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American Stubbornness at Rimling

Recommended Reading


Against the Panzers: United States Infantry Versus German Tanks, 1944-1945


When the Odds Were Even: The Vosges Mountains Campaign, October 1944-January 1945
 

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American Stubbornness at Rimling
American Stubbornness at Rimling
by Allyn Vannoy

As the US Seventh Army shifted units to cover the gap created by the departing Third Army divisions that were being moved into the Ardennes during December 1944, the 44th and 100th Divisions, on the western flank of the Seventh Army, were extended to cover the front lines. Each division was assigned 17 to 18 kilometers of front. The 44th (Cactus) Division, defending from Welferding to just west of of the village of Rimling, covered ground that was mostly open, rolling hills, although the center of its front provided shallow patches of dense vegetation. The 100th Infantry (Century) Division's sector varied from open, undulating farmland in the east to craggy draws and ridges in the center and west.

Holding the left wing of the 100th Division, was the 397th Infantry, commanded by Colonel John M. King. Here, from the critical junction at the town of Rimling, roads branched out throughout the Century Division’s sector to Gros Rederching, Rohrbach (via Guising), and Petit Rederching (via Bettviller).

Initially, the operations staff of German Army Group G planned to conduct the main attack of Operation Nordwind through the Low Vosges with four volksgrenadier divisions, a mountain division, and a panzer division, starting from the line Bitche-Neunhoffen, advancing south to the Wingen-Ingwiller road. A supporting attack was to be made by the XIII SS Korps to penetrate American lines near the village of Rimling and drive south towards Phalsbourg. This assault was intended to open the way for German panzer forces into the open ground west of the Low Vosges and split the Seventh Army's front. The German corps included the recently reconstituted 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, two volksgrenadier divisions, and a battalion of heavy tank destroyers.

On the last day of 1944, the 3rd Battalion, 397th Infantry Regiment, was holding positions around the village of Rimling. The 1st Platoon of Company K was dug in on a bare summit called Schlietzen Hill, northwest of the town. The hill was the highest peak in the area, commanding the ground to its west and north. To the south it extended in a long low ridge for two or three kilometers south of Rimling. Just east of the 1st Platoon was the 2nd Platoon with positions that covered the road entering Rimling from the north and were the northernmost positions of the battalion. The positions of the 3rd Platoon ran southwest along the road and ridge and then turned east to include the north edge of Rimling.

The east-end of Rimling was held by Company L. Its lines extended eastward along the road between Rimling and Epping-Urbach to the junction with the north-south road between the towns of Guderkirch and Bettviller. From there the Company L positions turned east for about a half kilometer into open ground to the right of the junction.

The 1st Battalion, 397th, on the right flank of the regiment, extended about two kilometers east of the 3rd Battalion. Company I, in support, formed defensive positions running east and west just south of Rimling. The heavy mortars of Company M were set up in a dry creek bed southeast of Rimling, to the rear of Company L. The 2nd Battalion was in reserve, with Company F west of Guising, Company G south of Guising on hills above the Gare de Rohrbach, and Company E deployed around the road junction west of the Rohrbach railway station.

Because the 397th had been in position for a few days, their foxholes were deep and roofed with logs and earth. December snow provided a covering which made them almost invisible. There had been a warning from Division G-2 a couple of days prior to January 1, that the Germans were likely to launch an attack sometime around New Year's. This caused the 3rd Battalion commander, Major William Esbitt, to place his troops on a-round-the-clock alert. Both Companies K and L had a platoon of heavy machine guns integrated into their defenses, and there were four tanks placed in Rimling to provide emergency defensive fire if needed.

A little before midnight on New Year’s, elements of the 44th Division’s 71st Infantry, to the west of Company K, sent word that they were under attack by at least five companies of German troops. The 36th Volksgrenadier Division and the 38th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment, tore through the American outpost line and smashed into the 71st’s main line of resistance—MLR. Over 600 Germans penetrated the 1st Battalion’s positions and occupied the forest to their rear.

Only minutes after midnight veteran troops of the 37th SS Panazergrenadier Regiment, 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, attacking along the entire battalion front, hit Company K. Apparently hoping to surprise the Americans, the Germans advanced without artillery preparation. They came at the American lines rushing forward bold and upright, shouting obscenities. In a determined attack about 200 men approached the positions of the 1st and 2nd Platoons, Company K. In the 2nd Platoon’s area, on the top of the hill, the right-flank heavy machine gun, manned by Private Leon Outlaw, Company M, tore holes through the advancing Germans. To the east along the highway, however, the Germans overran the positions of 1st Platoon. At least 18 Germans reached the north edge of Rimling where they attempted to set up machine guns at the rear of the 1st Platoon. While returning fire, the GI’s also called for support from the tanks in Rimling. After a few hits and near-misses the Germans fled, leaving guns and equipment behind.

Although the first wave had been stopped, small groups continued to fire on Company K’s front. Often they stood upright and hollered “American gangsters” or “Yankee bastards” as they fired. This behavior allowed the Americans to kill or wound many of them. Frequently, with a kind of insane heroism, the wounded Germans continued to fire from where they had fallen. Small groups also tried to infiltrate through the American lines. Many wore white camouflage snow suits making it nearly impossible to see them against the snow, but when they moved they were revealed in the bright moonlight and were cut down by rifle fire.

The main assault had been against the western two platoons of Company K on Schlietzen Hill, but there was also heavy patrol action against the 3rd Platoon and against Company L along the Epping-Urbach road and around the crossroads. Coming from the north, one German patrol was able to enter the outskirts of Rimling. Two Germans came within rifle range of the Company L CP, which was situated in a building in the east end of the town. A Sergeant Steen, at the doorway of the CP, fired at them, killing one and wounding the other. The wounded German was persuaded to come into the house to have his wound treated.

Company L had its machine guns situated to fire on an area 75 yards to its front. During the night, Sgt. Robert L. Madren reported a German patrol that was attempting to assault his position from the northeast. He waited until the four leading Germans were close to his foxhole and then opened up, killing all four and driving off the rest of the patrol.

The GI’s of the 3rd Battalion could hear the sounds of heavy fighting on the 71st Infantry's front to the west. After about an hour the Company K outposts heard the Germans regrouping to their front. They preceded their next onslaught with an artillery barrage. Immediately after the artillery and mortar fire lifted more than 300 Germans, screaming and shouting, rushed toward Company K from the north and northwest. The GI’s knocked down whole groups stopping the assault.

During the ensuing lull, one platoon of Company I went into line just to the east of the flank platoon of Company K while another Company I platoon took over the positions of 1st Platoon, Company K, on the east slope of Schlietzen Hill. The other platoon of Company I and the company’s weapons platoon remained in support positions south of Rimling.

In the meantime the 71st was pushed back, but due to a communications failure the 3rd Battalion, 397th, was not informed of the withdrawal, exposing its left rear. Colonel Ercil D. Porter, commander of the 71st, committed his reserve–492 men of the 3rd Battalion–in a vigorous counter-attack supported by a platoon of tanks from the 749th Tank Battalion. The fighting raged through the long hours of the winter darkness, as both sides launched a serious of fierce attacks.

The third German assault against the 397th, again preceded by artillery, came just before dawn. Although repulsed, the German discovered an unprotected 1,000 yard section of ground along the 3rd Battalion's left flank where the 71st had been. Small groups of Germans began to by-pass Company K's positions on the high ground, and, by swinging around the company, infiltrating across the terrain south of the peak of Schlietzen Hill, entering Rimling from the southwest. When the Germans began to cross the ridge, the Company I platoon which had remained behind in reserve, was then sent into position south of Company K along with part of the weapons platoon as support. But even with this platoon in place, along with two tanks that were brought up, it was not enough to fill the gap. The Germans, approaching loudly and seemingly indifferent to the dangers about them, continued to attack and infiltrate through the opening in the American lines.

With the Germans infiltrating behind its position and small attacks to its front, the 2nd Platoon, Company K, was finally forced to withdraw from the top of Schlietzen Hill.

S.Sgt. Saul Scheiman, of Company I, directed mortar and artillery fire on German patrols in the area, but one group, in platoon strength, managed to enter the south end of Rimling. It was not quite light as they assembled in front of the village church, while in the tower above them, 2nd Lt. James S. Howard, forward observer for Battery C, 374th Field Artillery Battalion, took action. Howard dropped a grenade into the midst of the group and then fired a magazine from his carbine and another from his pistol. Those Germans that were still alive dashed across the street and into a house. After daylight some GI’s from the Company I headquarters surrounded the house, threw a hand grenade into a basement window, and ordered the Germans to surrender. One by one, twenty Germans came out and gave up.

