The WWII 300th Combat Engineers

Donald Ross with water purification equipment
Donald H. Ross (left) with water purification equipment.

What They Did

Battalion operating a water point consisting of three units, 3 miles southeast of Isigny, France, 19 July 1944
Battalion operating a water point consisting of three units, 3 miles southeast of Isigny, France, 19 July 1944

Water Supply

Some of the members of the 300th received specialized training in the critical role of building and maintaining water purification systems at each new bivouac site. Sgt. Donald Ross led one of these units. (His daughter, Jan Ross, is co-author of this site.) These units supplied water not only for the 300th but for other divisions and civilians in the vicinity.

The First Army landed in France in a region devoid of potable water. The combat engineers constructed water holding tanks, purifiers, showers, latrines along with piping and plumbing to supply the needs of mess halls, field hospitals, repair shops, laundries and water stations for troops and vehicles. According to National Geographic magazine's November, 1942 article "QM, The Fighting Shopkeeper" water was extremely vital: "Fighting men drink up to three quarts a day." Quartermasters worked with the engineers by bringing in the cement, pipes, tanks and pumps they needed to construct the water systems. Water was also used to combat lice, bedbugs, fleas and disease through the use of steaming sterilizers.

Troop water needs in wartime greatly surpassed available quantities and additional water had to be shipped in. According to Ernie Pyle's "2nd Front Articles" about combat engineers, ships brought thousands of gallons in large tanks as well as 5-gallon cans. From that point, the duty fell on the engineers to transport the water to the troops. It was not uncommon for them to search for water deep into territory only recently evacuated by the enemy searching for water sources.

A combat engineer battalion usually carried enough equipment to set up four water points; two forward of the advancing infantry; artillery or armored units and one or two behind. As troops advanced, the behind water points would leapfrog ahead establishing the next forward points.

The first step in activating a water point was to locate a stream, well, pond or spring. In some cases, the source was enhanced by explosives creating a crater resulting in a water source called a sump from which the water would be pumped. The next step was to test for potability, turbidity and poisons. An engineer water specialist carried test tubes for this evaluation.

In some cases, the systems used for WWI were again used in WWII. They included sand filtration and chlorination. For most of the European campaign of WWII, the new ERDLator system was used. This system was named after the Engineering Research and Development Laboratory at Fort Belvoir, VA. (Fort Belvoir was where Donald Ross trained. His primary responsibility in the 300th in Europe was establishing water points.)

The ERDLator was a mobile water treatment unit that combined coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, diatomaceous earth filtrations and hypochlorite disinfection. It became the principal water treatment employed in WWII and was later used in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It provided safe drinking water for both the troops and the civilians of liberated cities as the Allies moved across Europe into Germany.

Potable water usage by troops in combat was estimated by the military (on a per day basis in gallons) as follows:

  • drinking: 5
  • hygiene: 2.7
  • centralized showers: 1.3
  • food preparation: 3
  • vehicles: 3
  • heat treatment (ice): 1
  • hospitals: 65 gallons per bed per day
    laundry (6 pounds per man per week): 2
  • construction: 1.5
  • Total use = 20 gallons of water per day per man.

Battalion operating a water point
Battalion operating a water point consisting of three units, 3 miles southeast of Isigny, France, 19 July 1944.

Co. B 300th veteran Don Richter met fellow Co. B veteran Harold Meyer for the first time since Germany 1945 at the 300th reunion in Dallas in June 2008. He later related the following mutual recollection:

Don RichterWe were in the Carentan area in late July when some of us, including Harold Meyer and myself were selected to assist the Water Section to make a move. We reported to the Water Section, likely Sergeant Ross, who explained that we needed to help drain all of the portable canvas tanks and load them and other equipment and supplies on trucks. (Sergeant Ross father of Jan Ross, co-author of this site.) We then would go with them to a new site where we would assist in setting up at the new location. Sergeant Ross saw the tiny stream that was to supply the battalion with water. He just shook his head in disbelief. The water was too shallow to pump from it. Harold Meyer told him not to worry and that a couple of blocks of TNT could take care of that problem.

Harold MeyerHarold put together his explosive charge and detonator. Soon we heard Harold yell, "Fire in the hole!" This was followed by a loud explosion with water and mud in all directions. After a bit, the flow water carried all the muddy water off and the six by six crater appeared to the delight of Sergeant Ross who quickly dropped his suction hose into the deepened stream, primed his pump, started the engine and began pumping water into the first canvas tank. The water was treated by sedimentation and filtration in the first tank, then to treatment by chlorination in the second tank and then to the third tank where potable water would soon be ready to be doled out to those needing water.

With the mission accomplished, we loaded up our truck and returned to our company area in the battalion bivouac to join our assigned squad, platoon, and company to await our next mission.