Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: March 23, 2006

1st LT Bill Anderson US ARMY

Speaker Photo

Engineering Combat Platoon Leader, Omaha Beach, D-Day, 6 June 1944
146th Engineering Combat Battalion, 5th Corps, 1st Division ("Big RED ONE")
Battle of the Bulge, December 1944
Patriot, Decorated Warrior, Academic, Humanitarian & outstanding representative of the "Greatest Generation" * Born 7 March 1921, Rockwell, IA; son of a Veterinarian who served in both WWI & WWII
* U. of Tennessee, Engineering; left to enlist in Army shortly after Pearl Harbor
* Selected for OCS; commissioned early 1943; assigned to Engineering Combat Group
* Sailed from England early morning D-Day aboard "rickety" British LCT with main assault force, to clear beach obstacles
* Nearly sunk midway across Channel; transferred to LCM (Landing Craft Mobile) & hit the Beach at Omaha, encountering immediate chaos
* Seriously wounded on D-Day; evacuated to beach and back to England that night
* Returned to Normandy Battle 3 weeks later; used "yankee ingenuity" to relocate the 146th and resumed command of his platoon
* Later, key role in holding northern shoulder of the Bulge; his A Company received its 2nd Presidential Unit Citation; continued deeper penetration toward Rhine River & beyond
* After Germany surrendered May 1945, assigned to Provisional Military Government, US Army: Many Stories!
* Returned to USA Summer 1946, knowing his goal: study history & understand "why war"
* Using GI Bill, earned Bachelors Degree @ George Washington U. in just over 2 years
* Awarded graduate fellowship in Geneva, Switzerland; Masters in International Studies
* Joined IRO (International Refugee Organization), private corp. within UN structure
* After seven (7) years in Europe, returned to USA with wife Melba and new daughter
* Bechtel 22 years, SF; returned to Geneva for refugee work, eventually responsible for all SE Asian incoming refugees along West Coast; retired in 1985
* Bought current home in Larkspur, CA in 1956--astute, fortunate decision
* Among his military awards & decorations: DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) & PH

From D-Day to a Life Mission

1st LT Bill Anderson

US Army Engineering Combat Platoon Leader

146th Engineering Combat Battalion, 5th Corps, 1st Army

The son of a veterinarian who had served in a cavalry squadron on the Mexican border during WWI, Bill Anderson was born March 7, 1921. He grew up in Rockwell, Iowa and remembers his father had kept a reserve commission in the Army. The 14th Cavalry, was headquartered in Des Moines.

"Every summer they would go on maneuvers and they would invariably bivouac, for at least a night, just south of Rockwell. And the day they were there they would come clattering up with a mounted detail, leaving a horse fully saddled for my father to get aboard, and go down and look at the horses.

"And I’ll tell you, I was the proudest kid in town when that happened. It was really something."

On the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, Anderson was in a work-study program at the University of Tennessee. He was a field engineer for the Harrison Construction Company, which was building, outside of Knoxville, an aluminum-rolling mill for Alcoa.

He stayed with Harrison into the summer, was supposed to be sent to Trinidad as a field engineer, but U-boat activity delayed his sailing dates.

"I got fed up, went to the draft board, had them change my classification and enlisted."

Bill was sent to Camp Forrest, Tennessee for testing, and then chose to join the Corps of Engineers. He was sent to Ft. Belvoir, south of Washington, D.C. for three months basic training - - discipline, demolition, bridging and mines. At the end of basic, he was sent ‘across the road’ to six months of officer candidate school. In March of 1943, just before his 22nd birthday, Bill was made a 2nd Lieutenant for the 101st Engineering Combat Battalion, 26th Division.

Anderson says that given some politics in the division, he got a transfer to a placement depot. The new officer was assigned to handle paperwork as the unit prepared to go to England. The only bright side of this assignment, was traveling from Pennsylvania to New York and "having a ball" doing so.

When his unit had crossed the Atlantic to England, Anderson was assigned to the 146th Engineering Combat Battalion.

"They were a group from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana - - the meanest bunch of bastards you ever saw in your life. They were nasty people, awful bad guys. Fantastic soldiers, but as far as military discipline and all that sort of thing - - forget it!"

Bill says his 200 soldiers had more than a penchant for going AWOL. To keep them in line while they waited to embark for England, Bill says the brass came up with a scheme to temporarily confiscate each soldier’s clothes, leaving them only their greatcoats. That solved the problem.

