NO 4 MOBILE WORKS SQUADRON RAAF OPERATIONS SWPA
Extract from the book Always First by David Wilson
No.4 Works Maintenance Unit Flight Lieutenant R.U. Hoddinott raised this unit at Flemington Racecourse on 9 June 1942. The integrity of the unit was broken when Pilot Officer W. Derbyshire and 25 airmen of one section and equipment departed for Bradfield Park, Sydney on 6th July. The men travelled through Tocumwal, where, due to the difference between State rail gauges, they changed trains. On arrival at Bradfield Park four days leave was granted. The troops `wearing tan army boot and khaki capes with blue uniforms', toured the sights of Sydney before boarding the “Both” on 13 July for the voyage to Port Moresby. One of the members of the party was John O'Toole who recalls that the conditions aboard were primitive. Orderlies distributed meals, which were eaten `wherever one could find space under a hammock or on deck'. Toilet facilities for the men consisted of a `hanging arrangement suspended over the side of the deck [which] resembled a swinging scaffold on a building ... and to see the sea rushing underneath when "sitting" was not a pleasant experience'.
The “Both” anchored off Townsville for a short period and the officers went ashore for instructions before the ship weighed anchor and headed north. On 20th July weather conditions deteriorated. Seasickness and the confinement of the men to the hold resulted in air becoming foul. To overcome this problem canvas funnels were erected between the decks and the hold in an attempt to improve the air circulation. Next day the hold was washed out with a mixture of phenyl and water to ease the discomfort of the men, and the arrival of the ship at Port Moresby on the 25th was a welcome relief. The “Both” tied up alongside another ship at the wharf, and passengers disembarked over the deck of that vessel a hazardous passage for persons wearing steel heeled and nailed sole army boots." The men were housed at Konedobu before settling in at a campsite at John's Gully, 14 kilometres from Port Moresby. Once the “Both” were unloaded, the detachment personnel commenced a program of campsite preparation, road construction, and the maintenance of existing facilities.
The 4MWU Headquarters moved to Townsville in August, where the unit undertook work at Bohle River and Garbutt. In addition, minor tasks were carried out at Kurrajong Hospital and Aitkenvale as well as building a petrol dispersal facility at Ingham Road and road construction at Mount St John. On 5th September 2 Section, comprising 36 men under the command of Pilot Officer S.O. Edwards departed for Horn Island where they were employed on road construction, sign writing and unloading petrol. The deployment to Townsville was transitory. On 29th October a further 25 men (3 Section) were sent to join 4 Section, commanded by Pilot Officer G.C. Guy and arrived at Gurney airfield, Milne Bay, New Guinea on 19th November 1942. On 1st January 1943 Headquarters 4MWS received warning of a move to Gurney. However the destination of 4MWS Headquarters was varied to Port Moresby on 12th January.
Four officers and 139 men embarked on the Joseph Holt at Townsville on 10th February 1943 to join a convoy of six ships and a Royal Australian Navy escort for the four-day voyage to Port Moresby. A full deck cargo of motor vehicles resulted in the men being confined to the ship's hold with little respite from the heat. To add to the discomfort cyclonic weather was experienced for two days, causing the men to be issued with a tin of meat and vegetables (M&V) and a tin of biscuits as the deck mounted kitchen was inoperable. Another cause for concern was the lack of fresh water none was available for bathing during the whole voyage. In these circumstances the seven men detailed for hourly shifts on aircraft spotting duties would have found the task a welcome relief from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the ship's hold.
An unidentified aircraft flew over the convoy during the night of 13 February, bringing the crew and passengers to the alert. Although the aircraft proved to be friendly, the sighting of a suspicious object in the water during the morning of the 14th caused more anxiety. On closer examination the suspected submarine was found to be floating logs and the Joseph Holt arrived at Port Moresby without further incident.
The Headquarters resided at the camp at John's Gully, which had been established by 1 and 3 Sections. The unit constructed 15 Aircraft Repair Depot and 6 Supply and Support Unit over a three month period and was in constant demand to undertake building and road maintenance tasks. To meet the manpower requirements of the large building program planned by 62 Works Wing, 60 carpenters, and 23 general hands arrived from the Works Training Unit on 9th March 1943. Although the Japanese frequently bombed the area, there was little damage done to the unit facilities. The exception was quite dramatic. On 12th April a detachment of 4WMU was employed at the Berry strip when 32 enemy bombers attacked it. At 10.20am the alarm sounded and the men, working near the 33 Squadron and the Rescue and Communication unit camps, sought the shelter of slit trenches. Sixteen bombs straddled the camps, badly damaged the 33 Squadron mess, tore up water pipe and claimed a direct hit on the rescue squadron's kitchen.
