National Guard engineers end 77 years in Sturgis
By CW5 (Ret) Duke Doering
A hometown military legacy spanning 77 years ended August 18, 2007 when National Guard members, veterans and friends gathered at Woodle Field in Sturgis to roll and case 109th Engineer Battalion's flag for the last time.
To be certain the National Guard continues to operate in Sturgis, but the proud name, wartime unit history and mission of the engineer unit have been 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 has become home for a new unit, the 881st Troop Command, replacing the engineers at the high school campus location.
The South Dakota engineer story begins in the years following World War I and the effort to rebuild the state’s battle-seasoned National Guard. A full engineer regiment - the 109th - was to become part of the mix. The first companies were in Rapid City, Madison, Brookings, Huron, Lead, Hot Springs and Belle Fourche. Through the 1920s, there were constant changes in the communities hosting engineer units, with Spearfish and Deadwood becoming the split address of the regiment's Company F.
Sturgis, so close to the Army’s Fort Meade, seemed to be left out of the picture, although there had been a local Guard infantry unit in town for a few years prior to the World War. By 1930, Deadwood was having difficulty sustaining its National Guard engineer unit. On March 4, officials at State Headquarters shifted the guidon for Company F from Deadwood to Sturgis, marking the starting point for National Guard engineers in the Key City.
During the early years of the engineer regiment, a young Sturgis teacher, William J. Brown, had joined Company F while he was a college student in Spearfish. He transferred with the unit to Deadwood and was appointed a second lieutenant in 1928. The next shift to Sturgis was a convenient move for the young officer and educator, starting a close, National Guard-school relationship that continues today.
Brown was assisted by 2nd Lt. Vernon Officer and 1st Sgt. Freeman Steele as the cadre for Company F. While they built and trained the unit, community leaders campaigned to attract a Depression era jobs program – the Works Progress Administration – and construct the Main Street Armory as a permanent meeting place for the Guardsmen plus community center and high school basketball court for the residents of Sturgis. The city contributed $13,000 and the WPA $12,800 in materials and $26,000 in labor to construct the 125 by 75 ft. reinforced concrete structure, faced with brick veneer. Soldiers trained on the drill floor and used the basement for offices, storage and a small-bore rifle range. Various elements of the 109th Engineers used the armory until 1979 when a new facility, suitably named in honor of soldier-educator Brown, was constructed north of Fort Meade.
Members of Company F, 109th Engineer Battalion pose for a group photo inside the new Main Street Armory in Sturgis. Sturgis National Guard stalwart, Ralph E. Murphey, back row, fourth from left, was a relative newcomer to the unit at that time.
Important federal legislation in 1903 and the National Defense Act of 1916 had earlier established new training and equipment standards for the National Guard. South Dakota units like the 109th Engineers started to receive more financial support from the War Department. The money and closer attention from the Army required that units participate in 48 armory drills and 15 days of summer camp each year, a standard that continues today, albeit with considerably more complexity. For decades across the state and in Sturgis, Monday from 7 to 9 p.m. was reserved for “Guards.”
From 1930 through 1936, summer training was conducted at Camp Rapid, like the Sturgis Armory, a complex built with WPA funds and local manpower. In 1937 the men of Company F ventured to Camp Ripley, Minn., for two weeks of training and returned to the convenience of Camp Rapid for the next two years. Minnesota was again their destination in 1940, a time when much of Europe already was at war and the training atmosphere was changing for the entire National Guard.
The outbreak of war created a new sense of urgency for the United States. National Guard unit members knew that a call into federal military service was inevitable. 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.
National Guard answers call to duty
They had reason to pay attention and hurry. All of the 109th Engineer Regiment was called to active duty on Feb. 10, 1941, with Capt. Brown in command of the Sturgis company. The unit left the Chicago Northwestern Railroad station on February 23, with the temperature near zero. Their destination was Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, for what was officially limited to 12 months of active duty and the inspiration for a popular song lyric that went: “Goodbye, dear, I’ll be back in a year.” The year went fast for the 109th and thousands of others stationed in the Dixie South, site of the legendary Louisiana Maneuvers that tested the mettle of individual soldiers like the men from Sturgis and much bigger picture Army tactics and organization. Along the way, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Congress declared war on the Axis nations, and “one year” legally became, “for the duration.”
The 109th Regiment left Camp Claiborne for Fort Dix, New Jersey, on Jan. 2, 1942, and from there to presumed, undisclosed locations somewhere in the European theater. The wintertime train journey to the Garden State took three days, prompting former 109th member “Connie” Carsner to describe the trip as, “…far from pleasant. We arrived at 3 a.m. and marched a mile, at 4 below zero, to a tent camp.” Reflecting more after sticking with the unit throughout the war, “I thought that was bad, but it was a piece of cake compared to what I was going to go through for the next four years.”
At the time, the 109th Engineer Regiment provided support to the larger 34th Division, an all-National Guard outfit of more than 20,000 troops from Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas. In the midst of finishing the Louisiana Maneuvers and relocating to Fort Dix, the Army trimmed the size of its “square” divisions to a “triangular” force structure. The 109th Regiment, with six line companies, became the 109th Engineer Battalion, with just three line companies. Company F went out of business; Sturgis now carried the Company C flag.
The Army wide shuffle of units created an overstrength situation. South Dakota commanders, NCOs and soldiers from the 109th said goodbye to 142 fellow members who became part of the 132nd Engineer Combat Battalion, still a Guard unit but supporting the 77th Division and an eventual destination to the Pacific theater. Among the Sturgis men who made the transfer were now 1st Lt. Freeman Steele, Warrant Officer John J. Steele and Glenn Ellis.
Sturgis Guardsmen join the fight early
The reorganized 109th Battalion deployed, piecemeal, to Camp Killadeas, Ireland. Troopship breakdowns and other delays stretched the cross-Atlantic movement through the spring of 1942. When the vessel "Mexico" docked at Belfast on May 12, the battalion was again fully assembled. Tough training resumed in Ireland and Scotland for the full Division and its support units. By this time the manpower in the 109th Battalion and across much of the National Guard was becoming more of a melting pot than all-Guard outfit. Volunteers and draftees were added to fill out the ranks. Other Guardsmen left their hometown units along the way to attend Officer Candidate School, technical training or to volunteer for other military organizations. Company C's Claire Grams transferred to the Army Air Corps and was killed in New Guinea on Nov. 28, 1944.
Army leaders selected Iowa's 168th Infantry Regiment, a key part of the 34th Division, to become the first infantry unit to attack the Germans in North Africa. The engineers supporting the 168th were the men from Company C, 109th Battalion, making an historic place for Sturgis Guardsmen as among the first U.S. soldiers to enter large-scale combat during World War II. Now under the command of Capt. John Webb, the men from Sturgis arrived in Algiers on Nov. 8, 1942, along with the rest of the 168th. For nearly two months the 168th and engineers worked to secure their foothold on the continent and strip the area of anything useful to the enemy.
Prior to Company C's departure from Ireland, 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. Their leader, a lieutenant named Holt, left Gorman and Kenneth Scissions, another South Dakotan from Rosebud, as rear guards at the perimeter of the airport. The rest went inside the airport only to face a German ambush. Ten commandos were killed. Survivors, including Anderson and Griffin, were captured and spent the war as prisoners of the Germans. Scissions and Gorman were far enough away from the fight to make their escape back to friendly lines.
The balance of Lt. Col. Robert Coffey's 109th Battalion, Companies A and B, shipped out for Tunisian Front, arriving at Oran, 200 miles west of Algiers, with Iowa's 133rd and 135th Regiments on Jan. 2, 1943. Tactical preparations continued for the rest of the month. On Jan. 31, the 109th - 32 officers, 2 warrant officers and 677 enlisted men – moved out with their respective regiments to the front lines. They arrived at Mateur, Tunisia, by Feb. 7.
