World War II

Though the United States had not formally entered the war in Europe, it did begin preparations for involvement in the conflict.  England had already declared war, and the United States was contributing supplies and equipment to their war effort.  With its preparations for war, the United States began activating units not active since World War I.  One of these was the 42nd Engineers.  

Activated at Fort Benning on 1 June 1940, the 42nd Engineers was under the command of Colonel Raymond F. Fowler.  In September and October 1940, the battalion constructed two camps:  Camp Shelby, Mississippi and Camp Beauregard, Louisiana.  The former is still used as a National Guard camp, primarily for the noncommissioned officer academy and local training area.  Their duties at each camp were to construct a camp for a division of 15,000 officers and men.  Facilities constructed included mess halls, mess tables, incinerators, wooden tent floors, and complete electric and water systems.  The battalion also drove a well and built a water tower.

The battalion returned to Fort Benning, Georgia on 1 November 1940 to concentrate on completing basic training, which was conducted as an entire unit.  This was a tremendous task with the arrival of several hundred selective service draftees.  Throughout 1941, the 20th trained and participated in the Louisiana Maneuvers.  In July 1942, the battalion left Fort Benning for a temporary home at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.  It was here that the 42nd was redesignated as the 20th Engineer Combat Regiment on 1 August 1942.

The 1st Battalion, 20th Engineer Combat Regiment boarded the USAT Cristobal on 1 November 1942 and landed on 19 November 1942 at Casablanca, French North Africa (now Morocco), where they established a bivouac area at Priscine.  

TUNISIA

While in Tunisia Colonel Eugene Caffey, the Regimental Commander, invented coded directional markers to be used to distinguish property.  This distinctive sign, a wavy arrow, soon gave the 20th the nickname of the "Wavy Arrow."  The 20th began the longest motor march in its history here.  It moved across French North Africa, over the Atlas Mountains, more than 1100 miles, through Meknes, Fez, Oujda, Tlemcen (Algeria), Relizane, L'Arba, Setif and into Tebessa.  Tebessa was the "gateway to the war."  Here the commander of 1st Battalion, MAJ J. E. Sonnefield "gave one of his blood-and-thunder speeches to the officers and NCO's."

On 26 March 1943 1st Battalion, 20th Engineers moved to the vicinity of Kasserine.  After laying mine belts around the bivouac areas, the battalion went to work on the roads.  The Bekkaria-Thelepte-Sbeitla road was top priority as it was to become a major supply road for II Corps.  The battalion built roads, culverts, dug ditches, hauled rock and Company C, hauling road material in Sbeitla, met its first S-mines in a bloody affair that left one dead and eight wounded.

On 5 April 1943 the regiment was alerted as II Corps reserve and ordered to move.  The 1st Infantry Division and the 1st Armored Division had just defeated the Germans and Italians around El Guettar and Maknassy, and the 20th was moving to that location as reserve should a counterattack come.  The Germans never counterattacked and the British 8th Army, pursuing the Afrika Korps up from Southern Tunisia, linked up with II Corps at gabes.  Rommel was now staging his masterly retreat to Northern Tunisia.  On 8 April the regiment moved back to the vicinity of Kasserine and took up its road building and mine-clearing duties.

1st Battalion minus Company C was used in support of the IX British Corps and on 10 May moved north to the vicinity of Pichon.  The 1st Battalion primarily conducted maintenance of the British's supply routes.  On 15 April the 1st Battalion rejoined the regiment at Kasserine and on 17 April the 20th Engineers was on the move again.  Northward through Thala, LeKef, and Souk-el Arba, over the mountains, through Lacroix and LaCalle, the regiment moved with General Bradley's II Corps to Northern Tunisia.  On 25 May 1943 Colonel Caffey left the Regiment to take command of Engineer Special Brigade.  He was replaced by Colonel Arnold who was killed by a concrete mine on 6 June 1943.  Colonel Daley assumed command of the regiment.

