51st Engineer Combat Battalion – Hotton – Belgium – December 1944


The most bitter and tactically important battle fought by the remainder of the 51-ECB was in defense of the vital Ourthe River bridge at Hotton on December 21 1944. In the days preceding the battle of Hotton, the two companies in the Marche-en-Famenne area feverishly prepared bridges, roadblocks, minefields, demolitions, and abatis along the Ourthe River line from Durbuy to La Roche en Ardennes. They had numerous minor brushes with enemy forces during the period. With the departure of the 158-ECB for the Bastogne area, Col Harvey R. Fraser was formally charged with the defense of the area at 1930, December 19. He had already prepared and started to execute plans. At 0500 that morning Able and Baker Cos were combat loaded and poised for action in the Hargimont – Hogne sector. Confusion reigned in the towns and along the roads. The local gendarmerie unsuccessfully attempted to check evacuations and then tried to keep the roads clear. Fallschirmjäger and rumors of Fallschirmjäger kept everyone in turmoil. Col Fraser finally instituted a rigid civilian check system that resulted in the capture and execution of many enemy spies and agents in civilian clothes. The largest such group was apprehended by Baker Co in Hotton; it consisted of 21 men in civilian clothes whose baggage contained considerable supplies of American cigarettes, rations, and uniforms. The next largest bag was made the following day when eight civilians were picked up by Headquarters and Service Company at Humain after they refused to surrender their arms.

The next problem that faced Col Fraser was the stream of stragglers pouring through the area. Some came with units evacuating in an orderly manner, albeit a bit hurriedly, to the rear. Others rushed through in batches, with clothes ripped, feet soaked, and morale shattered thoroughly beaten men from overrun units. All of them asked the same questions : Where is my unit ? How far have the Germans broken through ? The next most favorite question concerned traffic and road information – almost invariably regarding the area toward the west. To create a semblance of order out of this Grand Central Station bedlam, Col Fraser directed that a clearing point be established where the name and unit of all these birds of passage be recorded. This information proved invaluable as an aid to reuniting the lost, strayed, and straggling. During the early morning hours of December 19, the barrier lines were completed. Baker Co covered the area on the west bank of the Ourthe River from Hotton to Durbuy inclusive. The 1st Platoon defended the immediate area of Hotton and Melreux; the 2d Platoon the area from Melreux to Durbuy; and the 3d Platoon the vicinity of Durbuy and the left flank. At 0400, December 19, the 1st Platoon of Able Co (Lt Floyd D. Wright), was ordered to Hampteau to prepare a roadblock and a footbridge for demolition. Ten minutes later, the 2d Platoon (Lt Paul Curtis), departed for Marcourt on a similar mission regarding a class 10 bridge. At the same time, the 3d Platoon (Lt Raymond A. Trafford), was ordered to remain as battalion reserve with the battalion CP in the vicinity of Harsin. Later, in the morning, the 2d Platoon reinforced its right flank at (432791) with a strong roadblock consisting of one squad, two bazooka teams, and one .50 cal machine gun. More specifically, the following defenses were completed on December 19 :

1. Two antitank minefields at (368880), 200 yards down-stream from the railroad bridge mentioned below.
2. A railroad bridge at (360890) prepared for demolition, and a ford beneath mined.
3. Highway bridge on N-29 at (369879) prepared for demolition and defended by two 40-MM guns from the 440-AAA-AW Battalion, two .50 cal machine guns, and two bazookas.
4. Footbridge at Hampteau at (384867) prepared for demolition and defended by two .50 cal and one .30 cal machine guns.
5. Refugee and straggler point established at (390865) in cooperation with local defense officials.
6. Two footbridges at (3998591) guarded and prepared for demolition.
7. Class 10 bridge at Marcourt (421820) prepared for destruction and defended by a half-track, bazooka, two .50 cal and one .30 cal machine guns.
8. Road junction at (433790) defended by one squad, one bazooka, and one .50 cal machine gun.
9. Abatis at (390686), 30 mines to be installed after trees blown.
10. Intersection at (383698) defended by platoon of 9th Canadian Forestry Company, 10 men from 158th Engineer Combat Battalion, 13 men from 51st Engineer Combat
Battalion, 13 men from 440-AAA-AW Battalion, one 40-MM gun, one bazooka, and one .50 cal machine gun.