Officers of the 109th Engineer Battalion in North Africa included, from left, 1st Lt. Theron Karge, 1st Lt. Scott Crichton, 1st Lt. Royal I. Lee, 1st Lt. Joseph Baker, and Capt. John Webb, commander of Company C. These officers were original members of Brookings' Company A. By the time C Company was settled in North Africa, Capt. William J. Brown had become the battalion operations officer.
Engineer duties included preparing minefields, road construction and work with explosives. On Feb. 14, troops from Company C were laying minefields and establishing wire barriers in support of the 168th Infantry when the German Army stormed through Faid Pass. After less than three months in the war theater, 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 the 17th. 1st Lt. Royal Lee, Staff Sgt. Robert Lodge, Sgt. Francis Murray, Sgt. William Caton, Sgt. Owen Gorman, Cpl. Richard Behrens, Pfc. Kenneth Brandon, Pfc. Kenneth Gourley, Tec 5 Leo Baker, Pfc. Wayne Hannant and Pvt. 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.
There was a dedication of the Prisoner of War memorial at Camp Rapid in 2005. Left to right: Francis Murray, Richard Behrens, Maj. Gen. Mike Gorman and Kenneth Gourley. Murray, Behrens, Gourley and Gorman's father, Owen Gorman, were among those members of Company C who were captured by the Germans at Kassarine Pass in North Africa on February 17, 1943. They remained prisoners at Stalag 3B in Germany for over two years, released just before the war in Europe ended in May 1945.
On the homefront, an increasing number of South Dakota families endured the agony of receiving casualty messages from the War Department. Tragedy struck the 109th on March 30, 1943, when a squad of 12 men from Lead’s Company A were killed while laying a minefield. A truckload of 450 mines detonated, with no cause ever officially stated. Among the dead were Sgt. Wayne Satre, Cpl. Robert Christensen, T/5 Roger Loesch and Pfc. Leland Ortmayer, all from Lead. Sturgis Guardsman Tec 4 Leo Bestgen was killed in Mateur, Tunisia, June 5, when a butterfly bomb carried by 1st Lt. Scott Crichton exploded. The blast also killed Crichton and took the leg from Company C’s Tom Egger.
When the Allies finally forced the German and Italian forces from Africa in May of 1943, the engineers moved back to Oran, with orders to prepare for the invasion of Italy. On Sept. 21, the 109th Battalion landed just south of Salerno to continue their combat campaign through V-E Day, May 8, 1945. Duty was tough, and one more Sturgis Guardsman was killed. Tec 5 Charles Bader died Oct. 31, 1943, when he accidentally detonated a bouncing betty mine near Ailano, Italy, while burying a dead German soldier. In total, 78 members of the 109th Battalion (Guardsmen, draftees, volunteers) lost their lives during the war.
Units from the 34th “Red Bull” Division were justifiably tired by the end of the European campaign. The 109th Engineers and other organizations were in combat zones for more than 500 consecutive days, some outfits reaching the 600-day mark. And although the battalion left the state in 1941 and fought through the war as a cohesive unit, the peacetime return became part of the chaotic, rapid demobilization. Guardsmen from Sturgis and elsewhere, with their lengthy records of combat duty, had priority for early release and traveled home as individual soldiers, not as a unit.
Rebuilding and a second call to arms
By the fall of 1945, the War Department approved policies that permitted the nationwide rebuilding of the National Guard. For South Dakota, the new force included the 109th Engineer Battalion, now commanded by Lt. Col. William J. Brown. Company C was again stationed in Sturgis, with federal recognition dated April 18, 1947. Members, including many World War II veterans, returned to the routine of Monday night drills and two weeks of summer camp.
The local Guardsmen were again organized and prepared to provide support during local emergencies, long a hallmark of the National Guard. For units of the 109th, duty called during the sustained blizzard of January 1949, and again in August of 1950 when a large forest fire near Tilford scared both sides of today’s I-90 corridor. Summer camp training started at Camp Rapid in 1948, then Camp Ripley, Minn., in 1949, and Camp McCoy, Wis., in 1950. En route to the west central Wisconsin base, seasoned veterans of battalion joked with recruits that duty would not end after two weeks. Fighting had started in Korea. The National Guard was going to be called into federal service again.
