Saturday, February 27, 2021

Saturday Snippet: The forgotten rear-echelon stalwarts of the Pacific war


Shortly after the end of World War II, in 1947, a book was published titled "One Damned Island After Another".

It told the story of the US Army Air Corps' Seventh Air Force, which island-hopped its way from Hawaii all the way to Okinawa and Japan by the end of the war.  Theirs was a tale of forgotten heroism, often ignored or neglected by war correspondents due to more "newsworthy" invasions, battles and campaigns.  Nevertheless, the Seventh played a vital role in helping to roll up the Japanese war effort across the Pacific.

I've always looked for the "inside story" in such efforts;  the small raids and actions that may not have received much publicity at the time, but which demanded real professionalism and enormous effort to bring off.  (One example is my in-depth article on the Balikpapan air raid of late 1944.)  As luck would have it, this book goes into detail on some of the behind-the-scenes activities of the Seventh Air Force;  the airport builders, medical personnel, technicians, and so many others without whom the war could not have been fought.  They didn't get the publicity, or the medals, or the promotions, but they were in it from start to finish.

For today's snippet, I chose a chapter describing how these behind-the-scenes heroes turned Saipan and the other Mariana Islands into a massive bombardment base from which to bring Japan to its knees.  In the process, there was more than a little humor.

(LANGUAGE ALERT:  This was published soon after the end of World War II, so some of the language used about the Japanese is not very diplomatic or polite.  That's the way it was back then, and I've chosen to leave such language unchanged in the interests of historical authenticity.  However, it may be disturbing to those of more modern sensibilities.)

WINNING THE MARIANAS WAS ONE THING, TURNING THEM into a springboard for the final B-29 air assault against Japan was something else.

It was the first time men in the Central Pacific, who had played a long engagement in the flat atoll circuit, faced jungles.

From these fever-ridden pest-holes of Saipan and Guam came swarms of malaria-bearing mosquitoes and nightly raids from remnants of the Jap garrisons who came to kill, sabotage and steal.

And these cocoanut-tree morasses were supposed to be turned into heavy bomber bases — a feat which Radio Tokyo scoffed at nightly as an impossibility — and a smooth-functioning advance headquarters base.

From Saipan, Guam and Tinian, correspondents transmitted thousands of words of copy on the pilots “who flew into the sunset to blast and burn Japan out of the war . . .”

But little was written and less published on the men who made these strikes possible — the weary Aviation Engineers, the greasy ground crews, the island-hopping pencil-jockeys, the G. I. medical technicians and scores of other “little” men who made up the Seventh Air Force.

Some of their stories, inscribed in official Army phraseology, were duly recorded (in triplicate of course) by the weary pencil-pushers. But most of these have long since vanished into that mysterious maze known as “Going Through Channels.”

So the stories of these men, for the most part, were written with bulldozers and monkey wrenches on the mud of untouched forests and the fuselages of shot-up planes. They were inscribed in the invisible ink of oxygen and morphine administered to thousands of wounded men evacuated from battle fronts by the forgotten enlisted medical technicians.

A few G. I. correspondents, who wrote many of the “glamour” stories regularly mimeographed for, distributed to, and released by Navy-headquartered reporters, saw some of the epics recorded by these little men.

So, fortunately, a few remain.

Staff Sergeant Bob Price, who was there, wrote:

“Today this tableland site on Saipan is covered with an airstrip built by the 805th Engineers in 17 days in an area only a half mile from the battle lines.

“Their surveyors traveled in halftracks, carrying .50 calibre guns in one hand and transits in the other.

“Following them were other engineers with 90 vehicles, 80 pieces of heavy machinery, 37 mm. guns, 1,800 crates and boxes (the total weighing more than 9,000 tons). They made their way over the treacherous roads to the high windswept site that was to be an airfield.

“The men were put on ‘two hour call,’ which meant that they were subject to order to hold up front line positions while assault troops reform.

“From this beginning, working night and day, the engineers completed an airstrip 5,000 feet long and 300 feet wide. This has a packed-solid 10-inch-thick top and seven and nine-feet fillings were made at both ends of the field.

“During this period they also constructed a tank farm to hold more than 40,000 gallons of gasoline, sealines, distillation units, a control tower, a coral pit that produces 2,000 yards of coral per day, a communications setup, an orderly campsite and a chain of usable roads.

