The following account was compiled in preparation for a visit to Margraten Cemetery on August 13, 2000. The information contained in this account came from the following sources:
- Oral histories from family members as well as from World War II veterans in units associated with the 119th Infantry Regiment and 30th Infantry Division.
- The Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) of Pfc. Philip M. Wilbern.
- The manuscript “The Elbe Operation” at www.army.mil/cmh-pg/documents/elbe-fm.htm
- The book “Combat History of the 119th Infantry Regiment”.
- The book “Workhorse of the Western Front, The Story of the 30th Infantry Division”.
Before visiting the gravesite at Margraten Cemetery, it was necessary to fully understand the events surrounding the war experiences and death of Pfc. Philip M. Wilbern in order to honor his memory for the ultimate sacrifice that he made in defense of his country.
J. Phillip Harris
Grand nephew of Philip M. Wilbern
His name was Philip Monroe Wilbern. He was known as “Pete”. Pete was one of nine children of Edwin and Benna Wilbern. The four youngest brothers all had nicknames. Wilmer, Philip, Francis, and Hugh were known as “Dickie”, “Pete”, “Tootles” and “Taddy”. They grew up on the old family farm on the banks of the James River at Blount Point in Warwick County, Virginia. My father was the only son of their oldest sister. He was about the same age as his “uncles” and spent most of his time with them. As all five came of age during World War II, one by one they entered the various branches of service until, by 1944, all five were on active duty somewhere. At the end of the war, four of them came home. Pete did not return. Notice was received that he had been killed in action just a few weeks prior to the surrender of Germany.
Just a few months after the war’s end, surviving brother Francis was killed, along with his new wife and in-laws in a tragic automobile accident. Both parents, Edwin and Benna Wilbern also died within the year after the war. With the surviving siblings struggling to re-establish their own lives, there was little that anyone could do to find out what had happened to Pete. All that was known was that he had been killed near Magdeburg, Germany while riding on a tank, and was buried at Margraten Cemetery in The Netherlands. In 1948, I was born and given the name “Phillip” in his honor. Through the years, the memory of “Pete” has remained in our family, however, no one ever visited Margraten or knew where to find any information about what had happened to him.
Pete was inducted into the army in July 1944. By the time he went through basic and specialty training, and was transported to Europe, it was late November or early December of 1944. My father, who was on the front in eastern France, received a v-mail from him just before Christmas 1944. It was written in early December and Pete said he was near Paris, waiting for assignment. He was assigned to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 119th Infantry and joined the unit at their rest camp near Maastricht in mid December. Within days, on December 16, 1944, the Germans launched the offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge, and the 119th Infantry was immediately pulled south to counter attack the Germans in Belgium. They did not return to the Maastricht area until the end of January, 1945. The unit as part of the 30th Division, XIX Corps, Ninth Army was heavily involved in the Roer offensive during February and March and finally crossed the Rhine at Wesel on March 25, 1945. They quickly made their way across central Germany as the German army began to disintegrate.
On April 10, 1945, the XIX Corps was holding at the “no-advance-line” near Hildesheim, in central Germany. This was about 80 miles west of Magdeburg. The area to the east had previously been designated for the Russians. The Americans had reached “the line” quicker than expected. On the morning of the 10th, the XIX Corps received the unexpected order to continue the advance to the east. The 2nd Armored Division was designated “point” in the operation and was to carry the center zone. The 30th Division was to follow at the left rear, occupying the northern zone, and the 83rd Infantry Division was to follow at the right rear, occupying the southern zone. A small cavalry squadron was to flank both sides of the 2nd Armored to shield the larger divisions following behind them. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 119th Infantry were assigned to the 2nd Armored Division for the drive east, so Pete’s unit was riding on the tanks out front. The objective for the 2nd Armored was to get to the Elbe River as quickly as possible, establish a bridgehead, and have the 30th and 83rd Divisions follow them across, presumably for the drive into Berlin. They were to advance as quickly as possible and not worry about cleaning out the Germans from the small villages along the way. There would be other troops following that would take care of the remnants.
