| Picture a young engineer battalion
commander scarce three years commissioned standing within earshot of the
great George Patton, but 4th or 5th rank down, in March, 1945 overlooking
a two bridge stretch of the Very active Rhine River at Oppenheim, Germany
and hearing the scratchy voiced demand "Where's my third (epithet omitted)
bridge? I ordered three friggin, bridges and see only two." As the chain
of command would dictate "Yeah, Clyde" Third Army Engineer to XII Corps
Engineer "Where is the third bridge?" Hence down to the battalion commander
with the aside query, sotto voice "Do you have any bridging left over from
last night's action and if so any place to put it?" The answer "A little
and yes" provoked the reply, "It's about to get underway, General." Obviously
with General Patton's stern emphasis wheels started rolling and a third
bridge resulted, though barely used since by completion it was in the relative
back water of the action.
But to start further back. When the gleam in the Pentagon's mobilization eye ended in conception some eight officers and twenty non-coms, as cadre, under command of then Major Ward Van Atta were ordered to Camp Devens, Mass. in Feb, 1943 to activate the 150th Engineer Combat Battalion. Shortly thereafter the recruits arrived- and what a lot. Almost all were seventeen to nineteen year olds, all from New England, many just out of high school, quick witted and eager for adventure. They were so sharp in act that when the Administration decided it had better look to a long war and began the short lived program of sending selected draftees to college (the Army Specialized Training Program) our transfers to it were many and resented. Some may be aware that H. Kissinger, he at Lafayette College, Pa. plus many others enjoyed this brief respite. A gallant effort not gone awry.
Despite these losses other eager youth soon displaced the cadre as our training intensified. It was marred however by a tragic occurrence that presaged the hazards of war. While engaged in a mock assault crossing of the Merrimac River near Nashua, N.H. a power boat laden with full field equipped men plunged under the swollen stream. Two were drowned and Van Atta plus several others were awarded the Soldier's Medal for their success at rescue.
After Camp Edwards, Mass and West Virginia maneuvers we embarked on the Queen Mary, December 23, 1943 for Europe. This voyage, to some only recently known was when the Queen, in its worst storm before or since, exceeded its design list and barely avoided capsizing as we approached England with some 20,000 troops aboard. What a tragedy that would have been. Our principal chore while on board was to supplement the food service staff.
Feeding was at 30 minute intervals from 5 A.M. to 10 A.M., a thousand or two per sitting and repeat starting at 2 P.M. We, as kitchen police would deliver a huge wooden bowl, often of poorly shaven mutton with tomatoes, to each table and clean up for the next sitting. In contrast, typically British for the era, the officers had napkin rings with clothe napkins and occasional servings of kippered herring for breakfast- not conducive to stabilizing the stomach. Many fish were fed from the rails.
At dock in Greenock, Scotland it fell our lot to remain aboard, New Years Night, to secure the ship for the night. By this time appetites had returned and all were hungry. On two occasions the duty officer was called to quell onslaughts of the galley where the odor of a variety of cooking goodies was the attraction. It seemed that as the pies and cakes were put out to cool, a sneaky group would approach under cover, grab the pies and charge off. Little enthusiasm went into the orders to desist, particularly after it was learned that some of the galley crew were peddling cheese sandwiches at $2.00 per each. England, suffering from limited imports and surplus Americans, was a six month way station to the invasion. At our first bivouac while digging some drainage lines we uncovered a regularity of stone placement just below the surface. Our British liaison officer declared it to be the trace of an old Roman built road, hence inviolable- so to another spot.
The austerity and simplicity of life for the long involved British were notable. Every former rose garden seemed filled with Brussels sprouts. One exception to such austerity, however, is recalled. With idle equipment, the need for practical training projects and in the interest of comity it was decided to help a neighbor build a swimming pool. At the delightful lawn party of the opening, a maid of some courage shocked the gaiety with "Sir Esmond, I think this is a bloody shame. Here we have so little to eat, our boys are dying all over the world and you have the bad taste and audacity to use all these materials on such frivolity." We'd put in training effort only- no materials hence were not censorable.
Among the few diversions was a miniature steam boat ride on the upper Thames River, where the hinged smoke stack would be lowered as we passed under the many arched foot bridges. A stop at a beautifully greened riverside haven, strangely enough still recalled as 11 The Rose Revived" The gracious manager was quick to remind us that this was a favored trusting place for many past British monarchs, that now however its claim to fame was as a part time home to a son of our President, then commanding a nearby Photo Reconnaissance unit.
We were encouraged to not intrude on the local economy however on one occasion a few of us visited a local posh restaurant. Here we wore greeted by a Maitre de in white tie and tails. With obviously top notch ambience and table settings, the only items on the menu were pheasant or victory sausage with a boiled potato and Brussels sprouts. The alleged pheasant turned out to be about the size of a robin.
One of our tasks was to put the finishing touches to an Air force P-51 fighter base. While awaiting their aircraft some of the pilots had access to small reconnaissance planes. One came along one day having fun by holding on the runway as long as possible, heaving back on the stick almost straight up for 300-400 feet, then dropping to the runway for repeat. Our Lieutenant "Stretch" decided it looked like fun, so flagged the pilot and got in the rear seat. In neglect of the added weight, at the peak the plane nosed into a half turn and into the ground. Thus our first casualty, though he returned but the pilot bought the farm.
In late June we were called into Plymouth Port for the channel crossing. The advanced party moved out and a week later the main body. Things were relatively quiet on the beaches by this time and when the Navy landing craft beached there remained some 200 to 300 of water to dry land. No seaman, and concerned with off-loading of the heavy equipment, the battalion exec. hailed a passing DUKW, went ashore and ordered a dozer to build a ramp to the ship. Despite the operator's enjoinder that when the tide went out the ship would be in the dry the ramp was prepared. Sure enough when unloading started a few hours later even the ships screw was dry.
We were just settling down, near dawn in one of the hedgerow bordered fields of Normandy when a German Recon aircraft set off a most spectacular July 4th fireworks display of antiaircraft incendiaries and air-bursts- from us to them.
The next few weeks were spent in widening and maintaining roads and bridges and in maintaining trafficability in the many supply dumps of the beachhead area. One memorable event was when a petroleum dump fire evoked the alarming cry of "GAS", which alarm spread among the tightly packed million or more men in record time and brought on a scramble for that cumbersome appendage, but then appreciated gas mask - not needed.
Then there was the bombing attack softening for the Normandy break through. An awesome sight those Air Force B-17's and 24's wave after wave in groups of three, nine and twenty-seven, almost blackening the sky. An occasional air burst would start one pulling away or heading down with white puffs of opening parachutes- some not opening.
In early August, as St Lo fell, the same Van Atta came in one afternoon reporting good news and other. The-good news- he was being transferred to First Army Staff and "that Patton's Third Army is becoming operational and the battalion with you in command is assigned to XX Corps of that Army. You are to hit this I.P. at 1800 hours and head South toward Angiers. Here's our only Michelin map- Goodbye."
