By Milton Wassgren - 106th US Infantry Division

81st Engineer Battalion

Many Americans have misconceptions of World War II. Many believe that most of the men in the service were in combat. While many soldiers were in a combat zone, only one out of 11 saw actual combat - that is, seeking and contacting the enemy in battle.

Another misconception was the duration of a given battle. Most were not even four months long. One of the most highly publicized battles of World War II was Iwo Jima which lasted for four days. Wars can last for years and may include many separate battles. The survival of the average infantryman in actual battle in World War II was days or hours - either being killed,' wounded, or taken prisoner.

Our Unit, the 81st Combat Engineer Bn, went overseas the first part of November, 1944. We were stationed in England a short time. The pubs were interesting. These were to be the only passes I had overseas.

Many of the men of our unit had some college. It was said, as a unit, we were the unit with highest I.Q. to cross the English Channel in World War II. We worked our way through France, Luxemburg and into Belgium to the village of Auw, Germany on the German-Belgium border. This area was a holding front at that time. We moved into civilian homes, whether they liked it or not. You really didn't know if these people were friend or foe. Four of us lived with a mother and daughter. The cattle were on one side of the house and we were on the other side. The manure was piled out in front with just a path to walk through to the house. One morning, I couldn't find my combat boots. The daughter had placed them in the warming closet of the cook stove. That certainly was a friendly gesture. No doubt, she had the hots for my body! There certainly wasn't much sex appeal there with the dirty overalls! So much for potential front-line sex!
Shortly after moving into these front-line positions, all hell broke loose. This was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. Six divisions hit us as a complete surprise attack. U.S. Intelligence had been sleeping at the stick so we had no warning of this attack. Our units were involved in Hitler's greatest offense of the war. It was the largest involvement of soldiers in battle in history. In the first week of battle, two of our infantry regiments were wiped out - approximately 7,000 men were killed, wounded or captured. The attack was well planned. The weather was foggy so we had no air support. The Germans shined huge lights on low-hanging clouds at night. The area was lit up like day so the enemy could move at night. After the initial attack, we were ordered to reform our lines on high ground outside the town of St. Vith, Belgium. We were sacrificed to hold back the enemy as long as possible while new lines of defense were formed to the rear. St. Vith was a very important road junction and we were highly commended for our defense of it. Military history tells us that without the stand at St. Vith, there would have never been a Bastogne. Bastogne, Belgium was 30 miles to our rear.

Back on the hill, we had a very good vantage point of a main road into St. Vith. We snipped Krauts as they came down the road. It was like shooting metal ducks in a shooting gallery. They would respond, firing 88's at our position. The shells would burst in the beautiful pine trees, scattering shrapnel all over the place.

One of the first days on the hill, the engineers laid daizy mine chains across some small roads. I had laid a seven-mine chain. It was snowing so the mines were well camouflaged. We had started to move out of this area when I saw a jeep with three men in it coming down the road. I ran to warn the men of the mines but was too late. The jeep and the men flew high in the air. What I thought was a disaster, turned out to be a satisfying experience. The dead soldiers wore the insignia of Hitler's S.S. Troops - they were driving one of our captured jeeps. This was a special prize after hearing word of a massacre in the Malmedy area. A short 15 miles down the road from our positions, a group of American G.I.'s had been captured near the village of Baugnez. Baugnez is a road junction 2 1/2 miles southeast of Malmedy on Route 23.

Milton Wassgren was taken prisoner by the Germans together with the majority of the 106th Infantry Division

Read his complete wartime recollections here.

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