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60th Engineer Combat Battalion Land Mine Explosion Disaster

The night of October 10, 1944, the 60th Engineer Combat Battalion was laying down a mine field near Ajoncourt, about 18 miles northeast of Nancy, France. Trucks carrying the mines were parked along the river just south of town.  At about 11 PM that night one of the trucks exploded, causing another truck and nearby stacks of mines and other ammunition to also explode.  Thirty-three men died in that explosion and fourteen were wounded. One man was awarded a Silver Star medal and three were awarded Bronze Star Medals for their efforts to rescue their comrades.

Pfc Harold P Eltman Sgt John L Garvey Pvt Anthony A Laskowski Pfc Earl J Leadon  
Pvt William M Oster Pvt Joseph F Paletta Pfc John Pergolizzi Pvt Elvin Phillips, Jr  
Pfc Gilbert E Purdy T/5 Harry P Rahn Pvt Joseph P Twomey Pfc George J Wagnis  
Pvt Frank A Walter T/5 Peter H Wenzel Pfc Joseph H Williamson    

The following is an excerpt from the 60th Engineer Combat Battalion After Action Report for October 1944:

"On the night of 10 October 1944, Company B suffered the loss of 47 men in an explosion of anti-tank mines at Ajoncourt, France.  The third and elements of the first platoon were engaged in a night mine laying operation just north of the town.  The squad trucks loaded with mines were parked at a point just south of the town and the mines were being fused and unloaded from the trucks and carried to the mine field.  At approximately 2300, a terrific explosion from the leading truck which was loaded with mines caused a sympathetic detonation of a nearby truck load of mines and mines stacked on the ground nearby.  Approximately 1,500 mines in all exploded.  The entire area immediately became an inferno of exploding mines, small arms ammunition and burning vehicles.  Intermittent enemy artillery and mortar fire had been falling in this area, but it has never been definitely established whether this or a defective fuse caused the explosion.  Eighteen identifiable bodies were found and fifteen men were missing.  (Note: The remains of 2 of those originally missing were later found.  Thirteen are still MIA.)  Fourteen men were wounded and evacuated to aid stations.  The night was very dark and there was a heavy fog which made rescue work most difficult, but there were numerous incidents of heroism.  Several wounded men pulled wounded comrades from the nearby la Seille river thereby saving their lives."

T/5 Harry P. Rahn, an aid man from the Medical Detachment, was awarded a Silver Star Medal for gallantry in action.  He was accompanying the engineers on this mine laying operation when the explosion occurred. Despite being severely wounded and able to use only one hand, he made his way through an inferno of burning wreckage and administered first aid to fourteen wounded soldiers, then searched the area to ensure none had been overlooked before he permitted himself to be evacuated.

Sgt. John L. Garvey, Sgt. Clarence E. Nelson, and Pfc. George J. Wagnis were awarded the Bronze Star for heroic action.  All 3 men sustained painful wounds yet assisted others before allowing themselves to be evacuated. Sgt. Garvey rescued one man from the la Seille River and gave first aid to others. Sgt. Nelson walked a distance of one mile to find medical aid men and then assisted in the evacuation of several casualties. Pfc. George J. Wagnis pulled two soldiers from the la Seille River and administered first aid to other wounded men.

The following 33 men were killed in action by this explosion - the 13 labeled MIA have not yet been recovered and are memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold, France:

Pvt Warner C. Aberle Pvt Anthony Nemiccola (MIA)  
Pvt Howard A. Binder (MIA) Pvt William M. Oster  
Pvt Edward J. Bulin (MIA) Pvt Joseph F. Paletta (MIA)  
Pfc Charles E. Clark (MIA) Pfc John Pergolizzi  
T/5 James J. Clark T/4 Elwood Perkins  
T/5 Marshall Digrugilliers Pvt Elvin Phillips, Jr.  
Pfc Harold P. Eltman Pfc Gilbert E. Purdy  
Cpl John H. Gaulton (MIA) Pvt James F. Rafferty  
Pvt John Goeman Pvt Paul A. Smith (MIA)  
Pfc Wilbert G. Hofer Pfc Leo E. Smolinski (MIA)  
Cpl Jerry J. Krepela (MIA) Pvt Joseph P. Twomey  
Pvt Anthony A. Laskowski (MIA) Pfc Clarence B. VanDeCarr  
Pfc Earl J. Leadon Pvt Frank A. Walter  
Pvt Joseph Lombardo T/5 Peter H. Wenzel (MIA)  
T/5 Peter P. Macchio Pfc Joseph H. Williamson  
Pvt William A. Maier Pfc Henry E. Zahradnik (MIA)  
Pvt Louis A. Morici (MIA)    

The following 14 men were wounded in action by this explosion:

  Cpl Donald G. Flareau   Pvt Anthony E. Piazza
  Pvt Dominick Fontana   T/5 Harry P. Rahn
  Sgt John L. Garvey   Pvt Alfred W. Rapp
  Sgt Edward J. Kebba   Pvt George H. Seevers
  Sgt Clarence E. Nelson   Pfc George J. Wagnis
  Pvt Joel W. Norris, Jr.   Pfc Fred A. Masters
  Pfc William D. O'Neil   Pfc James W. Webster

Thirteen men are still missing over 75 years after this disaster. The Army has DNA family reference samples for 9 of them but they still need DNA family samples for the following 4 men:

Howard A. Binder (Walla Walla WA)
Edward J. Bulin (Wyandanch NY)
Joseph F. Paletta (New York, NY)
Henry E. Zahradnik (Little Ferry, NJ)

Three Unknown Soldiers were disinterred in June 2023 from the Lorraine American Cemetery in France. They are almost certainly casualties from this explosion. They are currently undergoing DNA and other testing by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. If you are a family member or know any family members of the 4 men still needing DNA family reference samples, please call the U.S. Army Past Conflicts Repatriation Branch at (800) 892-2490 or Contact the Webmaster for more information.

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