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17th Armored Engineer Battalion in World War 2

17th Engineers during World War Two

Treadway bridge “Roosevelt Bridge” across the “Elbe river”, at Westerhusen, Germany on April 13-14, 1945

Bridge across the Elbe river before being shelled by 88's on April 14 -15, 1945. (Photo owner: Benjamin Heylen ASBL Musée du Souvenir 40 45)

Bridge across the Elbe river before being shelled by 88’s on April 14 -15, 1945. (Photo owner: Benjamin Heylen
ASBL Musée du Souvenir 40 www.museedusouvenir.be 

American serviceman and a German woman posing with a sign that reads  "Roosevelt Bridge dedicated to our late great Commander in-chief 2nd Armored Div." ; another serviceman is standing on the steps of the building in the background.  Personal caption on front: "The only bridge we failed to finish (Elbe) ." Westerhusen, Germany. April 1945

American serviceman and a German woman posing with a sign that reads
“Roosevelt Bridge dedicated to our late great Commander in-chief 2nd Armored Div.” another serviceman is standing on the steps of the building in the background. Personal caption on front: “The only bridge we failed to finish (Elbe). ” Westerhusen, Germany. April 1945. (Courtesy of Rob Joliff and ww2online.org)


Constructed by: 

17th Armored Engineer Battalion, Company  “D” construct the bridge with Company “E” equipment and the 82nd Engineers to furnish assault boats for the crossing of Infantry

Date: 

13-14 april 1945

Build in time: 

Two days, unfinshed
Start at 1045 Friday the 13th april
Abort constructing at 1400 on 14th april

Place:  

Elbe river, at Westerhusen, five miles south of Magdeburg

((r)D703925 *  original map location from the After Action report in google maps: 52°04’00.3″N 11°40’47.4″E)

Length: 

560 feet of Treadway


Attack at Westerhusen 13 – 14 April 1945


Information from the Unit History

Combat Command “B” was given the mission of making a bridgehead across the Elbe River south of Magdeburg. The city had not been taken, was known to contain numerous AA guns, otherwise was believed to be lightly defended. The site of the bridging operation was decided en, after a reconnaissance by Captains Youngblood (“D” Co.) and McAdams (“E” Co.) at a ferry landing by the town of Wester Husen, five miles south of Magdeburg. The Plan was for Co. “D” to construct the bridge with Co. “E” equipment and the 82nd Engrs to furnish assault boats for the crossing of Infantry.

With the Bridge Co and Bn Hq at Gr Ottersleben, four miles  from the site, preparatory work was carried out there the night before the operation:  floats were blown up, saddles  attached, and were loaded on dump trucks, 15 having ben furnished by the 82nd Engrs, Lt. Col. Correll moved his CP into Wester Husen, all of “D”  Co  assembled there, and “E” Co moved its equipment into town. During the afternoon of 12 April enemy- artillery began a sporadic shelling of the site which lasted through the night. AA and indirect tank fire, obviously observed, continued harassing, and when the bridging operation began, was intensified.

Assembling of the Infantry (1/41) took more time than had been planned on, and it was 1000 when they began crossing. At 1045 Friday the l3th work began on the bridge. Two raft construction sites  were manned by the 1st  and 3rd  Platoons of Co. “D” plus one squad from the 2nd Platoon;  the other two squads, under Lt. Hillenbrand, were at the bridge assembly  site. Organization for the job was continually interfered with by the incoming artillery, but the job was gradually reaching out front shore. Work proceeded through the afternoon and night, until 0600 when a heavy barrage forced everyone to take cover. Three floats near shore were completely destroyed, and two hours later, when work  was resumed, floats near shore that were destroyed were deflated, removed, and others inserted. Other intense barrages called halts to the work later in the morning. Several of the workers were blown off a float by shell blast, but returned to the job. Probably the most distinguished act of heroism was that of Pfc Leo E. Rinkel of Co. “E” who by himself evacuated several wounded soldiers  from the far shore by two trips with the power boat under heavy fire. With the precariousness of the situation fully realized by higher headquarters, when the crews started back to the site at 1400 they were told that the job was called off. By this time 560 feet of tread way had been laid, extending to within a short distance of the far shore, but the finished portion held at least five punctured floats.


