First Person War Stories

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Col. Bill Gara: Leading the First Engineer Battalion in World War II, Part I

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Col. Bill Gara: Leading the First Engineer Battalion in World War II, Part I

Col. Bill Gara tells stories of the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion of the 1st Infantry, which he led from the 1944 Normandy landings through May of 1945. Gara served from North Africa to Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge.

See additional photos and learn more about the 1st Engineer Battalion at and tune in next time to hear the rest of his interview on Warriors in Their Own Words.

Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors in Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Today, in the first of a two-part episode, we’re hearing from Col. Bill Gara. Col. Gara was the commanding officer of the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion of the 1st Infantry Division. He led the battalion from the 1944 Normandy landings through May of 1945. He served from North Africa to Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge.

Col. Bill Gara: Through ROTC, I graduated from New York University College of Engineering in May of 1940, and within three months I was assigned to spend an entire year on extended active duty. I was assigned to Fort Dupont, Delaware, as a second lieutenant and I was very pleased to be assigned to the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion, which I discovered was an organic element of the 1st U.S. Infantry Division. I had, of course, heard about the 1st Infantry Division, and I knew that they had an exemplary performance during World War One. So when I was assigned to the First Engineer Combat Battalion, I felt pretty good.

The one year required extended active duty tour upon receiving a commission through ROTC - actually, by the time that one year was about to expire, which would have been in August of 1941, the commanding officer of the 1st Engineer Battalion, Major Frederick B. Butler, leaned on me and said, “Don't get out. We're going to be in war. Don't believe what is being told you, that the U.S. is going to stay out of the war. Hang in there.” So it developed that I was determined to return to the industry. I was an engineer. I wanted to get a job. And finally, at the end of my one year, I insisted: "Please let me out. I believe the president." And I did get out. I went to work for three months. The war broke out. I sent a telegram to, by now, Lieutenant Colonel Fred Butler and I said, “you were right, I was wrong. I'd like to get back with the 1st Engineer Battalion.” By now they were stationed at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. I was still, at this time, a second lieutenant. However, during the time that I was a second lieutenant, there was such a shortage of senior officers that I was a company commander which called for a captain. Nevertheless, when I returned, I was still a second lieutenant and I reported to the 1st Engineer Battalion at Fort Devens, Mass, where the entire 1st Infantry Division had assembled.

Most of the work was conducted at Onslow Beach in North Carolina. Then we were sent down to Fort Benning, Georgia, and again in the Virginia area so that there was a good deal of attention being spent on the fact that the 1st Infantry Division obviously was being prepared to do work toward assault landings. And as I say, when I returned to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, they went through tremendously important training, including even teaching us a little about skiing by taking us up to New Hampshire. So they gave the division a very good rounded bit of training. Finally, they transferred from Fort Devens all the way down to Camp Blanding, Florida. I believe the entire objective of that was to make the enemy feel - and the enemy, of course, was obviously Japan and Germany - make them feel that this division was not going to be going to Europe, but was going to go perhaps to the southwest. They sent us to Florida, get some jungle training. And we did participate to some extent in jungle training at Camp Blanding, Florida. We then went from there back to Fort Benning for, again, a combined operation using air, tanks, and some new weaponry. And from Fort Benning, we were moved up to Indiantown Gap, getting ready to go overseas. Of course, by this time, we knew that we were headed for Europe.

An engineer battalion, which is, as I mentioned, a very important element in an infantry division, consists of 34 officers, a couple of warrant officers and 750 enlisted men. Their job is specifically to do everything possible to advance the infantry units during an attack, remove obstacles, remove enemy mines, knock down walls, knock down emplacements, remove anything that would in any way interfere with the advance of an infantry element, build bridges, build bypasses, do whatever it takes to get the job done. At the same time, stand by and be ready to perform combat duty, which we've done on many occasions. On the defense, precisely the opposite occurs. If the enemy is attacking and we're defending, the engineers install minefields, they install anti-personnel mines, they erect concertina wire, barbed wire, they build walls to keep them from approaching us. We build anti-tank ditches to prevent the enemy from reaching our lines. And when necessary, we are also placed in the line alongside the infantry to serve in combat, to defend.

Our troops were highly trained. They were regarded perhaps within the entire division. This may sound boastful, but it's a fact. Engineer troops were rather well-skilled. You may not know this, but as an example of the regard for engineer units at West Point, the top 10 percent of the graduating class is offered commissions in the Corps of Engineers. So they look to get the smartest and the most versatile troops in the Corps of Engineers. So they are very well-trained and it takes a lot longer to train an engineer soldier than it does an infantryman. An infantryman goes in line- and not to detract from the infantryman, but his job is to learn to fire his rifle and use a mortar and little else. Whereas engineer soldiers are taught to build bridges, to install mines, to remove mines, to install anti-personnel mines. So he's far more versatile than an infantry soldier.

