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Self-reliant, resourceful, and adaptable: America's engineers in the 21st century.

The initial report was wrong. It was always wrong. Yet we had to do something. We informed the battalion commander and briefed him on the situation: a young boy was badly injured while playing with unexploded ordnance near a mine-infested trench outside the local town. He managed to make his way back to a farm road and then got a ride to the hospital, where he was being treated. He told a doctor, who informed the local Implementation Force camp commander, that his friend was unconscious and still in the trench. The time was 1830 hours and darkness was quickly approaching. Under the rules of engagement, we were not required to react. But we did. The commander of B/23d Engineer Battalion already had a platoon on alert. Within minutes, a sapper squad equipped with mine detectors and basic suits' was en route to the trench. The brigade commander requested helicopter support. Using a spotlight, a helicopter flew up and down the trench line, looking for the injured boy. The search ended early in the morning when th ey found the dead body It was the summer of 1996.

This example, though tragic, demonstrates a recent example of the ability of American engineers to respond quickly to unknown and unforeseen missions and threats. This ability to adapt, however, is not new. In fact, several engineer units during the 20th century, trained in engineer doctrine, have executed missions that challenged and forced our leaders to look for solutions that may or may not be readily available. This article will examine three of them during three different operations.

World War II

More than half a century ago, thousands of America's engineer soldiers entered the European theater of war, trained on assault river crossings, mine emplacement, and demolitions. However, when the engineers hit the beach, they encountered missions that would challenge their men and test their leadership. Not knowing what to expect, sappers from the 29 1st Engineer Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel David Pergrin, landed on Omaha Beach, just over 2 weeks after the invasion. The engineers' initial task was to provide support directly behind the 9th and 83d Infantry Divisions and maintain the quickly deteriorating 1st Army main supply route between Carentan and Ste. Mere-Eglise and south of Carentan toward Periers. The engineers would be faced with heavily mined and booby-trapped fields, villages, and buildings throughout their zone, as well as numerous bridges blown by retreating Germans. (2)

There were several areas where engineers adapted to an environment and faced missions that looked nothing like the missions they encountered at homestation training. The first of these was the initial advance into France. Advancement was very slow through the Norman bocage because of the massive walls of hedgerows, each about 12 feet high and 8 feet thick. In addition, whenever troops smashed through a hedgerow, they encountered German minefields hastily emplaced as they withdrew across the fields and along the connecting roads. (3) Along with the hedgerows were waterways, trenches, deep valleys, orchards, and wooded areas. There was no doctrine to bust through. In fact, there was no equipment available. Based on a recommendation from one of his lieutenants, Lieutenant Colonel Pergrin ordered that several of the bulldozer cabs be protected "by means of makeshift armored driving compartments." (4) The first of the "armored" bulldozers began crashing through hedgerows followed by advancing infantry shortly ther eafter.

Another example of engineer adaptability was in employing mine detectors. Designed to detect metal in antipersonnel and antitank mines, mine detectors were the primary means to clear a mined area. Not anticipated, however, was the use of the mine detector to clear a path to recover dead paratroopers in the mine-infested swamps around Omaha Beach. (5) Trained engineers could be counted on to complete this morbid task. The 29 1st Engineer Battalion constructed 67 bridges (11 under fire), cleared 7,000 mines, deactivated 15 bombs, took 8,500 prisoners, and rescued 235 noncombatants. (6)


Twenty years later, America's engineers would again prove to be self-reliant, resourceful, and adaptable during the early 1965 troop buildup in South Vietnam. Because the active duty engineers lacked the manpower base at the beginning of the troop buildup, and because there were only two engineer training facilities, units going to South Vietnam were woefully short on engineer experience and skill during the first year. (7 )The initial engineer missions included supporting the tactical operations, constructing logistical facilities, and "making the environment amenable to the Army interests." (8) During the initial planning, engineers estimated that there were 170 battalion-months' worth of engineer effort required and only eight active battalions deployed, leaving almost 2 years to accomplish the work.

As engineers discovered during World War H, a special heavy-duty protective cab was needed. In this case, it was standard issue. The perilous job of operating the Rome plow almost guaranteed that the engineer would "statistically cinch.. .a Purple Heart." (9) The significance was the "fact that these engineer soldiers were not specially trained or screened for land-clearing assignments." (10)

Engineers showed their adaptability in several situations. The first of these was the requirement to clear areas for camps and helicopter landing pads and open major transportation routes. The thick jungle vegetation and trees posed a significant obstacle to the land-clearing operations. The fix was the Rome plow--a special tree-cutting blade that replaced the standard blade on the D7E tractor.

Next was the requirement to clear tunnels. The 1966 search-and-destroy tactics uncovered a vast network of tunnels that was as much as 20 years in the making. "Constructed in impervious layers of hard clay at varying depths, with small, well-camouflaged entrances, these tunnels defied any simple method of destruction." (11) Engineers put together a tunnel-demolition team, known as "tunnel rats," that developed several means of destruction. One way was to prepare and place explosive charges deep in the tunnel with sacks of powdered riot-control agents placed on top of the charges. The chemical remained effective from 2 to 6 months. Another method was to use acetylene gas, and still another way was destruction by flooding. Again, the significance was the fact that these engineer soldiers were not specially trained or screened to be tunnel rats.

Finally, engineers in Vietnam conducted quarry operations, constructed fuel pipelines, cleared miles of jungle, moved tons of earth, repaired hundreds of bridges, and installed steel matting for numerous airfields (12) --again, missions that were nothing like the ones they encountered at home-station training.