With the Germans on three sides of the town, patrols constantly engaging in firefights, and German artillery fire falling in and near their positions, the 2nd Platoon, Company K, even after it had withdrawn from the top of Schlietzen, continued to find itself drawing a lot of heat. The company commander, 2nd Lt. Robert Harris, went to check the condition of the platoon. Even though under fire from snipers, artillery, and mortars, he decided that the platoon ought to attack and retake the hill. The battalion commander agreed, called for an artillery preparation, and ordered Company G, plus a platoon of Company F, to move into line south of the ridge defended by the platoon of Company I, a line from which 2nd Platoon, Company K, would attack. But before these plans could be put into action, the Germans struck against the open flank, with three companies of infantry and eight panzers. The Americans managed to drive off this attack with artillery fire. Then, just after noon, while Company G and part of Company F were moving up from around Guising and the Rohrbach railway station from the south, to take up defenses on the ridge a kilometer and a half south of Schlietzen Hill, the 2nd Platoon, Company K, counter-attacked. With little effort the platoon took the hill as the Germans had turned their attention to the open flank and were not in position to meet the assault.

The German assault was so wholly directed at the west flank of the regiment that Company L, to the east of Rimling, faced only minor attacks, as did Companies A and B, 397th, further east.

Over the next six days a series of back and forth inclusive actions raged west of Rimling around Schlietzen Hill.

The village of Rimling was laid out in a rectangle formed by four main roads. The road from Guising ran north through Rimling, curving west around Schlietzen Hill, and formed the west side of the rectangle. The northern side was formed by a road running east from the Guising road to Epping-Urbach. The east end was a road which branched south from the Epping-Urbach road to the south end of Rimling where it split into two roads, one to Bettviller and the other to Guising. The south side of the rectangle was a street joining the western and east ends of the town.

After a day of limited German activity, January 8 burst with action. At approximately 0300 hours the Germans began shelling the positions of the 2nd Battalion on the high ground west and north of Rimling with mortars, artillery, tanks, and rockets. Following this barrage about 200 German infantry and a dozen panzers launched a two-pronged assault. The Germans pushed around Schlietzen to the north and south, by-passing or overrunning the foxholes of Companies E and F to enter houses in the western part of Rimling. They then began crossing the west side of the rectangle of streets, advancing into the center of the town. Company H had set up two of its heavy machine guns to cover the junction where the Guising road was joined by the Elling-Urbach road. One of these machine guns was set to fire from an upstairs window of the Company CP, a house on the north side of the Epping-Urbach road about 100 yards east of the corner where the two roads met. The other machine gun was located in a barn on the corner. This gun, because casualties had reduced the machine gun crews of the company, was manned by a two-man crew of Pfc Ellis J. Hall, gunner, and Pfc Robert L. Gorell, company bugler, working as assistant gunner. Also with them in the barn was a third man acting as ammunition bearer.

The lead panzer of the German northern attack-prong came into town accompanied by infantry who, as usual, preceded and flanked the panzer or rode on it. As it came south to the first street corner, machine gun fire from the panzer wounded the gunner and assistant gunner and disabled the Company H machine gun located at the CP.

The CP now had only small arms for protection. But as the panzer neared the corner Pfc Hall fired his machine gun from the barn, and Gorell sprayed the area with a sub-machine gun. The German foot soldiers took cover. One of them was able to throw a grenade into the barn, mortally wounding the crew’s ammunition bearer. The explosion blew debris over the machine gun and its crew. While the gun was temporarily out of action, the lead panzer turned east down the Epping-Urbach road toward the CP.

A second panzer now moved to the place which the first had just left at the corner. Though they were outnumbered and now almost surrounded, Hall and Gorell did not leave their position. Instead, they cleared off the machine gun and began firing on the second panzer. The panzer tried to swing around to fire on the barn, but the street was too narrow to maneuver. The supporting German troops re-organized and attempted to rush the barn. Ellis and Gorell fired at point-blank range, killing eight and driving off the rest. But one of the Germans had managed to thrown another grenade which caused a heavy barn door to fall on the two GI’s. The silence of the machine gun was deafening to the men in the CP.

The second panzer now seized this opportunity to take off up the street which it had used to enter the town. The lead panzer also backed up. As it reached its original position near the corner, the German infantry gathered around it. Suddenly, Hall and Gorell, who had dug themselves out from under the debris once more, began to fire. The Germans either hit the dirt, scattered, or tried to take cover behind the panzer. But the panzer crew had had enough and began to withdraw. A German officer, apparently attempting to stop the panzer, was run over and killed. The panzer rumbled away up the street to the north.

By maintaining a steady fire, Hall and Gorell were able to keep the German infantry pinned down, but a German soldier in a near-by building fired a panzerfaust at the barn striking one of its stone and mortar walls. The wall caved in on the intrepid machine gun crew. Gorell was killed instantly; Hall was blown about twenty feet and knocked out. The Germans didn't seemed to realize what damage they had done, as they took off as fast as they could. When he came to, Hall struggled free of the rubble which covered him and managed to stumble to the CP. There he reported to Captain Anthony J. Maiale, his CO, that he had been stunned by the last explosion, that he had searched for but was unable to find Gorell or the gun, and that the ammunition handler was seriously wounded. As it was almost daylight, a combat patrol from the company went to the barn. They returned in a few minutes, having found that Gorell was dead. The ammunition handler, meanwhile, had reached the Company F CP, the next house north of the barn, but was dying of his wounds.

Because the Germans had overrun or by-passed the American positions on Schlietzen Hill, the only men left to defend the town were the guards and personnel of the company and battalion command posts. When the Germans had attacked at 0300, the 2nd Battalion Anti-tank Platoon had only two guns left in operation. One gun, manned by the 2nd Squad, was on the eastern edge of town covering the approach along the road running from the north into the Epping-Urbach road. The other gun was positioned north of the Company F CP and was manned by members of the 1st and 2nd Squads.

The platoon’s third gun, west of the Guising road that ran north out of the town, set to cover one of the small side roads leading up Schlietzen Hill, had been put out of action shortly before 0800 by a German panzer. Tech Sgt. Charles F. Carey, Jr., the anti-tank sergeant and acting platoon leader, reported to the battalion commander that the gun had been destroyed. Then Carey assembled a patrol made up of men from platoon headquarters and 2nd Squad. They were to check on how far the Germans had penetrated into the town and to see whether he could put the western gun back in action. With Tech Sgt. Willie E. Jones, Pvt Orwin H. Burkholder, and two other men, Carey left the platoon CP and started for the west end of town. The patrol entered and searched buildings along the way. They didn't find any Germans until they reached the Company H CP. There, Company H men told them that two German medics had been seen poking their heads out passed the corner of the building across the narrow side-street to the west. When Carey's patrol crossed this street to investigate they heard groans coming from one of the buildings. Upon entering they found two wounded members of Company H.

Carey left the group and soon returned with German medics whom he had found nearby. On his orders the medics cared for the two wounded men. Sgt. Jones, having been called on by a man from Company F, had gone to the company's CP and there learned from Lt. Leo Rabinowitz that Captain William Stallworth wanted to talk with Sgt. Carey, if he were with the patrol. Jones came back and informed Carey, who went over to the Company F CP. When he returned, Carey said that Captain Stallworth had pointed out to him a building from which German snipers had been making life difficult for the Company F men. While Carey had been to see Stallworth, Private Burkholder had also spotted some Germans in the same house that the sniping was suppose to be coming from. Carey told his men that they would take care of the house after they had first checked on their anti-tank gun and its crew. He then led the patrol to the gun position. They found that the piece had been damaged, but could still be fired. Also, the crew was still there, but some of its members were wounded.

Carey quickly re-organized the crew and put the gun into position so that it would cover the approaches to the Company F CP. Then he and the patrol removed the wounded to the battalion CP where they could get medical attention. It was about 1000 hours as the patrol now turned its attention to the Germans in the houses near the Company F CP. Leading his men around the building which housed the CP, Carey paused before the house reportedly occupied by the German snipers. He told his men, "Cover the doors and windows. I'm going in." As he approached the doorway, Carey shot and killed two snipers, threw a hand grenade through the doorway, and then entered alone. Soon he came out with 16 prisoners. The patrol returned to the Company H CP where the prisoners were searched and then sent back to the Battalion S-2. But Carey, having reported to Company H, went over to the Company F CP and pointed out a group of houses which were occupied by more Germans. From these buildings patrols from Companies F and H eventually took 41 more prisoners.

