CORPS OF ENGINEERS IN THE CBI

Part I
The Early Days - 1941-42



CBIVA Sound-off
Summer 1999 Issue

Extracted by Joe Shupe from "History of the Corps of Engineers - War Against Japan"

The attempts to develop a major theater of operations in CBI would require prodigies of engineering. Before China could be helped, a line of communications would have to be created, and the only feasible route would be through India; and with the Japanese holding Burma by the end of May 1942, supply by air was the only alternative.

Thus, for the first, engineers in the CBI, construction of airfields, not only to defend India, but also to support an airlift to China was of paramount importance. Late in 1942, when the Allies completed plans to recapture Burma, the engineers were given the job of building ground communications for such an effort, and to make possible the sending of large quantities of supplies to China. Our engineers were to help by improving the Burma Road. They were also to take charge of constructing the Ledo Road from NE India to a junction with the Burma Road.

With the development of the B-29 bomber, in August 1943, this opened up the possibility of long-range air assaults against the Japanese homeland from bases in China. The engineers of CBI were consequently the first to build overseas bases for the big bombers. Also, they were called upon to link Eastern India and SW China with the most extensive military pipeline ever constructed; also to supply our air units in China. Many of the engineer feats in CBI actually, in the end, contributed little to defeating Japan. But, the fact remains that engineer projects in our theater, because of their sheer magnitude were among the most impressive in WW II. In no other theater were engineer officers to fill so many of the key positions in the chain of command.

Pre-War Efforts to Help China

We began to support China well before Pearl Harbor. With the signing of the Lend Lease Act in April 1941, $125,000,000 was allocated to support China. Part of this was to buy materiel and rolling stock for a railroad the Chinese and British were building from Kunming to Lashio where it would connect with the Burmese railroad system, and partly for the AVG. In July 1941, an American mission in China was established for the procurement, shipment, care, and use of American equipment.

To obtain the first of approximately 30,000 tons of rails needed, the Corps of Engineers (CE), procured and started dismantling a 125-mile stretch of the abandoned narrow-gauge railway of the Denver, Rio Grande, and Western in New Mexico and Colorado. In September, the Shell Oil Co., which had just perfected a light "invasion-weight" petroleum pipeline, interested the American Mission in installing such a line between Kunming and Bhamo. The Chief of Engineers in Washington reported that such a line had merit.

Help for China After Pearl Harbor

After the attack, all these efforts to help China were in jeopardy; being all of SE Asia appeared threatened. Singapore was captured by the Japanese, as was the railroad from Rangoon to Lashio (an important railhead and southern terminus of the Burma Road) - China's last line of surface communication with the outside world.

At the Arcadia Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that China should constitute a separate theater under Chiang Kai-shek; they proposed that Chiang establish a planning staff to include American, British and Chinese officers. Chiang agreed and asked for an American general to act as chief of the Allied staff. So, we sent Gen. Stilwell.

As his engineer, Stilwell chose Col. Wm. H. Holcombe (who previously had been picked as engineer advisor to Stilwell in planning for the invasion of N. Africa).

When Stilwell and his group reached New Delhi, and conferred with Gen. Wavell in GHQ India, Stilwell brought with him an impressive list of American plans. To carry out these plans, he intended to increase lend-lease shipments moving by rail from Rangoon to Lashio. Should Rangoon fall, he hoped to fly supplies from the RAF fighter field at Dinjan in Assam to Myitkyina, and then truck them to the Burma Road through to China. This roundabout way, he felt, would somehow be shortened.

Work was already in progress to extend the road eastward from the coal mining town of Lashio, across N. Burma, to link up with the Burma Road. The Chinese and British agreed to help in its construction. Stilwell then instructed Holcombe to help the British and Chinese who were preparing plans for this road.

On March 3rd, Stilwell set up his task headquarters in Chungking, and three days later Chiang told him that he would head the Chinese Expeditionary Forces which were then moving into Burma to bolster the British forces. On March 6th, the Japanese occupied Rangoon; then the British retreated northward toward Mandalay, and Stilwell hastened to Lashio to command the six Chinese divisions there. Stilwell's plan was to retake Rangoon and reopen the supply line to Kunming. Failing this, he hoped to dig in around Mandalay to protect the future line of communications from India across N. Burma to China.

