I picked up a copy of a book I read long ago at the gun show this weekend for the lordly price of $2.50. Entitled The Damned Engineers by Janice Holt Giles, it details the heroic tale of the 291st Combat Engineer Battalion under Colonel David Pergrin and the role they played in stopping the German assault in the Battle of the Bulge.
I picked up the book just in time for a couple nights of insomnia, and finished it this morning. There are many valuable lessons in this book,but the most striking to me is that the 291st stuck against overwhelming numbers when everybody else was pulling out largely because of the character of their commander and the combat ethic that he had inculcated in his unit. Even when individual squads and platoons were spread out in penny-packets all across the critical part of the front, the combat engineers of the 291st acted as if Pergrin were watching over their shoulders. Unlike many units, none of them disgraced themselves, all played a part in stopping the Germans, especially the Waffen SS Kampfgruppe of Jochen Peiper, the Nazi spearhead. An element of the 291st blew the bridge at Habiemont in front of him:
Only a few vehicles behind the lead tanks, Peiper heard and saw the bridge go. Up she went in rainbows and thunder, an expert, beautiful demolition job. Peiper could only only sit with a leaden heart and fact the fact that time and his luck had entirely run out on him. Though he would battle desperately for five more days to escape the box he was now caught in, it was here he faced the inevitable end. And he could only sit helplessly, pound his knee and swear, "The damned engineers! The damned engineers!" -- p. 261.
I put this post as a praxis because I believe it should be read by every American armed citizen as an example of the influence of character on command. Here is another snippet:
Shortly after Colonel Pergrin radioed for the Company A machine guns and gunners a runner arrived at his CP with the news that the road patrol on the back road to Spa had met the advance elements of the Norwegian Battalion who said they had been sent by First Army to reinforce Malmedy. A colonel was with them, the runner said. The colonel wanted to know how he should come into Malmedy.
This was the best news Pergrin had had all day. Finally a little help was arriving. "Tell him to stay on that back road," Pergrin told the runner. "Tell him the main road is under artillery fire. And bring the colonel to my CP."
At 10:00PM, Colonel H.D. Hansen and his Executive Officer, Major Bjornstad, arrived at Pergrin's command post. Not much time was wasted on formalities. Pergrin and Hansen were of the same rank, both lieutenant colonels. They shook hands and sat down to look at the map and study a reinforced defense line. Colonel Hansen had noticed the felled trees at the abatis roadblock on the back road. "How many men do you have here?" he asked.
"Approximately a hundred and eighty," Pergrin said.
Hansen stared at him, unbelievingly. "One hundred and eighty! And you stayed here? My God, man, why didn't you run like hell?"
Pergrin did not really know. It was a little bit of several things, probably. Because everything else got out, he got stubborn and would not. And then that little Battery got it in the neck, and the SS troops had brutally murdered them, and something in him just dug in his toes and he would not join the pell-mell retreat going on all around him. There was undoubtedly much anger. But there was moreover that iron sense of duty he so constantly preached to the 291st. And there was the good engineer's knowledge that he might at least delay the enemy for a while with his mines and demolitions. And of course, and not least, there was just plain guts. What he could do, he would do, for as long as he could. -- pp. 198-199.
The "Malmedy Massacre" -- eighty four American prisoners shot down at the Five Points crossroads at Baugnez, south of Malmedy, Belgium, in cold blood by the Waffen SS troops of Jochen Peiper, 17 December 1944. It was the 291st Engineers who rescued the survivors of the massacre and got the word out to the rest of the army.
Pergrin had interviewed the 17 survivors his battalion had rescued and passed their stories on to higher headquarters as soon as possible.
The decision to give wide publicity to the massacre was implemented immediately. By midnight it had gone into almost every unit of First Army, and by the next day very few GIs in the entire U.S. Army had not heard of the Malmedy Massacre.
It had the opposite effect from that which Hitler had expected when he ordered that this offensive be waged ruthlessly and without pity. This had worked on his onslaughts before, because the helpless civilians of overrun countries had to live with his hordes. It did not work with U.S. soldiers. Instead of dissolving the men of the U.S. Army into whimpering, cowering, panicky men, the massacre became the psychological turning point. It turned the vast conglomeration of careless, casual, nonchalant GIs into soldiers. It stiffened them, determined them, and its total effect was to weld them together again. After December 17 the U.S. Army had one more reason for defeating the enemy -- to avenge the men of Malmedy. -- pp. 181-182.
The few times I could get my Uncle Bill Vanderboegh, who served with Patton's Third Army, to talk about the war, he brought up two things that to him condemned all things German -- the concentration camps he helped liberate and the Malmedy Massacre. For a while after Malmedy, it was real hard for a Waffen SS man to get his surrender accepted without a getting bullet instead. Yet without Pergrin "sticking" in Malmedy against all odds, SGT Bill Vanderboegh and the American army would not have found out about the massacre at Five Points for weeks, if not months. Here again we see the consequences of character.
I highly recommend reading The Damned Engineers. Though now out of print, it is available at many libraries, or by library loan.