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First On the Line, 35th Engineer Combat Bn. (Part II of II)


First On the Line, 35th Engineer Combat Bn.

Part II of II
Rush and Skinner decided that their best option was to return to St. Hubert to be with the rest of the battalion.  With day breaking on the 21st, the men headed into the early morning fog.  However, by now the Germans had cut the roads and were surrounding Bastogne.  Rush recalls, “Just to the west of the town, we came across a couple of GI vehicles that had collided in the fog.  We stopped to help them out and drew fire from some Germans that were ahead of us.” (52)
(52) Rush, “Letter”.
Under heavy fire, Skinner’s men rushed to retrieve the wounded soldiers.  To cover the platoon, Corporal Charles Flamboe set up his machine gun and raked the enemy position with suppressive fire.  Spotting an armored vehicle advancing toward the men, Corporal Alvin Crump and Private Peter Lari grabbed a bazooka from their truck and ran out to destroy the enemy vehicle. (53)
(53) 35th Engineers, “History”.
Seeing the two men advancing, the German vehicle stopped for fear of being destroyed.  After rescuing the wounded, the A Co men withdrew once again to Bastogne.
What was intended to be an overnight mission was not over by a long shot.  The engineers rushed the wounded to the field hospital in the city.  Unable to get back to their unit, the men sought refuge in a brick farm building.  “We had no sooner settled down when an 88 round came through the wall filling the building with brick dust,” recalls Rush.  Fortunately, the shell did not explode and the men rushed out, taking shelter closer to town. (54)
(54) Rush, “Letter”.
Earlier, in an attempt to rejoin C Co, Bonde and Brunson left the security of their newfound friends near Martelange.  The two had no way of knowing that their company had become committed to the west near St. Hubert.  That night, Bonde, tired and cold, recounted the day’s events in his diary:
“December 20: Took a chance on walking back to our tent to see what did happen during the night.  No one would go up and pull my trailer out for me.  Got back to the tent and everything pretty quiet.  Watched artillery shells fall nearby above Bigonville.  Washed up and then walked out to main road where we heard some chopping.  Engineer preparing roadblock.  Civilian came by on bike and said two Germans in car just around the corner.  We started up that way and heard voices.  Then a machine gun opened up and we took off.  Didn’t have time to get anything from trailer.  It was about 2 p.m. or later.  Walked back to same guards and told them the story.  They sent a recon party out to look the situation over.  They came back fast.  ‘No good’, was the report.  Fog came in early and it was thick as pea soup.  Laid on ground in ditch up one of the roads for advance spotter.  Could hear tanks creep very slow toward Martelange, just over the hill.  Was plenty scared as we heard .50 cal machine gun fire.  Also heard 88’s hitting in town.  At 10 p.m. a jeep came up from 299th’s HQ and wanted to see how things were in Martelange.  Heard rifle fire as soon as he left.  He came back with jeep riddled with holes.  No one hurt, funny.  He said the Germans were all over town and had our tanks.  Never saw our boys on guard at the bridge there.  We then blew our crater in the road and took off.  Germans threw up flare after the explosion and we could hear them come over the hill.” (55)
(55) Bonde, “Diary”.
On the morning of the 21st, Symbol’s men stood ready to defend the approaches to St. Hubert.  The engineers had prepared abatis (mined and booby trapped), blown culverts, laid extensive minefields, and placed bazooka teams in key locations covering the roads. (56)
(56) Cole , Ardennes, pp 325-326.
With the exception of one platoon that was detached to guard the 7th Tank Destroyer Group headquarters near Recogne, all available men, including clerks, mechanics, and truck drivers, were put on the line guarding roadblocks, screening traffic, and patrolling.  Even abandoned fuel and supply sites were sought out and destroyed to prevent their capture and use by the enemy. (57)
(57) 35th Engineers, “Journal” and “History”.
Lieutenant William Williams, the B Co administrative officer recalls, “During a recon run to the north we discovered an ammunition and fuel dump that the quartermaster and ordinance people just walked off and left.  We also found a 2 ½ ton truck with a disconnected clutch linkage that we were able to fix and load up with mines and TNT for our own use.  We dumped as much of the fuel as we could and then left.” (58)
(58) Letter from William Williams (Tucson, AZ) to Shawn Umbrell, October 6, 2001.
