Engineers

Engineers build a bridge during training at Fort Belvoir.

The Engineer Replacement Training Center, Fort Belvoir

Editor’s Note: On June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified French coastline, to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, including engineers trained at Fort Belvoir. By day’s end, the Allies gained a foot-hold in Continental Europe marking the beginning of the end of Nazi domination of the continent. 

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings and the Eagle looks back at Fort Belvoir’s part in training those engineer Soldiers. Honoring the Past – Securing the Future. 

The outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939 and the Japanese expansion in Asia and the Pacific motivated the United States government to begin preparing for possible involvement in the expanding world conflict. Army engineers would be needed to provide critical support to Allied forces by building roads and bridges, clearing obstacles, providing maps and engineering demolitions. To prepare engineers adequately for their wartime role, Fort Belvoir once again became one of the Army’s primary engineer training sites. 

Fort Belvoir expanded 

To accommodate the influx of draftees after 1940, an additional 3,000 acres north of U.S. Route 1 were acquired to make room for the new Engineer Replacement Training Center. 

In March 1941, the ERTC facility began to provide basic military engineer training to draftees. Originally, the ERTC program was designed as a 12-week course, but its duration was shortened to eight weeks early in 1942 when the demand for troops escalated dramatically after Pearl Harbor. 

Recruits were schooled in reconnaissance, unit coordination, road and obstacle construction and demolition. After mid-1942, Belvoir began training engineer specialists in operating construction machinery, carpentry, drafting and surveying. As the war progressed and new weapons were developed, specialized courses in weapons operation were added to the curriculum. Engineers learned about tanks and their uses, flamethrowers and anti-aircraft guns. By the end of the war in 1945, the ERTC at Fort Belvoir had trained roughly 147,000 engineer troops. 

The Engineer School appointed Lt. Col. William M. Hoge as the first commanding officer of the ERTC. Hoge was a rising star within the Army. During his tour of duty there, he designed an obstacle course (popularly known as a “steeplechase for Soldiers”) for military and physical fitness training. A Fort Belvoir invention, the course was designed to teach recruits how to handle themselves and their equipment in simulated field conditions. Belvoir’s obstacle course incorporated walls to climb over, hurdles to jump over, barbed wire to crawl under, ditches to swing over and pipes to crawl through. The course operated at the ERTC during the spring of 1941 and was replaced in November 1941 with a more rigorous one designed by Maj. Lewis Prentiss. Proven to be a highly effective training exercise, the obstacle course was adopted at Army installations throughout the country. 

Later in the war, Hoge was given command of the Provisional Engineer Special Brigade Group, which included two Engineer Special Brigades. On June 6, 1944, Hoge’s command, with many Soldiers trained at Fort Belvoir, played a significant part in securing the initial beachhead at Omaha Beach in Normandy, and he remained in command of the beachhead until July. Hoge was later appointed to command Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division, which successfully defended St. Vith during the Battle of the Bulge. On March 7, 1945, the leading elements of his command seized the Ludendorff Railroad Bridge over the Rhine River at Remagen. 

The demands of the global conflict created personnel shortages, and various strategies were developed to overcome these shortfalls. To remedy the shortage of qualified officers during the early years of the war, an Engineer Officer Candidate School was established at Fort Belvoir in July 1941. During the course of the war, EOCS commissioned over 22,000 new second lieutenants. 

Engineer Training 

By November 1942, 30,260 personnel were assigned to the post. Nearby locations were cited for fixed and floating bridges, demolitions, field fortifications, roads, obstacles and weapons training areas. Heavy engineer equipment, machines and pontoon boats poured in. During the second year (March 1942 – March 1943), 120 bridges of all kinds were constructed. Four hundred timber obstacles were erected, and 36 anti-tank ditches were dug. Over 200,000 yards of barbed wire were used to construct field fortifications. In the floating bridge area – a 2,000-foot dredged channel that averaged 250 feet wide – six companies could train simultaneously. Accotink Creek, on the west side of the Belvoir peninsula, could accommodate four steel bridges, 16 wooden trestle bridges and 48 foot bridges. Bailey Bridge training followed final adoption of the bridge by the Corps of Engineers in February 1943. 

In the spring of 1943, the ERTC’s emphasis shifted from furnishing fillers for new units to replacing battle casualties. Soldiers normally trained Monday thru Friday and a half-day on Saturday. Higher headquarters required all replacements must “so far as practicable…be subjected during training to every sight, sound and sensation of battle.” Realistic conditions included live ammunition, land mines and night bridging. Experiences in North Africa called for more tanks to add realism and to test bridges and obstacles. Instructors placed greater emphasis on building physical endurance. 

Soldiers soon began training at locations off post. Convoys were organized to transport trainees to Big Meadows in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Luray, Va. where Soldiers lived and trained for three weeks in the field under simulated combat conditions. Later on, this training moved to Fort A.P. Hill, about 15 miles southeast of Fredericksburg, Va. This training culminated in a 20-mile road march. Each Soldier carried a rifle, carbine or pistol; a field jacket; helmet; canvas leggings; gas mask; and a cartridge belt with first aid pack, canteen and light pack. 

At the end of World War II in 1945, Fort Belvoir became a demobilization center designed to ease the transition between military and civilian life.