| He was
down on hands and knees on the cold ground searching for more mines like
the one that had blown the tank's lead vehicle clear to the other side
of the road and reduced it to a pile of metal. "This work is not in my job
description," thought the engineer Bill Bahlke as his combat knife, which
had been probing the soil, found a mine. About to lift the explosive from
the ground to deactivate it, his fingernails brushed against something
under the mine. The mine was booby-trapped with a second one under
it, so if the top one was lifted off the pressure plate of the bottom one
under it, both would explode. Chance seemed to be the difference between
life and death for Bill Bahlke today. He says he learned that "there is no
guarantee of life." After his careful work, the three tanks that had been
stuck in the minefield were freed from their immobility and could proceed
onward to the fighting.
The generation of people who had been growing up in
the 1920’s and 30’s had heard about Hitler and the terrible things he had
been doing throughout their lives. Nevertheless, the news of the infamous
attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 by the Japanese motivated many
of this jaded generation to enlist. Bill Bahlke was seventeen at the time,
and he remembers the moment he heard about the attack. His father, brother
and he were building a house on Long Island that Sunday and heard the news
over the radio. He turned to his father and brother and announced he was
joining the military. His father’s advice was to "just keep your head down."
Bill had to wait until he was eighteen to enlist, but on November 19, 1942
he became part of the US Army.
Bill Bahlke’s first choice of service was in the air
force, but they were very selective, and they rejected him because he had
hay fever. He was put in the Army Specialized Training Program to learn to
be an engineer because the New York City school systems had given him a
good education, and unlike some of his fellow soldiers, he could read and
write. He also had a background in machinery because his father had been a
bus mechanic. This extremely intelligent man would never have had the chance
to go to college if not for the Army. Bahlke was a cadet company commander,
so he had to oversee over a hundred men while attending Manhattan college.
Meanwhile the war waged on in Europe.
Bill went into active service on March 16th, 1943
and was assigned to the Headquarters Company of the 1262nd Engineer Combat
Battalion. After being trained and equipped, they arrived in Europe in
the winter of 1944, in time to deal with the aftermath of the Battle
of Ardennes which is nicknamed the ‘Battle of the Bulge’, because of the
bulge the German incursion made in the Allied lines. The battle was fought
in and around the Ardennes forest, from a cold, snowy, Dec. 16, 1944 until
Jan. 25, 1945. Over a million men fought in it; 500,000 Germans, 600,000
Americans and 55,000 British and this was the largest campaign the Americans
were involved in during the war. The Germans were on the offensive and this
campaign was their last substantial push of the war. Hitler is said to have
masterminded the plan himself. The object of the push was for the Germans
to reach Antwerp, Belgium, which would effectively cut the Allied armies
into Northern and Southern halves and allow the Germans to capture much needed
supplies and fuel. The Germans chose to attack at the small village of Lanzerath,
Belgium, because this was where two Allied Corps sectors met and one of the
weakest points on the Western Front. The Allied generals had not been worried
about the possibility of an attack there because they believed that Germany
was too weakened to create a major offensive. The generals had a surprise
in store for them
Battle of the Bulge: Why?
Battle of the Bulge: What, Where and How?
The forces defended this area with only four divisions,
the 4th, 28th, 99th, and 106th. Timing was of the essence for the Germans
to be successful. One of the objectives of the German campaign was the
town of Bastogne which had been vacated because of the advance of the German
Army. US troops raced to defend it, and 18,000 of them were surrounded by
135,000 Germans but they fought on in the zero degrees weather. The Americans
had the advantage of vast amounts of air support from the Allies that Germany
could not hope to match. Supplies were also dropped from planes to aid
the embattled troops near Bastogne. On December 26th, Gen. George Patton’s
armored division broke through the German surround of Bastogne and beat
the Germans back. This event marked the end of the Battle of the Bulge,
although the Germans continued to try to keep the ground they had gained
for another ten long days.
Picture: First stage of the Battle of the Bulge,
the German incursion, and what Allied
forces met the Germans, notice the German
forces all heading toward Antwerp.
