The start of World War II saw the balance of power in North Africa divided between the French on the west and the Italians and British in the east. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936 marked the opening of a new and bloody era in the history of North Africa which was to continue until May 12, 1943, the day that saw the final capitulation of the last remnants of the Axis forces in that area.
The Mediterranean Area
British and Axis armies struggled for two years in a see-saw brand of warfare across the sands and desert wastes of Libya and Egypt to gain control of the transport lines of the Mediterranean and the traffic routes of the Suez Canal. The entry of the United States into the war found the Axis forces capturing Bengasi and opening a drive which pushed the British back to El Alamein, just 27 miles west of Alexandria and the Suez Canal. Here, the British stood throughout the summer of 1942, while the United States shipped nearly a billion dollars' worth of supplies, planes, tanks, and armored trucks to its ally.
In October 1942, the Allies launched a full-scale drive that cleared Axis forces from Egypt and pursued them into western Libya. Timed with this drive, on November 7, 1942, a powerful American force landed on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coast of the French colonies in the west. This was called "the greatest amphibious operation in history," and was launched from an invasion armada of 850 vessels which split to strike the African coast at Casablanca, at Oran, and at Algiers, simultaneously.
The mission of the Navy in this campaign, as in any campaign, was to transport safely the Army and its materials across the open sea, to provide adequate offshore protection for our supply lines afloat and our forces ashore, and, at the same time, to prevent the enemy navy from performing this same function in behalf of its own war effort.
As soon as the initial assault was concluded and land became available, it became necessary to establish bases at which the ships of the Navy could put in for fuel, munitions, and supplies, and could obtain repairs from battle and operative damage, and from which, as the front progressed, additional assaults could be launched or supported.
Included in the invasion forces at Casablanca were members of the second section of the 17th Construction Battalion, later augmented by the second section of the 53rd Construction Battalion and reformed to constitute the 120th Construction Battalion. Early in 1943, in the Oran area, the 54th Battalion was put ashore at the town of Arzeu, which is approximately 30 miles east of the city of Oran, but connected with it by a fine highway. Other members of the 17th Battalion landed at the Moroccan ports of Fedala and Safi. These were the only full battalions which were ordered to the Mediterranean area, as most shore establishments were to be constructed and manned by the Army.
The primary function of these units was to cooperate with the Army in establishing a port of entry and in clearing invasion damage. The initial movements of material and construction personnel were held to a minimum in view of the uncertainty of the enterprise at that time.
As success crowned our efforts and the campaign continued, additional men and materials were sent for the construction of adequate naval facilities. In April 1943, the 70th Construction Battalion left the United States for Arzeu. In the French Moroccan area, the gateway, as it were, to North Africa, a complete naval operating base was set up in and about the city of Casablanca. At the same time at Port Lyautey, which lies approximately 75 miles north, toward the Strait of Gibraltar, a naval air station (with blimp facilities for submarine detection) and an advanced amphibious training base were built. At Agadir, several hundred miles to the south, an additional naval air facility was established. Section bases were established at Fedala and Safi.
Eastward in Algeria, the Oran area was developed
Naval Supply Depot and Camp, Oran
into a major ship-repair base, with vast hospital facilities and storage areas. Originally a major French naval base, utilizing one of the few harbors offered by the peculiar shoreline of northwestern Africa, Oran was a natural site for an operating base for our fleet units in the western Mediterranean and as a base for supplying those forces which were soon to conduct amphibious operations against Sicily and, finally, Italy and France.
After the enemy had been completely forced out of Africa, in May 1943, various training bases, in preparation for the assaults soon to be launched across the Mediterranean, were established at Bizerte, Tunis, and Ferryville in Tunisia, and at Mers-el-Kabir, Beni-Saf, and Tenes in Algeria.
The small Algerian towns of Cherchel, Bone, Nemours, and Mostaganem, sites used as assembly points for the formation of the mighty Allied invasion armadas, became the scene of practice invasions. Detachments from the 54th, 70th, and 120th Construction Battalions were responsible for whatever naval establishments were required, but these towns required little in the way of installations. A ship's salvage unit, a naval radio station, and a fuel depot were established in Algiers, which was also the site of the headquarters of Vice Admiral H.K. Hewitt, USN, Commander Naval Forces in Northwest African Waters. It was at Oran and vicinity that most of the construction work was done by the Seabees in Algeria.
Oran, with a pre-war population of 200,000 the capital and principal seaport of Algeria, lies almost on the Greenwich meridian on the north coast of Algeria. The city proper occupies a shelf about 450 feet above the level of the Mediterranean and commands a well-protected harbor where large ships may anchor. The port had been well developed by the French as one of their major naval stations. The harbor at Mers-el-Kabir, 5 miles west of Oran, is similarly large and well protected; the one at Arzeu, 30 miles east of Oran, is adequate for ships drawing 20 feet. The entire area, serviced by excellent highways, was destined to play a large and vital role in our winning of the Mediterranean.