After an all night convoy trek marked by an occasional effort to arouse some hesitant French to help define our position, we settled down in a Brittany apple orchard. No sooner settled than a half track with machine gunners fore and aft and one later known as the legendary and aptly named "Terrible Tom," the Corps Engineer, made appearance. "Are you in charge here?" "Yes sir" "Send five trucks back to Normandy. Get mines and explosives and head on toward Angiers. Clear all road debris and if I see one tank, gun, truck or horse that projects more than six inches onto the pavement, you are relieved" "yes sir". Thus ended the first day with Patton's Army.
Now to find empty trucks. The last cleared was loaded with drums and bugles, scrounged in England by the battalion commander's effective effort at esprit enhancement. Have often imagined the chagrin of some French farmer having as his legacy of the war a truck load of drums and bugles under his favorite apple tree. But on with the action.
Moving South we removed the debris of war from the road trucks, tanks, guns and occasional well splattered horse artillery element, patched craters, removed mines and disposed of abatis (fallen road side trees)-hence on to our first action under fire at Angers.
Fortunately a surprise infantry effort resulted in the capture of a railroad bridge across the Mayenne River tho not without casualties as noted by sight of bodies with 5th Infantry Division patches on the typical back-to-the-surface drowned and floating men. This capture took some pressure off the ensuing but under fire floating bridge and two Bailey (steel panel) bridges. This bridging was the first of what was to be an approximate two miles, in small increments, before reaching Czechoslovakia.
One sight at the railroad bridge was of a German security guard with head plastered by his blood to the abutment as he resisted apparently by a rifle butt.
We had several nervous days in the area while out-posting as the infantry moved on with no attack however as the Germans had apparently decided to head for the Fatherland.
Getting back into the mainstream we moved through La Ferte Bernard and Lemans to Chartre, with the only action en route construction of two fixed wooden bridges. The view and visit to the famed cathedral was marred however by word that a young XX Corps staff colonel had just been killed by a sniper from atop.
At a breathing spell all 10 or 12 battalion commanders were called into the C.P. of the same "Terrible Tom" and among other things were lectured on the merits of the "Chain of Command." "It is the lifeblood of any organization, Never tell a platoon leader what's to be done- take it through the company commander. He has to know what is going on." Then "I want to see all your supply officers here at 10:00 tomorrow morning." All this in the absence of our intermediate commanders.
The next memorable stop was East of Paris in the Fontaine-blo Forest awaiting General DeGaulles' entry. Heretofore we had conformed to U.S. teachings and had bivouacked in the fields away from any habitation. But this time, with a pattern set by others, the chateau grounds were too tempting. No sooner were we settled than an invitation was received for all officers to dine at the manor house. Our host was an elderly Marquis whose delight at the that morning departure of the Germans prompted the Marquessa to dig up some champagne, buried the four years of their occupation of the manor. Needless to say a delightful meal was laid out and the typical French hospitality was extended several more days with "C" rations going into the kitchen door and "Voila" near exquisite dinners on the table. Despite a reported ancestry from Ferdinand DeLesseps of Panama Canal fame, word was out that the hostess had bicycled some 20 miles to Nemours to supplement the "C" ration meals.
Paris had been partially evacuated of many women and children in expectation of being devastated. Some had moved into nearby institutional buildings and were happy to accept an invitation to dine. With the children abed the social amenities aside from the gustatory were highly stimulating. Not much action but happy.
From here we went through Rheims, bivouacking with care in the still pock-marked battlefields of WW I, Epernay, where we sampled some of the product, Verdun and onto the Moselle River with its far side Maginot Line, now facing us. En route we lost our Lieutenant P, captured and his driver K.I.A. by an intruding German ambush.
Supporting the 7th Armored Division as it butted the Maginot was no delight. Here, among others, is where "Terrible Tom" got what was called in some circles the "Million Dollar" wound, but not by him, during determined and often personal efforts to take out Fort Driant. There were no tears in our eyes either when in a realignment of forces we were transferred to the adjoining XII, Corps. though there were some two months later when the bodies of three of our reported "missing in action" were found alongside the battlements of the same Fort, just then overcome.
While crossing France, largely in support of the infantry. our morale was buoyed by the high good spirits and occasional hand-out of goodies by the populace. Rations were also supplemented by captured German supplies, the most remembered being the canned beef (Argentine?) and squeeze tube cheese. An over run clothing supply depot provided all with a very comforting fur weskit. Among other delicacies was that from the Wehrmacht Cointreau, supply at Angers, a bottle of which lent substance to the bed roll pillow throughout the odyssey.
A macabre vignette- Passing a recently over run supply depot there was noted in a road side ditch the dress uniformed body of a cleanly finished German officer. On a return passage, some humorist had placed the body in a baby carriage, obviously with feet out. Next seen he had a cigar in mouth, one hand propped up as tho waving. Bad humor- not at the time.
Some of our casualties up to now had been accidents brought on largely by black out driving. As for example when a Lt. Sn. drove into the gap of a destroyed bridge, a jeep under-running a truck and once, a truck driving along side an unrailed canal flipped in, scrambling men, tool chests and tools. A sergeant C. among others evacuated but to later return, always welcome.
Now as we approached Festung Europa the wet and wintry weather, the terrain, supply situation and a determined enemy complicated life. No more fun filled days for a while.
Our first action with the XII Corps was to the South of Nancy and more assault crossings - of the upper Moselle and Muerthe Rivers. Here is recalled the conventional rifle with bayonet stuck in the ground marking the dead of the attack. Nancy, one dawn seemed almost a ghost town, not a twig stirring. An hour later with somehow assurance that the enemy was gone, -spirited action. One such action in the outskirts included a frenzied search of town square apartments with an occasional wailing woman dragged out, plopped into a chair and being unceremoniously shorn as an enemy collaborator, amidst much applause.
Outside Nancy we got our next assignment to Armor- the 4th Armored Division. The opening contact in a dug-in C.P. with the since well known (then LT Colonel) Creighton Abrams whose "We uncoil at 0500 tomorrow at Chateau Salins, pass the Siegfried at dark, the day after the Rhine, and by week after next, Berlin," conditioned by "God and gas supply willing" evoked the thought "Wow, Now this is the way to wrap up a war."
It didn't quite happen that way. Can't say about God but the gas supply was not there, nor were we in Berlin that fortnight. During the day, with the armor not yet uncoiled, we settled in a graveyard awaiting the breakout. Here came the Jubos (P47 fighter-bombers) circling, building up courage and finally straight down into the German 88 anti-aircraft pieces. Flak all over the place and later there was a sight among the devastation of German gunners, one fricasseed with fingers on trigger.
Our over viewing graveyard with its hopefully protective surrounding stone wall proved not too smart. Its stately trees were enough to detonate air burst German artillery and send shards straight down.- so bring out the axes and chop down the trees as an also mental diversion from fears of death. Some hurt to include our good Sergeant F., K.I.A.
Another vignette. The Germans in a effort to Aryanize Alsace-Lorraine had re-mapped and re-named the area during the 4 year occupation. Our map showed the nearby village to be Hamburg bi Saulnois. Shortly after we entered, one of the inhabitants in typical baggy jodphurs and rubber boots, obviously of French alignment was seen posting a crudely lettered sign at the village entrance with "Fresnes en Saulnois". Often wondered how he fared when we had to turn his village back to the Germans a few days later as we pulled back to await fuel.
This first close attachment to armor brought on further complications. Heretofore we'd been generally behind the protective blanket of infantry held lines. Not so with the scattered combat commands of the armored divisions. Though told not to stray from the route as traveled by the armor to its nightly lagering position, one Capt. A. and Sgt. S. somehow disoriented on the black out drive, got off the track and were captured. Next day the jeep was recovered loaded with Germans.
At about the same time we got word that there was a truck load of mail with many Thanksgiving packages awaiting pick up in Nancy. A truck went back, loaded up and the next we heard a month later was that there were a number of bags of our mail found in a recently over-run town. At pick up, the letter mail was found intact but the package wrapping debris told who enjoyed the goodies of content- not us.
The next six weeks were spent in an increasingly muddier bivouac outside Nancy. The combination of heavy rain, poor drainage and roads built to accommodate horse drawn traffic only kept us well occupied maintaining trafficability, as well as removing mines and out-posting for security with the infantry.
In the early stage of the stale-mating fuel shortage and with tunnel vision sometimes common in such situations, it was felt that such shortage must be a defect of the nearest supply echelon. In some exasperation the supply warrant officer "Wojy" Mr. W. was called in and in no uncertain terms told to "Load two trucks with empty gas drums, get going and if you don't bring back gas, don't bother to come back". In view of the fact that Mr. W's reputation for tippling was exceeded only by his success in cadging supplies where there were none, as when he got us the battalion complement of paratroopers boots and tankers jackets, neither authorized, this order may have been a mistake.
Four days later his accompanying sergeant reported in with no gas. "Why?" We checked with every P.O.L. dump all the 600 miles back to Cherbourg- no gas anywhere. "When did you last see Mr. W. and had he been drinking?" Well, he went into the main P.O.L. Hq. in Cherbourg, never came out and after searching for a couple of days, I started back. What was the second part of the question?. Oh yes- "Yes". Repeated entries from the Personnel Officer to account for Mr. W's absence in the Morning Report finally bought in guilt "Declare him missing in action." Almost needless to say on his return after a few weeks of drying out (suspected) his productivity was no less effective.
In fact, better, when Christmas Turkey time approached later he went back to the supply depot with a requisition for 600 turkey rations. The sergeant in charge thumbed through his files and came up with "What do you mean 600. Your Morning Reports shows a strength of 550". "What is the date of that morning report?" "Yesterday morning." "God dammit, Tom," to his buddy, "do you suppose we lost 50 men on that river crossing night before last? The hell with your turkey," in high dudgeon, "Give me my carbine, I'm going out to kill krauts!" "O.K." in aroused sympathy, "You can have your 600 rations." So we ate better.
While in the muddy and occasionally shelled Champeneaux Forest outside Nancy awaiting the gas, we were shocked while at "C" ration dinner when two civilians on bicycles rolled in, obviously on visit. We'd almost forgotten the earlier Marquissa's lovely daughter and information that her twin brother was in hiding from the German draft in Brussels- now free. Their effort and a determined one it was, with a 150 mile bicycle trip, was to locate our Captain J.M., who had apparently impressed her as well as he consistently did his fellow warriors. So after a meager effort at returning the family hospitality, the captain was directed to put the two, with cycles, in a properly covered truck and get them the hell out of here.
Somehow a neighboring unit in the forest had gotten an electric generator for lights, we having none. An aggressive Corporal G., always concerned with his officer's comfort , decided they needed lights, too. So with a connecting wire in hand he crawled across the road to make connection. On being discovered his stuttering response, "S-sir, I I was just looking for my watch" did not convince- so no lights.
Reminded me of an earlier experience with stuttering. There had been a assigned a little red-faced Boston Irishman with my surname but Bartholomew in front. One Sunday morning a call from the Provost Marshal office "Are you the company commander of B Company of 150th Engineers"? Yes"Come down and pick one of your guys. We have a Bruce Reagan down here in the stockade for a drinking disturbance last night" What!, I'll be right down. When taken to task the young Irishman retorted with "S-sir, I thought they were asking me the name of my company commander".
Now an "Its a small world" story. Shortly after dark one night on orders to support a river crossing, I approached a "goose egg" designating the Regimental C.P. location. No signs, no sounds. Hesitant to walk into the woods and sensing some presence. I hollered "Hey, anybody around here". Yeah, What do you want? "I am. looking for the ----- Regimental C.P." They left 5 minutes ago, say, who are you? "Oh, I am with the supporting engineers, supposed to help out tonight" I think I know you- and as he emerged from the woods it turned out to be one of my most valued sergeants who had been cadred out what seemed like years back- in Texas.
One of our tasks along here was to make a more effective barrier of the largely trickling Sielle River. With a major dam upstream in the enemy hands, the plan was to build a levee in appropriate sections, the Air Force then to take out the dam and hopefully raising the water to inhibit enemy action. Imagine the disappointment when the expected huge water wave turned out to be only a foot or two- though understood to have served its purpose further upstream.
As the fuel crisis approached solution we started moving again, though slowly, in the first week of November. Such names as Fenetrange, Dieuze, Domnom, Sarralbe and Sarreguimines with associated bridging, road and mine field clearing come to mind as we approached the Siegfried Line.
Forward recon for needed bridging often had its unexpected consequences. Near Domnom our Captain C. and Corporal P. apparently wandered too far. At a cross road village they went aloft to see what was to be seen. Surprisingly, to their flank a German motorized column came out of the woods properly with scout vehicles out front and headed straight toward them. Their vantage point at a house on the road junction was such that the following vehicles could not see the scout vehicles after they made the turn. So rather than get caught with the main body, they took out the drivers of the three point vehicles from aloft as they became obscured from the main body, jumped into their jeep and got the hell out of there.
Now, too we began to miss the Nancy services of coffee and doughnuts of our 3 best, the three H's, Hope, Hazel and Helen of a Red Cross Club mobile.
Then came the German counterattack, later to be know as the "Bulge." The sight of four to six vehicles abreast on paving and shoulders of two lane roads, all heading North as General Patton redirected forces to close the southern haunch of that bulge was memorable.
Turning initially to defense, mines, abatis and craters were installed to thwart expansion. Then with a build-up, the attack was on again into the Siegfried positions on Luxembourg's North and North-easterly borders. Now, there is bitter cold, ice, snow and flooding, streams to contend with.
The snow and frozen ground contributed not only, to difficulty of life and traffic flow but particularly to clearing mines protecting enemy fortifications. Most regrettable was the loss, near Diekirch of an outstanding platoon leader, one whose men protectively swarmed him like bees protecting the Queen, a Lieutenant G.B., foot gone while clearing a mine field. Among others K.I.A. was a youngster whose impatience in looking for booby trapped mines caused him to throw a log at a mine and got it back in his face.
Along with other fiercely contested bridging operations fronting the line, we bridged with Bailey (steel panel) equipment atop a destroyed span of a multiple arch stone bridge. Unfortunately, being on a high fill approach and with no remaining longitudinal strength the total collapsed. Here is recalled the hissing sound of hot shrapnel, sizzling as it skittered along the ice one such burst taking out another fine officer, one Lieutenant J.G. (not Naval) along with four men.