Meanwhile, air reinforcements began to arrive. On February 22nd, Col. Clayton Bissell was appointed as Stilwell's air advisor to coordinate the receipt of several consignments of aircraft for the 10th AF and for Chennault's AVG. In another action. General Brett of the ABDA Command ordered Gen. Brereton to evacuate Java and reestablish the remnants of his task force at Karachi which was activated as his base and training center in early March. Brereton was named commander of the 10th AF and he was directed by Gen. Marshall to provide combat air support to Chiang in China, to the British in Burma, and to make plans to supply China by air. He was to be subordinate to Stilwell.

Engineer Work Begins

Holcombe, while in New Delhi, was appointed temporary engineer of the 10th AF. He was directed to advise Brereton of the most feasible way to provide facilities for the airmen. So, he and Brereton had to deal with several problems- the organization of a port of debarkation, and of a training base in Karachi. The 2,000 mile supply line to China would require building numerous airfields, particularly in Assam and SW China. To accommodate our aircraft to help defend India, either bomber fields would have to be built in the central or eastern parts of India, or British fields taken over and improved. This would require a major construction effort. Holcombe helped draw up plans for the Air Force Headquarters at Willingdon Airdrome near New Delhi, expansion of Karachi Airdrome, construction of five bomber fields near Calcutta, an air depot at Agra, and four airfields in Assam. The plans were then forwarded to British GHQ (India) who put them in final form.

Since no engineer troops were available, we had to turn to the British for construction as part of reverse lend lease. The work was usually done by Indian contractors employing their own labor gangs.

Brereton and Holcombe could not fail to be impressed by the immensity of the challenge to the engineers. In the CBI area, nearly half of the human race lived: the towering Himalayas; prevalence of disease: monsoons from May to October drenched Burma and much of India with the world's heaviest rainfall. In various ways, the monsoons would create engineering problems. Constant repair of waterlogged roads would be necessary: workmen would be scarce (they were needed to work on the rice and tea plantations); and land communications were far from ideal. In the 1800 miles from Karachi to Assam, rail gauges changed four times, and there were but few stretches of high speed highways. The scanty Burmese road and rail net was not connected with the India transportation system. In China, the Japanese controlled all of the modern highways and railroads. Chiang only had the underdeveloped part of China.

Brereton encountered almost insurmountable obstacles in attempting to have airfields constructed. It seemed to him that the British, despite the threat to India, did not shake off their peacetime routine. The Government of India, fearful of provoking Indian nationalist outbursts by stepping up demands on the country's agrarian economy, appeared to show little energy in meeting our requests.

Establishment of a Services of Supply (SOS)

The expanding scope of our projects in India pointed up the urgent need for a logistics organization. In late February 1942, the War Department directed the head of the US Mission to Iran, Maj. Gen. Raymond Wheeler, an engineer officer, to report to Gen. Stilwell to create an "SOS USAF in CBI." Wheeler, whom Stilwell had regarded highly since West Point days, was to have considerable latitude in determining his mode of operation. He was the first of many engineer officers to achieve a prominent command position under Stilwell.

During March and April, Wheeler, with a small staff borrowed from his Iranian mission, strove to establish order in the supply and construction situation in India. He worked out with British officials a program for expanding storage and dock facilities at Karachi, and discussed with Stilwell's staff regarding the organization of the SOS. On April 17th, Stilwell directed Wheeler to operate lines of communication (LOC's) from ports in India to the airfields in Assam, and to provide technical advice to the Chinese Army in the operation of their communications zone.

Brereton, disgusted with the slow pace of construction under reverse lend lease, and having no engineer troops under his command, suggested to Stilwell that all of our construction be put under Wheeler. On April 14th, Stilwell did so. Stilwell also asked the War Department to send a general service regiment, an aviation battalion, and a dump truck company for Wheeler to do the job.

Wheeler then set up an engineer section, and put Col. Fabius H. Kohloss, an engineer, in charge with seven additional officers. On April 27th, Wheeler chose Maj. John F. Johnson from Iran to be his chief engineer, and on May 27th moved his headquarters from Karachi to New Delhi.

