On May 29, 1944, the War Department’s Bureau of Public Relations issued a two-page press release touting the leadership of Lt. Col. Lyle J. Deffenbaugh of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and the critical role he played in the fight for Mount Porchia, Italy, some months earlier.
In the narrative, which was sent to about a dozen newspapers, Maj. Robert W. Kane describes how Deffenbaugh went four days and nights without sleep as he personally led the drive to take the cold, windswept peak in early January 1944.
“On the night of January 4 our battalion was to make a night attack in conjunction with another Armored Infantry battalion against Mount Porchia,” Kane recounted. “Lt. Col. Deffenbaugh left me to take charge of the battalion command post so that he himself could go along with the assault companies because he said it was going to be one of the toughest battles we had ever had — and he wanted to be in it.”
Kane went on, describing how he had received reports of Deffenbaugh fighting his way to the departure line for the assault, then continuously moving from company to company providing encouragement over the coming days, all while under heavy German fire.
“I was at the battalion command post, and as the wounded were brought to the aid station, I asked many of them how it was and if they figured we would be able to get to the objective,” Kane continued. “Their answers were always about the same, ‘It is a tough battle, but we will get there because the Old Man is right up there with us.”
The press release describing Deffenbaugh’s heroics in Italy was exactly the kind of story the War Department loved to tell to everyone back home. A classic in the “local boy makes good” genre that undoubtedly led to a swelling of pride among Deffenbaugh’s family and friends in Iowa.
This particular bit of PR, though, came with a sad twist. Two weeks later, those same family and friends would learn that Lt. Col. Lyle J. Deffenbaugh had been killed in action in Italy on May 28, a day before the release was sent out.
Lyle Deffenbaugh was born in Council Bluffs in 1910, the youngest of Joseph and Frances’ seven children and the sixth boy. There was a 17-year spread among the children, and Joseph had always managed to provide for the family by working as a printer.
An Ohio native, he had plied his trade in Kansas City for a few years before heading farther west and finally ending up in Council Bluffs, where he worked for a variety of companies through the years. Joseph was 41 years old when Lyle arrived, and they would only get eight years together before Joseph left Frances a widow to raise the family on her own.
Luckily, Lyle’s older brothers had long been in the workforce, often alongside their father at one printing shop or another and later branching out into various city-dweller jobs — bookkeeper, clerk — of the type Lyle would hold as soon as he was able.
After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1928, Lyle found work as a salesman for the Petersen & Schoening Company and eventually spent several years there as a clerk. Around 1935, Lyle married Helen Lorkovic, who was born and raised just across the Missouri River in Omaha.
As the end of the decade neared, Lyle found work with the Civilian Conservation Corps, an assignment that took him (and his bride) away from home for the first time. By 1939 they were living on Ottumwa, about 200 miles east of Council Bluffs, and they had reached the other side of the state, Monticello, by the following year, with Lyle now serving as a CCC camp commandant.
Military service was a natural next step for Lyle, who had been named cadet colonel of his high school’s ROTC unit as a senior. He eventually was assigned to the 6th Armored Infantry, a storied regiment with roots dating to the War of 1812. As part of the 1st Armored Division, the unit trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, before being sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey, in April 1942. The regiment landed in Belfast in June for further training before getting the call for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, in November. It was there that Lyle got his first taste of combat.
Maj. Lyle Deffenbaugh and 1st Battalion landed west of Oran on November 8, 1942, as American ground troops finally joined the fight in earnest 11 months after Pearl Harbor. While their introduction to the war was relatively smooth, that would change once the calendar turned to 1943 and they headed east to meet Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in Tunisia.
The battalion was in the thick of the fighting throughout the Tunisian campaign, led throughout by Lt. Col. William B. Kern. On March 24, though, Kern was severely wounded at Maknassy. Historian Rick Atkinson’s classic “An Army at Dawn” describes Gen. Orlando Ward stopping at the 6th Infantry’s command post that evening and seeing Kern on a litter, his right eye “destroyed” by a machine gun bullet. “Dusted with sulfa powder and sedated with morphine, Kern was bound for a field hospital in the rear.”
His loss left 1st Battalion in need of a commanding officer, and Deffenbaugh got the call — along with a promotion to lieutenant colonel. He already had proved himself in combat, earning a Silver Star shortly before his promotion. The citation read:
Lyle J. Deffenbaugh (ASN: 0-288505), United States Army, was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action against the enemy while serving with the 1st Armored Division, in action in Tunisia in 1943. Under heavy machine gun fire aimed directly at his position, which silenced the radio, Major Deffenbaugh disregarded all personal safety and remained in full view of the enemy within close range to shout directions and orders to two of his companies. His gallant actions and dedicated devotion to duty, without regard for his own life, were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
One of Deffenbaugh’s first notable successes as commander of 1st Battalion came in early May, when his unit helped take Mateur as Allied troops closed on Bizerte and Tunis and occupied the town as others moved on.
Fighting in North Africa soon wound to a close, but Deffenbaugh and his men would have to wait until October before they departed the continent via the same port through which they had entered nearly a year earlier, Oran. This time, they were headed across the Mediterranean to Italy.
The 6th Armored Infantry Regiment reached the continent in Naples, landing on October 28. They would spend the final two months of the year making their way northwest toward Cassino — and ultimately Rome.