By October, Anderson had joined the 146th Engineering Combat Battalion in England. They were assigned to Barnstable, a training area on the coast for engineers to practice blowing up things, in preparation for invading Europe. Anderson’s engineers would then rebuild the area for the next group of engineers to destroy. Most of the time was spent in a rock quarry, blasting out rock, hauling it to a crusher and then trucking it back to the training area.

Bill recalls a prank they played on the brother of one of his platoon leaders, Johnny Shill. Shill’s brother was an Army Air Force P-47 pilot and one day the brother and his wingman flew down to visit the engineers. The engineers booby-trapped everything the two men came across, including a urinal they used.

"He was so glad to get out of there, I know that for sure," Bill chuckles. "The next morning, when he and his wing man took off, I’m telling you… The stovepipe on those Nissen huts… he damned near took that thing off when he buzzed us.

The 146th Engineering Combat Battalion, preparing for the invasion of Europe, began collaborating up with US Navy combat demolition teams to take care of the many obstacles the Germans had built on Normandy beaches. Original plans had been for the Navy teams to do the job alone, but the Germans had built more obstacles than the Navy teams alone could handle.

Anderson says eighteen composite demolition ‘boat teams’ were established - - each one made up of 25 Army engineers, 18 Navy demolition men, and two medics. The Navy men were to take care of the sea-most obstacles with the Army responsible for the rest, clearing 50-foot wide swaths of beachhead. Tanks and tank-dozers completed the teams.

The plan was for the teams to hit the beaches at H-hour plus 3 minutes from LCMs. The LCMs, in turn, were towed from England to the Normandy coast by Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs). Again, that was the plan.

Anderson says the LCTs had had their 4-feet tall side panels pre-cut, to facilitate the LCTs ultimately becoming part of a makeshift causeway.

"We got out in the Channel and it was so rough, the waves took those things off immediately. So we were standing there, the water sloshing up to our waists and higher."

German defensive fire on June 6th on the invasion beaches was intense, and the combat engineers suffered 30% casualties.

"When we were going to the beach we were told that we would have plenty of cover, because the beach would be full of bomb craters. There wasn’t a bomb crater anywhere, within miles of the place. And all night long we’d heard the planes fly over."

Anderson says the Omaha beachhead was chaos with the sheer number of US troops coming in from the surf and being pinned down by enemy fire.

While Bill was directing a halftrack to avoid a teller mine, a mortar round exploded nearby, peppering Bill’s leg with shrapnel. He picked the worst of the metal out of his leg and went back to work. Three to four hours later, Bill took shrapnel again, from some unknown source. This time a metal fragment hit his lower back near his kidney, and shot up toward his shoulder, taking with it a torn piece of cloth from his underwear.

Anderson was carried by stretcher off the beach and taken by LST back to England that night for treatment.

Yet, he was not out of action long. In about three weeks, by the time of the breakthrough at St. Lo, Bill was back with his unit.

Anderson had been taken to a hospital where he was patched up. He says that as soon as he was able, he got back across the Channel, ‘borrowed’ a jeep and cruised the lines until he noticed a truck with a bumper marking it as transportation for the 146th Combat Engineering Battalion. When he reached the command post, Anderson requested to be reassigned his A Company.

In southern France, Anderson’s engineers had a variety of projects, from building a prisoner stockade at Mortain, to working with cavalry units spotting and cleaning up minefields. He says his engineers, by virtue of being Corps troops working independently, were heavily armed, with a pair of air-cooled .30 caliber machine guns, a .50 caliber machine gun and bazookas. They spent most of their time with the cavalry, doing reconnaissance for road conditions and bridges and clearing obstacles like minefields.

After the liberation of Paris, the combat engineers moved north through Luxemburg and Belgium, while work turned towards destroying pillboxes on the Siegfried Line. Bill’s unit entered Germany by building a Bailey bridge, the first one into the enemy’s homeland.

As the battles moved east, Anderson had good fortune in avoiding being wounded again. One night, during the Battle of the Huertgen Forest, a German artillery shell hit a nearby tree, sending large splinters flying in all directions. One of the splinters went through Bill’s vacant bedroll. A half hour later, Anderson would have been sleeping in that bedroll.

