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‘A tremendous thing and yet scary’; World War II vet was part of D-Day, Battle of the Bulge

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 11/12/19

Charlie Schoell often wears a black hat that carries a saying sewn in bright yellow thread: “We Clear The Way.”

It’s the reunion hat of the Third Army 204th Combat Engineers who …

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‘A tremendous thing and yet scary’; World War II vet was part of D-Day, Battle of the Bulge

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Charlie Schoell often wears a black hat that carries a saying sewn in bright yellow thread: “We Clear The Way.”

It’s the reunion hat of the Third Army 204th Combat Engineers who fought in the European Theater of Operations in World War II.

As a combat engineer, it was Schoell’s job to clear mines and build and blow up bridges.

Five years ago, the Chambers Hill man was the last standing member of this unit. He’s tried to find others but hasn’t been successful.

“For an 18-year-old, it was a tremendous thing and yet scary because you saw people at the worst they’ve ever been. And you see poor buggers trying to go down a road or go up a road, and you see them with carts and baby carriages and wheelbarrows and the stuff you know damn well they’re not going to be able to use, but filled with keepsakes and stuff like that, scrounging for something to eat, just to get the hell out of the way so that they wouldn’t get hurt,” Schoell said.

His unit fought in the Battle of the Bulge and met Gen. George Patton.

“His creases were sewn. He had pearl-handled guns. And you didn’t dare be out of uniform no matter what. We were construction guys, right? We were Raggedy Anns,” Schoell said.

Schoell was one of about 20 World War II veterans recognized by Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Lower Swatara Township, during his veterans breakfasts on Thursday and Friday at the Lower Swatara Fire Hall. About 300 veterans and active-duty personnel in the 106th State House District attended the breakfasts.

Schoell and his oldest son have been coming to them for years.

If a World War II veteran wasn’t able to come to the breakfast, Mehaffie is willing to come to the veteran’s home and honor them. His district office phone number is 717-534-1323.

During past breakfasts, Mehaffie recognized veterans who fought in the Vietnam and Korean wars. Many World War II veterans are passing away, Mehaffie said.

It can be hard for World War II veterans to talk about their experience during the war. He described their stories as “heart-wrenching.”

“To realize what they went through, it’s sad, some of it. But at the same time, they did what they needed to do. They knew what they wanted to do, and they knew they were fighting for our freedoms. And we experience that today because of all of these veterans that were here today, and all the veterans across this state and across this country. So we’re very, very lucky to have those that want to serve, [and] those that have served,” Mehaffie said.

Schoell’s story

Schoell has enjoyed writing the history of his unit.

“I owed it to them,” he said.

Most of his unit’s history was destroyed in an archive fire. So Schoell talked with other members of the unit and used his own recollections to rewrite its history.

Schoell’s battalion had 750 people. He said the unit had a high casualty rate with 63 percent wounded or killed.

“So nobody had time to keep records except for a couple of clerks, and he was so busy doing a lot of other things that a lot of times weeks would go by before he sent a report in. And his report would be ‘missing in action,’ ‘dead,’” Schoell said.

Schoell grew up in Long Island. When he was in school, Schoell enjoyed studying woodworking, industrial arts and metalworking. He graduated a year early and got a job as a machinist working on autopilots and bomber aircraft.

Schoell was drafted when he turned 18. He trained in Massachusetts and became a combat engineer. He learned how to defuse mines and booby traps and how to “blow things to hell,” he said.

Schoell’s secondary job was a flamethrower carrier.

“My job was to set people on fire. That’s not a nice job,” he said.

The 204th Combat Engineers, he said, was attachment unassigned, meaning the unit was plugged in wherever it was needed, and was always on the move and seldom had more than a day’s layover. The unit cleared mines and anti-personnel devices. The unit built what he called “quickie bridges.” They could build a 150-foot bridge and have a tank go across it in three hours.

The engineers were called when the infantry or tanks ran into an obstacle, he said.

“We did a lot of good things, but nobody ever heard about it,” Schoell said.

D-Day

A landing ship tank Schoell was in landed on Omaha Beach three days after D-Day, June 6, 1944.

When the ship was 1,000 yards away from shore, it hit a sandbar. When the ramp was dropped and the truck rolled out, the truck went underwater. They were able to save the driver and gunner.

As Schoell put it, the boats had to be in high tide otherwise they may be stranded and blown up. The unit was told to go back to Southampton for the night and try again the next day.

They weren’t thrilled, Schoell said.

Their ship was near a British unit that didn’t hit any resistance when they landed. The British opened their landing site to his unit.

“When we got to the beach, it was like a junkyard on fire,” he said.

With the rest of the unit on different boats, the unit was separated for a week. While on shore, he said they were put to work clearing the farmland and making store houses.

Battle of the Bulge

It was snowing when the unit arrived in a small town with a handful of buildings after being sent north. They asked a lieutenant where they were.

Luxembourg, he said.

“He said, ‘Yeah, there’s something going on up here in Belgium called the Bulge’ — the battle where the Germans are breaking through,” Schoell said.

The Battle of the Bulge lasted from mid-December 1944 until January 1945 in the Ardennes region, eastern Belgium, northeast France, and Luxembourg. Schoell’s unit was also trained as infantrymen and were stationed in the southern edge for two weeks.

His unit only had their summer uniforms during the battle. When they found a box filled with sheared sheepskin, Schoell, who was an Eagle Scout, used his Scouting skills to sew mittens and vests.

“We looked like a bunch of ragamuffins,” Schoell said.

There were 21 bridges along the Our River, which is in Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.

“There were 21 beautiful, old stone arch bridges. These handmade [bridges] were where the farmers brought their stuff across. We had to blow them up. We went in and blew them to hell,” he said.

A week later, the unit was told that the battle was over and the Germans were fleeing.

The unit was told to rebuild the bridges.

“We said, ‘Come on. We just blew them to hell. And we did a good job,’” Schoell said.

Crossing the Rhine

The engineers would be in the boat along with infantrymen during assault crossings. Schoell’s job was to go with the first boat to secure the landing site.

His unit was the first to cross the Rhine River, he said, in the spring of 1945. It was 800 yards across. The water was flowing quickly, and they didn’t use their motors for fear of alerting the Germans to their location. The unit arrived at 4 a.m. without a shot being fired.

The Germans were having a cup of coffee. The unit didn’t take prisoners, so Schoell’s lieutenant decided to let them take a boat. The Germans threw down their guns, and Schoell and his unit watched them drift downstream.

The unit chased the Germans when the war was over. They ended up in a resort town in Czechoslovakia near a lake in the mountains.

The civilians threw a three-day party, having stored pastries and drinks. When the official word came that the war was over, the unit worked their way back across Europe, taking apart some of the bridges they built.

Schoell came home in September 1945. He went to college and got a degree to teach industrial arts. When his wife got pregnant, Schoell wanted to bring home more money and got a job at IBM as a troubleshooter.

He was working in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when an opportunity to work in Harrisburg arose.

While he enjoyed the military, Schoell said he never wanted to reenlist.

“I couldn’t see a reason for conflict. I thought it could’ve been settled a lot easier than killing a bunch of people. The way the world is today it scares the hell out of me. We’re headed in the wrong direction,” Schoell said.

People in Washington, D.C., fight with each other instead of tackling issues people face like having a place to live or food to eat.

“We ignore that, and that’s just wrong,” he said.