The men of Company C returned from the Badger State after two weeks of training, but the hometown summer was short as they prepared for activation on Sept. 3. Two days later the troops left for Fort Bragg, N.C., once again as part of the U.S. Army. After several months of training with V Corps units, Lt. Col. Brown learned that his unit was to prepare for overseas movement, starting 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. In addition to Brown, his company commanders were Capt. Charles Lien in charge of Lead’s Company A; Capt. Owen McDermott leading Hot Springs’ Company B; and Capt. Joseph Bodwell the leader of Company C. The men had trained hard at Fort Bragg and coped with leadership challenges that included filling out the unit with draftees and individual reservists who had to become adopted South Dakotans.
Each company of the battalion managed three bridges, spaced at busy crossing points along the famous river, some as far as 30 miles apart. The steel and aluminum structures were standard M2 Bailey Bridges, mounted on floating metal pontoons. Instead of remaining in place in a continuous span, the engineers tethered one half on each riverbank. When needed, the bridge halves would swing from each side of the river. Where they met, the bridge ends were fastened together with huge steel pins. Super-sized Army Brockway trucks were used to pull the massive cables that swung the bridge sections to the mid-river meeting point.
Somewhere along Germany's Rhine River in 1951, the 109th Engineer Battalion was in charge of swinging these bridges across the river, in nine different locations. Sgt. Bill Hacker, Hot Springs, and PFC John Graham are shown at the bridge. Sgt. Hacker continued his service with the 109th, retiring as a major.
Capt. Lien recalls the importance of the mission. “When the alerts were sounded, the only traffic allowed on the German highways was the 109th Battalion. 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.”
The Black Hills Guardsmen took their mission seriously and worked hard at setting record times for building the panel bridge and spanning the swift-flowing river. Lt. Gordon Campbell, now a resident of Spearfish, boasts that the 109th had set an Army Engineer School Bailey Bridge assembly record, a distinction that lasted for many years and may still be unbroken. The bridge mission filled most of the year the 109th spent in Europe, but during November and December of 1951, elements of the line companies established a temporary worksite in Verdun, France, and worked on road building projects to benefit the French armed forces.
By August 1952, most of the soldiers from the 109th returned to the United States, happy to be home along with other South Dakota Guardsmen who spent their active duty time at Fort Richardson, Alaska. A quirk in the Army’s bureaucracy allowed the soldiers to return for demobilization, but the unit designations and colors remained, technically, on duty in the far-away locations for many more months.
Veterans stick with the 109th
Rebuilding hometown units 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 who stayed with the organization. They recruited replacements and continued their training. Murphey became a much-respected officer within the Sturgis National Guard, retiring in 1982 as a Chief Warrant Officer 4. The continued career service of his son, 1st Sgt. Ross Murphey, and now grandson Pfc. Grant Murphey provides an example of family connections found throughout the 109th that stretch across generations.
Company C remained in Sturgis until September 1956, when yet another reorganization brought the Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 109th Engineer Battalion from Rapid City to Sturgis. C Company colors went to Philip. Higher up, the state’s major headquarters was disassembled, replaced with a new command structure that included an artillery headquarters in Pierre, and the new 109th Engineer Group, located in Rapid City and led by William Brown, now a full colonel and in a position to influence National Guard engineer units across the state.
The post-Korean War rebuilding period also started a 50-year span of mostly state-focused service for the local National Guard. Monday night drills in the armory and 15 days of summer camp became a predictable routine. Emergency callups for state duty tested leadership skills of officers and sergeants and provided challenging opportunities for the men to apply their military engineer skills fighting forest fires like the 1959 blaze that threatened Deadwood, countless smaller fires in other Black Hills locations, plus flooding along Bear Butte and Deadman Creeks.
