879th ENGINEER BATTALION (AVIATION)



Engineers by Glider to Myitkyina Company A, 879th Engineers
17 May 1944

by Mark P. Zaitsoff MAJ, EN USAR (Ret)

Source:  Burma Star Website

(Also appeared in the CBIVA Sound-off, Spring 2000 Issue)

This article gives an account of one engineer mission during World War II.  Company A's glider mission to Myitkyina is an untold story from a forgotten theater, by a now unfamiliar unit, using a one war weapon.  The details of the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater, the Ledo Road, GALAHAD, etc are not developed they have been well told by others.

Situation

In early 1944, Burma was in Japanese hands.  From there, they were attacking eastern India and the aerial supply route to China, the Hump.  The Japanese had already cut off all land access to China; the Hump route was the only way to get supplies into China.  Allied objectives in the CBI Theater were to recapture northern Burma, improve the air route and restore overland access to China.

Myitkyina was the major Japanese supply center in northern Burma.  It was located at the southern end of the range of mountains separating India from China.  Japanese fighters based at its nearby airfield forced the US planes flying the Hump to fly farther north, over higher mountains in the Himalayan range.  This route was dangerous, required more fuel and cut the aircraft's available payload.

Myitkyina was the key military objective in northern Burma.  It was the end of the line of the prewar transportation system in northern Burma the end of the all weather road, the railhead from the coast in the south, and the limit of navigation on the Irrawaddy River.

By capturing Myitkyina, the Allies would remove the Japanese fighter threat to the cargo aircraft flying the Hump.  They could then build intermediate airfields along a lower, safer route to China, reducing fuel requirements and increasing payloads.  Myitkyina was also on the proposed route of fuel pipelines and the Ledo Road through the Mogaung Valley to the Burma Road and China.  Recapturing northern Burma would allow their construction and end the Japanese blockade of China.


A Douglas C-47 tow plane snatches a CG-4 glider off the ground at Asansol, India.
This technique proved to be extremely delicate, even for experienced pilots.

GALAHAD

GALAHAD was formed in late 1943 to be the American component of British MG Orde C. Wingate's Special Force or Chindits.  The Chindits were Long Range Penetration Brigades intended to operate deep behind the Japanese lines to disrupt their lines of communications.  Known to the Army as the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), GALAHAD was popularized by the press as Merrill's Marauders, after their nominal commander, BG Frank D. Merrill.  Although formed and trained to fight with the British, LTG Joseph W. Stilwell reclaimed them to fight down the Hukawng (Tanai River and tributaries) and Mogaung Valleys with his Chinese divisions.  GALAHAD was organized into battalions with combat teams to make wide encircling movements behind the Japanese while the Chinese progressed more directly to the objectives.  For the attack on Myitkyina, GALAHAD reorganized into Chinese-American task forces; COL Charles N. Hunter was in overall command and in direct command of Task Force H(unter) - GALAHAD's 1st Battalion and the Chinese 150th Infantry Regiment.

879th Airborne Engineer Aviation Battalion

The airborne aviation engineers were created to meet the need for an air transportable unit capable of rapid repair or construction of airfields.  Their equipment was limited in size by the load capacities and door dimensions of the C-47 plane (5000 pounds, 841/2 inches wide) or WACO CG-4A glider (3750 pounds, 70 inches wide by 60 inches high).  As a result, the equipment was very light the Clark dozer only had a 23 horsepower engine, the towed scraper had a 11/2 cubic yard capacity, and the dump trailer held 1/2 ton.  All the equipment could be loaded without disassembly into C-47s or gliders.

The 879th Airborne Engineer Aviation Battalion was activated on 1 March 1943 at Westover Field, MA.  After training there and at Laurinburg-Maxton AAB, NC, they arrived at Piaradoba (near Calcutta), India, on 23 February 1944.  They started establishing the battalion headquarters, company orderly and supply rooms, and barracks before accepting missions.

Warning Order

GALAHAD left Ningbyen on 24 February on the approach march to its first mission at Walawbum, Burma.

The futures of Company A and GALAHAD began to interweave on the 1st of March 1944 when the battalion received a warning order to detach a company for an airborne mission in northern Burma.  Initially Company C was designated but the battalion commander, Major Frank M. Crittenden, substituted Company A (probably since they'd had glider training flights in 1943 at Laurinburg-Maxton airbase).  The 10th USAAF staff worked with the battalion to get Company A the TOE equipment and supplies they would need.  Soon, they had a full Airborne Engineer Company table of equipment.