Enemy air was active over the barrier line on December 19, strafing Highway N-35 north of Marche at Baillonville (295907) and the N-4 road junction near Pisson
Pessoux (180903). Defenses were strengthened on December 20, and by 2400 on that date the following barrier line had been established :

1. Bridge prepared for demolition at (363961).
2. Weak bridge at (341950) defended by a bazooka and a .30 cal machine gun.
3. 1 Piers of destroyed bridge prepared for demolition at (362961); crossing protected by a .50 cal machine gun and bazooka.
4. Masonry bridge at (373717) prepared for demolition.
5. String of mines at (337761).
6. Intersection at (306773) defended by tank retriever with 81-MM mortar, four railroad cars ready to push across road, and one .50 cal machine gun.
7. Intersection at (310815) defended by 40-MM gun, and all men and equipment falling back from road from south and east.
8. Roadblock at Rochefort (202762), with bridge prepared for demolition and defended by 40-MM. gun, bazooka, one .50 cal and one 30. cal machine guns.
9. 1 Highway N-35 : Marche – Aye – Humain – Rochefort blocked to enemy advance from southeast with debris at intersection (300907); at (295936) with abatis and mines; and at (279861) culvert prepared for demolition.
10. Roadblock on N-4 at (430662). This block was reported complete at 2230, with one squad of Able 51 in position defending it.
11. Contact was made with one squad of the 299-ECB maintaining a roadblock on Highway N-28 at (392721). This roadblock and its defenses were then tied in and coordinated with the plan of defense for the intersection of Highways N-4 and N-28.

Much of the credit for coordinating the scattered defenses between Hotton and Marche is due to Capt Karl G. Pedersen, the modest and diffident-looking CO of Able Co. When his roadblocks were established about 0400, December 20, Capt Pedersen cleared with the CO of the 158-ECB, which was about two miles south of the junction N-4 and N-28. The CO of the 158-ECB informed Capt Pedersen that there were 15 tanks and an unknown number of infantry approximately five miles south of his position. At about 1300, December 20, the 158-ECB displaced to the west on another mission, leaving only scattered elements between Capt Pedersen’s roadblocks and the enemy’s concentration of troops. Although 50 Canadian foresters reinforced Capt Pedersen’s unit at 0400, December 21, these men were also called away on another mission at 1510 the same day. He was reinforced by an unknown major with a bazooka team, an unknown chief warrant officer with a .50 cal machine gun, and one 40-MM AA gun from the 440-AAA-AW Battalion. During the days when these roadblocks were held, they were subjected to numerous minor probings by jeeps and armored vehicles. As with the remainder of the 51-ECB, the successful defense of these roadblocks hinged on deception. According to Colonel Fraser, it was due to deceiving the enemy as to the strength of my small, practically isolated force in spite of superiority to my front and known enemy infiltration to my rear. The significance of the defense in the larger picture was that it enabled the 84-ID to reorganize defensive positions around the city of Marche and to keep that city out of enemy hands.

In Hotton, the battle occurred on December 21. Just before the enemy struck at the bridge, he attempted to break through in the area of Able Co positions at Hampteau where the defense had been organized by Lt Floyd D. Wright, leader of 1st Platoon Able Co. About 30 yards northeast of the footbridge across the river, on the road to Soy, a minefield was hastily laid and the position across the river was out posted with Pvt Stanley A. Driggs. A 3 men bazooka team with a detonator were emplaced some 50 yards from the footbridge, on the southwest side of the river. Along the road Hotton – La Roche, two bazooka teams were placed 700 yards apart, protected by daisy chains. Two .50 cal machine guns, half a squad of riflemen, and two tanks were placed west of the road. Three jeep patrols from the 820-TDB reported that they had received small arms fire in the vicinity of La Roche, that they had relayed this information to the 2d Platoon Able Co at Marcourt, and that the 2d Platoon had subsequently blown their Marcourt bridge. After attempting unsuccessfully to persuade the 820-TDB to reinforce the 2d Platoon’s roadblock at Marcourt, Lt Wright had sent his platoon sergeant, S/Sgt Donald A. Bonifay, with an M-8 armored car and one squad under Sgt Benjamin Ham to Marcourt. Task Force Bonifay arrived in the 2d Platoon’s area at 0130, December 21, where Lt Paul Curtis, 2d Platoon leader, put them out to assist in the defense of the town. Lt Curtis reported that there had been a brief, brisk firefight between two half-tracks approaching the bridge and his own .50 cal machine guns.

