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The Bulge with the 38th Cavalry Squadron And the 146th Engineer Combat Battalion.

The Bulge with the 38th Cavalry Squadron
And the 146th Engineer Combat Battalion.
On the morning of 16 December 1944, the well orchestrated German attack in the Ardennes (Wacht am Rhein – a subterfuge hiding their offensive intentions behind a pretended defense) was launched.  Because Hitler suspected a security leak within his Wehrmacht, he limited disclosures of the attack plans to only his most trusted generals.  He was unaware that the British had broken his secret Enigma Code even though some of his advisors had suggested that this may have happened.  "Impossible" said der Fuehrer.
There were so few radio intercepts concerning the upcoming Ardennes offensive that our high level commanders were caught completely off guard even though many of us at the line level were antsy about all of the enemy activity nearby along our front.  In general, the Wehrmacht followed the mandated radio secrecy orders but there were enough slip-ups by their air force and civilian transportation units to have given our top-level commanders sufficient insight had they not been so over-confident that they discounted these critical intercepts.

At 1520 hours on 16 December, Colonel Pattillo from V Corps called Major Baker S-3 of the 146th Engineer Combat Battalion and ordered a company of engineers to be immediately attached to the 38th Cavalry Squadron at Monschau, to serve as infantry.  "A" Company was in the line at 1700 that evening where they supported for the out-numbered troopers.  The 38th Cavalry was at the northern tip of the Bulge and just north of Lt Colonel McClernand Butler's 3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division, at Hofen. (The 395th held their ground and so was not involved in a command restructuring which placed the remainder of the 99th Division under command of the 2nd Infantry Division.)

For several days this small force -- including 3rd Platoon, "A" Company, 112th Engineer Combat Battalion, and attached 105mm and 155mm artillery fought off several attacks by vastly superior enemy forces.  Several times they called artillery fire onto their own positions to thwart these attacks.  Canister rounds were used with devastating effect when they were about to be overrun.  For their stout defense all three units were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.  According to Cavalry on the Shoulder, the 38th Cavalry was the only mechanized cavalry squadron to be so honored in WWII.  The 146th Engineer Combat Battalion had received a Presidential Unit Citation for their D-Day anti-boat obstacle demolition mission on Omaha Beach, so this added an oak leaf cluster of "A" Company's PUC.  "A" Company, 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion fought nearby and was told that they were awarded a Meritorious Unit Citation -- Unconfirmed.
The battlefield success of the 38th Cavalry Squadron in the Bulge was due to a number of elements, including a seasoned cadre who had fought from Normandy, but probably the most important item being their commanding officer -- Lt Colonel Robert O'Brien -- a 1936 West Point cavalry graduate.  He was fanatical in his dedication to patrolling the area forward of his lines -- to the extent that the 38th came to "own the area between the fronts"!  Initially, this was not the case, but came to pass after several fierce firefights that inflicted heavy casualties on enemy patrols.

This recounting of the Monschau defense is from Cavalry on the Shoulder: "An example of the quick and deadly fights initiated by patrols is the instance at the end of October, 1944, when a "B" Troop patrol lead by First Lieutenant Weldon J. Yontz, fought a sharp action against a German patrol in the thick pine forests of the Ardennes.  The cavalry point man, Private Herbert H. Whittard, spotted the enemy first and motioned the cavalry men into position to spring an ambush.  Waiting in cover, the cavalry troopers engaged the enemy patrol at close range that killed or wounded all 22 of them."


"Prisoners later revealed that this enemy patrol was handpicked from the reconnaissance company of the opposing German infantry regiment.  This type of aggressive acting was repeated often in the Monschau sector, causing enemy patrols to avoid contact and allowing cavalry patrols to make increasingly detailed reconnaissance reports and sketches of enemy positions.  More importantly, it left the German commanders ignorant of the details of the cavalry's defensive positions."

"The preparation of the defense at Monschau may rank as one of the most thorough defenses by an American battalion – size unit in U.S. Army history. The cavalry men, taking stock of their equipment, time available, and the aggressive spirit of the troopers, quickly established the defense which made maximum use of all available assets.  The defense was unique in many respects.  First, the establishment of patrol dominance denied the enemy detailed knowledge of the squadron's disposition and strength.  Thus any attacking enemy would be forced to guess where the units were deployed, and where the squadron was weak and where it was strong."
"A second aspect of the defense was the unusual attention to ensuring integrated command, control and communications.  To this end the squadron employed 16 radio nets, incorporating over 60 radios.  The high number of radios – several times the number found in an infantry battalion – supplemented a remarkable wire communications system consisting of 65 telephones, 50 miles of telephone wire, and six switchboards.  The wire command and control system integrated all squads, platoons, troops and supporting artillery into a single web."

