How to Help
Build Up...Setting the Stage
The United Kingdom became the setting for the first phase of the air war in the summer of 1942. And that’s when aviation engineers first came onto the ETO scene. The same men who are now adding the epilogue to the air war in Europe by constructing permanent bases for the occupational air forces; the same men who wrote the brilliant chapter on tactical airpower’s follow-through across the continent, the same men --- they had a hand in writing the prologue, too. Their part in the beginning, while pushed into the background, was just as important on the outcome of the war as their later and more flashy role.
Five veteran units, the 816th, 818th, 819th, 820th, and 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalions formed the vanguard for all such organizations in the European Theater of Operations, arriving early in the summer of 1942. The five units immediately went to work on the Army Air Forces’ biggest overseas airdrome construction program. Others followed, some of which had been ordered to England with a higher shipping priority than combat crews of the Air Forces.
In those early days of war, there were many airfields to be constructed before the headlines could pipe out the daylight attacks by American aircraft against industrial targets in Germany. Here came those engineers, men fresh from basic training center and hastily organized in battalions for the big job which had to be accomplished quickly and quietly. They were trained in the use of new and highly complex construction equipment and worked hard, long hours on huge airdromes which cost an average of $3,000,000 each and required several months to build. This effort came without publicity or public praise, for their vital work was of sufficient importance to be kept a military secret from the German intelligence.
Main reward for the hardy engineers came in seeing the first American heavy bombers take off and land on the sturdy concrete runways into which had gone so much sweat and labor. The first bomber attacks which had begun from these initial few fields were but a shadow of an extensive and powerful force from the sky which was to come. Both facilities and bomber attacks expanded and before the end of 1943, the drone of our heavy four-engined bombers could be heard almost constantly as they took off and returned in a steady stream to plaster the Reich.
Behind these attacks were the men who had bulldozed, graded, shoveled, and laid miles of concrete runways. They had done their job well and now they were seeing the results. But at the same time, they knew their job wasn’t finished. They knew that because the island kingdom was beginning to bulge and groan with American troops and equipment and events were beginning to point toward the invasion.
Out of these construction units and the expansion of the Ninth Air Force for its continental role grew the IX Engineer Command. The nucleus of the command had begun functioning as the engineer detachment of the Ninth Air Force in November 1943, Brigadier General James B. Newman, Jr., of Washington, D.C., assumed command of the organization on January 25, 1944, when it was beginning to expand into its present form as a command. He directed its most rapid expansion and training as well as planning for the current campaign.
The command was the first of its type to become an organic part of an air force when the War Department approved its organization as a component command of the Ninth Air Force on March 1, 1944. It drew its strength from the veteran airfield construction units which had been building the bomber dromes under SOS control.
The command, whose headquarters was located at Maidenhead, Berks, England, had begun its engineer planning for the support of the Ninth Air Force in the invasion of Europe and for its construction operations on this continent.
Organization of the command was shaping up. The men were no longer “rookies” but were now-considered construction-wise veterans and ready for the task of coping with German aviation engineers who had now boasted a ten-year headstart.
Strength and make-up of the command indicated the magnitude of the job which lay ahead. Work units included four regimental headquarter staffs, sixteen heavy battalions, three airborne battalions, and three engineer maintenance companies. Rounding out the organization were signal units, a military police company, ordnance, chemical warfare, air corps and quartermaster personnel.
The battalions were the basic operational units and carried with them enough heavy equipment to meet the requirements of an ordinary construction job. Regiments, which were the administrative and supply headquarters for battalion groupings, also maintained a pool of equipment which was loaned to battalions for heavier than ordinary tasks or other emergencies. To protect themselves from air and ground attack, the aviation engineers were trained and equipped for combat as well as construction. They were armed with a variety of weapons including bazookas, antitank and anti-aircraft guns, grenade launchers, armed half-tracks, anti-tank mines, and a full complement of small arms.
Actually, there had been no extra time given the units to carry out an intensive training program in preparation for the invasion. This training was conducted while they were building and maintaining bases in the United Kingdom. It covered schooling for both combat and the differences in technique that would go with the switch-over from the permanent installations to the hasty, semi-permanent type which would he built on the beachhead. Experiments had been made with a new type of surfacing material, hessian matting, and found satisfactory for use. Quantities of it and other construction materials had been procured and readied for shipping schedules which were to support the invasion operations.
The time was ripening for the assault. Two battalions, the 819th, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Max McCrory, of Steubenville, Ohio, and the 834th, led by Lieutenant Colonel John J. Livingston, of Cedar Hill, Mo., were the first to be alerted. After a month of additional training, waterproofing, and briefing, they were ready for the big show. They boarded ship on that momentous day in June 1944 -- the day for which two years of labor and training had prepared them.
What these two invasion units accomplished is history.
