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Dead Man’s Ridge

The Last Day for a Portsmouth Soldier

 

By Ross Patterson II

Published September 2, 2013

Casualties are an inevitable part of war. Their occurrence leaves a scar on many, from family and friends to institutions and communities. Portsmouth during the Second World War was no exception, and the students of Craddock High School saw several of their classmates lost in faraway actions. One such casualty was Ivan H. Vredenburg.

Born on May 18, 1924 in Chanute, Kansas, Ivan Vredenburg spent his early childhood in the Midwest. The middle child of five siblings, he encountered tragedy early on when his older brother Ralph passed away in January of 1936 at age thirteen. His father, a locomotive fireman, decided to move the family east a short time after the April 1940 national census. By the time the United States was dragged into war, the Vredenburgs had moved to Norfolk County, and the young boys of the family found themselves enrolled in Craddock High School.

Ivan quickly found himself a member of the Class of 1943, one of sixty-two boys and girls from Portsmouth and the surrounding area studying at Craddock amidst the constant news of the war. Many of the male student body would find themselves in the military shortly after graduation, either by choice or the draft. Ivan was the latter. On April 1, 1943 in Richmond, Virginia, he was officially enlisted as a private in the United States Army, service number 33632227. From there he was sent to Camp Mackall, North Carolina to become a member of the 17th Airborne Division’s 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment.

Ivan H. Vredenburg’s 1943 Craddock High School yearbook photograph.  Portsmouth Public Library Image

Ivan H. Vredenburg’s 1943 Craddock High School yearbook photograph. Portsmouth Public Library Image

Airborne

17th Airborne Divisional Insignia (Left) and 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment Insignia (Right). Public Domain Images

The 193rd was officially activated on April 15, 1943, and the men assigned to it would spend over a year training stateside before the Army considered their deployment. Ivan was assigned to be a rifleman in the regiment’s Company A, or ‘Able Company.’ Like most Glider Infantry units, the men were predominately draftees. Unlike their volunteer parachutist cousins, the men of the 193rd were expected to carry out airborne operations in lightly constructed Waco CG-4 gliders, which were noted for being low and prone to rough landings. Training took time, but the men were finally rated as ready and sent to England in August of 1944.

Men of the 193rd loading into a Waco glider at Camp Mackall for a training flight in 1943.  United States Army Photograph

Men of the 193rd loading into a Waco glider at Camp Mackall for a training flight in 1943. United States Army Photograph

Arriving too late for the Normandy Landings, Ivan and his fellow Glider Infantrymen continued with training exercises, with night operations being added to the schedule based on the experiences of D-Day. The men were still considered too green to participate in Operation MARKET GARDEN, and instead stayed in England as a theater reserve from the fall into the winter of 1944. The German Ardennes Offensive, however, would finally see the men of the 17th Airborne thrust into combat.

On December 16, 1944, the Germans began their last major offensive in the west. In the Ardennes Forest of Belgium, the 406,342 men of Army Group B slammed into the unprepared forces of the allied 12th and 21st Army Groups, creating a ‘Bulge’ in the Western Front in an effort to break through and capture the vital port of Antwerp. Whole American infantry regiments were captured as German Kampfgruppes slashed through weak points and encircled positions. Panicked and in desperate need of reinforcements, allied leaders decided to deploy the theater reserves. These were the airborne divisions.

Ivan H. Vredenburg in his Class A Uniform prior to his promotion to Private First Class. United States Army Photograph

German troops advancing across a Belgian road cluttered with burning and abandoned American equipment, December 16, 1944.  National Archives Photograph

German troops advancing across a Belgian road cluttered with burning and abandoned American equipment, December 16, 1944. National Archives Photograph

The famed 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, already stationed in continental Europe, were quickly trucked to the front. The Screaming Eacles would famously become encircled in the Belgian city of Bastogne, becoming a perpetual thorn in the German’s side. For the 17th Airborne, it would take three hectic days across December 24 to 26 for them to be transported from England to France. First advancing to the Meuse River in France, the soldiers quickly received orders to relieve the 11th Armored Division at the Belgian town of Morhet. The men marched in freezing conditions, slogging through the worst winter weather Western Europe had seen in a century. Arriving at Morhet on January 3, 1945, Ivan and his compatriots now found themselves under the overall command of General George Patton.

Members of the 17th Airborne Division arriving at the town of Morhet in January of 1945.  United States Army Photographs
Members of the 17th Airborne Division arriving at the town of Morhet in January of 1945.  United States Army Photographs

Members of the 17th Airborne Division arriving at the town of Morhet in January of 1945. United States Army Photographs

Patton’s relief column had reached Bastogne and the 101st on December 26. Hitler, incensed by the failure of his troops to take the city, ordered remaining forces to attack and close the gap as soon as possible. With a lack of good aerial reconnaissance and continued bouts of foul weather, the advance ordered by General Patton would run headlong into this counterattack.

Receiving orders to move forward as part of a general advance alongside the 87th Infantry Division and 101st Airborne Division on January 6, the 17th Airborne’s 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment was assigned the task of seizing both the woods to the east of the town on Monty and the nearby town of Flamizoulle. For Ivan’s Company A, their target would be Flamizoulle, located up a small, 2,250 yard long elevated road to the northeast of Bastogne near a wooded depression. The advance was set to begin at 8:00AM the following day.

Detail view of a Center for Military History map showing the area of the 17th Airborne’s advance.  Flamizoulle, the objective of the 193rd, was a small town located to the southeast of Flamierge on an offshoot of the main road to Bastogne.  United States Army Image

Detail view of a Center for Military History map showing the area of the 17th Airborne’s advance. Flamizoulle, the objective of the 193rd, was a small town located to the southeast of Flamierge on an offshoot of the main road to Bastogne. United States Army Image

When January 7, 1945 began, Ivan and his fellow soldiers had little idea what was in store for them. Heavy fog limited visibility, and thick snow hampered troop movement. The cold air was biting, cutting through the soldiers’ lightweight garments. The advance began quietly, with the men slowly moving up the barren ridgeline. Company A, as with the rest of the regimental advance, found itself moving with little idea of the German divisions arrayed in front of their position. When the enemy chose to reveal themselves en masse at 10:08AM, it was in a firestorm.

It is likely Ivan Vredenburg never saw the attack that took his life, and may have only heard part of the cacophony of noise. A combined barrage of artillery, mortars, and heavy machinegun fire raked into the exposed Americans, with survivors reporting a platoon’s worth of men being lost in the initial volley. Company A was sent reeling, with men diving for what little cover they could find in the farmland as German gunners began targeting individual positions. By the time Company A was withdrawn from the attack at 11:20AM, the 130 men attached to the unit were in tatters. Company A Mortar man Paul Wilson put the survivor count for the company that day at sixteen.

Ivan’s sacrifice on what was to become known as “Dead Man’s Ridge” was not in vain. While the encounter of the 193rd with heavy German forces was unexpected and catastrophically violent, the unintended counterattack by the 17th Airborne checked the German advance, stalling and ultimately preventing their drive back towards Bastogne. Nearly 1,000 Americans were killed or wounded over the course of what would become a three day engagement before the Germans were finally repulsed. The survivors of the 17th would push on, helping clear out the remaining German forces in their sector and reaching the Siegfried Line before finally being relieved on February 10, 1945. The men would become best known for carrying out Operation VARSITY, the last allied airborne assault of the war in Europe. A total of 6,292 casualties were taken by the division from December 1944 to May 1945, with four of the soldiers receiving the Medal of Honor for their actions in the field.

A German 120mm mortar crew during the Battle of the Bulge.  National Archives Photograph

A camouflaged German machine gunner armed with the infamous MG-42’s younger sibling, the MG-34, which was capable of firing a devastating 900 rounds per minute. BundesArchiv Photograph

A camouflaged German machine gunner armed with the infamous MG-42’s younger sibling, the MG-34, which was capable of firing a devastating 900 rounds per minute. BundesArchiv Photograph

Members of the 17th Airborne greeting a tanker from the 1st Army after linking up with their sector on January 15, 1945. National Archives Photograph

17th Airborne Glider Infantrymen on March 24, 1945 near the German city of Wesel, having just made their only combat glider landings of the war.  United States Army Photograph

17th Airborne Glider Infantrymen on March 24, 1945 near the German city of Wesel, having just made their only combat glider landings of the war. United States Army Photograph

Ivan Vredenburg was initially buried in Europe with his fellow Company A comrades. In the post-war years, however, stateside reinternments were allowed to take place. The Vredenburgs decided to bring their lost son home, and Ivan was brought back to Virginia in 1948. On December 10 of that year, he was reinterred at the Hampton National Cemetery in Phoebus just outside Fort Monroe, where he remains to this day.

December 10, 1948 newspaper clipping from the Daily Press announcing Ivan Vredenburg’s reinternment.  Public Domain Image

December 10, 1948 newspaper clipping from the Daily Press announcing Ivan Vredenburg’s reinternment. Public Domain Image

Ivan Vredenburg’s headstone at the Hampton National Cemetery.  Find A Grave Photograph

Ivan Vredenburg’s headstone at the Hampton National Cemetery. Find A Grave Photograph