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The 38th Enginner combat Regiment and the building of Ascension Airfield   

On 14 March 1942 at approximately 0910 hours the USAT Coamo, the supply ship Luchenback and destroyer escorts, departed Charleston, South Carolina, for parts unknown. On board were personnel and equipment of the following units:

38th Engineer Combat Regiment                     46  Officers       1141 Enlisted members

426th CA (AA) Sep. Bn. Battery "A"                   6  Officers         148 Enlisted members

175th Station Hospital                                         8 Officers           65 Enlisted members

692nd Signal Corps Air Warning Detachment       1 Officer            7 Enlisted members

Ordinance Detachment                                         1 Officer           13 Enlisted members

Postal Section                                                       0 Officer             2 enlisted members

Finance detachment                                             1 Officer             7 Enlisted members

Quartermaster Detachment                                  1 Officer            40 enlisted members

Army Airways Communication Section                 0 Officer             9 Enlisted members

and equipment for the Army Ferry Command, but no personnel.

These personnel and equipment were what was designated as "Task Force 4612", code name "Agate". The USAT Coamo and its destroyer escort sailed on for 15 hours, then, at approximately 2400 hours, loud explosions were heard. The accompanying destroyers were dropping depth charges. After this incident they sailed for another three days, then on 17 March at approximately 0345 hours, another submarine scare caused more depth charges to be dropped.

On 24 March at approximately 1545 hours the Task Force crossed the equator. On 26 March they entered the Harbor of Recife, Brazil. Here they spent the whole day taking on fuel and supplies. They departed on 27 March with a new naval escort consisting of the cruisers "Omaha" and "Cincinnati".

During the afternoon of 30 March the towering profile of Ascension Island loomed out of the South Atlantic Horizon. This was the moment all personnel on board had been anticipating. Here their first mission would begin. As the ships approached the anchorage, numerous volcanoes could be seen. Towering above all these was a large green tipped mountain. This mountain (Green Mountain) had the only foliage to be found on the island at that time.

Ascension is a volcanic island. It is approximately seven miles long and four miles wide. With the exception of Green Mountain, the island was covered with dust and a thick layer of cinders. The tropical vegetation on Green Mountain was the only bright spot to be found. Large rocks and the volcanic hills prevented the passage of vehicles and made it very difficult to walk on.

Ascension Island was of British rule with the British Wireless and Cable Company being in charge. Only two locations were inhabited at the time. Georgetown was on the lower ground and was where the BW and CC station, offices, pier, warehouse and homes of their employees were located. Green Mountain was inhabited by farmers and their servants (natives of St. Helena) who performed all the manual labor required. Vegetables and fruits were grown here for those employed by the BW and CC.

The U.S.A.T Coamo anchored in Clarence Bay at 1500 hours on 30 March and the first landing party to go ashore were LTC. Robert E. Coughlin and a selected staff, using the Island Magistrates motor launch. A plan for disembarking and establishing a base of operations had been worked out in advance, and the assignments where as follows:

The First Battalion was to unload the ships, the first being the U.S.A.T. Coamo and then the freighter Luchenback. Co. "A" was to transfer the cargo to the barges. Co. "B" was to unload the freighter Pan Royal, another supply ship which had preceded The Task Force and had arrived the day previous. Co. "C" was to take over operations of all motor launches, barges, and lighters.  The 2nd Battalion would handle the operation of the dock machinery and the handling and disposition of the freight.

Freighter Luchenback  Photo.

Freighter Pan Royal. Photo

At approximately 1700 hours on 30 March, the 2nd Battalion started moving ashore. Motor launches from the cruisers, "Omaha" and "Cincinnati", were used for the movement. The smaller of the diesel powered launches could carry 10- 20 men, and the larger 20-30 men. The transfer of troops was completed at approximately 2100 hours.

