Company B from Southwest Pa. reunites, exchanges memories
The men who served in Company B of the 429th Engineer Battalion are growing old now, but the friendships they developed over the years of working together still bring smiles to their faces.
At least 31 members of the former Army Reserve outfit, from Connellsville, Monessen, Uniontown, Irwin and communities all over Southwestern Pennsylvania, gathered for a reunion in the picnic area of American Legion Roadman-White Post 941 in Donegal earlier this month for their third consecutive reunion.
Throughout the afternoon, they mingled and told stories of life in the unit.
According to former 1st Sgt. Joe Angel, 80, the unit was originally a company in the 326th Engineer Battalion. When the unit was activated during the Cuban missile crisis in 1963, the designation was changed to the 429th Engineer Battalion. Angel had spent four years on active duty before joining the reserves.
The 1963 event was the only time the unit was activated. The unit was designated as construction engineers until it was redesignated as combat engineer under President Richard Nixon.
Company B was first located in Connellsville before moving to Uniontown in 1968, then to Brownsville in 1972. The unit was disbanded in 1993.
Many, including Angel, retired at that time. Others, like Daun Arsenberger, 66, who lived in Mill Run, chose to go on active duty. Arsenberger retired in 2007 as an Army Chief Warrant Officer, CW5, with 42 years of service. He had been stationed in Salt Lake City when he retired.
CW5 is the highest warrant officer rank in the Army.
Throughout its history, Company B had a high retention rate. Many of the senior NCOs and warrant officers said that was because of the time spent having fun and working hard.
The men said they worked on many, probably hundreds of projects. Arsenberger said the project at Mill Run was probably the unit's best. Others included a Boy Scout camp near Latrobe.
George Elias, 74, was also a warrant officer, serving with the headquarters company of the battalion.
“When they deactivated the 429th, they kept the 463rd (engineer battalion) and they got rid of the 429th and in my opinion that was a big mistake because the 429th engineers were top notch,” Elias said.
He said the 463rd was kept because it was in Sen. Robert Byrd's county in West Virginia.
“In fact, I had lunch with Sen. Byrd because (we) did a project. The 429th Engineers did a project down in Berkeley Springs,” Elias said. “I had guys from A Company, B Company, C Company, D Company and Headquarters Company. And we leveled off 16 acres of ground and built four ball fields.
“Senator Byrd came down and I had to go down and have lunch with him. We did the project in 1986 and it was probably a couple of months later that that happened. B Company, they were a top-notch outfit. In fact the whole battalion was. What was nice about it, we had fun, and criticized each other and everything, but when it came down to it, to getting the job done, there was no fooling around.“
“We got yelled at sometimes because we did too much,” former member Mike Cook said.
All felt serving in the reserves was more difficult than serving in the regular military.
Elias said the lack of funds for spare parts was one problem.
“We all worked together,” he said. “If we a had machine that broke down, and one outfit didn't have the part, I would contact the other guys, Somebody would come through to supply the part.”
“It's easy as hell to be in the regular army but it's tough to be in the reserves,” Elias said.
“Because, number one, you've got a (civilian) job to worry about. You're trying to take care of your military career. You've got to have schooling. You've got to stay physically fit — especially guys like us, warrant officers. If you failed the physical training test, you've got 90 days to retake it. And if you failed the second one, you were gone.”
Arsenberger said 50 percent of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were reserve components.
“And they expect them to do all of this training on two days a month, usually. They're not on active duty and it's a lot harder.“
And there was never any money, Elias said. You couldn't get parts.
“Yeah, but back in the beginning, we had a lot of junk,” Arsenberger added.
“We had tractor trailers to move our equipment around,” Elias said. ”If they went down, they might be out for a year, two years.”
The former sergeants and warrant officers joked about poor relations with their officers. Yet, they showed a lot of respect for one former officer at the reunion.
Ben Bealko, 64, said he was an enlisted man for a number of years.
The men told of the last night when the unit was in Honduras.
Bealko somehow got hold of steaks. The meal was much appreciated.
The men said they worked hard and played hard. Yet, one common complaint was the time they had to spend away from their families, especially those who had children
Algie Gaborko, 81, of Dunbar; Mario Santa Columbo, 83, of Monessen; and Jim Sperry, 82, of Connellsville were platoon sergeants (master sergeants.)
They were sitting with Eugene Baker, 84, the former mess sergeant, or “dining room facilities supervisor” as he referred to himself. Arsenberger said Baker was the best mess sergeant he ever had. The mess sergeant was one important reason why the unit worked so well together.
Chuck McDowell, 72, played taps in honor of members who would no longer attend the unit reunions.
Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-626-3538.