Flying Officer N.A. Moore and 51 airmen travelled to Goodenough Island in four Dakota aircraft on 20th May 1943. The aircraft flew via Milne Bay, where they met 17 escorting fighters for the flight to the island. On landing the `Yanks gave us 20 minutes to get out stuff out of the planes so that they could get airborne again. We did the job in 12 minutes'. At Goodenough, the detachment built the 73 Wing operations room and maintained roads and buildings, thus augmenting the work being undertaken by 5MWS.
Although the 4MWU Headquarters was relocated to Goodenough Island by air on 23rd November, the unit was not united. On 12th June Pilot Officer Daley and 43 airmen had boarded the Joseph Holt at Port Moresby for the voyage to Milne Bay and Flying Officer K.W. Storey and 60 men were flown to Goodenough Island during November as the headquarters advance party. Even as this movement took place, Flying Officer B. Thompson and 19 men accompanied the same number of aircraft loads of building materials to the airfield complex at Nadzab. The original Goodenough Island party under the command of Flying Officer Moore had left for Kiriwina on 3rd August. Flight Lieutenant Moore later recalled that: ...We moved to Kiriwina by barge and it rained all the way ... Everything we had was wet through. As usual nobody knew anything about us when were got there and everything was haywire. We got there about 7 at night and had to unload the barge ourselves. 6MWS had come in the day before and we put up there for the night. The boys had to sleep in their wet clothes and it was a very miserable night, next day we had to trek across the island to our camp site about five miles [nine kilometres] away. The journey took six hours by truck; it was just a sea of mud all the way...
The detachment, augmented by a building party of 100 men from 6MWS, built the RAAF and American camps, operations rooms, fighter sector and `the marvellous AOC's place [with] six bedrooms, septic tanks and other conveniences'. 4WMU Headquarters remained at Goodenough Island until September 1944, when the unit moved to Noemfoor Island.
The United States 158th Regimental Combat Team landed unopposed by direct enemy fire on Noemfoor Island, opposite Kamiri airfield. Noemfoor had been selected due to its position at the northern limit of Geelvink Bay, midway between the Vogelkop Peninsula and the island of Biak, which had been assaulted by United States forces on 27th May. The three airfields on the island, Kamiri, Kornasoran and Namber, would give protection to the bomber bases at Biak and enable the projection of air power over the Vogelkop Peninsula, Halmaheras Island and the island of Morotai. Group Captain Dale was selected as the Task Force Engineer and was allocated the US Army 1874th Engineer Aviation Battalion, the 857th Engineer Aviation Battalion and the RAAF's 4WMU and 5MWS to rebuild the airstrips and on 20th June his Headquarters, 13 Survey and Design Unit and a detachment of 4WMU embarked from Tadji en route to Hollandia. On the 28th the group participated in a trial landing east of Toem, before departing from that port as part of a convoy of seven LSTs two days later. Thirty minutes after the first wave of combat troops waded ashore at Noemfoor, Group Captain Dale and a reconnaissance party landed from an `alligator' amid heavy mortar fire bursting along the shoreline. The party reconnoitered the area as far as the Kamiri River in preparation for the work to be undertaken on the airstrip and roads.
The rear party and equipment of 4WMU arrived at Noemfoor from Goodenough Island on 8th September. Rough weather delayed the unloading of the rear party over the reef for several days. After the reunion the unit constructed facilities for 25 Air Stores Park and 10 Recovery Centre. In addition to laying 2,439 metres of pipeline, the men cleared and graded the northern runway at Kornasoren airstrip. Other projects included the construction of the airstrip at Kamiri and a timber-landing platform for use by 7 Transport and Movement Office. Road maintenance and defence training was also undertaken, the latter in preparation for the move to Biak in January 1945.
On 9th September 1944 a bombed up B 24 Liberator crashed on take off from Kornasoran airfield. The aircraft landed half a mile off shore. Leaking fuel represented a fire hazard. Alone, Leading Aircraftman B.A. Churchill swam out to the aircraft and saved two members of the crew, three other members of 5ACS Leading Aircraftman H.J. Flannery, JR.C. Thompson and L.W. Walsh paddled a native canoe and a dinghy to the crash site, where they joined Churchill. Between them the four men saved five airmen from the wreckage. Churchill was awarded a British Empire Medal for his courage and the three others were Mentioned in Dispatches.
