WWII Commands: 81st Chemical Mortar Battalion
Eric B. Greisinger
DESIGNATION: Company A, 81st Chemical Mortar Battalion
ACTIVATION: April 24, 1942
CAMPAIGNS: Normandy, Central Europe, Northern France, Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland
The 81st Chemical Battalion (Motorized), later designated the 81st Chemical Mortar Battalion, was activated on April 24, 1942, as one of the small specialized groups being raised quickly to fill gaps in the burgeoning U.S. Army.
Following a period of intense training, the 81st arrived at Camp Shanks, N.Y., for processing and overseas deployment on October 15, 1943. It arrived in Liverpool, England, on November 2 and spent the winter honing its amphibious skills in preparation for the invasion of Nazio-ccupied France. In late April 1944, the 81st was attached to the 1st Infantry Division.
In mid-May, the battalion was sent to its marshaling area in Dover, where it was divided into separate companies to support specific units. Company A was attached along with Company C to the 16th Regimental Combat Team.
At 0430 hours on June 6, all companies of the battalion were off-loaded onto LCVPs 15 miles from their designated landing beaches. It was nearly three hours later when the company landed on the Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach beside the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry.
The beach was a tableau of chaos. Heavy seas had caused much of the company’s equipment to sink to the bottom of the English Channel, though a handful of intrepid soldiers had done what they could to recover some of it.
Pinned to the beach under a hail of machine gun fire, Captain Thomas Peter Moundres, the company commander, was mortally wounded. He was dragged ashore by 1st Lt. James P. Panas, who had already pulled a wounded GI onto the beach and had assumed command.
Panas then moved the company to a firing position on the bluffs above the beach. When the infantry broke through later in the day, those positions were moved 500 yards from the beach to a spot near a tank trap, where the men came under a heavy barrage.
After D-Day, the battalion pushed inland and took part in the assault on St. Lô. Company A was given nightly harassing fire schedules, as well as supporting infantry attacks on Hill 192, during which it fired 500 rounds in a 14-hour period.
In early August, the 81st reassembled for its first formal rest period. Following the hiatus, Company A was attached to the 175th Infantry, 29th Division, and moved swiftly through the Vire River valley. The battalion also assisted in bridging the lower half of the Falaise pocket, which helped seal the fate of the German Seventh Army.
Following a brief rest, the entire battalion took part in the Allies’ race to Paris. On the outskirts of the “City of Light,” the companies were again split up, and after crossing the Seine, Company A moved on to Germany.
In early September, Companies A and B were attached to the 4th Division. It was with the men of the “Ivy” Division that Company A reached the Meuse River. Eight days after crossing the Meuse, Company A finally set foot on German soil. The next day, its 4.2-inch mortars joined with those of Company B in shelling the Siegfried Line, as 4th Division GIs made their first assaults on that formidable defensive belt.
Shortly thereafter, the entire battalion was transferred to Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, where it was hoped its firepower would help restart his stalled offensive around Metz. Company A supported the “Tough Hombres” of the 90th Division as they attacked the city from the north.
On October 8, the company was moved south of Hagondange to assist the 357th Infantry in taking Maizières-les-Metz. The attack quickly turned into a bitter slugfest, and remained so for nearly a month.
At 0350 hours on November 14, Company A crossed the Moselle River and proceeded to Valmestroff, enduring heavy fire and suffering several casualties.
After Metz fell, Company A moved into the Saar Basin. It arrived at Gomelange near the Neisse River on November 24. The company was then attached to the 377th Infantry. On November 29, it entered Germany again near Saarlauten.
When the Germans launched their Ardennes offensive on December 16, much of the Third Army began moving north toward Bastogne, leaving some units such as Company A to hold the line.
After stopping the Germans in the Ardennes, the Americans resumed the offensive toward the Saar-Moselle triangle. During that operation, Company A remained in Saarlauten. On January 29, it was attached to the 102nd Field Artillery Battalion, 26th Infantry Division.
By March 1945, the drive for the Rhine was underway, and Company A moved on the 12th to an area five miles east of Saarburg to support the 80th Division. The infantrymen were punching a hole to allow the 14th Armored Division through and either to trap the Germans on the Rhine River or push them to the opposite bank.
By March 16, the attack was moving with regularity again, and the German retreat turned to a rout, causing Company A to move several times a day to keep pace. On the 19th the Germans were at the Rhine under heavy aerial attack.
Two days later, however, the company suffered its hardest day. While standing in line for breakfast, the men were strafed by enemy aircraft. Within 10 minutes, 40 had been wounded and three killed.
In late April, the battalion took part in mop-up operations in Austria. By April 5, Company A had passed Kassel. Most nights for the company were spent in houses and beds, and for the next four days there were no missions on the German side of the Rhine. After the brief respite, the company resumed its advance, until it reached Chemnitz on April 16.
Two days later, after an all-night push, the company rendezvoused with the 71st Infantry Division at Bamberg. The following day, it fired onto the shore of the Danube in support of an infantry crossing.
On May 2, the company crossed the Enns River. After spotting the Germans digging in, it fired nine rounds of high explosives and laid a smokescreen for others crossing behind them. Those were the last rounds fired from Company A’s 4.2- inch mortars during the war.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of World War II.