- Sep 7, 2004
Tennessee vs The Maxims vs Alabama Birmingham
It was Homecoming, there had been parades and floats, grads old and new and finally a football game to bring it all together. The University of Alabama-Birmingham then hove onto the shores of Lake Loudoun to do battle with Our Beloved Volunteers.
It was touted as the perfect “trap” game. The Vols were coming off victories over Mississippi State (University, Home of the Allustrous Bulldawgs! Grrr!) and South Carolina. After UAB would come the final SEC games against Kentucky, Missouri and Vahnderbilt. “Oh, no!” The doomsday bunch wailed. “UAB has a winning record! UAB had a very good running back! UAB has an experienced quarterback! Oh! No!”
No, it wasn't a victory for the ages. To be honest, it was rather an ugly win. Tennessee didn't do anything particularly well on offense, however, the defense pitched a shutout until very late in the fourth canto.
But a win it was, and it sure as shootin' beats the heck out of a loss.
* * * * * * * * *
“Mac” was an Army Captain new to the European Theater when he reported for duty in October, 1944, as Commanding Officer of I (Item) Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division under the command of Colonel Paul V. Tuttle.
He was taking over a company that had landed on D-Day and had fought with distinction. Like any neophyte officer, Mac felt inadequate to the task. Several weeks of patrolling and back and forth followed until the second week of December. Item Company and the rest of the 3rd Battalion were ordered forward. Colonel Tuttle told his officers as much as he knew, which wasn't much. There had been reports of a German attack in the area.
Things got interesting as soon as Item Company reached a road junction near their assigned positions. They were to advance about 600 yards down the road and dig in. They moved out.
Mac sensed danger at the crossroads and urged his men forward.
“The slow mournful scream of Nebelwerfer shells pierced the air. The men began to scatter to the sides of the road. I signaled for the company to follow, and we plunged into the woods to the left of the road, our packs and equipment rattling loosely as we ran. It was only a moment before the big shells began to explode to our rear. My God! I thought. They’ve hit the road junction!”
Mac got his men into position and they began to dig in. The situation deteriorated rapidly. A battalion of the 99th Division was cut off somewhere to their front. Mac told his platoon leaders to be on the lookout for those men as they filtered back. The Germans would be close behind.
“I took stock of our defensive situation. We were one rifle battalion thrust into a densely wooded area, with no terrain features that favored the defender, with orders to 'hold at all costs.' We were hastily dug in along a highway facing the direction from which we hoped the enemy would come, if he had to come. The defense was a thin single line of infantry.”
Two M4 Shermans were attached to his company were on his left and one platoon had a bazooka with three rockets. To his horror, Mac found out that the Shermans had “redeployed” without consulting anyone and watched them disappear down the road. . The German infantry soon hit I Company’s lines. Seven times they came. Seven times the thin line of infantry beat them back. However, I Company was running low on ammo and the artillery liaison reported the cannons were running out as well.
Despite overwhelming numbers the Germans could not generate enough firepower at critical points to break the line. Then “The Kraut” played his hole card, the massive 70-ton “King Tiger” heavy tank boasting 6 inches of steel armor and mounting a long-barreled 88mm cannon. About 3:00pm the creak and rattle of tracks was heard . “There were five of them, giant Tigers lumbering down the road three hundred yards away, surrounded by over a hundred enemy infantrymen.”
Mac was frantic as he radioed Battalion HQ. He tried everything. Artillery was called in and while it caused the infantry to pause a bit, it bothered the Tigers not a bit. Col. Tuttle said the Shermans weren't coming back.
Mac was now on his own. “Shades of General Custer. Company I’s last stand. Hell, what does it matter? You never expected to get out of this war alive anyway. Not really.”
Inevitably, the platoons began to break. Men just got up and began to walk to the rear. Their eyes spoke of too much. Too many Germans. Too many tanks. Too much. Mac radioed Battalion, not waiting for acknowledgment that they were receiving his message. “This is Mac. My left flank has fallen back. I can’t stop them. The Germans are overrunning my left platoon. I’ll try to build another line along the firebreak. We can’t hold here.”