In May, Wheeler set up his field organization to include two base sections, two advance sections in India, and one advance section in China. Engineer officers were put in charge of four of the five field organizations. Col. Paul F. Yount from the Iran Mission took over Base Section 1 at Karachi (west half of India); Maj. H. Case Wilcox (also from Iran) went to Agra to set up Advance Section 1 in Central India; Maj. Henry A. Byroade to command Advance Section 2, Assam; also Maj. Charles F. Price (from Iran) to establish Advance Section 3 in Kunming. Only Base Section 2 at Calcutta, was not commanded by an engineer officer. Its chief was Col. Edwin W. Sutherland, Infantry.

Construction Progress

Work was urgently needed at Karachi, our major port, since British shipping overtaxed the port at Bombay, and Calcutta was too exposed to enemy attack. So, Maj. Johnson, with Indian contractors, and the British engineers started construction of a 5,000 foot concrete runway, and on two outlying fighter strips.

Various improvements were also underway at the new Malir and Landhi airports, 12 miles east of Karachi. Also, in late spring, projects were underway to extend the wharves and warehouses at the port, remodeling of hotels to provide billets in the city, and construction of a cantonment for 20,000 men at Malir.

Much engineer work was needed in Assam to support the airlift to China. Maj. Byroade found the British engaged in improving four Hump fields. This area was a scene of confusion at the time (May '42); the Japanese were approaching India, retreating and disorganized Chinese troops were straggling over the frontier, and the natives were panic-stricken. The British Army engineers and the Central Public Works Dept. of India, supposedly cooperating to prepare the necessary airfields, were engaged in a bitter struggle for the control of construction. Fortunately, soon after Byroade's arrival, the British GHQ (India) intervened and placed the Royal Engineers in charge. Byroade at the time had no staff, his job was that of liaison officer.

At Calcutta and in Central India, work made little headway. The exposure at Calcutta to enemy attack obliged Wheeler to mark time there. Matters were more critical in Central India. Brereton was anxious to complete a large depot at Agra and bomber bases across North India at Cawnpore, Fyzabad, Allahabad, and Gaya. Contractors were far behind schedule. The onset of the monsoons made it difficult to keep laborers on the job, and critical materials did not arrive on time. Our airmen became increasingly irritated over the slowness of the British effort, and had to live in tents while barracks were being built.

The campaign in Burma had in the meantime, come to its disastrous end. By the time Stilwell walked out of Burma in May, the Japanese had overrun all of Burma except for the northern tip, and had occupied part of China's Yunnan Province. Contacts between CBI units in India and bases in China were possible only by air. The critical lack of air facilities in India and China would require a major construction effort.


Marshalling Yards, Parbatipur, India (Rocky Agrusti Photo)

The Broadening of Stilwell's Mission

Since the plan to keep China in the war would require greater efforts than contemplated before, Stilwell had to broaden the scope of his mission. The latter part of June he began referring to his command as a "theater" instead of a task force. On July 6th, he set up a theater type organization with a forward headquarters in Chungking, and a rear headquarters in New Delhi. Wheeler and Brereton were his two major subordinate commanders.

By mid-July, Stilwell's command was generally known as the CBI Theater. For that part lying in India and Burma, Stilwell was still under Wavell; in China he was under Chiang. Stilwell also had other responsibilities. When he took over, the American Mission to China was under the command of Gen. Marshall. He also served as President Roosevelt's military representative in Chungking. This imposed on his numerous and sometimes conflicting obligations; the resulting confusion made the work of the engineers more difficult.

First Engineer Troops Arrive

Fortunately for Stilwell's constructive program, engineer troops were on the way. At the end of July, the 45th General Service Regiment under Col. John C. Arrowsmith, and the 823rd Aviation Bn. under Major Ferdinand J. Tate, disembarked at Karachi. Soon thereafter, the 195th Engineer Dump Truck Co., under Capt. Clyde L. Koontz, arrived.