After a day at Roum-es-Souk repairing vehicles that had failed during the march, the regiment moved near Djebel Abiod.  Two days later the 1st Battalion moved along the road that led from Sedjenane to Cap Serrat on the Mediterranean Sea.  The battalion was to improve this road into a main supply route for the forthcoming attack.  On 6 June, the 1st Battalion rejoined the regiment at El Alia across the lake from Bizerte.  At El Alia the battalion began an intensive  training period that included close order drill, infantry training, minefield emplacement, work with the treadway bridge, ranges, and arduous foot marches.  On 23 June the regiment boarded LCI's in the Lac de Bizerte and landed on Yellow Beach on 26 June.  The 16 mile march back to El Alia was difficult with soldiers carrying packs, gas masks and arms, light and heavy machine guns, bazookas, ammunition, mine detectors and radios.  

SICILY

The regiment again boarded the LCIs on 5 July for another training mission.  On 6 July 1943 the 1st Battalion left the Bizerte Harbor and pulled around Cap Bone to Sousse.  Finally the battalion was informed that it was to invade Sicily as part of George Patton's Seventh Army.  Passing within sight of Malota on 9 July and landing at 1230 on 10 July 2 miles east of Licata.  The 1st Battalion, less Company A, was attached to the 3rd Division and moved inland and took up defensive positions on the hills surrounding the beachhead.  The next day, they marched to Licata and took over guard of the city.

On 12 July1943, 1st Battalion moved by truck to the extreme eastern flank of the 3rd Division's beachhead and took up defensive positions in an Italian trench and pillbox system.  While sitting on the hill east of Licata, the battalion was able to listen to radio reports, giving them the "big picture."  The 82nd Airborne dropped during the night while the 1st, 3rd, 45th, and 2nd Armored Divisions followed the paratroopers in assault craft.  The American forces had landed on the southern side of the island, while the British 8th Army landed in the east around Syracuse.  

On 15 July the 1st Battalion moved to the vicinity of Palma.  On the 17th they moved to Agrigento to quell riots and spent a day hunting souvenirs and taking Italian prisoners who were tired of the war.  They spent the next day taking out obstacles, removing road blocks and filling tank traps in the Agrigento-Porto Empedocle area.  On 18 July 1943, the regiment was released from the 3rd Division and assigned to the 7th Army.  From Agrigento they worked north, following the 3rd Division.  The regiment remained in Sicily until November.

SCOTLAND

On 18 November 1943, the 20th boarded the USAT Sloterdyke in Palermo Harbor and moved west through the Mediterranean Sea and the Strait of Gibralter.  On 24 November, the ship anchored off Greenock, Scotland.  The men left the Sloterdyke on 27 November and boarded a train in Greenock for Devizes.  On 5 December, they left Devizes by trained and traveled to Truro, Cornwall.  Initial preparations were made for Exercise Duck, the first of the great rehearsals for the invasion of the European Continent.  The 20th received the mission of building tent camps to house the participating troops.

On 21 January 1944, the 20th Engineer Combat Regiment was officially redesignated.  Combat Regiments were a thing of the past and the 20th had been one of the few remaining.  From redesignation, the 20th Engineer Combat Battalion was formed and personnel and equipment were taken from the first battalion of the old regiment.

The battalion after redesignation, continued working on two construction projects, Rolero and Overlord.  Both concerned the housing facilities for the concentration of forces needed in the assault of the continent.  Late in January, the 20th was relieved of all construction tasks and was assigned the task of widening the roads leading to Hards on the Fall River.  

On 10 February 1944, the 20th was officially relieved from attachment to the Southern Base section and attached to V Corps.  That same day the battalion moved to Wellington, England to start training for the invasion.

On 1 March 1944, the 20th was notified that it had been selected by the 1st Infantry Division to support the unit in the assault on the continent.  On 2 March they left by train for Dorchester to participate in Special Exercise Fox, a simulated assault on a hostile shore.  

 

OMAHA BEACH AND FRANCE

On 5 June 1944, the 20th sailed into the English Channel in the midst of the greatest convoy of assault craft the world ever assembled.  The unit landed on Omaha Beach off the Normandy Coast, supporting the men of the 16th Infantry in the advance on the beach.  The 20th was given the task of removing mines and obstacles to move the supporting vehicles off the beach.

