96TH BATTALION,
U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS (COLOURED)
GENERAL SERVICES REGIMENT

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visits since 9 August 2000

 

Major Yoder became the new Commanding Officer of the 96th Battalion on 27 February 1942 replacing Major Martin. The 1,200 men of the 96th Battalion boarded the 12,000 ton ship "Santa Clara" on 5 March 1942 in Brooklyn, New York. They shared the ship with the 576th Dump Truck Company and about 200 doctors. 

They sailed in convoy with the "Uruguay" (22,000 ton), "Santa Paula" (18,000 ton) and "Santa Lucia" (18,000 ton) and the "Panama" (12,000 ton). They were escorted by two light cruisers, about 6 destroyers. At the start of their voyage they were escorted for a short way by two blimps which later returned to the mainland. Later that night they were joined by 2 freighters and the new aircraft carrier "USS Hornet".

They sailed to Australia via the Panama Canal. On the Pacific Ocean side of the the canal they were joined by the cruiser "Richmond" and the two freighters left them. Their escort had also reduced down to a cruiser and a destroyer.

They arrived in Brisbane on 6 April 1942. To their surprise they discovered that they were not leaving the ship in Brisbane. They had to travel to Townsville on the "Santa Clara". Unfortunately they had to stay in port for another few days while the cargo was unloaded and restacked. The Negro troops were not allowed to enter the city. They were only taken ashore to go on cross country hikes. The Officers were able to take leave in shifts and go into the city. The 576th Dump Truck Company also stayed on the ship. The 200 doctors disembarked in Brisbane.

The "Santa Clara" left Brisbane at 2.00am on 8 April 1942 headed for Townsville. They arrived in Townsville on 10 April 1942. The 96th Battalion initially setup their camp at Farrington Farms near the Townsville Jockey Club near Oonoonba about 4 miles south of Townsville. They may have arrived with another negro unit, the 91st Battalion

Negro units were nearly always commanded by white officers. Amongst their officers were Colonel Pohl, Captain Behrens, Captain Hyman Samuelson, Jimmy King, Humphries, Berlinger, Miller, Schwalbert, Palick and Hering.

Captain Hyman Samuelson

Captain Jimmy King

African -American soldiers were meant to be as well equipped as their white counterparts, however the 96th Battalion was using old Springfield rifles. The 96th started out as a labour battalion but was later converted to a General Service Regiment.

On Wednesday 15 April 1942, Captain Samuelson, who was Officer-in-charge for that night, was called to the town area of Townsville to find about 100 men of the 96th Battalion who had been involved in a fight. They had been rounded up by white soldiers with fixed bayonets and loaded guns. Captain Samuelson stopped a truck which had some of his men on it. While speaking to his men, the white corporal truck driver pointed a cocked rifle at the Captain. After that incident Samuelson decided to load his own hand gun. Because of the fight, the coloured soldiers of the 96th Battalion were no longer allowed into town. The officers organised a movie in beer night on 18 April to compensate for their inability to go to town. It turned out to be a disaster as the men did not have enough cash to buy any beer and the movie was very old and of poor quality sound.

On 20 April 1942 they relocated to Ross River about 16 miles from Townsville to clear an airfield 7,000 feet long and 150 feet wide by hand. They camped on the banks of the Ross River. Morale amongst the soldiers was now at an all-time low.

On 22 April 1942, an advanced party comprising Captain Samuelson and 2 squads of men from Company "D", flew to New Guinea. Company "D" and Company "H" and "H & S" left Townsville by boat for New Guinea a few days later.

Company "A" and Company "C" were to stay in the Townsville area and become attached to the 46th Engineers. Behrens replaced Palick, in charge of Company "A" and Captain Williams replaced Schwalbert in Company "C". 

From 20 April 1942 until 15 June 1942 "A" and "C" Companies cleared and constructed three 7,000 feet long grass airfields at Kelso field by hand. The Negro servicemen rioted while they were at Kelso field on 22 May 1942 with possibly 19 deaths.

In June 1942 they were posted with another Negro unit, the 92nd Quartermaster Company to Reid River. By 19 June all of the Battalion was in Port Moresby.

Company "A", 96th Engineers in Port Moresby on 19 November 1943

John Barr worked with Mick Statham at the Goods Shed in Ayr during the 1980's. Mick was in Coastal Defence, and in Commonwealth Construction at Garbutt. One of the subjects they talked about was the landing of Japanese troops on Australian soil. One of these "stories" suggests that some American Negroes based at Woodstock were brought down by train to Cromarty to capture 106 Japanese Marines that had been spotted coming ashore at Cromarty 

The story suggests that a short battle ensured. Apparently two Negroes were wounded and a number of Japanese Marines were killed. They were taken and held at the cutting at Kissing Point in Townsville. These were the same Negroes that held the demonstration for their basic rights near Stuart Station during WW2. I wonder if this is referring to the riot at Laudham Park involving the 96th Battalion. The 91st Battalion was the Negro unit that had been cased at Woodstock for a while.

 

African-American soldiers in Australia during WW2

 

Were the 96th Engineers ever camped at
the northern end of Mount Louisa in Townsville?

Were they ever involved in building underground bunkers,
tunnels or command centres in the Townsville area?

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank John Barr for his assistance with this home page.

 

REFERENCE BOOK

Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo (1995), "Love, War, and the 96th Engineers (Colored): The World War II Diaries of Captain Hyman Samuelson", University of Illinois Press

 

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This page first produced 9 August 2000

This page last updated 24 September 2011