Their landing coincided with the heightening of domestic tensions in India, where rabid nationalists were urging the natives to violence against British rule. As a result, port authorities had to issue ammunition to the nearly 2,000 engineers, they were loaded on trucks and sped to Malir Cantonment through Karachi, amidst unfriendly signs: "Americans Quit India."

The 823rd was assigned to the 10th AF; its first job was the construction of a bomb shelter at the Karachi Air Base. The dump truck company was placed on transportation detail at the port. Arrowsmith's unit was split. The 1st Bn. was held in reserve at Karachi. The 2nd was kept at Base Section # 1 to improve roads, erect buildings, and provide camouflaging. Since the units arrived without their equipment, machinery from lend-lease stocks earmarked for China was used, but was mostly ill-suited for the jobs ahead.

On 1 August, Col. Arrowsmith became Wheeler's chief engineer. He borrowed officers from his regiment to man the SOS Engineer Section. Arrowsmith then went out to inspect the projects for which the engineers were responsible. At New Delhi, the British were improving housing and hangars for the 10th AF at Willingdon Airdrome. Then he went to North India to see that the Royal Engineers were continuing their expansion of RAF fields into bomber bases; in South India they were developing the field at Bangalore, and in Central India, the fields at Guskhara, Nawadih, and Pandaveswar near Calcutta.

Brereton had chosen Ondal (north of Calcutta) as his service center, and Agra (near Delhi) as his main air depot. He found that progress was way behind schedule. The British blamed heavy rains, religious holidays, and the slow procurement of cement (which the British insisted on using for runways to stand up to the monsoons), for the slow progress. Arrowsmith was convinced that engineer troops would have to be concentrated in the most vital areas - Karachi, Agra, and Assam.

Capt. Robert A. Hirshfield, who replaced Maj. Johnson at Karachi in July, was soon able to report progress. Civilian contractors were used to make workshops and parking areas at the port, 38 mess halls and 175 ammunition sheds at Malir, and parking aprons and an operations building at the civil airdrome. Early in August, the 2nd Bn. of the 45th Engineers, was assigned to Hirshfield. He then expanded constructions to include a 20-mile road from Karachi to the radar station on Cape Muari, which included refrigeration and power plants.

To expedite work at Agra, the 1st Bn. and half of Hqs & Svc. Co. of the 45th, was sent to help out the contractors. They made much progress but the Royal Engineers had trouble getting the needed labor and materials. Because of efforts by Indian nationalists to sabotage construction, one engineer company had to be on constant guard duty, at a time when every engineer was needed for construction.

The most critical area of all was in Assam. Byroade's engineer section by late July had only two officers and two enlisted men; this was not enough to prepare layouts and inspect work at the four fields. Contractors and laborers made slow progress during the long rainy season. Byroade could do little except to resort to friendly persuasion, but the British excuse for the slow progress was due to inadequacy of materials and transportation.

On August 18th, B. Gen, Clayton Bissell, who replaced Brereton as 10th AF commander, look the 823rd off bomb shelter construction at Karachi, and ordered them to Assam. They arrived by the end of September. About half of Co. A was put to work on camouflaging the airfield at Chabua; the other half and Co. B took over the freight handling at Chabua and the three other Hump fields at nearby Mohanbari, Dinjan, and Sookerating, from which planes took off for China.

While the use of aviation engineers was not to the liking of Byroade and Tate, at least they did the job efficiently and reduced pilferage and breakage, and allowed natives to return to airfield construction. Meanwhile, Co. C, at nearby Dibrugarh began assembling urgently needed trucks. The surveyors, draftsmen, and truck drivers of Headquarters Co. were also welcome reinforcements to Byroade's hard-pressed engineer section.

One recurrent note was the insistence of the Royal Engineers upon concrete runways. Byroade held out for asphalt which was available from lend-lease materials destined for China, stored nearby, but also there was an oil refinery in the province. Since May, Byroade tried to persuade the British to that end, but by summer he finally succeeded.

