Saturday, July 18, 2009

Unsung Hero, Clairton Boy

First Across the Rhine

Allow me to introduce you to: My good friend and blog reader Lawyer Bob recently told me a story about a couple of war heroes. Bob was chatting with an old friend named Warren who had landed at Normandy on D-Day plus two weeks and had fought his way across France and Germany with the 83d Infantry. He had shared with Bob a TV interview he had seen during the D-Day festivities. The interview focused on another war hero, Col. David Pergrin who had led the 291st Combat Engineers from the Normandy beachhead to Germany and the Rhine River. After doing some research on his own Bob told me that I might find his story and history interesting. I did.

Growing up Clairton: David Pergrin was born in Clairton, PA in 1917 as the “War to End All Wars” was winding down. As a child he could not have known that the war of his youth later renamed “World War I” would be the precursor to the Second World War two decades later. David was popular, handsome, and a star athlete on the Clairton Bears football team. He graduated with honors in 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression and with the help of a local philanthropist, attended Penn State and majored in Engineering. There he played football as well as working as a dishwasher, furnace attendant, librarian, and delivering the midnight edition of the newspaper. His finances were exhausted after two years so he returned home to Clairton and worked as a surveyor for U.S. Steel for a year then returned to complete his education.

David was senior-class president when he graduated from Penn State in 1940. He and Bob Baird, the student All University President led the class that presented the Nittany Lion Shrine, a 14-ton limestone monument symbolizing Penn State tradition. David made the official presentation to the trustees as Bob Baird looked on in pride. Bob would return to Clairton and become its mayor. David completed his engineering degree with the help of an ROTC scholarship and entered the Army as a Second Lieutenant.

After D-Day: America recently celebrated several historic landmarks. July 4 was Independence Day and one month prior, on June 6 many old soldiers gathered in Normandy, France on the windswept hill above beaches that were code-named Utah and Omaha. As cameras watched, presidents and heads of state honored the brave soldiers who had climbed the cliffs and changed the direction of the war more than 60 years ago. Those who are not history buffs often think of D-Day as a signal to the end of the war, but for many soldiers including the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion, it was just the beginning. The 291st literally paved the way for other Allied soldiers from Normandy to the Rhine River and beyond.

Summer of ‘44: It had been two and a half years since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor brought America into the war. America and her allies staged the largest air, land, and sea operation ever attempted, code named “Overlord.” More than 150,000 troops, 5,000 ships, and 800 aircraft invaded occupied France to fight the German army. The victory came at a heavy cost – 4,000 killed, 6,000 wounded. Prior to the assault the 291st was part of Operation Bolero, a huge massing of troops and material designed in part to fool the Germans into thinking the assault would come from Southern England and a different venue. The ruse, along with several other decoy activities worked as the German Army was caught by surprise.

Beach secured; Roads and bridges needed: Once the D-Day landing was completed the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion led by Col. David E. Pergrin landed in France. It was their job to repair, maintain, and build roads and bridges so the Allied forces could advance and when required, retreat. The engineers were also combat soldiers. They spent much of the fall and winter of 1944 in the Belgian village of Malmedy. The 291st. created roadblocked, blew up bridges, and otherwise blocked the passage of German tanks and equipment. The bravery of Col Pergrin and the 291st was recognized as again and again they spurned the advances of the German Army. But as they say in Vaudeville, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Battle of the Bulge: In late December, 1944 some of the most vicious fighting of the war took place against the Germans in the village of Malmedy, Belgium. Pergrin and his company were understaffed, overmatched, and primed for a sure defeat, but they refused to accept that fate. They held off numerous attacks from Hitler’s finest Panzer Tank divisions and eventually wore them down. This despite Nazi massacres of American prisoners, a crime for which dozens of Nazis would be tried after the war.

In one particular skirmish a Nazi SS officer led one of the armored columns racing toward the Meuse River. His route took him near the village of Malmedy. Colonel David E. Pergrin, the 27-year-old commander of the 291st continued to organize its defense. He ordered his engineers to set up roadblocks and destroy bridges. The frustrated Germans decided to not attack Malmedy but headed for a nearby village, but Pergin sent reinforcements to that village as well and stymied the Panzers once again. By blowing up bridges and otherwise harassing the crack Panzer Division, they eventually stopped and destroyed one of Hitler’s most vaunted divisions in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. Col. Pergrin and the 291st Combat Engineer’s initiative and training in defensive operations were a major contribution to the outcome of an important campaign. Col. Pergrin was awarded numerous medals by the French government as well as a Silver Star. A post-war housing development in Clairton was named "Malmedy Village" in honor of this campaign.

Humble War Hero: Like so many heroes of that so-called “Greatest Generation,” Col. Pergrin quietly went home to his family after the war to work as an engineer for the railroad. As the 50th anniversary of the war neared he was encouraged record his war experiences and he did a first-hand account entitled, “First Across the Rhine,” which describes, among other things, the 291st, selected to build a bridge across the Rhine River in Germany while facing enormous resistance. The bridgs was longest combat bridge and was build in record time. It laid bare the German heartland to advancing Allied troops. Colonel David E. Pergrin, war hero, engineer, and Clairton boy.

A little blogging music Maestro... “Hero” by Mariah Carey.

Dr. Forgot

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