On April 10th they made an 18-mile advance meeting stiff opposition all the way. On April 11th, the 2nd Armored made the longest single day advance in the war, literally “racing” 67 miles to put themselves at Schonebeck on the banks of the Elbe, just a few miles south (upstream) of Magdeburg. Street fighting continued all night in Schonebeck and the Germans blew the bridge at 8:30 on the morning of April 12th and retreated to the other side of the river. The 30th Division made it to the northwest outskirts of Magdeburg on the 11th but it was two days before they could work their way around the city to get to the Elbe with the 2nd Armored Division. The 83rd Division was about 35 miles behind on the southern zone. They were slowed up because their zone put them through the northern edge of the Harz Mountains. They came in on the 12th at the town of Barby, a few miles south of Schonebeck. There was a railroad bridge at Barby and elements of the 83rd were given the objective to try and take the bridge if possible. After an all day fight, the Germans blew the bridge at 7:45 that night.
On the afternoon of April 12th, there was a reorganization in preparation for establishing a bridgehead. The 3rd Battalion of the 119th was assigned to Combat Command B along with other elements mostly from the 2nd Armored Division. The 2nd Battalion (Pete’s Battalion) was assigned to Combat Command R which was comprised of elements mostly from the 83rd Division. CCB was to establish a bridgehead at Westerhusen, a couple of miles north of Schonebeck. CCR was to establish a bridgehead at Barby to the south. The thought was to try to establish two bridgeheads, in the hopes that at least one would be successful. The engineers of each command would float the bridges and then the tanks and infantry assigned to each group would cross over and try to take the ground on the other side.
CCB’s attempt occurred first on April 13th. They succeeded in getting the pontoons in place for a time and got across. The 3rd Battalion, 119th was sent across to hold as the reserve unit on the other side. By that night they were in trouble, the bridge was gone, and the 119th Infantry units had to lead a drive up (south) the east side of the river to a point opposite Schonebeck, where they hoped to get another bridge in place. On the 14th they were unsuccessful in getting a bridge in place at Schonebeck. The 119th held the outer perimeter of the bridgehead while the rest of the command was extricated. The 3rd Battalion, 119th Infantry lost about 90 men in the fiasco. The survivors literally had to swim their way back across the river. It is thought a number of them may have drowned.
CCR’s attempt didn’t come until the 14th when they already knew the attempt at Schonebeck was in trouble. It had taken the 83rd all day on April 13th to clear the Germans out of Barby so they could get down to the river. The bridge was put in place with little resistance and around noon on April 14th, Pete’s unit crossed the Elbe. At this point I will insert a section from the manuscript on “The Elbe Operation” to describe what happened next:
CCR, commanded by Lt Col Russel W. Jenna, CO, 41st Armored Infantry Regiment, was placed under the operational control of the 83d Division on 14 April. This force consisted of the 2d Battalion, 119th Infantry; 3d Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment; a platoon of TD's and Company "C", 17th Armored Engineer Battalion. The mission of CCR was to cross the Elbe River in the 83d Division sector at Barby, secure the line Dornburg-Prodel-Leitzkau and protect the left flank of the 83d Bridgehead. The force being broken down to three teams of one rifle and tank company plus an attachment of heavy weapons, jumped off at 1530, and by 1830, Prodel had been reached against moderate resistance. Because of a possible counter-attack threat, the Commanding General, 83d Division, ordered a withdrawal and a tightening of the defense network.18
CCR, having crossed the river via the Barby bridge a little after noon moving to Walterneinburg, thence north to Flotz with F Company, 119th Infantry plus tanks leading followed by E and G Companies in that order. F Company crossed the LD, railroad tracks in the vicinity of Flotz, at 1530, passed through Godnitz and continued driving hard to the north clearing a path in the wooded area on either side of the road to Prodel.19 Shortly after 1600, E Company preceeding G Company, arrived in Godnitz. They received word of a possible German counter-attack and also orders to return to Walterneinburg and set up a strong defensive position.20 G Company continued to move forward through Godnitz and had searched the better part of the wooded area, including that which had already been investigated by F Company, capturing three Germans, when their mission was changed, ordering them south to Kameritz.21
F Company, mounted on a Company of Medium Tanks during this time, had been meeting comparatively no resistance; however at (D868887), they encountered dug in infantry firing bazookas and small arms. One tanker was unfortunately killed by a lucky hit, this being the only casualty. The remainder of the woods were cleared and the objective, Prodel, was easily occupied and cleared by 1830. The company completed their defensive plan and remained in position until 2000 when they were ordered to drop back to Flotz.22
As F Company continued forward, G Company returned to Godnitz, mounted their trucks, and started south to occupy Kameritz. When the company was about a half mile from town, they were informed by infantrymen along the road that the town was still in enemy hands. Notifying higher headquarters of this, orders were to establish a defensive position along the 90 grid line for the night.23
There being only one casualty during the actions of Company F on April 14,1945, the unfortunate tanker killed by the lucky hit would have to be Pfc. Philip M. Wilbern.
