The experts say it’s a young man’s war, but when the Allies invade Hitler’s Europe the Army will depend, among others, on a gang of middle-aged, weather-beaten, heavy-construction veterans, like 52-year-old M/Sgt. Felix MacDonald, to repair the harbors that the Germans may destroyarmy port construction and repair group WWII

By Sgt. Walter Peters YANK Staff Correspondent

A BRITISH COASTAL TOWN—This was a quiet little community at one time. Whatever noise there was came from the splash of the waves against the sea wall, or the whistling of children as they romped down the street on bicycles, or the chatter of housewives as they gathered at the town market.

Then one morning, not so very long ago, while the people were having their breakfasts they heard a loud, rumbling noise coming from the one main street in the town. There was a roar of big motors and the boisterous clanging of metal. Doors popped open and the startled people looked out, half expecting to find an invasion Army. In effect, it was an invasion Army. It was the American Engineers—the Port Construction and Repair Groups. But instead of rolling in with heavy guns and tanks they came with the six-ton prime movers, 60-ton cranes, bulldozers, dump trucks and heavy trailers that were loaded with the miscellaneous collection of bulky construction machinery.

And while the villagers watched their children and dogs ran after the Americans and the machines. One by one the children grew tired of running and dropped from the race. But the dogs continued and a couple of them chose to stay with the fatigue-clad Pied Pipers.

The caravan turned off a road along the sea and halted, upon reaching a large building that was once a miners’ rest. Then the cranes and the bulldozers and the rest of the machinery were rolled off the prime movers and parked in a field. In another field tents began to spring up until the place resembled a circus.  A flag staff was posted and when Old Glory was hoisted the townspeople knew that their Yankee cousins had come to stay for a while.

army port construction and repair group WWII

There’s no rest for pre-invasion port repair engineers. Every day they build, destroy and rebuild. The job on D-Day must be fast and perfect. This apparatus is a V-type trestle.

Today the town looks like a U.S. Army camp, except for the townspeople and their uniformly painted houses. Almost every empty field and lot is full of Army lumber, steel hardware, heavy construction equipment, jeeps, dump trucks and other equipment painted OD. The streets are filled with vehicles bearing the U.S. Army white star insignia.

“When you come right down to it,” says a local publican, “it is as if the whole town moved into America.”

On a bridge, the children and their parents stand and gape like the sidewalk superintendents you see at a construction job back home. They watch and make comments as the men of the Port Construction and Repair Group build a bridge here, a scaffolding there and joining steel tanks into the finished scow on another section of the sandy beach.

army port construction and repair group WWII

The men call the round discs “camel’s feet.”

The history of the Port Construction and Repair Groups is probably as unusual as any other unit in the Army. Officially, the Groups were formed in the spring of 1943. Actually, the invasion generals were conscious of the need for such outfits a long time before. They well realized that if the invasion supply problems were to be solved the Allies would need harbors where large ships could berth and unload. It took no great imagination to figure that the Germans would apply the scorched earth policy to whatever harbor might face danger of capture by the Allies.

As a case in point, the men in the Group like to point to Naples.

On October 1, 1943, when the Allies captured Naples they found that the Germans had left the harbor an ugly mass of rubble. All the highways and rail tracks leading to the docks were demolished. Buildings along the wharfs had been blown up in such a manner that the debris fell into the water. The cranes on the wharf, on trucks and barges had been toppled into ships’ normal berthing positions. The sea walls supporting the quays and the piers had been demolished; and it was estimated that 32 large ships and between 300 to 400 smaller vessels including pleasure craft, fishing boats and barges, were either sunk or scuttles. To top it off, the enemy had fired the huge coal piles in the harbor with incendiaries.

army port construction and repair group WWII

Taking a cue from the Russians, “the Germans applied the scorched earth policy to the Port of Naples by scuttling and sinking ships.

When a small detachment of officers and men from a Port Construction and Repair Group came in to estimate the damage, they literally could have walked over the harbor without so much as wetting the soles of their shoes. Then the rest of the Group came in. Cranes began lifting the debris out of the harbor. Divers went down below with cutting equipment or dynamite to either cut or blow up that which the cranes couldn’t lift. In some cases where sunken ships couldn’t be removed the men built their steel piers right over them.

army port construction and repair group WWII

And here are men of a Port Construction Group using GI salvage equipment to clear way the debris in the port area.

army port construction and repair group WWII

Within two days the Group repaired the harbor sufficiently to handle LCTs and LSTs; then came the big freighters.

