In the summer of 1943 I was 20 years old, and the youngest of six surviving children living with our parents in San Leandro, California. Our parents had emigrated from Portugal to Hawaii with my two oldest siblings, and then to the Bay Area, where my dad worked for the railroad that ran from Oakland to Hayward.
I had a job working in the canneries of Oakland but felt drawn to help fight for my country in World War II. My older brother, Superano (Soupy), had been drafted and was serving with the First Army. When he came home on leave I put on his uniform and we took a photo.
Soon after this I got together with my best friends, Roy Miranda and Kirk Gile – we called ourselves “The Three Amigos” – and two brothers who lived around the corner from me and we decided to join the Marines. In September I was drafted into the Army, but until my induction date I decided to go with my friends and apply to the Marines. However, I was rejected by the Marines because of my flat feet, so I had to join the Army.
I became a combat engineer in the 16th Armored Division of the U. S. Third Army in one of General George S. Patton’s tank battalions. This led to one of our greatest accomplishments, a pontoon bridge over the Rhine River at Remagen, Germany, and our most devastating experience, liberating the concentration camp at Dachau.
After my induction at the Presidio in Monterey, California, I spent my boot camp at Fort Livingston, Louisiana, in the fall of 1943. It was very lonesome for a young man who was from a large family and had never been away from home. I missed all my friends and family but received letters from many of them.
However, by the time we left Camp Livingston on May 20, 1944, the boys who had arrived there had been transformed into well-trained fighting men. We traveled by train to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, arriving on May 23. My buddies and I got a pass to see New York when we arrived, so we had four days of fun in the big city prior to leaving for Europe.
On the last day in New York my friend and I got “lost” in Greenwich Village and missed the bus back to camp, so we had to take a cab. When we got to the gate the MPs ordered us to report to the Captain’s office. We were very nervous and justifiably so, because this turned out to be one of the sorriest days of my life. The Captain bawled us out royally. Our punishment was to march from daylight to dusk until we left for France and to pull KP duty on the ship every day of the overseas voyage.
On May 30, 1944, we piled into buses and drove to Staten Island where we boarded the Queen Elizabeth, a beautiful luxury ship refitted to serve as a troop carrier, to cross the Atlantic to England. On June 11 we arrived in Southampton and I was sure glad to see the end of my KP duty. But we were all nervous, anticipating the start of our combat careers.
We arrived at Omaha Beach on June 22 – D-Day plus 16 – and were ordered to climb down the side of the ship on woven nets to get into the LST (landing ship transport). I had severe acrophobia (fear of heights), and could not get myself to climb down that net no matter how hard I tried.
My solution was to get into the cab of a six-by-six truck being lowered by crane down to a landing craft and lie down in the front seat. I stayed out of sight all the way until the barge ramp went down on the beach, then I fired up the truck and drove it straight up Omaha Beach.
Needless to say, I was in trouble again when the Captain found me and discovered what I had done. Trouble just seemed to find me, perhaps because I had a sense for mischief, but also because I could always find a way to get something done that wasn’t the “Army” way.
Patton's Brisk Pace
At Normandy the Germans had dug tunnels from the fields to the edges of the cliffs overlooking the beaches and installed machine guns and cannons to fire on the soldiers trying to get up the beachhead. All these armaments had been captured when we arrived in Normandy, so our company did not experience the combat injuries and deaths on the beaches that the first waves of troops did on June 6-8 because we arrived 16 days later.
General Patton’s army was part of the Allied forces that freed northern France, bypassing Paris. I was a witness to his characteristic high mobility and aggressiveness, and admired his leadership and bravery. The men in my unit would have followed him anywhere, because he had a way of motivating the troops by example. He was always standing up in the turret of the first tank in our convoy. General Patton also helped us feel protected by making extensive use of the Air Force, and he kept a number of officers at headquarters specifically designated to coordinate air cover and air strikes.
Combat engineers are tasked with keeping troops mobile under battlefield conditions. This includes creating airstrips, building bunkers and shelters, and reducing enemy obstacles. As we traveled with the Third Army under General Patton, he was always very clear about what he wanted done to keep his force mobile and help them survive. One thing was to build runways for Allied airplanes to land in the fields of Western Europe. The landscape was filled with hedgerows, and we used huge tractors to move and level the plants and dirt so the planes could land. We used the tools and techniques of engineering to support the movement of our troops and impede that of the Germans.
Our job included building barracks that had been shipped in pieces like a puzzle and needed to be assembled. One time when we paused in our rapid march across France, we built five barracks within two days where men could sleep and take a shower, etc. We also occasionally built medical buildings, but most of those were in trailers because they had to move fast to stay up with the troops.
From Omaha Beach we passed through the demolished towns of Montebourg and Carentan to Bricquebec on the Normandy peninsula, arriving June 27. As we drove in the troop transports down the main streets, lining both sides of the boulevard in every town were hundreds of residents cheering, clapping and shouting in French to welcome us as liberators from the hated Germans. I was one of the lucky ones who rode some of this way standing on the top of a tank or sticking my head up through the turret to see what was happening.
