On December 16 1944, when the 51st Engineer Combat Battalion faced the Germans’ last gasp effort to win the war, it had been operating 30 sawmills in support of the US 1-A. Within days the battalion was spread over the Belgian countryside, defending roads, bridges, and towns from the Nazi attempt to break through and reach the Meuse River then up to Antwerp and its Port in a way to split the British and American forces. The men set up roadblocks, using mines and abatis; mined bridges and culverts; and defended river crossings with pistols, rifles, .30 and .50 cal machine guns, rifles-grenades, 2’6 Rocket Launchers (60-MM Bazookas).
This narrative by Ken Hechler, a combat historian and infantry captain at the time, was drawn from numerous oral history interviews of participants. Capt Hechler and T/4 Harvey R. George did the interviews shortly after the battles. This volume is another in the Office of History’s series of Studies in Military Engineering. It describes the 51-ECB’s successful defensive operations during a period in the Battle of the Bulge. This unit’s story is especially interesting because it identifies the specific locations of all defenses, allowing the reader to follow in detail the tactics of Engineer commanders.
During the German breakthrough in the Ardennes, the 51-ECB held, delayed and even stopped the enemy at a number of vital points along the lines of penetration. For four days, December 18/21, Able and Baker 51 held a barrier line from Barvaux to Hotton and from Marche en Famenne to Rochefort, blowing up and defending three footbridges, two Highway main bridges, and one railway bridge, while holding a 25-mile front against enemy armored and infantry thrusts.
At the same time, Charlie 51 was holding the little Belgian town of Trois-Ponts, denying the enemy the use of the vital east-west Highway, the N-66 to Werbomont. Charlie 51 stood its ground in Trois-Ponts, tricked the enemy into believing it had superior forces and armor, and after being relieved by Col William Ekman’s 505-PIR (82-AB), covered the withdrawal of that regiment from the town after its abortive attack east of the Salm River. There was nothing in the background of the battalion that was related to these achievements. Since its activation as the 1/51-ECB on June 13 1942, this unit had passed a rather uninteresting career. They trained at Camp Bowie, Texas; shivered through a hard winter at the Plattsburg Barracks, New York; did the dirty work on target ranges and road construction for the XIII Corps’ West Virginia maneuvers of 1943; and acted as a demonstration troops for the Engineer School at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
In Europa, the battalion landed on Utah Beach in Normandy on D+21, but life degenerated into dumping crushed rock on the Carentan’s roads, maintaining a few water points, and sweeping some mines. Two incidents stood out during the routine months on the Continent : quick thinking and heroic action saved many lives and equipment during a Normandy ammunition-dump fire, and eight men of the battalion quelled and captured 60 German paratroopers after a brief, sharp firefight in the mid-September.
The battalion did have one common bond that assisted it during the December fight against overwhelming odds : nearly all of the officers and men were veterans of some two years of service in the battalion; the companies had worked together as units; and teamwork was clicking smoothly.
On the eve of the breakthrough in the Ardennes, the battalion was operating about 30 sawmills in the vicinity of Marche-en-Famenne, Dinant, Rochefort, Ciney, Hotton, and Erezée, thereby contributing materially to the 1-A winter installations and timber-cutting program.
The battalion had cut 2.600.000 board feet since the inauguration of the program in October. The average for the first 17 days of December was 58.717 board feet per day, with a maximum of 80.600 board feet in one day. At that time, Col Sam Tabets’ 158-ECB had been charged with the defense of the area in Marche-en-Famenne.
Routine activities in the running of the sawmills were conducted by the 51-ECB on the first day of the German breakthrough, but on December 17, at 1730 the battalion was alerted by the CO of the 158-ECB for ground activity. The line companies were immediately alerted and a staff meeting was called to make plans for action. The performance of the 51-ECB during the following days can better be appreciated by knowing the commanding officer, Col Harvey R. Fraser, and his executive officer, Maj Robert B. Yates. They were two different personalities who complemented each other in directing the battalion.
During the breakthrough, Col Harvey R. Fraser was with that portion of his battalion along the Barvaux – Hotton – Rochefort front; Maj Robert B. Yates was at Trois-Ponts. The peculiar angle to the performance of these officers is that they both arrived at the battalion within two days of the start of the breakthrough. Maj Yates, a veteran member of the battalion, had been hospitalized in August and returned to his post on December 15. Col Fraser was a newcomer to the battalion, having assumed command on December 14. Both officers were almost immediately called on to command units and slow the German advance.
When Col Fraser arrived, the first thing he did was call the battalion officers together, introduce himself, and outline his policies. He sketched his own past and had an opportunity to talk officers long enough to find out their them up personally. Prior to coming to the battalion, with each of the background and size Col Fraser had a brilliant background, but it was almost entirely confined to staff work. After graduating from the USMA in 1939, he spent a period of close to three years on Oahu (Hawaii) at Schofield Barracks. He was due to return December 8 1941, but remained by request for nine more months. The remainder of his pre-breakthrough career was spent as an Engineer Battalion commander working on routine road and airstrip construction, plus doing a few shifts with Communications Zone base sections checking training and allocating troops.
In October, the battalion moved to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to prepare to go overseas. From there, the battalion’s organizational equipment went to the Los Angeles Port of Embarkation, and the troops went to Hampton Roads, Virginia, and shipped out. While on the high seas, the battalion received orders to proceed to the Mediterranean Base Section, Oran, Algeria, for transshipment to India.
The 51-ECB debarked on December 5 at Oran but, with its equipment still headed from Los Angeles to Asia, received an unscheduled break in its training. While the Battalion waited in North Africa, the plans of the Allies changed. The Battalion, along with four other Engineer Battalions awaiting movement to India, were ordered to England for the invasion of Europe. On January 12 1944, the battalion left Casablanca on an eightday voyage to Liverpool. The 51 spent five months in England. The unit was assigned to Gen Omar N. Bradley’s 1-A. Training resumed, with combined and specialist activities, including night operations and related bridge construction, Bailey and fixed bridge construction, road construction, mines and minefields, and explosives and demolitions.
On June 19 1944, the 51 loaded onto three Liberty ships, cooled their heels aboard ship for a week, then crossed the English Channel to Normandy on June 26. For the next four months the battalion provided combat engineer support to the 1-A. Most of the work consisted of road repair and maintenance, engineer reconnaissance, mine clearing, and water supply. During this time, the battalion suffered casualties that included six wounded from the explosion of stray artillery shells and the strafing of a German plane.
On September 4, the battalion moved 152 miles from the vicinity of Chartres, west of Paris, to an area near Soissons, northeast of Paris. The Germans had been retreating rapidly, destroying bridges and culverts and cratering roads. As a result, the major activity of the 51 changed from road repair and maintenance to bridge and culvert construction, replacing Bailey bridges and other temporary bridges for reuse in forward areas. On September 17, the 51 moved to Germany, 110 miles east of Soissons, almost to the Luxembourg border. Here it built bridges for two weeks, then moved to Malmedy, Belgium, where for three weeks the Battalion kept busy training as infantry. Then it began the job it would keep until the German surprise, cutting wood for Gen Courtney Hodges’ 1-A billets.
On December 12, irked by this non-combat activity, Col Fraser went to the 1-A Hqs in Spa to see the 1-A Engineer willing to ask for a combat assignment. He was so sure he would not return to Brittany Base Section that he took all his equipment to Spa. Two days later he was commanding the 51-ECB. When I saw what they were doing at the sawmills and along the roads said Col Fraser I asked whether it really was a combat outfit. I was soon to find out.
When the 158-ECB departed to assist in the defense of the Bastogne area, the 51-ECB was left with the responsibility of defending the Marche-en-Famenne area. Capt John W. Barnes, battalion S-3, states, Col Fraser sat down with a map and decided that the Ourthe River was a natural defense line, and he prepared plans to erect roadblocks and prepare key bridges for demolition. Several days later the Group sent down an overlay directing that defenses be established at precisely the same points which Col Fraser had selected.
It was not only his organizing ability but also his leadership that made Col Fraser a factor in the success of the battalion. Throughout the defense of the 25 mile front, he was ubiquitous. At times it is impossible to trace his trail because so many men claim that he was with them at widely separated points. During the severest test of the battalion in Hotton, on December 21, Col Fraser was on the enemy side of the river for a period. He kept the widely separated forces unified.
Maj Yates had a different task at Trois-Points. His forces were concentrated in a small area, and his problem was more one of deceiving the enemy into thinking that there was a superior force defending Trois-Ponts. He also had the job of inspiring confidence in 150 men who after the first day of action had no tank destroyers or antitank guns and were opposed by German armor.
Before the breakthrough, Maj Yates had held various staff positions within the battalion for the preceding two years, having been its CO for several months in 1943. His 6 foot 3 inch and 200-pound figure towered over the scene at Trois-Ponts. An affable Texan, easy-going in nature but determined in spirit, Maj Yates held together his little company by prodding, cajoling, and encouraging them to resist long after they had reached reasonable limits of human endurance.
I would find them asleep standing up after 94 hours on the job, said Maj Yates, but they were standing up. Col William E. Ekman, CO of the 505-PIR (82-AB), which entered Trois-Ponts on December 20, paid high tribute to the spirit and courage of Charlie 51, and singled out Maj Yates for his leadership. He had everything under control, said Col Ekman, and appeared ready and able to hold the town indefinitely.
When the 82-AB came in, we expected to find this unit decimated and discouraged. Instead, Maj Yates approached me and uttered a classic phrase, Say, I’ll bet you fellows are glad we’re here. Adding a note of commendation to the many other tributes for Maj Yates, Col Fraser observed, I do not know another officer who could have handled such a difficult situation as admirably as you did.
Charlie 51 left Melreux at 2200 on December 17 and arrived in Trois-Ponts at 2330. The company, commanded by Capt Sam Scheuber, immediately started to establish defensive positions on the west bank of the Amblève River, which skirts the east edge of town. Charlie Company’s strength at this time was approximately 140 men, about 20 still being absent at the sawmills. The company had eight bazookas, six heavy .50 cal machine guns, and four light .30 cal.
One 57-MM AT gun from the 526-AIB also became available. In personnel, the company was reinforced by a squad each from the 526-AIB and Able 291-ECB, as well as several stragglers who were picked up coming through the town. Trois-Ponts is studded with bridges, underpasses, railroads, rivers, cliffs, and road junctions.
The Amblève and the Salm rivers join there, as do railroad lines running south to Vielsalm, northwest to Aywaille, and northeast to Stavelot. Highway N-68 enters Trois-Ponts from Stavelot by two under passing railroad just before it joins the north-south Highway N-33, merges with the later for a few hundred yards, crosses the Amblève River, and then turns west across another bridge over the Salm River, become the N-66, and proceeds toward Werbomont.
The enemy approached Trois-Ponts by this road and was thwarted in its attempts to go west to Werbomont because the 51-ECB had blown up two bridges over the rivers. The enemy then turned its columns north after clearing the railroad underpasses and proceeded toward La Gleize heading for Stoumont. The 1111-EG had its command post in Trois-Ponts at the start of the action, and its small staff hurried the preparations for defense before the arrival of Charlie 51. Somebody asked Col Harry Anderson (CO 1111-ECG), and former CO of the 51-ECB, whether he intended to withdraw. His reply was characteristic, we have come several thousand miles to fight these Nazis, not to withdraw from them.
On the morning of December 18, columns of the 7-AD were passing through Trois-Ponts on their way to stem the enemy attack in the Vielsalm – St Vith area. The 7-AD had two accidents in twisting through Trois-Ponts. These problems rebounded to the benefit of the defenders of the town. A half-track with a personnel complement of 12 men, towing a 57-MM AT Gun, broke down. This half-track belonged to Baker 526.
The 526-AIB, an (S)(Separate) battalion was not a part of the 7-AD. The 526-AIB was using the same road, in the opposite direction, on its way to Malmedy. Col Anderson (1111-EG) directed his S-4, Capt Robert N. Jewett, to take command of the squad and supervise the placing of the gun. Capt Jewett put the gun and crew in position on Highway N-68 on the road to Stavelot, about a mile toward Stavelot from the two railroad underpasses.
The second accident benefited the defenders of Trois-Ponts a little less directly. An M-7 105-MM self-propelled armored field artillery Priest, slipped off the road while making a sharp turn at the bridge over the Salm. The vehicle went over on its side into the river and was abandoned. Later in the day, when the 51-ECB was forced to blow the bridge, the ensuing fire set off the ammunition in the tank.
However, it did not go off all at once but exploded at intervals all afternoon and into the evening of the 18. Enough time elapsed between explosions to allow for loading an artillery piece, possibly tricking the enemy into thinking that artillery was available to the group defending Trois-Ponts.
Little by little, Charlie 51 picked up a few more reinforcements. Three men from the 341-ECB who had originally been in Trois-Ponts guarding the bridge were attached to the company. A soldier in a British uniform drove his truck through the town several times before being apprehended and attached to the company too. He had a carbine, a second lieutenant’s insignia, and a captain’s map case, but the news of Skorzeny’s Operation Greif had not yet caused suspicion toward such characters. A GI who said he was from a nearby artillery unit walked up and down the town with a girl on his arm until he too was called in and attached to Charlie. A somewhat larger group was attached during the morning of December 18.
At 0800, Lt Albert J. Walters, a platoon leader in Able 291, left his battalion CP at Basse-Bodeux to assist in preparing a bridge located one mile southeast of Trois-Ponts, for demolition. En route, he was intercepted by Col James A. Kirkland, executive officer of the 1111-EG. Col Kirkland attached Lt Walters and his squad to Charlie, and they continued to defend the bridge on the south flank of the defenders of Trois-ponts.
The defense of the town initially consisted of one platoon with two bazookas on high ground covering the approach from Aisomont; Capt Jewett’s group with the lone antitank gun covering the road from Stavelot; a rear guard covering the N-66 approach from Werbomont; and the remainder of the company deployed with bazookas, machine guns, and M-1s in the buildings of the town that fronted the Salm and the Amblève rivers. Capt Jewett sent two of the 526-AIB men, Cpl Bruce W. Frazier and Pfc Ralph J. Bieker, 250 yards up the road toward Stavelot with a daisy chain of ten mines and instructions to jerk them across the road when a tank approached and then run back to where the 57-MM AT gun was placed.
Four 526-AIB men (McCollum, Hollenback, Buchanan, and Higgins) were manning the antitank gun. Lt Richard Green, platoon leader of 3rd Platoon, Charlie 51, along with Pfc Andrew Salazar was immediately behind the gun. The half-track, with its driver from the 526 and with Capt Jewett, was backed into the N-68 on the opposite side of the road from the antitank gun, ready to pull out in the event of a tank attack that might overrun the position.
Several more men from Charlie Co and from the 526-AIB were in a ditch along the road back of the antitank gun. Just beyond the underpass on the Stavelot side S/Sgt Fred Salatino was manning the .50-caliber antiaircraft gun mounted on a GMC truck, along with T/5 Jacob Young. A wire was strung from this truck back to the company CP in the Trois-Ponts railroad station.
On the right, going eastward, Stavelot & Malmedy and the N-68 which is going northeastward to Mont, Mont Rigi, Belle-Croix then down the hill into Eupen. This N-68 is the main and only highway which follows the Amblève River in the combat area. Going eastward from Malmedy, Highway and River goes almost side by side to Stavelot, then to Trois-Ponts.
When entering Trois-Ponts, you go through the two railroad underpasses up to a perfectly T shaped crossroads. Going right (eastward) the highway, now N-33, sends you through Petit-Coo, Grand-Coo, Roanne-Coo, La Gleize and Stoumont. Going left (westward) the N-68 sends you to the center of the town after, first, crossing the bridge over the Amblève River then another one crossing the Salm River. This second bridge passed you have two choices : (1) a sharp left turn will get you through Rochelinval, Petit-Halleux, Rencheux and Vielsam or (2) strait on after the bridge, the N-66, which through Mont-de-Fosse, Haute-Bodeux, Chauveheid, Neucy, Habiemont, gets you in Werbomont.
About 200 yards up the Stavelot road beyond the AT gun, Lt Green posted a combination outpost and getaway consisting of T/5 Robert Logan, T/5 Elmer Helton and Pfc Milbert Brown of Charlie 51. Brown as driver had his jeep; up until that time Helton had been an air compressor operator and Logan a truck driver, but they were pressed into service for reconnaissance.
The plan was to have the three watch the men with the daisy chain and then alert the gunners and the rest of the squad if a tank approached. Firing was heard in the vicinity of Stavelot during the early part of the morning. Shortly before noon, a German Mark VI Tiger nosed around the bend toward the AT gun. Frazier and Bieker strung their mines, but could not resist the temptation to take a few shots with their rifles at the heads of enemy tankers that protruded from the lead tank. Several other tanks soon followed the lead tank, which stopped at the daisy chain. Brown, Logan, and Helton say that the tank started firing its machine gun, so they returned with their jeep to Lt Green’s position with the simple report, they’re coming ! Lt Green replied, OK, notify them at the CP in case I can’t get them on the telephone, and then come back here with the jeep.
