858th Engineer Aviation Battalion
858th Aviation ... The first Engineer Battalion to go to China to work on the Burma Road, and the only Black Battalion in all of the China Theater during World War II.
by Bennie J. McRae, Jr.
The organization and activation of the 858th Engineer Aviation Battalion began on January 1, 1943 at the Avon Park Bombing Range, Avon Park, Florida. On January 2nd a forty man enlisted cadre was assigned from the 46th Field Artillery Brigade, Camp Livingston, Louisiana. Training took place over the next month and a half while awaiting the arrival of the remaining Battalion personnel.
Near the end of February four hundred enlisted men arrived and a program of basic training was commenced. One Captain and thirty Lieutenants were assigned on the day of activation.
The major projects and special interest during training centered on practical experience in engineer construction. These projects included docks, bombing targets, bridges, landing strip lights, buildings, many camouflage works, and a eight mile road through palmetto swamps.
Many of the men were sent to outside school, such as, schools for camouflage, chemical warfare, vehicle operation, heavy equipment operation, administration and pipe line work.
In addition, special emphasis was placed on tactical training on hikes and overnight problems to prepare the men for combat conditions. Subjects of vital importance were fire control, scouting, cover and concealment.
On August 20, 1943 after a series of inspections the Battalion was deemed ready for overseas duty, and warning orders were received from Headquarters, 3rd Engineer Aviation Unit Training Center.
On September 22, 1943 movement orders were received and on September 23rd the Battalion loaded on trains bound for Camp Patrick Henry, Newport News, Virginia, arriving after a twenty four hour trip.
A week was spent at the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation completing clothing issue and immunization, and on October 2nd the Battalion loaded on two Liberty Ships. Company A, a platoon of Company C, and the Headquarters and Service Company boarded the SS Thomas B. Robertson. Company B and Company C boarded the SS Richard Jordan Gatting. The ships anchored until early in the morning of October 5th and sailed in a convoy for Africa.
On October 22, 1943 the convoy anchored at Oran, Algeria, and on October 25th the Battalion disembarked and moved to a staging area outside Oran. After several days units from the Battalion began working on a camp area near Canestal, Algeria. One platoon was detailed to lay brick on the docks of Oran. Another group operated the heavy equipment in a rock quarry and screening plant. On the move back to Staging Area #2 near Flueris, a truck turned over and injured fifteen men. Most of these men recovered and later rejoined the Battalion.
An advance party boarded HMTS Rajula on November 22, 1943, and most of the remaining troops boarded the next day. In order to get aboard the Rajula the men had to cross the decks of the Rhona, sister ship of the Rajula. The Rhona was sunk four days later by a German Radio controlled glider bomb with a loss of over 1000 lives.
On November 30th the Rajula weighed anchor and sailed for India, arriving at Bombay on December 27th with stops at Port Said and Suez, Egypt, and Aden. On December 28th the Battalion disembarked and loaded onto a train for Ledo, Assam, India. At Santahan and Tistamghat all personnel boarded river boats and sailed up the Brahmaputra River to Randu. Another train was boarded for the last leg of the trip to Ledo, Assam.
The Battalion arrived at a the staging area near Ledo on January 8, 1944 at 6:00 am, and after unloading the men marched to their respective areas. All troops were housed in bamboo and thatch huts, and were given a weeks rest before starting to work.
After reconnaissance along the Ledo Road assigned to the Battalion, mile 51 to the Namyung River at mile 78, camp sites and headquarters were established. On January 17, 1944 the Headquarters and Service Company moved to mile 51 by truck convoy, and on January 18 thru 20 Companies A, B, and C moved to miles 50, 64, and 68 respectively.
A massive road slide hindered the movement of Companies B and C at Mile 62, just south of the Nalong River. Headquarters estimated that a million cubic yards of dirt and rock had broken away from the bank and covered the road.
Company A officially took over the road on January 24. The units were assisted by 650 Nepalese workers. From that date on the Battalion worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most of the road had only one four inch course of gravel, poorly shaped, was narrow with sharp curves and steep grades, and worst of all the draining was inadequate. These conditions existed before the heavy Monsoon rains began, but the winter rains and cool weather kept the road surface saturated. Heavy log drags towed by tractors were used to fill in the ruts caused by heavy truck traffic.