Headquarters Company, 109th Engineer Battalion, 1957
Front row: L-R Clifford Boice, Kermit Stell, Chris Mechling, Leonard Herbst, Bob Murphey, Mel Hendrickson, Ralph Murphey, Ed Dutton, Wally Hale, Davey Evans, Jim Kinney, Gaylord Garhart.
2nd row: Bob Kinney, Larry Montgomery, Dale Harrison, Duane Doyle, Marvin Smith, Norman Albrecht, Jim Phoenix, Dan Dutton, Jim Cooley, Leo Weyrich, Clifford Ware.
3rd row: Jack Stoddard, Bob Earley, Russel Moran, Jerry Grover, Pat Miller, Mike Hudson, unidentified Army Reservist, Roger Swenson, Merlyn Doyle.
4th row: Nelson Williams, Paul Harwood, Marvin Harwood, Edward Ness, Jerry Weyer, Duke Doering, Guy Edwards, Paul Mechling, Dana Caldwell, Darrel Willert.
5th row: Duane Barker, Jack Brunson, Jim Forbes, Millard Braden, Jim Singleton, unidentified Army Reservist, Loren McDaniels, Dick Singleton, Frank Cummings and Bob Singleton.
Annual training settled into a rotation of June encampments in Custer State Park, Camp Rapid, Camp Ripley, Camp McCoy, and with occasional diversions elsewhere, including Charles Mix County, where in 1961, troops from Sturgis fought their mock battles against each other near Pickstown and real combat with chiggers that invaded everyone's skin.
More administrative reorganization came in 1963, with the 109th Battalion Headquarters and its Headquarters Company remaining in Sturgis. The layout for line companies kept Company A in Lead, Company B in Hot Springs, and split Company C between Spearfish and Belle Fourche. By 1965, and with concern from some old-timers that it was not a good idea, the Monday night drill routine was abandoned in favor of the present-day, weekend training program. This was a nationwide shift for the National Guard, one of several significant changes that started to more solidly connected Guard units with their active Army counterparts. By the following year, virtually all new recruits were required to spend at least 120 days on active duty for Basic Combat Training and a follow-on technical school. This broke another tradition going back to Colonial times that allowed National Guard units to train their recruits at home station.
The early 1960s were lean years for the National Guard in Sturgis. Membership declined to a point in 1964 that prompted officials at State Headquarters to suggest the battalion headquarters could be moved to a more supportive community if recruiting did not improve. Stepped-up local recruiting made a difference, to be certain, but as far away from the Pentagon and major American cities as Sturgis might be, the growing involvement of active duty U.S. forces in the Vietnam War would soon have an even greater impact on the strength of the 109th Battalion and its increasingly complex training.
Whether they joined to increase the probability of “going over there to fight with guys you know,” or to avoid being drafted, or for a combination of personal reasons, by late 1966, newcomers swelled the ranks of the 109th to full strength. Manpower levels remained at or near 100 percent for the next several years. Training on military skills received greater attention from U.S. Army advisors and inspectors, and just like their big city National Guard counterparts, Sturgis soldiers practiced more riot control tactics then they could imagine. It was a turbulent time for the entire nation.
Combat battalion comes to and end
In the midst of high personnel turnover, increased training requirements, concern about the war in Southeast Asia and trouble in large American cities, the South Dakota National Guard endured yet another major reorganization of its forces, as did the Guard nationwide. The Army called for the end of the 109th Engineer Battalion as a traditional, combat-focused outfit. Starting Jan. 3, 1968, only a Headquarters Detachment of the 109th Battalion remained. Lt. Col. Leonard Herbst, the commander at the time, now directed three distinctly different engineer companies: the 842nd Engineer Company (Light Equipment), with detachments in Spearfish, Belle Fourche and Sturgis; the 214th Engineer Company (Dump Truck) located in Lead and Hot Springs; and the 211th Engineer Company (Medium Girder Bridge) in Mobridge and Lemmon. The change was a serious blow to the remaining World War II and Korean War veterans in the unit who had carefully preserved the reputation of the long-standing combat battalion and its line companies.
