Page 32 - Penn State Civil and Environmental Engineering Magazine
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 Remembering the service of Col. David E. Pergrin
In his role as president of the class of 1940, Colonel David E. Pergrin, helmed the committee that commissioned one of
Penn State’s most iconic and beloved symbols: a stone sculpture of a Pennsylvania mountain lion, known
today as the Nittany Lion Shrine.
At the time of the statue’s dedication, Pergrin was training the unit he would lead in combat: the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion. Under Pergrin’s command, the 291st Battalion went on to become the single most decorated Army engineer unit of World War II, receiving the Presidential Unit Citation for “for extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of duty in action.”
Pergrin himself received the Silver Star for valor under fire and the Purple Heart for wounds received in combat, as well as receiving the Croix de Guerre from the French and Belgian governments.
The legacy of the 291st Battalion was established during two of the most influential battles of the war: the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Remagen, in which Pergrin and his unit’s efforts were indispensable to Allied victory.
During the Battle of the Bulge—the largest and costliest battle for American forces
in World War II—an advancing wave of German Panzer tanks forced many Allied units to retreat. But, instead of falling back, Pergrin confronted the onslaught and personally directed the 291st Battalion
to blow the vital bridges that allowed the Panzers to move through the heavily forested, hilly terrain.
In his book, First Across the Rhine, written about his experiences in World War II and published in 1989, Pergrin recounted how the commander of the SS Panzer regiment was purported to have uttered in despair and frustration: “Those damned engineers!
Those damned engineers!” The 291st Battalion was successful in blunting the German advance, forcing the regiment to abandon their tanks and helping turn the tide of
the battle.
Three months later, Pergrin and the 291st Battalion would again play a key role in one of the most important battles of the war. The rapid advance of Allied forces had resulted in the capture of the only bridge still standing over the Rhine River: the Ludendorff Bridge at the German town of Remagen. Although this gave Allied forces a significant and unexpected advantage,
it also made the bridge a target for an onslaught of German aircraft and artillery.
The 291st Battalion was the first Army engineer unit to arrive at the Battle of Remagen and, under heavy enemy fire, immediately began construction of a backup bridge in the expectation that the Ludendorff Bridge would eventually collapse, which it did. However, the replacement bridge constructed by the 291st Battalion permitted U.S. forces to move further into central German and hasten the end of the war.
The pontoon bridge constructed by the 291st Battalion—completed in only 32 hours, all under enemy fire—stretched 1,032 feet and was the single longest such bridge constructed during the war. All told, Pergrin and his unit built more than 70 bridges during the war, 19 of them constructed under enemy fire.
In addition to “First Across the Rhine,” Pergrin also chronicled his experiences during World War II in a second book, titled “Engineering the Victory: The Battle of the Bulge,” published in 2004. The courageous exploits of the 291st Battalion have also been the subject of multiple documentaries, including the History Channel’s “Unsung Heroes of WWII.”
  Pergrin led the committee that commissioned the creation of the Nittany Lion Shrine. He went on to serve as the commander of the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion—the single most decorated combat engineering unit of World War II.
In this photo from his book, First Across the Rhine, Pergrin, third from the right, stands in front of the bridge he and his unit constructed under heavy enemy fire during the Battle of Remagen. After the war, Pergrin put his civil engineering degree from Penn State to work, ultimately retiring as vice president and chief engineer of Penn Central Transportation Company. IMAGE: RETIRED COL. THOMAS FOSNACHT

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