Thanks to Major Shawn Umbrell for this paper. Shawn's Grandad (Mose) served in the 35th ECB.
FIRST ON THE LINE: THE 35TH ENGINEER BATTALION IN WORLD WAR TWO AND THE EVOLUTION OF A HIGH-PERFORMANCE COMBAT UNIT
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-tracks. The response from the 327th’s troopers was terrific. Within seconds, they were engaged in close combat; in places, hand-to-hand. Also in the village were some light tanks from Team O’Hara. After losing one tank and having another damaged, the tank commander began moving his tanks to better defensive positions. This movement and that of the engineers in conjunction with the German attack led some to believe that the enemy had forced a retreat from Marvie.
Dearinger recalls, “There was mass confusion. Some troopers engaging the enemy thought there was a general retreat and took off. I remember a second lieutenant jumping on the back of our truck and riding with us to Bastogne. It did sound pretty bad, and Marvie got tore up, but the troopers and tanks held on. Our medic, T-5 Solis, disappeared about the time the attack started. I found out later that he tended to the wounded until he too was hit.”
(44) (44) S.L.A Marshall, Bastogne: The First Eight Days (Washington, D.C., Infantry Journal Press, 1946) p 104. In Marshall’s book he only says “engineers” and does not refer to the 35th. He may have thought that the 326th was the only engineer unit in that vicinity, but the soldiers of A Co, 35th ECB were definitely there. This is supported by other sources as well. Dearinger, “Letter”. 35th Engineers, “Journal”. 101st Airborne, G-3 Journal. CCB, 10th AD, S-3 Journal. Cole, Ardennes, p 457.
Though audacious, the German attack did not dislodge the glider troops and, with the added fire of some of Team O’Hara’s medium tanks, was repulsed. The attack had cost the enemy twenty prisoners, thirty enemy dead, three tanks, one self propelled gun, and two half-tracks. Once all of his companies were in Bastogne, Symbol issued the new orders to his company commanders. The battalion mission was to deny the enemy the crossroads at St. Hubert. A Co would defend at Recogne, B Co at St. Hubert, C Co at Jenneville, and H/S at Libramont. Symbol explained that he wanted the routes leading into St. Hubert blocked and nonessential bridges demolished.
(45) (45) 35th Engineers, “History”.
The exhausted engineers collected their weapons and equipment and began a slow walk to their awaiting trucks in an assemble area just west of Bastogne, leaving behind the town they had spent three hard days defending. The march must have seemed surreal at that moment, for as they walked, American artillery pieces along the road blasted away at enemy targets nearby. Yet, amid the noise and confusion, citizens turned out to thank the men and give them food as they went.
(46) Dearinger, “Letter”.
Even the paratroopers, who had seen so many others flee the area in panic, recognized what the engineers had done. “As we marched, I happened to look up and saw [one of the paratroopers],” says Robert Taylor of B Co. “He had a “Pet” milk can that he had cut the top off of and filled with hot coffee…He raised it to drink, but happened to glance at me just as I looked at him. I must have been looking pretty rough because the trooper walked over and handed me his coffee…I gave the guy marching in front of me part of it and the guy behind me part of it and I drank the rest. That was probably the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.”
(47) Taylor, “Salt Peter Cake”, p 81. Phone interview with Robert Taylor (Mobile, AL) by Shawn Umbrell.
By nightfall, the companies had made it to their respective positions and began preparing their defenses.
No sooner had the 35th reached its new positions than Symbol received a request to send a platoon back into Bastogne to assist with some demolitions and general engineer work.(48)
(48) Cole, Ardennes, p 462.
Apparently, the airborne engineers were committed to the line and were not available to perform important engineer tasks for the division. Lieutenant Frank Rush, the assistant battalion operations officer, was chosen to lead a detachment, comprised of Lieutenant Skinner’s platoon from A Co, to help the paratroopers. Rush and Skinner collected as much equipment as they thought they could, loaded the men on trucks, and headed back for Bastogne.
“It was after 2100 hrs when we left our area,” says Rush. “It was dark and foggy, but we knew the roads, having done recon work in the area for the past several months. I was in the lead vehicle, a ¾ ton weapons carrier, carrying about 600 pounds of TNT. Behind me was Skinner in his jeep then three deuce-and-a half trucks with [Skinner’s] platoon and several hundred land mines. At the end of the column was an air compressor mounted on a deuce-and-a half with all our pioneer tools, picks, shovels, air tools, chain saws, etc.”
