First On the Line, 35th Engineer Combat Bn.

First On the Line, 35th Engineer Combat Bn.

By the soft light of a lantern, Technician Fifth Grade Ed Bonde scribbled a few brief sentences in his diary. As he wrote, the cold Ardennes wind beat softly against the canvas wall of his tent and he wondered if tomorrow could be any colder. "December 15: Got up 0545", he wrote. "... Water freezes fast outside. Bombers go over most of the day. Many go over in early evening. Joe's squad helps capture seven Germans near Ettlebruck. Came through on patrol."

With that, he put down his diary and pencil, crawled into his sleeping bag, and settled in for the night. The fact that his friends helped capture some enemy soldiers must have thrilled Bonde. After all, it had been months since he had even seen a German soldier.

(1) From personal diary of Ed Bonde (original in possession of his son, Alan. Hereafter cited as "Bonde").

 

Ever since his unit, the 35th Engineer Battalion (Combat), had arrived in Belgium in late September 1944, life had become routine. The war that had raged so fiercely across France during the summer now seemed to be a distant memory. Rather than clear mines or assault alongside the infantry, the men of the 35th now spent their days keeping roads in the Ardennes forest, around Bastogne, free of ice and snow. If it wasn't snowing, it was raining, and it was always cold, very cold. But still, the distant sound of artillery, the appearance of bombers high overhead, and the ever-present threat of the German "Buzz Bombs" reminded the men that there was still a war to be won. And today, they had come through on their patrol. There were now seven less Germans to worry about.

The 35th Engineer Combat Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Paul H. Symbol, had begun "fighting" World War II as part of the 35th Combat Engineer Regiment on March 10, 1942 at Dawson Creek, British Columbia. Not against the Japanese or German soldiers, but against the rugged terrain of northern Canada. It was here that the 35th began a hard fought battle to construct the Alaskan-Canadian (Alcan) Highway. The construction of the road began as a secret project intended to provide an overland route to reach American airbases in Canada and Alaska. At that time, no such road existed. Many believed that the Japanese would try to invade the American mainland through Alaska. For 18 months, the 35th battled the cold weather, mosquitoes, and unforgiving frontier of British Columbia and the Yukon. In the end, the men of the 35th had successfully cut more than 400 miles of road, constructed over 20 bridges, and collected enough stories of adventure and hardship to last a lifetime.

(2) Heath Twichell, Northwest Epic: The Building of the Alaska Highway (New York, St. Martin's Press, 1992), pp 51-69. 35th Engineers, "History of the 35th Engineer Regiment".

 

The 35th Regiment's return to the United States, in September 1943, was marked by reorganization at Camp White, Oregon. Here, the regiment split into two separate battalions. The first remained designated the 35th, the second became the 145th Combat Engineer Battalion. LTC Symbol took command of the 35th on January 29, 1944. In April, the battalion moved to Camp Shanks, New York. While there, the battalion played a large role in building and improving the camp's facilities while preparing for entry into the European Theater of Operations (ETO). On July 2, 1944, the battalion's long anticipated journey across the Atlantic began.

(3) 35th Engineers, "35th Engineer Combat Battalion History" (hereafter cited as "History").

 
 

Upon entering the ETO, the 35th took part in the fighting in northern France, helping to capture the port city of Brest and thousands of enemy soldiers. As part of Major General Troy Middleton's VIII Corps, the 35th then headed east, clearing mines and repairing roads and bridges.

On September 28, the 35th crossed into Belgium. With winter rapidly approaching, the engineers found themselves busy improving main supply routes, operating sawmills and rock quarries, and building winter shelters for the troops on the front line. Due to the nature of their work, the companies of the 35th were decentralized and operating in various parts of Luxembourg and Belgium. While Symbol's command post remained in Bastogne at the VIII Corps headquarters, Headquarters and Service Company (H/S), commanded by Captain Wayne Wells, was operating water points in Wiltz, Ettlebruck, and Clerf. Company A, commanded by Captain Warren Day was operating a sawmill in Clerf. Both Company B (Captain Dan Hritzko) and Company C (Captain Chris Rickertsen) were operating rock quarries in Bettendorf and Mersch, respectively. The engineers of the 35th were suited for the hard work, having gained a great deal of experience while, as they liked to say, "On the road".

(4) 35th Engineers, "35th Engineer Combat Battalion History" (hereafter cited as "History").

 

By nature, the company bivouac sites were also dispersed. As near as possible to their work sites, the men made home in Belgian or Luxembourger towns. Officers sometimes rented rooms out of homes while the enlisted men slept in hotels, schoolhouses, and even bowling alleys. For Dan Hritzko's B Company, home was the village of Goebelsmuhle. Nearly twenty miles southeast of the battalion command post in Bastogne, Goebelsmuhle sat in a deep valley on the north bank of the Sure River. The only road through the village twisted and turned along the Sure and bridged the river just north of the town of Bourscheid. The railroad also paralleled the river, taking a shortcut through a tunnel on the east end of the village near Lipperscheid where a platoon from the 687th Field Artillery Battalion was bivouacked.

Hritzko's men had moved into Goebelsmuhle during the first few days of November. Sleeping arrangements were set up in the village's small hotel where the men lived in cramped quarters, sometimes fitting nine men to a room. Where possible, the men set up Christmas decorations, sometimes placing small trees in their rooms to accompany gifts received from home. The men spent what free time existed in the hotel's tavern where they played poker and drank the local beer served by the owner, affectionately named "Pops". A young village girl who sang and played piano provided entertainment while the men talked and laughed.