As we moved from town to town, jeeps led the troop carriers so they could spot any trouble ahead and call in the tanks and heavy artillery to clear the way for the infantrymen. When we stayed in these towns to rest, we spoke with the French inhabitants, at least those who could speak English, and discovered some of what they had been through. Many we spoke to had lost friends and relatives in the French Resistance who, when they were caught by the Germans, were just slaughtered. There’s no question about why they were happy to see the Allied soldiers.
The military had mobile trailers where the cooks prepared the meals for the men in the convoy and when they stopped, we stopped to eat and rest a bit. We would get a mess kit and line up for chow and then have a short rest time after the meal. The food was okay, nothing to write home about, but at least we ate three square meals a day.
One day we stopped at a farm in France to bivouac. There was a huge barn on the property, and we discovered four cars parked inside. We found some gasoline and decided to take the cars and go joy-riding. We drove a ways down the road, stopped to have a drink at a bar and went on our way until we came across two weapon-carrier vehicles filled with MPs.
They ordered us to return to our camp so we headed back but coming toward us, directly in our path, was a long convoy of men and materials. Standing up in the first vehicle was a Lieutenant whose first question was where we got the civilian vehicles. After we explained, he said he’d really like to have the four-door sedan so, naturally, we gave it to him. I saw him driving that car around for several days after that.
On our way through France, we were traveling in a column and scouts discovered that a patrol of Germans was behind us moving fast to catch up and attack. We quickly dispersed behind the low hedgerows which lined the road, and lay down flat making absolutely no noise, while the German column marched right by us. We watched them carefully and, of course, we were scared to death. If anyone had so much as coughed or sneezed we would all have been killed.
After they passed by, we got back on the road and caught up with the German troops, successfully attacking them from behind.
Battle of the Bulge
In August 1944 we came to a complete stop between Verdun and Metz, France, due to a shortage of gasoline and supplies. We camped there for 10 days waiting to be refurbished with ammunition and fuel, which had been sent to General Bernard Montgomery to the north of us, where the Brits conducted a failed attack on the bridge over the Rhine River at Arnhem. Unfortunately, this delay allowed the Germans to rebuild their battered forces.
In late 1944 the Germans launched a last-ditch offensive across Belgium, Luxembourg and northeastern France during one of the worst winters Europe had seen in many years. By outflanking the Americans, the Germans trapped them as they tried to hold the Belgian crossroads town of Bastogne. Patton redirected us, the Third Army, abruptly north to relieve and rescue these besieged troops, repositioning within 24 hours our entire Army corps. We arrived in Bastogne on Dec. 26, 1944, and were able to contribute to the success of the famous “Battle of the Bulge,” one of the largest and bloodiest battles fought in World War II.
The Allied victory took weeks and cost both sides dearly in both the lives of the men and materials.
Remagen, March 1945
By March 7, 1945, the Allied forces had freed much of France from German occupation, and the German army was retreating across the Rhine into the Fatherland to protect it from invasion. The Allies needed a way to cross the river into Germany and the 1000-plus-foot-long Ludendorff railroad bridge, just past the town of Remagen on the west bank of the Rhine, was one of the last intact bridges. The methodical German Army twice failed to demolish it and the German High Command continued to make desperate attempts to destroy it using explosives, aircraft raids, V-2 rocket attacks and even frogman assaults.
Through the heroic efforts of brave American soldiers under murderous crossfire from machine guns mounted on two towers guarding the bridge, it was captured by the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion on March 8, 1945. Once they overwhelmed the towers and fought across the span, they moved to clear the tunnel and the cliffs near the eastern approach. This established a bridgehead across the Rhine and opened the way for Allied troops to drive into the heart of Germany. First, however, additional soldiers, armament and tanks needed to cross over the bridge which by this point had been weakened by the German attempts to destroy it.
Those of us in Patton’s Third Army Combat Engineer group arrived and were ordered to support the 9th Armored Division of the First U.S. Army Group in its attempt to cut off the German Army’s retreat. The weakened condition of the bridge required that we lay huge timbers across the railroad tracks to move the tanks across the Rhine. Our engineering group brought cranes to move the timbers and laid them across the tracks. Unfortunately, because of all this weight, the bridge suddenly collapsed, throwing men and materials into the swiftly flowing river.
I was out on the bridge but only at the near edge. When it came down, the noise and the sight of the falling soldiers was very frightening. I was afraid that the rest of the bridge would go, and all of us would meet the same end. I looked down to see the men, several of whom I knew, trying to keep their heads above the water, but because they had on heavy gear and the river was flowing so swiftly they couldn’t. All 28 of those engineers drowned, and 93 more Americans were wounded, right there in front of me. This terrible experience made me feel sad and anxious, and it took a long time to move on from it.
Despite a massive German counterattack against the bridgehead, Patton then ordered us to build a new bridge for the tanks to cross the Rhine. Our engineering group tied together pontoons and tread-ways one at a time next to the span and floated them across the river, no mean task with the river flowing so rapidly. It was dangerous work, too, because the Germans had posted snipers at a distance. They killed several of the engineers who went out to work on the pontoons until American soldiers managed to kill them.
Once we successfully constructed this bridge, which was bowed into a huge arch by the river flow, the tanks could cross again. Over the next 10 days 25,000 troops, 2,500 vehicles and tons of equipment swarmed across that and several other pontoon bridges into military history. It was known as the “Miracle of Remagen.”
Horror at Dachau
In late April 1945, the U.S. Seventh Army liberated the longest-running German concentration camp, Dachau, where thousands of Jews, Catholics and other political prisoners were held and where tens of thousands died from the murderous SS policies, typhus epidemics and starvation. The camp area consisted of 32 barracks, a prison, a courtyard, and a crematorium. All this was surrounded by a ditch and a wall with seven guard towers, plus an electrified barbed-wire gate.
By the time we arrived the living prisoners had been relocated, but we saw huge piles of naked bodies riddled with bullets, and mounds of ashes from the bodies which had been carried by conveyor belt into the ovens.
We were totally shocked to see the conditions of the camp, and the stench of the dead was horrible. It was our duty to use bulldozers to dig trenches which were then filled with these dead bodies, to at least give them a burial and help reduce the danger of disease.
The four days we stayed there were really traumatic. At night we’d sit around thinking about what we’d seen until someone would start talking and we’d all get teary-eyed, like I’m doing right now, knowing that all of those victims were human beings with families that loved them.
These were definitely some of my hardest days of the war.
Victory in Europe: May 8, 1945
Despite coming under fire while crossing Western Europe, I was never injured, but I knew many combat engineers who were wounded and killed. This was very stressful for me but I tried to keep my mind in a positive frame and “live above” the daily danger. I must have always been just in the right place at the right time.
During all of this time we were moving so fast the letters written to us by friends and relatives at home never reached us until the war was over. I carried photos of my family with me to help keep up my spirits.
We celebrated the German surrender on May 8, 1945 by shouting, jumping up and down and crying, hugging anyone around. At the time we were bivouacked just outside Paris. We stayed in Europe to keep the peace until fall, when my unit was transported back to England. We were given a short leave, and then in November 1945 I boarded the United States Lines Company ship M. S. John Erickson, for the trip back to the Port of New York in the good old U.S. of A.
We were sent to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, and from there the Army put us on a train west to Camp Beale in Marysville, California. When we arrived, we had two days leave so my sisters, Linda and Judy, drove to Camp Beale to see me. Several of my friends who lived in towns near mine got into the car with my sisters and went home with us. When we returned to Camp Beale, I was given my last paycheck and was discharged – a civilian once more.
Home in San Leandro, I went back to work in the cannery where I used to work in Oakland, until a friend told me about a job at a fish wholesale store, Paladini and Sons. Despite knowing nothing about the business I decided to apply, and said I was willing to learn. So for the next week I learned how to fillet fish, and for the next four years I delivered fish to markets and restaurants in the Bay Area. After that I worked for Bonded Truck until they shut down and I bought some of their trucks to start my own trucking business, John’s Trucking, in Lodi.
Before the war my oldest brother, Augie, married a local girl and started a family. When I returned home from Europe, he introduced me to his wife’s younger sister, Pauline, and after dating for awhile, she and I got engaged and then married. We had two sons, Richard, who survived being born prematurely but drowned in Half Moon Bay at the age of 21, and John Jr., who lives in Modesto. When Pauline passed away in 1972, I moved to San Andreas to be near my sister and brother. Later I moved to Sonora, where I had made many friends.
All the years of my first marriage I had loved to square dance. Pauline didn’t like it as much, so she encouraged me to go alone. After I moved to Sonora, I became president of a local square dancing club and one night a lovely woman, Viola Anderson, caught my eye so I asked her to dance. She had been widowed the year before and came with a girlfriend for some square dancing lessons. [“He had been dancing since 1951 and was an excellent dancer,” Viola said of John. “Besides being cute, he had a great sense of humor.”]
The rest is history as we were married in 1992, and we still enjoy square dancing together. It’s great fun as well as excellent exercise.
The first time I ever talked about my experiences in World War II was in 1998 when my wife, Vi, and I traveled to Normandy and the surrounding region. We met an American couple with two young sons, 10 and 12, and all of them wanted to walk along with us. They encouraged me to share some of my experiences with their family.
Even though it was very hard, I managed to tell them some stories about my service and that of my fellow soldiers as we fought together to free the world from German domination.
Like so many others with combat experience, it’s still difficult to recount many of those traumatic times.
But I now realize how important it is for us to tell the story of the victory of freedom over tyranny for future generations.
This story is part of the Tuolumne Veterans History Project, an all-volunteer effort to record Tuolumne County veterans’ memories of their wartime experience. These stories are archived on the Friends and Neighbors website as a public service, and typically have not appeared in the print publication. Mr. Morgado, 88, was interviewed in February and March 2011 at his home in Sonora, California, by volunteer interviewers Bill and Celeste Boyd. Click on the image below to view a short video in which Mr. Morgado recounts the collapse of the Ludendorff bridge.