By Sgt. Susan WiltSeptember 26, 2008
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Running two miles carrying a boat overhead, then frantically paddling across a lake might seem like an exhausting feat, but for the engineers of the 82nd Airborne Division, it's just a fun way to pay tribute to the past.
To honor one of the most famous feats in combat engineer history, the crossing of the Waal River by pontoon boat into Germany in 1944, engineers from the four combat brigades of the 82nd Abn. Div. competed in a re-enactment of the crossing on Sept. 18.
Each of the engineer companies participating in the event ran with a 14-man boat to a launch point at McKellar's Lake. Once launched, the paratroopers raced each other twice across the lake.
This year the 1st Brigade Combat Team engineers won the competition.
"It feels awesome to win it," said Sgt. 1st Class Randolph Delapena, a Miami native, while holding onto the oar that was presented to the company for winning the competition.
The engineers try to stage the Crossing of the Waal re-enactment every year on the anniversary of the operation, reflecting its status as an important part of 307th Engineer Battalion and 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment history. During World War II, the paratroopers made five trips across the Waal River at Nijmegen during daylight and under heavy enemy fire on Sept. 20, 1944. Crossing the Waal played a crucial role in the 504th PIR seizing occupied German bridges.
The re-enactment is always a good time for the engineers and this year proved no exception. Throughout the morning the engineers remained loud and rambunctious, from screaming at the top of their lungs during the run to voluntarily jumping into the lake to help push off the boats.
The event was attended by several past and present commanders who got a kick out of the engineers' enthusiasm.
"This competition is live and loud," said Col. Christopher Gibson, the 2nd BCT commander.
"You all did a great thing here today," said Lt. Col. Frederic Drummond, the 1st Brigade Special Troops Battalion commander, addressing the engineers. "It's a great way to honor our distant past."
A lot of the engineers who competed in this year's event were not new to the Crossing of the Waal re-enactment, like three time contender Staff Sgt. Rich Gerzmehle. Even though Gerzmehle, a Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., native, has competed several times, he was quick to mention that this year's event stood out from the past.
"This was by far my favorite," said Gerzmehle, a platoon sergeant for Co. A, 2nd BSTB. "It seemed like all the Brigades were into it," he said in a voice barely audible over the screaming and hooting paratroopers in the background.
Even though the engineers exerted a lot of energy during the competition there were no signs of exhaust after.
"Nobody's tired, the adrenaline is still kicking," Delapena, a platoon sergeant from Co. A, 1st BSTB, 82nd Abn. Div.
Although the event was a competition, a lot of the engineers just enjoyed being together and catching up with old friends.
"We don't see each other on a day to day basis like we used to," said Sgt. 1st Class James Gaw, a platoon sergeant from Co. A, 1st BSTB, referring to when all the engineers were in the same battalion. "Today is a reunion."