16 TO 25 DECEMBER, 1944

APO #443, U. S. Army
25 May 1943
200.6 (A)
SUBJECT: Unit Citation.

TO: Commanding General, Fifteenth United States Army, APO 4O8, United States Army.

1. under the provisions of Section IV, Circular No. 333 , War Department, 1943 and pursuant to authority contained in Section VII. Memorandum No. 21. Headquarters. Fifteenth U. S. Army, 4 March 1945, subjects “Awards and Decorations”, it is requested that the enclosed citation of the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion be approved by the Army Commander.

2. Narrative.

In the early morning of 16 December 1944, a heavy artillery barrage was heard at the command post of the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion at Haeun, Belgium. At approximately 0800, a messenger from Company "A” arrived to report considerable activity in the sector of the 422d Infantry, to which the company was then attached. A short time later Lieutenant Colonel Thomas J. Riggs, Jr., Battalion Commander, re­turned from the Division CP at St. Vith with reports of a concerted German attack along the Division front, and orders to assemble the Battalion to be immediately employed  as infantry. Schonberg, Belgium was chosen as an assembly point, and a quartering party dispatched there to choose covered assembly areas for each company. Members of the S-3 section sent to Schonberg to establish an operational CP.

Short1y thereafter, Lieutenant Lewthvaite, who had gone with the quartering party, returned with the report that Schonberg was at that time undergoing a severe shelling by heavy artillery, most of which was falling over the bridge in the center of town. It was realized that the destruction of this bridge would seriously cripple both lateral and vertical communications in the Division sector, since Schonberg was the central point in the Division road net. Immediately Colonel Riggs sent Lieutenant Souers and two members of the reconnaissance section to obtain data on the bridge and possible fords. They reported to Colonel Riggs that due to the heavy shelling, Schonberg was no longer a feasible assembly area for the Battalion. This, together with the fact that it had been learned that all of C and B Companies and one platoon of A Company had already been committed to the fire-fight with their respective combat teams, forced abandonment of the previous plan. Lieutenant Souers, Lieutenant Hayden and Mr. House were ordered to return to Schonberg and evacuate all the heavy equipment which D Company had left there when committed. After considerable diffi­culty occasioned by the shelling of the area around the bridge, within which the bulldozer, the prime mover and the trailer were all located, and due to the necessity of searching the town for other pieces of equipment, all equipment was evacuated except one 1-ton trailer which was hit by a shell before it could be moved. The operational CP was at the same time evacuated from Schonberg only a few minutes before it was hit by a shell-burst. Inspection of one of the shell craters and measurement of a front of one of the shells revealed this extended barrage to be from guns of approximately 380 mm. presumably railway guns. This was later confirmed by Division Artillery Headquarters.

Meanwhile, A company was in the thick of the fight. The company commander had dispatched his work parties at 0800, and had departed for Battalion Headquarters to report the early earning activity and to attend a scheduled meeting of company commanders. The 1st Platoon, under Lieutenant Coughlin, commenced work near Regimental Headquarters of the 422d Infantry. The 3d Platoon under Lieutenant Voerner, was laboring in the area of the 3d Battalion and became engaged in the fire-fight early, losing all contact with the Company from that time on. The remainder of the Company, located at Auw, Germany, first heard rifle and automatic weapons fire in the near vicinity at about 0930. Due to the snow suits which the enemy was wearing and foggy conditions, visibility was poor, and elements of the attacking enemy forces had advanced to within several hundred yards of Auw and delivered direct rifle fire on members of the company before the situation was fully appreciated. Immediately the 2d Platoon was dispersed and sent into previously prepared positions from which they commenced the defense of the town. Company headquarters personnel took up positions in the building which housed the CP and began to return the fire.

At this point, the 1st Platoon, having heard firing from the direction of Auw, returned amidst heavy fire which was directed at then and their vehicles, quickly dashed into the house in which they were billeted and started returning the enemy fire. At about 1100, members of the 1st Platoon, using tracer ammunition for the purpose, set fire to a barn across the road from their position, while attempting to escape the blaze, ten German infantrymen, who had been firing from the barn, were shot down by the cooks from Company Headquarters.

Before noon enemy tanks entered Auw with additional infantry support for the attackers, and the three groups of A Company were isolated from each other. In order to avoid complete encirclement, Lieutenant Purtell’s 2d Platoon withdrew up the Andler Road shortly after noon.    Enemy tanks proceeded up the main street with open turrets, carrying infantry. Men from the 1st Platoon and Company Headquarters opened fire on them and inflicted a considerable number of casualties. This action was followed by an intense fire from the enemy infantry while the tanks maneuvered into position to start firing on the houses occupied by the defenders. After the tanks opened fire, Lieutenant Rutledge found it necessary to withdraw toward Andler with his Company Headquarters group. Turning their concentrated fire directly on the one remaining point of resistance, the German tanks and infantry laid down a withering storm of steel directed at the house occupied by Lieutenant Coughlin's 1st Platoon. Light rounds of point blank fire from the tanks burst in the building, and the small arms fire in­creased in fury. Realizing the position was untenable; Lieutenant Coughlin gave the order for withdrawal, which commenced at about 1500. At this point Tec 5 Edward S. Withee insisted on remaining behind with his M-3 Sub-machine gun to cover the Platoon's withdrawal across the open field at the rear of the house, even though he realized that death or capture would result. For this heroic action, Tec 5 Withee (still MIA) was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. This platoon joined a unit of the 592d Field Artillery Battalion and was evacuated to St. Vith, where they made contact with the remainder of their company the following day. The total casualties at Auw were twenty men. The 3d Platoon, committed with the 422d Infantry, is assumed to have been surrounded and captured with that regiment several days later.

