Thursday, May 11, 2023

The Waycross Engineers: First Engineer Unit in the Georgia National Guard

 By Maj. William Carraway, Historian, Georgia National Guard


Left: Headquarters Detachment, 106th Engineer Regiment. Right: Cover of the historical account of the 106th Engineer Regiment during World War I. 
Georgia National Guard Archives.

The Army Corps of Engineers has a long history in connection with the Georgia National Guard. The corps itself traces its origin to the Continental Congress’ appointment of the Chief Engineer for the Army on June 16, 1775. Today, the engineer branch is well represented in the Georgia Army National Guard by the 878th Engineer Battalion, 177th Brigade Engineer Battalion, Construction Facilities Management Office and independent engineer units such as the 810th Engineer Company and 870th Explosives Hazards Coordination Cell. These units have supported overseas combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq while also serving at home in response to hurricanes and as part of Georgia’s coordinated response to the Coronavirus pandemic. With nearly 1,500 Citizen-Soldiers serving in engineer units in the state of Georgia in 2023, one might ponder, when did it all begin? What was the first engineer unit in the Georgia National Guard?


Origin of the Waycross Engineers

Brig. Gen. J. Van Holt Nash, Georgia's Adjutant General.
Georgia National Guard Archives.

In the spring of 1917, Brig. Gen. J. Van Holt Nash, Georgia’s Adjutant General approached Homer Dayton Langworthy about the possibility of mustering a unit of engineers. Langworthy, a civil engineer who served as the superintendent of the Macon Water Works, already had experience in military engineering having directed the construction of Camp Harris near Macon, which served as a mustering camp for the Georgia National Guard before their deployment to the Mexican border in 1916.

On April 22, Langworthy convened a meeting at the Lanier Hotel in Macon to solicit enlistments to form an engineer unit.[1] By the end of the month, the first engineer company had been raised in Waycross. The company was inspected by Nash on May 11, and mustered into service.[2] The city of Waycross supported the organization effort by providing funds for an armory.[3]

On June 21, 1917, The Waycross Pioneer Engineer Company was accepted into federal service under the command of Capt. Walter Gray.[4] The company departed for Macon’s Camp Wheeler with 130 Soldiers June 25.[5] Among its ranks were three brothers from one Waycross family.[6]

Langworthy continued his recruiting efforts into the summer of 1917. On July 7, Langworthy issued an appeal to masons and carpenters of Macon to form a company from that city.[7] He continued his efforts across the state appealing to the citizens of Albany to answer the call to service.

While Langworthy was stumping for recruits, the Waycross engineers, who arrived at Camp Wheeler without tents, moved into buildings previously occupied by the Georgia Hussars of the Georgia National Guard’s 2nd Cavalry Squadron. To the chagrin of some of the camp occupants, the engineers also took up residence on land that had formerly been occupied by the camp baseball diamond forcing the cancellation of some anticipated matches.[8]

Proud to be the home of Georgia’s first engineer unit, the citizens of Waycross continued to support their hometown Guard unit. The city solicited donations to purchase colors for the company while its Soldiers were busily employed surveying new rifle ranges for Camp Wheeler.[9],[10] Funds were secured, and by October 12, the flag was ready to be presented to the company.[11]


Headquarters, Waycross Engineers, Company A, 106th Engineer Regiment. Georgia National Guard Archives.

Forming and Training the 106th Engineer Regiment

Sergeant Milton Porter.
Georgia National Guard Archives

On October 1, 1917, the 106th Engineer Regiment was formed with the Waycross Engineers constituting Company A. The Waycross company provided most of the personnel for the regimental staff, including Capt. Gray. The regiment was assigned to the 31st Division along with most of the units of the Georgia National Guard.

The Waycross Engineers suffered their first loss November 17, 1917 with the death of Sgt. Milton Porter. The 22-year-old Soldier died of pneumonia at Camp Wheeler. On December 11, the engineers lost their most strident patron as Langworthy died at home after a brief illness. Just 30 years old, Langworthy left behind a wife and two children.[12]

In June 1918, the 106th embarked on a 120-mile hike leaving Camp Wheeler June 11 with Capt. William Harper commanding Company A. The engineers camped in Jeffersonville, Dudley, and Dublin where they were received by Red Cross volunteers. In Dublin, the mayor saw that the engineers had access to electricity and hot showers at the city fairgrounds. The engineers completed the 120 mile hike June 18 with a final section of 22 miles.[13] 

Soldiers of the 106th Engineer Regiment were among those who completed a course of instruction in gas defense at Camp Wheeler in May 1918.
Georgia National Guard Archives.

In addition to regular physical exercise, the company trained in the engineering tasks they would employ overseas. Across a ravine dubbed the River Rhine, the 106th Engineers practiced bridge building.[14]


The platoons of the Waycross Engineers, Company A.  Top: 1st and 2nd Platoon. Bottom: 3rd and 4th Platoon. Georgia National Guard Archives.


The 106th was pronounced fit for overseas service August 31, 1918 and began preparations to leave Camp Wheeler. The regiment departed Macon September 7 in sections and reassembled at Camp Mills, New York where it received an issue of equipment.[15]

The 106th tarried at Camp Mills for less than a week before boarding a train for Hoboken, N.J. where the Soldiers boarded the H.M.S. Balmoral Castle. The ship departed for France September 16 and steamed past the Statue of Liberty at sunset. That evening, the Balmoral Castle joined a convoy of 12 transports, three destroyers and two battlecruisers and began the transit of the Atlantic the next morning. The voyage was eventful with a dense fog nearly causing the collision of two ships. A German submarine surfaced and exchanged shots with the convoy on September 24 before disappearing beneath the waves.[16]

On September 28, the Balmoral Castle landed at Glasgow, Scotland and the 106th boarded a train bound for the south of England. After two days of rest, the Soldiers left Southampton and arrived in LeHavre France early the next morning. They were among the first Soldiers of the 31st Division to arrive in France. The regiment moved to Brest by rail with the second battalion delayed by an outbreak of spinal meningitis that forced the battalion to quarantine for ten days. The regiment was reunited October 20 in Brest by which time the Waycross Engineers were already employed in the construction of buildings at Camp Pontanezen, which would become the largest camp established by the U.S. Army and serve as the debarkation depot for troops returning to the United States. Upon their arrival, the site of Camp Pontanezen was a veritable sea of mud with no structures. The engineers pitched their camp in the mud and cooked their meals over fires at field ranges while they labored to erect the structures that would house thousands of American Soldiers.[17] Among the first troops to call Pontanezen home were Soldiers of the 31st Division, including the Georgia National Guard’s 121st Infantry Regiment.[18]


Camp Pontanezen in 1918. Library of Congress.

The Builders of Camp Pontanezen

Over the next six months, the 106th Engineer Regiment and other units transformed the muddy fields of France into a vast city comprised of nearly 1,000 buildings with five miles of roads, plank walkways, and a dedicated water system. The scale of the work accomplished by the 106th is staggering not only in scale but for the conditions endured by its Soldiers as Brest received rain on 331 days in 1918. Undeterred, the engineers erected more than 400 barracks buildings and nearly 70 kitchens and mess halls capable of feeding 100,000 Soldiers.[19]

Elevated walkways at Camp Pontanezen constructed by the 106th Engineer Regiment. United States Marine Corps Archives.

The 106th Engineers returned to the United States in 1919 and were mustered out of federal services, but the efforts of their labor endured for decades. In September, 1944, the 121st Infantry Regiment returned to Pontanezen, this time while advancing to seize the city of Brest from German forces.[20]

[1] “Engineers to Meet Today,” The Macon Telegraph, April 22, 1917, 4.

[2] “Nash Will Muster In Waycross Engineers,” The Atlanta Constitution, May 11, 1917, 7.

[3] “House Waycross Engineers,” The Macon Telegraph, May 16, 1917, 8.

[4] “Waycross Co. of Engineers Put Into Federal Service,” The Macon Telegraph, June 21, 1917, 7.

[5] “Company from Waycross on Way,” The Brunswick News, June 26, 1917, 1.

[6] “Three Brothers in Company,” The Macon Telegraph, June 24, 1917, 5.

[7] “To Organize Macon Engineers,” The Atlanta Constitution, July 8, 1917, 7.

[8] “Lose Old Ball Diamond,” The Macon Telegraph, July 13, 1917, 10.

[9] “Waycross to Present Pioneer Engineers a Handsome Flag,” The Macon News, August 2, 1917.

[10] “Engineers Are Busy,” The Macon News,” September 13, 1917, 10.

[11] “Flag For Waycross Engineers Arrives,” The Macon News, October 12, 1917, 7.

[12] “Macon’s Supt. Expired Yesterday,” The Atlanta Constitution, December 12, 1917, 16.

[13] “Engineers’ Regiment Completes Long Hike,” The Atlanta Constitution, June 18, 1918, 10.

[14] “Dump No. 1 Serves as Rhine for Engineers,” The Macon Telegraph, July 26, 1918, 10.

[15] 106th Regt. Engrs. Builders of Camp Pontanezen, (Paris, France, 1919), 8.

[16] 106th Regt. Engrs. Builders of Camp Pontanezen, (Paris, France, 1919), 8.

[17] 106th Regt. Engrs. Builders of Camp Pontanezen, (Paris, France, 1919), 9.

[19] 106th Regt. Engrs. Builders of Camp Pontanezen, (Paris, France, 1919), 10.

[20] 121st Infantry Regiment, The Gray Bonnet; Combat History of the 121st Infantry Regiment. (Baton Rouge, LA: Army & Navy Publishing Company, 1946), 40-42.

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