The 146th also found itself in the thick of the fighting, when the enemy counterattacked and slowed Patton’s plans to race to Berlin.

"In the little town of Vosnack, elements of the 28th Division collapsed. Germans retook the town and came very close to taking the whole area and ruining the road network as being used by the Americans."

Anderson says he and his men were wearing tall rubber boots instead of their leather combat boots and were working on a road, when an officer in a jeep our raced up out of Vosnack to them and slammed to a stop in front of them.

"A one-star general said, ‘Get some men down there. We’re about to lose the town. We need help. Get down there.’ "

The engineers got orders to handle a ‘pure infantry’ operation - - two days of heavy house-to-house fighting, which took a toll on the engineer unit. ‘A’ Company was ordered to encircle the town while a second company stopped a German advance and pushed the enemy out.

The next day, the A Company laid mines around the town all day. It was exhausting work as the mines were jeeped in and then hand-carried from placement in the field.

By day’s end, Lt. Anderson had taken his men to rest in a building basement. Bill says the company commander came stomping downstairs and threatened to court-martial the group if they didn’t get outside and get going.

Anderson says his engineers later told him, "that I stood up, picked up the rifle I carried, just kind of held up my hand and said, ’If there’s court-martial to be done here, I’ll take care of it’. "

In December of 1944, a German offensive in the Ardennes became what is called the Battle of the Bulge. Anderson’s 146th, along with the 38th Cavalry Squadron, held the northern shoulder of the bulge against the German thrust. For that action, the unit was awarded its second Presidential citation, and Bill was awarded the Bronze Star for taking out a German machine gun.

"I stupidly snuck my way into a house onto the second floor and was hiding behind a chimney. I started shooting in that direction. I don’t think I hit anybody, but they quit and I got credit for it."

Shortly there after, Anderson recalls an incident when he brought his men to a field shower site so they could clean up. It had been weeks since the troops had such a luxury. When told the shower had closed for the day… Bill says, "I threatened to shoot the sonofabitch if he didn’t open the showers for us."

Anderson’s men got their much-needed cleansing.

By the time the 146th reached Cologne, it had become apparent to Lt. Anderson that German resistance to the Allies was collapsing. Allied units were outrunning their supplies, and the "Red Ball Express" came into being - - 4x4 trucks were collected from virtually every unit and sent racing from Europe’s ports to the vanguard units, all carrying jerry cans of fuel.

It was April of 1945, when Anderson played a memorable prank. His platoon was playing softball in a German town where they were bivouacked, when a nearby house caught on fire. Bill raced to the house, dragged a water hose attached to a wheeled hand pump upstairs at the neighbors’ house. He says he knocked tiles off the roof and from 100 feet or so away, extinguished the blaze.

"Then all of a sudden on the road down there I saw the entire battalion officer corps. You know, everything was spit and polish. I turned the hose on them… I still don’t know why I did it. It was just too tempting."

In what was probably coincidence, the very next day Anderson was sent packing to transfer to military government. He says he had all of twenty minutes to pack his bag, and his men never knew what happened to him.

Kastel was his next stop, for training in providing a temporary military government, and then he joined a column of the Third Armored Division which was thrusting forward into what had already been decided would become Soviet territory.

The experiences Anderson had next would mold his future life.

Anderson went to Nordhausen, a manufacturing camp for V-2 rockets. There, Bill and his troops discovered the slave labor used to build the rockets.

"It’s the only time I’ve ever seen people who were literally starved to death - - a skeleton with skin on it. I saw the bodies by the ovens… they were just getting ready to shove them in.

"The packing crates filled with shaved-off body hair for mattress stuffing. And if anybody had gold fillings in their teeth, they were hammered out. Then when the SS troops went out the back end when the tanks came in the front end, they just tossed grenades in their cubicles as they went out.

"I think I kind of grew up almost instantaneously. Up until then, though, I’d been scared virtually all the time. Nevertheless, it had been kind of like cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. It was exciting and kept you busy It was a group of people doing great things. And then you realized what was really happening in the world. To see people who had been systematically killed in that manner was incomprehensible to me. It still is."

Anderson says the role of his provisional government group immediately changed. Now they were collecting thousands of misplaced persons from all kinds of forced-labor camps, and building new lagers (camps) for them to live in. With the German camp guards gone, there was nobody to feed and care for the refugees.

