THE 19TH BATTALION SEABEES IN AUSTRALIA
A UNITED STATES NAVAL CONSTRUCTION BATTALION
"The Old Nineteenth"
DESIGNATED AS 3RD BATTALION,
17TH MARINE ENGINEERING REGIMENT
Activated in Norfolk, the 19th Battalion left Norfolk, Virginia, USA in September 1942. They called in at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Balboa, before passing through the Panama Canal. They arrived at Noumea, New Caledonia, on 11 November 1942.
During their four months in Noumea they constructed 144 warehouses, built docks and roads as well as refurnishing and redecoratiing Hotel Du Pacifique as an Officer's Mess and building the largest bar in the South Pacific area, some 90 feet long. General Vogel, the Commanding General of the 19th Battalion highly commended the men for their work while they were in Noumea.
In March 1943, the 19th Battalion headed for Australia and was ordered to report to the Commanding General, First Marine Division which was undergoing a training and recuperative period at Balcombe Camp at Mount Martha on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne after their bitter campaign at Guadalcanal. They were designated as the Third Battalion of the Seventeenth Marine Engineering Regiment by the First Marine Division. They were immediately placed into training under the supervision of Marine Corps instructors in readiness for combat engineering.
They conducted heavy equipment schools for the Marines as carried out construction in and around the Marine Camp. Experts from the Nineteenth were invited by Marine Corps rifle instructors to a rifle competition. It became know as the "Battle of Melbourne". The 19th Battalion came first with the Marine Instructors coming second and third.
In July 1943 the 19th Battalion moved to Cairns in tropical north Queensland to work with the U.S. 6th Army Engineers. They camped out in sugar cane fields.
Frank Murphy, an ex member of the 19th Seabees told me in October 2006:-
I will have the name of the Cairns camp in a few days
It was very near the rail line because that was the transport from Melbourne
Due to the change in rail gauges, we loaded and off loaded all of the gear and equipment three times because as the train crossed from State to State the rail gauge changed.
The camp at Cairns was near to town, what there was of a town in that day and time.
It was essentially a one street town that had no particular attraction to anybody on leave or liberty.
Best recollection was hot and dusty and a cane field full of poisonous snakes.
They were to assist in turning the Cairns area into a large Army Operations Base. Their work included a power station, constructing railroad spurs, roads, a campsite (probably Camp Balaclava) and a large drainage project to reclaim malarial swamp adjacent to the city of Cairns. They started taking Atebrine tablets while they were in the Cairns area.
They used 3/4 yard draglines to help construct drains 30 feet wide and 3,000 feet long for the drainage project. Floating pile drivers were used to construct wharves and a Rex Steam Powered Paver (wt.15 tons, with a 1 yard bucket) assisted with road works.
The Port Director's area was established and igloo type warehouses were constructed. They built an Engineering Office 198 feet long by 47 feet wide. They dug water wells to a depth of 150 feet to supply 3,000 gallons of water per hour. They also installed a electrical reticulation unit which provided supply at 6,900 volts to the railroad right-of-way.
The 19th Battalion left Cairns on the HMAS Westralia in October 1943 and headed for Goodenough Island where it rejoined the First Marine Division. After a short tour of duty on Goodenough Island, they moved to Cape Gloucester, New Britain.
The 19th Battalion was the first Construction Battalion ordered to join the Fleet Marine Service and was the first outfit attached to the Marine Corps with sanction to wear the Marine uniform.
More recollections from Frank Murphy:-
We came to Australia after the New Year from New Caledonia as I said before. Our group was settled in at Frankston ostensibly for R&R.
Beyond the necessary work to create a camp (actually a tent city with some supporting buildings) we were largely left to light drills at first with available liberty in Melbourne.
After the first two months or so the pace picked up and we all involved in heavier training manuevers, most memorable were the drills in the sheep pastures, filled largely with sheep and sheep dung. A regular part of the drilling were the long marches which would take a full day to accomplish.
For my part, I was rather lucky after the first month in camp a request came down from Regimental for two people for an undisclosed detail. I was not particularly "well placed" with our Company CO and he presumed it was a bad detail so I was sent along with another person. It turned out that the detail was to tend bar in the Company "slop chute" (as the bar was called). We lived in quarters attached to the barroom and were responsible for the operation of the unit. The hours were from 1700 until 2100 daily. We set our own schedules and as a consequence we managed a lot of time in Melbourne.
Our CO tried to get us changed from the detail but could not persuade Regimental to go along with the idea.
Remembered but best forgotten was the "Battle of the Cricket Grounds", which fortunately never managed to take place.
Young and Jacksons got a nice bit of traffic from our people.
About the time we were finally accomplishing a routine we were boarded on train to Cairns where we constructed a camp called "Balaclava", which prior to our arrival was a sugar cane field. The purpose of this camp was for advanced training and to establish such a facility close to New Guinea which based in my recollection was still under contest. My understanding is that the camp at Cairns was later used by Army for their purposes.
The train trip was really quite an undertaking with the three different rail gauges requiring a complete loading and unloading of the train , people, freight, equipment and whatever else it took to move a Battalion. Because of this situation the trip as I recall took almost ten days or two weeks. For feeding field kitchens were set up and taken down on a daily basis. Card games, sleep and boredom were the normal of the day.
Camp Balaclava near Cairns
Camp Seabee at Eagle Farm in Brisbane
The Seabees in Australia
I'd like to thank Frank Murphy for his assistance with this web page.
Can anyone help me with more information?
"Australia @ War" WWII Research Products
© Peter Dunn OAM 2020
This page first produced 20 May 2000
This page last updated 03 January 2023