By this time, the squad on and near the gun could see the lead tanks and hear others through the trees. Now let’s be damn sure they’re Jerries let’s not mess this thing up, somebody said. Others echoed this thought. Perhaps as a result of this, the enemy tank in third place fired four rounds before the 57-MM AT gun could get off a round. One shell, an AP tracer, skipped on the river to their backs. Another zipped no more than six inches over their heads. Another hit a tree behind the gun, tipping over the tree and showering fragments in the area. Then the gun crew opened up, and one of their early rounds started the leading’ enemy tank smoking.
There was some difficulty at first with ammunition for the antitank gun. There were seven rounds for the gun, and the crew said that if they couldn’t repulse the attack with seven rounds that would be all they would ever get a chance to use. It soon became apparent from the strength of the enemy armored attack that more rounds would be needed. Capt Jewett said that he could observe eight tanks coming around the bend toward his position. There were no dismounted infantry accompanying along the road, but about a dozen infantrymen were working their way along the south side of the road.
Col Anderson, observing from across the river through field glasses, counted a total of 19 tanks that came through the position and later turned right on the road to Stoumont. The little crew of defenders started an ammunition bucket brigade, with Capt Jewett tossing the shells across the road to Lt Green, who forwarded them to Pvt Salazar, who handed them up to the gun crew. The morale of the defenders was not raised any when a resounding roar from the town told them that the northern two bridges had been blown, cutting them off from Trois-Ponts.
The 75-MM shells from the third tank hit closer and closer until one hit at the base of the gun, killing all four of the crew and stunning Pvt Salazar. Realizing the futility of further resistance, the remainder of the crew piled into the half-track and proceeded by their only escape route, toward La Gleize. The GMC truck followed. Lt Green and his survivors from Charlie 51 made a wide circle at Petit-Coo and returned to Trois-Ponts at 1500 by coming in from the west on Highway N-33, while Capt Jewett and the survivors of the 526-AIB found their way back to the new group CP at Modave.
Almost simultaneous with the battle along the Stavelot road, Charlie’s 2d Platoon commanded by Lt Fred L. Nabors, was also attacked by enemy armor. Lt Nabors’ platoon was deployed on the hill along the road to Aisomont. One bazooka was firing southeast from the road below from which it had a perfect field of fire. Another bazooka had a good flanking firing position slightly to the east.
During the morning of December 18, three enemy tanks approached the Platoon’s position, and they were detected approximately 1/2 mile away. The first tank had reinforced armor plate on the front and was allowed to pass by toward a string of daisy-chain mines across the road. The bazooka then engaged the second tank, but did not knock it out. The third tank started to fire its machine guns and forced the men out of position by the intensity of the fire. Thereafter, the Platoon retired to the town side of the river and took up protection of Charlie Co’s south flank. The defense collapsed because one of the bazookas failed to fire, another was knocked out of the loader’s hands with machine gun fire, and the daisy chain was exploded by machine guns. None of the three enemy tanks, however, attempted to follow the men into Trois-Ponts.
The bridge over the railroad at the junction of the N-33 with the the Aisomont road was blown on December 18, but foot troops could still cross the structure. Lt Nabors’ Platoon blew it up again the following day. A footbridge across the Salm River was also blown during the first day of action. At 1300, the main bridge over the Salm River was destroyed. Shortly thereafter, Maj Yates arrived in Trois-Ponts, unaware of the situation and merely bound for the daily liaison meeting at the 1111-EG. Col Anderson charged him with the defense of Trois-Ponts while, under 1-A’s orders, the 1111 left Trois-Ponts for Modave. Maj Yates deployed his men in the houses along the river, providing flank and rear guards as well as good fields of fire for machine guns and bazookas.