As the engineers hurried toward the city they encountered enemy soldiers who opened fire on the tail of the convoy, damaging some of the equipment and nearly hitting the TNT. The engineers continued past the enemy, never stopping.
(49) Letter from Frank Rush (Tigard, OR) to Shawn Umbrell, March 26, 2001 (hereafter cited as “Letter”).
Rush and Skinner made it to the 101st headquarters around midnight and were directed to link up with Colonel Joseph Harper, commander of the 327th.(50)
(50) 101st Airborne, G-3 Journal.
“It was probably 2a.m. before we found him”, says Rush. “He was so busy that he didn’t know where to use us best. After a couple of hours, he said that things were moving too fast and that he couldn’t use us.” Leaving the load of mines to be used by the paratroopers, the engineers headed back toward Bastogne.
(51) Rush, “Letter”.
Rush and Skinner decided that their best option was to return to St. Hubert to be with the rest of the battalion. With day breaking on the 21st, the men headed into the early morning fog. However, by now the Germans had cut the roads and were surrounding Bastogne. Rush recalls, “Just to the west of the town, we came across a couple of GI vehicles that had collided in the fog. We stopped to help them out and drew fire from some Germans that were ahead of us.”
(52) (52) Rush, “Letter”.
Under heavy fire, Skinner’s men rushed to retrieve the wounded soldiers. To cover the platoon, Corporal Charles Flamboe set up his machine gun and raked the enemy position with suppressive fire. Spotting an armored vehicle advancing toward the men, Corporal Alvin Crump and Private Peter Lari grabbed a bazooka from their truck and ran out to destroy the enemy vehicle.
(53) 35th Engineers, “History”.
Seeing the two men advancing, the German vehicle stopped for fear of being destroyed. After rescuing the wounded, the A Co men withdrew once again to Bastogne.
What was intended to be an overnight mission was not over by a long shot. The engineers rushed the wounded to the field hospital in the city. Unable to get back to their unit, the men sought refuge in a brick farm building. “We had no sooner settled down when an 88 round came through the wall filling the building with brick dust,” recalls Rush. Fortunately, the shell did not explode and the men rushed out, taking shelter closer to town.
(54) Rush, “Letter”.
Earlier, in an attempt to rejoin C Co, Bonde and Brunson left the security of their newfound friends near Martelange. The two had no way of knowing that their company had become committed to the west near St. Hubert. That night, Bonde, tired and cold, recounted the day’s events in his diary:
_“December 20: Took a chance on walking back to our tent to see what did happen during the night. No one would go up and pull my trailer out for me. Got back to the tent and everything pretty quiet. Watched artillery shells fall nearby above Bigonville. Washed up and then walked out to main road where we heard some chopping. Engineer preparing roadblock. Civilian came by on bike and said two Germans in car just around the corner. We started up that way and heard voices. Then a machine gun opened up and we took off. Didn’t have time to get anything from trailer. It was about 2 p.m. or later. Walked back to same guards and told them the story. They sent a recon party out to look the situation over. They came back fast. ‘No good’, was the report. Fog came in early and it was thick as pea soup. Laid on ground in ditch up one of the roads for advance spotter. Could hear tanks creep very slow toward Martelange, just over the hill. Was plenty scared as we heard .50 cal machine gun fire. Also heard 88’s hitting in town. At 10 p.m. a jeep came up from 299th’s HQ and wanted to see how things were in Martelange. Heard rifle fire as soon as he left. He came back with jeep riddled with holes. No one hurt, funny. He said the Germans were all over town and had our tanks. Never saw our boys on guard at the bridge there. We then blew our crater in the road and took off. Germans threw up flare after the explosion and we could hear them come over the hill.”(_55)
(55) Bonde, “Diary”.
On the morning of the 21st, Symbol’s men stood ready to defend the approaches to St. Hubert. The engineers had prepared abatis (mined and booby trapped), blown culverts, laid extensive minefields, and placed bazooka teams in key locations covering the roads.(56)
(56) Cole ,Ardennes, pp 325-326.