On 3 March, 1LT Martin A. Cormier led a three man advance party by air to the Hump airfield at Dinjan, Assam Province, India, about 580 miles northeast of Calcutta.  The rest of the company followed by train, leaving Piaradoba on the 13th.  The company commander, CPT Elmer D. Roscoe, flew ahead to join the advance party.  Company A worked on airfield drainage missions at Dinjan until 12 April.

During this period, GALAHAD conducted its second mission at Shaduzup and Inkangahtawng.  After withdrawing, the 2nd Battalion endured a siege at Nhpum Ga and all of GALAHAD retired to reorganize.

Departure Airfield

On the 13th of April, 1Lt Cormier again led a 17 man advance party by air to the departure airfield at Shingbwiyang, Burma, about 110 miles south of Dinjan.  Airlift of the company equipment by C-47 started the next day and continued until the 24th.

Company A worked around the clock on Ledo Road repair, construction of their base camp and Shingbwiyang airfield missions.  It rained from 24 April until 17 May; the sun was out only three times.  The airfield missions improving drainage and repairing soft spots - were good practice.

On 28 April GALAHAD started from Taikri on their third mission, the attack on the Myitkyina airfield.  

On 10 May, Company A received the order for the airborne mission to Myitkyina.  CPT Roscoe, 1LT Settimo J. Valenti (motor officer) and CPT Leo A. Vecellio (CBI Air Engineer's office) planned it out.  The mission was to be conducted in three phases: 1) two officers, 28 EM and equipment were to fly in by ten gliders; 2) one officer, 52 EM and equipment were to fly in as soon as possible in twelve C-47s; and, 3) the remainder of the company and equipment were to fly in by C-47 as soon as possible.

Receipt of the mission brought several visitors to Company A.  BG Pick, the boss of the Ledo Road project, visited on the 11th.  He was followed on the 12th by General Egan, BG Godfrey (CBI Air Engineer and developer of the airborne engineers when he was at HQ, USAAF) and COL Asensio (10th USAAF Air Engineer).  MG Covell (Services of Supply) and BG Farrell (SOS Chief Engineer) visited on the 16th.  War correspondents and newsreel cameramen were on hand to record the take off from Shingbwiyang airfield.

Meanwhile, COL Hunter and BG Merrill met at Arang on 12 May to discuss the final details of the third mission, the attack on Myitkyina.  They agreed on some radio code words:

1) "Cafeteria Lunch" 48 hours until the estimated time of attack on the airfield; 2) "Strawberry Sundae" 24 hours until the estimated time of attack, aircraft should be loaded with five days supply of ammunition and three days supply of food; 3) "In the Ring" attack launched, the resupply planes should take off; and, 4) "Merchant of Venice" the airfield was secured, engineers were not needed to repair the runway and the resupply planes could land.

By 14 May, Task Force H was at Seingheing, about 20-25 miles from the airfield.  Hunter judged that they would be in the assembly area for the attack by the night of the 16th.  He broke radio silence to send the code words "Cafeteria Lunch" to Merrill at LTG Stilwell's headquarters in Shaduzup.

Company A had been pulled off their other missions on the 12th.  On 15 May, the ten gliders were loaded with the equipment needed for the airborne mission and the engineers, glider pilots and tow pilots involved were briefed.  Finally on the 16th, the code words "Strawberry Sundae" were received in Shaduzup and relayed to Shingbwiyang.  The men stood by the planes and gliders waiting for the signal to take off for Myitkyina.

Attack on Myitkyina Airfield

After noon on the 16th, Task Force H reached the village of Namkwi, only four miles from the airfield.  COL Hunter selected an assembly area south of Namkwi and 21/2 miles northwest of the airfield.  After dark, a patrol reconned the airfield to get information on the Japanese strength and defenses.  The Japanese engineers repaired bomb damage at night; they spent the days away from the airfield under cover from American fighters and bombers.  Hunter decided to rest overnight and attack the airfield the next day.

The attack went off at 1030 on the 17th; Hunter sent the message "In the Ring" to LTG Stilwell at 1050.  The attack was a complete surprise and the Chinese 150th Regiment overran the airfield against little opposition.  There were less than 100 Japanese engineers at the airfield when the Chinese forced them from their positions on the east side of the airfield.  The Chinese then dug in to defend against the expected Japanese counterattack from Myitkyina.