Most nights, the village railroad agent, Georges Kamphaus, sat and laughed along with the men, though he could not understand a word of English. Initially intimidated by their weapons and cocky attitudes, the presence of the Americans now seemed to represent better times for him and his family; victory and security from the Germans. His youngest son, three-year-old Armand, enjoyed the presence of the engineers too, often earning their chocolate bars for some good deed done. Overall, the situation was as good as could be expected for all those concerned in Goebelsmuhle; the area was beautiful, the relations friendly, and the Christmas season was upon them.

The terrain in which they operated made the engineers' work somewhat more difficult. Known as the Ardennes, the area was a beautiful combination of thick forests, deep river valleys, and small towns or villages. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the region had been very popular among tourists traveling in Europe. Militarily, however, the terrain posed a great obstacle. Traffic was restricted to the roads, which twisted and turned along rivers, through the forests, around steep hills and ridges, and through the villages. Where road conditions became poor as a result of the heavy military traffic and rain, vehicular movement of troops and supplies had to stop. Therefore, it was extremely important for the engineers to constantly maintain the roads in the Ardennes.

Historically, few battles had ever been fought in the Ardennes, though the Germans had successfully used the region on two occasions to launch major offensives. Both offensives were directed against the French, one in World War I, and the other in 1940, shortly after the beginning of World War II. During both operations the Germans had been able to move large forces virtually undetected and against little resistance from their enemies who chose to establish defenses elsewhere, believing the Ardennes to be impassable.

But now, as strong Allied forces occupied the Ardennes, few believed that the Germans would try such an operation again. This belief was supported by the fact that little contact with the enemy in the VIII Corps sector had been experienced since Middleton's forces had arrived in late summer. Though heavy fighting was experienced in other sectors, the VIII Corps sector was quiet. So quiet, in fact, that it had become the place to introduce "green" units onto the front lines or to send weary units for rest and refit.

By mid December, to defend his sector, Middleton had the 106th, 4th, and 28th Infantry Divisions. Recovering from heavy fighting in the Huertgen Forest, the 4th and 28th divisions' ranks were extremely thin. The 106th, on the contrary, had arrived on the line just two weeks earlier and had not been tested in combat. The 35th Engineer Combat Battalion, along with three other combat engineer battalions (159th, 44th, and 168th) and the 9th Armor Division's Combat Command Reserve (CCR), made up Middleton's formal reserve.

(5) With winter in full swing and no offensive plans, the VIII Corps troops conducted little more than local patrolling.

On 15 December, General Middleton's intelligence officer reported, "For a two months period the enemy has been content to hold the present front line without engaging in activities of a greater scope than patrols and harassing artillery fire... There has been no indication of a change in this policy. No airborne or parachute troops have been reported in line or in assembly areas to the rear, nor have any armor concentrations been reported ready for employment in this area."

(6a) VIII Corps G-2 report dated December 15, 1944 (located in the National Archives)

So now, as Bonde and the men of the 35th slept, none imagined that on the east bank of the Our River, on the cold, cloud covered night of December 15, 1944 the largest counterattack force that the German Army would ever assemble was preparing to strike a crushing blow against the Allied forces in Europe.

The German build up had begun weeks earlier under strict secrecy, successfully avoiding the attention of Allied intelligence. Code named "Wacht am Rhein" (Watch on the Rhine), the German plan was to drive a wedge between the American and British armies in Europe and capture the strategic port city of Antwerp. The Reich's Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, believed that if successful, the offensive would revitalize the German army, having recently suffered several defeats, and turn the tide of war back in Germany's favor.

Fearful of having his plans compromised, Hitler ordered that the true nature of the build up be withheld from his commanders and moved units primarily at night. When the German commanders finally received their orders just two weeks before the offensive, few believed such a venture had any chance of succeeding. Heavy fighting against both the Russians in the east and the American and British forces in the west had inflicted staggering losses on the German armed forces. Unable to stem the advance of the Allies on the ground, in the air, and at sea, the once victorious German military was just a shell of what it had been during the early years of the war. Nevertheless, Hitler went forward with his plans.

Under his direction, many units were diverted from fighting in the east to take part in the new offensive. Other units were brought up to strength by filling vacancies with troops serving in nonessential positions throughout the German military. One such unit, the 5th Fallschirm (Parachute) Division, had moved to the Ardennes sector in early December. Devastated during heavy fighting in France, the 5th had gone through reorganization and now sat unnoticed in front of the 28th Infantry Division's sector. Oberst (Colonel) Ludwig Heilmann, the division's commander, recalls the problems created by his unit's reorganization:

"Most of the units had indeed reached their authorized strength of personnel, but still lacked a lot of their equipment. Heavy mortars, antitank guns, radio equipment, optical instruments, motor vehicles and winter clothing had not yet arrived for the most part... The majority of the officers, NCO's (noncommissioned officers) and enlisted men were formerly assigned to the "Luftwaffe" and consisted of personnel combed out from the air bases, without any infantry training or combat experience and no special parachute training. The commanders of the 13th and 14th Regiments...had not yet seen any infantry action during the war... Most officers of those two regiments were indignant about their assignment to the infantry and had grown pampered and soft by their previous life on the air bases and so on... Therefore, the striking power of the division consisted only of the 15th Regiment, the 5th Engineer Battalion, and the 11th Assault Gun Brigade. Here the level training was still good considering the fact that we were in the sixth year of war."

(6) Ludwig Heilmann, "5th Parachute Division (1 DEC 44-12 JAN 45)", Foreign Military Studies, MS# B-023. Copy received from Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, PA. Unless otherwise noted, all information regarding the 5th Parachute Division comes from this source.

Ordered not to share the plans of the attack with his subordinate commanders, Heilmann was forced to conduct his own reconnaissance and create his division's plan almost entirely on his own. With the attack set to begin on the morning of 16 December, Heilmann was hard pressed to accomplish such an overwhelming task. Dressed in enlisted soldier's uniform, he scouted the front lines determining the best location for his assault and tried to assess the American positions into which he would attack.