"This effort is even more amazing, considering the fact that the squadron was not authorized communication specialists.  The system was designed to function even if a portion of it were destroyed.  It also permitted very small units, in some cases individual four-man machine gun positions and two-man artillery observer teams, to continue to function and receive orders even when cut off from their immediate headquarters.  Additionally, all of the wire was buried deep to protect it from enemy infiltrators, accidental cuts and enemy artillery fire.  Finally, the entire wire system was duplicated, so that each line had a back-up in the event of failure.  This communication system would provide essential to the coordinated defense across such a large sector of front (about six miles) by so small a unit."

"The third unique factor which characterized the defense of Monschau was the extremely precise and effective positioning of the available weapons, obstacles and units. Machine guns were one of the keys to the defense.  The 38th Cavalry dismounted .50 caliber and .30 caliber machine guns from terrain surrounding the town.  The weapons were carefully positioned so as to provide interlocking grazing fire along all of the likely enemy avenues of approach.  They were further tied into obstacles of concertina wire and personnel mines along these likely avenues.  Further, extensive use was made of trip flares to provide early warning of enemy approach.  Flares were preferred because they prevented friendly casualties in case of mistakes and they did not give the false sense of security associated with extensive minefields."
"All of the weapons were dug in, with overhead cover to survive artillery attack and they were carefully concealed so that an attacking enemy had to literally be on the position to recognize it as a machinegun position.  Finally, the positions were integrated into the squadron command and control telephone net.  A final point on the preparation of the Monschau defense was a typical characteristic of defense common to the U.S. Army -- the thorough integration and abundance of artillery support -- 105mm and 155mm howitzers, augmented by their organic 60mm and 81mm mortars."

"The effectiveness of the artillery support was later verified by a German prisoner of war.  He reported that German troops in the Monschau sector were forbidden to leave their bunkers and foxholes during the hours of daylight.  The German troops were reduced to observing their sectors through the use of mirrors, in order not to attract rapid and deadly artillery fire.  This dedicated defensive preparation was tested at 0545 on the morning of 16 December 1944, when the intense German artillery barrage announced the start of the Battle of the Bulge."


At 1525 hours on 16 December, Colonel McDonough, the 1121 Engineer Group commander, called our headquarters and ordered another engineer company to be deployed as infantry.  The three "B" Company platoons moved into position the following 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 German advance should they manage to penetrate our lines.  The 3rd Platoon patrolled a 2,000 yard front in the snow.


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 overrun or bypassed by any determined enemy attack in force.  Sylvin Keck, from the 2nd Platoon, manned a daisy-chain road block on a nearby road.  These are AT mines roped together so they can be quickly pulled across a road at the approach of enemy vehicles – but they are not very effective unless adequately supported by covering fire.  A number of trees had C-2 explosives attached for potential road abatis.


While on outpost duty, the 3rd Platoon had no clue as to the German's intentions.  We were positioned in the woods away from our headquarters but the wealth of unverified rumors, the actuality of the paratroopers and the reports of Skorzeny's men in American uniforms kept us alert.  Unconfirmed rumors abounded! Anyone moving about was challenged and this included even easily recognized American generals.  Our reconnaissance officer, Lt Leonard Fox, was taken prisoner by a patrol from the 38th Cavalry Squadron because he had not yet received that day's password.  After six hours at their CP while they checked on his legitimacy, he was released.

Lt Colonel von der Heydte's parachute force was dropped nearby on the night of 16/17 December.  Their initial objective was capturing the Baraque Michel, a road junction midway between Eupen and Malmedy and ten miles west of Monschau – a brushy, timered area with streams and swamps forming the head waters of the Roer River.  The paratroopers were a day late because of glitches in delivering their gasoline and in getting their forces assembled and were also widely scattered because of inexperienced pilots and minimal advance information concerning their mission.

The initial plan called for the General Sepp Dietrich's forces to link up with the paratroopers at this road junction on 16 December -- an intended replay of their successful breakthrough in 1940.  Had Dietrich been able to push his way through Monschau, he very well may have captured the big gasoline dumps near Eupen and then moved almost unimpeded north to Antwerp.  That would have made the 101st Airborne stand at Bastogne a non-event!