In January 1945, 4ACS and 5ACS deployed to Biak Island which had been assaulted by the US Army 41st Division on 27th May 1944. The two squadrons sank wells for use by 105th and 132nd General Hospitals and 433rd Troop Carrier Group. In addition, they undertook road maintenance and supplied coral for use at the LST and Liberty ship dock, which was being constructed.
5ACS suffered four casualties in March. Leading Aircraftman J.A. Holdstock suffered a bullet wound when his own rifle discharged. On the 22nd Leading Aircraftman J.C. Payne died as a result of a motor vehicle accident, in which Corporal N.J. Scarsbrook and Leading Aircraftmen J.P. Smith and A.F. Bolden were injured. Ironically, during an air raid on the same night two sticks of bombs fell, one within 250 yards of the 5ACS night shift working on the Sorido airstrip without causing damage, and the second, aimed at the Mokmer airstrip, fell a mile from the camp.
Engineering construction by 4ACS and 5ACS was curtailed on 31st April and the units commenced loading their equipment aboard LSTs during the first week of May.
While the American forces were involved in the liberation of the Philippines, planning was in train for Australian forces to recapture Borneo. Originally, six operations were scheduled under the `Oboe' code name Oboe One (Tarakan Island), Oboe Two (Balikpapan), Oboe Three (Bandjermasin), Oboe Four (Surabaya or Batavia), Oboe Five (Netherlands East Indies), and Oboe Six (British Borneo). Of these plans, only Oboe One, Two and Six reached fruition and the ACS's had essential functions to perform during each. 1ACS and 8ACSs were involved in the first of these operations, the landing at Tarakan Island off the north east coast of Borneo on 1st May 1945
The next in the Oboe series of operations was the landing on Labuan Island and the adjacent Muara Brookton area of Brunei Bay. The island was strategically placed in that aircraft based there were capable of supplying air cover along the Asian coastline from Singapore to Shanghai, as well as interdicting Japanese lines of communications in Indo China and Malaya. 31 The United States Navy Task Group 78.1 provided 230 vessels to transport the attacking force to Labuan. The RAAF engineers were represented by 4ACS and 5ACS, who were aboard four of the 76 vessels, which departed from Morotai on Monday 4th June 1945. During the following afternoon, the fleet sailed into stormy weather and that night a severe electrical storm and torrential rain made conditions miserable for the troops, who were sleeping on open decks. George Park recalls that ` the sea would occasionally wash over the deck and pass under my stretcher'. The weather improved as the convoy passed south of the Philippines. A fleet oilier had taken station astern of the LST to replenish the fuel stocks of escorting destroyers, giving the men a chance to study ship to ship refueling at close quarters. Under an umbrella of Lightning fighters and the vigilant eyes of Catalina crews, the convoy turned south on the 9th. The men prepared for the landing scheduled for the next morning. Live ammunition was issued as the assault force maneuvered for position in the night.
As dawn broke on 10th June the island of Labuan and the township of Victoria could be seen to the port side of the LSTs, which were anchored a mile and a half off shore. Four destroyers were positioned closer inshore and the heavier cruisers steamed further to seaward. At 8.10am the destroyers and cruisers opened fire on the beach defences. For the men on the LSTs the noise was deafening. The concussion from the heavy calibre guns of the cruisers battered their eardrums. Landing craft equipped with rocket launchers cruised close inshore, the flash and smoke from the salvoes of rockets a spectacular sight. The shoreline erupted in a composition of smoke and flame for an hour. Eight squadrons of Liberator bombers added their weight of explosives to the deadly symphony, and low flying Beaufighters and Mitchells flew ground support missions in support of the advancing troops.
Although the landing had been unopposed it was not until the morning of 11th June that the Airfield Construction Squadrons landed. It was a day of hard work and humour, against a background of 25-pound artillery firing into the hinterland. The water depth averaged 60 centimeters, but there were variations, as Douglas Perry of 5ACS recalls: `when we went ashore ... we were directly over a bomb hole full of water. We had trouble getting the equipment out and getting it on to the beach'. Pilot Officer Bennett learned this from personal experience when he stepped off the ramp of an LST all that could be seen was a revolver held above his head as he waded ashore. To Alex Clarke, a member of 4ACS, the sight of bulldozers pressing shoreward with only exhaust pipe extensions and drivers visible above the water was memorable. George Park remembers that late in the afternoon the driver of the Survey Section Dodge Blitz Buggy, Vince Sewell, negotiated the water barrier with success but was not as adept at driving on dry land. The Blitz jammed in gear. The Army beach controller, to whom they were to report, was not impressed when Vince yelled `I can't stop' as the recalcitrant vehicle hurtled passed. By 9 pm the LSTs had been partially unloaded; one of the remaining tasks was to roll 200 litre drums of fuel off the ramp to float ashore. The following morning the incoming tide floated the drums. Some had ruptured. The reluctant men had to be threatened with disciplinary action before they stripped and entered the scum to rescue the errant drums.
