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Bougainville Seabees

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BOUGAINVILLE - On November 1 ,1943 a detachment of the 75th Seabee Battalion landed with the first wave of Marines at Torokina Point, Bougainville. The five officers and 95 men who composed the landing detachment were all volunteers. They came in with the Marines on the USS President Adams. For the landing they divided themselves into four units - one to unload ammunition, another to unload fuel, another to unload rations and packs, and the fourth Seabee unit manned the machine guns on all Higgins boats and tank lighters. They were to follow ashore immediately behind Company "C" First Battalion ? Marines Third Marine Division, which was the only assault force expected to meet any opposition. At the beach they encountered determined resistance, the 250 Marines and the 100 Seabees worked perfectly as a team. The Seabee gunners provided cover while the Marines advanced to erase the Japanese with grenades and flame throwers. When a marine was shot from a crippled tractor which was pulling in the first load of ammunition, a Seabee leaped to his place, repaired the tractor, and delivered the ammunition. The Seabees dug foxholes not only for themselves but also for the Marines and for all casualties who were unable to dig their own. When a group of Marines was about to be wiped out because of lack of supplies, three Seabees managed to get through with ammunition and to bring back the wounded. The first Seabee killed was shot by a Japanese sniper while he was helping to man the line of beach which the Seabees had been assigned to defend. They got the sniper. To begin the construction of the airfields around Empress Augusta Bay, the 71st Seabees began landing on the afternoon of November 1. there were many difficult construction problems. The ground was swampy, and the rains were unseasonably heavy. Part of the area on which the Torokina fighter strip had to be built was actually "beyond the front lines". The Seabees had to risk capture as well as death from enemy fire, and one man was captured while he was clearing the strip. A mental hazard for the men was Mt. Bagana, a volcano, which towered near the scene. The Seabees at Bougainville are the only ones who have had to work under an active volcano. In spite of all these handicaps, however, the field was superimposed on the swamp, and planes were operating from it on December 10. There is a bridge in this area named for Chief Carpenters Mate Elmer I, Carruthers. A detachment of Seabees under Chief Carruthers was cutting a road in advance of the front lines when the detachment and its Marine security guard were attacked by the Japanese. Chief Carruthers and six other men were killed and twenty were wounded. The entire detachment might have been wiped out had it not been for the gallantry of Chief Carpenters Mate Joe Bumgarner. Bumgarner and a detail were building a bridge when they heard the firing against Carruthers. Bumgarner led his men to the rescue, helped drive off the Japanese, and evacuated the Marine and Seabee casualties.The 53rd Seabees also participated in the assault on Bougainville. Their "A" and "C" Companies landed with the Marine raiders in the first two waves.

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Off icial account of the 53rd Seabee Battalion's work while in support of the 3rd Marine Division on Bougainville, covering the period November 1-24, 1943. Two Hundred and forty-four men, the Ifficer in Charge, seven officers and one bulldozer landed in the second wave with the Second Raider Battalion on Beach Green-2 (on D-Day, November 1). This group acted as shore-party for the unloading of the USS George Clymer. This work was concluded early in the afternoon of D-Day.


Seventy-four men, two officers, and one bulldozer landed in the second wave on Puruata Island, with the Third Raider Battalion and one battery of the Third Defense Battalion. This group acted as shore-party in unloading their ship, and assisted the Third Defense Battalion battery in securing their positions. This detail remained with the battery for eight days. Twenty three men, one officer and one bulldozer landed in the first and second waves on Beach Yellow-4 and assisted as shore-party temporarily, their principal mission being assistance to the third defense Battalion in securing their battery positions. One man, with bulldozer and one officer landed in the second wave on Beach Blue-1 to assist the Third Defense Battalion in securing their battery positions. On November 2 about one hundred men and two officers from Beach Green-2 were assigned to assist the battery for three days.

