Published in the April 29, 1985, Clinton Herald
Some make jokes about the men and women in olive drab who serve their nation on a part-time basis.
In April 1965 no one was making any jokes. During that month Clinton and surrounding communities experienced their worst flooding in history. But despite the hundreds left homeless by floodwaters and millions of dollars in property damage, 345 "weekend warriors" earned the respect and admiration of the entire state.
Those in the know could see it coming. Rapid snowmelt and heavy rains had already caused the Mississippi River to start boiling. By Wednesday, April 14, Army National Guard members of "A" and "B" batteries, 1st Battalion, 185th Field Artillery, were told they would be on alert when floodwaters reached 19 feet.
The next day Clinton's city council declared a state of emergency. Sheriff Marvin Bruhn notified Gov. Harold Hughes and Iowa Adjutant Gen. Junior Miller and asked for mobilization of National Guard troops. Bruhn requested that local members of the Guard be mustered under command of Lt. Col. Roger Harrison of Clinton.
The bulletin was issued the same day: Clinton's National Guardsmen were ordered to report to duty by 8 a.m. Friday. Units were to assemble at the Armory in connection with emergency flood preparations.
"We just kept getting more and more water and kept getting more and more troops," Harrison reminisced. "We had a lot of help on it.
"But the river got away from us. It just got too high for us."
Personnel were assembled at the armory and were combined into four platoons and given 12 hour shifts for sandbag duty. Harrison organized the troops with the assistance of Capt. David E. Loehndorf, Capt. John C. Ackerman and CW3 William L. Forsee. First sergeants were Paul Specht of "A" batterty and Tom Ashton in "B".
"Anyone who was married and had a family and who put his 12 hours or eight hours in could sign out and return to his home," recalled Ashton. "We had farmers, we had merchants, we had doctors, we had every walk of life in the National Guard.
"They kept the farmers on nights so they could go home and work around the farm during the days."
By Saturday Guardsmen took over protection of the First Avenue sewer pumping station and began supervising the building of the mile long flood wall extending from 9th Avenue North to 8th Avenue South. Guardsmen also took over traffic control and were ordered to patrol the dike after it was built.
"They knew that they'd have to protect the sewer pumps over there," explained Ashton. "They had to sandbag around it so the water wouldn't get in there. If that went down, it would have gone through the sewers."
The result would have meant disaster for more than half the city.
A tremendous dike about eight miles long was constructed along the city riverfront. Guardsmen from both Clinton units were instrumental in construction of the dike and were supported by hundreds of local citizens.
But the work of building and maintaining the flood wall around the pumping station was not without its problems. On Monday, April 19 a public appeal went out, asking for life jackets needed by National Guardsmen who would be on patrol duty along newly constructed river dikes. Many of the Guardsmen would be assigned extremely hazardous duties. Among them would be the guards inside the barricade surrounding the pumping station.
The following day, Tuesday, Capt. David Loehndorf, commander of Iowa Guardsmen who were on Clinton road duty, made a successful appeal for sandbagging volunteers. Loehndorf addressed the Clinton High School student bodies. He said many boys answered the call for workers.
By Wednesday it was obvious the situation was becoming grave. Headquarters Co. of the 224th Combat Engineers from Cedar Rapids and the relay platoon of the 2434th Signal Battallion of Iowa City arrived that morning to assist in the effort. Additional troops were quartered at the VA Domiciliary where a building was opened for them.
The new troops augmented the Clinton Guardsmen who were activated the previous Friday. Lt. Col. Harrison pointed out that the Cedar Rapids men were experienced flood fighters as they had been on duty in the Cedar River flood a few weeks previous.
Wire communications were strung along the dikes so that the Guardsmen on patrol will be able to relay information to each other. Harrison said truck loads of sandbags would be stationed at strategic points and could be rushed to any trouble spot as sandboils developed.