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Now, back to Col. Gara.

BG: It's always recognized that the enemy, in preventing a unit from reaching shore, will put in strong defensive positions. They'll put in pillboxes, they'll put in mines. They'll put in underwater obstacles so that the boats may never even reach shore. They'll put in all kinds of emplacements, still dig trenches. So the entire front will be highly fortified. So in assault landings, we are trained to overcome these obstacles. It's done primarily by getting good intelligence information as to where these various emplacements are located, where are the underwater obstacles, and of course, when you make an assault landing, you recognize at once, according to doctrine, that you're going to lose between 30 and 40 percent through casualties. That's not all killed, but it will be men who are wounded, men who are lost, men who are taken prisoner, men who simply are unable to complete their assignments. So the casualty level is pretty high. And with that, you come in with forces at least twice in number that you anticipate that the enemy has in place. So an assault landing requires a tremendous amount of training and it takes skilled troops to participate. That's why the 1st Infantry Division was used over and over again. They were very tired of it. When they got through with the Sicilian campaign and we were leaving Sicily by ship, the men were saying, "We're ready to go home now! We've had our share, get someone else to do it!" But they took us back to England knowing that the division was next going to be involved in the Normandy invasion.

On August the 2nd of 1942, 17,000 men- again, the division is normally 15,000. They built up the division so there were 17,000 men all put aboard the Queen Mary on her maiden voyage as a troop ship. And 17,000 of us loaded aboard out of New York Harbor, zigzagged across the Atlantic in four and a half days, traveling at an average rate of 28 knots without escort. There weren't any ships fast enough to keep up with the Queen Mary. And we landed in Scotland. We no sooner landed in Scotland and moved down into British quarters than we were assigned to work with the commandos. These guys were really hot shots. Marvelous work. We trained with them between August and November. Very short time. On November the 8th, we were aboard ships heading for North Africa. Assignment: take the city of Oran. And now I'm going to talk about something that was unexpected. I doubt very much that you'll find recorded information about what we found as we landed in Oran, North Africa. We were told that the landing was going to be unopposed. A diplomat named Robert Murphy and a general named Mark Clark were in Algiers negotiating with Admiral Darlan and Marshall Pétain, trying to get them to receive us, that it would be an unopposed landing. They worked very hard, I'm sure they tried to do their best. The idea was that they wanted to take the city of Oran and use the port so that we could build up the troops to go on and attack the Germans that are down in the Tunis area fighting against Montgomery. Well, the fact is that all the way from New York City came a ship loaded with volunteers. They were called reservists. This you won't find that very many books. The reservists came to the city of Oran by ship hoping that these diplomats had cleared the way for them to come in and occupy the port. Instead, Admiral Darlan used the cruiser and some frigates, sank that poor old ship. 1200 casualties. Killed. Drowned in the city of Oran. Furthermore, he scuttled a cruiser in the harbor and a frigate so that we couldn't use the port.

We had to fight for three days of hard fighting against the French Foreign Legion to take the city of Oran. And it was very, very dreadful because when we arrived, our first job was to dig graves for these poor guys that came in by ship. There wasn't anyone else in the area to provide a place to put these soldiers who had died aboard ship. They were popping up in the port days after that ship was sunk. A very, very poor beginning of our experience of warfare. But Oran was taken. And again, we suffered some casualties. We suffered a little bit of humiliation as well, because soon after they surrendered, the French Foreign Legion suggested that we attend a briefing and they showed us the mistakes we made. Can you imagine how we felt, these guys were shooting us up and now they're our allies and they're telling us the mistakes we made in coming in. Wasn't a very happy time. However, soon after the Oran operation ended, we were ordered to get on going and work toward the city of Tunis. So we began a slow and steady march across North Africa from Oran toward Algiers, toward Tunis. Kind of a frustrating period because our troops were not very well supported, absolutely no air. There were two German planes in the air all the time. We called them Mike & Ike. You couldn’t even take a motorbike out without getting strafed. Rough time. No air cover. Most of our work was done at night. It took then from November 8th, 1942, until May 8th, 1943, before the 1st Infantry Division, along, of course, with many other elements that were just being broken in, managed to reach the British 8th Army. The British 8th Army, as you may recall, were fighting their way across Egypt, Alexandria, getting their brains knocked out repeatedly by Rommel. When we arrived at a point where we were going to make contact with General Montgomery, would you believe that this famous Afrika Korps, Rommel's top of the line troops, had no place to go? They did not want to be captured by the British. They knew that if they surrendered to the. U.S. troops, they would be treated a lot better than the British who had been taking a terrible pounding from them, of course. So in mass, some 200,000 Afrika Korps headed toward our lines. We were ordered to build cages for them. It was hopeless. We couldn't build cages to hold 200,000 troops, but they came down on trucks, on bikes, on wagons, and they surrendered to the U.S. and ultimately they were sent to the U.S. to help the farmers with their crops. But that was the end of the war in North Africa.

