A couple of months after D-Day, 2nd Lt. Harold Hewitt of Port Charlotte, Fla. landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, with the 252nd Engineers Battalion, part of Gen. William “Tex” Simpson’s 9th Army fighting in Europe during World War II.
Initially his outfit spent much of its time clearing the beach and the cliffs above the beach of German anti-personnel mines. It was a dangerous undertaking for those involved.
Luckily for Hewitt, he was the battalion’s transportation officer and not directly involved in the mine-clearing operations.
His unit got its first taste of the front lines when the 252nd Battalion was cutting bridge timbers in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium at the end of “The Battle of the Bulge.” By the time Hewitt and his unit ran into the Germans, they were making their final attack in the largest battle on the Western Front during the Second World War.
“We had been pulled out of the Ardennes and out of timber-cutting to fill in for a front line unit. Our job was to hold the Siegfried Line along the German border,” the 90-year-old said.
“The Germans tried a counter-attack, but they were pretty well disorganized. They did run us out of the forest,” Hewitt recalled. “We went back to cutting down pine trees a short time later, after they left. We had 25 saw mills in the Ardennes cutting bridge timbers for bridges we would build throughout Germany.
“We built our first bridge at Venlo, Holland. It was 952 (feet long), across the Mass River,” he said. “Using a crane and a barge we’d drive 40-foot pilings into the river bottom and then place a steel I-beam atop the pilings. On top, heavy bridge timbers would be used as planking, secured by steel drift pins through the beam below.”
They finished their first bridge at Venlo in 11 days. The way the process worked, the 252nd would move into an area immediately behind the infantry that pushed the German defenders out of the area. Once their sector was cleared of enemy artillery, Hewitt’s engineering battalion would move in and start building.
All of the original spans had been knocked out by Allied bombers. When the infantry arrived at the river bank, the assault troops put a pontoon bridge in place to quickly reach the far bank. Then Hewitt and his engineers began construction of a more permanent bridge a short time later.
Their biggest undertaking in bridge building was the 1,900-foot-long bridge across the Rhine River at Wessel, Germany. It was a tricky job because of the Rhine’s currents and the width of the span.
“It may have been the largest bridge the Army Engineers built in World War II,” he observed. “It took us 50-some days to build it, which was weeks ahead of the English estimate for how long it would take to build the bridge.”
“I discovered a diesel generator close by the Germans left behind. I took a flatbed truck out to the generator and brought it back to the bridge site. With lights, we were able to work on the bridge day and night,” Hewitt said.
The I-beams that supported the bridge across the Rhine were a meter tall and 80 feet long. They were so heavy it required a crane on both ends of the steel beams to lift them into place. When the job was finished, the bridge would support 80 tons of traffic going in both directions, or a 70-ton vehicle passing over the span by itself.
“We built our last bridge across the Elba at Magdeberg, Germany,” Hewitt said. “That’s where we met the Russians.”
His unit constructed a small bridge over the Elba Canal in downtown Magdeberg. The Russians were working on the main bridge along the Autobahn outside of town, he explained.
“I took my driver and we went out to see how the Russian bridge building was coming along. When we pulled up in our jeep near where they were building, there were three Russian guards,” he said. “They pointed to our watches; they wanted them. I told the driver, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here before they take our watches away from us.'”
Shortly after completing the Rhine bridge, Hewitt had amassed enough points to take a one-way trip back to the United States. He had joined the Army in 1940 and originally was stationed in Iceland, where his former unit built bridges and roads in that barren wilderness. He came back to the states, went to Officers Candidate School, and became a 2nd lieutenant and was shipped to Europe with the 252nd Engineering Battalion.
“I went back to Camp Lucky Strike at Le Havre, France, and a couple of weeks later boarded the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth and headed home,” he said. “Five days later we were in New York Harbor.”
A couple of years after he was discharged from the Army, Hewitt went to work for Mobil Oil Company as a truck driver. Three decades later, he retired as an auditor from the oil firm. He and his wife, Rosemary, moved first to Bradenton, Fla. for eight years and then to Port Charlotte in 1990. They have been married for 64 years.