In mid-afternoon, as Carey was returning from the western AT gun position, he came upon a German panzer in the western end of the town. Arriving at the platoon command post, he sent Pfc Richard C. Banks to obtain a bazooka and rockets. Taking the bazooka, Carey moved with S.Sgt. Turner C. Benefee, Pfc Lloyd O. Burtner, and Pfc William F. Dugan from house to house while under enemy fire until they had reached a position to the rear of the panzer. Covered by the others, Carey got into firing position. His first round missed, but the second was a shattering hit which set the panzer on fire. Knowing that the crew would try to escape from the burning vehicle, Carey grabbed Sgt. Menefee's M-1 rifle and waited. Carey watched as the first German clambered out of his hatch. Taking aim Carey held his fire until the panzer crewman was far enough out so that he would fall away from the vehicle rather than back into it. Then Carey squeezed the trigger and the German fell clear. The rest of the crew were apparently thus convinced that the first man had made good his escape. By repeating this process Carey was able to kill three of the crew and wound another. To prevent the entry of more panzers into the town, Carey turned his patrol into a bazooka team and stationed them in a barn near the road, then placed one of his ten-man gun squads near the Company F CP with a second bazooka as a further anti-tank defense.

The day's assault on Rimling had been a failure for the Germans. The defenses of the 2nd Battalion were then increased in mid-morning when Company K moved from its reserve positions into the town and set up its CP on the street just to the south of the Epping-Urbach road.

Besides a two-pronged advance into the western end of Rimling, the Germans had attacked further south, seizing Moronville Farm, which was situated on a hill to the southwest of Schlietzen, and Schlossberg Hill, just south of Schlietzen. Parts of Companies E and G were forced to withdraw to the south toward Guising because they were unable to beat back the German tanks and infantry. From these new positions the Germans would be able to advance to the east and, unless stopped, could cut off Rimling from the south.

On January 9, in the morning darkness, the Germans again entered Rimling from the north and west. This time their drive carried them passed the Company F CP. Approximately 30 men of Company F were cut off from the rest of the company and captured. Six men of the anti-tank squad placed at the CP by Sergeant Carey were also captured. But the remaining four escaped to the attic of the CP building. Carey, working alone, placed a ladder beside the building, and the four men were able to come down from the attic safely. Early in the afternoon Carey, along with Sergeant Jones, Cpl Rollins, Pfc Burtner, and Pfc Dugan, set out to try and rescue Sergeant Goodwin and his bazooka team who were in the loft of a barn which the Germans had surrounded. In order to approach the barn from the south they went east from the Company H CP, crossed the Epping-Urbach road, and moved behind the Battalion CP. Then they worked back west to the side-street which ran in front of the Company K CP. Here, with covering fire from his men, Carey crossed the street under enemy fire and then turned to cover the crossing of the other members of the group. When all were across, he fired his bazooka into a building in which some Germans were hold up, hoping to drive them out and create an escape route for Goodwin's bazooka team.

Then, armed with a carbine fitted with a grenade launcher, he crossed the street again. While he was doing so, a sniper almost succeeded in picking him off. Carey called back to the others. "Damn that was close." Once across, Carey turned to cover the others. At that instant, a German bullet struck and killed him. His patrol was unable to reach him and had to withdraw by alternate route. For his actions during these two days, Sergeant Carey was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously.

When the German attack hit, Sergeant Robert W. Senser and 11 men were resting on the top floor of a house across the street from the village’s church. Senser, a forward observer for the regimental Cannon Company, was attached to the 3rd Battalion. He had been observing events periodically from the church’s steeple since January 1, and had asked for permission to remain when that battalion was relieved. Caught in the rapid German drive, Senser and the other men in his party suddenly found themselves surrounded by a German patrol. The Germans threw in three grenades, one landing in the hall just outside the room where the sergeant and his men were resting. Realizing that the house could be best defended from the top floor, but unwilling to risk the lives of the others, Senser sent them to the basement. Then from the upstairs he fired his carbine into the German patrol which had been directing a stream of machine-pistol rounds into the house. Two of the Germans were killed and the rest retreated.