“Such changing of the earth’s face appalled the Saipan natives. A family of five, hiding in the hills when the engineers went to work, were captured and brought back. They couldn’t believe their eyes.

“They saw the night shift operating the graders, carryalls, tractors, Diesel rollers, trenchers and graders on the spot that had been untouched a short time ago.

“The outfit’s 37 mm. guns stood guard against enemy breakthrough or infiltration. Each piece of machinery was mounted with a searchlight that cut the night with a powerful beam.

“Engineers, wearing campaign hats with red engineer cards, rode the big machinery with rifles at arm’s reach. There was the scream of brakes, knocking of gears and the slow chatter of generators. Coral flowed from dump trucks; heavy iron blades and rollers crushed it into place. Sea water flooded the field to make the strip compact.

“The native family saw it but still couldn’t believe that these strange, masterful giants had won and changed their land in a matter of days. They sat by the runway and jabbered, trying to understand the miracle.”

. . .

All through the Marianas, construction engineers faced deadlines that would have been regarded as impossible under the best peacetime conditions, much less under the wartime handicaps faced by the bulldozer brigades.

Schedules called for completing a B-29 base on Saipan in a little over 90 days.

The Superfortresses, with a gross weight of 135,000 pounds, require runaways at least 8,500 feet long and 200 feet wide — an area almost twice as great as the 150 by 6,000-foot strips used by the Liberators.

At Isely Field the final stage of development called for two parallel B-29 runways with 150-foot shoulders, six miles of taxi-ways, two 300 by 1,950 foot service aprons (each almost as large in area as most fighter strips formerly were), 390,000 square feet of warm-up aprons, and 180 hardstands, each 140 feet in diameter.

For this construction, about 30,000,000 square feet had to be cleared and graded, and about 10,000,000 square feet of this area paved. In addition, the engineers had to provide storage for 188,000 barrels of aviation gasoline and ready tank storage for 40,000 gallons.

In constructing the runways the engineers had little choice of location. For fighter planes and even for ordinary bombers a runway can be shifted slightly out of line from the prevailing winds to avoid such obstructions as ravines or bluffs. But for B-29s the runway must line up with the winds, and ravines must be filled in and bluffs cut down.

Topsoil was never more than a foot above the hard coral rock sub-surface, and over great areas there was no topsoil at all. The rock was too hard to be torn up by medium rooters; the grading job called for heavy rooters augmented by constant dynamite blasting.

And weather was another tough obstacle.

 Rains made quagmires of the roads, weakening front springs on 2 ½ and 4-ton trucks. Mud worked its way into the transmissions of all vehicles and choked the steel runners of the half-tracks.

On Guam, deadlines, weather and general conditions were just as bad. And there was even more jungle than on Saipan.

There was heat and sudden, drenching rains. The men worked 12-hour shifts. They lived in the jungle in tents with dirt floors, ate K and C Rations and watched nearby Navy personnel move about in comfortable quonset huts with electric lights and cooling showers.

But, somehow, through it all they were kept going by a sense of humor.

Their attitude about the holed-up Japs, for instance.

The jungles that spelled so much misery for the engineers was a break for the Jap troops that were well organized and lived in well-concealed bivouac areas all over the island.

The fanatic Nips, some who even today are still hiding in the Guam jungles, murdered scores of Americans at work and on sightseeing trips through the island. Yet, because they were Japs, they did a million unpredictable things, and from these eccentricities the engineers drew the stories with which they later welcomed the Johnny-Come-Latelies from Hickam and Hamilton Fields.

Many of these newcomers from the rear echelons, who came down after the fighting was past and Guam had been built into a teeming base, were natural pickings for the veteran engineers.

No one knew the exact origin of these stories and not everyone believed them, but they made the rounds and were excellent fodder with which to greet the flood of newcomers from the rear echelons. Arriving long after the island had been secured and built into a teeming base, the rookies, many of whom arrived armed to the teeth, were ready, willing and even eager to believe that there was a Jap hiding behind every tree and garbage can.

One of the best yarns had to do with one of the squadrons building a runway at North Field. Working near the edge of the jungle one morning, some of the engineers were startled to discover two Japs sitting astride the fence bordering the field.

The Japs, tattered from months of hiding in the jungle, were having a helluva time sidewalk superintending the construction job. They dropped from the fence and scampered off through the jungle when one of the men on a bulldozer reached for his rifle.

