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146th Engineer Combat Battalion.

146th Engineer Combat Battalion.

The following account is by « C » Company’s Tom Wilkins :
“Lieutenant Richard Schindler from “C” Company, led a reconnaissance patrol in the snow on one cold winter day, seeking information for V Corps about a German Panzer Division.  The infantry said we were stupid when we drove past their outpost.  Sergeant Roy Durfey and Claude Dobbs were in Lieutenant Schindler’s Jeep, and Norman Lightell and the rest of the squad were in the truck driven by Robert Richardson.  Tom Wilkins manned the ring-mounted .50 caliber machine gun.  As they approached a house, a German soldier was seen to run inside.  The men in back jumped out, while Tom remained on the machine gun.  Schindler’s Jeep backed up, and he called out in German, for those inside to surrender.  Thirty-seven did so, and were captured without a shot being fired – and they were then led away to a PW cage.  Later, Lieutenant Schindler, Cecil Morgan and Roy Durfey returned to another nearby house where smoke had been seen coming from the chimney, and where Durfey had been a mule hitched to a two-wheel cart.  Morgan kicked in the door and stepped inside with a Thompson sub, and thirty-eight more surrendered.  Not a bad for a lieutenant and one squad of engineers! Before taking the prisoners away, Durfey unhitched the mule and turned it loose”.  (Tom Wilkins was unsure if this was during the Bulge, or at Vossenack – but I believe the former, because of the lack of armor at Vossenack).
About Christmas time while working on a large anti-personnel minefield near Elsenborn – designed to deny the Germans access to a natural infiltration corridor; a flight of British “Typhoons” came roaring in and rocketed a woods 800 yards to the East.  We were a bit jumpy as their flight path was almost directly overhead and we thought that they might have mistaken us for Germans.  That would not have been too unusual, considering the chaotic conditions along the front at that time.  We saw no indication that German forces were there, before or after the strike, but since we were close to the front, that is a distinct possibility.  A prominent radiator bulge under the engines gave save a distinctive appearance, and their engines made an unusual roaring noise – not at all like the sharp exhaust crack of the Rolls Royce Merlins in the Spitfires and Mustangs.  I was told that these engines had 24 cylinders – four banks of six – as compared to the twelve cylinders of the Merlin.  The twenty four exhausts blended the sound into the unusual roar.
Christmas day 1944, on the way to the minefield, a doe and a yearling crossed in front of our truck.  We stopped and I told the men in back to shoot her.  After ten or more rounds had been fired, I yelled “Cease fire”, just as the deer disappeared into the brush.  The firing might have been interpreted as a fire fight with a German patrol that would have initiating a wasteful response.  The doe then wandered back across the road, so I shot her.  There was a single hole in her hide – another indication of superb American marksmanship!  The fresh meat was a welcome change from our recent diet.  Several weeks previously, “B” Company’s various work parties returned to the company bivouac area one evening with five hogs, two cows, and a deer.
Someone had suggested that we have some fresh meat, but had not coordinated the effort.  The animals were a nuisance around minefields, walking into the trip wires, detonating the mines and killing themselves in the process – we only hastened their demise.  The hogs were fried first and the pork fat was then used to fry the rest of the meat.  The meat was chewy and tough – but the change of diet was appreciated.
When we were able to get to our company kitchen for a hot meal, I piled most of the food together in my mess-kit (shit-skillet in G.I. parlance).  Breakfast might include stewed prunes, oatmeal with reconstituted dried milk, scrambled powdered eggs, bacon, and toast with jam.  I did not look too appetizing when so intermingled – but it tasted better than it looked, and it had a definite edge over those early gruesome K-rations.  Also, having the food piled together helped to keep it warm.  Our cooks were artists in their ability to take smelly powdered eggs and powdered milk and turn them into something reasonably palatable.  I’m not sure what they used to perk up the powdered eggs, but they added a bit of vanilla and a pinch of sugar to the powdered milk.  An improved K-ration showed at about this time.  It was far superior to the original—the crackers of which looked and tasted like lightly seasoned sawdust.  Platoon Sergeant Homer Jackson was vocally unimpressed when given one of those early K-rations in lieu of “real food”.  At Hofen, we had him strip down to his shorts and crawl on the big brass pan of a commercial butter scale.  Converting from kilograms, his weight was determined to be 242 pounds – and that without any fat! One did not build up body fat on those early K-rations!