In the meantime a camp had been established near the airfield. The men slept with a `rifle by their side and small arms fire 20 yards away was no joke'. The airmen were each rostered to undertake one hour's guard duty. Incessant artillery and small arms fire was incompatible with sleep. In the early hours the tension broke. One of the guards challenged a strange figure. When no password was forthcoming alarmed airmen groped for rifles in the gloom. The call went out to `bayonet the bastard'. A terrified voice quavered from the darkness: `No. Not Me. I'm 4ACS'. Following a call of nature, the airman had little thought of remembering the word of-the day."
On the morning of 12th June, the Army was pressing the enemy located around the airfield. The two construction squadrons commenced the rejuvenation of the strip, which was `a mass of bomb craters, some small, some great gaping holes nine metres deep and fifteen across'. The Survey Section was up at dawn and breakfasted close to the airfield. They drank foul tasting chlorinated water as they heard the rattle of small arms fire and the rush of artillery shells overhead before:
Led by [Flying Officer] John `Dan' Daniel ... we walked to a position behind an earth mound at the south end of the airstrip which formed part of a revetment ... It afforded us protection as we cautiously examined the area, the fighting appeared to be taking place to the west of the strip, so we moved out. [We] worked feverishly all morning, setting up a line of reference pegs ... It wasn't easy working amongst the water filled bomb craters which was about all the airstrip consisted of at that ... time. We had a brief lunch from our field rations and one of our general hands ... became curious about the war being waged some little distance from us so he climbed on top of the survey wagon for a better view. He had not been there long before he attracted gunfire ... in spite of the danger we were in ourselves, we roared laughing when he fell to the ground in his haste ... to get down.
We took shelter in a bomb crater and shortly after several Australian infantrymen came by and expressed their surprise at our being there; it appeared the ownership of the airfield had not been completely determined!
By 17th June the efforts of the two construction squadrons had improved the serviceability of the airstrip to such a degree that Dakota aircraft and two 76 Squadron Kittyhawk fighters were able to land. Next day twelve 457 Squadron Spitfires landed. Although two crashed, the remainder commenced operational flying on the 19th.
The reconstruction of the airfield had not been without difficulty. 4ACS was constructing the southern portion of the airstrip and 5ACS that to the north. For some unknown reason, the surveys undertaken by the two teams varied by 30 centimeters and the Wing Headquarters was called to arbitrate in favour of the 5ACS survey a decision which `did not prevent us [4ACS] from letting all and sundry know that the fault lay elsewhere'. The two squadrons used different techniques to fill bomb craters 4ACS pumped the water out, and then blasted the remaining mud out with explosives, while 5ACS simply filled the craters but all worked a 24 hour day. The area was floodlit. Warning of enemy incursions could not be heard over the noise of the machinery and plant operators were vulnerable in the event of enemy activity. Even during daylight the men were not out of harm's way. George Park noted in his diary that it was nerve wrecking working steadily in light jungle to be interrupted by three or four rifle shots being fired in one's direction by an invisible assailant.
By 16th June the Japanese defenders had been forced into a defensive pocket opposite the ACS camp and the Australian artillery was firing across the airfield to support attempts to break into the Japanese redoubt. Although the permanent camp was established three quarters of a mile from the airfield, the men were aware of the proximity of the enemy and their propensity for nocturnal infiltration of the Australian positions. There was little enthusiasm to sleep in the outermost positions in the tents, and the men slept with their rifles close at hand. George Park recalls one incident where he was woken by a burst of sub machine gunfire. There was bedlam in the tent as bemused men sought boots, personal attire, and weapons in the dark. The reason for the furor was simple. One of the guards was coming off duty when he spotted a python slithering along the pathway and decided to shoot the reptile. Not a bullet hit the snake, which was dispatched with the judicious application of a piece of timber. However, the night of 20th and 21st June was of less levity. Approximately 100 Japanese soldiers, each with a fused aerial bomb on his back, broke out from their defensive positions and attempted a suicide attack on the airstrip and beach area. Several skirmishes occurred during the night. By morning 49 of the enemy had been killed and the remainder captured. The following day the last pocket of organised resistance was assaulted. Labuan Island was under Australian control.