Information from:
the Official After action report from April 1st, 1945 to april 30th, 1945

12 April the Battalion (Plus) moved to Oschersleben, Germany (D4187) and again to Gr. Ottersleben, Germany (D6494). Here Company Dog and Company Easy started construction of a bridge across the Elbe River south of Magdeburg D703925 * at 2300B. The bridge construction was stopped at 0600B, 13 April by artillery fire, was resumed later and stopped again at 1245B the same day by intense artillery fire. This site was abandoned and a large portion of the floats were damaged. The bridge lacked only 36 feet being completed.

* D703925 *  original map location in google maps: 52°04’00.3″N 11°40’47.4″E


Information from: the Distinctive Unit Citation 17th Engineers, Easy Company

The Boston Globe, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States of America 17 Jul 1945, Tue

The Boston Globe, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States of America 17 Jul 1945, Tue

Citation Company E 17th Armored Engineer Battalion. Courtesy of NARA, the Truman Library

Citation Company E 17th Armored Engineer Battalion. Courtesy of NARA, the Truman Library

 Later during the attempted crossing of the Elbe River, the heroism and complete devotion to duty demonstrated by each individual in refusing to abandon the project, even when the bridge was repeatedly destroyed by enemy fire, reflect great credit upon the organization and are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service.

 


Information Wikipedia:

At 11:00 p.m. on April 11th, an enemy alarm was given for Magdeburg , US units had advanced to the outskirts of Ottersleben . [70] This came as a relatively surprising surprise to the population, since the advance of American troops had taken place very quickly. The Wehrmacht report reported on the evening of April 11 of the advance of American troops in the area north and south of Hanover , [71]so clearly more than 100 kilometers west of Westerhüsen. In fact, the U.S. troops had covered about 90 kilometers during April 11 and had reached Schönebeck and the western suburbs of Magdeburg. On the evening of April 11, the Americans made their way to Magdeburg airfield . According to a report, the Diana forced labor camp on the western edge of Westerhüsens was also reached on April 11, shortly after the enemy alarm was given. [72]

On April 12, 1945, American units, coming from the west via Wolfsfelde , initially advanced to Salbke and thus reached the west bank of the Elbe. Everyday things like newspaper delivery are said to have been normal until April 11th. The US troops occupied the west bank of the Elbe and thus Westerhüsen without much resistance. They also moved into the villages of Sülldorf , Dodendorf , Osterweddingen and Sohlen and made contact with the US troops involved in the fighting in Schönebeck.

Information spread among the population and among the liberated foreign and forced laborers that south of Westerhüsen in the silos at the entrance to Schönebeck – Frohse there was a food warehouse of the Wehrmacht. Many people went there to get food. German snipers are said to have opened fire from the east bank of the Elbe. 19 people are said to have been shot. 

The American troops decided to quickly cross the Elbe near Westerhüsen near the Westerhüsen ferry and to form a bridgehead on the east bank. The operation was delayed due to logistical problems. Instead at 18.30 it was finally ended at 21.30 with assault boats through. Tanks and tank destroyers secured the crossing in Westerhüsen. There was no resistance at first. The troops above formed a semicircular bridgehead of about one kilometer in length on the Prinzenwiese . Already around midnight two battalions were transferred, another followed. American pioneer units started a pontoon bridge around 10:45 p.m.to build. The corresponding components had been prefabricated in the Ottersleben area . There were isolated German artillery fires. In the early morning of April 13, shelling at the bridge construction site intensified and became more precise. [73] The impacts came over a few hundred meters up the river to the construction site. [74] While the American troops expanded the bridgehead and advanced through the Kreuzhorst to Pechau and took Randau without a fight, the bridge construction continued. Heavy artillery shelling, probably from Magdeburg flak artillery, hit eight meters before reaching the east bank, [75]the bridge. The eastern end was destroyed in no time. The shelling then targeted specific US facilities on the west bank. The artillery attack was apparently directed by a control center with complete insight into the translation point, without the Allies being able to locate the observation post. The American troops searched all of the riverside houses in Westerhüsens, but to no avail. [76]Due to bad weather conditions, the location of the artillery could not be determined. The construction work was interrupted and then continued from 9:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Artillery shells hit the bridge again, this time on both sides. Several US soldiers died and most of the floating bridge parts were destroyed. Artificial smoke screens produced by US pioneers using smoke pots on both banks also had no effect. [74] Around 2 p.m. an attempt was made to resume construction. However, there was another heavy attack. [77]In a short time, both Bugsier boats, the bridge parts ready for construction on the west bank and an American anti-aircraft gun were destroyed. Several soldiers lost their lives in the process. Allied efforts to break the bridge were stopped and the remaining pioneering equipment was evacuated under constant fire. The US troops in the bridgehead, which had been hit by German troops coming from Gommern , were then largely moved south towards Schönebeck. German troops from Gommern attacked the US troops that had advanced to Elbenau . After fighting in the Elbenau and Grünewalde area, the US bridgehead ultimately had to be cleared by the US troops. [78]German units advanced north from there and again occupied the banks of the Elbe opposite Westerhüsen. The remains of the raft bridge were destroyed with bazookas and explosive charges. [79] 220, according to US data, 350 US soldiers were captured in the fighting for the bridgehead. [80] Only with the later entry of Soviet troops into the Magdeburg districts east of the Elbe did the warfare stop there as well.