While the engineers were preparing their defenses around St. Hubert, the Panzer Lehr Division was in the process of breaking away from heavy fighting near Bastogne in an attempt to bypass the city and reach other objectives to the west.  During the night of the 20th, Bayerlein dispatched Major von Fallois, commander of the Panzer Lehr’s 130th Recon Battalion, to secure good roads and bridges that would support the division’s heavy columns that were expected to bypass Bastogne to the south, attack to the west, and reach the Meuse River on the 21st.  So, Kampfgruppe von Fallois, strengthened by the attachment of the division engineer battalion, started its march west and on the morning of the 21st was just east of the 35th’s positions. (59)
(59) Fritz Bayerlein, “Panzer Lehr Division: 1 DEC 44-26 JAN 45”, Foreign Military Studies MS A-941 (copy received from Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, PA).  Cole, Ardennes, p 325.
Having arrived at Jenneville around midnight, Captain Rickertsen’s C Co had worked nonstop establishing roadblocks and setting up defensive positions. J ust to the east of Jenneville, in the village of Pironpre, Igo and the men of second platoon set up positions at a crossroad.  “[There was] a stream running along south of the east-west road,” says Igo.  “A stone arch bridge crossed the stream there, with the road in a cut through a small hill just south of the bridge. T here were two or three farmhouses with a couple of barns, haystacks, etc.  We sent out bazooka and rifle teams with daisy-chained mines to the east, north, and west.  The jeep driver, platoon sergeant, and myself stayed with the jeep and machine gun we had on it at the bridge.” (60)
(60) Igo, “Bio”.
Second platoon guarded the Pironpre crossroads through the night until shortly after 0700 hours when the men of first platoon took over. (61)
(61) Letter from Larry Larson, Montesano, WA, to Paul Symbol, dated January 24, 1985.
Igo and his men then returned to Jenneville where they found refuge from the cold and settled down for some sleep.
Unbeknownst to the engineers, a portion of Kampfguppe von Fallois was just minutes away from the Pironpre crossroads.  While this column of four Mark IV tanks, a halftrack, and a truckload of soldiers crept slowly forward, the men of first platoon were preparing fighting positions in the frozen ground.  Sergeant Charles Cannon had begun setting out bazooka teams in various locations to cover the roads.  Private First Class Orie Combs and Private First Class Robert Lemos made up one of the teams.  “When we got to out position, I took off my overcoat so that I could start digging,” says Combs.
“I was the gunner and Lemos was my loader.  As we were preparing our position, we heard vehicles approaching.  I looked up and saw German tanks coming toward us on the road.”  Combs picked up his bazooka and took careful aim at the lead tank while Lemos slid a round into the back of the tube.  Combs’ fired and immobilized the tank.  Immediately, the other tanks stopped and opened fire in all directions.  Lemos rushed to load another round while Combs prepared to fire again on the lead vehicle.  Spotting the two men, a German machine gunner raked the engineers’ position, hitting both Combs and Lemos.  Though seriously wounded, Combs raised the bazooka to his shoulder and fired, destroying the vehicle."
“I was hit again and fell back,” says Combs.  “I looked at my right hand and noticed that it had been shot off.  I knew that I had to get out of there.  I got myself up and looked down at Lemos.  He was not moving and was covered in blood.” (62)
(62) Phone conversation between Orie Combs (Healdsburg, CA) and Shawn Umbrell (Navarre, FL) on August 6, 2003. 35th Engineers “Journal” and “History”.
Nearby, Private Kurt Boker and his partner were unable to put their bazooka into action.  The approach of the enemy column had caught them by surprise and they were now pinned down by well-aimed machine gun fire.  Seeing the plight of his men, SGT Cannon grabbed a bazooka and, along with Private First Class John Kenney, braved the enemy fire and advanced to within firing range of the enemy tanks.  Cannon dropped to a knee and took aim at the second vehicle while Kenney loaded a round.  Firing, Cannon struck the tank, taking it completely out of action. (63)
(63) 35th Engineers, “History”.  Cole, Ardennes, pp 325-326. Letter from Kurt Boker (Kelley’s Island, OH) to Frank Rush (Tigard, OR), November 7, 1988.