Company F had left Flotz, back near the river crossing at 3:30 in the afternoon. They had cleared Prodel by 6:30 that night. The original Report of Burial from the IDPF file shows that Pete was killed in the vicinity of “Kleinlübs”, klein meaning “little” in German. The little village of Lübs is shown on the map just outside of Prodel. That means Pete was killed around 5:00 on the evening of April 14th. At that point in time they would have noted the position of his body with the intention of having it retrieved later by the graves registration troops. The other two companies following them were called back before they reached that point. When F Company was called back from Prodel because of the imminent counter-attack, it was 8:00 at night and dark. They would not have been able to retrieve his body on the way back out. With the decision to tighten the defense line to prevent what had happened at Schonebeck, the outer perimeter of the bridgehead was set up along a line closer to the bridge crossing. Company F ended up in the village of Gehrden about a mile down the road from Lübs. The next day, General Eisenhower issued the order for all American troops to hold on the west side of the Elbe, but to maintain the bridgehead at Barby. On April 19th, F Company got replacements at Gehrden, and the 2nd Battalion was pulled back to the other side of the river. The war was basically over for them. Pfc. Philip M. Wilbern was listed as “missing in action.”
By April 20th, the Germans had figured out the Americans weren’t going to advance and directed their attention to the Russians. They would send the soldiers with arms and supplies to defend Berlin, and send the unarmed ones to surrender to the Americans. Finally, on April 25th, the graves registration unit was able to get back up the road and Pete’s body was retrieved. It was sent back to Margraten where he was buried on May 10th, two days after the war ended. On May 22nd, the paperwork was received in Washington that officially identified his body. His status was changed from MIA to KIA, with the date of death as April 14, 1945.
Pete, along with 18,000 other American KIAs, was buried in a temporary grave at Margraten. There was no preparation of the body and the grave was marked with a wooden cross with one of his dog tags hung around it. A certificate of identification was placed in the casket. The temporary grave was Plot L, Row 2, Grave 29. His personal effects were a bible, souvenir coin, identification bracelet, and a knife. He also had a money order for $45.00 made out to his mother, which he had received on April 7th. The family did not receive the personal effects until Nov. 7, 1945. At that time, the family was given a form requesting their intentions for funeral arrangements. Given the circumstances surrounding the family at home, it was decided to let him remain buried where he was. No indication was made to the family at that time that it would not be a permanent burial location.
Two years later, on November 28, 1947, a letter was sent out in preparation to develop the permanent burial locations at Margraten, requesting the family’s wishes for disposition of the body. The options were to have him buried there or have him sent home. According to the IDPF, there was no response to that request, the letter was never delivered. The parents were still listed as the official next of kin, but both had been deceased for two years. On July 9, 1948, having received no directive, Pete’s remains were disinterred, re-identified, properly attended by a mortician, and re-buried on July 13, 1948. The new permanent site was Plot P, Row 10, Grave 7, where he is located today among the 8300 permanent graves at Margraten Cemetery. It wasn’t until after that, on July 30, 1948 that a directive was sent out to try and find the next of kin. The Army finally contacted older brother Ross Wilbern on August 27, 1948 but it took almost a year to get things straight so he could be listed as next of kin.
It would seem that the village of Prodel marked the high tide line for the Allied advance into Germany. No other penetration by American regular troops was made as far into Germany and as close to Berlin as that patrol into Prodel on April 14, 1945. Pete may have the distinction of being the American soldier that was killed closest to Berlin while in battle. The bridgehead at Barby was not part of the strategy to defeat the Germans. That had already been accomplished. The bridgehead at Barby was meant to force the hand of the Russians. It was intended to push the Russians to be the ones to take Berlin so that the lives of American troops would not have to be wasted. Even though Pete Wilbern was killed taking land that was to be given over to the Russians, his death was not in vain. His death and the actions of the men in his unit saved countless thousands of American lives. One has to ask the question. Was Pfc. Philip M. Wilbern one of the last casualties of World War II or was he one of the first victims of the Cold War?