World War II Experiences
Seabees, Pearl Harbor
George W. Larson of Altoona, Iowa, during World War II (WWII), was assigned to the 135th United States Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees). On March 17, 1944, Larson entered WWII, giving up his job at an arms plant in Ankeny, Iowa, departing Des Moines, Iowa by train. He was assigned to Company 351-444, Camp Waldron, United States Naval Training Station, Farragut, Idaho, near Lake Pend Oreilla. Phase I of training introduced Larson to military life. Phase II consisted of gunnery training. In September 1944, he arrived at Oakland Naval Base, issued transit orders, and boarded a Liberty ship for the trip to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Once at Pearl Harbor, Larson was issued the balance of military uniforms, with the rest cleaned at Pearl Harbor's laundry. Navy quartermaster personnel issued Larson a stencil to mark his sea bag and clothes. Larson kept his clothes packed, ready for immediate ship boarding once an overseas billet was assigned to him. Larson had no idea of where he was going or to what unit. The Navy kept all personnel busy working on Pearl Harbor's expansion construction projects or other military construction around the island.
Larson was never asked what he wanted to do or to what unit to be assigned. One day a Navy Ensign came up and told him to report to the 135th Seabees. The 135th's second echelon was then in preparation for transportation to the forward combat area. Larson was trucked to Pearl Harbor's dock, unloaded in from of a large converted transport. The transport was the 490,411 ton, pre-WWII registered Dutch liner, now called the motor ship (MS) Tjisadane. On October 9, 1944, Larson boarded the transport, stowed his gear in the forward cargo hold. In the hold, containing three bunks stacked one on top of the other, in endless rows.
The forward hold was hot and humid, uncomfortable during the 21 day voyage to the 135th's combat assignment. Larson decided to spend as much time on deck as possible, where at least, he would have a cooling sea breeze, fresh air, and open sky. The 135th's heavy equipment and supplies were loaded in the aft cargo compartment.
Every morning and evening, 135th personnel stood General Quarters, one hour before sunrise and sunset, with every man assigned to a lifeboat station. Each Seabee wore a long-sleeve shirt, head gear, life preserver, and carried a full canteen of water.
Destroyers constantly prowled the convoy edges, searching for Japanese submarines, herding stray transports back into proper position. For recreation, the 135th listened to short-wave radio broadcasts. One evening, Tokyo Rose came on the air and announced the 135th Construction Battalion was on Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs), somewhere in the Pacific, all lost when the ships were sunk by a Japanese Imperial Navy submarine. It gave Larson and others listening to the broadcast goose bumps that Japanese intelligence knew the 135th had departed Pearl Harbor. Navy escorts and convoy transports spent the next two days on increased alert, just in case. However, no Japanese submarines were located.
The 135th landed on Tinian the morning of October 24, 1944. They went over the side of the Tjisadane on cargo nets into bobbing Higgins landing boats. Larson was in the second wave, going ashore with full combat gear, carrying a carbine.
Everything had to brought from transports anchored off the beach, first loaded in Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) for movement onto the beach, then loaded into dump trucks for transportation inland. It was slow, hot, and exhausting work. Seabees worked 18 hours a day unloading heavy equipment and supplies.
The 135th set up its first camp in the middle of a muddy sugar cane field, initially sleeping in two-man pup tents. Larson used his combat helmet to clean off mud and dirt after an 18 hour work day. At first, weather was ideal, hot with gentle trade winds. Later, rains turned the island into a mass of sticking muck, which no one could get away from. Feeding at the camp site was a problem without mess facilities. Their first meal consisted of K-rations and hot coffee. Eventually, a large tent was set up to provide hot meals, 24 hours a day.
Even after heavy rains, the 135th continued to live in pup tents. Shipping crates were torn apart for wooden floors, pyramid 16-by-16 foot tents erected, electricity provided by generator, and other items scrounged on the island as needed. Larson got his first break after seven days, hitched a jeep ride to the main town at the south end of the island (Tinian Town). The concrete buildings were standing shells, without roofs. Rubble was piled against exterior walls, pushed by bulldozers to clear the road from the beach to inland construction sites.
Each 135th work party carried carbines and wore combat helmets, as well as maintaining a roving armed security patrol around camp and work sites. There were constant sightings of stray Japanese soldiers and civilians coming out of hiding at dusk, looking for food. Eventually, Marines set up a prisoner of war (POW) camp for captured or surrounding Japanese troops and civilians.