On the following day the Japs were back, boldly hanging over the fence with the same fascination people in large cities have for excavating projects. And the engineers, quite pleased to be working for an appreciative audience, kept an eye on them but permitted them to remain.

The Nips, who must have had their own two-man reveille, showed up promptly each morning and stayed throughout most of the day — evidently enjoying the show hugely. It got to a point that the engineers felt a little lonely when their audience would suddenly disappear into the jungle.

One morning the Japs failed to appear and the engineers, consummate hams by now, lost a little of their zing. They brooded but assured themselves that their audience would return the following morning. The Nips, however, never came back, and the engineers never quit speculating over what happened.

The thought that the Japs might have deserted them to watch the Seabees was too horrible to contemplate, so they think their fans were captured or killed and were always a little bitter about it.

Another of the favorite sagas was of the Jap who was a rabid baseball fan. One Brooklyn engineer even vowed that he’d seen the little Nip working at a Japanese restaurant on Flatbush Avenue and remembered seeing him at several games at Ebbets Field before the war.

This Jap turned out for every game played by one engineering squadron and sat on a bare hill overlooking the diamond, alternately cheering the engineers and raising hell with the umpires.

Whenever a decision went against the engineers, the Jap would jump up and scream something which, roughly translated, seemed to mean “Kill the blankety-blank so-and-so.”

One day the engineers were playing the Seabees and the game was going on inning after inning with the score tied. Finally an engineer caught a Seabee curve squarely and blasted it down the left field foul line. The umpire took one squint and then called the runner back — foul ball!

This was too much for the Dodger-bred Jap. He jumped to his feet, screaming curses in Japanese, and grabbed a piece of coral. Winding up like a sandlot pitcher, he beaned the umpire and then took off over the hill, followed only by the cheers of the engineer rooting section.

Later a Marine patrol — which the engineers vow was egged on by the Seabees — shot the Jap.

The 854th Engineers on Guam were active participants in numerous Jap shenanigans.

One night a chaplain attached to the outfit was awakened by a noise to find a Jap sitting on his footlocker calmly trying on G. I. shoes. Being unarmed, the chaplain lay quietly while the Nip found a pair that suited his fancy. Then he saw his visitor calmly disappear into the darkness.

On another occasion an 854th Guard, armed with a sub-machinegun, was standing guard while a group was erecting a tank farm. Suddenly he saw a fat chicken come scurrying out of the underbrush and, thinking in terms of a dinner substitute for the eternal spam, cut loose at the fowl. He missed the chicken, but a white flag suddenly appeared from the bushes followed by five gaunt and frightened Nips.

On another morning a Jap soldier climbed up a steep cliff to surrender to an 854th quarrying crew. The engineers were embarrassed when a quick search revealed that they had brought no weapons. The Jap didn’t seem to mind, however, and meekly crawled into a jeep to be driven to a stockade maintained by the Island Command.

Jap-taking, as a by-product of engineering, was one thing, but any other form of Jap-hunting, two 854th men learned, was looked upon with an officially jaundiced eye.

One day two of the men of this squadron were invited to visit the ranch of a Guam native. While there, they flushed and killed two Japs. As punishment the commanding officer made the two engineers return to the ranch and bury the bodies.

. . .

In addition to the mud, forests and Japs, the engineers in the Marianas were faced with another handicap which they found even harder to combat — mosquitoes!

The most extensive epidemic of dengue of the war hit late in the summer. The fever made its appearance soon after the assault but during the first few weeks there were relatively few cases because the rainy season hadn’t begun and mosquitoes weren’t numerous.

But with the beginning of the rainy season on August 1, fever-bearing mosquitoes became abundant and it was reliably estimated that on Saipan alone, there had been more than 20,000 cases of dengue before the epidemic was brought under control.

Handling this epidemic was a terrific problem because combat operations had left a multitude of insect breeding places in tin cans, shell cases and battle rubble. And men on the island were already engaged in so much other backbreaking work that large-scale assignment to extra details to fight this new foe was impractical. Conditions became so bad that anyone going through the area who hadn’t been immunized by a recent attack was almost sure to contract it.

A C-47 transport plane was fitted to carry six 53-gallon drums of DDT and mechanism to spray this deadliest insecticide ever produced. It was the first large-scale use of DDT in the war.

Captain Fredericks M. Wilkes, of the Transport Air Group, was pilot and Lieutenant Lieutenant John L. Maloney was co-pilot. Master Sergeant Robert R. Wells and Staff Sergeant Frank J. Petschar handled the spraying mechanism.

