There was some kind of trouble on the road ahead

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 3, 2006

When combat engineers traveled in convoys across Europe, they had a tendency to pick up mechanical things that might come in handy sometime — like German trucks, machinery, artillery pieces, trailers, anything on wheels that could serve some purpose later. We moved from mission to mission with the Captain’s jeep up front, our equipment immediately behind and the purloined stuff at the rear. Of course, we painted out the enemy insignia so as not to draw attention from above.

A convoy moves only as fast as the separation between vehicles stays within certain limits. The captain slows down if the truck behind him lags, and so forth all down the line. This means that a convoy can get pretty well strung out and that can be dangerous. It becomes too inviting a target, and enemy planes flit high in the sky like butterflies. You’d think a pilot, theirs or ours, would look down and wonder who had captured whom. At any rate, the captain must make corrections.

His driver would turn the jeep around and drive the length of the convoy with the captain ordering most captured vehicles off the road, where we could use some of our TNT to render them useless. We considered this fun. Horses and cows we had collected were turned loose so local people could work them or eat them, depending upon their situation. We never looked back, and it was good not to know. We were allowed a few rescued cats and dogs as pets, but most of them escaped and headed for home. I thought I had saved a small, black furry puppy, but he died within a few miles. I had already named him.

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Bottles of &uot;juice&uot; were confiscated, it was the honor system, but sooner or later we could rest a few days and the captain would measure it out so no one could damage their brain. Too-often-promised rests were suddenly denied when Mutt the radioman got a message that altered plans. Maps were checked for best and safest routes to the next destination, supplies inventoried and shortages reported so they could be air-dropped, hopefully somewhere close to the mission. Those drops could alert the enemy, so the captain would call for some infantry to help out. Airborne boys would be sent and we then had another excuse to dole out the &uot;juice.&uot;

Engineer equipment is heavy stuff … bulldozers up to D10, truck-size air compressors, 10-wheel Dodge trucks, jeeps, weapon carriers, cranes, land movers, and huge rollers for compressing roads. And we’d use those to blow mines when a few acres of safe ground were needed. Running a 20-ton roller over German Teller mines sounded like stomping on bubble wrap, only louder … and don’t stand in front of the roller. Minefields were our worst assignment, and probing for them with a bayonet gets old fast. Once a mine has been &uot;pinned,&uot; it is harmless … but Johnnie Paradez disappeared when a German 88 round hit the pile of mines he was standing by, while holding two more in his hands.

We were thrilled when German fighter planes came out of nowhere with two 50-calibers spurting the dirt in the road we were building. You can dodge the tracers, but it’s best not to be foolish … get as far away as possible and you have but seconds to do it.

Private Lainey Atkins, a boy from Tennessee, jumped in his truck that had a 50-caliber machine gun on a turret in the cab roof. He never flinched as the plane came straight at him, passed over as Lainey spun the gun around and kept firing. Miracles of miracles he got him and the plane crashed smack on our road. After gathering souvenirs from the plane, we gave Lainey a medal the dead pilot was wearing. The captain gave him a bottle of cognac, and we went back to work. War can be like that … just ask the troops in Iraq.

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