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 Milt, his brother and several other heroic young men of the 85th Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalion.
Marion's Note: Even though it's hard to see in the above version of the photo, the "T" under the stripes on his sleeve, was a rank insignia designating Technician and it meant that the soldier has special technical training. This was unique to WWII and is no longer used. The rank was called Tech Five or Technician Fifth Grade. There was also a Tech Fourth Grade ranking. Thank you Rod for sharing this info with me.
The photo above is of Milt O'Barr, Company A 85th Engineers, in December 2002. He is dressed in his vintage WWII uniform. Milt worked for Southern Bell, then South Central Bell until his retirement in 1985. He lived in Alabama for 78 years, relocating to Tennessee in 2001. Notice how great he still looks in his old uniform. Atta boy!
WWII memories of Milt O'Barr, Seymour, Tennessee
My brother Mel and I decided to quit school in 1941 and go into the Army at age 17. Our mom had to sign for us to join. At the draft board they told us we had to weigh so much to get in. We were a bit short so we started eating a lot of bananas. Our plans were to stay in for 1 year.
First stop in the Army was Ft. McClellan in Anniston, Alabama. There we took a bunch of tests and then they sent us on to Belvoir. While at Belvoir we participated in the '41 maneuvers. During the North Carolina part of the maneuvers the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and so they kept us for the duration of the war. Strangely our CO was called away to Pearl Harbor a couple of weeks before the attack. He returned safely. But during training the 85th suffered it's first casualty when an engineer broke his back while we were demolishing tank traps. An explosion threw a log into the air striking the engineer causing the severe injury.
Our first stop overseas was at Oran, North Africa. There we were attached to the 7th Army under Patton. In Africa Sgt. Trimble and I flew via B-25 from port to port rounding up all our equipment that came in on different ships. While in Africa J.B. Johnson was hit by shrapnel in a most sensitive area and earned himself the nickname "Shrapnel Johnson." It was hot in Africa and we drank a lot of powdered lemonade which prompted Sgt. Backaus to say "I wish them Germans would go over there and bomb that damn lemon factory." While in Africa I saw General Charles De Gualle give a speech. After the Germans surrendered in Africa we went to Beserti, North Africa to ship out for the invasion of Italy.
In Italy we landed at Salerno and proceeded to the Volturno River. High banks bordered each side of the river and made the tasks of the bulldozers difficult in building the approaches. Germans shelled us but failed to knock out the bridge. I remember Gregorio jumping in a fox hole that was already crowded and all he could get in the hole was his head. The rest of him was fully exposed. We laughed about that later. Caves on the banks of the river also filled up with engineers during incoming artillery. Since several of us were from Alabama, we used to say that incoming artillery. sounded like it was saying "Youuuuuuuuuuu aint going back to Ala-BAM". While on the Volturno we had several top brass cross our bridge. I saw General Mark Clark, General Omar Bradley, british General Montgomery, and many more cross over. These convoys would be carrying 10-in-1 rations and when we'd see some go by we'd radio ahead to some engineers that it was coming and they would "borrow" some of it as it went by.
After the Volturno we went up the Liri Valley to bridge the Garagliano. Before we bridged the river they let us go to a Naples rest camp. During this time I remember being issued clean clothes. I also remember one Italian-American engineer who would sing in opera style to one of our officers he disliked. The words were "Ohhhhhhh Pissonya, Gooooooo Shitonya", we got a kick out of that especially when the officer didn't catch on to what he was actually singing. While at rest camp we stayed at a farm house in an olive grove. An Italian girl kept the house clean for us and taught us some Italian, like "diggin-a-ditchi", at least that's how we pronounced the Italian word for goodbye. After rest camp we went back to the Gustav line to bridge the Garagliano.
Barren farm land bordered the river. The Germans controlled the mountains around us and we controlled the valley. It was easier to bridge this river because it was on level land. Sand bagged dug outs were on both approaches to the bridge and we often played cards in these dug outs while artillery. duals passed over our heads. Here we learned to fish with hand grenades in the river. During this time at the Garagliano we hauled pilings and timbers up to another outfit that was bridging the Rapido River. German 88s and mortars tried to hit our convoy while en route. One of our men, Leonard J. Kramer was standing near a bulldozer when it hit a mine and the blast blew him all to pieces. All we found was part of his watch. We thought he might have been thrown into the river by the blast so we threw dynamite into the river to raise the body but it was never found. The battles at the Rapido were so intense that a truce was called so the Americans and Germans could collect their dead and wounded.
Our bridge over the Garagliano was well camouflaged and we would only let traffic move over it at night to avoid being seen. Assisted by the British 8th Army, volunteers from the 85th built a dummy bridge downstream to hopefully draw the attention away from our bridge and to allow spotter planes to locate German artillery. when it opened up on the dummy bridge. This was very successful as the Germans pounded the dummy bridge and left the real one alone. Lt. Perrin had never experienced an artillery. shelling and when it started coming in we were all taking off running while he was screaming at us to come back. It didn't take him long to realize why we were running when the shells hit. Another aggravation was the "Lymies". The British soldiers were bad to build fires for tea which created a lot of smoke. But when it was tea time it didn't seem to matter to the Brits. This made us mad because the Germans would spot it and send in artillery.
I remember a day when a long line of tanks formed near the dummy bridge and they all began firing in rapid sequence. Later we heard from captured enemy that the Germans thought we had some secret weapon when they heard those tanks firing.
