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By Brian Beck
Two world wars created countless American heroes, many of which will go down in history as legends. Some of them were unsung heroes at the bottom that may only be truly remembered by those they directly impacted. Others, like John “Black Jack” Pershing, “Old Blood and Guts” George Patton, and Douglas “Big Chief” MacArthur, were leaders of thousands, and for many, are nearly household names. While there is no doubt that the unsung heroes in the trenches and the legendary leaders with larger than life personalities were needed and deserve to be honored, there were also those that fell somewhere between the two. They were the ones that just quietly, skillfully, and efficiently got the job done. One of those men was General Clarence R. Huebner, who from the trenches of the Western Front in World War I, to the surrender of Nazi Germany, to his retirement in 1950, gave himself to the service of the United States with skill and dedication.
General Huebner’s personal sidearm and sword will be available in our September Premier Auction. The Model 1911A1 pistol was one of only 6,575 commercial model pistols that were unsold and transferred to fulfill Colt’s military contract. Though the pistol is rare and desirable in its own right, it is the man who owned it that truly makes it a treasure worthy of some of the most advanced U.S. military arms or 1911 collections.
Childhood and Leadership
Clarence Ralph Huebner was born in Bushton, Kansas on 24 November 1888. He was the first child of Martha Rischel and Samuel Huebner, a farmer of German descent. Early in Clarence’s educational career he showed an aptitude for math and grammar, participated in many sports, and was a student leader. It appears that early on Huebner knew he wanted to join the army, but before doing so he attended Grand Island Business College in Nebraska. After graduation, in 1908, he was hired by the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad as a typist. It is fairly clear that this desk job wasn’t able to keep his attention for long as in 1910 he enlisted in the army as a private and was sent to Fort McKenzie in Wyoming for training. After completing training Huebner was assigned to the 18th Infantry Regiment. During this time he worked his way up to the rank of sergeant, with some sources stating his first taste of combat was during the hunt for Mexican outlaw Pancho Villa in 1916. Huebner also received his first commission during 1916, being quickly promoted to 2nd lieutenant and then 1st lieutenant, along with a transfer to the 28th Infantry Regiment. These promotions and transfers make it likely that chasing Villa was in fact Huebner’s first taste of combat with the 28th had been sent to Texas in 1913 to counter the outlaw’s incursions into the United States. Regardless of the exact dates or levels of involvement in the Pancho Villa Expedition, Huebner’s transfer to the 28th would lead to the next chapter of his long career.
The Big Red One
On 8 June, 1917, Huebner and the 28th Infantry Regiment were assigned to the First Expeditionary Division, which would become the 1st Infantry Division in 1918. Nicknamed “the Big Red One” (B.R.O.) due to the large, bright red numeral found on the Division’s shoulder patch, they were the first American combat unit to set foot on European soil on 29 June 1917.
The following year, Huebner and the B.R.O. took part in the first American regimental attack on the village of Cantigny. After an hour-long artillery barrage, the B.R.O. left their jump-off trenches and quickly captured their objectives, taking the high ground. The first counterattack came in the morning, and although weak, it was the first of many attacks that would only grow stronger and more intense over the following three days. Huebner found himself in command of 2nd Battalion of the B.R.O. because his skill and composure in leading that battalion, and because every officer above him had been killed in action. During the battle, Huebner and his troops successfully repelled intense German counter attacks, earning him a citation for the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation reads:
“The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Clarence Ralph Huebner, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action near Cantigny, France, May 28 – 30, 1918.
For three days Lieutenant Colonel Huebner withstood German assaults under intense bombardment, heroically exposing himself to fire constantly in order to command his battalion effectively, and although his command lost half its officers and 30 per cent of its men, he held his position and prevented a break in the line at that point.”
With Huebner leading the 2nd Battalion in other major battles of the war including Saint-Mihiel, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and Soisson, his abilities as a skillful and tactical leader became undeniable. Huebner was again cited for the D.S.C., this time it read:
“The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Clarence Ralph Huebner, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action near Soissons, France, July 18 – 23, 1918.
Lieutenant Colonel Huebner displayed great gallantry, and, after all the officers of his battalion had become casualties, he reorganized his battalion while advancing, captured his objective and again reorganized his own and another battalion, carrying the line forward. He remained continuously on duty until wounded on the second day of the action.”
By the end of World War I, Huebner had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was one of the youngest regimental commanders in the entire American Expeditionary Force. Along with the two Distinguished Service Crosses, he had also been awarded a Distinguished Service Medal, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart. With the end of the war Huebner remained in the army and spent the interwar years in various roles as a student and teacher of infantry combat, and was officially promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1938.
