Lawrence (L.D.) Jefferson sailed out of New York City on his 21st birthday, May 30, with about 20,000 other service men aboard the Queen Elizabeth.
They landed in Scotland on D-Day, June 7, 1944. They took a train to England and got their equipment ready to go over. They went by way of Portsmouth, England, across the English Channel to Utah Beach in France in late July. They did not “storm the beaches” but they caught up with the front lines and were never far behind.
During the race across France, they were part of George Patton’s 3rd Army. L.D. said Patton was a “gruff old fellow.”
The men of the 537th Engineering and Light Ponton Company (not pontoon) were mostly young farm boys, mainly from the states of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota. They were divided into small companies of 207 men. Their job was to build temporary foot bridges for infantry crossing the rivers. They had to be mobile and always on the ready.
“We spent more time away from our outfit than in it because of the areas we had to cover,” said L.D. “We were attached to Patton’s third army. But we were the only outfit building footbridges in Europe, so we built bridges for the first army and the fifth army as well.”
The army couldn’t cross a river until the foot bridges were built. “There will be rivers to cross,” said L.D.
The bridge builders were unarmed, except for lightweight carbine rifles. They worked in the open, in the dark, exposed to enemy fire and the elements. “The worst thing was being out in the open on the water as we inched the bridge across,” said L.D. “We’d hear a shell and we’d go under the water. But they said you’d never hear the shell that hit you.”
L.D. was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for heroic service in connection with military operations against the enemy in France on Sept. 12, 1944.
One section of the Ponton, commanded by L.D., was assigned the task of constructing a foot bridge across the Mozelle River near Arneville, France. Although under enemy fire, L.D. swam across the river, a distance of 264 feet, in order to fasten the anchor cable on the far shore for the bridge to be completed.
He received his second medal when he volunteered on each of four nights, Dec. 11, 13, 14, 15 of 1944, to supervise the ferrying of a raft across the Saur River, near Lisdorf, Germany. Though soaked to the skin in the freezing winter winds, with enemy shell-fire all around him, L.D. persevered until his work was finished.
After the infantry would pass, the 537th had to destroy their bridges that they had risked life and limb to build …so the enemy could not come up on them from behind.
His outfit was moved out north to Luxemburg during the Battle of the Bulge. They followed Patton there and stayed until the Bulge dissolved. They continued their eastern swing into Germany, crossing the Rhine to Frankfort. “Patton crossed and was running so fast they took his gas away from him; they took the gas away from all of us,” L.D. said. “It was the only way they had to stop him.”
L.D. added: “I think it was a political war. Montgomery had his area. Patton had his area. If they had cooperated, the war would have been over a lot sooner.”
The German people were friendly to the American soldiers for the most part. The German soldiers by then had lost the will to fight. “We stayed in tents, occasionally in a barn or a closed school and sometimes in vacated houses,” L.D. recalled.
“The German soldiers told us that if they didn’t stay in line the officers would shoot them,” L.D. said. “After the armistice was signed, they came out of the woods in droves and were happy to surrender.”
L.D. Jefferson eventually went to Marseille, France, from where they sent the boys home. He was a motor sergeant there. In this time there, he had three different drivers. The good driver was Mack Swofford who turned out to be from Excelsior Springs, MO.
He was shipped home by way of Gibraltar in a storm and back to New York harbor. Then to Jefferson barracks in St. Louis where he was discharged. He had Christmas dinner with an aunt and uncle in St. Louis in the year 1945.
L.D. likes to tinker with cars. When he got out of the service he and a buddy started a fender shop. But the parts were so hard to find they gave it up.
He continued to repair cars as a hobby for many years. “My son didn’t care much about it, but my daughter was right under the car with me,” he said.
L.D. was assigned to the Missouri Highway Patrol in 1951. He retired in 1986 after 35 years. He has worked race riots and prison riots; robberies and homicides; prostitution, gambling and drug rings. But routine traffic stops gave him some of his most hair-raising moments.
“Cars would pass by so close I could feel the buttons fly off my hip pocket,” he said.
His worst experiences patrolling happened after a car wreck involving two families, one from Des Moines, Iowa, and one from Kansas City. There were 11 people involved in the crash but troopers could only find 10 bodies. L.D. resumed the search the next day and found the 11th victim, a baby, crushed under the dash. The baby was on his mother’s lap when the vehicles met head-on. “That hurt me worse than anything,” he said.
Another horrific memory is of a time a lady missed the curve at Altamont. She had just picked up a load of freshly butchered meat. Her two daughters were in the car.
“She saw the meat and the kids all together on the road and threw her hands up and died,” L.D. said. “She died from shock. She didn’t have a scratch on her.”
L.D. never had a bad wreck himself, but he was smashed once between a semi and a wrecker. He was kneeling down by a tractor trailer directing a wrecker. The wrecker was backing in snow and ice and began to slide. L.D. got caught between. This happened at three in the morning. He went home and went to bed. The next morning, he needed help getting out of bed and his wife took him to the doctor. He had broken ribs and ruptured vitals and bruises all over.
“The doctor told me to not stop,” L.D. said. “He told me to put my uniform on and ride. He said I was so busted up that if I stopped I’d never be the same again. I guess I’m lucky to be here.”
L.D. was promoted to corporal in 1967, and then to sergeant in 1971. He was transferred to Cameron in 1971. He was assigned to St. Joseph in 1973. He became the driver examiner supervisor in St. Joseph in 1976.
Lawrence “L.D.” was Gallatin’s first resident trooper. He has lived in the same house he and Patricia moved into after his retirement in 1985 at 302 East Richardson Street). L.D. has one son, Denney Jr., and one daughter, Cynthia. Patricia, his wife of 60 years, passed away in 2010.
L.D. enjoys volunteering. He is a lifetime member of the American Legion and VFW. He went on an Honor Flight to Washington D.C. recently. He called it “an experience in itself.”
In 2017 when this is being written, L.D. goes to the Senior Center to eat and they help him. He gets his blood pressure taken and if it’s high they make him sit down and eat right.
“The Good Lord had a reason for me to go through the war in Europe; and a reason to be on the Patrol; and a reason to live to be 94,” he said.
— written by T.L. Huffman for the Gallatin North Missourian