The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History

Larry Holzwarth - October 27, 2018

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
US Marines fighting their way off the beach at Iwo Jima in February, 1945, with Mount Suribachi looming in the background. US Navy

13. Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, February-March, 1945

The 1945 attack on the Japanese held island of Iwo Jima became controversial after the Americans seized the heavily fortified position only to find it of little value to the army as a staging base or the navy as a fleet support base. The three airfields on the island, all heavily damaged in the fighting, were rebuilt by construction battalions for the use of them as emergency landing facilities for B-29s which suffered damage over Japan, but their effectiveness remains questionable. 6,821 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were killed in the five week battle to secure the island, another 19,217 were wounded. Uniquely for the Pacific War, total American casualties exceeded those of the Japanese, who started the battle with 21,000 troops garrisoning the island. Of those only 216 survived the battle to be captured by American forces.

The Americans fighting on the island itself encountered an eleven mile long network of tunnels connecting defense positions and bunkers (out of what had been a planned 17 mile system). Tanks were placed in defensive positions, camouflaged, and used as artillery, since there was a shortage of available fuel on the island and the Japanese had no means of resupplying the garrison. The tunnels enabled the Japanese to remain hidden and secure during the pre-invasion naval and air bombardments, and some of the bunkers contained supplies sufficient for its occupants to hold out against an assault for weeks, and in some cases even months. The navy bombarded the island for several months before the invasion, beginning in June 1944, though the actions did little to weaken the island’s defenses. Iwo Jima’s biggest impact on the war effort was the hard-learned lessons about the Japanese defenses, which were taken into account during the planning for the invasion of Okinawa.

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
French soldiers offer candy to their American counterparts in the aftermath of the heavy fighting in the Alsace region of France. US Army

12. Alsace, France, November 1944 – February, 1945

The battle to reduce the German forces in the Alsace region, also known as the Colmar Pocket, was an assignment which was handed primarily to the French Free Forces of the Interior (FFI). A pocket of German defenders was created by American operations in northern Alsace and eastern Alsace, but a large German force remained in what became known as the Colmar Pocket. The pocket included bridges across the Rhine from which the German troops were resupplied from Germany, and Hitler ordered the remaining troops in Alsace to hold their ground at all costs. The Allies meanwhile were feeling the effects of the supply shortage which affected all of the units at the front. FFI forces were assigned the task of clearing the pocket, but the inexperienced French troops were ineffective.

It took the assistance of the United States 3rd Infantry Division, which had moved into position in the late autumn, to clear the pocket the following winter, after the Germans launched an offensive called Operation Northwind, an attempt to recapture the city of Strasbourg. The Alsatian plain is flat and unobscured by trees for the most part, rendering troops crossing it to exposure to well sited artillery. The weather again precluded the use of Allied air support. It was for action in the Alsatian fight that American Audie Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor. The reduction of the Colmar Pocket was completed by February 9, leaving no significant German combat units west of the Rhine. The battle for Alsace and reduction of the Colmar Pocket cost 7,000 American lives, in some of the heaviest fighting yet seen in the European theater.

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
Henderson Field – named for a Marine aviator killed at the Battle of Midway – can be seen in the background of this shot of a Marine patrol descending from Edson’s Ridge. US Navy

11. Battle of Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, August 1942 – February 1943

The Battle of Guadalcanal was fought on the island of Guadalcanal (and nearby Florida and Tulagi islands) in the skies above it, and in the seas around the Solomon Islands. The United States lost 29 ships during the battle, giving the seas of the slot between Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Savo Island the name Ironbottom Sound. The marines which landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942 quickly obtained their objective, the capture of an airfield under construction by the Japanese, which they named Henderson Field. The Japanese then began a five month battle to reclaim it, bombarding it with warships for weeks, from the air, and from land based artillery. The battle for the island became one of attrition, with US and Japanese warships engaging in surface actions in daylight and at night.