With two tanks lost at the hands of the engineers, the rest of the enemy began to withdraw for fear of being hit as well.  Still, small arms fire erupted as the American engineers exchanged shots with the enemy troops.
Losing blood and nearly unconscious, Combs made his way toward the rest of the platoon.  “I could hear firing as I made my way back to the rest of the platoon,” he says.  “In addition to my other wounds, I had been shot through the neck and chest.  Most of my field jacket had been torn away.  I remember feeling a very sharp pain in my back that prevented me from standing up straight.”
Determined to make it out, Combs continued on through a small stream, the chill of the chest deep water nearly numbing him.  Coming out of the water, he was grabbed by another soldier and could hear the platoon jeep coming toward him.  “When they got to me, we were still under fire,” he says.  “I remember lying on the ground by the jeep while one of the men placed a bandage on my throat.  Someone began yelling and I was thrown headfirst into the jeep, feet sticking out.” (64)
(64) Letter from Orie Combs to Shawn Umbrell dated May 12,2001. Phone conversation between Orie Combs and Shawn Umbrell, November 18, 2001 and August 6, 2003.
Private First Class Mose Umbrell, first platoon’s jeep driver, and Staff Sergeant Harrell Wyatt, the platoon sergeant, rushed Combs toward the nearest aid station.  When they arrived, they found that most of the medical personnel had evacuated the site; only a nurse and doctor remained.  Combs recalls, “The last thing that I remember is that the doctor began putting some blood back into me.  I went unconscious after that and woke up three days later at a hospital in the rear.” (65)
(65) Phone conversation between Orie Combs and Shawn Umbrell, August 6, 2003.  Author’s recollection of story told by his grandfather, Mose Umbrell.
In Jenneville, Igo had just arrived at Rickertsen’s command post when the enemy slammed into the Pironpre roadblock.  “Breakfast was being served and a cook had just put some pancakes in my mess kit when all hell broke loose,” says Igo.
“There was cannon fire and constant machine gun fire.  I dumped my pancakes in the garbage can because I knew that the Germans had just attacked our roadblock. Captain Rickertsen and I jumped in my jeep and rushed back to the crossroads.  We parked just short of the cut in the hill and crawled up on a knoll.  [We could see] the tankers out working on their treads trying to fix them.  We fired a few shots at them and they would occasionally let loose a burst of machine gun fire in our direction.” (65a)
(65a) Letter from Norman Igo (Lubbock, TX) to Shawn Umbrell, June 27, 2003.
Shortly after receiving word of the initial engagement at Pironpre, Lieutenant Colonel Symbol began making preparations and gathering soldiers to reinforce Rickertsen’s company.  At 0945, Colonel Simmons, from the 28th Infantry Division, entered the 35th’s command post.  Symbol informed Simmons of the situation, who then offered the assistance of some of his men that were assembled nearby.  Simmons’ men set out to patrol the area between Jenneville and St. Hubert, hoping to prevent an enemy infiltration, while Symbol and approximately one hundred men from the 724th Depot Company boarded trucks and headed for Pironpre. (66)
(66) 35th Engineers, “Journal”. Dearinger, “Letter”.
When Symbol arrived, he was pleased to find that additional reinforcements in the form of D Troop, 635th Anti Aircraft Artillery Battalion, and their M16 halftracks (with mounted quad .50 caliber machine guns) had arrived. (67)
(67) 635th AAA Bn, S-3 Journal. Igo, “Bio”.
As he surveyed the battlefield, he noticed that a culvert running under the road had not been blown as he had intended.  Rickertsen explained that he had not yet received any explosives to do the job.  Frustrated, Symbol called back to his command post, insisting that demolitions be brought to Jenneville.  But, at this point, destroying the culvert would require sending men into the open to set in the TNT.  “Sir, sending men out there now would be suicide,” Rickertsen commented.  “If you insist on blowing the bridge I’ll do it myself, but I’m not sending any of the men out there.”
Symbol said nothing. He knew that his company commander was right. (68)
(68) Igo, “Bio”.
At approximately 1500 hrs, still hoping to secure the route through Pironpre, the enemy began shelling the C Co positions with heavy artillery.  Until then, the German soldiers had not made any further advances toward Pirompre, but rather took up a position in the woods, occasionally firing at the engineers. (69)
(69) Igo, “Bio”. Cole, Ardennes, pp 325-326. 35th Engineers, “Journal”.
