504th ENGINEER LIGHT PONTOON COMPANY



Ex-CBI Roundup
January 1998 Issue

By James L. Watson

I would assume that all veterans of the C.B.I, believe that their own particular unit was the hardest worked, most deprived, most abused, and did more to win the war than any other single unit. And so it is with the survivors of the 504th Engineer Light Pontoon Company.

The Company was formed in 1942 at Camp Gordon, GA. It was a single unit, attached at times to various Battalions, but mostly operated on its own. It had its own H.Q. company, motor pool, supply system, and mess personnel. It was commanded by an unorthodox R.O.T.C. Captain. It had a Headquarters platoon, two Bridge platoons, and one Light equipage platoon. Our mission was to make forced river crossings with the very fast storm boats. Follow up with our M-2 assault boats, then a treadway bridge, followed by a ten-ton pontoon bridge reinforceable to twenty tons.

After spending two years as a S/Sgt. Drill Instructor at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, I attended the Engineer Officer Candidate School and upon graduation was assigned to the 504th Engineer Light Pontoon Company as commander of the first bridge platoon.

The only place at Camp Gordon where there was enough water to build a pontoon bridge was at the Litner mill pond. The big problem here was that it was full of large stumps. These were removed by using a lot of hard labor and a goodly amount of shear pins on the truck winches. At this time we were living in barracks and had our own mess hall. The motor pool was run by a very capable crew commanded by Lt. Pat Confredo. The motor sergeant was a very competent Sgt. Grace. He had more skill in his left hand than most motor sergeants.

Our administrative officer was Lt. Ben Lester, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute. It seemed like our company commander was off attending some school or other the whole time I was with the unit, so Lt. Lester was what you might say, the de-facto company commander.

We set up for some time down on the Savannah River and got in a lot of practice building bridges in swift water instead of a flat mill pond. We also filled an M-l assault boat with iced down beer which made the mosquito population bearable. The profit from the beer sales went into the company fund. My wife and Lt. Flatley's were living in Augusta, GA, at this time so, of course, he and I took a couple of trucks and went to town several times. Then, the captain found out about it and we were grounded. So, that night we took an M-l assault boat down the river several miles and wound up at a huge dam. On the way back to camp, we hit a submerged stump and tore the bottom out of the boat. We managed to get the boat and motor back to camp by daylight, however, the captain was not the least bit amused. So, we spent the rest of the nights on the Savannah River staying in our tent.

Came time for the BIG war games in Tennessee and it was decided that we were capable of getting there, and maybe we might even build a bridge over the Cumberland River. We bivouacked next to the cemetery at Granville, TN. Lt. Flatley and I made some arrangements with a very nice farm family, and our wives joined us in the big war games. The captain was not amused. We made a few points with the local townspeople by using our air compressor and jack-hammers to dig some graves for them. Lt. Confredo got invited to a poker game with some of the local men and came away with a goodly bit of their money. I don't think he was invited back. The portable hot water showers that Sgt. Grace designed and built really worked great.

The BIG, BIG war game finally got started. We were to erect a ten-ton bridge across the Cumberland, and two heavy Pontoon battalions were to erect two 20-ton bridges. It rained and it rained, and the river came up. We got our bridge up in record time. Neither heavy bridge made it across. We reinforced our bridge with air floats and got our forces across. This was a big mistake. The powers that be decided we were ready for overseas duty. Our wives had gone home to Birmingham, AL, so the weekend before we headed for Camp Forrest, TO, for overseas processing, my best friend and I "borrowed" a couple of motorcycles and headed southwest. On Monday, we both had very sore tall ends. Not from the long bike ride but from the fangs of our captain.

We finally embarked for North Africa from Camp Patrick Henry. There were 450 troops crammed into one hold of a Liberty Ship named the S. S. Guihan. We disembarked at the port of Oran and the troops went on to Algiers by rail. A few of us stayed behind to get our T.A.T. equipment.

The trip across the Atlantic was quite a cruise for a bunch of men who were primarily from New Jersey and Indiana. The bunks were so close together it was impossible to sit up on one of them. The showers, of course, were salt water. One was enough for most all of us. The convoy was the largest one sent across at that time. Considerably more than 100 ships. We must have been in the middle because as far as we could see there was nothing but ships. We were fed two meals a day, a lot of mutton and a lot of rotten fish.

Being curious, as all good engineers are, it was discovered that there were hundreds of cases of "C" rations next to our hold, and that a way could be found to gain access to them. They were intended for the 1200 German P.O.W.'s who would make the return trip. I am sure none of them starved like a lot of our men that they held prisoner.