On the night of 26 December 1944, our bivouac area was shelled heavily for about thirty minutes.  We were in an area of large trees, so there were many tree bursts.  Heading for a safe refuge in a culvert (he called it a tin horn); Sergeant Homer Jackson ran into a truck tailgate and chipped off the corner of an upper front tooth.  It was a tight squeeze as twelve others had beaten him there.  I flattened myself on the ground at the base of a large pine tree away from the direction of most of the tree bursts, and was happy when the shelling ceased.  We believed that the damage was done by our captured 105mm howitzers.  The shelling probably stopped when the Germans ran out of ammunition. Jackson thought that they were 285th Field Artillery 105s – whose men were massacred north of Malmedy by Kampfgruppe Peiper.  However, some 99th Division 105s were also overrun close by near the Wahlerscheid Crossroads, and these may have been the culprits.  They must have had forward observers – possibly the paratroopers – as they took very few rounds to register on us.  We believed that our position may have been pin-pointed by the paratroopers, because their designated assembly point was the forestry shack being used by our battalion radio operators – the three who had been captured.
Several trucks had flat tires and the driveline of one truck was completely severed.  A shell fragment smashed through the front panel of a headquarters desk drawer and spinning around inside made a mouse nest out of the papers within.  A number of shell fragments pierced the aid station tent – one striking Ernest K Hansen in the chest as he was holding a plasma bottle over one of our wounded.
Although a number of men were wounded there were no fatalities.  Lieutenant Colonel Carl Isley was seriously wounded as he made the rounds to check on our casualties.  He told Doctor Stanley Goldman, our new medical officer, “that last one really knocked the air out of me”.  He was covered with blood and was given plasma, as blood was unavailable on WWII battlefields.  His recuperation required many months in a stateside hospital. The battalion was moved to Henri-Chapelle that night per Isley’s orders, before he was evacuated. Major Clark—the executive officer then took over as battalion commander.
Colonel Skorzeny’s “Americans”—who had infiltrated our lines and were captured wearing American uniforms and driving captured Jeeps – were executed by firing squads at Henri-Chapelle a few weeks later.  I arrived late at our bivouac area, but the only cover I could find was in the haymow of a barn.  I did my best to find a spot to spread out, but as the space was completely filled with bodies, I failed to find a bare spot.  After someone offered to loosen all my teeth if I didn’t quit stepping on him, I crawled back out and shivered in the jeep until dawn.  The next morning “B” Company returned to our original bivouac area, and we continued working on the AP mine field.
New Year’s Day morning 1945 was clear and cold.  While we were adding the red triangles to the barbed wire perimeter fence – indicating an American minefield – the sky was suddenly filled with twenty eight ME-109s flying northwest at 1000 feet.  We later learned that they were part of Operation Bodenplatte – the plan to attack our airfield and destroy our planes on the ground – a continuation of the Bulge.  A number of our airfields near the front were successfully attacked that day, and several hundred of our planes were destroyed.  Their losses were only about one third of ours, but their losses – and especially of trained pilot – were losses that they could ill afford.  Luckily for us, our P-47s were rendezvousing near Liege for a strike of their own, and they caught these Germans by surprise as they were coming in.  It must have been a real dogfight – but we saw only the tail end of the action from our minefield area.
In twenty minutes, as we watched in fascination, four ME-109s were shot out of the sky.  The first fell 1500 yards away, and they kept dropping closer and closer until the last one was only 300 yards from our work area.  The story was almost the same in every case.  The 109 pilots, who were flying southeast and very close to the deck heading for home, were being slaughtered by the P-47s.  Our pilots were definitely the aggressors, and must have had superior training and experience.  We didn’t see any parts being shot off the 109s, but two were spewing smoke – before they crashed and sent up big black pillars.  The third downed plane hit 600 yards away, and several of us headed out to see what we could find – read Lugers or P-38s)! We had just started off, when another 109 came limping toward us, smoking and losing speed and altitude.