On 11 December, Heilmann, along with other division commanders and higher-ranking generals, attended a secret meeting with Hitler. "The speech [Hitler] made was not intended to whip out our enthusiasm, but rather to convince the leaders of the necessity of an offensive," recalled Heilmann. "Though Hitler spoke in a very convincing way, I newly doubted that this sick man was able to bring this war to a victorious end... At the end I got the impression that this offensive should stake everything on one throw of the dice; the last chance in a game of hazard."

Finally, three days prior to the attack, Heilmann was able to issue his plans for the attack to his regimental commanders. The 15th Regiment, commanded by Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) Kurt Groeschke, would carry his main effort. Groeschke's orders were to attack from Roth across the Our River and take possession of the heights at Vianden. After securing the heights, Groeschke was to continue his attack toward Wiltz and seize the bridge over the Sure River at Goebelsmuhle, just north of Bourscheid. Once across the Sure River, the 15th was to continue its advance to the west and secure the town of Martelange, Heilmann's primary objective.

The 13th and 14th Regiments, along with the engineer battalion and the assault gun brigade would follow similar routes, securing important terrain and ultimately falling into line near Martelange where the division was to defend the southern flank of the Fifth Panzer Army.

As night fell on 15 December, German panzer crews made final preparations, fallschirmjager sharpened their bayonets, and commanders reviewed their maps one last time. Tomorrow, in the words of their Fuehrer, they would go "forward to and over the Meuse!"

At precisely 0530 hrs on December 16, 1944, the German Army initiated Operation "Wacht am Rhein," its great counteroffensive in the Ardennes. Preceded by a terrific artillery barrage, the waiting German tanks and infantry poured across the Our River, into the Ardennes. Immediately, the allied troops were stunned. Attacking on a broad front, the Germans had achieved total surprise. German commanders reported successes along the entire line as Allied units either broke or were overrun.

The Allied reaction was slow as commanders tried to gain control of the deteriorating situation. At VIII Corps headquarters, Middleton became increasingly concerned as reports from the 106th and 28th Divisions were relayed to his command post. German forces under the command of General Heinrich Freiherr von Luettwitz were hammering into Middleton's sector. Luettwitz' XLVII Corps (26th Volksgrenadier Division, 2nd Panzer Division, and Panzer Lehr Division) had crossed the Our River at Dasburg and Gemund and was to push west to seize the vital road center at Bastogne. Once Bastogne was secure, von Luettwitz was to continue to the Meuse River, seizing the crossing sites at Dinant, Anseremme, and Givet.

After learning of the attack, Symbol alerted his company commanders and warned them to closely guard bridge sites in their respective sectors. Already, as a result of the heavy German artillery fire, the men of B Co were not able to continue work at the Bettendorf quarry. Throughout the morning Captain Hritzko's men tried to recover their engineer equipment at the quarry, but continued artillery barrages, coupled with the deterioration of the front lines, caused the men to abandon the quarry and return to their bivouac site in the small village of Goebelsmuhle.

(8) 35th Engineer Battalion S-3 Journal, located at the National Archives (hereafter cited as "Journal"). The journals of several units were used to put together the finer details of this account. I recommend that anybody wishing to conduct their own research get a copy of the journals.

Approximately 20 miles northeast of Bastogne, Goebelsmuhle was set in a deep valley on the north side of the Sure River, barely a mile north of Bourscheid. Only one road ran through the village along with a railroad, both paralleling the north bank of the Sure. On the western edge of the village, a long stone bridge provided access to the south side of the river. Positioned further east than the other companies in the 35th, Hritzko's men stood the biggest chance of being cut off should the enemy achieve a breakthrough. Therefore, he wasted no time in directing his men to guard the approaches into Goebelsmuhle.

On the morning of the 17th von Luettwitz' corps seriously threatened to break through the VIII Corps' lines and seize Bastogne. The 28th Infantry Division had been hit hard, and its line was broken. Overwhelmed by the enemy armor, the troops had begun to retreat. The 106th Infantry Division was fighting for its life, but was eventually overrun and cut off from the rest of the Corps. But Middleton knew that to keep up its momentum, the enemy would need good roads for its tanks and equipment. Determined to deny the enemy the major road network that converged at Bastogne, Middleton began making plans to commit his reserves.

Unfortunately, most of the reserve units were already engaged in fighting. The 44th was defending Wiltz in a fierce battle. The 168th had been attached to the 106th Division and was fighting near St. Vith. In the south, the 159th was assisting the 4th Division in an effort to defend Luxembourg City. Additionally, CCR 9th Armored Division had already been committed further east and was now reporting heavy fighting. Only the 35th remained at Middleton's disposal to defend against the German forces that were now only nine miles from Bastogne.

(10) Cole, Ardennes, p 313.

At 1000 hrs, a phone call from the 1102nd Engineer Group headquarters notified Lieutenant Colonel Symbol that plans were being made to commit the 35th to the defense of Bastogne. What troops he had available, mostly from H/S Co, had spent the night guarding the corps headquarters. Symbol wasted no time in alerting the companies who and directed them to assemble in a battalion assembly area in Wardin, just east of Bastogne. Minutes later, the engineer group commander entered the battalion headquarters with confirmation that the 35th was under the direct control of VIII Corps and would be acting as infantry.

(11) 35th Engineers, "History".

Lieutenant Norman Igo, a platoon leader in C Co, recalls, "We first heard about the change with a phone call that morning with orders to abandon all operations and to load up all of our equipment onto our trucks and report to VIII Corps HQ as soon as possible. We entrucked in about an hour and were on our way. There was so much traffic on the roads due to the 10th and 9th Armored Divisions and their tanks that we didn't make much headway."

