The Memoirs of Milt O'Barr

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. Milt bridged his last river, passing away on July 16, 2009.
Milt in front of pyramidal tent

WWII memories of Milt O'Barr:

My twin 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 Ft. Belvoir, Va. 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 my brother and I for the duration of the war. Strangly our CO was called away to Pearl Harbor a couple of weeks before the attack. In retrospect we always thought someone knew that attack was coming. He returned safely, but shortly after 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.

Milt twirling his pistol
Milt at Washington's home at Mount Vernon
Milt on furlough at Cullman, Alabama
Milt in dress uniform

Our first stop overseas was at Oran, North Africa. There we were attached to Patton's army. After landing Sgt. Clifton Trimble and I flew via B-25 bombers from port to port rounding up all our equipment that came in on different ships. Not long after we collected our equipment, one of our men J.B. Johnson was hit by schrapnel in a most sensitive area and earned himself the nickname "Schrapnel Johnson" which he carried with him through out the war. 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." For some reason that struck us all as funny and it is a vivid memory to this day. While in Africa I saw General Charles DeGaule give a speech. Soon after the Germans surrendered in Africa and we went to Beserti, North Africa to ship out for the invasion of Italy.

In Italy we landed at Naples and proceeded to the Volturno River. Here our orders were to build a ponton bridge. It was to be the first heavy ponton bridge built in the ETO. High banks bordered each side of the river and made the tasks of the bulldozers difficult in building the approaches to the bridge. Germans shelled us but failed to knock out the bridge. I remember during one shelling Henry Gregorio jumped 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. But he had a sense of being safe. It wasn't funny at the time but we laughed about that later. Caves on the banks of the river also filled up with engineers during incoming artillary. Since several of us were from Alabama, we used to say that incoming rounds sounded like they were saying "Youuuuuuuuuuu aint going back to Ala-BAM". While on the Volturno we had several top brass cross our bridge. I saw Gereral Mark Clark, General Omar Bradley, british General Montgomery, and many more cross over. Hundreds of convoys crossed our bridge and some of the trucks would be carrying 10-in-1 rations and when we'ed see some go by we'd radio ahead to some engineers at the other end of the bridge that it was coming and they would "borrow" some of it as it went by. While on the Volturno not only did we work on bridges, but we had to transport General Mark Clark by river to and from his PT boat that was anchored in the Medeterrainian Sea.

After the Volturno we went up the Liri Valley to the Gustav Line to bridge the Garagliano River. 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 goodby. 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. But the Germans made the work difficult by focusing their artillary on us. Sand bagged dug outs were on both approaches to the bridge and we often played cards in these dug outs while artillary 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.

Milt on truck
Milt at Naples rest camp

Our bridge over the Garagliano was well camoflaged 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 artillary when it opened up on the dummy bridge. This was very succesful as the Germans pounded the dummy bridge and left the real one alone. We had a new Lt. named Perrin who had never experienced an artillary 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 artillary.

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, our Sgt. 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. He was really staying close to the deck of that bridge. One of our men was hit in the shoulder during this barrage and had to be taken to a hospital. 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 artillary. 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 until he saw German soldiers on the street next to him!

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, again endured a lot of enemy artillary, 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.

Milt bracing for dental work in France
Twin brothers Milt and Mel at Lyon, 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 my twin brother 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 in French 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 schrapnel. 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 forrest called St. Arnual Wood, just 50 miles north of my location

Milt, Tommy Ammons, and Mel near the Rhone River in France

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 schrapnel through the air and one of the deadly pieces of steel found it's mark in the cook's head killing him instantly. That barrage of artillary lasted several hours before we were finally able to build our bridge. 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 proping 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 mortors 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 streaffed 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 artillary and one of our boys named Maxwell caught some schrapnel that took the heel off his foot. At the Danube we endured the worst artillary barrage of the whole war. Some say they counted over 200 explosions in a 30 minute span. 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 pontoon 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.

Milt and German 88 near the Rhine
The twins Mel and Milt

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.

Milt at the grave of Audie Murphy. Their paths would cross in Italy and in Germany
Milt with 85th pin sent to him by Bill Gentry upon learning that Milt's pin had been stolen during the war
The twins Mel and Milt on their 80th birthday

Pete 03.07.2018 10:01

That explains why Sgt. Kramer body was not brought home. My wife's mom his niece recalled the day the news came.

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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