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May 2017
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US Army

Back alive in 45'

Back alive in 45'
 
CCR of the 4th Armored Division pierced the Bulge at Bastogne on the 26th of December.  Increased pressure on all sides of the Bulge caused the German Army to surrender or retreat back towards Germany.  Then the armored units turned east to pursue the retreating enemy.  The 188th Engineer Combat Battalion along with other combat engineer battalions were held in the Bastogne-Houffalize Area to restore the highway system to a serviceable condition.  The road system was never constructed to handle the pounding of tracked vehicles and heavy highway trucks.  No highway system could withstand the conditions that the present roads were called on to withstand the beating they were subjected to.  Most of the roads were nothing but a sea of mud, water and ruts.  We worked day and night restoring them to a condition where they could be used again.
 
We constructed many sections of corduroy roadway, as the sub-courses of the road had disappeared.  A corduroy road is constructed of sections of tree trunks covered by the rubble of destroyed buildings and homes.  A corduroy road is a poor substitute for a paved surface but we did not have that option.  A corduroy road will provide the necessary traction for the vehicles so necessary in a war zone.  Maintenance is constant and never ending.
 
We turned east and moved through the Siegfried Line into Germany.  Bridges were built and roads were repaired and land mines and anti-personnel were removed or destroyed as we continued our move through German cities, towns and villages.  The civilian population had abandoned their home farms and livestock and moved farther into Germany at the approach of the American army.  The abandonment of these towns and villages continued for a short time and then stopped.  With the approach of the American Army from the west and the Russian army from the east there was soon no place to go.  Some of the German civilians told us they had been told by their government officials that we would rob, rape and murder them.  We did none of these things, but we did milk their cows and savored the fruits of our labors.  Did you ever hear the pitiful mooing of a cow that needed to be milked?
 
We moved steadily east where our next big mission would be crossing the Rhine River.  Training for the crossing was underway.  Selected platoons in our Battalion received additional training in the operation and use of motor boats.  All of our bridge building, road repair and mine removal work had been completed in this area and we awaited our orders for the Rhine River crossing which was awaiting our Battalion.  With the receipt of orders the Battalion was off for Kaiserslautern, where we were to join the XX Corps. Enroute our orders were changed and we stopped at Oberthal.  The German civilians were ordered to vacate their homes and when the Battalion arrived they were able to move in.  Overnight the crossing was cancelled in this section and we were reassigned to the 1107th Engineer Group.  So we are off again, this time in the direction from which we had just come.  When we arrived at a wooded area near Braunshorn we started to prepare for the crossing.  After a final preparation with the motors, we were ready for the Rhine River crossing.
 
Reconnaissance of the area between St. Goar and Oberwesel for suitable landing sites had been made by Staff Officers and all was in readiness.  Orders for the crossing were received and at 2AM on Sunday the 26th of March we moved to the river.  The artillery opened fire on the far side of the river and the mission was underway.  The assault boats entered the river for the crossing to Wellmich, St. Goar and Oberwesel.  The initial wave of boats were paddled and succeeding waves were powered.  The assault boats were manned by combat engineers of the 168th Battalion.  The crossing at St. Goar was strongly resisted, with lighter resistance at Wellmich and Oberwesel.  With the infantry clearing the far side, the construction of ferries began.  Once built they were placed in service.  The motor powered ferries would carry troops and supplies to St. Goar, on the east side of the Rhine and return within our wounded and German prisoners, but not on the same trip.
 
During the day our “B” Company had two of its jeeps knocked out with resulting casualties.  A Navy Duck, operating on the river, sideswiped and swamped a ferry, drowning one of our combat engineer soldiers.  He was a very recent replacement in Company “B” of our Battalion. In war, death can overtake you in many different ways.  The construction of a log boom, to protect the floating bridges, had to be abandoned after eight attempts.  The current was too strong and the logs anchored to the cable were torn away at mid-river and beyond.  Fortunately the Germans did not launch any floating mines.
 
After the two floating bridges were built it was time to move on to the east.  The front line was now many miles ahead of us and we had quite some distance to cover to catch up to the 4th Armored Division.  When we did catch up to them our main assignment was to repair and maintain their MSR (Main Supply Route) as they made their drive to capture the city of Gotha, Germany.  The MSR, for the most part, was on the Autobahn Highway and we were strafed daily by enemy planes and suffered many casualties.  Fortunately we did not suffer any fatalities as a result of these strafing’s.
 
