The German Army called the 12th Armored Division the "Suicide Division" for its fierce defensive actions during Operation Nordwind in France, and they were nicknamed the "Mystery Division" when they were temporarily transferred to the command of the Third Army under General George S. Patton, Jr., to cross the Rhine River.
The 12th Armored Division was one of only ten U.S. divisions (and only one of two U.S. armored divisions) during World War II that had African-American combat companies integrated into the division. One of the African American soldiers, Staff Sergeant Edward A. Carter, Jr. was awarded The Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry in combat during World War II, and was later awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
The 12th Armored Division was activated on 15 September 1942. Organization and initial training was at Camp Campbell, Kentucky, and continued at Camp Barkeley in Abilene, Texas. The division consisted of approximately 11,000 soldiers, and was composed of tank, field artillery, motorized infantry battalions and other support units.[a]
In early 1943 the division adopted the nickname "The Hellcats", symbolizing its toughness and readiness for combat.[b]
While at Camp Barkeley, the 44th Tank Battalion was sent to the Pacific Theater of Operations on a special mission and later distinguished itself as the first unit to enter Manila. The 44th was replaced by the 714th Tank Battalion.
Walt Disney himself designed a logo for the 714th Tank Battalion.
Origin of Combat Units
The 12th was originally organized as a heavy armored division with two armored regiments, the 43rd and 44th, and one armored infantry regiment, the 56th Armored Infantry Regiment. In 1943, it was reorganized from a heavy division to a light division as part of a general streamlining of all armored divisions, except the 2nd Armored Division and the 3rd Armored Division.
The original 43rd and 44th Armored Regiments assigned to the 12th AD were re-designated to become the 23rd, 43rd, 44th, 714th and 779th Tank Battalions (TB) during the reorganization the 12th Armored Division underwent while at the Tennessee Maneuver Area in Watertown, Tennessee, in November 1943. The 714th TB was sent to Fort Jackson, SC and the 779th TB went to Fort Knox, KY as separate independent tank battalions. The 44th Tank Battalion was detached from the 12th AD and sent to the Pacific Theater of Operations, where it distinguished itself as the first tank battalion to enter the city of Manila and liberated American and Allied civilian prisoners interred in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp. It was replaced by the 714th TB which rejoined the 12th AD in November 1943. The 779th TB was sent to the Philippines late in the war in 1945 but did not see combat action.
Armored Infantry Battalions
The 56th Armored Infantry Regiment (AIR) traced its historical origin back to the 17th Infantry Regiment of Maj. Gen. George Sykes' 2nd Division of the 5th Army Corps, of the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. During World War I, soldiers from the reconstituted 17th Infantry Regiment were used to form the 56th Infantry Regiment on 15 May 1917, which was involved in the battle around Metz in Alsace-Lorraine. Ironically, when reconstituted as the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion during World War II, they were back in Alsace-Lorraine, fighting with the 12th Armored Division to liberate the same region of France from Nazi occupation in 1944-1945. On 7 July 1942, the unit was reconstituted as the 56th Armored Infantry Regiment and assigned to the 12th Armored Division, which was activated as a division at Camp Campbell, KY on 15 September 1942. On 11 November 1943 while at Watertown, Tennessee, the 12th Armored Division was reorganized and the 56th Armored Infantry Regiment was reorganized to form the 17th, 56th and 66th Armored Infantry Battalions (AIB).
The 1st Battalion of the 56th AIR became the 66th AIB and the 2nd Battalion of the 56th AIR became the 17th AIB of the 12th Armored Division. The 3rd Battalion of the 56th AIR became the 56th AIB. Companies G, H and I of the 56th AIR became Companies A, B and C of the 56th AIB.[c]
World War II
Campaign map showing the operations of the 12th Armored Division in Europe from 5 December 1944 to 5 May 1945
In its advance, Rohrbach-lès-Bitche and towns surrounding Bettviller were liberated by 12 December 1944, and Utweiler, Germany was seized on 21 December. After a short period of rehabilitation and maintenance, the 12th rolled against the Rhine bridgehead at Herrlisheim that the Germans had established as part of their Operation Nordwind offensive. In order to seal the Battle of the Bulge, units of the Seventh Army were diverted north to assist the Third Army in capturing Bastogne. Due to this, the remainder of the Seventh Army, including the 12th Armored Division, was stretched thin holding a 126 miles (203 km) long front line with only eight divisions.
