At 18 years old, Robert F. Batt enlisted in the family business of hanging wallpaper and painting with his dad, Eugene, throughout the Tonawandas.
It was hard work, he recalled, “and you had to push yourself, but we never had to advertise because of our good reputation. Word of mouth was the best advertising.”
Perhaps that’s how Uncle Sam learned of Robert’s work ethic and explains why he received a draft notice in May 1943 at 27 years of age, married and the father of a baby girl.
Batt’s skills, which included carpentry, landed him in the Army Engineers, where he was taught how to disarm mines and other unexploded ordnances.
“I did quite a bit of construction and destruction in Europe,” the 98-year-old Amherst resident mused.
What he vividly recalls is his arrival at Normandy’s Utah Beach about a week after D-Day on June 6, 1944.
“We’d dig out the unexploded anti-personnel mines and booby traps in the fields. We’d put our hands under the mine to make sure there wasn’t a second one beneath the first one. One of the tricks the Germans like to do was place a second mine under the top one, thinking we wouldn’t check, and then the second would explode,” Batt said. “We would gently feel around under the top of the first mine.”
Ever so carefully, Batt explained, he and his fellow engineers would disarm the devices and place them in a heap for detonation.
A member of 368th Engineers, Batt said they also cleared roadways in the villages and towns of France that had been blocked by fallen trees and by collapsed buildings damaged from artillery and air assaults. “We used heavy equipment to clear the roads to make way for the transport of munitions up to front lines.”
Another job was the construction of a gasoline pipeline from Omaha Beach to the front lines.
And while the engineers were not routinely tasked with engaging the enemy, as the infantry was, they certainly took their share of enemy fire and, at times, doubled as infantry.
“During the Battle of the Bulge, we backed up the infantry because there were such heavy losses. We were there in case we were needed. We mostly came under artillery fire. It was scary and noisy, too,” he said.
As the war progressed into Germany, Batt said, his unit went underground – literally.
“We were assigned to the coal mines just over the border from Belgium. At one of the mines, we had to splice back together a cable for the elevator. The Germans had intentionally cut it. We went down into the mine, myself and a corporal. We were looking for contraband,” he said.
And wouldn’t you know it, they hit pay dirt.
“We found boxes of rifles, pistols and ammunition, and we found some food stored down there.”
Topside, the food was put to good use.
“We met displaced people who had been brought in from Italy and Yugoslavia, but mostly Italians, who were used as slave labor in working the mines for the Germans,” he recalled. “They hadn’t been fed in weeks, and we gave them the food we found in the mines. There were sausages and lard that was in sealed, five-gallon buckets.”
The sight of these displaced people, dressed in rags and shoeless, he said, “really shook us up.”
Batt also had some other disturbing yet memorable encounters, but not with civilians. Instead, the big guy himself, Old Blood and Guts, officially known as Gen. George S. Patton, head of the 3rd Army.
“He yelled at me back in England when we were working at headquarters. He said we weren’t doing a good job building Quonset huts. I was in charge of the detail. I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and, ‘No, sir.’ He said, ‘If this job isn’t done by tonight, I’ll have your stripes.’ We finished the job that night.
“I met him a few days later, and he said, ‘You’re doing a good job, and that’s what I like to see.’ Then when we were putting up a flagpole at headquarters, I was at the top of the pole painting it, and Gen. Patton’s dog was grabbing onto the rope that was dangling from my bosun’s chair.
“The general said to me, ‘Is that dog bothering you?’ I said, ‘He’s not helping matters any.’ The general kicked that dog, and it must have went four feet. I was relieved. I could have fallen out of the chair.”
After the war, Batt felt supreme relief to at last be back home painting and wallpapering as a civilian. The family business had come to a halt in 1944, when his father passed away from a massive heart attack.
“I started the business back up. I put one advertisement in the Tonawanda News in 1946, and that was it. I got my customers back, and I got new ones.”
In 1981, Batt says, he and his wife, the former Dolores Behm of North Tonawanda’s Gratwick section, retired to the South after raising two daughters and a son. Last year, after 32 years in the Florida sunshine, they returned and took up residence at Amberleigh, a retirement community in Amherst.
While he misses Florida’s warmer weather, Batt says he is proud that he and his wife hold the distinction of being married the longest of any their fellow residents, with a record 74 years of marital bliss.
His memories of the war are not so blissful, he says, and are never far away.
“I try to think of some of the funny things that happened. Not the rough stuff.”
And what amuses him?
“Like the time our captain was the first to dive into a foxhole, and he found it was full of water, and another guy dove in on top of him.”