116 Engineers' New Guinea Campaign: Road-building, Firefighting, Combat

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

            In early March 1943, long before starting our 41st Division's New Guinea campaign, men of 116 Engineer Battalion began our labors for the campaign. A truck road through swamp and jungle to the sea was necessary for the Division, in the new staging area at Finschafen's port. A sea route would be impossible for two reasons. First, the seas north of New Guinea were a wilderness of uncharted coral reefs and mangrove swamps. Second, hovering Japanese planes could sink even small craft bearing supplies.

            Tech Sergeant Richard McMahon worked on 6-16 March 1944 to establish ammo bays and stockpiling at Finschafen. For those 10 days, he worked without relief and went without sleep and missed many meals.

            Paul Hove was merely a Private, but in the absence of a supply officer, he took responsibility to establish a supply section. He requested and secured supplies for 116 Engineers. It was a masterly performance.

            Elmer Brown showed outstanding initiative and devotion to duty in providing tools and missing parts for machinery to complete this jungle road. For three days and nights, Les Axling labored with a power shovel to prepare storage areas for ammo and other supplies. He worked 20 hours daily, neglecting food or rest. Always on hand was Jim Walker to service our road-building equipment. So worked power shovel operators for three days and nights.

            Thus was our 41st Division provided supplies and ammo for the Aitape-Hollandia operation. This Finschafen base would probably resupply Hollandia after the great fire had concluded.

            Only recently has research by Dr. Edward Drea of the Center for Military History found the underlying story of the Hollandia raid which was Japan's only great victory against our 41st Division.

            From a field in North Indonesia, three Jap planes flew against us at Hollandia. One of the three accidentally burned on Japanese-held Biak.

            Either one or two hit our new supply dumps crowded on the narrow beach at Hollandia. They re-lighted smoldering fires among wreckage of Jap supply dumps.

            Ed Zuperku, Harry Stevens, and Elmer Brown heroically fought this deadly fire to make a firebreak with three bulldozers in the partly exploded debris. (Brown was earlier mentioned for his work on the Finschafen road.) They dared to work over unexploded shells only 75 yards from the flames. They pushed between the blazes and slots containing high octane gasoline - and with a 20-ton dump of TNT at their backs 100 yards away. The drivers ignored this TNT - had barely finished their firebreak when it exploded. But no driver was wounded.

            Besides those drivers, Ed Erickson and Evan Lay were also heroes. On foot in the path of the fire, they "spotted" to guide the three drivers from piles of ammo that might explode under the bulldozer blades.

            Captain Armstrong is also credited for helping control the Hollandia fires, He had remodeled bulldozers with narrower blades to fit inside beach landing crafts (LCMs) and be ashore almost with infantry.

            Less glamorous but harder labor was rebuilding an inland road for 186 Infantry to contact 24 Infantry Division men near the Japs' airdrome. Under 1st Lieutenant Lou Jennings and 2nd Lieutenant Russ Sweetland, a swamp road was rebuilt to help 24 Division push in from the west.

            This meant 23 hours labor without sleep or rest through a swamp. Men cited for this work were Basilio Salas, Ross Santino, Staff Sergeants Harold Frazier, and Harold Lehman. Also named were Bill Noyes and Martin Viola. Lieutenants Jennings and Sweetland worked 45 consecutive hours.

           

Note:  Remainder of article on Biak moved to Biak Campaign section.

 

CREDIT: Box 10593 at Washington National Records Center contains many Engineers' medal stories. Captain Argyl Armstrong sent me a fine 3-page report of the inland road on Biak his Company built to Mokmer Strip to bypass Parai Defile.