Emil Edgren – Combat Photographer in the Ardennes

by Bob Konings and Joey van Meesen
Text editing: Kristof Nijs

It is an iconic photo: A young GI running through barbed wire fences, aThompson machine gun in his right hand and two extra magazines in his left hand. In the back we see another GI which seems to be operating a machine gun.
For many years the man in the picture was linked to Walter Hughes, Company I/ 504thPIR/ 82nd Airborne Division. He even recognised himself as the guy. And he remembered seeing the photographer hiding in a foxhole and almost shot him. Hughes was sent out to take out a machine gun nest. The picture was taken during the attacks on Cheneux, against elements of Kampfgruppe Peiper, so it was said.
But during the years there was doubt. There was absolutely no clear evidence that the picture was taken in Cheneux. And: the picture itself looked strange. If it was taken during the attacks, it meant that the photographer was sitting right in the middle of the fighting. There barely exist any photographs of WWII from the US side that were taken in a real combat situation.
The battles in and around Cheneux were incredibly gruesome. Only two companies of the 504th had to take the little town against heavy fortified troops who had nothing to lose, but their honour.

Deze afbeelding heeft een leeg alt-attribuut; de bestandsnaam is former-CP-of-James-Gavin-Chateau-Bra-sur-Lienne-1024x642.jpg
Former CP of General James Gavin

In February 2019, during the yearly 82ndAB march, the extraordinary photographer Marcel Bahnen with researchers Glen Mallen, Laurent Olivier and Horst Klemm visited the hamlet of Bra. Not only to follow the footsteps of the 82ndAB guys, but also to take a few very interesting pictures, which they posted on Facebook. It was Glen Mallen who had seen something very interesting. He had matched two other pictures to the “Walt Hughes” picture. The two pictures were less known to the audience.  They compared the guy in the picture, said to be taken in Cheneux, with the other pictures and concluded it was the same guy and thus the same area.
I immediately admit that I commented under that post that “the first picture was made in Cheneux.” I simply could not believe it: this very famous picture was captioned wrong all those years? But these guys were right. The soldier in all the three pictures was the same. The so-called “Cheneux” picture must have been taken in….Bra, where General James Gavin had his former HQ!

The story, including the pictures went into a drawer and I forgot about it for a while.
In March 2020 Corona rushed in, forcing me to stop my business and battlefield tours. And I started to walk a lot in this beautiful area. Each week my wife and I went to different parts, but always Battle of the Bulge related. And one day I stood in Bra. I remembered the set of pictures. During our walks in this region we found many traces of the war: foxholes, craters, impacts, etc.
It made me overthink the picture again: the paratrooper of the 504th running through the terrain towards an SS-er, wanting to capture him. Who was that photographer who took that picture? Was that guy in danger, sitting in the frontline? Was he an original Signal Corps photographer? And, maybe more important: Is that really Walter Hughes in the pictures?
According to several sources, the picture was taken on December 25 1944, at that time the battle of Grandmenil just had started. The 2nd SS “Das Reich” had taken Baraque de Fraiture, Manhay and Grandmenil.

View on the town of Bra sur Lienne

The 504th was defending the ridge, facing East towards La Floret/ Lansival. The villages of Bra, Erria and Villetes were firmly in the hands of elements of the 504th and 508th, who retreated from the hill “Mont du Thier” in the Sart region (Lierneux).
Because I was busy rewriting the stories from Baraque de Fraiture to Grandmenil, I did not continue this research.
It was early Januari when the story popped up again, when fellow researchers and friends Joey van Meesen (NL), Florent Plana (FR) and myself were working on several videos about the Battle of the Bulge. Together with Joey, I dove on the story and we wanted to know everything about it. We wanted as much evidence as possible, including the original captions with the dates and name of the photographer.

It quickly became clear that the pictures were taken by Emil David Edgren from the 165nd Signal Photographic Company; 3908th Signal Service Battalion. He was in Bra during those days and took several stunning pictures.
A funny thing about the website dedicated to Emil is on the first page: “Emil spent lots of time in Bastogne, the location of the Battle of the Bulge. Bastogne was attacked by German forces shortly after it was liberated in 1944.
We don’t think General James Gavin would have appreciated a comment like that, knowing Emil was in his unit. In his memoires Gavin made several comments that too much attention went out to Bastogne and Patton and his third army. One of them: “Patton in Bastogne. You would almost think that the battle in the Ardennes was decided there in Bastogne and that Patton had become the great victor.

The pictures Emil took of fleeing civilians were unmistakably taken on the side of Chateau du Bra, at that time the HQ of General Gavin. Most civilians were evacuated on the days before.
In the book of James Megellas we found this: “Corporal George Graves wrote the following in his diary. ‘Christmas 1944 was a tragic day for the citizens of the tiny village of Bra Sur Lienne.