While the crane operators and divers cleared the harbor waters, other men cleaned up the roads in the harbor area with bulldozers and dump trucks. Two days later LCTs and LSTs berthed alongside the newly-constructed piers and unloaded. And within 30 days, there were more ships unloading in Naples than any other time in the history of the harbor.

army port construction and repair group WWII

After 30 days of toil by the men of the Group there were more ships entering and unloading in the harbor than at any other time in the history of Naples.

As you go from job to job to find out how the various men got into the outfit the answer is usually the same. Most of them are volunteers; only a few were in the Army when the Group was formed.

“I was a general superintendent for a contracting company in El Paso, Texas, when a recruiting officer came to me,” says M/Sgt. Charles Francisco. “He said the Army needed men with heavy construction experience. So I signed up.

Francisco is no chicken. He’s 37 and has seven kids, which is a pretty big family even for a man earning $750 a month. He’s now doing a similar job for a master sergeant’s pay.

Francisco’s case is no exception. In fact, it’s almost the rule. Practically every man in the Group was fairly safe from the draft because of age or family reasons. They all had good paying jobs in the construction line when the recruiting officers collared them.

Now, when the outfit marches through the town the people get a good look at stripes, and plenty of them, in ranks. There seem to be more ratings in this Port Construction and Repair Group than in any other outfit in the Army. Originally, the men were promised only a private’s rating. But somebody in Washington figured that an outfit with so many aristocrats of labor should have some rank. So when the TO was drawn up there was little room left in the organization for pfc’s and privates.

Many of the men were veterans of the last war and some have kids in this one. Nevertheless, they’ve received the same basic infantry training as the younger men. Every man in the Group is a rifle marksman, many are sharpshooters and a few are experts.

In bull sessions which the men hold in tents, the miners’ rest or the local pub, the big sore point is that they weren’t shipped to Italy where they could have seen action earlier. The other topics of the discussion are the wife and kids back home. But there is probably less homesickness in the Group than in most Army outfits. These men are used to traveling. In civilian life they moved about the country, many of them, wherever there were heavy construction jobs to be done. Some have travelled all over the world, like 30-year-old T/Sgt. Victor Berge, the non-com in charge of the divers.

army port construction and repair group WWII

Many of the divers in the group have been in the “racket” most of their lifetime.

army port construction and repair group WWIIBerge’s Swedish father broke him into the pearl diving business in India when he was ten.  “I’ve been in the racket ever since,” Berge says. And the racket, as he calls it, has taken him everywhere—Australia, India, New Guinea, the West Indies, South Sea Islands, the States from coast to coast.

The divers usually work from a repair ship which is assigned to the Group. Some of them were trained by the Army at a Navy diving school, but the majority of them were already old hands in the business, with generations of divers behind them, like Berge.

Although the Group has had a bedlam of this relatively peaceful English town, the people have developed a great fondness for the men. At first, some of the men made friends with the children by sharing their candy rations with them. Then the parents began to issue invitations for Sunday dinner or tea.

“Our men were invited out so much,” says Col. James B. Cress, the CO of the Group, “that they felt ashamed to accept, knowing what the family rationing situation here is. We fixed that up, though, by providing every man with sufficient rations whenever he went visiting.”

The rations which the Group provides have paid off big dividends as a morale builder. Some of the men have developed many close friends among the villagers. As you walk through the town now you frequently see a middle-aged sergeant with a weather-beaten face strolling down the street with a youngster hanging on his arm. He seems to be as proud of them as if they were his own.

On the job the men are as informal as they ever were in civilian life. You seldom hear a sergeant referred to by rank. It’s either Mac, Joe, Bubs, or Lemon Eye. Many of the men have worked together on the same construction projects back home, so old nicknames have stuck. Lemon Eye, for instance, is 47-year-old T/Sgt. Edward J. Murphy who used to make $162 a week operating a crane at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Murphy is a veteran of the last war, has two sons in this one; one in the Army, the other in the Navy.

Many of the men tried to enlist shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor—like M/Sgt. Felix McDonald, the 52-year-old demolition chief. “The Young Chicken,” as some of the men call him, tried to get into the Army, Marines and Sea Bees and was rejected by all three. One reason, age; the other, he was marked up as a disable because of a wound received in the right leg at Meuse-Argonne in the last war. The Marines agreed to take him in after McDonald tried a second time, but they said he’d have to stay in the States. McDonald said no soap.

One day he heard about the formation of the Port Construction and Repair Group. After finding the recruiting officer he talked him into writing the War Department to waive his age and disability.

“And if the War Department wouldn’t have acted, I’d have had a one-man march on Washington,” McDonald says. “Dammit, this is a young man’s war—and I’m as young and fit as the next one.”

For More on the Port Construction and Repair Group Check Out:

Force Mulberry: The Planning and Installation of the Artificial Harbor off U.S. Normandy Beaches in World War II

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