Here is the first picture story of the Army’s new Airborne Aviation Engineers who played a leading role in the North African invasion

By a YANK Staff Correspondent

WESTOVER FIELD, MASS.—The Airborne Aviation Engineers came as a surprise to everyone—including some of our own far-flung generals.

Shortly before the remarkable new Air Force outfit was exploded in the face of the enemy, one general wrote from the Solomons: “If we could only get engineers in here to keep these airfields repaired, the Japs wouldn’t last for more than a week, But how are we going to transport that huge, heavy equipment into the islands?”

Another wrote from Somewhere in Asia: “What a cinch if there were some way of bringing bulldozers and tractors this far inland. We could make any rice field or jungle clearing into an airfield in less than 24 hours. The enemy could then be disorganized, and hurled into disastrous retreat.”

Lt. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, kept the secret well, and helped throw the enemy off the track.

“Our air power,” he said at the time, “is like a three-legged stool. The first leg is pilots. The second leg is airplanes. The third leg is bases. We’ve built the first and second legs. Before the stool can maintain itself erect, we have to lick the problem of keeping the third leg intact at all times.”

A few days later, during the early morning of Nov. 8, the Airborne Aviation Engineers were unveiled to the enemy—in North Africa.

airborne aviation engineers

A miniature tractor is backed into a C-47 cargo-transport plane by Sgt. John Zazzarino, squad leader, Airborne Aviation Engineers.

They came ashore just south of Casablanca, Morocco. They came in small landing boats, converted temporarily from airborne into amphibious units. As the bows of their landing boats dropped, and their equipment rumbled through the surf, regular Army engineer units who had landed from other ships rubbed their eyes in amazement.

Machinery in Miniature

First came a bulldozer or tractor-scraper. IT was just like any other bulldozer they had ever known. But the bulldozer is ordinarily the size of a 2 1/2 –ton truck and this one was smaller than a jeep.

airborne aviation engineers

Creating an emergency airfield at night.

Next came a carry-all or dirt scraper and remover. Generally, a carry-all is about the size of a small house. But here was one, complete to the last detail, no bigger than an average office desk.

There was a slip-scraper—to level airfields—the size of a G.I. cot, a sheepsfoot roller—to break up and level hard earth—no bigger than an ordinary tennis court roller, an asphalt repairer more compact than a stove, and a gasoline operated portable lighting unit capable of keeping an entire airfield illuminated for an indefinite period of time.

Everything was built to the exact size of the door of a C-47 transport plane, or the nose of a transport glider.

It was a miracle of American production and engineering skill.

The Airborne Aviation Engineers went into action that same day, Nov. 8. Riding their precious equipment, they pushed inland seven miles to an airfield behind the enemy lines, already captured by our parachute troops. The field was pocked with bomb craters, the runway strewn with wrecked planes and blasted into uselessness. The field, although captured, was absolutely worthless to us. Not even a kiddie car could land there, let alone a fighter plane or bomber.

But then the engineers arrived. Working with their M1s, tommy guns and carbines slung over their shoulders, they tore around the field in their bug-like little machines. While the paratroops held off enemy counter-attacks, they removed the wrecked planes, blew up enemy mine fields, tamped down the bomb craters, filled them with newly excavated earth, covered them with asphalt. Then they installed their own lighting system to replace the one knocked out by the fleeing enemy. In a few hours, the field was ready for use. Their miniature pack radios flashed the news.

A Present from Gen. Doolittle

Down came American and British planes in droves.  First, airborne infantry to consolidate the Allies’ hold on the field. Then fighters and bombers. Then empty cargo planes.

“What the devil are these for?” asked the major, commanding the engineers, when he saw the empty cargo planes.

“A little present from Gen. Doolittle,” said one of the C-47 pilots. “He sent these to pick up your men and equipment. You’ve got a little job to do at a field about a hundred miles from here. The paratroops have already grabbed the field—and now they’re waiting for you to fix it up. Also the general said to tell you that your boys did a swell job—and thanks.”

airborne aviation engineers

Interior of a C-47 Cargo-transport plane filled with armed engineers and a grader.

In this way, the Airborne Aviation Engineers, making their first public appearance, hedgehopped a censored number of times to a censored number or airfields, and rebuilt them—behind the enemy lines. Their work was one of the principal crushing factors in the quick overwhelming of enemy resistance. It was also one of the principal factors in changing our whole concept of aerial warfare. Now we are no longer restricted by fixed bases, and can attack the enemy from anywhere and everywhere. Our new Airborne Aviation Engineers can make crash landings in gliders in any open space, and set up an airfield even in a rice paddy a hundred miles from Hirohito’s palace, if they so desire. No other air force in the world has anything remotely to compare with it.

Within a few hours of the great North African victory, Brig. Gen. Stuart C. Godfrey, Air Force Chief of Engineers, was swamped with requests for the new units from AEF commanders all over the world. Gen. Arnold expressed complete satisfaction. “The third leg of the stool is built,” he said. “Now we can go to town.”

The Airborne Aviation Engineers are Air Force troops and must not be confused with ordinary Airborne Engineers, whose principal mission is to assist the airborne ground forces behind enemy lines. The Airborne Aviation Engineers have only to do with air fields. They were strictly Gen. Godfrey’s baby from the very beginning. The idea came into the general’s mind less than six months ago, when plans were being made for the invasion of North Africa and Europe. Gen. Godfrey called together a staff of brilliant army engineers, among them 26-year-old Maj. H.H. Woodbury, and set them to work on plans for the organization and equipment of the new outfit. Later Maj. Woodbury was put in command of the first provisional battalion. He drew up specifications for commercial manufacturers to make the new miniature equipment. This was a back-breaking task. Not a single manufacturer had ever dreamed of making anything so small. The only model Maj. Woodbury could give them to go by was a tiny tractor used by the U.S. Forestry Service, capable of winding in and out among trees, and putting out forest fires by ploughing up furrows.

