THE RARE BREED
Recognizing Area Veterans Of World War II
Delbert Colvin: Mine-Sweeper
Of Airfields Near Front Lines
Young mine-sweeper from Palacios
Delbert William Colvin, a 1939 graduate of Palacios High School, had an extremely hazardous duty during his three+plus years with the U.S. Army's 12th Air Force, not in the air--but on the ground--clearing out mines for new airfields.
Colvin was born Nov. 30, 1919 in Palacios to William and Della Colvin. At the time of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he was in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) at Zavalla, Texas. Four months later he was drafted into military service, from Palacios, as a private on April 14, 1942.
Assigned to the 12th Air Force, Colvin's tour of war duty took him to England, Africa, Sicily, Italy, Southern France, and the Normandy Beachhead, as he participated in the North African and Mediterranean Theater campaigns.
While he was in the Mediterranean Theater, a late 1944 edition of the Palacios Beacon published the following account of the duty Colvin and his buddies in a unit of the Combat Mine Teams of the Army Air Force Engineer Command were performing, under the motto, "Expect Anything":
"When advanced fighter airfields in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations are constructed, they are generally within a few miles of the front lines. Usually, the areas have been well mined by the retreating Germans, and Allied mine-sweeping teams have had time only to clear main roads and highways. The areas beyond are still mined, and still dangerous. It is generally in these areas that the best airfield sites exist.
"When a front-line airfield is required, military necessity dictates the approximate site. A reconnaissance is then made by Engineer officers, the exact spot chosen, the direction of the runway determined. But, before heavy equipment can start pouring in to construct the field, the Aviation Engineer mine teams go to work.
"Going out on the proposed site with U.S. Army Mine Detectors and with bayonets, they proceed to clear the entire site. Breaking up into teams of five or six men, each team takes one small area at a time and combs it thoroughly for mines. They fan out over the assigned area, and slowly walk the length of it, carefully examining every inch of ground for mines.
"When they use the Mine Detector, they hold it over the ground as they go. When a mine is approached, the sensitive apparatus sounds the warning signal. Careful hands scoop the earth from around the sides and top of the mine. When the detonator has been exposed, it is removed or demobilized. The mine can safely be removed from its bed.
Booby Trap Tricks By Germans
"Very often, however, it is not nearly as simple as that. The Germans have no intention of assisting our Mine Teams, and they put every conceivable obstacle in the way of mine clearing. The usual German trick is to attach a booby trap to the bottom of the mine so that when the mine is lifted the booby trap will explode, setting off the mine. When the Aviation Engineer Mine Teams find that Nazi mines are bobby-tapped, they alter their tactics.
"Another recent Nazi development is the use of mines made of boxwood instead of metal, thus defying the Mine Detector. With this type of mine, the Detector is abandoned in favor of the standard bayonet. Each man with his bayonet, goes over the ground carefully. When he comes to spot that looks suspicious‹ where the dirt has been disturbed--he carefully probes with his bayonet. If his bayonet strikes a hard object, he knows he has struck a mine.
"This is the daily routine of Texan Delbert Colvin and the Aviation Engineer Mine Teams. Huge areas are covered in little time. The average airfield, although its actual runway is only several hundred feet wide and several thousand feet long, encompasses, with its taxiways, hard standings, dispersal areas, supply dumps and bivouac areas, a rough total of 10 acres, all of which must be cleared by the mine teams before the field can be used. And as these front line fields are generally required on short notice, it means that the teams must work quickly at their dangerous undertakings.
"All Engineers, including Aviation Engineers, receive a certain amount of basic training in mines and demolition. However, in the case of the Aviation Engineers, this training is soon forgotten when the men start their technical training. It is gained only by actual experience.
"The Aviation Engineer Mine Teams were started back in March 1943, during the North African campaign. At that time, construction battalions were running into extensive enemy demolitions and were unable to get the regular Engineer Mine-Sweeping Teams to clear them.
Learned From British First Army
One of the battalions decided to send a few of its men to a mine school which had been opened near the front by the British First Army. After learning the newest techniques of mine sweeping, these men returned to their unit and started a series of classes for other men in their battalion, so that all would know a little of current mine-sweeping practices.
"Among the men included in the Mine Team was Technician 5th Grade Delbert Colvin of Palacios, Texas.
"With the Germans, in their desperation, using more extensive demolitions every day, you can be sure that these men will have more and more to do from now on. And as the lines continue to move closer to Berlin, and as new airfields are built, you can be sure that the Aviation Engineer Mine Teams will be right up there, doing their job quietly, efficiently and thoroughly."
After three years and five months of service, Colvin, who earned the Good Conduct Medal and various campaign ribbons, received his discharge at San Antonio, with his rank of Technician 5th Grade.
He met his future spouse, Doris Lorena, in Beaumont in September, 1945. They were married shortly afterwards. Residents of Beaumont, Delbert and Doris have two daughters, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. The daughters are Patricia Ann Walters of Houston, a financial consultant; and Dora Lee Willett of Lumberton, executive administrator to the manager of Exxon-Mobil at Beaumont.
Retired resident of Beaumont
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