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National Guard engineers end 77 years in Sturgis

National Guard engineers end 77 years in Sturgis

STURGIS - A hometown military legacy spanning 77 years will end Saturday when National Guard members, veterans and friends gather to roll and case 109th Engineer Battalion's flag for the last time.
To be certain, the National Guard will continue to operate in Sturgis, but the name, wartime unit history and mission of the engineer unit will be consigned to the history books following the formal inactivation of the battalion headquarters and reorganization of its Rapid City-based parent unit to the 109th Regional Support Group. Sturgis will become home for a new unit, the 881st Troop Command, replacing the engineers at the current high school campus location.
Battalion commander Lt. Col. James Webster will lead the inactivation ceremony scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at Woodle Field. Following the public ceremony, the battalion will host a program and banquet at the Main Street Sturgis Armory.
Proud history
The 109th engineer story begins in 1924. The engineer regiment was organized with companies in Rapid City, Madison, Brookings, Huron, Lead, Hot Springs and Belle Fourche. It was on March 4, 1930, that Sturgis received Company F. Since that time, the community of Sturgis and the 109th Engineers have had a continuous relationship.
William J. Brown, a young school teacher, joined the unit as a first lieutenant in 1931. City leaders helped considerably when they contributed $13,000 matching funds for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to build a new 125- by 75-foot reinforced concrete, brick-faced armory at 1019 Main St. in Sturgis.
The outbreak of World War II created a new sense of urgency for the United States. Now Capt. Brown and others trained the members of Company F with greater purpose and intensity.
Young local men like the three Egger brothers - Joe, Tom and John - met each Monday night with their civilian buddies, including Ray Wagner, Hugh Dalzell, Lawrence Lodge, John Pountain, Galen Quinn, Elmer Harwood, Harley Gleason, John Symanski, Bernard Eveleth and many others to transform themselves into better soldiers.
The call-up of the 109th Engineer Regiment for federal active duty came on Feb. 10, 1941, with Capt. Brown in command of the Sturgis company. They left Sturgis on Feb. 23, with the temperature near zero. Their temporary training destination was Camp Claiborne, La.
Training lasted until the attack on Pearl Harbor, after which the 109th Engineers was shipped to Camp Killadeas, Ireland, in preparation for the eventual allied invasion of North Africa.
Among first in combat
It was on Nov. 8, 1942, that Company C, 109th Engineer Battalion and 168th Infantry Regiment landed in Algiers, North Africa, making Sturgis Guardsmen among the first U.S. soldiers to enter combat during World War II.
While Company C, 109th Battalion, was still near Algiers, Sturgis residents Leroy (Swede) Anderson, Richard Griffin and Jerry Gorman were selected for a British-American commando outfit. They became part of a Dec. 1, 1942, mission to attack a German-held airport at Bizerte, Tunisia, in North Africa.
Survivors, including Anderson and Griffin, were captured and spent the war as prisoners of the Germans. Gorman was far enough away from the fight to make his escape back to friendly lines.
By Feb. 8, 1943, the entire 109th Engineer Battalion had moved into Tunisia to battle German Gen. Erwin Rommel's armor units. Their engineer duties included laying minefields, road construction and working with explosives. On Feb. 14, 1943, troops were laying minefields and establishing wire barriers in support of the 168th Infantry when the German Army stormed through Faid Pass.
After just one month in combat, young men from Sturgis were seeing war close up. Members of 1st Platoon of Company C were acting as infantry on Feb. 15 and 16 when they were isolated on a peak south of Kasserine Pass and ordered to withdraw. During the movement, 11 members were captured in the early morning of Feb. 17.
Lt. Royal Lee, Robert Lodge, Francis Murray, William Caton, Owen Gorman, Richard Behrens, Kenneth Brandon, Kenneth Gourley, Leo Baker, Wayne Hannant and William Weimer spent the next two years in German POW camps. All of them, including the wounded Weimer, survived and returned home after the war.
When the Allies finally forced the German and Italian forces from Africa in May 1943, the engineers prepared for the invasion of Italy. On Sept. 21, the 109th Battalion landed just south of Salerno to continue its combat campaign through V-E Day, May 8, 1945.
