Compiled by Bill Woolfrey
The expertise of the ACS's was essential for the flying units to advance in the Pacific during World War II and the decades of the 50's, 60's and 70's represented the pinnacle of the post war squadrons.
All Mobile Works Squadrons were renamed Airfield Construction Squadrons in July 1944.
All ACS's saw ACTIVE SERVICE
The average age of members of the ACS's would always be higher than that of other units of the armed services because the nature of the worked demanded skilled personnel, namely tradesmen, works supervisors, draughts men and other engineering professions. Consequently by natural attrition our numbers are falling away at a faster rate than other units.
WORKS TRAINING UNIT (WTU). Formed Nov 42, disbanded Jan 46, and had trained 2,231 personnel for service with the WORKS UNITS.
No. 1 MOBILE WORKS SQUADRON (MWS) was formed to meet an urgent need to fill a requirement for a works capability in NORTHWESTERN AREA after the first bombing raids on DARWIN.
Some distance north of ALICE SPRINGS, Army convoy passing by resulting in the following dialogue between Army and Air force travelers: AIR FORCE: You've gotta mighty load there, you must have one of those 1,000 pound bombs. ARMY: No I've got enough here to wipe out all DARWIN. AIR FORCE: What is it? ARMY: A truckload of toilet paper.
1MWS. The detachment suffered its first casualty during an air raid on the airfield when an officer was killed. He was running out of the Officers' Mess, carrying his steel hat and was hit in the head by shrapnel ... he was to return south the next day.
23 enemy raids were recorded on the Darwin area between March and June 1942, which resulted in 6 fatalities and 15 injuries among Air Force personnel.
5MWS and 14MWS were formed as a result of the splitting of 1MWS
The first Works Unit to go overseas was No.4 ... a detachment went of Port Moresby a month after it was formed in July 1942.
2MWS at WARDS STRIP Oct 43. There was a notable incident, which involved 4 of its members, and U.S.A.A.F. AIR COBRA while attempting to land rolled over onto its back and burst into flames. The men raced towards the burning aircraft to rescue the pilot. The intense heat and exploding ammunition hindered their progress. Finally a borrowed pocketknife cut the pilot's harness and he was extricated from the inferno. The Airmen received awards for their bravery.
3ACS knew they were in for trouble on their next landing when TOKYO ROSE, the Japanese radio station propagandist, made reference concerning their planned assault on MINDORO ISLAND.
At Mindoro, the American engineer in charge recommended 3ACS, who completed a new strip in 4 days whilst the island was subjected to 100 air raids, for the MERITORIOUS SERVICE PLAQUE, but unfortunately this award could only be given to American units.
The longest continuous inclusive service in one area during WWII was a detachment of 4WMU at Milne Bay ... 22 months from November 1942 to September 1944.
In March 1943 an additional 83 airmen were attached to 4WMU, mostly carpenters, to assist with the Squadron's next task of building facilities at Port Moresby.
The CO of 7ACS, Sqn/Ldr DS Lawrence, attended the surrender of a Japanese detachment at NAURU.
2,4,6 and 7 MWS's were at NADZAB at the same time in 1944.
5,6 and 7 MWS have arrived at AITAPE in the same month April 1944.
9WMU suffered its first fatality when an airman was killed by a rock thrown from blasting operations.
While airmen from 3ACS were unloading their equipment from an LST, an airman was killed when a Japanese suicide aircraft attempted to crash through the open bow doors and exploded.
On 15/9/45 at MOROTAI, the CO of 14ACS, Sqn/Ldr T.R. Nossiter and a party of airmen participated in a parade at which the surrender of the General commanding the Japanese Second Army was received.
At Noemfoor on 9/9/44, 4 airmen of 5ACS received BRAVERY AWARDS for saving aircrew of a crashed B24 Bomber.
In March 1945, 75 airmen of 7ACS were attached to the Royal N.Z. Air Force units operating in the North.
Because of weather conditions, while 5MWS at Moresby was working on Wards Strip, there was on week in January 1943 when WARDS STRIP was the only serviceable airfield in the New Guinea area.
8MWS (DET.) carried out construction work at TINDAL from MAY to JULY 1943.