As we moved deeper and deeper into Germany we occupied German homes for our dwellings.  We no longer had to sleep in our pup tents and that was a great relief for all of us who were out in weather all day and our personal belongings and spare clothing were protected from the elements.  The Germans were told to leave their homes before we moved in.  This had been the policy since we entered Germany and it would remain in effect during and after the war.  To the victor goes the spoils of war seemed to be the policy for all as far as I knew at the time.
 
The highways were crowded with the slave labor that had been freed or escaped from their captors and German soldiers who had surrendered or given up the battle.  They lined both sides of the highways single file towards the rear of our position and headed in a westerly direction and hoping for a free meal.  However; we did not have the means or the desire to host a dinner party for the German Army.  We told them to continue walking west and someone, someplace would take care of them.  Most of the battalion assignments were on the Autobahn building and repairing bridges of all types of construction and repairing roads.  There were numerous shell craters and tank traps that had to be filled.  The speed of our advance was so great that we had crews working around the clock to keep the highways in service, and the Autobahn was the most important of them all.
 
While in this area we received word that a slave labor camp had been captured and the occupants had been set free.  I decided to visit the camp and accompanied by my platoon sergeant and another squad leader from my platoon, we drove to the nearby town of Ohrdruf, Germany to take a look at the camp.  The concentration camp was close by and we parked the jeep and walked through the main entrance.  The gates and some fencing had been smashed by the armored force that had liberated the camp.  The camp was fenced on all four sides.  Prisoners dressed in striped pajama type uniforms were to be seen at many locations in the camp.  The walking cadavers would approach you and stare aimlessly with glassy eyes.  Some attempted to make conversation, asking for cigarettes which we gave them.  They may have asked for other things, but we could not understand them.  We continued to walk through the camp and entered one of the barrack like buildings that housed the prisoners.  There were both live and dead prisoners in the building.  The odor was terrible and took your breath away.
 
We quickly exited the building and did not enter any of the other barrack type buildings.  In another area we saw the naked bodies of men and women stacked in rows like cordwood.  Here and there a body had fallen from the stack and lay on the ground like a piece of wood which had fallen from the stack.  On some of the stacking’s of bodies an attempt had been made to throw a layer of what appeared to be lime.  Naturally we did not touch anything.  Now and then I absentmindedly stuck my hands in my pockets to keep them out of harm’s way. Most of the stacks did not have any lime on them.   We moved on in this chamber of horror.  In another area there was a large open ditch like excavation.  Dozens and dozens of naked bodies of men and women had been haphazardly thrown into the excavation where they lay uncovered and exposed to the elements and animals.
 
We had seen more than enough and left the slave labor camp at Ohrdruf, Germany.  A few days later the site was visited by Generals Eisenhower and Patton and other Generals It is my understanding General Eisenhower dispatched someone to the nearby town of Ohrdruf and they brought a town official to the camp and ordered him to gather the town citizenry to report to the camp with shovels to bury the dead bodies.   A few days after my visit to the camp at Ohrdruf another concentration camp was liberated at Buchenwald Germany.  I did not visit that one as I had no desire to revisit the horror I had seen at Ohrdruf. “Mans inhumanity to fellow man”. 
 
Several times while doing repair work on the Autobahn Highway we saw jeeps bearing Russian Army Officers accompanied by American Army Officers traveling west.  An occasional wave and sometimes a smile from them as they moved through our work area.  Seeing the Russians we thought end of the war was at hand.  However that was not the case. 
 
“C” Company constructed a bridge across the Salle River, south of Vena, Germany, which marked the completion of one mile of fixed bridging in the ETO by our Battalion.  This does not include the unfinished bridge at Keskastel in the Saar Valley constructed by “B” Company.  We were on the job and would have completed the bridge that day.  Then we received orders to cease construction and return to the company area and prepare for the move north to fight in the Battle of the Bulge I often wonder if there is someone out there who knows the rest of the story.  What engineer outfit did finish he Bridge at Keskastel in the Saar Valley.. I wonder. 
 
