Remembering the war in New Guinea - United States troops in New Guinea

Remembering the war in New Guinea
My father’s wartime experiences: Francis G. Bagley, Company B, 114th Combat Engineers, 32nd US Infantry Division (People)
Module name: Groups (United States perspective)
This page was contributed by Mr Joseph Bagley


Dad joined the 101st Engineers of the Massachusetts National Guard in January 1941. It provided him with a part-time job for one year. It enabled him to “join up” with his friends and allowed him to develop his skills as a mechanic. The engineers trained to construct, among other things, airstrips, roads and bridges for the rapid movement of everything needed in the event of war, including troops, aircraft and cargo. He was slated to be discharged in January 1942 but when the Japanese attacked in December 1941, no one was allowed to leave any national guard unit after December 7. His unit was called up for national service with the 32nd Infantry Division in 1942, redesignated the 114th Engineer (Combat) Battalion and eventually shipped with the rest of the Division, known as the “Red Arrow” Division, to Papua New Guinea (sometimes referred to as “PNG”). The engineers were assigned to various construction projects, often in the frontlines, and were expected to drop their tools and machinery when called on to fight as a reserve force. Dad and his unit built airstrips, roads and bridges all over eastern New Guinea. The airstrips they constructed could land planes within two or three weeks of the area having just been a dense jungle.

My father told me the following stories between approximately 1969 and 1975, when I was young enough to ask him whatever popped into my head but before I was old enough to stop asking him about his war service. He often gave me models of aircraft, ships and tanks and these plastic models often stimulated questions about his service overseas – a subject which was not ordinarily discussed during the Vietnam era.

Dad and his battalion were put on a Pullman railroad car in Boston on April 9, 1942, and travelled continuously for five days before arriving in Oakland, California (the flight today is five hours by jet). He travelled much the same route as that constructed by the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads in the 1870s when they built the first transcontinental railroad. Dad said that he loved the trip across the country because they were well fed, did not have to do anything, and he got to see parts of the country that he had never seen before. In the National Guard, he had gone on a motor convoy to North and South Carolina – the first time he had ever left the New England region of the United States. The train trip west was the second time he had ever been far from his home in Massachusetts.

Dad was taken by bus to Pier 7, San Francisco, where the Army transported his entire battalion into the middle of San Francisco Bay to Fort McDowell on Angel Island. Until the war, Angel Island had primarily been a receiving station for immigrants to the United States. The Fort became a staging area for US troops shipping out to the Pacific. He was on the island for only eight days, during which he was promoted to Sergeant (skipping over the rank of Corporal). Dad said that you could see Alcatraz Island, a notorious federal prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay, from Angel. The soldiers’ laundry was taken to and washed on Alcatraz Island, presumably by the convicts. The dock at Angel Island was guarded because of the Army’s concern that an escaped convict could make it over to Angel in Army clothing and try to mix in with the soldiers.

On 22 April 1942, Dad boarded the United States Army Transport Hugh L. Scott at Pier 42 and sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge at 6.30 p.m. for “an unknown destination”. (The Hugh L. Scott was eventually sunk by a German U-Boat off North Africa after disembarking troops in November 1942 during Operation Torch.) The convoy of transport ships (Convoy SF 43) was escorted by the USS Indianapolis. The Indianapolis was a cruiser and its torpedoing in 1945 caused the loss of life of 883 sailors. The Convoy crossed the international dateline on 7 May. It passed within approximately 800 miles of Tarawa Atoll, already visited by Japanese forces at this stage of the war. The ship passed to the west of Fiji, west of New Zealand, and through the Tasman Strait.

Dad landed at Port Adelaide, South Australia on 14 May 1942 after traveling 9,000 miles in 23 days. He was nearly on the opposite side of the world from his home in Massachusetts. Like many in the Division, he was garrisoned at Camp Sandy Creek, South Australia from May until July, 1942. His unit was moved to what became known as Camp Cable, Queensland and stayed there until November. I only know of one story set in Australia. On leave one day, Dad and his buddies were walking by a fire station in New South Wales. The firehouse doors were up and the firemen were out fighting a fire. The soldiers went inside and made a souvenir of a brass fire brigade helmet they found, which to the American eye resembles an ancient Roman helmet including the chain-like chinstrap and the decorative peak. This author wore the helmet to a costume party in 1979 as an ancient Roman legionnaire and is still in temporary custody of it until its rightful return to Australia.

In November, Dad travelled by train to Brisbane, by ship to Townsville and finally landed at Port Moresby, PNG on 26 November 1942. He arrived there in US Army Transport X 21, which he described as a small Dutch freighter. New Guinea is the second largest island in the world. Everything in New Guinea was “new” to the newly arrived Americans: the climate, the jungle, the lack of infrastructure (roads, bridges, buildings) the exposure to air raids, the scarcity of supplies, the inhabitants. For one month, his Company B (about 160 men) worked on a four-mile long road from “7 Mile Drome” airfield (also called Jacksons) to the Company base or bivouac at Bootless Bay, not far from Port Moresby.

On 15 December Dad wrote on Red Cross holiday stationary to his aunt:

“...I suppose Mother has told you by this time that I am in New Guinea. There isn’t much I can tell about it except that it is hot, the flies and mosquitoes are terrible and the native girls wear sarongs but they don’t look like Dorothy Lamour [a Hollywood movie actress]. I am just as healthy as ever but quite a little thinner.”

Many times in his letters home, Dad wrote of the weight loss he sustained while in the jungle. After departing Australia in November 1942, the heat, the lack of food and the physical labor stripped forty-two pounds from him in three months. The clothing issued to the soldiers of the Red Arrow Division before leaving Australia was dyed with a substance to camouflage the outfit but which caused the material to trap heat – the last thing the Americans needed when entering the comparative furnace of New Guinea.[1] In the closing months of 1942, the vast majority of food transported to the Allied forces in New Guinea was by air, and as a result there was barely enough to get by. At certain times there was no spare food at all for US troops – in order to make way for ammunition the food was consumed daily as it was flown in with no stocks or reserves kept.[2] In addition to inadequate supplies of food, the engineers arrived in New Guinea with virtually no tools or machinery. Combat engineers who had trained in the United States to work with heavy construction equipment found themselves equipped with only a few shovels and entrenching tools, some rope, a few prized machetes and building materials taken from the jungle – logs, bark and vines. A captured Japanese roller, here or there, on an abandoned airfield might also supplement their meagre resources. The work, as they sweltered in the heat, was exhausting, especially before they became acclimatised. Bulldozers, graders, air compressors and other heavy equipment would arrive later. “The heat is 115ー[F] at noontime” my father wrote to his mother, “and the flies are just as bad”.

It was not only construction material which was scarce. As combat engineers, the soldiers were expected to fight as a reserve unit if the need arose. During an early period in the jungle, Dad handled a Thompson submachine gun. The US Army was so strapped for weapons in 1942 that the “Tommy” guns they used were stamped “Property of Detroit P.D.” [Police Department].

Dad wrote to his mother on 18 December: “...only four more days until Christmas but you’d never know it [it was summer in New Guinea and probably over 100 degrees]. I guess I won’t be home for it after all but I’ll be there for the next one [he wasn’t – he wouldn’t be home for Christmas until 1945]”.

The day after Christmas, Dad was flown over the towering Owen Stanley Mountain Range (back home it would have been Christmas Day). It was Dad’s first trip in an airplane. My father once described the pilots of two separate transport flights his unit took. The first pilot was a young American officer with a starched, Air Corps uniform (dressier than the ordinary mud soldier’s outfit), polished shoes and a shiny “Sam Browne” belt and leather sash. A holstered .45 calibre pistol hung by his side. On the next flight, they were assigned to an Australian pilot. He was unshaven and unkempt. The Yanks could not tell how old he was, but accurately assessed that he was a “non-com”. He wore loose fitting shorts and no shirt. His sole weapon was a knife stuck in one of his floppy boots. The contrast inspired confidence in the Australian which had been subconsciously withheld from the American officer. The Australian pilot embodied the qualities that the Americans envisioned in themselves– independence, toughness, and seriousness about the task without taking themselves too seriously. While the aviator held their confidence, his craft did not. He walked them up to a Lockheed Hudson which had the weapons and windows removed. Each side of the aircraft was lined with glassless holes where the windows had formerly been located. Upon seating themselves inside the aircraft, they detected the lack of armament and notified the pilot. “Stick ya rifles out the windows... if you see any Jap planes, shoot.”

After the fall of Buna, American forces were dispatched to support the Australian troops west of the Girua River. An American battalion with a number of tanks was sent to the Aussies’ aid. Company B led the way, cutting down trees and laying coconut logs as “corduroy” for the road, over which the tanks clanked. Monsoon rains had made the trail impassable and the road became worse after Australian light tanks crossed through it on the way towards more fighting on 5 January. Dad described the climate of New Guinea to me one time. He said that it could be dusty one minute and then suddenly begin to rain, heavier rain than he had ever seen in the states. All of a sudden it would stop and the road that had just been dusty would be nothing but mud. The air was so hot that after 15 minutes, the muddy road would be dust again.

