A veteran recalls the U.S. Army’s retreat from Rommel in 1943.
For a 97 year-old man, John Wessmiller is in remarkable control of his faculties. He recently checked into a medical facility to recover from a foot injury, but seems unbothered by the inconvenience. He greets visitors to his recovery room with a warm smile and a handshake. The staff address him reverently as “the Colonel.” He is quite the honored guest: from 1943-1944, the Army veteran fought the Axis powers in North Africa and Europe, received his share of battle wounds, and eventually retired as a colonel. He is seen in one photograph with a fantastic array of ribbons and awards on his uniform, including the French Legion D’Honneur.
I met Col. Wessmiller through a friend, Cdr. Don Broderick (USN Ret.), after finishing a lecture in Chatham, Massachusetts. The Colonel beckoned us to sit around his recovery bed. Don took a reclined seat while I opted for a wheelchair. After some small talk, the amateur historian in me refused to keep quiet. I asked the Colonel to tell me everything he remembered about his time in North Africa. In return, this incredible man told me an amazing tale.
Allied and Axis armies were on the move from Morocco to Egypt in the Second World War. American, British, French, Italian, and German forces fought to control every strategic gateway in the area. The German Army in particular had not left Africa in so volatile a condition since Lettow-Vorbek’s campaign in the Great War. Now there was a new general on the continent with even greater skill and daring: Erwin Rommel.
American forces, including Wessmiller’s 9th Infantry Division, landed on the continent in early November 1942. In early 1943, they were off to split Rommel’s army in Tunisia. For U.S. forces— which had yet to be fully tested in battle—the trip to Tunisia through the Atlas Mountains was a struggle. Of the great mountains, Wessmiller recalled:
They were terrible. It was ice, and when a vehicle started sliding, if it was on a precipice, it would get over and the guys would be jumping out of the trucks. It was one hell of a trip.
Wessmiller’s unit was given a “beautiful” Harley-Davidson motorcycle, but with every vehicle fully loaded for the trip, there was no place to carry it. Division commander Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy told Wessmiller he could ride it, and off went the soldier through the mountains. Wessmiller, who was in charge of anti-tank weapons around the division command post, would also serve as courier at one point and later aide to Maj. Gen. Eddy.
On 14 February 1943, Germans attacked American positions in the two-mile-wide Kasserine Pass. U.S. soldiers were unprepared, uncoordinated, and unable to defeat the battle-hardened desert force. Wessmiller recalled of the retreat:
It’s a huge pass. You’d have to take a look at the map to understand Kasserine Pass. The 1st Armored Division tried to stop them, and there were over a hundred tanks burning, American tanks … a whole regiment of American troops had surrendered. This was the first time we were really fighting. The Germans were just beating the hell out of us. And we got there, the jam of automobiles … ambulances, everything was such that we were fleeing from Kasserine Pass … really retreating. Men were carrying each other. All the ambulances were gone. They were carrying each other on their own weapons. Two men, one on each end of the weapon, and they have the guys holding on to their back, and they carried them out. This is a hell of a sight when you come up from where there was a war.
Wessmiller’s unit tried to get into a position of maneuver. With two other soldiers, he took a Jeep to the rear of the retreating army, struggling
to get through this maze of vehicles to stop troops trying to flee, and you really couldn’t do a damn thing. It was just a mass of vehicles and men fleeing. Now there were some men there fighting, but ninety-nine percent were trying to get away. It made an impossible jam … we went around it, I remember … looking down, and [seeing] the smoke from a tank down below.
Rommel meant to push the Allies into Algeria but met resistance before Tebessa. Wessmiller spoke highly of 9th Division Artillery under Brig. Gen. S. LeRoy Irwin that made a Herculean 800-mile forced march to reinforce the Americans and pushed a Panzer division away from Thala. Of the aftermath, Col. Wessmiller noted
The casualties were very, very high. You never heard how high it was. They captured a whole regiment of men. Americans were … we were kids. We didn’t know how to fight, and here we were fighting with the Germans, and they had sophisticated armored units that could move so fast.
Defeat at Kasserine Pass was a lesson not to be forgotten. Rommel’s desert army would survive to fight again, but its days were numbered as Allied forces conquered, as ancient armies had done before, one of the most contested regions in the world.