ENGINEERS AT WAR
by Col David E. Pergin and Eric Hammel
Copyright © 1994 by David E. Pergrin and Eric Hammel
Lieutenant Colonel David Pergrin's 291st Engineer Combat Battalion was the premier U.S. Army engineer unit in the European Theater of Operations in World War II. Through a combination of being at the right place at the right time, having the ingrained skills to complete any task under any conditions, and boasting the kind of leadership and human material that made any task seem easy, the 291st received more accolades than any of its marvelous sister engineering units. The battalion's two greatest accomplishments in the war were, first, almost single-handedly stopping the powerful German armored thrust in the northern Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge, and, second, building the first engineer bridge across the Rhine River in March 1945, at Remagen. But there was luck at play in those towering historical endeavors--being where the action happened to be--and so the fair way to judge the 291st is by what it accomplished on a work-a-day basis.
After assisting elements of the U.S. First Army in regaining all the territory lost during the Battle of the Bulge, the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion was assigned to assist the 82d Airborne Division in taking a new and dangerous objective. The objective of the 82d Airborne Division at the end of January 1945 was achieving a breakthrough of the Siegfried Line at Losheim, the same place the Germans had broken through in the opposite direction at the start of their Ardennes Offensive. For the new attack, Colonel H. Wallis Anderson's entire 1111th Engineer Combat Group was attached to the XVIII Airborne Corps, so the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion was transferred from a temporary assignment with the 1186th Engineer Combat Group to Colonel Anderson's direct command, under which it had served for most of the time since landing in Normandy in June 1944.
At 0600 hours, January 28, 1945, Major General James Gavin's 82d Airborne Division jumped off through the 7th Armored Division into the Losheim Gap. Occupying an initial front line between Born and Ambleve, Belgium, the 82d Airborne attacked northeast across the high ground overlooking Wereth with the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment on the left, the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment on the right, and the 505th and 508th Parachute Infantry regiments in reserve. Attacking beside the 82d Airborne, on the left, was the crack 1st Infantry Division.
The men of the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion did not follow the lead companies of the 82d Airborne into the Losheim Gap quite as closely as we had followed the lead companies of the 30th Infantry Division toward St. Vith during the previous week. No, mostly we led the paratroopers through the hip- and thigh-deep ice and snow, scraping paths through trackless minefields with our armored bulldozers so the lightly armed and largely unsupported paratroopers and glider infantrymen could move at all. From the outset, we faced a howling blizzard and minus- degree temperatures through a dense forest that all but lacked rudimentary footpaths, much less defined tracks, trails, and roads. The problems and hardships we faced were surmountable, but only by battle-hardened troops with stout hearts and iron determination. Fortunately, the 291st had those in abundance.
Particularly noteworthy were the heroic efforts of Technician 5th Grade Herbert Helgerson, a Company B bulldozer operator. Near Wereth on January 29, Helgerson distinguished himself as he was clearing heavily drifted snow from a supply road directly along the front lines. At times working ahead of the infantry, he was once pinned down by a German machine gun and was almost constantly exposed to mortar and artillery fire called by German forward observers who seemed to have him under observation throughout his mission. Despite the unnerving proximity of the fire, Helgerson nevertheless got the road cleared so the infantry could receive vital support from the rear.
Another noteworthy performance was turned in by Corporal Edward Woertz, who became so wrapped up in his work that he worked eighteen hours or more at a time for four consecutive days. In fact, Woertz kept working at one point even though German machine-gun fire was hitting the body of his bulldozer.
Not surprisingly, some of the most stout-hearted men were those who had already proven themselves in close combat with the enemy. One such, who constantly drove his armored bulldozer directly into the face of enemy emplacements, was Technician 4th Tom Noland, whose exemplary leadership had done much to save the day against a German Waffen SS brigade that had attacked us at Malmedy, during the Ardennes Offensive. Eventually, though, Tom was seriously injured by a flurry of German rifle fire as he cut a trail for the troops of the 325th Glider Infantry in front of an active German defensive position. Also working far above and beyond his expected performance, Lieutenant Wade Colbeck took miserable, life-threatening turns in the cabs of the armored bulldozers when his platoon's cold-dazed operators needed respite or relief.
