The United States built itself a bridge Sunday, conquering an unruly river that had stubbornly resisted spanning and opening the gateway for armored forces to occupy northeastern Bosnia.
Col. Steven R. Hawkins, chief engineer of the 1st Armored Division, saluted Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, commander of U.S. forces in Bosnia, midway between the Croatian and Bosnian shorelines. “Sir,” Hawkins announced, “at 1000 hours on 31 December 1995, the bridge was completed across the Sava River.”
Nash replied by giving the exhausted Hawkins a bearhug and a cigar, before ordering commencement of what the Army says will be its biggest river crossing since World War II, to enter the region it will patrol for the next year as a major contributor to the NATO peacekeeping effort.
Ninety minutes after the final pontoon had been muscled into place, the first vehicle edged at 5 mph across the nearly 600-yard span past a newly erected sign that read: “Welcome to Bosnia. Courtesy, Commander Task Force Eagle. Over the Sava, Sir!”
Bad weather and flooding during the past week had bedeviled the bridge, initially planned for completion by Christmas Day. The setbacks in crossing the river were frustrating Army commanders, and leading to suggestions of a U.S. deployment into Bosnia that is less than the swift show of force promised by the Pentagon with the signing of the Dayton peace accord ending the country’s 3-year war.
Military commanders had set Saturday as the latest deadline but eased up on their demands after visiting the site and seeing that unpredictable wind, rain and snow had taken a brutal toll on troops as well as the river site itself.
“It feels good,” said Sgt. Darryl Vickers, driver of the lead Humvee. “I didn’t ever think I’d be the first one over. We’re tired of just sitting around, and we’re glad to be moving.”
Soldiers riding in the column of tanks, Humvees and trucks that churned over the bridge were greeted with quiet waves and some tears by residents who lined the snowy levee on the Bosnian side of the river. As the vehicles passed farther down the narrow road and alongside charred and gutted homes in Serb-held territory, unarmed Serb soldiers stood back and nodded hello.
“I’m so happy they’re here,” said Djevdeta Tukuli, a 58-year-old woman from the river town of Orasje.
She rushed the first tanks carrying a quart of brandy and tried - unsuccessfully - to share a drink with some startled soldiers. “I have a daughter in Tuzla who I haven’t seen in four years. Maybe now I’ll be able to see her,” she said, wiping away tears.
“It means peace. It’s as simple as that,” said 14-year-old Ivica Klaic, smiling at an armored personnel carrier that flew a small American flag.
By nightfall 148 vehicles and more than 500 soldiers had crossed the river, including 12 70-ton Abrams tanks - the first on Bosnian soil - and 41 Bradley Fighting Vehicles of the 1st Squadron of the 1st Cavalry Regiment. The armored vehicles, escorted by helicopters, rolled south into the strategic Posavina corridor connecting the two large Serb-held portions of Bosnia.
The Sava bridge is the link between U.S. supply bases in Germany and the American headquarters of NATO in the northern Bosnian town of Tuzla. By the time the first tanks lumbered over it Sunday, the floating bridge had to be expanded to cover an almost 600-yard stretch of water and flooded land.
The first 225-yard link spanned a lagoon created by flooding early in the week. The second 373-yard bridge, about 40 yards longer than originally planned because of the high water, reached from riverbank to riverbank.
“I expected to have high water. That’s why I had extra pontoons,” Hawkins said. “I just didn’t expect to have a flood that occurs only once every 100 Decembers.”
Although some 1,500 soldiers and thousands of tons of equipment had been flown into Tuzla, spanning the Sava was key to bringing most of the 400 armored vehicles needed to patrol the sector.
“We’ll take bite-sized chunks as we get started. But we’ll get started with ensuring freedom of movement and establishing our presence today,” said Lt. Col. Gregory A. Stone, commander of a cavalry unit formed in 1836. “These 70-ton monsters we’ve got are very, very impressive.”
Not until engineers ranging in rank from private to colonel had tugged the final span in place with ropes - the ratched chain snapped in the bitter cold - did they permit themselves the luxury of congratulatory handshakes and high-fives. A cautious cheer rose from soldiers on the banks when the last latch was sealed about 10 a.m. Soldiers who had gotten little sleep in the previous three days stared glassy-eyed at the river before wolfing down a belated brunch of Rice Krispies and pound cake.
A dozen Army tugboats will keep the Sava current from bending the bridge until an overhead cable can be erected to anchor the span. In a week or so, engineers will start work on a second bridge to permit two-way traffic.