Ten-ton Pontoon Bridge. Photo by James L. Watson.

The convoy split up somewhere off of the Straits of Gibraltar. Our part went on to Oran. We went overland to Algiers and were loaded on an L.S.T. numbered 21. It was built in Evansville, Indiana. There were eleven of them in this group, each one with a landing craft tank chained down on the lop deck. The tank deck was empty.

This was quite a bit better than the Liberty ship. Our company was split up on two of the ships, so we had lots of elbow room. I bunked in a room with the Engineer Officer who, like the rest of the crew, were Coast Guardsmen. The trip though the Mediterranean Sea was like a cruise. Going through the Suez Canal was an eye opener. The partially sunken ship hulls and bombed out facilities ashore was our first look at war. We tied up every night and we all went ashore. When we had to tie up for an hour or two during daylight a bunch of us went swimming! Our cooks worked with the crew's cooks and our motor pool men helped in the maintenance, so our Captain decided his two junior officers should stand watch with the Officer of the Deck. I found this to be quite boring.

The ensign really didn't do much. The enlisted men really ran the ship. When we got out into the Indian Ocean we got into a cyclone, and it was no longer boring. The ship, being top heavy with the L.C.T. on top and nothing below, had a tendency to ROLL. To a landlubber like me it was really scary! We picked up a life boat with some Greek sailors somewhere out of Aden, Arabia. As soon as they got aboard, the skipper told the gun crews to sink the life boat. As it disappeared over the horizon, it was still floating.

We went ashore in Aden, Arabia, two of us hired a 1929 Chevrolet taxi and saw a lot of strange sights. If you have never seen a Parsi Tower of Silence, I recommend you read up on it. Bombay was next and we got ashore twice. Very interesting. Had anti-aircraft practice on a towed target off of Colombo, Ceylon. We were not impressed by their accuracy. Then, on up the Hooghly River to Calcutta.

We were trucked to our new temporary home, the Kanarni Estate apartments. Each apartment had two large rooms and a bath. The men were distributed out among the apartments. Not too crowded for a change. It was on the sixth floor and had a perfectly good elevator. Much like Gen. Lear of Yoo Hoo fame, being in a war itself wasn't bad enough punishment. "You will not use the elevator" said the Port Commander. At least he didn't have us singing, "This is the Army, Mr. Jones."

What Gen. Lear couldn't hear was the parodies, all rhyming with Lear. When it comes to making up songs, any G.I. would put Irving Berlin to shame. Remember "Dirty Gerry from Bizerte, hid a mousetrap beneath her skirty. made her boyfriends fingers hurty, made her boyfriends much alerty."

Anyway, we moved in on Thanksgiving Day and the Japs bombed the docks on Sunday. No L.S.T.s were hit but a goodly toll of humans were killed. Three thousand dock workers left town and the 225 members of the 504th became stevedores.

Our orders to proceed to Ledo were cancelled and we took over the unloading and warehousing activities. The Indians did everything by hand, even though there were a lot of new fork lifts sitting there. If it has wheels and an engine, any G.I. can operate it. As I recall, the Port Battalion that was to operate Calcutta Docks were taking basic training somewhere in the States.

Next it was decided that we would assemble two floating cranes that had arrived in hundreds of pieces. This task fell to my buddy, Lt. Flatley and his 3d Platoon, with the assistance of me and the 1st Platoon. Skids were placed and a big diesel crane was purloined from somewhere, and the work of assembling the huge barge was started. Everything was bolted together with gaskets. By the time the sides and inner compartments were going in place it started to really get hot. An English civilian, who was assembling a somewhat smaller rig next to us, was using Indian labor and a hand-cranked crane. He told us he didn't think our barge would slide down the ramps we had built. But, who would believe a dumb old British civilian? We kept on bolting!

Then a ship arrived with 20 wooden hulled, 36-foot motor towing launches. They had come as deck cargo and the wood had dried out. When they set them in the water they started to sink. So, the first platoon and me left the crane operation and took over the Tug Boat fleet. We got out pumps going and after a few days the boats swelled up enough to stop leaking. Then I was told to fuel all of them up. Eighteen of them were gas burning Chrysler marine engines and two were Cummins diesels. Each boat held 800 gallons of fuel.

After a few days of five gallon jeep cans, I figured there had to be a better way. I had made the acquaintance of a Lt. Col. supply guru from the air base one night in the bar of the Grand Hotel, so I asked if he, by any chance, had a spare tank truck I could "borrow." Sure. Just go get a driver and he would take us out to the Base and fix us up. I did, and he did, and we started fueling up those pesky boats.