Lt. Harold Hewitt of Port Charlotte received the following commendations while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II: Three battle stars for three major battles: The Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe. He also received the European-African Service Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.
Don Moore veterans column: Army division’s newspaper records Germany’s ‘unconditional surrender’
Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Monday, July 30, 2007
Among the pictures, newspaper clippings, mementos and other stuff from World War II that Harold Hewitt kept packed away at his Port Charlotte home was a copy of “Diamond Dust,” the 5th Infantry Division’s mimeographed daily two-page newspaper.
Not just any copy, but the one with the giant hand-lettered, bold-face front page headline reading: “BOCHE KAPUT!” dated May 8, 1945 — V-E Day, Victory-Europe Day. Below the headline is a drawing of an American soldier standing beside a German swastika with the bayonet of his M-1 rifle plunged into the Nazi insignia.
The accompanying story reads: “Peace broke out today in Europe as the Allies declared 8 May, 1945 as Victory-Europe Day and the entire German Army surrendered unconditionally to the overwhelming strength of the United States, great Britain and Russia.
“The end of the war and the beginning of peace and occupation of greater Germany found the 5th Infantry Division in the Bohemian hills of western Czechoslovakia — the first division to go overseas and the last division to fight against organized German resistance.
“Members of the 5th Division seemed to be accepting the news of the end of the war with restrained enthusiasm. It was a fact to be expected and an end toward which the 5th worked and trained overseas for two years and ten months — in Iceland, England and North Ireland and an end toward which the 5th fought for ten months in France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
“While the home front and places like London, Belfast and Paris were reported breaking all records for celebration, the combat veterans of the 5th occupied, temporarily, the western Czech hill country small towns, watched the streams of displaced person and refugees along the roadside, gathered prisoners, waited for orders and wondered what was coming next. To a man, what everyone wanted was to get back home, but what he expected and what was most likely, was an indefinite period of occupation of some part of Germany.
“The signature of the surrender was achieved in a school house in Rheims, a city which was liberated by the 5th Infantry Division on 25 August 1944. Field Marshal Model signed the surrender terms for the Germans, representing Admiral Doenitz. Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, chief of staff of SHAEF for General Eisenhower, signed the surrender terms for the U.S., along with representatives for Russia, Great Britain and France. The signing occurred at 0241 hours, 7 May 1945.
“Prime Minister Winston Churchill will broadcast the official announcement at 1500 hours today, 8 May, and it is expected that simultaneous announcements will be made by President Truman and Marshal Stalin.
“The new German foreign minister broadcast the news of the unconditional surrender to the German people over the Flensburg radio. He said that Germany had been overwhelmed by vastly superior strength and that for better or for worse, her fate was now in the hands of the victors. After the signing, General Eisenhower asked the German signers if they fully realized Germany’s position and the conditions of the truce and if they intended to fulfill conditions. Model said the conditions were perfectly clear and understood and that Germany would comply with all the terms.
“In spite of the German High Command’s announcement of unconditional surrender, German troops in Prague are still fighting and still committing atrocities against the civilians population. A Czech broadcast from London warned these troops that they would be treated as Francs-Tirenus; in other words, their actions have place them outside the pale of international law.
“The 7th Army has captured an order from Himmler saying that none of the political prisoners at Dachau should be allowed to fall into Allied hands alive. He signed it 14 April, but the Americans overran Dachau shorty afterwards and liberated 33,000 Allied Prisoners of War.
“The bodies of Goebbels and his family were found in Berlin by the Russians. They had died of poisoning. The body of Field Marshal Von Beck was found on the battlefield, Moscow radio said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that the Allies will have to feed every liberated country in Europe for the next 15 months.
“The Swedish radio reports that an Allied fleet is steaming into Oslo Fjord.
“An order of the day to Marshal Konev and his Chief of Staff General Petrov announced that Breslau, which was surrounded last February, has been captured. Some 40,000 prisoners were taken.
“Correspondent Frank Gillard of BBC said the delay in the official announcement of unconditional surrender was necessary because it might take days for the German High Command to communicate the news to all the scattered German forces. The Nazi’s communication has been badly mauled.
“The Japanese Government denounced Germany’s action in seeking a separate peace as a ‘shameless betrayal’ of ‘International confidence.'”
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