On November 2 all available men were constructing bridges and pioneer road along the Piva Trail from Beach Yellow-1. No amount of construction equipment was available until November 6, and progress was slow through the swamps. This project was later expanded to include a pioneer road from Blue-1 and extension of the Piva Trail to an intersection with the Piva Road near Piva. On November 6 an additional six Officers, 179 men, and considerable construction equipment were landed on Puruata Island. These troops were transferred to the mainland on November 9, and assigned to road construction. Here, at Empress Augusta Bay, was once again seen the close relationship and cameraderie which existed between the Seabees and the Marines. The main road, when completed, was named "Marine Drive" and dedicated, with deep affection, 'To our very good friend, the Fighting Marines". A large sign, announcing this fact, was placed at one of the roads terminals.

On November 15, work was started on a two-lane road up the Piva River from the beach. On November 30, this road was open to traffic to the southeast corner of the Piva Airfield site. The Piva Trail pioneer road was 85 percent completed at this time. Survey crews, on November 4, started surveys from Yellow-2, and, on November 10, these crews started preliminary surveys for the Piva Airfield. These crews worked under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions as sporadic enemy opposition was encountered in these areas until about November 30. The various detachments of the Battalion landing on D-Day were under operational control of the Third Marine Division until November 8, at which time they reverted to the control of the Commanding General, First Marine Amphibious Corps. Up to November 24, a total of two miles of primary highway and 1.8 miles of pioneer road had been constructed. A majority of this work was through extremely difficult swamps and jungles, and a considerable portion of these roads were built on corduroy brush mats, by hand.

"Miscellaneous activities included"

1. Construction of operational dugouts for First Marine Amphibious Corps, numbered among these was the elaborate one built for the personal use of Admiral Halsey.

2. Hauling ammunition and rations on Affe trailers to the front lines, until relieved of this duty by the Third Division.

3. Start of development of a coral pit on Torokina Point.

4. Construction of emergency operating tent and hospital ward for Third defense Battalion Medical Officer, and the loan to him of the assistance of two Battalion medical officers and several Corpsmen to care for Raider casualties during the first ten days.

Available records indicate 81 enemy air alerts in which enemy planes were overhead and bombs were dropped. Enemy artillery, mortar and machine gun fire existed on the beaches November 1st and 2nd. Sniper fire existed for the entire two months period in the jungle. Its assigned missions successfully and commendably completed, the 53rd returned from Both Vella Lavella and Bougainville during the middle of January, 1944, to its former camp at Doma Cove, Guadalcanal. Once again we were to undertake extensive and vigorous Marine Amphibious training. But this time, there was also much construction to be done. Since our previous camp had been occupied by other troops during our absence or had been rendered useless by changing conditions and our expanding requirements, we built a camp for ourselves before turning to the construction of a 1,500-man Marine camp.

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Thurman, just wanted to thank you again for assisting me a while back with the search I was conducting on my Uncle who chewed some of the same sand as your father. We've since had many chats regarding his time in the Pacific. Nothing really earth shattering but I think he enjoys having an ear to bend and it's nice to be able to talk intelligently on the subject with him. You really helped to zero in on where he was and what he did by identifying the 53rd for me.


It's hard keeping up with him tho, seems like every time we start talking about something he brings up another engagement and then I have to do some more research. Funny how those old guys remember so much :lol:


Anyhow, keep the updates coming. The Seabee's were truly unsung hero's of WWII like so many others. Never hurts to shine the light on them when we can!



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On November 22, 1943, echelon one of the 6th special NCB followed the First Marine Amphibious Corps to Bougainville. After breaking camp and loading their equipment on an LCT, they picked up their helmets, packs and rifles and boarded LCI’s for the 170-mile trip from Vella Lavella to Empress Augusta Bay. As the Seabee stevedores of echelon one, and the LST supply convoy they were part of, sailed northward where the Third Marine Division was beating back the Japanese along the Numa Numa trails to secure ground for the two additional bomber strips called for in Admiral Halsey's plans.


Just before dawn on November 23, as 6th special echelon one's convoy drew up to Cape Torokina, an air raid alert was sounded. Anti-aircraft guns on the beaches opened fire, exciting the dim sky with the blazing streaks of thousands of tracers. The LCI’s and some of the LST’s slipped through the coral lined channel and quickly made their way to the beach north of Cape Torokina to discharge their cargoes. Other LST’s headed for the seaward side of Puruata Island, about 1,000 yards away. It took most of the day for echelon one to get into its temporary bivouac position. Before they left the beach they saw an LST get hit with mortar fire and their Marine neighbors shoot up some Japanese barges moving up on their left flank. Between these episodes of violence they discharged their equipment, piling it on the narrow beach feet from the bows of their landing craft. The LCT’s were unloaded easily, but negotiating crates down the steep narrow ramps of the LCI’s was more difficult.


The Seabees were assigned a bivouac area in front of the artillery batteries about 1,000 yards from the nearest point of the perimeter, a salient approximately four miles wide and four miles deep. No part of the beachhead was out of enemy gun range, and the Japanese had been busy moving artillery, up to 155mm, into the hills outside the perimeter to shell the American positions. In light of this, compared to the danger of enemy shellfire, rain and mud were minor concerns. The 6th's camp was nothing more than a couple of hundred foxholes dispersed among trees of an uncleared jungle. The stench of things rotten pervaded the jungle, especially after the daily rainstorm. The humidity and the insects made life even more unpleasant. It was preferable to sleep above ground rather than in a wet foxhole, so some men improvised sleeping platforms right over their foxhole shelters. During an air alert they could roll out of bed and into their foxholes. The 6th special men were technically behind the perimeter, but that perimeter had plenty of holes in it, and there was real danger of Japanese infiltrators, so guards were posted. It was an uneventful first night beyond wild shooting by nervous men on sentry duty and the unfamiliar sound of American artillery harassing the Japanese.


On November 23, as the Marines were finishing off the Japanese resistance to the northwest of the proposed bomber strips, the stevedores of echelon one were sent to the beach to assist Marine unloading details, while the 6th's maintenance gang got to work building their showers and galley. The returning stevedores found hot food and cool showers waiting for them when they returned from the beach, but not a good night's rest. The whistle of incoming artillery shells sent a cry through the bivouac to take cover. The men dashed for their foxholes and wished they had dug them deeper as Japanese shells exploded near their camp shaking the earth. Throughout the night the Japanese guns sent shells over their heads. The enemy lengthened and shortened the range unpredictably, apparently searching for some profitable target; perhaps it was the Marine artillery battery dug in 200 yards behind echelon one. Many of the shells fell too close for comfort and to compound the strain, Japanese bombers raided the area before dawn. Sunrise on November 23rd brought an end to the night’s mayhem, with no 6th special casualties.


Though the historian can look back and calmly calculate that the Japanese air attacks on Bougainville were never of sufficient magnitude to threaten the success of the operation, the picture was much different to the men who stood on the receiving end of those attacks. The few planes that slipped past the airsols combat air patrols and the island anti-aircraft defenses were of great concern to the stevedores whose work was frequently interrupted by them. The prime targets for Japanese artillery and bombers were not the Marines and Army troops on the perimeter but the ships, supply dumps, and airfields on or near Cape Torokina where the 6th special lived and worked. Air raids and artillery attacks were so frequent in the first three months after the invasion that the Seabees had to wonder if it was less dangerous on the perimeter.