Now, it was clear to Symbol that the enemy wanted this road.  He knew that the enemy would attack with a larger force at any time.
After talking with Symbol, Rickertsen sent Igo out to see about setting up another roadblock west of Jenneville and to send the rest of the men to Pironpre for the expected fight to come.  When Igo returned late in the afternoon he found that the battalion had received new orders and was preparing to move out of Jenneville.  Earlier in the day, the 2d Panzer Division had attacked and captured Ortheuville, to the north, forcing the defending 158th Engineer Combat Battalion and a few tank destroyers from the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion south to Libramont.  The fall of Ortheuville offered the enemy a northern approach to St. Hubert.  Fearing that the 35th would be cut off, VIII Corps Headquarters sent orders to Symbol to hold as long as feasible, then rejoin the corps, which was now headquartered in Bouillon. (70)
(70) Igo, “Bio”. Cole, Ardennes, pp 325-326. 35th Engineers, “Journal”.
Night had fallen when the engineers began their withdrawal.  Just to the south of Jenneville, in Moircy, General Bayerlein’s troops had arrived and were ready to continue their drive toward St. Hubert.  Having finally received their explosives, Captain Rickertsen’s men had put them to use and prepared to blow trees across the road to block the enemy advance.  As they loaded into their trucks, the sound of German tanks could be heard nearby.  Symbol, now sure that the enemy was just minutes away from smashing into Jenneville, calmly boarded the last truck and gave the order to move.  The trucks rolled slowly into the dark forest, picking up the last of the men one by one as they pulled the fuses on their demolitions, creating a sequence of bright explosions that followed the column into the night. (71)
(71) Letter from Norman Igo to Paul Symbol (Mercer Island, WA), January 24, 1985.
Passing through St. Hubert, Rickertsen’s men fell into the rear of the battalion formation and, together, the 35th slipped through the cold blackness of the Ardennes.  By midnight, Symbol’s men (with the exception of those guarding the 7th Tank Destroyer Group and those in Bastogne) were in their new assembly area in Bouillon, close to the French frontier. (72)
(72) Cole, Ardennes, p 326. 35th Engineers, “Journal” and “History”.
Meanwhile, near Martelange, Bonde and Brunson had become engaged in heavy fighting alongside the engineers of the 299th. After bitter close combat, both the Americans and paratroopers of the 5th Parachute Division occupied portions of the town.  Heavy casualties began to take a toll on the engineers and they soon began to lose some ground.  That night the 299th began to withdraw from the town.  In some areas though, American soldiers had been cut off from the rest of the unit.  When a recon crew headed back into the burning town, Bonde and Brunson volunteered to go along.  After locating their men, the engineers withdrew.  “Things were very hot there,” wrote Bonde.
“Gosh, those boys were happy to know that we could get to them.” (73)
(73) Bonde, “Diary”.
When dawn broke on the 22nd, the 299th was nearing Bouillon.  “When we got to Bouillon, we saw some of our trucks and was we happy,”  Bonde later wrote“Thought they may have been wiped out.” (74)
(74) Bonde, “Diary”.
Earlier, Lieutenant Nettle and his platoon from B Co received orders to report to the 7th Tank Destroyer Group headquarters in nearby Recogne.  Finding the unit command post in the woods at the edge of town, Nettle recalls, “I reported to the commander and informed him that I was sent to help guard the unit headquarters.  I didn’t receive much guidance, so I just kept the men together as best I could where we would be protected against any artillery or enemy attack.  I found it strange that the colonel had not established his command post in the town where it seemed we would be better protected.  It only took a couple of artillery rounds landing close by to change his mind.  Soon after moving into the village we were put to the task of conducting local patrols. Eventually, I was sent to meet with an Infantry captain who needed to have a minefield marked.  I reported to the commander at his CP that was in one of the winter dugouts.  The captain was very abrupt and told me to be sure to be quiet near the minefield because the Germans had artillery spotters in the area who were quick to send in a few shells.  Sure enough, as we were putting out our markers, artillery rounds came racing in and struck just behind us.  We hurried up to complete the job and headed back, receiving a stern scolding from the captain as we went.” (75)
(75) Letter from Charles Nettle to Shawn Umbrell, March 25, 2002. Phone conversation with Charles Nettle and Shawn Umbrell, September 22, 2002.
