NORTH ANDOVER – If President Obama, Gov. Deval Patrick and other political leaders are serious about rebuilding America’s highways and bridges – also known as the “infrastructure” – they might want talk to Paul Routhier Sr. and other veterans of the 150th Combat Engineers Battalion.
Routhier, 89, who still lives in the house he built on Jetwood Street in 1963, and his comrades, built hundreds of bridges in Europe during World War II, often under enemy fire. They erected a pontoon bridge over the Rhine in 24 hours, he said.
Those bridges were not rinky-dink contraptions, mind you. They were fighting in World War II and they carried tanks, trucks and artillery as well as thousands of troops.
The Germans tried to destroy the bridge over the Rhine by attacking it with jet fighters – the Luftwaffe had jets long before the Allies – but anti-aircraft guns and artillery held them off, Routhier said.
“I was never wounded,” Routhier said, but he was never far from danger during the two years he served in Europe.
When the combat engineers were working on bridges, they stacked their rifles nearby while they lifted segments into position. Like many of the troops, Routhier said be obtained a pistol, a .32 caliber, because he could wear it while he worked.
He never had to use it, but “It makes you feel better,” he said.
The Germans did not hesitate to attack a bridge-building crew. After all, the bridges were being built so the Allied forces could take the fight right into Germany.
“They’d zero in on us,” Routhier recalled. During one attack, several troops jumped into the river to avoid being shot.
“I pulled a guy out of the river,” he said – and probably saved the man’s life.
Routhier took part in the Battle of the Bulge, an engagement the Allies ultimately won, but at a cost of thousands of lives. He and a lieutenant captured four German soldiers, he said.