THE SAGA OF JUMPING JOE
by
One Who Was There
(Lt Col. Bruce W. Reagan, ret)
A dull, camouflaged monstrosity sat on its trailer one misty morning at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. A puzzled lieutenant--the instructor--thumbed through its confusing operations and maintenance manual.

"Now men," he said, "this is one of our basic pieces of equipment. It's an Earthworm D-4 Dozer and it can do a lot of things, like dig trenches, fill a crater, or pull a truck out of the mud much faster than you can. We'll be getting more of them, so pay attention.

"Let's see," he continued, "where do we start? Oh, yeah, these levers here are to guide it with--no steering wheel. You'll note that these big tracks take the place of wheels, and one side slows down while the other speeds up to make it turn.

"Now, let's see what else," he said, as he flipped the pages. He was obviously overwhelmed by the strange creature. "Oh, the heck with it. Has anyone ever been on one of these things?"

An unexpected voice from the rear piped up. "Yes, sir. I have."

It was a shy and quiet-voiced young man who only a few months before had been drafted into a strange new world. He never thought he'd be seeing another one of these things after leaving home and all the routine he'd been through. It seemed that all he'd done was close order drill, calisthenics, overnight bivouac, first-aid lessons, and learning the parts of a rifle.

But now this: Happy Day! Something he was familiar with.

"Jumping Joe," as he would come to be called, had learned the dozer and a variety of other equipment from his father by the time he could reach the controls. They were Italian immigrants who, like many from their country, extended their care and concern for the earth's bounties into a livelihood. Call it love of the land.

Now his father was a materials contractor, supplying sand, gravel, and soil to the emerging highway contractors--notably those working on the Merritt Parkway in Southwestern Connecticut in the late thirties.

Joe's first job--he was hardly more than a toddler--was picking up rocks along the pavement to avoid damage to the tires of his father's dump trucks. He went on from there.

The lieutenant was skeptical. "Are you sure?" he asked. "You know, it's an expensive piece of equipment. We don't want it damaged."

"Yes, sir," said Joe. "I worked weekends and summers with my father. He taught me all about this one and a few others--maintenance, too. That's important."

It so happened that Joe had been for several years the youngest member of his local equipment operators union; it was a time when that was the only way you could get on such equipment--officially, that is.

"Okay, soldier," said the lieutenant. "But first, how are you going to get it off that trailer?"

"Oh, simple, sir. We'll just back the whole thing up to that little ridge over there and back it off. I can do it."

"I'm convinced," he said. "Do it ... but carefully."

The dozer became Joe's charge. He trained other recruits in its use, keeping a watchful eye, but he did all the maintenance himself. His pride and joy needed him for that.

With some regret he relinquished the dozer when his battalion was stripped to men-only for the passage to England. The Queen Mary wasn't equipped for such gear, but he was told not to worry: there would be more like it awaiting him overseas.

And there were, this time in volume. Joe's responsibilities broadened to encompass care, maintenance, and operator training for an entire fleet--dozers, heavy trucks, and the trailers to make them mobile. Additionally, there would fall under his domain mobile air compressors, overhead loaders, high-reach cranes, and rock crushers. He and his crews were kept well-occupied; his knowledge of the principles was applicable to all of the equipment.

His aptness carried into combat--from cutting beach and hedgerow access in Normandy after the landing to removing road blocks in Czechoslovakia at the end.

There was much in between. Joe and his crews prepared approaches and abutments for destroyed bridges; they devised by-passes for mountain road-cuts and overpasses; they cleared bomb debris from villages, and opened roads blocked by felled trees, timber cribs, and exploded craters. It was all essential for a mobile force with only one alternative to continued movement: stalemate.

After the bitterly contested Normandy breakthrough, there was the removal of the splattered remains of German horse-drawn artillery. And for a real challenge, try pushing a 40-ton tank with one slipped tread off a necessary roadway.

About half way through the campaign, the Army became aware that the projected losses of junior leaders was way off.

A message came through channels: select some outstanding men and reduce the shortage by granting them commissions. One requirement, however: they must be in a combat company. No appointments for headquarters cronies.

There was an exception, for 30 continuous days of direct contact. But Joe, despite his eyeball-to-eyeball contact and his hazardous tasks fronting the enemy, was ineligible.

An obvious solution occurred: lose his headquarter service for a month, then take him back.

It worked. From five-striper NCO to Second Lieutenant, he was back with his equipment--and added responsibilities.

As with any prolonged war--remember Napoleon in Russia--the foe was not the only obstruction. Joe's unit hit the low-lying, poorly drained area of Alsace-Lorraine just as the pre-winter rains did--reportedly the worst of the century.

Roads and bridges designed for horses and wagons rapidly fell to pieces under the heavy truck and tank traffic. Cutting drains, widening and strengthening bridges, and gaining cross-country access to frontline positions in the dish-shaped region became a real challenge, keeping Joe and his gear constantly on the move. Maintenance was often done at night under a truck tarp, aided by flashlights.

Soon, the rains turned to snow and ice, raising new but equally challenging complications. Every day, it seemed, brought more trials--with no help from the enemy.

Mud had been the prior nemesis; now it was the ice--and snow-clad mountain roads, and the deeply furrowed streams of Northern Luxembourg. The Germans had broken through in the nearby Ardennes Forest. The bounding Siegfried Line had been re-manned, and Joe's unit had been called on to help keep it moving.

The season of what would later be known as the Battle of the Bulge was marked by heavy snows and thick accumulations of ice. The roads had to be kept clear by scraping and sanding, by rescuing overturned trucks, by overcoming the many devious delays devised by the enemy to block the advance. Most of the work had to be done under cloak of darkness to limit Siegfried Line observation and the onrush of cold, encompassing steel.

Joe didn't get much sleep. He insisted--often properly so--that his judgment and therefore his presence at the site of any snag was essential. And so it repeatedly turned out to be.

After these unpleasantries, the approach to the Rhine, the crossing, the dash across Germany--all with spring unfolding--were a piece of cake. The advance was marred by only an occasional destroyed bridge or a primitive road block, often constructed of local farm machinery or nearby trees, installed by the retreating forces, especially the elite German Schutsstaffel, who did not know when they were defeated.

Well out in front regardless of the elements or the enemy, determining manpower and material needs to overcome obstacles, young Joe earned the nickname of "Jumping Joe" not because he was so quick to volunteer but because he would always respond to any need and was always jumping off and on his gear to do so.

"Who'll do it? Let's see if Joe will."

And he would.

Joe's newest mission, recently added to his other duties, was to scout ahead, assess the situation, and plot a course. A typical oral report--no time for writing--would go like this:

"Up about eight miles--right here on the map--is a good-sized crater. Alongside is a stonewall. All you need are a few men to dump stones into the hole, then tanks can pass. Further on is a log-crib block. It can be taken out in 30 minutes with a few men and a winch. Another half-mile and you come to the Seille River. It's about 60 feet across and will take a platoon and 80 feet of bridging. Abutments are in good shape--no complications--though there may be some Krauts on the far bank. We've got a few rounds of mortar fire...."

Joe's work up front, often alongside the contacting infantry and armor, was not the battalion's usual role. Neither was it expected of the Army's Commander, General George "Blood and Guts" Patton. He was gutsy, alright, and he and Joe occasionally came together despite direct mortar and rifle fire.

There was one notable instance. Joe was astride his armored dozer, filling in a destroyed culvert, his buddies huddled along a nearby stonewall. Who should appear but General Patton, striding toward the dozer, his aide furtively following close-by the safety of the wall.

Joe stopped. The General crawled up the tracks and bellowed over the roar of the engine:

"You engineers are doing a helluva job. Keep up the good work."

Earlier, he had expressed the same sentiment by granting Joe and his men extra rations.

"Yes, sir, thank you, sir," said Joe. (What else to say?)

Patton then retreated, to the visible relief of his skittish aide.

A month after V. E. Day, the battalion was occupied rebuilding the road and bridge network in Bavaria to help revive the staggering economy. More urgently, they worked to accommodate the hordes of refugees fleeing Eastern Europe and their soon to-be occupiers, the hated Soviets.

Only local materials--stone and timber--were available to bridge two 600-foot gaps across the Danube River at Straubing, Bavaria. Included, however, were two 90-foot steel beams from Belgium for the essential navigation span. But somehow they got kinked while being dragged from the railroad siding through the narrow streets to the work site. There was no way they could be used. What to do?

Joe had a way. Put a heavy dozer on both, he said, and heat the beams at the right places with welding torches. Then see what happens.

It worked; they bridged the Danube.

Joe was lucky. He lasted the War and received a few awards--a Bronze Star, the Purple Heart--but his principal legacy was the respect he had gained from those who came to know him as a king-pin in the advance of our troops across Europe.

Upon discharge, Joe returned to his home town and went back to the construction business and the skills that had served him in such good stead throughout the War. Over the next 40 years, the application of those skills and his uncommon judgment, though broadened considerably in concept, led him to become one of the leading contractors in Southwestern Connecticut.

Now, in his retiring years, he is known to occasionally sneak onto a piece of heavy machinery to see if his hand is still up to the task. That it is.

The nation needs more men like "Jumping Joe" Calve.

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