Blitzkrieg—American Style

Before any of the equipment could be completed units of the Airborne Aviation Engineers were ordered to a port of embarkation. Gen. Doolittle wanted them for North Africa. A few days before the engineers were scheduled to sail for Gibraltar, they didn’t have so much as a tractor in the way of equipment. When they sailed, they had everything. Maj. Woodbury had rushed production, commandeered a squadron of C-47s, and flown the machinery direct from factories to the port of embarkation.

An entire outfit was ready for action less than six months after the Airborne Aviation Engineers were nothing more than an idea in a man’s mind. This was blitzkrieg—American style.

Today, the Airborne Aviation Engineers are training at Camp Clairborne, La., and here at Westover Field. Other battalions are springing up elsewhere, to meet the demand for them from all over the world. The men are volunteers, hand-picked for physical stamina and technical skill. They must undergo a rigid physical examination before acceptance. Although their job is fully as dangerous as the paratroopers, they don’t get extra flying pay yet—but probably will in the future. Every man must be a thorough specialist in the handling of machinery. In a company, for instance, there are only six shovels. All the rest are trained operators of the highly complicated miniature equipment. Also every man must be a thorough specialist in fighting and like the paratroopers with whom they work, must be able to handle himself in all emergencies. The fire-power of a single company of Airborne Aviation Engineers is terrific. Every private carries an M1, every corporal a Thompson sub-machine gun, every officer a carbine, and every sergeant an ’03 rifle with an M9 anti-tank grenade. Even the clerks fly and fight.

airborne aviation engineers

Under wing of a glider, these engineers guard against attack while others work.

As 21-year-old M/Sgt. William Watkins, tractor expert from Bessemer, Ala., puts it, “Our principal job is to work—not fight. But brother, we work with one hand on the bulldozer, and the other on the good old rifle.”

When the men arrive at Westover Field, they have already completed basic combat training and ordinary engineer training, usually at Fort Belvoir. All that remains is to get them accustomed to flying, and teach them the intricacies of the new miniature equipment. The second day after they arrive, they are loaded into a C-47 and taken up for a test flight. The pilot puts the big plane through dives and turns, hedge-hops a few feet above the surface of the Connecticut River, and generally tries to scare hell out of the new Airborne Engineers. Cardboard Coca-Cola containers are provided for any nausea that might develop en route. This procedure is repeated for the next few days. At the end of that time, those who still get sick are classed as unfit and weeded out.

Tough Training Makes Experts

The others are given intensive training in handling the equipment. This is directed by technical experts like 25-year-old company commander Capt. William Shoemaker, who was a public health engineer for the state of Virginia; Sgt. Robert McCauley, a master truck mechanic from Greensboro, N.C.; and Sgt. Ray Sumner, superintendent of streets in Beaumont, Calif., for seven years, who can handle a baby tractor the way Eddie Arcaro handles a thoroughbred horse.

Interspersed with the mechanical training is more flying. The men are loaded into a C-47, which lands in the middle of a tiny clearing in the mountains. The problem is then to build a runway suitable to allow the plane to take off again. If they can’t they’re stuck—miles away from nowhere. The men never know where they are. Once, Pvt. Robert McNulty, a British seaman in the last war, stumbled on a ramshackle soft-drink stand and inquired as to his whereabouts.  When he was told the name of the town, McNulty blandly asked, “What state?” He was almost arrested as a lunatic or a Nazi spy.

Each morning, every man, from company commander and master sergeant down, goes through a long period of commando exercises, and a rugged 200-yeard obstacle course.

It’s tough, but when the training is finished the men are experts—in a remarkably short period of time. They can:

1)      Load their equipment in C-47s and repair any seized airfield, or make an airfield out of any flat piece of ground;

2)      Accomplish the same thing by crashlandings in special gliders whose noses open up to admit and discharge equipment;

3)      Accomplish the same thing by landing their equipment in small assault boats on an enemy-held beach;

4)      Reinforce ordinary aviation engineers ground crews, if necessary, in building roads, demolishing enemy minefields, de-contaminating gassed areas, construction camouflage for airfields and installing power and supply systems;

5)      They can fight.

As Maj. Woodbury, who now commands the first Airborne Aviation Engineer battalion to see action, sums it up.

“Wherever the Air Forces go, we’ll be there—to keep ‘em there.”

airborne aviation engineers

1. While readying a captured “enemy” airfield for use by U.S. planes, the “enemy” bombers attack.

2. A bomb hits the newly repaired runway.

2. A bomb hits the newly repaired runway.

airborne aviation engineers

3. Quickly, a jeep-dumber and scraper fill the crater.

airborne aviation engineers

4. Pneumatic rammer packs down dirt in a bomb hole.

airborne aviation engineers

5. Thirty minutes after bombing, runway is useable.

For More on Aviation Engineers Check Out:

Engineer Aviation Units in the Southwest Pacific Theater During World War II

For More On General Henry Arnold Check Out:

American Airpower Comes of Age -General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold’s World War II Diaries

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