After daylight, the Regimental Cannon Company's commanding officer radioed to Senser asking if he could place fire on some panzers in the town. Senser immediately crossed the street under small arms and artillery fire, climbed up in the battered church steeple. There he found that he couldn't make radio contact with his company, but using an artillery observer’s radio located in the steeple, Senser registered a battery of 155mm’s on the panzers, destroying one, damaging another, and forcing the rest to depart. Although his CO said he was sending a relief for Senser, the sergeant refused to be relieved on the grounds that it was too dangerous for anyone to risk coming to the tower, and so remained at his post.

While the troops in Rimling–the men of Company K and part of Companies E and F and the Battalion HQ Company–were trying unsuccessfully to drive the enemy from the town, the Germans struck east from Schlossberg Hill, and quickly seized Hill 370, about one kilometer south of Rimling. From here the Germans rushed down the northeast slope toward Company H’s 81mm mortars that were emplaced in a creek-bed south of the east-end of Rimling. To break this attack, the mortars were fired at a range so short as to be dangerous to the mortar crews themselves. Besides their own rifles and carbines the mortarmen even employed a German machine gun to help smash the assault. The attack collapsed when 29 Germans surrendered after 26 of their comrades had been killed and 11 were wounded.

In mid-morning, the 1st Battalion, 398th, which had been attached to the 397th Infantry, along with Company B, 749th Tank Battalion, moved into positions to launch a counter-attack. The attack was intended to clear the Germans from the heights south of Rimling and prevent the town from being encircled. The attackers, with Company A on the left, Company C on the right, and Company B in support, were able to retake Hill 370, freeing the Rimling-Guising road. But the force of German infantry, tanks, and self-propelled guns defending Schlossberg Hill, Moronville Farm, and Schlietzen Hill were too strong and counter-attacks there were twice repulsed.

Rimling had been held in the hope that the 44th Division would be able to counter-attack and recover ground lost days before. But Division Headquarters now ordered the 397th to fall back to an east-west line running roughly through Guising, where it would be able to tie in with the rest of the division on a shorter front. The 397th was to take up a position running northeast from Kapellenhubel Hill across the highway north of Guising.

The withdrawal from Rimling began just after dark. The Americans slipped away so successfully that about 20 minutes after the last elements had left, the Germans launched a major tank-infantry attack on the town, unaware that it was already empty. American heavy artillery concentrations laid directly on the town caught the Germans unprepared and resulted in heavy damage.

The 10-day defense of Rimling was summed up by Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers, commanding general of the Allied 6th Army Group, in a letter of commendation to the 100th Division: "The rugged American stubbornness of the combat elements of the 100th Infantry Division has played a tremendous part in stemming the tide of attack by superior enemy numbers. In the area of Rimling you successfully repulsed repeated enemy attempts to penetrate your lines; your great accomplishment forced the enemy to give up the offensive action on your front. Inflicting great losses to strong elements of three enemy divisions, you have successfully protected an important sector in the Hardt Mountains."

For its actions the 3rd Battalion, and Company H of the battalion, 397th Infantry, each received a Presidential Unit Citation.

This marked the end to what would be labeled just another small unit action. Yet, it had its share of outstanding moments and rugged, stubborn characters, such as Pfc Ellis Hall, Pfc Robert Gorell, Sergeant Charles Carey, and Sergeant Robert Senser. GI’s who went beyond just doing their duty.
 
* * *

For further reading, he suggests: When the Odds Were Even, by Keith E. Bonn; and Snow Ridges and Pillboxes, by LtCol Wallace Cheves.

Copyright © 2008 Allyn Vannoy.

Written by Allyn Vannoy. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Allyn Vannoy at:
allenduvan@yahoo.com.

About the author:
Author Allyn Vannoy, lives in Hillsboro, Oregon, co-authored "Against the Panzers" (McFarland, 1996).

Published online: 07/27/2008.
© 2014 MilitaryHistoryOnline.com, LLC Contact Brian Williams at: militaryhistoryonline@hotmail.com