Soldiers Honor History in First 'Blood on the Water' Competition

U.S. veteran Robert Howard, who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, returns to Normandy for the first time on June 5. Before Howard and his comrades-in-arms hit the beach on June 6, 1944, the 37th Engineer Battalion had already cleared the way for them. (Getty Images/Matt Cardy)
U.S. veteran Robert Howard, who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, returns to Normandy for the first time on June 5. Before Howard and his comrades-in-arms hit the beach on June 6, 1944, the 37th Engineer Battalion had already cleared the way for them. (Getty Images/Matt Cardy)

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -- More than 74 years ago, soldiers with the 37th Engineer Battalion were among the first to storm the beaches of Normandy during World War II's D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.

The troops cleared Omaha Beach of obstacles to make way for the 1st Infantry Division soldiers who followed them ashore.

On Friday, Army paratroopers of the modern day 37th Brigade Engineer Battalion (BEB) paid tribute to that history, storming the shores of McKellar's Pond as part of a friendly competition that honored the unit's legacy.

The first "Blood on the Water" competition was part of a week-long celebration of the battalion's 100-year history, which began in 1918 and includes service in World War I.

"It's important for our paratroopers today to understand our connection to history," said Lt. Col. Dan Herlihy, the commander of the 37th BEB.

"It's about reconnecting with our past," Herlihy added. "It's about reconnecting with our great legacy."

The 37th BEB, known as Eagle Battalion, is relatively new to the 82nd Airborne Division -- the battalion was activated as part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team in 2013.

And its history is unique, having been both an amphibious and an airborne combat engineer unit.

Following its activation in 1918, the battalion saw action at St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne in World War I and in Normandy, Northern France, the Rhineland and Central Europe in World War II.

Inactivated after each of the world wars, the 37th Engineer Battalion was called to service again at Fort Bragg in 1987. The unit was part of the 20th Engineer Brigade during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield and later served in Kosovo, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan before being inactivated once again in 2010.

On Friday, five teams of soldiers -- representing each of the battalion's companies -- went head-to-head as the culmination of the unit's centennial celebration.

Each team of one dozen soldiers carried an inflatable boat around McKellar's Pond before launching and weaving their way around buoys amid simulated gunfire and artillery blasts.

The soldiers then came ashore, dodging obstacles and low-crawling under barbed wire before a mad dash to the finish line.

B Company, known as the Bushmasters, took the lead in the waters of McKellar's Pond and never relented.

Their success was rewarded with the inaugural "Spirit of the Eagle" trophy -- a red-painted caltrop with the names of three World War II heroes stenciled onto its spine.

Capt. Matthew Rohe, commander of B Company, said the soldiers came to the competition with only one goal: to win.

"There's a lot of pride," he said. "It was close. But we wanted it."

Rohe -- -- wearing red and white face paint -- -- said history is important in the 82nd Airborne Division. And the battalion shares its unique history as much as possible.

"This is about reconnecting with the unit and reliving its history," he said.

Herlihy said there was no way the battalion could replicate the environment of Omaha Beach. But, he said the competition was realistic and relevant training that could help the battalion in future missions.

With his soldiers gathered around him, Herlihy spoke of the legends whose names adorn the Spirit of the Eagle trophy.

Pvt. William J. Shoemaker, Pvt. Vinton W. Dove and 1st Lt. Robert P. Ross each earned the Distinguished Service Cross during the D-Day invasion.

Shoemaker and Dove alternated behind the wheel of an unarmed bulldozer, clearing obstacles while drawing fire from enemy artillery and mortar fire and then pushed inland to batter roadblocks and destroy tank traps.

Ross, meanwhile, assumed command of a leaderless infantry company on the beach and led those soldiers and his own engineer platoon as they destroyed two enemy machine gun emplacements, killing 40 enemy troops.

Those three men are part of an incredible legacy, Herlihy said. But it's also a legacy that continues into the modern day.

The commander noted that many of the soldiers competing in the Blood on the Water competition were serving in Iraq last summer. The troops were based in Mosul, where they were helping to oust the Islamic State from the major Iraqi city.

Herlihy said educating soldiers on their unit history "begins on day one" in the 82nd Airborne.

The week's events, which also include a physical fitness competition, a run and a battalion ball, would hopefully become an annual celebration of that history, officials said.

"We want to carry on our legacy," Herlihy said. "I'm proud to be in the battalion."

As for B Company, Rohe said the unit would be ready to defend its title.

"You're only good as your last fight," he said. "We start training tomorrow."


This article is written by Drew Brooks from The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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