By the time the Japanese gave up on their efforts to reclaim the airfield, withdrawing their remaining troops from the island in February 1943, 7,100 Americans had died in the battle for the tiny island. Much of the pattern of the Pacific War was developed during the battle; the fierceness of Japanese resistance, the brutality with which the war was to be fought, and the overwhelming significance of air power. American aviators provided close support to the marines engaged in combat on the ground below, and supporting naval gunfire was called in by troops ashore. For nearly all of the troops who fought the battle of Guadalcanal it was their baptism of fire, nearly all had only completed their training in the weeks before the battle. American losses were so heavy that by the end of the battle only one operational aircraft carrier, USS Hornet, remained in the Pacific theater, the others lost or heavily damaged.

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
The battle for Southern France and the Mediterranean ports of Toulon and Marseille met stiffer resistance than anticipated by planners, and heavier casualties. US Navy

10. Operation Dragoon, Southern France, August-September, 1944

With American troops fighting in northern France in the summer of 1944 an on-again/off-again attack in the south of France was resurrected in July, driven by the need to capture ports of a size sufficient to be used to ease the growing supply problems encountered by the Allied armies. The battle of southern France was an American led affair, supported by French troops who captured the Mediterranean ports of Marseille and Toulon, and Canadian commandos. The Americans were led by Lucian Truscott, who had learned the necessity of advancing inland from the invasion beaches as quickly as possible from the Anzio debacle. The Germans were aware of the coming invasion and prepared a withdrawal ahead of the advancing Americans until they consolidated their forces in defensive positions. The Americans moved inland faster than the Germans could withdraw, attacking them from behind and along their flanks.

On September 14 Truscott was ordered to cease the offensive and consolidated the gains made while the Germans developed a defense line in the Vosges Mountains. The four week battle up the Rhone Valley cost the Americans 7,301 men killed, about half of the total casualties suffered by the American forces. Although American military leaders considered the battle a victory, senior British personnel, including Field Marshal Montgomery and Winston Churchill deemed it an unnecessary operation, with the former arguing that it diverted resources which would have been better used in his theater of operations. Churchill believed that it gave Stalin a free hand in the Balkans, and that the Allies should have attacked there, rather than in the south of France.

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
A machine gun squad and riflemen prepare to cover an assault on a German position in the building down the road in early 1945. US Army

9. The Gothic Line, North Apennines, Italy, September 1944 – April 1945

After the capture of Rome the American and British Armies continued to slug their way up the Italian boot, fighting primarily German troops, who withdrew from one line of prepared fortifications to another. The defensive line known as the Gothic Line (which German commander Kesselring renamed the Green Line) consisted of a line ten miles deep of fortifications, pillboxes, machine gun nests, tank traps, and artillery positions. It ran from La Spezia through the Apennines Mountains (themselves a formidable barrier) to the Adriatic. In September 1944 American troops attacked its western flank while British troops separately attacked on the Adriatic side. At the same time Italian partisans, supported by OSS and SOE agents, harassed the Germans behind the Gothic line’s defenses. It quickly became clear to the Americans that the line would not be breached before the onset of winter.

The Americans advanced through the Italian country to reach the main section of the Gothic Line by the end of September, by the end of the first week of October it was clear that heavy fighting and the terrain itself ensured heavy casualties would be the result of any advance. General Mark Clark continued to push his 5th Army forward. In mid-October the Americans prepared for an assault to capture the city of Bologna. The fighting remained heavy and forward progress was slow. By December the Americans had still not managed to dislodge the Germans from their defensive positions. The fighting in the Apennines cost the Americans 8,486 dead, fighting to penetrate what Churchill had once called the “soft underbelly” of the Axis.

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
Fighting continued in Luzon until the end of the war and the Japanese surrender, and in some cases even after that. US Army

8. Luzon, the Philippines, January-August, 1945

The decision to invade the Philippines in 1944 was questioned by commanders in the Pacific and the Joint Chiefs in Washington as militarily unnecessary. It took the intercession of President Roosevelt to ensure that Douglas MacArthur would be able to fulfill his promise to return. MacArthur lobbied for an invasion of the Philippines as early as 1942, with the Navy arguing it lacked the strength to support one, and that the reduction of Japan through the island hopping campaign was sufficient to win the war, with Japan being forced to surrender in the Philippines as well. MacArthur got his way. After first securing Leyte and Mindoro, south of Luzon, MacArthur invaded the large island at Lingayen, to the north, which put him closer to the capital of Manila. The Americans landed on Luzon on January 9, 1945, opening the battle which would continue until the surrender of Japan in August, 1945.

