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Company, 310th Engineer Battalion
85th "Custer" Infantry Division
Tech/Sergeant Winfred W. Tolbert served with 85th Custer Division in 310th Engineer Combat Battalion, Headquarters and Service Company. Some people think that the engineers built roads and bridges behind the lines and were not actually exposed to combat conditions. This biography provides details of how Sgt. Tolbert and one of his buddies were killed in action in the last few weeks of the war. T/Sgt Tolbert is buried at the American Cemetery in Florence, Italy.
Service Priot to the War
Winfred Tolbert was born on 4 June 1920 in Rock Run, in Cherokee County, Alabama. In 1922, his family moved to Piedmont, Alabama. Winfred first served his country with the Marines from 1937 to 1941. He served on the U.S.S. Texas and U.S.S. New York and traveled to Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was a bandsman and played the trumpet. His enlistment was completed in November 1941. By March 1942, he was working with his brother, Ross, in the oil fields in Alice, Texas.
Winfred Tolbert's service onboard the battleship USS Texas.
Postcard dated Feb 7, 1939.
Training for War & A Hollywood Connection
On April 25, 1942, Winfred was inducted in the Army at Fort McClellen, Alabama. By 17 June he was at Camp Shelby, Mississippi and was assigned to the 310th Engineer Battalion of the 85th Infantry Division.
By August 7, 1943, Winfred was sent for more training at the Desert Training Center in California, not very far from Palm Springs and the home of many movie stars. While there, a film producer needed some help with a movie production and a group of engineers from the 310th Engineer Battalion were selected to provide assistance with the movie “Tunisian Victory”. Winfred and his men worked with the director Frank Capra (and possibly, to some extent, with director John Huston who was brought in to do some additional work on the film) . The Engineers seems to have worked chiefly with the film's special effects artist Lee Zavitz. Zavitz must have required help with the explosions and pyrotechnics, which the engineers were trained to handle.
Upon an invitation, Winfred viisted the home of Lee Zavitz on August 20, 1943. Winfred became friends with Mr. Zavitz's daughter, Wanna Lee, and they continued to be "pen pals" while he was in Italy. In one of the letters to the family, Wanna Lee recalled the visit by Winfred, whom she calls "Wimpy":
"You're so right about Wimpy being sweet to everyone, that is one reason why my father liked him so much. They met when he was on location on the desert working with Army troops for a training film. Dad liked Wimpy because his men respected him and they all knew who was 'boss' out there. My Dad was in charge of these men and Wimpy, the men were under Wimpy so it was up to both of them to do a good job. Dad liked Wimpy so much that he gave him our address and told him to look us up if he ever got a leave...When I first spoke to him, he was at the Palladium here in Hollywood. He called about three times & I talked to him, then finally he and my Dad got together, on Aug. 20, 1943, my Dad's birthday. Dad met him at his hotel and brought him & his buddy, Jim Ross, out to the house. We all liked him the minute he came in and from then on he's been just like one of the family. We happened to have an extra mattress so we put that on the living room floor & he & Jim slept on it, while a sailor slept on the couch...the house looked like the Hollywood Canteen ...After everyone had left to go back to camp things were pretty dull around our place...We never saw Wimpy again and you've seen him since we have. I guess we grow to know each other through our letters.”
Movie Reel Clips from "Tunisian Victory"
See Photos from 310th Engineer Battalion - A selection of photos of Private McCloud and his buddies taken at various places. Includes photos of captured enemy equipment and a German Stuka dive-bomber.Lee Zavitz (1904-1977) lived in North Hollywood, California, with his wife Virgil Corwin Zavitz and daughters Wanna Lee, age 14, and Diana, age 9. In late summer 1943 he was an established provider of special effects to the movie industry even if “screen credit” did not always come his way. Credited or not, Zavitz' work had given visual splendor to such films as John Ford's “The Hurricane” (the title storm), Alfred Hitchcock's “Foreign Correspondent” (the plane crash sequence) and, most famously, David O. Selznick's “Gone With The Wind” (the immense fire which became the “burning of Atlanta”). In later years Zavitz' work was regularly recognized with screen credit and was awarded an “Oscar” for “Destination Moon” (1950).
During the War
Winfred's unit traveled back across the US to Fort Dix, New Jersey. During this time he was given leave for one last visit to Piedmont . The day before Christmas in 1943, the 85th Infantry Division shipped out to North Africa. By April 1944, they were at the front lines in Italy. On April 21, 1945, Winfred was killed in action at San Agata, Italy.