Two days later, the Lt. Col. appeared at the docks and demanded his tanker back by dark or he would have us court martialed. That night we took the tanker back and I had a jeep with a couple of jeep cans of gas with me. After bidding the colonel goodbye at the officers club, I went out to the park where the tankers were. At least 200 of them. I left the driver and the two jeep cans and headed for Calcutta. The next morning we resumed fueling with the tank truck that was sitting there.

Shortly thereafter, a major from Gen. Cheves office came around and told me that we would start making use of those tugs and help the British tugs push the incoming Liberty ships around the various locks. (The Hooghly River had a 16-foot tide, so all ships were loaded and unloaded in Locks.) The men of the First Platoon were mostly farm boys from Indiana. The river had boat traffic like our present day freeways. Rules of the road? What's that? Boy, did we ever get a lot of horns, bells, sirens and fists pointed our way!

It was quite interesting how the men reacted to this life of a seaman. Alter 55 years, I can remember Dominic Balloco, RFC, Skipper of one of the river-going tugs. They slept on board, cooked and ate on board. After a few days, the Major came down and told me we would start ferrying some troops who were bivouacked at Howrah. How many men could we carry per trip? How do I know? Let's try 25. The boats were a little top heavy and rolled a bit, but 25 it was.

Then, the Red Cross decided we should run some Sunday excursions. The boats were busy little beavers. Meanwhile, the other boats in the fleet were moving barges around, still pushing Liberty ships in and out of locks and generally making themselves useful. Lt. Flatley and his platoon worked diligently to complete the first barge to erect a 110-foot Washington Whirley crane on.

Came the great day for the launching. Everyone stood back for the great event while the cable restraint was cut with a torch. Nothing! Zilch. T-5 Arnold gave it mighty shoves with his crane. No movement. We hooked three of our tugs to it and pulled mightily. Nope.

The Indian Navy happened to be in the lock and offered to give a pull. When their inch steel cable snapped, they left. The Englishman working next to us offered to have his crew of native Indians jack the thing up and put his well-used teakwood launching timbers under it, if in return we would set his steel in place with our power crane. A deal. This time it sailed down into the water with a great splash! The crane parts were then erected. Two 200 H.P. diesels turning a generator that operated the 110-foot boom. The name "George" was painted above the trade name Washington, and it went to work. One of our tugs was tied to it at all times. The other crane was completed and put to work in very short order. And, our humble apologies were given to the very wise English gentleman that we had laughed at before.

About that time, the Port Battalion started up the Hooghly River, and we set out for Ledo by rail, side-wheeler, train, river and finally, narrow gauge railroad. The really tough part of that trip was getting our vehicles lowered enough to go through the tunnels. Tech Sgt. Charles Grace was the man that this job fell to. In my eight years of service, Sgt. Grace was the best motor sergeant I saw. No matter what mechanical problem came up, Sgt. Grace could handle it left handed!

One little incident that happened on the ferry still gives me a laugh. We slept where ever we could find a place to lie down. One man got his shoes kicked overboard. For some reason or other, we had to get him some new shoes the real military way. A report of survey no less, that said "... a thorough search was made with grappling irons . . ." Wow!

We finally arrived in Ledo and trucked out to Margherita to the so-called staging area. Each split bamboo basha had a well in front with an old-fashioned up and own handle for pumping. We took the pump off of one well and hooked one of our gas-powered pumps up. Set up the heating coil and shower heads and we were in business. Within a few days, Sgt. Grace had a concrete slab poured for his motor pool. No one asked where he got the concrete, and he never volunteered any information.

We were put to work doing all sorts of things around the 20th General Hospital. We had bricklayers in the Company, so they built a brick, air-conditioned ward for typhus patients.

It seems that there is always something for an Engineer company to do. Someone decided it would be a good idea if we used our semi-trailers to haul pipe up to Shingbwiyang for the P.O.L. outfit. It was during the rainy season and the road being slick, the trailers kept sliding off the road on the curves. We tried hauling the pipe on our Diamond T 6x6s, and that worked fine. Meanwhile, by the grace of God and with the help of Sgt. Grace, we acquired a concrete floor for the mess hall.

When the 5307th Infantry came through on their way to Burma, quite a few of them used our showers. They even brought fire wood for the "heater." Little did we know that we would meet up with the Marauders some time later.

We kept on working around Ledo doing all sorts of work. Some of it was even fun. Then, came that day when the Marauders captured the air strip at Myitkyina. We will never know who ordered the 504th to draw their assault boats and motors from the Engineer Depot and fly them into Myitkyina NOW! Before mid-afternoon, the first plane was loaded and my best friend and tent-mate, Lt. Flatley, and eight of his men were airborne.

