The 85th in Italy

Historical Overview

Soldiers of the 85th look toward Naples from the Port of Bagnoli

The Fifth Army under the command of Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark would become the new parent unit for the 85th as it entered the battle for Italy. The 5th invaded the Italian penninsula on Sept. 9, 1943 under the code name AVALANCHE.

Through out the Italian campaign bridge companies were in short supply. There was especially great need for bridge trains, companies equipped with enough trucks and experienced drivers to carry bridge components across the winding rough roads of Italy. Many attempts were made to form bridge trains out of companies ill equiped and untrained which hindered Allied progress even more. Such was not the case with the 85th. It proved invaluable with its Mack trucks and skilled drivers. It was also very flexible in that it could unload its ponton equipment and reload with Baily bridge components. Each company of the 85th could carry two Baileys, and using their ponton trailors they could also haul bridge repair pilings and beams. The main obstacle to the 85th was that it's large trailors had problems with the winding Italian roads. Often the driver would have to jack knife his trailor just to get around a curve. The winding mountain roads, and valleys criss crossed with ravines and rivers were barriers to the Allied advance particularly since the Germans, as anticipated, had blown every bridge during their retreat. Progress up the Italian boot became for the Engineers a campaign of bridges.

On October 17, 1943 Company A 85th and the Detachment constructed a class 40 Heavy Ponton Bridge across the Volturno River in the vicinity of Triflisco. The Volturno was from 150' to 220' wide and fairly shallow at only 3' to 5'. Mountain heights surrounded the river valley and from them the Germans were able to direct fire down on the Americans. Durng this time the Engineers of the 85th also endured several German air raids, dodging shrapnel from exploding bombs. The 85th's bridge over the Volturno was the first heavy ponton bridge built in the European Theater.

 

On October 17, 1943 Company A 85th and the Detachment constructed a class 40 Heavy Ponton Bridge across the Volturno River in the vicinity of Triflisco.
Bailey bridge, 2/28/44, near Teano, Italy

In the latter part of October 1943 the 85th established a bridge depot near Triflisco.It was a tactical depot with supplies kept to a minimum for quick relocation. This was a necessity if the supply line was to remain close to the front so that bridging material could be moved to and from the front as needed, while the front itself moved in advance. The depot stocked and supplied Bailey, treadway, and heavy ponton materials.

On November 15, 1943 the 85th constructed a 90' trestle bridge in the vicinity of Venafro. It was in use for seven days and then dismantled.

In November of '43 the Germans reinforced its armies with two additional divisions to establish and hold the "Winter Line". This halted the Allied advance in the area around the Volturno.

From January 26 through February 18, 1944 the 85th was given the mission of transporting the Commanding General of the Fifth Army Mark Clark and his staff to and from a PT boat anchored off the coast of Italy in the vicinity of Castel Volturno.

Given the destruction the Germans left in their path, the bulldozer became one of the 85th's most valuable tools in restoring roadways and bridges. Bulldozer drivers manned their machines knowing the risks posed by snipers, artillary, and mines. On February 17, 1944 while working near the Volturno River one of the 85th's bulldozers ran over a double teller mine and as a result the 85th suffered its first WIA and KIA. Sergeant Leaonard J. Kramer was standing near the dozer and after the tremendous explosion no trace of the Sgt could be found except for a small portion of his helmet. Driving a truck nearby, Steve Puto received the Purple Heart as a result of the explosion.

From February 10th through April 24th, 1944 the 85th conducted a School of Military Engineering for the British at Capua. Instruction was given in the construction of the heavy ponton bridge and ponton raft.

On February 28 two bailey bridges were erected in the vicinity of Teano, Italy.

On April 2 the 85th constructed a 180' Infantry Support Bridge on the Garigliano

The next prepared line of defense by the Germans was the "Gustav Line". This line of defense was along the Rapido and Garigliano Rivers. On March 17 the 85th began to maintain a bailey ponton bridge in the vicinity of Damiano on the Garigliano River. This bridge was under heavy German artillary fire. And so the 85th constructed a dummy bridge some 100 yards down-stream from the existing bridge. From then on the original bridge received little attention from the Germans as the dummy bridge drew almost all the fire.

On April 2 the 85th constructed a 180' Infantry Support Bridge on the Garigliano. This bridge was under direct enemy observation and had to be constucted and used only at night under black out conditions. This bridge was built on the French front, and a French Lieutenant was killed by a German drifting mine intended to destroy the bridge.

On April 22, 1944 Company A was presented the Fifth Army Plaque for outstanding performance during the month of January.

 

5th Army award presented to the 85th for "outstanding performance in the face of serious obstacles" 4/22/44
On April 30, 1944 the infantry support bridge on the Garigliano was replaced by a heavy ponton bridge

On April 30, 1944 the infantry support bridge on the Garigliano was replaced by a heavy ponton bridge. On May 5th a German artillary barrage was aimed at bridge acheiving a direct hit. The bridge was repaired and re-opened by nightfall. The enemy again targeted the bridge on May 13 and 14, and one man received the Purple Heart when hit in the shoulder by a shell fragment.

Moving north beyond Cassino the 85th would continue up the Italian boot through the Liri Valley to Rome. In Rome they would bridge the Tiber River on June 6, 1944 (same day as D-Day). The bridge construction was delayed several times by enemy artillary. Then the 85th headed up the Po River Valley as far north as Siena before they would be relieved by units including the 10th Mountain Division (Bob Dole's unit)and head back south to Naples. There Company A and the detachment was joined by the remainder of the 85th which had traveled from the US to North Africa on April 9, 1944 and then on to Italy on July 23, 1944.

By this time the Italian campaign had taken a costly toll on the Engineers. At peak strength in Italy, Engineers numbered some 27,000 men. Of that force casualties numbered 3,540 killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.

In Rome they would bridge the Tiber River on June 6, 1944 (same day as D-Day). The bridge construction was delayed several times by enemy artillary.
The unified 85th loaded on LST's and departed from Italy on September 6, 1944.

In the spring of 1944 the U.S. Seventh Army was making preparations for landings on the beaches of Southern France. Fifth Army General Mark Clark allowed the Seventh Army commander General Alexander Patch to take any engineer unit he wanted. The next stop for the 85th would be the beaches of Nice in Southern France.

The unified 85th loaded on LST's and departed from Italy on September 6, 1944.

Aboard the LST to France

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