Larson could find no way to stay out of the mud, one either had to walk or dive through it. Vehicles bogged down, often requiring a bulldozer to pull it out. Often, even a bulldozer became hopelessly mired in the sticky mud, needing another bulldozer to pull it free.
As soon as possible, construction began on a permanent 135th camp area, consisting of metal quonset huts. One of the first completed was the mess facility. The 135th's commander relaxed regulations to permit Seabees to wear utility pants cut into shorts and go shirtless. The 135th upgraded its camp while working on projects throughout the island.
The 135th was assigned to work on building two of the four 8,500 foot long runways at North Field, stressed to carry the weight of Boeing B-29 Superfortresses. Other Seabee battalions worked on the remaining two runways and facilities. The 135th concentrated on runway number one and four. Runway number four was the one used by the 509th Composite Group's B-29s, dropping two atomic bombs on Japan (Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki on August 9th), leading to that nation's surrender on August 15th.
At North Field, the Seabee battalions operated 80 power shovels, one dozen 12-ton rooters designed to tear out thick overgrowth, 48 rollers, 90 drills, five well drills, 40 water wagons to keep dust down on coral roads and spread water over prepared surfaces to cement together crushed coral. Seabees worked ten hour shits, with a two hour over lap to repair and service equipment, feed, and change personnel.
Even with the cutting down of high spots on the runway construction site, there was not enough material to fill low spots. Huge coral pits were dug to provide fill and topping material for runways, taxiways, and parking aprons. Dump trucks began wearing out from constant loading and unloading of abrasive coral. Seabees welded quarter-inch steel plates to the floor of each dump truck. To increase carrying capacity, steel runway mate sections were welded to the truck dump bed sides.
Hundreds of dump trucks shuttled to and from coral pits loading, then dumping coral wherever directed. Dump trucks traveled on designated roads, one way to the construction area, returning by a separate one way road. Once delivered to the desired location, coral was spread and leveled by bulldozers and road graders. Larson drove a road grader as member of the runway finishing crew. Coral was impacted by hog's teeth rollers, layer after layer, until reaching proper grade. Considerable implication of the coral surface occurred when heavy dump trucks and construction equipment traveled over the coral surface. The application of salt water to the surface produced a bonding effect, assisted by rolling, creating a hard and smooth surface (almost as hard as concrete).
Seabees built a fuel storage and distribution system: a 14,000 barrel fuel storage farm for diesel oil; 2,000 barrel farm for gasoline, and six aviation fuel farms with a capacity of 165,000 barrels. Fuel was brought ashore through a submerged pipeline, moved inland to aircraft fuel positions.
Seabees built several hundred acres of revetted bomb and ammunition dumps, 1700 acres of camp facilities, 300 acres of supply dumps, 75 miles of coral surfaced roads, and 50 miles of asphalt topped roadways. On December 21, 1944, the first B-29 landed at North Field, while construction continued. Larson was operating a road grader on an adjacent runway. He stopped the road grader and stared at the landing B-29. Sirens began to blow while jeeps and command cars burst onto the finished runway next to the one Larson was working on, clearing construction equipment and personnel off the runway. This B-29, aircraft number 224802, named "Purple Shaft," carried Army Air Forces Brigadier General F.V.H. Kimble (Twentieth Air Force commander assigned to coordinate Tinian, North Field operations).
As more B-29s arrived, Seabees moved their construction equipment to one side to allow Superfortresses to pass, without slowing work. To prevent B-29 engines from sucking up coral dust and catching fire, taxiways and then runways were coated with heavy asphalt oil and later, topped by rolled asphalt.
Larson also directed dump trucks to position for unloading coral. He wore goggles to keep coral dust out of the eyes and wore a cloth over his face to keep coral dust out of the mouth. It was hot and dusty work, even at night, aided by portable electric lights.
At the sound of approaching Japanese twin-engine bomber aircraft, electric lights were shut off, with Seabees heading for the closest slit trench. Once Larson had to dive into a slit trench as a Japanese Betty bomber strafed the runway he was working on. Larson could hear bullets smacking into the road grader he vacated only a few seconds previously.
The biggest irritant was not Japanese air raids but heavy tropical rain, turning everything into mud. Seabees were issued ponchos, but most never wore them because they were and uncomfortable. Japanese snipers occasionally fired at Seabees working on the runways and dump truck drivers hauling coral. Japanese snipers were difficult to locate because they covered rifle muzzles with bamboo or sugar cane pieces, concealing muzzle flashes. Marines swept the area, killing Japanese flushed into the open. Periodically, Seabee guards killed Japanese soldiers attempting to get into camp areas for food.