One enemy tank, which turned left on the N-68 instead of taking the road heading to La Gleize when it reached the junction N-68 – N-33, was surprised with one .50 cal machine gun fire. The crew had dismounted, and five of them were hit by .50 manned by Sgt Evers Gossard. A sixth member of the crew remounted the tank and started to turn its gun toward the .50 cal machine gun, whereupon Sgt Gossard and his crew discreetly retired. The enemy tank hovered around for the remainder of the day, firing sporadically then withdrew into the darkness. We kept sniping at them across the river for the next few days, said Maj Yates, but every shot of ours seemed to draw about a thousand in return. So we decided to deceive them as to how great a force we had available.
The company had about six GMC trucks available and they were kept running in and out of town. After dark, they were run out of Trois-Ponts on Highway N-66 toward Werbomont without lights and then run back on the same road with their lights on, simulating the arrival of reinforcements.
Maj Yates hit on the idea of simulating the presence and arrival of armor in Trois-Ponts. This was done by putting chains on a single four-ton truck, and it was clanked back and forth repeatedly during the next few days. The closest facsimile to artillery or antitank guns that the company had were the bazookas, and as Maj Yates said, they made a pretty loud noise, so we used to shift them around from place to place after dark and it may have deceived the enemy into thinking we had a couple of light artillery pieces. In addition, he moved small groups of riflemen from place to place and had them fire in such a way as to create the impression of considerable strength in small arms.
On the afternoon of December 18, P-47s were observed to take a toll of four or five enemy tanks that were circling north and northwest along the N-33 toward Stoumont. Enemy armored columns passing along this road were strafed and dive-bombed quite effectively. But lots of us in Trois-Ponts felt pretty helpless with rifles and carbines on our shoulders, said Lt Green.
After the return of Lt Green’s group and the withdrawal of Lt Nabors’ platoon, the three platoons of the company were consolidated into two groups being placed on the river south of town, with its line swinging back to the west on the edge of the town. Most of Lt Green’s 3rd Platoon was on the north side of Trois-Ponts, also swinging its line to the west on the outskirts. Listening posts were established 500 to 600 yards out from the MLR, and pulled into a tight perimeter defense after dark. This was done because the small number of men available for listening posts were widely separated and would have given the enemy opportunity to infiltrate patrols between them had they not been pulled in about 300 yards from their daytime positions.
At 0900, December 19, Lt Green and T/Sgt Matthew R. Carlyle crossed the river, covered by Maj Yates and three others, and went up the Stavelot road toward the knocked-out 57-MM gun. They found nothing in the railroad underpasses but noticed four men in American uniforms around the gun. A little farther up the road was an M-8 armored car and a jeep with freshly painted white stars. Hey, Joe, yelled Carlyle. Instantly, the men excitedly screamed, Amerikans ! and started to fire. The motors of the M-8 and the jeep turned over, but Lt Green and Sgt Carlyle did not wait to see if they were being followed. After that said Maj Yates, we did not need any patrols; we could see everything that was happening across the river.
A brief firefight occurred December 19 when men in Lt Nabors’ platoon engaged the enemy on the hill just south of the road to Aisomont. When rifle fire was directed at this infantry group, the enemy replied with both small arms and artillery on Trois-Ponts. No casualties resulted from this brief scuffle, but it taught Charlie 51 to keep better hidden and change positions frequently in order to avoid artillery concentrations.
After the bridges had been blown, Col Anderson and Col Kirkland observed several enemy tanks approach one of the blown bridges. An elderly couple ran out in front of their house and motioned with their arms; it was difficult to tell at first whether they were waving at the tanks or trying to tell them that the bridge was blown. One of the dismounted tank men was observed shooting the woman with his pistol; the man caught her when she fell and then he was, also shot. Additional shots were fired into the motionless figures on the ground.
During the engagement, Maj Yates observed a Belgian boy of about 12 running toward the river chased by a German rifleman, who was firing after him. Four or five other German soldiers were standing across the river, laughingly watching the performance. Enraged, Maj Yates fired several shots at these spectators and dropped one of them before they dispersed, while the boy and his tormentor disappeared behind the buildings.
Enemy patrols attempted to probe across the river throughout the period, but were all repulsed by rifle, machine gun fire and grenades.
The enemy had no way to bring armor across to Charlie Co’s positions without building a bridge. They did not give signs of desiring to build one or make an assault crossing of the river. During the night of December 19, Lt Walters’ squad from the 291-ECB blew the bridge that they were defending. Just as enemy infantry coming up from the south started to cross it, Sgt Jean B. Miller touched off the explosive charge, and the squad worked its way back to join Charlie 51 in the defense of Trois-Ponts.