At approximately 1030 on the morning of 16 December, B Company was ordered by the Commanding Officer of the 423d Regimental Combat Team to clear the village of Bleialf, Germany of an occupying force of enemy which had infiltrated into that location during the preceding night and early morning. Entrucking at Schonberg. the company moved to a point about a half mile west of Bleialf. from which they continued on foot, leaving the drivers and several machine gunners to protect the vehicles. Captain Hynes directed Lieutenant Gordon to take one platoon into Bleialf to make a reconnaissance in force, while the rest of the company covered their progress from positions overlooking the town from the south. Chief warrant Officer Carmichael arrived with a truckload of ammunition at this point and accompanied Lieutenant Gordon and his men on their mission. Upon entering the town, the platoon was net by a withering fire from a number of buildings in which the Germans had set up positions designed to hold the town until reinforcing elements arrived. The engineer troops immediately deployed into vantage points for firing and began to engage the enemy. Lieutenant Gordon, displaying a disregard for his own safety and outstanding devotion to duty, continuously moved from building to building, until he had accurately located each house in which the enemy troops were stationed. Mr. Carmichael then made his way out of the town with this information and made contact with a platoon of tank destroyer guns which were located on the outskirts of town. By directing the fire of these guns on the occupied buildings, Mr. Carmichael enabled them to kill or wound a large percentage of the enemy and render the remainder ineffective, so that Lieutenant Gordon's platoon could advance and mop up the occupied buildings. Mr. Carmichael thereafter returned to Battalion Headquarters. This was the last direct contact with that company.

The drivers who had remained with their trucks, later reported that the town underwent a terrific shelling by artillery in the late afternoon and early evening of 16 December. The shelling was partially directed at the truck bivouac area, and continued intermittently all night. Just before dawn the following morning, the drivers were contacted by an artillery officer who ordered them to the rear, stating that his unit had been ordered to shell Bleialf and the surrounding area. After telling him of the presence of their company in Bleialf and in defensive positions around it, they moved to Schonberg, where they remained until about 0715, when German tanks approached the village. At this time the drivers moved their vehicles to Heuem, where the Battalion CP was located, reporting the presence of tanks in Schonberg. This necessitated the evacuation of the CP from that location.

No further contact with B Company was ever made, but two reports of their acti­vity were received through other sources. After the retaking of the town of Schonberg in January 1945, civilians in the town stated that that company had made its final stand in and about Schonberg about two days after the action had occurred at Bleialf. Due to the fact that B Company had bean billeted in Schonberg, the civilians were able to identify members of the company, including Lieutenant Gordon. Also, in a subsequent report on interrogation of a German officer it was revealed that the only place along this section of the front which appeared to have a defense organized in depth was in the vicinity of Belialf. With the exception of a number of drivers, the company clerk and several men who were on detached service, the entire company is listed as missing in action. It is assumed that they were surrounded and captured by the enemy forces which accomplished the encirclement of the 423d Infantry, whom they were supporting.

Headquarters and Service Company, located at Heuem„ Belgium, was attempting to keep abreast with the fast-changing situation and to effect the evacuation of the heavy equipment of the Battalion. The heavy shelling of Schonberg on the morning of 16 December and the shelling of Heuem in the early afternoon of that day, coupled with sabotage by civilians and the infiltrating enemy effectively destroyed all wire communication. Constant use of radio by the units in direct contact with the enemy made this means of communication with Division Headquarters ineffective. due to the priority of the never-ending stream of messages sent by the other units. Thus, the slow process of sending and receiving messages by motor messenger was necessary. As a result, orders were slow in arriving and information was always far behind the current situation when it was received.

All of the heavy equipment of the Battalion, except one bulldozer, was successfully evacuated ender the direction of the reconnaissance section. All evacuations were effected under heavy fire and the last vehicle from C Company in this convoy was trailed up one portion of the Winterspelt-Heckhalenfeld Road by machine gun and mortar fire.

Portions of A Company Headquarters, under Lieutenant Rutledge , had arrived at the Battalion CP in the late afternoon of 16 December and were used to reinforce the defensive positions in that vicinity. Captain Harmon returned to the CP at Heuem that night with about a dozen men who were the survivors of his attempt to fight his way back to Auw on orders from the 422d Regimental Combat Team Commander. As this group had approached Auw, they were hit by a valley of time-fire which burst directly above them. Ten casualties were suffered from this action.

Withdrawing units passed through Heuem all through the night of 16-17 December. After questioning of several units as they passed through, it became apparent that by very early on the morning of the 17th there was nothing between the CP and the enemy except a light screen of mechanized cavalry. At 0230 Col. Riggs returned from Division Headquarters with the information that the 7th Armored Division and Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division were arriving and an attack would commence at 0700 the following morning, aided by all the air support necessary. Units of the 7th Armored Division were scheduled to pass the Engineer Battalion CP just prior to 0700 on the morning of the 17th. Roads were cleared to facilitate this movement and Headquarters and Service Company consolidated its position at Heuem. In pursuance of this plan. SSgt Meyer and SSgt Deming of the reconnaissance section made their way into Schonberg at about 0430 to check the condition of the bridge in that town and to gain information of possible enemy infiltration. They reported that the bridge was intact and that the town appeared to be clear of the enemy.