With the exception of one platoon that was detached to guard the 7th Tank Destroyer Group headquarters near Recogne, all available men, including clerks, mechanics, and truck drivers, were put on the line guarding roadblocks, screening traffic, and patrolling. Even abandoned fuel and supply sites were sought out and destroyed to prevent their capture and use by the enemy.(57)
(57) 35th Engineers, “Journal” and “History”.
Lieutenant William Williams, the B Co administrative officer recalls, “During a recon run to the north we discovered an ammunition and fuel dump that the quartermaster and ordinance people just walked off and left. We also found a 2 ½ ton truck with a disconnected clutch linkage that we were able to fix and load up with mines and TNT for our own use. We dumped as much of the fuel as we could and then left.”
(58) (58) Letter from William Williams (Tucson, AZ) to Shawn Umbrell, October 6, 2001.
While the engineers were preparing their defenses around St. Hubert, the Panzer Lehr Division was in the process of breaking away from heavy fighting near Bastogne in an attempt to bypass the city and reach other objectives to the west. During the night of the 20th, Bayerlein dispatched Major von Fallois, commander of the Panzer Lehr’s 130th Recon Battalion, to secure good roads and bridges that would support the division’s heavy columns that were expected to bypass Bastogne to the south, attack to the west, and reach the Meuse River on the 21st. So, Kampfgruppe von Fallois, strengthened by the attachment of the division engineer battalion, started its march west and on the morning of the 21st was just east of the 35th’s positions.(59)
(59) Fritz Bayerlein, “Panzer Lehr Division: 1 DEC 44-26 JAN 45”, Foreign Military Studies MS A-941 (copy received from Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, PA). Cole, Ardennes, p 325.
Having arrived at Jenneville around midnight, Captain Rickertsen’s C Co had worked nonstop establishing roadblocks and setting up defensive positions. Just to the east of Jenneville, in the village of Pironpre, Igo and the men of second platoon set up positions at a crossroad. _“[There was] a stream running along south of the east-west road,” says Igo. “A stone arch bridge crossed the stream there, with the road in a cut through a small hill just south of the bridge. There were two or three farmhouses with a couple of barns, haystacks, etc. We sent out bazooka and rifle teams with daisy-chained mines to the east, north, and west. The jeep driver, platoon sergeant, and myself stayed with the jeep and machine gun we had on it at the bridge.”(_60)
(60) Igo, “Bio”.
Second platoon guarded the Pironpre crossroads through the night until shortly after 0700 hours when the men of first platoon took over.(61)
(61) Letter from Larry Larson, Montesano, WA, to Paul Symbol, dated January 24, 1985.
Igo and his men then returned to Jenneville where they found refuge from the cold and settled down for some sleep.
Unbeknownst to the engineers, a portion of Kampfguppe von Fallois was just minutes away from the Pironpre crossroads. While this column of four Mark IV tanks, a halftrack, and a truckload of soldiers crept slowly forward, the men of first platoon were preparing fighting positions in the frozen ground. Sergeant Charles Cannon had begun setting out bazooka teams in various locations to cover the roads. Private First Class Orie Combs and Private First Class Robert Lemos made up one of the teams. “When we got to out position, I took off my overcoat so that I could start digging,” says Combs.
“I was the gunner and Lemos was my loader. As we were preparing our position, we heard vehicles approaching. I looked up and saw German tanks coming toward us on the road.” Combs picked up his bazooka and took careful aim at the lead tank while Lemos slid a round into the back of the tube. Combs’ fired and immobilized the tank. Immediately, the other tanks stopped and opened fire in all directions. Lemos rushed to load another round while Combs prepared to fire again on the lead vehicle. Spotting the two men, a German machine gunner raked the engineers’ position, hitting both Combs and Lemos. Though seriously wounded, Combs raised the bazooka to his shoulder and fired, destroying the vehicle."
“I was hit again and fell back,” says Combs. “I looked at my right hand and noticed that it had been shot off. I knew that I had to get out of there. I got myself up and looked down at Lemos. He was not moving and was covered in blood.” (62)
(62) Phone conversation between Orie Combs (Healdsburg, CA) and Shawn Umbrell (Navarre, FL) on August 6, 2003. 35th Engineers “Journal” and “History”.
