Messages from the front: Thunderbirds one of the first units federalized in WWII
In 1941, thousands of Coloradans joined the fray in WWII when the 45th Infantry Division became one of the first National Guard units federalized from state control into the regular army force. Intense fighting followed in the invasion of Sicily, the attack on Salermo, and brutal battles at Anzio and Monte Cassino. And those were just warm ups for landings in France, during operation Dragoon, and final drive into Nazi Germany and physical liberation of the Dachau death camp. My Uncle “Stub” was a medic attached to 157 Infantry of 45th Thunderbirds, and an old friend of mine, from my hometown in Dolores, was in the same unit.
“A few lines to let you know where I am, and answer your letter,” wrote my uncle, to my father (who was still in High school at the time, in Meeker, CO) on Nov. 12, 1942 from New York, NY, as they prepared to depart for Europe after training there, Fort Sill, OK, and other places.
“I don’t know much that would interest you, but will try to let you know how things are with me. It snowed last night and today so have had a little fun. We are having snow-ball fights, for this is the most snow I have seen since I was home last winter, and tonight there is about two inches.”
The uncertainty of what was to come, was touched on in my uncle’s letter.
“I still don’t know for sure whether I will get to come home not, so don’t look for me till you see me in person, and then you won’t be disappointed,” he wrote.
The letter broke off a few lines later, but resumed, with a different ink.
“I started to write this letter but the lights went out for about an hour, so it stopped me from finishing my scandal. Well, I guess there is no more to say, so till next time, goodbye for now.”
My dad says he didn’t hear much from Uncle Stub again, until my other Uncle, Bill, who served in the U.S. Navy, searched for his unit, and tracked him in France one day. “Been busy,” Uncle Stub told my Uncle Bill at the time. Perhaps an understatement, when you review the history.
From another account, this one from Paul Butler (I knew Butler, later, while growing up in Dolores, Colo.), who was a corporal in the same 157th regiment of the 45th Thunderbirds:
"We were under machine gun fire all night long, laying on the ground. Machine gun fire killed my Sergeant. The Italians weren't very good fighters but the Germans were, they were always blowing up railroad tracks and bridges. I saw a U.S.O. show with Bob Hope,” Butler told a nephew who compiled his story for the 157th regiment’s page for WWII Recreation Association page.
“We traveled on foot a lot under General (George) Patton's command. He gave a speech to about 2,000 of us and we were told we'd hit the mainland of Italy. I remember him saying, ‘If those SOBs don't back up, take your bayonets and make them.’ Patton had to return to the states over the incident where he slapped the soldier with battle fatigue, so we went on without him,” according to Paul’s account to his nephew.
“In Sicily I was transferred back into an Anti-tank company and I hauled 60mm Mortar rounds. On Sept. 8, 1943 we hit Salerno Beach. There, I drove a White half-track pulling a 37mm gun. I drove the half-track onto the beach head. On the way into Italy, the Italians surrendered, but the Germans fought furiously. That winter we were foot soldiers in the mountains of Italy. A lot of G.I.s got trench foot, frozen feet and lost toes. Then, on January 29, 1944 we hit Anzio Beach Head. The Germans had all the high ground and we were pinned down on the beach every day for 4 to 5 months. Every day was like a D-day,” he said.
“I built a cellar that kept shell fragments out. It was a foxhole with a timber and sandbag roof. We had a gas stove and played cards sometimes with a candle, when the candle went out you knew you had to get out to get oxygen. The Germans had this big gun we called Anzio Angie and when the big shells were fired, it sounded light a freight train coming. The gun was placed back in a tunnel on a railway car. They had a 6 barrel mortar that sounded like a screechin' tomcat, but the toughest were those German 88's. Us half-track drivers had to drive back up this road one time so we could hide and camouflage our vehicles. Most of my 37mm gun crew was killed then. They gave me the Bronze Star for delivering ammunition while under fire. I was just one of the lucky ones who didn't get hit. A lot of men were captured, then escaped and rejoined us. One unit lost all but two of its men.”
‘Operation Shingle’ and the allied landing at Anzio was significant because the American 5th Army was surrounded by Germans in the caves of Pozzolli in February of 1944. It sustained heavy casualties.
“One day when we had a break in the shelling and I was horsing around with some other fellas and one threw a dirt clod and gave me a black eye. They sent me to the hospital. They wanted to give me a Purple Heart, but I told the truth and said I'd rather have some aspirin. During the second night, the Germans shelled the hospital and I crawled under my cot. I told them it was safer where I had been, and I asked to be sent back to the front.
“The last part of May, we broke out of the beachhead and headed for Rome. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, we were headed into Rome after 5 months of fierce fighting on Anzio. Because the Pope was in Rome, we were sent back to the beachhead for more training until Aug. 1. On the 15th of August we hit the Southern France beachhead near the French Riviera. It was an easy landing with very little resistance. We spent the winter in the Vosges Mountains. It was really cold. I remember the sap freezing in the trees and they'd blow up just like shells. In November of ‘44 we went into Alsace, an area along the German-French border. There was heavy fighting from town to town. I was a Transportation Corporal at the time and I drove a Dodge 6x6 pulling a 57mm Gun behind it. We were under blackout operations most of the time. We crossed the Rhine River on an Army built bridge and into Aschaffenburg about 2 weeks after General Patton entered the city. We were in and out of buildings and German Snipers were firing at us all the time. Our commander told us that the end of the war was getting close and he didn't want to see any more of us get killed, so we pulled out and the Air Corps bombed the city,” according to Butler’s account.
“My last day of combat was April 30, 1945, my 511th day. That day I visited the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. The day before, I company of the Third Battalion had been the first to Dachau. Some of my buddies went over that day, I figured I'd better see it too. I didn't really want to, but I did. Them pictures you've seen, it was the truth. We had been fighting for two years and we were hard. We had seen things -- our friends killed and you kind of got used to it, maybe your emotions sort of die," Butler said.
"A few days later I hitched a ride down somewhere in Germany to see your Dad. I had found out where he was and decided to visit. All those soldiers... and I found him. I came walking up and he said, ‘That's Paul Butler.’ When I got back to camp, they sent me home. When the plane landed in Florida, I kissed the ground," Butler told his nephew.
Both Paul Butler, and my Uncle Stub, were among the fortunate from 45th Thunderbirds that were able to return to Colorado after WW II, and resume their lives in the Centennial state, though my Uncle battled with health issues related to the shrapnel that he picked up in both Anzio and Sicily.
The unit was briefly deactivated and then reactivated and restricted to Oklahoma soldiers in 1951, and finally deactivated in a downsizing of the National Guard in 1968. The former division was restructured into an infantry brigade, an artillery group, and a support command, with state headquarters providing general administrative and logistical support. This did not mean the end of the Thunderbird; the Thunderbird patch was retained by all the organizations, with the exception of the state headquarters, which continued to be identified with the Indian-head patch. The 45th Infantry Division Museum in Oklahoma City still pays tribute to those who served valiantly over the years.