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US Army

The Bulge: per the 146th Engineer Combat Bn.

The Bulge: per the 146th Engineer Combat Bn.

 
About 10 December 1944, as a nervous tag-along member of a six man patrol from a 38th Cavalry troop -- forward of the front and east of Bullingen -- we found plenty of German activity across the bottom of a tree-filled canyon. 
 
Trees were being cut down with saws and axes and tanks and other heavy motorized equipment were moving around over the straw covered trails to muffle their sounds.   While watching this activity from a concealed position two hundred yards away on the opposite side of the canyon, we listened to the big tank engines for some time and sensed that "something unusual was afoot".
 
On our return trip from the canyon, the cavalry men used pull-igniters on three Tellermines left by a German patrol that had been chased off the previous night.  Several enemies were later killed when they tried to reclaim these mines.
 
When information regarding all of this German activity was sent to army headquarters, their response was “this is just a feint to trick us into pulling our troops away from our planned offensive near Schmidt in the Hurtgen Forest”.
 
If it had not been so serious, an almost comical ploy at that time, was our leaders attempt to enhance our perceived troop strength in the Ardennes, in order to draw more Germans troops from the front further north at Aachen.  They conjured up a non-existent infantry division to further promote that ruse. (Heard, but not verified--WR).
 
As a result, our high-level commanders were not suspicious when the Germans began bringing in more and more troops prior to the Bulge -- this is exactly what our leaders had hoped -- and they happily believed that their scheme was working to perfection.  There surely were more than a few red faces when the axe finally fell!  Of course, we at the lower levels, were unaware of these machinations, but were kept on alert by all of the persistent rumors that were floating around. 
 
The aggressive patrolling of the 38th Cavalry Squadron was a key element in their soon-to-be-defense of the Monschau area during the Bulge, when they repulsed a number of attacks by vastly superior German forces.  Their aggressive patrolling allowed them to establish the likely enemy avenues of approach, while keeping the Germans from coming close enough to determine the cavalry's defensive positions.
 
While I occasionally had patrolled in areas forward of our front lines, I had never patrolled with the audacity of these 38th Cavalry troopers. They were fearless and not concerned that might bump into Germans.  They probably would have welcomed the opportunity!
 
My platoon had laid AT mines along the road shoulders near Bullingen a few weeks earlier, but that was probably done to deter small-scale penetrations or counterattacks.    Bullingen was on the route to be taken by Kampgruppe Peiper.  His forces captured a large quantity of our gasoline there, before heading west, towards Huy on the Meuse River.
 
On 14 December the 2nd Infantry Division launched their attack from the Elsenborn Ridge to capture the Roer River dams -- to keep the Germans from flooding the Roer River plain and foiling our advance at Aachen.  The "Indian Head Division" was making good progress in a flanking action -- thus gaining ground that had been denied us in the September to November frontal assaults in the Hurtgen Forest.
 
V Corps called off the attack on the second day of the Bulge -- to keep our forces from being decimated by the massive enemy infantry and armored forces that were attacking there.  The Bulge was considerably more than a feint -- it was a giant leap beyond what any of us could have imagined and it caught everyone by surprise -- even those of us at the lower levels, who suspected that "something unusual was afoot"!
 
In Operation Stosser, Lieutenant Colonel Frederich August von der Heydte's 1,500 man parachute force dropped into the Hohes Venn on the night of 16/17 December.  His parachute forces had fought several vicious engagements with the 101st Airborne Division in Normandy and again in General Bernard Montgomery's Market Garden offensive in September 1944 -- as portrayed in "The Band of Brothers”.
 
The Hohes Venn is a swampy area on the headwaters of the Roer River and near the bivouac area of our 146th Engineer Combat Battalion Headquarters.  In November, three of us tried to cross through this swamp.  With our Jeep flat out in four wheel drive, we traveled ~50 yards, before dropping it down to the floorboards.  We then had to jack it up out of the mud and build a corduroy road to get back on solid ground.
 
The paratroopers were a day late because of glitches in having gasoline delivered on time and in getting their troops assembled.  They were scattered 25 miles from Eupen to Malmedy because of the winds, inexperienced pilots and the minimal advance notice regarding the mission -- dictated by Hitler as a security measure. Their planes unsynchronized twin Jumo engines generated a slow beat-frequency sound in the night. 
 
