February 1955 Issue By Mr. Murray A. Massin The 209th Engineer Combat Battalion had, on V-J Day, spent 24 months overseas, having left the United States on September 9, 1943. At war's end, the battalion was one of the most decorated in the CBI Theatre. Their awards included one Distinguished Service Cross, four Silver Stars, 33 Bronze Stars and 181 Purple Hearts. The organization arrived in Ledo, Assam, after a trip across India by rail, truck and boat. Within a week they were set up for operations at Nawng Yang, Mile 43 on the Ledo Road, 15 miles from the point. Throughout the next six months an amazing variety of tasks were carried out by various exponents of the outfit. They operated a saw mill at Nawng Yang; laid the first pipe line over Pang-saw Pass, which is the highest point on the Ledo Road; built a tank farm at Hell Gate, Installed the largest culvert system on the Road, at Thursday River; built and maintained a long stretch of roadway; and, finally, constructed bridges at the Tirao, Nam-chick, Nawng Yang, Tarung and Tawang Rivers. The Tawang River Bridge, 37 miles south of Shingbwlyang, was the longest bridge on the Ledo Road. It was an American H-20 running 1285 feet across. In most cases, the deadlines set by the Commanding General were beaten by several days. In early March, the men of the 209th gaily waved on columns of Men-ill's Marauders as they passed down the road to begin their now famous jungle trek of nearly 1,000 miles. Had the Engineers known what fate had in store for them, their greetings to the Marauders would have been a great deal more solemn. Soon afterward, the 10th Air Force began pressing for advance airfields in Burma, from which to support General Stilwell's ground advance toward Myitkyina, So, in April, the battalion took over the task of clearing airfields at Tingkawk, Sakan and Warazup. The first Purple Heart for the battalion was awarded to Pfc. Albert Hudy and Co. "A" on May 15th, when Jap planes bombed and strafed the Warazup airfield in a surprise attack.
Suddenly, at 0300 hours, on May 23d, Lt. Col. Leslie Sandvall, Battalion C.O., was ordered to prepare the entire battalion for combat duty. Within 36 hours, C-47s were taking off from Tingkawk and Warazup, fully loaded with the men who had helped build the fields. Just a week previous, Merrill's Marauders had spent their last available strength in capturing Myitkyina airstrip. The Engineers were called in to hold this valuable prize until General Stilwell could clear the town itself. As the planes landed on the mud-covered, crater-studded airfield, they were under attack from Jap artillery and sniper fire. The same planes took off soon afterward fully loaded with Marauder casualties. The assignment of Chaplain Tobias to the unit gave the men a much-needed boost in morale. They were truly a green and inexperienced group, having had very little combat training. They could bridge the largest rivers and move the highest mountains, but combat was yet another thing. At this time, Capt. John Mattina, a West Point graduate, took over the all-important job of Artillery Officer, and with the aid of several of the remaining Marauders, gave hurried classes in the use of field pieces, mortars and heavy calibre machine guns. It remained for bitter experience to complete the teaching. One of the now laughable incidents told about the first night on the perimeter was related by one of the men of Co. "A." Before dark, they had strung a series of wires to which empty cans were attached, then booby trapped with hand grenades. The men then settled down in their foxholes, attempting to get some sleep. However, it wasn't long before a full scale Banzai attack was being made on their position. The clatter of cans, followed by a few sudden explosions was the signal. Every man on the line opened up with all he had. After awhile the firing died down and all was quiet. The next morning at daybreak, eager eyes sought the territory outside the perimeter. A great roar of laughter arose. On the field in front, lay not only dead Japs, but three dead mules and a couple of water buffalo. It certainly lifted the tension and the men were never again accused of being trigger-happy. H. & S. Co. was given the task of supply for the battalion. T/4 Walter Sarocco, with a group under his control, was responsible for the evacuation of over 60 men from the aid station to the airstrip and each time the mule train returned it was laden with supplies. Shovel operators and cat skinners found the complicated machinery of a pack mule quite a bit different from their previous servants, but they learned quickly. Front line communications were also an extremely difficult problem. S/Sgt. Carmi Marsh handled this task creditably. The men of the medical detachment distinguished themselves with their fine first aid work under direct enemy fire. Three of them were awarded the Purple Heart.
Capt. Charles Steenburg presents Bronze Star Medal to T/3 John Maczko
of the 209th Medical Detachment. Locale is Burma. Photo by the author.
Later on, attempts were made to airdrop supplies directly to the front lines. Many times the 209th was so deep in enemy territory that it was necessary for the retrievers to dash into open country under enemy fire. At one time, T/5 Ben Curtis made seven successive trips one afternoon under such conditions. On May 28th, just two days after the Engineers arrived, the Marauders began to pull out, and the 209th took over their position on the Mogaung-Myitkyina Railroad over which the Japs were hoping to bring reinforcements. Meanwhile, General Stllwell's forces north of Myitkyina were preparing for the final push into the town.
Group of 209th men with two Burmese bearers at Tinghawk.
Photo by James Myers.