We took Kasserine. The first division was ordered to get the city back. That was a humiliating defeat. Again, it was involved with green troops. There were some service troops involved. The guns were taken and the Germans were rather blowhards about the fact that they knocked us around. But they really took troops that were not really ready for fighting. Within about two weeks of the time the Kasserine was taken by the Germans, the 1st Division was ordered to retake the city and it only took four days for Kasserine Pass to be taken back.

As I said, we were told it was going to be an unopposed landing. We were very happy troops coming off the ships to think that we were not going to be fired upon. Well, as it turned out, the shooting began. By the way, in making the landing, normally, you're supported by heavy gunfire and some air cover. Anticipating no resistance, there wasn't any of that. So as we arrived, the French Foreign Legion were the ones that were waiting for us on the beach. And it was a scary time, as you might expect, to arrive on the beaches and get yourself shot at. We had U.S. emblems on our shoulders to show that we were coming in as friendly troops.

But this was our first exposure to what is called the baptism of fire. There's no doubt that you're very hesitant. You have all kinds of apprehensions about what's going to happen. And you no sooner land on shore than you see some of the dead of the enemy. You see some of them dead of your own people, and you hear people crying, “medic, medic,” and it's a hair raising experience. But the interesting thing is that you get over that rather quickly. You gather your forces and you've been well-trained on what to do. We had objectives in the event that it was not going to be a safe landing, and I think that within a matter of hours, the officers were able to gather their men around and head for their objectives. But specifically, it's a period that makes you wonder whether you're going to make it or not. And that goes on during all landing operations. I'm sure that every soldier thinks that “it's my time” and you develop a sense of fatalism. Another very odd thing that somehow made people think: they noticed that many of the finest men, the finest NCO's, the most courageous, the guys that were most beloved, same applied to the officers - they seemed to be the ones that became casualties first. So people began to say, “what does the good Lord up there want? Why is he taking all our good guys from us?” We would talk about that. We'd say, "God, I guess I'm not very good. I haven't been hit yet." But it makes people wonder. That is really something that creates this esprit de corps for those that are still there, fighting for those that were taken. It develops within a unit. Doesn't have to be the whole division. Within the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion as an example, it was a tremendous amount of determination that was developed when we lost some of our good guys. You began feeling revengeful. "Well you SOBs, we'll get to you yet" and whatever. It's not a happy time during battle.

We were returned to the very area where we landed originally and immediately, we were kind of reinforced again. We lost quite a number of vehicles. We lost a lot of equipment. We lost a lot of men, and we go through a reorganization, get yourself built up. At the same time, we started training to overcome some of the mistakes we made during that five months that we were from November to May, going over some of the things that we had to improve. So we did a little exercise work back where we landed originally in North Africa, knowing that in a relatively short time- remember now this is May. May 7th or 8th is when the fighting ended, when we arrived in Tunis at the same time that the North African campaign with General Montgomery took place. And now we were told we are heading for Sicily, another invasion. That was scheduled to take place on the 10th of July. Think how short a time between the end of the war in North Africa and now we are going to take Sicily. We were in the middle of a three infantry division operation to take the southern part of Sicily. Again, Montgomery was going to land on the east coast, city called Siracusa. We were landing at Gela with the famous 3rd Infantry Division to our left - Bacara area - and the 45th National Guard Division from New Mexico - brand new outfit, never been in battle - 3rd had been in battle in North Africa. The 45th on our right, a new unit, with the 82nd Airborne supporting us. So we were in pretty good shape against Sicily. We knew that Sicily was not going to be a very long battle.