Many parachutes were found after the drop. I rescued an undamaged white one -- also a large section from a brown and green camouflaged model.  Both appeared to be silk.  The camouflaged silk made fine neck scarves and several still reside in my dresser drawer, to be worn occasionally, but I finally gave the white one to the Salvation Army, after it had taken up closet space for twenty years.
 
General Dietrich's 6th Panzer Army, near Monschau, included four Panzer Divisions equipped with latest tanks and weapons.  It included the 1st SS Panzer Division --Leibstandarte Adolph Hitler -- from which 29 year old Colonel Joachim Peiper's Kampfgruppe Peiper was to launch the lightning strike to the Meuse River near Huy, Belgium.  He then would move north to Antwerp -- thus enveloping our northern armies.
 
Initially Dietrich's forces were to have reached the Baraque Michel crossroads -- midway between Malmedy and Eupen -- on the 16th, which was to have been captured then by the paratroopers.  This would have been a replay of their successful 1940 breakthrough in the Ardennes that had trapped the French and British armies.  The 38th Cavalry's fantastic  stand at Monschau blunted that effort, so Dietrich's forces were directed south toward Elsenborn, Bullingen and Malmedy.
 
Had Dietrich been able to force his way through Monschau, he very well may have rolled up our front and then captured the large gasoline dumps near Eupen.   Had this come to pass, their armies could have moved almost unimpeded north to Antwerp.
 
Despite all of the negative opinions about the stupidity of launching the Ardennes offensive and taking troops and materiel away from the Russian front, honesty must conclude that with just a few fortunate breaks, the Bulge could have been a phenomenal German success and Hitler would then have been trumpeted as a great tactician!
 
Also, had the Hofen pillboxes not been destroyed and bulldozed full of dirt by my platoon, the enemy may well have reoccupied them during one of their forays into Colonel McClernand Butler's 3rd Battalion, 395th regiment, 99th Infantry Division positions in Hofen and would then have been difficult to dislodge.
 
Some of the attackers appeared to have been heavily into the schnapps and were oblivious to the withering machine-gun and artillery fire from the 99th Division.  They kept on coming, until large numbers were killed, wounded or captured -- or they may just have been fiercely loyal, highly motivated young soldiers.
 
At 1525 Hours on 16 December, Colonel McDonough -- the 1121st Engineer Combat Group commander -- called our headquarters and ordered another engineer company to be deployed as infantry. The “B” Company platoons moved into position the next morning and for several days formed a barrier line, a short distance behind the front between Monschau and Elsenborn.  Our purpose was to slow the advance of the the Panzer Army, should they penetrate our lines.  The 3rd Platoon covered a 1,000 yard front in the snow, until relieved on 23 December.
 
We set up three machine guns in defensive positions and patrolled between them, but being in a semi-wooded area we had inadequate fields of fire and would have been captured or bypassed by any enemy attack in force. 
 
Several men manned daisy-chain roadblocks on a nearby road.  These are AT mines roped together, so they can be pulled across the road at the approach of enemy vehicles, but they are not effective unless they are adequately supported by covering fire.  Several trees had explosives in place to drop them and form abatis on these roads.
 
Engineers have only occasional needs for machine guns, but we had both the WWI vintage water cooled .30 caliber Brownings and the newer air cooled version -- as well as the .50 caliber Brownings that were normally ring-mounted on our truck cabs for anti-aircraft fire.  Our .30 caliber Brownings were light-years behind the vastly superior German MG-42.  In the early hours of the parachute drop, one of our water-cooled Brownings fired one round only and then sat there mute -- the water in the cooling jacket had frozen, jamming the action! 
 
While on outpost duty, the 3rd Platoon had no clue as to the enemy’s intentions, or what was actually taking place nearby at the front.  We were located in a sparsely woody area away from our headquarters, but the wealth of rumors and the actuality of the paratroopers and reports of Skorzeny's men in American uniforms kept us alert.  Unconfirmed rumors abounded! 
 
Anyone moving around was challenged -- this included even our easily recognized generals.  Lieutenant Leonard Fox, now a “C” Company platoon leader, was taken prisoner by a patrol from the 38th Cavalry Squadron.  He had not received the password for the day.  After six hours, while his legitimacy was being confirmed, he was released.
 
Lieutenant Refert Croon led a patrol of Joe Manning, Marvin Lowery, Warren Hodges and others, looking for the paratroopers.  Lowery was killed in a firefight that killed two Germans and wounded several more -- the rest surrendered. 
 