S-2 Section, 310th Engineers at San Clemente, Italy - January 1945
Photo caption identifies the men (L to R): Captain Kloeris, Cpl Donaghue(driver),
and the passengers in rear as Tech Sgt Tolbert, Tech Sgt Bemis, and Cpl. Gittman
-- A few days after this photo was taken, both Tolbert and Donaghue were killed in action. ---
Killed in Action
Three months after the above photo was taken in San Clemente, the 5th Army broke through the German lines south of Bologna, and began agressively pushing towards the Po River. As the 85th Infantry Division advanced northwest from Bologna, past San Gionvanni, it approached their first major river: Panora River. Just prior to reaching the Panora River, the town of Sant' Agata Bolognese was entered without any resistance on 21 April, 1945.
Tech Sergeant Winfred W. Tolbert, Company B, 310th Engineers was killed in action in this small town. The following letter was sent by Chaplain William A. Sanders to the family of Tech Sergeant Tolbert upon his death and described how it happened.
"The vehicle in which your brother was riding drove into the small Italian village and stopped; the occupants dismounted to secure information from Italian civilians. With no forewarning, one of the enemy came around the corner riding a motorcycle, and, with a burst of fire from his machine pistol, gravely wounded your brother. Sympathetic Italians placed him in his vehicle and carried him immediately to a medical aid station, but your brother was dead upon reaching the aid station. The action took place in Northern Italy."
Captain Paul W. Kloeris, 310th Engineer Battalion commander, added the following:
"He now lies buried beside his good friend, Corporal Donaghue, who was killed with him."
According to this letter and the records, Corporal Frederick M. Donaghue, Jr. was also killed at the same time as T/Sgt Tolbert. More information about Corporal Donaghue, Jr. was provided in another mail from Chaplain Sanders, dated 16 July 1945.
"Your letter of May 25 has just reached me. When it was written I was on my way home so that your letter went to Italy and then came back to me here at home. You asked about the comrade of your brother...the soldier was killed at the same time as your brother lost his life. The same burst of machine-pistol fire killed them both. They were killed in a small Italian village in the Po Valley named St Agatha [sic] and both are buried in our American Cemetary in North Italy. Pictures may not be taken of the graves in the cemeteries. After the war, however, you may have your brother brought back to America and buried at governmental expense. Announcements will be made when this may properly be done."
Corporal Donaghue's body was reclaimed and brought back to the States. T/Sgt Tolbert still lies at rest in the Florence American Cemetery in Florence, Italy.
The News Comes to Piedmont
The Western Union messenger delivered the telegram to Jack Woolf, husband of Nettie Woolf, a sister of Winfred. Jack was at home with sons, Gary Allen (just turned 10) and Joseph Carlin (age 4 yrs 11 months). Nettie was working a shift at the Standard Coosa Thatcher cotton mill. After reading the short message Jack contacted the mill. Since he could not speak directly to her, he requested that Nettie be released and sent home. To forestall worry, Jack must have also asked management to expressly tell her that nothing was wrong with the family. On her walk to the house, if Nettie did not worry she must have wondered about the reasons for the mid-day, mid-shift summons and by the time she got home she had thought of a possibility. As she came up the walkway to the front door she said, “You've got a surprise for me...a new refrigerator I bet” or words very close to that. Jack gave her the telegram; the news it brought was the surprise, probably one she had long dreaded.
There followed at 102 Williams Street a traditional Southern-style death observance. Over the next few days friends and neighbors brought food and sat for a long or a short time and reminisced about Winfred and caught up with the news from one another. During the time of the observance a Gold Star banner hung in the living room window.
"...I hadn't heard from Wimpy for 5 weeks last Wed. and was beginning to to worry about him, I was afraid something like this would happen, because he was always saying 'If I get back', what faith he didn't have, I tried to keep, but I guess it didn't do much good.”
Wanna Lee, Letter, May 12, 1945
This biography was contributed by Joe Woolf, nephew of T/Sgt Winfred Tolbert. Joe Woolf was about 8 years old and remembers the day his Mother was called home early from the mill to be informed of her brother's death. For more photos of the 310th Combat Engineers and photos taken during training at Camp Shelby, MS and Yuma, CA, see Photos from 310th Engineer Battalion .
See Operational Report of 310th Engineer Battalion - Operational Report is a month-by-month description of how the combat engineer built bridges and roads and forded rivers under enemy gunfire. It mentions every combat casualty but does not give their names.
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