Work continued at the river front, at South 21st Street and 8th Avenue South, as dikes were fortified and a new one was built near Horace Mann School to hold Car Barn ditch backwaters in check. The new Guard troops from Cedar Rapids helped finish up the dike projects and then were placed on dike patrol duty.
On Wednesday, 15 National Guardsmen and two Clinton men began their long vigil at the First Avenue pumping station which was nicknamed "Fort Johannsen" after Lt. Stan Johannsen, a Guard officer who supervised construction of the 10 food thick dike around the building.
The pumps would have to be kept operating to force back flood waters from entering sewers in the central part of the city.
The 17 men would remain on duty until flood waters receded, a period of 10 to 14 days.
Guardsmen in "the fort" were scheduled to work eight hour shifts. Five men would be on duty watching the dike for leaks; five would be on standby and five would sleep.
The men were ordered to wear life jackets at all times, even when they slept. Water around Fort Johannsen was expected to be seven to eight feet deep when the crest hit Clinton and the current was expected to be extremely swift in the area.
The dike around the pumping station was built to resemble a ship, that is, with the pointed end or "bow" facing into the current. The "bow" was reinforced with steel plates and railroad ties.
During the evening of April 22 an urgent call was made for another pump as leaks began to develop in the thick dike. Three more pumps were placed in operation and Guardsmen made a public appeal for more hip boots.
On Thursday, April 23 Guardsmen working on the South 21st Street dike were busy covering the embankment with plastic to protect against seepage and wave action. Additional work was done on the portion of the dike which extended into a loop north of Manufacturing Drive to Mill Creek.
To make matters worse, mid-week rains raised havoc with flood control efforts. Troops engaged in flood control work revealed that Thursday nights rain caused some settling of the earthwork of the dikes but no trouble resulted. Loehndorf said the task of strengthening and reinforcing the dikes would continue as long as the emergency lasts.
Weary National Guardsmen, on flood duty for a week, won some relief Friday when 90 members of the Battery C, 4th Howitzer Co., 185th Field Artillery, arrived from Marshalltown.
On April 26 Sgt. Emil Kohrt, who was on duty at the "Fort Johannsen" pumping station said Guardsmen there had worked all night Sunday to shore up weakening dikes around the facility. An urgent call went out for sandbags and additional men and lumber were put out as the south portion of the dike began to leak badly.
The situation in Fort Johannsen, however, was not without its lighter moments. The 17 men there adopted a field mouse, nicknamed Dike Climber, who kept the Guardsmen company. The tiny rodent would climb higher on the wall as the water rose outside the fort. "You could call her a mouse-o-meter," joked one Guardsman.
By 6 a.m. on Tuesday, April 27, flood waters rose to 24.7 feet, holding at that level for three hours. Guardsmen said the dike apparently settled a bit during the night permitting water to pour over the top, but sandbagging quickly plugged the leak.
The worst came the next day when at 2 a.m. the flood crested at 24.85 feet, almost nine feet above flood stage. Troops stationed at Fort Johannsen however, got their first break that day as they were allowed to leave the building in groups of five to shave and clean up. The bone weary work finally took its toll as Lt. Johannnsen was sent to the hospital suffering from fatigue.
Johannsen wasn't the only casualty, however. A horrified group of Guardsmen were unable to prevent a "brother rat" from killing Dike Climber, the small field mouse the troops had adopted.
On April 28 the flood waters began slowly to recede. However, it would not be until May 7, three weeks after they were activated, that the Guardsmen would be allowed to return to their families and civilian jobs.
First Sgt. Ashton praised the help from other segments of the community — the Job Corps, local students and even a Mennonite group who came to Clinton to help with the effort. "I'ver never seen so many people unite and work so well," he said.
When it was all over weary Guardsmen stood a few inches taller as a result of their heroic efforts. Both the city and the state paid tribute to the militiamen.
"Afterwards the city threw the best party they could ever throw for the Guard," Ashton continued. "Everything you could eat and everything you could drink."
And the City of Clinton, in honor of the men who fought the flood — and won — official renaming the pumping station at Fort Johannsen.