808TH ENGINEER AVIATION BATTALION
US ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS (USACE)
IN AUSTRALIA DURING WW2

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visits since 11 September 2002

The 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion arrived at Melbourne aboard the U.S.S President Coolidge on 2 February 1942, the first U.S. Army Engineering Unit to arrive in Australia. 

The 808th EAB was comprised of Companies A, B, and C plus Headquarters and Service Company. The battalion had an authorized strength of 30 officers and 775 enlisted men. However when the battalion left San Francisco it had a strength of 21 officers and 637 enlisted men.

The 808th left San Francisco on 12 January 1942 on the President Coolidge from the Matson Ship Line docks. Their heavy equipment was on the freighter "Luckenbach". They travelled in a convoy with the transports USAT Monroe and Mariposa. By mid afternoon, they were escorted by the light cruiser USS Phoenix under the Golden Gate bridge headed for the Pacific Ocean. They mostly thought that their destination was a base in the southern Philippine Islands.

The majority of the 49th Fighter Group were also on board the USAT Mariposa with the remainder on board the Coolidge.

The Convoy, escorted by the USS Phoenix and 2 destroyers headed for the Dutch East Indies (Java). On 24 January 1942, the Mariposa's steering became faulty. After quick repairs she was under way again and caught up with the rest of the convoy. The steering went faulty again on 27 January 1942. On 27 January 1942, the USAT Monroe left the convoy and was escorted to its destination by two British Royal Navy escort destroyers.

With the Japanese invasion of Java, the convoy was ordered to Brisbane. But Japanese Submarine fleets in the area reported to the convoy by Australian Civilian Pilots by dropping notes to the decks of the ships diverted the convoy to Melbourne. 

On 31 January 1942, the convoy sighted the Australian coastline at Cape Howes. As they travelled south along the coastline they could see the blue outline of the Snowy Mountains. On 1 February 1942, after passing Wilson's Promontory, their escort, the USS Phoenix, left them and they were joined by two tug boats to escort them into Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne. They anchored and slept on board that night.

They dropped anchor in Melbourne harbour at 1700 hrs on 1 February 1942. The 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion disembarked on 2 February 1942 and moved to Camp Darley in Melbourne. Unloading of the ships was completed by 10 February 1942. They stayed at Camp Darley until 12 February 1942.

On the 12 February 1942, the majority of the personnel and some equipment would be loaded on Australian trucks headed to Bacchus Marsh to board a wide gauge rail train at 1030 hrs. The majority of the heavy equipment would follow later.

13 Feb 42     The battalion detrained at 1100 hrs at Terowie, South Australia to change trains to a Narrow gauge rail road

13 Feb 42     At 1845 hrs Companies A and HQ & Service Company left for Alice Springs 

14 Feb 42     At 1845 hrs Companies B and C left for Alice Springs, Northern Territory

15 Feb 42     At 2130 hrs Companies A and HQ & Service Company detrained and marched to an Australian army camp. Companies B and C following a day later.

16 Feb 42     0735 hrs Companies A and HQ & Service Company took a truck convoy to Larrimah, 635 miles north. Companies B and C following a day later.

18 Feb 42     1830 hrs Companies A and HQ & Service Company arrived at Larrimah (Birdum). Companies B and C following a day later. The Battalion boarded trains at Larrimah with their destination of Darwin 315miles away.

19 Feb 42     1430hrs Companies A and HQ & Service Company stopped at Katherine for dinner where they heard the news of Darwin being bombed by the Japanese. They were ordered to stay at Katherine where they made camp on the Katherine River.

20 Feb 42     Companies B and C arrive at the Katherine river.

At this time acting on his own initiative, the 808th Commanding Officer, Captain Andrew Chaffin, ordered the battalion (Company A) to improve the road from Katherine to Larrimah to eliminate the need of transferring cargos to the trains at Larrimah. This Railroad was not in very good shape and its rolling stock not able to carry the military loads. When the 808th tried to load a D8 caterpillar tractor on one of the flat cars, the car collapsed under the tractor's weight. This was not the only problem the 808th had shipping the heavy equipment north from Alice Springs. The road from Alice Springs to Larrimah was so rough that the weight of one of the D8 Cats bouncing on the 20 ton trailer pulled by a prime mover, caused the trailer to be completely ruined (this was the only trailer of that size in the area). The D8 had to be unloaded and driven all the way to Katherine. 

28 Feb 42     Company B begins work in the Katherine Airfield.

6 Mar 42     Captain Chaffin made a report that "little has been done toward building airfields in this vicinity because of the complete lack of equipment." (The majority of the heavy equipment still being shipped north from Alice Springs). The battalion had brought with them only 3 dump trucks and 2 tractors from Melbourne. Captain Chaffin obtained 11 cargo trucks and 2 old bulldozers at Darwin. But at least 7 of the trucks were needed to supply the battalion with food and water. The rest of the trucks were kept busy hauling gravel for the Katherine Airfield, this cargo trucks had to be unloaded by hand.

9 Mar 42     2 officers and 96 enlisted men of company B left Katherine by train at 1330hrs to go to 32 mile site (Hughes) joining the 2 officers and 60 enlisted men of company B who went there on 3 Feb 42.

10 Mar 42     The expectation of an invasion of the Darwin area with statement that 808th, 147th Field Artillery and 148th Field Artillery Battalion were not fully equipped, but the 808th was armed and possibly organized for defence duty.

10 Mar 42     The approximate date when the heavy equipment arrived as the battalion split up to work on airfield,s as separate companies. 

10 Mar 42     Company B begins working on Hughes Field

16 Mar 42     Companies B and C begin working on Livingstone Field

19 Mar 42     Companies B and C begin working on Strauss Field

22 Mar 42     Katherine Airfield is bombed by the Japanese while Company A and HQ & Service Company still working on the field.

2 Apr 42     Company A leaves Katherine to go to the Adelaide River and then 80 miles to Pine Creek to build roads arriving 10 April.

12 Apr 42     0500 hrs Company B Left camp at Noonaman for Pine Creek by truck arriving at 1800 hrs on 12 April.

14 Apr 42     1430 hrs HQ & Service Company leaves Noonaman for Pine Creek

26 Apr 42     Company C finishes work Strauss Field and Livingstone Field and leaves for Brock's Creek (Fenton)

26 Apr 42     The 1st Battalion of the 43rd Engineer General Services Regiment arrives at Katherine.

4 May 42     15miles of road opened north of Pine Creek and 22 miles of roads were opened south of Pine Creek by company A.

11 May 42     Company B begins work on Pine Creek airfield and Company A begins work on Burkholder field (MacDonald) 12 miles northwest of Pine Creek.

At a conference between General George H. Brett and General Casey on 24 Apr 19 42, Casey had talked Brett out of using the Darwin area as major staging area for an expeditionary force into the Indies because the overland supply routes were to weak, nevertheless the chief engineer Gen Casey agreed with the building of the airbases in Northern Territory. (1 May 1945 General Casey's son Lt. Hugh B Casey would join the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion while the unit was on the Island of Luzon in the Philippines).

With the region diminishing in tactical importance and far from Casey's offices the 808th and 43rd Engineers were largely left on their own devices. By May 1942, the 808th was the best equipped engineer unit in the theatre. The 808th had been working more or less independently since March 1942. Upon receiving orders to build an airfield, the engineers selected sites prepared plans and began construction. By the time higher Headquarters approved plans work was well along. 

At times the 808th found it expedient to disregard procedures and resort to innovations such as clearing the wooded area in the Northern Territory. In many cases the trees in this semi-arid region had an average trunk diameter of 12 inches and a shallow root system and could be pushed over easily. The 808th would take a 400 ft cable, 1 inch in diameter and hook it between two D6 tractors driving them forward parallel to each other toppling the trees and tearing out the underbrush. In many cases 10 men could clear an area 100 ft wide and 5,000 ft long in 10 hours by this method. Working in this remote area (from U.S. supply bases) the first few weeks it was had to get abundant quantities of food from American Quartermaster so it was arranged to get rations from Australian Quartermasters, who were able to provide generous amounts of supplies.

15 Jul 42     Construction on all the airfield in the Darwin area that 808th worked on was was done.

16 Jul 42     HQ & Service Company and Company C left for Darwin.

18 Jul 42     Companies A and B left for Darwin at 0730 by train reaching 12 mile camp at 1630 hrs

20 Jul 42     Loaded rations, supplies transport ship the " Tasman" and the heavy equipment on the freighter " John Jay".

21 Jul 42     At 0700 hrs the 808th left for Buna, Northeast New Guinea

22 Jul 42     News of the Japanese landing at Buna changed the plans of the 808th.

26 Jul 42     The " Tasman" docked at Port Moresby Papua New Guinea.

The first stay of the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion in Australia was over.

The 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion was Activated on 15 September 1941 at March Field California (Riverside) in the 4th Air Force. The enlisted men came from the army engineering schools at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia and Ft. Leonardwood, Missouri. Major Heiberg was Commanding Officer at that time.

The 808th would work on at least parts of the construction of about 20 Airfields as well as numerous docking facilities, roads, bridges and base buildings in Northern Australia, Papua New Guinea, Australian New Guinea, Dutch New Guinea and the Philippines from Feb 1942 to Dec 1944. The 808th would also work on an airport in Japan during occupation.

The 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion Besides worked on 7 airfields in the Northern Territory, from 19 February 1942 to 15 July 1942, until the unit moved to Port Moresby on 16 July 1942:-

Katherine Field: at Katherine Northern Territory Australia
Katherine Air field was developed by extending the old civilian airfield between 19 February to 13 April 1942. The entire 808th Battalion worked on the airfield from 19 February to 13 March 1942 and Company A and HQ Company Only worked on it from 13 March to 13 April 1942. 

They built a 5,000 ft runway that was 100 ft wide with 25 ft wide shoulders paved with 6 inches of gravel. Also built was 5,000 ft of taxiway 30 ft wide with 10 ft shoulders paved with 4 inches of gravel. There were 18 airplane dispersals with out revetments.

Hughes Field: at Noonaman, Northern Territory
Hughes Field, 32 Mile site (32 miles south of Darwin) was built by the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion less Company A and HQ detachment between 10 March 1942 to 13 April 1942. They built 5,000ft of runway that was 100 ft wide with a 25 ft right shoulder and a 50 ft left shoulder paved with 8 inches of clay bound gravel with a coat of Diesel Oil. Also built was 6,000 ft of taxiway 40 ft wide with 10 ft shoulders paved with three inches of gravel and 24 dispersals with out revetments. 

Livingstone Field: 34 miles south of Darwin
Livingstone Field,  34 Mile site (34 miles south of Darwin) was built by the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion, less Company A and HQ Detachment, from 16 March to 13 April 1942. They built 5, 000 ft of runway that was 100 ft wide with 10 to 20 ft shoulders paved with 4 inches of clay bound gravel and a coat of diesel oil. Also built was 2,000 ft of taxiway 30 ft wide with 10 ft shoulders paved with 3 inches of gravel.

Strauss Field: 28 miles south of Darwin
Strauss Field, 28 miles south of Darwin, was built by the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion, less Company A and HQ Detachment from 19 March to 27 April 1942.
They built 5, 000 ft of runway that was 100 ft wide with 10 to 20 ft shoulders paved with 4 inches of clay bound gravel and a coat of diesel oil. Also built was 2, 000 ft of taxiway 30 ft wide with 10 ft shoulders paved with 3 inches of gravel and 12 dispersals without revetments.

Fenton site: 15 miles west of Brock's Creek Northern Territory
Fenton Field, was built by Company C and HQ Detachment of the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion from 27 April to 16 July 1942. The 808th built 6, 000 ft of runway 100 ft wide, paved with 4 inches of clay gravel. They also built 7,600 ft of taxiways, 50 ft wide with 15 ft shoulders paved with 3 inches of gravel and 28 dispersals with out revetments.

Burkholder Field (MacDonald): 10 miles Northwest of Pine Creek Northern Territory
Burkholder Field, later known as MacDonald Airfield, was built by Company "A" and HQ Detachment of the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion from 11 May to 16 July 1942. They built 6, 000 ft of runway, 100 ft wide with 50 ft shoulders paved with 4 inches of gravel. They also built 5,000 ft of taxiways 40 ft wide with 15 ft shoulders paved with 3 inches of gravel and 18 dispersals without revetments. Company "A" also built Camp buildings.

Pine Creek Field: Pine Creek Northern Territory
Built by Company B and HQ Detachment May 11 to July 16, 1942
They built 6000ft of Runway 100ft wide with 50ft shoulders paved with 4 inches of gravel. Also built was 6000ft of taxiway 40ft wide with 15ft shoulders paved with3 inches of gravel. The Gravel for the paving was tailings from a gold mine and that it made excellent pavement (a runway paved with gold!)

List of the heavy equipment that Company B used on the Pine Creek Field:-

1--D7 Caterpillar Dozer and Carryall
2--D8 Caterpillar Angle Dozer with Carryalls (scrapers)
1--3 wheeled 10 ton roller 3axle
1--rubber tired tractor roller
1--Athey Loader
2--D12 Caterpillar motor graders
1--sheepsfoot packer
1--D4 Caterpillar dozer
1--M1 dozer (this might have been Australian made but not sure)
1--improvised sprinkler
18-1 1/2 ton dump trucks 

Company A was involved with improving the road from Larrimah (Birdum) to Katherine so did not get involved in much airfield construction. 

More work was possibly done at these airfields by other units at later dates.

The above information was sent by HQ to the Chief Engineer in April 1943. The 808th was moved from Port Moresby (Relieved by the 857th Engineer Aviation Battalion) to Sydney for rest and refitting 2 April 1943 to 22 May 1943. They were greeted by a dock workers strike at Sydney.  This meant that details from the 808th had to unload ships for at least part of their R&R. On 22 May the 808th began the journey back to New Guinea with stops at Brisbane and Townsville. They arrived at Oro Bay on 9 July 1943 in the Buna and Doba-dura area.

Other Airfields worked on by 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion were:-

Durand Field Paupa New Guinea
Schwimmer Field
Kila Drome
Jackson Field

Oro Bay 3 air strips Embi swamp on the Keta Creek Northeast New Guinea
Lae, Northeast New Guinea
Finschafen,
Saidor, 

Sorido Drome Biak Island Dutch New Guinea
Dulag, Leyete Island Philippines 

DIMINISH FIELD (FINSCHAFEN)
The 808th worked with another Engineering Aviation Battalion on the Airfield at Finschafen (Diminish field) in New Guinea. It was possibly the 870th Engineer Aviation Battalion which was a Negro Battalion. While at Finschafen the 808th was the senior engineer unit on site and was in control of the 870th Engineering Aviation Battalion and the US Navy 60th Battalion Seabees, a Naval construction battalion.  It would appear that the 870th got the detail of laying the Marsden mat (steel landing mat). Nobody enjoyed laying Marsden matting. Also the 808th Battalion was less Company " B" who were at Lae, New Guinea working on the airfield and the main road from Lae to Nadzab.

DURAND FIELD, NEW GUINEA
The 808th worked on Durand Field (12 miles north of Port Moresby) from 12 August 1942 to 26 September 1942 using Companies A and C plus Headquarters Company.

They built a runway 6000 ft long and 100 ft wide with 50 ft shoulders on each side the runway was paved with 4 inches of gravel that was tarred, also built was 18,000 ft of taxiway 40 ft wide with 10 ft shoulders paved with 3 inches of gravel and 21 airplane dispersals with out revetments.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank Melvin Haba for his assistance with this home page. Melvin's father was Technician 5 Grade (Corporal) Laudie R Haba of Company "B" of the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion. He would have been running the Dozers and Carry-alls during construction activities. Laudie Haba returned to the States in December 1944. Laudie passed away in 1971. 

 

BOOK REFERENCES

"The History of the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion"
by Lt Colonel Ralph C. Glover

"U.S. Army in World War II (The Technical Services) The Corp of Engineers: The War Against Japan "
by: Karl C. Dod (Center of Military History U.S. Army)

 

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This page first produced 11 September 2002

This page last updated 12 December 2004