1700th Engineer Combat Battalio
1700th Engineer Combat Battalion
By James L. McIntire Jr.
I think your Website is great, and it's remark about the 1700th Engineer Combat Battalion (C) was one of the first things I've seen written that the battalion had gone to Europe. My father, now deceased, was a white officer in the 1700th Engineer Combat Battalion in 1944-45, and I knew from his remarks that it was in Europe. It started me doing research on the battalion. I want to provide some of this to you, hoping that there are others who could provide additional information regarding it. The following is what I've unearthed so far. I've used official histories, along with the unit history file (such as it is) in NARA Record Group 498. If others desire the specific sources, please e-mail.
During the Spring of 1944 the European Theater stated that it needed additional nondivisional engineer combat battalions in excess of those already assigned. A crash program ensued in the United States to create, train and deploy some 53 of these units. Specialist engineer units already in existence that were deemed in excess of requirements were broken up (e;g;, the 557th Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalion) and its personnel distributed to these newly-created units. Other units from different branches were also transferred -- overnight -- from whatever they were to engineer combat battalions.
One such unit in the latter category was the 795th Field Artillery Battalion (C), stationed at Camp Bragg, NC. The Army redesignated the unit as the 1700th Engineer Combat Battalion (C). Its personnel were then transferred to Camp Jackson, SC. Its Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel Thomas B. Donoho, CE, US Army.
Unlike other units in this crash formation the 1700th completed its prescribed Military Training Plan (MTP) in 22 weeks (rough count). This was remarkable because the Engineer Branch believed that colored engineer units needed 31 weeks of such training before deployment, and had a separate MTP specifically for them.
During November 1944 the battalion was transferred to the European Theater. It did not have any organizational equipment assigned to it, nor was there any be provided for the movement. The theory, and this applied to all engineering units moving to Europe at the time, was that there would be ample equipment already in Europe for the unit.
In due course the battalion moved by rail to the port of embarkation at New York and sailed on December 4 aboard the former passenger liner SS Niew Amsterdam, along with the Advance Party of the 76th Infantry Division Headquarters. The Niew Amsterdam dropped anchor in the River Clyde near Grenoch, Scotland on December 12. The battalion then traveled by train south to England for further assignment and equipping. It first was stationed at Upton Lovell, Wiltshire but, on December 23, it was reassigned to Brockley, Somerset. There, it reported to the District Engineer for use in presumably -- construction projects in the area. While this was not an engineer combat battalion's mission it was routine for these nondivisional engineer battalions both black and white -- that were not specialized (e.g., bridging units) to be employed in this manner. Using engineer combat units in this manner was a source of considerable controversy both then and later.
During February the battalion was assigned to the Twelfth US Army Group on the continent, and subsequently reassigned to the Fifteenth US Army. Because of its posting to the continent it finally received its engineering equipment on February 16, 1945. However it was only 67% of the equipment. The rest would have to be acquired once it reached the continent.
On March 6 the battalion landed at Le Havre, France. It was assigned to a staging area at Henouville/Duclair, just outside of Rouen, called Camp Twenty Grand (after a cigarette brand). On March 15, 1945 the battalion received orders to proceed the next day from the staging area and proceed immediately to the vicinity of Longuyon, Meurthe-et-Moselle, where it would come under the operational control of the Third US Army under General George S. Patton.
Upon arrival, based on research to this point, I believe it was assigned to the 1107th Engineer Combat Group. This group was among several tasked to support the Third US Army's Rhine River Crossing operation, but was directly tasked to support the 89th Infantry Division's crossing of the Rhine at St; Goar/Oberwesel. This is based on the fact that the battalion was at that location during the assault on March 26, while under fire from German troops defending the east bank of the river. My father distinctly remembered the Germans firing these weapons from a railroad tunnel on the east bank, which enfiladed the crossing and caused many casualties, whether to the 1700th I am uncertain, but certainly to other units in the crossing.
Since the battalion operated in a general support role it also assisted in other crossings, one of which I believe was the 80th Infantry Division's crossing at Mainz as part of the 1139th Engineer Combat Group. However, I am uncertain as to specifics.
The battalion then participated in Third Army's rapid movement through Central Germany until the end of the war, through Frank-am-Main, Wurzburg and other cities. Most of its effort was involved with clearing obstacles along major routes of advance, including the cities through which the American Forces passed. This involved clearing just the main routes through these towns and cities. The rest of the destruction was left to the local inhabitants to clear. At other times the battalion supported other engineer combat battalions in bridge reconstruction, as the retreating Germans continued to destroy most all of them along their line of retreat.
My father thought the 1700th was in Czechoslovakia for about a day, but was then ordered to pull back. At the end of hostilities the battalion was guarding displaced persons and slave laborers, as much to protect them from the German population as vice versa. At the end of hostilities the battalion was assigned to the 1132nd Engineer Combat Group in support of XXIII Corps.
Following the end of the war, and the mass reshuffling of units and personnel, some engineer units were nominated by the Third US Army for transfer back to the Fifteenth US Army. On May 26 US Army Europe directed that the battalion, along with some of these other units, move to the Normandy Base Section, ComZ with the ultimate destination being Alizay, France. The intent of this move was to disband the battalion in-theater. On June 19, 1945 this was done. Since the battalion had only recently arrived in the theater and none of its personnel had the necessary combat points for demobilization, all personnel were reassigned as replacements to other engineer units either engaged in theater occupation duties, or slated for transfer to the Pacific Theater.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Hopefully others can provide additional information on not only the 1700th but also the other African-American non-divisional engineer combat battalions (e.g., the 1697th, 1698th and 1699th ECBs, but also the engineer general service regiments in the ComZ). It would be a real plus, because those guys did a lot, and it has gone unheralded.
[WORLD WAR II]