MURRELLS INLET, S.C. - He was once a young private in the U.S. Army, building pontoons to construct bridges to cross the Rhine River while returning enemy fire during World War II with the U.S. Army 508th Engineers.
More than 70 years later, Walter Herhal never imagined the modernization of capabilities he witnessed Saturday at Wacca Wache Landing on the Waccamaw River observing the S.C. Army National Guard.
Engineers from the 125th Multi-Role Bridge Company (MRBC), S.C. Army National Guard, were tasked with constructing a temporary floating bridge to ferry equipment and supplies from the landing to Sandy Island to support "Palmetto Thunder", a joint training exercise with local civilian authorities and the South Carolina National Guard.
"Things are much different now than when we built pontoons to carry the supplies across the Rhine," said the 91-year-old Herhal, who now lives in Pennsylvania and was in Murrells Inlet visiting his daughter and son-in-law. "We had to carry the sections ourselves and use rope to pull them together."
The 125th MRBC is equipped with the Dry Support Bridge System (DBS) and can deploy a 40-meter bridge in fewer than 90 minutes during daytime. The bridge sections are palletized and transported by the 600-horsepower Palletized Load System (PLS).
"This scenario provides us with the opportunity to gain real-world experience so that we will be prepared to provide relief to our community," said Pvt. 1st Class Serenia Thatcher, a bridge crew member with the 125th MRBC.
South Carolina is prone to hurricanes, which pose a concern to residents annually with a storm season that runs from June until November. One of the major missions of the 125th MRBC is to provide support and relief to the state coast and neighboring islands.
"We can go out and build our bridges and transport any civilians who need our help," said Thatcher. "My family lives in Charleston and it could be my relatives that are need of help. It makes me feel good to know that I can go out and help and save lives."
Agencies from Georgetown and Horry Counties, along with units from the South Carolina Army National Guard, participated in the training exercise that depicted response efforts in the aftermath of a mock commercial airliner crashing on approach to Myrtle Beach International Airport near Sandy Island.
Due to the location of the simulated crash site and debris field, the South Carolina National Guard was called to train with various support capabilities including rotary aircraft, water purification, security and hazardous materals response. Almost 300 personnel from different units in the state National Guard supported "Palmetto Thunder."
For Herhal, who had seen the bridge engineers surveying the landing the day before the exercise started, he knew he wanted to be present on Feb. 1 to see the bridging units deployed into the Waccamaw River for himself.
"It is really incredible to see how this all comes together and how much different it is when we built bridges for the artillery to cross the Rhine," said Herhal.
For the members for the 125th MRBC, it was an honor for them to meet one of the engineers who had laid the bridge before them. Even though they are not anchoring the sections in the river and securing them by hammering pins and tying ropes, they are still fulfilling the same mission, to provide relief and to save lives.
"It's moments like this between Mr. Herhal and our Guard soldiers that makes a difference," said Brig. Gen. Darlene Goff, Director of Joint Staff for the South Carolina National Guard. "While we provide life saving capabilities and train to accomplish missions, it's really about people. That's what the National Guard is about."