One bridge called for in the relative backwater to connect the two Corps involved was near the improbably named town of Neidersehlindermandersheid. With a single and properly placed German demolition charge this high single arch Roman built bridge lay in rubble in the stream bed. The vissicitudes of getting bridging material around the ice slickened hair-pin turning roads was needless to say challenging.
The neighboring town of Uberneiderschlindermandersheid, along with others in the area, appeared to be the attack target from whomever was in the fields (us or them) regularly at 1500 hours to gain the relatively luxurious nightly bed of straw.
Now to the various raging, snow fed streams fronting the Siegfried, the Sure, the Shure, the Sauer and the Our, many with emplacements camouflaged as the local gast house on the enemy approach. After several months as no-mans-land, fruit of the preceding fall crop still lay decaying on the ground. Only an occasional, elderly ventured from the largely destroyed houses for survival needs. On one bridge approach, at Bettendorf, an elongated hump of snow turned out, to be the body of a determined sergeant of armor, apparently killed in a three month earlier effort to overcome the now inaccessible gast-house pill-box straight ahead.
In early February there came a requirement for passage of the ice laden and flooding junction of the Our and Sauer Rivers. Typically European, the raging waters tolerated no row boats and it is suspected that for many years the bottoms were laden with U.S. rifles and other impedimenta. The sound of unhardened young infantrymen only recently arrived crying "Mother, Mother" in terror of approaching death marked the effort.
At the water's edge many boats were accidentally or in some cases intentionally, intuitively over turned. One report was of a young Major of infantry announcing with .45 in hand "Anyone who dumps this boat is not just wet but dead." Thus a few determined troops were able to get across. Perhaps these actions could best be described by the following excerpt from the unit history, written at the time.
During the evening of February 6 the men moved quietly into their positions, last minute preparations were made and then a little after mid-night at 0120 "all hell broke loose." The preparatory barrage lasted 40 minutes. The deafening roar of the big guns, the chatter of the machine guns and the flash of their tracers stamped an indelible picture in our minds... a squad at a tine of infantry started down the slope carrying the assault boats led by men who knew the routes through the mine fields. The men slipped and strained in the mud from the cold drenching rain..... These pillboxes were not knocked out by any means ... and the flares often had the area bright as day .... each boat crossing was a night mare. As the boat left the shore the current would catch it and send it rushing crazily downstream. Sometime it would catch a snag and capsize throwing the men into the swirling waters. Sometimes the boat would be hit by shrapnel from a near miss or be riddled with machine gun fire but somehow some of them reached the far shore. The infantry would leap out of the boats while the engineers started back into the rating waters and shell fire and again the current would carry the boat farther downstream. That was a terrible experience, working along the bank, slipping and stumbling in the dark, dragging the boat along against the current. When daylight came operations had to cease and the men practically crawled into the cellars and dropped into any spot they could find.
That same night and nearby there was an aborted bridging action which very nearly resulted in Court Martial.
As the battalion commander lay in a bed of straw next morning in a typical concrete floored, partly straw storing farmhouse basement, he was awakened by a Captain of Judge Advocate, pink and green clad yet with the query. "Are you the commander of the 150th Engineers?" "Yes" "I am the J.A. of the ... Division investigating. Your name rank and serial number. You are aware of your rights to remain silent, etc" "Yes" "What were your orders last night?" "To get troops across the Our River." "Did you succeed?" "No, do you have time to hear the story?"
"Your General H.H. called me in just before dark last night said that a key pill-box across from a demolished bridge would be taken out by 2000 hours. That I was to put in bridge for a major attack that would start at 2400 but to stay away from the demolished bridge as it was reserved for a heavy duty bridge. I advised the General that an early a.m. recon by one of our Lieutenants before his evacuation disclosed no other bridge site without extensive and overnight approach work because of swampy conditions. As alternatives I suggested troop build up by either rope hold fording, or if too deep by rope bound pneumatic floats.." Get going.
"So we go out to the approach after dark, slashing around the blocking abatis for trip wires while follow up crews removed it. I charge ahead, confirm the swampy conditions and in seeking fording possibility wade into the ice laden water up to the arm pits- but no way. Ordered up the pneumatic floats. The 2330 softening barrage, heavy on incendiaries apparently alerted and provided light for the enemy, I could hear the hits of escaping air as I made way along the mortar damaged pneumatic gear. Back behind a protective escarpment I beseeched the infantry battalion commander not to move to the heavily mortared approach - no way, they came, some were hurt before withdrawal. Abort."
As I got up to bid the J.A. goodbye, shucking off the outer garments, a metallic tinkling on the concrete floor, shrapnel shards, may have convinced him that while the operation was without success it was not because of dilatory effort. Either that or the fatherly Corps Commanding General Manton S. Eddy called the deal off since he had awarded the Distinguished Service Cross only a few weeks earlier.
That action was bridging the Saar River into the siegfried emplacements at Sarreinsming, one of almost nightly occurrences for a week.
The intent was to double prong the effort with a ferry at a nearby suitable site and to replace a destroyed bridge approximately a mile upstream. The battalion executive officer was put in charge of the ferry while the b.c. took the bridging. Much steel flew with both locations apparently plotted long before from the Siegfried positions, plus some direct tank fire, possibly also so controlled. The infantry had worked a few troops across the damaged bridge and were out-posting the village some 50 yards away. Even so any time a few men approached to start work the direct fire ran them off. It took several hours of being too closely and emotionally involved before it was realized that there must be some close-by communication to the controllers for the tanks or Siegfried artillery to know when to fire. So the Regimental Commander was requested to round up all the local people and put them under guard, as he did, in the church. This being done the enemy fire was less effective and the bridge was completed near dawn though not without adding extra panels where some earlier installed had been damaged by the intense artillery fire.
As the bridge success was imminent the b.c. retreated to the slight rear for rest. Soon a medic "Major K. is outside being evacuated." How bad and is he conscious? "Bad, a chunk of his side is gone-not conscious." Somehow there must have been a recollection of an early Patton admonition, perhaps one that contributed to his Nom de Guerre of "Old Blood and Guts," "When you are out in that foxhole and reach over to touch what was once the face of your best fighting buddy, don't get morbid- get mad and get with it." So "Evacuate him". For this, his Silver Star, posthumously and some memorialization at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
Earlier as the gas supply built up a few replacement officer were assigned. Two were just out of CONUS and obviously enthused over something to tell their grandchildren other than that "I spent the whole war training troops in demolition and bridging". The senior, most delighted over assignment to liaison with armor however unfortunately and most disgusted over it, shot himself in the foot while cleaning his carbine on the first day, known not be deliberately self inflicted. Later a young forester, Lieutenant Sh. from Oregon, whom we felt should have time to get acclimated was assigned to freelance and observe around battalion Hq. The pressure became so intense from the short handed company commanders that after a week he was assigned to a combat company. Two days later, at the Sauer, the total course was finished for him.