(12)Norman Igo, "Reminiscences of My Duty in World War II" (unpublished, 2001). Hereafter cited as "Bio".

While the companies inched their way to the assembly area, the German army continued its seemingly unstoppable advance. Heavy fog and poor weather conditions grounded Allied aircraft, just as the German high command had hoped. The German armed forces had suffered greatly because of the Allied air superiority throughout the fighting in France, but now their troops moved almost unimpeded by Allied aircraft.

However, stiff Allied resistance at critical locations was causing drastic changes in the German timeline. Elements of the 28th and 106th were still making gallant stands at towns such as St. Vith, Clervaux, and Wiltz. Near Wiltz, Sergeant Wilbur Ferguson and his crew from Wells' H/S Co were guarding their water installation point when they came under fire from enemy soldiers. Ferguson and the others returned fire, but were soon forced to abandon the site. While withdrawing, the men came upon an American anti-aircraft artillery battery and warned them of the German advance. Moments later, the men were again under fire from the enemy. Seeing that the anti-aircraft battery would soon be overrun, Ferguson directed his men to provide covering fire while the battery prepared to move. The engineers' defense was stern and provided the necessary time for the battery to withdraw, taking the engineers with them.

(13) 35th Engineers, "History".

Further east, near B Co's position at Goebelsmuhle, the situation was deteriorating rapidly as a result of the advance of Oberstleutnant Groeschke's 15th Regiment. The paratroopers had crossed the Our River early on the 16th, swiftly capturing Vianden after a brief firefight against troops of the 28th Infantry Division. With Vianden behind it, the 15th Regiment dashed westward and seized the town of Walsdorf unopposed. Most likely, because of a lack of radio contact with Oberst Heilmann and fearing that he had advanced too far ahead of the other regiments, Groeschke stopped his advance at Walsdorf. Meanwhile, his advance guard, the 5th Kompanie of his 1st Battalion, secured the heights of Tandelberg. Groeschke's troops were now just seven kilometers east of Goebelsmuhle. To his dismay, his 3rd Battalion became decisively engaged near Fouhren where some 28th Infantry Division soldiers were still holding out. He had hoped to meet Heilmann's intent of bypassing built up areas and small pockets of American troops. Additional problems further in the rear at the division's crossing site added to a slowing of the regiment's momentum and, though he had made the division's deepest penetration, Groeschke made no further advances on the 16th.

On the morning of the 17th, though some of his force was still fighting at Fouhren, Groeschke pushed forward toward the Sure River bridges north of Bourscheid near Goebelsmuhle. The problems at the division's crossing site had been relieved and the 15th was moving with the added support of a few tanks from the 11th Assault Gun Brigade.

In Goebelsmuhle, the engineers of B Co were on high alert. Little was known of the German advance, but the sounds of battle said enough. Heeding Symbol's warning to keep a close watch on their bridges, Hritzko kept his men on guard throughout the night. Private Lee Regenauer, a .30 cal machine gunner in Lieutenant Charles Botdorf's platoon, had lain awake all night guarding the eastern approaches and footpath skirting the high ground above the village. Feeling a fight coming, Botdorf had gathered his men and, pointing to his new first lieutenant bar, said, "You men got me these, I know you will get us through this," recalls Regenauer. "We still had no idea what was going on, but I think that the officers suspected something serious."

The villagers feared the worst as well. The hardships of German occupation were still fresh in their memories. Now, as the sound of artillery and small arms fire neared, they believed that the Americans' presence was coming to a quick end. Rumors swept rapidly through the village and many of the civilians were preparing to leave. The appearance of low flying German fighters hastened the preparations. Critically low on ammunition, however, the German pilots disregarded the small group of engineers. Instead, they continued low-level flights through the valley, drowning out the sound of Heilmann's advancing troops and tanks. Since there was no direct communication with the battalion headquarters, Hritzko had not yet received the order to move his company to Wardin. Late in the morning, a patrol led by Lieutenant Charles Nettle returned with reports of German soldiers in the area. Nettle had encountered a couple of reporters in a jeep speeding to the rear. The two men, visibly shaken, told Nettle that German troops had mistaken them for GI's and fired at them.

(14) Phone interview with Charles Nettle (La Habra, CA) by Shawn Umbrell, September 22, 2002.

By midday, B Co could hear fierce fighting being waged in nearby Hoscheid where troops of the 28th Infantry Division were holding out against the 14th Parachute Regiment. After a failed attempt to reach the artillerymen in Lipperscheid by phone, Hritzko headed off with his jeep and driver to see if they had information to share. Hritzko arrived in Lipperscheid only to find the artillerymen loaded up and moving out of town.

Meanwhile, 5th Kompanie had passed just north of Lipperscheid, purposely avoiding the small American outfit there, and was headed straight toward Goebelsmuhle. Still operating as Groeschke's advance guard, the troops of 5th Kompanie had shot west from the Tandelberg heights in hopes of rapidly seizing the bridge at Goebelsmuhle and allowing the rest of the regiment to continue over the Sure toward its primary objective of Martelange. While returning to Goebelsmuhle, Hritzko found what he had been looking for; the paratroopers of 5th Kompanie en route to Goebelsmuhle and blocking the road just a few hundred yards east of the town. With no time to react, Hritzko shouted, "Run it!" The Germans fired wildly at the speeding jeep, narrowly missing both GI's.

(15) Mary Janet Taylor, "Salt Peter Cake" (unpublished, 2000), p 79.

Once back in Goebelsmuhle, Hritzko received the word to move his company to Wardin. Captain Howard, the battalion intelligence officer, had come bearing the message and was ready to escort Hritzko and his men to the assembly area. Knowing that the enemy would be in the town before his men could get out, Hritzko told Botdorf to cover the company's withdrawal. Botdorf immediately directed his men into position, hoping to spring an ambush on the approaching Germans.

