A Soldier's Harrowing Tale
Clarence C. “Connie” Carsner Started His Army Career at Age 19. This World War II Veteran Spent More Than 500 Days in a Combat Zone.
by Duke Doering, Rapid City
He joined Headquarters and Service Company, 109th Engineer Regiment, South Dakota National Guard, in Rapid City, on June 19, 1940.
The 109th Engineers was a Black Hills National Guard regiment with units also located in Sturgis, Lead, and Hot Springs. They were ordered into Federal Service on Feb. 10, 1941, under Presidential Order 8635, as a part of the 34th Infantry Division (Red Bull Division).
The unit arrived in Camp Claiborne, La., on Feb. 26, for one year of training. By August 1941, the unit was participating in the Louisiana maneuvers, which was tactical training pitting American division forces in war games.
The attack on Pearl Harbor, however, produced a new sense of urgency and completely disrupted camp life, but was in fact, splendid training for what was to come.
The 109th Engineers departed Camp Claiborne on Jan. 2, 1942, for Fort Dix, N.J. On Feb. 1, 1942, the 34th Infantry was reorganized into a triangular division (with three regiments), which caused the 109th Engineer Regiment to also be reorganized, making it the 109th Engineer Battalion. Many of the original members of the 109th Regiment were transferred to other units.
Carsner was lucky, and remained with his original unit.
On Feb. 19, 1942, the 109th Engineer Battalion sailed on the USAT American Legion, bound for Europe. Two days later it broke down, was repaired but finally limped into Halifax, Nova Scotia. Later, it returned to Boston for repairs.
The unit went to Camp Edwards, Mass., and trained there until they received sea transportation. On April 29, 1942, they boarded the transport Mexico, and sailed again toward Europe reaching Belfast, Ireland, on May 12, 1942.
Carsner and his unit were located at Camp Killadas, Ireland, and commenced training for the invasion of North Africa. Part of the 109th Engineers, Company C, landed at Algiers, Algeria, on Nov. 8, 1942. They made preparations for the arrival of the rest of their unit, as well as the rest of the 34th Infantry Division.
On Jan. 4, 1943, the remainder of the 34th and 109th landed at Oran, Algeria, on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and immediately made preparation to move inland to Tunisia. The units arrived in Tunisia the first week of February.
It was in Tunisia, near Sidi Bo Zid, that the 34th Infantry Division, along with Carsner’s engineers, were overrun by the superior tank force of the German army under the command of Erwin Rommel.
This was a vicious battle, which ended with the Germans killing more than 1,000 Americans and capturing hundreds of prisoners at Kasserine Pass. It was a dark day for the Army’s II Corps, of which the 34th Infantry and the 109th Engineers were a part.
A few days after the battle of Kasserine Pass, the Commander of II Corps was relieved and replaced by Maj. Gen. George Patton.
Headquarters Company, 109th Engineers was the unit of assignment for Carsner. They remained in the rear echelon, a few miles from the front line. However, they were not immune to attack.
Richard Cropp wrote about Carsner and his group in The Coyotes, a History of the South Dakota National Guard. He said:
“The Germans strafed and bombed even the rear echelons often enough to keep people on the alert. People slept in, or near slit trenches, and tried to keep one within jumping distance whenever possible. Colonel Schieferstein recalls that when a German plane came down the wadi in which the engineers were bivouacked, strafing from tree-top heights, he was heading for his foxhole when he saw Pvt. Clarence Carsner beat him to it. With no time to outrank anyone, Schieferstein hit the gravel, and survived with torn clothes and skinned elbows.”
In April of 1943, the Division assaulted Hill 609, capturing it on May 1, 1943, and avenged the tragic loss at Kasserine Pass. They then drove through Chouigui Pass to Tebourba and Ferryville. The Division then trained for the Salerno, Italy, landing on Sept. 25, 1943.
Carsner’s unit contacted the enemy at the Calore River, Sept. 28, 1943, the 34th drove north to take Benevento, crossed the winding Volturno three times in October and November, assaulted Mount Patano and took one of its four peaks before being relieved, on Dec. 9, 1943.
In January of 1944, the division drove into the Gustav line, took Mount Trocchio after a bitter fight, pushed across the Rapido River where three of Carsner fellow soldiers were captured, attacked Monastery Hill, and fought its way into Cassino, being relieved on Feb. 13, 1944.
After rest and rehabilitation, it landed in the Anzio beachhead, on March 25, 1944, maintaining defensive positions until they took the offensive of May 23, when it broke out of the beachhead, took Cisterna, and raced to Civitavecchia and Rome.
After a short rest, the Division drove across the Cecina River to liberate Livorno on July 19, 1944, and continued on to take Mount Belmonte in October. Digging in south of Bologna for the winter, the 34th jumped off, on April 15, 1945, and captured Bologna on April 21. Pursuit of the routed enemy was halted on May 2, 1945, with the German surrender in Italy.
The 109th Engineer Battalion registered nearly 600 days in the combat zone, the longest period of time for any American unit in World War II. Since the 109th was under the control of the 34th Infantry Division, they wore the shoulder patch of the 34th, which was nicknamed the Red Bull Division. The shoulder patch was a bovine skull, in red, on an olla (Mexican water flask) of black.
For many years after World War II had ended, several members of the South Dakota National Guard were seen wearing the “Red Bull” combat patch on their right shoulder, while wearing the “Coyote” patch on their left sleeve.
Carsner retired from the South Dakota National Guard at the rank of Colonel in 1978. He lived with his wife, Lela, in Rapid City. He died on April 21, 2009, at age 87.
Right: Clarence C. “Connie” Carsner, left, pictured with Sgt. John J. Steele in the summer of 1941 at Camp Claborne, La.
Below: Carsner and the 109th Engineers entered North Africa at Oren, by sailing across the Mediterranean Sea. They loaded on “Higgins Boats” such as these to come ashore in January 1943.
Above: The soldiers of the 109th Engineer Battalion fought and marched through almost the entire length of Italy in 1943, 1944, and until the war ended in 1945
He enlisted in the 109th Engineers during his senior year. He was sent to Camp Claiborne, LA, for training in Feb. 1941. He then departed for overseas on Jan. 2, 1942, with the 34th Infantry, Red Bull Division. They served in Northern Ireland, North Africa and Italy for over 600 days on the front line. Clarence was discharged in July 1945. Clarence reenlisted in the South Dakota National Guard full-time in March 1947, retiring in August of 1976. He has been secretary-treasurer of the 109th Engineers WWII reunions for the last 24 years.
Originally published in the Rapid City Journal.