The Artillery Surveyors in WWII—Africa and Europe: Part 3 of 3: Survey Officers

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Dropping the Transit
ieutenant Colonel Earle Deily, on loan from the USC&GS, was Survey Officer for the V Corps and the 17th Field Artillery Observation Battalion providing survey control to the battalion, training survey teams, and advising the V Corps Artillery Commander. He helped plan for the D-Day invasion and acquired survey control for all of northern Europe before the invasion. He crossed over Omaha Beach on June 8, 1944, and started setting up shop that day in an apple orchard midway between Formigny and St. Laurent Sur Mer. This made his unit the first operational observational battalion in France.

He made the front page of the New York Times in mid-August as he was shown meeting a British officer upon the closing of the great killing ground known as the Falaise Gap. Between August 14 and 25 his unit worked acquiring targets for V Corps Artillery which poured murderous fire into the retreating German Seventh Army. In late August Deily’s unit marched triumphantly through Paris when it was liberated and kept right on marching out the other side in pursuit of the Germans. Of this march General Eisenhower wrote "Because this ceremonial march coincided exactly with the local battle plan it became possibly the only instance in history of troops marching in parade through the capital of a great country to participate in pitched battle the same day."

Some insight into Earle Deily’s role and stature in the company is gained by looking at one small incident during this period. Survey Party 4 had just finished its day’s work when "Fick tore down his transit and started back down the narrow road, followed by Brescia. Suddenly Brescia glanced through an opening in the hedgerow. There, for the first time in his confused military career he came face to face with a German soldier. Better make that plural–there were twelve of them. He could see the ugly muzzles of the Schmeisser machine pistols, and he stood there in his size 12 tracks, his carbine slung across his back, a notebook in one hand and a pencil in the other. He shouted to Fick, who dropped his transit and took cover alongside the hedgerow. It was lucky Colonel Deily wasn’t there. Imagine dropping a transit to the ground without adjusting the level screws!" Fortunately, the Germans were ready to surrender and Fick and Brescia went on to survey another day. However, one can see the Coast Surveyor Deily hollering at his troops to protect the instruments at all costs, a quality gained from years in the field. (The above incident was excerpted from The History of the 17th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, an anonymous publication put together informally in a yearbook format.)

The following 3 months were spent in offensive actions against the Siegfried Line and on into Germany. On December 14, Battery B of the 17th FAOB, attached to the V Corps in the vicinity of Krinkelt, Belgium, reported that most of the enemy artillery shells falling in his area were coming from the east and southeast. A measure of the importance that the enemy placed on the sound and flash ranging units’ activities is shown by intensive shelling of the battalion operating area early on the morning of December 16. This signaled the beginning of the last great German offensive of the war which came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans realized that to be successful, they had to knock out the eyes and ears of the American artillery. B Battery’s Elsenborn sound base had all microphones out by 0503; Detachment C’s Mutzenich sound base remained operational until 0530 but because of the violence of the barrage was only able to obtain 5 gun locations. All Detachment C flash observation posts had lost communication by 0530. Battery A’s Lammersdorf sound base had lost wire to all but two microphones by 0615. By 0830 most wire communication had been reestablished. By then sound and flash ranging observation posts were back in business and remained so for the duration of the Battle of the Bulge. As according to most accounts of the Battle of the Bulge, the artillery barrage did not begin until 0530, it would appear that the initial shelling of the 17th FAOB was localized intentionally to knock out the artillery targeting capability of the V Corps prior to beginning the general attack.

On December 17 in response to enemy penetrations along the V Corps–VIII Corps boundary, the 17th FAOB started survey on the Eupen–Malmedy roads to give survey control for corps artillery in the Eupen area. At 1230 Detachment C’s Flash OP 4 in the vicinity of Monschau, Germany, was captured with two men escaping, one man wounded, and one man MIA. Battery B, which had been in the vicinity of Elsenborn, was subjected to very heavy artillery fire for 36 hours. It withdrew to Camp Elsenborn and Verviers at 2130 approximately two minutes before their position was overrun. One man was killed, one MIA, and some equipment was lost and destroyed.