Further up stream was the French Front. There we helped the French build another bridge in the French sector on the Garagliano and this bridge caught a lot of shelling. Once when they started shelling, Carl Breloff got caught out on the bridge and in order to stay low he slid off into the water like a snake to avoid being hit. One of our other men was hit in the shoulder during this barrage. Charlie Minnix, our motorcycle scout got knocked off his cycle during the shelling and the bike landed on him. The big heavy cycle had him pinned and when we found him he was just a cussin'. My brother Mel had a close call with artillery. While standing on a Bailey Bridge a German shell hit the bridge and rattled around the metal structure but luckily didn't explode. Mel had another close call when he went into a town to measure arches over the roads to make sure our equipment would fit under them. On his way back from the town he passed some soldiers who were surprised to see an American coming from that direction. They asked him where he'd been and when he told them, they informed him that the town he was just in hadn't been taken yet. He was right there with the German army and didn't know it!
Near the Garagliano in a little village called Castle Forte, I remember us telling green replacements that we got water out of the town well during the day and that the Germans would get water there at night. Wasn't true, but worth the fun of seeing the expressions on their faces.
Next we went on to Anzio where we linked up with the Anzio invasion force. Here we caught a lot of shelling and German bombers dropped a lot of ordinance on us too. We went into Rome and bridged the Tiber River, and then went on up the Po River Valley before orders came that changed our direction. From the Po Valley we returned to Naples where we boarded LST's for the invasion of Southern France.
We landed at Nice, France and moved up the Rhone River Valley to Lyon. There we had rest camp and a funny incident took place when one night Mel and I both had dates lined up with french girls in Lyon. I decided not to go and stayed in camp, but Mel went on and met his date. While they were dancing my date saw Mel and thought it was me standing her up with another girl. She came up to Mel and was giving him what for and he couldn't figure out what was wrong until it dawned on him that this girl must have been my date and thought he was me. He tried to explain to her in his best French that he was my brother. When he got back to camp he asked me if I had a date in Lyon and I told him yes but I didn't go. He said "I ought to kill you."
While at Lyon we bridged the Rhone River. During this time one of our engineers fell in the swift current of the river and was drowned. Our Sgt. "Bulldog" Jones, a tough regular Army soldier, cried like a baby while collecting the dead mans personal effects.
After Lyon we went to Luneville and stayed in an old factory. While at Luneville 2nd platoon was sent up north to bridge a small river during the Battle of the Buldge. There we lost an engineer named Adair to shrapnel During our time at Luneville the Battle of the Buldge took place and we were all taken to a staging area in case we were needed. While here I received word that my little brother Pfc. Donald R. O'Barr had been killed in action near Specheren Heights at a forest called St. Arnual Wood.
From luneville we proceeded to the Rhine River to build a bridge near Worms. While preparing to build the bridge one of our cooks was ferrying 3rd division soldiers across in assault boats on up the river. A tree burst sent hot shards of shrapnel through the air and one of the deadly pieces of steel found it's mark in the cook's head killing him instantly. As the soldiers on the far shore worked their way down toward where our bridge site was they mistook us for Germans and opened fire on us. We had to get word to them to hold their fire. We were having enough trouble from the German snipers and sure didn't need our own men shooting at us. We had to take out a sniper who was on one of the mid spans of the old bridge. We did it by propping a bazooka on an old hand rail. Later while I was walking on one of the old bridge spans I came upon an American infantry soldier that had been shot by a sniper through the forehead. It was a sad sight. Not long after we bridged the Rhine, we lost another 85th Engineer when we dug a pit to build a fire to keep warm. Unknown to us mortars had been buried in the same area. I had just walked away from the fire when the ordinance exploded sending shrapnel into the lungs of one of our men.
From the Rhine we pushed on into Germany. On the way to the Danube an Me-109 Messerschmidt strafed our convoy and the pilot failed to pull up in time and crashed into a hill. After we bridged the Danube, some more Messerschmidts flew over but this time they waved their wings to let us know they were piloted by Americans who were taking the captured planes back to the rear. Sadly while on the Danube we had to shoot down two of our own planes. They were P-61 Nightfighters whose pilots didn't realize we were that far forward and mistook us for the enemy. We had four 40mm guns guarding the bridge and they put an end to the friendly fire. The Germans tried to knock out our Danube Bridge with artillery. and one of our boys named Maxwell caught some shrapnel that took the heel off his foot. I ran into a barn that was full of hogs and every time a shell would explode those hogs would voice their disapproval. A patrol later found the German o.p. in the top of an old building and that put an end to the shelling.
After the Danube we had to guard and maintain a ponton bridge on a canal. One night I was on guard duty and had built a fire for warmth under an old bridge abutment. During the night I heard a noise in the woods on the canal bank. I grabbed my carbine and before I could turn around three German soldiers came out yelling "Kommerad" which meant they were surrendering. They sure could have done me in if they had wanted to! I was more surprised than frightened at the time.
After the canal we traveled down the Autobahn Highway to Salzburg, Austria, passing multitudes of German prisoners on the way. The war in Europe ended while we were in Salzburg, and we made our way by convoy back across Germany and turned our vehicles in at an old airport in France. From France we rode a forty-and-eight on to Antwerp, Belgium. While there I got permission to go by train to Epinal, France to visit my brother Donald's grave. When I got back to Belgium we boarded a Victory ship for home. We landed in the U.S. at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and caught a train to Atlanta. We received our discharge and separation pay in Atlanta and the publisher of the Atlanta Constitution bought us drinks to show his appreciation. The Army tried to get us to re-enlist but we'd had enough of war. Then we rode buses to Ft. McPherson where Mel and I took a Greyhound bus home to Birmingham. On the way we heard a baby crying on the bus and normally a baby crying is somewhat irritating but to us it sounded great because it had been a long time since we had heard a baby cry. Our mom was at the station waiting for us and she came hopping down the sidewalk to meet us. It sure was a happy sight to see.