Nine paratoopers were killed and about sixty were captured -- all done by “C” Company and “HQ” Company, as both “A” Company and “B” Company were deployed elsewhere as infantry.  Fred Matthews was captured by paratroopers, but he managed to escape during another firefight.
 
The 2nd Infantry Division's attack toward the Roer River dams was called off on 17 December and they and the 99th Division formed a defensive posture along the Hofen/Bullingen/Butgenbach line.
 
I heard that an engineer platoon established and defended roadblocks on the road running north from Butgenbach, forcing the Germans to head west towards Malmedy.   Otherwise the Germans could have rolled up our front as they outflanked us and moved on north.  They could have easily overrun this small engineer unit, but a few determined fighters can often halt a larger enemy force, if they are willing to stand and fight.
 
           Above is in error:  
 
After reading "First Across the Rhine" by Colonel David Pergrin, I realized that the unit in question was the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion.  I had believed that their roadblocks were around Bullingen and Butgenbach, when in fact they were near Malmedy -- ten miles to the west.   Such is the accuracy of second-hand information in wartime!
 
More important than establishing several roadblocks was their contribution in slowing Kampfgruppe Peiper by blowing a number of bridges and thwarting his intended drive to the Meuse River.  Some of the bridges were destroyed just as Peiper's tanks arrived on the scene.
 
Early in the Bulge, we heard of the exploits of this engineer outfit, but I never knew its designation.   I learned later that this was a battalion operation under the direct control of Colonel Pergrin.  I believe that their stout defense was a major factor in blunting Kampfgruppe Peiper's intended drive to the Meuse River at Huy.  
 
The 291st Engineers, along with the 30th Infantry Division, were bombed three times by our 9th Air Force during their days in Malmedy.  Misdirected air strikes were not too unusual an occurrence when mists and clouds mask events on the ground -- or when the front is poorly defined.  These fatalities were related by Colonel Pergrin -- the unhappy commander of a battalion of combat engineers.
 
Julius Mate -- whom I had not seen since before the Bulge -- related the following at our annual battalion reunion in 1993:  "Early on the morning of 17 December, Sergeant Henri Rioux sent Nettles and another radio man to the battalion for breakfast.  When the radio operators had not returned as expected, Rioux told Mate and James France to go to breakfast and see what had happened to them.  Later we heard that the paratrooper's planned assembly area was our battalion radio shack, several hundred yards from our bivouac area -- located away to keep from drawing artillery fire on our headquarters.”
 
“On their way, they saw a parachute with an attached bag hanging in a dead tree.  Seeing evidence of the paratroopers was not surprising since they had heard the planes overhead the previous night and our men had seen their green recognition lights.  Mate attempted to recover the chute by pulling on the shroud lines, but the rotten tree broke and the trunk fell across his ankle, pinning him to the ground.” 
 
“After working free, they continued toward the headquarters and breakfast and then saw Nettles up ahead acting very strange.  When they ran up to ask what was happening, six paratroopers with machine pistols stepped out of hiding, took them captive, disarmed them and then threw their M-1 Garand rifles into a nearby creek -- where they were found later that day by a patrol led by Lieutenant Refert Croon."
 
"Nettles and Mate were directed to make a double-pole support to carry a paratrooper who had compound fractures of both legs.  At the end of the day, Mate's ankle was very swollen and painful, so France and Nettles carried the wounded trooper.”
 
“This small group kept moving during the day and slept under fir boughs at night.   After wandering about for two days, they joined the main body of about 150 paratroopers and were then interrogated by a German officer who spoke impeccable English.  He had studied at a Texas university and so not only knew the language -- but also the American idioms and customs.”
 
“They were combined with twenty others who had been captured from a laundry unit near Eupen.  At night they slept in a tight pile to keep warm, as it was very cold.  After a time when the body parts against the ground were growing cold, they all turned at a given signal.  They kept up a running conversation to keep telling of the importance of moving toes and fingers to avert frostbite.”
 
“One of the captives, who understood German, heard their captors discussing how they should dispose of the Americans by throwing grenades into their midst while they slept. When a patrol from the 1st Infantry Division engaged the paratroopers, the captives ran up waving their shirts and yelling 'Don't shoot -- were Americans'.” 
 
Our new medical officer -- Captain Stanley Goldman examined Mate and France and Mate was sent to a field hospital where he was found to have two ankle fractures.  France was barely nineteen at the time and he and Nettles both suffered lingering foot problems which they believed resulted from the cold that they experienced during captivity.   Mate was sent to hospitals in France and England and eventually to the US, to complete his extended recovery. 
 
