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U.S. Soldiers Finally Finish Bridge to Bosnia

January 01, 1996|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZUPANJA, Croatia — Under a cold, gray sky, the first main combat elements of the U.S. Army rumbled into Bosnia-Herzegovina on Sunday, crossing the flooded Sava River on a pontoon bridge that Army engineers had struggled for days to get into place.

"This is another step, another chapter in history," said Lt. Col. Greg Stone, commander of the 1st Cavalry's 1st Squadron--the first unit to cross the temporary bridge from Croatia into Bosnia to begin enforcing the Dayton, Ohio, peace accord.

The ribbon pontoon bridge was finally completed at 10 a.m., when weary combat engineers, who had worked around the clock for three days, linked the last two segments of the structure meant to carry the bulk of the 20,000 U.S. soldiers taking part in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led peacekeeping mission into Bosnia.

Following a massive 60-ton tank bearing the red-and-white banner of the 1st Cavalry, a convoy of 150 vehicles trundled across the floating bridge and reached the town of Orasje, where several hundred local residents standing shoulder to shoulder solemnly watched the military display.

Grinning broadly, Pvt. Larry Morrison, 22, of Kansas City, Mo., drove the lead tank--a task he was assigned the day before when the vehicle's usual driver fell sick.

Before hopping into the driver's seat, Morrison--who joined the Army three months ago--called his mother and told her to watch for him on television. Then, as he prepared to lead a procession of the United States' mightiest combat vehicles, Morrison leaned over to talk to a visitor.

"I just hope the bridge holds," he said.

It did.

For Morrison, the 400 soldiers who crossed the river and the hundreds of combat engineers who toiled on the bridge, it was a day of triumph and exhilaration after two weeks of delays, bitter cold and slogging through ankle-deep mud. In an instant, those memories were obliterated, replaced by what seemed a grand adventure.

"There are days you will look back at, and this is one of those days," said Capt. Thomas Dorame, commander of the 1st Squadron's A Troop, dubbed "the Assassins."

"I'll look back at this river crossing 40 years from now."

The swift-flowing Sava, which has lately neared its highest levels in 100 years, stymied Army officials as it rose more than 10 feet in one week and then flooded tent camps--drenching soldiers with three feet of icy water in the middle of the night--after breaking through a levee.

The flooding meant that combat engineers had to assemble not only a bridge to span the 300-yard river but also a bridge to cross a 250-yard inlet caused by the high waters.

The Sava bridge will take the place of a road bridge blown up three years ago. Since that bridge's destruction, which each side blames on the other, a ferry has served as the sole means of travel here between Croatia and Bosnia.

Before the convoy reached the bridge Sunday, the tension was almost palpable. The military radio crackled with orders. Military police barked about keeping the convoy together.

"This is like the kickoff beginning a game," Stone, the 1st Squadron commander, said. "Everyone feels the heebie-jeebies."

All the drivers were ordered into formation and given instructions about driving on the bridge, one of the largest used in a mission since the Korean War. The vehicles were to be spaced 100 yards apart. The four-wheel ones could go 15 mph; the others were to go 5 mph. No gear shifting; no sharp turns. And lastly, open windows and hatches--just in case a vehicle tumbled into the water.

Some speculated that the bridge might sway with the current or sag with the weight of heavy tanks. But the experienced drivers pooh-poohed such talk.

"All you do is drive and don't touch anything," said Spc. John Boyd, 25, a New Jersey native who had driven on a pontoon bridge during training exercises. "You can see the water, but it doesn't feel like a pontoon bridge."

As the convoy neared the river, passing snow-covered fields, soldiers could see the crowds gathered on each bank. Even Stone, their usually unflappable leader, became excited. He whipped out a camera and snapped a shot of the bridge before being pulled from his Humvee so he could face television cameras.

By the time the Klieg lights were turned off, Stone's Humvee had proceeded across the bridge without him. Nearby, standing atop the remains of the bombed-out old bridge, Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, the commander of U.S. Army forces here, teased Stone about his newfound celebrity.

"Did you tell them about eighth grade?" Nash asked.

Unabashed, Stone strode on foot across the bridge.

"I lost my dang ride," he said, as he passed a sign attached to the bridge reading "Welcome to Bosnia."

As Stone walked, he could scarcely contain his enthusiasm. He thanked military police and combat engineers; he hailed boat drivers and fuel carriers. And when he finally reached his own soldiers, he turned to them and said: "You guys ought to be proud, proud to be cavalry. There is only one unit that could be first--that's us."

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