As the LCI's moved past the support ships toward the beach, officers of the 20th began to feel as if something had gone awry.  Why were there so many dead on the beaches?  Had the 16th actually made it off the beach, or were they cut to shreds by the entrenched Germans?  The 16th and the rest of the 1st Infantry Division did make it onto and through Omaha Beach, and the 20th followed and cleared the beach for inbound vehicles, ammunitions, and supplies.  

Elsewhere, the men learned that the invasion had gone basically as planned.  The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions had jumped into Normandy to disrupt German communications.  The 1st and 29th landed at "Bloody Omaha" and had pushed inland.  At Point du Hoc the Rangers had scramble up the cliffs and knocked out the coastal guns.  On Utah Beach the 4th and part of the 90th came ashore.  From Port-en-Bessin eastward the British and Canadians had gone ashore and drove inland toward Bayeaux.

From 7 to 14 June 1944, the 20th supported the rapid advance of the 1st Division.  On 12 July, the 20th received another assignment to support the 5th Division.  The new assignment required the movement of the unit to Littry where the men did a vast amount of road work and mine clearance.  During 9 to 16 August, the 20th was busy clearing debris and rubble and opening the road nets through the battered city of Vire.

Again the 20th was on the move with a long march on 17 August to Mortill.  Here the Battalion received the mission of supporting the 80th Division in the push against the southern rim of the Falaixe Pocket.  When the Falaixe Pocket was eliminated, the 20th joined the pursuit to the east and moved through newly liberated towns lined with cheering crowd to the city limits of Paris.  On 26 August and for the next four days after the liberation of Paris, the 20th performed engineer and bridge reconnaissance in and around Paris.  They removed roadblocks from the boulevards, guarded captured engineer dumps, and constructed the reviewing stand for the Victory Parade.

The 20th left France, passed through Belgium, and entered Luxembourg on 11 September 1944.  The unit was now in support of the 28th Division, pushing northeast.  All of northern France and Belgium was cleared of the German troops and all Allied forces had reached the German border.  Here the Americans encountered the Siegfried Line, but the wait for supplies had given the enemy time to secure the defenses there.

The 28th Division had driven a small wedge into the famous line and the 20th had the mission of maintaining the supply routes.  With the Autumn rains, the earthen roads, under heavy traffic, rapidly became rivers of mud.  The 20th opened several quarries and poured rock onto the roads in an effort to maintain the routes.  On 6 October, the battalion moved to a pine forest on the outskirts of Camp Elsenborn where they set up their bivouac in support of the 28th Division.  Pre-fabricated buildings were erected to sere as combination mess halls and day rooms.  During this time the 20th improved the supply roads in the division area and trained at Robertville Lake in assault crossing techniques for the prospective Rhine crossing.

The Siegfried Line had been pierced by both the 1st and 9th Divisions, but before the assembled troops could cross the Roer River and burst onto the Cologne Plain, it was essential that the Roer Dams be seized.  These great earth dams had been built by the Germans as part of their Western defenses, and if there blown while Allied forces crossed the Roer, the resulting floods would destroy or cut off any advance into the flat Roer Valley.  Thus the Roer River was the key to the attack, and the town of Schmidt, perched on a hill above the Roer River, where it controlled all approaches.  On 26 October, the 20th was in direct support of the 122nd Infantry Regiment of the 28th Division in the attack on Schmidt.

The attack began with the 20th following the assaulting infantry.  Their mission was to open and maintain a supply road from Germeter to Schmidt.  The men labored valiantly under heavy artillery fire.  The Germans counterattacked in great strength and drove the 28th Division from Schmidt.  The 20th was committed as infantry to hold the enemy along the line of the Kall River.  This was the most costly fighting in which the battalion had engaged, as their positions were under constant artillery and mortar fire.

In the middle of November, the 28th Division was relieved and its place taken by the 8th Division, but the 20th remained in the Hurtgen Forest battling the mud.  In December, the Germans made an appearance in greater strength than the battalion had ever seen.  Striking with overwhelming armor forces in the thinly held areas, the Germans broke through the Allied lines.  The 20th was pulled out of the Hurtgen Forest on 20 December and sent down to La Reid, Belgium.  Their mission was to set up secondary defense barriers of minefields and to prepare trees for demolition.