(18)Phone interview with Charles Nettle by Shawn Umbrell, September 22, 2002. Conversation between Charles Botdorf and Shawn Umbrell, Branson, MO, 2002.

While the rest of the company loaded onto trucks, Botdorf's men hurried to get into position to cover the movement, but before they could the German paratroopers were spotted advancing along the railroad tracks leading into town. Immediately, a firefight erupted.

The heavy fire dealt by the engineers surprised the enemy and sent the Germans looking for cover. After adding their own fire to the mix, Groeschke's men began trying to move to the north side of the engineers along a footpath that led above and around the village. Fearing the enemy might get behind the company and cut the one road out of town, Botdorf sent Regenauer, and his assistant gunner, Private Ray Steele, to defend the company's left flank. As he rushed into position, Regenauer watched Georges Kamphaus and his wife and three children, walk hand-in-hand toward the hills west of the village. Kamphaus was well aware of the German reprisal for aiding the allies and feared for his family's safety.

Regenauer recalls, "I was on the opposite end of town from where the Germans came in. LT Botdorf ordered me to get up on the hill with my machine gun and stop the encirclement. When I got up on the hill with my gun there was no time to dig in. I set the gun as low as I could. I set the sights at 150 yards where I believed the Germans would come out, and I sprayed the woods with about 100 rounds right away. Then I waited. All of a sudden from my right a German squad of about ten men appeared."

Acquiring the squad of maneuvering troopers in his sights, Regenauer opened fire, catching six of the enemy soldiers. The other four ran back, narrowly escaping the withering fire.

(19) Letter from Lee Regenauer to Shawn Umbrell, January 2, 2002. 35th Engineers, "History."

The firefight escalated quickly and the engineers' ammunition began to run low. Realizing his plight, Botdorf began directing the movement of the platoon along the only existing road from town as the enemy soldiers continued to rush in. As the rest of the company withdrew, Botdorf's men covered the movement by establishing subsequent lines of fire. Once the company was clear, Botdorf's platoon began loading onto the remaining trucks. Spotting a German mortar crew setting up its weapon, Botdorf knew that it was time to move. With the last of his men on trucks and headed out of the village, Botdorf climbed into his awaiting jeep and followed the rest of the company toward Wardin.

(20) Conversation between Charles Botdorf and Shawn Umbrell, Branson, MO, 2002.

Throughout the day, Groeschke's regiment assembled in Goebelsmuhle. "Pops" now accommodated, whether he wanted to or not, a different band of soldiers; many of whom were pleased to find Christmas packages left in haste by the engineers. As vague as the enemy situation was to Hritzko and his men, none could have understood the necessity of Goebelsmuhle's seizure by the 5th Kompanie. Groeschke now had the required bridge to facilitate the movement of his regiment and supporting tanks across the Sure River and on to his primary objective of Martelange.

While the 35th was slowly collapsing on its assembly area in Wardin, General Middleton and what remained of his staff were finishing plans for the defense of Bastogne. Lacking the ability to defend in depth, they devised a screen line to the east of the city with a series of strong points at key terrain. This screen would have to hold out until expected reinforcements arrived. Middleton had received word that Combat Command "B" (CCB), 10th Armored Division and an airborne division were on their way to help restore the VIII Corps line, but it was unclear when these needed troops would make it to Bastogne.

At 1300 hrs, the corps engineer, Colonel Winslow met with Symbol and issued him orders for the all out defense of Bastogne. On the map, Winslow showed CCR's positions and explained that the 35th would establish defensive positions east of Bastogne extending from the Bastogne-St. Vith road in the north to the Bastogne-Arlon road in the south; a distance of approximately five miles (the orders changed later to read simply from Foy to the Bastogne-Arlon road).(21) Another engineer battalion was reportedly on its way to assist in the defense, but had not yet arrived. To the best of his ability, Winslow then outlined the enemy situation, but much of what he knew hinged on rumors and assumptions.

(21)35th Engineers, "Journal" and "History".

It was 1630 hrs before the entire had reached the assembled in Wardin. Symbol, meeting with his company commanders, outlined the friendly and enemy situations, on his map, as he understood them. "The enemy is said to be just a couple of miles from Bastogne, with armor and infantry advancing rapidly", he told them. "Rumor also has it that a massive airborne operation is expected in the area."

He went on to say, "elements of CCR, 9th Armored Division are setting up roadblocks with their tanks and infantry to the east. We are needed to establish a defensive line between Foy, in the north, and Marvie, in the south and hold this line until reinforcements arrive." Quoting Middleton's order, Symbol concluded, "The defense of this sector is critical; Bastogne has to be held at all costs."

(22) James S. Parker and Norman G. Igo, Norman G. (unpublished, 2000), p 25.

To accomplish the overwhelming task, Symbol split the sector, assigning the area from Foy to Neffe to Captain Day and the area from Neffe to Marvie to Captain Rickertsen. Since Hritzko's men were low on ammo they would refit in Bastogne and remain in reserve while H/S Co guarded the Corps headquarters. Symbol stressed that, until reinforcements arrived, the engineers and the tankers at the roadblocks would be the only soldiers standing between the enemy and Bastogne.

(23) 35th Engineers, "History".

As the 35th moved out to man the barrier line, it became the first unit to establish fighting positions along what would become the defensive perimeter of Bastogne. Over the next several days, that perimeter would be tested, but never broken. Lieutenant Igo recalls, "[At Marvie], we set out to establish a defensive line. It was decided to put a bazooka team out on the road to the east, one on the road to the south, and to put a machine gun with some riflemen in the field between the two bazooka teams. This would give us some protection to the south. We would tie in with A Co to the west of our positions. This was the best that we could figure to do."

