Two sons of San Francisco, from very different neighborhoods, thrown together by World War II, warmed to each other and melted a little of the racial prejudice and segregation that was then so rampant. As young men, they both attended San Francisco City College and both ended up in the 285th Combat Engineers, though they did not know each other.

During their training in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi, the 285th Combat Engineers were being moved from one location to another overnight by Pullman Sleeper train. There weren’t enough berths, so the order was given — one soldier to an upper bunk and two soldiers to a lower bunk. My dad, Art Brandow, being a big guy (6’2”), tried to grab an upper bunk for himself without success. All were taken. Then he tried to find the smallest guy in the unit to share a lower bunk with. That guy was Bill Lee.

After discovering that they were both from San Francisco, they became friends. They each got leave to visit home before shipping out to Europe, but not during the same week. Together they arranged for Bill to have dinner with Art’s family in Westwood Park near City College and for Art to have dinner with Bill’s family in Chinatown.

Even though Bill’s father was a cook for a wealthy white family who lived on Nob Hill, Bill had never been invited to a Caucasian family’s home for dinner. Likewise, Art had never been invited to a Chinese family’s home for dinner. It was the summer of 1944. It was a simple act of kindness between two army buddies and their families, prior to these two sons of San Francisco facing the hazards of war. But it was a very meaningful expression of unity, considering the segregation that existed at that time.

I got to meet Bill and see him and my dad reminisce about these days, during their 285th Combat Engineers Reunion in Nashville, TN in 2004. The 285th was thrown into the breach at the Battle Bulge (Hitler’s last great counter-offensive) two-days before Christmas 1944 and then fought with General George S. Patton’s Third Army into and across Germany. Art’s job was to demolish bridges the enemy might use, and to build new or to reinforce existing bridges for Patton’s advancing troops and tanks. Bill’s job was transporting and potentially deploying chemical weapons. Unlike World War I, both sides decided not to use these horrific weapons in combat, but they did have them at the ready.

Bill Lee published a book in 2010 called San Francisco Son about some of his life experiences. Bill was born in 1923 in Chinatown, San Francisco, CA. Much of his book is short pieces about growing up in Chinatown in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Bill writes in his book about his journey back to California from Germany and his discharge from the Army at Camp Beale (now Beale AFB) near Marysville, CA. in February 1946, and then immediately resuming his classes at UC Berkeley for a B.S. in Chemistry. Art must have been on the same transport, because he quickly ended up as a transfer student at UC Berkeley in Civil Engineering the same month.

Art went on to a successful career as a civil engineer with the City & County of San Francisco and as a city manager for the Town of Corte Madera and the City of Belmont. In 1964 he came out strongly in favor of the Rumford Fair Housing Act (banning housing discrimination in California) and against its repeal by ballot proposition. That was an unpopular position for a small town city manager to take, but it was the right thing to do. Art retired in 1985, moved to Davis a few years later and died in 2006.

Bill went on to get a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Minnesota. Then after his first job in Dayton, Ohio, he returned to California and worked a full career at SRI (Stanford Research Institute). He now lives near one of his three sons in Sunnyvale, CA.

Bill is an interesting and humble guy. When I started drawing cartoons for the Cal Aggie college newspaper years ago, every time dad saw one of my cartoons he would say, “You know I have a friend named Bill Lee who drew cartoons in the army and in college.” So it was fun to meet Bill in 2004, and it was fun for me to read his book San Francisco Son.

I hope Bill Lee writes another book and includes a story about the two sons of San Francisco who visited each other’s homes just across town, but worlds apart in 1944.

2004 Reunion of the 285th Combat Enigineers. Nashville, TN.

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About colorfulclay

Hydrologist Clay Brandow has water on his mind most of the time, but now is seeking other diversions. Dear reader I'd love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment or two. It's easy.
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14 Responses to

  1. david seiler says:

    this is such a great story i love it!!!