Meanwhile, at Bastogne, the defenders fought bravely to protect the besieged city.  The small detachment under Rush and Skinner was being held in reserve and helped out where they could.  “Shortly after getting into Bastogne, I ran into a Lieutenant Franks with the armored engineers whom I had known in Officer Candidate School,” says Skinner.
“He was a rough and tough SOB and had just come back into town after fighting the Germans in a cemetery north or northeast of town.  We attached my men to his outfit.  We were to knock out any tanks that approached the Wiltz Road and Neufchateau Road intersection at the corner of the square in Bastogne.  Thanks to the 101st and the other men around the town, no tanks were able to enter town.  But we were under constant artillery fire.” (76)
(76) Letter from Bob Skinner to Paul Symbol, January 24, 1985.  Letter from Bob Skinner to Shawn Umbrell, March 11, 2002.
Such constant barrages had devastating effects on the city and the soldiers.  On the afternoon of December 21, Skinner and his jeep driver, Private Morris, were standing on the steps of the building there had been bivouacked in.  Suddenly, artillery shells exploded in the street in front of them, killing Morris. (77)
(77) 35th Engineers, “History”.
At 2030 hrs on Christmas Eve, the unwelcome drone of enemy planes was heard over Bastogne.  Moments later the city’s railroad station and the 101st’s field hospital bore the brunt of a massive German air strike.  Soldiers and civilians, alike, were caught in the devastating raid.  When the bombs stopped falling, the men of the 35th rushed out and began searching for survivors in the rubbled buildings and clearing debris from the streets. (78)
(78) David Pergrin, Engineering the Victory: The Battle of the Bulge (Atglen, PA, Schiffer Military/Aviation History, 1996), p 324.
Near Bouillon, the rest of the battalion held crucial bridges along the Semois River, securing the Corps’ left flank.  All along the Semois, the engineers had prepared bridges for demolition and guarded the crossing sites around the clock. (79)
(79) 35th Engineers, “History”.
“Those bridges became islands surrounded by darkness once the sun went down,” says Regenauer.  “It was dangerous to move at night, so when I went on guard I preferred to stay there until it was light.”
For Dearinger, the Christmas of 1944 would be unforgettable. Days earlier he had opened his Christmas gifts in the small town of Bisory, just outside of Bastogne.  Since that time, neither he, nor any of the other Allies on the western front, had had the time to cherish the Holidays.  But now, on this Christmas Eve, he sat in his jeep listening to the BBC broadcast carols over the radio.  “That’s the first time I heard ‘O’ Holy Night’,” he recalls. “It’s been one of my favorites ever since.”
“On Christmas night, I was making the rounds of the bridge guards,” he continues.
“Captain Day was apparently doing the same thing.  Sergeant Floyd had warned Captain Day to be careful not to slip up on anyone unexpectedly, but he did.  I heard the shot and a high-pitched scream.  By the time I got up to Mullin’s jeep, he and Sergeant Floyd were loading Captain Day into the vehicle."
He said, “I’m hurting Floyd,” and they took him off for the hospital.  The next day, Symbol came in with Day’s wristwatch and told me to take over the company. (80)
(80) Dearinger, “Letter”.
On the 26th, Lieutenant Nettle and his platoon were released from their guard duty at the 7th Tank Destroyer headquarters, now located at Libramont.  “We had been staying in an old schoolhouse while in Libramont,” says Nettle.
“We were preparing to leave and were suddenly attacked by two enemy airplanes, each dropping a five hundred pound bomb write in the center of town.  I was still in the building and was knocked across the room by the blast.  One of the men in the room was killed.  I went immediately to check on the platoon and found that none of my guys were hurt.  We went outside and started helping with the wounded where we could.  I found out later that the colonel that I had reported to on the first day was one of the men killed during the attack.” (81)
(81) Letter from Charles Nettle to Shawn Umbrell, March 25, 2002. Phone conversation with Charles Nettle and Shawn Umbrell, September 22, 2002.
On December 27, armored forces under the command of General George Patton punched a whole through the German lines and reached the besieged city of Bastogne.  On the 28th, Rush, Skinner, and the men of A Co found their way back to the battalion. (82)
(82) 35th Engineers, “History”.