At this time, an average of 350 Papuans, or “fuzzy wuzzies” as the Allied troops called them, were assigned to Company B to work alongside the soldiers, for pay. The name “Papuans” is from a Malay word meaning “woolly haired”. Dad and others used the term “fuzzy wuzzies” because it described the New Guineans’ bushy hair. He said that it was common for the native islanders to pierce their ears and then tie a heavy object, like a rock, to the bottom of their ear lobe and leave it there to stretch the hole. When the hole stretched a little bit, it could be used to carry a cigarette. Some New Guineans opened the holes wide up as a decoration. Dad described the actions of one islander who was standing with the American soldiers one day waiting to move out to work. He suddenly bolted from the group, ran up to a tall coconut tree and shimmied up the tree. The soldiers were mystified. The native came down the tree with a rat in his hand. He bit off the rat’s head and put it into a little ditty bag that he wore. After some pigdin english was exchanged (the language the New Guineans used to converse with Australians and Americans and even with other natives who spoke different languages), the soldiers learned that he was going to save the rat in the ditty bag for lunch.

The labour of the islanders was the crucial difference between constructing all of the infrastructure necessary in New Guinea in 1942–44 and failure. Each tribe had its own specialty. The coastal people excelled at bridging streams while the Papuan tribesmen from the interior were skilled at hacking out trails. With the supply line turning into a trickle at times, the natives were instrumental in maintaining pace with building requirements. Familiar with the terrain and their own pre-war projects, the natives pointed out the trees best suited for use in construction, advised on techniques for sinking pilings into stream beds, and taught how to utilize bark as a lashing in the construction of bridges. The commanding officer of the 114th Engineers paid tribute to the islanders’ industry: “The success of the engineer operations in this campaign was due, in no small way, to the loyal, whole hearted, and tireless efforts of the natives.”[3]

On February 20, 1943 the entire company was assigned to the construction of a large 30-ton bridge over the Samboga River at Horanda on the proposed Oro Bay–Horanda road. The road would allow supplies landed at docks and warehouses in Oro Bay, the major port on the Solomon Sea, to be transported overland to the major air base of Dobodura. By this time only 65 enlisted men were healthy enough to work (compared with about 230 men landing in November). Malaria, dysentery and dengue fever were common afflictions by February 1943. “We have been taking quinine and polyvitamin pills”, Dad wrote home. “They help a lot but the salt pills are the ones that help the most. Imagine me taking pills, I was the one that always said they did more harm than good.”

At one point Dad and some other men were running across a sandy area dodging sniper fire. They moved from concealed position to concealed position. While out in the open at a full gallop, Dad banged his big toe against a protruding rock. He desperately wanted to stop but he had to keep running. Unsure at the time, he later became certain that he had broken the toe. No one was taken from the lines for a mere broken toe at the time, so he managed with it as best he could. It healed in a straightened position and for the rest of his life he could not bend it.

“The bridge over the River Samboga” required 44 days to build, was supported by eleven pilings and was 395 feet long when completed. It was one of the longest bridges, if not the longest, in New Guinea at the time. Dad once told me that he was working along a river running a compressor and a pile driver and it may have been on this project. Other men were working around him. He could not hear anyone because of the noise of the compressor. After a while, he looked around and saw that everyone had suddenly disappeared. He shut the compressor down. An air raid alert had been sounded, in all likelihood the rapid shooting of a rifle three times, and he had not heard the signal nor anyone calling out as they ran for cover. As Japanese planes dived in, he sprinted for cover and, obviously, made it.

Shortly after, Dad wrote to his father on 5 March 1943: “... I am still in New Guinea but am fairly used to the place by now and I don’t mind it as much as I did. Boy was it tough for a while.” He received packages of candy, caramels, writing paper and once, a sweater. One misguided aunt mailed him an electric razor, an absolutely useless gift to a man who slept under the stars in a tent. He often sent home money orders for his parents, advising them to spend the money on themselves since there was nothing to spend the money on in the jungle. In March 1943, he mailed home the manufacturer’s plate from the magneto of a Japanese Zero.

The combat engineers sometimes preceded the infantry into areas where no roads existed in order to create trails, bridges and roads. The Japanese recognized the necessity of this type of preparation as well. A large portion of the original Japanese invading force in the summer of 1942 had been kohei butai (combat engineers) and Army and Navy construction troops.[4] The engineers of both nations bridged streams ahead of or with the infantry at times, while at other times following behind the infantry to construct airstrips out of the dense Papuan jungle for air cover near the frontlines or to build roads for access to the airfields.