In addition to the bulldozers and road graders we directly committed to supporting the infantry, we had as many as ten bulldozers and five road graders in constant operation behind the lines, laboriously opening or cutting supply and evacuation trails. The Germans had mined every possible route through the forest, but our minesweeping teams seemed to have found every mine along the routes we opened and used.
Despite the formidable natural obstacles and hardships, the 504th Parachute Infantry advanced 7,000 yards on January 28, and captured Herresback after killing sixty-five and capturing two hundred-one German soldiers without sustaining any losses. The 325th Glider Infantry faced stiffer opposition in its zone, and it suffered losses accordingly. However, it also wound up the day far ahead of its line of departure.
The 82d Airborne Division's attack continued on a northeasterly heading on January 29, but abominable weather conditions--a full-scale blizzard--restricted the 325th and 504th regiments to gains averaging 2,000 yards. A subsidiary attack by the 505th Parachute Infantry southeastward on the high ground toward Honsfeld eked out only 1,500 yards. The men of the 291st thus found ourselves still within the same area of Belgium in which we had operated prior to the German Ardennes Offensive, which had begun about six weeks earlier.
On January 30, the 325th Glider Infantry jumped off to the northeast at 0500 hours. By 1500 hours, elements of the regiment had reached Bucholtz, abreast the Honsfeld-Losheim railway line. By nightfall, patrols of glider infantrymen were reporting back from the German side of the frontier. On that day, also, the newly committed 508th Parachute Infantry captured Lanzerath and the damaged highway bridge over the railway line. American troops were thus in possession of the German's northern Ardennes jumping-off position, a significant measurable gain. On January 31, a day of consolidation in the 82d Airborne Division's zone, the 505th Parachute Infantry bullied its way forward to Losheim- ergraben against moderate resistance.
As Technician 5th Mike Popp and I toured the frontier area visiting my operating platoons, we noted how many German vehicles and horse-drawn artillery units had been knocked out by our tactical air. Also, many of the villages had suffered extensive damage at the hands of our Ninth Air Force fighter-bomber pilots, and there was no evidence of German civilians in the region. Apparently, a decree from Hitler that the civilians defend the Fatherland unto death was being rigorously ignored.
Captain Bill McKinsey, our battalion intelligence officer, reported that the Lanzerath bridge, which the 82d Airborne was counting on to get its mobile artillery and armor forward, was impassable. Based on Bill's front-line survey, we prepared to build a one-hundred-eighty-foot Bailey span across an eighty-foot-deep railroad cut through the Lanzerath ridge. The location of the new bridge would be precisely on the Belgian- German border, our first construction assignment in the Nazi homeland. The job was a typical rush. General Gavin's divisional headquarters wanted to bolster the 508th Parachute Infantry's positions on the high ground between Losheim and Manderfeld with the self-propelled guns of the 629th Tank Destroyer Battalion. As it was, the 508th had already repulsed one German counterattack with its light infantry weapons and, though Bill McKinsey reported seeing German infantry in retreat, no one knew what the Germans might throw in next in symbolic defense of their border.
On February 1, the 291st's battalion command post moved forward from Malmedy to Meyerode, and Companies A and C were consolidated to build the Lanzerath bridge. Before the bridge- builders could advance to the bridge site, however, our minesweeping teams had to probe forward and clear all the approaches. As expected, the Germans had mined all the shoulder areas with antitank and antipersonnel devices and, also as expected, they had wired in numerous booby traps whose only purpose was to kill or maim engineers clearing the mines. As usual, we suffered no losses, but working in the snow and ice made matters extremely ticklish.
Major Ed Lampp's battalion operations plan was to begin work on the bridge at 0030 hours, February 2. Long experience had imbued Ed with the belief that a bridge as critically important as this one would be under observation by German artillery forward observers, so his typical response was to do as much work as possible under cover of darkness. Beginning at sunset, the two engineer companies and all their equipment moved into holding areas within a mile of the bridge site. For the next six hours, all the troops worked feverishly to prepare for the massive, miserable job ahead. Then, at 0030 hours, right on schedule, Captain Warren Rombaugh's Company C advanced to the bridge site en masse to begin the first continuous twelve-hour shift. Because it was so cold, Warren could work his platoons for only four hours apiece, which we had learned is about as long as human beings could endure the superhuman task of wrestling the unbelievably frigid five-hundred-pound prefabricated steel Bailey Bridge panels into place.