No casualties resulted from this firefight, but through mistaken identity one guard was killed and one wounded when they halted an American patrol at Marcourt. Leaving Sgt Ham’s squad in Marcourt, Sgt Bonifay returned to Hampteau just in time to get in on the excitement there. At 0510, Pvt Driggs ran back across the bridge and reported that an armored car was approaching along the secondary road from the northeast. The armored car started shelling the high ground behind and in the village and then started firing its small arms at the bazooka teams. A battalion staff officer, Capt Richard F. Huxmann, directed Sgt Bonifay to blow the bridge; however, this was impossible because the detonator had been removed. The shelling set Hampteau on fire, and by this time the battle of Hotton was commencing. Col Fraser ordered Lt Wright to send his men to reinforce Baker Co at Hotton. Taking a last look at the burning and completely deserted town of Hampteau at 0900, Sgt Bonifay ran back to Hotton to join the battle that was in progress there. The sequel to the Hampteau action is that Lt Paul Curtis, accompanied by Sgt Joseph H. Ochson and Sgt Harry S. Wimberley, returned in the afternoon in an attempt to rewire and blow the bridge. Lt Curtis was killed in the unsuccessful attempt.

On December 21, bitter fighting took place at the point (369879) where a vital class 70 bridge spanned the Ourthe River at Hotton. Hotton is at the junction of the N-4 (which runs southeast to La Roche-en Ardennes and the N-28 which runs northeast toward Barvaux and southwest toward Marche-en-Famenne. The bridge is perpendicular to the N-4 and connects the N-28 on both sides of the river. On the east side of the river the road to Soy branches off to the northeast. Along the southern borders of this road are wooded areas and rising ground. Houses line both sides of the river and are closely spaced. The main enemy thrusts at Hotton came from the northeast; from the direction of Soy and Erezée. The spark plug of the defense of Hotton was Capt Preston C. Hodges, a veteran graduate of Fort Belvoir’s sixth Officer Candidate School class, who had commanded or been associated with Baker 51-ECB for two years. His leadership held together the miscellaneous elements present at the bridge and inspired them to stand and ward off the enemy attacks. Capt Hodges remained exposed to small arms and artillery fire during the battle in order to coordinate the firing of the various weapons and elements under his command. Although slightly wounded by a shell fragment during the battle, Capt Hodges remained at his station until the battle of Hotton had been won and the town was firmly in Allied hands. The personnel and equipment available to Capt Hodges for the defense of Hotton initially consisted of the following :

– one squad, 1st Platoon, Baker, 51-ECB, under 1/Lt Bruce W. Jamison;
– half a squad, Able, 51-ECB;
– a squad Armored Engineers, 3-AD, with 1 37-MM AT Gun;
– two 40–MM Bofors AA Guns, 440-AAA-AW Bn;
– a smattering of bazookas and .50 Cal machine guns.

Most of this equipment and personnel was on the southwest side of the river bridge. On the northeast side of the bridge were personnel of the 3-AD trains, supported by what appeared to be a platoon of light tanks and a platoon of medium tanks. A medical unit also was present on the northeast side of the river, lining the Barvaux road. This unit was also part of the 3-AD.

The bridge over the Ourthe in Hotton was a two-way timber bridge. Defense from the northeast side of the bridge and river was difficult due to limited observation and the obstruction to movement caused by the buildings of the town. Positions on the west bank could be observed by the enemy but were choicer because they allowed freedom of movement, fields of fire, and better sight of what the enemy was doing. On the night of December 19-20, Lt Jamison prepared this bridge and the Melreux railroad bridge for demolition. He used 800 pounds of TNT and 300 pounds of satchel charges on the Hotton bridge, preparing one abutment and three piers. The same night that the bridge had been prepared for demolition, an enemy patrol of 20 men dressed in American uniforms advanced on the bridge, and they came down and started to walk across the bridge. It was never learned what their mission was, but it was supposed that they were to blow the bridge. One of the most valuable assets that the small group of the 51-ECB had available at Hotton was a vehicle from the 7-AD, with a five-man crew. There is disagreement in both oral and written testimony as to whether this was a tank destroyer or an M-4 medium tank with a 76-mm. gun. All observers and participants agree it had a 76-mm. gun. They also agree that its crew did a heroic job in the defense of the Hotton bridge, away from their unit. It is unfortunate that none of the Engineers present at the battle of Hotton have clues to the identity of the tank crew.

