World War II and the Greatest Generation
Clarence Denny, I Company, 3rd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, First Army, European Theater of Operations
In 2009, my wife’s uncle on her mother’s side, Clarence Denny age 92 (at the time, RIP Clarence) of Lutherville, Georgia, told me a little about his World War II experiences.
Clarence was born on a Thursday, February 8, 1917 in Lineville, Alabama. This was about a month before the overthrow of Czar Nicholas and the Russian Monarchy, and three years into World War I. Woodrow Wilson was president and the United States had yet to enter the war, having just broken off diplomatic relations with Germany because of Germany’s announcement that it would begin unrestricted submarine warfare against any nation attempting to move supplies to the Allies.
Clarence grew up in the rural South on the border between Alabama and Georgia, and he turned eighteen in 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression. That economic disaster took a heavy toll on the deep South and many young men like Clarence were on the move looking for work. Clarence was 24 years old by the summer of 1941 and was living in Washington, DC where his sister, Ann, had landed a job in the White House.
Ann’s husband, Bill, worked at the Navy Department, and he was trying to help Clarence land a job at the Navy Yard. Clarence’s name had a few places to climb on the eligible electricians list before they would give him a call. There was a lot of work around Washington as the military had been instructed to beef up in anticipation of the potential for the war to spill over onto America. Meanwhile, Clarence was learning all there was to know about being a soda jerk at the Peoples Drugs, 19th & Pennsylvania Avenue. Then came a draft notice just a month before his name came up for that job at the Navy Yard.
Clarence was instructed to report to an army camp in West Virginia, and on June 4, 1941 he became Serial Number 33 09 4545. After receiving basic training at Camp Wheeler near Macon, Georgia, on October 10 he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia to become part of the reactivated 12th Infantry Regiment, Company I, of the 4th Infantry Division. From there it was on to Camp Gordon, Georgia for what was to be two years of training to go to war. On September 29, 1942, the whole 4th ID was designated as an experimental motorized infantry division, an idea that evidently didn’t work out. It was later reorganized as a standard dismounted infantry division on August 1, 1943 for the run-up to the Normandy invasion. Amphibious Training was conducted at Camp Gordon Johnson, Carrabelle, Florida, and more training was received at Fort Dix, New Jersey right before the 4th ID headed to Europe.
Having trained for two and a half years in preparation for what was now secretly known as Operation Overlord, the 4th ID was ready to fight when Clarence boarded the troop ship USAT George Washington at the port of embarkation, New York City, on January 18, 1944 for transport to Liverpool, England. Arriving on January 29, Clarence and and his fellows were immediately transported to Salcombe in South Devon to be billeted, equipped for combat, and to make preparation for the Normandy invasion. By then Clarence was a Tech 5 (equivalent to a corporal) and was the company armorer, in charge of all small weapons.
Clarence had a double hernia when he was drafted and the Army brass ordered him to have it repaired. That operation, which he had refused stateside but that he could not refuse in a war zone, kept him in the hospital for those few weeks during which the Normandy invasion kicked off. The 4th Infantry Division saw its first combat action June 6, 1944 on Utah Beach sans Clarence. The 12th Infantry Regiment, Clarence’s outfit, was the third group ashore on Utah that day but was furthest inland by dusk, digging in just northeast of Sainte-Mère-Église. Clarence’s hernias won him a pass for the Longest Day.
Three weeks later, however, a healing Clarence left England to rejoin I Company on or about July 1, fighting somewhere near Périers in the French Bocage—the hedgerow country. The first phase of Operation Overlord had been accomplished, the firm establishment of the beachhead and securing the immediate vicinity so that the next phase, Operation Cobra, the breakout from Normandy, could begin. Spearheaded by the 12th Infantry Regiment, The 4th ID had just finished taking the critical port of Cherbourg. By then Operation Overlord had successfully landed on French soil almost 1 million men, 586,000 tons of equipment, and 177,000 vehicles. The Allies had suffered 62,000 casualties to the German’s 80,000, but by the middle of August the Allies were now in firm control of Normandy, including control of the Cotentin Peninsula and Cherbourg, from Caen to Avranches.
Operation Cobra was just about to get underway as Clarence rejoined his outfit. Omar Bradley’s brainchild, Cobra mapped the breakout from Normandy, the move on Paris, and set the stage for the invasion of Germany. Cobra would require more blood from the 4th ID. Following Cobra, and for the remainder of August, the 4th ID fought in the battle of the Falaise Pocket and then on to the liberation of Paris culminating with the German surrender of the city on August 25.
