By Matthew J. Wilson
Missouri National Guard engineer units have a long-standing tradition of completing valuable construction projects in Central and South America that continues to this day as part of their training. The projects are not only valuable to the countries they serve, but also in the training received by the Guardsmen.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of one such project as 5,000 Missouri Guardsmen, 6,000 Guardsmen total, from Task Force 135 finished a 20 kilometer stretch of two-lane road in June of 1986 at the North Central Highlands, Yoro Province, in the Republic of Honduras.
Beginning in December of 1985, 10, two-week rotations of Missouri Guardsmen constructed a base camp, deployed equipment, established a satellite camp to wash equipment and constructed 90 percent of the road.
Retired Lt. Col. Mike Gunther, who was part of the task force as the Headquarters, 135th Combat Engineer Group's supply officer, said the training rewards from the road project were reaped in future U.S. campaigns.
"Many of our junior leaders were trained in construction operation in Central America and later used those skills in Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom," Gunther said.
Because so much went into the preparation and execution of building the road, Col. Bob Harris, the engineer group's commanding officer who is now retired, said completing the mission immediately made Soldiers better by demonstrating what the Guard is capable of.
"It was one of those things that probably gave them great confidence - more confidence," Harris recalled. "We'd talk about mobilizing, but we'd never done it. My comment was, 'Now that we have, we know we can, and we can make this work for any place in the world.'"
The task force was in the process of completing a similar road construction mission in Panama when planning for the Honduras mission began.
"Many administrative and logistical actions were ongoing from the Panama mission when we were alerted for a reconnaissance visit to Honduras in early September of 1985," Gunther recalled.
Gunther, then a major, along with Harris; Maj. Charlie Friend, the group's training officer; Staff Sgt. Mike Philips, the group's operations noncommissioned officer; Sgt. 1st Class Jack Hoover, the 203rd Engineer Battalion's property book office noncommissioned officer in charge; and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Donnie Hays, the 203rd's maintenance warrant officer, made the trip to Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras. From the base, also known as Joint Base Palmerola, the Guardsmen went to Base Camp Bulldog to get a better idea of what it would take to successfully complete their project by viewing a current project by the 36th Engineer Group of Fort Benning, Ga.
"The operations personnel viewed the road segment nominated for construction, while the others visited the support areas of the 36th Engineer Group conducting road construction operations," Gunther reminisced. "The first visit to Honduras led to many planning and coordination meetings and visits with subordinate and higher headquarters units, to include briefing the United States Army Forces Command commander on our mission."
About 60 of the final 90 days before the deployment in January of 1986 were spent by the group away from Missouri coordinating actions to support the mission, Gunther recalled.
The 135th Combat Engineer Group was assigned four UH-1 Iroquois and three OH-58 Kiowa helicopters to its aviation section for the mission. One of the Iroquois and its crew was deployed to Joint Base Palmerola in early November of 1985 to help with planning and survey operations.
"Two of the Kiowas were the first ones deployed to Honduras by the U.S. Army and were used with great success," Gunther said.
The task force also conducted resource meetings with battalion operations, logistics and maintenance points of contact, where equipment packages, ramp strengths and deployment schedules were developed. In Missouri, near the battalions, five rail head operations were established to assist local deployment operations.
"Over 100 railcars of equipment were loaded in Missouri and shipped to the Port of Savannah in Georgia for sealift to Puerto Cortez, Honduras," Gunther recalled. "Soldiers and ROTC cadets were left at the port in Honduras to provide security on the equipment package, once the equipment was disembarked."
Getting the equipment unloaded, however, was met with complication.
"The equipment arrived at the port during a labor strike by local dock workers, but coordination with union leaders allowed unloading to continue," Gunther said.
The day after Christmas of 1985, an advance party deployed to Pureto Cortez to establish on-the-ground operations. After the party arrived, a small site survey element moved to what would become Base Camp Oso Grande (Big Bear), while logistics personnel remained behind to receive Seabees and direct them to their assigned mission.
"All advance party personnel, with the exception of finance and aviation personnel, were at the new base camp for New Year's Eve," Gunther recalled.
Despite being away from the comforts of home and civilized society, the advance party rung in the new year in style.
"The base camp had one refrigerated van for cold storage of food and drink," Gunther reminisced. "The task force commander rationed cold drinks as two per individual, whether it was soda or beer. We celebrated New Year's Eve with our two drinks, canned ham and Mexican Velveeta Cheese, which had been stowed on a maintenance contract truck at the Port of Savannah."
Work began on the base camp in January of 1986. Surveyors laid out the camp and utilized a base line down the center where they turned right angles to establish roads, tents and other specific areas.
All the wiring was "plowed" in with a D7F Bulldozer with rippers that Sgt. 1st Class Jerry Staley had modified as a cable plow, Gunther explained. Staley was the personnel administrative center noncommissioned officer in charge, but had worked for a cable installer before changing to full-time unit support status.
A small crew led by Maj. Keith Crumley, assigned stockage list manager, erected 50 general purpose tents before the first rotation of the main body arrived, which turned out to be a key factor in Soldier care.
"A meager camp awaited the first 500 Soldiers, but because of the efforts of Maj. Crumley's crew, they had a dry place to sleep," Gunther recalled. "The rainy season was not cooperating and we were getting rain almost on a daily basis."
With the first rotation of the main body in place, equipment operators and surveyors began establishing the road center line and concentrated on the base camp's construction. A dining facility was constructed with a framed food preparation area and five large general purpose tents on platforms functioned as the serving and dining areas. Liquefied petroleum gas cooking equipment was shipped with the resource package and the propane was locally contracted. Small water towers were constructed near the kitchen area to supply the ice makers, which required constant pressure.
