596th Parachute Combat Engineer Company

by Col. Robert W. Dalrymple (Ret.)

Condensed from Paratroopers' Odyssey: A History of the 517th Parachute Combat Team (1985, Military Narrative by LTC Charles E. LaChaussee, AUS Ret.) and Chronicle of the 517th PRCT (1985, Compiled by Clark Archer)

This version was printed as a feature article in Airborne Quarterly magazine in the winter of 1998.

Winter '98 -The Airborne Quarterly

(Ed. Forenote: If, as an Infantryman, you've ever had to probe for mines with your bayonet, you soon learned to appreciate seeing the combat engineer troopers heading out to clear the proposed axis of advance for your outfit's planned attack the next morning. And, when it came to setting up "hard core" defensive positions and road blocks, who "bitched" the most if there were no engineers available!  In the 517th PRCT it was the 596th that made life just a little easier and less hazardous for the front-line infantryman. The Infantry is known as "The Queen of Battle "and the artillery claims to be "King of the Battlefield". But both would be in a "world of hurt" without the support of the Combat Engineer!  And, the ďairborne" combat engineers justifiably stand "tall" in the eyes of their infantry and artillery counterparts -- for their very name tells you they "do their thing" where the bullets fly!)

The combat role of a Parachute Engineer Company in military operations was, indeed, a new concept of employment for an engineer unit. One might even say that this development of military art was in its infancy.  However, fundamental to battlefield survival is the ability to close with and destroy an enemy. Thus, the school of the soldier was basic to our unit: physical and mental conditioning; use of and care and maintenance of equipment and clothing; rifle and weapons marksmanship; ceremonies and formations; hygiene and sanitation; bivouacing and marching; and field adaptability.

Proceeding through individual and small unit training, the 596th Parachute Combat Engineer Company began to develop the cohesiveness and unit discipline and espirit de corps that are necessary elements for survival and success on the battlefield.

Bob Dalrymple as a LTC. During WWII with the 517th PRCT he commanded the 596th Parachute Combat Engineer Company

Combined unit training along with continuation of physical and mental conditioning led to a tough capable, and durable outfit. Specialized training in demolitions, road repair and maintenance, bridge erection, mine laying and recording, mine detection and removal, fortifications including barbed wire and anti-personnel obstacles, antitank obstacles, and mapping and surveying were conducted concurrently. Finally, parachute rigging and parachute qualification.

Our training culminated in the testing phase of field maneuvers, where all units of the combat team became wedded in combined operations.

In the Parachute Infantry Combat Team, the Parachute Engineer Company, after deployment, is limited in its support capability because no engineer heavy equipment was authorized in the TO&E. With few exceptions, pioneer tools were the basic equipment. These, together with special equipment including mine detectors, demolition equipment, etc. could be packaged for airdrop as part of basic loads with other specialized equipment and supplies added as the mission dictated.  For example, in the Southern France operation there were several bridges on the periphery of the Combat Team position that were possible targets for demolition if such action had become necessary.  Thus, airdrop loads contained the necessary additional explosives, mines, and equipment to accomplish these possible missions.  In fact, the bridges were reconnoitered, but I do not recall that we actually prepared them for destruction.  As lightly equipped and supplied as the Engineer Parachute Company was 40 years ago, it was obvious that advantage would be taken of local materials, equipment, and transportation that might be available, plus any captured material the enemy might have possessed.

The 517th Parachute Infantry Regimental Combat Team (CT) baptism of fire occurred as a unit of the 36th Infantry Division.  This more or less standard ground operation placed the 596th Parachute Combat Engineer Company in a position providing direct combat support to any element of the 517th PRCT engaged in operations. Consequently, the Company Supply Officer, (Lt Herbert V. Larson), was able to requisition d draw from higher echelon supply depots a considerable amount of the standard combat engineer company mobile and heavy equipment required for direct combat support functions.  During this period, therefore, we had a limited number of dump trucks, a bull dozer, and truck mounted air compressors at our disposal. Obviously, we could not drop this equipment into Southern France, nor did we have enough personnel to leave behind to bring it in over the beaches as part of our "tail", even had we been allowed to retain it.

Troopers of the 596th somewhere in Southern France, in Aug44 during Operation DRAGOON!

So it was returned to Fifth Army sources, whence we had received it, prior to our departure from Italy.

I should like to state here, that our engineer soldiers showed great ingenuity and adaptability in transporting, handling, and operating this heavy equipment on which they had received very little prior training, if any.  A great tribute indeed, to our soldiers and an outstanding example of the confident, "can do" spirit of our engineers at the outset.