The night was foggy, and sleet fell steadily upon all the men whose duties prevented them from seeking even rudimentary cover. Progress was dampened a bit by the sleet because it obliged all the workers to pull their woolen watch caps down across their ears and faces. Sporadic artillery fire added considerably to the delaying action of the weather but fortunately resulted in no casualties. One of the greatest dangers lay in the potential for slipping or sliding off the glazed steel bridge panels into the eighty-foot-deep railroad cut. Again, no one was injured, though there were repeated heartstoppers throughout the ordeal. All this was done with the knowledge that the lightly armed and relatively unsupported troops of the 508th Parachute Infantry were waiting for their tank destroyers in vulnerable infantry fighting positions about a mile in front of the bridge.
Mike Popp wrestled our command car to the bridge site at about 0300 hours, February 2, in the immediate wake of one of uncountable artillery barrages. As I watched the miserably cold battle-hardened Company C troopers wrestle the five-foot-by-ten- foot panels of the double-triple (double thickness, triple height) Bailey bridge across an eighty-foot-deep chasm in the midst of a vertical ice storm, I became convinced that these were men who would finish anything, literally anything, that anyone could conceivably dream up to be accomplished by combat engineers.
The bridge, which would be two panels thick and three panels high with a single-span treadway floor, required the placement of two hundred sixteen 500-pound panels. When completed, with one end in Belgium and the other end in Germany, the one-hundred- eighty-foot span would be able to support a forty-ton load moving at six miles per hour.
We opened the bridge to traffic at 1700 hours, February 3, forty and one-half hours after work began. We did so following an around-the-clock effort by two complete combat engineer companies and without suffering a single casualty or injury despite the incessant German artillery fire and incredibly dangerous working conditions. Our first customers were all the self-propelled tank destroyers of the 629th Tank Destroyer Battalion. And the payoff, soon to arrive, was a coordinated attack, amply supported by way of the Lanzerath bridge, in which the 325th Glider Infantry and 504th Parachute Infantry regiments quickly and decisively cracked the Siegfried Line between Neuhof and Udenreth, just north of the Losheim Gap.
As soon as possible, the 291st followed the 82d Airborne through the dragon's teeth and formidable array of bunkers and pillboxes comprising the Siegfried Line. Behind us lay the long- sought breach in the enemy frontier, and ahead of us lay victory, but not without privation and struggle, hope and glory as we had never seen them before.
On February 7, 1945, our engineer group commander, Colonel H. Wallis Anderson, contacted me with orders to move the entire 291st Engineer Combat Battalion to a jumping-off point in the Huertgen Forest. The news was unwelcome and immediately became the cause of deep-seated anxiety among those of us who had followed the largely unsuccessful pre-Bulge efforts by up to 120,000 American troops to secure this vital densely wooded frontier region. Unfortunately for the many Americans who had tried and failed, and the many more of us who would try again, the capture of the Huertgen Forest was absolutely essential to the contemplated broad-front Allied attack across the Cologne Plain to the Rhine River, the last important natural barrier keeping us from Germany's western heartland. The essential features within the forest region were two massive hydroelectric dams, the Urftallsperre and the Schwammenauel, that controlled the water level of the north-flowing Roer River. If the Allies could not capture the dams intact, the Germans could flood the Roer valley and deny us the broad-front access to the Rhine that appeared essential to our strategic concept.
The previous fighting in the Huertgen had been about the grimmest of the war in Western Europe. Not only had the Germans made a special effort to plant mines and booby traps--they knew how important the region was to us--they took special pleasure in firing their artillery into the densely packed treetops in order to create exceptionally deadly sprays of shrapnel and wood splinters against which infantrymen advancing in the open could in no way defend themselves. Together with many extremely complex, extensive, continuous, interlocking, and hardened defensive sectors on the ground, these features had resulted in more than nine thousand Allied battle casualties prior to the Battle of the Bulge.
