Building a jungle airstrip for the Chindits

Operation 'Thursday' - March 1944: Engineers prepare a runway at the airstrip code-named 'Broadway'.

Operation ‘Thursday’ – March 1944: Engineers prepare a runway at the airstrip code-named ‘Broadway’.

 The completed landing strip at the airstrip code-named 'Broadway'. An American Sentinel L5 liaison aircraft is on the runway.

The completed landing strip at the airstrip code-named ‘Broadway’. An American Sentinel L5 liaison aircraft is on the runway.

The Chindit Operations in Burma continued, over 18,000 men were now engaged in the deep penetration of Japanese occupied territory. They were operating from a number of strongpoints in the jungle which were fortified against attack. Each contained an airstrip by which they could be supplied and from where casualties were evacuated. Now another base was being established, forcing the Japanese to spread their efforts even further.

The US 900th Airborne Engineer Aviation Company were responsible for building the airstrips that allowed the resupply of the Chindits. It was hazardous work. The men on the ground had to build a rudimentary airstrip with the tools at hand, sufficient for the Engineers to land in gliders, bringing with them the heavy equipment necessary to build a landing ground good enough for transport planes.

1st Lieutenant Andrulonis was one of the engineers despatched to build the last of the airstrips, codenamed Blackpool, originally designated ‘Clydeside':

Two C-47’s of the First Air commando Group landed at [Lalaghat], bringing news of “CLYDESIDE” mission. We immediately loaded one bulldozer, one Case tractor, one grader, and one carry-all, and took off. S/Sgt. Tierney, Cpl. Jones, T/5 Hybarger, and Pfc’s Lovelace and Fisher together with myself comprised the engineering personnel. My ‘dozer loaded glider was the first to take off for what proved to be a smooth uneventful flight, arriving over the site at 0615 [9 May] in broad daylight.

We had difficulty in locating the strip, no expected support ground troops were to be seen even after one pass up the valley. During our search for the strip the second glider had arrived, and spotting the field he cut loose. Still on our approach we sweated out his landing – everything seemed under control until he was about 100 feet up – then we watched as he stalled out and nosed straight down! A second later my pilot [FO Marlyn O. Satrom] cut loose. We settled back and braced ourselves for the initial shock – we hit with a bump, raced along for a second or two, then came to a screeching stop.

British troops rushed out of the jungle to give us a hand – landing gear washed out, wing collapsed, we had overrun the field knocking out a few bunds. No casualties – all ropes held, the dozer never moved an inch. The next gliders landed in adjoining paddy fields – washing out their landing gear – and never touching the “strip”! The glider that nosed in, killing both pilots [1LT Donald A. Lefevre and FO Hadley D. Baldwin], contained Pfc’s Fisher and Lovelace – both injured – and the grader, completely demolished.

The site for the C-47 strip was laid out in paddy-land nearest the hills approximating the British stronghold, with miles of clear approach on one end. The other end was obstructed by 30 yds of tall trees so it was decided that a one-way approach would suffice. From this end ran terraced paddy land with 6” to 1’ variation in elevation which after 2500’ ended in an abrupt 5’ drop – to continue in terraced paddy land for 1400’.

The first day Cpl. Jones and I alternated on the ‘dozer, assisted by 50 British with pick and shovels. By noon we had a rough liaison strip ready, expecting light planes which never arrived.

At 0200 hrs on May 10th, S/Sgt. Tierney and T/5 Hybarger whose glider had failed to take-off, crash landed with the carry-all. Since they were not expected only air-drop fires were lit – their only landing target! Tierney slightly wounded, and Hybarger shaken up, the carry-all arrived in good condition.

By 1900 hrs 2400 ft had been roughly graded, and that night three C-47’s arrived – all good landings. At 0400 hrs a First Air Commando C-47 landed on a 3600’ rain soaked field, rolling over the graded depression (done with only bulldozer and carry-all) so our worries were over. That day the newly arrived grader did wonders smoothing the entire runway, while the dozer and carry-all continued to fill in the depression, minimizing the grade.

That afternoon we were grading the last paddies on the end of the field, when we heard shells dropping a short distance away beyond the woods. My men continued work. After five or six exploded, each closer and closer, a British runner told us to hit for cover – it was a Jap 75 mm!

The barrage lasted about an hour – we inspected the results after dark. The C-47, apparently their target, had been riddled with shrapnel, the dispersal area suffered 15 craters. Shrapnel also put our Case tractor, carry-all, and ‘dozer out of commission.

That night I sent Lovelace out on a C-47, he had performed admirably after bruising and shock, in the landing which had killed both pilots and by now appeared fatigued. Twenty transports landed that night without mishap – and inspection of the runway the following morning showed it to be in perfect condition – hardly a trace of indentation where tires had touched in initial impact on landing.

The next day, May 13th, we continued smoothing the field pulling the grader with the jeep. … Transports began landing about 2100 hrs that night. About 2115 hrs Jap ground troops attacked the rear of our stronghold position. In the midst of a pitched battle we were ordered out at 2230 hrs taking off in a C-47 to return to base.

See Burma Star for much more on the US 900th Airborne Engineer Aviation Company. Chindit Files has a collection of Chindit photographs

Wing Commander J Burbury DFC AFC RAF who commanded one of the squadrons supplying the Chindits in the jungle.

Wing Commander J Burbury DFC AFC RAF who commanded one of the squadrons supplying the Chindits in the jungle.

A reluctant mule is coaxed into a transport aircraft in India. Mules were used extensively to carry supplies for the Chindits while behind enemy lines in the jungle.

A reluctant mule is coaxed into a transport aircraft in India. Mules were used extensively to carry supplies for the Chindits while behind enemy lines in the jungle.

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