NORTH ANDOVER -- If President Obama, Gov. Deval Patrick and other political leaders are serious about rebuilding America's highways and bridges -- also known as the "infrastructure" -- they might want talk to Paul Routhier Sr. and other veterans of the 150th Combat Engineers Battalion.
Routhier, 89, who still lives in the house he built on Jetwood Street in 1963, and his comrades, built hundreds of bridges in Europe during World War II, often under enemy fire. They erected a pontoon bridge over the Rhine in 24 hours, he said.
Those bridges were not rinky-dink contraptions, mind you. They were fighting in World War II and they carried tanks, trucks and artillery as well as thousands of troops.
The Germans tried to destroy the bridge over the Rhine by attacking it with jet fighters -- the Luftwaffe had jets long before the Allies -- but anti-aircraft guns and artillery held them off, Routhier said.
"I was never wounded," Routhier said, but he was never far from danger during the two years he served in Europe.
When the combat engineers were working on bridges, they stacked their rifles nearby while they lifted segments into position. Like many of the troops, Routhier said be obtained a pistol, a .32 caliber, because he could wear it while he worked.
He never had to use it, but "It makes you feel better," he said.
The Germans did not hesitate to attack a bridge-building crew. After all, the bridges were being built so the Allied forces could take the fight right into Germany.
"They'd zero in on us," Routhier recalled. During one attack, several troops jumped into the river to avoid being shot.
"I pulled a guy out of the river," he said -- and probably saved the man's life.
Routhier took part in the Battle of the Bulge, an engagement the Allies ultimately won, but at a cost of thousands of lives. He and a lieutenant captured four German soldiers, he said.
They were driving through a forest in a Jeep when the enemy soldiers ran across the road, he said. The lieutenant, who had insisted on having a machine gun mounted on the dashboard of the Jeep, began firing and the soldiers surrendered.
They brought the Germans to the military police -- and discovered the lieutenant had managed to shoot the Jeep's spare tire.
"The lieutenant probably saved your life with that machine gun." interjected Routhier's grandson, Matthew Routhier, a Massachusetts state trooper.
Routhier graduated from Johnson High School -- that's what the town's secondary school was called in those days -- in 1942. Like thousands of American men of that era, he was drafted into the Army the following March.
After spending nine months of training, at Fort Devens, Fort Dupont in Wilmington, Del., and Fort Dix and Camp Kilmer, both in New Jersey, he and at least 15,000 other soldiers boarded the Queen Mary and sailed to Scotland. That amount of time was needed to train the combat engineers for building bridges quickly and under enemy fire, he noted.
While in Britain, where they received more training, the troops lived in Quonset huts for a few weeks, then resided in tents. They slept on canvas and even with a stove in the tent, it was cold, he recalled.
Truckloads of straw were brought in to make for more comfortable bedding "and we still froze," Routhier said.
Routhier and the rest of the 150th Combat Engineers headed for France after D-Day, June 6, 1944. His brother, the late Joseph Routhier, was among the American troops who landed on Omaha Beach that day.
Routhier, as well as his children and grandchildren, take pride in his service during World War II. A member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2014 and American Legion Post 219, he faithfully attends Memorial Day and Veterans Day observances.
Routhier said the United States had no choice but to fight Germany and Japan during his war. As for the present conflict in Afghanistan, he said, "I'd get out of there."
Routhier worked briefly as an apprentice carpenter. He obviously learned his skills well because he did most of the work on his house.
"I had it framed," he said. He worked for New England Power Co., now part of National Grid, and then worked for Western Electric, from which he retired. His wife, the late Eleanor Routhier, who died six years ago, also worked at Western.
Routhier played football, basketball and baseball during his Johnson High School years and was inducted into the North Andover High School Athletic Hall of Fame. He passed his athletic talent on to his sons and grandsons.
His son Paul Jr. graduated from North Andover High in 1967 and was both quarterback and captain of the Scarlet Knights football team. He is also enrolled in the North Andover High School Football Hall of Fame.
Paul Jr.'s sons, Paul III and Matthew, also captained their North Andover High football teams. Paul III graduated in 1995 while Matthew graduated in 1998.
Paul Sr.'s daughter, Linda McHugh, a 1966 North Andover High graduate, was head cheerleader. Her son, Carl Cincotta, is head wrestling coach for the Scarlet Knights. Her daughter is Lisa Limonciello.
Paul Jr. said his father stays mentally sharp by playing 45s, among other activities. When Paul Sr. and Jr. team up, "We can beat anybody," the younger Paul Routhier said.
The 150th Combat Engineers Battalion must have had incredible cohesion. For 60 years after the end of World War II, they had a reunion every year, according to McHugh. Their advancing years eventually brought these gatherings to a halt.
Routhier still attends the Veterans Day ceremony behind the Stevens Memorial Library each year. Afterward, veterans and other participants proceed to Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2104 on Park Street, where they have a flag raising.
"Then we go inside for a luncheon," he said.
Paul Routhier Sr. is still mentally sharp and certainly seems to be going strong. Tom Brokaw, author of "The Greatest Generation," would no doubt like to meet this man.