William Bahlke


Christine Murphy

Bill in France
   He was down on hands and knees on the cold ground searching for more mines like the one that had blown the tank's lead vehicle clear to the other side of the road and reduced it to a pile of metal. "This work is not in my job description," thought the engineer Bill Bahlke as his combat knife, which had been probing the soil, found a mine. About to lift the explosive from the ground to deactivate it, his fingernails brushed against something under the mine. The mine was booby-trapped with a second one under it, so if the top one was lifted off the pressure plate of the bottom one under it, both would explode. Chance seemed to be the difference between life and death for Bill Bahlke today. He says he learned that "there is no guarantee of life." After his careful work, the three tanks that had been stuck in the minefield were freed from their immobility and could proceed onward to the fighting.
Why Enlist?

    The generation of people who had been growing up in the 1920’s and 30’s had heard about Hitler and the terrible things he had been doing throughout their lives. Nevertheless, the news of the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 by the Japanese motivated many of this jaded generation to enlist. Bill Bahlke was seventeen at the time, and he remembers the moment he heard about the attack. His father, brother and he were building a house on Long Island that Sunday and heard the news over the radio. He turned to his father and brother and announced he was joining the military. His father’s advice was to "just keep your head down." Bill had to wait until he was eighteen to enlist, but on November 19, 1942 he became part of the US Army.
    Bill Bahlke’s first choice of service was in the air force, but they were very selective, and they rejected him because he had hay fever. He was put in the Army Specialized Training Program to learn to be an engineer because the New York City school systems had given him a good education, and unlike some of his fellow soldiers, he could read and write. He also had a background in machinery because his father had been a bus mechanic. This extremely intelligent man would never have had the chance to go to college if not for the Army. Bahlke was a cadet company commander, so he had to oversee over a hundred men while attending Manhattan college. Meanwhile the war waged on in Europe.

Battle of the Bulge: Why?

    Bill went into active service on March 16th, 1943 and was assigned to the Headquarters Company of the 1262nd Engineer Combat Battalion. After being trained and equipped, they arrived in Europe in the winter of 1944,  in time to deal with the aftermath of the Battle of Ardennes which is nicknamed the ‘Battle of the Bulge’, because of the bulge the German incursion made in the Allied lines. The battle was fought in and around the Ardennes forest, from a cold, snowy, Dec. 16, 1944 until Jan. 25, 1945. Over a million men fought in it; 500,000 Germans, 600,000 Americans and 55,000 British and this was the largest campaign the Americans were involved in during the war. The Germans were on the offensive and this campaign was their last substantial push of the war. Hitler is said to have masterminded the plan himself. The object of the push was for the Germans to reach Antwerp, Belgium, which would effectively cut the Allied armies into Northern and Southern halves and allow the Germans to capture much needed supplies and fuel. The Germans chose to attack at the small village of Lanzerath, Belgium, because this was where two Allied Corps sectors met and one of the weakest points on the Western Front. The Allied generals had not been worried about the possibility of an attack there because they believed that Germany was too weakened to create a major offensive. The generals had a surprise in store for them         

Map of German incursion into Ardennes
Battle of the Bulge: What, Where and How?

    The forces defended this area with only four divisions, the 4th, 28th, 99th, and 106th. Timing was of the essence for the Germans to be successful. One of the objectives of the German campaign was the town of Bastogne which had been vacated because of the advance of the German Army. US troops raced to defend it, and 18,000 of them were surrounded by 135,000 Germans but they fought on in the zero degrees weather. The Americans had the advantage of vast amounts of air support from the Allies that Germany could not hope to match. Supplies were also dropped from planes to aid the embattled troops near Bastogne. On December 26th, Gen. George Patton’s armored division broke through the German surround of Bastogne and beat the Germans back. This event marked the end of the Battle of the Bulge, although the Germans continued to try to keep the ground they had gained for another ten long days.

Picture:  First stage of the Battle of the Bulge,
the German incursion, and what Allied
forces met the Germans, notice the German
forces all heading toward Antwerp.


Bill's Bridges

     Bill arrived in Europe just as this battle was winding down, when the tanks were moving in to aid Bastogne, in time to try to repair all the damage done to the roads by the air force bombing, thereby ensuring that the tanks and reinforcements could get through. Everyone in the engineering corps had a different job. The line company men did heavy lifting and grating by hand with axes, because they had no chain saws. Bill’s job was to make sure the plans for what they were building were correct, and to make sure the roads were kept open and in good condition, with no mines in them. Examples of  the most common bridges that the engineers used included: Bailey bridges which were made of metal and sectioned, so that they could be transported and assembled, and Treadway bridges which were on pontoons and used for water crossings because they would float right on top.
  One of the issues which caused bridges to collapse would be the tanks traveling over the bridges. They had orders to stay in a low gear, but if any fire was heard by the tanks while they were crossing, they would change into a higher gear and race across the bridge. This misuse could collapse a bridge or damage the bridge structurally and make more work for the engineers.