Before the second plane was loaded, word came down that we were not to proceed to Myitkyina, but should turn the boats in and stay at Margherita. When Flatley reported to Col. Hunter, the colonel couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Boats," he yelled. "I'm out of everything I need to fight this war and they send me boats!" He told Flatley where to dig in and went storming off.

They buried the first Marauder killed at Myitkyina and then just kept on doing anything that needed doing. Lt. Flatley and one of his men became really ill after a week or so and Col. Seagrave sent them back to Ledo.

Lt. Lester, the acting C.O., told me to get out to the airfield and get the first plane to Myitkyina. Before I left, I asked Flatley what the men needed. He said a little booze would be nice. I loaded eight cases of beer and a couple fifths of whiskey and a wind-up phonograph with some Andrews Sisters records in an outboard motor shipping box and left.

After a few days, the Lt. Col. I was reporting to sent us down below Pamati where an infantry platoon had a river block set up on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River. A little after dark, we went out on the river using flashlights for a look-see. We found several makeshift rafts with Japs hanging onto them. We destroyed both the Japs and the rafts. We kept this up until our flashlights got too dim to see anything.

At daylight, I went up to the airstrip and asked my "boss" for some batteries. When I told him why, and that we sure could use some bigger lights, he said he would see what he could do. He came down to our river block that afternoon and told me some belter lights were on the way. He also took the infantry platoon back to the airstrip with him.

Next day, we had a 5 K.W. generator and an anti-aircraft search light. Also a P.F.C., in starched pants, who was supposed to show us how to operate the "Thing" and then get back to Chabua. I told him we would talk about the going back part later. About two months later, I can't remember his name or unit after all these years, but I can say that he was one hell of a soldier.

The searchlight lit up the river to the bend, about a half mile upstream. This gave us the chance to plan how we were going to make our attack. By staying out in the dark, with the light on the nearest target, we could take care of half a dozen rafts in one trip.

The next morning my boss, the Lt. Col., came down to our "block" and wanted to know what all the shooting was about. When I told him, he asked if it would be possible to get a couple of prisoners. We would try.

By afternoon we had a field phone strung down to us. Shortly after dark, three rafts came in sight. We destroyed the first two, then managed to get the three Japs on the last one into the water and swimming for the shore. When we got alongside, the first Jap kept diving under water so we disposed of him. The other two stopped swimming and we pulled them into the boat. We stripped their clothes off and as soon as we got ashore, tied them up with some parachute shroud lines. Then, it was back on the river for the rest of the night. Called the colonel at daylight and he sent a jeep down for the prisoners. That afternoon, he sent us a light .30 and one heavy M.G. with several cases of ammunition.

I could go on and on about the operation, but night after night it was the same thing. Except one night, a well built raft came down with five Japs on it. When we got close to it, two of them jumped off and started swimming. After we took care of them we headed back towards the raft. Still in the dark, but close enough to see them clearly, it turned out we had two officers and one female. They offered no resistance so we took them ashore. We had the officers strip but didn't touch the woman. One officer, who spoke some English, said she was a Korean "nurse." She had a satchel with her that was full of Jap invasion rupees. We had a small fire in a dugout and threw the "money" into it. She screamed bloody murder!


PACK ANIMALS belonging to the O.S.S. Det. 101 preparing to cross river.
Photo by James L.Watson

The colonel came down with a red-bearded major from the O.S.S. and told me he was my new boss. From then on, we spent the daylight hours ferrying his men and supplies, and sometimes we would convert our boats to ferry and haul mules across.

The night Myitkyina fell was the worst of all. My new boss had gotten us another heavy 30 M.G. and a light 50 M.G. so we stayed up on the high bank and watched the rafts coming down the river. It looked like a freight train. We just kept blowing them out of the water - almost continuous fire. A lot of the Japs got ashore on the east bank and the O.S.S. men took care of them.

For the next month we were kept busy moving troops across the river. Mostly Chinese. We also moved the 475th Infantry across. Then I got seriously ill and was evacuated to the 20th General Hospital in Ledo.

The commander of the second bridge platoon flew into Myitkyina to continue the ferry operations. Then, the entire company was flown into Myitkyina. Once again, Sgt. Grace and his crew, supervised by the motor officer, Lt. Pat Confredo, had to get our trucks cut down to a size that would fit into a C-47.

I was still hospitalized at the time so didn't see how this was done. Our unit was attached to the British 36th Division and we joined up with them at the Mogaung River. The long truss bridge had been so badly damaged the Japs hadn't even tried to repair it. They had built a rail bridge upstream, and a foot underwater!

