56th Armored Engineer Battalion (AEB)
The 56th Armored Engineer Battalion was activated as part of the 11th Armored Division on August 15, 1942 at Camp Polk, Louisiana. The battalion consisted of a Headquarters Company, four line companies (A – D), and a Bridge Company (E Company). Line platoons were designated First, Second, and Third. Each platoon had First, Second, and Third Squads.
Training intensified in June 1943 as the engineers participated in the Third Army Louisiana-Texas maneuvers. The 56th engineers returned to Camp Polk in late August.
In September, the battalion moved west by motor convoy and train to Camp Barkeley, near Abilene, Texas. Their Texas tenure was brief. A month later, the 56th Engineers were on the move again.
In mid-October, the battalion found itself in the Mojave Desert of California. The men’s new home was Camp Ibis near Needles, California. Training was rugged in the barren mountains and shifting sand dunes. Troops baked in the day and shivered at night.
The battalion spent five months sharpening combat skills at Camp Ibis, then shifted to more hospitable quarters at Camp Cooke near Lompoc, California. Gone were desert tents; Camp Cooke had barracks near the Pacific Ocean.
But Camp Cooke was not a resort. Seasoned by the Louisiana-Texas and desert maneuvers, the 11th Armored “Thunderbolts” ironed out assault and range problems on the pacific coast. The men also got ready for the trip overseas. Gear was waterproofed, packed, and loaded onto rail cars. The Thunderbolts clambered aboard Pullmans.
The long train chugged east. Some of the men caught glimpses of their homes from the train windows. Nobody was allowed off the train except for occasional calisthenics along rail sidings. On September 24, 1944, the battalion arrived in Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. The next stop would be England.
On September 28, the battalion packed up again and headed for New York harbor where the U.S.S. Hermitage weighted anchor with the engineers on board. Scuttlebutt had it that the ship was bound for Normandy. But 10 days out of New York, the Hermitage docked at Southampton, England. The engineers, 676-strong, boarded a train for a short trip to Melksham, Wiltshire. They camped in 24-man quonset huts at Sandridge Park for a five-week stay.
After a three-week staging at Codford, the 56th AEB were ready to cross the English Channel. On December 15th the men and their equipment were carried safely over to Cherbourg on a British transport ship.
At about 11 a.m. on December 16th the engineers caught their first glimpses of Europe. It was foggy, but the Thunderbolts could see sunken ships as well as bomb and bullet-blasted buildings along the Cherbourg waterfront. As battalion truck convoys moved inland, the engineers took particular interest in German pillboxes that had been riddled by artillery fire.
At Briquebec the battalion met its drivers and vehicles, which came across on LSTs and Liberty Ships. They camped in a rain-sodden apple orchard that soon became a mini-sea of mud. On December 18th the Thunderbolts were ordered to the St. Nazaire pocked to relieve the 94th Infantry Division. They moved out on December 19th.
Three days before, the Germans launched a massive attack along a 50-mile front in the Ardennes Forest. Enemy tanks and infantry caught First Army soldiers by surprise and pushed a deep bulge into Allied lines. The gap had to be plugged.
The 11th Armored Division turned around and headed east to join Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s already famous Third Army. Heading out on December 21st, the Thunderbolts headed through LeMans, Chartres and Versailles, Paris, Chateau, Thierry, Rheims, and on to Sissone.
The 11th Armored was divided into three Combat Commands; A, B, and R (Reserve). Under a new table of organization that went into effect at Camp Barkeley, the 56th Battalion consisted of three line (or combat) companies, A – C, along with a Headquarters Company, which handled supplies and administrative details. In almost all war time assignments, Company “A” fought with CCA, Company “B” with CCB, and Company “C” with CCR.
From Sissone, the 56th Engineers rolled onto Charleville on the Meuse River. The front lines were about 20 miles away; there were rumors that the Nazis had broken through and were heading toward the Thunderbolts. Bridges over the Meuse were to be held or blown up. The Engineers were confident they could do whatever was necessary.
Meanwhile, German counterattacks were threatening the vital Neufchateau-Bastogne Road, the only link to the hard-pressed American defenders of Bastogne, who had been relieved by the Fourth Armored Division. If Bastogne held, the enemy drive likely would fail.
The 11th Armored was ordered to help keep open the Neufchateau-Bastogne Road for the 101st Airborne Division and the other GIs in Bastogne. The “Thunderbolts” turned over the Meuse River defense to the 17th Airborne Division and rushed 85 miles to the vicinity of Neufchateau. The division and the 56th Armored Engineers received their baptism of fire on December 30th.
CCA and CCB attacked abreast. Company “A” of the 56th Battalion advanced with Thunderbolt tanks and infantry. On December 31st the attack reached as far as Remagne. Company “B” advanced with CCB through Lavaselle and Houmont. It was cold and snowy but the Germans were being driven back.
On December 31st CCR, with Company “C” of the 56th Engineers, captured key terrain near Pinsamont and surged forward to Acul. On January 1st CCB captured Chenogne and the next day took Mande St. Etienne.
From January 4th – 11th, the Thunderbolt Division, except for its artillery, was in corps reserve. The 56th Engineers repaired their vehicles, cleaned and checked their weapons and took care of a few odd jobs such as filling in shell craters on roads, destroying captured German equipment, and repairing bridges. Meanwhile, Lieutenant John J. Ducey and Corporal Richard A. Davidson won Belgian Croix-de-Guerre medals for having forced the surrender of 50 German soldiers in a Belgian town. Because the enemy troops gave up without a fight, the town did not have to be destroyed.
The Allies had stopped the German attack the day after Christmas. On that day the Fourth Armored Division broke through and relieved Bastogne. On January 3rd the First Army began a counterattack from the north. Third Army attacked from the south toward Houffalize. The idea was to squeeze the Germans.
With the Thunderbolt Division as spearhead, Third Army’s VIII Corps attacked on January 13th. CCA tanks rolled forward through the snow until they reached an enemy mine field halfway through the Bois De Nom De Falize. It was the job of the 56th Engineer men to get rid of the hidden explosives that barred the way to Bertogne.
The Second and Third platoons of Company "A" were detailed to remove and destroy what turned out to be many Teller mines. Sergeant Liberman, with a picked crew consisting of Vivian, Lewis, Heiser, Fontaine, Sullivan, and DeHaan cleared the mines. Sergeant Celani and his squad gave right-flank security, while Sergeant Parkhurst and his squad took care of the left flank.
The next morning it was the Third Platoon’s turn. Their objective was a heavily booby-trapped abatis about a mile south of Bertogne. Helped by Bill Williams and his trusty angle dozer, the engineers cleared away the obstacle. However, Williams hit a trip wire with his dozer blade and ended up in the hospital. Sergeant Fowble took over and finished the job.
Also on January 14th CCB, with Company “B” of the 56th Engineers, attacked and took Foy, which the Germans recaptured from the 101st Airborne Division during the night of January 13th. CCB also took Noville. Thunderbolts of the 56th Engineers mined and repaired some roads and under the cover of darkness built bridges across some small streams.
On January 15th CCA and the 17th Airborne Division entered Bertogne. All three Platoons of Company “A” of the 56th AEB led the way, clearing mines for the tanks and footsoldiers that would follow.
The First Platoon swept eastward toward Compogne. When the men were relieved by the Second Platoon, they were able to help a tank company get through the Pied Du Mont woods. The Second and Third Platoons both worked on the road to Compogne. They found several box mines and abatis, which they cleared in short order.
During the night of January 15th , Company “A” bivouacked near Compogne. A patrol found a bridge blown; CCA headquarters got word in time to prevent any delay the next day as the column moved on toward Houffalize and the First Army. After a day of clearing abatis and bypassing shell craters under mortar and machine gun fire, the company camped hear Houffalize.
On January 16th Company “B” of the 56th Enginers was ready to push on to another objective; the severing of the supply route to Houffalize and the linkup with First Army driving down from the north. Near the junction of the approach road to Wicourt, several mines were found. The company formed part of the CCB defense line at Houffalize until the 17th Airborne showed up as welcome relief. For the next two days the company rested but also swept roads for mines, checked buildings for booby traps, and destroyed enemy equipment.
With the bulge erased, the 11th AD turned to another important objective: Hitler’s vaunted Westwall, dubbed the “Siegfried Line” by Allied soldiers. The defense line was a wide belt of mines, barbed wire, tank traps, dragon’s teeth, concrete pillboxes, and gun emplacements, all supported by German tanks, infantry, and artillery. The job would take teamwork from Thunderbolt armor, infantry, and engineers.
The engineers practiced for the assault by test-firing explosives and building dummy pillboxes for mock attacks. The Thunderbolt Division attacked on February 6th with CCR in the lead.
The men made good progress with the 56th Armored Engineers blasting pathways through the concrete dragon’s teeth, clearing mine fields, and defusing booby-traps. The men of the Battalion also built a Bailey Bridge over the Our River and stayed hard at work keeping vital roads in decent shape.
On more than one occasion they turned lumberjacks, sawing down appropriately sized trees to “corduroy” bad spots in roads. There were also mines to find and clear and more bridges to build.
In March 1945, Patton was ready for his dash to the Rhine River with the 4th and 11th Armored Divisions as his spearheads. The 56th Engineers, attached to all three combat commands, again found plenty more engineer work on the fast-moving drive: clearing mines and roadblocks, filling in shell craters in roads, and building more bridges, often times under enemy fire.
The First and Third Armies met along the Rhine, trapping thousands of German prisoners and capturing tons of enemy equipment. On March 28th the 11th AD crossed the Rhine at Openheim and drove deep into Germany with the 56th AEB again clearing mines, building bridges, and smoothing out rough spots in roads. The advance was almost dizzying as the Thunderbolts roared through Darmstadt, Hanau, Fulda, and Suhl, where they turned south toward Kulmbach and Bayreuth.
At Cham on April 23rd Company “A” of the 56th Engineers removed the largest abatis it had encountered on the drive … about 30 trees, one with a three-foot diameter trunk, had been felled across the road. Working by moonlight, the engineers removed the obstacle.
On May 2nd the 11th AD roared across the border into Austria where the 56th Engineers continued to show their ingenuity. The Germans had blown the brides over the Muhl River, so the engineers blew up a little down stream dam, thereby making the crossing easier at a ford it also built over the stream.
On May 7th, four bulldozers and party of men from the 56th AEB were sent to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp to help bury 3,000 inmates who had perished in the notorious Nazi prison. The men dug huge trenches for the victims of German atrocities.
The Thunderbolt Division was in Austria on May 8th when Germany surrendered. Colonel Andrew V. Inge’s battalion went overseas with 675 men. The unit suffered 30 killed in action, 115 injured in action, and 121 wounded in action.
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