American 168th Infantry’s last stand at Kasserine Pass

The 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army marches through the Kasserine Pass and on to Kasserine and Farriana, Tunisia 26 February 1943

The 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army marches through the Kasserine Pass and on to Kasserine and Farriana, Tunisia 26 February 1943

The U.S. upset at the Kasserine Pass was to continue for several days. Although the U.S. Army quickly brought up reinforcements and stiffened the line, there were many pockets of men who had borne the brunt of the initial attack who had not been captured.

Colonel Thomas D. Drake of the 168th Infantry was left in command of a mixed group of about 400 men. They were isolated from other U.S. units and were trying to make their way back to U.S. lines by walking across country. As they attempted to cross a road they were fired upon by a German motorised column coming up the road. It was here that they had to make a last stand. Colonel Drake was to write an official report of the encounter for the U.S. military sometime later. In this report he refers to himself in the third person as he describes events on 17th February:

The enemy stopped and started leaping from their trucks, while enemy tanks immediately began encircling the American column. One U.S. plane flew over at this point and opened fire on the column. Our men, with surging morale, thought it was the promised air support but it apparently was a lone night fighter, a little late getting back from its mission.

One German truck was hit and set on fire. Colonel Drake immediately deployed his mixed command and opened fire with the weapons that they had. By this time there were about 400 men in the command and not more than half of them were armed.

Colonel Drake asked for volunteers of an officer and men; the officer to lead the group of men to a knoll in their rear as the German Infantry was running to circle them. First Lieutenant William Rogers, Artillery Liaison Officer of the 91st Armored Artillery, volunteered to lead the twelve men and urged them to follow him. They gained the desired ground, a little knoll in the desert, and they were able to hold the enemy off for about an hour. At the terminination of the hour Lt. Rogers and all his men had been killed.

The Germans brought up several, tanks, all of them with yellow tigers painted on their sides and opened fire. They also set up machine gun positions and supplemented that with rifle fire. While they were doing this their infantry completely encircled the small American force. After three and one-half hours of fighting the American fire power diminished and then practically ceased as the men were out of ammunition or had become casualties. Finally an armored car bearing a white flag came dashing into the American circle.

Colonel Drake ordered his men to wave the car away. When the car failed to respond he then ordered his men to fire upon the German car. Some of the men began to fire but others could not – as they had no ammunition and then they began surrendering in small groups.

German tanks came in following that vehicle without any negotiations for surrender. The Germans had used the white flag as subterfuge to come inside the circle of defense without drawing fire. Their tanks closed in from all directions cutting Colonel Drake’s forces into small groups .

The men who did not surrender were killed by the Germans. One tank came toward Colonel Drake and a German officer pointing a rifle at him called out, “Colonel, you surrender.” The Colonel replied, “You go to hell,” and turned his back. He then walked away and two German soldiers with rifles followed him at a distance of about fifty yards. Colonel Drake was then stopped by a German major who spoke good English and was asked to get in the German Major’s car where he was taken to Germand Divisional Headquarters.

Colonel Drake was taken to General Schmidt, Group Commander of the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions at German Divisional Headquarters, where the German General immediately came forward to see him, drew up at attention, saluted and said, “I want to compliment your command for the splendid fight they put up. It was a hopeless thing from the start, but they fought like real soldiers.”

The German Commander promised Colonel Drake that all the American wounded would be cared for and that he could leave American medical personnel to properly look after them, but immediately upon Colonel Drake leaving the field, the American medical personnel were carried off as prisoners and the American dead and wounded left to the ravages of the Arabs, who proceeded to strip the dead and wounded and to beat insensible those wounded who protested to the stripping of their clothes.

The American prisoners were assembled in a group and under guard marched back through the afternoon and night along the road to DJ,. LESSOUDA. Those Americana who were lightly wounded or who became ill because of fatigue, lack of food and water and could not keep up with the column were ruthlessly bayonetted or shot. Many were walking barefooted because the Arabs had, taken their shoes from them under the supervision of the German soldiers.

Prisoners-of-War

The men had been left to the systematic robbery of the German soldiers, and some junior officers, for a period of about a half hour. During this time pockets and kits were thoroughly searched, often at the point of the rifle or the bayonet presented at the unprotected belly – watches, rings, pocketbooks, pens and all valuables were ruthlessly seized. They wore then formed in a column of fours, officers at the head, and started to the rear. Three German tanks brought up the rear of the column, which was flanked by armed guards, waiting to strike, bayonet or shoot, any who for any reason straggled.

All day they marched through desert sands with unrelieved thirst almost unbearable . Colonel Drake appealed to the German Commander in the name of common humanity to give the men a drink of water, but was met with the statement, “We only have enough for our troops.” Near midnight they were finally halted for the remaining hours of darkness. The men were herded into a circle in the open desert and there practically froze in the piercing cold of the Aftican night.

THOMAS D. DRAKE, 015364 Colonel, G.S.C., WDGS (Formerly Commanding 168th Inf)

See US Army ‘Staff-Rides’ Study of Kasserine section 13

Another view of the terrain in the area. A Medium Tank M3 "Lee" from the U.S. 1st Armored Division during the Battle of Kasserine Pass, Tunisia.

