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Watertown’s Mike O’Brien shares his World War II experiences

November 5, 2007

By Gary Jenneke

Mike O’Brien was a junior in high school in Arlington, Minn. Dec. 7, 1941. He was listening to a professional football game on the radio with his brother when the game was interrupted with the news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed.

Because of his age, the war didn’t personally affect Mike for a year and a half. But, that quickly ended when he finished high school. He graduated on Friday, and on the following Monday, he left for the Army.

Every boy in his class that was already 18 at that time was called up. He was inducted at Fort Snelling and from there, he shipped out to North Camp Hood, Texas.

Mike’s mother and an aunt and uncle came down to the Union Depot in St. Paul to see him off. The GI who was in charge of them told Mike’s mother that Camp Hood was kind of like a college campus. “My mother was so happy,” Mike said, “’to think that her little boy was going to a college campus. Well, it wasn’t quite like that.”

After basic training, because of some tests he had taken in high school, Mike was put into ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program) to train to become an engineer. “’They sent you to college,” Mike said, “with the theory being you’d become an engineer in two years.”

They took eight courses, eight classes a day, and Mike said, “’You needed a better background in math than I had.” He wasn’t prepared for the courses in calculus and trigonometry, and feared he was failing three of the eight classes. So, Mike asked to be transferred, and he was, to Camp Swift, Texas.

He was put into the 260th Combat Engineers where, at 18, he was the youngest guy by four years. Mike laughed and said, “that makes you the target for a lot of abuse.”

There were a lot of guys from New York in that outfit and they had just been on bivouac in Plattsburg, N.Y., and they told Mike how cold it had been. They said Minnesota winters were nothing compared to Plattsburg. Being the youngest, he had no choice but to accept what they were saying.

The 260th spent a lot of time in the field learning to build bridges under combat conditions. They were Bailey Bridges, that Mike described as similar to a big erector set. They were also trained to locate mines and booby traps. They were on bivouac for 11 weeks, and when they came in, Mike had a telegram waiting for him. It was from the Red Cross saying his father had fallen ill and they recommended a furlough.

Before he left, a sergeant took him aside and asked if he had any money. Mike said no and the sergeant gave him $60. The sergeant also assigned two men to drive Mike to the station and he instructed them not to drink until they made sure Mike was on the right train.

“’I was so green,” Mike said, “I’d still probably be down there.” He told his mother the story and she said, “You make sure you pay him back,” which Mike did.

When Mike arrived home, he found out his father had died. He received an extension on his furlough so he could stay home for the funeral. He was gone 10 days in all, but at home for only four because it took three days of train travel each way.

The extension changed things, because while he was gone, the 260th received orders to go overseas. When Mike arrived back in Camp Swift, he was transferred. This was April, 1944, and a new outfit, the 1284th Combat Engineers, was being formed and guys were being transferred into it from all over.

Even though he was only 18 years old, Mike was made sergeant and a squad leader. He said he got a lot of help from his men, especially from a lifer named Earl “Bones” Howard. “He was 31 and knew everything there was to know about the engineers,” Mike said, “but he had been busted so many times.” One time, he got caught throwing away a cigarette butt and ordered to dig a 6-by-6 hole. Having access to explosives, Howard simply blew a hole, which isn’t exactly what command had in mind, and it again cost him his stripes.

All that summer, they received more training in bridge building and also in booby traps and mines.

“Our battalion commander was nicknamed Booby Trap Wisnewski,” Mike said. “”He made sure we got a lot of training in booby traps.”

The 10th Mountain Division was transferred there from Colorado, and they had mules to help carry supplies in rough mountain terrain.

“’I think these guys released the mules intentionally because one day, there were mules all over camp,” Mike said.

When they left Camp Swift, there was a big parade because just about everybody was going overseas. This included the 10th Mountain Division and Mike’s outfit, the 1284th, was positioned right behind them, and their mules, in the parade.

“It was August, hot, and marching behind those mules, you can imagine what that was like,” Mike said with a laugh.

They boarded a troop train and went across country to the East Coast. They spent 10 days at Camp Shanks, N.Y., where they were given physicals to see whether they were fit to go overseas.

But,” as Mike said, “if you could see lightning and hear thunder, you passed.”

Mike did have a chance to go into New York City on a pass for one day. They hopped on a subway, went down to 42nd Street, gawked around for a few hours, and came back.

They were transported to New Jersey, where they boarded an old World War I British ship. They were in a big convoy, surrounded by other ships, and the Atlantic was rough. Fortunately for Mike, he didn’t get seasick, but a lot of the guys did.

They landed in England and began more training. They trained under the British, which was, as Mike put it, “good and bad. They knew what they were doing, but they were a little crazy.”

The Americans and British had different ways of dealing with mines and booby traps, The Americans preferred using a grappling hook, and detonating them from a safe distance away. The British, on the other hand, thought it was a grand adventure to disarm what they called UXBs, unexploded bombs.

Mike’s platoon had to be able to assemble a bridge a day. The first one took them the whole day so they had no rest before starting the next one. The panels for the bridges weighed 540 pounds, and the base plates over 400 pounds. In teams of six for the panels, and four for the base plates, they carried these by hand.

“There were a lot of bad backs in the engineers,” Mike said.

They didn’t have much spare time and when they did, Mike said he’d write letters. Once in a while he’d go to town, but there wasn’t much to do there. He didn’t drink at that time, but he went to the pubs a few times.

“The British did a lot of singing. They’d sing these kind of nasty songs.” Mike said, “’Then, they’d get more serious and at the end of the evening, they’d always sing ‘Bless them all, bless them all, the long, the short, and the tall.’”