Shortly after daybreak on the morning of 17 December, some enemy small area fire was directed at personnel dug in on the hills surrounding Honest. Reinforcing guards were sent out to protect the CP in the belief that the position could be held until the expected attack commenced. At 0820, drivers of the B Company trucks arrived at Heuem, a distance of about one and one-half miles. At the same time, orders were received by motor messenger from Division Headquarters to evacuate Heuem and assemble the available units of the Battalion at Rodt, several miles west of St Vith. The evacuation was accomplished with the loss of a 3/4 ton truck, carrying an 5CR 193 radio, which became stuck in a ditch and had to be destroyed. As the last vehicle left Heuem, personnel riding in it saw an enemy tank around the corner on the approach road into the town.  In a delaying action, a platoon of A Company 81st Engineer Combat Battalion, was left and was joined by two N-8’s from the 14th Cavalry Group. This group forced deployment and delay of this estimated force of four enemy tanks and an infantry company.

At 1000 on 17 December, Lt Col Riggs received orders to assemble all avail­able men from the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion and the 168th Engineer Combat Battalion (an attached unit) and organize a task force for the defense of the approach to St Vith from the east along the Schonberg-St. Vith Road. The total strength available was slightly more then two companies, comprising all of Headquarters and Service Company and about one-third of A Company of the 81st Combat Engineer Battalion with about one company from the 168th Engineer Combat Battalion. The original plan to organize this defense about two miles east of St. Vith were discarded when it was found that the speed of the armored advance had placed that point within enemy territory. The defensive position was then set up along a wooded ridge about one mile east of St Vith, near Prumerberg (see operational map, inclosure 2). Meanwhile, all equipment had been placed under control of Warrant Officer (JG) House and evacuated to a wooded area northeast of Rodt. Belgium.

The enemy morale at that time was very high and the success of their initial attacks and the exploitation of their break-through combined to render the situation extremely difficult for the defending forces. The main enemy thrusts of infantry supported by tanks had been effected, on the north through Auw, Germany, and on the south through Bleialf, Germany. Joining these two prongs at Schonberg, Belgium, and continuing the attack to the west toward the main communications center of the sector, St Vith, where Division Headquarters was located. This juncture of the two attacking salients had cut off the 422d and 423d Combat Teams from the remainder of the Division, leaving St Vith open to a frontal attack by these two enemy elements. The larger picture revealed that deeper initial penetrations had been made to the immediate north of St Vith and a few sties south of St. Vith. In order for full exploitation of these successes to be effected by the enemy, the capture and use of the road center of St Vith was necessary, so as to provide lateral communization between these salients. Thus, the defense of the town became extremely important, and the sole units initially undertaking that defense were the badly battered remnants of the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion and the available portion of the 168th Engineer Combat Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas J. Riggs, Jr., of the former unit.

Despite the many difficulties encountered from lack of adequate clothing, weapons and entrenching tools, and in the face of the confident attackers, superior both in numbers and available fire-power, the morale of the defenders was remarkably good. Available automatic weapons were manned and all positions dug in by 1600 hours.

At least an hour previous to this completion of the defensive positions, four German heavy tanks. supported by at least a battalion of infantry, made their appearance on the edge of the woods about 1,000 yards east of these positions. At this point, an anti-tank gun from the Division Headquarters Defense Platoon opened fire on them, but the gun was knocked out immediately.

A platoon of six tank-destroyer guns from the 822d Tank Destroyer Battalion was initially set up ahead of the first MIR with a platoon of engineers screening them. These tank destroyers, with new guns received only that morning without sights, fired by sighting over the tubes and forced the advancing tanks to take cover, without casualties to the German tanks. To consolidate the position on the final MIR, these guns were ordered to proceed at once to positions in the forward edge of woods to their immediate rear about 100 yards. The tank destroyers moved north to accomplish this but were never reported again. After this exchange of fire, the enemy tanks turned their 88mm guns on a group of men from the 168th Engineer Combat Battalion who were firing on them from positions on the south side of the road, overlooking the enemy positions, and inflicted severe casualties.

Meanwhile a forward observation post about 400 yards in front of the defending positions had been established in the edge of the woods with Lieutenant Colonel William M. Slayden. Headquarters, VIII Corps and Lieutenant Lewthwaite, Lieutenant Souers and TSgt Psolka of the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion manning the OP. By means of telephone communication, they were able to pin-point the positions of the tanks and infantry for the command group on the hill at Prumerberg .

This information was relayed to Division Artillery, but no units were in position to fire the mission. Therefore, the Division Air-Ground Liaison Officer made con­tact with an American P-47 aircraft which was in the vicinity, and directed it to the spot. The plane made four passes directly over the tanks before it located them, and then only one of the tanks had made the mistake of opening fire on the plane. Thereafter it made seven passes over the tanks, firing at them, and starting a fire which disabled one of them. Casualties to the ground troops in the immediate vicinity were considerable. This was revealed by Tec 4 Labes of the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion who was lying in the woods nearby while still in the process of infiltrating back to our lines from Heuem. Sergeant Labes had remained behind to destroy the 3/4 ton radio truck and the Signal Operations Instructions, during the evacuation of the Battalion CP from Heuem.

