The Story Behind the Painting
Midnight Battery Defense

Springtime had finally arrived in the Bohemian Forests of Bavaria, and so had the three regiments of the 90th Infantry Division. Roughly paralleling the Czech border in a southeastern direction, the Tough 'Ombres had driven deeper into Germany than any other American Division. Organized German military operations had nearly collapsed, leaving only scattered pockets of determined resistance. As American forces rushed to neutralize this last corner of the Fatherland, the Russians were rapidly approaching from the east. Defenders of the Third Reich were quickly running out of options.

Captain Leon Crenshaw let the April sunlight warm his face as he rode with his unit through the Bavarian countryside en route to a new battery position. Crenshaw was the commander of "C" Battery, which was comprised of four howitzers, four eleven man crews, and assorted vehicles used to transport the unit. Together with two sister batteries, the 345th provided general support to the three regimental combat teams of the 90th Infantry Division. Typical of American divisional organization, each of the division's three regiments of infantry were paired with a battalion of 105 mm howitzers. The twelve 155mm howitzers of the 345th could be brought to bear, reinforcing the fires of the individual combat teams or the division as a whole. Orders delivered the day before had reassigned the 345th to specifically support the operations of 357th Inf. Reg. as they pressed deeper into Germany to the southeast.

Earlier that morning, Friday, 27 April, the three batteries of the 345th F. A. arrived in Gehstorf near Kofzting, having been redeployed from a position in Runding. At 1130 hrs. "A" Battery was dispatched to Niederndorf to give general support to the 1st Battalion of the 357th operating in that area. Still in their locations at Gehstorf, "B" and "C" Battery placed fire on enemy troops in the towns of Kotzting, Arndorf, and Beckendorf. Now at 1540 hours, "B" and "C" Batteries (along with the Headquarters section), were ordered to leave Gehstorf. "A" Battery which was being recalled from Neiderndorf was to double back toward Gehstorf, meeting up halfway with its sister units in the little town of Grub. (354th FA After Action reports for April 1945 from National Archives)

Traveling to the second position of the day, the prime movers of Crenshaw's "C" battery clanked uphill through the sleepy village of Grub on Pfingstraiterstrasse. As the road leveled out and curved to the east, the tracked vehicles, gun crews in back and guns in tow, turned left into the thawing expanses of Arndorfer Feld. Broad and level north of the roadway, these high fields provided an unobscured view of the countryside. Crenshaw's compass needle pointed straight ahead to the rounded ridge-lines of Hoher Bogen. Beyond these mounds lay his targets, German troops building up along the Czech border opposite the town of Furth. In the distance, the hamlet of Kotzting was visible to the northeast. The lone spire of its parish church gestured in the direction of its hope.

Roughly 200 meters from Pfingstreiterstrasse the fields of Arndorfer began a gentle descent into a valley below. Known as Weiherweisen, this low lying area crossed under Arndorfer's northern brow, winding to the east and advancing up the evergreen slopes of a prominent mountain reminiscent of Georgia's Kennesaw Mountain of Civil War fame. Captain Crenshaw studied the dark shape listed on the map as Kaitersberg. It's appearance was foreboding as it loomed above the surrounding hillsides 800 meters away, dominating the eastern horizon. Well concealed among it's wooded features, rogue German units were reported as a possible concern. Almost sensing the eyes of an unseen foe, Crenshaw turned to accomplish the duties at hand.

With only a few hours of daylight left, the men of "C" Battery set about the task of transforming a hillside into a small firebase. Almost by reflex, the four field pieces were unlimbered and firmly steadied on their firing jacks. Spaced approximately 75 metres apart, the 155mm howitzers were arranged in a zigzag formation to present a less concentrated target for counter battery fire. Aiming stakes, painted with alternating bands of red and white, were set out. Propellant containers, projectiles, and fuse crates were stacked on ground tarps along with loading trays, rammer shafts, and other accessories that were organized inside of the trails of each cannon. Assembled between the battery position and the road, well worn tents were pitched. Forward outposts manned with .50 caliber machine guns were dug in on the two front corners of the battery where the hill started to slope downward. Communication wire was laid to each gun connecting it with the fire direction center. Everything necessary to prepare a new position for fire missions was conducted with speed and efficiency.