Early at the beginning the Bulge, Earl Buffington was riding in Blaine Hefner's truck, as they won the race with a German tank to a crossroad near Malmedy.  The tank halted and began firing at them as they scurried away. 
 
Earl's arm was injured by a low hanging tree limb and he was hospitalized near Spa, Belgium.  The limb also brushed off his "Omaha Beach Trophy Helmet" which sported two clean 8mm holes.   The bullet had passed from front to back nicking his ear and the side of his head.  He was not seriously wounded, so he considered that a good omen and refused to swap the damaged helmet for a new one.  However, his Trophy Helmet was never recovered.
 
As a volunteer from the 2nd Infantry Division -- needed to fill out our Gap Assault Teams on Omaha Beach at dawn on D-Day -- Earl was wounded.  He was the only 2nd Infantry Division volunteer who returned to the 146Engineer Combat Bn after being released from the hospital.
 
Soon after Earl and several others were dropped off at the field hospital in Spa, he was told that the Germans were about to overrun the area, so Earl and a number of other patients scurried out the back.  Upon being released from an English hospital, he was assigned to another engineer unit.
 
In a similar fashion Mugg Pawless, Julian Mathies and eight others fled out the back door of a hospital in Malmedy just ahead of the Germans and later ended up at a temporary hospital in the Grand Hotel in Paris.
 
In November -- at Vossenack in the Hurtgen Forest where “A” Company and “C” Company were deployed as infantry -- Mugg was wounded in the heel by an artillery round.  After returning from that infantry support mission, the wound was periodically sore and treatment was ineffective, so he was sent to an evacuation hospital.
 
When German tanks were heard snorting around nearby, he was moved to another hospital in Malmedy.  Before his treatment could be completed, the Germans also cut short that hospital stay.  Mugg couldn't don a shoe on that foot, so he put on seven socks, slipped on an overshoe and walked out into the snow with his fellow patients.   The next morning they wandered into a gasoline dump near Spa that was being evacuated.   Mugg and Julian rode atop gas cans to Reims where the Red Cross fed them doughnuts and coffee and took them to a hospital where Mugg's wound was dressed.
 
He was sent by ambulance to Paris where his wound was  cleaned surgically and given penicillin.  After a short stop in a Cherbourg hospital where his wound was again cleaned and antibiotics administered, Mugg eventually ended up in a hospital in England.
 
When that doctor asked what the x-rays had shown, Mugg stated that no x-rays had been taken.  The doctor was surprised and the follow-up x-rays showed a small artillery fragment lodged in his heel -- cause of the pain that had plagued him for months.  It was removed and his recovery was uneventful.
 
The 2nd Infantry Division called off their flanking attack toward the Roer River dams on 17 December and reformed in a defensive posture south of Elsenborn.  That the 2nd Division could abort their attack and make the necessary adjustments, while under continuous heavy enemy pressure, was due to the superb leadership of General Walter M Robertson and his staff; and is why the "Indianhead Division" is recognized as one of the premier US Infantry Divisions of WWII.
 
For several days General Robertson also took over control of the greater part of the 99th Infantry Division, which had been scattered and severely crippled in the initial German assault.  Lieutenant Colonel McClernand Butler's 3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry, 99th Division at Hofen held its ground and was not involved in this command restructuring.
 
The 1st Infantry Division was brought in to bolster the southern flank near Bullingen and these seasoned troops along with the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions -- and various other attached troops -- stabilized the northern shoulder of the breakthrough.
 
This was the area in which my platoon had laid a number of AT mines a few weeks earlier.  I'm not sure why we laid the mines at that time and at that particular location, but suspect that this was only a precaution against local probing attacks -- certainly not as an expectation of a major German assault, as was the Bulge would prove to be.
 
We were attached to a number of infantry divisions during our time on the continent, but without doubt the "Big Red One" did the best job of watching over us.  I was amazed that they bothered to check our needs, when we were not directly attached to them.  We were attached to the 38th Cavalry Squadron -- which in turn was attached to their division.  They must have had a check list for attached troops and were most solicitous -- they were very much appreciated!   
 
Source : Email received  from Wesley ROSS on February 1, 2014
1st Lt Wesley ROSS

146th Engineer Combat

Battalion

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium