17 years old at the Battle of the Bulge in the dense Ardennes forest of France, PFC Jack Levandoski only made it to Europe because his superiors in the U.S. Army’s 232nd Infantry Regiment, 42nd “Rainbow” Division believed he was 18. By the time they became aware he was underage, he was already in country and doing his part to take the fight to the Nazis. Armed with a BAR, Jack was instrumental in clearing German machine gun nests, as the Army made its way across Germany.
The historic 42nd “Rainbow” Division of WWI was reactivated on July 14, 1943, under the command of Brigadier General Harry J. Collins at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma . One month later, cadremen for the unit found themselves busily training and building a 15,000-man fighting force destined for the fields of battle in Europe. After suffering multiple training setbacks, including the transfer and subsequent replacement of more than the 15,000 men qualified for overseas shipment, on October 14, 1944 at four in the morning, Commanding General Collins received a call from Washington: “Stop all other training; get your three infantry regiments ready to go overseas” . In the rush to reinforce the Allied lines on the Western Front, PFC Levandoski of Wausau, Wisconsin was selected as a BAR gunner and rushed through pre-deployment training along with the rest of the 232nd Infantry Regiment.
The Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, was born out of the trenches of WWI. Capable of spewing over 600 rounds per minute with selective fire capability, the .30 caliber rifle’s lethality was only bridled by its relatively small magazine size of 20 rounds. Known for its simplicity, it could be completely field stripped in under a minute. It filled its role almost perfectly as a heavy weapon to distribute among light infantry soldiers . Jack remembers lugging the 24-pound weapon, heavy by a rifleman’s standards, all the way across Germany: “You had to know how to handle that BAR. You give it to the average guy, he’s shooting up here, you had to know how to hold here down. Big trick in that; it’ll climb on ya” .
December 8 and 9 marked the arrival of the infantry regiments in Europe. Soon to be known officially as Task Forced Linden, their arrival in the town of Marseilles served as a gentle introduction to the horrors they would come to face further inland, as nightly blackouts and antiaircraft fire were the normal accompaniment to the cold, miserable nights . As training continued for the unit, by mid-December rumors and news began to spread that the Germans were committing to an all-out offensive along the Western Front. Little did PFC Levandoski and his comrades know, they would soon find themselves playing a pivotal role in one of the most infamous battles of WWII.
As a dying gasp for the Third Reich, on December 16, 1944, Adolf Hitler launched a massive counteroffensive against Allied forces in the Ardennes Forest in southern Belgium and Luxembourg . The desperate surprise attack was designed to split Allied lines in two, and at least initially, Nazi forces penetrated deep into Allied territory. As viewed on military maps, this produced a great bulge in the Allied front line, from which the battle’s name is drawn.
The Battle of the Bulge is regarded as the largest land battle in all of WWII for American forces , and is among the bloodiest of battles in all of history. By the time it came to an end on January 25, 1945, casualty numbers on both sides overshadowed even the invasion of Normandy, with American casualties totaling about 80,000 men, of whom 19,000 were killed, and German losses nearing 85,000 . It’s estimated that at least an additional 3,000 civilian lives were lost in the chaos of battle . It is in the midst of this bloodbath that PFC Jack Levandoski would earn a paycheck clearing German machine gun nests.
The Front Lines
By Christmas, the infantry regiments of the Rainbow were sent to defend positions south of the Bulge along the Rhine river near Strasbourg, Germany. Now under control of the 79th Division, the three regiments of Task Force Linden were stretched thin over roughly 19 miles along the Rhine. Their defensive responsibilities would be extended up to 33 miles on January 3rd, as other surrounding units were moved north to reinforce the fighting positions around the Bulge. With the Germans occasionally harassing the Americans from the opposite side of the river, the chess match that developed on both sides of the Rhine would come to a crescendo on January 5th at 0745 in the form of a German attack on the towns of Gambsheim, Offendorf, Herrlisheim and Kilstett .
Supported by roughly 20 tanks and self-propelled guns, 81 and 120-mm mortars, self-propelled 75-mm anti-tank guns, 75-mm field howitzers and artillery, a fighting force roughly the size of an infantry regiment, including two SS battalions, poured across the Rhine. Attacking positions held by companies that would normally be the responsibility of a battalion sized unit or larger, the German offensive was able to surround the towns, and killed or captured nearly all the defenders, of Gambsheim, Kilstett, and Offendorf; a mere 80 men were able to fight their way out of Herrlisheim .
