Ken Beaton: “Diese verdammten pionier!”
Monday, Dec. 16 will be the 75th anniversary of the largest battle in the history of the U.S. Army involving 705,000 American GIs. At 05:30 hours, all hell broke loose in the former quiet American sector of Belgium’s Ardennes Forest. Panzer troops and armor broke through American lines to create a bulge in the wall map, the Battle of the Bulge.
Everyone in the free world owes a debt of gratitude to the 620 men of the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion under the command of Col. David E. Pergrin. Pergrin was ordered to slow down Kampfgruppe Joachim Peiper’s 1st SS Panzer Division. The 291st was not a combat unit. They were lightly armed with rifles and grenades. However, they had plenty of C-4, wire, detonators and the analytical mind of Pergrin.
With so many deep rivers in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium, Pergrin knew that heavy tanks needed bridges to cross the rivers to advance and capture Antwerp. Armed with accurate maps, the mind of a skilled chess player and Peiper’s location, Pergrin assigned his companies to strategically located bridges.
Pergrin waited until Peiper’s first tank was partly across the bridge. He blew the bridge while Peiper watched with SS Nazi rage. His face turned red as he yelled, “Diese verdammten pionier!” (“Those damned engineers!”)
As soon as a bridge was blown, that company of engineers jumped in their Jeeps and Dodge Power Wagons to the next bridge in the Chess game. They placed the C-4, attached and ran the wire to a safe observation place, attached the wire to a detonator and waited for Peiper and his Panzers to arrive and go ballistic when that bridge blew up.
I want you to stop and ponder how the 291st Combat Engineers with an ample supply of C-4 did not allow any of the SS Panzer Division’s tanks commanded by the great Kampfgruppe Joachim Peiper to cross any rivers. Pergrin and his men made a complete fool of the Kampfgruppe Joachim Peiper in a high stakes game of the Battle of the Bulge.
After the “Battle of Britain,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill complimented the brave Royal Air Force pilots when he said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Churchill could have repeated the same compliment to the brave men of the 291st Combat Engineers Brigade.
“But wait, there’s more!”
Less than three months later, the Allied armies were rapidly advancing to the border of France and Germany, the 1,800-foot wide Rhine River. All the Rhine River bridges had been destroyed except the Ludendorff steel bridge at Remagen. American troops captured the bridge before it could be destroyed. Our generals knew the Ludendorff Bridge was not long for this world. They called upon their combat engineers, the 291st. Pergrin was tasked with building a treadway (pontoon) bridge across the Rhine River.
The men of the 291st began on March 7, 1945, inflating the 33-foot-long, 8-foot-wide and 33-inch-high inflatable pontoons. The pontoons were made of rubberized canvas. Each pontoon weighed 1,000 pounds. The interchangeable steel sections were snapped together with pins to the pontoons.
The Rhine River flowed at 7 mph. One-hundred-pound Kedge anchors (ship’s anchors) were dropped upstream and attached to the riverbed to hold the treadway bridge in place as it was being built. When all the sections were in place, a one-and-a-half-inch diameter steel cable was stretched from shore to shore aligning the bridge pontoons.
The bridge was built while under attack from German artillery and aircraft. The men of the 291st were totally exposed while working on the bridge day and night. I was surprised to discover only one engineer was killed and 30 were wounded by the time the pontoon bridge was completed on March 10, 1945, at 1900 hours. Immediately, armored vehicles crossed the new bridge. Within days, other pontoon bridges crossed the mighty Rhine River.
Pergrin was an ROTC cadet and engineering major. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1940 and served in the US Army from 1940 to 1945. The 291st Engineer Combat Battalion was the most decorated of the combat engineer units. David was three months short of his 95th birthday when he died on April 7, 2012.
The 291st Combat Engineers were ordinary citizens who were the right soldiers in the right place at the right time. Let’s not forget the U.S. Navy’s equivalent, the Construction Battalion, the Sea Bees. Their motto was “Can Do.” If you take a World War II tour of the Pacific and land on an island we took from the Japanese, the Sea Bees built that air field. Sometimes the Marines were “mopping up” Japanese troops while the Sea Bees were bulldozing a new air field for our fighters.
To all our vets, thank you for your service.