CBIVA Sound-off
Summer 1992 Issue

By Steve Zavacky, Jr.

When Japan blew up Pearl Harbor, December 1941, I knew my destiny was up coming. Three months later, I received a greeting from dear Uncle.

First came basic training in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Being of Slavic descent and understanding the foreign lingo, I was given the option to train as an American spy. It sounded very heroic, but I turned it down. My choice was the Engineers in the mechanical field.

The 479th Engineer Maintenance Co. was beginning to form when a few of us were sent to Memphis for a three-month course in diesel mechanics. It was heaven from the start. Southern hospitality embraced all 16 of us privates by the female natives as if we were generals. We were assigned to the M.I.T.I. (Military Industrial Training Institution). After graduating with honors, we were reluctant to give up living in exclusive hotels. Our meals were served by civilians. Pay day was bimonthly and always on time. There was no bed check, no lights out, no reveille and a "pile" of women!

Our training did not end there. When we got off the train in Peoria, it started all over again. The field training at the Caterpillar factory for the next six weeks was a test on what we learned in Memphis; mechanics I mean. We mastered the bulldozer. We were able to tear down a Gallion road grader and assemble the motor in record time. We became experts on maintaining the Bucyrus crane, the Ingersoll Rand air compressor, rock crushers, roller, you name it.

Upon graduation, I was beginning to believe the Army was preparing us for a huge earth moving project somewhere in the world. I was right. As we rolled on the tracks across the States, we began picking up more graduates as welders, machinists, cooks and for the first time we were assigned a commanding officer, Capt. Morrow and Lt. Fishersir. Before we arrived in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, we had a total of 200 men that formed the 479th Engr. Maint. Co.

Early one morning, our company was alerted to leave Pomona, California, where 479th had been stationed. In only 20 minutes, we were speeding on a hair-raising, non-stop trip to Long Beach. For 15 of those miles, the MPs had every crossroad blocked off. Before sunrise, we were sailing off to an unknown destination.

I was amazed to see that we were on a freighter, the USS MOBILE. Our company of 200 men were the only passengers aboard. All our shops and equipment were already anchored down top deck. After two days out, we expected to join a convoy or an escort of some kind. No way. We were alone sailing southwest. It started to happen. About half way across the Pacific, the "boat" broke down in sub infested waters. We lost our fresh water when the bottom of the tank broke loose. For three days, we drifted with the current. That was the time a Japanese fleet was headed toward Australia, only we did not know it at that time.

The crew of our freighter consisted of only nine merchant marines with 14 sailors and officers. How fortunate it was for the Navy to have aboard 200 trained Army personnel with equipment at a time like this.

We went to work immediately. My job was to watch various pressure gauges located down in the ship's propeller shaft chamber, four hours on, eight hours off. Our machinists turned out the essential parts and with the welders, the "tub" was put back together in running order. During these repairs was when I learned to eat onion sandwiches and drink black coffee on the night shift. It was very gratifying to be able to move again in those waters.

We hobbled into Pago Pago in the Samoa Islands. With our water tank repaired we could take on some fresh water. We then sailed southward to Auckland, New Zealand, then Perth, Australia, for minor checkups before we set sail again. The Aussies gave us the OK to sail north on our final leg. However, with the age and condition of the freighter, they had their doubts that we would ever make it to India. The Captain himself must have doubted the trip because he placed a bulletin out stating, "Land is to the left."

After 64 days, the trip ended in the harbor of Calcutta. Magellan made it to India by way of South American in less time than that in a sail boat....

Our camp was located across the Hooghly River from Calcutta at a city called Howrah. Our first job was on the dock loading equipment into railroad cars being shipped to Burma. To our amazement and shock, we witnessed dock cranes unloading thousands of tons of TNT from the holds of our freighter that we came over on. A simple rifle shot would have sent us at an excessive speed to India - by air! Now I understood why no convoy wanted to escort or even be near us.

The trip to Assam by train is another story. Six men were assigned to guard the cargo on the way to Ledo. This is where the road to China began. We almost lost the train to bandits on two occasions. Our Indian interpreter must have been part of the group because he disappeared in the night.

Upon arriving in Ledo, we immediately set up shop and started to build the famous Ledo Road. -478 miles over God forsaken country. I never knew the meaning of mud until the stuff started to ooze over the driver's seat. I have pictures to prove it. And, speaking further on the subject of mud, while repairing a disabled tractor you would have to watch that you did not drop a wrench or it disappeared in the soup. Occasionally, the cook would attach a note entering the mess hall saying, "What would you like with your Spam?" Someone answered, M-U-D, it might taste better.

Here's one for the air transport fly boys, you had it rough getting over the "roof" but you had a way to chill your beer. That one can you dropped per man was a treat. Three times in two years. We drank it hot. Thanks.

Seriously, when I reminisce of those three years in the jungles with monsoons, leeches, tigers, snacks, tarantulas, malaria together with the make up of the "Aluminum Trail," we can count our blessings, and have a silent prayer for those resting beneath the gaze of God.

The 479th Engr. Maint. Co. must be labeled the most honorable unit for its accomplishments. Consider the expense of training 200 men from scratch for one year; college tuition fees, hotel lodging, renting an ocean vessel to transport only one company and equipment half way around the world. We were someone special, and we are!

At the close of the war, the best part of the episode came when I was handed the "Ruptured Duck" in Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, with a train ticket home to Butler. The discharge took place on November 12, 1945, which is my birthday. Even the sergeant shook my hand and wished me a Happy Birthday.

This is 1991 now, and at age 72, I still carry a smile and walk with pride.

As with Pearl Harbor, "REMEMBER THE 479th ENGR. MAINT. CO." in Burma.

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