At yet another probe of the Siegfried across the Sauer at Dillingen a hasty order to report to the attacking infantry commander left no time to order in a bridging recon element. The regimental commander advised that he had an attached tank company nearby and available. After much foot dragging the company commander was told "Lets go, what's to worry about, there should be no Krauts on this side of the river, besides we've got four inches of steel around us and at night, too."
Almost all night we clomped along, slowly but obviously not too quietly, often with flashlight under closed turret to determine position, occasionally getting out for foot recon. Finally while buttoned up and withdrawing up the slope, there was the faint sound of a hammer banging against the turret. "What the hell are you doing here, stop immediately. We have dug in infantrymen sleeping all over the place"
The floating bridge needs having been determined and ordered in, action began. A skeletal infantry company had gained the far side and the concrete defenses were reduced though enemy artillery was still active. Any work at the site brought sniper fire from among the many crannies of the far side. An attached artillery observer would make his determination of location, send in a spotter round or two then order "Fire for Effect". Much steel flew and for us it was back to, work- same all day.
The control group settled in a masonry barn whose door opened up river and was assumed to be invulnerable to direct fire. The winding river, however must have provided such possibility to some determined opposition because at dusk a single Nebelwerfer (small cartdrawn rocket) round sounding like a freight train coming in, came in the door. Several killed and a slight Purple Heart for the narrator.
Along here somewhere there was a need for a small bridge over a creek on the far side. With the heavy snow as a back drop it was decided we'd best put our scouts in white clothing. So to one of the houses, shake the feathers out of a few feather beds, cut holes in appropriate places and Voila! our night fighters were more properly attired.
After several more bridging actions we squeaked through the Siegfried and moved generally North-east paralleling the Moselle River with bridging of such unheard rivers as the Prum, the Kyll and the Kyle and following the now fast moving 4th Armored Division. Some of our more gutsy youngsters learning from the armor, would occasionally depart from the armored path and visit villages in the backwater of the action. Delighted that their village had not been a point of defense and possible devastation, the local Burgermeister would respond post haste when told to "gather all pistols, rifles, swords and have them here in an hour." No loot, no looting, only assuring no potent weapons and incidentally acquiring a souvenir.
On many of the side roads craters, log cribs or abatis had been installed as part of the anticipated defense needs. With now no such need, we would often order the burgermeister to take them out. Only the elderly, women and children remained but fell to in great good spirits, as though on a picnic removing the obstructions, which it is suspected they'd reluctantly prepared a few days earlier and were now happy to not have been in the vortex of the passing armies.
Up to about this point we had lost the equivalent-of all officers wounded and evacuated, some to return, most not, largely in the lieutenant rank. Apparently this being a theater-wide situation with few replacements, we were authorized to award battlefield commissions. Our young Sergeant C. who'd learned heavy equipment at his father's knee, and was now the main stay of the headquarters company equipment section, was transferred to a line company for the required thirty day direct combat duty, then commissioned, along with 5 or 6 others, largely First Sergeants.
Along here also, with the heavy losses of infantrymen, the high command decided to draft 5% from the so-called service units. Long before, the training officer had pulled a sharp youngster at half through basic to help in preparing training aids and lessons. Imagine the dismay and later feeling of guilt when on query as to where is Sergeant F. "Oh, we had to let him go in the infantry levy" and two days later to hear that he was K.I.A.
It was also reported that the losses to the earlier A.S.T.P. program, re-assigned when the Armed Forces, anticipated a less lengthy war, had been the nucleus of the 106th Infantry Division which took the brunt of the "Bulge" initiation.
On our race across the Palatinate we received two new radios. Obviously one went to the command jeep the other to a central commo truck. "In a slack period the intelligence officer suggested that he check the system with the command jeep while out on recon. On return he reported that the b.c driver Corporal H. was K.I.A. The story- he had stopped at a very remote but possibly useable crossing site, walked along a side hill cut approach to the river bank. On return he found Corporal H. who'd followed him, with a trip wire afoot that had set off a fougasse (rock filled head level explosive), which he, the captain, had somehow not tripped. "Where is he now?" Still there "You go back right now and either bring him back or make sure that Graves Registration knows where he is."
We turned South, Just before reaching Koblenz and the Rhine River with the Moselle River as the first obstacle. Here we almost lost one of our two floating bridges when flood debris put an unplanned stress on the anchorage and created a disturbing 45 degree list. There was no little consternation before it was winched back into position. While doing so one of our best non-com's Sergeant H. got caught with an outboard failure upstream of the bridge, drifted afoul of an anchorage cable and never reached the surface.
Here, too we had our first experience under a reflected searchlight lighted area. When fronted with favorable cloud conditions the lights were tried out to illuminate and to hopefully expedite night time bridging. It turned out to be a mixed blessing. Reflections from the clouds over the far side banks would light up the forward sides of the buildings and the near bank as though in daylight while the rearward sides stayed in Stygian darkness. These provided good spots for concealment but was not conducive to bridging progress since the work site would be so highly exposed.
Since leaving the Siegfried Line area we had gotten quotas of five or six men per week for a week of Rest and Recuperation on the newly opened French Riviera, or Paris or London. Some wild tales of fun and pleasure came from those returning. One recalled was hesitantly draw out of a young lieutenant on return from Paris. The first afternoon while enjoying the side-walk ambience of the Champs de Elisee cafe, and hoping for more, a lovely statuesque blonde showed up. No amount of effort at flirtation succeeded so he bribed the maitre de to make proper introduction. The first night of wining and dining was followed by the second but with no entry into the apartment. The last night after the same revelry and in desperation a foot in the door gained entry. As a moment of delight approached there was a sigh of resignation and a beautiful blond wig wag thrown to the floor revealing what was obviously a cue-balled Nazi collaborator- but too late.
Though many stories abound now as to how splashed one was on certain operations, in fact there was little drinking. The invariably prime spirits stocks of the Wehrmacht, notably at Angiers and Epernay, when over run would be passed out at one or two bottles per squad, the officers perhaps one for three. Of course, there may have been more drinking than we were aware of but the exuberance of youth was the prime motivation.
At about this time the b.c. was ordered to take the R. and R. bit- the choice being an eight hour truck ride to Paris or a C-47 flight to London. London was chosen and imagine the surprise to find when checking into the hotel room a Major of Military Police sacked down with one of the roving ladies from outside the hotel. Even more jolting was felt however the next dawn when a V-2 bomb landed in the park just outside my Grosvenor House room.
Upon checking back in to the unit after this surcease, we were found to be fronting the Rhine near Oppenheim- Nierstein and final plans were under way for the crossing. Rear area bridging equipment assembly was in progress and there was just time for a final coordinating conference by the assault commander, the then Colonel Alfred D. Starbird of the 1135th Engineer Combat Group. Among other attachments for his effort were anti-aircraft and smoke generating units, engineer heavy pontoon and Treadway bridging elements, special engineer units trained in protective boom construction and a U.S. Navy complement of 12 Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel. (L.C.V.P.'s)
During the preceding eight months our crew often reported seeing or having contact with General Patton, usually well up front- who seemed to have an affinity for prime movers. He would be seen standing in his lacquered jeep with equally shiny helmet, pearl handled side arms, machine gunners fore and aft always heading forward. Reportedly he returned to the rear by liaison aircraft- an effective leadership ploy, and hopefully resting.