The companies of the 114th Battalion would be called upon to disassemble their construction equipment, load up supplies, move it overland and set up at a new jungle location. When they were inland and on the move, before bedding down for the night the Company would often dig a deep ditch, the idea being that because of the high water table, the ditch would be filled in with water by morning. On one occasion they arrived at a new site late at night and dug a ditch consistent with their routine. In the morning, the ditch had filled in with water, but a dead rat was floating in it. They did not plan to stay long enough to have the time to dig another ditch and they needed water badly. So they dumped all the medicine they had, iodine, atabrine, everything they had from their first aid supplies, into the ditch, mixed it up and then drank it. Presumably, no one died. On another occasion they found a box of Hershey’s chocolate bars which, unfortunately, were covered with mold. Driven by a total lack of luxury items in the jungle, the engineers scraped off the mold, melted down the chocolate bars and added them to water to make “hot chocolate”,i.e., hot cocoa.

When equipment needed to be repaired, Dad and the other mechanics switched from airfield, bridge and road construction to engine, jeep and truck repair. Having no service stations in Papua, the mechanics would rig a log horizontally between two trees, forming a large “H”. They would secure the rope (or chains when they had them) to the center of the “H” and then use the leverage to pull motors up out of the jeeps and other vehicles in order to repair them. Dad used this same device in our backyard in the 1970s when pulling a motor from my brother’s car.

On 30 March 1943, the battalion boarded the Army Transport Paine Wingate and returned to Australia (Brisbane this time) by 7 April. The battalion moved to a rest area at Southport, Queensland. The War Department issued a Presidential Unit Citation (now termed a Distinguished Unit Badge) to certain outfits involved in the Papuan Campaign, including the 114th Engineers on 6 May. In September, Dad departed from Brisbane and sailed for Goodenough Island, located off the eastern coast of New Guinea. He said that Goodenough Island was better than New Guinea, but still a bad place to be. The Japanese regularly conducted night air raids over Goodenough.

On one occasion while at Goodenough Island, Dad and some other fellows were working late at night at the Company motor pool. The group worked so late that they slept at the motor pool rather than going back to the company area, so that they could be close to the vehicles and equipment in the morning. All of a sudden, they heard planes “zooming down at us” as he once described it. They had no time to run for the conventional air raid shelters, so 20 soldiers crawled under a large, 20-ton cargo trailer that was parked nearby. They stayed there, protected by the steel of the cargo trailer, until the raid was over.

Dad was on Goodenough Island from September 1943 until January 1944. It was here that he first encountered US marines. Goodenough was a staging area where soldiers and marines were trained and marked time awaiting orders. A marine who was there at the time wrote a classic book called Helmet For My Pillow. The marine, Robert Leckie, describes in his book how on Goodenough Island he “foraged” for food by stealing supplies from other units. Dad did the same thing on Goodenough, but he “foraged’ from the marines. The marines had a large, freshwater purification unit and Dad and a few buddies “permanently borrowed” it, probably some time after the “rat water” incident. An advertisement by General Motors in a magazine of the period boasts that its water purification unit “... goes anywhere that wheels can roll”, which is precisely what the unit did. Wisely, they hid the large purification system in the jungle rather than bringing it into their own camp and setting it up immediately. Sure enough, the marines came looking for it the next day. They searched the army camp but did not find it. The Marines kept coming back occasionally to look for it, making it too “hot” to use to obtain freshwater right away. Eventually they got to use it.

Dad was able to learn how to operate power shovels and other specialized construction equipment on Goodenough. “In my spare time I have fooled around with all size bulldozers and even a road grader,” he wrote home in October 1943, “maybe these years have not been wasted after all.”

The 114th left Goodenough Island on 5 January 1944 and moved by Liberty Ship (a small freighter manufactured in the US in 30 days or less) to another staging area, Cape Cretin, New Guinea (also known as Finschhafen), arriving the next day. The battalion then moved by ship with an infantry regiment (approximately 1,700 soldiers) to Saidor, New Guinea arriving on 39 January. This was the first “hop” of MacArthur’s “bypass strategy” of hopping over large Japanese posts and attacking in undefended positions thereby causing the Japanese to pull back further north or risk being cut off altogether. The bypass strategy worked because the Army Air Corps and the Navy were supporting MacArthur’s troops at this time more than the Japanese Navy and Air Forces were supporting their soldiers and rikusentai [marines].