Shortly thereafter, visibility became so poor that the CP could no longer operate effectively, and it was moved to the rear. At this time, the men from Headquarters and service Company, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion, who had up until that time occupied positions on the north side of the Schonberg-St. Vith Road were removed and directed to protect the right (or south) flank of the position on the hill. Their previous position was filled by elements of the B troop, 87th Reconnaissance Squadron, which had arrived together with a platoon of medium tanks to parti­cipate to the defense. While Headquarters and Service Company was crossing the open area between the woods on the north and south sides of the road, an enemy tank which had worked its way up through a fire break in the woods, supported by infantry, opened fire on the company from a range of about 100 yards. Tec 5 Fetterman of Headquarters and Service Company was seriously wounded from this 80mm fire.

Thereupon, Captain Ward of Headquarters and Service Company, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion, attempted to get one of the medium tanks to advance and fire on this this tank.  The tank, by that time had been immobilized by a group of engineers who pulled a “daisy chain” of mines across in front of its advance, and small area fire had driven off its supporting infantry. The tank commander refused to expose his tank to the 88mm fire, but after Captain Ward offered to ride behind the turret of the tank to direct it, the tank commander agreed. Advancing to the crest of the hill, the two tanks began to exchange volleys. The first round of 88mm fire knocked Captain Ward from the turret of the Sherman tank, but he was uninjured. The third round from the American tank knocked out the enemy tank, and our tank withdrew to defilade.

Lieutenant Colonel Riggs established his task force CP in the basement of the house on the northwest corner of the cross-roads at Prumerberg, about fifty yards from the most forward enemy elements. At about 1940, an enemy combat patrol of approximately twenty men armed with automatic weapons penetrated the lines about thirty-six yards from this CP, and the darkness was pierced by a seemingly endless stream of tracer ammunition from the firing of both forces. Only about three causalities resulted from this exchange, although one aid man was subsequently shot while attempting to reach one of the wounded men. The patrol was repulsed, but many of its members still remained on the ground in the immediate vicinity. During the rest of the night. Americans and Germans were commingled in the front lines, and movement of any sort was very dangerous.

The only artillery support received by these defenders during the first several days of the defense was that afforded by an armored Field Artillery Battalion, whose liaison officer reported to the task force CP that night, and later arranged for a registering mission in the early hours of dawn.

Present at one time or another for the planning which took place in the task force CP that night were officers of both engineer battalions, the B Troop of the 87th Reconnaissance Squadron. the 38th Armored Infantry, the above mentioned artillery battalion and attached platoon of medium tanks from the 7th Armored Division. At about midnight, it was arranged to have Company B of the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion,

7th Armored Division, relieve the 168th Engineer Combat Battalion troops by digging in on the west side of the fire break which was to the rear of the existing positions. Platoon leaders of the engineer units were to establish contact with their men and inform then of the relief so that they would not fire on the relieving infantry. The engineer officers were then to lead the infantry platoon leaders to their respective areas. After the positions were dug in and organized, the engineers were to withdraw to the rear of the hill to be reorganized and immediately recommitted on the right (or south) flank of the position, attempting thereby to establish contact with an adjacent company of the 23d Armored Infantry Battalion to the south. This plan was worked out so as to separate Americans from Germans who were intermingled all along the front line. By about 0300, the relief had been effected.

The engineer troops withdrew and reorganized. Then, reinforced by a platoon of heavy machine gums from Headquarters Company, 38th Armored Infantry, the engineer troops went into position on the right flank of the hill, as shown in Operations Map.

Inclosure #3. The officers and man from the 168th Engineer Combat Battalion now numbered over two companies, one company having arrived during the night; both companies were committed on the south as shown in the sketch. The provisional platoon of Headquarters and Service Company on the south flank was withdrawn to a reserve position behind B Company, 38th Armored Infantry. Meanwhile the task force CP had been moved from atop the hill to a building at the foot of the hill. Colonel Riggs dispatched a member of his staff to contact the company commander of the 23d Armored Infantry unit on the right to acquaint him with the proposed linking up.

Against this line-up, the Germans launched minor attacks in the early morning hours of 18 December, all of which were easily repulsed. At 0930, a stronger attack was made by a company of enemy supported by one Tiger tank in the sector of A Company, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion. This attack was stopped and the tank was knocked out while trying to turn around by fire from one of the American tanks of the 7th Armored Division, which had been placed in support of the engineer troops. This tank was directed up to its firing position for this mission by men from A Company, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion. During this attack, Lieutenant Rutledge of A Company, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion, acting company commander, had moved ahead of his company line so as to determine the direction of many attack and better direct the fire of his company, which then consisted of sixty-four men. In the third attack, Lieutenant Rutledge was wounded in the shoulder, but still refused to leave his position. Finally, during the fourth attack he was killed. His personal example of coolness under fire and extreme courage so inspired his men that they were able to throw back successive attacks by numerically superior enemy forces and held a vital section of the line. This action was recognized by the posthumous Award of the Bronze Star Medal to Lieutenant Rutledge.

At approximately 1540 another attack of company strength was launched against the same sector and effected a penetration between A Company, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion and A Company, 23d Armored Infantry Battalion. Approximately two squads of German infantry broke through into the rear area. The penetration which had occurred in the A Company sector extended to a depth of about seventy-five yards to the next successive fire break. At about 1600, A Company, 38th Armored Infantry relieved B Troop. 87th Reconnaissance Squadron, enabling it to be moved over to reinforce the sector where the penetration had occurred. While in the previous position, this troop had lost about forty officers and men. A Company, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion and A Company, 23d Armored Infantry Battalion, had suffered about twenty per cent losses during the day's action.

