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First Sergeant Fred H. Marburger

First Sergeant 
M Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division

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Fred Herbert Marburger was born the son of a Texan farmer in the small south Texas town of Hallettsville in 1915. His father owned and operated a decently sized property in the primarily farming community but as his children grew up, looked to resettle and moved around until finding roots in Refugio. It was here Fred went on to finish school and started work as a technician in the local pharmacy, however, the quiet life of south Texas was not enough for him and in 1940 he decided to enlist in the Army reserves, joining the 23rd Infantry Regiment out of Fort Sam Houston. Not long after signing up the regiment got word that it would become one of the first to undergo the army’s new “triangular” organization as a primary regiment for the reforming 2nd Infantry Division. 1942 saw Fred following the unit to meet the division up at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin and not long after, in October 1943, heading over to Northern Ireland to prepare for combat on the European mainland.

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Fred, now the first sergeant of M Company, the heavy weapons company of the 3rd Battalion, was tasked with leading his men into battle as the head NCO and first of the enlisted men. 6 June was spent anxiously offshore hearing scattered rumors about the landing forces. The 2nd ID began its landing the next day and in the early afternoon Fred and his men waded ashore on the Omaha beachhead to begin their “Great Crusade.” The beachhead, although secured by the 29th and 1st IDs the day before, was by now means clear and erratic artillery and mortar fire from the nearby units of the 352nd Volksgrenadier Division harassed Fred and his men as they attempted to gather and reform with the rest of the regiment. Forming south of St. Laurent-sur-Mer, Fred faced his baptism of fire on 12 June 1944. Although capturing some Osttruppen units near the beach, it was the 3rd Fallschirmjager Division west of Haute Littee, beginning what would become a month-long fight over the nearby town of st. Georges d’Elle. Fighting was furious in the German hedgerows and Fred’s company was split up amongst the 3rd battalion units to provide heavy fire support across the shaded fields. The Fallschirmjagers proved a tough enemy, preferring death over surrender as their unit motto went. By 19 June the beachhead had largely been secured and the division had thrown back counterattack after counterattack to hold the line. Before the division could move forward a tough nut had to be cracked: the island-fortress of Hill 192.

 

Hill 192 became an impregnable compound, with concrete bunkers, artillery positions, and machine-gun nests transforming the site into a Second World War recreation of Fort Vaux. All attempts to secure the hill had been met with staggering losses and so the 2nd ID was sent in to give it yet another try as the 29th ID made progress towards its flank, St. Lo. The assault began with a multi-hour bombardment in which division and corps artillery poured over 25,000 rounds into the hill. Once the fire let up, the 23rd began its push. Fred and 3rd Battalion were posted on the north-eastern slope of the hill and tasked with finalizing the capture of St. Georges d’Elle itself and supporting the 1st Battalion assault on what became known as “Purple Heart Draw,” an extremely fortified section of the hill which left the 23rd suffering massive casualties amongst the overlapping machine gun nests. Fred’s company played a critical role in the assault, providing endless mortar fire and fire support for the advancing infantry and ensuring that the gunners inside the concrete fortifications remained pinned to speed the Allied advance. An extremely costly and bloody fight, with Germans refusing the surrender and fighting even after their foxholes had been overrun, the hill was nonetheless taken after two days and the 2nd ID earned its place amongst the fresh American forces as a fierce and capable fighting unit.

     

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The next few months saw the Allied armies grow exponentially as the open beachheads provided for continual reinforcements and additional divisions to join alongside the first few which made the beachhead possible. After helping to secure St. Lo with the 29th, Fred and the 2nd ID were tasked with finishing off German opposition at the Siege of Brest. Another staunchly defended position, Fred and his gunners participated in their first true urban combat as the leap-frogging street fighting within the city continued for weeks with a need for heavy fire support. Eventually the main line was broken by September 1st and the city defenses just a few weeks after, but not before the division expended over 1,758,000 small arms rounds and 218,000 larger caliber ammo. With Brest’s capitulation, Fred and the division transferred back to the main allied line around St. Vith to relieve the 28th and 5th Infantry Divisions in early October. Advance was smooth as the division made its way through Belgium north of the Ardennes forest and performed several successful small attacks on German positions up until the fateful day of 16 December 1944.