In this 1967 view, Sgt. 1st Class Ray Rogers and Staff Sgt. Duke Doering are shown working in the 109th Engineer Battalion headquarters orderly room. The basement of the Main Street Armory in Sturgis provided working space for administrative offices, storage, an arms room and other supporting facilities.
American involvement in the Vietnam War was winding down by 1971. Political officials were discussing how to end the military draft and establish an all-volunteer force. Planners in the Pentagon, especially in the Army, were discussing something called the Total Force Concept that would eventually diminish or remove the National Guard and Reserve from its “use-them-last-and-only-in-a-big-war” status. Total Force called for a more complex mixture of readiness capability that more closely resembles how the modern military is organized and used, worldwide. The Total Force Concept eventually became Total Force Policy, and that doesn’t adequately describe today’s interdependent relationship among all forces.
With all of this change in the early 1970s came yet another policy shift that seemed revolutionary when it happened – women were permitted to join Army National Guard units. In South Dakota the 1971 women pioneers were very visible at first, and often in what were considered “traditional” administrative assignments. But job assignment barriers quickly came down, especially in units like the 109th where the Army classified most occupational specialties open to men and women. After more than 30 years, at least 100 women have served in the 109th and its subordinate units. They have earned assignments as small unit leaders, company commanders, and one has commanded the battalion and went on to command the 109th Engineer Group. Several women have served long enough to qualify for retirement and have joined the ranks of the 109th’s alumni.
The dual obligation of a Guard member to serve state and nation also never ends. In 1972, nearly 100 percent of the South Dakota National Guard responded to the Rapid City Flood. The 109th was participating in annual training near Roubaix Lake in the Northern Hills when the disaster struck the night of June 9. Troops rushed to Rapid City, Sturgis and elsewhere along flooded creeks to save lives and property, and many remained on duty for a summer of clean up. Then in the coldest weeks of early 1973, members of the 109th again reported for state duty of a dramatically different kind. A riot sparked by the American Indian Movement at the Custer County Courthouse and tense months of a standoff at Wounded Knee required troops to be on duty in support of local law enforcement agencies.
By the early 1980s, the nation’s Total Force Policy had become more mature. Guard units like the 109th were receiving more modern equipment, and the tempo of individual and unit training began to match that of the active Army in several ways. “Summer Camp” had officially become “Annual Training” during the previous decade. No longer was field training conducted in early June when high school recruits and their teacher-Guardsmen leaders were eager for adventure, and crops were planted but not yet ready for harvest by Guardsmen-farmers. The 109th Battalion and its companies started to train “around the calendar and around the world.” By the end of the century, troops had conducted humanitarian and tactical training in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Germany, and Korea, plus countless active duty installations across the nation.
At the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, world attention shifted to the Middle East and rising tensions among the nations in that region, especially the oppressive regime of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In the late summer of 1990, Hussein’s military invaded neighboring Kuwait, and the United States responded by leading a large coalition force that destroyed much of his army and established an imperfect halt to the fighting but not the danger and political unrest. The 1991 Gulf War was the first major test of the Total Force Policy. More than 250,000 National Guard and Reserve troops were called to active duty, including members from six South Dakota units.
During that time the 109th Battalion continued to train and serve in its traditional status. The intensity of that training reflected the ever-increasing closeness between state-directed operations and active duty requirements. The 109th also grew more familiar operating from its new armory location on the expanding high school campus named in honor or educator-soldier, William J. Brown. The National Guard footprint on Fort Meade continued to grow with the establishment of the state’s military academy and other, year-around training programs on the Veterans Administration property.
Into the desert
The threat of war in Iraq returned to the world scene again in 2002. As with the earlier Gulf War, National Guard and Reserve units would be part of the mix, this time including the headquarters 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. By Feb. 16, they were cleared for the long flight to Kuwait. At a cantonment area called Camden Park near the city of Arifjan, about 30 miles south of Kuwait City, the 109th waited for the remainder of their equipment to arrive and to learn if diplomatic efforts in the United Nations and elsewhere would force Hussein from power.