TARAKAN LANDING 1ACS and 8ACS were involved in separate LSTs. In all probability the honour of being the first ACS members ashore belong to 8ACS who landed under sniper fire.
The airstrip was badly damaged, waterlogged, and infested with mines and booby traps. The bomb disposal unit defused 114 mines in two days.
The process of laying matting was interrupted by spasmodic enemy activity. A Japanese 75mm gun sited in the hills shelled the airstrip and a F.D. tractor suffered a direct hit, obliterating the driver's seat resulting in the natives and whites (in the lead) racing from the strip with the shells blowing up behind them. The Army later captured the gun.
More contact with the enemy when a Japanese hand grenade exploded in an ACS tent killing a sergeant and wounding the other. Army troops killed 4 Japanese soldiers attempting to cross the airstrip.
Once the airfield became operational, its shortcomings become obvious. The strip was one of the few airfields in the world where one end rose and fell with the tide. The subsurface was so unstable at one end that during reconstruction a bulldozer was BURIED beneath the strip because it SANK to such a depth that they gave up hope of getting it out with the equipment available.
At LABUAN two squadrons used different techniques to fell bomb craters 4ACS pumped the water out, then blasted the remaining mud out with explosives, while 5ACS simply filled the craters.
While construction and repair work continued the enemy were still active. 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.
With the exception of 5 and 7ACS all the construction units were disbanded by the end of 1945. They had campaigned in all RAAF operational areas in the SouthWest 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.
AIR OFFICER COMMANDING No.9 OPERATIONAL GROUP AIR VICEMARSHAL HEWITT. RAAF. " I admired the attitude of all the personnel in the WORKS UNITS. There were no moans and no whinges despite deficiencies in machinery, earthmoving equipment, and spares; they were far too busy. I felt entirely sympathetic for them; so much was expected from them in a quick time. Almost without exception their Commanding Officers were most competent, and I greatly enjoyed my many visits to them during my 10 months on NEW GUINEA."
Air Vice Marshal Hewitt, Air Officer commanding 9 Operations Group RAAF, said: "Time and time again the performance of our Works Squadrons was absolutely first class. I was concerned they should receive the recognition they deserve; they were WAR WINNING UNITS".
U. S. General Kennedy in command of all allied Air Forces in the S.W.P.A. and also Major General Whitehead, U. S. Army Deputy Commander of the 5th' Air Force, never ceased to comment on the capacity of the RAAF works personnel to improvise in the face of great difficulties and get a job done to their exacting demands.
B.C.O.F at IWAKUNI JAPAN. 5ACS was involved with the rehabilitation of the facilities. Japanese contractors supervised by members of the squadron undertook these projects. One incident had scalding repercussions. In the CO's quarters recently renovated it was found that the toilet when flushed had very embarrassing results. The Japanese contractor had connected the steam to the toilet. The supervising officer got the rounds of the kitchen by the C.O.
The runway was constructed of 516 concrete slabs. During the period of construction 22 tip trucks of the unit travelled 73.730kms and moved 8.915 cubic metres of gravel from pits along the MONZAN River.
The Commander of the British Commonwealth Air Group in JAPAN, ROYAL AIR FORCE officer Air ViceMarshal C.A. BOUCHIER described 5ACS as one of the finest outfits he had ever been associated with.
RAAF Engineers and Airmen of the Airfield Construction Squadrons earned a reputation for completing major civil engineering projects, working almost invariably to demanding deadlines, achieving the highest quality work at remote and diverse locations and under the most harsh conditions. This included working in the extreme humidity, torrential rain, mud, and heat of the tropics, to the even greater heat of suffocating dryness of dust and the contrast of chilling temperatures of the Australian outback
It was heard that these Construction bods were a strange lot hard drinking, hard living, tough, but they undertook hard physical work to build facilities which were often taken for granted by those who followed.
No. 2 AIRFIELD CONSTRUCTION SQUADRON RAAF WOOMERA
Between June 1947 and November 1951, 2 airfields Woomera and Koolymilka were constructed as well as access roads to various facilities such as a Launching Site, a Missile Range and a Bomb Ballistic Range. By January 1949, the squadron had erected 498 prefabricated huts, built individual messes for officers, sergeants and airmen as well as latrines, laundries and a water reticulation system, and erected a 6,825,000-litre dam to supply drinking water.
