269th Engineer Battalion

Lt. Col. Harry W. Holmlin
Commanding Officer 269th Engineer Battalion

The Army activated the 269th Engineer Combat Battalion on May 15, 1943, at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.  The commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Warren S. Everett, who later was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Harry W. Holmlin. 

After basic training, the men of the battalion learned to be Army engineers. They were taught to build bridges, repair roads, blow up and remove enemy obstacles, and more.  Unit training molded the battalion into a smoothly operating team.  Maneuvers in the chigger-infested De Soto National Forest sharpened skills that would be tested in battle. 

Orders to move overseas came in November 1944.  On October 31, the division’s infantry regiments left for Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, aboard troop trains.  The 269th Engineers packed and crated the division’s military hardware. 

At 1 p.m. on November 22, 1944, the battalion boarded a train for Camp Kilmer.  The men enjoyed a traditional Thanksgiving dinner enroute.  Two days after leaving Camp Shelby, the battalion was at the New Jersey post for a six-day stay. 

Men and equipment received final inspections.  But there was time for passes to New York City.  Many men in the battalion lived in the New York area; they managed visits to family and friends. 

On the morning of December 1, 1944, the battalion sailed from New York Harbor aboard the transport SS Le Jeune.  The doughs dreaded seasickness and enemy subs.  There were encounters with both.  Destroyers with the convoy reportedly detected three U-boats, but chased them away. 

The Le Jeune reached the English Channel port of Southampton on December 12, 1944.  The next day, the battalion boarded a train for the short trip to Winchester, a city famous for its medieval cathedral.  Battalion headquarters was at Northwood Park, near Winchester.  The battalion lion companies trained hard building pontoon and Bailey bridges, but there was time for passes to London and shorter trips to Winchester pubs. 

News from the battlefront was good until December 16, when the Germans launched a surprise counteroffensive in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium.  Spearheaded by tanks, the Nazi Army drove a deep pocket in the American lines.  The fighting was dubbed the Battle of the Bulge. 

The Army rushed 2,272 69th Division riflemen to the front on December 26.  The engineer battalion’s turn came on January 20, 1945, when the men boarded an LST (landing ship, troops) at the Portland “Hard” near Weymouth.  On January 22, the 269th arrived at Le Havre, France, after a chilly but uneventful crossing. 

The battalion moved inland, arriving at Sissone, France, on January 30, when thermometers plunged to a numbing 15 below zero.  On February 9, the battalion was nearing the front.  The Germans had lost the Battle of the Bulge and were retreating eastward.  The 269th’s first home in the combat zone was Deidenberg, Belgium, a little town badly scarred by the recent fighting. 

In early February, the battalion edged closer to the Germans.  Snow and steady rain had made a mess of local roads; the 269th stayed busy repairing them. 

The 69th Division relieved the 99th Division in Belgium at the Siegfried Line on February 11, 1945.  Later we learned the 69th was scheduled to go on the offensive February 27.  When the attack began, the engineers swept forward with the infantry.  The 269th was hit by artillery and “screaming meemies,” but stateside training paid off.  The battalion built its first bridge under enemy fire and helped prepare division defenses against possible German counterattack. 

After they fled from the Bulge, the Nazis dug in behind their vaunted “Westwall,” a formidable belt of dragon’s teeth, pillboxes, bunkers, and other defensive strongpoints that British and American troops dubbed the “Siegfried Line.” 

The 69th Division attacked the Siegfried Line on March 1-8.  The line companies of the 269th Battalion provided support for the combat team when assistance was needed.  Mainly, the engineers cleared mines and built bridges.  The skillful and quick clearing of a 200-yard abbatis on the main route of the division’s advanced helped clear the way for rapid pursuit of the fleeing Germans in the Eifel Forest toward Dahlem and Schmidtheim. 

After the Siegfried Line breakthrough, the division went into an assembly area near Schmidtheim and Dahlem.  Engineer battalion headquarters was in Dahlem.  In early April, the battalion was handed the primary mission of maintaining and posting the V Corps main supply route. 

On April 4, one platoon from each battalion line company was assigned to infantry regimental combat teams for the attack of Kassel.  In the city, the engineers filled bomb craters and cleared rubble from streets to make way for advancing Army vehicles.  The battalion also helped with the assault boat crossing the Werra River, which flows through Witzenhausen and joins with the Fulda at Munden to form the Wesser. 

On April 8-12, the battalion helped clear road obstacles in front of the division’s speedy advance deep into Germany.  It also helped the division get across the Saale River at Weissenfels. 

The battalion command post moved to Groitzch on April 16.  The next day, at Naunhof, the battalion prepared to defend against a threatened German counterattack in the gap between the 271st and 273rd Infantry Regiments, which were preparing to attack Leipzig.  The engineer battalion supported the division’s attack on Leipzig, Germany’s fifth largest city.  General von Ziegesar, Leipzig’s commander, surrendered to Lieutenant Ernesto Burciaga of Company B of the 269th Engineer Combat Battalion. 

Beyond Leipzig, the 69th Division was rapidly approaching Soviet armies driving hard from the east.  On April 25, the engineer battalion helped speed the 69th along when it built a C1-18, 48-foot M-2 steel treadway bridge over a demolished highway bridge spanning the Mulde River at Eilenburg.  On the same day three separate patrols of the 273rd Infantry Regiment of the 69th Division made contact with the Russians at Strehla and Torgau, on the Elbe River.  The 269th shuttled boats back and forth across the river between the two allied armies.  The famous “East Meets West” sign, depicting the U.S.-Soviet linkup, was painted by order of Colonel Holmlin and was used as a photo in many newspaper and magazine stories on the linkup. 

The 269th Battalion was luckier than some other units in the division.  Only two men were killed in battle, while another four died of wounds.  A total of 14 men survived battle wounds.  

[From “Fighting 69th Infantry Division.]

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