Information Newspapers:

Article about Co E, 17th Armored Engineer Battalion from  Paper Hell on Wheels June 13 1945 Photo.( Courtesy Dave Ketchpaw):

Article about Co E from Hell on Wheels June 13 1945 Photo. Courtesy Dave Ketchpaw

Article about Co E from Hell on Wheels June 13 1945 Photo. Courtesy Dave Ketchpaw


Exerpt from Article: 

The next job was the Elbe, and south of Magdeburg Companies “D” and “E” worked under intense artillery fire, well zeroed in, to build 560 feet of bridge and almost reach the far shore before work was stopped.


The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America) · 14 Apr 1945

The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America) · 14 Apr 1945

SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 1945

SECOND ELBE CROSSING—The 9th Army today won a new bridgehead across the Elbe. An un-official source placed the new crossing at Barby (small arrow). The 3d Armored Division advanced up to 30 miles to within 3 miles of Dessau. Shaded portions show the Allied and Russian squeeze on Berlin. Large arrow marks the first crossing of the Elbe.

Yanks 18 Miles From Czech Border

[Continued From Page 1] half of her 58 cities of more than 100,000 population. British Gains In North The British 2d Army cut loose in the north in an advance to Uelsen; 49 miles southeast of Hamburg. The Canadians fought to within seven miles of the North Sea and onto the approaches of Emden. The Hell on Wheels 2nd Armored Division of the 9th Army had established a firm bridgehead over the Elbe in the Magdeburg area, 97 miles from the capital and was progressing slowly. The 17th Engineers Corps was forced to proceed slowly with bridging the 450-foot river because the Germans had the site under direct observa-tion and heavy artillery fire. The 5th Division north of Magdeburg was closer to Berlin-45 miles away. Bridging the Elbe presents even greater difficulties than the Roer or Rhine Associated Press Correspondent W. Gallagher said. The main fire on the bridge, head came from the flak batteries.


The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Hamilton, Ohio, United States of America) · 4 Aug 1953

Sergeon James F Mills The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Hamilton, Ohio, United States of America) · 4 Aug 1953

Death Claims Dr. J. F. Mills, Honored For Heroism In War
Dr. James F. Mills, Mt. Washington physician, died early yesterday at Jewish Hospital follow-ing a four year illness. Dr. Mills, who lived at 6341 Beechmont Ave, was 43 years old. In World War II. Dr. Mills was a battalion surgeon In the Seventeenth Combat Engineers of the Second Armored Division. The late Gen. George Patton awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross for performlne 30 continu-ous hours of surgery when under heavy German artillery fire during an assault near the Elbe River April 11 to 14, 1945. For his heroism he also was awarded the Bronze Star and the Belgian Croix De Guerre. Dr. Mills was the only physician present during the assault. A life-long resident of this area, he was a member of the Academy of Medicine, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans, Dr. Mills is survived by his widow, Mrs. Augusta A. Mills, and a son, James A. Mills, 16, a student at Walnut Hills High School. Services will be held at 2:30 p. m. tomorrow at the T. P. White funeral home, Burial will be in Spring Grove. Dr. Daniel E. Earley, president of the Academy of Medicine, yesterday appointed the following pallbearers for the funeral: Doctors Arthur K. Joerling, Sander Goodman, William C. Langdon, Richard S. Tyler, Theodore Binge and Francis M, Oxley,
R. Stanbery, Merwin R. Craw-ford, Gregory T. Desjardins, C Duval, William I. Bald-win and C. Harrison Dss lent. Services are to be held at 3 p. m. today at the Cincinnati residence, 5 Madison ln., East Walnut Hills. Burial will be in Spring Grove. 