For the Seabees, working under the threat of Japanese attack made for exciting duty. On one occasion an LST beached outside the American defensive perimeter, but the stevedores gamely unloaded its cargo anyway. On Bougainville the 6th special was in the awkward position of being directly responsible for the timely discharging of the LST echelons but not having direct control over the units they were trying to unload. Getting the ships unloaded so they could get off the beach before deadline took tact and diplomacy as well as innovative stevedoring. All of the 6th special's stevedoring work on Bougainville before January 15, was unloading LST’s. The Seabees had experience in this line of work but on Bougainville it took a new twist. The beaches at Torokina were shallow causing LST’s to beach 75 feet from shore with three feet of water between their lowered ramps and the sandy bottom. This made unloading a problem. A vehicle driven off the LST ramp would disappear under the water at high tide and crash to the ground at low tide. Additional ramps were needed to bridge the gap between the LST ramp and the sand. In the strong surf, dirt ramps were quickly washed away, and coconut log ramps sometimes broke up under the continuous strain of supporting heavy vehicles. The Navy had a prefabricated ramp that held together well, but it took over an hour to assemble, an intolerable delay in light of the frequency of artillery attacks. For the sake of speed the 6th men preferred the log ramp. Bulldozers pushed it in place and then the LST’s own bow door anchor windlass was used to hoist the log ramp where it was secured. The whole operation was completed in 10 minutes. Even with the ramps in place vehicles could not always drive off under their own power if the water was too deep. When it was necessary to drive vehicles through deep water the 6th's stevedores preferred to deflate the tires slightly and remove the fan belts. If the fan belts were not removed from the engine it was likely to stall when the spinning fan blades hit the water as the vehicle rolled off the ramp into the surf. A vehicle stalled in front of the ramp was like a cork in a bottle. No other cargo could be towed or driven off the LST until a bulldozer pulled the immobile vehicle away.


The first LST echelons that the 6th discharged brought in men as well as supplies. Depending on the distance to the supply dumps, maximum cargo discharging efficiency required at least 16 trucks, eight taking on cargo in the tank deck while the other eight were delivering their loads to the supply dumps. Subsequent LST supply echelons brought fewer new troops and their related organizational gear and more of the aviation fuel and lubricating oil necessary to satisfy the needs of the three airstrips. Eventually each LST brought on 2,000 drums, about 500 tons, of fuel and oil. By this time the 6th men could discharge 2,000 drums from an LST in five to seven hours. Trucks greatly boosted the 6th's operational efficiency, but even without them, no LST that they were charged with unloading ever withdrew with its cargo less than completely discharged. This was at a time when LST’s were ordered to sail on an 18:00 deadline whether they had completed unloading or not, and many ships were leaving with cargo still on board. When they had no trucks the Seabees improvised. A 55-gallon drum of gasoline or oil weighs almost 500 pounds, which makes it very tiring to manhandle. The Seabees let the ocean carry the drums. The drums were simply rolled down the LST’s ramp and into the surf where the wave action washed them ashore. The men guided the drums through the water, swimming them in. To unload ammunition without using trucks the Seabees formed a human chain and passed artillery shells hand to hand. When there were no trucks available to take the cargo directly to the dumps, the highly explosive fuel and ammunition was simply piled on the beach. The supply-strewn beaches were inviting targets to the Japanese and a distinct danger to the coastal defense batteries. One night the Japanese artillery scored a hit on a big stack of aviation gas drums causing a tremendous explosion and spectacular fire the likes of which was rarely seen. Drums were blowing up and launching other hot drums hundreds of feet into the air, where they too would explode. There was no fighting the fire. When it finally burned out, it was discovered that 480 drums of fuel had been lost, and the intense fire had destroyed and adjacent 155mm Long Tom coastal defense gun, its melted barrel drooping like a wilted flower.


By getting the dangerous cargoes off the beach as quickly as possible they reduced the risk of losing to enemy action the supplies they had worked so hard to unload. They also eased the nerves of the 155mm gunners defending the beach, who were not enthusiastic about working in a powder keg. Work on the perimeter defenses and airfields were steadily progressing while the 6th special brought ashore the men and material to construct and sustain the beachhead. By December 15, the army and Marine troops were finished fortifying their perimeter. The 1stMAC was relieved by the Army's XIV Corps, and the Marines contribution to the Bougainville fight began to close as newly arrived Army troops gradually relieved them all along the front line. The 6th men wondered if they too would be relieved, but it was not to be. They were attached to the XIV Corps.

