101st Engineer Combat Battalion
How Military Egocentrism Almost Lost a Battle
The personal narrative which follows was submitted to the Association of the US Army, Arlington, VA, on 6 Aug 1986 and later to the US Army Military Institute, Carlisle Barracks, PA. It is my personal experience of the early days of the Battle of the Bulge when the 26th Inf. Div. was ordered, along with the 4th Armored Div. and the 80th Inf. Div., to depart immediately from their existing locations and proceed to the south and east of Bastogne, Belgium, in order to relieve the defenders of the city, 101st Airborne Div. and other troops, and prevent their capture, as well as the road junctions, from the advancing German forces. LTG George Patton used these forces, and other Third Army forces, to hold the southern portion of the Bulge.
The Yankee Division was located in Metz having arrived about 12 December from the border region of Lorraine and Germany in the vicinity of Sarreguemines. The YD was badly in need of replacements which came from existing units in France and England.
I was a member of the Recon Section of the 101st Engr. Combat Bn., 26th (Yankee) Div. and had an experience on 18th Dec 1944 which, I believe, could have altered the attack plan for the III Corps which consisted of the 3 divisions, the 26th, the 80th and the 4th Armored. It could have had, if events had gone the wrong way, a significant impact on the relief of Bastogne in those critical days prior to Christmas. The fact that the 26th Inf. Div. was positioned for the center of the attack makes my experience pertinent.
The YD had fought a major battle in the province of Lorraine, France, which started east of Nancy on 8th Nov and wound down on 12th Dec southeast of Sarreguemine after which the division was shifted to Metz to await approx. 4,000 replacements and enjoy rest. The 101st Inf. cleared the last Fort of Metz, Ft. Jeanne D'Arc on 13th Dec. The troops were weary and mud covered; and the vehicles encaked in mud and debris caused by the early fall rain and drizzle. We were to clean up, but once the Bulge started 3 days later we knew that we would be called into the battle. And so ended the rest period.
The 26th Div. history states that the division moved onto the highway leading in the direction of Luxembourg at 0100 hrs 20 Dec 44 and that Gen Patton had committed the III Corps attack to start in approximately 50 hours under rules of a meeting engagement starting north and northeast from Redange. This simple statement required execution of a great number of details, one of them being the stocking of new maps of the Luxembourg area within our engineer map depot of the division for subsequent issue to the infantry regiments, the field artillery battalions and supporting forces. These had to be picked up from the Third Army map depot in Nancy before the division could proceed. Most troops realize how vital maps are but few are aware of their source. In this case the units had the maps of France, Lorraine, and naturally had to be issued the various scale maps of the Duchy of Luxembourg. How could they be made available in a few hours for issuance to the attacking battalions?
When the division was alerted to prepare to move out the Recon Section was directed to obtain the needed maps from Army and I was assigned to go with my jeep and driver, Jim Carroll, to report to the Third Army Engineer in Nancy, receive the authorization, pick up as many maps as I could, and return as quickly as possible. In the meantime everyone in the division would pack up and load up. The drive would be approximately 38 miles over muddy roads and in a light drizzle.
We drove as fast as we could with the overcast murkiness on the mud slick roads and getting stalled in many places by various troop movements going in the general direction of North. By the time we arrived in the outskirts of Nancy the late autumn afternoon began to obscure the surroundings. Spit and polish Third Army MP's seemed to be everywhere, directing traffic, etc. Coming directly from Metz I naturally had no idea where the Headquarters was or where the Army Engineer was located. So, I stopped at an intersection where an MP was directing traffic and asked for instructions and directions to the HQ. Without responding to the inquiry my driver and I were ordered to the MP post, an old garage, and told to wait. After the traffic thinned the MP stated that he could not allow us to proceed into the city without cleaning the muddy jeep and changing our mud-encased OD uniforms. After I explained our urgent mission and the fact that changing clothes was out of the question, he telephoned for his Corporal who arrived about 20 min. later. Once again we were interrogated and wasted more time. Finally the Sgt. of the Guard was called and I was permitted to explain our mission. I requested that he call Army HQ Engineer office to verify my story so that we could continue without interruptions. And so we waited some more.
After what seemed like hours and with the late autumn darkness settling in, we were released and given directions to Third Army Hdtrs which was located in a large chateau/palace type building and surrounding gardens. The sentries at the large iron gate entrance gave us the same routine with threats of being arrested; "no way will we be responsible for admitting two dirty guys into the Command area." By now I was frustrated, angry and boldly requested to use the post field telephone to call the Army Engineer inside. I placed the call and was immediately asked in an angry voice, "where have you been, the division is ready to roll and needs the maps!" We drove into the compound, parked in front of Headquarters and I bolted out and upstairs to the Engineer's office. The Colonel gave me a signed requisition and said, "pick up these maps at the Army map depot." I turned and started to run downstairs assuming the depot was in the basement when someone called, "Hey, wait, the depot is in _____, a village a short distance away." I stopped short and asked for directions; the officer said, "check with the Sgt." And now more delays.
We finally arrived at the building storing thousands of maps, presented the requisition, and loaded as many sheets as the jeep could hold, and departed Nancy as the darkness began to close in on us. There was no way of driving fast with only black-out lights in use.
Approximately 15 miles out of Nancy we saw an unexpected silhouette of a tank in the road ahead of us. My driver braked, skidded on the slimy, muddy road, and came to a stop just before hitting a cable. Now visible in the adjacent field was another tank being towed out by the tank in the road. The sudden sliding stop caused may of the maps to leave the jeep and thus landed in the mud, scattered ground. We had to wait for the towing operation to complete and in the meantime picked from the road as many maps as possible. Now it was dark and driving in the light drizzle uneventful.
Arriving in Metz we were confronted with lines of vehicles which had been ready to move out for hours; waiting for the maps. Since we were on radio silence there was no Estimated Time of Arrival to the convoy commander with the net result that everyone was on edge by us being overdue. I had assumed that my unit had telephoned Army to find out what happened to me but apparently no one did.
This event occurred on 19 Dec 44 followed by the division moving into virgin positions North and Northeast of Arlon in the vicinity of Redange on 20th Dec with orders to start a meeting engagement attack 0600 hours 22 Dec 44.
Over the past I have often wondered what would have happened if we had been killed by driving into the tank retriever cable. Since we had all the maps it would have been impossible for the III Corps to launch the coordinated attack effectively with the 26th Inf. Div. placed in the center of the 3 division attack to relieve Bastogne. It is doubtful that the 4th Armored could have entered the city without the 26th clearing the forests to the east.
Headquarters Third U.S. Army issued a commendation signed by LTG G. S. Patton to the Commanding General, officers and men of the III Corps on 20 Jan 45 which said in part; "The speed with which the III Corps assembled, and energy, skill, and persistence with which it pressed it's attack for the relief of Bastogne, constitute a very noteworth feat of arms." The commendation was endorsed and passed on by Corps on 25 Jan 45 and by the 26th Inf. Div. on 1 Feb 45.
The 26th departed Luxembourg on 27 / 28 Jan and took up positions in the Saarlautern bridgehead, relieving the 95th Inf. Div. and joining the XX Corps.
This paper is intended to highlight a most vital element of combat, MAPS, which somehow is never appreciated until one must operate without them in a strange and new zone.
William Leesemann, Safety Harbor, FL