While operating a road grader, once in a while a large piece of unbroken coral would appear in the runway. Larson stopped the road grader, climbed down, taking a pick and shovel to dig out the coral, rolling it off the runway. He would shovel in crushed coral to fill the hole, tamp it with the shovel, climb back into the road grader, and continue leveling the coral surface.
Larson, if not working at night, would hike to a high spot near the active runway to watch B-29s take off. A few B-29s barely lifted off the runway, not gaining enough altitude, crashing into the ocean in fiery flames. Many B-29s crashed while landing after a long combat mission. Larson silently walked back to his quonset hut, thinking of the crewmen lost in the crash.
Larson was grading a new parking apron when a brand new B-29 pulled onto an adjacent parking apron, recently arrived from the United States. Larson stopped the road grader, climbed down when one of the aircrew motioned for him to climb into the aircraft to look around. It was an impressive aircraft, large, modern, with pressurized crew compartments. The 135th adopted a B-29 and its crew, making them honorary battalion members. Their aircraft was named "The Wolf Pack," aircraft number 224787. A 135th artist drew a wolf riding a falling bomb underneath the co-pilot's window. The aircraft crashed on a return flight from Japan, the crew never found.
To keep coral chunks from becoming jammed in between the rear wheels of dump trucks, Seabees strung a steel cable between the dual axles. The steel cable prevented coral chunks from lodging between the wheels, destroying axles and/or tires.
It was so hot and humid, Larson constantly sprayed medication into his shoes and on heavy work socks to retard fungus growth. Each Seabee had to be careful not to burn in the sun and drink large amounts of water to keep from becoming dehydrated.
While the majority of the 135th worked at North Field, part of the battalion worked on their permanent camp. As soon as one quonset hut was complete, 135th personnel tore down their tents, moving into permanent quarters. Each quonset was divided by two rows of bunk beds, with 30 Seabees assigned.
Mail was one of the high spots of life on Tinian. When a dump truck loaded with mail sacks arrived at the 135th's post office, word quickly spread throughout the island. Seabees wrote a lot, giving them some way to keep in contact with family home.
The 135th's quonset hut camp area was converted into a 1,000 bed Army hospital after the battalion departed Tinian. On June 27, 1945, the 135th loaded men and equipment into five LSTs, sailing into Saipan harbor for integration into a convoy. On July 8th, the convoy departed the harbor.
Because of limited accommodations, Larson lived on the LST's deck. He spread a tarpaulin between two trucks, getting shelter from the hot sun. The 1,200 mile trip was made without incident, arriving at Buckner Bay on July 13th. While attempting to enter the bay at night, two LSTs grounded on the reef. Rising winds and rough seas put the two LSTs into harms way. Every effort was made to get the two LSTs off the reef, but without success. On July 17th, the decision was made to abandon the two LSTs. Larson was on one of these two LSTs, reaching shore without his gear.
Larson and other 135th members were assigned to build an administrative and housing area for a U.S. Navy operations base at the southern end of Baten Ko. But, the Japanese surrendered on August 15th, ending the war in the Pacific. Upon hearing the news about the surrender, there was a bout of shouting and wild shooting into the air as men of the 135th celebrated the end of WWII. Two 135th men were injured by carbine bullets fired into the air.
On September 16, 1945, the 135th was warned of an approaching typhoon. All afternoon, Larson and others of the 135th worked in driving rain to secure tents and equipment. But, the full force of the storm blew down 28 tents and many buildings under construction. On October 9th, a second more powerful typhoon struck the area, with winds in excess of 150 mph. Larson, along with many 135th men took shelter from the storm in a large cave, In the morning, Larson emerged from the cave to witness a scene of total destruction: twisted steel, splintered lumber, and smashed debris.
Many 135th men began to head for home, based on points or time in service. Larson eventually received his checkout card, climbed into the back of a dump truck for transportation to a Liberty ship bound for the United States. For Larson, the war was over.
On January 5, 1981, Larson returned to Tinian to visit North Field and surrounding construction sites. He walked the nearly intact runway number four and visited the former 135th quonset hut camp area. Larson was part of the massive WWII effort which turned Tinian into the then "world's largest airport complex," which many Seabees called "A miracle of construction."