Members of the 82nd Airborne Division recently honored the valor and sacrifice of engineers who valiantly braved fierce enemy fire and artillery to ferry paratroopers across the Waal River during WWII’s Operation Market Garden.
All American Engineers of the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion commemorated the 74th anniversary of the Waal River Crossing at Fort Bragg’s McKellar’s Lake on Oct. 3, 2018 with espirit de corps and fierce competition.
“This event provides an opportunity to commemorate the sacrifice our fellow engineer brethren of the 307th AEB made during Operation Market Garden on Sept. 20, 1944,” said Maj. Chris Pierce, the battalion’s Executive Officer. “It gives paratroopers a sense of what moving across a body of water while totally exposed to enemy fire is like.”
The Waal River Crossing during WWII was a daring feat; a daytime river crossing to ferry paratroopers of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment across 250 yards of moving water with no cover from enemy machine gun fire and artillery. Their objective was the north end of the Nijmegen Bridge; deemed essential if Operation Market Garden was to be successful.
Paratroopers of Company C, 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion would get them across. Three paratroopers manned each collapsible canvas boat with many of the occupants using their rifles to row in the absence of oars. Twenty-six boats departed in the first wave with only eleven of them returning to ferry more paratroopers across.
In all, engineers of the 307th made five trips across the Waal River under heavy fire and the crossing eventually served as inspiration for the 1977 film “A Bridge Too Far.”
The event began at the 307th’s headquarters where companies of the battalion formed up in the early Fort Bragg morning. Racing more than two miles to McKellar’s Pond, each company formed teams that took turns carrying their assigned Zodiac Boat.
After all of the companies arrived, reenactors from the All American Airborne Legion and members of the battalion rowed across the lake in World War II-era uniforms and replicas of the collapsible boats while a narrator read a historical vignette of the river assault.
Paratroopers then loaded into the Zodiacs and competed to be the first to row across McKellar’s Pond, each time delivering a paratrooper to form a five-person team required to sprint around the lake back to the starting point.
The memory of Pfc. Willard “Bud” Jenkins was honored throughout the competition. Jenkins was a paratrooper assigned to the 307th AEB at the time of the WWII Waal River Crossing. Jenkins was reportedly manning a rudder on one of the boats when he was shot in the chest and fell overboard.
Jenkins’ remains were recently identified and he was buried in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania with members of the 307th in attendance to provide him military honors.
“Beastmasters” from Company B won the coveted paddle and bragging rights awarded to the victors of the annual competition for the second year in a row.
“The history of this is extremely important that we don’t forget the soldiers that fought against insurmountable odds to seize an objective,” said Capt. Aaron Scherffius, the company commander during his victory remarks.