The 38th Engineers embark on an ‘endless’ 90-day tour.
Comparisons of the 38th Regimental Combat Team to the unfortunate crew and passengers of the SS Minnow (the ill-fated tour boat from the 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island, shipwrecked on an uncharted Pacific island) are not as farfetched as one might think. In early 1942, the so-called 38th Engineers began what was supposed to be a 90-day excursion to Ascension Island, just off the west coast of Africa. They were scheduled to return to the United States when their short stint there ended, but the assignment turned into a drawn-out tour of duty that kept the men away from home for years and involved additional stops in Africa, England and—as part of Operation Overlord—France.
On May 28, 1941, the regiment was activated at Fort Jackson, S.C., with 52 officers, three warrant officers and 1,440 enlisted men. A cadre of Regular Army personnel provided some veteran leadership, but the bulk of the unit’s strength included draftees hailing mainly from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama.
The 38th participated in the Carolina maneuvers as part of I Corps in the fall of 1941. During the maneuvers, the regiment got experience in constructing roads, bridges and culverts, and performing pipe and electrical wire installation, road maintenance, engineer reconnaissance, bridge mining and land mine operations. On December 1, less than a week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 38th returned to Fort Jackson.
In early February 1942, the regiment received orders that it soon would be responsible for a construction job on a volcanic island code-named “Agate,” which, unknown to the members of the 38th, was Ascension. After loading all necessary equipment onto ships—including 75 tons of dynamite—the 38th departed for Ascension on March 14. The transport ships carrying the engineers were accompanied by U.S. Navy destroyers Ellis and Greer, as well as the cruiser Cincinnati. The convoy followed a circuitous route to Ascension, traveling first to Brazil for fuel before heading across the Atlantic Ocean.
On March 30 the ships finally dropped anchor at Ascension, a mere speck in the ocean—71⁄2 miles long and 6 miles wide. The island, a British possession, claimed in 1939 to be home to only 159 inhabitants. The 38th was informed that its assignments would include constructing a 6,000-foot runway for an airfield and erecting a hospital and water treatment facility, in addition to drilling freshwater wells, raising other accessory buildings, and constructing storage tanks for water and a minimum of 77,000 barrels of aviation fuel. Even before work on the projects was launched, officials decided to name the airstrip “Wideawake Field.”
It took the unit 27 days simply to unload the equipment, but once construction commenced, progress was good. The work was not without risk, though, as the 38th suffered three early fatalities—two members drowned after being swept off the island by large waves, and a third victim was electrocuted.
The men’s morale was also affected when they didn’t receive mail for several weeks. Finally, 97 sacks of mail arrived on May 12, but rather than being mail from home, it was U.S. Army pamphlets outlining the proper methods of conducting Arctic warfare.
Although there was no enemy activity on the island, the 38th did notice German U-boats in the waters surrounding the island, and its anti-aircraft crew erred in firing on a passing British plane.
Rations ran dangerously short after a scheduled supply ship failed to arrive. The ship reportedly had been torpedoed off the coast of Brazil, although it was later determined that it had not been the victim of enemy fire. The men of the 38th quickly adapted to their surroundings, however, and began devouring fish, including tuna, that they snared off the coast.
One bizarre episode unfolded after they caught a 600-pound sea turtle, which unit cooks promptly converted into soup and steaks. The men quickly discovered, however, that the turtles prowling off the Ascension coast were considered wards of the Crown—and the stuffy British bureaucrats took the designation seriously, quickly filing a claim that the United States make financial restitution for the devoured turtle. In the wake of the ludicrous turtle caper, the 38th Engineers turned their attention to harpooning porpoises to be used for rations. Their efforts rendered dividends when the hungry men hauled in and consumed a pair of porpoises, weighing approximately 1,000 pounds combined.
Wideawake Field was ready for air traffic by July, and on the 10th a Consolidated B-24 dubbed Our Kissin Cousin was the first plane to land at the facility. By July 19, Allied bombers began making regular arrivals and departures on Ascension en route to bombing runs in North Africa.