“We’d sweep back and forth over the island at levels from 35 to 50 feet,” said Wilkes. “In the first nine days we flew 31 missions and sprayed 8,600 gallons of DDT over a total of 15,650 acres on Saipan. At the same time applications of DDT residual spray was begun in all tents and living quarters of hospitals and AAF and garrison troops.”

The epidemic reached a peak on September 15 but by the end of September hospital cases on Saipan had been reduced to 44 and by October 6 they had dropped to 23.

But in spite of epidemics and other major handicaps, the engineers completed their assignments. They didn’t always get credit for the things they did. For instance, Navy-released pictures appeared in Life magazine claiming Guam fields as Seabee projects.

The engineers, who fought the Guam jungles, were a little surprised to learn that they hadn’t been there.

. . .

Of all the overlooked “little men” in a forgotten air force in a neglected theater, the enlisted medical technicians stand near the top of the list.

They were a part of the air evacuation teams, consisting of two flight nurses and one male technician, who tended the wounded being evacuated to rear base hospitals in Hawaii and San Francisco.

These technicians of the 809th and 812th Squadrons arrived in time for the Gilberts campaign and remained for the duration. They flew in the big two and four-engined transport planes and, on the long drags from the Gilberts, Marshalls and Marianas, saved the lives of scores of wounded by administering oxygen, plasma and penicillin in flight.

Later they also flew from Hawaii to Australia to pick up a load of wounded, flew back to Hawaii, and then to San Francisco. More than 7,000 miles — and most of it over water.

These Seventh AF men were called “Pacific Wanderers” and “Vagabonds.” These were apt names for these orphans. From the beginning, the single fact that they were men kept them in the shadow of the more glamorous flight nurses.

They were farmed-out to the Air Transport Command, and, like most men on detached service, received few promotions.

But most of them were philosophical about headlines and the other “breaks.” After tending so many men whose legs, arms and faces had been shot away, they realized how unimportant headlines can be.

Technicians attended Air Evacuation School at Bowman Field, Kentucky, where they learned the things required of flight nurses, for on regular trips they administered plasma, oxygen, and gave all the other treatments given by nurses. And when the planes went into battle regions they took over completely; women, of course, were not scheduled for flights until an island was secured.

These men flew an average of 350 hours for every three-month period. Army pilots, for a like period, are limited to 300 hours flying time.

The worth of these technicians was never more graphically illustrated than during the Marianas campaign. During the month of July alone, more than 1,500 wounded were evacuated from the strip at Saipan.

“Many of these injured men would have died if they hadn’t been rushed to rear base hospitals,” said Major Andrew D. Henderson, of Mobile, Alabama, commanding officer of the 809th Squadron.

“Badly wounded men could be rushed back to Hawaii in a short time through the medium of air transportation. There and in San Francisco, in well equipped hospitals, they could be given the best plastic surgery and the most advanced medical treatment in the world.”

The first air evacuation plane went into Saipan on D-plus-10. “When we received orders for this first flight, I called all the men of the 812th together and told them the story,” said Major Dominick Lasasso, then commanding officer of the squadron.

“They knew that they would fly down on an unarmed, unescorted plane and land in the middle of a battle. Yet, when I called for a single volunteer, the entire squadron stepped forward. Lots were then drawn and Technician Third Grade Victor Mitchell of St. Louis, Missouri, won.”

“Our plane arrived after dark and fighting was still going on all around us,” said Mitchell. “All night we were under constant Jap fire and this prevented us from loading and taking off until the following morning.

“This time lapse was unusual, however, for we usually landed, loaded, and were ready to take off in an hour and a half.”

These wandering men of the Seventh AF flew under almost constant adverse weather conditions in the unpredictable Central Pacific. They learned more about psychology than most students do in class rooms from handling mentally disturbed men and badly wounded men who, during flights through the sudden tropical storms, had to be “talked-out” of going into shock.

The technicians, especially when working with flight nurses, had to be eternally watchful, for men with battle-shattered minds might suddenly go berserk and do almost anything.

“It was especially difficult when we were carrying a load of badly wounded men and ran into bad weather,” said Technician Third Grade Raymond Netzel.

“Everything would be going smoothly and then we’d hit a storm front. The plane might suddenly shoot a couple of thousand feet up or down. Then you’d have to appear nonchalant and kid the patients, for fear could throw a man into shock — and shock can bring death very quickly.”

