977th Field Artillery Battalion
by James R. Lankford
“I do not have to tell you who won the war. You know the artillery did.” When he uttered these words, GEN George S. Patton was clearly indulging himself in one of the larger than life exaggerations for which he is so famous. Still, there is more than a little truth in what he said. The U.S. field artillery did, in fact, cause the largest number of casualties among enemy soldiers during World War II. Yet it seems that the “King of Battle,” does not always receive full and proper recognition of its contributions in winning the war. This is the story of just one of the hundreds of artillery units that brought fires down onto the enemy during World War II.
On 1 March 1943, the 2d Battalion, 35th Field Artillery Regiment, was redesignated as the 977th Field Artillery Battalion at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. The unit was equipped with the new, long-barreled 155mm guns nicknamed, “Long Toms.” The 977th finished its training, and in a series of tests conducted by General Headquarters, scored the highest of any artillery battalion in the U.S. While preparing for the July 1943 Louisiana Maneuvers, the battalion suddenly received orders to prepare for overseas movement. The 977th left the Port of New York for North Africa on 21 August 1943 and landed at Oran, Algeria, on 2 September. After a period during which the battalion trained and drew new high-speed tractors for towing their guns, the 977th moved to Southern Italy.
The men of the 977th set foot on Italian soil on 10 October, and shortly after landing, suffered their first casualties of the war during an air raid. The 977th was assigned to VI Corps Artillery and fired its first rounds in action on 1 November. The battalion supported the 3d Infantry Division attacks against the Mignano Gap, as well as VI Corps operations along the Volturno River. The 977th performed well during this breaking in period. This was especially fortuitous since it would soon find itself fighting on one of the most deadly battlefields of the Italian war. On 10 February, the 977th landed at Anzio.
The 977th was under enemy artillery fire and attack from the air as it disembarked onto the beach at Anzio. The men of the 977th soon learned that the nickname “Bloody Anzio” was well deserved. The battalion was attacked twenty-five times by enemy aircraft, and came under counter-battery fire on at least 100 occasions, as German artillery of all sizes, including the legendary 280mm “Anzio Annie” railway gun, pounded the beachhead. The German efforts to silence their guns were unsuccessful, and the men of the 977th continued to answer calls for fire support from British and American units alike. In a single twenty-four hour period, at the height of the fighting, the battalion fired 2,877 rounds, sending a remarkable 137 tons of steel and high explosives into enemy positions. The battalion’s rate of fire on this day was among the highest recorded by any 155mm gun battalion during the war. Captured German soldiers who had been on the receiving end of such sustained volumes of fire were so impressed by the sheer numbers of shells that landed on their positions that they sometimes asked to be shown the American’s “automatic cannons.” There were no safe places at Anzio, and the battalion lost seven men killed and forty-three wounded. Despite these bitter losses the artillerymen of the 977th gave better than they received. During their time at Anzio they fired a total of 49,903 rounds at the enemy in 2,172 separate fire missions. Following the breakout from the beachhead, the 977th moved North through Rome, to the area of Lake Bracciano. After only a few days of much needed rest, the battalion was withdrawn to prepare for the invasion of Southern France.
On 15 August 1944, the 977th landed on the beaches of Southern France as a part of the Operation Dragoon invasion force. Again, as at Anzio, the battalion disembarked onto a beachhead under attack by the enemy. The LST carrying the men and equipment of A Battery had just started unloading when it was hit by a radio controlled bomb. The tremendous explosion and resulting fire killed twenty-one men and wounded seventy-one others. The battery’s equipment, including its 155 mm guns, was also destroyed. In spite of the terrible loss, the men of B and C Batteries quickly moved to their firing positions, and by that afternoon, their guns were answering urgent calls for fire from troops in the front lines.
Following the Allied landings, German commanders struggled to form a defensive line around the beachhead. Maintaining its offensive drive, VI Corps, now part of the U.S. Seventh Army, ripped through the crumbling enemy defenses, setting off a disorganized, general retreat of the entire German Nineteenth Army. Seizing the opportunity to cut-off and completely destroy the rapidly withdrawing Germans, MG Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., VI Corps commander, ordered Task Force (TF) Butler to seal off the German escape route to the north along Highway 7. The 977th was sent north with TF Butler to bring its guns within range of the retreating German forces. Soon the small force was sitting astride the German line of retreat near the town of Montelimar, and both sides started rushing reinforcements to the area. The veteran 11th Panzer Division soon arrived with the mission of helping the Nineteenth Army escape north through the stiffening American lines. Over the next few, days, the opposing forces fought a series of critical engagements in what became known as the Battle of Montelimar. On 25 August, the German commanders ordered the 11th Panzer Division to launch a strong attack against a thinly held portion of the VI Corps line near the town of Marsanne.
On the same day, the 977th closed in on Marsanne, a small town situated a little to the Northeast of Montelimar. The Germans attack began shortly after the artillerymen started setting up their big guns. The attacking force was led by Panther tanks of the 11th Panzer Division. A single company of VI Corps’ 111th Combat Engineer Battalion, stretched paper-thin along a 3,000 yard front, received the brunt of the German attack. Lacking armored support, the outnumbered and outgunned engineers were quickly pushed back. As the German tanks advanced towards Marsanne, they came into an open area to the front of the 977th’s positions. Only two of the battalion’s guns were set up and ready for action when the Panthers appeared, but they were quickly brought to bear on the enemy tanks. With the barrels of their Long Toms nearly parallel to the ground, the gunners opened fire. At almost the same time, the Panthers began to pour fire into the gun positions. What ensued was a deadly gunfight at point-blank range.
The battle was over, almost as soon as it had begun. The guns of the 977th destroyed six Panthers in matter of minutes, and the remaining tank commanders wisely withdrew before they too became victims to the superior firepower of the 155s, and the skill of the gun crews. The Germans regrouped and later succeeded in opening an escape route for their trapped forces, but they did not dare to risk another attack against the positions of the 977th. Despite chronic shortages of ammunition, the 977th, and the other artillery battalions of TF Butler, continued to wreak havoc on the withdrawing enemy. The 19th German Army was decimated. Truscott’s aide, CPT James M. Wilson, described the damage done to the retreating Germans by the task force, and its artillery, as “carnage compounded.”
A veteran infantryman, who happened upon the battlefield a few weeks later, did not know about the action or the names of the units involved, but he soon determined much of what had happened. There, close at hand, was a ruined 155mm gun that had probably been destroyed in the battle, and at a distance of about 1,000 yards was a knocked out Panther. An examination of the wrecked tank told the story of the awesome power of the Long Tom. Striking the tank almost dead center, the 95 pound projectile made a neat round hole in the thick, sloped armor. The range must have been too short for the fuse setting, and the round did not explode. Continuing along its trajectory, the projectile passed through the crew compartment, ripped into the engine bay, and created a gaping hole in the rear of the tank as it exited. Amazingly, the massive engine, or what was left of it, was laying on the ground some distance behind the tank, carried there by the 155mm round. The infantryman was impressed by the courage of these unknown artillerymen who had “stood up into the fire,” shielded only by their fortitude, and fought the advancing Panthers. Not knowing the outcome of the battle, he thought the artillerymen must have been overrun. In this final conjecture, he was mistaken.
The 977th went on to fight in many other engagements as Seventh Army advanced up the Rhone Valley, and through the rugged Vosges Mountains. It once again found itself on the defensive in January 1945, as VI Corps fought for its very existence against the onslaught of Operation Nordwind, the last major German offensive of the war. In what the U.S. Army calls the Battle of Alsace, the 977th fired numerous missions in support of various units along the VI Corps line. The accuracy of its 155mm guns, and the skill of the gunners were tested to their fullest extent as the battalion answered frequent calls from forward observers to place the precision fires of just one or two guns onto individual tanks or houses in house-to-house fighting, and to provide final protective fires well inside “danger close” distances to prevent outnumbered American infantry from being overrun. As before, the 977th performed its duties well, bringing its fires, on time and on target. After the German offensive drew to a close in late January, the battalion experienced a welcomed period of quiet. This ended in mid-March when Seventh Army resumed offensive operations. Now attached to XV Corps, the 977th fired numerous missions as American forces fought their way through the Siegfried Line, crossed the Rhine, and overran Southern Germany. VE Day found the 977th headquartered at the German city of Augsburg, Northwest of Munich.
In 492 days of combat, the 977th Field Artillery Battalion participated in seven campaigns: Naples-Foggia, Anzio, Rome-Arno, Southern France (with arrowhead), Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe. It fired its Long Toms in support of British, French, and American forces serving with the U.S. Fifth and Seventh Armies, as well as the French First Army. The battalion was attached to or operated in support of three American and one British corps, twenty American, British, and French divisions, three field artillery brigades, and six field artillery groups. The battalion conducted 5,934 fire missions, firing a total of 118,710 rounds at the enemy, and in the process, wore out eighty-four gun tubes, enough to equip seven battalions. It had been a costly war for the 977th. Thirty-nine of its men were killed in action, another 159 were wounded, and five became prisoners of war. The men of the battalion received the following awards: one Distinguished Service Cross, three Legions of Merit, fifteen Silver Stars, Soldier’s Medals, twenty-two Bronze Stars, thirty Air Medals and Oak Leaf Clusters, and 197 Purple Hearts.
After serving with the occupation forces in Germany, the 977th Field Artillery Battalion returned to the United States at the Port of Hampton Roads on 8 January 1946 and was inactivated the same day at Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia. The 977th was redesignated as the 519th Field Artillery Battalion on 5 February 1947 and activated on 20 May 1949 at Sonthofen, Germany. On 25 June 1958, the 519th was inactivated at Fort Lewis Washington. The 519th; Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 35th Artillery Group; and the 517th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, were consolidated , reorganized and redesignated the 35th Artillery, a parent unit under the Combat Arms Regimental System, on 15 January 1971 (later redesignated as the 35th Field Artillery on 1 September 1971). Two inactive field artillery units, 4th Battalion, 35th Field Artillery, and 5th Howitzer Battalion, 35th Field Artillery, trace their lineage to Battery A, 977th Field Artillery Battalion, and Battery B, 977th Field Artillery Battalion, respectively.