Nearby, Private Kurt Boker and his partner were unable to put their bazooka into action. The approach of the enemy column had caught them by surprise and they were now pinned down by well-aimed machine gun fire. Seeing the plight of his men, SGT Cannon grabbed a bazooka and, along with Private First Class John Kenney, braved the enemy fire and advanced to within firing range of the enemy tanks. Cannon dropped to a knee and took aim at the second vehicle while Kenney loaded a round. Firing, Cannon struck the tank, taking it completely out of action.(63)
(63)35th Engineers, “History”. Cole, Ardennes, pp 325-326. Letter from Kurt Boker (Kelley’s Island, OH) to Frank Rush (Tigard, OR), November 7, 1988.
With two tanks lost at the hands of the engineers, the rest of the enemy began to withdraw for fear of being hit as well. Still, small arms fire erupted as the American engineers exchanged shots with the enemy troops.
Losing blood and nearly unconscious, Combs made his way toward the rest of the platoon. “I could hear firing as I made my way back to the rest of the platoon,” he says. “In addition to my other wounds, I had been shot through the neck and chest. Most of my field jacket had been torn away. I remember feeling a very sharp pain in my back that prevented me from standing up straight.”
Determined to make it out, Combs continued on through a small stream, the chill of the chest deep water nearly numbing him. Coming out of the water, he was grabbed by another soldier and could hear the platoon jeep coming toward him. “When they got to me, we were still under fire,” he says. “I remember lying on the ground by the jeep while one of the men placed a bandage on my throat. Someone began yelling and I was thrown headfirst into the jeep, feet sticking out.” (64)
(64) Letter from Orie Combs to Shawn Umbrell dated May 12,2001. Phone conversation between Orie Combs and Shawn Umbrell, November 18, 2001 and August 6, 2003.
Private First Class Mose Umbrell, first platoon’s jeep driver, and Staff Sergeant Harrell Wyatt, the platoon sergeant, rushed Combs toward the nearest aid station. When they arrived, they found that most of the medical personnel had evacuated the site; only a nurse and doctor remained. Combs recalls, _“The last thing that I remember is that the doctor began putting some blood back into me. I went unconscious after that and woke up three days later at a hospital in the rear.”(_65)
(65) Phone conversation between Orie Combs and Shawn Umbrell, August 6, 2003. Author’s recollection of story told by his grandfather, Mose Umbrell.
In Jenneville, Igo had just arrived at Rickertsen’s command post when the enemy slammed into the Pironpre roadblock. “Breakfast was being served and a cook had just put some pancakes in my mess kit when all hell broke loose,” says Igo.
_“There was cannon fire and constant machine gun fire. I dumped my pancakes in the garbage can because I knew that the Germans had just attacked our roadblock. Captain Rickertsen and I jumped in my jeep and rushed back to the crossroads. We parked just short of the cut in the hill and crawled up on a knoll. [We could see] the tankers out working on their treads trying to fix them. We fired a few shots at them and they would occasionally let loose a burst of machine gun fire in our direction.”(_65a)
(65a) Letter from Norman Igo (Lubbock, TX) to Shawn Umbrell, June 27, 2003.
Shortly after receiving word of the initial engagement at Pironpre, Lieutenant Colonel Symbol began making preparations and gathering soldiers to reinforce Rickertsen’s company. At 0945, Colonel Simmons, from the 28th Infantry Division, entered the 35th’s command post. Symbol informed Simmons of the situation, who then offered the assistance of some of his men that were assembled nearby. Simmons’ men set out to patrol the area between Jenneville and St. Hubert, hoping to prevent an enemy infiltration, while Symbol and approximately one hundred men from the 724th Depot Company boarded trucks and headed for Pironpre.(66)
(66) 35th Engineers, “Journal”. Dearinger, “Letter”.
When Symbol arrived, he was pleased to find that additional reinforcements in the form of D Troop, 635th Anti Aircraft Artillery Battalion, and their M16 halftracks (with mounted quad .50 caliber machine guns) had arrived.(67)
(67) 635th AAA Bn, S-3 Journal. Igo, “Bio”.
As he surveyed the battlefield, he noticed that a culvert running under the road had not been blown as he had intended. Rickertsen explained that he had not yet received any explosives to do the job. Frustrated, Symbol called back to his command post, insisting that demolitions be brought to Jenneville. But, at this point, destroying the culvert would require sending men into the open to set in the TNT. “Sir, sending men out there now would be suicide,” Rickertsen commented. “If you insist on blowing the bridge I’ll do it myself, but I’m not sending any of the men out there.”
