Throwback Thursday: Builders at war

We promise to get back to cutting-edge and futuristic construction technology with the next post, but this week, to observe Veterans Day, we’re highlighting the vital supporting role that America’s builders played in the world wars of the last century.

“Victory seems to favor the side with the greater ability to move dirt.” That’s how Major General Eugene Reybold, head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), described the success of his men in the Second World War.

There’s more to a war than shooting. Troops need to move great distances across an often uncooperative landscape, and the USACE—composed largely of experienced engineers, contractors, tradesmen, and laborers—have helped move, supply, and protect those troops by building roads, bridges, dams, forts, ports, depots and barracks in the nation’s various conflicts since 1775. (That’s in addition to the Corps’ many valuable peacetime projects.)

“American construction capacity was the one factor of American strength which our enemies consistently underestimated,” Reybold continued, in 1944. “They had seen nothing like it.”

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Members of the 1st Engineers building a trench revetment in France in 1918. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Actually, the Germans already had a taste of American mettle a generation prior, during the final phase of the First World War. In 1917 and 1918, the engineers built dams and pipelines, opened up quarries, chopped down tons of timber, built bridges, and graded, repaired or built and maintained hundreds of miles of roads and railways across the mortar-pocked fields of France. Their work allowed hundreds of thousands of Yankee “doughboys” to travel by foot, horse, tank and truck the length of the country.

The engineers performed this work around the clock, through rainstorms, sometimes knee-deep in mud or neck-deep in water. Moreover, they often labored under enemy fire. In fact, the first two U.S. Army casualties in Europe were members of the 11th Engineers serving outside Cambrai, France in September 1917. And the Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to four soldiers from the 7th Engineers who helped construct a pontoon bridge across the Meuse River under fire in November 1918. Three of them jumped into the icy water to hold up a deck by hand until replacement floats could be installed, after a German artillery shell destroyed one section of the bridge.

That was just one of 38 bridges the engineers built as part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which ended with the Kaiser’s surrender. Indeed, building pontoon bridges with lightning speed was a specialty of the engineers during both world wars. For example, as part of the same offensive, the 2nd Engineers built a foot bridge over the Meuse River in under an hour. During the war’s bloody sequel, the 22nd Armored Engineer Battalion built a 330-foot-long bridge, capable of supporting a moving line of tanks and trunks, in three hours and two minutes—“about the time it takes to see a double-feature movie show,” as Popular Science put it.

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Pontoon bridge over the Meuse, 1918.

It was the kind of feat that could only be pulled off through a massive coordination of manpower and materials and under intense pressure. But how, specifically, did the men do it? Most commonly in WWI, they lashed together one sequence of pontoon boats, topped with wooden decking, between long wooden balks. They rowed this out into position, then followed it with another section, and so on until they reached the opposite shore. If the Army was short on standard steel-plated pontoons, then regular boats, canoes, and even empty wine casks stood in.

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U.S. Army tank and troops crossing the Rhine, March 1945.

During WWII, in many cases a higher class of pontoon bridge was strengthened with longer and sturdier pneumatic pontoons, inflated by motorized air compressors. The construction system was streamlined with a new generation of hydraulic cranes and boom crane trucks, swinging sections of steel treadway out over the water and lowering them onto the pontoons. The sections were bolted together, and the bridge as a whole was stabilized with 200-pound catch anchors. Other bridge types included the portable Bailey bridge, made of lightweight steel. (See video at bottom.) In a pinch, though, the old methods were still employed.

We should also note that during WWII, the Army engineers’ efforts in Europe were matched in the Pacific by the Naval Construction Battalions, a.k.a. the Seabees. In both theaters, the builders benefited from advances in bulldozer technology. Check out the two photos below, brought to our attention by the Journal of Light Construction.

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A Caterpillar dozer fills in bomb craters in Normandy, 1944. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

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Dozers in action in the Pacific in WWII. (Photo courtesy of Yale University Press/US NCB)

In both wars, once the firing stopped, the rebuilding began. The engineers filled in trenches and craters, blew up tank barriers, and tore down machine-gun nests. They charted and destroyed unexploded land mines, dismantled bundles of tree-branch camouflage, and resurfaced the roads that the victories Allies rode en route to Berlin.

As mentioned earlier, the Army engineers have also performed critical tasks in civil engineering during peacetime. The corps is known for designing and constructing dams, canals, flood protections, and wetlands restoration, among other projects Stateside.

So while doffing hats for all our veterans, if you get a chance tomorrow, thank a Seabee or an Army engineer. Often quite literally, they paved the way to a free world.

Click below to see vintage footage of the Army engineers—in training, in the Pacific, and in Europe—as they used old-school power shovels, dozers, and their own ingenuity to build roads, bridges, and airfields, often under enemy fire, during WWII:

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at PKennedy@suffolk.com. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_SmartThe video, sourced from an archival U.S. Department of Defense film, was edited by Suffolk Construction’s Junior Videographer Danny Czerkawski. Danny can be reached at DCzerkawski@suffolk.com. 

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