Before shipping off to Europe to fight the Germans in World War II, Sebastian “Yono” Bordonaro and fellow combat engineers practiced building bridges across the Colorado River to test the strength of the structures.
Better to know ahead of time if the bridges would hold up before risking the machines of war and an even more precious cargo: the troops. Bordonaro and other engineers learned by trial and error how to improve the structural integrity of the bridges.
A lot rode on their expertise, if Hitler was to be defeated.
“We learned that it was important to anchor the ends of bridges really well. We built mainly footbridges out of wood and rope for the infantry, and pontoon bridges for the tanks and other vehicles,” Bordonaro says.
Arriving in Europe as part of the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion, Bordonaro served one of the toughest taskmasters known to soldiers, legendary Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr., aka “Old Blood and Guts.”
Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes or, in this case, the enemy aircraft that dropped bombs on the engineers.
“We would have all of our bridge equipment on trucks, and when we entered a river valley, we would look for good cover in the trees and start assembling the bridge. Then we would start pushing each section of the bridge out into the river,” Bordonaro recalls.
Over time, Bordonaro says, he gained a respect for Patton.
“He was right alongside of us when we built the bridges. He would let us know if something was wrong,” Bordonaro says. “Not a lot of people liked that man, but I came to look upon him as the guy who was going to get me out alive. He’d wave at me and let me know that I was doing a good job.”
Patton was not above growling, if he thought Bordonaro or his buddies were messing up.
“One time, I was ferrying a tank across the Rhine River and a German plane dropped anti-personnel bombs, and I ducked under the tank,” Bordonaro remembers. “It wasn’t a direct, hit but I got banged up as I went under the tank. The pontoon became unstable, and the tank rolled off it into the water.
“The water wasn’t that deep, maybe 2 or 3 feet. I tried to get it hooked up to a winch from a truck on land, and Patton shouted at me, ‘Damn you, Sergeant, let that tank go! We have more tanks to bring across.’ I said, ‘I think I can get it out.’ He said, ‘I have more tanks coming. Forget about that one.’
“I kind of snapped back at him in a real loud and nasty voice, ‘OK, General.’ He moved on. He was giving a lot of the other guys hell, and I thought to myself what was I doing. I’m just a sergeant, and I’m yelling at the general.”
Patton, says Bordonaro, could be downright mean:
“He’d slapped around a couple of soldiers who were in the hospitals over there.”
But when Patton died at age 60 seven months after Germany surrendered, Bordonaro said he felt bad.
“The general died from injuries in an auto accident while we were still in Germany,” Bordonaro recalls. “I had wanted to thank him for saving my life.”
Bordonaro returned home in 1946, taught by war how precious life is.
“I came home and wanted to make my time count,” he said. “I worked for the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant that had been located in Buffalo. Then I moved out to the Walden Avenue plant.”
He and his wife, Frances Palmiero Bordonaro, also opened a fast-food business known as “Fran’s Sub Shop” on Main Street in Williamsville, which they operated for years before selling it.
At age 94, Sebastian Bordonaro says he still makes the most out of the time he has been blessed with by serving as a volunteer gardener at The Cloisters, an Akron senior citizens complex where he lives with his wife of 62 years.
“I look at it this way: The only way I’m going to stay alive is if I keep busy,” he says.
But every now and then, Bordonaro says, he and a buddy from World War II share a chuckle about mortality:
“If my friend spots me in church, he’ll come up and say, ‘Patton is waiting for us.’ ”