Symbol said nothing. He knew that his company commander was right.(68)
(68) Igo, “Bio”.
At approximately 1500 hrs, still hoping to secure the route through Pironpre, the enemy began shelling the C Co positions with heavy artillery. Until then, the German soldiers had not made any further advances toward Pironpre, but rather took up a position in the woods, occasionally firing at the engineers.§69)
(69) Igo, “Bio”. Cole, Ardennes, pp 325-326. 35th Engineers, “Journal”.
Now, it was clear to Symbol that the enemy wanted this road. He knew that the enemy would attack with a larger force at any time.
After talking with Symbol, Rickertsen sent Igo out to see about setting up another roadblock west of Jenneville and to send the rest of the men to Pironpre for the expected fight to come. When Igo returned late in the afternoon he found that the battalion had received new orders and was preparing to move out of Jenneville. Earlier in the day, the 2d Panzer Division had attacked and captured Ortheuville, to the north, forcing the defending 158th Engineer Combat Battalion and a few tank destroyers from the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion south to Libramont. The fall of Ortheuville offered the enemy a northern approach to St. Hubert. Fearing that the 35th would be cut off, VIII Corps Headquarters sent orders to Symbol to hold as long as feasible, then rejoin the corps, which was now headquartered in Bouillon.(70)
(70)Igo, “Bio”. Cole, Ardennes, pp 325-326. 35th Engineers, “Journal”.
Night had fallen when the engineers began their withdrawal. Just to the south of Jenneville, in Moircy, General Bayerlein’s troops had arrived and were ready to continue their drive toward St. Hubert. Having finally received their explosives, Captain Rickertsen’s men had put them to use and prepared to blow trees across the road to block the enemy advance. As they loaded into their trucks, the sound of German tanks could be heard nearby. Symbol, now sure that the enemy was just minutes away from smashing into Jenneville, calmly boarded the last truck and gave the order to move. The trucks rolled slowly into the dark forest, picking up the last of the men one by one as they pulled the fuses on their demolitions, creating a sequence of bright explosions that followed the column into the night.
(71) (71) Letter from Norman Igo to Paul Symbol (Mercer Island, WA), January 24, 1985.
Passing through St. Hubert, Rickertsen’s men fell into the rear of the battalion formation and, together, the 35th slipped through the cold blackness of the Ardennes. By midnight, Symbol’s men (with the exception of those guarding the 7th Tank Destroyer Group and those in Bastogne) were in their new assembly area in Bouillon, close to the French frontier.(72)
(72) Cole, Ardennes, p 326. 35th Engineers, “Journal” and “History”.
Meanwhile, near Martelange, Bonde and Brunson had become engaged in heavy fighting alongside the engineers of the 299th. After bitter close combat, both the Americans and paratroopers of the 5th Parachute Division occupied portions of the town. Heavy casualties began to take a toll on the engineers and they soon began to lose some ground. That night the 299th began to withdraw from the town. In some areas though, American soldiers had been cut off from the rest of the unit. When a recon crew headed back into the burning town, Bonde and Brunson volunteered to go along. After locating their men, the engineers withdrew. “Things were very hot there,” wrote Bonde.
_ “Gosh, those boys were happy to know that we could get to them.”(_73)
(73) Bonde, “Diary”.
When dawn broke on the 22nd, the 299th was nearing Bouillon. “When we got to Bouillon, we saw some of our trucks and was we happy,” Bonde later wrote. “Thought they may have been wiped out.”
(74) (74) Bonde, “Diary”.