America's engineers, 25 years later, would again prove to be self-reliant, resourceful, and adaptable during operations in Bosnia. Thousands of engineer soldiers entered the Balkan region trained on mobility, countermobility, and survivability. However, when the engineers from the 23d Engineer Battalion arrived, they found that very little--if any--of their home-station training or Combat Maneuver Training Center rotations had prepared them for the yearlong deployment. The initial problem the engineers faced was a great deal of mud and mines. With the majority of the Posivina Corridor comprised of lowlands in the vicinity of rivers, minefields, destroyed towns and factories, occupied communities, and agricultural fields, engineers would again have to execute missions that were not by the book.

The first example was with the U.S. Army Europe and V Corps initial plan for base camp construction. The plan was for a brigade operating base (BOB), housing 1,800 soldiers and equipment, and two forward operating bases (FOBs), housing 1,200 soldiers and equipment each. When the engineers assessed the terrain and the maneuver commander's intent, the BOB and two FOBs would not be feasible. From the perspective of hardstand parking, engineers faced the option of constructing the BOB/FOBs in operating agricultural fields or upgrading damaged hard facilities. Based on soil conditions, water table levels, vehicles stuck in fields, and current on-the ground experience, engineers had to adapt and reevaluate the recommendation. The solution was a combination of constructing operating bases in agricultural areas and on hardstands in a local town.

Next was the "doctrinal" classification of the numerous routes in the area of responsibility. The problem with FM 5-36, Route Reconnaissance and Classification, is that it does not address mines on routes or the status of a route after it has been proofed. The solution was the implementation of a "route status" to enhance and clarify FM 5-36. Additionally, the unit implemented a route tracker that the task forces updated and provided to the brigade via a fragmentary order twice a month. The tracker included the date the route was cleared and proofed, if it was marked, the military load class, and a comment block that could include the type of surface, bridges, and any obstructions (such as large potholes). This route tracker greatly enhanced the unit's ability to plan patrols and eventually transfer the sector to another unit. By using existing doctrine, engineers developed a useful tactic, technique, and procedure for tracking routes and adapted to a new environment.

Engineers were constantly updating the route status by conducting reconnaissance in the sector. On one such patrol, locals--complaining that their horse-drawn carts would not cross an armored, vehicle-launched bridge (AVLB)--approached the engineers and asked them to remove the bridge. A horse had fallen between the roadway gap and had fractured a leg. Knowing that removing the AVLB was not an option, since Ml tanks frequently used it, the engineers installed decking to cover the gap.

This problem identified a requirement for the engineers to hold forum or an engineer joint military commission (EJMC) with local engineers in the former warning factions (EWEs). So, on 1 March 1996, the 23d Engineer Battalion held the first of several EJMCs. Located in a temperature controlled (temper) tent on a pothole infested parking lot next to a partially destroyed diner, the three FWF engineers met for the first time since the war. Sappers from the 23d Engineer Battalion provided security and escorted the EWE engineers to the site. The meeting lasted for 3 hours and uncovered, for the first time since crossing the river, the complexities involved with meeting requirements outlined in the Dayton Peace Accord and other non-military-related engineer problems, such as the decking requirement for the AVLB. This showed how an engineer unit--trained on mobility, survivability, and countermobility tasks-- adapted to a new environment, demonstrated its flexibility, and quickly learned how to live in a very auste re and dangerous post-combat zone.


These examples show how America's engineer units during World War II, Vietnam, and Bosnia--trained in engineer doctrine-- demonstrated that, while doctrine is our bedrock, there are situations that will challenge and force our leaders to look for solutions that may or may not be readily available. Adaptability and flexibility of our soldiers must remain paramount. I firmly believe that doctrine is the foundation of our training, and it directly led to the success of our engineers on the battlefields and deployments mentioned above. In fact, FM 5-34, Engineer Field Data, provides engineer soldiers at all levels with a source of reference doctrine that is handy and useful. However, I also believe that soldiers and leaders will face "junkyard-war" -type scenarios (especially for engineer units entering an immature theater) that will reward creativity and original thought. A "can-do" attitude in conjunction with a sound understanding of engineer doctrine will ensure mission accomplishment. I predict that this wil l last well into the 21st century.

This is not to say that we should change our development of doctrine or stop training. On the contrary, I suggest that we need to step up our training to make it tougher and more realistic. An example of this could be an engineer squad leader taking his squad to a local junk yard and constructing steel hedgehogs or tetrahedrons out of vehicle hulks (apparently not in short supply in numerous operations). Take it a step further and assume that the hulk is booby-trapped. This kind of "out-of-the-box" training--coupled with EM 5-34 and a complementary professional development program that includes thought-provoking historical studies-- will increase our ability to be self-reliant, resourceful, and adaptable.


(1.) A Keviar overgarment with thick antiballistic boots and gloves.

(2.) Pergrin D. First Across the Rhine. New York, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 1989, p. 26.

(3.) Pergrin, p.32.

(4.) Pergrin, p.34.

(5.) Pergrin, p.25.

(6.) Pergrin, cover page.

(7.) Ploger, R. Major General,. Vietnam Studies U.S. Army Engineers 1965 - 1970.

Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1974. p, 23.

(8.) Ploger, p.199.

(9.) Ploger, p.103.

(10.) Ploger p.104.

(11.) Ploger, p. 92.

(12.) Ploger, p. 95-129


Giles, J. The Damned Engineers. Second Edition. Reprinted by special arrangement with Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.

Leyson, B., Captain. The Army Engineers in Review. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company Inc., 1943.

The White Paper, Engineer 2000. U.S. Army Engineer Center, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991.

Major Stor is the assistant division engineer for the 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, New York.
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Author:Stor, Erik L.
Publication:Engineer: The Professional Bulletin for Army Engineers
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2002
Previous Article:The multicomponent initiative: lessons learned and challenges ahead.
Next Article:Operation Enigma Strike: testing the deployability of the 130th engineer brigade FEMs.

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