The summer of 1944 changed the course of world history. On June 6, the Allied forces undertook the largest seaborne invasion in history, crossing the English Channel to land on the beaches of France. This event, known as D-Day, spelled the beginning of the end for Hitler and the Nazis.
But there were many other substantial battles that took place and thousands of American soldiers who gave their lives to blaze the path to victory. One of those, often overlooked due to it’s proximity to D-Day, happened that following August.
While smaller in scope, the Battle of Mortain was critically important to the outcome of the war. As the Allies pushed inland, the Germans desperately fought to halt the advance. One of the most intense clashes took place in the town of Mortain, France, where the 30th Division of the American National Guard — known as Old Hickory — was stationed on Hill 314.
Col. Wes Morrison, North Carolina’s National Guard Chief of Staff, says the division was assembled from soldiers in Georgia, North and South Carolina and Tennessee, all states who claimed connections to Andrew Jackson.
For five days, the 700 surrounded Americans fought off assaults by the German 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, despite running severely low on ammunition, lacking food and other supplies. But the Americans weren’t going to give in. They held their position, inflicting heavy casualties and stopping the German counter offensive.
It was a valiant stand, Morrison said, one that went on to ensure the liberation of Paris and eventual victory in Europe.
“It’s kind of an overlooked battle because it was so close to D-Day. That was in June and this was in August. But it was really important ... if they didn’t do what they did, the war could have gone a very different way,” he said.
“And everyone was involved ... cooks, engineers, they joined as infantry. Only about half of them left that hill but they refused to give up the ground.”
Old Hickory went on to the Battle of the Bulge to help secure an Allied win. Over the years, those who made the stand at Mortain lived their lives in relative obscurity. But that changed recently.
The division was awarded with the Presidential Unit Citation in March.
Morrison says it was a well-deserved honor.
“We have been fighting for this for decades. We’d run into a brick wall but continue fighting,” he said.
The effort has a local connection, as well. Susan Imhoff, a member of St. Simons Rotary Club and the chair of this year’s Taps at Twilight, has a son, Capt. Sean Daily, who researched the battle and presented a request to President Trump, who signed it.
Daily is the aide de camp to the adjutant general of the North Carolina National Guard.
“He put the presentation in President Trump’s hand when he was flying around with the president and the governor after flooding in Charlotte,” Imhoff said.
The citation was signed, and Morrison was thrilled to be able to share the news with the surviving members of the unit.
“Only three army divisions in European theater received this award ... it’s really long overdue,” he said. “And it’s important for the current soldiers. The division will now have the streamer of Mortain on its badge. They will continue to carry on their memory. That’s something about the military ... you carry on the legacy of those who have gone before.”
Those brave soldiers of Old Hickory will be on Morrison’s mind this Memorial Day.
But their story will reach outside of the boarders of the division — it will be shared with residents of the Isles, as well. This year’s Taps program will feature a presentation honoring Old Hickory. And, though this year’s event will be a virtual ceremony, it will still be a powerful one.
The tribute will be broadcast at 6:45 p.m. Monday on Golden Isles TV Channel 98, the St. Simons Island Rotary YouTube channel and its Facebook page. The 2020 program will be dedicated to Clint Winne Jr., a retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General, highly decorated combat pilot who flew 159 missions during Vietnam, a graduate of the United States Military Academy in West Point and member of St. Simons Rotary. A number of participants will join in the pre-recorded event, including Morrison who will speak about Old Hickory.
“I did a video in regard to the Presidential Unit Citation for heroism. I also talked about Mortain and the significance of it in terms of World War II,” he said.
In addition to Morrison, the Adjutant General, Major General Marvin T. Hunt, recently retired Adjutant General and Major General Greg Lusk will participate.
As with the previous 29 years, music will also be an integral of the program. Performances will include locals Michael Hulett and Owen Plant.
National country/western recording artist artist Billy Dean will also share his newly released single “Memorial Day.”
New additions during this year’s tribute include a canon firing from the Lynx — a replica schooner from the War of 1812 — to open the event, and a flyover to honor Winne.
For Imoff, the Memorial Day service will still hold all of the power of previous years.
“This years program will be extremely special uniting us today with those that ‘gave it all’ serving some 75 years ago and giving special tribute to Old Hickory. You will see that each part of our program is connected, the virtual flyover by the 75 Fighter Squadron over Neptune park, then, Billy Dean’s new release titled ‘Memorial Day,’ which was a tribute to his father, Billy Dean, who served in the special forces in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge,” she said.
“I am honored to be a part of this program. You won’t want to miss it.”