(27) Igo, "Bio".

Lieutenant Jack Dearinger, 1st Platoon, A Co, remembers, "I was supposed to meet Captain Day in a bar in Wardin, which I did. He was huffed and appeared concerned. The word was 'enemy paratroops tonight and tanks tomorrow night.' We got set up pretty well before dark. Between Neffe and Longvilly, there was a roadside shrine with many statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We set up a block there. I spent the night in the rail station in Neffe. No paratroops, just our own people heading west."

(24) Letter from Jack Dearinger (Versailles, KY) to Bob Skinner (Spearman, TX), January 1, 1995 (hereafter cited as "Letter").

 

Throughout the day and into the night, the engineers constructed obstacles, dug fighting positions, and patrolled along the barrier line. When entrenching tools broke from digging in the frozen dirt, the men used their bayonets to chip out fighting positions.

(28) Letter from Bob Skinner (Spearman, TX) to Shawn Umbrell (Ft. Campbell, KY), August 20, 2001.)

Meanwhile, B Co had arrived in Bastogne. The men unloaded from their trucks and were ushered into a school gymnasium where they settled down for some rest. Moments later Captain Hritzko arrived with new orders. The company was needed to set up roadblocks in the town should the enemy break through the barrier just to the east. Regenauer, along with his good friends, Hank Ridgway and Horace Morgan, moved out and sat up a .50 caliber machine gun position. Led by Corporal John Monokian, their squad leader, and Sergeant Frank Giacalone, the company weapons section leader, the men set up mines in the road to their front and rotated through guard shifts.

(25)Phone interview between Lee Regenauer (Shell Lake, WI) and Shawn Umbrell (Ft. Benning, GA), October, 2002.

On the 18th, Colonel William Roberts, commander of CCB, arrived. Though only one team from his force was immediately available, two other teams were en route and would be closing on Bastogne within a couple of hours. Middleton, certainly relieved to see Roberts, urged immediate commitment of the first team, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Cherry, at Longvilly where German forces seriously threatened to breakthrough CCR's roadblock. While Team Cherry rushed toward Longvilly, Middleton briefed Roberts on the situation. Already, Middleton's headquarters had moved out of Bastogne and only a few of the corps staff officers remained to assist the general. Middleton explained that Roberts would take over the immediate defense of Bastogne and gave him control of the units already in line, to include the 35th.

In the early morning of the 18th, the 158th Engineer Combat Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sam Tabet, relieved the 35th of the northern portion of the barrier line. Tabet's unit was coming in to help bolster the line, having been relegated to VIII Corps from First Army in the north. The 158th's operations officer had located the 35th's command post at about midnight, but to avoid confusion and potential fratricide, Tabet's men waited until dawn to move into position. CPT Day's A Co then moved south and established new positions near the village of Mont. Here they established strong points and laid mines to block the road leading east toward the village of Neffe.

(26)35th Engineers, "Journal" and "History". David Pergrin, Engineering the Victory: The Battle of the Bulge (Atglen, PA, Schiffer Military/Aviation History, 1996), p 260 and 276.

While the engineers adjusted and improved their positions, General Fritz Bayerlein's Panzer Lehr Division continued its drive toward Bastogne with hopes of capturing the town that evening. Two days of fighting against surprisingly stiff resistance coupled with traffic jams on the narrow Ardennes roads had caused major delays in the division's timeline. Now, however, Bayerlein's tanks and infantry were within five miles of the city. "Things were quiet in Mont until midnight when all hell broke loose", says Dearinger. "A patrol of Panzer Lehr hit a 9th Armored Division block at Mageret- Team Desobry of the 10th Armored Division was also involved."

(29) Dearinger, "Letter".

The violent clash at Mageret ended almost as soon as it began. The outnumbered Americans were forced to withdraw and by 0100hrs Panzer Lehr owned the village. Bayerlein's forces were now sitting just four miles from Bastogne with just the 35th and a portion of CCB in front of him. Fortunately for the Americans, Bayerlein slowed his advance in the dark, reacting to a civilian's inflated estimates of the American armored forces near Bastogne. Additionally, he had chosen a poor route to Bastogne that was causing navigation difficulties and traffic problems. Dirt roads had turned to mud under the weight of the tanks and all forward movement nearly ceased. Given his division's situation and what little he knew of the American strength, Bayerlein decided to only probe for weaknesses in the American defenses and renew his attack on Bastogne in the morning.

Symbol's men listened to the sounds of the approaching tanks and soon found themselves face to face with the enemy. For the remainder of the night the 35th was subjected to small arms and mortar fire, but the engineers held their ground.

(30) Igo, "Bio." 35th Engineers, "Journal" and "History".

 

"I was in 3rd Squad, 3rd Platoon, A Co," says then Private Norval Cummings. "By evening we were in a single file line across a huge pasture or grain field with all the fire power [we had]. There were two .50 cal and three .30 cal machineguns. We also had three bazookas. I was carrying one of the bazookas and an M-1 rifle, along with ammo for both. I had three rounds for the bazooka, which made for quite a load. I was told to give up my rifle, but refused as I figured it was my primary means of protection. I had been told to only fire the bazooka at large targets such as tanks and trucks. At about midnight, we ran into some problems. German tanks and foot soldiers had advanced to within 150 yards so we began to fire. It was so dark and foggy that we could see very little, but we held them off. At daybreak, we were ordered to pull back into Mont proper, which we did. While moving, we were having one hard time keeping the enemy in check. They were wild and doing their best to force us out."

(31) Letter from Norval Cummings to Shawn Umbrell (date unknown).

