During WW II, the Army of the United States had a very unique unit among its ranks. The “Pack Artillery.” At the outbreak of WW II, the U.S. army was totally unprepared to take on Hitler’s fighting troops. The German army had trained for years to fight on the mountains and in the snow of Europe. Washington realized it needed a specialized unit of infantry and artillery to combat these troops. Consisting of hand-picked men, unlike the men of infantry, the “Pack” man had to be tall, strong and robust.
Their assignment was to train in the mountains of Colorado, at an Army encampment called Camp Hale. Located in a deep valley at an elevation of 9,500 feet, the air was thin and the temperature normally below freezing. (This was the birthplace of America’s mountain troops today know as the 10th Mountain Division which is currently fighting in Afghanistan.) These men tested and used specialized equipment which was just being produced to withstand the frigid conditions of winter warfare.
Basic training consisted of learning to ski, climb mountains, survive outdoors in brutal winter storms and be mule handlers. The mountain artillery consisted of the 75mm Pack Howitzer which was of very small caliber in the Howitzer family, but it was portable and deadly. Breaking down into 6 separate parts, and transported on the back of army mules, it could go almost anywhere. The men were each assigned their own mule to feed, curry and train, which took roughly 6 weeks to accomplish. Once training was completed, the men were able to remove the six separate pieces of the weapon from the backs of the mules, assemble the gun, and fire in less than 3 minutes.
The 601st Field Artillery Battalion (Pack) was just one of the battalions which came forth from Camp Hale. They were trained originally to be the fire support for the famed “First Special Service Force” also known as the Black Devils by the Germans. A unit of American/Canadian commando’s was popularized by the William Holden movie, “The Devils Brigade.”
In August 1943, the two units traveled together to Alaska’s Kiska Island to rid it of the Japanese. Once that mission was completed, in February 1944 they boarded ships to Italy to take on the Germans at the Gustav line and Anzio.
In August 1944, they landed in Southern France as part of the “1st Airborne Task Force” holding out for the winter in the area of Nice. As spring arrived, they received orders to head north towards Germany.
Crossing the Rhine River in early 1945 they slowly pushed the Germans southward through their own country capturing thousands of prisoners. On April 29, 1945 just a little past 6pm, the 601st F.A.Bn. (Pack) arrived at Dachau Concentration Camp.
Arriving just behind the liberating infantry, they were assigned duty to stand guard over the camps inhabitants. A week later, on May 8, 1945, the battalion was in Austria, the day the war ended.
I’m proud to say that my Dad was a part of this very unique outfit. His sergeant at Camp Hale was from Decatur, and his best buddy was from Mishawaka. They all met for the first time in the mountains of Colorado, just ordinary farm boys from Indiana. I urge you to find out what your Dad or Grandfather did during the war. Research his unit and discover his history to pass onto your children. We should honor these men and thank them always.
For more information on this battalion, Google The 601st Field Artillery (Pack).
Editor’s note: Denis Cutter is a local writer who lives on Old Trail Road