The most vivid contact may best be described by a report of one of our lieutenants shortly after the event, in Alsace.
I had been ordered to take a detail of a dozer and several men to fill in a canal on the approach to a destroyed bridge. Sergeant C. and his dozer with its Jerry rigged protective shield proceeded to the canal where we were in full view of the Krauts some 400 yards away. Tanks were to our rear firing on targets of opportunity on the flats beyond the river.
From a protective stone wall I watched as the sergeant backed up, loaded his blade and dumped it in the canal. Once as he was looking back I could see that something was really attracting his attention so I looked back to see what it was.
To my utter amazement down the road came General Patton, shining helmet and pistols, striding toward us with an aide apprehensively following. Needless to say I jumped up and saluted. Ignoring me he walked the 30 yards or so to the dozer, by then obviously stopped, crawled up the track and told the sergeant "You engineers are doing a god damn good job and the tanks are worthless without you" Then "How are your officers treating you?" and "How's the grub?" Both answers being favorable he stridden back up the road with rifle fire still peppering the area. Being the target he was, I wondered why he didn't get killed then unless the Krauts were as dumfounded as we were."
On another occasion, having just finished a mildly contested bridge some men in resting mode, sans helmets were surprised by the shiny presence coming in on their blind side. His stern enjoinder. "Get them god damn helmets on" followed by "Where's your officer?" Over there, Sir, Lieutenant Sp., the one standing. The effective Patton berating is now somehow proudly recalled with the added "and straighten up your god damn tie".
Another incident was fortuitously observed from a distance. One of our lieutenants had been directed to bypass a column and measure a destroyed bridge as replacement equipment advanced. On his way back an apparently lost unit was butted up, bumper to bumper with no bridge ahead and no turn-around. Here came General Patton, peering into every vehicle looking for an officer. Finding one he must have convinced in no uncertain terms of the stupidity of such concentration and when last seen the trucks were charging through the road side stone walls to comply.
Then there was the report, unconfirmable now but heard at the time hence with a measure of credibility, of the artillery officer whose appointment with some Third Army trucks to haul in extra ammunition was not met. In an effort to find out why the default a late night call was made to "Lucky 16". Somehow it turned out to be "Lucky 6" himself. "What the hell kind of railroad are you characters running back there". I was told you'd have 15 trucks at the junction of S-53 and E-20 at 2000 hours. I've been waiting now for 4 hours and no G.D. trucks." To his shock- Patton "Son, hold, this is General Patton. You do have a problem but just stay there, you'll get them". The further report was that there was considerable staff action that night.
On another occasion we'd just turned a contested bridge construction over to a follow-up maintenance and security unit. On Patton's arrival a gruff question to the guard. " Son, did you have anything to do with the construction of this bridge?" The shaken reply "Yes sir" "Give that man a Bronze Star, Make a note, Joe".
When we were bogged own outside Nancy awaiting gasoline some warm baths with the to-be-expected allied amenities became available in Nancy. One report was that General Patton was driving through the area, and spotted some military police posting off-limit signs on the pleasure houses. Incensed, he button-holed the officer in charge and directed him to "take those god damn signs down. When my boys capture something it is damn well theirs until I decide they can't have it."
Also, while back in Nancy there was a demonstration by a British Major of a newly developed British flamethrower for use against the upcoming Siegfreid fortifications. After explanation and just before firing all were told to move back a few paces for safety. Only General Patton and his aide remained firm with the laconic "If it gets too hot we'll move". After firing he commented "Not worth a damn". All dispersed not knowing for several years later of his antipathy for General Montgomery and his like.
Neither was it known until later that his obvious delight at getting to and forcing a crossing of the Rhine before Montgomery added impetus to the "do it now" for this action. Even so we were one day delayed when the 90th Division, which was supposed to have gotten there first, bogged down in opposition and the 5th Division closed in to force the barrier. For this, and not knowing why, many were even more pleased at the photographic evidence of satisfaction of the moral victory and of urinary distress off the bridge into the Rhine.
The bridging plan for the Rhine was somewhat typical though on a considerably larger scale that heretofore. It was to establish a bridgehead by infantrymen rowed across in assault boats, a rapid build up using powered boats and the L.C.V.P.'s, then construction of floating bridges with protective booms (Reference The Military Engineer magazine of Jan-Feb, 1857). Sections were to be assembled in the harbor.
The site long before selected by Third Army staff was just downstream of the entry channel to the Nierstein Oppenheim river harbor. The channel was stone riveted, about 60 feet wide and approximately 1500 feet long generally paralleling the river and with a levee on that side.
The river was approximately a thousand feet wide, velocity 3 to five feet per second and both approaches were paved as a former ferry site.
With limited space between the channel. exit and the trace of the bridge, initial cable anchorage would have blocked further L.C.V.P. passage so it was decided to assemble the bridge by raft sections unconventionally from the far to the near shore, a process made possible only with the power of the two LCVP's assigned to bridging.
The assault got under way at 2200 hours on March 22 and shortly after the first bridging elements to include the landing craft, though without the unloading Tourna-crane, started toward the harbor. Apparently the crane had trouble as did some of the craft, in wending through the tight turns of some of the villages.
What to do at the unloading site with no crane? After some head scratching and on the advice of our young equipment expert, one Lieutenant C., it was decided to doze the stone revetment into the water to expose soft earth, winch the landing craft off their carriers and push them in by dozer. Amidst cries of you can't do that to my hulls" by the navy commander all were soon afloat.
Meanwhile the bridging parts were being assembled into raft sections for floating into position. In a rear assembly area each truck had been loaded with an inflated pneumatic float, the two steel Treadways and necessary small gear for one twelve foot bridge section and advanced to the harbor as space permitted. Not too directly controlled artillery fire was little more than harassing.
Shortly before dawn the first 36 foot raft section. with necessary men and equipment to prepare the far shore abutment was sent across. The officer in charge, a Lieutenant H., alert to need of assuring no close by surprises, himself surprised a group of Germans bent on directing artillery once light permitted, by which time the smoke generators were proving effective, anyway.
Along with other enemy actions here we saw for the first time a jet aircraft, the Messerschmidt 262, whose speed allowed them to get through the air defenses but whose apparent lack of pilot experience caused them to consistently over or under shoot the targeted bridge construction- one raft section only damaged. One bomb did however get our ever forward eyes and ears, one Captain V.C., W.I.A.
This Me 262 experience often reminds me of a story about a British Group Captain, fighter pilot, making a presentation to an austere Daughters of American Revolution group. Describing one of his dog fights he said "We were escorting some bombers over Schweinfurt when my wing man came on with "Fokkers at 10 O'clock high", so we started for altitude....... "Interruption by the lady chairman in slight shock" Ladies, I think you should know that the Fokker was a type of German aircraft". He "Beg pardon, Ma'am, These were Messerschmitts."
No major complications to the bridging ensued and by 1800 hours the armor started rolling across.