The 504th was in the process of repairing the main bridge when I returned from the hospital. First thing I was told to do was get our Quickway crane mounted on a flatcar and start driving piling. We found an eight-wheel flat car and mounted the crane with the pile driving rig attached on one end. We took our large air compressor off its truck and mounted it on the other end. In the middle we had six Hobart welders. The local Burmese helped get the piling for us and did any other thing we asked them to do.

The bridges had been bombed many times and finding steel beams was quite a problem. We drug some of the pieces up out of the river and cut out the bad sections and welded in whatever we could find that we could make fit. A lot of 500 pound bombs that had failed to explode were laying around most bridges. If it was possible, Lt. Confredo would remove the fuses and we would shove them out of the way. If he couldn't get the fuse out we just buried them or left them alone. I know several bridge abutments on that railroad that have bombs poured in the abutments.

We found a great supply of steel beams at a sugar mill at Sawmah and were happily tearing down the mill when the British Civil Officer found out about it. That stopped that! At one bridge, with short spans, we used 12x12 teakwood beams, two high, for beams.

Getting back and forth from our camp to our work site was a problem. Our jeep with rail wheels had plenty of power but not much traction. Ten or twelve of us piled on the jeep with a couple of men with sandbags sanded the rails. When this failed, we all got off and pushed. Since we had only the jeep brakes, coming down a hill was sometimes rather exciting. We were always in 4-wheel drive, but one time the clutch let go on the jeep and we had a real thriller!

As the 36th Division pushed the Japs south, we moved up with them to keep the supply trains going. At Mohnyin we lost Sgt. Conti. He just disappeared. We hunted, and the villagers all hunted, but we never found any trace of him. I checked the Military Records two years ago and he had been carried as missing in action for two years, then to killed in action.

After the 36th got across the Irrawaddy and onto plains, we were recalled to Myitkyina. We were going to build a hospital to go along with the plans to build a B-29 base on the east side of the Irrawaddy. By this time, a side road from the Ledo Road had been built Into Myitkyina so getting supplies was a bit easier.

My best friend and tent-mate and I poured a concrete floor for our tent, and since it was the cooler season we built a fireplace. Lt. Ftatley and his platoon had received a portable saw mill so they started cutting lumber. Another platoon set up a cement batching plant. First things first. Concrete floors for everything. Wood framed mess hall.

Lt. Flatley and his platoon started sawing some local timber but found it had too much shrapnel in it. S/Sgt. Grace converted some Jap trucks we had liberated into logging trucks, and mounted a Jaeger Dixie hoist on a 6x6 with a boom for loading. We had a large number of Burmese loggers using water buffalo, and one elephant. The second platoon was mixing concrete and hauling it in dump trucks to the various sites. If concrete isn't constantly agitated, the water separates and it becomes useless. We told the drivers to go like hell so it wouldn't separate. A certain Lt. Col. objected to these "speeding" trucks and insisted on the M.P.s pressing charges against them. Since it was the Summary Courts Martial officer, I saw my duty and sentenced each "speeder" to be reprimanded. No fine.

My platoon was back on the river, this time with our ten-ton Pontoon boats. We built a three-boat, two-bay ferry with three 22 horse outboards. We pulled a 30-foot launch out of the river. It had been strafed and the antique Chevy engine was ruined. We plugged up the holes and S/Sgt. Grace rigged up a Studebaker engine into it. Since we didn't have a marine clutch, Sgt. Grace cut the blades off the propeller and welded them back on in an inverted position. This worked fine and was really a great help in moving the ferry, especially when the river was up and running fast.

Shortly after V.E. Day, the Army came out with a point system for sending some of our troops Stateside. After figuring and re-figuring, I found I had enough points to go HOME. Then, the great news arrived that the "Green Project didn't apply to officers." Aw shucks! Back to the river and hauling mules and one elephant across the Irrawaddy.

Then, in late June, the Company Commander came down to the river and handed me my orders to go Stateside. By air transport yet! He told me a plane would be stopping by for me in one hour. That was the longest 55 minutes I ever spent sitting alongside the Myitkyina air strip!

Spent the first night in Ledo, then on to Karachi. Was there three days and nights. T/5 John Thompson, who also had the necessary points, told me the E.M. Club was lousy. One beer per man. I loaned him some bars and took him in the Officers Club. When he saw all that booze, his eyes popped out. Then, on to Baghdad, then Bahrain, Cairo, Tripoli, Oran, Casablanca, and finally Dakar. From there, it was a C-54 over to Natal, Brazil. Then sort of island hopping to Miami, FL. on the Fourth of July.


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