Ex-CBI Roundup
October 1997 Issue

By Preston C. Smith

848th Engineers Maintain the Airfields in Assam

By 2 September 1943, when the 848th Engineer Aviation Battalion arrived at Hazelbank Tea Estate, the major airfields at Chabua and vicinity had been completed. Consequently, much of the Battalion's effort was in maintenance of those airfields and in construction of airstrips for fighter planes.

Each project was initiated by a work order from Lt. Col. R. E. Franklin, Section Engineer, Advance Section No. 2. The Battalion Engineering Section assigned the projects to line companies, The Battalion's Engineering Officer was, successively, Capt. Cecil D. Kinder, Lt. Preston C. Smith and Capt. Leroy E. Kirby. More than 60 projects of sufficient magnitude to warrant the issuance of a work order were undertaken on airfields.

The Battalion's construction companies also utilized Indian laborers, one company sometimes having more than 100 natives assigned to it. Some of the Indian laborers were members of British Indian army units, while others were procured from local tea gardens. According to an agreement between British forces and the India Tea Association, the ITA was to participate in the war effort by requiring the tea-garden managers to supply laborers for work on army projects. The number of laborers in each area was pro-rated among the various tea gardens so the disadvantages to the gardens would be equalized. A British sergeant usually supervised large labor details but smaller details were headed by an Indian.

Chabua Airfield, located about three miles from Hazelbank, was one of the most important air transport bases in northeast Assam. A large percentage of the Hump flights originated at Chabua: it was the receiving point for high-priority items air-shipped to the Assam area for use by air and ground forces in CBI, and was the home base for a group of B-24 bombers, with supporting fighter planes. Its only runway was 6,000 feet long.

Chabua Airfield was bombed by the Japanese on 12 February 1943. Five hits were made on the runway. The repaired sections failed under traffic during the ensuing monsoon season. Air Transport Command and Combat Headquarters agreed to close the field for one day, in order that the five bombed sites, and six additional sections that had failed due to other causes, could receive permanent repairs. At 0600 hours on 15 November 1943, Company C, commanded by Lt. Walter E. Wheeler, began the repairs. Materials in each section were excavated to the depth of a solid foundation, some to a depth of about three feet. Then the holes were backfilled, in layers, with stockpiled materials. The surface course of crushed stone was given a penetration treatment of hot asphalt. Lt. Col. Maurice E. Suhre, Battalion Commander, received a commendation from Colonel Harry N. Renshaw, Commander, First Transport Group, for doing the repairs in one day.

Magaghuli Airfield, located about five miles from Hazelbank Camp, was a grass fighter strip, 400 feet wide and 4400 feet long. Originally the squadron of P-40 planes based at Nagaghuli had been used primarily for protection of nearby airfields from attack by Japanese planes. The squadron later supported General Joseph W. Stilwell's operations in North Burma.

In order to make Magaghuli an all-weather field, it was decided to lay pierced-steel plank (PSP) on the runway, as well as construct taxiways and hardstandings with PSP on them. Distressed, low sections of the runway were also to be corrected before laying the PSP. Since the field had to be closed to flights, only five days were allowed for the runway work.

The project was assigned to Company A, commanded by Lt. Leonard Friend, because it had installed PSP on a taxiway and hardstandings at Mohanbari Airfield. Two 12-hour shifts were set up for laying the PSP on the runway, Company C, commanded by Lt. Walter E. Wheeler, getting one shift. Plank was laid on a 150-foot width. Two crews started at the halfway point of the runway and laid planks in opposite directions, in order to complete the runway work within the five-day limit.

The P-40s were replaced by P-47s in 1944 because they had a greater flying range. Company A cleared the tea bushes at one end of the runway, then graded and planked a 680-foot extension to the runway to accommodate the heavier P-47s. Additional taxiway and parking areas were also constructed when a second P-47 squadron was assigned to Nagaghuli.

The threatened advance of the Japanese in March-April 1944 made it advisable that an advance strip for liaison planes be built near the India-Burma border. The site selected was at Nahorkatiya, south of the Burhf Dihing River. Company C, commanded by Capt. Leroy E. Kirby, graded the strip and surfaced it with gravel. Camp Hope facilities were also constructed.

It was believed that B-29s of the XX Bomber Command, based near Calcutta, might need to make emergency landings in Assam. The 848th Engineers made loading tests on runways and taxiways at Chabua, Dinjan, Jorhat, Mohanbari and Sookerating airfields to determine which would be most suitable for landings of the B-29s. Bearing plates having the size and spacing of the contact areas of the dual wheels of the B-29 were loaded with 100-lb. lead ingots. Mohanbari was the best of the tested airfields. (Post-War, Mohanbari was converted to a commercial airport.)

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