The P-47 kept boring in and firing short machine gun bursts.  The 109 was hidden by a group of pine trees when the pilot finally hauled back on the stick in an attempt to gain enough altitude to jump.  His plane rose only a few hundred feet and came back into our field of view, and then stalled just as he bailed out.  We charged down the hill to the crash site, fully expecting to find a dead pilot in or near the wreckage, since we were sure that he had lacked sufficient altitude to eject safely.  The pilot could not be found, but the plane was on fire and its magnesium castings were burning brightly.  We poked around in the wreckage until the machine gun and cannon shells began to cook off, and then left in a hurry.  We searched the surrounding area and finally found the pilot’s chute in a pine tree about one hundred feet back in the direction from which we had come.  By landing in the tree, the pilot was surely saved from severe injuries or death.  He had slipped his chute and laid low until we had passed, and then backtracked in our trail in the snow.
We followed his tracks, but lost them at dusk in the area where the snow had been heavily trampled.  After escaping death in such a remarkable exit by parachute, we were saddened the next morning to find the young pilot dead within our AP minefield.  He had crawled inside the wire barrier and suffered modest wounds from one of our antipersonnel mines.  We surmised that he believed he would freeze to death before morning, so he killed himself with his 9mm P-38. (Mentioned in the battalion’s S-1 record of 03 January 1945).
The winter of 1944 was one of the coldest in many years, often dropping well below zero degrees Fahrenheit.  However—except for the foot-freezing GI boots—we managed to keep warm and were not unduly concerned.  The thumb and index finger on my left hand often became completely unresponsive when that hand was cold. Recently, Doctor Albert Verloet – a Dutchman and a Japanese captive in WWII and my family physician in Lake Oswego, Oregon – stated that the high fever and delirium that I had experienced in my early teens, almost surely was the result of poliomyelitis.  This has been confirmed by the post-polio syndrome, which includes progressive muscle degeneration in the fingers and thumb.
Our battalion had few medical problems during this period, although some who failed to change their socks often enough, contracted trench foot—but none from the 3rd Platoon.  This was easily prevented by keeping a spare pair of woolen socks tucked inside of one’s pants.  Body heat dried them out, and they could then be swapped several times a day, while at the same time giving the feet a through massage.  During the Bulge our armies lost many men to this malady and especially men from the infantry who – because of a desire to stay alive – could not move out of their foxholes and exercise to keep warm.  During the Bulge, Captain Goldman – our new battalion medical officer – reported several cases of combat exhaustion which were treated with combination of sedatives and rest, followed by several days of heavy labor within the sounds of battle near the front.  Apparently it was successful.
To warm themselves, a group of “B” Company men built a flimsy cardboard shack with a diesel-fired steel drum stove located in the middle of the floor.  When one man tried to force his way into an already full shack, he was unable to do so, and no one offered to swap places.  Not to be deterred, he yelled “I’ll show you sons of bitches”, and threw a clip of M-1 ammo into the flames.  The mad scramble for the entry almost demolished the shack, after which the perpetrator was run down and pounded.  We must have been a bit odoriferous, as we rarely had an opportunity to shower.  Whore baths – water heated in helmets over an open fire-as our only option for washing face, ears, neck, underarms, crotch and feet in that order.  Our helmets then took on a dingy hue.  We were usually able to shave daily – though our razors were not the sharpest ones on the planet.  I often fantasized about luxuriating in a tub of steaming hot water, followed by a professional barber’s shave.  When the opportunity arose later for a German barber to do the job, I had to mentally restrain myself to keep from bolting from his chair when I realized how close to my throat his straight-edge razor was operating!
Several of us had garnered tanker coveralls and tanker jackets with a blanket-wool lining – a definite improvement over our standard GI woolen shirts, trousers and field jackets.  At night, I removed my boots and changed socks before crawling into a bedroll of several wool blankets, supported by a generous layer of interlaced pine boughs to provide insulation from the cold ground.  During the coldest weather I slept in all of my clothes, changing underwear whenever possible.  One morning I woke to find that a heavy snowfall had compressed the pup tent down tightly around my body.  Surprisingly, although we were often half frozen from riding in jeeps—always with the windshield down—or from sloshing about in the snow; few of us were ever sick with colds or flu.  After most of the Bulge fighting was over and the weather had improved, we finally were issued insulated shoe-pacs in lieu of those foot-freezing GI leather boots.  In the book “Citizen Soldiers” by Stephen Ambrose, he noted that the American High Command gambled that the war would be over in 1944 before we needed shoe-pacs—in retrospect an error in judgment, but C’est’ la guerre—you can’t win ‘em all !