During this battle the veteran V Corps, of which the 17th FAOB was a part, held the shoulder on the northeast corner of the Allied lines. Although much has been said of Patton’s role in defeating the Germans and the heroic efforts of the "Battling Bastards of Bastogne", both Eisenhower and General Omar Bradley give an equal share of the credit for victory to V Corps for holding the shoulder and denying the Germans the opportunity to turn the flank of the Allied lines and roll them up to the north. On December 22, the command center of the 17th FAOB moved to Eupen where Deily was rudely awakened by incendiary and anti-personnel bombs at 0345 on the 23rd; and, during the day, Deily’s HQ area was strafed by a new German jet fighter. Seven men in the HQ area were wounded. Again on New Year’s Eve, two five-hundredpound bombs hit the 17th’s HQ area.

Towards the end of January, the Battle of the Bulge ended and V Corps went on the offensive. Deily’s unit crossed the Rhine on March 25 and spent the rest of the war chasing the enemy across Germany. Following the surrender of Germany, Earle Deily, now commander of the 17th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, was placed in charge of a resort-hotel complex at Marianski-Lasni in U.S.-occupied Czechoslovakia. After informing his stateside wife that he was in charge of a resort complex with "hot and cold running blondes", she went down for a little chat with RADM Leo Otis Colbert, Director of the Coast and Geodetic Survey. The result of the talk was that RADM Colbert ascertained that it was time for the boys to come home and resume the business of establishing the national geodetic control network and surveying our shores. Earle Deily returned to the United States on December 11, 1945, and reported for duty in the Coast and Geodetic Survey on March 13, 1946.

Rusty’s Boys
While David Whipp (see Part 1 of this series) was helping the Corps Expeditionnaire Francais zero in on the Germans in the vicinity of Monte Cassino, Lieutenant Commander William C. "Rusty" Russell had been taken out of the lines and sent with the 15th Field Artillery Observation Battalion to the former resort area of Anzio-Nettuno on February 3, 1944. The object of this expedition was to outflank the Germans on the Gustav line, push them further to the north, and free Rome. For a variety of reasons, this operation didn’t work the way it had been planned. Allied troops stayed on the beach at Anzio-Nettuno for months with the Germans looking down their throats and shelling their positions at will. This was not without cost to the Germans as the surveys conducted by "Rusty" Russell and the accompanying observations of the flashand sound-ranging
units accounted for the location and subsequent counterbattery work against 1,968 enemy gun positions and 93 targets of opportunity, including enemy tanks and infantry. Russell’s citation for the Legion of Merit Medal cited his "devotion to duty, knowledge of survey, and the ability to overcome apparently insurmountable obstacles" as "a material factor in the precise accuracy of the beachhead artillery".

Russell began his time in the Army as an artillery survey instructor. He originally was not scheduled to ship overseas with the 15th FAOB but insisted on going as he had trained and liked the men of the 15th and called them "his boys". Gaining the survey officer billet within the battalion, he left New York harbor on August 24, 1943 and navigated the troop ship carrying the 15th FAOB to the Mediterranean. The 15th first went into line on October 27, 1943, just north of Naples and engaged in bitter mountain fighting, moving its observation posts from mountain peak to mountain peak, as the enemy fell back. On November 15th, the battle for Mt. Camino began, an operation that lasted over a month. Finally it was captured after three days of intense artillery fire during which 480 artillery pieces fired 100 rounds each. In January the unit was taken out of line and then made the Anzio landings. Anzio was close to being hell for the Allied units as they endured over three months of shelling, bombing, and sniper fire.