A second landing was completed south of Manila on January 15. Manila itself was captured in February. Fighting continued throughout Luzon until early March, when MacArthur announced that all military objectives had been secured. But Luzon itself was not secure, and fighting between American and Filipino troops against the Japanese troops scattered on the island continued throughout the summer of 1945. By the time the battle ended with the announcement of the surrender of Japan (though some Japanese troops continued to fight for many years) the battle for Luzon had cost 10,380 Americans their lives as combat casualties. Another 260 died from disease during the battle. Stunningly it was not the highest loss of American life in battle during the Pacific War, which had occurred at Okinawa while the battle for Luzon was still raging.

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
The combination of terrain, weather, and disrupted roads made mobility in the Huertgen Forest a serious problem during the fighting there. US Army

7. Huertgen Forest, Germany, September-December, 1944

The Battle of the Huertgen Forest took place in the fall of 1944, as American troops entered into Germany near Belgium. It remains the longest single battle ever fought solely by the United States Army. The Americans attacked the German forces in the difficult terrain to keep them from reinforcing German positions to the north. In fact, the Allies failed to achieve many of their goals. One particular hard fought for hill in the forest, designate hill 400, was captured by the Americans, subsequently recaptured by the Germans, and remained in German hands until February of 1945. In the autumn of 1944 unusually wet conditions rendered vehicular movement in the forest even more difficult. Tanks were difficult to get in position and could often not reach where they were needed due to the lack of roads.

American attacks in the region were frequently broken up by German artillery, which fused their shells to burst at treetop height, allowing fragments to rain down on the troops below. This forced Americans to violate their training, which had been to hit the ground when under cannon fire. They adjusted to huddling under the trees, their canopies providing some protection. Before the fighting for the Huertgen Forest ended, which occurred when the Germans launched the Ardennes offensive on December 16, 1944, more than 12,000 American soldiers were killed in what was in fact a defensive victory for the Germans. The United States suffered more 60,000 total casualties, including wounded, missing in action, or captured by the Germans. Other casualties were the result of illness, accidents, trench foot, and training errors and numbered over 70,000.

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
USS Bunker Hill ablaze in the waters off Okinawa after being hit by two kamikazes. Its crew managed to save the ship. US Navy

6. Okinawa, the Pacific, April – June, 1945

The battle of Okinawa was an eighty-two day bloodbath in which the United States captured the island, intending to use it as a staging area for the invasion of Japan. Both the United States and the Japanese lost ships, aircraft, and troops in the battle, and Okinawan civilians suffered heavy casualties as well. The invasion fleet was the largest of any of the many which supported amphibious landings during the Pacific war. The United States Tenth Army was created out of Army and Marine units as a single command, and controlled its own air force, supported by US Navy carrier operations throughout the battle. Supporting ships faced the fanatical suicide attacks of the kamikazes, which did heavy damage to several American vessels. The Americans were supported by the British Pacific Fleet, which the Americans designated as Task Force 57.

The battle for Okinawa was the bloodiest of the Pacific War, with official reports listing more than 12,500 Americans killed, though many wounded died later and are not included in that figure (for example, of infection from burns suffered by many sailors in the kamikaze attacks). Among the casualties was the highest-ranking officer killed by enemy fire during the war, Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. Ernie Pyle was killed during the fighting to secure Okinawa, hit by stray machine gun fire. American casualties also included mental disorders, caused by the ferocity of the fighting and a Japanese tactic revealed on the island, when civilians were used by Japanese soldiers as human shields. During the fighting on the island the American troops, sailors, and airmen, heard the news of the death of Adolf Hitler and the unconditional surrender of Germany.

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
An American GI reads a warning sign in the ruins of bombed out Cologne. Some of the heaviest fighting of the war occurred in its last few weeks. US Army

5. Western Germany, March – May, 1945

It is widely believed that after the collapse of the German offensive in the Ardennes in late 1944 and early 1945 the German army largely quit fighting in the west. The casualty lists for the spring of 1945 argue otherwise. As the allies poured over the Rhine into Germany and spread out to capture German and Austrian territory, the Soviets pushed into eastern Germany and neared Berlin. More than half of the divisions available for the attack on Germany from the west (90), were American (49). Eisenhower, in command of all, designated the 12th Army group under General Omar Bradley as his primary spearhead. As the units fought their way across Germany, towns became occupied by American troops, which confiscated contraband and occupied private offices and homes as needed for their use, the original occupants evicted and forced to find housing on their own.

During the drive across Germany, German forces continued to resist, aided by civilians in many instances, and by older veterans of the First World War and Hitler Youth members. The five weeks following the thrust of the Americans across the Rhine and the collapse of German resistance saw more than 15,000 Americans killed in Germany. Americans dealt with stiff resistance from the Germans in the Ruhr Valley and its industrial complex, and as they did so they also released forced workers and captured large amounts of prisoners, which all had to be fed by the American logistics system. As American forces neared Leipzig they ran into fierce attacks by German ant-aircraft guns which were directed against the American troops. The last five weeks of the battle in Germany saw Americans killed at the rate of 3,000 per week, an indication of German resistance to the last.

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
An American LCT, loaded with troops and equipment prepares to depart for the Normandy beaches. US Army

4. Normandy, France, June – July 1944

The Battle for Normandy which began on June 6 1944 is generally agreed to have lasted until the third week of July. Allied troops fought their way ashore on the Normandy beaches and began moving inland almost immediately, where they encountered something the planners had not adequately taken into account – the hedgerows of the bocage country. While the British concentrated on taking the French town of Caen, which delayed the advance into France for several weeks, the Americans turned toward the capture of the port of Cherbourg. The foothold of the beachhead was expanded rapidly and troops and supplies continued to pour ashore, using the beaches themselves and two artificial harbors, called “mulberries”. But the advancing troops met heavy German resistance at all points, and poor weather often grounded their air support.

Winston Churchill had predicted that the combined casualties of the Allied troops, which included French commandos, and troops from other allied nations, would be about 20,000. The casualties for the first day were heavy, particularly at the American sector of Omaha Beach, and the fighting on French soil, particularly in the bocage – which were ideal for defensive fighting – continued to be high throughout the end of the battle for Normandy. When the operation ended in July, to be soon replaced by the battle across France, 16,293 Americans had been killed in the battle, ranking as the highest of the war to that date, higher than any of the battles of the Pacific War. The fighting continued in the battle of France, which yielded yet higher casualties among the Americans before the end of the year.

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
A road to Avranches is cluttered with equipment abandoned by the German troops hoping to escape encirclement by the Allies. US Army

3. The Battle for France, 1944

By July 25, 1944, more than 1.5 million troops had landed in France. By the end of the following month their number exceeded 2 million. Additionally thousands of pieces of equipment, tanks and guns, motorized vehicles, and all the accouterments of a mechanized army were on the French coast. By August 1, the American Third Army under George Patton was moving to take Brittany and territory southward towards the Loire Valley. On the fifteenth of August the invasion of southern France was launched, and German troops which had occupied territories in the south of France since the invasion of North Africa began withdrawing eastward. The Americans pushed forward, encountering steady resistance from the Germans as they moved eastward, occasionally launching strong counterattacks as they withdrew.

On September first Eisenhower took direct command of all ground forces in Europe and directed a slowdown of the Allied advance. He continued the strategy of advancing on a broad front, rather than adopting single direct thrusts, as a means of containing German counterattacks and to conserve supplies. The battle across France had freed most of the country from German control by early September, at a heavy cost of life, including for the Americans. From July 25 through September 14, 1944, 17,844 Americans had lost their lives, a number which does not include the casualties from the invasion of Southern France in the Mediterranean. The liberation of most of France had taken just over six weeks of almost constant fighting with a determined enemy who as yet showed no inclination to give up the fight.

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
Troops of the 101st Airborne Division watch supplies being dropped to them in beleaguered Bastogne, December 26, 1944. US Army

2. The Battle of the Bulge, Northern Europe, December 1944 – January 1945

In the morning of December 16, 1944, German columns struck American forces in the Ardennes, in a massive and determined assault which was intended to split the allied forces into four groups and capture the port of Antwerp. The attack was launched in heavy wintry weather, using forces which the allies were unaware that the Germans had gathered on the western front. The weather prevented the allies from resorting to their air superiority to contain the attack. The Americans resisted the attack, at first piecemeal, and then growing more organized, particularly at the northern elbow of the salient the Germans created and at Bastogne, which contained important crossroads. The resistance threw the Germans off schedule, denied the use of some roads which prevented columns from advancing parallel to each other, and gave the Americans time to rush other units to the battlefield.

The German assault included fourteen hundred tanks and over 400,000 troops. Eventually the United States committed over 600,000 men to first stopping the German advance and then reducing the salient – the famous Bulge – which had been created in the Allied lines. By the end of December the Germans were reinforced but by that time the assault was already doomed to failure, following the arrival of reinforcements by the Americans under Patton from the south and clearing weather in January which allowed the Americans to use their P-47s to attack German tanks from the air. The fighting remained fierce as the Germans were pushed back, finally retreating to the defenses of the Westwall, known to Americans as the Siegfried Line. Over 19,200 Americans were killed in the fighting before the battle ended in January, 1945. They included Americans who had surrendered as prisoners of war before being shot by Waffen SS troops in the Malmedy massacre, where at least 84 Americans were murdered.

The 18 Deadliest Battles in American Military History
US Marines move forward through terrain which offers mute testimony to the ferocity of the shelling by both sides. US Marines

1. Meuse-Argonne Offensive, France, September – November 1918

While Americans were singing Over There at home in 1918, the American troops which had been sent over there were involved in the deadliest battle of American history. The offensive launched by the American Expeditionary Forces in France involved 1.2 million men, the largest offensive in American military history, one of the Allied attacks known as the Hundred Days Offensive, a series of coordinated attacks designed to end the war to end all wars. The battle was fought in three phases, with the American troops gaining valuable experience and growing confidence in their abilities as it went on. It began with an assault by the Americans towards Sedan, followed by British attacks in Belgium the following day, and French assaults on German positions across northern France. The morale of the Allies was strengthened by the advance of the Americans, who were eager for battle, though inexperienced.

That inexperience showed in the casualties absorbed by the Americans, which were heavy. American forces fought with French tanks, and were supported by the forces of Great Britain and Australia, achieving their goals in splitting the Hindenburg Line, the main German defense perimeter, and driving the Germans backwards. The largest American assaults were in the sector around Verdun, though American units took part in actions to the north as well. During the second phase of the battle the famous Lost Battalion event occurred. By the beginning of November the Americans broke the Hindenburg Line as well as cleared the Argonne Forest, throwing the German defenses in disarray. French forces captured Sedan on November 6. The offensive ended with the ceasefire of November 11, 1918. By that time, in an offensive which lasted less than two months, 26,277 Americans had lost their lives.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Great War: Strategies and Tactics of the First World War”. William R. Griffiths. 2003

“The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War”. David Halberstam. 2008

“Anzio 1944”. Clayton D. Laurie. United States Army Center of Military History. 1994. Online

“Patton at Bay: The Lorraine Campaign, 1944”. John Nelson Rickard. 2004

“Was Iwo Jima Worth the Cost?”. Robert S. Burrell, MHQ — The Quarterly Journal of Military History

“Riviera to the Rhine”. Jeffrey J. Clarke, Robert Ross Smith. United States Army Center of Military History. 1994

“Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle”. Richard Frank. 1992

“Operation Dragoon 1944: France’s other D-Day”. Stephen J. Zaloga. 2009

“North Apennines 1944-45”. Dwight D. Oland, United States Army Center of Military History. 1996

“Luzon”. Dale Andrade, United States Army Center of Military History. 2003

“The Siegfried Line Campaign”. Charles B. MacDonald. United States Army Center of Military History. 1984 (1963). Online

“Operation Iceberg: The Invasion and Conquest of Okinawa in World War II”. Gerald Astor. 1996

“The Last Offensive”. Charles B. MacDonald. United States Army Center of Military History. 1993. Online

“D-Day: The Battle for Normandy”. Antony Beevor. 2009

“The Battle of Normandy, 1944”. Robin Neillands. 2002

“The Battle of the Bulge: Hitler’s Final Gamble”. Patrick Delaforce. 2004

“The Meuse-Argonne Offensive”. Military records section, National Archives online.