(Editor’s note: This article was written by the late BG(ret) Leonard C. Ward describing what the 254th /107th Engineer Battalion engineers experienced at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge after they were ordered to reorganize and fight as infantry. The exact date of this writing is unknown, but believed to be sometime in the early 1990’s.)
107th Engineers Reorganize to Fight as Infantry
The Nine Hours That Limited the Battle of the Bulge
BG Leonard C. Ward (Ret)
Bullingen, Belgium--After midnight, during the early hours of December 17, 1944, in winter snow and cold, in the darkness and growing chaos of a startling German counterattack through the Siegfried Line into small communities of eastern Belgium, engineers from Michigan's 107th (then, 254th) Engineer Battalion were ordered to shed their vehicles and engineer equipment and reorganize to fight as infantry.
Before first light, while organizing a defensive position south of the village of Bullingen, with Company C forward and Company B blocking the road from Honsfeld, they were confronted by the enemy, mechanized infantry with tanks and half-tracks. It was the spearhead of the Sixth Panzer Army attack, led by Lt. Col. Joachim Peiper, who had already massacred 19 American prisoners of war, would dispose of 50 more that day, 200 others and 100 Belgians and, ten miles later, execute 86 in the infamous Malmedy Massacre.
At about 6:00 a.m., while still dark, Company B, armed only with small arms, machine guns, and rocket launchers, faced Peiper's tanks and forced him to turn back. A half-hour later, Peiper attempted another assault but was turned back again. As daylight broke the 254th received orders to withdraw through Bullingen where a new line was being formed.
Next, Peiper, already in need of gasoline, sent a patrol of five tanks and several half-tracks north to Wirtzfeld through Bullingen. This time, the patrol overran Company B. They refueled and then resumed movement to the north, overtaking miscellaneous fleeing vehicles of numerous units, but missing elements of the 254th on foot off-road. But the patrol soon took heavy losses from tank destroyers near Wirtzfeld and was forced to return south. While retreating, the patrol captured a number of Company C men caught in the open. They were herded back to Bullingen, where they were searched, relieved of their watches, and one, who understood German, heard they were to be executed.
Suddenly, the cloud cover opened and American P-47 fighter-bombers attacked Peiper's ten-mile column of tanks and vehicles. At the head, captive Americans were quickly distributed and used as human shields. The attacking pilots, realizing the engineer's plight, circled low in frustration and departed to other targets. As cloud cover returned, the Americans were loaded into a truck but a sudden burst of artillery fire allowed them to flee into adjacent houses and basements where they hid. As time passed, their lieutenant allowed them to make their way back to friendly lines, should they choose. Three left. They moved north through open fields to the woods. They hid until dark and then moved west where they met up with an infantry unit. There they were given rifles and augmented the defense. Days later they were sent back to their battalion, which had gathered west of Elsenborn. The others, hiding in the basements, ended up in POW camps or missing.
Meanwhile, the 254th had established another line of defense on a ridge a few hundred yards west of Bullingen. The line could be seen from town and appeared strong; it deflected the enemy point to the south. In attack preparation, German artillery began shelling the position about 1300 hours just as the 254th dropped back toward the next ridge, a stronger position still blocking routes to the northwest, west, and north. Peiper then abandoned the attack direction and moved southwest toward St. Vith. Having resisted several vicious attacks from successive positions during nine hours, relief finally arrived from 35-miles away at 1500 hours. The Michigan Engineers were relieved in place by the 26th Infantry of the Big Red One, the 1st U. S. Infantry Division.
The actions of the 254th enabled the securing of the V Corps right flank, permitted the evacuation of large stores of gasoline and rations sorely needed by the enemy and denied the enemy the use of three vital routes of approach. Their determination contributed to the ultimate failure of the German's counterattack.
The 254th Engineer Combat Battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and the French Croix de Guerre. The significance of their contribution is even greater than the citations portray.
Delay. Denial. Deflection. They held the North Shoulder for nine hours and enabled it to remain held on that spot! They denied three intended routes and significant enabling resupplies! They deflected the planned strategic direction of Hitler's desperate attack and it never was regained subsequently! The gift of nine hours for all commanders to contain the penetration had more result than just holding the North Shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge!!!!!!! It limited the extent of the Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle ever fought by the United States Army!
Without the nine hours, would the North Shoulder have held? Would Hitler’s Strategic Direction have been regained? Would greater success and much earlier success, Liege and the Meuse River, have been gained?
The 107th Engineer Battalion, reorganized for 28-months as the 254th in England and Europe, spent a total of five years, two months and seven days serving in World War II. With the 112th Engineers (Ohio), the 107th Engineers served in the 1121st Engineer Combat Group as corps troops, usually in V Corps, FIRST Army. They supported fifteen fighting divisions in the eleven- month, 1,372-mile advance from OMAHA Beach to PILSEN, Czechoslovakia. With Michigan’s 107th Reconnaissance Squadron overhead before, during, and after D- Day, the 107th Engineers were the only Michigan element in the Normandy Assault Landing Force.
Units in the 107th Engineer lineage are now stationed entirely in the Upper Peninsula at Ishpeming, Calumet, Baraga, Ironwood, Iron River, Gladstone, and Sault Ste. Marie.
Brig. Gen. Ward is a former Director of the Army National Guard, HQ, Department of the Army. He was G3 and Asst Div Cmdr of Michigan’s 46th Infantry Division. Before, during, and after World War II he served in the 107th Engineers; except from 1943 to VE-Day he served on the staff of the 1121st Engineer Combat Group with the Michigan Engineers. BG Ward served as 107th Engineer Battalion commander in the post WW II years.