Another instance where foul-ups occur that are tragic that could have been avoided: I told you the 82nd Airborne Division was involved in this operation and they did their job and then they wanted to bring in their gliders. Towed gliders. We had established a fairly good beachhead about two miles inland. Major General Matthew Ridgway, who was the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne, came and talked with me about locating a place to bring in his glider troops to carry on with the mission of the 82nd Airborne. We located a very good place for him. He was going to bring them in. The night of the invasion, we landed early morning, 2:30 a.m. in Sicily at Gela, and had a rather hard battle with the Hermann Göring German division fighting against us. But as I said, we established a fairly good beachhead, and now Ridgway wants to bring his troops in. The arrangement was that the belly lights on the planes and on the gliders would be yellow. They came in green. As they were coming into the beach with the Navy elements out, the Navy people that brought us in, they started shooting at them. Of course, as soon as they started shooting, everybody on land began shooting. They shot that dickens out of those poor old gliders. They suffered twenty percent casualties. Again, the risks involved in a landing operation, the unknown, the unpredictable elements that come up. So you can imagine how poor old Matthew Ridgway felt with his troops getting shot up and interfering then, of course, with their mission and taking this island of Sicily.

They knew we were coming. It was obvious. However, they didn't have all that many troops, and they were also very careful knowing that we were coming in. I mentioned to you three infantry divisions, very, very well reinforced, an Airborne Division, Montgomery coming in on the East Coast with lots of troops. That's not a big island. So they knew they could only fight a kind of a slowing down, retreating action. They knew that from the very outset. Their whole objective was to try to get whoever they had, whatever they had in Sicily, out and back into Italy. So it was a campaign that depended almost exclusively on how quickly the engineer elements of each of these divisions could advance because they knocked out every bridge in the country. It was dry, remember now we landed in July, and so fortunately, we were able to bypass the bridges that they destroyed by using bypasses and working our way around. So it was really an engineer's war. We removed obstacles that were put up. We built a few bridges. We made mostly bypasses. And in a matter of less than seven weeks, the island of Sicily was taken. There was only one rather ridiculous incident that you may have seen in the film "Patton", where Scott, who plays the role of Patton, is shown fighting to get into the city of Messina, which was one of the key cities in the north of Sicily, before Montgomery. We lost quite a number of troops taking Messina, but Patton won that little battle. He got into the scene before Montgomery.

That was the instance also, by the way, where Patton got himself into a lot of trouble with the slapping incident that took place in Sicily. One of my good friends was Lieutenant Colonel John Corley, commanding the 3rd Battalion of the 26th Infantry Regiment, one of the three regiments in the 1st Infantry Division. I should tell you, there are three regimental combat teams that compose the heart of an infantry division: the 16th, the 18th and 26th. John Corley commanded the 3rd Battalion of the 26th. Each regiment, by the way, is composed of three battalions and each battalion in the range of, oh, something like eleven or twelve hundred men. I received this secondhand information from John Corley, who was a West Point officer. Probably the most decorated officer in the 1st Infantry Division, maybe in the entire war. This guy was a true hero. I don't know how many times he was wounded. I know that he had three Distinguished Service Crosses, top of the line medal other than the Medal of Honor, but John related to me that this man that was slapped, was one of his soldiers. Here is how he described what transpired: When General Patton visited this hospital. Of course, he had his entourage with him, he never went anywhere unless he had an entourage. The hospital was commanded by a reserve officer, a doctor, a colonel. He had with him many of his staff, and many nurses. When the doctor escorted this entourage into this area where the wounded were, Patton was there to pin Purple Hearts on people. And of course, when he saw this guy, he said "Well, what are you doing here? What happened to you?" or something. He noticed that he was not wounded. And so, as I was told, the doctor stepped in and said “This young man was brought in, he's still suffering from battle exhaustion,” whatever. He raised all kinds of hell, and he was foul in language. The colonel in charge of the hospital tried to back him off: "Please, your language. We have nurses here" and whatever. And, of course, that made Patton even angrier. The upshot of the whole thing was that this incident upset the colonel commanding that hospital, and he announced that he was going to bring court martial proceedings against General Patton for using foul language, for being insulting, for not listening to what he was told in connection with the soldier who was as much wounded as those that had physical wounds. And now we created a great scene because Patton was recognized as probably the best damn field general in the U.S. Army. And who comes to his defense? Eisenhower. He needs this guy. He's just done a splendid job. So he goes to the colonel commanding the hospital unit and he begs him, “Drop the charges”. And they work out a negotiated agreement. Patton will apologize personally to everyone involved at the hospital one at a time. Patton will apologize to all troops in Sicily participating in the Battle of Sicily. The First Engineer Battalion had to build a stand, a wood stand, for him to address the troops where, as you might have noticed in the film, he makes an apology. But the apology in the movie was not nearly as thorough as the apology to the troops. He made a real apology to the troops. He was required to do that. And with that, he was forgiven. And now he could participate in what was coming up next, the invasion of Fortress Europa.