The two Airfield Construction Squadrons at Labuan could now concentrate on the upgrading of the airstrip. By 12th July the airstrip had been sealed with bitumen. The construction of bomb dumps, dispersal bays, and the development of Ground Control Interception facilities, the drilling of water bores and the erection of prefabricated buildings for various units occupied the men. The tension of the first weeks dissipated. Men now found time for leisure. The 4ACS blacksmith, callused hands notwithstanding, manufactured the `most delicate bracelets from silver obtained from coins'. Other enterprising entrepreneurs fermented `jungle juice' in stills hidden in the jungle, following a precedent set at Biak and Morotai where one Norm Widders had created an exclusive franchise to supply alcohol to an American Liberator Squadron.
The cease fire was announced on 15th August 1945. The last entry recorded in the 4ACS Unit History Record was dated 30th October 1945, when it noted that it was `due for disbandment during November December'. Although many of the units at Labuan had decreased their activities, the men of 4ACS were discontented with the long hours that they were working by comparison, and the lack of information regarding their evacuation home. There was one project, which was given the full support of all squadron members: the construction of a permanent chapel.
Padre Allen Funnell had joined 4ACS at Noemfoor and his aim to build a chapel on the island was thwarted by the move of the squadrons to Biak. Here a squad tent served as a temporary house of worship, and Funnell was still frustrated in his aim of building a chapel in which his `parishioners' could find spiritual solace and worship in comfort. It was not until the Australians occupied the island of Labuan that Funnell's ambition and perseverance was to be rewarded. After obtaining permission from Squadron Leader Trench to build the chapel adjacent to the unit Headquarters, Funnell sought the assistance of Flight Sergeant Ben Kennedy for the supply of some hundreds of tons of coral. So successful was the padre's exhortation that Trench, who had been absent on duty, returned to be confronted with a three metre high heap of coral in the swamp that he had allocated as the chapel site. Once the coral had been leveled, the construction of the chapel could commence. Without the expertise of a local Malay Chinese carpenter, Fong Ah Lu, the chapel would not have been erected. Fong discovered stands of bamboo, some of which was up to eight inches thick, and directed the men in harvesting the material with jungle knives. In addition to the propensity for minor cuts and abrasions due to the hardness and sharpness of the bamboo, Japanese troops were also a factor to be considered.
One morning as the men prepared to cut into an excellent stand of bamboo, they had to seek shelter under their 6x6 truck to escape a cross fire between Japanese and Australian troops. However, Fong was aware of the whereabouts of a newly constructed Japanese building relatively close to the chapel, and it was a simple task of transporting the atap roof from this building to the new chapel after the unwanted tenants had been forcibly evicted.
The chapel was erected using a bamboo framework with the sides crisscrossed with split bamboo. Furnishing had been brought from Biak and a feature was the parachute borrowed from the Americans `for the duration' and `draped above and behind the Communion Table. To give a dramatic effect we placed a series of lights behind'. Funnell was brought to a more earthly plane when several of the men commented: `Padre, when your sermon's "dull" we can spend the time counting the insects inside the parachute.' It was a proud Padre Funnell who attended the official dedication by Chaplain A.E.S. Begbie, Senior Chaplain of the 9th Division, of `Saint Stephen The Martyr' in July 1945.
5ACS had an even greater challenge. On 17th November 1945, the unit was notified that it would come under the command of 81 (Fighter) Wing and become an integral part of the RAAF Occupation Force, which was to proceed to Japan. 46 Volunteers were sought and preparations for the deployment were made during December.
With the exception of 5ACS and 7ACS, the end of 1945 disbanded all the construction units. They had campaigned in all RAAF operational areas in the South West Pacific Area. Sometimes maligned, but never undaunted, these troops had made it possible for superior air forces to be deployed with imagination and operational effectiveness. One has only to peruse a map of the South West Pacific to recognise the importance of airfields to the war effort. MacArthur's leap frog strategy was restricted by the range of the strike aircraft available for operations, and air power was a potent weapon in isolating by passed Japanese garrisons by cutting their supply lines, thus ensuring that they were militarily non effective