*VMBB Senior Chief Of Staff*
Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: Marty Robbins old hometown, Glendale Arizona--a suburb of Phoenix.
'THE FIRST TO FIGHT' SEABEE BATTALION...
Can-Do at Guadalcanal, September 1, 1942.
The Seabee story of Guadalcanal begins on the afternoon of August 20, 1942, when 45 year old Commander Joseph P. Blundon (CEC, USNR) arrived in a PBY off Lunga Point and promptly reported to General A.A. Vandergrift. I guess I was the first Seabee to go under fire, Commander Blundon recalled. The Marines had been on Guadalcanal thirteen days, and they had a tiny beachhead around Henderson Field. While I was reporting to General Vandergrift, the Jap bombers came over and I hit my first foxhole. A few days later my Sixth Seabee Battalion arrived, and we assumed full responsibility for the completion and maintenance of Henderson Field. The Japs had cleared an area 300 by 5600 feet, but it was by no means finished. The Japs were shelling the field with Howitzers, as well as bombing it night and day, and it was our job to keep the holes filled up while we finished the grading, laid Marston mat, built hardstands and revetments, and helped solve the fuel and ammunition problems. We had very little equipment, General Vandergrift assigned us a section of the beach to defend against the Jap landings, and we figured we could defend the beach and still do the job at Henderson Field. We realized at the outset that the battle was going to turn on how fast we filled up holes and how fast we could develop that field. When the Jap bombers approached, our fighters took off, the bombers blasted the airstrips, and then if we couldn't fill up those holes before our planes ran out of fuel, the planes would have to attempt to land anyway, and they would crash. I saw seven of our fighters crack up in one bitter afternoon. From "our" point of view the battle of Guadalcanal was a race between the Jap artillery and the air force and the Sixth Seabee Battalion. We played our cards fast. We pitched our camp at the edge of the field to save time. We dug our foxholes right up alongside the landing area. We found that a 500 pound bomb would tear up 1600 square feet of Marstom Mat, so we placed packages of this quantity of mat along the strip, like extra rails along a railroad. We figured out how much sand and gravel was required to fill the average bomb or shell crater, and we loaded these measured amounts on trucks and placed the trucks under cover at strategic points. We had compressors and pneumatic hammers to pack the fill into the craters. We organized human assembly lines for passing up the pierced plank and laying it. Then when the Jap bombers approached, every Seabee including even our cooks, manned his repair station. Our crater crews were lying in the foxholes right at the edge of the strip. The moment the bombers had passed over, these men boiled out of the holes and raced for the craters. Every man had to keep his eye peeled for Jap strafing planes, and when the Jap dived in, our men dived for the close at hand foxholes. We found that 100 Seabees could repair the damage of a 500-pound bomb hit on an airstrip on forty minutes. In twenty four hours on October 13 and 14, fifty-three bomb and shells hit the Henderson airstrip. During one hour on the 14th we filled thirteen bomb craters while our planes circled overhead waiting to land. In the period from September 1, to November 18, we had 140 Jap raids in which the strip was hit at least once. Our worst moments were when the Jap bomb or shell failed to explode when it hit. It still tore up our mat, and it had to come out. "When you see men choke down their fear and dive in after an unexploded bomb so that our planes can land safely, a lump comes in your throat and you know why America wins wars". Shell craters are more dangerous to work on than bomb craters. You have a feeling that no two bombs ever hit in the same place, but this isn't true of shells. A Jap five-inch gun lobs a shell over on your airstrip and blasts a helluva hole. What are you going to do? You know, just as the that Jap artillery man knows, that if he leaves his gun in the same position and fires another shell, the second shell will hit in almost the same spot as th e first one. So a good old Jap trick was to give us enough time to start repairing the hole and then fire the second shell. All you can do is depend on hearing that second shell coming and hope you can scramble far enough away before it explodes. But this is a gamble which is frowned upon by life insurance companies.
Force Enablers for Henderson
Field—Runway Construction and Repair
The ability to construct and then repair the airfield enabled the Cactus Air Force to fly in terrible conditions. For instance, the Marine engineering battalion performed magnificentlyto complete a 180-foot gap in the airfield in less than two weeks. The construction crews used captured Japanese equipment such as road rollers and handcarts to move 6,700 cubic feet of dirt and gravel to complete the airfield. The engineers also improved the approaches to the field by blasting away some dense jungle foliage. The Marines were relieved of their runway maintenance duties
by the arrival of almost 400 Seabees from the 6th Naval Construction Battalion on 1 September.70 The Seabees quickly improved the landing surface of Henderson Field
by placing perforated metal planks called Marston Mat over an improved base of gravel, coral, and clay. By 9 September the Seabees also completed an auxiliary field,
called Fighter One or the cow pasture, of mowed Kunai grass that was used by lightweight fighters for the rest of the campaign. The ability to rapidly construct the expeditionary airfields on Guadalcanal enabled the United States to begin air operations from Henderson Field less than two weeks after the amphibious assault landed at Red Beach.
Henderson Field was a prime target for the Japanese throughout the struggle for control of Guadalcanal. Henderson Field was a static target that represented the
source of much of the Japanese military’s frustration with taking Guadalcanal back from the Americans. The ability of the Seabees to rapidly repair damage to Henderson
Field’s runways was absolutely vital to maintaining a steady pace of combat sorties against the Japanese. According to Joseph Blundon, commander of the Seabee battalion,100 Seabees could repair a crater from a 500-pound bomb and replace the Marston Mat in 40 minutes.
The bombardment of Henderson Field highlights the important contributions made by the Seabees. In preparation for a major offensive, the Japanese conducted
a major attack on Henderson Field during the night of 13–14 October. That night, in addition to aerial bombingand artillery shelling, two Japanese battleships rained 918,
14-inch shells on the Marine base and Henderson Field. This shelling, known as the bombardment, was described in one historical account as follows: “Heavy shells crashed into the gasoline storage and ammunition dump, while all over the field the aircraft went up in clouds of smoke and flame. In hundreds of foxholes and improvised bomb shelters, men clung to the ground, cursing, praying, and in some cases, going out of their minds. The morning after the bombardment, Henderson Field was unusable and only seven of 39 SBDs were flyable. Fortunately, the Cactus Air Force had Fighter One—which was not damaged by the shelling—and 24 Wildcats remained available along with six Army Air Force P-40s and P-39s. After the bombardment, the Seabees had their work cut out for them as Commander Blundon described afterward: “During one hour on the 14th, we filled 13 bomb craters while our planes circled overhead waiting to land. We got no foodduring that period because our cooks were all busy passing up the steel plank. There were not enough shovels to go around, so some of our men used their helmets to scoop up earth and carry it to the bomb craters. The almost daily shelling from artillery, bombers, and ships did not deter the Seabees’s extraordinary efforts to keep Henderson Field operational for the Cactus Air Force.
Saluting the 6th Naval Construction Battalion
" The First to Fight "