We were doubly annoyed with the news of our commitment to the renewed Huertgen drive because we felt we had narrowly evaded a December commitment due to the onset of the German Ardennes Offensive. I had already traveled through the American-held Huertgen region in the days immediately prior to the German December offensive to review the manner in which the 291st was to be employed in the effort to capture the Roer dams. I had frankly hoped in the weeks after the Bulge that the higher headquarters responsible for reducing the Huertgen defenses had forgotten about the 291st's prospective commitment. As it turned out, my wishes came to nothing.
To get set for the new Huertgen drive, the entire battalion caravaned from Meyerode to Walheim, a German town east of the Siegfried Line in the vicinity of Schmidt. We remained attached to the 1111th Engineer Group, but we now came under the control of Major General John Millikin's III Corps, which was in the center of the U.S. First Army zone, directly facing the Huertgen Forest. On our left was the VII Corps, and on our right was the V Corps. Unless the III Corps was able to secure the Roer dams intact, the U.S. Ninth Army, adjacent to the First Army in the north, could not attack into the Roer valley for fear of being flooded out by the Germans, who after all could see the shape of our strategy. If the U.S. Ninth Army could not advance, neither could Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery's entire 21st Army Group, to which it had been attached. And, if the 21st Army Group could not advance, neither could the four Allied armies arrayed in the center and the south--the U.S. First and Third armies in the 12th Army Group zone, and the U.S. Seventh and French First armies in the 6th Army Group zone. When all was said and done, then, an Allied advance to the strategic Rhine barrier came down to III Corps' hoped-for success in the Huertgen Forest.
The corps-wide preparations for the assault on the Roer dams gave us some time to clean up and take care of overdue house- keeping chores--and to settle down after our harrowing weeks in the forefront of the assault into Germany. The billets we took over for the troops were only fair, but they were warm and snug compared to the places in which we had been hunkering down for weeks. Everyone had an opportunity to heed my command to shave daily, and showers were set up to handle everyone's needs. Only marginally less important than the care and feeding of the troops was the opportunity the break afforded us to maintain, refurbish, and replace our sorely abused equipment.
A spate of letter writing was immediately requited by the arrival of a ton of mail that had been following us around through the battle zone for weeks. This included hundreds of responses to the six hundred fifty Christmas cards the battalion headquarters staff had mailed to the families of our men just before the onset of the Bulge. It was gratifying reading, though several responses had been mailed by relatives of several of our dead comrades before news of the deaths reached home. A surprising number of letters and cards addressed to me complained that sons and husbands had not been writing home, and would I please get "Johnny" to write more often. The many Christmas packages that had been late getting to us before Christmas brightened our respite with a dizzying array of goodies from home. As the "Old Man," I was obliged to sample more sweets than any human being should have. Given our fears regarding the battalion's next battle, the caring attitude of our relatives and friends at home came as sweeter news than I can possibly express.
We kept up our skills with a variety of local engineering chores. The area around Walheim was riddled with uncleared minefields, and Captain Jim Gamble's Company A kept itself in trim by building a small airstrip near Schmidt for use by light Piper Cub artillery spotting planes. Naturally, all the letter companies were out every day, from sunrise to sunset, repairing the muddy, shell-damaged roads and bridges that would carry supplies forward and casualties rearward when the new assault got underway.
There was no certainty that the 291st would actually wind up having anything to do with the Roer dams themselves, but the betting around the senior staff ran heavily in that direction. Major Ed Lampp, our operations officer, was extremely forceful in such prognostications. We knew we were considered a crack battalion. Being so judged has its good points, but it also means facing the dirtiest assignments. Besides, our pre-Bulge preparations had been directed toward the dams; there was no reason to suppose that the folks who had remembered our early surveys and briefings would forget the subject of those plans.
To be on the safe side, I had Captain Bill McKinsey send out a reconnaissance team on February 9 to look over the dams from the closest possible vantage point and to assess the overall situation in the III Corps zone. Bill briefed the battalion staff and company commanders late that evening.
