For tens of thousands of soldiers, World War II consisted of a seemingly endless series of bridges that needed to be crossed to get to a small European crossroads that needed to be taken.
Too small to appear on those maps printed back home in newspapers, so neatly adorned with miniature flags and dramatic arrows, these villages played host to engagements that didn’t seem to matter much in the grand scheme of a global conflict but nonetheless were part of the everyday duties of the grunts charged with handling the task.
Han-sur-Nied was one of those places, and on November 11, 1944, 1st Lt. Vernon L. Edwards was one of the men who would bear its burden.
Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army had seen its breakneck drive across France following the Normandy breakout grind to a halt in the early fall as supply lines lengthened. But hopes to “end the war in ‘44” remained among the troops now arrayed throughout Lorraine, and indeed the Siegfried Line was well within reach – on one of those larger-scale maps, anyway.
Patton was determined to take the ancient, fortified city of Metz on his way to the Saar River and on into Germany, and had prepared an offensive he hoped would end in an envelopment that was set to begin November 8. That day, American troops stretching from Patton’s headquarters at Nancy to the south all the way up to the Luxembourg border began their push. The general hoped to encircle Metz by his 59th birthday, Armistice Day, but wouldn’t quite meet that deadline.
About 15 miles southeast of Metz on November 11, elements of the 6th Armored Division and 80th Infantry Division were tasked with taking the bridge over the Nied Francaise River at Han-sur-Nied. In a report completed the following summer, after Germany’s surrender, Army historians would note that the action “turned out to be the most important river crossing in the entire Third Army Lorraine Campaign.”
The group was led by Edwards’ 68th Tank Battalion, the 9th Armored Infantry Battalion and the 1st Battalion of the 317th Infantry Regiment. When they reached the woods overlooking the Nied around midday, they saw German tanks pull back to the other side of the river and into the village of Han-sur-Nied. The fact that the bridge was intact made the mission all the more important.
Exposed as they moved onto the downward slope headed toward the river, the infantry units in particular faced “murderous” fire from German tanks, artillery, and anti-aircraft guns. One account said there were 16 quadruple-barreled 20mm anti-aircraft guns in the vicinity — none of them, it goes without saying, pointed at the sky. The order came to move forward, and Edwards’ tanks were to be the first across.
Vern Edwards was 26 years old, a native of Collinsville, Illinois, not far from St. Louis. Leadership was nothing new for him; he had been elected freshman class president at Collinsville Township High School in September 1932. He was an active member of the school community until graduating in 1936, lending his tenor to the glee club and serving on the student council and yearbook staff.
Edwards’ father Robert had worked for several years at the Abbey Coal and Mining Company. He died in October 1932 at age 55, and his widow Ruby began working as a seamstress as she raised her children – two girls and two boys.
Following high school, Vern Edwards worked for a time at the local Western Union office before enlisting in the Army on June 12, 1939. As a corporal in the 138th Infantry, Missouri National Guard, he began training at Camp Robinson in Arkansas in early 1941.
By the summer of 1942, Edwards had met Betty Jo Gilbert of St. Louis. The pair married on September 5 of that year in Louisville, Kentucky, not far from Edwards’ post at Fort Knox.
The 6th Armored Division had been formed there early in 1942, and it would train at various bases around the U.S. before heading to England in February 1944. The 6th landed at Omaha Beach on July 18 and fought its way across the length of France.
Edwards was there throughout, leading first platoon of B Company of the 68th Tank Battalion as the weather turned cold and Third Army drew closer to the Rhine.
Edwards was in the second Sherman to cross the bridge over the Nied at the point of the attack. Staff Sgt. Winifred Martin of the 317th Infantry later recalled seeing about 10 German soldiers surrender on what was now the American side of the bridge. Several of them had been stationed in foxholes on the western bank of the river, and Martin saw Edwards “spray the holes with his grease gun” from the open turret of his tank as it rumbled by.
Edwards’ four tanks moved forward, navigating a roadblock left in the middle of the wooden structure by the Germans. The first Sherman made it across, pounding enemy positions in the village with its 75mm main gun and .50-caliber machine gun.
The second tank was hung up momentarily at the roadblock, but Edwards stood exposed in the turret, raking the far bank with machine-gun fire. He took out two rocket-launcher teams, but a German sniper cut him down before his Sherman cleared the bridge.
“For a brief while the tank stood there, Lieutenant Edwards’ body dangling from the open turret,” Hugh M. Cole wrote in the Army’s official history, “The Lorraine Campaign.”
The tank behind Edwards’ then took a direct hit and caught fire, but backed off the bridge in an effort to preserve the span. Two members of the 25th Armored Engineer Battalion, 1st Lt. Daniel Nutter and Cpl. Charles Cunningham, then raced to the bridge and cut the wires to the demolition charges wired to either end of the structure. Nutter was killed just after completing his duty.
Thanks to their efforts and the bridgehead established by Edwards’ platoon, the following units of the 317th and the 9th Armored Infantry now had an opening to surge across the Nied. Though German artillery attempted to blow the bridge from afar, they did not succeed, giving the Americans a crucial pathway forward.
Edwards’ unit went on to perform heroically in the Battle of the Bulge, racing northward on Christmas Eve and arriving in Bastogne to help bolster the 101st Airborne and gradually reverse the German advance. It was in the midst of that battle, on January 7, that Edwards was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his “extraordinary heroism” in the action at Han-sur-Nied. He was one of only two soldiers from his battalion and 15 from the 6th Armored Division honored with the nation’s second-highest award for valor during the war.
In addition, Edwards’ Company B was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation and the French Croix de Guerre with silver-gilt star for its actions at Han-sur-Nied.
On August 21, 1948, Vernon L. Edwards’ remains arrived back in the United States on the transport ship Lawrence Victory. He was buried in Robinson Cemetery in Pocahontas, Illinois, about 30 miles from where he grew up.
Nearly 18 years later, Edwards’ widow Betty Jo, who had since remarried, would join veterans of the 6th Armored Division in a country her late husband never saw. On June 17, 1966, the U.S. Army renamed one of its barracks near Frankfurt the Edwards Kaserne.
From then until its closure in 1992, the facility that served as the home of the 3rd Armored Division Support Command would bear the name of a man whose heroism helped the Allies do one of the countless small jobs that had to be done to win the war.
For more photos of Vernon Edwards, visit the 6th Armored Division Honor Roll page.