By Mrs. Jennifer Aldridge (USACE)April 5, 2017
NEIRSTEIN, Germany -- It was 72 years ago, almost to the day, that Soldiers of the 249th Engineer Battalion spent 18 hours building a 1,000-foot pontoon bridge across a rapidly falling Rhine River here. This bridge, and three others, enabled Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army to breach the river and continue pushing east in the final months of World War II. Through these efforts, Army engineers assisted in ending the war and saving many lives.
On March 25, U.S. and German government and military officials honored the bravery and accomplishments of the 249th Engineer Battalion by unveiling a monument dedicated to them on the Neirstein riverbank.
WWII veteran Robert F. Shelato, 92, attended the ceremony and spoke about his role as a combat engineer during the operation.
"It was thrilling as a 19-year-old kid with the enemy only 400 yards away," he said. "Unlike in the movies or theaters, no one volunteered for the mission -- we used a lottery system. Later, we were surprised to learn the crossing was highly successful with only a few shots fired."
Shelato, an Indiana native, is a member of the 249th Engineer Battalion Association, the organization responsible for funding and coordinating the memorial construction with support from the city of Neirstein.
The association also invited current 249th commander, Lt. Col. Julie Balten, to participate in the ceremony. She said WWII is one of her favorite periods of history to study and understand.
"Charlie Company of the 249th was able to successfully put this bridge across the river and help end the war," she said. "It's a defining moment in our history that we should celebrate and share going forward. We always want to keep a piece of that, we want that legacy to live on."
Quite a bit has changed since the establishment of the 249th in 1943. The battalion's expertise has evolved from combat construction to prime power. But there's still a lot of similarities between the WWII Soldiers crossing the Rhine and the Soldiers in the unit today, Balten said.
"They're extremely resilient, they spend a lot of time away from home, they continue to sacrifice their time and their families' time for the mission, and they are true professionals," she said. "I feel very lucky I get to be their commander."
The present-day 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power), assigned to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headquarters, provides commercial-level power, technical assistance and advice to military units and federal relief organizations in support of operations worldwide.
Col. Matthew Tyler, a former 249th commander from 2009 - 2011 and current USACE Europe District commander, said attending the memorial dedication filled him with great pride to be associated with a unit that helped defeat the Nazi regime.
"Much like the bridge builders of the 249th during WWII, today's Prime Power Soldiers must be skilled at what they do and maintain a high level of readiness to perform their unique and important mission under the most challenging conditions," he said.
The battalion, through four geographically dispersed Prime Power companies A, B, C and D and a Prime Power School, offers a variety of services including: electrical power requirement assessments; power production; transformer inspection and test analysis; maintenance and repair of power plants, substations, and government-owned or managed transmission and distribution systems; circuit breaker and relay maintenance; infrared surveys; medium-voltage electrical contractor oversight; and training for personnel to operate and maintain prime power distribution and generation equipment.
In 2015, Tyler reached back to his former battalion with a complex power-generation requirement at Europe District's Aegis Ashore Missile Defense project in Romania. The 249th deployed on one week's notice to Naval Support Facility Deveselu to provide a 3.2-megawatt power plant solution to test the Aegis Weapons System and get it operational, Balten said.
"Col. Tyler, knowing the capability of the battalion, saw the requirement and knew we could assist," she said. "We were tasked to provide a platoon and a platoon's worth of equipment. What was supposed to be a 30-day mission lasted six months. They did a fantastic job for the Corps, Missile Defense Agency and the Navy. They shortened the gap and provided that capability in a pinch."
The 249th currently supports forward bases in Turkey and Qatar; U.S. Army Central requirements in Kuwait; oversight of electrical work in Jordan; and power production, and quality assurance and control of power infrastructure at camps throughout Iraq. It's clear the 249th is in high demand, Balten said.
"When we go and provide our resource and other units or agencies see how well we are able to perform, they just want more," she said. "We're small -- in the Army there is only about 325 prime power personnel, so we'd like to grow."
In addition to work for the Department of Defense, Tyler said the unit's emergency power generation response following the 2009 earthquake and tsunami in American Samoa highlights the battalion's support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency during disasters in the United States and U.S. territories.
"We responded to more than a dozen tropical storms, hurricanes, floods and severe winter weather events during my time in command," he said.
The 249th has 27 Soldiers on call 24/7 to respond to natural and man-made disasters in support of FEMA missions, Balten said.
"We go in advance of the event and look at critical facilities if we get a pre-decision," she said. "We go look at what size generators these critical facilities need."
Whether the mission is to support military operations in Iraq or FEMA's response to Hurricane Matthew, it's going to be a high priority mission, Balten said.
"They're all no fail missions and so that's part of the struggle," she said. "How do we prioritize? We have to do them all; we're the only Prime Power battalion in the Army."