The twin "Jumo" engineers of the German planes were unsynchronized, and so had a distinctive uneven "yummm-yummm-yummm" beat-frequency sound as they flew overhead at night.  We believe that they were for aerial resupply of the paratroopers.  We were itching to turn our machine guns on them, but this was specifically forbidden as it would have divulged our defensive positions.  Several V-1s (Buzz Bombs) that landed nearby were said to have contained food and medicines instead of explosives but I saw one.


Early in 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 that also knocked off his Omaha Beach "Trophy Helmet", which sported two clean 8mm holes.  The bullet had passed through the front and out the back of the helmet, nicking his ear and the side of his head.  That he had not been seriously wounded was considered a good omen so he refused to swap it for a new one.  However, his trophy helmet was never recovered!  Earl was a volunteer from the 2nd Infantry Division for our anti-landing craft demolition mission and was wounded D-Day morning.  He was the only 2nd Infantry Division volunteer who returned to the 146th Engineer Combat Battalion after his hospitalization.


Engineers have only occasional need for machine guns, but we had both the WWI vintage water-cooled .30 caliber Brownings as well as the newer air cooler version and the .50 caliber Brownings (ring-mounted on our truck cabs for anti-aircraft).  Our .30s were light years behind the vastly superior German MG-42.  During the early hours of the paratroop drop, one of our water-cooled Brownings fired just one round, and sat there mute – the water in the cooling jacket had frozen, jamming the action.


Lt Schindler, who spoke German, led a reconnaissance patrol on one cold winter day, seeking information for V Corps on a German Panzer Division: "The infantry said that we were stupid for going beyond their outpost.  Claude Dobbs and Sergeant Roy Durfey were in Lt 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 cal machine gun.  As they approached a house they saw a German soldier run inside.  The men in back jumped out while Rom remained on the machine gun."

"Schindler's jeep backed up and he called out in German for those inside to surrender.  Thirty-seven of them did so and were captured without a shot being fired.  They were then led away to a PW cage.  Later Schindler, Cecil Morgan and Roy Durfey returned to a nearby house from where smoke had been seen coming from the chimney and where Durfey had noticed a mule hooked to a two-wheel cart outside.  Morgan kicked in the door and stepped inside with a Thompson sub an 38 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."

On 23 December, 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 80 yards to the east.  We were a bit jumpy as their 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 of German forces before or after the strike; but since we were close to the front lines, there is a possibility that German armor was located there.


A prominent radiator bulge under their engines gave them 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 Spitfires and Mustangs.  I was told that these engines had 24 cylinders -- compared to the twelve cylinders of the Merlin -- and the 24 exhausts blended the sound into the unusual road. (Since verified)


Christmas Day 1944, on the way to our AP minefield, a doe and a yearling crossed in front of our truck so I told the men in back to shoot her.  After a dozen or more rounds had been fired, at a distance of about 80 yards, I yelled "cease fire" as the deer disappeared into the brush.  The firing might have been interpreted as a fire fight with a German patrol, initiating a wasteful response.  The doe then sauntered back across the road so I shot her.  There was one hole in her hide.  That's less than 10% accuracy for our "American Marksmen."  Our company cooks then served up the fresh meat, which was a welcome change to our regular 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 fresh meat, but had not coordinated the effort. The animals were a nuisance around our AP minefields, as they hit our trip wires and detonated the mines – killing themselves in the process.  We only hastened their demise.  The hogs were fried first, and the pork fat was then used in frying the rest of the meat.  The meat was tough and chewy, but still much appreciated!

On the night of 26 December 1944, our bivouac area was shelled heavily for about 30 minutes.  We were in an area of large pine trees, so there were many tree bursts.  Heading for a safe refuge in a culvert (which he called a tin-horn), Sgt Jackson ran into a truck tailgate and chipped off the corner of an upper front tooth.  I flattened myself on the ground at the base of a large 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.

Several trucks had flat tires and other holes, and the driveline of one truck was completely severed.  A shell fragment smashed through the front panel of our headquarters desk drawer, and spinning around inside, made a mouse nest out of the papers within.  A number of artillery fragments riddled the battalion aid station tent – one striking Ernest K. Hansen in the chest as he was holding a plasma bottle over one of our wounded.


