Organizational History of the 85th Engineers

Historical Overview

85th's unit insignia and motto.

The 85th's unit insignia, seen at the right of this page, was a shield with a river design and the indication of a cable ferry. Cable ferries were common in the south during the 19th and early 20th centuries. These ferries could be moved at will to any point where needed to provide river crossing. So it was with the ponton bridges of the 85th.

The motto of the 85th was "No River Too Swift." It would put that motto to the test in Europe on rivers with fast currents swollen by heavy rains.

The Ponton Battalion

Bridging the Red River at the 1941 Maneuvers

The 85th Heavy Ponton Battalion was activated on June 3, 1941 at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. Ponton Battalions were specialized units distinguished from general engineer troops in that their primary responsibility was building ponton bridges. The benefit of specialization was made evident when at the 1941 maneuvers the ponton troop's performance in bridge building far exceeded the performance of general engineers. That same year it was decided that the ponton troops would not only build bridges, but also be responsible for transporting and maintaining them.

Why a Ponton Battalion

German mobile warfare photo from a photo album captured by the 85th

In 1941 the Engineers composed some 5.5% of the Army (333,209 troops). Each Heavy Ponton Battalion was made up of 16 officers, 3 warrant officers, and 501 enlisted men. There would be 12 of these specialized ponton units in the Corp.

The development of a "Ponton" battalion was a direct result of lessons learned from the enemy the Engineers would face in Europe. The German Blitzkrieg and its philosophy of mobile warfare led the U.S. military planners to develop a strategy that would neccesitate specialized combat units capable of high mobility over difficult terrain while facing enemy opposition.

Part of the answer to the mobility question was the Heavy Ponton Battalion. The unit is named after the type of boat necessary for the mobility needed to defeat the enemy.

The Ponton Bridge

A pontoon bridge built by the 85th is on rubber rafts, not to be confused with a ponton bridge on metal boats

In general, the bridges Engineers were responsible for building were of three types: assault; combat support; and line of communicatiions. The assault bridge was of a more portable type consisting of floating components covered with treadway, and capable of rapid assembly. It's capacity must accomodate the heaviest armor in the initial attack. The combat support bridge could be fixed or floating, capable of handling all vehicles in a combat element, and speed of assembly was of less importance. The line of communications bridge was intended to be a permanent structure.

The ponton bridge fell under the assault classification. It was portable, capable of quick assembly, and after some development (of a bridge concept used in the Civil War), had the capacity to support the heavier tanks used by armored units in W.W.II. The ponton was a metal boat measuring 32'9" and weighing over 2000lbs. It was capable of supporting 25 to 30 tons. (It is distinquished from it's two smaller cousins also of the assault category,namely, the light ponton bridge [10 ton capacity], and the pontoon bridge constucted using pneumatic rafts [5 ton capacity].)

Page from the Engineer Handbook showing the Ponton Bridge
Ponton Bridge illustration and nomenclature from the Engineer's Handbook

Macks and Guns

Ponton boats on Mack trucks

Transporting the ponton was done by truck and trailer. The truck used by the 85th was the Mack. It was common practice for engineers of the 85th to give their truck a name which was prominently displayed on the door of the cab. Each engineer was responsible for basic maintenance and repair of their truck and trailor.

Small arms issued to the men of the 85th ranged from wooden guns, to '03 Springfield bolt action rifles, to .45cal side arms, and finally to the M1 Carbine which was the issue rifle used by special units through out the Army, units whose primary purpose was something other than infantry assault. The carbine was of relatively mild caliber and weight(.30cal carbine) compared to the M1 Garand (30-06 cal) carried by most infantry troops.