The recon patrol had reported that the airfield was in good shape except for 55 gallon drums scattered on it.  After they were rolled away, the runway was ready for use.  Hunter decided that the aviation engineers were not needed to repair the runway and sent the message "Merchant of Venice".  Stilwell received the message at 1530 and relayed it to Shingbwiyang.

Glider Mission

The aviation engineers were ordered by the Air Force to take off anyway.

The first C-47/glider combination took off after the receipt of the message, with the remaining nine following immediately.  The glider loads ranged from 3500 to 4000 pounds; the gliders carrying the Clark dozers were loaded beyond their rated capacity of 3750 pounds.  In his after action report, CPT Roscoe described the ride as "kind of rough".  The 115 mile flight from Shingbwiyang to Myitkyina took just an hour; Stilwell and Merrill watched as the glider train passed overhead at Shaduzup.  It had taken GALAHAD three months and about 700 ground miles to fight (five major and thirty minor engagements) their way to Myitkyina.

The landing zone that awaited the gliders was an old British airfield that had been lost to the Japanese in 1942.  It was relatively large, about 5000' long and 400' wide with a 4700' long, 75' wide runway.  The LZ was clear, except for aircraft revetments and brush around the edges.

From the battalion history:

17 May 44 Company "A" started on their airborne mission.  The first glider towed by (Troop Carrier commander) General Olds' plane landed at Myitkyina at 1630 hours on 17 May 1944, followed at five minute intervals by the other nine gliders.  The first glider landed from South to North on the strip utilizing the entire runway.  The other gliders landed from West to East (cross-field).  All of them crashed into revetments, other gliders, or brush at the edge of the field.  Two of the gliders landed in Japanese territory; but the men and equipment were brought back safely to the airstrip.  The gliders landed at speeds ranging from 80 to 110 miles per hour.  Personnel participating in the glider operation included two officers, one Medic, and 27 enlisted men, all volunteers.  Equipment carried on gliders included two Clark tractors, two Case tractors, one jeep, one trailer, two carryalls, two mine detectors, one carpenter chest, rations, gas and oil, and drinking water.  Four enlisted men were injured in landing, none seriously.  Upon landing all men started unloading gliders and towed the gliders off the field so that planes could land.  More men came in by C-47 so that within twenty-four hours of the start of the air operation, four officers and fifty-two enlisted men, exclusive of injured, of Company "A", were on the field.  As soon as gliders had been unloaded and cleared from the runway, men started unloading C-47's.  Crawler type Clark tractors were unloaded with regular plane ramps without being reinforced, under blackout conditions.  Company CP was set up in a wrecked glider on the west side of the field.

The gliders cast off from their tow planes over the airfield and circled to land.  The first glider took advantage of the length of the runway and landed safely.  The others landed across the airfield, perhaps in response to a warning given at the preflight briefing that the Japanese might have mined the runway.  One glider just missed the Chinese regimental commander and his staff on the east side of the airfield.

None of the equipment broke loose during the hard landings, reducing the chance of injury or death.  1SG Francis P. Conway, riding in the copilot seat of his glider, suffered a broken leg when the glider crashed into a revetment at full speed.  The other injuries included a fractured skull and back injuries to the men riding the carryall in the glider.  All four men were evacuated by C-47 to hospitals and later received the Purple Heart.

COL Hunter was not pleased to see the gliders and the engineers.  When CPT Roscoe reported to him, he said: "What, Engineers!  I told General Old I didn't need Engineers, I need troops and ammunition.  You are in the way.".  BG Merrill was supposed to be on the first plane with ammunition, food and reinforcements.  Task Force H had taken its last airdrop on the 14th at Seingheing and was running out of supplies.  They carried everything on their backs and the backs of their mules and would need immediate resupply if a fight developed for the airfield.  The men were tired and sick; Hunter had counted on immediate reinforcement to defend against the expected Japanese counterattack.

Company A didn't add to Hunter's supply problems.  They arrived with their own supplies - gas, oil, grease, drinking water, ammunition and rations.  They supplied as much gas and oil to others as they could spare.  Later, Hunter was " most appreciative and lavish of praise for the work of Company "A"."

Hunter got the first of his reinforcements by late afternoon on the 18th when the 2nd Battalion of the Chinese 89th Regiment was flown in from Ledo.  He saw and talked briefly with Merrill on the 19th.  He didn't get his food and ammunition until the 20th of May.