 

Beginning like any other, the division planned a few minor assaults for the 16th before receiving word early in the morning from their neighboring 99th Infantry Division that they were facing heavy artillery and massed frontal assaults by German armor and infantry forces and feared they would not be able to hold the line much longer. The Battle of the Bulge had begun. Fred’s 3rd Battalion was quickly tasked to make new positions behind the 99th in case of a breakthrough and not long after they found 99th ID GIs flowing through their positions on the retreat back to the Elsenborn ridge, designated as the holding site for the two divisions. Posted east of the small village of Rocherath, Fred and the 3rd Battalion could never have expected what came next as wave after wave of heavy attacks began smashing against their thinly-manned lines. Infantry, half-tracks, armored cars, and tanks continually advanced within yards of the machine gunners and riflemen and pushed the Americans to their limits. They knew, however, that there was no backup and that their fighting was the only thing preventing the Germans from penetrating the allied line. 99th ID troops attempted to provide relief but were pushed back and soon the 3rd Battalion was fending for itself in a battle for pure survival.

The conflict raged into the morning of the 17th as the now-exposed left flank of the battalion was hit with tanks and infantry launching repeated attacks in hopes of overrunning them. Nebelwerfers bombarded Fred’s position as King Tigers, Tiger Is, Panthers, and Panzers of the 1st SS Panzer Division and 12th SS Panzer Division HitlerJugend sighted on the gunner positions of M Company men who were killing off their infantry support. Fred, as First Sergeant, was directly responsible for the actions of his men on the line. Running back and forth between positions to ensure their ammo was steady and that they would not break amidst the deadly assault. The machine gun’s under Fred’s command were directly referenced as playing a crucial role in the engagement, causing heavy losses amongst advancing Germans and forcing the Panzers to retreat after losing their supporting infantry. During the battle on the 17th two of Fred’s gunners performed actions that rewarded them with the Congressional Medal of Honor and another the Distinguished Service Cross. The Medal of Honor recipients, Richard Cowan and Jose Lopez, both were credited with slaughtering waves of German soldiers rushing the lines, independently killing hundreds with their blistering machine-gun fire even as Tiger Tanks fired directly onto their foxholes. Hugh Brady, the DSC recipient, did the same on the left flank of the line and was responsible for knocking off a Tiger and King Tiger with infantry support as they blasted his position. Battalion lines were reformed again and again as Fred and the GIs attempted to hold the armored onslaught with no anti-tank weapons for as long as possible, fighting well into the night and for hours into the 18th until armored and AT support finally arrived.

2nd ID soldiers near St. Georges d'Elle
2nd ID soldiers near St. Georges d'Elle

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Map of positions during the fighting over Hill 192
Map of positions during the fighting over Hill 192

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2nd ID soldiers near St. Georges d'Elle
2nd ID soldiers near St. Georges d'Elle

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By the end of the fighting, a total of 78 enemy Panzers had been destroyed by the battalion, none more than 150 yards away from the given American line. According to General Hodges of the 1st Army, the 3rd Battalion’s fighting would “live forever in the history of the United States Army.” After 56 hours of constant combat, the 3rd Army was able to push into the southern flank of the German forces and finish off the remainders, leaving the 12th SS Panzer and 227th Volksgrenadier Divisions mere skeletons of their former selves. The defense of Elsenborn ridge continued into January and it was not until February that the division had enough strength or capability to launch another attack. For the valiant service of Fred’s heavy weapons company and the critical defense of the line in the face of overwhelming odds, he and the 3rd battalion were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and marked with honors for their sacrifice.

 

The rest of the war proved much less intense than those three days of combat in the Bulge as the division joined the rest of the American forces in the drive towards Germany, crossing the Rhine in March and traveling hundreds of miles a day before reaching the Czech border upon the surrender on May 8th. After such long service, Fred was allowed to join the division on its trip home in June of 1945 and returned to his wife and family in Texas not long after. Although officially discharged, he rejoined the army to serve in the reserves until 1948 to continue his legacy of valor even into his civilian career.