News

Re-living the Legacy: 7th Engineer Support Battalion

26 Sep 2011 | Sgt. Shannon McMillan

It was August 1966 when 2nd Lt. Andrew J. Blenkle, from New Jersey, first landed at the foothills of Da Nang, Vietnam, ready to overcome the challenges of deployment.
It was Blenkle’s first deployment, and also the first deployment for 7th Engineer Battalion. A year earlier, on Aug. 6, 1965, the battalion departed the United States to land on foreign soil in Da Nang, placing a historical marker for the unit, according to the unit’s historical records.
As the platoon commander for 3rd Platoon, Company D, 7th Engineer Battalion, Blenkle was in charge of overseeing the construction of Liberty Road between the villages of Da Nang and An Hoa, the only route that was available to service members and local residents, said Blenkle.
“Being open did not mean that Liberty Road was safe for travel,” wrote James R. Kelley in the book Casting Alpha: Amtracs in Vietnam. “Snipers, booby traps and land mines were hazards that could not be avoided so civilians did not travel on Liberty Road.”
“I often asked myself, why [the Viet Cong] didn’t assault us on the road,” said Blenkle, retired colonel, 67, who currently resides in Mission Viejo, Calif. “It was rough, it was really rough.”
Due to the terrain, Blenkle explained that although infantry would provide security a mile out while the engineers worked on the road, he would bring his entire platoon out to provide security as well, sometimes encountering traps set by the enemy.
“I had a kid (who was posted at an observation post), and as I was walking in a direction, the kid said, ‘don’t go there, sir.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘We think there’s a booby trap there,’” Blenkle recalled while chuckling. “I just told him to keep everyone away until we were finished with business, and at the end of the day we went over there and, sure enough, there was one. I just said to the Marines, ‘Okay, let’s take care of it.”
Blenkle left Vietnam unscathed, but a friend of his – an infantryman with 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, who provided security as the Marines worked on Liberty Road – wasn’t so lucky.
“He was coming out with the sweep team ... and they got wiped out in an ambush,” said Blenkle, who remembered the day like it was yesterday.
“There was only one survivor out of 13 to 15 guys killed, and that was the same road we were working on, and it was the same road we had opened...”
Road construction is just one facet of the unit’s mission. For the past 60 years, the unit known today as 7th Engineer Support Battalion has provided service members, civilians and international citizens with mobility, shelter and quality of life enhancements.
According to the lineage of 7th ESB, the unit was activated as 7th Engineer Battalion, Sept. 29, 1950, at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The battalion originally consisted of Headquarters, Service, A, B, C and D companies with a Fixed Bridge Platoon and an attached Floating Bridge Platoon. 7th Engineer Battalion was reassigned to 1st Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, Oct. 25, 1955.
The battalion participated in the Vietnam War from August 1965 until 1970, when they were reassigned to 5th Marine Amphibious Brigade, Fleet Marine Force, according to historical records. In 1971, the unit was reassigned once more to 1st Marine Division.
The unit was re-designated in March 1976 as the 7th Engineer Support Battalion and was reassigned to 1st Force Service Support Group, currently known as 1st Marine Logistics Group. Shortly after being renamed, Bulk Fuel Company was added to 7th ESB for unit support.
In August 1990, Company B and elements of Company C began deploying in support of Operation Desert Shield to Saudi Arabia and returned to the United States April 24, 1991. In December 1992, 7th ESB deployed to Somalia in support of Operation Restore Hope, where they were confined to the port of Mogadishu and focused on maintaining engineering services, bulk fuel and utility operations, and maintaining road repair, route sweeping, and airfields, according to historical records.
7th ESB has also supported Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The battalion is currently comprised of three line companies (A, B, C), Support Company, Bulk Fuel Company, Headquarters and Service Company and 1st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company.
In addition to supporting combat operations, the unit has also supported the local community. The battalion’s skills proved useful in 1957 when the battalion was requested to expand the Santa Margarita River, a river on the Pacific Coast of southern California, due to flood conditions. The service members constructed a bridge with two support beams, which was the longest M-6 Bridge ever created at the time. From 1951-1954, the battalion not only conducted annual training exercises amongst the companies but also constructed and completed minor projects
around Camp Pendleton such as rehabilitations of mess halls and active duty clubs.
In 1975, when refugees arrived to the United States from South Vietnam seeking shelter, the battalion constructed tents, mess halls and drain fields to house the group. In 1978, Camp Pendleton was heavily hit by rain which resulted in damage to the base roads, bridges, ranges and rodeo grounds. Through the combined efforts of 7th ESB and 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, M-6 bridges were erected, support structures for a water main were built and the base rodeo grounds were repairedin time for the annual Camp Pendleton Rodeo, according to historical records.
Today, the battalion continues to provide support in the Global War on Terror and is currently deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in support of International Security Assistance Force operations.
“The missions the engineers were doing in Afghanistan and Iraq are essentially the same type of missions we were doing (in Vietnam), but with new and better technology,” said Blenkle. While looking back to his deployment more than 45 years ago, the retired Marine summed it up with a few words that apply across generational boundaries: “They were a great bunch of guys; they had my back and I had theirs.”
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