Leaving Paris, the 4th ID moved to attack the Seigfried Line through Belgium. Around November 6 the division entered the Hürtgen Forrest for a savage 45 day combat stint, at the end of which only Clarence and four other I Company men remained of those that originally landed in France on D-Day. Typical US Army Infantry companies at that time were comprised of 200 plus men so I Company had by then suffered a 98% casualty rate.
Clarence had got the job of company supply sergeant. You might think that was a cushy job, but for every day in combat Clarence made a minimum of two jeep trips to the front where he ferried supplies, ammo, and replacements up from the rear and took wounded back, all usually done under heavy enemy fire.
After the Hürtgen Forest—referred to as the “Hürtgenwald Meat Grinder” by men that fought there—the 4th ID withdrew to Luxembourg for R&R, replacements, and resupply. Unfortunately, the German’s had other plans and at that moment kicked off the Ardennes Winter Offensive December 16, 1944, the northern part of which came to be know as the Battle of the Bulge. Just as Clarence’s I Company arrived in Dickweiler, Luxembourg, only a couple of miles from the German border, they were suddenly cut off by the German Seventh Army. The 12th Infantry would have to face the 212th German Infantry Division, the best and the toughest German troops in the area and a force that was probably five times the size of the 12th.
The Germans’ move completely encircled Clarence’s I Company. As company supply sergeant, Clarence was distressed that his company did not have the supplies it needed. While no one ordered him to do it, he took a look at the situation, jumped into a jeep pushing the driver over to the passenger side, and took off at full speed straight for the German lines. Clarence headed up through a fire break figuring that if he drove fast enough he might just surprise the Germans and make it to the American lines for the critical ammo and supplies.
Clarence recounted, “I drove so fast that the jeep’s wheels were barely touching the ground.” The Germans just looked at them in amazement as they blew by.
Defying the odds, reaching the American lines safely, the local commander would not let them go back due to German fire and due to the fact that the 4th ID were indeed surrounded. So Clarence had to wait until later the next day to head back and, along with several other jeeps, made the supply run to Dickweiler.
While on the way back in, the men of the 4th ID almost fired on them thinking that the German’s must have captured or killed Clarence and commandeered his jeep. One guy, however, recognized Sgt. Denny from a distance and he held their fire letting him through to a very warm welcome. For his jeep run through the German lines, Clarence received the Bronze Star despite the fact that he told his superior that he was just doing his job as the company supply sergeant.
With a little help from Clarence, the 4th ID held the line and were able to counterattack across the Sauer river, taking Fouhren and Vianden in Luxembourg. By February 1945 they were at the Prüm River but fierce German resistance halted them for a time. The division finally crossed the river on February 28 near Olzheim, and then crossed the river Kyll March 7th.
After resting for a short time, the 4th crossed the Rhine on March 29 at Worms, took Würzburg and by April 3, and established an important bridgehead across the Main river at Ochsenfurt. Attacking southeast across Bavaria, the division had reached Miesbach near Munich by May 2, 1945. The European war ended on May 7 with the final surrender of all German forces. At Miesbach, the 4th ID became a force of occupation and spent their energies feeding the thousands of Jews and others that passed by after having been released from concentration camps to the north.
By July, the 4th ID was headed back to the states and Camp Butner, North Carolina. But not for discharge. They were poised to prepare for the invasion of Japan when the atomic bomb cut short the Pacific war. Clarence was discharged soon thereafter at Camp Gordon near Augusta, Georgia. He went home to become a Baptist preacher. He figured he owed God that because he had survived.
Activated June 3, 1940, the 4th ID first entered combat on June 6, 1944 and fought almost continuously for 299 days. They took 75,377 Germans prisoner, suffered 4488 men killed in action, 16,985 wounded (757 of which later died as a result of their wounds), 860 missing in action, and 121 captured. Total battle casualties were 22,454 and 13,091 non battle casualties for a total of 35,545. In fact, the 4th Infantry Division suffered more battle casualties and more total casualties than any other division that served in the ETO. For their actions in the Europe, the men of the 4th ID received 4 Medals of Honor, 54 Distinguished Service Crosses, 8 Legions of Merit, 814 Silver Stars, 19 Soldiers Medals, 5096 Bronze Stars (Clarence got one of these), and 63 Air Medals. The 4th participated in five major campaigns including Normandy (with arrowhead for being first ashore on Utah Beach), Northern France, the Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe.
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
WWII Victory Medal
American Defense Service Medal
12th Infantry Regimental Unit Awards
Presidential Unit Citation for valor in the defense of Luxembourg, Battle of the Bulge