"Our first problem was to try to get the displaced persons together, get them sorted out, and try to calm some of the retaliation that would inevitably take place in a case like that…

"But all we could really do was to collect them in groups along the roadside, and as the 4x4s came back from getting rid of all the gasoline, all we could do was to stop them at gunpoint, and pack those trucks full of people, as tight as we could, send ‘em west and let people back there take care of them."

Helping refugees meant providing food, medical supplies and sorting them out for return to their native countries.

Russian repatriation teams proved a challenge to that new mandate.

Anderson says the Russians would arbitrarily select those who had come from parts of the Soviet-occupied territories, coercing them at bayonet point to return to those regions.

"They had to be forced to return to Russia. And we began to realize that once they got into Russian territory they were shot."

After a few days, Anderson says the American occupation troops realized what was happening and then refused to allow the Soviets access to any concentrations of misplaced persons.

The other side of this phase of occupation meant sending anything of any value to the West, to keep it from the Russians.

Sangerhausen, at the edge of the Hartz Mountains, was another stop during this assignment. Bill says he’d heard Sangerhausen held an SS administrative headquarters, and what were known as ‘SS werewolves’, who planned to keep fighting after the rest of the Reich was defeated.

He recalls finding there a shiny, black new Buick and a Mercedes convertible bearing the license plate "SS-2". Both vehicles were given coats of olive drab paint and white numbering, and they became additional ‘luxury’ transportation for the engineers.

Anderson was next sent to a military provisional government in Bavaria.

Despite the end of hostilities, the road home was not a path many soldiers were able to quickly travel. At this juncture, troops with 85 combat points were allowed to go back to the States. Bill had 99 points, but was assigned to continue work helping misplaced persons.

"Early on, I was really mad. But the longer I was there, the more I didn’t mind it so much. It was just fascinating."

He stumbled one day into a building where the Germans performed a wide variety of medical experiments on invalids, gypsies, homosexuals and Russian prisoners, often with fatal results.

"One of the things I remember was a big tank of water, probably eight to ten feet deep. It was piped up in such a way that they could reduce the temperature. I don’t think they could make it freeze, but they could at least bring way down close to the freezing point. In that tank they experimented on survival gear for their people who flew out over the ocean."

Bill says the Germans put invalids into the tank in the survival gear and found out how long it took to kill them.

While at Sangerhausen, Bill also came upon a posh barracks camp, like a motel with a lounge and dining room, where the SS "bred Aryans."

"It was where long-haired German maidens went to meet and spend time with SS troopers on leave. Basically it was a baby factory."

In 1946, Anderson finally got to go home. He traveled with a dump truck company aboard a Liberty ship in a 21-day voyage across the Atlantic.

Rough seas had the Liberty ship’s bow and stern alternately clearing the water. Bill says, "It was so rough… that Liberty ship had a clutch on the drive shaft, almost like an emergency brake. And every time that screw came out of the water, they’d clamp that clutch down. If they didn’t clamp it down, it was shaking the whole ship apart."

Anderson chuckles when telling of the ship nearing New York and the ship’s engineer came in and said, "I’m shutting down the engines tonight at 1:05…"

Bill says when the Captain asked, "What do you mean you’re shutting down the engines…" the engineer replied, "According to my RPMs, we’re already in New York."

Back in the States, Bill went to a veterans counseling center at George Washington University. The next day was let into classes - - the start of a little more than two years of studies which would culminate in a Bachelors Degree.

Later, Anderson would earn the equivalent of a Masters Degree in International Studies, and join the IRO (International Refugee Organization), a temporary agency of the United Nations.

After starting a family and working for the Bechtel Corporation for 22 years, Bill returned to Geneva for refugee work, and was eventually responsible for all SE Asian incoming refugees along the West Coast. He retired in 1985.

Bill says some of experiences he now shares have been brought to light by the recollection of combat engineers he commanded. After responding to a notice by the 146th Engineering Combat Battalion in an American Legion magazine, Anderson contacted a man who’d sent him a Christmas card signed ‘Logroller’, and then attended a reunion. Bill started hearing stories that rekindled his memories.

At this writing, five of the men in Company A are still alive, two of whom were in Bill Anderson’s own platoon.

The unit earned two Presidential Unit Citations, one for Normandy and the other for the Battle of the Bulge. Among Bill’s personal military awards & decorations are the Invasion arrowhead, five Campaign Stars, the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross.