When I stumbled upon the site of the 85th Engineers of WWII, while doing an Internet search, I never imagined that I would be able to amass so much information. I soon thereafter contacted the webmaster and proud son and nephew of the O'Barr's that fought in the European theatre. He shared his wealth of knowledge with me and told me of the combined ventures of the 36th, 540th and 85th Engineers.
I asked him if I could share this information with the rest of his world, as as Rod said, "Please feel free to use whatever you wish. The intent of this site is to honor these brave men. The more exposure, the more they are honored."
And so this with this in mind, I will bring you the stories of Mel, his brother and several other heroic young men of the 85th Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalion.
Pictured above is Mel O'Barr on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2003. Mel is seen posing with his photo of some 60+ years earlier. Mel retired from South Central Bell and now resides in Mobile, Alabama.
My brother Milt and I volunteered to join the Army in March of 1941. We were under age and our Mom had to sign for us to join. She didn't want us to, but reluctantly agreed since we told her we would finish school when we got out. We were told by the Army that if we volunteered, they wouldn't draft us except in the case of war, and that we could go back to school after one year of service. Well, while we were in the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor and war was declared and we ended up staying in until 1945.
We did our first training at Ft. Belvoir in Virginia. For some time while at Belvoir I was a cook, but the heat in that kitchen made me sick and I asked for different duty.
My first wound in the service came while we were still in the states. I was running into the barracks at Plattsburg, New York to get some movie tickets I'd left in my trunk. I'd just recently gotten some toe taps put on my shoes and just as I started up the steps my feet went out from under me because those taps skidded on the concrete. The fall knocked me out cold and when I came to the guys were standing over me and said I was bleeding from my ear. So they drove me to the infirmary. They ran me through X-ray and found I had a fractured skull and had split my scalp open right beside my earlobe. I had to spend some time at the hospital with a concussion and from complications caused by the drugs they were giving me. While I was in hospital my company went on maneuvers in North Carolina and I had to join them later. A funny thing happened while I was in the hospital. My twin brother Milt had been dating a girl at Plattsburg and somehow she got word that Milt had been sent to the hospital. So one day I'm laying there in bed and in comes this girl visitor over to the bed where I was, acting just like she knew me. I'd never seen her in my life, but I knew it couldn't be anybody else's girlfriend but my twin brother's. Well she kissed me, and I just let it go like I knew her.
When I got out of the hospital I was sent down to North Carolina to the maneuvers by train and I had to sleep on the ground for several days waiting for them to locate my company. Finally they sent a truck out to get me and I rejoined my company. At that time they let me have a pass to go home on furlough.
Just before we went over seas we were sent to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. While there they were giving us all physicals and they thought they found that I had a hernia and they almost didn't let me go. I sure was worried that I was going to be left behind.
I got cleared to go over seas and we loaded on the USS Monticello, an old Italian luxury liner with mahogany stair cases. I remember we were on the second level and just above us on the top level was where a bunch of nurses were that were being shipped over seas. Of course that level was off limits to us, but that smell of perfume would drift down to where we were and just about drove us all crazy. We knew there were a lot of women up there, but it was off limits.
On the boat ride over we first started out all alone on our ship, but the next morning we were joined up with a convoy of hundreds of ships. One day they detected German submarine sonar and the battleship next to us launched one of those planes off a catapult to search for the sub. Well when it launched it dipped down between the battleship and us and was headed right toward us. I didn't think it had enough room to clear us and I thought it was going to crash right into the side of our ship, but it barely cleared our boat. When it came back and landed in the water, before it could be picked up it was swamped by the rough seas and sunk.
We landed in Oran, North Africa and the first thing I noticed was this sheet walking up the side of a hill. It was an Arab in that long robe they wore, but it looked like a sheet. After landing we went to a staging area where we slept in pup tents. One night the harbor got bombed by the Germans and they had all this anti-aircraft fire going up, and those tracers looked like sparks and we thought something was on fire.
I can recall how hot it was and how we would go down to the beach and swim. I remember me and another soldier in our outfit named Leonard Loomis would lock arms and legs and roll down the beach like a big wheel. Another memory of North Africa was the day I saw Charles De Gaulle walking down the street.
We left North Africa, shipping out of the Port of Bizerti. We landed at Naples, Italy. The first bridge we built was on the Volturno River. I can recall one day when some civilians were crossing our bridge and this old Italian fella had a donkey pulling a cart that stopped in the middle of our bridge and refused to move. We did everything trying to get that donkey off the bridge and finally ended up pushing the donkey and cart off into the river, much to the protest of the old Italian man. We had to do it, the bridge had to remain open.
While on the Volturno some officers and myself were responsible for clearing the mouth of the Volturno so that a boat could pass through carrying General Mark Clark. Sand would build up in the mouth of the river making it impassible. So we took some German teller mines and exploded them in the mouth of the river to enable his boat to pass through.
I remember one day on the Volturno Bridge a jeep came across by itself and on the jeep was a flag with five stars on it. In the back of the jeep was Generals Clark and Patton, and riding up front was Ike and the jeep driver, all alone unescorted. They pulled over and stopped and I didn't have my camera with me. I saluted and they didn't say a word.
Also while on the Volturno we lost Sgt. Leonard Kramer when a teller mine exploded under a bulldozer. The dozer was being driven by a boy named Brazier. He was thrown through the air but wasn't hurt. Another boy named Puto got a Purple Heart. He was driving a truck when the mine exploded and got hit in the eyes.
