116 Engineers Combat Battalion

by Sergeant Ken Gwin with Frank Turosik with Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 

On 26 January 1943, the Japs first struck at A Company 116 Engineers in New Guinea. While unloading at Port Moresby docks, we were strafed. A few small personnel bombs fell. We didn’t know where to hide. The ship seemed the safest protection from fragments, yet the largest target. But nobody was hit.

One of our first jobs was at Morobe on the north Guinea shore. We put in a small landing strip for field artillery planes. We also dug a 6-inch terra cotta gas line from Oro Bay to Dobodura Strip, at least 15 miles.

At Oro Bay, A Company and other Engineer Companies worked on an all-weather road "over the hill" to Dobodura. Sergeant Ken Gwin well remembers bridge-building across "Oronoki" River, as he spells the name. Gwin designed footings and "bents" (cross pieces) for the bridge. Several times, Aussies had built a bridge here, but flash floods always washed it out.

To end these wash-outs, Gwin suggested an improvement to Colonel Lauterbach. Gwin knew that a wash-out could not happen in still water. He put in a low coffer dam downstream. It was made of wire mesh landing strip panels weighted with river rock. This dam spread out the flood waters; they had no more wash-outs. (Gwin thinks that an officer took credit for his achievement.)

We got a rock crusher to make gravel. A flying rock hit Shorty Don Franklin while he supervised unloading trucks. He was knocked out, but seemed to recover. Saylor Hayden stood on an inspection plate on the crusher. Somebody had failed to secure it with the hasp through the hinge with 3rd 4-inch blots. A rock hit the plate; it popped him up in the air to land on his bottom. Another rock hit the plate and lifted him back into the air to land on the plate on his feet. The door was always secured after that!

Jack Jones supervised generators and flood lights for our night work. One night, the Japs' planes caught us laboring with our lights on. We couldn't run uphill in time to put them out. But their bombs missed us - just rolled harmlessly down the back of the hill and wasted their blast.

Another time, planes strafed us on the bridge in broad daylight, when it was almost finished. We cowered in the water below the bridge - still had no casualties.

To cut an access road through heavy jungle, Morris Adams worked with native crews of the Oricives and Bookas tribes. Booka tribesmen were best for felling and squaring trees. First, they cut trees through on the right-of-way. Then they chose a large trunk and cut it all the way through. When falling, it dragged down the heavy vines on the tops of the other half-cut trees and felled them also.

Our natives skillfully used axes to square off logs for bridge timbers. After cutting log ends flat, we drew a chalk line the full length of the logs. Then they straddled each log and cut it about as straight as we had ruled it. But when they found a log full of large white worms, all work came to a halt. They devoured them - the size of a small thumb - raw or roasted. Seeing a rat, they chased it to catch and eat it. They were that short of protein! Natives also cut back slopes on the new road and the drainage ditches.

We had to blast the stumps from the new roadway. "Hard Rock" - nickname of an old miner who usually set the charges - used a 40 percent chloropicrin primer cord. Some of the largest stumps still had to be yanked out of the road. On this job, Johnny Gray and Bill Moss worked around the clocks.

Once when crouched in the jungle, Gwin felt something as biting as stings from a hornets' nest. Because of a toilet paper shortage, he had used leaves large as his hand, with a soft velvety look. At first, they seemed fine; then the stings began. He passed the word: "Don't tell your buddy; let him find out himself."

One day, Primo Garbardi was standing by his hammock with a towel around his waist. Suddenly a native with a spear came from the woods. He pointed the spear at Primo. Gwin was 25 feet away, his M-1 leaning against a tree. Gwin leaped for his rifle and raised it to fire. The native disappeared.

After 162 Infantry with our Engineers landed at Nassau Bay, they lived under daily raids from "Washing Machine Charlie's little bombs. Here Gwin took a light wound from a small fragment that seemed to cut from a metal landing strip on the beach. It hit between his eyes and in three days was festering in a small sore the size of a fingernail. Medics cleaned out the sore, but Gwin got no Purple Heart for it. One day, Gwin with Bill McMillen had their first real eggs to eat. When the Japs made their daily strafing, Gwin and Bill were near a small bamboo clump close to the kitchen. Everybody took cover but them. As the bullets hit, they just kept rounding the bamboo clump. Every time the plane fired, they pocketed hard-boiled eggs from the kitchen.

From Nassau Bay, they built a road all the way to Bitoi River. It had to be corduroy most of the way. They cut small trees and large bamboo trunks and laid them crosswise across the tail and covered them with moist earth. The road worked.

Then the Engineers moved up the coast with 162 Infantry to fight for Roosevelt Ridge. On the great assault day, Gwin led a native train with ammo and supplies. For no reason at all, they halted on the trail. A short shell hit a tree ahead. But for the lucky halt, it would have slain Gwin. Heavier shelling began. Gwin and his natives cowered in a large bomb crater. When the shellfire stopped, Gwin saw a flash of white teeth all around him. Everybody laughed hard - glad to be alive. Our 3rd Battalion 162 Infantry had overrun the seaward nose of Roosevelt Ridge. We could safely carry supplies to the top.

So went Gwin's Papuan Campaign of 1943.

 

Continued in Wakde and Zamboanga Campaigns…