Earlier, Lieutenant Nettle and his platoon from B Co received orders to report to the 7th Tank Destroyer Group headquarters in nearby Recogne. Finding the unit command post in the woods at the edge of town, Nettle recalls, “I reported to the commander and informed him that I was sent to help guard the unit headquarters. I didn’t receive much guidance, so I just kept the men together as best I could where we would be protected against any artillery or enemy attack. I found it strange that the colonel had not established his command post in the town where it seemed we would be better protected. It only took a couple of artillery rounds landing close by to change his mind. Soon after moving into the village we were put to the task of conducting local patrols. Eventually, I was sent to meet with an Infantry captain who needed to have a minefield marked. I reported to the commander at his CP that was in one of the winter dugouts. The captain was very abrupt and told me to be sure to be quiet near the minefield because the Germans had artillery spotters in the area who were quick to send in a few shells. Sure enough, as we were putting out our markers, artillery rounds came racing in and struck just behind us. We hurried up to complete the job and headed back, receiving a stern scolding from the captain as we went.”(75)
(75) Letter from Charles Nettle to Shawn Umbrell, March 25, 2002. Phone conversation with Charles Nettle and Shawn Umbrell, September 22, 2002.
Meanwhile, at Bastogne, the defenders fought bravely to protect the besieged city. The small detachment under Rush and Skinner was being held in reserve and helped out where they could. “Shortly after getting into Bastogne, I ran into a Lieutenant Franks with the armored engineers whom I had known in Officer Candidate School,” says Skinner.
_“He was a rough and tough SOB and had just come back into town after fighting the Germans in a cemetery north or northeast of town. We attached my men to his outfit. We were to knock out any tanks that approached the Wiltz Road and Neufchateau Road intersection at the corner of the square in Bastogne. Thanks to the 101st and the other men around the town, no tanks were able to enter town. But we were under constant artillery fire.”(_76)
(76) Letter from Bob Skinner to Paul Symbol, January 24, 1985. Letter from Bob Skinner to Shawn Umbrell, March 11, 2002.
Such constant barrages had devastating effects on the city and the soldiers. On the afternoon of December 21, Skinner and his jeep driver, Private Morris, were standing on the steps of the building their had been bivouacked in. Suddenly, artillery shells exploded in the street in front of them, killing Morris.(77)
(77) 35th Engineers, “History”.
At 2030 hrs on Christmas Eve, the unwelcome drone of enemy planes was heard over Bastogne. Moments later the city’s railroad station and the 101st’s field hospital bore the brunt of a massive German air strike. Soldiers and civilians, alike, were caught in the devastating raid. When the bombs stopped falling, the men of the 35th rushed out and began searching for survivors in the rubbled buildings and clearing debris from the streets.(78)
(78) David Pergrin, Engineering the Victory: The Battle of the Bulge (Atglen, PA, Schiffer Military/Aviation History, 1996), p 324.
Near Bouillon, the rest of the battalion held crucial bridges along the Semois River, securing the Corps’ left flank. All along the Semois, the engineers had prepared bridges for demolition and guarded the crossing sites around the clock.(79)
(79) 35th Engineers, “History”.
“Those bridges became islands surrounded by darkness once the sun went down,” says Regenauer. “It was dangerous to move at night, so when I went on guard I preferred to stay there until it was light.”
For Dearinger, the Christmas of 1944 would be unforgettable. Days earlier he had opened his Christmas gifts in the small town of Bisory, just outside of Bastogne. Since that time, neither he, nor any of the other Allies on the western front, had had the time to cherish the Holidays. But now, on this Christmas Eve, he sat in his jeep listening to the BBC broadcast carols over the radio. “That’s the first time I heard ‘O’ Holy Night’,” he recalls. “It’s been one of my favorites ever since.”
“On Christmas night, I was making the rounds of the bridge guards,” he continues.
“Captain Day was apparently doing the same thing. Sergeant Floyd had warned Captain Day to be careful not to slip up on anyone unexpectedly, but he did. I heard the shot and a high-pitched scream. By the time I got up to Mullin’s jeep, he and Sergeant Floyd were loading Captain Day into the vehicle."
He said, “I’m hurting Floyd,” and they took him off for the hospital. The next day, Symbol came in with Day’s wristwatch and told me to take over the company.(80)
(80) Dearinger, “Letter”.
On the 26th, Lieutenant Nettle and his platoon were released from their guard duty at the 7th Tank Destryoer headquarters, now located at Libramont. “We had been staying in an old schoolhouse while in Libramont,” says Nettle.
