Thursday, April 29, 2010

How to Build a Landing Strip in New Guinea Swamp

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.

I hope you enjoy.


Bob G. said...

I love when I get these history lessons, because they get me remembering...

My father was stationed at Barrackpore, India (WW2) and THAT airstrip was one of those hacked from the surrounding jungle.

They did slap down some "corduroy runway" (corregated steel strips), but other than that, it wasn't all that large.
They had to send out Ghurkas to patrol the perimeter daily.
Dad's shack was out at the end of the airstrip.
They provided him with a Thompson to "protect himself".
He said to me..."I told the officer on duty - I'm alone out here and got a damn good RADIO (it was the COMMS shack), so you can bet your ass I'm CALLING FOR HELP, FIRST!"

ROFL...that story still makes me smile.

Slamdunk said...

Ironic that you picked this topic today. I got around to thanking you for the award this morning in my post, and I highlighted your series Kokoda Track.

Thanks again.

The Observer said...

Ann T:
Neat entry and story. Don't the troops look so young? Look at the baby face behind the typewriter in the unit shot.

Was at the neighborhood Micky D's and found a table full of WWII vets. What a hoot they were. "Lies told fresh daily!" says one.

Thanks for the post.

The Observer

Edith Bunker said...

Great Post!
I'm happy that you stumbled upon his book, and happier still that you shared.
I've recently had a renewed interest in WWII following my visit to Pearl Harbor. A couple of my patients are vets who fought in the Pacific; they certainly are not forthcoming about their experiences, but one has recently started to share some of his war stories with me.
Would the current generation of 20 year olds be up to what these old timers did back then???
I truly don't know & hope we needn't find out. I know there are a lot of outstanding soldiers in our current volunteer military, but I can't imagine that if the draft was reinstated that the soldiers of today would accept their duty and step up to it as the WWII generation did.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
I would love to hear more about your father's experiences. The campaign around India and Afghanistan is one of my blind spots in the War.

Keep those memories coming, and I'll keep posting too!


Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
Yes, unbelievable! I was looking for a song (posted today) and was inspired by the video accompanying it.

Thanks for all the kind words,
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
I am thrilled to hear they are still talking and joking at the local Grease Chain!

I was raised by a family of Irish charming liars--if you are telling a story, you may exaggerate or embroider. The story is all the truth and justification you need!

I of course only tell strict truth. Ahem.

Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Mrs. Bunker,
I remember when they ended the draft, back in Carter's preesidency. I wondered even then if that was going to work for the military. I think it did. We have many fine people who volunteered.

On the other hand, I am not so sure it has been good for the nation at-large. I think both life skills and practical skills are getting lost.

So, I wonder the exact same thing--could we do it? It would take a heap of work I think. Although during WW2, the military trainers undertook a massive literacy program and hygiene program (not only VD but toothbrush use, for instance) so perhaps they would make it work after all.

Thanks for writing in--
more WW2 later--
Ann T.

Momma Fargo said...

Brilliant post! I loved the history...and you write so eloquently. This series is so interesting that you are writing.

PS. Sorry I am so slow to get over here. I have been trying to catch up on everyone's blog. You are marvelous!

Ann T. said...

Dear Momma Fargo,
I love to have you visit whenever you can make it. You need to take care of yourself big time with the hours you are working.

I hope to have more on WW2, and I hope you enjoy that too.

Ann T.