They slogged through miserable conditions as 1944 dawned, battling rain, wind and snow as they crept closer to the German stronghold. The next obstacle up for the Allied troops was Mount Porchia, a strong natural defense position alongside Highway 6 running up to Cassino.
The 6th was assigned to assault Porchia, with Deffenbaugh’s 1st Battalion running up Highway 6 and the 2nd and 3rd Battalions departing from the northwest side of Mount Lungo.
From the Army’s history “Fifth Army at the Winter Line“:
The 1st Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, moved on the afternoon of 4 January to secure its line of departure. The battalion encountered difficulty in clearing two small rises on either side of Highway No. 6, just north of the end of Mount Lungo, which were vigorously defended by the 5th Company, 134th Grenadiers. Losing his positions by 1930 (hours), the enemy counterattacked. Heavy mortar fire met the 2d Battalion as it tried to move west astride the railroad. Until noon of 5 January, the Germans fought hard to stop the drive short of their main defenses. Mauled severely by fire of our artillery, tanks, and tank destroyers, they were forced to withdraw toward prepared positions on Mount Porchia.
The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions attacked German defensive positions on Porchia early on January 6, with ferocious fighting continuing throughout the day. By afternoon, the combat strength of Deffenbaugh’s battalion was down to 150 men. The Germans made an all-out push to hold the position, counterattacking that evening with three infantry companies from the Hermann Goering Panzer Division that had been called in from a reserve position. But the 6th Armored Infantry held its ground that night, took the rest of the hill the morning of January 7, and repelled two counterattacks later that day before the Germans finally pulled back. For its work in the engagement, the regiment was later awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation.
Months later, Deffenbaugh was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the battle for Mount Porchia. A press release issued about three months after his death added more detail to the account from Maj. Kane that opened this post:
Next up for 1st Battalion: Anzio. Deffenbaugh and his men landed there as part of Combat Command A on January 29, a week after the initial attack. Like the rest of the Allied troops, they remained mostly stationary around the Padiglione Woods, unable to break out of their beachhead.
German troops began a significant counter-offensive against the beachhead on February 16, pushing back at the incremental gains the Allies had made. By the 19th, Allied troops were prepared for a counterattack themselves, and the 1st and 3rd Battalions were assigned to Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon’s Force H. Preceded by artillery and air support, Task Force H achieved its objective, pushing back the Germans near Carroceto before pulling back that evening.
The 6th was largely stationary for the next three months, spending some time in reserve and conducting occasional patrols, but the lull wouldn’t last. The 1st Armored Division would play a key role in Operation Buffalo, the planned breakout from the Anzio beachhead toward Rome, which was due to jump off May 23. Assigned to Gen. Frank A. Allen’s Combat Command B, Deffenbaugh and his men were to attack northwest of Cisterna, driving toward Velletri.
Combat Command B’s advance got off to a slow start thanks to antitank mines that wreaked havoc on armor and personnel. Initial elements tried to move through, but mines caught successive waves of tanks and forced a delay while engineers were summoned.
Deffenbaugh’s 1st Battalion was able to navigate the antitank minefield, according to an official Army history, “only to run into an antipersonnel mine field backed by an enemy strongpoint that forced a halt after an advance of only 500 yards. There the infantrymen remained until the engineers cleared a path through the antitank mine field and enabled the surviving medium tanks of Company F to come forward. First silencing a nest of enemy antitank guns that opened fire from a draw to the right front, Company F’s tanks churned through the antipersonnel mine field, and the infantry followed safely in their tracks. Together tanks and infantry eliminated the enemy strongpoint.” By nightfall, Combat Command B had reached its objective.
The following afternoon, Gen. Mark Clark decided to shift the focus of the entire offensive to the northwest, directly toward Rome. Deffenbaugh’s battalion was attached to a task force led by Col. Hamilton Howze of the 13th Armored Regiment that continued to head north toward Valmontone and Highway 6.
A group of armored cars under Deffenbaugh’s command was among the first to enter Artena, just south of Valmontone, on May 27, but that would be the Iowan’s final triumph.
The following day, Task Force Howze encountered the Hermann Goering Division and inflicted serious damage on the enemy with its armor, but the Germans counterattacked with well-placed artillery that “hit the American positions, falling primarily on men of the 1st Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, and perilously close to Howze’s command post.”
While Howze managed to escape, Deffenbaugh did not. One barrage scored a direct hit on 1st Battalion’s command post, killing the commanding officer.
Helen Deffenbaugh was informed of her husband’s death two weeks later, on June 11. A front-page story in the Council Bluffs Nonpareil told of Deffenbaugh’s exploits throughout the war.
That November, an instructional hall at Fort Knox was named in Deffenbaugh’s honor. Among those attending the ceremony was the man he replaced as commander of the 1st Battalion, Col. William B. Kern.
On January 10, 1945, Deffenbaugh’s Distinguished Service Cross was presented to Helen at a ceremony in Omaha.
Deffenbaugh was buried near Anzio in the Nettuno cemetery, where he would remain for four years before his family opted to bring his body home as part of the U.S. repatriation program following the war. On August 16, 1948, Deffenbaugh was laid to rest for good at Keokuk National Cemetery with his widow and mother in attendance.