German defenders repulsed two division attacks in the most violent fighting in the history of the division, during 8 to 10 January and 16 to 17 January 1945. The division's attacks at Herrlisheim failed to use combined-arms tactics and were defeated in detail, resulting in two tank and two armored infantry battalions taking heavy losses. Poor tactics were compounded by terrain that was almost tabletop-flat, offering the German defenders excellent fields of fire. However, enemy counterattacks failed also, in part because of the firm leadership of the commander of Combat Command B, Colonel Charles Bromley, who declared his headquarters expendable and ordered all personnel in the headquarters to prepare a hasty defense.[d]
The division was subsequently relieved by the U.S. 36th Infantry Division. The 12th Armored Division suffered over 1,700 battle casualties during the fighting in and around Herrlisheim. As a consequence, when African-American soldiers who were in non-combat positions were able to volunteer to become combat troops, Major General Roderick R. Allen was one of only ten division commanders who allowed them to join the combat ranks.
12th AD soldier with German prisoners of war, April 1945. United States National Archives, Group 208 of the Records of the Office of War Information 1926 – 1951, National Archives Identifier: 535840
After recovering from the bruising experience at Herrlisheim, the 12th went over to the offensive and attacked south from Colmar, after being assigned to the French First Army under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. In a lightning drive, the 12th effected junction with French forces at Rouffach, on 5 February, sealing the Colmar Pocket and ending German resistance in the Vosges Mountains. Except for elements acting as a protective screen, the division withdrew to the St. Avold area for rest and rehabilitation. The division was attached to the Third Army under General George S. Patton, Jr., on 17 March 1945 through its crossing of the Rhine on 28 March. The soldiers were ordered to remove their identifying unit insignias and vehicle markings were painted over, disguising the fact that Patton had an additional tank division under his command. Thus the 12th was given the nickname the "Mystery Division". The attack resumed on 18 March 1945.
A light tank of the 12th Armored Division in Rouffach, 5 Feb. 1945
The division spearheaded the Seventh Army drive, securing Landsberg, on 27 April and clearing the area between the Ammer and Würm Lakes by 30 April. The 12th Armored Division is recognized as a liberating unit  of the Landsberg concentration camps near the Landsberg Prison, sub-camps of Dachau concentration camp on 27 April 1945. On 29 April 1945, the 12th AD liberated Oflag VII-A Murnau, a German Army POW camp for Polish Army officers interred north of the Bavarian town of Murnau am Staffelsee during World War II. [e]
Elements crossed the Inn River and the Austrian border at Kufstein on 3 May. The 12th Armored Division was relieved by the 36th Infantry Division on 4 May. On 5 May, Lieutenant (later Captain) John C. Lee, Jr., Co. B, 23rd Tank Battalion, organized the rescue of VIP French prisoners from an Alpine castle in Bavaria during the Battle for Castle Itter. Under Lee's command were members of the German Wehrmacht, who combined forces with 2 tanks from the 12th to fight the SS Commander and soldiers guarding the prisoners. For leading the successful rescue of these prisoners, Lee was promoted to Captain and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
US Memorial on Hill 351 (Mont de Sigolsheim), Sigolsheim, France
Monument at the top of Mont de Sigolsheim honors the American soldiers who fought for the liberation of Alsace at the site of the Battle of Sigolsheim in Dec. 1944.
In Appreciation (by the people of) Alsace to the 1st French Army of the Rhine and Danube and their American Comrades (who) liberated Alsace 1944-1945. The U.S. 21st Army Corps, U.S. 12th Armored Division, the U.S. 3rd, 28th, 75th, 36th, 45th, 63rd, 103rd Infantry Divisions.
The insignias of the U.S. Divisions that fought in Alsace are emblazoned on the Sigolsheim monument: the U.S. 21st Army Corps, U.S. 12th Armored Division (bottom row, 2nd from left), the U.S. 3rd, 28th, 75th, 36th, 45th, 63rd, 103rd Infantry Divisions.