The 78th Infantry Division had jumped off against the dams on February 5, following its series of unsuccessful attacks against Schmidt. (The mission of capturing Schmidt had been turned over to Major General James Gavin's 82d Airborne Division on February 2, and Gavin had proceeded toward the city by a new route--directly down the main highway through Lammersdorf rather than overland through the oft-used and stoutly-defended steep- sided Kall Gorge.) Also on February 5, the 9th Armored Division's Combat Command R (for Reserve) went in south of the 78th Division, in the vicinity of Wahlerscheid, in the Monschau Forest, a region of the Huertgen. It came as considerable relief to learn that the second-largest of the Roer dams, the Urftallsperre, had fallen intact to the 9th Armored on the first day of its assault. As Bill McKinsey gleefully pointed out, "That's one dam we won't have to rebuild!"
The main assault, that by the 78th Infantry Division, met light opposition on February 5 and 6, but it nonetheless proceeded at a cautious pace. On February 7, the division commander decided to put all three of his infantry regiments into an effort to leap forward to the unsecured Schwammenauel Dam. Each company of the division's organic engineer battalion, the 303rd, was placed at the front with each of the attacking infantry regiments. In the ensuing action, the engineers alone destroyed or directly helped destroy more than two hundred concrete pillboxes in the defended sector between Lammersdorf and the Roer.
Bill McKinsey saved the best news for last. The 9th Armored Division had been sent to the aid of the 78th Infantry Division on February 9, permitting the 78th Division to redirect its 309th Infantry Regiment cross-country against the Schwammenauel Dam. By day's end, only hours before Bill conducted his briefing, the vital dam had fallen into the hands of the 309th Infantry Regiment. Better than that, the dam was intact. And, best of all, the fall of the dam had allowed the 9th Infantry Division's 60th Infantry Regiment to spring forward right into Schmidt. All of the III Corps objectives had been taken and the entire Allied assault to the Rhine could commence--without the 291st's having been committed to the bloody fighting in the Huertgen Forest.
Early on the morning of February 10, Colonel Anderson called the battalion command post and asked me to get over to Group immediately with Major Ed Lampp. There, Major Harry Webb, the group operations officer, briefed Ed and me on Operation GRENADE, the projected assault across the Roer River.
First Webb told us that the Germans had not destroyed the dams but that they had accomplished several acts of mischief. In particular, they had destroyed the powerful dam machinery and discharge valves on the Schwammenauel and had diverted the water from behind the Urftallsperre to behind the Schwammenauel. The effect was not, as feared, an unstoppable torrent of water, but we were faced with stopping a relentless flow that, unchecked, would flood the Roer valley for about two weeks. If that happened, the U.S. Ninth Army's drive toward the Rhine would be seriously delayed, and that would have a ripple effect across the entire Allied front. According to Webb, it looked as though the flooding could not be evaded and that the assault would indeed be delayed for about two weeks. Nevertheless, all the assault divisions were to be ready to jump off at a moment's notice.
In addition to wrecking the machinery, the Germans had blown part of the spillway, leaving a big gap on top of the dam. The eighty-foot gap prevented the 78th Infantry Division from getting any armored support across the dam to the thin infantry screen defending the bridgehead on the east bank of the Roer.
Major Webb next directed our attention to his situation map. He told us that, when Operation GRENADE commenced, we were to directly support the 78th Infantry Division by building a bridge across the gap in the Schwammenauel Dam and thus assure the free flow of armored vehicles and supplies toward the east. As Webb spoke, Ed Lampp caught my eye and smiled as if to say, "I told you so!" Indeed he had, many times over the past few days. After telling us that the effort undoubtedly would be made under direct German fire, Webb ended the briefing with a rather too chipper, "You guys got the contract."
Before returning to my command post to mount out the battalion, I was taken aside by Colonel Anderson. He told me that the 291st had been selected for the job by senior First Army officers because of the sterling regard in which we were held.
