In October 2022, dozens of Fort McCoy community members took time to help celebrate the 102nd birthday of retired Army Lt. Col. Harry Baker — a World War II veteran who served with C Battery, 302nd Field Artillery Battalion, 76th Infantry Division at then-Camp McCoy in 1943-44.
Baker trained at McCoy and deployed from the post with his battery of 500 men in November 1944. Looking at the history of the 76th, according to https://military-history.fandom.com, the division was a unit of the Army “in World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. The division was deactivated in 1996 and has been reconstituted as the 76th U.S. Army Reserve Operational Response Command in 2013.”
History shows the division began training for war at Camp McCoy in September 1943 where the unit focused on winter training. This training focused on the use of skis, snowshoes, toboggans, snow tractors, snow goggles, winter camouflage suits, Eskimo parkas, and more.
Written in a training notebook by Staff Sgt. Melvin Wagner with Company B, 417th Infantry Regiment, 76th Infantry Division, while training at Camp McCoy for that winter training, he made an important note.
“The colder it gets, the more a man thinks to himself — to hell with his equipment,” Wagner wrote in the composition book donated to the Fort McCoy History Center. “It is the responsibility of NCOs to check men constantly.”
Wagner’s training notes also covered everything from diagrams of skis and snowshoes as well as conduct of how to properly teach winter skills. As a noncommissioned officer, it was likely he was teaching other Soldiers the same skills he had learned.
The history of the 76th also shows that while operating from Camp McCoy, an “advanced training group moved in November 1943 to Northern Michigan (the Upper Peninsula) to near Watersmeet.”
While near Watersmeet, winter training experts from the Mountaining Training Center at Camp Hale, Colo., gave a special training program, and the additional winter training began in the Ottawa National Forest near Watersmeet. Watersmeet is approximately 210 miles north of Fort McCoy — just across the Michigan-Wisconsin border.
A training schedule that was issued by the 76th Infantry Division Winter Training Detachment for the week of Nov. 22-28, 1943, for the “Watersmeet Area, Michigan” from the 76th leadership, Maj. Eric. E. Wikner, at Camp McCoy.
The schedule includes “character of training” subjects in multi-hour blocks throughout the days such as “critique on shelters and bivouacs, winter first aid, security of small units, stream crossings, infiltration at night on snowshoes, sniping and range estimation, dummy positions and trails in snow, infiltration and ambush small units,” and “conditioning exercises and close-order drill.”
Soldiers with the 76th trained in Michigan until March 1944 while others continued training throughout at Camp McCoy.
Baker, who was a second lieutenant at that time at Camp McCoy, recalled his battery of Soldiers completing their wide variety of training.
“We did our work with our guns on the south ranges there,” Baker said. “Then there was a lot of familiarizing with trucks, … and a lot of road marching … and we did things to get (artillery) guns oriented.”
In June 1944, the 76th Infantry Division celebrated its second anniversary of reactivation at Camp McCoy with a special edition of The Real McCoy newspaper on June 17, 1944 — just 10 days after D-Day and the landing at Normandy. In that edition the 76th’s Commanding General, Maj. Gen. William R. Schmidt, sent a message to the division’s troops.
“The final phase of the battle is at hand,” Schmidt’s message states. “The tremendous power of the Allied Nations is now being unleashed in all its fury. The liberation of France has begun. The Allies are driving hard up the Italian boot. … Victory will come to Allies but it will not be an easy one. It will come only when the full might of our arms defeat the enemy on his own battle-ground. …What the future holds for this division no man knows. …Time is short and there is much to be done.”
By November 1944, trains headed from Camp McCoy to Camp Myles Standish in Massachusetts for staging before transport to Europe, the history shows. On Thanksgiving Day 1944, three transports sailed from the Boston port of embarkation to Europe.
Baker said he remembers when they left.
“We got on a train and went through Milwaukee all the way to Miles Standish,” Baker said. “When we went to sea we went on a Liberty ship. I was disappointed though. I had fallen asleep when the ship left, and I didn’t get to see my country as we went to leave. We were already at sea.”
Baker said they sailed south toward Florida, caught an armed convoy with destroyers, and then headed towards Europe where they arrived safely.
The history states “the 76th Infantry Division arrived in England” on Dec. 20, 1944, “where it received additional training. It landed at Le Havre, France, on Jan. 12, 1945, and proceeded to the Limesy concentration area. The division moved to Beine east of Reims and then to Champlon, Belgium, Jan. 23, to prepare for combat.
“Relieving the 87th Division in defensive positions along the Sauer and Moselle Rivers in the vicinity of Echternach, Luxembourg, Jan. 25, the 76th sent out patrols and crossed the Sauer, Feb. 7, and breached the Siegfried Line in a heavy assault,” the history states. “The advance continued across the Prum and Nims Rivers, Feb. 25–27. Katzenkopf fortress and Irrel fell on Feb. 28, and the attack pushed on toward Trier, reaching the Moselle, March 3.
“Driving across the Kyll River, the division took Hosten, March 3, Speicher on March 5, and Karl on March 10; swung south and cleared the area north of the Moselle, crossing the river, March 18, near Mülheim an der Mosel. Moving to the Rhine, the 76th took over defenses from Boppard to St. Goar and crossed the Rhine at Boppard, March 27,” the history further states. “It drove east and took Kamberg in a house-to-house struggle, March 29. A new attack was launched April 4, and the Werra River was reached the next day. The attack continued in conjunction with the 6th Armored Division; Langensalza fell, and the Gera River was crossed, April 11. Zeitz was captured after a violent struggle, April 14–15, and the 76th reached the Mulde River on April 16, going into defensive positions to hold a bridgehead across the Mulde near Chemnitz until Victory in Europe Day in 1945.”