Advance elements of Colonel McCrory’s battalion landed on Utah beach at H plus three hours on D-Day with their heavy equipment. Although they were pinned to the beach by enemy artillery and small arms fire for several hours and the route they were to take off the beach remained in enemy hands during the day, they found their own way to a pre-selected site and carved out a crude emergency landing strip by nightfall. Among interested spectators were a number of German snipers, and at one time bulldozers and graders actually operated within two hundred yards of active enemy artillery emplacements.
The next day, after a hair-raising reconnaissance, part of which was conducted in a minor no-man’s land between American paratroopers and the German pocket of resistance they were cleaning up, construction was begun on a refueling and rearming strip several miles inland. The strip, which later grew to a full fledged fighter bomber base, was fully operational seven days later, although it was built under constant artillery and sniper fire and daily strafing.
Meanwhile, Colonel Livingston’s battalion had managed to land on D plus one, after six unsuccessful attempts on D-day. Finding the site of his scheduled emergency landing strip still in enemy hands, Livingston “borrowed” a site earmarked for another purpose and constructed an emergency landing strip on it. By the evening of June 7, the battalion had extended it to 3,400 feet, and the first planeload of wounded to be flown from Normandy had taken off from the strip.
Colonel Livingston’s initiative in building this completely unscheduled field was credited with saving the lives of hundreds of men whom the overtaxed beachhead hospitals could not have cared for. Until July 16, the field was the principal transport field in Normandy, and up to that date nearly 15,000 wounded were evacuated from it.
Upon completion of the ELS, a reconnaissance party had gone forward with the infantry, and by June 8, the battalion was at work on its first fighter field, at St. Pierre du Mont. Working day and night in spite of snipers and heavy mining, and always within a stone’s throw of the infantry, the battalion completed the strip on schedule.
For these curtain-rising acts on the entrance of air power on the continent, the 819th and 834th were awarded Presidential Distinguished Unit Citations. That was the way the IX Engineer Command was introduced to the world and to the Germans. From then on, it was a pattern of building up of men, materials, equipment, and plans to project the construction program of airfields on the continent. The continent to the invasion forces at the time was the Cherbourg peninsula.
According to the engineer plan for this bridgehead phase of operations, the initial construction program would allow for IX and XIX Tactical Air Commands to be based there. This was accomplished as planned within the time schedules which had been worked out by the air force and engineer staffs.
Pushing on with the advance of the invading armies, battalions which were continually being phased into the expanding operations constructing more airfields on the overloaded peninsula. The first eight fields were built almost exactly where and when they had been planned, but after this initial assault phase of the invasion, all prearranged schedules had to be discarded or modified to meet a changing tactical situation.
The original plan called for eleven fields in the beach area, but due to changes in ground force plans, twenty-six were built in Normandy. This necessitated use of difficult sites involving much heavier construction than had been anticipated, but at no time did a Ninth Air Force unit wait more than a week for an airdrome. By July 20th the entire fighter bomber strength of the Ninth Air Force was based within close operational range of the front lines.
During the time that the beachhead was being converted into a gigantic “flat-top”, the units had some exciting moments -- as if building airfields under the Jerries’ noses wasn’t enough.
“What outfit is this?”, an infantry lieutenant asked Lieutenant Colonel Don A. Parkhurst, commander of the 816th Engineer Aviation Battalion, when his group came marching up from the beach with full packs.
“Engineers”, was the answer.
“What the hell are you doing up here in front of the infantry?”
“We’re going to build an airfield.”
“The hell you are”, said the astonished lieutenant.
But they did.
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Trumbull’s 820th Engineer Aviation Battalion worked its way from the first operational field in the beachhead at Cricqueville down to Lignerolles. Any further penetration would have put them in the Kraut’s front-yard. But the battalion didn’t mind that; it was the pilots who complained. They were forced to turn to the left upon taking off, as a bank to the right would have put them over enemy territory before the turn was completed. While building the field, the men were under almost constant enemy artillery fire, but this did not prevent them from completing the airfield in record time.
A few days after the battalion got the field operational, the Luftwaffe paid a visit one night and bombed the area, leaving a crater in the runway. The group photographer wanted a picture of the damage, so he planned on taking it when daylight came. When he drove out to the field the following morning with his camera, he couldn’t find the crater. Not only that, he couldn’t even tell where the bomb had struck. A platoon of the 820th had repaired the damage during the night.
The aviation engineers had met all challenges and schedules in the Battle of Normandy. Courage under fire and initiative against the Norman country’s natural barriers had made real veterans out of them. They will always remember some of these factors, like carving airfields in the tough-rooted hedgerow and wooded areas, on swamps, and in apple orchards; and spotted cows obstructing the runways, the 3,000 mines on the captured airdrome at Cherbourg, the dust, and, of course, Calvados.