With the provisional platoon from Headquarters and Service Company near the task force CP, Colonel Riggs personally led the counterattack back up the hill to eliminate the two squads of Germans in the rear area. Despite intense small arms and automatic weapons fire, the positions were retaken, and the position consolidated before nightfall. This enabled the defenders to close the action of the 16th of December with a continuous line of defense extending from the positions of CCB. 9th Armored Division, on the south to a point northwest of St. Vith. (See inclosure 4). The provisional platoon under Captain Ward had been committed to close a gap between the 168th Engineer Combat Battalion and A Company, 23d Armored Infantry.

At 1700 information was received by Colonel Riggs that the 106th Division Headquarters was moving west to Vielsalm and that the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion was attached to the 7th Armored Division.

In the early morning hours of 19 December, B Company, 38th Armored Infantry attacked on orders and reestablished their portion of the MIR to the right of the Schon­berg-St Vith Road along the line of the original MIR established by the engineer troops on the 17th. About 0900 a provisional platoon from elements of the 423d Infantry who had infiltrated back to St Vith reported to Colonel Riggs and were placed in reserve directly behind B Company, 38th Armored Infantry. (See inclosure 5) The only activity in this sector on the 19th and 20th of December was vigorous activity by combat patrols of the enemy and intermittent shelling of the positions. No coor­dinated attack upon the positions occurred but it appeared that the enemy was building up his force for a concerted attack to take St Vith. During the afternoon a report was received from the forward observer of the supporting armored field artillery battalion that his unit was running very low on ammunition and that no future mission of greater than a battery concentration could be fired.

At about 1900 19 December Lieutenant Colonel Fuller, commanding the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion, arrived to take command of the task force sector and Lieutenant Colonel Riggs was made his executive officer. That night a letter was recieved from Brigadier General Clark, Commanding General of CCB, 7th Armored Division, citing the defense of St. Vith as being the most easterly and most stubborn point of resistance in the entire current defensive operation.

                  During the night of 19-20 December, hasty mine fields were laid along possible avenues of tank approach, chiefly in the area of Troop B, 87th Reconnaissance Squadron and A Company, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion. The mines were laid by men taken from A Company from their foxholes for the job, who immediately thereafter returned to their foxholes.

                  During the morning of 21 December the combat patrol activity continued and increased in intensity. At about 1500, a concentrated barrage commenced which covered the entire position (see inclosure 6) consisting of fire from 88mm guns, nebelwerfers, field artillery and mortars. This hell of steel continued until 1730. In the midst of this barrage a report from the supporting artillery was received that constant, counter battery fire had now completely exhausted the battalion's ammunition supply, putting it out of action.

                  Despite the fact that the troops had earlier covered their foxholes halfway with logs and earth for protection against the ever present tree bursts, total losses from this shelling were enormous. In B Troop, 87th Reconnaissance Squadron, of an original strength of appropriately 125, there were only about 30 left by the evening of 21 December. Of an original 65 or more officers and men from A Company, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion, there were only about 25 who were not casualties. A tree burst in the CP of A Company, 38th Armored Infantry, killed the company commander, the supporting tank unit commander, and two casualties who had just been evacuated to that point. This barrage so weakened A Company, 38th Armored Infantry, that the provisional platoon from the 423d Infantry Regiment was committed just north of the St. Vith-Schonberg Road and attached to A Company to enable them to cover their existing company front effectively. The provisional platoon of Headquarters and Service Company. 81st Engineer Combat Battalion was then ordered from the sector to a reserve position behind B Company, 38th Armored Infantry.

About 1800 Lieutenant Colonel Fuller, leaving Lieutenant Colonel Riggs in command went to CCB, 7th Armored Division CP to get future dispositions if present positions became untenable. The orders still remained as originally assigned to hold these positions in defense of St Vith.

About 2200 a general German attack was initiated with a force of six tanks with supporting infantry, subsequently revealed as a battalion driving straight into the position along the St Vith-Schoenberg Road. This particular point was reinforced with four American medium tanks strategically located to cover the cross roads. Use of mines on this road had been forbidden to allow the still promised counterattack to roll through.

A German patrol broke through in front of the German tanks and dispersed in the rear of Company B, 38th Armored Infantry. The provisional platoon of Headquarters sad Service Company, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion was committed to exterminate the force. The German tanks, four Tiger tanks and two Mark IVs then engaged the four American tanks at point blank range. The American armor was silhouetted by illuminating flares launched from the German tanks to a position behind the American tanks. Th American tanks called for and got the support of their other two tanks located at the time behind the Engineer positions to the south.  The night battle was one-sided, however and after losing three of their number the three remaining American tanks commenced a delaying action and fell back into St Vith.

This tank battle occurred on the crest of the hill position about 7O0 yards from the house in which the defenders' CP was located and progressed to the CP. Just before the German tanks, which were firing point-blank into the preceding three houses, arrived at the CP, Lieutenant Colonel Riggs instructed the headquarters personnel to report to the Battalion CP in St. Vith and explain the situation, in­structing them finally that he was moving to a forward CP of B Company, 38th Armored Infantry in the woods to the south.

Communications at this point were totally out and had not been restored from the afternoon's barrage.