The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Hamilton, Ohio, United States of America) · 28 Sep 1945

Dr J Mills – The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Hamilton, Ohio, United States of America) · 28 Sep 1945

SURGEON Is Cited For Heroism 

At Advance Station Near Elbe River Crossing.

Three Other Greater Cincinnati Veterans Are Presented With Bronze Stars.

Bronze Star medals for “heroic action” have been awarded to two Cincinnatians, for service in Europe and the Pacific. Capt. James F. Mills, 6341 Beech, mont Ave., Mt. Washington, who was battalion surgeon of the 17th Combat Engineers of the Second Armored Division, a Ninth Army unit, was cited for his courage in reconnoitering for and establishing a forward aid station on the west bank of the Elbe River near the site of a proposed bridge. Th action took place April 11-14 before and during the assault across the Elbe south of Madgeburg and 12 miles from Berlin.  “He organized his detachment and planned his evacuation routes for the immediate handling of casualties,” the citation reads. “While primarily designed to care for engineer casualties, the lack of other similar facilities forced Captain Mills and his men to care for infantry, anti aircraft and other f casualties as well as their own men.

“EXAMPLE TO MEN”

“Captain Mills, who was the only medical officer present, worked for 30 hours at a stretch, directing his men and performing as much surgery as the limited means al lowed. He coolly continued his work under Intense artillery fire, exposing himself where necessary to direct evacuation or to administer immediate aid. His leadership and professional , ability were an example to his men who never faltered. Besides his Bronze Star, Captain Mills is entitled, to wear the red-and-green cord looped over the shoulder which signifies the award of the Four de Guerre by the Belgium government to the Second Armored Division. The Second is the only foreign outfit to receive this award. Gen. George S. Patton, the Second’s original commanding officer, sent a personal letter of congratulation to his successor on the division’s successful crossing of the Rhine in 10 hours. The Captain wears four battle star also on his theater ribbon. “Progress in medical science is the only good resulting from war,” Captain Mills said, “but the Jeep was Hitler’s secret weapon.” Describing another aspect of the al most unanimously praised little buggy, he told how one hospital visited had half its beds filled with victims of Jeep accidents.


Information from intervieuw: 17th Engineer Ralph Kephardt (source: The Courier (Waterloo, Iowa, United States of America) · 15 Dec 2014)

Kephardt The Courier (Waterloo, Iowa, United States of America) · 15 Dec 2014

Kephardt The Courier (Waterloo, Iowa, United States of America) · 15 Dec 2014

……his closest call came a short time later, when German artillery shot up and sunk their bridge as troops were about to cross the Elbe River. Two companies of U.S. troops who had already crossed had to be retrieved by boat to be saved from the Germans. Many were. Some weren’t. During the artillery barrage,
Kephardt and a buddy, taking cover under their trucks, decided to make a break for a stone house they thought would provide better shelter. “We got to the door of that house, and an explosion blew us both right into the house. In fact, it blew me over the top of him;’ Kephardt said. “We stayed in that house and they hit that house two or three times and we decided we’d better get out of there They and two other comrades taking shelter grabbed a truck and escaped. Kephardt said he took a piece of shrapnel in his head but never sought a Purple Heart. “It didn’t hurt me. It just burned,” he shrugged. “That was the worst deal I ever got into. They just blew hell out of stuff!” His unit withdrew several miles to be reequipped and returned to the same crossing — only to now find it occupied by Soviet troops who had advanced upon the Germans from the other direction…….

Read more here about 17th Engineer Ralph Kephart: The story of Ralph Edward Kephart


Current location: 

 (r)D703925 *  original map location from the After Action report in google maps: 52°04’00.3″N 11°40’47.4″E

Current location at Westerhusen, Germany crossing on 13 – 14 April 1945


Research M. Brandjes 2019, edited april 2020 Martijn Brandjes and Arjen Kok.