The slightest rains could bring down huge slides across the road. The first major road block occurred on April 15 and 16 at mile 55, known as the Loglai Hill slide which blocked the road for eight hours. The following day the Tincha rock slide blocked traffic for ten hours. Rocks weighing as much as ten to fifteen tons came down off the bank onto the road. Many required blasting before a bull dozer could edge them over the bank into the river two hundred feet below.
Another source of problems were the jungle trees that grew in great number and to great size. The climatic conditions and the dense undergrowth caused the trees to develop only a small root structure. When the trace for the road was cut many trees were exposed to the full force of the wind causing many to fall, many times across the road requiring the removal by heavy equipment. Falling trees were a menace to the men and the camp sites. Once during a violent wind storm a soldier in Company A was killed when a tree fell on him as he ran to his tent. At other times numerous tents were smashed by falling trees.
On October 1, 1944 the Battalion celebrated the end of one year of service overseas. Over 500 men spent the day at Headquarters and Services Company. Church services were held in the morning at Loglai. Staff Sergeant Lampkins was awarded the Bronze Star Medal by Lieutenant Colonel Russell G. White, Battalion Commander, during church services. Later that day, the men participated in inter company athletic competition. Nearly 1000 persons attended the evening show by the 858th musical group, called the “Biggest Little Band in the Hump.”
Early in 1945 the Battalion began cutting a trace for the construction of a six inch pipeline. Equipment was diverted for this use. Pumping station areas were also cleared by the Battalion.
The Battalion was ordered to China in May 1945 to take over the maintenance of the Burma Road from the Salween River to Kunming. Nearly 500 vehicles in five convoys moved into China with Company B departing on May 23 in the first convoy, followed by Companies C, Headquarters and Services, A, and the heavy equipment.
The 858th was the first Engineer Battalion to go to China to work on the Burma Road, and as of V-J Day there was only one other Battalion on the road. The 858th was also the only Black unit to serve in all of the China Theater. All the men knew these facts and were proud that of all the Engineer Battalions in the India-Burma Theater, the 858th Engineer Aviation Battalion had been given the honor of being assigned to the China Theater.
Headquarters and Services Company and Company C took maintenance from the Salween River to Kilo 207. Companies A and B provided maintenance from Kilo 207 to Kunming plus nearly five hundred miles of branch roads east of Kunming, in addition to performing many tasks for other units around Kunming. The Battalion was responsible for the heavy construction around Hostel 19, the processing center for all personnel leaving the China Theater after the end of the war.
On October 1, 1945 the Battalion was declared surplus to the operational needs of the China Theater. All companies were ordered into Kunming for necessary processing before departing for the Zone of the Interior.
On October 14, 1945 the entire Battalion, 560 men, was taken to the Kunming Airport and loaded into 14 C54 transport aircraft and flown across the Hump and over Burma to the Barrackpore field near Calcutta, India. The move and entire operation were carried out a little under 12 hours, a record for the organization. From Barrackpore the Battalion was moved to Camp Kanchrapara the processing center for troops returning to the United States.
While waiting for a boat to arrive, an intensive Special Services program was carried on to help pass the time and to maintain morale. The Battalion Band was renamed, “The Biggest Little Band This Side of the Hump.”
On November 12, 1945 the Battalion moved to Camp Hialeah in Calcutta, close to the Prinsep Ghat on the Hooghly River the embarkation point. On November 16 the Battalion boarded the SS Marine Angel, and the next day weighed anchor and sailed down the river into the open sea destination Seattle, Washington.
From Calcutta, India the ship swung south and east to Singapore, north to Luzon and Japan, and then by the great circle route to Seattle.
In December 1945 the SS Marine Angel dropped anchor at Seattle. After debarking the personnel were sent to Separation and Reception Centers for discharge or leave, and a short time later the 858th Engineer Aviation Battalion was officially demobilized.
HISTORY OF THE 858TH ENGINEER AVIATION BATTALION, National Archives, Suitland Branch, Suitland, Maryland. (Submitted by Bennie E. Walton, Silver Spring, Maryland.)
Interview, James E. Baker, Newark, New Jersey. (He served with the 93rd Quartermaster Company in Australia and New Guinea. His brother, the late Warren A. Baker served with the 858th Engineer Aviation Battalion.)