"God, I Thank you I'm an Airborne Engineer"
September 28, 2010
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - The sound of heavy machine gun fire echoed across the water interspersed with the splash of oars and the hoarse yelling of men. A thick shroud of smoke hung over the waterway, obscuring their objective in the distance.
Four Zodiac small boats surged through the deep smoke with Paratroopers at the oars, straining to propel their craft as fast as possible. With shouts of encouragement, muffled curses, or a cadence to time the rowing, the teams raced across the lake, churning the still water to froth in their wake.
With the sound of incoming fire zipping over their heads, the boats headed toward the forest's edge, where their fellow Troopers awaited their return. As they neared the beach, the energy of the Paratroopers waiting there reached a fevered pitch and they began to dive into the muddy water to haul the inflatable craft onto the sodden shore.
But what ensued was nearly a brawl as the crafts' supporters did everything in their power to assist their fellows to be the first onto the beach by pulling, pushing, or dragging with all their might.
These four boats and their Airborne Engineers had "Crossed the Waal."
During World War II, at the height of the war with the German Third Reich, Engineers from the 307th Engineer Battalion (Airborne) and Paratroopers from the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment accomplished the impossible by crossing the Waal River at Nijmegen. Under brutal German machine gun and artillery fire, in broad daylight, the Engineers ferried 504th PIR Paratroopers across the river five times. Throughout the operation the Engineers and Paratroopers sustained numerous casualties, but were able to successfully secure the Nijmegen highway and railroad bridges.
Each year, Airborne Engineers from the 82nd Airborne Division, commemorate this historic event by holding their own "Crossing the Waal" at McKeller's Lake. But, this year was special because it was the first in nearly three years that all the engineer companies from the four Brigade Combat Teams of the 82nd Airborne Division were able to attend, due to deployment in support of the Global War on Terror.
Early Friday morning on Sep. 24th the Engineer companies assembled along Gruber Road in the pre-dawn light. To start the event, each company had to carry a Zodiac boat down Ardennes Road to McKeller's Lake.
As they ran through the crowded streets of Fort Bragg, passing formations of training Paratroopers, the Engineers traded positions carrying the heavy water craft in order to save their energy for the main event.
To commemorate the Waal crossing, each company had to create two teams of 15 Engineers. Each team would paddle their boat across the lake, around an anchored raft and back to the start point. There, they would switch out with the next 15-man team. The first company that completed both legs of the journey would take home the coveted oar and a year's worth of bragging rights.
What ensued was definitely not a serene, cool morning on the lake, but an all-bets-off fight to the finish.
With the crack of simulated machine fire and the billowing of smoke, the four teams dragged their boats into the water and quickly scrambled inside to begin a frenzied paddle to the turn-around point.
As boats returned from the first lap, the water of the small landing became packed with Paratroopers as they either tried to slow an opposing team or assist their own team in making it to the shore.
By forming human walls to keep an opposing team from landing, or by creating a chain of linked arms from boat to shore, each Trooper did his best to ensure his company's victory.
Within moments, not a piece of dry clothing was to be found, and the boats were out for their second lap.
Jockeying for position, the boats raced forward into the lake and as they returned, the mayhem on the small beach seemed to have escalated. For all the Engineers knew, only one team could take home the oar.
"Best thing about today was the [82nd Airborne] Division coming together and seeing the camaraderie between the brigades," said Sgt. Thomas Anderson, engineer team leader, A Co. 4th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 4BCT. "It's coming out and paying tribute to what those men did. It's pretty humbling."
Despite the fierce competition, First Lt. Courtney Bird, executive officer, A Co. 4BSTB, said, "The most important part is we are all able to celebrate the day, no matter who wins or loses."
But, one company rose above the others and took home the oar. The Engineers of the 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 3BCT, Panthers, placed first in the competition.
First Sergeant Joel Rackley, the senior enlisted advisor, A Co., 3BSTB, accepted the oar from Col (Ret.) Jack Cox, former commander of the 307th Engineer Battalion and guest speaker at the event.
"It's great to see our other engineer companies that have just returned from deployment," said First Lt. Lamar Cantelou, executive officer, A Co., 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, "It's an honor to all be able to come together and come to this one spot to celebrate this event."
With the commemoration race complete and a celebration underway by all the participants, Cox summed up the feeling of the day in his remarks to the assembled Paratroopers by saying: "When you walk down the street, stand proud. And, when you go to bed at night say one thing; God, I thank you I'm an Airborne Engineer."