Foundations of Victory: Australian & American engineers in WW2

In the steamy, malarial jungles of Dutch New Guinea, among the shattered palm groves and bomb-scarred coral islands, across the treacherous disease-gripped kunai grass plains of the Markham Valley, Australian and American servicemen sweated side by side in the summers of 1942-44, with record-breaking efforts against all odds to keep Allied aircraft strafing, pounding and cutting their way deeper and deeper into the now-diminishing Japanese Empire in the South Pacific.

Bases for Major-General Ennis Whitehead’s Fifth Air Force and the Australian First Tactical Air Force were being thrust by General MacArthur and the Pacific Command further towards the Philippines and Japan.  Behind the more spectacular exploits of the brave young airmen who piloted the fighting aircraft which had virtually cleared the New Guinea air of Japanese air power was a solid weight of personal bravery and endurance, engineering skill, modern construction machinery and co-operative Allied effort.

Noemfoor Island, Dutch New Guinea, 27 December 1944. Leading Aircraftman JA Harding of the No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron RAAF, at work in a coral quarry with a bulldozer. Coral was used for all roads on Noemfoor Island and made an excellent surface.

Noemfoor Island, Dutch New Guinea, 27 December 1944. Leading Aircraftman JA Harding of the No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron RAAF, at work in a coral quarry with a bulldozer. Coral was used for all roads on Noemfoor Island and made an excellent surface. [AWM OG1864]

These hard-bitten, battle-hardened, skilled workmen of two nations, whose work made the Allied South-Western Pacific air offensive possible, knew the strain of back-breaking toil in a treacherous, menacing climate. They worked in shifts twenty-four hours a day to reach the impossible datelines set by the men who needed the airfields to launch their efforts against the enemy. They knew the despair of working against time amidst the thud of bombs and crack of gunfire from a euphoric and ascendant foe. These sons of America and Australia laboured equally as hard, but with a quietly reserved triumph, to bring retribution on an enemy who, thanks in great measure to their own efforts, was now no longer commanding the New Guinea skies.

At Nadzab, in the Markham Valley, units of the Australian Airfield Construction Squadron broke a New Guinea record. Within twenty-seven days, working twenty-four hours a day, they turned a virgin area of kunai plains and sago swamps into a fully operational airfield with two strips, road system and dispersal bays. At Aitape they had a strip ready in forty-eight hours for Australian Kittyhawk fighters which would take off on a mission ten minutes after the last plane’s wheels had touched down. At Noemfoor Island in Dutch New Guinea, they had two operational airstrips ready twenty-four days after the US Task Force landed. Australian fighters were using one of them within a few days of D-day.

A Royal Australian Air Force engineer was the American Army’s Task Force engineer at Aitape and Noemfoor. He was Group-Captain W. A. C. Dale DSO, of Coonamble (NSW), a Citizen Air Force pilot who rose to Assistant Director of Works and Buildings with the Royal Australian Air Force Headquarters before his appointment in the field as commanding officer of all the Australian airfield construction units in New Guinea. Subsequently, as a US Task Force engineer, he was in a position which enabled him to work Australian and American survey, engineering and construction units as one complementary team in the herculean task of providing airfields, roads and docking facilities for areas previously devoid of all the foundations of mechanized warfare.

Finschhafen Area, New Guinea. 1943-11-09. Engineers of the 870th United States Engineer Aviation Battalion using a power saw to cut coconut palm logs for the decking of the new bridge which they are building near the Dreger Harbour end of a new airstrip.

Finschhafen Area, New Guinea. 9th November, 1943. Engineers of the 870th United States Engineer Aviation Battalion using a power saw to cut coconut palm logs for the decking of the new bridge which they are building near the Dreger Harbour end of a new airstrip.

Dale was given command not only of the Australian works wing but all American engineer units assigned, including three army aviation battalions, an engineer battalion and a shore battalion. His task did not appear to be an easy one . His men had first to reach the airfield and then repair it ready for the operation of fighter aircraft the day after the landing. The lack of adequate roads, airfields, ports and other facilities in New Guinea together with the rapidity of the advance was placing a tremendous burden on the engineering resources at their disposal . Not only were the forces in the South West Pacific short of the engineering units needed but there were shortages of certain critical materials, such as sawn timber and roofing. Consequently  construction had to be cut to its barest essentials.

On the 2nd July 1944, thirty minutes after H-hour (the specific time at which an operation or exercise commences) on the day of the Noemfoor landing, Group-Captain Dale, Wing-Commander Towers, Squadron-Leader Cobby and Squadron-Leader L. W. Jamieson of the RAAF No. 62 Works Wing were inspecting the Kamiri strip and planning its reconstruction. They landed under heavy mortar fire, and fighting continued to go on at the other end of the strip while they made their inspection. Once the South West Pacific war became mobile, airfield construction squadrons themselves became the shock troops of the RAAF. Each man was a trained soldier as well as a qualified tradesman or skilled construction worker.  The rifles that hung on the machines they worked were not ornamental. These men know exactly how to use them, and used them they would in the first few dangerous days of a new landing strip. At night, while the machines grumbled along on under the glare of fierce floodlights, unit guards squatted behind searchlights and heavy machine guns, ready to destroy any stealthy Japanese attempts to interrupt the vital works.

In Always First – The RAAF Airfield Construction Squadrons 1942-1974, David Wilson says of the construction units: “Sometimes maligned, but never undaunted, these troops had made it possible for superior air forces to be deployed with imagination and operational effectiveness. One has only to peruse amap of the South-West Pacific to recognise the importance of airfields to the war effort. MacArthur’s leap frog strategy was restricted by the range of the strike aircraft available for operations, and air power was a potent weapon in isolating by-passed Japanese garrisons by cutting their supply lines, thus ensuring that they were militarily non-effective.”

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7 comments

    1. My guess is that the further back in history, the easier it is to use the standard, rote telling of major historical events. I think we underestimate the insight students would gain if we taught more balanced histories from a wider perspective.

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      1. A little story for you. A few years ago I had a very intelligent Japanese girl in my year ten History class. We ere studying the Second World War and in the exam I had to be a little subtle with the questions so I made the question on the Japanese involvement fairly open ended so she could take her own view. She wrote very even handed answers but at the end she made this statement; “The Americans made a huge mistake when they bombed Hiroshima. They should have bombed Tokyo and wiped out all those bastards that got us into the war. (Sorry for swearing, Sir. But it has to be said.” She had always been quite a favourite of mine. and after all these year we still communicate.

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