On the 6th of May the Battalion was placed in support of the 89th Infantry Division for a river crossing operation at Ave, Germany.  On May 7th the operation was called off as negotiations were underway for a German surrender, ending the war.  Later that day word was received that negotiations were completed and the Germans had surrendered.  The war with Germany was over.  May 8th was the day the war was officially over.  I do not remember any large scale celebrations of the event.  We were very relieved of course, but we all realized that there was an ongoing war with Japan and some of us would probably see some of that war. 
 
We were now an Army of Occupation and the American Forces were to move to the American Occupation Zone in Bavaria.  I was a member of the group that was dispatched to Bavaria to locate living quarters for our Company.  We were to locate in an area near Regensburg, Germany.  We surveyed the area for the most desirable quarters consistent with our future work as a member of the Army of Occupation. The most suitable quarters for our company were found in the city of Regensburg.  It was a multi storied apartment building and would suit our needs. The civilian occupants were given orders to vacate the building and this was accomplished quickly. 
 
The site we had chosen had a large athletic field adjacent to our living quarters.   We used the field for military drill exercises and it was also used for our daily program of physical training to keep us in top physical shape.  The field was also used for our softball games when we had free time.  A volley ball court gave us another outlet to expend our excess energy.  The athletic games soon attracted the attention of group of young boys living in the neighborhood.  These boys all about 10 years of age and younger became regular fixtures at all of our outdoor activities including meal times when we ate our meals outdoors.  The mess sergeant offered the leftovers one day to the boys if they would provide a container to be used to carry the food away from our area.  They disappeared and quickly returned with containers of all sizes and descriptions.  Apparently they had hidden the containers nearby in hopes of being offered the leftovers someday.  The kitchen leftovers were quickly augmented by food from the soldiers mess gear.  When the containers were filled or all of the spare food had been parceled out, they headed for their homes to share the food with their families. 
 
Kids are the same worldwide, even German youngsters.  That is until they enter the German youth programs of Adolph Hitler.  Then they become a very different person.  I have seen both and I recognize the change in their character.  One of our assignments in the Army of Occupation was to repair a bridge over the Danube River at a town east of Regensburg.  The repairs included repairing two damaged masonry piers and placing steel members to bridge the gaps between the piers. Repairs to the approaches and other road work in the area had to be performed and then the bridge was returned to service.
 
One of the assignments we were given in the Army of Occupation was the establishment and operation of a railhead.  Building material was being collected for the construction of barracks for the troops that were to remain in Europe as a part of the Army of Occupation.  The railroad tracks and railway equipment was severely damaged as a result of the aerial and artillery bombings during the seven (7) years of war in Europe.  Slowly the reconstruction of rails and rolling stock was returning some of the railway system to an operating status.  The freight cars we would be using to ship the building materials, namely, flat cars, box cars, hoppers and gondolas of various lengths and capacities.  To realize the maximum value of this equipment we would have to be selective in the loading of the building materials.
 
We were assigned the use of four stub ended tracks coming off a ladder track which was connected to the main track serving the rail yard. It was a good location, readily accessible to the highway and with a large area to permit the delivery trucks sufficient room to maneuver into place to unload the building materials to the freight cars. When we had enough cars loaded, a switching crew was called to remove the loaded cars and assemble them into a train for delivery to a barracks building site. This involved switching out the loaded cars and placing the partially loaded and empty cars on one of the stub ended tracks. 
 
The switching crew usually consisted of a conductor, a brakeman and a locomotive engineer.  They were German civilians and they did not speak the English language.  One of the soldiers in our platoon Willie K., had been born in Germany and had immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was three (3) years old.  His parents used the German language at their home in conversations with their family.  Willie K. the American soldier was very fluent in the German language and he was called on for his services by other officers in the battalion. 
 
The request for a switch crew had to be made at least twenty four (24) hours in advance of the day they would be needed. I had made such a request for a switch crew but Willie K’s services were required by one of our staff officers that morning and so I was without an interpreter when the switch crew arrived.  So I attempted to give the instructions to the crew myself.  My skills in the German language were very limited but I had no other alternative but to try to get the job done.  The usual procedure was to make a list in duplicate of the loaded cars to be shipped that day.  The original was given to the conductor and I kept the duplicate.  The conductor, interpreter and I would then check the loaded cars against the list and then the switching crew would cut the loaded cars out of the mix and assemble them on an empty track to build the outbound train for the shipment to the consignee.  Then the crew would rearrange the remaining cars plus any empties that they might have delivered to us that day. 
 