On one occasion, two low-flying, four-engined hikotei (flying boats) came in over the sea and dropped bombs near Dad’s location. Several soldiers were injured. One man had his legs blown off. Dad and some other men found him and propped him up against a tree and told him he was going to be all right. Someone applied a tourniquet and they waited for a stretcher to come but there was a lot going on and a stretcher was not immediately available. The wounded man asked for a cigarette, but was reminded that he didn’t smoke. He said “oh yeah” and then slumped over and died. Dad remembered it because it was a very strange death.

One time, Dad was repairing a piece of equipment in the jungle by himself. A P-47 fighter aircraft flew nearby in obvious distress. The plane smoked and dropped into the jungle. Dad drove to where he believed it went down and was the first to reach it. He said the plane was unique because the people of the City of St. Louis had donated money to pay for the aircraft and the plane was painted in a special scheme because of that. The young pilot was dead and his helmeted head was leaning against the instrument panel. There was nothing Dad could do for him. It is likely this took place near Saidor.

The 114th Battalion landed at Aitape, specifically the village of Nor, on 3 May 1944. The main landing at Aitape by the infantry had occurred on 22 April 1944. Heavy rains the day before the battalion landed had wiped out some of the bridge construction already started, flooded streams and required extensive repair of roads. The battalion proceeded to construct and maintain roads, bridges and trails and assisted in organising beachhead facilities in all sectors of the Aitape–Tadji area.[5]

I once asked my father the question every boy asked their father who had served in a war – did you shoot anyone? His answer was so honest that it confirmed that everything else he ever told me was truthful – that he had shot at snipers or into bunkers or nests where Japanese soldiers were at the same time that other American soldiers fired. Afterwards they found the Japanese soldiers dead but had no way of knowing who had fired the bullet that killed them. This answer also opened up to me a new view that the battlefield was not exactly as the movies depicted.

Dad returned to the US in June 1944 and was stationed near Washington, DC. Within 2 months of his stateside arrival he suffered an attack of malaria and was sent for six months to an Army hospital in the mountains of North Carolina. He was very thin, he had fungal infections and the malaria racked him with sudden fevers and chills. Still, looking back on his time in the hospital, he later described this as, except for the malaria attacks, the best six months of his life. He received the best food to eat – milk, bananas and other fruits which were hard to come by during the war – he had no military responsibilities and his only directive was to play baseball and basketball to regain strength. By the end of the six months, he won a physical fitness test among 180 soldiers in the hospital.

He was discharged from the hospital and sent back to DC by train. Unbeknownst to him, his brother had been medically discharged from the Navy and was taking the same train back east. When they unexpectedly bumped into each other on the train, they had not seen each other for more than 3 years. This reunion, in March 1945, was one of the few highlights of the war for the Bagley family. Dad returned to his post in an engineering school and taught trainees construction for the jungle.

In August 1945, Dad appeared on a radio program in New York City entitled “Weapons for Victory”. He appeared with a woman who had lost her son in the war but continued to work in a factory manufacturing war equipment of a kind Dad had put to use in New Guinea (hence the title of the program). The program encouraged factory workers and others contributing to the war effort to stick to their jobs. Shortly afterwards, on VJ Day, 2 September 1945 he was discharged from the Army. He arrived home in Chelsea, Massachusetts expecting a big welcome, but his family was at the seashore, enjoying a holiday weekend, ignorant of his homecoming. He spent his first days back in civilian life home alone. His parents and two sisters soon returned and gave him a proper welcome. His mother asked what he had missed the most, fully expecting the name “Mother” to come from his lips. He replied, “the refrigerator”.

Dad became a civilian construction superintendent, building highways and preparing sites for buildings all over the eastern United States from the 1940s until the 1980s. He suffered malaria attacks into the 1950s. He married and had five sons. He passed away at home in June 1987 at age 68 after a full day’s work.


1. Samuel Milner, Victory in Papua, (Washington, DC 1957), 134.
2. George C. Kenny, General Kenny reports (New York:1949).
3. 114th Engineer Combat Bn, Report of Engineer Operations in Papuan Campaign, quoted in Karl C. Dod, The corps of engineers: The war against Japan, (Washington, DC 1966).
4. Lida Mayo, Bloody Buna, (Garden City, NY 1974), 17; Milner, Victory, 60–61, 68, 69.
5. Robert R. Smith, The approach to the Philippines (Washington, DC 1953).

Printed on 06/25/2022 08:41:25 PM