Following the fall of Rome on June 5, 1944, the 15th FAOB, while attached to the IV Corps, continued the rapid pursuit of the German Army to the Arno River. By winter the opposing armies had settled down to a long siege in the Po River Valley Campaign and "Rusty" Russell had finished his tour in Europe. He headed back to the United States to continue teaching artillery surveying to new units leaving for the front. By the end of the war, "Rusty’s boys" in the 15th FAOB had surveyed in innumerable U. S. artillery locations and spotted and plotted the positions of over 4,000 enemy guns of all calibers helping bring about their destruction or neutralization. As a measure of the eminent danger members of the 15th FAOB were in during the period from going into line until June 5, 1944, medical corpsman James B. Moss, Jr., who was attached to the 15th FAOB, recorded 12 fatalities and six serious wounds from enemy action but also "lots of casualties" from close by units that he helped treat. When on May 25, 1944, the Anzio beachhead forces met up with the main 5th Army front, Moss commented "Boy you don’t know how glad I was to hear the news."

Enabling the Guns
Coast Surveyor Glendon Boothe’s experience as survey officer for the Third Field Artillery Observation Battalion also points out just how different field artillery survey work was. This description is fairly typical of those attached to the FAOBs:

"Insofar as being under or subject to enemy fire from 18 July 1944 to 5 May 1945, I was at all times in the combat zone and subject to artillery fire, bombing and strafing attacks, land and foot mines, booby traps and delayed mines in buildings, sniper fire, and in many instances in the zone of active infantry fire fights, as well as in danger from bands of soldiers cut off during the retreat of the main enemy forces. The usual place for the 3rd F. A. Observation Battalion was as close as possible behind the infantry, and ahead of the artillery, so as to keep the survey data ready when the artillery moved ahead. Many times our unit occupied areas before the infantry arrived to clean out the area, and on many night moves we would have broken enemy units behind and on each side of us. Our survey parties were particularly vulnerable to enemy fire since the work was all performed during daylight and quite often in view of the enemy observation posts. But our greatest danger was from enemy mines since most surveys were carried out before the Engineer troops could sweep the areas."

Boothe goes on to say, "I did not actually fire an artillery piece or small arms at the enemy but the survey data supplied to the artillery units attached to the XV Corps enabled these guns to fire at enemy personnel, installations, and equipment that otherwise would not have been brought under fire."

Fifty to One
As with Boothe, most C&GS officers fought the war primarily with their technical skills. However, the Coast and Geodetic Survey had a larger-than-life hero in the ETO in the form of Bill Deane, 291st Field Artillery Observation Battalion, who on 7 April 1945 "on a reconnaissance mission within the town of Schellenburg, Germany, was fired upon by snipers. After clearing the source of the fire, he received fire from another building. Under heavy enemy fire, he entered the building on two occasions and forced fifty enemy soldiers to surrender. Intense rifle and artillery fire prevented his bringing the prisoners out into the open. His bold leadership and aggressive actions are in accordance with the highest military traditions." The above quotation was from Bill Deane’s Silver Star Medal Citation. He also received the Bronze Star Medal and Oak Leaf Cluster for his performance of duty as an artillery surveyor, and the Purple Heart for wounds received during the Schellenburg incident.

Of these officers who served as Field Artillery Surveyors, General Jacob Devers, Commanding General Army Ground Forces, wrote to the Director of the Coast and Geodetic Survey:

" …I wish to express to you and to the officers of your splendid organization my appreciation for the great contribution made by these officers to the success of the sound and flash ranging phase of artillery action in all theaters of war…… their value was immediately recognized in the resulting increase in the efficiency of the units, particularly in regard to their survey function….the accomplishments of these officers while so assigned reflect great credit on the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey."

Although directed at the whole of the great artillery machine that was U.S. artillery in the Second World War, General George S. Patton said it best: "I do not have to tell you who won the war. You know, the artillery did." Survey was an intrinsic part of the artillery effectiveness.

Albert "Skip" Theberge served as a NOAA Corps officer for 27 years prior to retirement in 1995. During that period he was primarily engaged in nautical charting and seafloor mapping but also served a stint in geodesy working on the Transcontinental Traverse project during the 1970s. For the past 18 years he has worked as a research librarian at the NOAA Central Library and has produced a number of historical works related to the Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS) and seafloor mapping. He also produced the NOAA History website ( and the NOAA Photo Library ( which includes thousands of historic photos related to the work of the C&GS.

A 4.818Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE