Fort Bragg engineers participate in annual event to remember history
September 28, 2012
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - "It is one thing and a terrible thing too, to make a river crossing in fragile canvas boats in the face of a desperate enemy's murderous, point blank fire. But it is another thing to cross and re-cross the same river under the same terrifying conditions again and again," read Capt. Tyesha Walker to a large group of airborne engineer Soldiers, on the banks of Kiest Lake, on Fort Bragg Thursday morning.
The dialogue, read by Walker, was written by Pfc. David Whittier in 1944, after the 307th Parachute Engineers trudged through the blood-soaked waters of the Waal River with only the butt stocks of their rifles and their helmets.
The 307th Combat Airborne Engineer Battalion honored this heroic act with an annual boat race Thursday, consisting of five laps around the lake to symbolize the five times their World War II comrades had to push themselves back and forth during battle on the Maas-Waal Canal in Holland.
"Sixty-eight years ago this happened," said Lt. Col. Brett Silvia, commander of the 307th, to his formation of troops standing steady, but itching to begin the competition. "Today we have the opportunity to commemorate what happened. This is our legacy.
"We honor our predecessors and commemorate their gallant efforts that make us proud to be airborne engineers," Silvia said.
At the end of his speech, the engineers had 15 minutes to get to the other side of the lake, assemble their teams and ready their boats on the bay.
In the crowd were other Soldiers ready to cheer on their companies, Family members toting cameras and smiles, and a few retired alumni of the 307th, who were flooded with memories from that day 68 years ago.
"I was in the first wave, my best buddy was killed right beside me and I went back three times," said Obie Wickersham about the treacherous Waal River crossing.
Wickersham served with the 307th during World War II and the 2nd Infantry Division during the Korean War, where he became a prisoner of war.
"Charlie Company, 307th brings back all the memories," Wickersham said, "It wasn't in the mission to make the river crossing.
"We didn't have boats, so they went back and got the British canvas boats, folded up and plywood with sticks," he continued. "It was muddy when we went up over the bank. You're bogged down in the mud. There were boats being sunk and there were boats going around in circles.
"It was hell, let's put it that way. But once you get going and the adrenaline's flowing, all you want to do is get across the river."
Just getting across the river is something that these competing engineer paratroopers would definitely understand by the end of the race.
Smoke was set out on the water and in the wood line, speakers rattled off gun fire and the 307th once again took to the water. Ten-Soldier teams paddled down and back between buoys while an eleventh took aim up front with an imitation rifle.
In the midst of the smoke, the Soldiers looked like ghosts of wars past, fighting and yelling with every bit of energy left in their bones.
Once all five laps were completed, the teams had to run back up the side of the lake to the finish line. First place went to the 137th Engineer Company, who not only felt pride for the win, but also for their unit history.
"When you start to hear those simulators go off, you start to think about what it was really like," said Spc. Derek Robinette, an equipment operator in the 137th. "You try to think about the people who died and the sacrifice that they had to put on the line to get that infantry across the river.
"Wow, that really happened," Robinette continued, "We're just simulating it right now, but these guys did it in real life."
Many Soldiers thought back to those words read by Walker and written by Whittier almost 68 years before, as they caught their breath by the smoky, but quiet water and shook hands with the men whose legacy they carry with honor.
"I believe the 307th has the same heart," Robinette said. "When you think about how awesome they were at their job, you just want to live up to that same expectation. I think it gives the unit more pride, more want and more drive to do what they did back then."
Whittier's account shows that the 307th's heart has indeed not faltered as it transcended generations, "No unit, small or large, has ever served its country more heroically or to better purpose than this detachment of engineers."