Ed and I returned to our command post and called a meeting of senior staff and line officers to discuss the new and challenging mission. Bill McKinsey immediately dispatched patrols to survey the entire 78th Division rear and report back about any damaged or destroyed bridges and stretches of roadway that needed to be swept for mines or repaired. By then, the early thaw had left many long stretches of vital roadway in utter disrepair following the passage of our army's steel-cleated tracked vehicles. As soon as Bill left to dispatch the patrols, Captain Max Schmidt, our supply officer, got on the phone to Group to line up our fair share of the available engineering supplies.
The overall plan for Operation GRENADE was to start the assault at the northern end of the battlefield by building bridges in the zone of the northernmost assault divisions--in the zone of the U.S. Ninth Army's XIX Corps. Once a bridgehead had been established east of the river, succeeding divisions would cross the same bridges and hook south through the preceding units.
Thanks to the slow flooding by way of the Schwammenauel Dam, the Roer River had swollen from thirty yards to over one hundred yards in the XIX Corps zone. This caused an incalculable delay while engineers tried to figure out if they should try to bridge the wider-than-anticipated river or wait for the water to recede, in which case they would face a wide muddy bog across the entire flood plain. It was decided to wait.
While the battalion command post moved from Walheim to Rotgen, due west of Schmidt, the letter companies of the 291st used the delay to clear mines and restore the road net in our zone. We also dug in the 155mm guns of the 78th Division's general-support artillery battalion.
On February 18, Group called to say that it had just received a dispatch from III Corps that had apparently passed through the headquarters of the First Army, the 12th Army Group, and Supreme Headquarters on its way from the White House. President Roosevelt had signed the Presidential Unit Citation for which the 291st had been recommended for its wide-ranging service during the Battle of the Bulge. Colonel Anderson asked me to drop by Group headquarters to add my endorsement to a section of signatures that included Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Bradley, and Hodges. Every man in the battalion--and those who had been wounded and evacuated during and since the actions in which we had earned this honor--was given a copy of the citation and authorized to wear the ribbon. However, we had no time to undertake a formal ceremony, for we were too busy preparing for our next great adventure.
On February 19, a damaged U.S. Army Air Forces B-24 heavy bomber came down in a smallish field south of Rotgen. Those of us at the command post heard the plane go in, so I jumped into my command car with Technician 5th Mike Popp and rushed to see what was going on. The makeshift landing field, part of an extensive minefield, was in the zone of Lieutenant Don Davis's platoon of Company C. By the time I arrived, the crew of the heavy bomber was climbing out of the airplane amidst shouted pleas from Don and his men that they stay put until a safe path through the mines had been cleared with the aid of mine detectors. The entire fresh-faced bomber crew--they all looked to be about eighteen years old--disregarded the instructions and trudged across the muddy field toward us. When they got to the road, we pointed to the many signs that warned of the presence of mines in the field, but those cocky boys laughed and boasted, "If we can crash-land a heavy bomber in a small field like this, there's no minefield that can do us in." With those foolish flyboys looking on, Davis's men immediately went to work plucking mines from exactly the route they had followed from the bomber. When the airmen saw the mines, they became so agitated that they refused to return to the bomber to collect their personal effects.
By February 22, the flood waters in the Roer valley had receded sufficiently for Operation GRENADE to commence the next day, February 23. As planned, the assault began in the north, toward Julich, in the zone of the Ninth Army's southernmost XIX Corps. German air and artillery knocked out the assault bridges in the zone of the 102d Infantry Division, but engineers employing a massive smoke screen in the adjacent 29th Infantry Division zone breached the river. By day's end, tanks were advancing into Julich. In the next zone south, elements of the 30th Infantry Division conducted an assault river crossing in boats, but no bridges were completed in its zone and, thus, no armor could be sent to support the bridgehead.
In the northern First Army sector, the VII Corps got no bridges across the Roer on February 23, but, next day, engineers built a Bailey bridge on the piers of the blown main highway bridge into Duren. This was the only bridge built to support the VII Corps assault that day. A treadway pontoon bridge that was to be thrown across the river on February 24 was delayed by a fierce defensive effort on the part of the 12th Volksgrenadier Division. This bridge was eventually completed, but the Germans continued to harass the units crossing there.