During the campaign these orphans probably learned more about the different branches of service than any other G.I.’s in the Air Forces. They evacuated Army, Navy and Marine personnel of all rank. And they worked in planes flown by pilots of the 7th AF, the Transport Air Group, ATC and Marines.

“Most of them were swell,” said Technician Third Grade Raymond Fischer. “Anything necessary for the patients they’d do. On one of my trips from Saipan I had a number of patients with head injuries and for several hours the pilot kept the plane 50 feet above the water so as to not cause discomfort for the injured. The radio operators and co-pilots often came back and assisted us.”

Flying unarmed over Jap islands was no cinch, either.

“On one trip out from Tarawa,” said Private Ted Newman, first medical technician into Kwajalein, “our pilot, by mistake, flew over Mille. Guns from the ground cut loose at us, and although no one was injured we later found bullets lodged in the life raft in the rear of the plane.”

On another flight a C-54 hospital plane, enroute from Tarawa to Canton, lost two engines and had to limp into Canton on the remaining two. The 23 patients and technician were loaded into a Navy PBY and the flight continued.

“But such cases were the exception,” said Technician Third Class Myron Lamb, who, at the time, had more flying hours than any other man in the 812th.

“Usually the mechanics of the flight were routine. We took off from Hickam Field, flew to a battle station and picked up our patients. But the trips were never dull, for each patient was entirely different. You had to know exactly when to administer morphine, plasma, sulfa or penicillin. Some men could be kidded out of going into shock. Some guys just wanted to talk and if you were a good audience you could help by just listening.”

How well these men covered the Central Pacific was demonstrated in a scene at Saipan where Technician Third Class Foster was preparing to take off with a load of patients for Oahu.

Foster had a cigarette lighter inscribed with a log of the islands to which he had flown on evacuation trips. His list included Saipan, Guam, Leyte, Roi, Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Funafuti, Makin, Kwajalein, Johnston, Christmas, Apamama and Engibi.

“I’m running out of space now,” said Foster. “Either I have to get a larger lighter or start carrying two of them around.”

Another lost outfit in this theater was the Transport Air Group. They were, in fact, so “lost” that they were never quite sure for whom they were working.

“Hell,” said one of the TAG officials, “one day we were taking orders from the Air Forces, the next day we were flying for the Navy, and then the Marines would shoot us an order.

“On August 1, we evacuated 200 casualties from Tinian to Saipan and on August 7 we set up the regular Saipan-Guam air evacuation service. During the first ten days after we moved into Guam we’d evacuated more than 1,500 wounded, and for the month moved 2,083 from that island.”

These pilots flew the first cargo planes into every island in the Central Pacific. They also moved some of the most diversified cargo, including new parts for heavy engineering equipment to be used by the Aviation Engineers, anchor chains for Navy ships, blood plasma for the Marines and — the gem of all — a pre-fabricated latrine that was flown into Saipan, soon after the island was secured, for the private use of a high ranking officer!

When the Bar Flies, which was a typical Seventh AF group as far as living conditions were concerned, came into Saipan, they pitched their puptents in a half-burned field of sugar cane and kafir corn. Down the slope toward the sea were trees and someone told them that there were seacliff caves nearby which were infested with Japs.

Revetments of salmon-pink earth stood around them, giving good protection for infiltrating snipers. There they planted their shelter-halves and dug foxholes right by the front entrance.

By day there were red ants and by night there were huge landcrabs, flying foxes, mosquitoes and lizards.

All building materials had to be salvaged from the half-destroyed Jap farmhouses. The pilots’ first ready-room was under a captured Jap tent.

At first the men ate off low crates with K-Ration boxes for seats. Flies and ants were thick and men ate with one hand and fanned flies with the other.

Another good story told by the veterans to newly-arrived personnel had to do with the eating situation.

“Hell, you never had it so good,” the old timers would quip when the new men griped at the C-Ration-spam diets. “When we came down on the invasion it was really tough. At first we were kinda particular and took time to pick the ants out of the K-Rations. Then we’d just sort of brush them off and start eating. Then we got to where we’d just eat and let the ants look out for themselves. Finally it reached a point that when the ants started crawling off we’d catch ‘em and put them back in the food where they belonged!”

Conditions were more or less the same on Guam and Saipan.

Clerks set up their administrative offices on boxes, and portable typewriters began to pound out reams of “triplicate” copy.

