Sergeant HENRY D. DONATELLI (590/A)

 
Henry D "Hank" Donatelli was born on April 7, 1924 in Chicago. Before being drafted into the Army, he attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa on a football scholarship. In 1943 he entered the Army and was assigned to the 106th Infantry Division. He became a Sergeant in the 590th Field Artillery Battalion, where he performed the duties of a forward observer for A-Battery under the command of Captain John Pitts.

In early December 1944, the 590th took up positions near Radscheid, just over the border into Germany. Their duty was to support the 423rd Infantry Regiment which had relieved elements of the 2nd "Indianhead" Division on the Schnee Eifel slopes. The artillery battalion worked non stop. As a forward observer for the artillery, Sergeant Donatelli called in fire on German troop concentrations near Prüm and staging areas near Gerolstein. At that time this front was believed to be a quiet area of the front lines and the 106th Division was there to get their first real encounter with combat and front line activities. Little did they know that a few days later they would be in the middle of the largest German counteroffensive of the war.

Early in the morning of 16 December, this quiet sector brutally erupted. At 0510 in the moring the German attack began and the Battle of the Bulge was born. Around twenty past seven, the 590th was fired upon again. This time, several buildings were hit but fortunately nobody was injured. The fire then moved to the intersection of the road coming from Radscheid and the Auw-Bleialf road. The gun positions near Oberlascheid were also being targeted. This meant that the Germans had excellent knowledge of the American positions.

While the battalion survey team was scouting for new locations near Schönberg, the gun batteries began firing mission after mission. These consisted of many prearranged concentrations fired on call of the forward observers and many observed fires in the Bleialf area where the German troops were engaging the men of the 423rd. Nevertheless, Bleialf was eventually captured, as was Auw in the North. The enemy now pushed down the only two decent roads in the entire sector and were threatening to overrun and encircle the division. Thanks to the 589th Field Artillery in the North, the attack was repulsed as they eliminated German armor which rolled down the Skyline Drive towards the 590th.

In the afternoon of the 16th, A-Battery, Sgt Donatelli's unit, was hit hard by enemy artillery fire. It's commanding officer, Captain John Pitts, was killed in action and several other men were seriously wounded. One German shell fell directly into one of the gun pits, but fortunately for the crew it was a dud. In the evening of 16 December, the 590th was ordered to cover the withdrawal of the 589th and 592nd Field Artillery Battalions, which proceeded back to St.Vith. In vain, the battalion waited for the order for its own retreat. Divarty was no longer reachable by radio or wire. The German forces in the area had captured Schönberg and thereby cut the only escape route for the American forces in the Schnee Eifel. Two regiments and one battalion of artillery, the 590th, were now caught in a bag.

For the next three days, the 590th stuck close to the 2nd Battalion of the 423rd Infantry Regiment and even took up defensive front line positions on the Schnee Eifel ridge. The howitzers were starting to run out of ammunition. On the 18th, the battalion participated in the cross-country attack towards Schönberg. At nightfall, the original CP at Radscheid was reached. The men of the battalion were exhausted after more than 60 hours of attack with little or no sleep. The attack towards Schönberg continued, with the infantry units and the 590th entering the woods West of the original battalion positions.


The town of oberlascheid as seen from A-Battery positions.

Photo by Webmaster

An hour before dawn on December 19th, the little progress that was made by the column ceased. The road was blocked by Infantry vehicles massed in the woods, unable to cross the Ihrenbach stream on the border of Belgium and Germany. The troops in the valley were left exposed. Meanwhile, the forward observers of the 590th, among them Sgt. Henry Donatelli were out on the line, but they had no means of contacting the rest of the battalion. The radios would not function and there was no way of laying wire.

Around 0930, while men were trying to bridge the stream, an enormous concentration of German artillery came down on the troops in the valley. Machinegun fire was pouring down from the ridges. The howitzers were useless because nobody knew where to fire them. Consequently, the order was given to destroy as much equipment as possible and for the troops to make their way into the valley. All 12 howitzers of the 590th were destroyed by their crews. It was decided that further resistance was futile. The men started to surrender and the battalion ceased to exist...

