Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas

The Medals and Badges SSgt. Hess probably earned

William H. Hess was born in 1915 in New York. He lived in Lyons, Wayne County, New York and spent 2 years in High School. William’s civilian occupation was, at the time of his enlistment, architect. He enlisted on January 16, 1941 in Syracuse (New York).

William H. Hess became a Staff Sergeant in the 78th Infantry Division, 311th Infantry Regiment, Company B. The 78th Infantry Division was reactivated on August 15, 1942, at Camp Butner (North Carolina), under the command of Major General Edwin P. Parker, Jr. The first mission was turning out reinforcements for combat. By late 1943, the 78th Infantry Division had won a well-earned reputation for training fighting men, with some, 60,000 in all theaters of war.

Mid-November, 1943, the 78th Division was moved to South Carolina for 3 weeks of field exercises after which it returned to its home station at Camp Butner. In January, 1944, the division moved to the Tennessee Maneuver Area for eight weeks of simulated combat. Throughout the maneuvers the 78th Division took each problem confidently and established an enviable record for smooth operation.

From Tennessee the Division moved to its new home, Camp Pickett (Virginia), where from April until September preparations for combat were completed. In late September 1944, the 78th Division had moved from Camp Pickett to Camp Kilmer (New Jersey), to undergo pre-embarkation processing.

On October 13, straining under the weight of duffle bags, the soldiers of the 78th Division, filed up the gangplank. Next evening they hung over the railing and watched the lights of Manhattan slip slowly into the night. On October 26, 1944, the 78th Infantry Division arrived in England, after a safe ocean crossing . Troops disembarked and piled into trains, climbing off again at Bournemouth, and received further training . Here, on the coast, the division remained until the third week in November when the men boarded LSTs and crossed the Channel to France ( November 22) . Part of the division docked at a French port where the Yanks got their first glimpse of the ravages of war on the continent. Assembling at the small town of Yvetot, the 78th Infantry Division jumped to Tongres, Belgium.

In early December 1944, the 78th Division rolled across the border to Rotgen where it set up its first headquarters on German soil. The 78th, was deployed in the corps center on a front extending from Lammersdorf to Monschau. On the left, the 8th Infantry Division fronted along the Kyll River line. The right wing was held by the 99th Infantry Division, whose positions reached from Monschau to the V-VIII Corps boundary in the Buchholz Forest northwest of the Losheim Gap. The first phase of the V Corps attack was to be carried by the 78th and 2nd Infantry Divisions, the latter coming up from an assembly area at Camp Elsenborn and passing through the 99th Division’s left. The 8th and 99th Divisions would confine their efforts initially to demonstrations and line-straightening.

Map of the Battle for the Hurtgen Forest
(click on picture to enlarge)

In the thickly wooded hills outside of Lammersdorf (Germany), just over the Belgian border, in the pre-dawn dark of that cold December morning, the men of the 78th Division crouched in their foxholes, awaiting the order that would hurl them into their first combat action. The division sector, a three-mile stretch, lay just south and east of a small town called Lammersdorf, about nine miles southeast of Aachen, the first large German city to be taken by the Allies. Out in front, paralleling the Roer River, rose the vaunted Siegfried Line. Rows of dragons' teeth stretched in an unbroken chain as far as the eye could see. Ingeniously concealed concrete pillboxes guarded every square yard of ground, firing slits covered all approaches. The ground surrounding these 16-foot thick monsters was sown with deadly anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Concertina wire entanglements spiraled across the countryside. Intricate networks of ground entrenchments afforded the German movement and cover for forward firing positions. The entire diabolical system was completely registered in by artillery and mortar units, which could lay down a murderous barrage on any threatened point.

On December 10, 1944, the 311th Infantry Regiment (SSgt. Hess’ Regiment) was attached north to the 8th Division in the Hurtgen Forest. The 309th and 310th Infantry Regiments relieved elements of the 1st Division in the line in the vicinity of Entenpfuhl, 1-12 December.

Several German-held dams near the source of the Roer controlled the flow of its waters north from Monschau and posed a serious threat to the success of a river-crossing operation. The largest and most important of these was the Schwammenauel Dam, which lay opposite the division sector. The 78th Division was given the mission of capturing and securing it. Immediate objective of the division, however, on the morning of December 13 at 0600 Hours, was to break into the Siegfried Line an capture the towns of Bickerath, Rollesbroich, Simmerath, Witzerath and Kesternich (all lying within the belt of fortifications). The 311th Infantry Regiment ( attached to the 8th Infantry Division ) had been assigned a diversionary mission in support of the big attack.

The pattern of advance was slow. Mortars and 88s pounded the earth; jagged hits of killing shrapnel exploded in the air. Minefields were detected and by-passed. Machine guns chattered, rifles cracked incessantly. There always was low, grazing fire. Aid men scurried about the battlefield, braving sudden death. From the start they won the respect and admiration of every soldier.

Medics aid a wounded soldier in the woods

By nightfall, Rollesbroich, Simmerath, Bickerath had fallen. Thirty-five pillboxes had been destroyed; the Germans had been thrown back 2500 yards. A big chunk had been bitten out of the Siegfried Line. So the first day of the attack went as planned, but on December 14 the Germans stiffened and on the 15th counterattacked; the 78th Division became involved in a rough battle at Rollesbroich and Kesternich.

On December 16 von Rundstedt launched his mighty counter-offensive in the Monschau area, five miles to the south. Ordered to the defensive, the 78th Division was instructed to hold its gains at all costs. By December 23, the snow-lined foxholes of the 311th Infantry Regiment’s defensive position covered 12,000 yards, with the Germans on three sides.

Throughout the rest of the snowy and bitter cold December of 1944 (and most of January 1945), while the First and Third U.S. Armies hammered at the Bulge from three sides, the 78th Division held and improved the salient it had thrust into the German defenses. Positions were organized in great depth; raids were carried out to destroy a fringe of pillboxes which menaced the security of the sector. The 311th Infantry Regiment (SSgt. Hess’ unit), having launched two fierce night attacks in conjunction with the main assault of the 78th Division, was returned to Division control.

Map showing Bickerath - Simmerath

Company B was south of Bickerath when it jumped off early January 3 to assault the pill boxes and troop shelters about 1,100 yards from the town. Resistance from the pill boxes proved too stubborn and after three tries, the Company retired to the captured troop shelters to prepare for the expected counter-attack (which came!).

On January 4 the men armed with satchel charges pushed off against a pill box. But something went wrong and the explosives just dented the steel door. After 3 tries they retired to a defensive line.

On January 5 elements of Company B had to attack the pill box and another troop shelter. They had three tanks in support, but mines put two out of action and the other was kept back in reserve. A little later the Germans laid down a murderous barrage that lasted three hours, and during the remainder of the day they kept firing at intervals. It was during this period that the men found theirself isolated and had to run through shell fire and small arms fire to safety. Finally they got enough fire power up there to knock out the pill boxes and trenches. SSgt. William Hess got Wounded in Action sometime during the Battle for the Hurtgen Forest or the Battle of the Bulge, before beying Killed in Action on Friday January 5, 1945 at age 29.

Rick Demas next to SSgt. William H. Hess' grave
(Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)

SSgt. William H. Hess’ final resting place is, together with 7,989 brothers in arms, the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium, Plot C, Row 11, Grave 20.

If anyone has information about SSgt. William H. Hess that may be of assistance to me, please contact me at rickmommers@msn.com

Lightning: The Story of the 78th Infantry Division
Pfc. Thomas Vano, Co. B, 311th Inf. Reg., 78th Inf. Div.