bulge.
In the face of a shattered German force and a rapidly advancing Allied front, Hitler pulled together the best of his remaining forces and prepared an attack to break through Allied lines in December 1944.
To counter this last-gasp offensive, the 1st ID went into battle against the northern shoulder of the German bulge, in the hopes of squeezing the German forces from the north as other Allied forces pushed from the south.
But in addition to the big fight, for Argenzio and countless other 1st ID soldiers, the end of 1944 and the early weeks of 1945 were marked by the brutal cold. In between firefights, division soldiers shivered in their foxholes.
“We lost more soldiers to trench foot than to bullets,” Argenzio said. “Your feet would get wet and start to turn black.”
In addition to the harsh weather, Argenzio came face to face with the enemy during one fight, when Germans overran his post.
“All of a sudden, they were on us,” he said. “I took three of them down with the M1 (.30 caliber rifle). The fourth one came at me, and thank God I had excellent bayonet training, because as he came at me, I took him down. That’s a hell of a way to die, but better him than me.”
After helping to kill or capture the remaining German resistance, 1st ID soldiers found themselves in Czechoslovakia by the end of April.
On May 7, 1945, Argenzio and his unit were helping displaced refugees when word came down that the war was over.
In all, the division was in combat 443 days as a unit between November 1942 and V-E Day in May 1945. It saw action in Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia. Casualties included 4,325 dead, 1,241 missing and 15,457 wounded.
V-E Day “was a beautiful day,” Argenzio said. “Everybody just sat there, didn’t say a word. The first thing I thought was, thank the Lord I got through it. And I can’t wait to meet the boys at the pub.”
A new kind of fighting force
World War II may have ended in May 1945, but there was still much to do for the Big Red One.
The coming years would see the division helping Germany get back on its feet, deterring Soviet aggression, and reconfiguring for an atomic battlefield.
As the war ended and people began to regain the semblance of a normal life, the process of rebuilding Germany began almost immediately, according to historian Scott Wheeler’s “Duty First — The 1st Infantry Division,” which chronicled the division’s exploits.
After fighting their way through Germany, 1st ID soldiers found themselves caring for hundreds of thousands of former concentration camp prisoners, guarding Nazi leaders during the Nuremberg war trials and processing the rank-and-file German soldiers.
Within three years, the 1st ID was the only American division left in Germany, said Andrew Woods, a research historian with the Cantigny First Division Foundation in Wheaton, Ill.
After a decade of occupying Germany, the 1st ID was selected to rotate back to the States in late 1954.
With the fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union on the minds of Army leadership, the 1st ID became the first American division to reorganize into what would be known as a “pentomic” division during the 1950s.
In hopes of providing a more mobile, independent force better suited for a nuclear battlefield, the division’s three infantry regiments were turned into five battle groups with four or five infantry companies each.
Two artillery battalions supported the division and division strength fell to 13,700 from 17,500, according to Woods. The concept was also meant to disperse division forces, making the Big Red One less vulnerable to an all-consuming nuclear strike.
Army leaders hoped the battle groups would be more flexible and provide less of a target in the event of nuclear war, but many veteran combat leaders objected.
According to Wheeler’s account, Gen. Willard Wyman, a commander of the now-defunct Continental Army Command, said the design tried to replace infantrymen with “push-button weapons.”
“Until the day when a submarine can take a hill and a B-52 occupy a city … the Army division will continue to be the decisive instrument of military force in the arsenal of democracy,” Wyman said.
Pentomic divisions proved to be a nightmare for commanders, with division leaders having to deal with as many as 16 subordinate units, and there were too few infantrymen in the battle groups to occupy substantial territory or sustain operations on their own. The concept was abandoned in the early 1960s with the arrival of John F. Kennedy in the White House.
— Geoff Ziezulewicz