On 15 May, 1942 the men who would form the 314th Regiment of the 79th Division of the United States Army arrived at Camp Pickett, Virginia. The 314th was to be formed out of the 12th Regiment of the 4th Motorized Division. These were dark days: Pearl Harbor was only five months past, and on 6 May, nine days before the Regiment was formed, Rommel was on the move with the next Libyan offensive. On 15 June, 1942, the 79th Division was officially activated.
Training for the new unit was intense. Infantry school at Ft. Benning, Georgia; Camp Blanding, Florida, for MTP (Mobilization Training Program); Tennessee Maneuvers in the snow outside of Murfreesboro where they trained crossing the Cumberland River in freezing conditions; Camp Laguna, California/Arizona in 130-degree temperatures for desert training. Due to medical discharges or men being sent to OCS, replacements from the 42nd Rainbow Division joined the 79th beginning in December, 1943, and throughout the early months of 1944.
In December, 1943, the unit was moved to Camp Phillips, Kansas to prepare for deployment overseas. POM (Preparations for Overseas Movement) began in earnest with the number 6002 stenciled onto all sea bags - this was the code for deployment in Europe. 22 March, 1944 the 314th moved from Camp Phillips to Camp Miles Standish, the Boston Port of Embarkation, to load onto two ships; The USS Cristobal and HMS Strathmore. Cristobal carried the 1st and 3rd Battalions, Regimental Headquarters (HQ), Anti-tank, and the Service Companies. Strathmore took 2nd BN and the Cannon Company. They sailed on 7 April, 1944.
The shipping convoy split up off the coast of Ireland with the Strathmore landing at Glasgow on 16 April, and the Cristobal docking in Liverpool on 17 April. The timing was late in the pre-invasion days, and troop quartering was scarce. The 314th divided into two groups, with half billeted at Goldbourne Park, a golf course in Newton-le-Willows between Liverpool and Manchester, and the rest at an estate named Tatton Park near Knutsford, 20 miles away. The invasion tension was high, and increasing every day.
Cherbourg and Fort du Roule
The 79th's initial invasion plan called for the Division to remain in reserve with General George S. Patton's 3rd Army until it was time for the breakthrough out of Normandy, on to the plains of France. But the Germans moved into Carentan for maneuvers, and the plan changed. Allied High Command switched the 79th from VIII Corps on loan to VII Corps, and the Division moved to an assembly area near the southern coast - Southampton - on Lord Mountbatten's estate.
In the ruins of Cherbourg, at the foot of Fort du Roule, German soldiers surrender to the 79th Infantry
On 13 June, 1944 the 79th shipped out from Southampton en route to the vicinity of Carentan. Debris from the D-Day invasion was still all over the channel, and Utah Beach was a mess. Mine sweepers working the area set one off by mistake, which only raised the anxiety level up farther than thought possible. Upon disembarkation, the 314th marched up Utah Beach, and headed towards Cherbourg. They assembled at Blosville, 10 to 12 miles from the beachhead, near St. Mere Eglise, on 15 June. 16 June 1944, the 79th was placed on a two hour alert for movement as VII Corps was assigned to breach the German defenses at Cherbourg. Two days later, they moved to Picaville, relieving the 90th Division on approach to Cherbourg. On 19 June, orders came down committing the 314th to its first combat; the 313th/315th were assigned to attack from the north (the former position of the 90th Division) bypassing Valognes to the west, while the 314th night moved to an area near Binneville. At 0600, 2nd BN jumped off towards its objective to seize the ridge at Croix Jacob, outside Negreville. They took this position with little trouble, and along the way 1st BN took 14 POW's, one 88-mm gun and eight tanks. 2nd BN found four D-Day paratroopers hiding in the woods. They had watched the Germans pulling back towards their Cherbourg defenses. 3rd BN captured eight 88's, two AA guns, and a V-1 quot;Buzz Bomb" rocket launching site in nearby Brix.