Souvenir hunters had a field day and great heaps of wrecked Jap planes were picked as clean as skeletons in a desert. Samurai swords sold from $100 to $300, Jap flags from five dollars up and a pair of officers’ binoculars sold for $40. A 1907 American five-dollar bill, bearing Constance Bennett’s signature and taken from a Jap pilot who crashed on the field, brought $25.

Marines did a brisk business in cowbells, lewd Jap postcards, pistols and goodluck charms.

The seemingly inherent American characteristic of souvenir seeking caused the deaths of many men in the Central Pacific.

Three clerks of the Seventh AF, wandering in the hills of Saipan on July 26, escaped this fate but it took one of the strangest accidents of the war to save them. The men involved were Technical Sergeant Albert F. Parsons, a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack and sergeant major of his fighter group; Corporal Clifford E. Gilham, operations clerk; and Technical Sergeant Ellis E. Shelhamer, a personnel clerk.

“We had a few hours off and were walking along a jungle trail near the top of Mt. Topatchau when we saw someone walking ahead of us,” said Parsons.

“Thinking he was one of our group, we yelled. He turned and we saw he was a Jap.

“We fired and saw him go to his knees and then fall behind a boulder. We surrounded the spot and closed in.

“Suddenly all hell broke loose. An American sniper patrol was nearby and they thought we were Japs and cut loose at us with machine guns, automatic rifles, carbines and hand grenades.

“We were in a tough spot for we were pinned down with no way of identifying ourselves. “Then the damnedest thing happened. A hidden Jap machine crew, also mistaking us for Nips, cut loose at our patrol on the nearby ridge.

“This fire-coverage gave us protection and we got the hell out of there.

“From then on,” he said, “we bought our souvenirs from the Marines!”

An informal Jap-hunt, by drivers of the 27th Bombardment Squadron of the 30th Bomb Group, almost got the enlisted personnel involved in trouble. But, it too, had a happy ending.

Staff Sergeant Hudson H. Paddock, Sergeant Glenden R. Burrowes, Corporal Pat R. Deleretta, Private First Class Desmond L. Walker and Private Richard M. Richards were the men who took part.

“For some time we had been missing G. I. equipment from our outfit and we figured that Japs were responsible so we rounded up a patrol to search the woods about 500 yards south of our squadron area,” said Burrowes.

“When we got into the wooded area we split up, and as Richards and I walked along we saw a Jap bivouac area. We sneaked up with our guns ready and spotted three Japs in the camp.

“They saw us and ran, refusing to halt when we yelled, so we cut loose and killed two of them. The other was hit but disappeared in the woods.

“We beat the woods for him and a Marine patrol with dogs looked, too, but weren’t able to find him.

“The camp contained a rifle, pistol, knives, enough rice to last the three Japs a month, and stolen Marine equipment that included mess kits and canteens.”

For this officially frowned-on pastime the men were sternly reprimanded. Then they were called up and decorated!

. . .

Keeping clean was one of the main problems in the Marianas. One of the pencil-pushers of the 11th Bomb Group on Guam wrote:

“Morale dipped to its lowest ebb when we first arrived here. Everyone worked long and hard and there wasn’t too much complaining about having to stand up to eat, sleeping without bedding or mosquito nets, but the shortage of water for drinking and bathing drove you crazy.

“And as soon as we got water and everyone could take a bath morale bounded back.”

On Saipan the same conditions existed. From there, another soldier set down these immortal words:

“Water has had the highest priority. For the length of this long battle we have been waiting for rain. The dust has piled up in the roads and the wells and cisterns are running dry.

“Finally the rains came. For a couple of early morning hours the thirsty earth sucked in the water and a cool breeze blew across the plateau.

“Then, in the middle of the heaviest rain, the first two watering wagons seen on this island came up the road, flooding the mud that was already two inches deep.

“We don’t know where they got the water. Here we haven’t even been able to take showers or wash clothes. Still, they completed their watering project in the midst of a heavy rain.

“There is something grand about War!”

Ingenuity, that saved the lives and added to the comfort to so many Americans at war, helped make the Marianas more livable.

Clerks and mechanics rigged up windmills from salvaged Jap materials and made their own washing machines. This seemingly universal American characteristic also solved the problem of cold drinking water in the humid islands.

Each time the Thunderbolt pilots took off there was a long line of men waiting with canteens. Wrapped in a wet cloth and hung over the cockpit cooling vent, a canteen of the most tepid water, taken to 20,000 feet altitude, could be cooled to stateside taste.

