Building Bridges

An Army engineer recounts an encounter with a four-star general at Fort Lewis.

Lieutenant Scott Babcock‘s Army unit, the 617th Engineer Company (Panel Bridge) specialized in bridging equipment, the kind that troops needed to get across a river on their way into battle. The year was 1965, and he and his fellow troops at Fort Lewis in Washington had not received any missions that required their services. There was plenty to hear about Americans headed to a former French colonial backwater called Vietnam. Although the United States had committed 23,000 troops to South Vietnam by January 1965, less than one hundred were engineers, and the latter focused mostly on facilities for military advisors and Army aviation. The picture would soon change. Many combat engineers would make a herculean effort to support the rising numbers of troops in South Vietnam. The 617th Engineer Company also maintained a fleet of big dump trucks, and it wasn’t out of the question that their vehicles might be needed somewhere in the country.

The company was attached to the 35th Engineer Battalion, which fell under command of the 6th Army. It was first organized in 1942 as the 527th Engineer Light Ponton Company and activated in the start of 1943 in Camp Swift, Texas. Such specialized units were integral for operations, and the U.S. Army deployed many bridging companies and thousands of engineers in the Second World War. The unit was deactivated after the war in Camp Myles Standish in Massachusetts but reactivated in March 1963 at Fort Lewis about nine miles outside of Tacoma.

Babcock began to suspect that a tour in Vietnam was certainly possible for the unit. The sort of red tape that bogged things down on the base had suddenly disappeared. It no longer took months to requisition equipment. When you wanted something, it just showed up. A noticeable improvement in logistics was precisely the kind of indicator for a unit about to be deployed.

The young lieutenant, who thought he was “so short I can’t see my boots,” had joined the U.S. Army through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) on 17 July 1963. His term of service was nearly concluded in 1965, but there was always work at hand. One evening, he received an unusual phone call from a colonel on the base who never called unless he wanted something done. Scott learned that General Harold K. “Johnny” Johnson, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, was coming all the way from the Pentagon to Fort Lewis. Johnson was a fighting soldier and a survivor of the Bataan Death March. He had fought in Korea, once served as deputy chief of staff for operations, and during his time at the Pentagon would visit Vietnam nine times. Now General Johnson was headed to Fort Lewis, and the colonel thought he might want to look at one of the company’s special bridges. The colonel, who hailed from Babcock’s native state of Massachusetts, asked if the lieutenant and his men could build one in time for the visit.

Babcock replied that they could do it, but asked if the general would mind posing with his men for a photo on the bridge. The colonel replied that it was possible. Then he hit Babcock with an unusual piece of information: General Johnson also wanted to meet the lieutenant. At the time, Babcock had no idea why.

The Chief of Staff likely had more than one reason to visit Fort Lewis. The base was quickly becoming one of the Army’s most important facilities. Hundreds of non-commissioned officers graduated from an NCO academy at Fort Lewis. In 1966, thousands of GIs would be trained and processed at Lewis as they traveled in and out of Southeast Asia. Lewis was also part of an enormous military complex in the Pacific Northwest, with McChord Air Force Base to the north and naval facilities in Puget Sound. From a civilian standpoint, the Tacoma area would also become a nexus of anti-war sentiment, protests, gatherings, and unofficial newspapers. In many ways, the war in Vietnam was also fought at home.

The 617th Engineer Company went to work on a demonstration of a Bailey bridge, named after Sir Donald Coleman Bailey, whose invention provided a sturdy, temporary span for military vehicles and troops. The bridge was made up of trusses. Each truss was ten by three feet in dimension and weighed a whopping 576 pounds. The pieces could be set side by side or on top of one another, and they could be joined with a floating bridge. Babcock explained that “Capacity is variable and a function of the length and complexity of the design” and depended on how many trusses the engineers would use on the job. A Bailey bridge made out of pontoons was once constructed in a 4,000-foot span over the Maas River in the Netherlands, and a combination float and Bailey bridge was built over the Rhine in Germany.

An image from a U.S. Army Bailey bridge construction manual. (Photo courtesy WikiMedia Commons)

General Johnson was pleased to see such an example when he arrived at Fort Lewis. “I’ve never seen one of those!” he exclaimed, and was kind enough to pose for pictures with the troops. When he finally met Babcock, Johnson explained how he once taught Sunday School with Dr. J. L. Steele in Heidelberg, Germany. Steele ran a school program there for children of American families serving in Western Europe. Steele’s son John was Scott’s college roommate. General Johnson’s wife also came from the town of Attleboro in Babcock’s home state.

“Lieutenant Babcock and I have ties to Massachusetts,” he announced during his visit. Johnson also took the time to say what others had believed, that the men soon would be off to serve in Vietnam.

Babcock never deployed with the 617th Engineer Company. His service ended on 16 July 1965. He was driving halfway across the American heartland in his Volkswagen Beetle, picking up snippets of the news wherever he stopped, and learned that the Army might extend the time of service required for reservists. If Scott ever got the call, he would have to go all the way back to Washington. The call never came. It was not until later when his comrades talked about “activity in the motor pool,” the phrase they used whenever someone was shipping out.

Like other engineers, the 617th had their hands full when they got to South Vietnam. They built an orphanage in Saigon and helped construct an enormous shipping terminal in Cam Ranh Bay. After the Viet Cong destroyed a bridge over the Song Lu River near a village called An Ngai—located within the III Corps Tactical Zone—the company built a 140-foot Bailey bridge to replace the crossing.

There is a saying from a modern combat engineer unit that properly sums up the work of Lieutenant Babcock and all of the ones who came before them: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

Featured photo: Engineers slide Bailey bridge section over the Rhine at Wesel in Germany during World War II. (Photo courtesy The Corps of Engineers: The War Against Germany, Center of Military History (U S Army), 1985, p. 524/WikiMedia Commons)

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