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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"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
By August 1952,
most of the soldiers from the 109th returned to the United
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
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.
non-commissioned officer (NCO) ranks provided hands-on leadership
with sergeants such as Dan Regan, Joe Picasso, Tom Hunt, Kermit
Stell and Fred Huffman.
The threat of war
in Iraq in 2002 caused the call-up of the 109th Engineer
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,
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,
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
Engineer Battalion inactivation ceremony.
When: 2 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 18.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.