These "Redlegs" were no strangers to the hardships of war. Thoroughly trained on the rugged artillery ranges of Ft. Sill in Oklahoma and Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, these soldiers landed on Utah Beach with formidable weapons. For eleven grueling months, Crenshaw's battery had pushed, shoved, wrestled, and dragged these sixteen-hundred pound beasts across the battlefields of Europe. Normandie, Beau Coudray, Hill 122, Mont Castre, Metz, Bastonge, and Flossenberg were just foreign names a year before. Nothing in all their training could have prepared these men to understand that, for them, the names of these locations in Europe would assume all the emotion and weight as names from American history such as Gettysburg, Antietam, or Shiloh.

Night slipped into the troubled Bavarian region. Captain Crenshaw eyed suspiciously the dark wall that grew up out of the landscape to the east. Kaitersberg resembled a slumbering leviathan crouching along the horizon and was made the more ominous by a full moon suspended in the cloudless sky above it. Just as sleep should have embraced the artillerymen of Charlie Battery, the hammering of heavy machine gun fire sent shock waves pounding across the field. Spilling from the tents like hornets from a disturbed nest, the gun crews manned their 155's and peered into the moonlit shadows. The forward outposts had observed movement and noise along the tree lines along the lower slopes of Kaitersberg. Lethal streams of red tracers arched out from the American machine guns. Illumination flares were sent aloft, adding a cold shimmering light to the scene. Returning fire, enemy rifle rounds sprayed into the battery sending up geysers of earth among the guns.

Howitzers, designed to hurl shells at distant targets at high angles, usually had their tubes elevated for indirect fire. Targeting for indirect fire was normally derived from a very complex formula involving a dozen or more mathematical calculations, taking into account such factors as wind direction, air temperature, altitude, projectile drift, and earth rotation. Now, in a rare moment of World War II history, the decision was made to lower the large barrels of the 155mm howitzers and aim them squarely at the attackers. With infantry support miles away, the 44 gunners of "C" Battery and a dozen or so other troops would be forced to defend themselves against unknown numbers of enemy troops. Earlier that afternoon, the four guns had been laid in a direction almost due north toward the German troop build up around Vserby, Czechoslovakia. In quick order the cannons were lowered off of their firing jacks, rotated on their wheels to the east in the direction of the attack, and repositioned on their jacks. With breech blocks swung open, section chiefs bore-sighted their weapons on the muzzle flashes twinkling along the wood-line. Within seconds a 95 lb. projectile, followed by a full white bag charge, was rammed home in the breech. Set with fuses to explode 800 meters downrange, the huge shells were sent screaming into the darkened hillsides with the pull of the lanyard. Resulting explosions, powerful enough to collapse brick buildings, sent red hot metal fragments slicing through the air. In an exposed position, regardless of the screen of darkness, the German troops found no cover from the shower of shell fragments and deadly rain of .50 caliber machine gun bullets that could splinter the trunks of large trees.

At this point, looking back after 60 years, Leon Crenshaw admits that the memory of this event becomes blurred. With his battery being involved in literally hundreds of fire missions, the details of this event merge into that of many others. Officially this unique battle would be remembered only by terse short paragraphs added to the end of records of the unit's activity for the day. As noted in the 90th Inf. Div. After Action Report, "Just before midnight, the 345th FA Bn near Grub (U734755) were embroiled in a fire fight with an estimated 200 Germans who attempted to infiltrate their positions. The artillery cut their fuse and leveled their guns in direct fire into the woods harboring the enemy. They killed several and caused the the surrender of 150 of the invaders." (90th Division After Action Reports for April 1945 from National Archives)

After Action Reports from the 90th Division Artillery records, "The 345th FA Battalion engaged an estimated 200 enemy in a brisk fire fight during the night, in the 155 units' area near Grub (743755). Direct fire from the 155 howitzers turns the tide of the battle in the favor of the 345th. Several Hitlerites are killed and 150 Nazis were taken prisoner with the balance of the Hitlerites put to flight. none of the 345th were injured in the fracas. (National Archive records for the 90th Artillery at the divisional level, pages 24 and 25.)

