By Sgt. Jessica M. Kuhn, XVIII Airborne Corps PAOOctober 20, 2011
FORT BRAGG, N.C., Oct. 20, 2011 -- Smoke hazed in the air as the Soldiers began to push their assault boats into the water as bullets were already flying past their heads. In the not so far distance, they could hear the loud echoes of machine guns going off.
It was getting harder and harder to move because the knee-deep mud. The last boat hit the water and it seemed the smoke needed for cover had all disappeared.
On the first trip, several Soldiers paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives. The next two weren't as bad as the Soldiers made their assault upon the enemy. By the fourth and fifth trip, almost all enemy fire had been subdued.
The day was September 20, 1944. The mission was the famous Waal River Crossing.
"When all the machine gun fire and smoke filled the air, it was so realistic for Mister Burks that he said he got chills," said Lt. Col. Brett G. Sylvia, the 307th Engineer Battalion commander.
Howard Burks was there back in 1944 when the real crossing of the Waal River happened, and he was also at the annual competition hosted by the 307th Engineer Battalion with teams also competing from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division at Kiest Lake on the Fort Bragg training grounds Oct. 19.
"Having an actual member who crossed the Waal River back in World War II is a real morale booster," said Spc. Jeremy Durstine, a heavy equipment operator for the winning team from 738th Engineer Support Company, 307th En. Bn. "He sat there and relived his memories while we made our very own."
During the competition, teams mirrored the historic day's actual events by having eleven Soldiers paddling the boat, one Soldier guarding and three Soldiers being transported to the other side as if they were making a real assault, Durstine explained.
"This is a commemorative event for the crossing of the Waal River during Operation Market Garden where the 307th Engineers successfully ushered across the infantry men of the 82nd Airborne Division five times," said 1st Lt. James Cunningham, the 1st platoon leader for 738th ESC, 307th En. Bn. "This unit is deep in heritage and the Waal River crossing is probably the largest event in history of the unit."
For these engineers, this event isn't just a competition, but a moment in the 307th's En. Bn.'s past that makes them proud to be part of the organization.
"There is something when you look at the unit and what it has done in the past. Its successes and traditions make you want to be part of that team," explained Cunningham.
"The Army is all about history and reliving it today was great," said Durstine. "To be here and be around the camaraderie and morale of different Soldiers feels awesome."
Even though the day was full of mostly fun and laughter, the challenge of being the winner was no easy feat for these Paratroopers.
"A lot of people just showed up to have fun, and then got disappointed when they didn't win," Cunningham said. "We knew if we put just a little extra effort it would really pay dividends, and it did."
Durstine also added how the members of his team had been getting ready for more than a month.
"We prepared by going to a different lake and practicing being in sync with each other while in the boat," he said. "We also practiced by flipping the boat and recovering it in case that happened today."
However, once the competition started certain unexpected challenges surfaced.
"The organization of the people was the hardest part or in military terms command control," Cunningham said.
After the competition came to an end, the winners were awarded their trophy-- The Oar.
"We are showing how when the infantry needed to get across the Waal River, they proposed the issue to the engineers, 'Hey, here is our problem. How do we get here so we can beat the enemy and accomplish this task?' they asked. The engineers then solved it by paddling across the river, to me, that is what the The Oar symbolizes," Cunningham said.
All in all, both the real life crossing of the Waal River and the one emulated in the competition are just examples of how important of a tool the engineers are to the Army.
"You never know what tomorrow is going to bring," Durstine said. "Engineers have to be ready because we make way for different companies and their missions. If it's clearing their route or getting them across a river, we have to be there to make sure everything is safe and secure for the Soldiers behind us."