On this particular day when I gave the conductor the instructions for that day’s work in my limited ability in the German language he and I were unable to understand each other.  He asked me if I could speak French.  I advised him that I could not but that I had a soldier in the platoon who could speak French.  The soldier was summoned to the scene and so I told him in English what I wanted the crew to do.  He then gave this information in French to the conductor who then instructed the engineer and brakeman in German on the moves to be made.  But if the engineer or brakeman had a question or did not understand then it all ended back with me to attempt to unravel.  What came back to me was not the same set of instructions that I originally gave to the French speaking soldier.  Words in the original set of instructions sometimes stray in their meaning as they are translated from one language to another.
 
After several attempts I could see that we had an Abbot-Costello “Who is on First” vaudeville scenario.  Any further attempts to get the work done in this manner seemed hopeless.  So I decided to try another approach to get the day’s work finished.  The conductor, platoon sergeant and I identified each loaded car on the list of cars I had given him and the platoon sergeant circled the number of that loaded car with a piece of chalk for quick identification so those cars could be drilled from all the other cars and switched to an empty track for the assembly of an outbound train.  All of this the conductor and crew understood and we did get the train dispatched to the consignee that morning.
 
Austrian composer Johann Strauss wrote the very beautiful song “The Blue Danube Waltz.” But the waters of the Danube River are a dirty brown and not blue.  I know because I saw it every day for three or four weeks as we repaired the bridge.
 
In July of 1945 the 188th Combat Engineer Battalion was deactivated.  Those with the required (60) points were returned to the United States to be discharged.  The rest of us were assigned to other engineer units that were retained in the Army of Occupation.  I was assigned to the 243rd Engineer Combat Battalion which was to remain as a member of the Army of Occupation.  I was only with the 243rd for about a month and then I was ordered to report to an assembly area in Regensburg for transport to Camp Lucky Strike in Le Havre, France.  I traveled for two days and nights in a box car.  The box cars were named, ”40 & 8″ box cars.  Those numbers meant the capacity of the box car was Forty Horses or Eight Men.  It certainly was not the Broadway Limited of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The accommodations included two buckets for sanitary use and several cases of rations.  The rations were “C” Ration, “K” rations or 10 in 1 type.  Fresh water you carried in you canteen.  There were eight or ten occupants assigned to each 40 & 8 box car.  This is how I remember it sixty five years after the event.
 
On arrival at Camp lucky Strike we were assigned to a tent enclosure for eight or ten people.  We were at Camp Lucky Strike for about ten days.  The rumor mill ran wild all day and every day.  Then the Japanese surrendered and it became a whole new ball game.  We were then told that we would be going to the States and given a leave of absence after which we would be assigned to another unit or be sent to a Repo Depot.  Early one morning in the middle of August we were told to prepare to board a Liberty Ship named the John Cropper at noon.  We gathered our gear and were taken by a buses or trucks to the dock at Le Havre and loaded aboard The John Cropper.  One of our shipmates who was assigned to the same quarters as me told me that he was sea sick on every voyage he had ever made and expected the same for this trip.  Yes, He was.  We departed from Le Havre, France at 5 o’clock on August 18,1945 and set sail for the United States. 
 
There were about 325 of us plus the crew on board.   About the third day at sea we encountered a heavy storm and the ship bounced around like a cork.  Most of the 325 passengers were seasick but fortunately I was not one of them.  Thirteen days after departing Le Havre, France we entered New York harbor.   I was preparing my gear for docking.  It was 9AM on August 31st when I heard a voice exclaiming “There is the Statue of Liberty”.   I hurried to get on deck to see the Lovely Lady of Freedom.  I heard another voice shout “We are Home”. This was confirmed a short time later when I saw and heard a band playing and the Red Cross ladies waving and welcoming us home.
 
In 1944 as we fought our way across Europe, I often heard a fellow soldier say “Back Alive in “45″. Yes indeed, it had all come true.
 
Source: Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Website October 2013

By Wilfrid R. RILEY

188th Combat Engineer Bn

3rd Army

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium