Wednesday, March 31, 2010 George Zwilling was Killed in Battle on this Day, 67 Years Ago On this day, 67 years ago, a young ballplayer lost his life on the battlefields of North Africa. Signed by the Cincinnati Reds, Uncle Sam got there first and whisked the youngster off to boot camp.
George C. Zwilling was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1919, and attended St. Francis and Rothenberg schools. Like his father, Charles, George became a well-known semi-pro baseball player in the city, playing shortstop with the Schoenling Brewery and Rauh Shirt Company teams. In the fall of 1941, Zwilling was signed by the Cincinnati Reds and assigned to the Columbus Red Birds of the Class B South Atlantic League for the 1942 season. But on October 20, 1941, before he had the opportunity to pull on the Red Birds’ uniform, Zwilling entered military service at the Fort Thomas Army Reception Center in Kentucky.
He took basic training at Camp Wolters, Texas, and in May 1942, Pvt. 1st Class Zwilling was on his way to Northern Ireland with the 135th Infantry Regiment, 34th “Red Bull” Infantry Division - the first American servicemen to reach the European Theater.
On April 25, 1942, despite overcast and blustery conditions, Zwilling played in a ball game between two battalions that attracted an inquisitive crowd of Irish folk. Games continued to be played whenever the troops had respite from their training routine, and on July 4, 1942 - to celebrate Independence Day - the first officially recognized baseball game in Ireland since the First World War, took place at Windsor Park, Belfast. Zwilling played shortstop for the 34th Infantry Division Midwest Giants against the 1st Armored Division Kentucky Wildcats. In front of an enthusiastic if somewhat bewildered crowd of locals and dignitaries, Zwilling was 2-for-3 at the plate in the Midwest Giants’ 3–2 win.
34th Infantry Division Midwest Giants, Northern Ireland, July 1942
George Zwilling is back row, third from right
In November 1942, the 34th Infantry Division left the safety of Northern Ireland to participate in Operation Torch - the Allied invasion of North Africa. As part of the Eastern Task Force, the Division’s objective was Algiers, the capital and largest city in Algeria, a country held by Vichy French forces. It was not known whether the Vichy French would stand and fight against the Americans and it was the Division’s responsibility to overcome any opposition.
On November 8, 1942, the division disembarked at Algiers and met with sporadic resistance that led to the capture of Zwilling and others, and they were held prisoner by the French. A British sailor, Douglas Derbyshire, who had befriended Zwilling and was captured at the same time, later wrote to the Cincinnatian’s family to explain the situation. “We were all very tired when we were captured,” wrote Derbyshire, “as we had been up all night under shell fire while approaching the harbor of Algiers, and all day we were trying to clear out the French soldiers.” The British sailor added: “It was an honor to be with your boys under shell-fire and machine-gun fire - they were magnificent!”
After a couple of days, they were released by the French and by February 1943, the 34th Infantry Division was in Tunisia advancing towards Rommel’s Afrika Korps, who were in retreat from the pursuing British. Zwilling’s last letter home said, “keep your fingers crossed,” because he hoped to be home on furlough in a couple of months. Under the command of the British IX Corps, the Division was assigned to break through the German defenses.
On March 27, 1943, the Division prepared for its first major attack of the war, attempting to gain the important gap through the Eastern Dorsal near Fondouk el Aouareb, which became known as the Fondouk Gap. The German forces were well prepared with defensive positions burrowed in the solid rock and the approaches were bare and flat, with barbed wire and minefields on the bottom slopes of the hills. The operation was a head-on assault in the face of the enemy and casualties were heavy. Four days later, on March 31, 1943, Pvt. 1st Class Zwilling was killed in action. The following day, having never actually reached the Fondouk Gap, the Division was ordered to abandon its efforts and to withdraw to a temporary line until further plans could be made.
On May 1, 1943, a requiem high mass was held for George Zwilling at St. Francis Seraph Church, near his home in Cincinnati, and attended by Soldiers from the Fort Thomas Army Reception Center. He was buried at the North Africa American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia.
North Africa American Cemetery at Carthage, Tunisia