In the context of the airborne overprint of the Southern France invasion, the judicious use of the 596th was a paramount concern of the company commander.  After much consultation with the combat team commander and his staff, it was determined that it would be most advantageous to attach engineer platoons in direct support of the infantry battalions of the CT This was a logical decision in view of the possible dispersion of units in an airborne drop.  Also, throughout our advanced training we had attempted to make this disposition so that the battalion commander and the engineer platoon leader would know and understand the capabilities and functions of their respective units.  Our first, second, and third platoons normally were attached in direct support of the first, second, and third battalions of the CT respectively.

In an airdrop operation, it is paramount, also, that the infantry unit commander command all the troops assigned to him. Thus our platoons were assigned to and did jump with the various battalions of the combat team, with one exception.  The first platoon under Raymond J. Hild was placed in direct support of and jumped with the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

As the airborne operation progressed, the combat team found itself in a ground role situation in a mountainous terrain. The engineer company function here was to provide direct combat support to any element of the combat team, but particularly to the infantry units. The engineers operated in a more or less standard ground role of road repair and maintenance, maintenance of the main supply route, assistance in providing defensive obstacles to impede enemy penetration of forward positions (wire, AP mines, AT mines, abatis), as well as mine detection and removal. The latter operation encompassed far more than the normal amount of such work due to the mountainous terrain, the destruction of main roads, which necessitated the use of many back roads and routes by the infantry and their attendant requirement for this type of engineer combat support. Mine detection and removal, a most hazardous and hair-raising battlefield activity, often carried out under enemy fire and observation, brought forth magnificent personal courage on the part of the 596th engineer soldiers. Many were the incidents of this type of bravery.  

Since we had no heavy equipment, with the exception of one small dozer, a borrowed R2, our engineers accomplished most of the road maintenance and repair with hand labor. Fortunately, we were able to obtain assistance from the French Pont et Chaussee particularly in respect to rock and earth-fill material, cabling, steel stringers, sand, gravel, and other repair items not available from our regular supply channels.

The 596th moved with the combat team to Soissons, France in early December 1944. No sooner had we become settled, cleaned up, and getting ready for passes to Paris when we were alerted for the Battle of the Bulge. The company was subsequently moved by Transportation Corps semis and the few vehicles we possessed to the vicinity of Werbemont Belgium. The combat team was assigned to the XVIIIth Airborne Corps under General Ridgway. There followed a series of combat team operations, attachments to larger units, detachment from units, transportation to a new sector sometimes by transport, sometimes marching, another attachment, another combat operation, etc., etc.

The fluidity of the battlefield situation the constant change of combat team missions, and the constant attachments and detachments from higher units left little time for the combat team commander to be concerned with his engineer support.  It was therefore incumbent upon the engineer commander to analyze the situation and provide the very best engineer support to the combat team as possible under the circumstances.  Since major ground combat engineer units were operating in the area, the logical approach was For the CT engineer to report to tile engineer of tile major command to which the combat team was attached.  In that manner, the engineer company, with the concurrence of the combat team commander, was able to be integrated into the overall engineer Support function of the combat efforts in the area of operations.  This arrangement, SOP for engineer units attached to a larger headquarters, was a great asset in providing needed combat support to our fighting infantry elements.

Not every DZ was nice and smooth!  Some had trees.  Joe Smith, 596th found that out at Camp Mackall during a training jump!

We had no heavy equipment and insufficient transportation to move ourselves about on the battlefield.  About all we had in the way of transport was our kitchen truck and some 3/4 ton resupply trucks.  Any major shift in sector necessitated calling forward transportation units Supporting us for personnel transport.  Some transportation vehicles stayed with Lis several days because our moves were so frequent, and generally at night.

Over the course of the next several days, as US troops gained the initiative and began overrunning the enemy, we were able to recapture and recoup enough heavy equipment from the battlefield to give us a reasonably decent capability to respond to normal ground force engineer combat support operational requirements.

(Ed. Footnote: Though, with the exception of the item below, this ends the coverage of the 517th  PRCT; there really is no ending to the story.  As long as there are men who served in the 517th PIR, 460th PFAB, 596th PCEC and the men of the 442nd Anti-Tank Co and Co D, 83rd Chem Mortar(4.2) On, the 517th PRCT lives on!  As with all our now non-active WWII "airborne" units, the day must come when the "fast man" reports to God's Airborne Forces.  To those of us still around and in honor of our departed comrades, it is our duty to put in place something that will survive us, so that "what was done will not be forgotten"!) (By the way, the aforementioned 442nd and 83rd men did their thing with the 517th on Operation DRAGOON, as glider riders!  They got their training in Italy just for this mission as attachments to the 517th PRCT.  Anybody want to make them believe they aren't "AIRBORNE"!)