Place Colonel Meigs is located in Rohrbach, France near where Lt. Col. Montgomery C. Meigs died while commanding the 23rd Tank Bn, 12th AD. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.
50th Anniversary of World War II Memorial, Herrlisheim, France
Plaque on the 50th Anniversary of World War II Memorial, Herrlisheim, France
12th Armored Division Association
The 12th Armored Division Association was founded on 15 September 1945 at Heidenheim, Germany, on the occasion of the third anniversary of the division's activation.
The Hellcat News (newspaper)
The Hellcat News, the newspaper of the 12th Armored Division, was first published in 1942 as an information sheet. Initial publication was part of the public relations duties of the Special Services unit of the 12th Armored Division while the division trained at Camp (later Fort) Campbell, Kentucky. In 1943, after the division was transferred to Camp Barkeley in Abilene, Texas, the division commander, Major General Carlos Brewer, assigned three men to Special Services to continue the newspaper.
The first official issue of the newspaper was published at Camp Campbell, Kentucky, although the byline reads "Somewhere in Tennessee". This was because Camp Campbell was in the Tennessee Maneuver Area located on the Kentucky-Tennessee border between Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and Clarksville, Tennessee. Due to its close proximity to Clarksville, Tennessee, the War Department on 6 March 1942, designated Tennessee as the official address of the new camp. This caused a great deal of confusion, since the Headquarters was in Tennessee and the post office was in Kentucky. After many months of mail delivery problems, Colonel Guy W. Chipman requested that the address be changed to Camp Campbell, Kentucky. The U.S. War Department officially changed the address on 23 September 1942.
The newspaper continued to be published by the division Special Services after transfer of the division to Camp Barkeley in Abilene, Texas, from February 1944 through the final issue published in the U.S during the war on 10 August 1944 (Vol. 2, No. 26), when the entire division was shipped to Europe to join the 7th Army in France. Publication resumed with Volume 3, Issue 1 on 18 May 1945, in Heidenheim, Germany, following cessation of combat operations in the ETO. The Special Services of the division published the first issues in Europe on a weekly basis when conditions permitted, until the deactivation of the division in 1946.
The Hellcat News is one of two U.S. military newspapers that has been continuously published since World War 2, the other being the older "Stars and "Stripes", which began publication on 9 November 1861 in Bloomfield, Missouri. The "Hellcat News" is the oldest U.S. Armed Forces divisional newspaper still being published since World War 2.
Wartime publications contained division news stories, cartoons and photographs. The later ions of the 12th Armored Association contain information about former members of the division, organizational news including information about the yearly reunion, original cartoons, and photographs both from the war years and afterwards. A series relating the history of the division is also recounted in the newspaper. In addition, the president of the association and the secretary included messages of interest in most issues. These messages contain information about the division's Medal of Honor recipient, Staff Sergeant Edward A. Carter, Jr.
The Hellcat News is published by the 12th Armored Division Association. Archived copies of the Hellcat News from the first issue in 1943 through 2012 are available online through the West Texas Digital Archive.
12th Armored Division Memorial Museum
12th Armored Division Memorial Museum
In October 2001 the 12th Armored Division Memorial Museum opened its doors to the public in Abilene, Texas, with the stated mission to serve as a display and teaching museum for the study of World War II and its impact on the American people.
"The Twelfth Armored Division Memorial Museum is located in Abilene, Texas, near (9 miles south of) the site of the former Camp Barkeley where the Division trained prior to being sent overseas into the European Theater of Operations. The Museum holds collections of the 12th Armored Division, World War II archives, memorabilia, and oral histories, along with selected equipment and material loaned or donated by others. The education plan focuses on expanding academic access to World War II historical materials, veterans, and their families; preserving the history of the 12th Armored Division for study, research, and investigations by future generations; providing training in public history professions, developing new education programs for students and establishing a technology bridge between the 12th Armored Division Historical Collection and the public."
As part of an ongoing venture to become a larger part of the West Texas community and the greater Abilene area, 12th Armored Division Memorial Museum has partnered with the West Texas Digital Archives, providing access to copies of the "Hellcat News" from first ion to 2012.
^Division complement at the end of 1944 was 10.937; a total of over 17,000 soldiers had been assigned to the 12th AD between 1942 and deactivation in 1946, including the 44th Armored Bn transferred to the Pacific Theater of Operations, casualties and replacement troops who saw service
^"In early 1943, Private Francis Beckman (493rd Armored Field Artillery Battery C) won a division contest to come up with a nickname, earning a three-day weekend pass."
^"[On 19 Jan 1945, at] about 5 p.m., 400 German infantrymen supported by 17 tanks almost succeeded in attacking across the Zorn from Landgraben River. North of Herrlisheim, the Germans pushed across the Zorn and almost overran CCB's command post in Rohrwiller. As clerks and other personnel started to panic and prepared to evacuate the area, Colonel Bromley shouted out: "Stop this goddamn panic. We're not retreating anywhere. We're defending this command post; we're holding this line. We're soldiers; we have weapons; we're expendable."
^"Oflag VIIA was liberated by Troop B, 116th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (MECZ), Combat Command A of the 12th Armored Division, XXI Corps of the American 7th Army, on 29 April 1945. According to 12 Armored Division records (Daily Journal) the camp was liberated at 16:55 in the afternoon. The 116th was the second squadron of the 101st Cavalry Group. Task Force 2 contained Co. A and/or B 66th Armoured (sic) Infantry, plus Co. C of the 43rd Tank Battalion and a platoon of light tanks from Co. D of the 43rd Tank Battalion."
^"The 12th Armored Division". ushmm.org. "The 12th Armored Division was recognized as a liberating unit by the United States Army Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1988."
^Harding, Stephen (2013). The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe. Da Capo Press. ISBN978-0-306-82209-4 "Among these were 14 French notables, including two former premiers, Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud; Gen.Maxime Weygand and Gen. Maurice Gamelin, both former commanders of the French Armies; Jean Borotra, international tennis star; Michael Clemenceau, son of the former French Prime Minister; Gen. Charles de Gaulle's sister Marie-Agnès Cailliau, right-wing leader François de La Rocque, and future Nobel Prize winner Léon Jouhaux. It is rumored that Heinrich Himmler was planning on using these VIPs as hostages to trade to secure his escape in the event that Germany lost the war."
^Mayer, John G (26 May 1945). "12th Men Free French Big-Wigs". Hellcat News (12th Armored Division Newspaper). 3. West Texas Digital Archive. p. 3. Retrieved 12 December 2015.
^"12th Armored Division Association - 12th Armored Division Association Official Site". 12tharmoreddivisionassociation.us.
"One purpose of the organization, as stated in its constitution, was to "commemorate the memories of fallen comrades and enjoy the companionship of those still with us." The association assumed responsibility for continued publication of the "Hellcat News", the division newspaper started during the war. Today the paper continues to be published by the 12th Armored Association. In addition to veterans who were among the 17,000 soldiers who fought with the 12th Armored division, the association has members who are spouses and family (legacy members) of division veterans. The association elects a "Hellcat of the Year", which has been awarded every year since the first meeting of the association. Col. Richard A Gordon, (CCR) was elected as the first president of the association at its founding meeting. The first state-side reunion was held at the Hotel Commodore, New York City, 13–24 September 1947. Both annual national conventions and regional chapter meetings are announced in the "Hellcat News"."
Phibbs, Brendan (2002) Our war for the world : a memoir of life and death on the front lines in WWII. Lyons Press, Guilford, Conn. ISBN978-1585745357, originally published as: Phibbs, Brendan (1987, 1st ed.) The other side of time : a combat surgeon in World War II. Little, Brown, Boston. ISBN978-0316705103, a combat surgeon in the 12th Armored Division, covers the division's experiences in Europe. The book has been called "one of the best five Allied memoirs of the World War II".
Van Ells, Mark D. ed., (2009) The Daily Life of an Ordinary American Soldier in World War II: The Letters of Wilbur C. Berget. Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston. ISBN978-0773449183.