When progress of the runway was retarded by lack of water to consolidate the strip, it was alleviated by the construction of a 644km pipeline laid to the Murray River.
Following a general strike by coal miners, a detachment was deployed to Ben Bullen open cut mine near Lithgow in August 1949, in response t the then Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, announcing the Army, Navy and Air Force personnel would be used to break the strike. It was a matter of pride for the squadrons that they produced coal at a rate higher than the coal miners themselves and proportionally more than the Army.
A CO's report December 49/January 50 gave a description indicative of the conditions met by the men as being hot and trying with temperatures exceeding the century even reaching 120 degrees in the shade.
Considering the huge volume of work carried out under extreme conditions whilst chronically under strength in addition to the problems faced, the squadron's achievements were remarkable.
No. 2 AIRFIELD CONSTRUCTION SQUADRON RAAF COCOS ISLANDS
In an Indian Ocean swell 5 miles off shore, from 19 ships, 2 ACS unloaded to landing barges, bulldozers and other heavy engineering equipment with gear that would have given a wharfie a nervous breakdown. The fully loaded barges navigated through gaps in the coral reef to a small wharf and beach 5 miles away where they were unloaded by primitive means, all this in record time in the tropical heat.
Before grading was possible, it was necessary to remove 7,500 ft of P.S.P. steel matting. A 10,000 ft runway, a control tower, permanent cyclone proof buildings, taxiways, and roads were constructed in addition to maintaining its own installation and equipment. 30 inches of rain fell whilst the job was in progress.
Douglas Wilkie (journalist) after a visit to Cocos reported in the Qantas Airway Journal "The airmen at Cocos are a bronzed, hard working hard bitten, impatient bunch typical Aussies in a new Australian Outpost."
Another feat was the unloading of 7,000 tons of cargo from a ship anchored at sea in 20 working days. Experts estimated that it would have taken about 4 months in an Australian port with modern facilities.
In 1952, during a surf rescue of Royal Navy sailors from the visiting LSTs ZEEBRUGGE and NAVIAC on their way to Monte Bello Island for Atomic testing, 2 airmen of 2ACS and 1 RN sailor were drowned. Bravery awards were granted to several 2ACS men who participated in the rescue.
Quote from Sheila Patrick Women's Weekly, 1952 read: "When I landed at West Island, on of the five main islands in the Cocos Keeling group in the Indian Ocean, shortly to be administered by Australia, I found the RAAF unit of 500 men who are building an airfield there, living in a manner which would have been poor even in wartime. But this is a peacetime undertaking. These men are not new to the service, nor do they mind hard work. The same unit, 2ACS, earned great praise for the job they did building an airfield at Woomera, SA. The story the airmen of Cocos told me and the conditions shocked me. During the war I was a WRAAF Officer for nearly 4 years, stationed at tough out of the way places."
The senior Marine Officer of the Department of Civil Aviation, Captain R. W.Cooper said regarding the work carried out at Cocos by 2ACS "I want to pay tribute to the RAAF men members of the 2 Airfield Construction Squadron for the work carried out by them."
2ACS at BUTTERWORTH, MALAYA
Butterworth was to be a key link in Australia's strategy of Forward Defence for three decades.
In August 1955, work was started on the R.A.A.F's biggest overseas engineering project when it turned the first sod for the BUTTERWORTH RECONSTRUCTION PROJECT. By the time Butterworth officially became a RAAF base on the l' July 1958, it could house 3 front line squadrons and their supporting units, as well as substantial numbers of transient aircraft.
A report of a "rampaging tiger" in the 2ACS area resulted in enthusiasts from Penang organising a hunt, which resulted in the shooting of a black panther a few kilometres from the RAAF Base.
The Butterworth deployment was the last undertaken by 2ACS. It was the lot of SACS to supply personnel for the 3 final overseas deployments by ACS's namely: Ubon in Thailand Vung Tau in South Vietnam; and Phan Rang in South Vietnam.
In the post war era, 2 ACS had helped dig its own grave it had reduced the demand for its skills. Consequently the decision was made to disband 2ACS by April 1961.