Civilians of Trou de Bra being evacuated on december 24 1944
Picture by Emil Edgren

The village was in danger of being overrun if we were unable to hold our present position, which was not to secure, to say nothing of the positive certainty of it being heavily shelled by the enemy. The orders were given early in the morning for the evacuation of all civilians. All but the very old and sick would go on foot. Trucks were supposed to be provided for the tiniest children, the aged and sick. They never came…. An old lady with two infants in her arms said bravely: “We went through all this in 1940 and now once more. Where will it all end?” There was  little we could do or say to comfort them as they snatched up a few bare essentials for the trip on foot. It was a tragic sight to see them shuffling off down the dirt road out of reach of the German guns.
Company H was dug in on the high ground with a field of fire to the South. HQ CP was set up in a house, approximately 200 yards to the rear, in a house occupied by a Belgian family. Cpt. Carl Kappel (H company commander) and Lt. Edward J. Sims urged them to pack and leave. But the family of four refused to go.
When Lariviere found out about the family, he ordered them out. They could be in danger from attacking Germans but also could be a problem for the men of H company. The family refused to go and LaRiviere lost his patience and threatened to throw them out. They finally understood, packed their stuff and joined the other civilians, leaving their Christmas dinner still boiling on the stove.
Rivers’ platoon was dug in on the right side of Megellas’ foxhole. The night of the 24th and 25th of december was quiet and the men had a good rest.
On the other side of the ridge, elements of the 9th SS panzer division “Hohenstaufen” had taken positions in the woods. Most of these German troops of the division were still on the road between Vielsalm and Lierneux and reports talked about clogged roads.

Crashed B-17 Pan Handle Kid

Emil Edgren took a picture of a soldier in a foxhole with a BAR and a garand. In the distance we see a crashed  B-17. And that was really fascinating for me: that B-17, 42-102434, nicknamed “Pan Handle Kid” crash landed ( One source says Les Villettes another source says Trou du Bra) on 28 september 1944. It belonged to the 388thBG/ 561st Squadron and was on its way back from Morseburg/ Germany. Miraculously the whole crew survived that crash and returned to base in November 1944.
What has also surprised me, is that 504th veteran James Megellas wrote about a crash landed and intact B-17 in his memoires:
Later that Christmas morning, one of those patrols came within range of my platoon’s weapons. From our entrenched position, we opened fire, killing several men and scattering the rest. Most of the patrol retreated for cover, but three of them huddled under a wing of a downed but still intact B-17 airplane about three hundred yards in front of my platoon’s position….[…] The specter of that downed B-17 and the elements of the German patrol that used it as a cover haunted me. When the enemy made his major frontal attack on us, he could use the B-17 for cover as he advanced. Something had to be done about it. I got word back to battalion  that I wanted to boobytrap the plane and blow it up in the event that Germans approached it and used it for cover.

Overview of the places and events

Let’s get to the photos!
The first one, for many many years was identified as Walter Hughes in Cheneux:

The “Thompson Man” running over the open field

We are quoting former Lt. Edward Sims, who had noticed a hidden road on the right flank of Rivers’ platoon:
There was a photographer from the U.S. Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes, at the H company CP. His purpose was to take pictures of the men on the front lines at the Battle of the Bulge. Instead of providing him an escort, I invited him to accompany me on an inspection of our company lines. On our way to Rivers’ CP, I talked to Lt. Megellas, whose platoon was dug in on the left  and tied in with Rivers’ platoon. After I explained that I was concerned about the company’s flank, Megellas decided to accompany us.

Lt. Ed Sims showing the picture with Lt Rivers in it.

While I was pointing out the hidden road to Rivers that the Germans might use in attacking H company, we spotted a German patrol heading towards our lines. The four of us- Megellas, Rivers, the photographer, and I, started for cover, and engaged in a firefight with the German patrol. Lt. Megellas tossed a fragment grenade that exploded in the midst of them, causing some casualties and forcing the patrol to scatter. Several of the men from Rivers’ platoon joined us in the firefight.
When the shooting stopped, we went into the area where we had spotted the patrol. We took one SS Trooper prisoner and noted several dead Germans who were left behind when the patrol withdrew. After this action, we shifted our right flank to cover this hidden road that was used by the patrol. The Stars and Stripes photographer got more than he had bargained for, and the scare of his life, but he also got close-up shots of paratroopers in action. One of his photgraphs, depicting Rivers hunkered down, leading the SS trooper back to our lines, appeared on the front page of an edition of Stars and Stripes. That same picture eventually found its way into the 82nd Airborne Division museum, where it was prominently displayed for a number of years.