But not all of the men of the  590th gave up the fight at that time. Colonel Vaden Lackey, the battalion commander and Major William Meadows Jr, the executive officer were up front with the infantry. So were the Forward Observers, where we pick up the story of Sgt. Hank Donatelli. As the 423rd and 422nd Infantry regiments faced surrender themselves, some of the men were not planning to give up. Major Willam P Moon, Executive officer of the 1st battalion, 422nd infantry and major Albert Ouelette, Executive of the 2nd battalion planned to stick it out. They and a group of stragglers from both infantry regiments made their way back to the 422nd infantry regimental motorpool, located on Hill 576 just South of Laudesfeld. They organised their defense and dug in. German units were very cross and targeted the area with intense concentrations of artillery. The men on the hill, there were around 500 of them would be know as the "Lost 500". Sgt Henry Donatelli was one of them. Cut off from the rest of his battalion, he too made his way to Hill 576 and joined the defense. the Germans were frantically trying to get the Americans to give up, bombarding them with loudspeakers and talking of playing baseball in the POW camp and good treatment. Their propaganda was suddenly stopped with the explosive force of a well aimed grenade. The men eventually held out till December 21st, 1944. At that time the Germans were already fighting for St. Vith, some 20 miles to the West. Ouelette and Moon decided that reinforcements would not arrive on time. After one last good meal the men destroyed their weapons and every single vehicle in the motorpool was rendered useless to the Germans. Sgt. Donatelli and the rest of the men of the "Lost 500" marched further into Germany, into captivity...


HILL 576

Photo by Webmaster

Sgt. 'Hank' Donatelli was interred in Stalag IX-B. Stalag IX-B was located in Bad Orb approximately 30 miles northwest of Frankfurt. The camp held French, Italian, Serbian, Russian, and American POWs. Conditions in this camp were terrible, and Stalag IX-B ranks as one of the worst German camps that held Americans POWs. Henry Donatelli too was not spared of the horrendous conditions in the camp. He lost over 50 pounds in weight due to malnutricion. During the Battle of the Bulge over 23,000 Americans were captured, causing a vast logistical burden for Germany. Chaos strained the deteriorating food and transportation system in Germany in those final months of the war.  For most of the last POWs, life was very harsh. Many of them slowly starved to death in the few months they were 'guests' of the Third Reich.

According to Red Cross and American officials, Stalag IX B was perhaps the worst camp of all with incredible overcrowding, deplorable facilities, starvation, and illness.  The American Army knew the locations of all POW camps. It was a high priority to liberate them. Stalag IX B was freed a month before German surrender on April 4th, 1945 by units of the 44th Infantry Division. Sgt. Henry Donatelli returned to the United States and was discharged from the Army as a member of the 8th Regiment Field Artillery, the unit he was redesignated to after his liberation.


GI's that have recently been freed from Stalag IX-B (NARA)

After the war he married Audrey Louise Behnke of Chicago and resumed his college studies at Drake University. When he graduated, they moved back to Chicago where they raised four children: Mark, gary, Claudia and Todd. Henry worked in the insurance industry for many years. His interests included serving on his church board, serving on many school parent boards and coaching his children in various sports. He died on April 4, 2002. It was exactly fifty-seven years since his release from Stalag IX-B. he is buried, as was his desire, in a V.A. cemetery.

In August 2008 two of Hank's sons, his daughter, daughter-in-law and two of his grandchildren revisited the places in the Ardennes where he fought 63 years ago and the Stalag that had a huge impact on his life after the war, as it did with all X-POWs. The weather was surprisingly cold, wet and hazy for a summer day. But that was only a tiny fraction of what it must have been like so many years ago, being only a kid fighting for his life in a place far away from home...

Dedicated in memory of Henry "Hank" Donatelli.