That kind of sums up the Sicilian campaign. A very short campaign largely controlled by how rapidly the engineer units were able to keep the advance going. One major battle in the city of Troina - again, a marvelous, marvelous story dealing with one of our famous photographers, perhaps you know of a name, Robert Capa, Bob Capa. It's amusing, but Bob Capa is a Hungarian. I'm Hungarian as well. We are on the same ship, the USS Sammy Chase. Capa was an outgoing son of a gun, hard-drinking, gambling, a real marvelous personality. Gutsy as can be. When he heard we were going to take the city of Troina the next morning, he and his henchman managed somehow at night to sneak into Troina, which was about a mile away from the front lines, crawled into a basement of one of the houses in Troina and took pictures of the U.S. troops attacking Troina. Can you imagine doing something like that? That was Bob Capa. Well, Troina fell and Sicily fell. Again, we were taken back to the Gela area, and this is where I told you the troops began to feel that they were going home. But we were put aboard ships and taken back to defend the south coast of England. You may recall that all the English troops by now were busy fighting wars in other parts of the world, and they had very few troops to defend their own country. So when the 1st Infantry Division returned to England, we were spread out along the entire southern coast of England. This is in November. The campaign in Sicily ended on August the 17th. We landed on July the 10th. We stayed in Sicily until November, put aboard English vessels, taken back to England, and spread out along the southern coast to go through training, to rest up, to reorganize, and train for the Normandy invasion.

Within each of the engineer companies, one of the platoons (there are three platoons in the company) one of the platoons is actually attached to an infantry unit and they do the preliminary work. If the battalion, for example, knows that there are enemy mines in front of them, the engineer platoon at night will probably go out and probe and remove mines to clear the way for, say, a morning attack. If there are barbed wire or concertina fences, they'll go out and snip them and clear them. If they recognize that it's very difficult for them to remove the entire obstacles put in by the enemy, just before the attack, they'll slip out and place Bangalore torpedoes. These are five foot long pipes, steel pipes, about two and a half inch diameter. They can be locked together. They are pushed out through the obstacles, the minefields, the anti-personnel mines, the concertina fences, and they are detonated, and it'll open a big gap, and they'll allow the infantry troops to dash through that without getting blown up. They'll blow several of these gaps to advance the infantry units. They will, as I said, accompany the infantry, and as soon as the infantry provides some cover, they'll whip out and then bring up their tractors and their bulldozers, and they'll start cutting a bypass around a bridge. A company of engineers can put up a 120ft Bailey bridge in about five hours, and that's a one lane bridge that will take a 40 ton tank, or vehicles. That's essentially the kind of work that an engineer unit does. Of course when the platoon needs more help, that's when I move up the balance of whatever engineer forces are required to execute the mission.

But as I explained at the outset, the German troops were going through a withdrawal. They pushed the Italian troops, of course, who were still their allies forward to fight us while they were backing out, the Italian troops were being made to bear the brunt. Now, the Italians are not stupid people. When they saw what was happening and as soon as the Germans kind of backed away from them, they started waving white sheets and they surrendered in mass. We captured literally hundreds of Italian troops, complete with their equipment, who recognize it's a lot easier to surrender than to get shot up. They knew that things were winding down for the Germans. So the campaign in Sicily was just an intermediate campaign and you might say, why did you take Sicily to begin with? We needed airfields. The primary objective in taking Sicily was to bring our planes up to assist the ongoing battles into southern Europe, Italy, and carry our battle forward. So the primary objective in landing in Sicily was to take the airport at Ponte Olivo, and we were involved in hurrying to the airport, examining the airport to make sure that they hadn't planted bombs to destroy the runways. It was the one of the things that that gave me a thrill was that as soon as word arrived that the infantry had kind of reached Ponte Olivo airport, we hastily went up to the airport and we discovered that they had laid 500 pound aerial bombs along the runways and we were able to cut the wires so that the runways were not blown up. There were just a few areas, it didn't take us more than about eight hours to make Ponte Olivo's runways fit for landing.

KH: That was Col. Bill Gara. We’ll hear more from him in the next episode of Warriors in Their Own Words. Make sure you’re following the podcast to see Part II in your feed.

If you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Warriors in Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with the Honor Project. Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Senior producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Dave Douglas. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Warriors in Their Own Words.

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