In February 1945, training completed, they boarded a ship that took them across the Channel to Le Havre, France. It immediately felt different from training because they were issued live ammunition and machine guns were mounted on their vehicles. They passed though France, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg, and finally into Germany. “By this time,” Mike said, “it was pretty heavily blasted.”

They spent most of their time in the Ruhr Valley doing construction. They built a Bailey Bridge across the Rhine. A Bailey is a floating bridge and it is built in 30-foot sections. The Rhine was 1,500 feet across at that point, so it was a pretty big job.

They also did some demolition work. The Germans, in their retreat, had blown many of their bridges over the Autobahn. The 1284th job was to blow away the rubble and what remained of the structure so new bridges could be built.

It was winter when they arrived in Germany, and cold. “Not as cold as it is here,” Mike said.

They slept on the ground in little two-man pup tents. Sometimes, guys accidentally burned down their tents trying to stay warm. A lot of guys had problems with trench foot, but Mike didn’t get it. “But it was cold, that was the worst part,” Mike said. “It was so miserably cold. And I don’t think being from Minnesota helped. I was as cold as the rest.”

Clark, a guy in Mike’s unit, located six 500-pound bombs that hadn’t exploded. They were loaded onto a truck and he brought them back to where everybody was in chow line, standing with their mess kits. He just raised the bed and dropped them onto the ground right next to where everybody was standing. Mike laughed as he said, “Fortunately, they didn’t go off.”

When he talks with a friend of his from Philadelphia, they still mention the time Clark dumped all those bombs right next to chow line.

Mike’s unit also operated next to a town where the Germans had a slave labor camp. There were 3,000 prisoners there, and even after liberation, about 20 a day were dying. “It was sad,” Mike said.

The 1284th, fortunately, wasn’t operating under combat conditions. The Germans had been pushed back from the areas where they were working and surrendering in large numbers.

Booby traps, however, were a concern. They were going to use a washing machine at one point and somebody warned that it might be booby-trapped. They threw a grappling hook on it, gave a yank, and sure enough, it had been rigged with a bomb.

The war ended in Europe, but that was not the end for the 1284th. They were loaded into trucks for a 700-mile trip to Marseilles, France.

Mike and another guy got lucky and were given a furlough to Nice on the Riviera. They had a great time, and while there, Mike ran into a guy from the 260th, his first unit in Texas.

Shipping out earlier than the 1284th, they had operated under combat conditions and suffered casualties. Mike saw the irony in that if his father hadn’t died, he would have remained in that unit.

At Marseilles they were loaded onto the SD Sturgis, a Liberty ship. They went through the Straits of Gibraltar, across the Atlantic, then on to Panama. Once they were through the Canal, an announcement was made that the next port of call would be Hollandia, New Guinea. They would be one of the few American units that would serve in both theaters of the war.

It took them three weeks to get across the Pacific and it was hot, Mike said. “Never volunteer” is the provincial wisdom in the military, but somebody volunteered his unit for guard duty, and it worked out well. They were on the upper decks, where there was at least a breeze instead of being stacked five deep below deck. They even slept out on the steel decks.

They reached Hollandia, took on supplies, and it was at this time the first atomic bomb was dropped. By the time they reached the Philippines, the second one had been dropped. Mike remembers that at the Manila harbor, they tied up to a sunken Japanese battleship. “That was kind of eerie,” Mike said.

With the war over, they assumed they would go home immediately. “’I thought,” Mike said, “we’d get back aboard the Sturgis, sail across the Pacific, go through the Panama Canal again, up the Mississippi, into the Minnesota River, and they’d let me off in Minnesota so I could get to Arlington. “It didn’t quite happen that way,” he added dryly.

There was a point system and Mike was down on the list so he wasn’t discharged until six months later.

They were first stationed at a camp near Clark Field, then, Mike and a squad of 12 men were sent up to a mountain pass, where they spent three months.

There were still Japanese in the area, and they would come down from the mountains and steal food or whatever they could.

The Army had taken the squad’s rifles away, “’Which really didn’t make sense,” Mike said, “because not all the Japanese had quit yet.”

At the beginning of December, three months after the war had ended, about 10 or 12 Japanese soldiers came down from the mountains and surrendered to Mike’s squad.

Then, just as they were finally leaving, Mike became ill with malaria aboard the ship going home. A kid in the bunk below him, somebody he didn’t know, also had malaria and died one night. Mike had a temperature of 105, and he said the disease bothered him for a long time.

He was sent to Camp McCoy, Wis. to be discharged. Mike had some souvenirs that he had carried with him since Germany. While at Camp McCoy he went to take a shower and when he came back, he found somebody had swiped them all. “I had some pretty nice stuff,” Mike said, “but it all disappeared.”

The next day, he took a train to Minneapolis, then a bus to Arlington and he was home. He worked in Arlington, until fall when he went to school on the GI Bill, enrolling at St. John’s University.

He took a sales job with Gamble Robinson, a wholesale grocer, upon graduation, because there were no teaching positions at that time.

Mike met Mona Stans from Chaska, and in 1952, they were married. Several years later, with two children and a third on the way, he was tired of the transfers that came with the job. He found a teaching position at Watertown, where he taught English, and Mona and he raised their family of eight children,

Overall, Mike felt his time in the Army was a good experience, and most of all, he felt lucky. “It was unlucky that my father died, but it transferred me out of the 260th, and they suffered a lot of casualties.”

Over the years, Mike has attended reunions and looked up old buddies from his unit. He expressed it very nicely when he said, “You don’t want to miss out on the people who were such a big part of your life at that time.”