No.5 AIRFIELD CONSTRUCTION SQUADRON
By the early 50's a huge amount of civil construction work was on the RAAF books with 10 airfields and bases requiring major redevelopment. Only 2 years after it had been paid off; SACS was reformed and immediately began work at numerous locations. The RAAF needed a base in the North of Australia from which major operations could be mounted and DARWIN was the logical place to start. Air Marshal J.P. McCauley wanted Darwin to become the main Australian base for war, both for operations on the mainland and developments to South East Asia.
UNMANNED OPERATIONAL BASES (BARE BASES)
In the early postwar years in the plans to defend Australia, it was obvious we needed airstrips situated at strategic locations.
DARWIN was the first most obvious choice because of the lesson we learned on 19 February 1942, when heavy Japanese air raids devastated the RAAF and exposed Australia's vulnerability. Because of the vastness of our country with such small population it was decided to establish UNMANNED OPERATIONAL BASES in remote areas located in strategic positions where the RAAF could still operate from if our country was invaded.
These bases were later known as "BARE BASES" where permanent facilities would be kept to a minimum, supported only by essential necessities such as water and electricity. In the event of defence emergencies all other facilities and services would be moved in by air or ground transport.
It was a concept ideally suited to a relatively small air force wit a vast largely underpopulated and underserviced continent to defend.
TINDAL, LEARMONTH, and SCHERGER were three of these "BARE BASES".
DARWIN February 1962. A 5ACS detachment was subjected to a severe storm, which centered on the airmen's lines. The roof of a Rudnev hut was separated from the walls and deposited on the roof of the hut next in line. 4 other accommodation huts were damaged beyond repair and 40 personnel had to be billeted in Base Squadron huts.
RAAF TINDAL was named after W/Cmdr A.R. Tindal who was killed during a Japanese bombing raid on Darwin on the 19th February 1942.
5ACS at TINDAL. Due to the climate of the Northern Territory, refrigeration equipment had to be transported in and maintained not for the squadron's comfort but to cool water for the concrete.
The only 200HP HOT SHOWER in the Air Force. A 5ACS party on a soil survey expedition in the Tindal area, living under canvas, achieved this by fitting hoses to the engine of a "Diamond T" prime mover to enable water to be heated in the engine block and then supplied to the shower.
LEARMONTH was named in the memory of Sqn/Ldr C.C. LEARMONTH C.O. of 22 SQUADRON, A20 BOSTON'S in NEW GUINEA, who was killed in a BEAUFORT accident in WESTERN AUSTRALIA.
5ACS at UBON THAILAND. Construction equipment was flown in from Australia. This was the first time a D6 bulldozer had been transported by a RAAF Hercules aircraft.
PHAN RANG VIETNAM. Here 5ACS "DET B" claimed the highlight of the work undertaken by the detachment was the provision of a unique facility FLUSHING TOILETS some American servicemen were known to seek invitations to visit the Australians to enable them to use these examples of the Plumbers' Art.
5ACS "DET B". (Phan Rang and Vung Tau in South Vietnam) has the honour of being the FINAL WORKS UNIT of the RAAF deployed overseas.
2ACS and 5ACS were regarded as elite units and that reputation continued to grow as they worked their way through JAPAN, WOOMERA, COCOS ISLAND, NEW GUINEA, DARWIN, BUTTERWORTH, TINDAL, LEARMONTH. THAILAND and VIETNAM as well as completing an extensive works program at the more established RAAF bases in Southern Australia.
It was perhaps indicative of the progress the RAAF was making that by the 1970s ACS's were going out of business and ground defence was in relative terms, flourishing. In other words the need to protect rather then build suggested that the essential form of the R.A.A.F's network of STRATEGIC AIRFIELDS was largely in place.
The late Air Vice Marshal JOHN LESSELS (Rtd) wrote in his foreword of "ALWAYS FIRST": "Among units in the Armed Services (Navy, Army, Air Force) one of the many things that made the (RAAF) ACS's special was that most other units had roles that were destructive, whereas theirs (ACS's) were constructive and created lasting assets."
UNSUNG HEROES. The term "UNSUNG HEROES" is descriptive and apt when applied to the R.A.A.F's AIRFIELD CONSTRUCTION SQUADRONS.