Three-quarters of a century after its World War II battles, an entire division of thousands of National Guard soldiers is up for the highest honor a military unit can receive.
The 30th Infantry Division, nicknamed Old Hickory and made up men from North Carolina and a handful of other southern states, was sent into Normandy right after D-Day. It soon found itself badly outnumbered by some of Germany’s toughest units in a battle at the small French town of Mortain.
The soldiers the Guard troops replaced as they moved into the area said things had been quiet. But it didn’t stay that way long.
Ninety-four-year-old King Kenny of Harrisburg, N.C., was then a young private.
“The tanks, you could hear them during the night anyhow, you could hear the tracks, and the squeak,” he said. “Custer and the Indians. We didn’t know how many were out there.”
The answer? A lot. Entire armored Panzer divisions with dozens and dozens of tanks. And 80,000 elite German soldiers, said historian Robert Baumer, author of “Old Hickory: The 30th Division: The Top Rated American Infantry Division in Europe in World War II.”
Hitler himself had ordered the massive attack, and the Americans were outnumbered almost seven to one.
“Once they started coming, they were in black, which is ID for Panzer stuff,” Kind said. “And we could see the grenadiers were in black but we didn't know they were SS at the time. They just came. I don't think we really thought about who or what or how many… We just thought, we're there to guard the road.”
The Germans’ goal was to blast through the National Guard unit, and stop the momentum of the Allied invasion. But the Americans put up unexpected resistance.
"The three guns that were guarding that road, all were knocked out, and here comes our B Company lieutenant, Lt. Neel, with a gun, and he sets it up in a hilly area, pretty steep,” Kenny said. “And this German tank came up and fired at him and missed him. They fired back and hit it and it caught on fire and it came down the hill. And I saw another one poke its nose around the house up around the hill, and Neel must've seen them at the same time I did, because he fired, and it came down the hill and blocked the road.”
Nearby, Tony Jaber, also from North Carolina, was with one of the division’s mortar units, atop a huge hill that was key to controlling the area.
His unit was surrounded, and supplies got so scarce that other Americans tried to send medicine in via hollow artillery shells.
At one point, the then 19-year-old Jaber watched as a German delegation under a white flag approached his commander.
“They were probably as close as me and you, asking him to surrender,” said Jaber, who its now 93. “He told them no... I'll surrender when every round of ammunition is used, and every bayonet is broken in you bastards’ bellies...They said if we didn’t surrender by 8 o’clock that night, they were going to come back and wipe us out, but they didn’t do it.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying.
“The size of the attack on the 30th Division was replicated nowhere else during World War II,” Baumer said. “Nowhere else was a division hit with that size of an enemy force.”
The battle went on for more than five days. In the end, the roadblock held, as did the rest of the American positions, including the hill. The outcome was devastating for the Germans.
“The spokesperson for the Third Reich was captured by Old Hickory at Magdeburg at the end of the war, and he said that the German High Command knew that when they lost Mortain, they lost the homeland,” Baumer said.
Old Hickory Soldiers Go On To Fight Other Key Battles
The 30th went on to fight at the Battle of the Bulge and other key battles.
Kenny was wounded twice, but made it home, and the one-time gas station attendant went to Dartmouth College and became an oil company executive.
Jaber left the military briefly but then enlisted in the Air Force, where he carved out a career in personnel, serving in various bases around the world.
After the war a panel of Army historians charged with figuring out which units deserved recognition rated the 30th the top-performing U.S. infantry division in the entire European theater. The Pentagon started the process to award it a Presidential Unit Citation, or PUC. But it stalled.
“The paperwork fell through the cracks because the Army had so many other priorities at the time,” said Baumer. “Getting the G.I. Bill in place. Getting people relocated. This just wasn't the top of the list to do. So the paperwork was all kind of shuffled away, and laid dormant for years.”
It’s not that individual Old Hickory soldiers were ignored. Frank Denius of Austin, Texas, now 93, won four silver stars. The Army made sure he got special treatment, riding home in style on the Queen Mary as one of the most decorated American soldiers of the war.
“I had my own suite on ship, and had sheets for first time I can remember, my own bathroom,” Denius recalled.
The battle-hardened veteran was all of 20 years old.
Several smaller units within the 30th -- including his -- got presidential unit citations and the right to fly a special blue PUC streamer with their unit flag.
But these small unit awards didn't include everybody in the the division.
Old Hickory Finds Advocates In N.C.'s National Guard’s 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team
When Old Hickory was disbanded after the war that left no one to advocate for the citation. The 30th division has a descendant, though: the N.C. National Guard’s 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team, and some of the veterans asked North Carolina Guard leaders to help them lobby the Army to reboot the review process.
This winter it did exactly that, and N.C. Guard officers say they expect an answer soon, though an Army spokeswoman said it’s unclear when there’ll be a verdict.
Denius, still an attorney in Austin, says he hopes the answer is yes, and comes quickly for the remaining veterans, especially those who got little recognition for their bravery.
“I’d like to see every person recognized, first that, who haven’t received the PUC, like me, for Mortain, but I’d like to see all of those fallen heroes honored, too,” he said.
“The main thing is, I just think that the men of Old Hickory, those that still live and those that have passed on deserve the honor of receiving the PUC as much as any division, and I just would like to see the division recognized so that PUC could be hung on the colors of old hickory forever and ever.”
According to the unit’s association, more than 34,000 men served in the 30th Infantry Division at some point in World War Two. N.C. Guard officials say that only a few hundred — nearly all in their 90s — are left. The 30th just held its annual reunion in Raleigh. Kenny and Jaber made the trip, but health issues kept Denius away this year.
Only four other members of one of the best fighting divisions in American history were able to come.