The first Nip seen by the boys of Co. "B" is a story in itself. He came walking down the railroad track completely unaware of their concealed positions on either side. He might have walked right on into the position had not one of the men called to him. Like a flash, the Jap dove for the bushes and at the same time the men realized what he was. However, he didn't get very far before a hail of lead caught him. Needless to say, no one again ever entered the perimeter without being challenged. On May 31st, the 236th Engineer Combat Battalion relieved the 209th at the railroad block. The 209th then took up positions on the main road leading to Mogaung. The story has already been related of how three fully loaded Jap trucks drove right into this ambush and when the shooting was over, 89 Jap dead were counted. On June 13th, Companies "A" and "B" were ordered to advance to a new position in the heart of Jap-held territory. The Japs recovered quickly and closed In behind the advance party, completely cutting them off from the rest of the battalion. For five days and nights these men were hopelessly surrounded. Numerous attempts by the remainder of the battalion, reinforced by the 236th, resulted only in heavy casualties and finally all hope of reaching the trapped men was abandoned. Many acts of heroism occurred during this action. Sgt. Russell Ritter gave his life trying to bring up sorely needed ammunition. Lt. Col. Coombs, Regimental Commander, led one attempt himself but was mortally wounded. Sgt. George Sohn, Sgt. Dwight Holman, and Capt. John Mat-tina risked their lives to bring him and three other wounded men to safety, but the Colonel died soon afterward. However, the men who were trapped did not despair so easily. Following a trail pioneered by S/Sgt. Lester Shockley of Co. "B" and led by Lt. Albert Falk, 85 of the men succeeded in finding their way to the main perimeter in small groups. Some of the wounded were carried In by their buddies. Others never made It. Two outstanding cases of heroism were credited to Pfc. John Miller and T/4 Harvey Rodgers, each of whom burdened with a wounded mate became separated from the rest. Unknown to each other, they wandered within enemy lines for three days, but finally managed to bring both themselves and the wounded men to safety. They also brought back much valuable information concerning the enemy positions.
Carpenters of the 209th pose in Burma. They are Erik Isajaki,
Angelo Bota, Charles Hills and Walter Wunnenberg. Photo by James Myers.
The 4th of July was celebrated, on orders from Headquarters, to fire a 60-second burst of all available weapons (including artillery) every hour on the hour. It is doubtful if the Japs ever realized what the shooting was all about. At one time, two men who were sent forward to scout enemy positions were pinned down by Jap machine guns. S/Sgt. Frank Tynan and Pfc. Erwin Sieh, with several others, moved a machine gun to a spot where they diverted enemy fire, thus giving the trapped men a chance to escape. On July 18th, General Stilwell visited the front line positions of the 209th and personally presented medals to several of the men whose outstanding acts of heroism had been recognized. Chief among these was the presentation of the Distinguished Service Cross, second highest combat award to S/Sgt. Alfred Miller of Co. "A." While in command of a forward machine gun post, the Japs made a violent attempt to overrun it. All of the men of Sgt. Miller's squad were wounded and had the Japs reached them, the Engineers would have been killed. Sgt. Miller charged the enemy with an arm full of hand grenades. His action was so violent that he succeeded in killing a large number of Japs, and routing the rest. He then evacuated all of his men to safety. When General Stilwell arrived to present the medal, Sgt. Miller was wearing only a pair of underwear shorts. His uniform had just been washed. Major Edward Mellinger, Battalion Executive Officer, lent him a fatigue jacket, and thusly attired, he was presented to the General by Major Charles Christian. Major Christian had taken over as Commanding Officer of the 209th when Col. Sandvall was wounded. The 26th of July was a happy day. The first battalion of Infantry troops, known as the Galahads, came up to relieve the 209th and 236th. That completed 64 days under direct enemy fire for the 209th, but their task was not yet over. On July 30th, Co. "C" was ordered to the Irrawaddy River to block the attempts of many Japanese to evacuate the town by water. Machine guns were set up on motor boats and in two days they had killed an estimated 150 Japs and captured 50 prisoners. Lt. Tommy Ryan and the men of his platoon were credited with most of these. In another section, Cpl. Harvey Tohet of Co. "B" distinguished himself by knocking out a strong enemy position single handedly.
W/O Richard Roberts posts guard near Namkham.
Men are of H&S Co., 209th. Photo by author.
On the 3d of August, all organized resistance ended in Myitkyina. This was the turning point in the North Burma campaign. Six days later, the 209th was flown back to Ledo for a much-needed rest. Of the original 26 officers and 522 enlisted men, only 15 officers and 182 enlisted men remained to be evacuated as a unit. Seventy-one had been killed in action and 181 were wounded. The remaining had been evacuated because of disease. For its part in this important battle, the 209th was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
Suspension bridge over the Shweli River built by 209th Engineers.
Photo by the author.
In October, the 209th, reorganized back to full strength, once more took up its Engineering duties on the Ledo Road. A Bailey bridge was built over the Namtabit River, 25 miles south of Myitkyina. At the same time, a pontoon bridge was maintained alongside it. At Myothet, the first Bailey suspension bridge on the road was built over the Taping River, 24 miles north of Bhamo. When Co. "A" arrived at Myothet on December 2nd, Jap patrols were still being mopped up in the area. Bhamo didn't fall until the 16th of December. On January 15, 1945, Co. "B" was sent to work on the Shweli River suspension bridge, three miles north of Namhkam. They had to wait two weeks until the Japs were cleared from the area by the men of the Mars Task Force. Soon afterward, the remaining companies were brought down to work on the Bhamo-Namhkam Road. On the 15th of March, the Shweli River Bridge, the largest single-span Bailey suspension bridge in the world, was opened to traffic. It had taken six weeks to construct. A previous British-built span over the same spot had taken nearly three years to construct before the war. Since March, the 209th had built and maintained roadways and supplied drivers for the many China-bound convoys. In June 1945, Lt. Col. Sandvall and Maj. Alfred Pierce were returned to the United States. Soon after, Lt. Col. Harold Martin became the C.O. Lt. Col. Martin had been with the 823d and 849th Aviation Engineer Battalions, two of the oldest organizations in CBI. A review of the above will substantiate the 209th Combat Engineers' claim to fame. If there was another organization in CBI which can produce a more diversified list of duties and accomplishments, we have not heard of it.
Members of the 209th hold Jap flags captured at Myitkyina.
Photo by James Myers.