                                                                                            Picture: a representation of how engineers and other support                                                                                                   personnel supported the Allies.

The Aftermath

There were dead, frozen Germans lying everywhere after Ardennes, because the German retrieval units had not been able to pick up the dead. Engineer Bill recollects how on his first reconnaissance mission he saw his first dead GI lying near the road. He still remembers the GI’s name, Robert Rainwater, and how he had to call in the grave registration unit to take the GI away.

Picture: A German soldier right before the Battle of the Bulge. Looking at the picture alone, there is no way to tell whether he is fighting for the Allies or the Axis powers.
A Bridge is needed, to cross the Rhine
    The next major campaign that Bill was involved in was the crossing of the Rhine, when his engineering battalions’ building of bridges came in handy. The infantry had secured the North Bank of the Rhine and the engineers had to alter a railroad bridge with planks of wood so that tanks and reinforcements could  be sent over the river. They had searchlights and infantry with guns protecting the bridge so that the Germans could not sabotage their efforts by floating a bomb down the river and blowing up the bridge. Eventually the bridge suffered so much structural damage they had to rebuild it, after the Allies had secured the other side. Then Bill and the engineers crossed the Rhine on the bridge they had built and  were engaged in the Battle for Cologne. After that, the engineers were stationed at the Sieg River in Germany.

Picture: Bailey Bridge on remains of demolished bridge over Sieg River at Siegburg, Mulldorf. (According to Bill Bahlke.)

In Germany

      Bill remembers one cold April day when he had to take off his clothes and swim across a river with a ball of twine in order to get the measurements for the river, and then swim back. He had received no specific orders to do so, but there might have been a need for those measurements at some time so Bill took it upon himself to get them. Some engineers in his corps also decided to remedy a situation that they did not have orders for. There was a machine gun manned by Germans near their position which was unsettling, so the engineers took assault boats upstream of the gun and took it out. Of these cases of independent action, Bill is proud. The Americans he says "made independent decisions". They could "size-up" a situation and know what was needed to be done.
       Once they were inside Germany, Bill saw some of the saddest things he would observe throughout the entire war. For example, they entered a German town right after the infantry had liberated a concentration camp. Bill remembers one of the emaciated people running around shouting ‘I am free’ in German when a tank which was going down the road accidentally ran over his leg.
       Also in Germany, Bill’s job was to find the engineers lodging because he spoke German. The engineer battalion would enter a town and Bill would stand up and yell out in German, "Who is the leader of this city". Eventually a mayor would come out all decked out in finery, and the engineers would tell the leader what they needed for accommodations.
One night, Bill was out on patrol, and he and some of his fellow scouts were holed up in a farmhouse. An infantryman who had become separated from his group joined them. Bill had salami that his Aunt Kathleen had sent to him, which was quite a change from their usual K rations. It turned out to be the infantryman’s birthday. But the man was nervous as to whether or not the salami was kosher. Bill remarked that he was a Sunday school teacher and he would bless the salami for them all, and they ate. This event is one of Bill’s most vivid memories of companionship in Europe.

The End of the War

      However, life after the crossing of the Rhine was not all finding houses to sleep in. Resistance was much tougher inside of Germany itself. Bill was shot at by snipers on his reconnaissance missions, and a friend actually had the wood of a building behind him blown away. Despite this resistance, the war was coming to an end.

Bill’s thoughts about the war are that it made the people of his generation value freedom. He says "life is very, very uncertain… You have to make an advantage of the time you’ve got." When asked if war is good, Bill said that usually its reasons are twisted around to serve political purposes. But for him, the war was a way to get an education and learn to "use… best judgment." For him it is good and honorable to die for one’s country, because the people who serve and die for the U.S. want freedom. Freedom is what grandfather Bill values so highly. What grandfather Bill wants to be remembered is that "the heroes are the ones who don’t make it home."
Picture: Crib Pier Bridge at Urft, Germany. (According to Bill Bahlke.)

Primary Sources:

Bahlke, William H. Telephone interview. 1 Dec. 2003.

Secondary Sources:

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Leonnig, Carol D. "U.S. kids need to know what fighting in WWII meant, says veteran of Battle of the Bulge." Knight Ridder/ Tribune News Service. 19 Dec. 1994. http://web3.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/755/244/67757444w3/purl=rc1_GRGM_0_CJ15943835&dyn=6!xrn_4_0_CJ15943835?sw_aep=mlin_m_needhamhs (Nov. 15, 2003)

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