The caption on the back of the first photo said: “Infantryman of the 82nd Airborne Division, armed with sub machine gun, leaves his foxhole to intercept German patrol near Bra, Belgium. Companion at right covers him with a 30 caliber machine gun. Several nazi SS Troopers were killed in the resulting clash and one was taken prisoner.
It also had an alternative caption: “One of the infantrymen goes out one a one man sortie, covered by his buddy with a 30 caliber machine gun. 82ndAB Div, Bra Belgium.

We also found a caption, with the words of the Thompson man. Title “The yanks in the ETO; 104. “I had one little ruckus that darn near cost my life over near Bra, Belgium, right after the Germans opened their offensive. I’m an airborne infantryman and there I was in my foxhole, behaving myself, when all of a sudden a German patrol party came high-tailing it down the road. I took my submachine gun and made a dash to intercept the krauts and Bill covered me. We stopped the party all right- seven of the guys permanently.” U.S Signal Corps Photo EA 48740. Certified as passed by U.S. Field censor.

Picture two:
We see a couple of men descending a sunken road. We know the front man on the left is 1st Lt. Richard LaRiviere/ 0-1293271 (both confirmed by Lt. Sims and the son of Lt. LaRiviere). In the back we see three other men: the one on the left is a 504th paratrooper, the one in the middle is a young SS guy and the guy on the right again is a paratrooper, carrying a Thompson machine gun. It is the same guy as in picture one.

The description of the picture is: “While digging in on the front line positions just outside of Bra, Belgium, soldiers of co. H, 3rd BN, 504th parachute Inf. Regt, 82nd airborne Division met a patrol of nazi SS trooper, who were on reconnaissance. With the resulting clash several of the Germans were killed. Photos show the capture of one.
Alternative caption: “SS Trooper is brought into American lines.
This picture was also taken by Emil Edgren and by saying “Photos show the capture of one.” He is suggesting that there is another picture, which is true.

In the third picture we see an unidentified soldier, which could be the same soldier as the .30 cal machine gunner in picture one. Unfortunately we do not have the original caption yet. We see the young SS guy, with some panic in his eyes and…we see the paratrooper we could see in all three pictures, still holding his thompson machine gun and…two extra magazines.

Apparantely Lt. Col. George D. Heib, who was born in Germany, witnessed the whole scene. When the SS guy was interrogated Heib could exactly understand what the SS’er was saying and he immediately understood the man was talking absolute rubbish. Heib drew his gun and put it against the head of the SS-er and ordered the young man to start telling some real information. Which he did.  
Photographer Emil Edgren himself about this encounter: “I was with this group, 82nd Airborne group, taking pictures of those guys all dug in. It was wintertime, cold, december. Really cold and people were wearing scarfs, so the weather was cold. So, a whole group of guys were coming up the road. And nobody noticed and all of a sudden one of the guys hollered “They’re Krauts!”, so boy everybody dug down, including me got down and all of a sudden everybody…right behind me was a machine gunner and I am down like this and he says “Don’t get up!” -laughing-, shooting over my head, and he killed some of the guys you see there.  And one fellow they got as prisoner, but most of them they killed them. None of our guys hot hurt. But as I was laying down, hugging the ground, reached up and got a picture of that guy running across the field, that particularly one, which was quite extensively. That was one time….There were a few times I was kind of a rough situation, but I was very lucky. Very lucky.

One of the SS guys who were killed during the attack

From December 25th till December 27th the defensive line came under fire multiple times. The 8 men outpost, led by Sgt Tague came under heavy attack on the 27th. Rivers took several of his men and rushed to help them out. When he returned, 2 of the 8 men were KIA: Sgt Robert A. Tague and Pfc Clarence T. Smith. It was a complete shock Tague was killed….

The picture of that Thompson man…for years it has been told it was in Cheneux, depicting Walter Hughes/ Company I; 504thPIR. With all the above information we simply can say it is not true.
The Thompson man was one of the guys of H company.
We wished we could add a name to it.
Maybe one day….

UPDATE: Joey van Meesen found some nice clues. Click here!

A short video showing the spots, mentionend in this article.

Some other pictures:

Used sources:
– All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe, James “Maggie” Megellas.
– More Than Courage: The Combat History of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II by Phil Nordyke
– AAR 504thPIR.
US Airborne during WW2
Website of Emil Edgren
Veterans History Project
– Several Morning Reports 504thPIR.
– The battle of the bulge, Hugh Cole.
– On to Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943-1946, James M. Gavin.
– Conversation with the son of former Lt. Riviera. (februari 2021)
– Interview Lt. Edward J. Sims:
504thPIR Roster
– Im Feuersturm letzter Kriegsjahre- Wilhelm Tieke
Ardennes Avions Abattus

Many thanks to: Kristof Nijs, Marcel Bahnen, Glen Mallen, Laurent Olivier and Horst Klemm.