6ACS SOUTH WEST PACIFIC AREA
A detachment of 150 officers and men from 6MWS travelled by barge from Gili-Gili and arrived at Kiriwina on 3rd August 1943; the same day as the 4MWU detachment. Unit personnel had gathered at Ascot Vale on 10th December 1942 before moving to Royal Park on 17th December. By 19th January 1943 the unit had moved to Bankstown, New South Wales, from where an advance party led by Pilot Officer J.D. Alexander departed on 27th January. The party departed from Townsville by Dakota for Milne Bay on 3rd February. The remainder of the unit embarked on the George W McCrary, which arrived at Milne Bay ten days later where the unit constructed 1,600 metres of the proposed 1,829 metre sealed runway being built parallel to the existing PSP strip before deploying to Kiriwina on 30th July 1943. However, the unit was criticised for being `rather slow in getting on with the strip'. The Commanding Officer of 62 Works Wing, Wing Commander H.E.S. Melbourne, agreed but pointed out that the unit had been formed hurriedly and consisted of a high proportion of unskilled and untrained men, that the unit was 15 per cent under strength and that Squadron Leader J.F. Keays, the commanding officer, was `gradually welding his unit into an efficient organisation and his construction methods cannot be faulted. A high standard of work can undoubtedly be expected from this unit in a very short time'. This prophecy was vindicated. The combined effort of 4MWU, 6MWS and American units, including the 856th Engineer Aviation Battalion, resulted in the airstrip on Kiriwina being serviceable for use by aircraft participating in the first large scale raid on Rabaul on 12 October 1943.
The RAAF Airfield Construction Squadrons at Goodenough Island and Kiriwina were under the operational control of the United States 6th Army, Alamo Force. The RAAF supplied all its
own construction materials, and this was a cause for some disquiet for Brigadier General Casey and Colonel S.D. Sturgis, the Chief Engineer, Alamo Force. Casey had argued that since Alamo Force had operational control of the RAAF Construction Units assigned to it the United States Army should supply them. The Director of Works and Buildings did not agree. In his reply to Casey's letter of 18 August 1943, he stated that `it is not desired that the RAAF should be dependent on 6th Army for this service'. The matter was one of control and of national prestige. By having independent sources of supply, the RAAF units did not fit into the United States Army concept that `where Army had control, RAAF stores should be eliminated' and that they should be wholly dependent on United States sources of Supply. In fact, during the Kiriwina operations, Colonel Sturgis was to note that `with respect to supply of engineer materials the RAAF is better supplied ... than the ground forces ... This is embarrassing.' The US Army authorities were seeking `unquestioned control' of the RAAF units. This was an option that the RAAF Air Officer Commanding, 9 Operational Group, Air Commodore J.E. Hewitt did not favour. He `insists he has command'. However, every effort was made to retain a good working relationship between the two parties and Sturgis openly commended the generosity of Wing Commander Dale in giving RAAF materials to his engineering units to enable them to complete the work on Kiriwina.
Another issue which blossomed at this time was one of works priorities vis avis the United States Army and the United States Army Air Corps. The latter saw the construction task as being prioritised toward the completion of airfields and the. subsequent maintenance of them to enable aircraft operations. The Army concept, articulated by Casey, was that roads and other facilities should be completed before airfield construction was contemplated. Hewitt and Dale were members of the Air Corps School. When General Kreuger, the Commanding General of 6th Army requested that the RAAF construction units be employed in road construction on Goodenough Island, Dale `protested that his first responsibility was the serviceability of the airstrips and taxiways'. The Australians had worked hard before the arrival of 6th Army on Goodenough Island and, although Hewitt `did not want to get unnecessarily mixed up in the US Army's internal affairs,' a compromise was agreed to where the RAAF would work in areas skirting around RAAF dispersal areas. The issue could have developed to the degree that `resentment could easily have been aroused'.
Resentment was engendered by an action beyond the control of the soldiers and airmen at Kiriwina. The work undertaken resulted in a newspaper article being published in the Sydney Daily Telegraph during December, which emphasized the role of the American Negro engineers. Keays claimed on 29th December 1943 that:
... This article is a typical example of the lack of appreciation shown for the work of the RAAF Works Units and naturally produces a feeling of despondency throughout the unit. The men know that their efforts at Kiriwina were outstanding and naturally feel resentful when other units receive the credit and publicity for their work. It is requested that arrangements be made for the Press Relations Officer from No. 9 Operational Group to visit Nadzab in the immediate future so that some publicity can be given to the unit’s efforts at Kiriwina and the activities of the Wing generally.
It should be pointed out that the construction of the two landing strips of the north aerodrome at Kiriwina was carried out by this unit and not by the naval CB Battalion. The naval CB Battalion constructed two of the taxiway loops and hard standings, the other loops being allotted to the 856th Engineer Aviation Battalion. Although the facts cannot be publicised this American Negro Battalion fell down badly on the job, and this unit and the 46th GAS. Regiment had to take over and complete their work. The naval CB Battalions are possibly the finest construction units in the world, but from experience at Kiriwina and elsewhere in this area the organisation and efficiency of the RAAF units is equal to or superior to other American units...
Attention is drawn to No. 9 Operational Group Routine Order 387/43 quoting various letters of commendations on the part played by the RAAF in the raids on Rabaul on the 12th and 13th October. It is obvious from the tone of those letters that high-ranking 5th Air Force officers are not aware that the northern strip was constructed by the RAAF and that the allotted work had been completed to time on what appeared an impossible schedule. The men noticed these omissions and the effect on morale is very marked.
With the men tired after almost 12 months of hard and continuous effort every endeavor should be made to hold the morale. A certain amount of publicity in southern papers would assist materially.
Keays had a valid point, and the RAAF works units were not to receive any official publicity until September 1944 when the Department of Air Directorate of Public Relations released Special Release No. 657 RAAF’s Important Role Construction and Offence in South West Pacific.