The Germans attacked the Allied lines with the ultimate objective of reaching Antwerp and the sea and thus cutting off the 38 Allied divisions.  The Allied line held, and the line lost momentum as the German supply lines were stretched over many miles.  Snow came to the Ardennes, and the 20th was kept busy day and night removing drifts and keeping the lifelines open to the divisions holding the Germans back.

In February 1945, spring arrived and the snow vanished.  Under the heavy traffic of troop movements, the mission of maintaining the roads became a demanding task.  For the first time in their history, the Battalion had the infantry supporting them in an effort to maintain supply routes.

Supporting the 9th Armored Division, the 20th again crossed the Siegfried Line, removing mines and performing other general engineer work.  The 20th crossed the Rhine River, and once across, moved far from the waters of the Rhine, dashing east over the Autobahn to Weilberg, where Companies A and C built Bailey bridges.  Then from Weilberg to Kassel, the battalion removed obstacles and cleared roads.

In May 1945, the 20th moved in convoy to Munchberg.  Victory was near, and it was only appropriate that the 20th should end the campaign by again supporting the Big Red One.  One of the outstanding accomplishments of the 20th during this time was the construction of a huge prisoner of war compound for some 100,000 German prisoners.  The Battalion also traveled into Czechoslovakia, replacing destroyed bridges with permanent ones of timber and steel.

Throughout its three years of intermittent combat in the European theater, the 20th fought hard and well.  General Patton once said: "Give me the 1st Division and the 20th Engineers and I'll go anywhere!"  On 31 May 1945, in a formal review at Suxice, the unit colors were decorated with the blue streamer of the Distinguished Unit Citation.  The unit had earned this coveted award in the action of D-Day nearly a year before, but never in that busy year had the 20th found time for formal presentation.  Under the War Department General Order #67, August 1944, the citation reads:

The 20th Engineer Combat Battalion is cited for outstanding performance of duty in action.  The 20th Engineer Combat Battalion was attached to the 16th Infantry with the mission of clearing the beach obstacles within the tidal range of the beach form vicinity of Vierville-sur-Mer to Coleville-sur-Mer on 6 June 1944.  In the execution of this mission the battalion came ashore under artillery, mortar, rifle, grenade, machine gun, and small arms fire.  Despite persistent enemy activity, the 20th Engineer Combat Battalion, with courageous determination and tenacity of purpose, cleared gaps in barbed wire and minefields to gain the beach.  The operation was especially complicated because infantry and other troops were within the danger radius of obstacle demolitions.  Working at times ahead of the infantry, the engineer cleared a beach exit through antitank ditches, roadblocks, and minefields to insure the infantry's uninterrupted advance.  Although heavy casualties and loss of vital equipment, the battalion, by splendid foresight and technical skill, gallantly accomplished its difficult mission in a manner consistent with the highest traditions of the military service.  The courageous prosecution of these extremely perilous tasks in the face of overwhelming odds and deadly enemy opposition is deserving of the highest praise.

In addition to the unit citation, the 20th earned streamers for participation in the campaigns in Algeria, French Morocco, Tunisia, Sicily, Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe.  For its part in the Normandy Invasion, the 20th received the French Croix de Guerre with the following citation:

Valorous Unit which especially distinguished itself during the disembarkment  operation of 6 June 1944.  Having been given the mission of clearing up the beach from Vierville-sur-Mer to Coleville-sur-Mer, it accomplished its mission in advance of the infantry, under violent enemy artillery fire, and with the most absolute disregard for death.  It thus permitted the regular and uninterrupted advance of the Allied infantry.  The citation carries with it the award of the Croix de Guerre with the star of Vermeil.

The 20th remained in Europe until 30 March 1946, performing general engineer work.  It was deactivated in Frankfurt, Germany and returned to the United States.  This ended the 20th Engineer Battalion's participation in World War II and was the second time in 30 years that the unit had been deactivated.  The battalion would only remain inactive for four years and would return to Germany in 15 years.

--End of Chapter 2, World War II