Saturday, July 10, 2010

US Combat Engineer: 1941-45, by Gordon Rottman review

There's a story that my grandfather tells that amuses him quite a bit. The war was over and he and thousands of other GIs were waiting in le Havre, France to be shipped home. He got to talking to an infantryman and a combat engineer. The infantryman was bragging about how he had been fighting the enemy in Germany, unlike these rear echelon guys. The engineer asked "Did you cross a bridge to get there?" "Yeah," responded the infantryman. "Well, who do you think put it there?!"

The US Army engineers built bridges, removed enemy obstacles and mines, demolished blockades, and were sent into combat when needed. Gordon Rottman's new book, US Combat Engineer 1941–45 is a useful introduction to this resourceful service.

The US military was not at all prepared for its entry into the war. Rottman explains how the Civilian Conservation Corps gave millions of American men the skills that would serve the armed forces well. The CCC was President Franklin Roosevelt's pre-war social program that put the nation's unemployed to work planting trees, fighting fires, cutting trees, running telephone wires, building roads, bridges, dams and parks. All this outdoor activity improved physical fitness, taught skills, created teamwork, preparing men for military life. The Army engineers in particular included a large percentage of men who had worked in the CCC.

Rottman provides an excellent overview of the wartime draft*, creation of new military units, training, and general military life Stateside. He spends a good 40 pages (out of 62) of his book on this subject. There is also a description of daily Army life in the field in Europe. These sections make the book valuable to anyone studying the WWII US Army, as they are applicable to nearly any unit outside the engineers. Perhaps it would have been better to include less general Army info, and more specific engineer info. I had been wanting to read more about Army life in the States, so for me it was welcome.

The last third of the book details the engineer's relationship with the infantry, their duties, their equipment, vehicles, and their role as combat infantry. Rottman ends the book with three fictionalized scenarios to provide sample missions typical of the engineers. The first is an account of building a pontoon footbridge for an infantry assault. The next scenario details a company's demolition of a German blockade in a city street. In the last example we learn how the engineers would tackle a German roadblock—by detecting and removing mines and booby traps, then hauling away felled trees.

Osprey's US Combat Engineer 1941–45 is a welcome introduction to the engineers. It's descriptions of daily army life are appropriate for any US Army unit serving in the States and Europe. There are 7 full page color illustrations by Adam Hook, noted military artist.

*On page 8 the author states that draftees were not offered deferment on compassionate grounds—caring for sick parents for example. However, I would like to suggest that it would be more accurate to say that the draft boards did not officially postpone men's service for this reason. I speak to two veterans who say their local draft board allowed them six months to continue supporting their sick parent. I realize two is a small sample number, but it seems sympathy by local draft boards may have allowed some boys to stay home a bit longer than the rules would allow.

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