Meg Hibbert Contributing writer
American soldiers made it across France faster than Germans expected, largely through the efforts of combat engineers like James Christopulos and their Bailey Bridges.
His daughter, Diana Christopulos of Salem, excerpted his memories in a book, “Combat Engineer , –A World War II Memoir.” She will talk about her dad’s time in service, show photographs he took and maps on Tuesday, Jan 21, in the chapel of Friendship Manor.
It is sponsored by the World War II Roundtable and open to the public. A $1 charge at the door will help cover room rental.
“There are not a lot of people telling these stories now,” Diana Christopulos said, referring to how few World War II veterans are left. “It’s a good story, a working class guy who believed in his country,” she added. “It’s written in his voice, very individual and almost like a video.”
Although the book is not a heavy scholarly tome, the facts are accurate. John Long of Salem, who is director of education of the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, helped check and verify details.
He wrote of the book: “Some of the most important WII memoirs in recent years aren’t from commanding generals and heads of state. They come from the perspective of the ‘little guy,’ the participant not mentioned in the broader history books. James Christopulos was one of these… But his insightful and perceptive recollections of WWII, in both Europe and the Pacific, add a needed voice to the historical record — one to which we should listen.”
Christopulos was an officer in the US Army’s 1308th Engineer General Service Regiment from its formation in Fort Sutton, N.C. through deployments in both the European and Pacific fronts. Engineers were trained to fight as infantry, build bridges at night and under enemy fire, clear minefields and man roadblocks. The 1308th landed at Normandy, raced across France, and was a forward unit suffering heavy casualties during the Battle of the Bulge, James Christopulos’ daughter wrote.
Although he was not wounded, one of Christopulos’ men died in his arms, she said.
The Bailey Bridges his unit was famous for building in France were a way to cross creeks and rivers and could be built in a matter of three hours, Diana Christopulos pointed out. As James Christopulos wrote, “The basic principal was to assemble a bridge of prefabricated steel panels and girders with wooded plank flooring on rollers at the edge of a river.” The sections would be rolled across the chasm using balance and counter-balance to the other side.
“The Germans thought it would take days for the American Army to catch up to them, and instead, they next thing they knew, there were the Americans…I think my dad was really proud of that,” Diana Christopulos said.
Some of the best stories in the book, she said, were how the men figured out to get rid of bad commanders.
Christopulos met “Blood and Guts” Patton while the younger man was directing bridge construction in the middle of the Meuse River. After hearing Christopulos’ report on the progress, Patton complimented him for continuing construction in spite of enemy artillery, he wrote.
Two weeks later, Christopulos got a citation prompted by George Patton’s report, he said.
His memoir includes numerous photos he took, maps and even some of his drawings, including a sketch and description of an elaborate German officers’ club in Paris.
Diana Christopulos had wanted to publish her father’s memories for years after he retired from public service in 1986, his second retirement. She and her brother and sister and other family members had heard him talk about his time during the war all their lives.
Diana Christopulos helped him get his recollections closer to publication by giving him a MacIntosh computer. Her dad led an active life, living to be 93 before his death in 2010.
One of the joys of the book, Christopulos said, is reactions from some of her dad’s relatives. One said it was like hearing his voice. Another who had been an avid reader but not in several years, picked up the book and couldn’t put it down, she said.
Over the last six months she edited and annotated the memoir. The completed work she published through Amazon is 125 pages.
Her presentation on Jan. 21 was arranged by John Hamill of the World War II Roundtable, who is encouraging visitors to attend the presentation. The organization meets the third Tuesday of each month at Friendship Manor in Roanoke.
Christopulos s will have copies of her father’s book for sale at $10 each. They are also on Amazon, and at Book No Further in Roanoke, where Christopulos will give a talk and signing on Feb. 1 from 1-2:30 p.m.