The principal sources of water in North Africa were wells of many types, each requiring different equipment. In Oran, most of the wells were deep and required deep-well turbine pumps. Although
all water from the wells was contaminated and had excessive hardness, nevertheless, it was infinitely superior to that distributed throughout the city lines since the city supply had a saline content which made it unsuitable for drinking. Consequently, the water-supply requirements for the American forces were taken over from the local authorities and operated by the United States military forces under proper medical supervision.
Naval Receiving Station, Oran
Available areas for Navy housing, storage, and supply were limited. Consequently, it was necessary to take over various buildings in scattered locations throughout the city and in some cases, in order to simplify distribution and control, to erect temporary buildings. In one instance, in order to provide adequate supply-storage space, the Navy was forced to construct a supply depot. The 120th Battalion erected this depot, utilizing 56 standard 40-by-100-foot utility buildings. By combining two for each building, end to end, twenty-eight 200-foot warehouses were obtained. Three 20-by-48-foot quonset huts were erected for general storage and one 40-by-200-foot quonset was erected for the receiving of shipping. Proper electric lighting and heating provisions were made; proportionate outside storage space was graded; and concrete access roads were built.
In addition, storage facilities were taken over in approximately 14 other locations in the city. These, however, were all excellent buildings and required only minor modifications of the structures. It was necessary, however, to construct refrigerator storehouses in the port area. Two storehouses were erected, each of approximately 48,000 cubic feet, of cinder-block construction with concrete flooring and tile roof. These were the only permanent-type Navy structures erected in Oran.
The next large building program undertaken was that of a camp for a navy supply depot. This work was performed chiefly by the 70th and 120th Battalions. The camp, south of Oran, consisted of 81 quonset huts, adequately supplied with city power and sewage disposal facilities, and, with the aid of additional tents, at one period housed as many as 1,500 personnel.
Mobile Hospital Camp, Oran
A 500-bed hospital (U.S. Navy Base Hospital 9), constructed by the 120th Battalion, 3 miles south of Oran, consisted of 110 quonset huts. The hospital was equipped with ample electric power, water supply, and sewerage systems. Covered concrete walks connected the huts.
Adjacent to the base camp, a receiving station for 1,500 was erected, consisting of 75 quonset huts. The receiving station obtained its own electric energy from advance-base-type electric generators, and shared the water supply system jointly with the hospital. The electric power in the city of Oran was 50-cycle, 110-volt; and due to the inability of the power companies to expand during the active years of the war, the reliability of the French system was not good. The U.S. Army took over
Pontoon Causeway About to Go Over the Side of an LST, Arzeu
control of the powerhouse and dictated which lines were to be cut out when necessary. Under such conditions, it was of real importance that standby electric power be provided at most places and that advance-base-type electric generators be fully utilized at others.
In Oran, the 120th Battalion erected a 124-tent camp for its own use and constructed 17 quonset huts for general usage such as ship';s stores, mess halls, etc. At St. Remy, a small town approximately 10 miles southeast of Oran, the 120th built an ammunition depot consisting of 29 magazines.
In Mers-el-Kabir a standard quonset hut was set up for use in ground attack teaching. Other operations there were housed in renovated requisitioned buildings.
In Arzeu, 148 quonset huts were erected for housing personnel. Incorporated within the area were complete galley, dispensary, and allied facilities. Various necessary buildings were acquired by the Navy from the French through the medium of the U.S. Army. These acquisitions were made under the provisions of Lend-Lease agreements.
Upon the completion of the organization of the base at Oran, CBMU 513 was ordered to the base to care for maintenance, repairs, and transportation.
CBMU 513, consisting of one officer and 100 enlisted men, arrived in Oran on August 14, 1943. It worked with the 120th Battalion, until June 3, 1944, when the 120th returned to the United States and the 513th CBMU, whose complement had been increased to 228 enlisted men and five officers on March 9, 1944, took over the entire camp unit. On June 15, 1945, CBMU 513 was relieved by CBMU 626, which was soon relieved, in turn, by a small detachment of CBMU 567.
On October 14, 1943, Detachment 1017, a stevedore company, composed of five officers and 254 enlisted men, arrived at the naval supply depot in Oran. Its prime function was to ease the stevedoring burdens of the Army at Oran harbor.
After V-E Day, our need for Oran disappeared, and the port was gradually returned to the French. On June 26, 1945, the receiving station was decommissioned, and, on month later, so was the naval station. On July 29, 1945, the operating base was disestablished as such and reorganized as a naval detachment. The naval magazine was disestablished September 7, 1945. On September 20, 1945, Commander Naval Forces, Northwest African Waters, proposed to the Chief of Naval Operations that the naval supply depot, Base Hospital 9, and the medical storehouse be decommissioned on September 30, 1945, leaving a naval detachment to assume custody of all surplus, pending final disposition.
By October 22, 1945, all stores, with the exception of medical supplies, had been concentrated in a single group of warehouses. Medical supplies were stored in a fireproof building in town. Pools of excess motor vehicles and heavy construction equipment were being maintained at harborside and transfers were being made to the Army whenever ship space became available. All stores were boxed, inventoried, and ready for sale. Sales to the French Provisional Government had amounted to $328,851.12 as of October 6, 1945. Oran surpluses of both real and personal property amounted to $6,946,209, of which $6,694,209 had been reported to the Office of Foreign Liquidations Committee. Representative of this group estimated that disposal of all surpluses could be effected within 60 days of receipt of surplus declarations from the navy, permitting a satisfactory closeout by December 1, 1945.
