Frank Denius, soldier who helped to hold a vital hill in World War II, dies at 93
WASHINGTON — Frank Denius was a 19-year-old staff sergeant when he and 700 other men of the US Army’s 30th Infantry Division — ‘‘Old Hickory’’ — found themselves on a hill in Mortain, Normandy, France, in August 1944 surrounded by four German Panzer divisions, including hundreds of tanks and heavy guns, and 40,000 Nazi troops, among them members of Hitler’s elite SS forces.
Mr. Denius, a forward artillery observer, and his comrades were trapped for six days. Half were killed or wounded in what the Texas-raised Mr. Denius, who died July 29 at 93, once called ‘‘an Alamo situation for sure.’’
The hill in question — Montjoie — was known to the Allied military as Hill 314 from its height in meters; although only 1,030 feet high, it was by far the highest point in the region.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of Allied forces in Europe, ordered Old Hickory to ‘‘hold it all costs’’ as part of an effort to block Hitler’s counterattack to drive the Allies out of France and across the English Channel after the Normandy landings that June. Mr. Denius had waded ashore with a 150-pound backpack on Omaha Beach in the hours after the initial D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.
From the two ends of Montjoie’s summit, hundreds of yards apart, Mr. Denius and Second Lieutenant Bob Weiss were able to call in Allied air and artillery strikes against the Nazi forces firing on the hill with tanks, artillery, machine guns, and rifles, in Mr. Denius’s words, ‘‘24/7 for six days.’’
With no specific front line around the base of the hill, he and his comrades engaged in hand-to-hand or bayonet combat with German soldiers they encountered at night, as both sides tried to draw water from the nearest well or pick up food rations dropped by US aircraft.
When Mr. Denius’s men’s food and medical supplies ran out, he even called in a ‘‘friendly fire’’ artillery strike on his own precise position, requesting nonexplosive shells containing food and morphine for men who were badly wounded or dying. ‘‘Are you sure you want us to do that?’’ came the reply of the radio operator, who knew that even without explosives, artillery shells could kill.
‘‘Back at the artillery line which was about 8-10 miles behind us, they took the propaganda shells [no explosives attached] and stuffed cotton and morphine and penicillin in those shells,’’ Mr. Denius said last year in an interview that was published on the Veterans Project blog, which honors the memory of American veterans of many wars.
Some of those shells buried themselves several feet in the ground, but Mr. Denius and his comrades dug them out. ‘‘Now you’d imagine that when those shells hit the ground it would mash up those supplies but we were still able to get some of the morphine and penicillin to the wounded troops,’’ he said.
Most historians say that Mortain was the battle that changed the outcome of the war in France after the Normandy landings. Senior German officers later acknowledged that defeat at Mortain was the ‘‘beginning of the end’’ for Hitler’s forces, which were forced back from Hill 314 in disarray.
Still with Old Hickory, Mr. Denius went on to help capture the German city of Aachen, part of the Nazis’ Siegfried Line. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the war’s bloodiest conflicts.
His decorations included four Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts.
Franklin Wofford Denius, who had trained at t he Citadel military college in Charleston, S.C., went to law school at the University of Texas after the war.
He built a reputation as a subtle but capable trial lawyer. He became a name partner in the firm Clark, Thomas, Denius, Winters & Harris, where he often represented President Lyndon B. Johnson in personal and business matters and became a lifelong friend to Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird.