REID SMILEY | 18 FEBRUARY 2021
When I was talking to my dad about an upcoming livestream, he asked me how dangerous it was to be a combat engineer in World War II. Although I had read about the combat engineers’ sacrifices in books like Eight Stars to Victory: Operations of the First Engineer Combat Battalion in World War II and Letters from a Soldier: A Memoir of World War II by Bill Kays, I realized that I had only read anecdotes, but didn’t really have a clear understanding of how or how many combat engineers died.
Based on my experience compiling a database of the Wisconsin soldiers who died in the First World War for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, I began digging through the First Engineer Combat Battalion Journal (via the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park’s Digital Archives), Eight Stars to Victory, the American Battle Monuments Commission, Fold3‘s digital collection, and FindAGrave.com to find out as much as I could about each of the men who died.
77 men of the First Engineers died during the Second World War:
- The first combat death was on 8 November 1942 during the invasion of North Africa on Operation Torch and the last was on 17 April 1945 in the bitter last weeks of the war fighting through Germany.
- The youngest man to die was 19, the oldest was 39. The average age of those killed was 26.
- Before the war, they had been butchers, students, sailors, engineers, career soldiers among other backgrounds.
- 36/77 died due to incidents on four days.
- 2/19/1943: During routine operations in North Africa, someone accidentally detonated a landmine, killing 6 men from Company A.
- 6/6/1944: The First Engineers landed on Omaha Beach in the first waves of D-Day. 14 were killed or later died of their wounds. Most were from Company A, which landed first.
- 7/9/1944: As a contingent of Company B was setting up some barbed wire, came under attack. 6 died in the resulting action.
- 10/12/1944: When Company C was planting land mines in Germany, a mortar hit their stockpile of mines. This caused a huge chain reaction, killing 10.
- Most were killed by artillery, machine gun fire, Luftwaffe attacks (in North Africa), or by mines. Though the engineers were typically not living and fighting directly on the frontlines, it supports previous research by S.L.A. Marshall that ~90% of US casualties were from artillery or machine guns (especially after D-Day).
For more information on their demographics, you can check out some of the tables below:
To see my full findings, please contact me here.
Thank you Andrew Luce for helping me with the pivot charts!