Bill arrived in Europe just as this battle
was winding down, when the tanks were moving in to aid Bastogne, in time
to try to repair all the damage done to the roads by the air force bombing,
thereby ensuring that the tanks and reinforcements could get through. Everyone
in the engineering corps had a different job. The line company men did heavy
lifting and grating by hand with axes, because they had no chain saws. Bill’s
job was to make sure the plans for what they were building were correct,
and to make sure the roads were kept open and in good condition, with no mines
in them. Examples of the most common bridges that the engineers used
included: Bailey bridges which were made of metal and sectioned, so that
they could be transported and assembled, and Treadway bridges which were
on pontoons and used for water crossings because they would float right on
One of the issues which caused bridges to collapse would be the
tanks traveling over the bridges. They had orders to stay in a low gear,
but if any fire was heard by the tanks while they were crossing, they would
change into a higher gear and race across the bridge. This misuse could
collapse a bridge or damage the bridge structurally and make more work for
Picture: a representation of how engineers and other support
personnel supported the Allies.
There were dead, frozen Germans lying everywhere after Ardennes, because
the German retrieval units had not been able to pick up the dead. Engineer
Bill recollects how on his first reconnaissance mission he saw his first
dead GI lying near the road. He still remembers the GI’s name, Robert Rainwater,
and how he had to call in the grave registration unit to take the GI away.
Picture: A German soldier right before the Battle of the Bulge. Looking
at the picture alone, there is no way to tell whether he is fighting for the
Allies or the Axis powers.
Bill remembers one cold April day when he had
to take off his clothes and swim across a river with a ball of twine in
order to get the measurements for the river, and then swim back. He had
received no specific orders to do so, but there might have been a need for
those measurements at some time so Bill took it upon himself to get them.
Some engineers in his corps also decided to remedy a situation that they
did not have orders for. There was a machine gun manned by Germans near their
position which was unsettling, so the engineers took assault boats upstream
of the gun and took it out. Of these cases of independent action, Bill is
proud. The Americans he says "made independent decisions". They could "size-up"
a situation and know what was needed to be done.
| A Bridge is needed, to cross the
The next major campaign that Bill was involved in
was the crossing of the Rhine, when his engineering battalions’ building
of bridges came in handy. The infantry had secured the North Bank of the
Rhine and the engineers had to alter a railroad bridge with planks of wood
so that tanks and reinforcements could be sent over the river. They
had searchlights and infantry with guns protecting the bridge so that the
Germans could not sabotage their efforts by floating a bomb down the river
and blowing up the bridge. Eventually the bridge suffered so much structural
damage they had to rebuild it, after the Allies had secured the other side.
Then Bill and the engineers crossed the Rhine on the bridge they had built
and were engaged in the Battle for Cologne. After that, the engineers
were stationed at the Sieg River in Germany.
Picture: Bailey Bridge on remains of demolished bridge over Sieg River at
Siegburg, Mulldorf. (According to Bill Bahlke.)
Once they were inside Germany, Bill saw some
of the saddest things he would observe throughout the entire war. For example,
they entered a German town right after the infantry had liberated a concentration
camp. Bill remembers one of the emaciated people running around shouting
‘I am free’ in German when a tank which was going down the road accidentally
ran over his leg.
Also in Germany, Bill’s job was to find the engineers
lodging because he spoke German. The engineer battalion would enter a town
and Bill would stand up and yell out in German, "Who is the leader of this
city". Eventually a mayor would come out all decked out in finery, and the
engineers would tell the leader what they needed for accommodations.
One night, Bill was out on patrol, and he and some of his fellow
scouts were holed up in a farmhouse. An infantryman who had become separated
from his group joined them. Bill had salami that his Aunt Kathleen had
sent to him, which was quite a change from their usual K rations. It turned
out to be the infantryman’s birthday. But the man was nervous as to whether
or not the salami was kosher. Bill remarked that he was a Sunday school teacher
and he would bless the salami for them all, and they ate. This event is
one of Bill’s most vivid memories of companionship in Europe.
The End of the War
However, life after the crossing of the Rhine was not
all finding houses to sleep in. Resistance was much tougher inside of Germany
itself. Bill was shot at by snipers on his reconnaissance missions, and a
friend actually had the wood of a building behind him blown away. Despite
this resistance, the war was coming to an end.
Picture: Crib Pier Bridge at Urft, Germany. (According to Bill Bahlke.)
|Bill’s thoughts about the war are that it made
the people of his generation value freedom. He says "life is very, very uncertain…
You have to make an advantage of the time you’ve got." When asked if war
is good, Bill said that usually its reasons are twisted around to serve
political purposes. But for him, the war was a way to get an education and
learn to "use… best judgment." For him it is good and honorable to die
for one’s country, because the people who serve and die for the U.S. want
freedom. Freedom is what grandfather Bill values so highly. What grandfather
Bill wants to be remembered is that "the heroes are the ones who don’t make