Arriving At the forward CP. Lieutenant Colonel Riggs learned that the immediate front had been comparatively quiet. Activity had been heard but not confirmed from the left flank. Reconnaissance revealed that the tanks had knocked out all foxhole positions twenty yards from the road and that German troops were moving into St. Vith in a solid double file column of infantry, wagons, and guns. A patrol to the south revealed that the 9th Armored had withdrawn at approximately 2100 and had been accompanied by A Company, 23d Armored Infantry, less one platoon which was still in position. Up the road to St. Vith also at this point German infantry elements were marching into St Vith.

Contact was made and disposition reported through the FA forward observer's radio, to CCB, 7th Armored Division (see inclosure 7). An order to attack St. Vith was received at 0230 22 December 1944 through this radio.

A rendezvous point was picked to the rear on a ridge overlooking St Vith and an order to move was given. At the rendezvous at approximately 0500, the designated time, Lieutenant Colonel Riggs arrived to find approximately 75 men and two officers. The remainder, in the heavy snow and darkness, had evidently become lost or engaged. Disregarding the attack order, due to so few men, their exhausted condition, their many wounded and presence of only small arms, the, force was divided into patrols for infiltration. These patrols were oriented and given instructions from the sole map present, and dispatched. All of these patrols were eventually picked up by mopping up squads of the enemy. Infiltration was defeated primarily by the heavy snowfall which made camouflage impossible.

These small remaining bands of the tenacious and gallant defenders of St Vith, though completely exhausted, both mentally and physically, without food and low on ammunition, struggled on in the snow in a vain attempt to reach their own lines. The last known patrol was not taken by the enemy until 23 December and during this period of two days these patrols continued as a hindrance to enemy rear activities.

Of the men who become separated from the rest of the defeating force in the breakthrough on the night of December 21-22, only eight officers and men from A Company and thirty-three officers and men from Headquarters and Service Company, 81st engineer Combat Battalion, were able to rejoin their unit at Vielsalm. Total casual­ties of these two units from the defense of St Vith alone totaled five officers and seventy men.

By the stubborn resistance of this engineer force, augmented from time to time by other units of various types, which eventually became a polyglot “task force”. Marshal von Rundstedt’s final, grand bid for victory lost such of its drive. Though speedy penetrations had been made toward Stavelot and Malmedy on the north and Bastogne and Marche on the south, this virtual island of resolute resistance denied to the enemy for five days the town of St Vith which constituted the tactical nerve center of the entire salient. The entire engagement has been described by neutral observers as one of the most heroin feats of American arms, and the Germans' ultimate complete failure in the attack was such as to not gainsay this appraisal.

At the beginning of the enemy counter-offensive on 16 December, C Company. 81st Engineer Combat Battalion was located at Heckhalenfeld, Germany. The company had been constructing dugouts for the 424th Infantry and performing general road maintenance in the regimental area. Early on the morning of 16 December an enemy artillery barrage fell on Heckhalenfeld. No casualties were suffered by the Engineer Company. While the company was preparing for work, considerable small arms fire could be heard from the east. Before the men had left for work details the company received orders from the commander of the 424th Regimental Combat Team to dig in on the east side of Heckhalenfeld until the afternoon of 16 December at which time it was ordered to fill a gap in the front lines between Heckhalenfeld and Winterspelt, Germany. Arriving at dusk the company dug in in dense woods and remained until 0230 17 December at which time it was ordered to Winterspelt. The mission was to hold a German force in Winterspelt until armor could arrive. The company arrived at Winterspelt about 0500 and dug in southwest of the town.

The 1st and 2d platoons were placed on line with the 3d platoon in support. The right flank was in contact with the 2d Battalion, 424th Infantry, and the left flank was secured by the 1st Battalion, 424th Infantry. The company received considerable artillery fire during the day and were pinned down all day by small arms and machine gun fire. About 2030 17 December the 3d platoon was ordered to evacuate toward St Vith. The remainder of the company was ordered to pull back at 2100. The vehicles had been moved from Heckhalenfeld and were then at Brecht, Belgium. Captain Wells, the company commander, left for Bracht with a small group of men, leaving Lieutenant Maier in charge of the remainder of the company with orders to break off contact with the enemy following a stream bed as Captain Wells had directed. After two or three riles they reached a fork in the stream where they met a group of infantry which joined the engineers. The right fork was followed until the deserted village of Elcherath was reached. This village had been evacuated by American forces earlier that day but as no enemy were present, the company spent the night of 17-18 December in the village.

Early on the morning of 18 December the men were awakened by enemy artillery falling on Elcherath.  Machine gun fire could be heard from the northeast side of the Village. The company assembled and left before daylight 18 December and moved west to Memmeres, Germany, which also was deserted. Here they found a large number of vehicles of the 424th Infantry Service Company which had been abandoned. Lieutenant Maier decided to attempt fording the trucks across a stream in the center of the town. The only bridge was a footbridge since all other routes had been occupied by the enemy. Taking all necessary drivers and a few helpers from the two platoons. preparations were made for fording the stream. Lieutenant Fuller took the remainder of the company on foot to Bracht, Belgium.

Considerable enemy artillery commenced falling nearby at dawn. The first two trucks became stuck in the stream, but the third succeeded in reaching the far bank.