At approximately 0630hrs, the Germans made another attempt to break through the American line. In the 158th sector, the 26th Volksgrenadier Division was attacking Bizory and Foy. At Neffe, just east of A Co's new positions, tanks and infantry from the Panzer Lehr attacked elements of Team Cherry. Barely a mile from Neffe in Mont, Day's men could see plainly the fierce fight being waged. The Germans gained ground rapidly and soon intermittent mortar and tank fire began falling on Mont. The battle raged throughout the morning until the remaining defenders, including Colonel Cherry himself, were forced to a small chateau a few hundred yards south of Neffe. From within the thick walls of the chateau, the tankers used their dismounted machine guns to repel the enemy at distances as close as ten feet.

Having taken up positions near Neffe just that morning, a platoon from the B Co of the 158th moved in to help relieve Cherry and his men at the chateau. Lieutenant Cochran, the platoon leader, picked off two enemy soldiers who were riding on their lead tank. Rockets fired simultaneously by four engineers hit the tank and destroyed it. One of these soldiers, Private Bernard Michin, was burned and blinded by the explosion. As he crawled back to a covered position, which was then being raked by hostile machine gun fire, he located the enemy gun by sound and hurled a grenade, which silenced the weapon.

(32)Kenneth J. Deacon, "Combat Engineers #31, Bastogne, 1944," The Military Engineer, January-February 1945, p. 21. Cole, Ardennes, p 303.

Captain Day and the engineers of A Co readied themselves for the fight that was sure to come once the chateau fell. They had stood their ground throughout the night and were now prepared to meet the enemy in the light of day. To bolster the line, Symbol sent a platoon from B Co to take up additional positions between Mont and Neffe and to protect a few guns from A Battery, 420 Field Artillery Battalion located behind the A Co positions. Nettle's platoon answered the call and before long was in position. "When we reached the line near Mont," says Nettle, "we took up defensive positions and placed our bazooka team near a large boulder which provided some cover and concealment... We could hear the enemy tanks churning their tracks. They sounded no further than a hundred yards away."

Surprised by the ferocity of Cherry's defense of the chateau, Bayerlein's troops probed to the right and left to find weaknesses in the line. Private James Thomas and the rest of his squad from Nettle's platoon were manning a .50 caliber machine gun position between Neffe and Mont.

"It was very foggy," recalls Thomas. "The fog would lift for about twenty minutes then settle back down for about twenty minutes. When the fog would lift, here the Germans would come and all hell would break loose; everybody shooting and hollering and the smoke rolling. Many of the poor devils got killed or wounded."

Finally, in the late afternoon, German soldiers were successful in forcing the withdrawal of Cherry and his men. Incendiary grenades tossed in the windows had set the chateau ablaze. Dearinger recalls what happened next. "Just when things looked the worst and we were strung out across a pasture in skirmish line," he says, "the 101st Airborne Division came over the hill from Bastogne."

(33) Dearinger, "Letter".

Amazingly, the 101st had made its way to Bastogne in the freezing weather from Mourmelon, France, in "cattle" trucks. This elite airborne division was still recovering from a long fight in Holland and many of its soldiers did not have weapons. Nevertheless, the 101st immediately set out to meet the enemy. As the 101st marched toward Bastogne, they were met by hundreds of retreating GI's cautioning them of the fierce German advance, but the paratroopers were undeterred and continued toward the sound of battle.

Having arrived the previous day to review the situation with General Middleton, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, the acting commander of the 101st, decided that he would send his lead units immediately to the east to take over the defense of Bastogne. The first unit through was the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Julian Ewell.

"As the 101st marched by- seemingly headed right into the jaws of the Krauts- I noticed one of them wasn't carrying a piece," says Nettle. "I asked him about it and he said, 'I'll pick up one on the way!"

(34) Letter from Charles Nettle (La Habra, CA) to Shawn Umbrell, November 25, 2002.

Thomas recalls, "During [a lull in the fighting] I heard somebody say, 'Hey bud, need some help?' I turned around and there stood a tall redheaded sergeant with a big mustache."

Turning over their position to the newly arrived sergeant and his men, Thomas and the others moved back to Mont.

(34a) Letter from James Thomas (Wilmore, KY) to Shawn Umbrell, June 28, 2001

Serving as spotter for Nettle's platoon and listening to the sound of the approaching tanks, "Spike" Zatopek recalls, "I was lying in a ditch loaded and ready when one of the guys from the 101st climbed beside me and asked, 'Where are the goddammed Germans?'" Zatopek pointed forward and the trooper was off again.

(35)Letter from "Spike" Zatopek (Fredericksburg, TX) to Shawn Umbrell, December 12, 2001.

Sergeant Donald Castona, a soldier in 3rd Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment says, "We walked through Bastogne and passed an awful lot of GI's heading the other way. There were a few combat engineers set up with their .30 cal. machine guns on the slope before we got to Mont. These were good soldiers and they were prepared to hold their positions. We set up positions after going through Mont and got ready to meet the Germans. We could hear tanks coming, but most of the guys were confident that we could handle things."

(36)George Koskimaki, The Battered Bastards of Bastogne (Havertown, PA, Casemate, 2003) p 65.

When the 3rd Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Griswold, arrived in Mont, he was met by Captain Day. Day pointed out the enemy positions and tanks that were firing into the town.

(37) Dearinger, "Letter".

During Day's discussion with Griswold, enemy fire continued to fall on Mont. Private Chet Russell recalls, "I had my truck parked by a building and there was a German tank coming toward us. He wasn't on the road, and I don't think he was over two hundred yards from me and my buddy, Dennison. I told the first sergeant, who was trying to find a bazooka, that I was going to move the truck, and he said to leave it right there. He then went off into the fog. I moved the truck anyway. A few seconds later, the tank blew a hole in the building where we had been parked. One of the fellows from the 101st managed to stop the tank with a hand grenade."

