Twenty years ago, all the World War II veterans attending the yearly reunion of the 279th Engineer Combat Battalion wouldn’t have been able to squeeze into the hospitality suite at the Double Tree Motel. On Saturday afternoon, four of them sat around a table reminiscing about the 20 months they spent building bridges and roads during the last two years of the war, while feeling a little lucky to be a part of the 65th gathering.
The late Norman McGaha arranged their first Johnson City-based reunion and for the last 14 years, it has provided a central meeting place for the battalion, which had 635 original members. The four men, all 86 years old, who attended this year’s milestone reunion served in different companies, but over the years they’ve gotten to know each other even better outside of the time they served in the European Theater.
“Even though we didn’t know each other, I think we all got knitted pretty close together after going through combat together,” said Robert Jones of Hurricane Mills.
“We can tell a story and we all relate to it, whether we knew each other at the time or not,” said Robert Gibson of Pensacola, Fla.
Although Gibson and fellow attendee Robert Brower of Abingdon, Md., were a part of the same company, John Weinkam from Essex, Md., says he knew everyone through his responsibilities of sorting and delivering mail to the battalion members.
When the men were drafted they said Uncle Sam chose their engineer jobs for them and when they reported to Camp Robinson in Little Rock, Ark., they received one-size-fits-all uniforms. Brower and Jones originally had deferments that would have enabled them to continue working on their family farms, but neither of them had much of a desire to stay home when everyone else they knew were being drafted.
After months of training, the new engineers headed to war with the task of searching for minefields, building roads and bridges, as well as their main job of supporting the 102nd infantry. In the early days of their tour, Brower picked up the nickname “Chubby,” while Gibson was called “Doby” after centerfielder Larry Doby.
On the war front, one of their biggest achievements was building a bridge over the Roer River in Germany, where they faced rough weather and countless fire from enemy forces.
Though some of their memories of war are a bit fuzzy, the times they felt the most endangered are crystal clear.
“We were in a building, waiting to cross the Roer River and the third building from us was hit directly and it became a hole in the ground,” Jones said. “Our windows were boarded up and it blew the wood out and blew some of us out of our beds.”
“You could be out on the front lines and one of those big trucks would be headed back behind you with a pile of American bodies just stacked on there,” said Gibson, whose four sons came with him to the reunion.
Their recollection of scenes from the Holocaust are spot-on, too.
“Some people say there’s no Holocaust, but we’re witnesses to it,” Brower said.
“They had a 50-foot-long barn with side doors,” Jones said. “They opened the door and cremated several of those Jews. They tried to crawl out the doors, but were shot. It was a terrible sight to see.”
At some points during the violence and harsh conditions, the veterans said there were times that the possibility of ever coming home seemed unrealistic.
“When I got home, I couldn’t believe it,” Jones said. “In the beginning, you look forward to getting home, but somewhere you just get to where it’s impossible that could ever happen so you quit being enthused about it because you don’t think you’re going to live to get there anyway.”
“When I got off the boat in Massachusetts, the first thing I did was kiss the ground,” Gibson said.
During the time they were gone, the veterans wrote letters to family and girlfriends back home, while Jones corresponded with his new bride about their small son. Those 20 months aren’t something they regret, nor something they can ever get back.
“No, you don’t make up for that time, Weinkam said. “But you appreciate the fact that we did what our country wanted us to. We served and we still honor that. We don’t have any bad feelings about it because we did what was right.”
The 279th Engineer Combat Battalion has agreed to meet in Johnson City again in August 2012 for their 66th annual reunion.