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US Army

The 188th Combat Engineer Battalion in Belgium

The 188th Combat Engineer Battalion,
 in Belgium 
In mid-December the Battalion was performing all the tasks that are peculiar to being a combat engineer.  However work on all of these projects ceased when we were ordered by Third Army Headquarters to join the other units that were ordered north to stop the massive German penetration of our lines in the First Army area. 
We departed from Keskastel in the Saar Valley on the morning of December 20th and joined the thousands of American soldiers heading for Belgium.  Several times during the move north we had to move to the side of the road and permit armored units to pass through us.  Armored units were apparently needed ASAP.  During one of these halts I was asked about our final destination and said that information had not been given to me before our departure.  The look of concern on his face told me that he was very concerned.  I told him-someday “Grif” if we survive all of this we will be sitting in our rockers with our favorite libation in our hand and we will smile as we remember moments like this.  I hope he did because I have. 
We stopped for a day in Longuyon, France and then on to Martelange, Belgium on the borders of France and Luxembourg. Martelange was to be the base of our operations in the Battle of the Bulge.  That night B Company was given the assignment of out posting Martelange as the next town north, Bigonville was held by the Germans.  ACompany to build a Bailey bridge across the Sure River to provide two way traffic across the river.  C Company was to be held in reserve.
My platoon moved out of Martelange toward Bigonville with the arrival of darkness and as we neared our assigned location to set up a defensive position we were commanded to halt.  In the darkness I could not see the source of the command.  Then a voice commanded the soldier wearing the long coat to move forward.  That was me and after a few steps I was again ordered to halt. Then there was the request for the password followed by questions about cities in the USA and questions about baseball etc.  When the challenger was satisfied he told me to advance once again.  I did as commanded and very soon I saw an American battle tank sitting next to a small building under a tree, well concealed for such a large unit.
Looking up I saw the muzzle of the cannon and in my minds eyes it was at least twenty four inches in diameter.  The voice coming from the tank said “Soldier if I was in your shoes I would get rid of that long coat you are wearing because in it you sure as hell look like a German soldier” In the freezing weather I could not discard the coat so I tucked it into my waist and inquired if that looked better. An affirmative reply was received. (Our supply sergeant gave me a mackinaw coat to wear the next day after I told him the story). I was given permission to move on by the voice that I never did see. 
We moved on to our assigned location which was close by and the platoon was soon located in the best positions to defend the area around the road crossing. Nothing unusual occurred during the night but at first light a column of tanks approached us from the East and stopped when they saw us.  Up went the hatch on the lead tank and an officer asked our identity after identifying himself. He asked if we had seen or heard anything during the night. He was told that we heard a lot of vehicle movement in Bigonville during the night. With that the hatch closed and tanks proceeded toward Bigonville. In a very short time the sounds of battle were heard.  We remained alert for whatever might happen.
The first group of prisoners the armored infantry brought out of the town included an officer, a captain. He was dressed in a dark red uniform and wearing an overseas cap of the same color.  He seemed to be dressed for a classroom rather than a battlefield; all of the other prisoners were in battlefield gray uniforms and wore a steel helmet or were bareheaded.
Other groups of prisoners were brought out of town and into the midst of the area we were defending where they were thoroughly searched by the 4thArmored Division soldiers.  Later they were loaded into trucks and taken to a collection point and that is an assumption on my part.  They did not say and I did not ask. In midafternoon the town was in the hands of the 4th Armored Division and our mission was finished and we returned to Martelange for the night.
On December 24th Christmas Eve the 188th Engineer and the 249th Engineer Battalions were placed in the line east of Martelange.  The 4th Armored Division had progressed nearly to Bastogne and was ready to breech an opening in the German defense. The two Engineer Battalions and two Artillery Battalions were to take the positions now occupied by the 4th Armored Division.  When the Engineer and Artillery Battalions were in place the 4th Armored units would move back thru them and move east and sweep around the left into Bastogne. We began the process of digging in which was very difficult if almost impossible as the snow was thigh deep and the ground was frozen solid. Where is the TNT when you really need it?
All night the friendly fire from the Artillery was reassuring and especially when the familiar sound of incoming whistling shells was not heard throughout the night.   However the Germans did launch flares all night long and they illuminated the area as if it were daylight.  We froze in place to avoid detection. The Germans did not attack and we were perfectly satisfied to hold our position.  At noon on Christmas Day we were relieved by elements of the 6th Cavalry Division.  We moved to an area in the rear where our mess personnel had a wonderful Christmas dinner prepared for us.
The maneuver of the 4th Armored Division of moving out as we moved in was a successful one.  The next day December 26th, they smashed thru the German defenses and the siege of Bastogne was ended. On that day we were briefed on our next assignment, but that is another story for another time.
Source: Veteran Battle of the Bulge website, October 27, 2013

By Wilfrid R. RILEY


188th Combat Engineer Bn

3rd Army


Battle of the Bulge,