Before daylight on the morning of December 21, Lt Wright and Lt Jamison located this armored vehicle in an ordnance detachment on the outskirts of Hotton. These officers prevailed on the sergeant (tank commander) to get his tank into action to support the detachment defending the Hotton bridge. The tank was employed near the end of the bridge on the west side of the river, close to a protecting house that shielded its hull but allowed it a good field of fire. Early on the morning, Capt Hodges borrowed a 37-MM AT Gun from the 23-AEB (3-AD) across the river. The crew, according to all observers, was very hesitant about manning the gun. Pvt Lee J. Ishmael, Col Fraser’s driver, volunteered to fire the gun and he manned it throughout the battle. At about 0700, the enemy commenced shelling Hotton. Shortly thereafter, a firefight developed between elements of the 3-AD Division and enemy armor and infantry coming out of the woods on the east side of the river. Capt John W. Barnes, (S-3 51-ECB), who had just returned from inspecting roadblocks on the N-4, received the information from Lt Wright that Hampteau had fallen and the group there had been forced back to Hotton which was being threatened. Capt Barnes asked for volunteers from Headquarters and Service Cos to go to Hotton and check the enemy vehicles attempting to break through there. The others in Capt Barnes’ group were WO Julius J. Horecka, M/Sgt Edward Colley, T/Sgt Kenneth Kelly, Sgt Arnold Parker, Pvt Lee J. Ishmael, Pvt Peter Serianni, and Pvt Willis Rackus. Horecka took these men ahead in a GMC truck. When they arrived in Hotton there was a small-scale battle in progress between the 3-AD and enemy armor. The 3-AD tanks started engaging enemy infantry, which came out of the woods east of Hotton and up the road on the east side of the Ourthe River.

A medium and a light tank from the 3-AD started down to the road to Soy toward the enemy infantry, but they were both stopped by a Mark VI Tiger approaching the bridge from Soy. The Mark VI quickly knocked out the light tank; the M-4 fired one shot at the enemy Tiger and then backed into a building. The enemy tank crippled the 3-AD’s medium tank, and the crew evacuated. The Tiger tank continued toward the bridge unmolested. At this point Pvt Ishmael manned the 37-MM AT Gun, which the crew from the 23-AEB had hesitated to put into action. Ishmael was a veteran member of the battalion. During late 1942 and 1943, when the battalion had been at Plattsburg Barracks, Pvt Ishmael had instructed on the 37-MM. He shot approximately 16 rounds in three minutes of rapid firing, during which observers noted a few tracers bounce off the Tiger. Three shots hit the tank’s bogie wheels, and the most effective shot wedged between the turret and the hull. This shell apparently prevented the tank’s gun from turning around. Sgt Kelly, who assisted Ishmael in swinging the 37-MM around, also fired at the tank with a bazooka, which was loaded by Lt Munny Y. M. Lee. Results were not observed because of the smoke and dust, but it is believed that the rounds from the 37-MM knocked the tank out. The crew dispersed, but two were killed and one captured from the group in the tank. Sgt Kelly also observed a GMC truck, hit by this same Tiger, go up in flames.

About the time that Pvt Ishmael was dealing with this tank, Col Fraser was leaving the battalion CP in the Marche area. He had been in close touch with the
situations at Hampteau and Hotton until the wire to Hotton went out. Col Fraser had appealed to the 84-ID for help to be sent to Hotton. When the 84-ID located in Marche scoffed at reports of activity at Hotton, Col Fraser put the Hotton telephone close to the Marche line to allow the 84-ID to hear the sounds of shelling at Hotton. Finally, at about 0830, he went to Hotton himself in order to coordinate the activities of his battalion with what the 3-AD was doing on the other side of the river. Fraser crossed the bridge and was isolated in the enemy territory for much of the morning after the enemy armored spearhead started to advance toward the bridge. He made then his way back safely, saw that Capt Hodges had the situation well under control, and then proceeded to Marche to recheck with the 84-ID on reinforcements for Hotton.