(38) Letter from Chet Russel to Shawn Umbrell, August 31, 2001.

As the troopers of the 501st hustled in, one platoon went forward to assist Colonel Cherry. The arrival of the paratroopers at the chateau was too late to repel the attackers, but did cause the enemy to slow his advance, giving the tankers time to withdraw to Mont. Meanwhile, Day and A Co moved south along the Wiltz road toward Marvie and assumed a 300-yard front between the 501st and the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion, which had moved in to the south, relieving the engineers of C Co.

(39) 35th Engineers, "Journal". 326th Engineers, "Narrative of 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion Activities from 18 December thru 31 December 1944" (copy received from Office of History, Ft. Belvoir, VA). The first unit to relieve C Co at Marvie was actually A Co, 326th Engineer Bn from the 101st. The airborne engineers were relieved the following afternoon by the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment.

When night fell, Day sent Dearinger and Lieutenant Bob Skinner, 3rd Platoon Leader, to confirm whether or not the company was still tied in with the paratroopers on the left and right. Occasional tree bursts and small arms fire interrupted the recon. "I was mostly afraid that our contact with the paratroopers would result in our being shot up," says Dearinger. "The password was 'stump' and the countersign was 'pulley'. I said 'stump' many times." Unharmed, but exhausted, Dearinger and Skinner both returned confirming the security to the left and right.

(40) 101st Airborne, G-3 Journal. Dearinger, "Letter".

With stragglers moving through to the west and the 101st heading toward the east, things were hectic in Bastogne. Still manning their position at Bastogne, Regenauer watched as the paratroopers made their way to the east. "What's it like up there," asked one paratrooper as he passed. "Rough," replied Regenauer simply, yet matter-of-factly.

(40a) Phone conversation with Lee Regenauer (Shell Lake, WI) and Shawn Umbrell, October 2003.

Later in the day, a group of the troopers left on patrol through Regenauer's position. Soon after, an officer approached and told the men that if anything came toward their position after 1630 hours it would be the enemy and to open fire. As fate would have it, the appointed time passed with no signs of the patrol that had past through earlier. Not long after, Regenauer and the others heard a vehicle approaching and saw movement to their front. Peering through the sights of their weapons, the men gazed into the fog. One by one, they were able to make out the forms of men approaching. As the figures drew closer, the engineers realized that it was the patrol from that had left earlier. Relaxing on their triggers, the men watched in silence as the patrol came through followed by a three quarter ton weapons carrier with a wounded paratrooper across the hood.

(41) Phone conversation with Lee Regenauer and Shawn Umbrell, July 31, 2001.

With the 101st now in control of the defense of Bastogne, Gen. Middleton continued to manage the defense of his sector from a new headquarters in Neufchateau. Realizing that Bastogne could still fall, he developed a plan to defend key roads and bridges to the west of the city. To cover these areas, Middleton resumed control of his engineers and assigned them new locations. Symbol received his new orders and gathered his staff to prepare a new plan. The battalion, with the exception of A Co, had been relieved and was assembled in the city. Expecting that Day's men would be relieved the next morning, Symbol had the companies prepare to move and take cover for the night. "Everyone was spread out and the Germans were firing on [Bastogne]," says Regenauer. "Ridgway and I found a pig yard and figured that was as good a place as any and we dug in. The 88's came in all night. We could hear women screaming as the rounds impacted in the town. I figured that the Krauts were gearing up for a big attack, so I stayed up all night."

(42) (42) Phone conversation with Lee Regenauer and Shawn Umbrell, July 31, 2001.

Meanwhile, at C Co's motorpool near Bigonville, Ed Bonde and the C Co motor sergeant, Sergeant Milton "Pappy" Brunson, were still guarding the company's heavy equipment. Their last orders had been to stay at the motorpool, but two days had since passed. With the sounds of battle all around them, Bonde and Brunson decided to find out for themselves what was going on. Only a short distance from their camp, the two encountered Luxembourg police and civilians who told them details of the German advance. The two then returned to their tent to retrieve their equipment. Not long after they returned, German machinegun fire started and tracers passed close in front of the two lone engineers. Grabbing their weapons, Bonde and Brunson moved out again, this time determined to find other American soldiers. Later, Bonde wrote, "Walked out four miles through Perle to road junction between Martelange and Arlon before we were halted by some engineers manning machinegun. Boy, were we happy to hear their voices. They didn't know what was going on or how far the Germans were from us... Stood guard with these boys all night and really froze."

(43) (43) Bonde, "Diary".

At daybreak on the 20th, heavy fighting resumed near A Co's position. The sounds of squeaking tank treads, artillery, screaming meemies, and small arms fire broke the silence of the dawn. The fighting was fierce as the enemy slammed into the American tanks and soldiers. Men of the 101st's 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment were engaged by a large armor force and had to fight their way back from Noville. From his position, Dearinger could see German troops making their way forward against the 501st at Bisory, to their north, and against Team O'Hara, to the south.

A Co received its order to move shortly after noon and began to pull out along with elements of the 101st's 326th Engineers, now being replaced by the 327th Glider Regiment. The engineers had just boarded their trucks and were preparing to head into Bastogne when the enemy launched a vicious attack on Marvie. Preceded by a short, but savage barrage of tank fire from woods immediately southeast of Marvie, four German tanks and six halftracks filled with infantrymen dashed from the woods and into Marvie. The devastating enemy fire quickly destroyed one of the engineers' jeeps, demolished a one-ton trailer, and tore through the 327th's command post.

As the enemy vehicles stormed into the village, the German infantrymen leaped from their half-tr