Diplomatic efforts failed and fighting started Mar. 20. That night, the 109th endured eight SCUD missile alerts over their temporary garrison. Troops dressed in their protective gear and hunkered down inside bomb shelters. By the morning of Mar. 23, Lt. Col. Johnson led an advance party of seven in a four-vehicle convoy parallel to the Euphrates River to their objective – Tallil Air Base, an Iraqi installation that had been operational just two days prior to the 109th Battalion’s arrival.
The Army’s 3rd Division had flushed enemy forces from the base shortly before the South Dakota troops arrived. 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 main body of the 109th closed on Tallil Mar. 26, waiting at their starting point in Kuwait to endure one of the region’s most fierce sandstorms in recent memory.
The 109th remained in Tallil for the next three months as U.S. and coalition forces defeated the organized Iraqi military. The battalion supported the 36th Engineer Group and provided supervision to more than 250 engineer projects across southern Iraq. The list included mine clearing, building site preparation and horizontal construction.
A squadron of A-10 airplanes set up operations at Tallil airfield in Iraq in March 2003. The 109th Engineers, pictured above with an A-10, had cleared the airfield of mines and set up an operational facility for the aircraft unit. Capt. Lew Weber stated, "It gives you an added sense of security when your next door neighbors are the A-10s."
Lt. Col. Johnson safely led the battalion back to Kuwait’s Camp Pennsylvania on June 24. The following day, soldiers stood at attention during an awards ceremony and received 11 Bronze Stars and 10 Army Commendation Medals in recognition of their efforts. The 109th remained in Kuwait until July 20 and returned to a warm welcome from family and friends in Sturgis on July 26. Two days later, Gov. Michael Rounds and Adjutant General Michael Gorman honored the unit with a formal ceremony.
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. Several generations of Guard members from Sturgis have built fortifications, constructed roads and airfields, and responded to natural disasters and other emergencies with trained personnel and functional equipment. And when distant duty calls, they have said goodbye to family, friends, jobs, school and community to serve the nation’s needs.
Now the symbol of the military engineer – the stone castle – shifts to the background. A changed mission and new identity lie ahead. National Guard members from Sturgis and across the state remain trained and ready to serve.
About the author
This history of the 109th Engineer Battalion, with special focus on units stationed in Sturgis, was written by retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 “Duke” Doering, a Sturgis native who joined Company C in September 1955 at the urging of his high school friends Gary Chubb and Jerry Burshek. Long-time locals can safely assume that Mr. William J. Brown, principal of Sturgis High School when he wasn’t Col. William J. Brown, National Guard unit commander, approved their decision, as he did for hundreds of upperclassmen who chose to serve their community, state and nation by enlisting in the National Guard.
Mr. Doering (Army Warrant Officers are addressed as “Mr.” or, as appropriate, “Ms.” or “Mrs.”) became part of the full-time National Guard staff in July of 1963 when he was hired to be the Administrative-Supply Technician for the Sturgis unit. He later transferred to Spearfish to perform similar duties and where he graduated from Black Hills State University. He then served at State Headquarters in Rapid City until retiring in 1999. His brothers Charles and Herb also served in the 109th.
During his seven years of full-time service in Sturgis, Mr. Doering enlisted 226 people into the local unit, an average of a full platoon each year. Among the volunteers he enlisted in 1966 was David Super, another Sturgis High School graduate who went on to serve as a public affairs officer at the headquarters of the National Guard in Washington, D.C. Super assisted Mr. Doering with editing these articles about the 109th Engineers.
Staff Sgt. "Duke" Doering, left, shown with Maj. Gen. Duane L. "Duke" Corning, two weeks after Corning's selection as the adjutant general of the South Dakota National Guard, a post he held for 20 years. Corning joined the South Dakota Army National Guard in the late 1930s and served as a Naval aviator during World War II. Following the war he worked with Marine Corps aviator and Medal of Honor recipient Joe Foss to establish the South Dakota Air National Guard in Sioux Falls.