Meanwhile, Capt Barnes, was off on another mission. After he had sent a squad of volunteers from Headquarters and Service Cos to Hotton, he went down the N-4 to the outskirts of Marche where a Capt Siegal of the 523-TDB was manning an M-10 at one of the 51-ECB’s roadblocks. Capt Barnes brought the M-10 back through Marche toward Hotton to reinforce the position there. He was stopped by the commanding general of the 84-ID, to whom Barnes explained the situation. According to Barnes, Gen Alexander R. Bolling told me he wanted facts and not rumors or hearsay and he would not allow me to go on with the M-10 until he knew more of the situation. Bolling then dispatched one of his reconnaissance officers in his personal armored car to confirm the seriousness of the situation. When the 84-ID’s troops did arrive, however, it was already 1500 and the battle was over. Capt Hodges states that the three most decisive actions of the battle of Hotton were the manning of the 37-MM AT Gun by Pvt Ishmael, the effective firing done by the stray tank of the 7-AD, and the bravery of an unknown, unnamed soldier who volunteered to cross the bridge and flush out several tanks with his bazooka. Capt Hodges and the men from the 51-ECB did not recognize this unknown hero, nor did they have an opportunity in the heat of the battle to ask his name, but they were all loud in their praise of his action. Pvt Ishmael had knocked out his tank, mortar started coming in fairly heavily around the bridge site. Another enemy tank started to edge along the road from Erezee toward the bridge while another one came directly toward the bridge from the northeast. The 7-AD’s tank we had fired 3 shots at the German Panzer, 2 shells missed the armor but the third shell scored a hit, killing the crew members and destroying the German tank.

On later inspection it was found that the tank was loaded with US GI equipment. The tank had reached within 75 yards of the bridge when it was destroyed. The other enemy tank approaching from Erezée slid in behind some buildings on the northeast side of the river. It was close enough to the bridge to menace the personnel guarding the bridge. Capt Hodges relates that at this time an unknown soldier approached him at the bridge and said : Capt, I’ll flush out that tank over there. Well, boy, go ahead, Capt Hodges replied. The unnamed soldier took off alone across the bridge with a bazooka and two rounds of ammunition in his pocket. He was seen ducking into a building on the far right corner of the bridge. Shortly thereafter the personnel at the bridge heard a smash like a bazooka round and the enemy tank pulled up between two buildings so that part of its hull was showing out of an aperture of only two feet between the buildings. The 7-AD tank fired accurately through this two-foot opening, destroying the tank. Expending all but two rounds of its ammunition, this tank remained in position, unscathed, near the bridge. Hodges estimates that it destroyed or damaged at least four enemy tanks and scared away several others.

During the battle, the wiring on the demolition charges on the bridge was shot out by enemy shell fire. Lts Jamison and Wright, without waiting for orders, entered the shoulder-deep water and, under enemy small arms fire, repaired the wiring. Throughout the morning and during the early afternoon, the tank-infantry battle raged. About 1400, the enemy armor showed signs that it had had about enough and started to withdraw, but the sniper small arms fire was still hot on the northeast side of the bridge. The situation was finally relieved at 1500 with the arrival of a task force of the 3-AD under command of Brig Gen Maurice Rose. The relief force of the 84-ID then appeared on the scene from Marche. Most of the elements of the 51-ECB withdrew toward Marche, having accomplished their mission of holding the bridge. Half of a squad was left at the bridge in Hotton to blow it if necessary during the ensuing days. Capt Hodges reports that there were frequent arguments between the commands of the 3-AD and the 84-ID as to whether the bridge should be blown. In lieu of an agreement between the generals involved, the squad at the bridge took no action and refused to blow the bridge.

Despite the bitter fighting at Hotton on December 21, only two members of the 51-ECB force were casualties, both from shell fragments. Capt Hodges received a shell fragment wound in his leg, while Pvt Ishmael was wounded in the hand. The significance of the defense of the bridge in Hotton, which elements of the 51st carried on during the seven hour battle, is that the actions preserved a key link in Allied supply lines to forward units, behind which the 84-ID was organizing and arriving at Marche. During the next ten days, prior to being relieved by British troops on January 3, the companies of the 51-ECB continued their mission of maintaining roadblocks and bridge protection along an extended front. On December 22, a barrier line was installed from Hamoir (423052) to Hotton (369879), along the Ourthe River, thence through Marche and southwest to Rochefort. The line consisted of prepared demolitions in culverts; mines in roads at critical intersections, combined with bazooka teams; and 40-MM AA Guns.