The 2nd Battalion established their bivouac area on the beach at Clarence Bay. This part of the beach was about a mile from the pier, and became their temporary encampment during the unloading of the ships, and until permanent facilities were made available.

The 2nd Battalion and Regimental Headquarters personnel began working on the major projects while the 1st Battalion continued unloading the ships. Roads were constructed so that supplies could be taken to the proper locations. Work on the airfield began, A camp site was set up, and as steel plates came ashore, the tanks were erected.

At the outset, labor was pooled and different task were assigned to individual officers who were best fitted for the particular job. There was no organizational assignment at all. This proved to be a very wise decision.

Cut and fill, involving cinders and rock, consisted of moving 380,000 cubic yards of material. Considerable rock was encountered, and during the nine weeks of blasting, thirty-five tons of TNT and 13,000 blasting caps were used. Only one runway was necessary as the wind blew constantly in one direction. On 10 July 1942 the first plane landed. The asphalt runway was 6,000 feet long and 150 wide, with 50 foot shoulders; also three taxi strips, splinter proof bunkers, and parking aprons were constructed.

The gasoline system consisted of the installation of eight 11,000 barrel tanks, ten 25,000 gallon tanks, four miles of 8 inch welded pipe, 2,200 feet of submarine 8 inch pipe, necessary pumps, and four miles of 4 inch pipe. The submarine pipeline was floated out and laid on the sea floor on 3 June, using all available manpower on the island to lift and carry the line seaward. The 8 inch line leading from the beach to the tank farm was completed on 10 July. The erection and welding of the 11,000 barrel tank was completed 30 June. The ten 25,000 gallon tanks were installed at the airfield on 17 June.

Carpentry and building construction consisted of the construction of a hospital, airfield support buildings, and various odd buildings scattered around the island. In all, approximately thirty 20' X 100' buildings were constructed. A nose hanger was also constructed. Tents were floored, boxed screen latrines were built, and a Radar station were erected.

The water system was a very vital installation, because all fresh water had to be obtained by distillation of the sea water. By proper conservation, it was possible for each man to have one quart of fresh water daily exclusive of the water for the kitchen.

Power for the camp and airfield came from a 55 KVA generator. 5 KVA generators were situated at other locations on the island.

Considerable road work was accomplished during this period. This amounted to new construction in most cases. The drainage was no problem and there was usually a good base to begin with. One soldier received the "Soldiers Medal" for heroism while operating a bulldozer on the Green Mountain road.

Camouflage was another separate assignment. It consisted of painting all buildings with different colors of camouflage paint to break up the outlines. The runway was naturally camouflaged, due to the way it blended in with the surrounding lava beds. The tank farm was camouflaged by the use of nets draped over them down to the fire walls that surrounded the tanks. These walls were around twenty-five in height. Before departing, 5 officers and 198 enlisted men were selected to form the 898th Engineer Aviation Company (Separate) to remain on the island and continue to improve and support these facilities.

One staff officer also remained behind to over see the unloading of 100,000 gallons of gasoline and test the system. He would rejoin the Regiment by air at a later date.

Around the first of August, the Regiment started cleaning, conducted inventories and prepared for deployment to their next mission. On 19 August 1942, the Regiment sailed from the Ascension Island aboard the USAT James Parker, destination Central Africa.

US Army Transport COAMO. On 1 December 1942, the Coamo (Master Nels Helgesen) left the convoy MKF-3 about 150 miles west of Ireland on orders of the British Admiralty and proceeded independently when on route from Gribraltar for New York.  At 20.18 hours on 2 Dec, 1942, U-604 fired one torpedo from 800 yards at the Coamo, which was proceeding at 17.5 knots.

The torpedo struck under the bridge and caused her to sink in about five minutes. The ship had eleven officers, 122 crewmen, 37 armed guards and 16 US Army passengers on board.  None of the 186 people on board survived the sinking. This was the greatest single loss of a merchant crew on any US Flag merchant vessel during the Second World War.




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