Earlier I wrote about the Kokoda Track in this blog. This is a sort of chatty follow-up.
A long time ago, I went to a library book sale. You could buy de-commissioned library books or donated books by the inch. I bought a three-foot stack of books, mostly on World War II, for thirty-six dollars. One was Love, War, and the 96th Engineers (Colored). It is mostly the diary of Lieutenant (later Captain) Samuelson, (white) a New-Orleans resident assigned to the 96th. And it just so happens his battalion supported the Battle for New Guinea, stationed in Port Moresby and elsewhere in Papua, building airfields and supporting the air effort.
Morale and Equity Problems in a Segregated Pacific
The black troops were supposed to get everything that every battalion got, but separate but equal did not work in the Army any more than it has in the schools. They were one of many units using Springfield rifles (World War I make) fairly close to Japanese depredations.
As a rear-guard, supposedly non-combat battalion, they were never going to get them first. But that, along with other curtailments of life, made their work in the Pacific even more difficult. Even more heroic.
The 96rd sailed from Brooklyn to Australia. Once the ship reached port, none of the black soldiers were allowed liberty at Brisbane. It was to keep the fighting down between U.S. troops. According to Samuelson,
"It is a dirty shame the way the white American soldiers treat our boys. The Australians are wonderfully tolerant, but the Americans, especially the Southern boys, are a problem."
There are some accounts of riots and such in the early period, but this isn't showing up in Samuelson's diary. Trouble does. Racism limits their work periodically and almost gets Samuelson shot at least once, taking care of his 100 men, at liberty in town, but surrounded and arrested by a mass of gun-toting white American soldiers. The next day, all of them out, they were given camp-side recreation. Samuelson said only that "it was a flop. You can't force recreation on a man. It just doesn't work."
That was April 17th and 18th, 1942. By April 23rd, the 96th had the distinction of being the first U.S. troops in New Guinea. They began to rebuild a flattened Port Moresby: airstrips, docks, and roads for Allied air efforts. The 96th started as a labor battalion but was converted into a general service regiment, eventually the best trained unit of its kind.
Some Things Were Equal
One thing the Engineers fought, and Samuelson wrote a Long poem on:
. . . I'll spend my life
In stamping you out
. . . .
So that if a man wants to work
both Day and Night, he can
Unmolested by a serpent-type thing
A snake-like thing that used to be
A viper called Red Tape!
(March 20, 1943)
At another point, he says that to get supplies, he would not go through channels, but instead scream and yell and threaten to inform headquarters. Apparently only ultimatums worked.
During this time, he was running a constant fever of 102.3 or so. He did not report it, because "they would send me to the hospital and my job would be finished." He dosed himself with quinine and slept with extra quilts and the mosquito nets. You can bet the rest of his battalion were equally fevered
In another entry, he credits the spiders in the outhouse for keeping him from getting dysentery. Apparently the eight-legged ones had spun a wall of webs, keeping flies down in the officer's crapper.
On to the airfield.
Samuelson writes, after about a year in PNG:
" Bombers kept running out of gas from Port Moresby to Rabaul or in the Solomons. Consequently the Australian government ordered the natives to clear a strip 150 feet wide and 4800 feet long in a marshy flat grassland." (The kunai grass). "Since the strip has been cleared, three heavy bombers and several smaller aircraft have been saved from destruction, but each of these has torn up the ends of the runway while turning around, and one of the heavy bombers was stuck."
The solution to the mud-churning at the ends of the field was 'matting'. 146 tons of steel mat were shipped from Moresby to the drome somewhere in the middle of Papua's kunai grass. It was shipped over sea, loaded onto a barge about 25 tons at a time, as close to Houla as the shore conditions would allow, and then carried by native bearers to the drome. Samuelson describes that no one was happy with this job, the natives sneaking off or complaining (There is no word for the bitching I would do.) The food rations wouldn't show, for instance, or other details that make it possible for the real work to go forward.
Once the hauling was done, the mat had to be stored until they had enough for part of the job. The matting was laid on two ends of the airfield and around a parking lot for the brass. Oh, and Japanese Zeroes were buzzing around about twice a day. It took three sweating, grueling weeks. Done, April 23, 1943. By May 8th he was hospitalized for malaria with a temp running over 104.
He writes that he loved getting backrubs and alcohol baths from the nurses. I just bet.
One Last Word
The thing Samuelson is famous for is talking straight to the men about the racial distinctions rather than glossing them over. In one notable instance, he shared their exile during an extended R n R period. He did not always eschew his R n R-- but in this instance, with morale so low and so much lying going on, it made a huge impression.
Here is a story of an interaction with a sentry, and I think it describes his relationship to his men: Lieutenant Samuelson at times could be overly-paternalistic, but apparently he could also take a zing or two back:
"About ten months ago the Japs were but a few miles from here and we posted a heavier than usual guard around our camp area. I instructed the men they must be particularly alert at night when some of the Nips might sneak in and kill our boys while they were sleeping. During the night I went out to inspect the guard.
"Halt!" cried one of the sentries. "Who's dere?"
"Officer of the Day," I answered. To check whether the sentry knew his duties, I asked him, "Now Jones, if I hadn't stopped, what would you have done?"
"Called the Corporal of the Guard, suh."
"By that time, all the damage would be done. . . . (more sermon) . . . Why in hell would you call the corporal of the guard, anyway?"
"To help me carry away your dead body, suh."
I can't find a picture of the 96th at the National Archives. The first picture is of men from the 93rd, a combat battalion on Bougainville--similar terrain and vegetation. That should give you some idea. Then the 477th Anti-Aircraft Battalion stationed at Oro Bay, New Guinea, picture taken in 1944.