At 1500, December 22, Charlie 51, now returned from its defense of Trois-Ponts, sent a reconnaissance party along the N-4 to set up roadblocks. The party consisted of Maj Yates, Capt Scheuber, Lt Green and Lt Nabors. The men approached southeast of Marche and were fired on by the lead vehicles of an enemy armored column at (310805). They stopped their jeep, advanced on foot and were soon cut off by five enemy tanks, two half-tracks filled with enemy personnel, and additional armor that was not actually seen. All officers but Maj Yates escaped by taking off through fields and avoiding roads. Maj Yates, who had only a few days before returned from the hospital where he had been confined with a foot injury, could not run and hence hid in a bush by the road. After two hours he was discovered, disarmed, and taken prisoner. When the man guarding him relaxed his vigil for a moment, he dived into a stream beside which they stood, worked his way downstream under about three feet of water, and escaped under a hail of small arms fire to return to friendly lines shortly before 2200 the same night.

Also on December 22, Abel Co relieved Baker Co of the responsibility of roadblocks in the vicinity of Aye, Humain, and Rochefort; Baker extended its defenses
from Durbuy to Hamoir, taking over from the 300-ECB. The following guards and defensive positions were established and maintained by Bake 51 on December 22 as follow :

(341950) – guard on footbridge;
(390868) – reconnaissance made of Hampteau bridge (quiet);
(424001) – bridge mined, up and downstream;
(415985) – footbridge;
(377972) – footbridge;
(360962) – bridge mined;
(341950) – footbridge mined;
(322920) – bridge out;
(362892) – railroad bridge out;
(369879) – bridge mined;
(295932) – abatis;
(407025) – culvert mined;
(419040) – crater for road and railroad.

At noon, December 22, a party led by Lt Wright proceeded as far as Jemelle, where it was reported to them that enemy tanks and infantry were in Manogne. Lt Wright was then ordered to prepare abatis in the vicinity of (242741) and to mine the road at (243798). 3d Platoon Able Co was ordered to prepare roadblocks on the N-35 between Jemelle and Marche. Lt Wright’s 1st Platoon (Able) then commenced a merry chase that eventually carried them back as far as Givet. After establishing a roadblock at (242745) in the vicinity of Forrieres, he successfully moved his platoon to Rochefort, to Aye, and Marche. Wright returned to Rochefort at 1900 to blow a bridge there, accomplished his mission, and returned to Marche. The following morning, he received orders to repair the Rochefort bridge. While in the town, the platoon was attacked and driven back to Givet along with the 84-ID. 2d and 3d Platoons, Able Co were responsible for the following defenses prepared and / or maintained on December 22 :

(226883) – abatis;
(235889) – bridge mined;
(221894) – roadblocks coordinated with elements of 309-ECB;
(229900) – roadblocks coordinated with elements of 309-ECB;
(236902) – road and bridge mined;
(264411) – bridge mined; coordinated with elements of 309-ECB;
(278915) – bridge and road mined.

Charlie Co strengthened the defenses of the 51-ECB on December 23 by manning the following positions :

(298878) – abatis with string of mines;
(267871) – bridge mined;
(250860) – bridge mined;
(219866) – culvert mined and minefield of road;
(236875) – road mined;
(226883) – abatis.

The ensuing days were anticlimactic. Charlie Co was relieved of all duties on the barrier line on the Ourthe River from Hotton to Hamoir, with the exception of the demolition crew in Hotton. The latter was strengthened on December 27 from half a squad to one officer and 10 men, and the bridge was rewired so it could be demolished from either side. At 0140, December 26, the railroad bridge at Melreux was blown. During the remainder of the period before being relieved, Baker Co maintained a roadblock on the Highway N-35 south of the junction with the N-29 and also maintained a roadblock on the N-35 north of the junction with the N-29. Although the enemy had been held off at Hotton, and its advance toward Marche on the N-4 had been delayed, there was still some enemy activity after December 22, generally to the east, the southeast, the south and the southwest of Marche. The enemy appeared to be attempting to encircle Marche and to move to the Meuse River to the west. During the period from December 24 until relieved by elements of the XXX British Corps on January 3, the battalion was attached to the 84-ID in direct support. The battalion continued to hold a series of roadblocks and bridges against numerous enemy probings, but experienced no serious threats. The total battalion casualties for the operation were five killed, six wounded, and two missing.

