The WWII 300th Combat Engineers

Engineers poster
Corps of Engineers "Keeps 'Em Moving!" poster

What They Did

H & S Co. at Swindon, England, 1944.

Headquarters and Service

Clerk Typist

The role of the clerk typist in the 300th was key to all operations in combat. For military operations, documentation equals accountability. Almost everything was documented including the movements of troops, casualty information, unusual actions (both positive and negative), promotions, equipment/supply use, maintenance and many other bits of information. It was critical that the clerk typist be confidential, trustworthy and accurate.

One of the most important roles of the clerk was to process service and combat pay. Families on the home front relied on the payments sent home by troops in combat. Company orders for all activities, and all requisitions for fuel and supplies as well as requests to call up other units were all typed and filed by the company clerk. Equipment, transportation, supplies and men were only available with written orders.

The exaggerated version of the company clerk in the movie and television show M*A*S*H where the clerk was known as Radar O'Reilly may not have been that far from the truth. The clerk was the eyes and ears of what went on in combat before it happened and after the action was over. Far less would be known today about what went on in WWII if written orders, instructions, accounts, etc. did not still exist. It is no surprise that company clerks became unofficial "historians" of the people and activities of a given unit, including the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion.

Note: This information came from an interview with Don Richter, Clerk for Company B of the 300th. He has been a prolific contributor to this web site.

Radio Operations

Short-wave radio played a vital role in the communications of all units involved in combat in WWII, including the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion. The communication unit for the 300th was established in March of 1943 at Camp White in the Communication Center (the Mail Room) of Headquarters and Services Company. Volunteers were sought out for men willing to learn how to use radio equipment and keep it working. Morse code was the primary means of communication in training. Voice transmission was also used. The men spent much of their time in training improving their Morse code skills. By the time of the Normandy Invasion, each company commander was assigned a radio and operator.

In combat, radio operations for the 300th Engineers were performed out of Headquarters and Services Company. The three line companies, for communications purposes, reported to the communication section of H & S Co. Messages were sent from company commanders to the division staff in H & S and from Battalion HQ to the company commanders. During less busy times, the radio operators practiced their skills on each other. For Morse code, the entry instrument was called a straight key or a J-38. International Morse code was used by the U.S. Army. Short wave radios for the H & S Co. were on 2 ½ ton trucks with the line company radios usually in a standard command car. The radios were powered by the DC current form the vehicle.

Combat field communication during WWII was mostly over the air with wireless radios. This included both voice and Morse Code communication. Where telephone lines existed or could be established in field communication by line also was occasionally used. All communication from or to military vehicles was wireless. WWII was the first time for widespread use of wireless communication in combat. Wireless communication was far more flexible and quite reliable.

Note: This information was provided by Jerry Barton, radio operator for Company B of the 300th. He noted, "The company commander was Captain Norman Pehrson who rode beside the command car driver while the back seat was occupied by the radio operator which I discovered was an ideal place to see the war."

Medical Unit

The Medical Unit of the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion was assigned to the Headquarters and Service Company working out of battalion headquarters. The unit was made up of 18 men under the command of a captain, a lieutenant and a staff sergeant. In addition, the battalion had a dental group. Each company was assigned three aid men who carried a pack with bandages, syringes, antiseptics (especially sulfonamide) and morphine to eliminate as much pain as possible while under transport. The company medical unit was mobile, operating out of a small tent and performing emergency care. For transporting wounded to the field hospital, the medics used a modified weapons carrier, a jeep and/or an ambulance. Supplies were kept in a wooden trunk on the weapons carrier which was a flat bed that was ideal for this use. Radios were used to keep the company aid station in contact with men in the field.

Note: This information came from an interview with Warren Chancellor, a medic and clerk for the medical unit of the 300th.

Reconnaissance and Mapmaking

Dr. Larry Roberts, Army Historian provided the following background on engineer reconnaissance.

Each combat engineer battalion had a recon section, generally assigned to the Headquarters and Service Company. Generally there were three recon teams in the section. The teams were often three-man teams. Depending on the strength of the battalion and combat losses, two-man teams were possible. Line combat engineer battalions did not "make maps." Recon teams did field reconnaissance and often did sketches or strip maps of the things of importance they found. Battalion and Group headquarters would often update their printed maps with this information (a bridge that was destroyed or a bridge they found that wasn't on the map). The printed maps they used were generally printed by Engineer Topographic Battalions. British maps were used as the base map with respect to general terrain data. The topographic battalions used field reconnaissance information and aerial photography to update printed maps. These maps were printed in field printing plants which were part of the topo battalions standard set of equipment. Generally, recon teams did not carry cameras. If an individual had a camera and took pictures, an engineer topographic unit, a signal corps photographic unit, or even some public affairs teams could develop the film.

The word "reconnaissance" for the Army meant different things to different units. The Engineer Soldier's Handbook of June 2, 1943, described reconnaissance in part as follows:

Reconnaissance means the obtaining of information by going out and getting it. As an engineer soldier, you may frequently accompany a reconnaissance party. A good engineer reconnaissance man has two essential qualities; He must be continually alert. He must be able to determine the importance to an engineer of everything he sees.

You should, at all times, be alert to engineer needs for information. Some of the things which engineers are interested in are - lumber piles, quarries and gravel pits, standing timber, civilian building materials/machines/tools; buildings that may be repaired or whose lumber may be used and road-building materials. For streams identify width, depth, current and banks. For utilities identify power and communication lines and water supply facilities.

Your information should be in writing and include as many of these essentials as you have time to find out. When you back you should be able to point out on a map the location of everything you saw.

The 300th Engineer Combat Battalion had an S3 Section which was a small reconnaissance and mapmaking group within the Headquarters and Service Company. The 300th reconnaissance unit was led by Lt. Archie Menard who was later promoted to captain. In this unit were four other men including John Durant ( mapmaker ) and Charley Farley (official photographer).

Menard and the other two men would travel out to areas where the unit would be moving toward to obtain information that later would become the basis of the maps to be developed at headquarters. Farley often traveled with the group photographing the landscape and terrain. Later these photographs would be used as a resource for maps and other reconnaissance information.

Another 300th member attached to this unit was a specialist in camouflage, Sgt. Kenneth Kaiser. He was trained in how to disguise vehicles, structures and equipment out of sight of the enemy which included its air surveillance. Sgt. Menard would then go out to inspect the camouflage efforts so that information would be available to U.S. engineer troops in the region.

Note: Archie Menard is credited with the creation of the Map of the 300th which is the basis for this web site. Family recollection is that Charles Olive, Tec. 5 Co. B, drew portions of the map and the drawings on the map.

John Durant describes the work of the 300th Reconnaissance Section:

John DutantCharlie Farley was a delightful person. We served together in reconnaissance. He could be a moody person. The same thing that struck him funny one day wouldn't strike him funny the next day. When you got to know him he was good at what he did. He didn't mind going the extra yard. Charlie would take the pictures for our reconnaissance work. They had runners who would take the pictures back to be developed at Headquarters Company. In the mapmaking, we did everything with coordinates, that's all we had and we would chart everything. It was my job to make all of these coordinates to go from point A to point B to point C and put them in the notations.

Then you put this information on this "gel" type of thing with a particular type of pencil. The gel looked like a honeycomb but it was solid. The copies were made by hand on this gel by rolling it like wallpaper. Then they were sent out by messengers to Headquarters, maybe Second Platoon, anything where they were connected with the maps. It was a somewhat antiquated system but it worked. The maps themselves were all blue with a white background.

The pictures that Charlie made would be used for reference for the men so they would see what they were going to see when they got there. It would show where a bridge might be missing and where it should be built. I remember doing minefields, and the area that should be mined, and the boys would put out the mines. Charlie Farley would take photographs and put them together with the maps and then the maps and photographs would go out to the Sergeant like Cowboy Morris. And then they would lay the mines. That was all part of the reconnaissance section.

The reconnaissance officers were good to us. They wanted to be sure we got back from the front. If you see it up front and you don't get back it wasn't worth anything. If you were in reconnaissance you're not supposed to come back dead. Reconnaissance work was the best work in the military. Those boys that built those bridges, they were out there and they were targets all the time they were building. So, working in reconnaissance was a really good job.

Note: Information for this section was provided by 300th veteran John Durant, mapmaker at Headquarters and Service Company in Europe.