After action reports specific to the 345th read, "From 271200 to 281200, 12 rounds were fired. These rounds were all fired by Battery "C", using time fire, direct fire, ranges from 600 to 800 yards, against enemy troops attempting to infiltrate from 272400 to 280150. Battery "C" captured 198 prisoners of war during the engagement." (345th Field Artillery After Action Reports) The 345th Field Artillery book, published just after the war, confirms the number of prisoners as 198. Additionally one SS officer is reported as killed. (354th Field Artillery Battalion Book , printed by F. Bruckmann KG, Munich, Germany, page 50 )

Differing from official records in terms of enemy numbers and prisoners taken, Colonel D. K. Reimers, commanding officer of the 343rd FA, made a diary entry while stationed in Wettzell at the time of the firefight at Grub. His account for 28 April records that 55 SS troops attacked that night with 8 surrendering. Reimer adds that a German Captain was killed, and 75 enemy surrendered later in the morning. ( A Diary of WWII by Colonel D. K. Reimers, Ret., page 411)

The most detailed accounting of Grub was given to author John Colby in a post war interview with Colonel Frank Norris, the commander of the 345th FA. The following story was discovered in Colby's book of 90th Infantry Division oral histories, War From the Ground Up.

"As the German resistance crumbled during March/April/May, most of Hitler's 'supermen' ceased putting up fanatical resistance. However, there remained a number of dedicated Nazis who refused to give up and continued to battle against hopeless odds. These men, who were usually remnants of once battle proven SS units, occasionally formed themselves into small squad and platoon-sized units to carry out determined, small-scale attacks against U.S. units, normally at night.

"By this time in our Division artillery's history we had learned the value of strong, local security with .50-caliber machine guns as our basic outpost weapon and solid tactical planning to support the outposts. In late April, C Btry. received a mean attack by a couple of squads of the Nazi zealots; they were repulsed without much difficulty. A number of them were killed or wounded, but not before a few C Btry. men were wounded, none seriously. After the action quieted, I went back to the aid station to see how my men were doing. Fortunately they were fine.

"The most seriously wounded German, a young SS sergeant who looked just like one of Hitler's super-heroes and had led the attack, had a critical stomach wound that was bleeding copiously. But, given plasma and U.S. medical treatment, there was no reason he should not survive. My battalion surgeon, Mitchell Weisbuch, a top flight, Jewish doctor from Chicago, was beginning treatment of this Nazi. The Nazi, who spoke good English, demanded to know what Mitch was doing. Mitch replied he was going to give him plasma to replace the blood he was losing and to help him live. The SS man demanded, 'Is there any Jewish blood in this plasma?' Mitch replied, 'I don't know how many kinds of blood are in this plasma; it comes from all over America.' The Kraut belligerently said, 'Well, if you can't tell me there is no Jewish blood in it, I won't take any.' Mitch tried quietly to explain how critical the the plasma was to no avail.

"I had been listening and had heard enough. I turned to this SS type and in very positive terms I told him I really didn't care whether he lived or not, but if he did not take the plasma he would certainly die. He looked at me calmly and said, 'I would rather die than have any Jewish blood in me.' So he died." (War from the Ground Up, by John Colby, published by Nortex Press, 1991, pages 461 & 462)

Although prisoner numbers and casualty accountings vary, all official records agree on naming the same unit, the same date, and the same unique direct fire action by 155mm howitzers. 345th FA records indicate that Sgt. Charles A. Trimbo was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries sustained in Germany on 27 April 1945. Additionally, the Bronze Star was awarded to Sgt. Charles A. Trimbo, Corporal Walter J. Brent, PFC Joseph J. Kowalski, PFC Ferdinand P. Civetti, and PFC Lewis O. Tomilson for distinguished heroic achievement on 27 and 28 April in the vicinity of Grub, Germany. (General Orders Number 14, 15 May 1945, Section I & II )

The rain began at some point that Saturday morning of the 28th of April. By 1030 hrs the prisoners were turned over to division for processing. The sleep deprived "C" Battery packed up and broke camp. The 155mm howitzers of the 345th headed north toward Furth to support operations of the 90th Inf. Div. that would bring a quiet end to a long war. As their muddy tracks were washed away by the spring rains, so would the memories of this seemingly insignificant engagement. The children of the area would quickly scour Arndorfer Feld for trinkets and for metal to be sold in town. The sounds of the battle passed largely unnoticed by the exhausted women and children that were left to work the farms and fields. By this time in the war, loud explosions and gunfire had become expected. And, other than a few young boys who had broken the night time curfew to witness the firefight, few of the inhabitants of the Kotzting area knew anything unusual had occurred.

The mystery of the action at Grub involves the intentions and composition of the attacking force. There was possibly a communications group of SS stationed in this area because of it's commanding view and the advantages associated with high ground. It is rumored that a guest house, "Kötztinger Huette", which had been recently destroyed by artillery fire, served as a command post. As other SS units fell apart, it is reasonable to suspect that they regrouped in this remote area. We can only speculate at this point as to the motive for the attack. According to American records for the 27 April actions, the 357th Inf. Reg. was aligned along the road from Grub starting at Steinbuhl, going through Arnbruck down to Mooshaf in a diagonal from the northwest to the southeast. Parallel to this line, further north, was the 359th Inf. Reg. starting at Gleissenberg going southeast through Rankham, Asnschwang, Trettling, Rimbach, anchoring their line at Hohenwarth. The U.S. troops were basically lined up along roads that ran through the valleys paralleling the Czech border. However from Hohenwarth to Steinbuhl there was a gap between the 357th and the 359th regiments. Kaitersberg is situated between these two towns. With Russians threatening from the east and American troops pushing the remaining Germans against the border, it may naturally follow that these SS troops saw a gap in the line at Kaitersberg and decided to infiltrate through this position and disappear into the interior of Germany. Or lusting for one last fight, they assaulted a weak point in the line with no infantry troops to defend the artillery position. For the present time the mystery remains.

Dr. J. Edward Johnston, Jr. of Maryland served during the war with the 345th FA as a Fire Direction Computer. Johnston survived combat from Utah Beach through to the final actions of the 90th Division in Czechoslovakia. Maintaining a vague recollection of this unique event in field artillery history, Johnston hired military artist, Britt Taylor Collins, to find written documentation to support his recollections. Working with researchers across the country, Britt received copies of after action reports written during the war. 90th Division researcher Tyler Alberts was particularly instrumental in finding actual footage of the 345th FA in combat. Traveling to Germany on two separate occasions, Collins, metal detector in hand, conducted research in Grub to find the actual battlefield. Work in Grub was only made possible by the careful work and translation skills of Kotzting's city archivist Inge Pongratz. Leon Crenshaw, residing in Pennsylvania, provided invaluable information relating to his experiences commanding "C" Battery. The Adler Planetarium provided a detailed schematic drawing showing moon and star positions for the night of 27 April 1945 at 2400 hrs.

As a result of the confirming research, a large oil painting, 96" by 30", was commissioned by Johnston to memorialize this rare engagement. The artwork alone took 9 months to complete. The original art was entered into the permanent art collection of Snow Hall at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma in August of 2004, later to be moved to the proposed Field Artillery Museum. In early September a large museum quality print was given to the 90th Regional Readiness Command Headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, the modern equivalent of the 90th Infantry Division.