World War II
During the buildup and start of the Second World War, he again held a variety of posts which included Chief of Training Branch on the Army General Staff from 1940-1942 and Commandant at the Infantry Replacement Center for part of 1943. It was many of these interwar posts held by Huebner that formed him into exactly the disciplined leader that General Omar Bradley needed to take over command of the 1st Infantry Division.
By 1943 the Big Red One had earned its reputation as a hard fighting, and even harder drinking, band of misfits by fighting the battle-hardened German Afrika Korps in North Africa. Resulting in the capturing of around 250,000 Axis soldiers, these efforts contributed to the conclusion of the Tunisia Campaign that dealt a serious blow to the Nazis. The rambunctious reputation of the Big Red One was largely nurtured by their commander, General Terry Allen, who was known throughout the military community to value tactical abilities over general rule and discipline.
“Allen’s brawling 1st Infantry Division was celebrating the Tunisian victory in a manner all its own. In towns from Tunisia all the way to Arzew, the division had left a trail of looted wine shops and outraged mayors…”
-General Omar Bradley, commander of II Corps
In July of 1943, the B.R.O. took part in Operation Husky, by special request from Lieutenant General George Patton. By August of 1943, the division had fought their way through Sicily leaving behind a trail of destruction and chaos in their wake. At this point, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley’s patience had reached critical mass, and on 7 August 1943, General Terry Allen was relieved of command. His replacement was none other than General Clarence Huebner, who had cut his teeth with the 1st in the trenches of the Western Front in World War I, making him an ideal candidate for the position. Bradley’s goal with this leadership change was to instill some much needed discipline in one of the most experienced American divisions that would be desperately needed in the coming battles. Immediately, Huebner sought to bring order to the unruly division through a series of parades, close-order drills, and weapons training.
Operation Overlord: the Invasion of Normandy
With the conclusion of the Sicily Campaign in November of 1943, B.R.O. was sent back to England to prepare for the most ambitious mission of the entire war: the invasion of Normandy. Operation Overlord, as it was nicknamed, saw the successful invasion of German-Occupied Western-Europe by Allied forces, but not without witnessing some of the bloodiest fighting in human history. The original plan was for the battle-hardened 1st Infantry Division to make up a large portion of the first wave of attack landing on Omaha Beach at “H-Hour.” Two battalions of the B.R.O. were to land on two different sectors at the eastern end of the beach, these being Easy Red and Fox Green. Once there, they would be initially supported by two tank battalions, and support from another battalion of tanks shortly after. However, as the army would soon find out, reality seldom adheres to the wills of man.
Even with the lengthy, intense, and detailed preparation for Operation Overlord, things very quickly began to unravel at Omaha. Shortly after boarding their landing craft, the B.R.O. began passing men floating in the water strapped to life preservers. In horror, the men slowly began to realize that these soldiers floating past them were, in fact, crew members of the tank battalions who would be supporting them once at the beach. Twenty-seven tanks had sunk while on the journey to reach Normandy because of rough seas, deserting dozens of men in the cold waters and leaving the B.R.O. no support once at the beach. Things didn’t get any better from there. Crews of the landing crafts struggled to see navigation points along the beach due to smoke from the pre-landing bombardment, and seasickness was rampant among the men they carried. This was compounded by strong winds and currents pushing all of the landing craft Eastward and scattering the troops across Easy Red and Fox Green. Intermingled, disoriented, and confused, the men landed far behind schedule. Scheduled for low tide so that sunken obstacles would be visible, this failed attempt to gain a leverage over their opponents resulted in men landing on sandbars 50 to 100 yards off shore, requiring them to wade or swim the rest of the way to the beach under intense machine gun fire. Often ditching heavy equipment simply to keep from drowning, those that did make it to the beach were met with a horrendous hail of German fire from fortified pillboxes. Within the first hour of the landings on D-Day, some units of the B.R.O. had suffered upwards of 30% casualties.
What started as a pessimistic greeting of the Allied troops would quickly be alieviated by more precise landings of infantry and tanks that concentrated between the exits. A glimmer of hope shone through the thick clouds of smoke and debris. At this point, most of the infantry, and the few tanks that had actually managed to land, were still trapped on the beach huddled near the shingle for cover. It was not until later in the afternoon that the 1st Division troops that landed on Easy Red and Fox Green were able to open up their exits off the beach and continue moving towards their next objectives, which was primarily South towards Colleville and some surrounding villages as well as East towards Port-en-Bessin. There, the B.R.O. was to clear the area of German hostiles and establish a perimeter to protect the beachhead from counterattack. General Huebner landed on Omaha at 19:00 on 6 June 1944. Due to the significant difficulties with the initial landings and incredibly high casualties, it was not until the morning D-Day+3 (9 June) that the B.R.O. had finally accomplished all of its D-Day objectives.