The 314th was on the outer perimeter of Cherbourg on 21 June, and the artillery fire from the enemy was intense. These were the main defense forces around Cherbourg. Allied radio broadcasted to the Germans to surrender before a deadline of noon, 22 June. After the deadline was summarily ignored, the 314th pulled back 1200 yards to allow room for a bomb release line. They watched as the Allied bombers dropped their payload. After roughly 80 minutes of bombing (one stray took out a 3rd BN anti-tank gun and prime mover, and the fragmentation reached as far back as Regimental CP), the 314th moved onward towards Cherbourg with 1st's B/Co in the lead. C/Co was sent to the left through Tollevast, with A/Co on the right. All took heavy fire and amassed numerous casualties. It was decided to bypass the strong point and send 3rd BN on along the Regiment's right line boundary, and collect what they could of 1st BN's troops. B/Co could not disengage, but the rest followed 3rd through a hole created in the German lines. To the west, the left flank of the attack was covered by a battalion from the 315th, and the 79th's Recon BN.
The morning of 23 June, 2nd BN was ordered to clear the supply routes serving 1st and 3rd BN's positions. 3rd's I/Co ran into heavy artillery and arms fire and had to withdraw due to heavy causalities. 1st and 3rd BNs (without B/Co) took their objectives and became the first ground troops to look upon the city of Cherbourg. Air support was called in and 1st BN wasn't far enough away from the drop line, subsequently suffering many casualties again. G2 sources noted two main obstacles to the 314th's advance - two German strong points of considerable strength. 2nd BN was assigned to one, 3rd BN the other, and by 0800, 24 June, air strikes hit the positions. By 1000, both were secured.
Fort du Roule was the key to Cherbourg. The Germans had fortified it with Anti-Aircraft guns (AA's), concrete emplacements, pill boxes, anti-tank ditches and barbed wire. 3rd BN made three attempts for heights adjacent to the fort. All were unsuccessful and resulted in heavy casualties. The next day's attack (25 June) 2nd BN took off for "Point 46" - an area of AA guns and concrete shelters on the edge of a cliff overlooking Cherbourg, with 3rd BN providing covering fire. Two hours of fighting, destroying the German machine guns and securing pill boxes ensued, and over 100 POW's were taken. The remaining enemy held on through two more attacks by the 2nd BN before finally surrendering late in the evening. By midnight, 2nd was on the lid of Fort du Roule, 1st at Point 46, and 3rd in reserve.
1st BN began sending patrols into Cherbourg - fighting was taking place house to house. On 26 June, while 1st and 3rd BN's were fighting house to house in the town, amassing casualties and capturing over 2000 Germans, 2nd BN was facing its own problems at Fort du Roule. The Germans had bored tunnels into the face of the cliffs, and had mounted guns on retractable mounts which promptly disappeared into the rock wall after each round. They were firing primarily on the patrols going into Cherbourg. 2nd BN's E/Co drew up a demolition crew and blasted the tunnels. By the end of the day, 26 June, the city of Cherbourg was under 79th Divisions' control. 314th's 2nd and 3rd BN's received a Presidential Unit Citation and two Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded, as well.
As indicated by his letters, Private Melvin W. Johnson didn't reach France until approximately the 22nd of June. On 29 June, he joined Company L, 3rd Battalion of the 314th Infantry Regiment, 79th Infantry Division immediately after their capture of the port city of Cherbourg.
On 27 June the Division moved south from Cherbourg to relieve the 90th Infantry Division on the extreme right of the Allied line and preparations were begun for a drive south under VIII Corps. With the port facilities of Cherbourg being rebuilt and the Contentin Peninsula at their backs, the Corps was ready to crack the German line in the west. Plans alled for an attack by the 314th and 315th Regiments, with the 313th Regiment in Division reserve and ready to follow the former on order. The 314th Regiment was to move southeast across a tributary of the Douve River and capture Hill 121.
The 4th Division took over garrisoning Cherbourg on 27 June, 1944 and the 79th reverted back to VIII Corps. They moved south to just outside of Bricquebec (the troops called it "Bricabrac.") The landscape changed from beaches and cliff faces, to farms, small towns, and the dreaded hedgerows. On 29 June, 2nd BN moved south to take over a defense line near La Picoterie, relieving the 90th's 357th Infantry Regiment. The 1st and 3rd BN's joined later, and as of 2 July, they were still awaiting orders.
This historical outline is compiled from research material provided by personal accounts, unit diaries, online sources, "The Complete History of World War Two" edited by Francis T. Miller (1948) and the 314th Infantry Association's "Through Combat." A special thanks to J.W. Campbell and Dwight Pruitt. 17 September 2003. Lori Cutshall.