The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Local News

July 2, 2010

Building roads to memories: 1343rd Engineer Battalion reunites

As Americans fought what has become known as “the forgotten war” in Korea, members of the local Co. B 1343rd Engineer Battalion (Combat) made sure their comrades in arms were not forgotten on front.

The engineers built roads and bridges, which were the lifelines to fighting men who were often under equipped and enduring harsh conditions.

At 5 p.m. today members of the 1343rd will meet for a biannual reunion at the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives.

Likely, the men will reminisce and retell oft-told stories, as is the standard for all reunions. But one of the central characters of those stories will be there in spirit only. Their leader, Major H. Clyde Mabry died in 2004.

The artifacts of Brig. Gen. (Ret) Mabry’s long military career, which spanned from World War II to Vietnam, are on display at the museum on the board of which he served from its inception in 1995 until his death.

Two 1343rd members who have never missed a reunion are John Webster and J.T. Collins, both of Athens. When the Athens-based 164-member battalion shipped out from Seattle on Jan. 17, 1951, aboard the USNS Marine Phoenix, Webster was a young, unmarried man, but Collins was already married with a 6-month-old son at home.

The predecessor of the 1343rd was formed Aug. 26, 1926, as the 127th Engineer Battalion (Mounted). Through activations and deactivations, the 1343rd was designated at the end of WWII and organized as a National Guard unit in February 1947.

The 1343rd was ordered into federal service again on Aug. 14, 1950.

Collins said Gen. Douglas MacArthur was “moving so fast, they liked to pushed them off the peninsula and supplies couldn’t keep up with him.”

After arriving in Pusan on February 9 after a 4-day layover on Yokohama, the 1343rd proved the old axiom of “hurry up and wait.”

“We had to wait three weeks for equipment,” said Collins. “All we had to eat was corned beef hash and we ate it three times a day.”

Their job in Korea was to keep the main supply route open to the front lines in support of the 1st Marine Division, the U.S. Army and the Republic of Korea Army.

“When we got to Seoul it was flattened,” said Webster, an equipment operator assigned to headquarters. “There was just nothing there. Seoul had no soul.”

The beleaguered South Koreans snatched whatever they could from the arriving troops and engineers, said Webster.

“We had our duffle bags tied to the sides of the dozers, and when we drove along, they cut them off so that when we got there we had no clothes,” said Webster.

“One guy fell asleep and they stole the shoestrings out of his boots,” said Collins.

Collins said as a combat Battalion, the 1343rd was often bivouacked just one-quarter to a half-mile behind the lines. He said the ROK military was deathly afraid of the fierce Chinese.

“The Chinese came en masses,” said Collins. “We were fortunate. We had 164 men when we left Athens and 164 came back. Jack Allen lost his leg. He had his leg over the side of the truck when it hit a landmine. Bobby Higgins was driving the truck and the mine blew off Allen’s right leg.”

One of the gruesome duties was burying Korean dead, said Webster.

“They would just roll them over in the ditch and throw a little dirt on them,” said Webster.

Not surprisingly, the corpses didn’t stay covered.

“We would dig holes to bury them in mass graves,” said Webster.

“One time I saw them stack them up like cord wood and burn them,” said Collins.

“And there were bloated bodies floating down the river on one side and our water purification plant on the other side,” said Webster. “But there was no other water, so we had to drink it.”

“We had these pills to put in our canteens when we wanted a cup of water,” said Collins.

There were also some bright spots to the 1343rd’s deployment, such as the time Jack Benny came to entertain them with the U.S.O. and brought along actress Jennifer Jones.

But their main functions was building roads by blasting through mountains and building bridges over the Soyang River.

“We built Bailey Bridges that were steel sectional bridges,” said Collins. “There was a pontoon bridge upstream and it came loose during a flood and Mabry knew it would take out our Bailey Bridges. Clyde said, ‘Sink it,’ some we began firing on it. He about got court marshaled for that, but he knew those bridges were the only way to get equipment across.”

The men said the best NCOs and officers they had were WWII veterans.

“They took care of us, like Clyde,” said Collins. “Clyde was the best officer I served under. He was strict and he’d chew you out if you messed up, and believe me, I messed up. But he didn’t hold a grudge and once he’d chewed you out, then you started all over again like it didn’t happen.”

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