CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
John L. Booth
Cold War Oral History Interview
US Army, 11th Engineer Battalion, 902nd Float Bridge Company
Date: June 29, 2016
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, William Elwell
Summarizer: William Elwell
Retired US Army Colonel John L. Booth served in the Army Corps of Engineers through a significant segment of the Cold War and beyond, during a career of almost thirty years, while in both Germany and the United States.
Booth hails from a military family. His paternal grandfather served as an infantry private in World War I and was the victim of a gas attack, the results of which would ultimately lead to his death in 1954. His maternal grandfather served as a secretary for the American Red Cross in the First World War and enlisted for flight training shortly before the war ended. Although he never served overseas himself, his grandfather assisted veterans returning home to Washington State. Booth’s father served in the US Army Air Forces in the Second World War, flying twenty-six missions as a B-17 co-pilot with the 100th “Bloody Hundredth” Bomb Group over Europe. Following the war, he remained in the Air Force Reserve and was recalled for the Korean War, retiring in 1969.
John Booth was born in November, 1946. With his father’s return to active duty, the family traveled to various posts around the country and world. He spent a number of his childhood and adolescent years in Bangkok, Thailand and attended the International School of Thailand, where he recalled that his class “had seven nationalities in it.” Booth returned to the United States to attend college at Western New England University. After signing up for the draft, he transferred to the University of Maine for its ROTC program and reduced tuition. Booth tried to originally join Air Force ROTC, but it was easier to attend the Army ROTC on campus at the University of Maine. He eventually did neither, but graduated as an engineer, and then attempted to enlist in the Air Force. A recruiter told him that “sometime before my enlistment was up I might be able to attend Officer Candidate School; but, they didn’t guarantee it,” so Booth instead went to work for Westinghouse. After waiting “eight months for a six-month draft deferment,” he decided to enlist in the Army, with the option of attending Officer Candidate School at age twenty-three.
Booth entered basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He remembers that “As a bigger guy…they put me as a road guard, and me and the other bigger guys would run ahead and stop traffic…it was an effort to get more energy or exercise. I lost a lot of weight.” “Road guards” would run ahead of a marching column to halt traffic, until the column passed an intersection, and then run back to their position in the column.
Booth tried to time his entry into boot camp for the fall, to avoid the New Jersey summer heat, and to time a potential OCS course to end before the following summer. He arrived at Fort Dix in September, and was later sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for Advanced Training. That winter was quite cold, and Booth was “sure at one point that [he] got frost nip in his toes from building bridges in the ice and snow.” He remembered that KP [Kitchen Police – working in the mess hall assisting the cooks] “was a better time, because you didn’t really have to do anything,” and it provided “a break from the regular harassment of training.”
After finishing his training, Booth went to Engineer Officer Candidate School at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, attending a course that lasted for twenty-three weeks. He learned basic engineer officer skills there, was commissioned a second lieutenant on completion and then moved on to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland for Mechanical Maintenance Officer training courses.
Given the choice to “go to Vietnam in six months or eighteen months,” Booth chose the latter, He was due to be married and felt that decision would allow him more time with his wife. The decision resulted in him being sent to Germany for the interim period. While in Europe, President Nixon’s “Vietnamization” program took hold; and, engineers were among the first American servicemen out of Vietnam. Booth’s tour of duty in Germany was extended to three years. He was stationed initially in Heilbronn and then in Stuttgart, Baden-Wurttemberg, as an assistant facilities engineer for utilities. Booth’s duties included the conversion of the base’s heating system from coal to oil. In Stuttgart, his responsibilities increased from just utilities to all base facilities.
In 1973, Booth returned from Germany and was assigned to the 11th Engineer Battalion’s 902nd Float Bridge Company at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He was promoted to captain in early 1974. During his tenure with the 902nd, Booth served as a platoon leader, then S-3 (training and operations) staff officer and then company commander. The unit’s five platoons trained and maintained float bridges, and also “lent support to the engineer school,” which was then also located at Fort Belvoir.
Captain Booth was asked to contribute to the Army’s new Soldier Qualification Test Manuals. He helped write the section on float bridges. For his contribution, Booth and the eleven other engineer officers who contributed to the project were “senior-rated,” and allowed to attend graduate school. He subsequently received a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering Construction Management from Worcester Polytechnic School. After Booth completed his academic work, the army sent him on a “utilization tour,” and then assigned him as the area engineer for the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, where he was responsible for construction and renovations. While posted at the Arsenal, Booth was promoted to major.
Given the choice of being sent to Korea for a public works assignment or back to Germany for a possible troop movement command position, Booth chose the latter. He believed that public works “wouldn’t be too career-enhancing;” yet, Booth ended up working for public works in Germany anyway, in the Fifth Corps for two years and then as the Facilities Director in Bad Kreuznach, Germany for two more years.
On returning to the United States following his second overseas stint in 1987, Booth was assigned to a Public Works management position at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. He was promoted to full Colonel four years later; and, Booth was reassigned back to Germany, where he was stationed in Frankfurt, as the Army was reorganizing its engineers into “Area Support Groups.” Booth’s last six months in Europe were spent as the Engineer Operations Officer in Naples, Italy, as the United States provided military and humanitarian support during the Bosnian Crisis under “Operation Preserved Promise” prior to UN or NATO involvement. Colonel Booth’s duties included operational and engineering support to the commands involved in the operation.
Booth recalled that his experience in former East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and during the reunification process, was quite interesting. The evolving new government in the former Communist country often called upon American engineers for support. Booth was taken aback by the “lack of lights” in the region, as well as the fact that: “there was usually only one phone in a town, and it was probably owned by a Stasi [East German Secret Police] agent.” He remembers having to wait in a long line with almost the entire town in order to call his superiors.
On his final return to the United States, Booth was assigned to the “North Atlantic Division of the Corps of Engineers in New York City.” He lived at Fort Monmouth during this time and commuted to the city, from where his command was “responsible for construction and civil works up and down the East Coast.” Booth retired in 1996 when offered a civil service job as a civilian engineer at Fort Monmouth.
John Booth worked as a civilian engineer at Fort Monmouth until 2011, when he retired just as the Base Realignment and Closure ended that post’s distinguished career. Since then, Booth has worked as an engineering consultant, especially with the redevelopment and repurposing of Fort Monmouth. He stays active with the Fort Monmouth Alumni Group, keeping churchgoers from the Fort Monmouth Chapel in contact with one another. Booth is also a member of many engineering and military associations, including the Society of American Military Engineers, the Monmouth Chapter of the Association of the United States Army, and the Workforce Development Board, to name a few. He holds or has held board of trustee positions in all of these organizations. Booth is also very active in the 11th Engineer Battalion Association, and is working to build a memorial to the unit. He is very proud of his military service, which spanned most of his adult life and included almost three decades of work on two continents. Reflecting on his career, Booth told the interviewers that he “loves the memories.”