By February 28, parts of six divisions in the XIX and VII corps zones were across the Roer, advancing into the Cologne Plain toward the Rhine. During the morning, our battalion liaison officer, Captain Lloyd Sheetz, called from the 78th Infantry Division command post to tell us that all three regiments of the 78th were safely across the river and preparing to attack across the Cologne Plain next day, March 1, alongside the 9th Armored Division. Among other jobs, the 291st was to support the III Corps attack by building a Bailey bridge at Blens.
As soon as we got the news from Lloyd Sheetz, Ed Lampp sent Bill McKinsey to Blens to survey the bridge site. Toward evening on the 28th, Bill returned--overdue--from the last-minute reconnaissance with a uncharacteristic haunted expression on his face. As the story developed, Bill's recon team had approached the blown Blens bridge so it could confirm the measurement of the length of the Bailey bridges we were to throw the next day. Germans on the east bank of the Roer had apparently spotted Bill and his team and had put a great deal of effort into keeping them pinned. The scouts had spent the entire day crouched behind an abutment and had escaped only after the onset of darkness screwed things up for the German shooters.
Major Lampp assigned the Blens bridge to Captain Frank Rhea's Company B. In turn, Frank assigned the Blens job to Lieutenant John Kirkpatrick's platoon.
Frank moved the Company B command post into a building near the bridge site at about noon, March 1, so he could oversee the staging of the bridging equipment. Almost as soon as Frank arrived, however, the Germans opened with a vicious artillery barrage. The shelling was still going on when Kirkpatrick's platoon moved into the open to launch the bridge nose out over the turbulent Roer.
The Blens bridge was to be a one-hundred-thirty-foot triple- single span. We had built dozens of such bridges across France and Belgium, but the layout at Blens presented us with several unique challenges. Chief among our headaches was the fact that the far-shore abutment sloped downhill, thus causing the launching nose to be high above the ground. This was solved by holding the bridge in alignment and level by means of a stout cable affixed to a bulldozer winch while the structure was being shoved across rollers set on the near shore.
The initial artillery barrage abated, but the German guns opened with renewed fury at around 2300 hours. One of the heavy- caliber rounds struck the bridge itself, and the resulting spray of shrapnel wounded five engineers. Though German rounds continued to fall all around the bridge site, Lieutenant Kirkpatrick stayed out on the span with the wounded men and helped the medics administer aid and dress wounds. Then, through more artillery detonations, John helped carry the wounded men to safety. As soon as the shelling abated, John calmly reorganized the platoon and led his engineers back out onto the span. Sporadic artillery fire ensued, but Kirkpatrick's platoon completed the job at 0310 hours, March 2--a record-setting performance of fifteen hours and ten minutes.
As soon as the bridge was completed, tanks and assault guns already lined up behind cover in the town pushed across to join up with the 78th Division's waiting infantry components. Before long, military policemen were herding German captives back across the Blens bridge.
While Company B was wrestling with the tricky, dangerous Blens bridge, Captain Jim Gamble's Company A was preparing to undertake different but equally challenging headaches at Heimbach. The objective, placed in the hands of Lieutenant Bucky Walters's and Lieutenant Arch Taylor's platoons, was the construction of a one-hundred-ten-foot triple-single Bailey span to replace a destroyed stone-arch bridge that had been built on a curve.
Working against established procedure, Jim Gamble wanted to get the bridge started in full daylight because of the severe difficulty his platoons would face as they attempted to install a straight bridge on a curve. Thus, construction work began at 1430 hours, March 2. Because the existing part of the bridge was too narrow to set base plates, Lieutenants Taylor and Walters had their men emplace transoms to extend the width of the existing structure.
When I arrived to survey progress, the bridge was creeping out slowly above the river despite some very inaccurate shelling. After the troops added each new ten-foot section, the entire structure was angled slightly on the baseplate rollers, the only solution available for building a forty-ton assault bridge at such a tough location. The work was not only strenuous, it was downright hazardous. Perfect timing was required to prevent the entire structure from tumbling forty feet into the river.