Another view of the terrain in the area. A Medium Tank M3 “Lee” from the U.S. 1st Armored Division during the Battle of Kasserine Pass, Tunisia.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Colley March 7, 2014 at 11:47 pm

Don,

I am on a very similar quest. My uncle, Lewis Colley, also from Alabama, was listed as Mia/killed in action on 2/15/43 near Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. His remains were never recovered. He was in the 1st Regiment, 1st Armored Division, Company F. The story always told was that he was in a tank outfit and was blown up. Apparently on 2/15/43 an American counterattack was launched but it went horribly wrong and a whole battalion of 40+ tanks were lost sans 4 as they went right into a German ambush. Doesn’t mean he was killed then but the pieces fit. I was also told his military records were destroyed in the Missouri fire. I was then told to write a letter requesting information on my uncle to:

DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY U.S ARMY HUMAN RESOURCES COMMAND 1600 SPEARHEAD DIVISION AVENUE DEPT# 107 FORT KNOX, KY 40122-5100

In a couple of weeks I received and email with instructions to access his file for download. Nothing specific to his activities or his death but general papers and forms, still nice to have.

I also found out he is listed at the North Africa American Cemetary and Memorial. If you haven’t already, google it, your uncle is listed there as well. Another thing I am in the process of doing is searching the site to see other soldiers that died the same day and from there you may find some of these folks on the Find a Grave website that sometimes list information or email addresses of their surviving families.

Just a thought, good luck.

Donald Thrasher February 4, 2014 at 8:01 pm

TO: Howard C. Hoehn or any other party that may be able to help.

Perhaps you can help me find or point me to some information on my uncle who served under Colonel Drake as a member of the 168th Infantry Regiment in North Africa? And was killed in action February 16, 1943.

My uncle James D (Dulon) Thrasher, Private, serial # 34 167 813, 168th Infantry Division, born May 5, 1919 in Golden, Mississippi and was killed in action February 16, 1943, Sidi-Bou-Zid, Tunsia, North Africa. Searches by American Graves Registration teams for his remains were unsuccessful and his remains declared unrecoverable by a Board of Officers on June 1, 1949.

My uncle died as a young man unmarried. With the passing of time, of his parents and his brothers and sisters passing also (2 sisters and a brother still survive of 10 siblings)
I feel compelled to keep his memory alive. And to pass on to future generations of my family all I can about this young man who died for his country and whose remains were never found. My daughter has given the middle man Dulon (as James D Thrasher was called) to my young grandson, now 2 in honor of my uncle. I want to when that young man becomes of age to be able to tell him all I can about his namesake. And to share it with all of my family. I do have copies of Dulon’s medals to pass to my grandson when he reaches an age of understanding; Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 1 bronze star, Honorable Service Lapel Button, WWII.

Most of my uncle’s service records were destroyed in a fire of a US building in the 1970’s I believe (or I get that explanation when I try to find out information about his personal service record). What I am trying to find specifically is any information, personal letters or other documents that may have mentioned Dulon specifically in his last days. Or something that would shed some light on Dulon’s personal last days. I do have Colonel Drakes official account of that particular action but no information on Dulon except for his death deceleration in documents published in 1949.

Included in Dulon’s service records is the awarding of the bronze star. It is my understanding that in WWII bronze stars were awarded at the recommendation of a serviceman’s commanding officer or commanding staff (is that correct?). And in this case the recommending officer would have been Colonel Drake commander of the 168th when that unit was captured. The unit was captured February 17, 1943. My uncles death is listed as killed the previous day February 16, 1943. Also, the 168th’s casualty list lists my uncle’s company as HQ-Unassigned. By that assignment he may have know Colonel Drake and the commanding staff personally. And he may, or may not, have been the HQ’s and Colonel Drakes cook. A distance relative told me Dulon was a cook. But I have no other information to substantiate that. It could/would explain his assignment to a non-company or headquarters. In Colonel Drakes now published accounts of the 168th’s actions on the above dates he mentions putting non-combatants into combat. As an enlisted man Dulon would not have been mentioned in official accounts of the action. But if the bronze star is awarded by the recommendation of the commanding officer or staff (?,or was) then there may, or may not, be mention of Dulon in either private or public documents of the HQ staff I cannot locate.

FYI, I am picking up this information search on my uncle again after a lapse of several years. I had tried to find information previously and I have given here just about all I have. And there may not be any other information available and or is lost with the passing now of so many WWII veterans. My own father, Dulon’s brother, a WWII veteran himself remembered his brother reverently. He would be proud to know I was able to find more on his older brothers service and pass it on.

I never knew my uncle. I was born 10 years after his death. But I owe it to him to find, if I can, more about his service.

Thank You for any information (as to where to look) you can provide me.

Howard C. Hoehn August 18, 2013 at 12:13 am

I have copies of the letter Col. Drake wrote to my sister, the widow of Lt. William F. Rogers, about the actions of Lt. Rogers and his heoric stand at Kasserine Pass plus his letter recommending that the Distinguished Service Cross be awarded to Lt Rogers–which it was. My sister, his wife, married a WWll vet , taught school in White Hall, Illinois for 40 plus years and reared a beautiful daughter who became the mother of three young boys who grew into accomplished young men. I appreciate reading more of the details of William’s death. The plan { whatever it is} seems to be working.

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