Army Sgt. William Farrar landed with his engineer combat battalion on Omaha Beach on D-Day – June 6, 1944 – at the beginning of the largest seaborne invasion in history that left about 4,500 Allied soldiers confirmed dead.
After spending the first night shivering in shallow foxholes in a small draw 200 yards from the water’s edge, Farrar and his comrades were assigned to removing obstacles and mines from the beach, then keeping the nearby roads open for the march inland.
Just three days after landing, Farrar’s 1340th Engineer Combat Battalion came to the Aure River, where a major obstacle was blocking the road, according to the unit’s official history. German troops were protecting the obstacle with accurate and steady small arms fire.
“Three volunteers rode up to the obstacle on a Sherman tank, planted a charge, jumped back onto the tank, and rode away as the roadblock was blown clear,” says the history, simply called the “1340th Engineer Combat Battalion.”
The crossing of the Aure River
The night of June 9, right after soldiers Farrar, Leo Bradford and Michael Szelwach blew up the road obstacle, they and other combat engineers moved to the river and, under fire, constructed a 50-foot-long Bailey Bridge. This type of portable, pre-fabricated, truss bridge was developed in 1940-1941 by the British and saw extensive use by U.S. military engineering units. The bridges were strong enough to carry tanks.
“This marked the building of the first bridge” of the Allied campaign to invade Germany from the Normandy beaches of France, according to the unit’s history.
In histories of World War II, the crossing of the Aure River is noted as an important milestone, as U.S. infantry units advanced with the goal of first liberating France from German occupation, then continuing into Germany to end Adolf Hitler’s regime.
The 38th Combat Team moved across the river the next morning after construction of the bridge to take control of Trevières.
One private in the 38th Infantry regiment, James Branch, wrote about his experiences after crossing the Aure River in an online blog called “Men of D-Day.
“We encountered stiff resistance around Trevières — we were attacking without our heavy weapons, as they were to come ashore yet,” wrote Branch, who also had landed on Omaha Beach on June 6. “After house-to-house battling in Trevières we then moved to take Cerisy. We captured a road junction near Haute Littee cutting the Saint Lô Bayeux highway, then one of our companies took the village of Vaucrevon. On our first two days in combat we advanced a total of 17 Kilometres. Not bad for a first-time-in-combat infantry regiment without its heavy weapons.”
A separate chapter … written in blood and agony
Farrar and the others in the 1340th Engineer Combat Battalion stayed with the combat infantry as it advanced into Germany’s Hurtgen Forest.
“Here a separate chapter in the history of this organization was written in blood and agony,” the unit’s history says. “The division met with extremely heavy opposition in the attack and the 1340th moved up to keep the route open for supplies to get through. To keep this route open meant to take hold of a bridge in this vicinity and to protect the flanks of the route. In this vital and exposed position with no supporting weapons, the 1340th held firm against murderous and unrelenting artillery and mortar fire. It repulsed numerous small counterattacks and infiltrating patrols. It watched its supply trains, needed desperately, be shattered by deadly mortar fire and it endured with grossly inadequate protection the merciless fury of winter at its worst. After four days, when the infantry troops were withdrawn across the river, the 1340th had completed its four-day mission in hell.”
The battalion had suffered 75% casualties among those committed to action and had lost much equipment. With one day’s rest, though, the soldiers went back to maintaining roads in the Hurtgen Forest.
William Farrar was with the combat engineers in the North Africa campaign, as well as the invasion of Sicily. They stayed together as they went into France and Germany, right up to April 1945, when they accompanied armored units as they sped toward Leipzig, Germany, building bridges and clearing roads.
On April 27, they constructed a Bailey Bridge over the Mulde River near Eilenburg, replacing a lighter bridge used by the 69th Infantry Division to link up to Russian forces at Torgau, and on May 8, 1945 the battalion received the news of the unconditional surrender of Germany.
During his three-and-a-half years of service, William Farrar had seen non-stop combat in French Morocco, Algeria, Sicily, Normandy, the Ardennes Forest that extends from Belgium into Germany, and then across Germany, before pulling back into Czechoslovakia at the end of the war.
Besides his Silver Star, the U.S. military awarded William Farrar two Purple Hearts for the shrapnel wounds he received in combat; eight Battle Stars; the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with Bronze Arrowhead; and a Good Conduct Medal.
This story by Sean Flynn, originally written for the Newport Daily News, has been edited with permission for use by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.