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The dust is settling and the smoke is clearing

This time is was just one plane, very low and very accurate with his cluster of bombs. We could see them exit the bomb bay door as we scattered, broad daylight, but raining as we neared completion of a bridge across a canal. We heard his engine roaring as he dived the Stuka, almost a scream when he pulled up and unloaded.

We had dug foxholes nearby but there was no time to find your own … you dove in the first you saw. I found none, but slid under one of our trucks and crawled in the mud to get under the engine … a safe roof. You always protect your face, because that’s where your eyes are and you live in your head. The four explosions took less than a second.

The truck jumped, and I heard shrapnel smashing into the fender and cab just above me. But bombs hitting the ground always expend their force slightly up from the crater they make, and I was safe.

I heard no screaming and figured no one was hurt. I was wrong and two from our platoon of 48 were being patched up and sent to the rear … alive, but worthless to us. And one, my self-appointed bodyguard, was sitting, dazed with a sliver of steel bomb-casing sticking out of his helmet, blood trickling down his face. Private Brumbaun, weighing about 250, was afraid to touch his helmet, but we had to remove it and did gingerly. No purple heart this day; the shrapnel barely made it through his helmet, helmet liner, stocking cap, and slightly through his thick skull.

One bomb had obliterated the cook’s truck, containing our food rations and his equipment. Decent food was a constant problem for combat engineers as we were usually widely separated from other combat units on some repair mission. And when you scrounged food, or &uot;lifted&uot; it, it wasn’t the stuff you find in Farm Fresh.

We avoided red meat because our cook, &uot;Casey&uot; Stengle, was not particular what kind of animal provided it. Farmer’s chickens were legal fare if we could catch them … and often cooked in cognac.

Bombs fall on engineers regularly, or enemy artillery units have us zeroed in. We build new, or repair roads across swampy ground, needed bridges across rivers, or clear mines for an airfield or field hospital. They seemed to know where we would be.

On the truck roofs we carried large colored panels arranged daily by a coded radio message, radio being our only contact with anyone, and we protected our radioman. Those panels better be placed correctly, or we could expect our own A-26 bombers to visit us from above with guns blazing. They’d make a pass even if the panels were right, showing off how low they could fly and scare the hell out of us. But it was comforting to know they were up there.

An engineer company seldom knows what is going on around it; we could be many miles away from action, on our own. Half the time we didn’t know where we were in relation to the rest of the American Ninth and British Second armies … sometimes not even what country we were in, like Luxemburg. We were there and didn’t know it, the maps only showed roads.

Battle action could be miles ahead or miles behind; too often all around us … the sound or sight of enemy tanks knotted your guts.

Often our mission was so important they’d place “ack-ack” guns around us, and searchlight units, and raise barrage balloons over our heads to keep fighter planes from attacking low. The air battles right above us were thrilling to watch, but we had no time for it. If a bomb got through and took out part of our bridge, we were not thrilled, especially if a few of us were drowned. Casualties were often so bad that construction was held up waiting for trained replacements … war can be like that and you age fast. It is happening in Iraq.

Contact Pocklington at pocklington@suffolknewsherald.com