Another welcome addition to the small force at Trois-Ponts arrived at 2000, December 19, when a patrol from the 85-CRS, consisting of fifteen men and three M-8 assault guns arrived from Basse-Bodeux. Not realizing that they were friendly troops, Charlie Co’s rear guard opened on them, but identification was quickly made. The next day the three guns were set up on the outskirts of the town on high ground where the patrol could observe and still keep its guns in defiladed positions. Although the assault guns remained in position outside of Trois-Ponts, the patrol never actually engaged the enemy.
On December 20, elements of the 505-PIR (82-AB) learned of the presence of the force defending Trois-Ponts, and the regimental commander, Col William E. Ekman, ordered his 2/505 and 3/505 to send three bazooka teams each to the beleaguered town. The rest of the regiment then started to move into Trois-Ponts and the 505’s CP was established at 1300.
From 1930 to 2100, enemy artillery intensified in the entire waterfront area. Pvt Carl Strawser was killed when a shell hit his .50 caliber machine gun position. Sgt Joseph Gyure was seriously wounded at the same time while S/Sgt William W. Rankin stationed at one .50 cal Observation Post was killed by a 20-MM shell. An Engineer Platoon from the 307-AEB (82-AB), assisted by Charlie 51, then repaired the two blown bridges to allow a 505-PIR’s company to cross. Later in the night a second company crossed on the repaired bridge, while the defenders of Trois-Ponts held their positions in the face of sporadic enemy artillery fire.
On December 21, at 1100, reports began coming in that the two companies of the 505-PIR were having difficulty across the river. The enemy launched a strong counterattack and started to surround elements that were defending on the hill overlooking Trois-Ponts from the east. At 1500, Maj Yates received a message from the 1111-EG ordering Charlie 51 to withdraw. He brushed it aside and characteristically replied that it was impossible to disengage from the enemy, inasmuch as the company was covering the withdrawal of the 82-AB.
Capt Scheuber, Charlie Co’s commander, ordered at 1500 that the bridge over the Salm River and the bridge over the Amblève River be prepared again for imminent demolition. Of these, the timber trestle bridge over the Salm was the most difficult to blow. The task was assigned to Lt Joseph B. Milgram, and six men : Sgt Elvin Goldsmith, Cpl Odis C. Faust, T/5 Paul H. Keck, Pvt Jessie R. Mock, Pvt Maurice S. Walker, and Pvt Jose E. Marquez. Knowing that the bridge posts had previously been blown, Lt Milgram decided to use necklace charges with primacord and delay fuze for the stringers. He ordered his men to make nine necklace charges. When these were ready, the group proceeded toward the bridge on both sides of the road and were subjected to machine gun and small arms fire along the route.
Lt Milgram’s plan had been to prepare the stringers on the friendly side of the bridge first by working from the top side of the bridge and placing the charges. However, the removal of the decking would have entailed too much work under fire, so the group crossed the bridge to the enemy side and climbed underneath in order to get the maximum amount of cover from enemy fire.
Their movement was observed, and the fire increased in a way that Lt Milgram ordered all but T/5 Keck to crawl along the enemy side of the river and wade across at a point lower downstream that would give a little more cover. The next job was to secure the primacord on the friendly side of the river at a point where it might be reached to blow up the bridge. After this was completed, the entire group waded the river and reported to Capt Scheuber that the bridge was ready for demolition. The bridge was blown at 1650. The Amblève river bridge presented no unusual problems, but the Salm river bridge was more difficult. Lt Milgram and T/5 Keck proceeded to within 60 yards from where the primacord lay. From there Lt Milgram crawled the remainder of the distance, checked the cord, pulled the fuze lighter, and then ran about 50 yards in the fading light but in full view of the enemy until he reached the cover of a building. Having accomplished his aim and mission of covering the withdrawal of the 505-PIR elements from the east of Trois-Ponts, Maj Yates ordered Charlie Co to begin withdrawing from the town at 1930, December 21. The withdrawal was completed by 2000, and the company rejoined the battalion at 2330 in Marche-en-Famenne.
For all purposes :
European Center of Military History
Gunter ‘Doc Snafu’ Gillot
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Email : gunter [at] eucmh.be
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(NB : Published for Good – June 2019)