"Lack of water pressure led to frequent ice maker failures in Panama the year before," Gunther recalled.
Raw water was hauled to the base camp utilizing 6,000 gallon water distributors and purified there. Distribution was made from the potable water bladders to the kitchen, shower facilities, laundry and medics. In a normal day, 25,000 gallons of water was consumed by the 600-Soldier camp.
Two 100-kilowat generators powered the camp, with one online at any time.
"Power requirements were much less in the analog Army," Gunther said.
Along with latrines, all the base camp's built structures were left in place after completion of the mission for follow-on units to use.
The latrine burnout, tire repair, vegetation control, trash haul, non-potable ice, hazardous material transportation and dimensional lumber were locally contracted. The dimensional lumber was cut oversized by about three-quarters of an inch. Because of the size difference, Gunther recalled that the 16- and 20-penny nails that were to be used for framing were too short and an emergency purchase of 30-penny nails was required.
Another early obstacle involved the Honduran government.
"We arrived in Honduras after the federal election, which was the first peaceful change of government in Honduran history," Gunther recalled. "The lack of government continuity led to a 30-day lag in receiving road construction culvert pipe and other key materials, which had caused a delay in the mission schedule."
While waiting on the pipe and other materials to arrive, Guardsmen continued clearing and grubbing, also known as shallow digging, which pushed the surveyors to establish the centerline of the road and the left and right limits.
"We and Honduran combat engineers emplaced culverts to allow cut and fill operations to bring the sub-grade to required elevations," Gunther said. "A very small amount of rock was encountered, so the majority of the explosive-grade ammonium nitrate was used as a fertilizer at Palmerola. Construction operations progressed during the dry season, producing a fine dust in the spoil areas. Natural moisture in the borrow areas allowed the fill compaction to remain within Honduran Transportation Department standards with little additional watering."
One of the highlights for Phillips, who is now a retired command sergeant major, was working with Honduran engineers.
"We had very good help from a platoon of Honduran engineers," Phillips recalled. "Most of them were not equipment operators, but they were just great at helping with some of the installation of culverts, or pouring of headwalls and low-water crossings. They were good help."
Construction on the road began the last week of January and continued for the next six months.
Phillips remembered how he was responsible for leading the team that did a lot of the preparation work for the construction of the road.
"I was in charge of road construction and that's where I stayed focused," he recalled.
Building a road on the side of a mountain was no small task.
"It was a very difficult constriction because it was on a side of a mountain," Harris recalled.
"The terrain was very challenging in that part of the world," Phillips reminisced. "That's why the trail that was there was in pretty bad shape, but it was an arterial lifeline into some of those communities."
Harris said once road construction began, Guardsmen began filtering in and out like clockwork.
"Every two weeks, 500 guys went home and 500 new ones came down - that happened 10 times," Harris reminisced.
Along with building the actual road, culverts were installed and drainage areas were created.
In April 1986, the Secretary of the Army visited the construction project and was impressed, but took note that it had fallen behind schedule because of the 30-day lag in materials delivery.
"I like what I see here and would like to see this project completed," Gunther recalled the Secretary of the Army saying.
Harris remembered telling the secretary, "If we had another 30 days down here, we could finish this project."
The secretary listened and approved the request
"He said, 'Count on that,' He's the guy who made that happen," Harris recalled.
"The added emphasis from the Secretary of the Army allowed us to stay and adjust our redeployment schedule," Gunther recalled.
The last rotation of Guardsmen came in May of 1985 and redeployment of material and equipment began the same month. About 80 percent of Task Force 135 material and equipment was returned to Missouri, while a small package remained in place to complete the planned construction.
"Task Force 135 transported 400 major end items from Missouri to Base Camp Oso Grande in Honduras," Gunther said. "Over one million cubic yards of material were grubbed, stripped, cut or wasted to construct 20 kilometer of two-lane road. All major end items were returned to Missouri."
The last redeployment of personnel was July 2, 1986.
Throughout the mission, there were no fatalities and few serious injuries.
Harris was proud of that statistic.
"We may have been the only task force that worked on a road in Honduras where someone didn't die," he recalled. "That was the biggie - working on the side of that mountain for six months without getting somebody killed."
Overall, Phillips knows that missions like these helped define the future of Missouri Guard engineers.
"We were all cutting our teeth on these things," Phillips explained. "These guys are the best engineers I have met in my life. We had a very caring commander and he was supportive of his noncommissioned officers."
Engineer construction units that worked on the project included the 110th, 203rd, 880th, 1138th and 1140th Combat Engineer Battalions. Supports units from Missouri included Headquarters, 135th Combat Engineer Group, 1035th Maintenance Company, 1221st Transportation Company, 117th and 118th Water Purification Detachments, and Missouri Army National Guard Aviation, as well as personnel from various military police and medical units.
In May, Harris and Gunther returned to the road in Honduras to see its effects on the area.
"It was amazing," Harris said. "When we left Honduras in 1986, in the area where we were building that road there was one telegraph wire that went through there. It was the only means of communication from the southern to the northern part of Honduras.
"Now when we were there, we saw a bus line that traveled our road that otherwise wouldn't have done it; three phase electric communications towers up on the mountains; communications lines along the road that were obviously telephone or TV cables; and satellite dishes on roofs. The thing that amazed Mike and I the most was there were two swimming pools - one private and the other at a resort that had been built there."
The quality of life for the residents near the road had visibly improved, Harris said.
"It used to be nothing but huts and impoverished people," Harris said. "It's not every day you get to see what you worked hard at has changed so many lives for the better."
For more information about the Missouri National Guard, please call 1-800-GoGuard or visit www.moguard.com.