             This truck mounted a winch, and by use of the winch, all the trucks were eventually pulled across. Pfc Reynolds volunteered to wade waist deep into the icy stream to fasten the winch cable to the front of each truck. Each track made its way up a steep bank, across a field and thence individually to Brecht. Lieutenant Maier reported to Captain Wells at 0830 at the new company CP in that village. It was later learned that Service Company, 424th Infantry. which had occupied Hemmers in December 17th had been forced to leave the village and prevented from reaching the trucks by German mortars, artillery and cross fire of machine guns.  The trucks were returned to that unit.

Meanwhile, the 3d platoon, under Lieutenant Frey, had hitchhiked to St Vith, arriving at midnight December 17-18. The remainder of the night was spent in St Vith, and Lieutenant Frey reported to Major Marshall on the morning of 18 December. The platoon then dug in around the Division CP. Captain Wells, returning to St Vith that afternoon, took the platoon to Grufflingen to rejoin the remainder of the company.

                 In Bracht, the 1st platoon found two bridges already prepared for demolition.  They prepared others and placed guards on them with orders to blow them if necessary. Two men were placed on each bridge. The night of December 18th, two of the parties blew their bridges due to heavy concentrations of enemy artillery fire in their vicinity forcing their evacuation. The other two parties remained on guard on their bridges through the day and night of 19 December.

Two members of Company C had been assigned a bridge that was well out in front of the front line infantry. These men occupied a position about 400 feet in rear of the bridge, where observation on the bridge was good without revealing their position.

On the morning of 20 December at approximately 0800, the men heard the sound of approaching vehicles. The conditions of visibility were poor at this hour, and the men could not recognize the approaching vehicles. Soon they were able to make out a German motorcycle and command car approaching the bridge. Pfc Connell contacted an infantry officer for instructions, but this officer left the decision to the engineer soldiers. The motorcycle and the command car drove up to the bridge and stopped. The three occupants stepped out and walked onto the bridge, examined the demolitions,  and apparently started to remove the wires and caps. At this moment Tec 5 Kinmon and Pfc Connell detonated the bridge, destroying it, killing the enemy, and disabling the two vehicles.

Company C left Bracht 18 December, at approximately 1100 moving by motor to Grufflingen, Belgium, where they remained until 20 December when tanks of the 9th Armored Division arrived. The company then acting as infantry reserve dug in around the tanks. During the night of 20 December, the 3d platoon received heavy artillery fire resulting in three casualties who were evacuated. On the 21st of December. the 1st platoon moved to a point east of Grufflingen to act as infantry in support of light tanks. Early on the morning of 22 December, a German patrol estimated at ten men, approached the position. The engineers killed the entire patrol without suffering any casualties.

At 1000 on 22 December, the remainder of the company moved by motor to Neuville, near Vielsalm, Belgium. Trucks were sent back for the 1st platoon which followed about 1100. On 23 December the entire company moved to the rear to the vicinity of Sy, Belgium.

3. At St Vith, Belgium from 16 December to 23 December 1944, the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion distinguished itself with such extraordinary heroism, gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in overcoming difficult and hazardous conditions in the face of a numerically superior enemy, as to set this battalion apart and above other units participating in the same engagement.

Major General, U. S. Army Commanding

Incl 1 - Proposed Citation

Incl 2 - Overlay Task force Disposition, 1400 17 Dec 44
Incl 3 - Overlay Task force Disposition, 0300 18 Dec 44
Incl 4 - Overlay Task force Disposition, 2000 18 Dec 44
Incl 5 - Overlay Task force Disposition, 0900 19 Dec 44
Incl 6 - Overlay Task force Disposition, 1600 21 Dec 44
Incl 7 - Overlay Task force Disposition, 0200 22 Dec 44
Incl 8 – After Action Report, 81st Engr C Bn. 16 – 24 Dec 44
Incl 9 – Statement of Col Riggs.



The 81st Engineer Combat Battalion is cited for outstanding performance of duty in armed conflict with the enemy from 16 December 1944 to 23 December 1944. On 16 December 1944 line companies of the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion were deployed on various sectors of the front of the 106th Infantry Division, in support of the three combat teams of the division which were committed in defense of the Schnee Eifel of the Siegfried Line. In the early morning of 16 December 1944, powerful German forces of tank-supported infantry launched a full-scale offensive which eventually surrounded elements of the division and forced other elements to retire slowly as they stubbornly sought to stem the enemy advance. All elements of the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion were from the start of the ensuing decisive action committed as in­fantry and successfully fought without rest or relief for five days to hold an enemy force of far superior numbers and fire power. When the enemy effected local penetrations in the sectors of the three combat teams, the respective line companies of the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion stubbornly counter-attacked and effected delaying actions in Auw, Bleialf, and Winterspelt, Germany. When forced to withdraw with the 424th Regimental Combat Team, Company C, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion, prepared demolitions on bridges and in one case blew the bridge as the enemy stood on it. Members of the same company, despite intense artillery fire and standing in icy waters, used winch cables to pull a large number of trucks abandoned by another unit across a stream and returned them to their unit for use in evacuation. Company B, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion fought steadfastly with the 424 Regimental Combat Team, displaying courage and initiative under heavy fire, until completely cut off from other units of the division. On 17 December 1944 when the enemy effected a serious penetration with armor and infantry in the center of the division sector and were advancing rapidly on the Division Headquarters in the vital road center of St Vith, Belgium. Headquarters and Service Company and remaining elements of A Company, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion, together with other reinforcing engineer troops, were given the mission of stemming the enemy advance. Establishing a defense line astride the road from Schonberg, Belgium to St Vith, they effectively halted the enemy column one mile east of St Vith although they were outnumbered and out-gunned. From 18 December 1944 until the early morning of 22 December 1944 with reinforcements of infantry and armor, those units composed a task force which repeatedly threw back vicious attacks of combined infantry and tank forces, constantly counter-attacking and regaining previous positions when forced to withdraw temporarily. At all times a high fighting spirit was maintained in the face of withering fire from artillery, mortars, and rocket guns. After the position east of St Vith had been completely overrun by a powerful force of infantry and tanks on the night of 21-22 December 1944, elements of Headquarters and Service Company and A Company, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion, formed patrols which harried the enemy's rear and attempted to return to friendly lines until captured two days later. The selfless devotion to duty and unyielding fighting spirit displayed by the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion in the defense of a vital communication center effectively impeded the progress of the extensive German counter-offensive in the Ardennes forest. This display of stubborn courage and initiative under fire in its initial commitment to battle reflects great credit on itself and the armed forces of the United States.          