Lt Colonel Isley was the most seriously wounded.  The battalion was moved to Henri-Chapelle that night – per Isley's orders before he was evacuated.  Several of Colonel Skorzeny's men who were captured wearing American uniforms after infiltrating our lines were executed by a firing squad 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 tried to find a spot to spread ut, but the space was completely filled with bodies.  I did my best to find a bare spot, but after some offered to loosen all my teeth if I didn't quite stepping on him, I crawled back out and shivered in the jeep until dawn.  The next morning 3rd Platoon – and possibly all of "B" Company -- returned to our original bivouac area, and we continued working on the AP minefield.

New Year's Day morning was clear and cold.  While we were adding the red triangles – indicating a minefield -- to the barbed wire fence around the AP minefield, the sky was suddenly filled with 28 ME 109s flying northwest at 1000 feet.  "Operation Bodenplatte" was the plan to attack our airfields and destroy our planes on the ground -- a continuation of the Bulge.  A number of airfields near our front were successfully attacked that day, and several hundred American planes were destroyed on the ground. German losses were only one-third of our but their losses -- and especially their losses of trained pilots – were those that they could ill afford.
Luckily for us, our P47s were rendezvousing near the Liege air-fields for a strike of their own, and they caught these Germans by surprise as they were coming in.  It must have been a dog-fight, but we saw only the tail end of the action from our work area.  In 20 minutes, as we watched in fascination, five ME-109s were shot out of the sky.  The first one fell 1500 yards away, and they kept dropping closer and closer until the last one was only 300 yards from our work party.
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 P47s.  Our pilots were definitely more aggressive, 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 of interest, (read Lugers or P38s)!  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 some altitude to jump.  His plane rose only a few hundred feet, coming 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 near the wreckage, since we were certain 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 made our made exodus.  We searched the surrounding area and finally found the pilot's chute in a pine tree 100 yards back in the direction from which we had come.  Landing in the tree surely saved him from severe injuries or death. He had slipped his chute and hid until we 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 crawled through our wire barrier and suffered modest wounds from an anti-personnel mine.  We surmised that he believed he would freeze to death before morning, so he killed himself with his 9mm P-38.

The winter of 1944 was one of the coldest in many years, often dropping well below zero degrees Fahrenheit.  We slept in pup tends in the snow and motored about in our jeeps with the windshields folded down to be out of the way in case of an ambush or a firefight and slithered around in the snow in lose foot-freezing GI leather boots.


Our battalion had few medical problems during this period, although some, who failed to change their socks frequently, contracted trench foot (but none were from the 3rd Platoon).  Our armies lost many man/days to this malady during the Bulge. It was easily prevented by keeping spare woolen socks ducked in one's pants.  Body heat dried them out and they could then be swapped several times a day -- meanwhile, giving the feet and toes an energetic massage.  Infantrymen, occupying foxholes out in the open and under fire, did not always have that option and so suffered many cases if trechfoot. Dr Stanley Goodman treated several combat exhaustion cases with sedatives and rest -- followed by several days of heavy labor.  Having all of this happen within the sounds of artillery and other battle noise near the front apparently did the trick.


A group of "B" Company men built a cardboard warming shack with a diesel drum stove in the center.  When one man tried to force his way in near the stove in an already full shack, he was unable to do so, and no one offered to swap places.  Not be deterred, he yelled, "I'll show you sons of bitches," and threw a full clip of M-1 ammo into the fire.  The mad scramble for the doorway almost completely demolished the shack -- after which the perpetrator was run down and pounded.


We must have been a bit odoriferous as we barely had an opportunity to shower. "Whore baths" -- water heated in helmets over an open fire was our only option for washing faces, ears, neck, underarms, crotch and feet -- in that order.  Our helmets then took on a dingy hue.  We were usually able to shave daily -- often in cold water -- but 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 later arose 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 straightedge razor was operating.


Surprisingly, although we were often half frozen from riding in jeeps – 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 were issued insulated shoe pacs in lieu of those foot-freezing GI leather boots.  Citizen Soldiers by Stephen Ambrose noted that the American commanders gambled that the war would be over before we needed shoe pacs – in retrospect an error in judgment but "C'est la guerre" – you can't win all!


Source "The BULGE BUGLE" August 2009

1st Lt Wesley ROSS

146th Engineer Combat



Battler of the Bulge,