As the days passed in Bouillon, it became apparent that the German counteroffensive was coming to a halt.  Unbeknownst to Symbol, his battalion had played an important role in stopping the German advance in the Ardennes.  In addition to defending the critically strategic city of Bastogne, the 35th was also successful in crushing any hope the Panzer Lehr had of reaching the Meuse.  The engineers had so completely blocked the routes to St. Hubert with obstacles that Bayerlein’s division took an additional two days to complete assemble around the town.  Helmut Ritgen, then a lieutenant in the Panzer Lehr, recalls:
“On 22 December the advance towards St. Hubert was continued, but delayed as the direct route via Pironpre was reportedly blocked by some cut down trees...  In spite of partly cloudy skies and clear visibility, the column was not attacked from the air.  The fuel situation was of greater cause for concern.  The first Panzer ran out of fuel west of Moircy and had to be refueled from reserve jerry cans.  Thus, St. Hubert was reached in the false hopes that gasoline would be found there.  We found only empty jerry cans.  It was established the following day that the Division’s arrival in St. Hubert had taken so long due the unusual route we had to take to get there.” (83)
(83) Helmut Ritgen, The Western Front: Memoirs of a Panzer Lehr Officer (Winnipeg, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc., 1995), pp 273-274.
This delay created by the 35th was sufficient enough to allow reinforcements to arrive and ultimately beat back the Panzer Lehr from their positions around St. Hubert.  Over the next several weeks, the Allies fought hard to decrease the bulge that was created in their line by the German army.  During the Allies’ renewed drive, the 35th moved east in support of the 11th Armored Division and later the 17th Airborne Division.  Symbol’s executive officer, Major Mike Miletich, left the battalion to take command of the 44th Engineer Combat Battalion, who had suffered heavy losses in fighting near Wiltz. (84)
(84) 35th Engineers, “History”.
Later, General George Patton commended the actions of the men of the VIII Corps.  In a commendation letter to General Middleton, he wrote, “The magnificent tactical skill and hardihood which you and your command displayed in slowing the German offensive, and the determined valor and tactical precision which caused you to retain possession of Bastogne, together with your subsequent resumption of a victorious offensive, constitute a truly superb feat of arms.”
In recognition of the 35th’s determined stance in the Ardennes, fifteen medals were awarded for valor.  The Silver Star was awarded to Cannon, Combs, and Kenney for their actions at Pironpre.  Robert Lemos was reported missing in action on the 21st of December, but was later found in a field hospital.  There is no record indicating whether or not he received a medal for his part in the defense of the Pironpre crossroads.  Additionally, the Bronze Star was awarded to Lieutenant Colonel Symbol, Lee Regenauer, Michael Semmelrogge, Peter Lari, Raymond Steele, Charles Harkins, Calvin Crump, Howard Bulman, Wilbur Ferguson, Frank Dunigan, Charles Botdorf, and Charles Nettle.
In March, the battalion made assault crossings of the Moselle and Rhine Rivers in support of the 87th Infantry Division.  While crossing the Rhine, the 35th suffered 34 casualties: nine killed, six missing in action, four seriously wounded, and fifteen slightly wounded. One of those killed was Charles Cannon. (85)
(85) 35th Engineers, After Action Report, dated April 4, 1945. (National Archives)
At war’s end, the 35th was deep inside Germany, near the town of Pausa.  During their march across the country, the engineers captured hundreds of prisoners and saw the horrors of the Buchenwald concentration camp.  One-by-one, those with enough “points” were granted discharge and returned to the United States.  Those remaining in the battalion departed from the port of Marseille, France, aboard the troopship, General Stewart, on September 4, 1945.  The battalion arrived in the New York port of debarkation on September 15 where it demobilized. (86)
(86) 35th Engineers, “History”.
The 35th was reactivated in 1951 at Ft. Lewis, Washington. During the Viet Nam War, the 35th served with distinction from 1966 to 1970.  For its actions in the Quang Nam Province, the battalion received the Valorous Unit Award.  Today, the 35th is located at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, where it provides basic and advanced training to the Army’s newest breed of combat engineers.
By Shawn HUMBRELL Grandson of Mose HUMBRELL

35th Combat Engineer



Northern France

Battle of the Bulge,


Rhineland, Germany