  2. toughing story, to of my favorite things. family + friends = love

  3. Joe Gulino says:

    My dad was in the 285th. Is there any way to contact the 285th vets. I have a great photo of CO B with my dad and the 285th’s battle route map from Wales to Austria

    • colorfulclay says:

      Joe- Yes, a 285th Vet named Dale Dillard maintains a list of surviving WWII 285th Vets. Dale lives St. Louis. I have his email somewhere, and will email it to you as soon as I find it. Dale would love to hear from you. BTW you might also enjoy “A Father and Son Journey” on my blog featuring more about about that 285th Reunion in Nashville, TN. Last time I heard from Bill Lee he had move to Sunnyvale, CA. He was promoting “Son of San Francisco,” a book he wrote about growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown pre-WWII and his life after the the War. I shamelessly usurped his book title for my blog piece on him and my dad. Bill was planning to write a second book about his experience in the 285th, health permitting. That reminds me, I should write Bill Lee. Thanks for commenting on my blog. — Clay

      • Joseph A Gulino says:

        I did not recognize Dale in the photo. I forwarded the link and he told me he was first to the left of the flag in the back row.

        I met him on line about two years ago. Last week my son Graduated from Army Basic and AIT in MO.

        I got to meet Dale face to face for the first time before the graduation at Ft Leonard Wood.

        When I came across your article I had hoped I found another connection to the few remaining from the 285th but the number is small. I got a kick out of the upper and lower berth story.

        Funny how thinks work in life. Dale mentioned the Battalion Commander went to work for GM in MI. I lived not far from the GM tech center about the same time. From 1984-2008 I lived in SJ and worked in Sunnyvale before moving to Laramie.

        Thanks for getting back to me. If you run across any info on the 285th I would like to hear about it. The CO B photo I received from Dale last week has a flag in it. I did not pay too much attention to it. My son was give the castle pin the engineers receive at graduation. Same castle as in the 1944 photo..

        Joe

  4. Mikel says:

    Hi!
    I have a lot of my Grandfather’s C Company 284th photos, journals and etc from WWII. Might you also pass along Dale’s email address to me so that I can share what I have with him and maybe even gather some more items for my collection?

    I have also been passing along my collection to the Army Corps of Engineers historian for future folks to have consolidated and easy access.

    • colorfulclay says:

      Mikel–Dale’s email is dadill1@juno.com He’d be happy to hear from you. Thanks leaving a comment on my blog. –Clay

    • Joseph A Gulino says:

      Hi

      I have blind cc Dale and he can contact you.

      I assume the second mention of the battalion as 284 is a typo.

      I would love to get copies of any 285th photos you may have.

      Joe Gulino

      Son of Joe L Gulino\285th

      • Mikel says:

        Actually the 284th wasn’t a typo I just misread but I have talked to Dale many times and I have throughly enjoyed hearing his stories. They were on the same boat as my grandpa (the Marine Raven) as well as some other locations (Ramegan) so hearing stories about the trip across the pond and the other 285th adventures has been amazing.

        A cool story, I met one of my grandpa’s buddies from WWII a few months back. I have a picture of him and my grandpa in Nice, France from back in 1945 and I now have one of Clarence and I from a few months ago. What an amazing experience that was.

  5. Bill Roe says:

    Those guys look fabulous for WWII Vets and Dunning missed out on a great story.

  6. Mikel says:

    I recently returned from a trip in Europe following some of the 284th’s travels. The 284th and 285th traveled the same paths at the beginning of their time in the ETO. While in Luxembourg I was given 11 or so pages of 285th information. I have posted it on Marion Chard’s website so it was easily accessible to everyone. There is also a good discussion going on there about the 285th (some is information provided to me by Dale).
    Here is the webpage:
    http://www.6thcorpscombatengineers.com/engforum/index.php?showtopic=6363

  7. Mikel says:

    Hi all, I decided to go ahead and bring the 285th online, http://285thcombatengineers.com If you all have anything that you might be able to share to help to tell the story of the 285th please use the contact form on the website. Mikel

    • Joe Gulino says:

      Mike, Thanks for creating the FB page. I likely have more photos. How can I get them to you as I find them.

      Joe Gulino (son)

      • Mikel says:

        Hi Joe,
        Emailing them would be the easiest. Also any documents of interest would be great as well. shinglehouse01 AT yahoo DOT com Thank you for the help!

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