848th ENGINEER AVIATION BATTALION



Ex-CBI Roundup
January 2001 Issue

By Preston C. Smith

848th Engineers Maintain the Roads in Assam

On 2 September 1943, when the 848th Engineer Aviation Battalion route-stepped from the Dikam railroad siding to our assigned camp area on Hazelbank Tea Estate, we decided Advance Section No. 2 needed someone to repair the roads. The narrow pavement on Nadua Road had many potholes.

The primary mission of the Battalion was the maintenance of about 100 miles of roads in the Dibrugarh-Chabua-Tinsukia-Guijangaon sector of Assam Province. Much of the supplies slated for China, whether shipped by air from Karachi, by rail from Calcutta or Bombay, or via the Brahmaputra River from Calcutta, were usually stored in the Chabua area until air shipment to Kunming or Chungking could be arranged. The roads in the Chabua sector were also affected by Air Corps traffic to airfields used in the North Burma offensive and by Ledo Road activities.

Bamboo godowns (storehouses) could; not be built fast enough, and bamboo harvesting was restricted by the bari (grove) owners, to house the supplies, so it was necessary to lease tea-drying sheds. Fuel, bombs and ammunition were stored in baris throughout the area. Thousands of troops were camped in the area. To the 848th befell the task of keeping the roads open to airfields, storehouses and camp areas.

The army engineer's slogan "get the water off and the rock on" was the proper prescription for the Assam roads. However, getting the water off was difficult on the flat alluvial terrain of Upper Assam, particularly during the May-September monsoon season when the monthly rainfall was more than 20 inches. In some areas, ditches were cut to the nearest tributary to the Dibru River or to low-lying rice paddies. The GIs also used a motorized ditching machine to cut trenches several feet deep, and widened at the top by native laborers using hoes and cane baskets.

Initially, it was difficult to obtain the engineer-druggist's rock pill because they were all produced at two locations, Margherita and Namrup, about 50 miles by rail southeast of Chabua. There were neither rock outcrops nor gravel deposits in the alluvial plain south of the Brahmaputra River. Consequently, Lt. Col. Maurice E. Suhre, Battalion Commander, prospected for gravel along the Brahmaputra River. From an L-5 reconnaissance plane he spotted several possible gravel bars. Then, on a two-day boat trip, he determined their area extent and accessibility.

Company A, commanded by Lt. Leonard Friend, and Company B, commanded by Lt. Robert B. Durrin, constructed an 11-mile road from Guijangaon to the gravel sources. The Assam political officer, Major D. R. Bell, obtained a crew of native laborers, with elephant, to assist in clearing the thick jungle through the Dibru Forest, between the Dibru and Brahmaputra Rivers.

A pile-trestle bridge, 330 feet long and low-water clearance of 20 feet, was built across the Dibru River. Lt. Robert M. Segor used an elephant to haul the timber piling, Sikh carpenters to fit timber floor beams to steel I-beam stringers, and flooring from a Murkong Selek lumber mill.

Gravel pit operations commenced in January 1944. At peak operation, the loading equipment (drag lines and clam shells) was manned from 0600 to 2400 hours each day. The Battalion's dump trucks were supplemented by those obtained by Engineer District No. 20, Construction Services. Other army organizations also used their trucks to haul gravel to their camps. A detachment form the 236th Harbor Craft Company was assigned to Company B and used MTL-towed Higgins barges to haul gravel from an island in the Brahmaputra to a landing at the mouth of the Laika Jan, where the gravel was off-loaded onto trucks.

Approximately 150,000 cubic yards of gravel was loaded from the pits, about two-thirds of which was hauled by Battalion trucks.

It was not all work and no play for men living in the Dibru Forest. At least one movie (as well as a training film) was shown each week. Men also went to the Hazelbank Camp to attend programs by professional entertainers -Paulette Goddard, Jinx Falkenburg, Keenan Wynn, Henry Armstrong and Kenny Washington - as well as entertainment by Battalion Gls.

Dibru Forest personnel participated in softball, baseball and basketball games with other Battalion personnel and against teams at other army camps. Some hunted wild animals in the Forest, killing two tigers and a 15-foot python. Deer venison was a welcome supplement to 10-in-l and Quartermaster rations.

Someone put a dead monkey in Staff Sgt. James L. Parker's bed. When Parker crawled into bed, in darkness, he had reason to call it a bloody trick to pull on a platoon sergeant.

Nadua Road

Nadua road extends from Assam Trunk Highway northwestward to Oaklands. It served both Advance Section Headquarters and the 848th Engineers, as well as many other organizations. The southern three miles of the road had a bituminous surface on a width of nine feet. The surfaced section required such frequent patching of potholes that, in 1944, the bituminous surface was scarified and maintained as a loose-surfaced road. The road had been built for only the light tea-garden traffic, so required widening in many localities, in order to safely carry the Army's heavy truck traffic.

During the 1943-44 dry season, the dust on the road was a serious traffic hazard, as well as being obnoxious to both army personnel and civilians. Dust respirators were available for truck drivers but many of the drivers preferred to eat the dust. Some Gls decided that thick applications of "goose grease" to the hair should not be used.

All of the available used motor oil from vehicles and planes was used on the gravel roads but the quantity of oil was too small to be of any great value. Realizing that the increase in traffic would make the dust worse in the next dry season, requisitions were made for calcium chloride. The calcium chloride was supplied late in 1944 and during the remainder of that dry season Nadua Road received a treatment about every two weeks.

The Mai Jan, throughout most of its length, traverses a large area of rice paddies and has no definite channel. The Nadua Road traffic was carried across the Mai Jan paddy land on a ten-foot embankment. Two one-lane brick-arch bridges were separated longitudinally about 500 feet. The section of road was widened to two lanes in 1944, requiring the construction of two additional one-lane bridges.