16 DC 44 Hqs and H & S Co. received 5 rounds enemy artillery fire estimated as 380 mm. from the SE at around 1230-1300. The Co. formed & defensive position around the C.P. The Bn heavy equipment was evacuated to vic of Rodt, Belgium. Co A received enemy shell fire during period 0600 to 0655. At 0600 all three platoons commenced work on roads in regimental area. At approximately 1030 the enemy were reported moving into AUW. The Co. C.O., Capt. Harold M. Harmon, one platoon leader, Lt. Purtell, and about two squads evacuated AUW and returned to Battalion. Seven men of the first platoon later returned to Bn and rejoined their Co. All of Co. A present left at 1230 for Andler to assist 422 Inf. Regt in counter-attack on AUW. The Co. Hqs, under Lt. Rutledge, were reported resisting the enemy from a hilltop near AUW, and later rejoined company. Co. at 1535 reported holding WISSCHEID. In the evacuation of AUW, the 20 T trailer was hit by artillery and the D-6 dozer and trailer were abandoned. The 6 T prime mover pulled a trailer and D-7 dozer from the 168th Engr Combat Bn to safety to the rear. Co B received continuous artillery fire estimated at 380 mm during the morning starting at 0600. The company was atchd to 423 Inf Regt and moved from C.P. at 0930. On the morning of the 16th a patrol led by Lt. Gordon entered Bleialf with mission to drive large enemy patrol from town. The German patrol was pushed out of town and artillery fire from TD laid on them. All heavy equipment was evacuated to the rear. Co. C was alerted to act as Infantry in regimental reserve and formed a defensive position along the ridge running W and S through Hechalenfeld.


17 to 21         Hqs. H & S Co. and Co. A (less third platoon missing since 0800, 16 Dec 44 and first platoon missing since action near AUW) moved to vic Rodt, Belgium, at 0900. At approximately 1100 the first platoon of Co A re­ported to the Hq at Rodt having entered St Vith, and reported to Div Hq during the night. At approximately 1200 H & S Co. and Co. A moved to a defensive position 1000 yards east of St Vith. This position held for five days against repeated attacks by the enemy. (See attached copy “Narrative of Defense of St Vith by companies A and H & S, 81st Combat Battalion” and accompanying map) Co B. atchd to the 423d Inf. Regt. was not heard from after the patrol was reported entering Bleialf. Co C attached to the 424th Inf Regt fell back with the withdrawal of the Regt after preparing the Bailey Bridge at (870773) for demolition. At the Our River, 23 vehicles of the 424 Service Co. were winched across the river and evacuated to the rear, having been found abandoned. At approximately 2300 on 21 Dec 44 units of Co A and H & S Co began arriving at Div fed echelon at Vielsalm. Belgium.


22 DEC 44     All contact with Co B was beyond possibility. The battalion began reorganization with Major Walter A. Marshall, former Executive Officer as Commanding Officer. At 1930 the unit moved by motor to vicinity of Ferrieres, Belgian, leaving a forward C.P. at Vielsalm (Major Walter A. Marshall, Major Harry D. Evans, Capt. Hal M. Moseley) to assist in the withdrawal of the units across the river through the town.

23 to 24      Advance C.P. withdrew from Vielsalm and rejoined unit at Ferrieres (785025).  At 231700 battalion ( (-) C and B Cos) moved to Sy, Belgium (463030) closing in at 1810.



(signed) Marvin H. Rusch

Captain, Field Artillery

Assistant to ACofS, G-1.




Voluntarily returning to the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion after having been in turn a German POW from 23 December 1944 to 23 January 1948, an escapee in Poland for two days, and finally an American with the Russian forces for a period of approximately Eight weeks, the undersigned has furnished most of the material in the foregoing narrative.

As one time commander and later executive officer of the task force and as an evader after the fall of St Vith, the undersigned was able to supply most of the details of the operations around St Vith 17-23 December 1945, as covered in the foregoing narrative.

As Commanding Officer of the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion, the undersigned is deeply concerned, that the Engineer Battalion on its secondary mission as infantry in

its first battle action be duly recognized for its courage and tenacious resistance against a constantly greater enemy force.


(Signed) -Thomas J. Riggs, Jr.


Lt Col. 81st Engr © Bn


Page last revised 09/10/2016
James D. West