Sturgis battalion in Korea

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109th Engineer Battalion members recall Korean Call-up

 

by Duke Doering

 

Memories of the invasion of South Korea by North Korea 55 years ago are still vivid in the minds of members of the 109th Engineer Battalion. The Korean War had started on June 25, 1950 and shortly thereafter most of the National Guard units in South Dakota were alerted for Active Duty. The local unit was officially called to Federal Active Duty on September 3, 1950, with their mobilization station being Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Although sometimes called the Forgotten War, it certainly remains very well remembered by the soldiers who fought in Korea and to those who were mobilized for the conflict. In 1950 the entire 109th Engineer Battalion was stationed in the Black Hills with the Headquarters and Service Company located in Rapid City, Company A was assigned to Lead, SD and was commanded by Captain Chuck Lien of Rapid City, Company B was from Hot Springs and commanded by Captain Owen McDermott and Company C was located in the Main Street armory in Sturgis and was commanded by Captain Joseph Bodwell.

      Ray Murray was a member of Company C, 109th Engineer Battalion that was stationed in Sturgis and remembers the trip to Fort Bragg, NC very well. Murray along with 10 other members of the battalion was assigned the mission of escorting the equipment on rail cars from the Black Hills towns to North Carolina. Murray states, "Our job was to check the equipment each time the train stopped. We would check the load to make sure the binders were tight, the load had not shifted, inspect for vandalism and overall condition of the load to insure that the equipment was OK." Murray, who still lives in Sturgis, says one of his lasting memories was "they were each given a case of C-Rations, and that is what they had to eat, breakfast, lunch and supper, on the 10 day trip from the Black Hills to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.

      The overall commander of the 407-member battalion was Lieutenant Colonel William J. Brown of Sturgis. Brown was a combat veteran and company commander in World War II. The 109th Engineer Battalion had just returned five years earlier from World War II where it was the engineering element of the famous 34th Infantry Division. They had spent more days in combat than any other American unit in the Second World War. They started in Africa and continued through Italy and to the border of France before the war ended. The 109th Engineers had the dubious honor of spending over 500 consecutive days in the combat zone. Many of the members of the 1950 Korean War call-up were veterans of the World War II. Frank Hauk of Black Hawk was living in Lead and working for the Homestake Mine at the time of the alert. Hauk had fought in the Pacific Theatre in WW II and was discharged as a Staff Sergeant. He completed officer training in 1948 and was a Second Lieutenant when Company A was called for Korea. Hauk recalls during their advanced unit training at Fort Bragg, “we expected to be shipped to Korea, but the Cold War was another military situation during this era and the United States was concerned about Soviet intervention in Germany”.

     After attaining a full complement of trained soldiers filling the unit to 100% strength, the unit completed intensive battalion level training and was directed to prepare for deployment. The overseas movement alert came on May 15, 1951; the unit departed the United States on June 15, 1951, and arrived in Bremerhaven, Germany on June 29, 1951. The next day they traveled by train to Mannheim, West Germany. The Battalion was quartered in Taylor Barracks where they were to spend most of the next year. They were assigned to the 11th Engineer Group and the 7th U.S. Army. The 109th Engineer Battalion was in charge of nine (9) bridges over the Rhine river. These bridges were of unique design. They were the standard Army M2 Bailey Bridges mounted on the M4 floating metal pontoons, with half of the bridge on each side of the river.

      The bridge halves would swing from each side of the river and when they met in the middle of the river they were fastened together with huge steel pins. It took the super-sized Army Brockway Trucks to handle the one and a half inch cable required to swing the bridges. Each line company was in charge of three bridges that were spaced at various distances along the Rhine, some as far as 30 miles apart. Chuck Lien recalls the importance of the mission along the Rhine, “when the alerts were sounded, the only traffic allowed on the German highways was the 109th Battalion. We had two missions, one was to swing the nine bridges into place, or the second and worst-case scenario, was to destroy all the bridges across the Rhein in case of a Soviet invasion.”

     These missions continued for most of the 12 months they remained overseas, but they were also assigned a TDY mission in France of building roads for the French military. They set up a temporary Headquarters in Verdun, while some of the line units stayed at other locations. Bill Hacker of Hot Springs, who was a Sergeant in Company B at the time, said, “We set up our tents on a soccer field in Metz. Most of the other units lived in tents in the wilderness while completing that mission, which took just one day short of two months.” Hacker, after returning to Hot Springs, became a commissioned officer and later was assigned as the commander of Company B. A week before Christmas in 1951 the 109th Engineers had returned from France and was settled again at Taylor Barracks in Mannheim, patrolling the Rhine. 

      The only casualty during the activation was Corporal Herman Higgins, who drowned in the Rhine River when a cable broke, snapped the clasp on his life jacket, and knocked Higgins into the river while working on the bridge near Bruhl. Bob Mechling of Sturgis was just a teenager when the call came. He was a cook in the unit and recalls the leadership examples set by Brown, Lien, McDermott and Bodwell. “We were extremely fortunate to have these people in the command positions, you could not have picked better commanders, they fully understood how to take care of their people and were greatly respected by their troops, the German Army, the German population and the regular Army.”

     Later in his military career Mechling proved his own leadership qualities when he rose to the rank of Brigadier General, and after his military retirement was elected Mayor of Sturgis. During this period of time most this countries political and military leadership was convinced that the communist plan was to take over the world. Most United States citizens were faced with the cold war threat of nuclear war and many were digging fallout shelters throughout the country. The soldiers of the 109th Engineer Battalion were convinced that the communist threat and nuclear war were very possible. They took their mission of bridging the Rhine very seriously and worked hard at setting record times in both erecting the panel bridge and spanning the Rhein. Gordon Campbell, who now lives in Spearfish, was a Lieutenant in the unit at the time and recalls “The U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Belvoir, Virginia had recorded the 109th Engineer Battalion, while in Germany, with the fasted time ever for assembly of the Bailey Bridge, a record that lasted for many years at the Engineer School, and may never have been broken.”

       It is a delight to listen to Chuck Lien of Rapid City, also a World War II veteran who was in the Philippines in 1945, reminisce about joys and heartaches they encountered while in Ft. Bragg, France and Germany. Stories of “Argo, his Jeep and Sister, the white dog” who accompanied the unit provided some humor to a very serious situation in history. Mostly though, it is easy to listen to Lien because he had a genuine interest in, and concern for, all his soldiers. . In August of 1952 most of the 109th soldiers were returned to the United States and returned to their peacetime units in the Black Hills. On September 3, 1952 the 109th Engineer Combat Battalion had officially been returned to state control. The unit had done all that was asked of them and more. The unit maintained excellent morale and completed all assigned missions with rare efficiency. The 109th Engineer Battalion once again had answered the call.

Published in Rapid City Journal, 1-3-06