By early January, we were gaining control after the Bulge had been suppressed; the captured Germans dressed in American uniforms from Colonel Skorzeny’s force had been executed at Henri-Chapelle, a few miles north of Monschau; and the paratroopers had been rounded up and shipped off to the PW cages.  Our infantry was gaining control of the area around Elsenborn and St Vith, and we had heard of the successful relief of our troops at Bastogne. Although the news that came to us seemed to be more favorable—we didn’t always hear the bad news—all it took to journey back to reality was to observe the graves registration men picking up the dead.
One memorable corpse in the snow in front of a nearby pillbox was a big football-lineman-type infantryman. He was about 6’5” and 250Ibs—probably a BAR candidate.  Only stockings were on his feet so he probably was wearing shoe-pacs as no one would have gone to that much trouble to get a pair of those foot-freezing GI boots.  At the site of one big tank battle near Bullingen, I had reason to be thankful that I was not a tanker.  The bodies that were being removed from knocked out Sherman tanks were wrapped in sheets that looked like oversized diapers—the corpses were so badly burned that some had no apparent arms or legs.  The stench of burned human flesh is an odor that is not easily forgotten!
When the Bulge finally wound down and the weather warmed, we had a super mud bath all along the front.  The ground had been saturated before it froze, and it became a quagmire upon thawing.  These roads were never designed to carry the heavy military traffic that was demanded of them—the blacktop had been laid over a thin layer of gravel and rock, with no heavy ballast rock beneath.  After a number of heavy trucks or tanks had passed over these roads, the squishy mud would well up through cracks in the blacktop and spread out over the surface.
In a short time these area became impassably deep mud holes, requiring heavy-duty repairs.  The 3rd Platoon tried shoveling the mud out of the holes, and then filling them with pit-run rock.  While this made a solid roadbed for the immediate few feet, it was too time consuming to be practical, and the number of mud holes was limitless.  We finally quit trying to maintain the appearance of a good road and just dumped ever more pit-run rock into and around the holes—making a rough but passable road.  The engineers creed for road maintenance is “get the water off, and the rock on”—in that order.  This we tried to do, but although a number of fixes were tried, none of them were very satisfactory.  Lieutenant Kehaly’s platoon built a corduroy road over the blacktop and then covered it with smaller pit-run rock.  While this was marginally satisfactory, it also was too time consuming, and the road edges were quite abrupt, making it more difficult to get vehicles on and off that portion of the roadway.
In January an infantry lieutenant was wounded nearby by an AP mine, near our work area—this was probably an “S-mine” called a bouncing Betty—and his men called on us to sweep the area for additional mines.  They became impatient with our slow mine-sweeping technique and ran on ahead down to where their lieutenant was lying.  I carefully followed them, stepping in their tracks to avoid being an additional casualty.  We each then grabbed an arm or a leg and carried the lieutenant to safety by retracing our footsteps.  He was vomiting and one man kept his head turned to the side to keep the intracranial fluid from running out through the hole in the side of his skull. He was semi-conscious, and would have remembered nothing.  I hope that he had a complete recovery.
That winter, I had seen an almost perfectly formed hemisphere of white brain tissue lying in the snow. A German soldier had been killed and apparently then had a mortar or artillery round burst nearby, which had blown away the side of his skull and dumped out the delicate white brain tissue.  Had his brain not been frozen it would not have been so well delineated, as unfrozen brains are not all that sturdy.  The detail was almost as good as the photographs in anatomy books—but that was still a cause for queasiness in one who was not an anatomy major!
In January 1945, plans for a new Allied offensive were taking shape.  In preparation for the proposal Roer River crossing we built a quantity of duckboards that were to be used on top of pontoons in that assault, but when our infantry outflanked the German positions and captured that area, the duckboards were not needed. Meanwhile, Ranger patrols were making nightly forays into enemy positions across the Roer River.  On one trip, they found three Germans soldiers asleep in a Siegfried bunker.  The two men on the outside were knifed, and the one in the middle was left untouched.  Imagine how that poor soldier would feel upon awakening and finding out that he was alive only by a shake of the dice?  That was a heavy-duty mind game and one that would unnerve almost any normal human being!
Source "The BULGE BUGLE" February 2011
1st Lt Wesley ROSS

3rd Platoon

"B" Company

146th Engineer Combat



Battle of the Bulge, Belgium