The necessity for assembly from the far shore to the near turned out to have unexpected advantage. Heretofore with the bridge advancing normally we would often have concerned Division commanders, sometimes with staff if there was not too much artillery, walk out to the end to see what was going on and disrupting progress. Then there would be repeated inquiries "When will it be done?" or "Looks like you are getting close to completion, I'll start the tanks down" All answers were evasive or negative in the possibility that sudden artillery would damage or destroy the bridge with tanks stacked up like sitting ducks.
Though not known at the time it was later reported by one of our captains that General Patton showed up on the near bank of this action and said "Don't tell me 1900 hours, Godamit, make it 1700" So it turned out to be a compromise at 1800 hours.
Overnight another bridge of heavy aluminum pontoons was completed- Thus the two bridges of General Patton's fiery query about the third bridge the next morning. "Where's my third blankety-blank bridge?"
We did have several sections of bridging left and a sub-standard approach existed along the narrow channel levee but with no paving on it nor on the opposite side exit. Nevertheless underway we went though slowly since the equipment was so far to the rear, and besides the sense of urgency had expired.
The last order before sacking out that night was to make sure that a sunken barge just upstream of the bridge was securely tied down. As a since developed Murphy's law would have it "If there is any possibility that anything will go wrong, it will" overnight the river rose slightly, floated the ineffectively anchored barge, fouled the bridge anchors and at dawn a very disturbing "S" wave showed up. Close but no loss thanks to the landing craft and it was soon back to the design curve.
Concurrent with the bridge construction there was installation of a variety of protective devices. In order and starting several hundred yards upstream was first an anti-personnel boom of heavy 6 inch wire mesh supported by a cable, kept afloat by properly spaced 55 gallon drums and topped by concertina barbed wire. Next there were three log necklace type anti-mine booms, expendable if hit and finally an anti-barge boom of four heavy steel cables floated Also by 55 gallon drums. With all these and farther upstream or along the banks there were snipers, anti-tank and artillery pieces and patrolling boats dropping timed explosive charges to shake up any would be swimming saboteur.
On the morning of the overview two wet-suited, then called "Gamm" swimmers were captured while working their way ashore at the then only half completed anti-personnel boom. Luckily they'd hit the completed portion. The report, one of few typed during the war (No time for typing) is as below:
5 April, 1945
SUBJECT: Interrogation of enemy swimming demolition men
1. Two Germans with rubber underwater suits were captured on the morning of 24 Mar., 1945 by the 11th Infantry Reg. in vicinity of Oppenheim on the upstream Rhine bank. Prisoners were interrogated at the P.W. cage by Capt. Albert L. Morgan and S/Sgt. Nelson of this headquarters.
2. The following information was gained and was the same
in substance from each prisoner:
One of our incidental chores as we were now in the relative back-water of the action was to remove some reported nerve gas bombs from a beached and damaged barge upstream. With only a low lying and swampy approach the first access pioneering dozer got bogged down several hundred feet from high ground, so a corduroy road of logs was laid but when last seen the dozer was slowly submerging in the mire-perhaps to serve as an interesting find to some future archeologist.
We weren't in the back water for long. Soon there was an order to put in a heavy duty ferry across the Mainz River on the outskirts of Frankfort. Buildings on the near shore denied enemy visibility and provided protection from the direct artillery fire so there was little disruption to assembly of the floating Treadway raft. Most of the river however was exposed to the observation post and fire, though some of our infantry had gotten across under cover of darkness. Since the far shore landing required some preparation and there were injured men over there waiting evacuation, it was decided to accompany the necessary men and tools on the first trip with an ambulance (a slight shading of the Geneva Convention) in hope of discouraging artillery fire. Didn't work!
On exposure at about a third of the 500 foot crossing the first round came in approximately 30 yards long. The motor operator started to turn back but the enjoinder from the bank "G-damn it, keep going" dissuaded him. When the second round fell near the same distance short, no amount of dissuasion was effective and there was a hasty return. Shortly after, the observation post was reduced and the action completed with, fortunately and rarely no injuries.
In a nearby village something new was going on. Here a determined S.S. (Schutzstaffel) Major reportedly terrorized and mobilized the local folk, largely women, who were doing their part by throwing hot water on the G.I.'s from their upper windows. Hardly effective.
Shortly after crossing the Mainz the First and Third U.S. Armies, after being separated by the hostile terrain Northwest of Frankfort, were re-joined to a common front. Trapped and left behind was a considerable contingent of the enemy, the Sixth Mountain Division, as recalled, whose resolve to break out for the further East Homeland was understandably intense. Several units were over ran in the breakout including a field hospital. Losing an arm was a casual acquaintance while in a hospital was back in Nancy, Robert S. Allen of Third Army staff and more widely known for the Pearson-Allen -Washington column of earlier years and subsequent book "Lucky Forward" about General Patton.
The remainder of the way to the Czechoslovakian border was rather uneventful with only a few die-hard S.S. units scorching the earth as they retreated. Some though slight delay to our movement resulted from destroying bridges and impressing local people into installing various road blocks.
Amusingly some of the farmers would burn their straw stacks, probably in remembrance of their need for horse fodder in earlier campaigns- like WW I. It can be stated however that for some such straw was much better than a wet fox-hole- even appreciated by me.
Another fading memory of this trek was when a single enemy aircraft strafed a nearby activity while we were patching pot-holes. An alert anti-aircraft gunner shot him down- bail out but no parachute opening in a nearby field. There was a sudden throwing down of tools and a foot race to the body. The first there grabbed his pistol and kept running. Who needed a mass of-jelly in a leather flying suit.
On reaching the Czechoslovakian border we headed generally South, diverting to put in a floating bridge at Passau. We were stalled for a few days until the command decided it would move in. Our then, and last support of the 4th Armored Division lasted only a day as the cease fire of May 6th was ordered.
What a sight at the border. A U.S. armored column head-to-head with a non-descript enemy column-banged up old trucks and cars, an occasional armored or command car interspersed with horse-drawn wagons, often with cow atether, hand drawn carts, most loaded with women, children household goods-few troops, all apparently Sudetan Germans seeking the sanctuary of a military presence in effort to get away from the soon to arrive, we learned later, Soviet forces.
Our week's stay in Czechoslovakia, with the high good spirits of the people reminded of the happier days rolling through France. Perhaps they were compensating for the dread anticipation of what was to come. We, in our tunnel vision were not aware but it was forcefully brought home while driving to the East of our host village. On return there was noted a town banner across the road with the Hammer and Sickle with "Welkom Kommunista"
A farewell party of some simple splendor was promoted, with the town band playing together reportedly and believably for the first time in 5 years. Colorful and exquisitely embroidered native dirndls, reportedly barred by the previous-occupiers were brought out. One of our hosts was observed in preparation attentively tending his home made still-a large pot on the stove with barley or some such, a coiled retort tube above and only an occasional drip into a shot glass. My farewell gift was one of the native dirndls effusively admired and hoped for, for my then five year old daughter.
The exodus to the West was about to begin.
As we pulled back the first requirement was to set up checkpoints and allow no civilian to pass. There was only a trickle at first of largely women and children with all worldly goods on backs or a farm cart or baby buggy. Not to be deferred, when turned back, they would retreat a few hundred yard and move across country in effort to by-pass the check- points.