The commander of the 78th Division's 303rd Engineer Combat Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Cosner, arrived shortly after me. He had just come from having his first look at the Blens bridge, and he was effusive in his praise. After Cosner had had a good look at what Company A was doing there, at Heimbach, he described feelings of awe. As we continued to watch, the 310th Infantry Regiment, which was screening the bridge site, sent back about fifty German prisoners--a real tonic for the engineers, whose backs were breaking from the grueling effort. They got the job done by 0900 hours, March 3--in eighteen and one-half hours.
As soon as I returned to Rotgen on the morning of March 3 to check in at the battalion command post, I was given a message that Colonel Anderson wanted me to return his call. I dutifully complied, but the colonel was not in. Major Webb, the 1111th Group operations officer, told me that the colonel wanted to know how the bridge-building was shaping up. I told him that the Blens bridge was in and the Heimbach bridge had been completed an hour earlier. Next up was the Schwammenauel Dam bridge, which Captain Warren Rombaugh's Company C was slated to begin in a matter of hours. I told Webb that we had heard through 78th Division sources that the infantry had advanced far beyond the dam bridgehead and that they did not expect much artillery fire to be directed against Company C. Before ringing off, Webb told me that the colonel wanted to meet with me at the site of the dam bridge within the hour.
I immediately left my battalion command post and drove over to pick up Lieutenant Colonel Cosner at the 303rd Engineer Battalion's command post. We had agreed earlier to visit all three bridge sites and to discuss plans for supporting the 78th Division's drive across the Cologne Plain. Cosner had information that all of the 78th Division's three infantry regiments were advancing rapidly in company with the 9th Armored Division against weakening opposition. According to Cosner, the 9th Armored Division's Combat Command B and the 78th Infantry Division's 310th Infantry Regiment were already about fifteen miles east of the Roer. As we drove, we ruminated about breaching the next great barrier, the mighty Rhine. We were both certain that the Germans would blow every span across the mighty river from the Swiss frontier to the North Sea, and that they would commit every available soldier, gun, and airplane to keeping all the Allied armies from crossing.
Everything was in order at Heimbach and Blens. Maintenance teams were working over both bridges and my engineers were out policing up the last of the mines. Speed-limit signs had already been posted on both bridges, which were in heavy use.
We arrived at the Schwammnauel Dam at 1330, March 3, and found Lieutenant Don Davis's and Lieutenant Tom Stack's platoons of Captain Warren Rombaugh's Company C having a ball. The vistas to the east and west were utterly breathtaking, with rich pine forests stretching into the haze of the Roer valley and snow- capped hills marching beyond sight. We heard the rumble of artillery, but it was far east of the dam, far beyond range.
The open breach where the Germans had demolished the spillway was seventy-five feet wide. It must have taken several tons of explosives to do the job. Work had begun at 1245 hours, right after lunch, and it was expected to be completed before dinner, say around 1830 hours. The bridge was an eighty-foot double-single Bailey span, and the job was an absolutely straightforward affair in which Company C sustained only one casualty, a sprained back.
The line platoons were about two-thirds through the job when Colonel Anderson finally arrived. I knew things were going well as soon as I saw the twinkle in the Old Man's eyes. As he stood with Cosner and me watching the completion of the very last act in the long and bloody battle of the Huertgen Forest, the colonel reminded us that the ordeal had begun with an assault by the 28th Infantry Division, the Pennsylvania National Guard unit with which he had fought in World War I and whose engineer regiment he had commanded when the division was activated before America's commitment to World War II. Maybe because I was a fellow Pennsylvanian, the colonel waxed nostalgic about the many scores of Pennsylvania infantrymen and engineers who had died on their way to this dam.
That evening, when he got back to his quarters, Colonel Anderson wrote in his nightly letter to his wife: "I didn't sleep well last night. Pergrin was involved in building three bridges across a river where the danger was extremely in evidence from all the hazards of war. When I didn't hear from him this morning, I went to the sites and saw three masterpieces of engineering skill and courageous leadership. I will sleep well tonight."
Shortly, the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion was called upon to throw the first Allied engineer bridge across the mighty Rhine River, at Remagen.