The 03 Springfield was the first rifle issued to the 85th
The M1 Carbine would become the standard issue to the 85th as it was for most all support troups whose primary assignment was something other than infantry

In Summary

First, Seventh, and Fifth Army Insignia. These are the patches worn by the 85th at different times in their history

The 85th Heavy Ponton Battalion began its training time at the ERTC (Engineer Replacement Training Center) at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. However on 8/28/41 it did travel as far as Arkansas bridging the Oauchita River, from there on to Louisiana bridging the Red River, and then on 10/12/41 traveled to North Carolina bridging the Pee Dee River, all during the 1941 manuevers. On 4/2/42 the 85th left Belvoir for some time at Plattsburg Barracks, N.Y. where bridges were built on Lake Champlain and the Salmon River. In June of 1942 the 85th was ordered back to North-South Carolina for more maneuvers, and after a brief return to Plattsburg the unit moved to Camp Maxey, Texas on 10/14/42. On 4/29/43 training for Company A and a detachment of H&S Company of the 85th came to an end as they shipped out to North Africa landing in Oran on 5/11/43. The remainder of the 85th (Headquarters and Service Company, Company B, and the Medical Detachment)would remain stateside until shipping out to join Companies A and H&S Detachment in Italy on 7/25/44. The reunified Battalion would spend the remainder of 1944, including January and February of 1945, in France engaging in motor movements and bridge building in support of the Allies push north. In March of '45 the Battalion would enter Germany, again engaging in motor movements and bridge building until the wars end.

During WWII the 85th was attached to several different army groups . It began its training attached to the 1st Army and remained attached to the 1st as it landed in North Africa. In Italy the 85th was attached to Clark's 5th Army, and in France and Germany it was attached to Patch's 7th army.

The Battalion earned five battle stars for participation in the following battles and campaigns:

 Naples-Foggia; Rome-Arno; Southern France; Rhineland; Central Europe

Engineer Replacement Training Center at Ft. Belvoir

Official Unit History

-1/30/33 Adolf Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany.

- 8/19/34  Adolf Hitler becomes Fuhrer of Germany.

- 3/15/39 Nazis take Czechoslovakia.

- 9/1/39 Nazis invade Poland.

- 9/3/39 Britian, France, Australia and New Zealand declare war on Germany.

- 5/10/40 Nazis invade France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

- 12/29/40 Massive German air raid on London.                             


The following is from the original Unit History of the 85th Engineer:




The 85th Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalion was originally constituted as an Organized Reserve Unit, September 5, 1928 as the 958th Engineer Battalion (Heavy Ponton); on October 1, 1933 it was withdrawn from the Organized Reserves and became an inactive unit of the Regular Army. On December 16, 1940 the 958th Engineer Battalion (Heavy Ponton) was redesignated the 85th Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalion and was concurrently ordered to be made active.

The coat of arms of the 85th Engr Hv Pon Battalion is a shield gules on a bend wavy argent, a cable ferry gules in the bend of the field. The motto is “No River Too Swift”. The cable ferry which was usually operated by hand by taking advantage of the current was used throughout the southern section particularly Virginia and the Carolinas are symbolical of the functions of the organization. Being ingenious in that it could be moved at will to any point where needed, it approximates the solution of the ponton problems presented to the battalion.

- 6/22/41 Germany attacks the Soviet Union.

- 7/3/41 Stalin calls for scorched earth policy.

The battalion was activated June 3, 1941 at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The commanding officer, Major Carl W. Meyer, was formerly Commanding Officer of the 70th Engineer Company (Light Ponton); the cadre was furnished for the most part by the 5th Engineer Regiment(Combat). On July 3, 1941 the remainder of the men required to bring the battalion to full strength were received from the Engineer Replacement Training Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, after they had completed their basic training.

Engineer Handbook
Contents of the Engineer Handbook

richard a. walther 02.08.2020 17:31

great info on this 85th unit, now i know alot of where my father-in-law served and what they built, plus the impotance of their mission in making pathways,

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Latest comments

23.10 | 01:21

Glad you enjoy the site. Your grandfather was a worthy commander.

15.10 | 21:32

LTC Perdue was my grandfather. I love reading about where he served and what he did during WWII. Thank you for your work on gathering all of this information.

22.09 | 01:45

I do know there are remnants of where the 85th crossed the Rhine at Worms, Germany.

22.09 | 01:43

Sounds like you have an interesting trip planned. I hope to trace the 85th’s path some day. I do not know if there are any remnants of where the 85th crossed