Initially outnumbered and outgunned, and forced to fight on their heels at the worst possible time, the Rainbowmen were eventually able to concentrate their efforts and contain the German bridgehead across the Rhine after two days of fighting. However, the heaviest fighting was far from over. For almost a month, the 42nd would battle the Germans in and outside of towns all along the Rhine, fending off German attacks and launching their own counters .
Mr. Levandoski recalled one particular grenade assault on a machinegun emplacement: “That old BAR, she talked pretty good. Our assistant squad leader Thompson, he was good at assaulting machinegun nests. This one he was just ready to throw her into the pillbox and brrrupt. A burp gunner got him.” Hearing him talk, it was as if it had happened only yesterday, and the loss of his comrade was evident in the weight his voice carried. He went on, “I saw where the smoke came from, and I stopped the smoking there, but the thing is, it didn’t help Thompson none, he was full of holes from that burp gun. They got him there” .
With half of their riflemen lost, finally, on January 27, the regiments were relieved from their positions on the front line .
After a month and a half of rest, recovery, training, and patrolling, the Rainbowmen were prepared to take the fight to the Germans on the offense. On March 15 at 0645 the regiments moved to destroy the German defense in the Hardt Mountains. The men would keep the Germans in a near constant retreat until they reached the limit of their sector just past the town of Dahn .
Mr. Levandoski remembered a portion of their advance as they fought from one town to the next: “Our CO told us to move out and take the town because the troops were moving out.” The troop movements, as it turned out, were an attempt to draw the infantrymen out into an open field just outside the town. Just before moving out, Jack caught sight of German soldiers moving into a defensive position. “You could see down the rows of trees. [We were] just ready to go out, and I called the squad leader over, [I told him] they aren’t stragglers, they’re carrying something heavy.” As a result, rather than move across the field and directly into the town, the unit moved to pincer the supposed enemy positions; the outcome was the taking of the town and capture of five German soldiers who were of those left in place to ambush the advancing Americans. Set up with MG 08 water cooled machineguns on both sides of the field, Jack’s unit would have almost certainly been caught in the open and decimated by the German crossfire had they continued across the field. “I saved our whole squad, and how much of our platoon I don’t know that would have been out there too.” Jack’s squad leader later informed him that, for his actions that day, they were going to put him in for the Silver Star, to which Jack responded, “well, let’s get this war over with anyway” .
Jack’s lifesaving day wasn’t over yet; oddly enough, his next life saved would be that of a young German who, only moments before, was preparing to take Jack’s life. He remembers searching the five prisoners in the town, “one kid was only, I’d say, 16 maybe, we had a mean guy… he was from Chicago. When we were searching them all, he searched the kid and he found [this] spoon… spoon, knife and fork with a bullet hole in it.” A standard issue multi-tool apparently taken off the body of an American lost in battle, the sight of the equipment apparently sent Jack’s battle weary comrade over the edge. “He took his pistol out and was going to shoot the kid. I told him, I said, ‘the kid surrendered… you shoot him, that’s murder’… he was almost in tears, poor kid.” It’s a scene played out in many a war movie, a moral and ethical dilemma left to be solved by men in the direst of circumstances; however, it was all too much of a reality for Jack. Quick to step up for what was right, his words apparently had an effect on the angered soldier: “that made him think; he put his pistol back, and I saved that kid’s life” .
Having driven the Germans back over 15 miles, the Rainbowmen moved back to regroup and account for German soldiers who were simply bypassed in the initial advance. After regrouping, they continued their push through Germany, growing ever closer to a hell that would scar them more than any firefight or artillery barrage could from the entire war. The Nazi concentration camps spread across all of Germany were mostly unknown to the infantrymen aside from rumors, and the Rainbowmen were on their way to liberate the oldest one in all of Nazi Germany .
The Nazi Concentration Camp
Due to the chaos of war and the sheer magnitude of atrocities committed at Dachau, many facts about the camp remain disputed or lost to history. There is no way of ever knowing how many German prisoners passed through the camp, or how many would only enter, never to leave alive. While there are even questions in regard to the use of the gas chambers found at the camp adjacent to the crematorium, regardless of their use on humans or not, one fact remains. The human rights abuses that occurred at Dachau were so horrid that all debates are completely obsolete. Told here is the story from the perspective of the 42nd infantry and one of its fine soldiers, with the hope that the world will never again bear witness to the memory that they live with to this day.
No man of the 42nd could forget the horrors found within the confines of Germany’s oldest concentration camp. On April 29, 1945 some 33,000 prisoners celebrated the arrival of the Rainbowmen as their liberating force, and simultaneously joined in the fight against the SS guards still occupying the camp, some dressed in prisoners’ uniforms in an attempt to escape. The compound erupted into mass hysteria. Some prisoners running to greet the Americans were forced into the electrified fence surrounding the camp by the prisoners rushing behind them; several died as a result. Other prisoners, numb to the concept of life and death for so long, went about with clubs and stones to take the lives of those who had been responsible for the atrocities committed at the camp. In an effort to restore order to the chaos unfolding before them, the Americans were forced to fire shots above the crowd to quiet them. Finally, able to move throughout the camp, the men were able to make their way from one end to the other. What they found is the stuff of nightmares .
Mr. Levandoski remembers all to vividly the scene inside the camp; in his interview, much of what he had to say came in blurbs as he recalled the horrid memories he tried to bury for so long. At times, he appeared to be at a complete loss for words while trying to convey what he witnessed. His first task in Dachau was a grizzly one, as his unit went about the task of, as he put it, “mow[ing] down the officers” . However, the majority of the SS had abandoned their post at the camp and retreated ahead of the American advance, but not before mowing down thousands of prisoners the night prior with machineguns. Jack spent time trying to describe the scene: “I took pictures of Dachau, bodies piled up, oh the stink, blood running out of them, juice, boxcars full of people, pregnant women with a little bitty bulge in their belly, ready to have a kid, but hell, that kid wouldn’t stand a chance of living. I threw the pictures away, I just wanted to forget about that shit. I couldn’t eat for three days after we got out of there” .
Just outside the camp, the men came across a train filled with dead bodies of prisoners who were shipped back from the Buchenwald camp closer to the front lines . “They had boxcars full of people, they were shitting in one corner, it was a mess. Those bodies that were piled up, there was juice running out of them” . Many of the bodies were left naked, as the ones who survived the longest stripped the cloths from the dead dressed themselves in an effort to retain some warmth. Some who had tried to open the doors of the cars were mowed down by the Germans. Of the roughly 1,500 men found in the boxcars, there was only one survivor .
It would be at Dachau where Jack would meet Sonia, the daughter of a colonel in the Yugoslav Partisan resistance, which participated in organized guerrilla warfare against the Germans. She, along with two of her ten brothers, were taken by the Nazis as political prisoners of the Third Reich. Jack recalled what she told him of how her two captured brothers were killed in the camp. It wasn’t just German SS who posed a problem at the camp. Females within the SS, known as Aufseherinnen and identified simply as “the fraus” by the Americans, were found to be serving as guards. Jack recollects, “it was the fraus that were the mean bastards it seemed like. They had these police dogs [and] these sticks, and these dogs would obey them sticks.” In an attempt to obtain information about her father’s whereabouts, Sonia was made to watch the deaths of her brothers at the hands of the Aufseherinnen: “They made her watch how they killed her two brothers. The one, the police dog pushed [him] into the fence, electrocuted him… The other one they had him hanging by the arms and his legs spread, and she pointed that stick and the dog jumped up and castrated him. Right in front of her, and boy, don’t think she wasn’t pissed at the Nazis” .
The Cost of War
Like many who returned from the war, Mr. Levandoski spent some time trying to bury it. He has spent time trying to make sense of what he saw, and why there wasn’t some other way. One of his most vivid memories of the war is seeing the cemeteries in France from the Normandy invasion. He explained, “what got me [was] seeing all those cemeteries. Crosses for as far as you could see, all our boys that never hit shoreline with the pillboxes that ran out of ammo from shooting them.” As difficult as it is to reconcile the deaths of so many Americans, he identifies that World War II was completely necessary. For the sake of all humanity, victory for the Allies was needed no matter the cost, and his hope for the future is that the World never has to pay such a high price again .
- “Rainbow’s Vets Delighted Over Rebirth of Unit.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963): 3. Apr 16 1943.
- Daly, Hugh C. 42nd “rainbow” Infantry Division: A Combat History of World War Ii. Baton Rouge, La: Army & Navy Pub. Co, 1946.
- Levandoski, Jack. Personal Interview. 24 November 2016.
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