Vet built bridges for comrades

SOUTHINGTON One small watercraft went into the river that night carrying two men assigned to build a pontoon bridge for their comrades to cross.

Elwood Kittle made it back to the German riverbank unscathed. His platoon sergeant, Charles Gilmore, did not.

”I’d say that was the hardest day of the whole war for me,” Kittle said quietly. ”He was my friend. Losing him like that was my darkest moment.”

Mortar poured over the two young men, hitting Gilmore’s side of the pontoon the hardest. It wasn’t until later, after the two men were ordered to retreat, that Kittle realized how badly Gilmore was hurt.

“The mortar was just pounding in on us. There was nothing we could do. We had to turn back,” Kittle explained.

Kittle, a native of Elkins W.Va., has lived in Southington some 54 years. The 91-year-old veteran was drafted into World War II in 1943 at the age of 20, forcing him to leave his wife and baby son.

“It’s not something I planned to do, being in the service and all. But it’s what you did. It was wartime. It was what had to be done,” he explained.

Kittle ended up in the U.S. Army’s 237th Engineer Combat Battalion. He said a lot of the work he did involved “menial tasks and chores.” But as a combat engineer his job was to build and rebuild roads, clear paths, clean debris, make bridges and pave the way for the troops as they moved through parts of Europe.

“It was a loose battalion. We went where they told us to go and did what we were told to do. I’d carry a pack of TNT on my back and my job was to blow a hole in a wall so vehicles could go through it. So that’s what I did. That was my first job.

“One time we came to a road that looked like it had been beat up pretty bad by a bomb. It had this big hole in it and we had to fill it in. We used whatever we could find to fill it in so the men could pass.”

Kittle said he never made it past private first class status and his job was doing what he was told to do.

“That’s how it was for two years and eight months. You try not to think too much. You lived every day not knowing what might happen next. You just tried to survive and focus on making it home. I prayed a lot.

”The reality was you might not make it home and everyone knew that, but you tried to not focus on it or think too much about it.”

After finishing basic training and spending some time in the United States, Kittle went overseas to North Africa, where he spent about three or four months. He was then shipped to England where he trained and prepared for the Invasion of Normandy.

“We loaded onto the ship the night before the invasion took place,” he said. “The next morning I believe it was, we crossed the English Channel. It wasn’t very far.

“They loaded us up in assault boats. They told us there would be a wave of men hitting the beach every 10 minutes. Whether that was true or not, whether that happened or if it was that fast I don’t know. We really didn’t know what all was going on. We were in the fifth wave to hit the beach. Our guys did OK. We weren’t too bad off. We landed on Utah beach. It could have been a lot worse for us.”

The low points for Kittle were watching so much death and destruction, and missing home. Highpoints included meeting Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and seeing the end of the war.

“Coming home, now that was the best. Being a civilian all your life, well at that point for 20 years anyway, there you were and everything was all turned around, like night and day. It didn’t take long to get used to it. You were there and that was that. But looking back at it all now, it’s amazing how everything can get turned all upside down,” he said.

He said he’s thankful to have been one of the ones who was never wounded, unlike his younger brother, Neil, who got hurt but also made it out of the war alive.

“Out of my platoon not too many got hurt. There were a lot of close calls. When you get close to the front lines anything can happen.

“The closest I came to death was that night with Gilmore. The captain told us to retreat. We just couldn’t build the bridge. The fire was too great, too intense. I would have gotten killed had I stayed out there,” he said.

“It’s one of those things you think about sometimes. You try not to, but you can’t help it. Even so I’m glad I went. I’m glad I was there. I don’t have any regrets. I would do it all over again if I had to.”