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A Bucket of Nothing:
The U.S. Army’s Austrian Battalion
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
October 2012

In the summer of 1942, the U.S. Army embarked on a political experiment, forming four “ethnic” battalions of men of particular ancestry. The most famous of these, the 100th Infantry Battalion, was formed from men of Japanese ancestry (collectively called “Nisei” no matter how many generations their family had been on American soil) removed from the Hawaiian National Guard and fought with incredible valor in France and Italy in 1944 and 1945.

The 99th Infantry Battalion, formed from Norwegian expatriates and Americans of Norwegian ancestry, had a checkered path but fought well when committed to battle. The 122nd Infantry Battalion, made up of Greeks and Greek-Americans, never saw action as a line unit but instead became a source for Greek-speaking commando teams to be inserted into enemy-occupied Greece. Its men also compiled an enviable war record, though officially as part of the OSS rather than the Army.

And then there was the Austrian battalion.

The 101st Infantry Battalion (Separate) came into existence thanks to political maneuvering by the exiled Empress Zita, wife of the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Hearing of the other “ethnic” units, she pressured the State Department to create an Austrian one as well. The U.S. Army did not want to form the unit at all, and the Army bureaucracy did its best to hide the battalion’s very existence. The first recruits came to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, officially on “detached duty.” They trained separately from the other units on the base, lived in separate barracks, and ate in a separate mess hall.

Austria’s last Empress,
foe of the Nazis.

While the Empress was no doubt a vain and bitter woman, she and the legitimist movement can’t be faulted for their staunch opposition to Nazi rule in Austria. She hated Hitler and the Nazis, and sought to fight the Nazis by any means necessary. Thanks in large part to Zita, in July 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially declared restoration of an independent Austria to be an American war aim. Though many charged her with working toward a Habsburg restoration, she was always consistent in demanding that the Austrian people should choose their government.

Zita’s son Otto, heir to the throne, sought to establish an Austrian army-in-exile. A similar attempt launched in France in 1939 had failed. With the support of Gen. Wladimir Sikorski of the Polish Exile movement, Zita and Otto finally secured American agreement.

Otto von Habsburg.
European unionist; Nazi enemy.
Not a bad historian, either.

Whether Zita saw the unit as the spearhead of her triumphant return to Vienna is doubtful. While she would not allow Otto to risk himself in combat, the empress did send her three other sons to the unit as ordinary soldiers. Charles, Rudolf and Felix von Habsburg all reported to Camp Atterbury.

The three quickly became highly unpopular in the unit, insisting that the other soldiers refer to them as “Archduke” and stenciling the title on their footlockers. Decades later, urban legend at the University of Vienna had it their granddaughters insisted that professors and students alike address them as “Archduchess” and that they refused to stand in lines with mere mortals. I never saw this myself, but then, they never deigned to speak to me.


Modern Austrian firepower.
A Leopard 2 of the present Bundesheer.

The Austrian battalion became noted for its poor morale, poor discipline and poor training standards. While the Greek and Norwegian units had been recruited from volunteers, very few Austrians volunteered for the 101st. Therefore, the Army transferred men who had listed “Austria” as their nation of birth — whether they were actually Austrian or not.

Many of these recruits turned out to be Poles, Croats, Hungarians or one of the myriad other nationalities of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Few of them had much enthusiasm for a project some saw as restoring the Habsburgs to their throne; many of them had parents who’d come to the United States precisely to escape imperial rule. Lt. Col. Vincent J. Conrad, the battalion commander, had been handed a political/ethnic powder keg.

The Army finally admitted the battalion’s existence in the late spring of 1943, placing newspaper stories about the unit and allowing staged photos of Austrians in American uniform to be published. But the battalion had outlived its usefulness. Soon afterwards, its personnel were transferred to other units — not in groups, but in ones and twos, so that any trace of the bizarre battalion would be erased. In December 1943, the 101st Infantry Battalion (Separate) was formally removed from the Army’s lists. An Austrian battalion would attend the country’s liberation in May 1945, but it was one organized under French auspices.

The counter we’ve shown for the 101st is suitable for America Triumphant or Alsace 1945. We didn’t include a free download for it or rules for its use; it’s pretty much useless.