Myitkyina Airfield Repair

18 May 44 At dawn knee mortar shells dropped in Company "A" area at Myitkyina.  Two men were injured, neither seriously.  Both were evacuated by plane.  When shelling stopped men went back to work, but had to take cover once more when five mortar shells dropped near the CP.  More jeeps belonging to Company "A" came in by plane and two of them were taken by Colonel Hunter for his use.  Started putting gravel on soft spots in runway; but was put to work digging a well for drinking water for the entire field and to unloading planes for G-4.  Captain Janssen, MC, attached to Company "A", worked at Seagrave Hospital.  A few enlisted men helped carry wounded to hospital planes and to bury the dead.  A dozer was used to bury fifteen Chinese in one place.  Ten Japs holed up at the edge of the runway about two-hundred yards from the Company CP kept the men pinned down from time to time until they were wiped out.  Lt Cormier, Tec 5 Romick and Tec 5 Bloomfield played a prominent part in killing them.  Hand grenades were used.  A Jap machine gun on the southeast corner of the field bothered the men with machine gun fire until wiped out later in the day.  Men of Company "A" helped to clear out the machine gun nest.  Company "A" pulled many planes out of soft spots on the runway during the first two days thus helping to keep the runway clear for planes to land.  Soft spots were marked as much as possible with gas drums and cloth.  Parachutes were used to mark the edge of the strip, but the Chinese stole most of them at night and they had to be replaced each morning.  At about 1400 hours two Jap Zeros bombed and strafed the field.  A burned C-47 and two C-47's with flat tires resulting from the strafing were cleared from the field by Company "A".

COL Hunter, in his book GALAHAD, told the story of the jeeps as follows: "By now I had acquired a jeep.  GALAHAD staff had been a little irked to see jeeps come in for use by the Chinese, but none for them.  Using midnight requisitioning procedures a sergeant proudly drove up in one one day around noon stating that, 'This here jeep belongs to GALAHAD.'  I asked him no questions."  Unfortunately, that same day they were ambushed and his driver, PFC Barlow J. Coon, was wounded.  Coon was killed later that afternoon when the ambulance plane waiting to carry him to hospital in Assam was bombed and strafed on the Myitkyina airfield by the Japanese Zeros.

Engineer recon of the airfield on the 17th revealed a small bomb crater on the runway that needed immediate repair.  The runway had a built up telford base of 6-8" river stones under 3" of crushed rock.  The surface was partially sealed with asphalt that was now in bad condition and unraveling.  There were no drainage ditches along the runway and water flowed across it during storms.  Priority of work for Company A was the repair of the runway and drainage.

The Japanese engineers had repaired bomb craters on the airfield by just filling them with loose earth.  Company A was there to pull out the planes that got stuck in the soft spots along the sides of the runway.  Diversion of their efforts to digging the well and unloading planes reduced their ability to work on the runway and airfield.  Because the airfield was blacked out at night against Japanese bombers, they could only work during daylight hours and had to repair the runway while it was in use.  The Japanese shelled the area overnight.

19 May 44 Company "A" continued unloading planes and clearing planes from runway.  Men worked sixty-five hours straight with about three to five hours total sleep per man.  Planes were unloaded for thirty-six hours straight.  The men were under constant sniper fire day and night.  Although no one was hit, there were many close escapes.

The fear of Japanese counterattack continued until enough reinforcements were flown in.  Company A was assigned a large portion of the perimeter defense for the airfield each night.  The attack on the town of Myitkyina turned into a siege, it didn't fall until the 4th of August.

Summary

CPT Roscoe judged the gliderborne mission to be a success.

The mission planning that he did after receiving the order on the 10th paid off.  The gliders were loaded as planned.  The personnel manifests were prepared and the men were ready to depart.  The loads for the follow on airlanding lifts were prepared and placed on separate trucks awaiting the return of the C-47s from the previous missions.  Six C-47s of the second lift had arrived at Myitkyina airfield and were unloaded by 2300 on the 17th; the remainder arrived on the 18th.  Most, if not all, of his men and equipment were on site by the 19th.

These three days, 17-19 May 1944, were critical to the eventual success of the attack on Myitkyina.  In retrospect, COL Hunter was wrong about the need for the aviation engineers on the 17th.  They proved their worth on the 18th by pulling out stuck planes that would have closed the airfield.  The glider and airlanding missions of Company A brought in the engineering equipment needed to repair the runway and fly in infantry reinforcements.  They kept the airfield open and supplies flowing during the monsoon season when ground routes to Myitkyina became impassable.  Capturing the airfield pushed the Japanese fighters beyond the Irrawaddy River, eased the strain of the Hump missions on aircraft and pilots, and meant that the Ledo Road could be completed to Myitkyina.


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