Following the Battle of the Bulge, as the fighting in the Ardennes became known, the 51-ECB supported a succession of front line divisions. In January 1945, the battalion operated in close cooperation with the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion (82-A/B). Later the 51 worked with the 275th Engineer Combat Battalion (75-ID). The weather rather than the Germans became the battalion’s main foe, as the troops struggled to keep open the main supply routes in spite of the heavy snowfall and wind-swept drifts. In the first two months of 1945, as the Allied armies pushed east into Germany, the battalion built many bridges. Most were double-single Baileys. They built at least seven of these, ranging in length from 50 to 130 feet. They also built a 130-foot double-double Bailey near Trois-Ponts as well as some treadways and foot bridges. Some of these they finished under fire. During the first part of February the battalion entered Germany in support of the 82-A/B in its drive toward the east through the Ardennes. In this sector there were no roads, only woods. The 51-ECB blazed forest trails, cut firebreaks, and opened third-class roads to take the pounding of division traffic. The battalion performed other time-honored sapper roles as well, clearing obstructions, mines, and booby traps when needed. On February 17, recognition for the 51-ECB’s part in stopping the Germans in the Ardennes caught up with the battalion in the form of a Presidential Unit Citation. In March, the battalion was once again at the center of a critical operation. It was carrying out a routine road maintenance mission, clearing mines, filling craters, and moving debris, when it was relieved from direct support of the 9-ID. The 51 moved to Bad Neuenahr in preparation for constructing a heavy ponton bridge across the Rhine River at Kripp in support of the seizure of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen. Late at night on March 11, the 51st completed a 969-foot 25-ton ponton bridge. The bridge was constructed under harassing enemy artillery fire and intermittent strafing by enemy planes. Charlie Co had one man killed and one wounded, while two men were killed and one wounded in the supporting 181st Heavy Ponton Battalion. The bridge was the second put across the Rhine by the Allies.

Then it was back to road maintenance and bridge construction, including one extraordinary burst of energy. On March 24, Charlie Co constructed a 50-foot double-single Bailey bridge in the morning and built a 110-foot triple-single Bailey in the afternoon. After nightfall, the unit built yet a third bridge, a 50-foot double-single Bailey. After that remarkable day’s work for Charlie Co, it was back to fixing roads, removing obstacles, constructing culverts, and posting signs for the advance across Germany. In April, the last month of the war, the 51st still concentrated on road maintenance. For a time, the battalion supported the 9-ID. Then it was reassigned to the 86-ID. The transfer involved more than paperwork : the 86th was hundreds of miles away. To get to its new assignment, the 51st made a forced motor march of 255 miles in one day to its new command post in Petersaurach. Only one vehicle broke down during the march, a tribute to the care which the battalion took of its equipment.

Shortly after joining the 86th Infantry Division, the battalion became involved in another major bridging operation, this time over the Danube River. Able Co began the treadway bridge at Ingolstadt late at night on April 26. The men worked past midnight into the early hours of the morning. All the while, heavy fire came from a barracks building about 200 feet in front of the landing site. A sniper with a burp gun almost hit Col Fraser while he supervised construction from the incomplete span. With the bridge only 40 feet from the far shore, the 300 desperate SS men who had barricaded themselves in the building were finally driven out by a landing party from the 86-ID. At eight o’clock in the morning the 324-foot treadway was across, just in time for the Germans, now prisoners of war, to come across. The battalion was lucky at Ingolstadt. There were no men killed or wounded. Every commander realized that the war was coming to an end and hoped to avoid casualties. But, although the end was in sight, the war still was not over. On May 7, just one day before V-E Day, Sgt Alex George was killed and T/5 William Schender injured when a premature blast occurred while destroying un-serviceable explosives.

The battalion stayed in Germany through the summer. It joined in the first stages of the long and arduous reconstruction task that faced victors and vanquished
alike in Europe, removing rubble from the Main River so that commercial barge traffic could start anew. In a way the 51st came full circle that summer. In July the battalion once again operated sawmills, this time for peaceful uses rather than for troops on the march. In early October, active service in Europe ended. On October 16, the battalion boarded the SS Eufaula Victory at Marseille, France, and sailed the next morning. Ten days later, at Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, the 51st Engineer Combat Battalion was inactivated. In existence for just over two years and seven months, the 51st Engineer Combat Battalion had served overseas 18 days short of two years and had made a major contribution to Allied success on the western front.

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