With the end of the monsoon in October, the Japanese made several air raids on the airfields at Assam. In addition to damaging the fields, the ensuing panic reduced the number of native workmen at the fields. Meanwhile our engineers were alarmed by the apparent apathy of the British. Col. Kohloss, after inspecting the aftermath of the raids, was especially critical of British laxity in construction and repair; he noted that at one field, Byroade's engineers were repairing the runways hours before the British "garrison engineer" appeared with his coolies.

Problems of Reverse Lend Lease

By autumn, we had many complaints with regard to construction under reverse lend lease due to the British being so slow in untangling "red tape" and approving requests for construction. We also suffered from the preoccupation of the British with their own projects. The weak link was the native contractor, as a rule poorly-educated, with little concern with specifications and deadlines, and scarcely familiar with machinery. Arrowsmith would complain to the British while his engineers would encounter dissatisfaction of Air Force commanders over the failure to finish air bases on schedule.

It had been agreed at the outset that the British would build accommodations for us on the same scale as for equivalent British units. Our airmen, all too often sought greater refinements than the standards allowed. Their insistence on showers and sewerage at airfields caused several disagreements with the SOS, which was carrying out construction according to theater policy. In general, Arrowsmith could point out that, while British standards must govern, our airmen were receiving more elaborate accommodations than those they would have obtained under War Department specifications for theater of operations construction.

Equipment and Supplies

Engineer troops on construction duty were hampered by the scarcity of supplies and the lack of equipment. The units that arrived in July had not received their machinery by Fall. SOS had to provide them with makeshift allowances to get their work underway. For months, they had to rely on stockpiles of lend-lease materials scheduled for China. This source provided trucks, rock crushers, air compressors, road rollers, generators, power shovels, pneumatic drills and concrete mixers. However, each diversion of lend-lease machinery required Chiang's personal approval.

The British loaned us a great deal of trucks and trailers. Lesser amounts of supplies and equipment were procured locally, or from diverted shipments, and distress cargo. But, it was not possible to build up large stores. By the fall of 1942, the engineer supply officer of Base Section # 1, at Karachi, managed to assemble a small assortment of pioneer-type equipment and drafting supplies - the only stockpile of engineer materials and equipment for our forces in India.

The Engineers in China

There was little activity in the Advance Section of SOS in China. The Engineer Section set up by Major Price on July 4th consisted, during the next few months, of Lt. Francis C. Card. He gave most of his attention to improving the airfield at Kunming, and planning new fields near the city. He persuaded local officials to extend runways of the Kunming field to about 6.800 feet; begin expansion of hangar and storage facilities, and construction of a headquarters for Chennault's airmen {China Air Task Force).

By September, plans were worked out for two new transport fields, one at Chengkung (outside Kunming), and another at Yangkal (40 miles to the north). This was to be done by the Chinese government. Housing and recreational facilities would be paid for by reverse lend-lease. By October 2, work was underway at the airfields at Chengkung and Kunming.

Training

Having won Chiang's consent to organize a Chinese corps in India. Stilwell had to train these troops, so he arranged with the British to provide a camp at Ramgarh (200 miles north of Calcutta). Here he assembled the Chinese survivors of the retreat from Burma and filled with replacements flown in from China. SOS established an Engineer Section under Capt. George J. Mason to build the necessary facilities such as access roads, firing ranges, utilities and housing. One officer and 42 enlisted men in the 195th Dump Truck Co. were at Ramgarh from August on to assist with the engineer phases of the training program. Lt. Col. Edwin B. Green was in charge of basic and unit engineer training for Chinese engineer officers on bridges, road construction, mine warfare, etc. Green's staff consisted of over a dozen engineer officers who also helped organize a Chinese task force of pioneer-type engineer units modeled after German pioneer organizations. In turn, the Chinese officers then trained their troops.

The end of October found the engineers at work in an area from Karachi to Kunming (some 2,000 miles). Numbering only 14 in late spring, to 1,986 by the first of October 1942. But, even this force was insufficient to construct seven transport fields in East India and Southwest China, and about 20 bomber fields throughout North India. Although most of this work was done by Indians, British, and Chinese, our engineer troops were applying their efforts in the most crucial links of the chain - Karachi, Agra, and Assam. Far too weak in people and equipment for the tasks at hand, the engineers had at least achieved an organization which was making the best use of available resources.



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