Bridging the gap; build it and they'll come

12 Nov 2002 | Staff Sgt. Jason Huffine

The Cape Fear River flows southeast past this sleepy river town. There is no bridge. The town's residents seem to prefer screaming across the water versus the modern-day phone. The river keeper said normally the most exciting news in the area is when one of the local fishermen catches another "white-bellied" catfish. However, this week is a little different - with talk of a bridge built overnight, and men wearing green.

"Peaches," as the local retirement club calls her, was the first one to ask the question, "Are these guys in the Army?" Immediately, the closest person in green within ear's length responded, "Heck no! We're Marines from Camp Lejeune. You know that base near Jacksonville with the funny name." The retirement club, with their beards and own form of camouflage utilities, laughed at the response as they puffed their cigarettes.

The Marine was here last week with the rest of Bridge Company, 8th Engineer Support Battalion. He and about 40 others constructed a bridge over an area locals have called the Elwell Ferry since 1905.

Shivering from the early morning temperatures, 2nd Lt. Thomas Tragesser explained why his Marines from Medium Girder Bridge Platoon built the bridge and why the platoon left its Camp Lejeune compounds Oct. 27 for four days to do it.

"We're here to support 10th Marine Regiment and its return home," said the Tipton, Ind., native. "10th Marines was at Fort Bragg doing "Rolling Thunder." We ask them to take a southern route home with their trucks and artillery, so that our Marines could get some time away from Lejeune to use their skills. Sure, we build 'em at home, but the New River is a little too wide for the vehicles to cross."

The bridge Tragesser was talking about is called a Continuous Span (improved) Ribbon Bridge. The sectional bridges are used in combat so units can cross a water obstacle that could impede advancing troops. Taking less than three hours to set-up (depending on current and weather conditions), he said a tank could cross the floating metal sections.

Lance Corporal Robert O'Neil, a combat engineer turned boat driver, helped the efforts by keeping the bridge in place with the help of two 213-horsepower engines. He explained that once the bridge is in place, there is little maintenance. The Hopedale, Mass., native, said the platoon uses boats to keep the bridge from moving around while a vehicle is crossing. For the exercise, the company used four boats for the 100-yard span.

Company Commander 1st Lt. John Grimm said anytime he can get his Marines away from Lejeune to train, it's a plus. He said the 2nd Force Service Support Group unit is the only active-duty Marine Corps company specializing in bridge construction; so when his Marines are training, and doing it well, the Coran, N.Y., leader, said he knows they'll be ready if called during war.

During the four-day exercise various vehicles to include 7-ton tacticals towing M198 155 mm Medium Howitzers crossed the temporary bridge.

For Peaches and the rest of the local retirement club gathered on the river's banks that wasn't enough. The question heard more than any, "Can we keep the bridge?" was one the Marines seem to laugh about and ignore.