Combat Engineer: The Life and Leadership of Colonel H. Wallis Anderson, Commander of the Engineers at the Bulge and Remagen by John Racoosin (Koehler Books, 2021, 360 pages)
The book, Combat Engineer, is author John Racoosin’s tribute to his grandfather, Harry Wallis Anderson. He was a railroad engineer and Army reservist born in 1890, who served with the Army Corps of Engineers in Mexico and during both World Wars. The book briefly covers Anderson’s early years but focuses most on his service during WWII.
Anderson’s father worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Anderson did too, starting from the age of fifteen. He earned degrees in civil engineering and economics, continued to work for the railroad, and joined the Pennsylvania National Guard, where he commissioned as an officer.
He quickly got called up for action with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Mexico in 1916 and was recalled for service in Europe during World War I from 1917 to 1919. His WWI experiences made a lasting impact on him, and drove home the importance of solid leadership and effective training prior to combat. Between the wars, Anderson returned to work for the railroad, and continued to promote in both his civilian job and in the Army reserves.
The majority of the book focuses on Anderson’s role as a colonel, where he prepared engineering units for World War II and their support of operations in Europe. His emphasis on meaningful and often grueling training prepared his command for the tough march across Europe. His team landed in Normandy, France days after the Allied landings in June 1944. Anderson led his engineers in building bridges and roads, clearing mines, and performing other crucial tasks across France and Belgium.
Anderson’s preparations paid off as his engineering units played a huge role in defending against the Battle of the Bulge by destroying bridges, which blunted the German offensive long enough for other Allied forces to respond. Anderson and his units then supported the Allied push into Germany, which ended the war.
Combat Engineer is an account of engineering units that rarely get much attention in typical history books of the World Wars. As an Army reservist, the mix of Anderson’s military and civilian careers prepared him for the WWII battlefields as he provided crucial support to the Allied efforts.
At the same time, the book is also a fascinating case study in leadership. When WWII started, Anderson was one of the few Army engineers that had any experience in combat. His vision of what their training needed to include developed his junior leaders for the roles they would perform in the push to liberate Europe. His attention to detail and his desire to lead by example propelled his units to critical success and earned him personal awards as well.
Although Combat Engineer may have started as one Navy veteran’s investigation into what his grandfather did during WWII, it’s a tribute to the impact a great leader can have on their organization. This is an excellent book for those interested in learning more about what the Army Corps of Engineers did in WWII or for anyone who wants to study how to provide effective leadership in challenging situations.
Book review submitted by Stephen Lepper, who served 21 years on Active Duty with the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. A licensed Professional Engineer, he currently works for CACI International Inc. He lives with his family in central Massachusetts and is always on the lookout for what to read next. You can connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephen-lepper.