February 14, 1943: It was in North Africa's barren desert landscape that green, American troops with the 34th Infantry Division faced off against a battle-tested German Army for the first time. In command of Hitler's elite Panzer divisions was General Erwin Rommel — the Desert Fox — who had cut his teeth on the battlefields of World War I and become one of Hitler's most trusted warriors.
In December 2002, Iowa natives Joe Boitnott and the late-Duane Stone sat down with host Oliver North to describe their harrowing first encounter with the Germans at a place called the Faid Pass.
"The commanding officer, in the regiment, or the task force, run out of ammunition, run out of food, and run out of manpower," said Boitnott. "There was a couple Piper Cubs, the way I remember it, coming over and drop messages, said, 'Every man for themselves.'"
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"I was in an irrigation ditch with what remains of my squad," recalled Stone. "The German officer, who was probably 24, 25 years old, and he spoke just as good English as anybody I had heard in my life. And he said, 'Gentlemen, for you, the war is over.' He said, 'You could go see our homeland now.'"
Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson, author of "An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa," described the carnage: "They were driven back out of Sidi Bou Zid with many soldiers killed and captured. The Germans had success beyond their wildest imagination at this point."
But the worst was yet to come for some 30,000 Americans at the Kasserine Pass.
"It's the gateway from central Tunisia into Algeria," said Atkinson. "The pass is bracketed on either side by mountains about five thousand feet high. And it had been the path for invasions into and out of ancient Tunisia for centuries."
"It was bad. It was real bad," remembered Boitnott. "We weren't on one flank very long. And we were brought up, and we lost several people in that battle."
Senior military historian Lt. Col. Mark Reardon described how Rommel's Panzers managed to outmaneuver II Corps: "Basically they just outflank the Americans. Every time the Americans extend their defensive line the Germans will move over."
On February 25, the battle for the Kasserine Pass was over. Some called it a massacre.
"They had more than 6,000 casualties. They'd had units completely destroyed. In terms of yardage lost, it was the greatest defeat for the American Army in World War II," said Atkinson.
But Rommel's victory would be short-lived.
Atkinson said the Desert Fox had run out of steam: "He recognized that he didn't have the strength, he didn't have the fuel, he didn't have the ammunition to proceed. And he made the decision to turn around and go home."
The loss at Kasserine proved a setback, but General Dwight D. Eisenhower remained committed to securing the capital, Tunis, along with the port city of Bizerte and launching an invasion of Italy. Major General Lloyd Fredendall was relieved of his command, replaced by "Old Blood 'n Guts" himself, Lieutenant General George Patton.
Robert Patton spoke with "War Stories With Oliver North" about his famed grandfather: "General Patton had an early adage about leadership in which he said leadership should depend on visible personality. And this was really kind of his motto in putting himself together visually to face his men. He was impeccable in his dress. He did not believe that an Army that looked sort of you know down at the heels could fight well."
George Perrine, a replacement with the 2nd Armored Division, told us about Patton's unorthodox methods: "Oh, he was very, very strict. Hey, let's get these buttons on the uniform. This necktie, and this, let's have this helmet on."
Thanks to General Patton, II Corps was reinvigorated. On March 23, 1943, in a treeless, rocky valley called El Guettar, he told his commanders, "Gentlemen, tomorrow we attack. If we are not victorious, let no man come back alive."
Retired Major General Robert Green, with the 1st Infantry Division, witnessed the clash of armor: "This big mass of tanks came down and was headed for our division command post."
Fifty German Panzers ambushed the Allies. After several days, their attack was repulsed.
"The Italian troops gave up very quickly and the Germans retreated. And so we seized El Guettar," said Green.
Robert Patton recalled, "As the soldiers said after they left the battlefield in a victory, they had taken on, finally, Germany's best and defeated them."
As the late-Jefferson White, with the 2nd Armored Division, put it: "The Germans, they were good soldiers. But they needed somebody to tell 'em what to do and when. Whereas, Americans, they were farm boys. If they couldn't whip you one way, they'd whip you another."
And the Allies never looked back.
On May 13, 1943, six months after more than 100,000 American and British troops stormed the beaches of North Africa, the streets of Tunis were filled with jubilant soldiers and liberated civilians. America and her allies emerged victorious in the first desert war.
— Michael Weiss is a producer for "War Stories With Oliver North"