We went on up the boot of Italy and bridged the Garagliano River. I remember there was a bunker we built near the bridge where we would sleep and go to get out of the German shellings, and then up on a hill there was an old house where we also would go to sleep. The Germans shelled us there using a railroad gun. One day we went for a hike down the the mountain ridge and came upon an American P-40 fighter that was shot down and burned. We didn't see a body so maybe he bailed out. Also while on the Garigliano we made some runs into Monte Cassino. I remember when they bombed Monte Cassino. We pulled into the town right after the bombing and there was nothing left but rubble.
Some of those roads in Italy were hard to negotiate. We went up a mountain pass one day hauling a Bailey Bridge they were going to use to cross a chasm. The curves in that road were so sharp we had to get a bulldozer to push our trailers around them. They were nothing but old lumber roads and hard to drive up.
Part of the time we were in Italy we lived like royalty. We stayed at a big castle while near Caserta that belonged to a prince. I remember in the back there was a big long water filled area lined with statues all the way down it. While in Italy we also got to visit the ancient city of Pompei that was buried by the volcano. They had it all dug out of the lava and we could walk through the ruins.
When we left Italy for France we made the trip on LSTs. I can recall us getting in some really rough water going through the Straits of Corsica. That LST would pitch up in the water and the screws would come out of the water and the whole craft would shudder like it was coming apart. A lot of men got sea sick, and in the head there was a long urinal that was just full of vomit which sloshed from one end to the other as the boat rolled. That LST was manned by British seamen, and when a lot of the crew got sick they called me up to cook since I had been a cook in the past.
During the landings on the southern coast of France I recall us having to drop anchor just off shore and then we rode LST's right up on the beach. We had to put down steel treads to get the trucks off so they wouldn't get stuck in the sand. Then they would crank in the anchor to pull the LST's off the beach. Later we had to drive down to Marseilles to pick up more equipment that had been shipped in down there.
At the Rhone River I made corporal. My brother says that it's a wonder we didn't lose the war since I got promoted. He also says he had to do all the work after I got my stripes. When we were in France I drove a truck for a while until I made corporal at the Rhone River at Camp de La Valbonne. Then I was responsible for 15 trucks. I had to make sure the drivers kept the maintenance up on their trucks, kept all the latches lubed and stuff like that. There was a fella in our outfit that managed to come up with a car that he drove all around camp while we were on the Rhone River. I don't know where he got the car, but he had to leave it there when we left that area.
I was stationed at Luneville when I got word that my kid brother had gotten killed. Milt my twin brother got word first and came and told me. His name was Donald, and he wasn't too far from us when he got killed.
One time we were bivouacked at a camp site near some mountains and we had to go up into the mountains to a logging company to haul lumber. Down below near our camp site was a big building that our officers stayed in. One of the officers got drunk and went berserk and was up there looking out a window yelling and screaming. The rest of our officers had to go up and stop him. He didn't know where he was I don't think. He got in a lot of trouble for that.
I remember one day when me and my Lieutenant along with a weapons carrier driver went on a reconnaissance mission in a weapons carrier to a German town between the Rhine and Danube. We were sent to measure arches that were over the roads in the town to see if our ponton rigs would be able to go under them. I got up on top of the weapons carrier to measure from the arch to the ground using a tape measure. That's when I noticed these two armed German soldiers running out of a large office building on the street next to us. We drove right on past them and started noticing there were no American soldiers around, just dead cows from all the bombing. We realized we had driven past the front lines and we had to turn around and drive right back past where we had seen the Germans to get out of that town. The Lt told the weapons carrier driver to floor board it and drive back the way we came because that was our only way out. When we got out of town we met a group of American soldiers who were getting ready to take the town. We were right there in the middle of a town that hadn't been taken yet. I could have been shot right between the eyes while standing up on top of that weapons carrier measuring those arches. After that we went on to bridge the Danube.
We took a real bad shelling from German 88's while bridging the Danube. I ran and sought cover in a barn with a young boy who was a bugler. The top was off the barn and we were all lying in the hog trough. Every time a shell would hit the boy would giggle and the hog would grunt and I got so tickled at that scene even though it was a dangerous ordeal to go through. I remember worrying about my twin brother Milt and wondering if he was OK. He later made his way to the barn with us.
At the end of the war I got a 15 day furlough and rode a train all the way down to Nice, France. We stopped along the way and some soldiers had a meal cooked for us.
For a while after the war was over and before we came home I was at a camp called Brooklyn right on the English Channel. I remember you could see the white cliffs of Dover across the channel from the camp. I didn't stay there though, I had to go up to Antwerp, Belgium to catch a boat for home.
As far as souvenirs go I only came home with a blue steel dagger, and a German photo album. I swapped a flashlight for the dagger from a British soldier.
I got to see a lot while in the service overseas. I saw the Rock of Gibraltar in Spain, Mt .Vesuvius and Pompei in Italy, the Vatican and the Coliseum in Rome, Monte Carlo and the French Riviera in France, and Salzburg in Austria where the "Sound of Music" was filmed.
Being from the south and having people in our outfit from all over the US, I was amazed at the different dialects. Those from Brooklyn and the Bronx I could hardly understand them for a long time and neither could they understand me. But I made a lot of life-long friends while in the Army, and still see and call some on occasion.