Within several days an overview would reveal masses of migrants, all heading west. We were soon told to abandon the odious effort as the humanitarian and, incidentally not highly publicized U.S. and later U.N., program of gathering, feeding and housing these Displaced Persons began in the abandoned German army kasernes.
Now the effort was to improve ground communications generally, not just militarily, for economic recovery. First assignment was to build two semi-permanent fixed wooden bridges across the Danube River at Straubing, Germany. One was across the navigable mainstream and the other on an approach that crossed a flood channel an approximate 1000 foot total. While design was underway and with the cooperation of the local Burgermeisters we dispatched trucks with a few men some drums of gasoline and a few cases of "C" rations with instructions to start up the outlying lumber mills, and quarries as the source of our needed local materials. We were also given access to the Prisoner of War cages to recruit any who had a useable skill or were capable of manual labor. Imagine a several hundred man human conveyor chain, passing rocks one to the other for 5 to 600 feet to be dumped into a wooden crib in the center of the river. But even cold "C" ration was motivation enough.
The finished product was dedicated to our deceased compatriot, Major Knight, K.I.A. some months earlier in Sarreguimines, France. It was of rock filled wooden cribs, jack bents supporting 50 foot spans, except for a single 90 foot navigation span, and certainly no thing of beauty but hopefully served its purpose for a few years anyway.
During the construction some harsh facts of life emerged. We'd gone all the way across Europe with neither a court-martial nor a case of V.D. Here in about the third week our good Doctor D, came in with a report of 11 suspected cases. He was advised to concern himself particularly with a large apartment house at the bridge abutment where some flirtatious actions had been noted.
There was one near disciplinary action however involving the liaison officer to the next higher headquarters. He being sought for a mission could not be located. Being well liked it was sensed that the troops were covering up for him -so started searching myself. Finally found him wrapped in a feather bed bellowing to the frightened Frau of the house "Mershta zweibel", Get me onions, obviously cranked. After sobering up he was told that if it happened again held be re-classified if no taker for transfer could be found. Three weeks later he could not be found again but his better qualities were appreciated by the upper echelon so instead of being re-classified he was transferred and became liaison from the upper to the lower headquarters rather than from lower to upper- and straightened up.
Another near disciplinary action came about at one of our first river crossings. A lieutenant, among others, was caught out in the open one dawn in a flood plain with only a tree trunk to hide behind all one day until dark. A few weeks later his company commander came in with "You know we are going to have to do something with Lt... "Why so?" "Well, he is demoralizing his platoon. Every time we have a hot situation coming up he tells his men that they'd better write their last letters because this is a suicide mission" So he was transferred to the only relative quiet of the battalion headquarters.
In Straubing, and before our Military Government was set up, a village burgermeister would occasionally come in requesting our help for his problem. The impressed farm labor, largely from over-run Ukraine, Poland and Russia had been kept in small barbed wire stockades scattered throughout the villages. With our arrival the cages were no longer locked so the able-bodied ex-inmates were raiding the chicken coops, pig-pens, other edibles and generally terrorizing the defenseless local folk. It is presumed that the opening of the displaced persons camp, probably to include a round-up, solved this situation.
The next retreat was to Regensburg where we worked with the local officials in rendering the abandoned and often damaged Wehrmacht kasernes habitable for the Displaced Persons. We set up feeding stations and temporary water and sewage services while restoring such services and weatherproofing the buildings.
Most of the officials we worked with were elderly and maimed or disfigured from the prior war. One reported that when the Schuts-Staffel (S.S. troops) were scorching the earth near the end of the war, they suspected probable destruction of their greatest pride- an old, not quite of Roman vintage, stone bridge across the Danube. Strong objections were voiced and to impress, half of the town council was gunned down in front of the others- and the bridge went down.
With a policy of non-fraternization in effect, this to exclude non-Aryans, the eligible young ladies from Eastern Europe in the D.P. compounds provided a measure of long denied social concourse.
One of our assignments while in Regensburg was to locate a supply or expedite production of tar paper, much needed for roofing and repairs. With a possible source in hand an officer was dispatched back to the Ruhr to follow up. His story: When the plant was located and the purpose explained he was greeted like a long lost son. An immediate meeting of the Board was convened and amidst much hope, the needs to get into production was described. They were- first wood pulp from Norway, rebuild a rail bridge connecting the plant to its coal source. Rebuild the plant converting coal to tar, re-float and repair several tugs and barges etc. Obviously well beyond our meager means- so only a report, no action.
On one occasion we had a visit from a claims officer, whom I suspect were very busy shortly after the war for French interests anyway, who wanted to know if we'd had any need for heavy bridging timber around Chartres in August. The reply was yes but we had gotten the lumber through military supplies as far as known. "Do you have a truck with markings 3A-150E-HQ24? Yes "Well, I have here a receipt signed by a Sgt Mickey Mouse and the lumber merchant added that truck number." So, I guess we paid.
As the war was winding down one of our sharper young men was requested to expand his personal journal to provide a unit history. Concurrently, word went out to drop any surplus pistols (a major medium of exchange with rear area troops) in a designated box in the operations trailer. The history being made ready we visited the only known printing agency, the Corps Engineer Topographical Unit and requested reproduction. "No way, busy, busy." When the commander was told "No intent to bribe but tell your men that we have a few pistols for exchange" we soon got a call to pick them up.
The pistols box evidently had become a transfer point, bad pistols for good, leaving only some long buried and rusty or Hungarian stamped metal pieces. But "Seal it up, grab the publications and go before anyone opens it,"
Thus credit for the memory jogging for this journal goes to ex-Sergeant Jack N. Duffy.
Thus also ends this Odyssey with Patton in largely unsung support of his spearhead division, the 4th Armored, and the 5th and 80th Infantry Divisions among others. It was not without its tragedies as well as honors. For the former there were 36 K.I.A., 326 Purple Hearts, some with clusters and a few years of dehabilitation. The latter included 22 Silver Stars, 210 Bronze Stars, 11 Soldiers Medals. A Distinguished Service Cross and a rare Legion of Merit for one who developed a device to trench alongside paving to expedite widening of roads, our since deceased Captain C. For the Battalion as a whole there was the then relatively rare Presidential Unit Citation.
On the progress side the record reflects a total of 4588 feet of steel (Bailey panel type) bridging in largely 60 to 120 foot increments and 5850 feet of floating bridges for the larger streams -most against determined enemy resistance- and a tribute to the aggressive young Americans of New England.
In late July orders were received for CONUS and for probable rotation to the Pacific Theater. So with a case of "K" rations and the bed-roll the battalion commander boarded a 40(hommes) and 8(Chevaux) type box car for the two day ride to France then the relative comfort of wooden benched rail coaches for Marseilles. A recollection is of jet black French Colonial troops, wrist watches to the elbow riding on flatcars with a sand box fire roasting a spitted, perhaps liberated, pig.
From Marseilles we had a bucket seated B-17 across Spain to Casa Blanca, then across the Atlantic by C-54 -to the home town, just in time to celebrate V. J. Day.
No philosophy in this odyssey unless it strengthens the Ardent DuPicquiteration of the Napoleonic "The morale is to the physical as ten is to one, and brought to currency by General Patton.
Author: Bruce Reagan