The Early Cartwright Era
4 June 1976 – 4 December 1976
On that crisp, bright, sky blue morning of 4 June 1976 when Cpt. John G. Cartwright III assumed his new duty as commander of the 1097th, little did he, or the rest of the company, realize just what marvels and mysteries the next few months held in store for them. The new commander had been at his job only a few weeks when he received confirmation of the rumors, which had been running rampant for quite a while around the 10th Trans BN. A medium boat company was indeed being transferred to the Panama Canal Zone. And it was in fact going to be the 1097th Trans Co (MB).
So began officially the long, sometimes difficult, always exciting exodus of the unit from its womb in Virginia to the real world of the Canal Zone.
From the beginning, 31 August 1976 was preconceived target date and all planning naturally enough, was using that as the in country date for the unit. Eagerly the company staff set about to begin its work. There was just so much that needed to be accomplished and so many questions that needed to be answered. Immediately, delays outside the company and on higher levels caused discord and confusion. Such elementary problems as personnel and equipment caused internal squabbles and bickering which immediately had the company staff shaking its head in utter horror. The days passed and turned into weeks and still nothing solid was finalized. In addition, direct communications with the Canal Zone itself wasn’t paying the desired dividends. Many abstract and non-official questions persisted, compounded themselves, and led to uneasiness. Within the company proper however, none of this was evident. Espirit de Corps was at a fever high and packing banding painting, scraping, borrowing and planning were continuing at a frantic pace.
Finally, in late July the unit got a break. A two-man liaison team was authorized to actually visit the Canal Zone on a fact-finding mission. Chosen for the assignment were 2LT John Crenshaw, a new, inexperienced, and highly impressionable young officer, and 1SG Carol O. Ekern, an old wily veteran who knew what information to look for and how to dig for it. In their ten day journey, this unlikely duo worked like a well oiled machine and performed credibly, bringing back much invaluable information as well as the intangible which seemed to mean so much in a time like that.
A renewal of hope and excitement sparked the unit. A slide show had been placed together which proved invaluable in identifying necessary tropical modifications for the vessels. The dock and billeting facilities, and an overall scope of the area. Plans could now be much more precisely and within weeks final preparations in the different sections began to materialize.
An influx of skilled and experienced personnel entered and beefed the unit up in an array of critical areas. On the officer level, 1LT Michael A. Morra and 2LT Mack C. Hagewood arrived and gave the unit a more solid and varied upper leadership core. With 2LT Crenshaw and 1LT Kenneth R. Hardy, CPT Cartwright’s officer allotment was set.
On the enlisted side a number of sorely needed experts and specialists were acquired and proceeded to blend in nicely with the already existing veteran corps. Such experts as SFC Carrol I Fowlkes, SSG Tony Jaggers, SP5 Nester Oliveria, SP5 Alfred Jones, SP5 William Heinrich, SP4 Geoffrey Hilton, and SP4 James Melvin, filled out the senior links and guaranteed maximum professionalism.
One sure strain on the unit would be the very demanding and rigorous PT requirements set forth by the 193rd Brigade Commander, MG William H. Richardson. In accordance with that, a twice a day PT program was developed. As it turned out, that extra training made PT in the Canal Zone bearable.
Again, time began to drag. Days and weeks rolled by with no definite word on departure. Negative rumors began to spread, some even indicating cancellation of the whole project. Unit Espirit began to waiver and tempers began to flare. Something was needed to lift the unit’s spirits so naturally enough a beer blast was planned. Although things started off slowly, the party picked up and soon became as rowdy as any 1097th get-together traditionally gets. During this early peak in the party, CPT Cartwright was hurriedly summoned to the 10th Battalion Message Center. The message was exactly what the unit wanted to hear. Finally the words "prepare to move out" really meant something. With the information concealed behind grinning teeth, the captain reported back to the beer blast and made the announcement. Pandemonium and hell broke loose instantly. Indeed, many unit alcoholic consumption records that fateful afternoon, evening, night, and next morning.
The unit was again in its rightful place, on top of the world. The next immediate priority was to train the advance party. Assigned to lead the advance party south was 2LT Crenshaw. With nine other troops, including SSG George Jacobs. SSG Chuck Williams, and SGT Rusty Hogan, the team departed Newport News on 29 September 1976 and ventured forth into the darkness and excitement of the strangely unknown. For the next nineteen days, the time before the main body arrived, the advanced party transformed the unbelievably horrible barracks into functionally working and living quarters. It also opened up unit channels in a number of administrative and operational areas. Lastly it organized and executed the reception and settling down of the main body on its arrival.
During this timespan, the main body was preparing for its enormously difficult and complicated move. Frenzied activity categorized those final weeks, days hours and minutes as those final, finishing touches never quite seemed to be final nor finished. Checks and double-checks were done on everything imaginable and unimaginable. Departure time crept slowly and then suddenly swiftly upon those 130 men, women and children. Up, up. Into the dark chilly skys towards Charleston, South Carolina ventured the huge metal bird. With a short layover scheduled there were no major problems anticipated. But as time dragged on and on from Charleston and still no takeoff misery and fatigue combined to inflict a torturous on that very cold early morning of 18 October 1976. Finally, relief…after seven hours of layover the now Panama bound clan quickly and ever more cheerfully moved out to the aircraft and a meeting with a new and entirely different world.
After its arrival and settling down, the company went to work the very next day. Building 234 and Dock 45 were emerged in bustling activity. Fort Davis had so suddenly and effortlessly been invaded by those: "Waterbornes" (!?!) in black hats that the resident infantry recoiled in confusion. When they regained their composure, the grunts once again had to be educated as to what and who the Waterbornes were. After that, only infrequent reminders were necessary.
Much to the units discomfort and contrary to popular belief, immediate pressure was placed on it from above, not only from both command channels but from independent sources as well. Personnel throughout the unit from captains to the lowest private each felt this pressure in his or her own way. The going was marked with setback after setback, but the advance continued. Family problems with complications of tropical adjustment proved an added negative bonus, still the troops fought valiantly, each trying to make headway in whatever specialty was theirs. Slowly the situation improved as the different sections began to jell. By early December one could almost feel the tip of the iceberg. The company was beginning to become its old self again.
Meanwhile back at Fort Eustis, newly newly promoted 1LT Hagewood and his rear party were making final preparations for shipping all of the unit’s equipment. They also continued to smooth out problems, both official and personal which they had inherited upon the departure of the main body. On 15 November 1976, the rear party completed the long process of the 1097th move to the Canal Zone when it flew in late that night. The unit was now intact in its new home…to live and prosper or to wither and die by its own hands.
Besides the advance, main and rear parties, one other autonomous group left its imprint on the unit. That was the existing Harborcraft Section already there. Commanded by SFC Null and ably assisted by SFC Clemons, SSG Larry Jones and SSG "Pappy" Berg, this crack section not only continued its own overworked schedule, but was invaluable to the company proper in all its efforts of adjustment. To this dedicated group, especially SFC Carroll E. Null, sincere and most deserved thanks is rendered.
Today, the company is organized into four platoons under the guidance of CPT Cartwright and 1SG Ekern. The HQ Platoon is headed by 2LT Crenshaw and SFC Null. The Maintenance Platoon is headed by 1LT Hardy and the brilliant SFC Mac McAllister. 1LT Hagewood and SFC Clemons direct the First Vessel Platoon as 1LT Morra and SSG Williams with the Second Vessel Platoon. 1LT Morra is also tasked with the demanding requirements of being unit Executive Officer. The Motor Pool is operated by SSG Jack Brown and SP5 Mitch Johnson. The mess hall falls under the brilliant hands of SFC Carroll Fowlkes. The supply room is controlled by SGT Hogan with SGT Harris. Operations is currently being run by the two old men of the unit, SSG James Hatcher and SSG Elvin "Pappy" Berg. The Pacific Operations is being directed by SFC Morris Cuffee and SSG Larry Jones. Finally there is the most important areas of all…the troops themselves who have shown remarkable resourcefulness and toughness in dealing with the extreme challenges thrown their way unmercifully.
4 December 1976