_“We were preparing to leave and were suddenly attacked by two enemy airplanes, each dropping a five hundred pound bomb write in the center of town. I was still in the building and was knocked across the room by the blast. One of the men in the room was killed. I went immediately to check on the platoon and found that none of my guys were hurt. We went outside and started helping with the wounded where we could. I found out later that the colonel that I had reported to on the first day was one of the men killed during the attack.”(_81)
(81) Letter from Charles Nettle to Shawn Umbrell, March 25, 2002. Phone conversation with Charles Nettle and Shawn Umbrell, September 22, 2002.
On December 27, armored forces under the command of General George Patton punched a whole through the German lines and reached the besieged city of Bastogne. On the 28th, Rush, Skinner, and the men of A Co found their way back to the battalion.(82)
(82) 35th Engineers, “History”.
As the days passed in Bouillon, it became apparent that the German counteroffensive was coming to a halt. Unbeknownst to Symbol, his battalion had played an important role in stopping the German advance in the Ardennes. In addition to defending the critically strategic city of Bastogne, the 35th was also successful in crushing any hope the Panzer Lehr had of reaching the Meuse. The engineers had so completely blocked the routes to St. Hubert with obstacles that Bayerlein’s division took an additional two days to complete assemble around the town. Helmut Ritgen, then a lieutenant in the Panzer Lehr, recalls:
_“On 22 December the advance towards St. Hubert was continued, but delayed as the direct route via Pironpre was reportedly blocked by some cut down trees... In spite of partly cloudy skies and clear visibility, the column was not attacked from the air. The fuel situation was of greater cause for concern. The first Panzer ran out of fuel west of Moircy and had to be refueled from reserve jerry cans. Thus, St. Hubert was reached in the false hopes that gasoline would be found there. We found only empty jerry cans. It was established the following day that the Division’s arrival in St. Hubert had taken so long due the unusual route we had to take to get there.”(_83)
(83) Helmut Ritgen, The Western Front: Memoirs of a Panzer Lehr Officer (Winnipeg, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc., 1995), pp 273-274.
This delay created by the 35th was sufficient enough to allow reinforcements to arrive and ultimately beat back the Panzer Lehr from their positions around St. Hubert. Over the next several weeks, the Allies fought hard to decrease the bulge that was created in their line by the German army. During the Allies’ renewed drive, the 35th moved east in support of the 11th Armored Division and later the 17th Airborne Division. Symbol’s executive officer, Major Mike Miletich, left the battalion to take command of the 44th Engineer Combat Battalion, who had suffered heavy losses in fighting near Wiltz.(84)
(84) 35th Engineers, “History”.
Later, General George Patton commended the actions of the men of the VIII Corps. In a commendation letter to General Middleton, he wrote, “The magnificent tactical skill and hardihood which you and your command displayed in slowing the German offensive, and the determined valor and tactical precision which caused you to retain possession of Bastogne, together with your subsequent resumption of a victorious offensive, constitute a truly superb feat of arms.”
In recognition of the 35th’s determined stance in the Ardennes, fifteen medals were awarded for valor. The Silver Star was awarded to Cannon, Combs, and Kenney for their actions at Pironpre. Robert Lemos was reported missing in action on the 21st of December, but was later found in a field hospital. There is no record indicating whether or not he received a medal for his part in the defense of the Pironpre crossroads. Additionally, the Bronze Star was awarded to Lieutenant Colonel Symbol, Lee Regenauer, Michael Semmelrogge, Peter Lari, Raymond Steele, Charles Harkins, Calvin Crump, Howard Bulman, Wilbur Ferguson, Frank Dunigan, Charles Botdorf, and Charles Nettle.
In March, the battalion made assault crossings of the Moselle and Rhine Rivers in support of the 87th Infantry Division. While crossing the Rhine, the 35th suffered 34 casualties: nine killed, six missing in action, four seriously wounded, and fifteen slightly wounded. One of those killed was Charles Cannon. (85)
(85) 35th Engineers, After Action Report, dated April 4, 1945. (National Archives)
At war’s end, the 35th was deep inside Germany, near the town of Pausa. During their march across the country, the engineers captured hundreds of prisoners and saw the horrors of the Buchenwald concentration camp. One-by-one, those with enough “points” were granted discharge and returned to the United States. Those remaining in the battalion departed from the port of Marseille, France, aboard the troopship, General Stewart, on September 4, 1945. The battalion arrived in the New York port of debarkation on September 15 where it demobilized.(86)
(86) 35th Engineers, “History”.