Several failures occurred in Nadua Road in June and July 1944. It was necessary to corduroy some sections. Gravel from the Brahmaputra pits was placed on the entire road in 1945 and prevented failures during the 1945 monsoons. Two inches of crushed stone was added to the southern two miles of the road in August 1945, and a mixed-in-place asphalt surface constructed.

Advance Section Headquarters and Station VU2ZV, the Armed Services radio station, were located near the bridge crossing the Din Jan. The superstructure of the old bridge had rotted, causing frequent repairs. Then, after a flood removed one of the piers, it was time for a replacement. The new bridge, built by H & S and C Companies, was a timber-pile structure, 96 feet in length.

Oaklands-Guijangaon Road

Excluding Nadua Road, the 20-mile section of road between Oaklands and Guijangaon had more traffic than any other road in the Battalion's maintenance sector. Many of the convoys from the south were routed from Di-brugarh via this road in order to avoid the congested Chabua area. The Ordnance truck parking area, at which China-consigned trucks were parked and serviced, pending the make-up of convoys, was located three miles east of Oaklands. Much of the gravel from the Battalion pits on the Brahmaputra River was hauled over part of the road.

The initial surfacing of the road had been thin, because the peacetime traffic consisted of an occasional passenger vehicle, a few light trucks from the adjacent tea gardens, and bullock carts. Only a small amount of gravel was placed on the road in 1943 and early 1944.

The road traversed flat terrain so most of its length was, or should have been, embankment sections. The 1944 monsoons proved that the road's drainage structures were grossly inadequate. The adjacent land was flooded in July and many sections of the road surface were only inches above the water. The water cut channels across the road in several localities between Oaklands and Dinjan. Serious rutting occurred and convoys were stranded. Only a limited supply of gravel was available - all from non-battalion sources, since the initial gravel pits on the Brahmaputra River were abandoned because of high water, and the barging of gravel had not been started. Culverts were installed at the worst break-throughs. Many sections of the road were corduroyed with timber cut by a platoon of men in the Di-bru Forest. For a few days it seemed that an addendum such as "FOR THE DURATION" could be appropriately made to the "ROAD CLOSED" sign. Then, early in August, the rains lifted for a week and normal traffic was resumed.

Extensive embankments and drainage structures were constructed and the entire road surfaced with gravel before the 1945 monsoons. About 100 Indian laborers were used for many weeks to cut ditches between the road and an abandoned channel of the Di-bru River, located about 1,000 feet from the road.

It was fortunate that adequate repairs had been made on the road, for by May 1945 the Ordnance area could no longer hold all of the Chinabound vehicles. Expansion into the surrounding flooded paddy land was not possible; so many trucks were parked on the road.

Sealkati-Hospital Road

The Army's lllth Station Hospital was located about two miles south of Assam Trunk Highway and near Chabua Airfield. It was 'The Hospital" for Advance Section No. 2 but also accepted some evacuees from Burma.

As might be expected, some of the officers of the Battalion visited the hospital area frequently, particularly when off duty. Their interest was not in ward rooms, dispensary, nor any of the patients, but in that section inhabited by off-duty members of the Army Nurse Corps.

In at least one case, the interest in hospital nurses was more than just a passing fancy. In early 1945, Lt. Edwin L. "Buck" Rogers announced that he had married Betty in an English church in Dibrugarh.

The access road to the hospital had been built for tea garden traffic only. On most of the road, the tea-to-tea width was not greater than 12 feet. The rows of tea bushes abutting the road were damaged by vehicles but the garden manager was reluctant to allow removal of the bushes.

There were two rather lengthy embankments connecting bridges on the hospital road. They were only one lane wide and were built of earth taken from near the toe of the embankment. A considerable depth of water collected in the excavated pits during the monsoons. Once a command car slid over the side of an embankment, overturned, and a nurse drowned before she could be extricated from the car.

Complaints by both bona fide and nocturnal users of the road became so demanding that, in early 1945, an extensive improvement plan for the road was approved. By that time, a uniform price had been established for tea shrubs and construction forces were allowed to remove a sufficient quantity of tea that adequate drainage could be obtained. The project was assigned to Company C. Embankment widening was done primarily by ITA laborers, using the usual cane baskets for hauling the earth. After grading the road, about two inches of crushed gravel was added on the 16-foot width, followed by a mixed-in-place emulsified asphalt treatment.

Mohanbari Road

The Ground Forces claim the Air Force always gets the best of everything. So, it was not a surprise when the Battalion received a work order to surface the 4-mile road connecting Mohanbari Airfield with Nadua Road. The construction plan consisted of grading and widening the existing road, installing corrugated-metal culverts, placing four to six inches of gravel base course and a surfacing of penetration macadem.

The Battalion ceased all construction activities in March 1944 and engaged in intensive combat training, because of possible involvment with the Imphal offensive. The road project was transferred to the British forces. At time of transfer all grading had been done, most of the base course placed, and 2.5 miles of the surfacing completed.

The asphalt for the project was heated in a British plant at Mohanbari Airfield. The crushed stone was also obtained from Mohanbari. Gravel from the Burhi Dihing River source contained a large percentage of oversize (boulders larger than 3-inch diameter). ITA laborers remove the oversize and crushed it with hammers at the railroad siding. It was not unusual to see more than a hundred laborers engaged in such work, each squatting at his own little pile of crushed stone. (It seems that Hindus squat to do everything.) Each man formed his crushings into a prismoidal pile, so his earnings could be computed at day's end.


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