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NEWS | Sept. 15, 2023

The Liberation of Nancy, France

By Sgt. 1st Class Koan Nissen 105th Military History Detachment

After landing on Omaha Beach in early July 1944, the 134th Infantry Regiment, a nearly all-Nebraskan unit, was almost immediately engaged in some of the most ferocious fighting during the Normandy Campaign.

By early August, the regiment, along with its combat partners in the 35th Infantry Division, had fought in the Battles of Saint Lo, and Mortain, deadly fights in thick hedgerows, suffering a staggering number of casualties.

Living up to their battle cry, “All Hell Can’t Stop Us,” the regiment would soon again see action.

By Sept. 8, Gen. Eisenhower had established some aggressive goals. One of those was for the 3rd Army to pound its way through the Siegfried Line and crush the German military as it retreated toward Frankfurt.

As part of the 12th Corps, the 134th came a across a unique opportunity as it neared the Moselle River. Although its original objective was to cross the Moselle and liberate Nancy, Col. Butler B. Miltonberger, the 134th Regimental Commander from North Platte, Nebraska, came across a small German garrison defending Fort de Pont St. Vincent.

The fort, which held the high ground atop the valley in which the regiment was operating, was too strategic of a target to pass on.

Although only one platoon from Company A was needed to capture the key terrain and structure, it would soon become evident that enemy forces recognized the importance of the 19th century structure. In fact, German forces surrounded the fort and their commander proposed to Lt. Constant J. Kjems, that he and his company surrender.

Surrender was not an option.

The lieutenant told his men to dig in and ready themselves for a fight. The Germans responded by conducting an all-out assault of the fort. Rockets and mortars tore through the eighty-year-old walls. Company A, outnumbered and encircled, managed to reap heavy casualties on the advancing German units.

The Germans were eventually repelled after U.S. artillery blasted the fort with 105 mm and 155 mm airburst shells. Kjems and his men took shelter in its subterranean chambers. At the end of the fight, the Germans suffered 500 casualties, and Company A made it out with fewer than 50.

Meanwhile, Miltonberger hadn’t lost sight of the primary objective—Nancy. As the 134th maneuvered to within a few hundred yards of Flavigny, on the west bank of the Moselle, Maj. Fredrick Roecker, 2nd Battalion’s S-3, noticed a bridge was left undestroyed by the retreating Germans.

Thinking this was bit of good luck and recalling that bridges were ordered to be captured intact, he informed the division chief of staff that he found an undestroyed bridge that led directly into Nancy. 2nd Battalion was ordered to “grab it!”

This bit of good luck, however, was short lived. The Germans sprang a trap and the 134th walked into it. As 2nd Battalion got Companies E, F, parts of G, and a heavy machinegun platoon to the east side of the river, the German’s destroyed the bridge with a counterattack. German tanks, infantry and heavy artillery sectioned off 2nd Battalion.

Maj. James Huston, in his book Biography of a Battalion: The Life and Times of an Infantry Battalion in Europe in Word War II, said “Then at 1:30 A.M. came a thunderous explosion on the bridge. An artillery shell—or perhaps a sympathetic detonation of a fixed charge—had destroyed on of the spans. This left the men who had crossed in an extremely perilous position with neither means for reinforcement nor for escape.” He further recalled “Germans closed in shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ and very soon after, the doom of the 2nd Battalion’s bridgehead was sealed.”

After hours of vicious fighting, 2nd Battalion’s defensive lines were broken, and German forces either killed or captured those who didn’t swim back across the river.

Ultimately, the 80th Division established a bridgehead near Toul. On September 14th, they crossed the river and relieved the 319th Infantry on the outer edges of Nancy.

On September 15th,  Miltonberger and the 134th Infantry Regiment, along with its combat partners, liberated Nancy.

The Mayor of Nancy, Jean Prouve, presented Miltonberger, who would later serve as the Chief of the National Guard Bureau as a major general, with an ornate silver cylinder.

The inscription read: “After four years of occupation, oppression and humiliation, a freed Nancy salutes you, the liberator of the city, Butler B Miltonberger, Colonel of the 134th Regiment of Infantry. To you and your valiant troops, the heroic soldiers of the United States of America, the people of Nancy express their profound gratitude. Honor and glory to the liberators.”