Another overseas mission
During the period 1947-1950, the 109th Engineers started up again.
They were called to state duty during the blizzard of 1949 and the Tilford forest fire in 1950. Just as the unit was getting up to full strength, fighting started in Korea.
The National Guard was called into federal service on Sept. 3, 1950. Lt. Col. Brown, the battalion commander, learned that his unit was to prepare for overseas movement on June 15. The destination was Germany, where the 109th Battalion was assigned to the 7th Army, with a mission to control portable bridges across the Rhine River.
Each company of the battalion managed three bridges, spaced at busy crossing points along the river, some as far as 30 miles apart. Capt. Chuck Lien, commander of Company C, recalled the importance of the mission.
"When the alerts were sounded, the only traffic allowed on the German highways was the 109th Battalion," Lien said. "We had two missions: One was to swing the nine bridges into place. Our second - and worst-case scenario - was to destroy all the bridges in case of a Soviet invasion."
By August 1952, most of the soldiers from the 109th returned to the United States.
Rebuilding the hometown unit again became a priority, this time with a young personnel officer named Ralph Murphey taking on the full-time task of recreating Company C with the help of veterans, such as officers Owen McDermott, Chris Mechling and Leonard Herbst.
Murphey became a much-respected officer in the National Guard, retiring in 1982 as a Chief Warrant Officer 4. The career service of his son, 1st Sgt. Ross Murphey, and grandson Pfc. Grant Murphey provides an example of family connections found throughout the 109th that stretch across generations.
Helping at home
The post-Korean War rebuilding period also started a 50-year span of mostly state-focused service for the local National Guard. During the 1959 fire that threatened Deadwood, countless smaller fires in other Black Hills locations, plus flooding along Bear Butte and Deadman creeks, the 109th was there.
And June 9, 1972, saw the 109th Engineers at Camp Rapid and in the Northern Hills during the devastating flood. Untold numbers of people in Rapid City were saved by the National Guardsmen that night.
During the next decades, the engineers continued to grow and make their influence felt in Sturgis and the other local communities. A new group of leaders took over. Col. Bob Daane used his leadership and knowledge of engineering equipment to smooth the reorganization of the 842nd Engineers as a subordinate unit of the 109th.
Soldiers like Maj. Gen. Mike Gorman, Maj. Gen. Ray Carpenter, Col. Charles Gray, Col. Bob Grams and Lt. Col. Russell Keeton moved up to take leadership positions at the state headquarters and National Guard Bureau.
The non-commissioned officer (NCO) ranks provided hands-on leadership with sergeants such as Dan Regan, Joe Picasso, Tom Hunt, Kermit Stell and Fred Huffman.
A new mission
The threat of war in Iraq in 2002 caused the call-up of the 109th Engineer Battalion.
Lt. Col. Craig Johnson and 38 men and women stepped forward on Jan. 16, 2003, for their entry to active duty and validation training at Fort Carson, Colo.
From there, they flew to Kuwait where they joined the fighting that started March 20. By the morning of March 23, Johnson led a convoy parallel to the Euphrates River to their objective - Tallil Air Base, an Iraqi installation that had been an operational Iraqi base just two days prior to the 109th Battalion's arrival.
Facilities were all but ruined; however, two airstrips remained serviceable. With the 109th contributing to the efforts, bombs, debris and booby traps were cleared, eventually making Tallil a respectable forward support area for U.S. forces.
The 109th remained in Tallil for the next three months as U.S. and coalition forces defeated the organized Iraqi military. The battalion provided supervision to more than 250 engineer projects across southern Iraq. The list included mine clearing, building site preparation and horizontal construction. They returned to Sturgis on July 26, 2003.
Reorganization, as it has many times before, has created significant change for the National Guard in Sturgis, this time ending nearly eight decades of hands-on association with the mission of military engineers.
If you go
What: 109th Engineer Battalion inactivation ceremony.
When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18.
Where: Woodle Field, Sturgis.
More: The battalion will host a program and banquet at the Main Street Sturgis Armory following the ceremony. Contact Sgt. James Kruse, 605-737-6412, for more information. E-mail:
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