With Wideawake Field now a veritable beehive of activity, the 38th received notice that it would not be heading home. Rather, its next assignment would be the construction of utilities and buildings, such as hospitals, and the operation of airfields in Pointe Noire, French Equatorial Africa, as well as in Leopoldville and Elizabethville in the Belgian Congo. Although some members remained behind to continue maintenance tasks at Wideawake Field, the vast majority of the 38th departed via ship on August 18, 1942, for an extended stay on mainland Africa. On August 25 the unit, now numbering less than 1,000, disembarked in the Belgian Congo and established its headquarters in Leopoldville.
Early in its stay in the Belgian Congo, the 38th was ordered to construct a southern access route for pilots headed for, or returning from, bombing runs over North Africa. The progress of the Allies was still unclear, but by the time the engineers exited Africa, the tide of the conflict had positively shifted, and the 38th was assigned the task of completing a northern route for Allied pilots.
In contrast with Ascension and its lack of adequate provisions, in Africa the 38th faced no supply problems and frequently received too much food
While in Africa, members of the team found themselves in such divergent areas that a round trip to each of the detachments covered approximately 5,000 miles. The regiment completed assignments not only in the Belgian Congo and French Equatorial Africa but also in Kenya, Gold Coast, Nigeria, Senegal and Morocco. In December 1942, the 38th transferred its headquarters from Leopoldville to Dakar on the westernmost tip of Africa, where the regiment’s function continued to be the building and modernizing of airstrips and many related facilities at Rufisque airport.
Construction in Africa was a relatively benign endeavor for the 38th, although three men were lost to truck accidents. The unit remained there until December 8, 1943, before departing for Liverpool, England. The regiment was soon sent to its new quarters in Ogburn, St. George, where it finally gained an affiliation and was assigned to Southern Base Section. Since its departure from the United States, the 38th had been serving as an unattached task force.
Once situated in St. George, the regiment began construction of hutted camps, summer and winter tented camps, and utilities to service the camps. As of April 15, however, all construction activities were ordered ceased, and the 38th commenced training for Operation Neptune. The regiment learned that it would be responsible for operations on “Sugar Red Beach,” including building roads and bridges. The unit, though, was unaware of the specifics for the impending invasion of Normandy or of plans for it to land on Utah Beach as part of Operation Overlord.
For its training, the 38th was given a replica of a Utah Beach sea wall and charged with blowing a hole large enough for the passage of a tank. Through trial and error, the engineers determined that 750 pounds of explosives were needed.
When D-Day finally dawned on June 6, 1944, a 12-man advance detachment from the 38th Engineers landed on Utah Beach with the third wave of GIs at 8 a.m. The balance of the regiment was slated to follow on D-plus-2. When the detachment landed, it received sporadic fire from German mortars and artillery, which killed one soldier, but overall the 38th was fortunate it had missed its projected landing beach by about one mile to the south, thereby alighting in a less heavily defended area. Among the regiment’s responsibilities once it had established a foothold on Utah was to guide tanks through areas flooded by the Germans.
The 38th also was responsible for maintaining bridges and roads, clearing minefields and draining flooded acreage. The men built a series of eight locks, but it still took more than a month to drain the floodwater. In addition, they removed about 8,500 land mines of various types and were charged with cutting through hedgerows, operating an asphalt premix plant and constructing a staging area at Valognes. Within a couple of months, the 26th, 44th, 102nd and 104th Infantry divisions, in addition to the 10th Armored Division and 75,000 nonassigned troops, passed through that staging area.
The regiment even assumed the role of firefighting after a beach ammunitions dump caught fire on July 12, 1944. The engineers dodged exploding ordnance and extinguished the blaze by pushing dirt on the flames with bulldozers. For their efforts, three members of the 38th received the Soldier’s Medal.
On October 31, the regiment was relieved of its duties on the Normandy beaches, moving near Rouen and Le Havre for construction and operation of an assembly area. The engineers built a 5,000-man POW enclosure and started work on a camp designed to accommodate up to 25,000 incoming troops at a time, in the vicinity of Duclair. The camp’s construction, and other projects such as clearing minefields and booby traps, kept the engineers busy until early December 1944, when the 38th relocated near Bosc le Hard, where its headquarters remained until almost the end of the war.
Shortly after V-E Day, some high-point troops of the 38th were rotated home and discharged. By the fall of 1945, only one officer and 25 enlisted men remained with the unit in France, a small contingent that finally returned stateside in March 1946. The unit was officially deactivated on March 14, 1946, at Camp Kilmer, N.J.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.