Following the events of Operation Overlord, the B.R.O. would not get to see much down time as they engaged in heavy fighting while taking of the town of St. Lo. As a part of Operation Cobra that took place from 25-31 July, the B.R.O. aided in the support of the Anglo-Canadian operations against Caen, with the goal of breaking out of bocage country. Their success during Operation Cobra would result in the B.R.O. seeing increased action around the Mons Pocket from 2-6 September in which a large number of Germans were taken prisoner. On 2 October 1944, they began operations against Aachen which saw some of the most intense street fighting of the war, and captured it on 21 October.
From there, General Huebner and the Big Red One continued on into the confused and bloody fighting in the Hürtgen Forest, which would rage until mid-December, resulting in more than 30,000 American casualties. The 1st Division was finally sent to the rear on 7 December for rest and refit after six months of near constant fighting. Their R&R would not last long however as they were pressed into service to counter a German offensive at Elsenborn Ridge during the Battle of the Bulge.
After the War
On 14 January 1945 General Huebner was promoted to command of V Corps which he led in operations against the Ruhr Pocket from 1–18 April which led to the capture of 317,000 German troops. From there they pressed on to the Elbe River, made contact with the Soviet Red Army, and pushed into Czechoslovakia when the Germans finally surrendered on 29 April 1945. By the end of the war the 1st Infantry Division had suffered over 20,000 battle casualties, been awarded 16 Medals of Honor, 131 Distinguished Service Crosses, and captured 188,382 German troops.
After the war Huebner served as the Chief of Staff for all American forces in Europe and in 1949 was named the final military governor of the American occupation zone in Germany and retired from the United States Army on 30 November 1950. Rock Island Auction Company is proud to offer General Clarence Huebner’s personal sidearm and sword in the September 11-13 Premier Firearms Auction.
General Huebner’s pistol was manufactured in 1943, making it very plausible that it was with him when he landed on Omaha Beach, at his side through the war, and accompanying him until his retirement.
This Model 1911A1 pistol is also incredibly rare as it was one of only 6,575 commercial model pistols that were unsold and transferred to fulfill Colt’s military contract during the Second World War. An arrangement of dates, addresses, and patent information decorates the sides of the slide. Marked “COLT” and “AUTOMATIC/CALIBRE .45,” the left side of the frame presents a government inspection mark (“G.H.D.”) along with “GOVERNMENT MODEL” markings as well. While the original commercial serial number was removed at the factory, “UNITED STATES PROPERTY” was marked on the firearm in its place. The pistol also features a serial number in the military range was also marked “M1911A1 U.S. ARMY.” This beautiful piece includes an unmarked blue barrel and full blue magazine. Huebner’s 1911 retains more than half of the original parkerized finish with the balance mostly a grey patina, primarily on edges and handling areas. The grips are fine with some minor dings and scratches, however, crisp checkering is still present on the pistol. Considering its age, usage throughout combat, and current functionality, this 1911 is a supremely desirable historic item.
Also included in this lot is a Horstmann Co. M1902 officer’s saber that was presented to Huebner. Featuring a standard floral and patriotic motif etched blade, nickeled scabbard, and a gold decorated leather hanger, this blade includes documentation from General Clarence R. Huebner’s grandson confirming its authenticity. Truly incredible pieces of American history, they could easily be the centerpieces of a variety of different collections!
What is a legacy? For some, it can mean grandiose statues erected in honor of past accomplishments, forever to be viewed and visited by later generations. For others, a legacy is something more literal, an heirloom, a watch, a pistol, that has trickled its way past trenches and battlefields to sit comfortably hanging above a fireplace or on a bookshelf. However, for few, legacy is something that is ingrained somewhere in the DNA, an aspect of someone’s personality that extends far beyond their awards, accolades, and reputation but is rooted in their soul. For men like General Clarence Huebner, a legacy isn’t given, it’s earned. From his humble roots to his courage and leadership during both World Wars, Clarence Huebner is more than a man; he is a legend. Find out more about the items owned by General Huebner during Rock Island Auction Company’s exciting September 11-13 Premier Auction.
Rock Island Auction Company comes face to face with rare pieces of history such as this every single day making it a virtual museum of items that span the course of centuries. Learn more about bidding, registering for upcoming auctions, and consignment by clicking HERE!
Whitlock, Flint, The fighting first: the untold story of the Big Red One on D-Day
Anderson, Charles R. Algeria-French Morocco. The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II. United States Army Center of Military History.