The month of January brought more Japanese air raids. From Jan. 23 to Jan. 29, enemy planes attacked 11 times under cover of darkness, once hitting a ship in the bay. Red alerts caused the stevedores to lose 45 platoon hours of working time. In February, the Seabees experienced 11 more attacks over five days and lost another 40 hours to red alerts. The Seabees at least had the satisfaction of seeing one enemy plane shot down over the water. The last four attacks, which came on February 14, killed a few soldiers and showered shrapnel around the 6th's camp. In February, Japanese air and naval forces ceased to contest the American occupation of Bougainville, but the Japanese ground forces, estimated at 15,000 men, had no intention of giving up. Driving the American garrison off the island and denying them the airfields could have given Rabaul breathing space to build itself. The Americans expected the Japanese to attack. Enemy troops were on the move and barge activity was up. On February 1, several Japanese barges were sunk up the beach from the 6th's position. Rumor was that they were loaded with troops. On February 23, 700 of the 6th special men began training for emergency defensive operations. It was thought that the Japanese would attempt an amphibious landing, and the service troops would have to defend the beaches. During the march attacks, a "Condition Black", signifying an enemy amphibious landing was announced and the 6th men were sent back to camp for their rifles and ammunition. Foxholes and pillboxes were being built all over the beachhead. In their seaside foxholes they sweated out a Japanese counter invasion that fortunately never came.


The Japanese attack opened on March 8, just after dawn, when the Japanese opened up on all parts of the beachhead with artillery they had laboriously hauled up into the mountains outside the American perimeter. That night the Japanese broke through a part of the perimeter. The ground action was fierce, artillery shells were traded back and forth regularly. For ten days during the offensive, Japanese shells fell spasmodically all around the 6th's camp, blowing up an ammo dump on March 20. On the noisy nights of March 22, 23, and 24, the American gunners were trying to smother what would turn out to be the final serious attack of the Bougainville campaign. The last Japanese offensive cost the Americans 263 dead, and the Japanese more than 5,000 dead and more than 3,000 wounded. The Japanese ground forces were still an effective force, and there were a few more vigorous fights in store for the Americans in April, when they expanded the perimeter. In April the Japanese made their presence known to the 6th special with an artillery attack. The Japanese shelled the beachhead on April 10, 11, and 12, when they hit a fuel dump. After a final artillery attack on April 16, the 6th special was unmolested by the enemy.


Log from 6th Special NCB on Bougainville "1944"



1/20 - Alert at 0400

1/21 - Alert

1/22 - Bombed @0430

1/23 - Alert @0430

1/25 - Bombed @ 0430

1/26 - Alerts @2200,2300,2400

1/27 - Alert @ 2030

1/28 - Bombed 0405 - Jap air raid Empress Augusta Bay. Our stevedores were working aboard the S.S. Bonneville, anchored near Puruata Island. At that time Puruata Island (Suicide Island) was used for our supply dump and had been bombed frequently by the Japs. 2400 - 0600 There were three crews working on the Bonneville, with Chief Dempsey in charge. Gamberg was in charge of one of the three working gangs aboard. The ack-ack flak was rather heavy from our own guns and three Jap bombs dropped quite close to the Bonneville. One bomb dropped close enough to wash her deck.

1/30 - Japs try to advance on hill 16 and are repulsed

2/4 - Bombed 2130 to 2300

2/5 - Alert 2030 to 2130 & 2230 to 2300

2/6 - Bombed 0015 to 0100

2/10 - Bombed 0200 to 0430

2/11 - Bombed 2030 to 2300 & 0200 to 0415

2/13 - Bombed 2300 to 0130

2/14 - Bombed 0600 to 0615 some flak fell in camp

3/1 Alert

3/8 - Japs on major push on Hill 660 - heavy fighting, receiving artillery fire.

3/13 - 0030 & 0430 Jap planes overhead but no bombing or ack-ack

3/15 - 6 second earthquake that was both static & rolling

3/17 - Bombed 0300 to 0430

3/21 - Alert 0030 to 0130

4/28 - Alert 2300 to 2400

6/26 - 15 second earthquake, rather sharp and continuously rolling no apparent damage.



Ron Glad I could Help!!!

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Hope you got a chance to see the History's Channels show yesterday (May 12) on the history of the engineers. It included quite a bit about the Seabees. A good show.

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Danged if I know the title. Tried to look it up tonight, but was unsuccessful. I could only find future listings and not past. If I find out I will let you know.

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