Seventy years ago, in the early morning hours of 16 December 1944, Allied troops in Europe were awakened by artillery barrages and the sounds of German armored infantry beginning a surprise attack that penetrated Allied lines, creating a “bulge” in the front over the next few days and weeks.
My father, now 92 but then only 22 years old, was serving with the 654th Engineering Battalion – a unit of map-makers, printers and lithographers, trained largely in the urban Midwestern technical high schools of Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Cleveland, etc. (in my father’s case, Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis). Like most of the common soldiers and support troops of WW2, they were largely drawn from the high school classes of 1940,’41, ’42, and ’43.
In the very first chapter of Citizen Soldiers (arguably his best book), Stephen Ambrose identifies the production and distribution of maps such as those produced by the 654th Engineering Battalion as “a critical and never-ending process – eventually in the Normandy campaign, the U.S. First Army passed out 125 million maps.” About 25 years ago, I found in the bookshop of London’s Imperial War Museum several copies of a history of WW2 told by the use of the maps used by any Allied unit wondering what’s the best way to get where they were supposed to go next – several of the maps in that book bore the imprint of the 654th Engineering Battalion.
In December 1944, Dad’s unit had established a map depot containing 1.5 million maps in the Bock Tannery on the banks of the River Ambleve at Stavelot, Belgium. Here’s the account from the official unit history of the 654th Engineering Battalion, produced shortly after V-E day in 1945 by those who served in the unit:
“Although we had a paratroop alert, and heard some unexplained artillery racket from the direction of Malmedy [about 6 miles away, and about which more later—JSW] nobody expected any real excitement. The first indication that things were getting pretty warm was on the evening of Sunday, December 17, when a sentry from another engineer outfit rushed into our orderly room with word that he had seen German tanks and had been fired on at a road block less than a mile away, across the river. He was sent back to his unit to report, and a little later ha and another man from his unit recrossed the bridge in a jeep to see if the road back was still being held. They had just got across the bridge when they drew a heavy burst of enemy fire, wounding both of them and wrecking the jeep…In the meantime we had taken up defensive positions along the riverbank with our machine gun set up to guard the bridge…
“Since our orders were to hold out until relief arrived, we knew we were in for a hot night. Heavy firing broke out along the river. Mortar shells and machine gun slugs were coming our way, and we answered them with our carbines. From midnight until dawn of December 18th we alone held Stavelot against the German First SS Panzer Division. If the German commander had known that the east bank of the Ambleve, which he wanted very badly to cross, was being held by a mere handful of surveyors, draftsmen, and clerks, he could have sent his tanks roaring across the bridge and up the back road to Spa and Liege. As it worked out, we kept Jerry ducking all night long. Our carbines silenced at least one German machine gun which was operating only fifty yards from the main warehouse of the map depot, and by morning, when the armored infantry arrived to take over the defense of Stavelot, our line was intact, and the line of the main German thrust had swung to the south, trying to find a softer spot in American lines… When we pulled out in the morning [under orders from above to fall back toward Spa and Trois-Ponts, deemed by the Allied brass to be more defensible] we hadn’t lost a man, we had held our position, and we had caused the enemy, with his determination, casualties and plenty of trouble.”
According to some of the “standard” histories of WW2 – usually composed decades later by using many such unit histories, interviews, letters, and many other source documents – the engineers from the “other unit” were elements of the 291st Engineering Battalion, which was in part responsible for the removal and documentation of at least 76 American corpses slaughtered – machine-gunned to death while standing in an open field, having surrendered and been disarmed by the Germans. This was the infamous Malmedy Massacre at the Baugnez Crossroads, only about 6-7 miles from Stavelot where the 654th was stationed (the definitive account is Crossroads of Death by James J. Weingarten, University of California Press, 1979). They were not the only disarmed POW’s massacred by German forces during the Battle of the Bulge.
Had the 654th realized that the Germans they were facing across the Ambleve was the notorious Kampfgruppe Peiper, they might have had a more sobering perspective on their predicament. The commander, Joachim Peiper, was the “point of the spear” of the German attack sweeping west to seize river bridges all the way to Huy. Indeed, even the armored infantry which replaced the 654th at Stavelot was unable to hold the bridge the following day; an attempt to blow the bridge before the Germans could cross was evidently stymied in part by the infiltration of at least two of Colonel Otto Skorzeny’s English-speaking German troops operating behind the Allied lines in captured American uniforms and Jeeps. Peiper’s uncharacteristic hesitation that night at Stavelot was probably as much an attempt to regroup his men, who had been fighting steadily for 36 hours, as well as allow the remainder of his armor, stretched out for miles behind him, to catch up to Peiper’s lead elements. Had Peiper known that Stavelot was the site not only of the map depot, but also one of the largest Allied fuel depots in all of Europe, storing millions of gallons of gasoline, he would no doubt have stormed across the bridge without hesitation.
Over the decades, often relying on the first-person accounts in the 654th unit history, I have tracked the course of where my father was stationed all across Europe, beginning at Tetbury, England (near the current summer palace of Prince Charles in the Cotswolds – where the 654th assembled the huge 6-inches-to-the-mile 3-D relief map of the Normandy beaches used by Eisenhower and the top brass for the main briefing in London, including Churchill himself, of the D-Day invasion – described in the opening chapter of Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, and formerly discussed on this blog). The trail then led across Omaha Beach, through Paris, across France and Belgium, and ultimately across the ruined Siegfried Line and the wreckage of Aachen into Germany (first stop at Bad Godesburg, north of Koblenz and about 2 miles from the famous Bridge at Remagen).
One of the most memorable evenings in our “family history” was taking my children to Bad Godesburg nearly 50 years after their grandfather was there, having supper at a sidewalk café within sight of the stanchions of the ruined “Bridge at Remagen,” explaining to a very attentive audience the significance of WW2 and the “citizen soldiers” like their grandfather who each played their part in the “Mighty Endeavor.”
Often accompanied by my good friend and former student, Steve Wallace – who during his 20+ years living in Germany has forgotten more about WW1 & WW2 battlefields than most of us will ever know – I have located many of the places my father’s unit occupied decades before. This included a foray into the Belgian woods with a metal detector (with permissions from the museums and authorities controlling those sites) which produced a buried, mud-encrusted but relatively well-preserved Nazi helmet not far from Spa; it occurred to me then that “the guy who wore this might well have shot at my Dad!” That helmet now resides in my office at home.
Today my father is in a nursing home in Indianapolis, his mind still clear and his resolve strong despite the fact that his body will no longer do everything he wants it to. My thoughts and prayers are with him tonight, as I consider the circumstances he and millions of his comrades faced seven decades ago. Thanks, Dad – I love you!