Ingenuity, a sense of humor and a good knowledge of soldier psychology solved many problems. One of the most amusing had to do with the job of flooring tents of a Seventh AF squadron.

Captain Thomas E. Smith, squadron commanding officer, had managed to cadge a load of lumber for this purpose. Ordering the men to put in the floors, he knew, would bring on a siege of grumbling.

So he had the lumber unloaded at the edge of the area and atop the planks he put a sign: “Government Property.”

Night came, and nights can be very dark in the Pacific.

Came the dawn and not a scrap of lumber remained. Even the “Government Property’’ sign was missing.

From the tents came sounds of sawing and hammering. The men were joyfully putting floors in their tents!

That was their war.  Could America respond as well today, given the present culture and social climate?  I don't think so.



Genji said...

Love the stories!

This book would a good companion for The Fleet at Flood Tide by James D. Hornfischer.

Sam said...


Nip for Nipponese? Jap for Japanese? You've got to step pretty far into Neverland to be insulted by diminutives like those.

I went ahead and ordered a copy on your recommendation. My dad was in the Army Air Force from the start of the war until the end, but a different theater. Back and forth across North Africa, into Sicily, Italy, and finally across France.

Thanks for the recommendation.

MrGarabaldi said...

Hey Peter;

I was reading the story about the transformation of the island and the first thing I could think of is that if we had to do that today, you would have some NGO trying to interfere because of "Environmental Reasons, Blah, blah, blah". We had the stones to do what was necessary to win, now not so much. They were the generation forged by the Great depression, the ones that survived that were of hardier stock.

Beans said...

I remember reading about the construction of the bases on Saipan and Tinian.

Two things struck me as very interesting.

First was a surveying group that managed to get jumped by a Jap. The guy holding the survey stick thingy tossed it like a javelin and got the Jap.

Second was the informal use of the M4 Sherman as a drilling machine. Seems the coral was dulling and destroying the rock-drilling equipment that was there, and some enterprising guy got a Sherman that was acting in overwatch to start shooting a large coral chunk. Mark the hole location, fire AP at it, tamp explosives into the hole, blow, go to the next, continue.

That caught on, until some clerk or officer somewhere noticed that supplies of AP ammo were dwindling.

The Pacific, especially the Central Pacific, was unlike anything the Americans had ever dealt with. Coral islands are a very unique and difficult setting to deal with.

I will have to find this book.

Old NFO said...

Having visited Tinian and Saipan it is amazing how much they accomplished and what is still standing these many years later, including the bomb pits.

Unknown said...

Peter, thanks for this post. This book has special meaning to me.

I have a copy which belonged to my Dad. He's in a photo (pg 254) among a group of 318th Fighter Group personnel posing with a captured Japanese flag.

Pages 331-338 describe the kamikazi attack by 200-300 Japanese against the fighter pilots on Iwo Jima the night of March 27 1945. Pleased to say my Dad survived this.

Dad made some notes in his copy and underlined the names of guys he knew. There's a reference to pilots relaxing after a particularly hazardous mission by "drinking tomato juice" with Dad's penciled footnote, "This is undoubtedly a joke."

The authors of the book were reporters for Brief Magazine, published monthly for Air Corps personnel, and much of the material was adapted from magazine articles.

Don in Oregon

Sam L. said...

My second missile unit assignment was with the 351st Missile Wing. I met my wife there, and she later became the Public Affairs Officer. Going thru the file cabinet one day, she found two photos of Clark Gable, one in front of a B-17, one in a waist-gunner slot. There was nothing to explain why or when they were taken. Some years later, I was in my local Costco store, and found a 6-CD set labelled COMBAT-Air War, and one was labelled Combat America, and it was Gable on a mission in '43. It's available on You Tube.

Sherm said...

Finally, a book I've already read. It's nice not to be falling further behind on my I-should-read-that-list.

This book, more than most I've read gives a better sense of the vast distances involved in the Pacific Theater. Intellectually, I understood it but this book helped me feel it.

Fin said...

There was still a Japanese soldier left on Guam when I was stationed there on a sub tender in 1967-68. He was captured in 1972. We occasionally would go swimming at Talofofo Falls near his hide out.

drjim said...

My Dad was a SeaBee and helped build a lot of those bases.

He didn't care to talk about it.....