75 years after D-Day, Don Williams remembers engineering an invasion

  • D-Day Memorial Day Veteran Profiles Don Williams GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Don Williams at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/4/2019 5:26:01 PM

After graduating from a prep school in his home state of New Jersey, Don Williams was accepted to Cornell, where he planned to study mechanical engineering. But his college plans were put on hold in 1942 when he was drafted into the United States Army.

His interest in engineering would be put to use – after basic training at Fort Dix, Williams was assigned to be a combat engineer and would spend time in Europe building bridges for the Allies in Nazi-occupied territory.

“We were always building in a spot where our troops were advancing and they needed tank support,” said Williams, 94, in an interview at the Tilton Veterans Home in the weeks leading up to the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Williams was assigned to the 290th Combat Engineer Battalion and was shipped to Europe just four months after he was drafted. The combat engineers played an integral role in the war as the main force in erecting bridges to allow the transport of military equipment as the Allies advanced into Europe. In England, he and his fellow engineers were trained in how to use the British military’s equipment, including how to build the British-designed Bailey bridges.

Williams arrived in Normandy four days after the Allies first broke onto the northern shores of France on June 6, 1944. His path would go through France and Germany, facing enemy combatants along the way while working to ensure a durable infrastructure was in place for the Allied forces.

“We were builders, but we were trained for the infantry also,” Williams said. “They would send our battalion in to replace an infantry battalion that had been on the line for an excessive period, to bring them back for a rest.”

Heavy lifting

Williams can’t count how many Bailey bridges he helped build during his three years in Europe. The portable, prefabricated truss bridges were developed by the British military in the early 1940s and used extensively throughout World War II by the Allies.

As German and Italian forces retreated, they began destroying bridges along the way, forcing the Allies to halt when they came upon the small, fast-flowing rivers scattered across the landscape. The portable Bailey bridge served as an answer to this problem because they could be quickly erected and could span up to 200 feet. Any longer might require pontoons, or a “floating bridge.”

The advantage of the Bailey bridge was that its assembly didn’t require any special tools or equipment; materials could be transported on trucks and put together by hand, though it’d take an entire company (between 100 and 150 soldiers) to build one.

“It was a real job to put those bridges together, and it was all done by manpower,” Williams said.

Building the bridge required installing several panels of welded steel measured 10 feet long and 5 feet wide and weighing 600 pounds. Six men were needed to carry each panel, Williams said, with a pair at the front, middle and back.

Williams said his unit was fired upon while building these bridges, but the job could be dangerous even without the threat of enemies in the area.

One day, Williams’s company was building a floating bridge over a shallow river. Some of the men, including Williams, stood waist-deep in the water as they worked as the rapidly flowing river rushed through.

“A fella next to me lost his footing,” Williams said. “It was a swift river and it took him away and he sunk. We spent the whole afternoon going down and looking for if he caught up on a tree or something down there.”

The man’s body was found downstream two days later.

“These were exceptions that we didn’t have every day,” Williams said. “But we had our problems as engineers and getting equipment to where we could use it.”

The airfield

The combat engineers typically followed the infantry units and would set to work in the area where a new front line had been established, building bridges and working on other projects so more men and equipment could be delivered to the area.

Williams recalls being in Germany and following his company to an airfield that U.S. forces had recently taken from the Germans. It was a significant victory for the unit because it provided a landing strip in the area for the American’s P-51 fighter planes.

“They flew in and could use the airport because the runways weren’t that long, so they had a little squadron stationed there,” Williams said.

The airport also served as a rest stop for combat engineers, but their hold on the airfield wouldn’t last long. The Germans who had been pushed out were reorganizing in the woods nearby with reinforcements.

Williams remembers standing near the runway as three pilots loaded onto three P-51 planes sitting on the strip moments before the ambush.

“The engines were running, and just then, the German forces that were on the other side of the field had regrouped and come back and were retaking the airfield,” Williams said. “The pilots that were in the plane didn’t have a chance to take off. They got out and ran.”

They all did. Williams said his company quickly loaded their equipment back onto their jeeps and supply trucks and took off down a highway that ran near the airfield. They were about 15 miles away when Williams heard the sound of airplanes flying overhead.

“They were the P-51s, but they had German pilots in them,” Williams said. “Before we could do anything about it, they came down and strafed us.”

As ammunition rained down on the road, Williams said he and other troops jumped out of their vehicles and into the woods for cover. The planes did not return for another pass, he said. Miraculously, Williams was not injured.

“We made it out ... we never saw them again,” he said. “I don’t think the Air Force ever made news about that. I don’t think they were too happy or proud of what happened.”

War ends, but work doesn’t

Williams didn’t immediately return home when the war ended. His unit’s stay in Europe continued into 1946, long after the Allies declared victory in Europe. Their job was to break down all of the bridges they had built that remained.

“After VE Day, we turned around and went the other way,” Williams said. “We spent time just dismantling the equipment that had been put together.”

These were, of course, happier days for Williams and his fellow combat engineers. The war was over and they were stationed in a small town near Heidelberg located on the Neckar River in southwestern Germany.

In some cases when a bridge was dismantled, the men would build a wooden bridge in its place for civilians to use after the troops left. While they worked on the bridge, Williams said the local people welcomed them into their homes.

“We got to know them and lived with them, and that was good,” Williams said. “The war was over, and that’s the way it should have been.”

Williams returned home in time to enroll in college in the fall of 1946. He attempted to attend Cornell, as he was initially accepted there before the war, but enrollment preference was given to residents of the state of New York returning from the war.

Williams said he was informed that he could enroll at Cornell six months later, but he wasn’t interested in pushing off his education any further. Instead, he went to Lewisburg, Pa., and enrolled at Bucknell, another school he had been accepted to before the war.

He majored in mechanical engineering and graduated in 1950 before setting off on a career working for a number of steel companies. He married his fiance, Betty, while in school, and after he retired they bought a house on Newfound Lake where Williams attended summer camp as a child.

He says his years training and working with the combat engineers were more than suitable preparation for his studies and career.

“I was fortunate to have been in that type of service where I actually learned,” he said. “For the three years I was in there, I learned so much.”

(Nick Stoico can be reac hed at 369-3321, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ NickStoico.)

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