The reality hit home, “There. I had said it. This was I Company turning tail and running. … Strangely, I didn’t give a damn. I was utterly devoid of feeling.”
Every time Item Company found a spot to stop and dig in the Germans soon came and the Tigers again put in an appearance. The rest of the company took off again.
Mac was thoroughly demoralized by his perceived failures both as a commander and a soldier.
Eventually Mac made it back to the Battalion Command Post and reported to Colonel Tuttle and found the Colonel chatting with a group of officers. He spotted Mac.
“'Nice work, Mac,' Colonel Tuttle said. I could control myself no longer. The choking sensation in my throat became wracking sobs that I could not hold back. The Colonel tried to comfort me, and I felt foolish and childish, but I could not stop. Someone gave me a cigarette. I held it with trembling fingers.
'I mean you did a good job, Mac,' the Colonel said. 'The Germans are throwing everything they’ve got. You held out much longer than I expected after I learned the true situation.'
So I had not failed! And I Company had not failed! My men had done an excellent job against heavy odds, and those who had died were not dead because of some personal failing of mine. The realization made me want to cry again.”
Much of I Company survived the initial assault and eventually turned up after their own adventures. Mac would command I Company until suffering a leg wound. After his evacuation and convalescence, he reported back only to find that I Company already had a new boss and he was assigned to G(eorge) Company of the 2nd Battalion. He would lead G Company until the end of the war.
After the war, Charles B. “Mac” MacDonald went to work in the Army’s Center of Military History. He wound up writing two volumes of the Army’s massive United States Army in World War II series and several other books on the American Army in the European campaign. By the 1970s he was considered one of the “Deans” of American military history.
I recall watching a show about a group touring Battle of the Bulge battlefield sites led by a veteran of the campaign. They kept referring to him as “Charlie.” It finally dawned on me that “Charlie” was Mac MacDonald. I was suddenly envious of the people on that bus.
Charles B. “Mac” MacDonald passed away in 1990.
a/n: All quotes are from Charlie MacDonald's memoirs Company Commander. If you haven't read this, you need to. In fact, I would go so far as to say every American needs to read this book.
So how did the team do compared to the Maxims?
1. The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.
Leaving touchdowns on the field and settling for field goals is not usually recommended but, as I noted to a colleague last week, it seems Tennessee can score from anywhere on the field except inside the opponent's 10-yard line. And so it goes.
Note to UAB: four turnovers in one half will get you beat. You're welcome.
2. Play for and make the breaks. When one comes your way … SCORE!
Indeed. The Vols did come away with points on every turnover. Well done, boys, well done.
3. If at first the game – or the breaks – go against you, don’t let up … PUT ON MORE STEAM!
While the offense sputtered and flailed about, the defense took the game on its shoulders and throttled the Blazers. Bituli, T'oo T'oo and Thompson had their motors revved and it showed.
4. Protect our kickers, our quarterback, our lead and our ballgame.
Holding the Blazers scoreless until a late touchdown that meant nothing shows that Our Boys are starting to understand this. Allowing an already injured quarterback to be repeatedly hit was not a good thing. Yes, yes, I know, UT had a freshman up against the best defensive player on the other side, but it would also seem that that should have been part of the scheme and plays run to give him some help.
5. Ball! Oskie! Cover, block, cut and slice, pursue and gang tackle … THIS IS THE WINNING EDGE.
Bryce Thompson was UAB's leading receiver in the first half.
6. Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.
Cimaglia WAS UT's offense up until about five minutes into the second quarter. He nailed three field goals including a career long 53-yard effort. Preston Brooks has moved in at punter and performed well.
7. Carry the fight to UAB and keep it there for sixty minutes.
That late Blazer touchdown really shouldn't count against this as the Vols were shuttling younger players and little-used seniors in and out on defense to give as many people as possible some playing time.
Come Saturday, the Vols journey north to the Land of the Kat People. Be forewarned: Commonwealth Stadium in November can be like playing in Alaska. Bring your parkas!
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Trevor N. Dupuy, Hitler's Last Gamble
Charles B. MacDonald, A Time For Trumpets
Charles B. MacDonald, Company Commander
American infantry move up during the Battle of the Bulge. (U.S. Army)