116 Engineer Battalion: Combat and Labor in Papuan Campaign

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with Engineers William Andel and Gene Rohlffs

 

We Combat Engineers of B Company 116 Engineer Battalion claim to be the first 41st Division men to contact the Japs at Sanananda.

Docking at Port Moresby from the old Dutch Bontekoe about 1000 on 27 Dec 1942, we heard our first air alert, but it was soon called off. After we unloaded supplies, an Engineer boarded each truck to accompany the drive to our Sanananda staging area. Climbing the big hill by 10 Evac Hospital, Andel heard the air raid siren again. His Black Omaha driver hit the ditch and yelled for Andel to flatten also. Andel still had never seen a Nippo plane.

While B 116 waited to emplane across the Owen Stanley Mountains, Andel and others volunteered to help man machine guns on B-17s to raid Rabaul. Later, we found that we were not needed. Next morning, that plane to which Andel was assigned, was the only one that failed to return from the flak over Rabaul.

On 31 December, B's 1st Platoon flew across the Owen Stanleys 96 miles and landed on the lumpy, grassy runway of Dobodura Strip. In a stream of sweat, we hiked from Ango Corner to Soputa. Moving quietly up the muddy track to Voya Village, we bypassed the Japs' Perimeters "P," those deadly strongholds. Besides pack and rifle, each Engineer carried machete, coil of rope or wire, and pick or shovel. Far up-trail, we heard machine gun and field artillery fire, Jap or Aussie. .

Probably on 2 January 1943, B 116 Engineers' 1st Platoon was the first 41st unit to contact the Japs when we entrenched in Huggins (Musket) Perimeter. In the brush menaced by tall jungle trees, we dug shallow holes while fearing snipers from that silent green jungle curtain. A few days later, our 2nd Platoon joined us to reinforce 163 Infantry at the front.

But we Combat Engineers were still labor troops who fought only from necessity. Threatened by Jap machine guns, mortars, and snipers, we labored with our hand tools. We dug communication trenches, built weapons bunkers, sandbagged Medics' stations. We sometimes guarded Aussie field artillery. We carried supplies, laid corduroy roads - dug graves. We saw some combat.

While building a corduroy road in an advanced area by night, our 1st Platoon lost two wounded. On 10-11 January, Bomall was shot in the right leg, and Sergeant Howard in the neck. On an unknown date, 2nd Platoon killed seven Japs and took one prisoner.

Hard-working Staff Sergeant Harris was a notable combat Mess-Sergeant. Improvising a kitchen in an enlarged trench under threat of Jap fire, Harris provided many hot meals for B 116. When fevers hospitalized his whole kitchen crew, Harris worked on without helpers, finally collapsed with malaria. Despite a maximum temperature of 106, Harris did recover.

While two Engineer Platoons were in combat, Headquarters and 3rd Platoon were in reserve - at hard work on labor details. Andel volunteered as mess-Sergeant for 3rd Platoon’s 3rd Squad which maintained a Piper Cub Strip. He heated rations over open fire - pork and beans from restaurant-sized cans - some canned hash - and dear old Sanananda bully beef. We hated bully beef, but our native laborers hungered for this delicious "bullamacow." Andel traded it for coconuts, papayas, and bananas. Mixed papayas and bananas appetized his hungry work-gang.

After the battle, B 116 regrouped in a coconut grove by Sanananda Track among mosquitoes and corpse-flies. Rain fell daily. After work on roads or trails, we slept under pup-tents with mosquito bars - of course in holes for security from remaining Japs. Quinine to prevent malaria made us so deaf that we could hardly hear.

Once Andel and two cobbers hunted souvenirs on Sanananda Track. It was spooky among dark, empty pillboxes among shell-shattered coconut trees. We felt that snipers had us in their sights. As we turned back, three Aussie soldiers passed us - also out souveniring. That night, a Sergeant told us that Japs had slain all three Aussies where we had sensed that snipers were watching us.

After we helped 163 win Sanananda Battle, 116 Engineers performed our top military achievement of World War II. This achievement was building a network of supply roads through the raw wilderness of the Dobodura-Buna-Oro Bay country. The Army needed supplies for this forward base. Air Force needed supplies to build up Dobodura Field to a base to counter the Japs' New Guinea Air Force.

We built the great road from Oro Bay to Dobodura - 23.7 miles, with 11.7 miles of it in mountains, and 12 in swampy flat terrain. We built 7.5 miles of the Dobodura-Buna Road (The Aussies built the middle miles of that road). We built Buna Dock, with a landing area 30 by 90 feet and a ramp to the shore 75 feet long. We built the 875-foot Soputa Bridge. We laid an aviation gas pipe-line, Buna to Dobodura. We supervised native labor for a hand-made road, 18 miles, Dobodura to Soputa to Killerton. We erected 10th Evac Hospital and Kapala Ordnance Depot, and operated Kota Creek Saw Mill.

Such are some highlights of 116 Engineer Battalion (Combat) in the Papuan Campaign. B Company labored and fought in the Sanananda hell. Major achievement of 116 Engineer Battalion, however, was not in battle but in construction of roads and bridges and bases.

 

CREDIT: Main incentive for this history was discovery of "Unit History" dated 26 October 1943 of 116 Engineer Battalion's Papuan Campaign. (I found this at Dwight Eisenhower Library on our Division Association's special visitation grant.) For Sanananda, I used also 163 Infantry's Casualty List, Staff Sergeant John A. Harris' award story, and William Andel's 14-page letter written in 1973.