All properties occupied by the Navy had been obtained by the Real Estate Section of the U.S. Army, and settlements were handled by the Army through reverse Lend-Lease.
The naval station at Arzeu was used in the early days of the war as an assembly point as well as an advance base. The base made a material contribution to the amphibious war in many ways. It was here that the 1005th and 1006th Detachments perfected the pontoon causeways which proved to be such a valuable contribution to the amphibious landings which later took place at Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio. It was here, also, that the methods of launching and beaching there causeways were developed.
The purpose of the pontoon causeways was to bridge approximately 500 feet of water between the LST's and the shore on the shallow beaches of Sicily and Italy. LST's would run aground about 500 feet from shore, but the water would still be 6 feet deep at their ramps, and there was a 300-foot stretch of water to be crossed before it was shallow enough for vehicles to "wade" to the beach, 30 inches of water being about the maximum depth at which our vehicles could operate in safety. Captain John N. Laycock, CEC, USN, deviser of the Navy pontoon, hit upon the idea of
using two 175-foot pontoon assembles and overlapping them. This made their combined length adjustable, strong enough to withstand surf action, and long enough to fill the 300-foot gap.
The causeways proved themselves in a demonstration at Narragansett Bay. Seabees rode on two strings of pontoons which an LST towed toward the beach. When the LST ran aground, the pontoon strings were cut adrift and continued the journey beachward under their own momentum. The forward end of the lead pontoon grounded in 2-foot water; the after end of the trailing pontoon had a line attached to the bow door of the LST. When the causeway was grounded, it was disconnected in the middle, and the trailing end pulled back to the ramp of the LST, in "slide-rule" fashion. When the entire length of water had been bridged, the two 175-foot sections were clamped together again, and the LST could be discharged.
This method was further perfected at Arzeu and Bizerte in that the pontoon strings were carried on the sides of the LST's, and dropped in the water just before the ship began its run to the beach. This permitted the LST to proceed to the scene of action at full speed. At Sicily, both methods were tried, but after that invasion, the method of towing the pontoon-strings was abandoned entirely.
CBD 1005 and CBD 1006 arrived at Arzeu early in May 1943, CBD 1005 set up headquarters, and CBD 1006 left a small unit on detached temporary duty at Arzeu, detachment headquarters being located at Bizerte.
On November 18, 1943, the 578th CBMU, composed of two officers and 100 enlisted men, was formed from the 70th Construction Battalion. This unit reported to Arzeu and conducted maintenance and public works functions until it was returned to the United States on January 17, 1945.
In May 1945, all naval installations not previously removed and transported to other American activities were transferred to the French under Lend-Lease.
Through the invasions of Sicily and Italy, Detachment 1006 used Bizerte as its base, spending the time between invasions perfecting the methods of "momentum beaching" of pontoon causeways and repairing battle-damaged pontoons. Detachment 1005 was assigned the job of constructing the 175-foot pontoon sections. During the month of June 1943, CBD 1005 moved its headquarters from Arzeu to Bizerte.
The base was decommissioned in May 1945. All naval installations, spare parts, and equipment were removed to other American activities except one 10,000-barrel steel tank, with fittings, which was turned over to the French Navy, under Lend-Lease arrangements. All leased and requisitioned property was returned to the owners.
Naval activities in French Morocco consisted of a naval air station at Port Lyautey, a naval operating base at Casablanca, an advance base at Agadir, and an air facility at Dakar.
NAS, Port Lyautey was located 2 miles north of the city. Prior to its occupation by United States forces, this station had been a permanent station of the French Naval Air Forces. Construction begun by the French in 1934 included among its installations two surfaced runways, two hangars, and a barracks for 500 men.
Occupancy by U.S. Forces began on November 10, 1942, when Army troops invaded Port Lyautey. The 21st Engineer Aviation Regiment was in charge of construction and improvement of facilities from that time until early February 1943, when the Navy assumed control. The 120th Seabees handled construction at the station after that date.
The Port Lyautey airfield was built upon an alluvial deposit of clay, fine sand, and silt, 12 feet above the average low-water elevation of the Sebou River. The maximum monthly high-water level was 41/2 feet below the average level of the field, making an elaborate system of underground drainage necessary. Two existing runways were extended to 6,000 feet and a seaplane ramp, pile-supported, was built. A seaplane pier of pontoons was also provided.
Electric power was obtained from two sources, a local utility and a Seabee-constructed central power plant on the station. A group of 50-kw and 75-kw diesel-operated generators was used. A camel barn, used by the French as a stable for the Camel Corps, and centrally located for power-distribution, was reconditioned. Concrete floors and bases for generators were built. Generators were set loose on the foundations with 2-inch cork-block cushions to prevent crawling and to facilitate easy removal for repair or replacement. All generators were synchronized and operated at 220 volts through
Airfield at Port Lyautey
Included facilities for landplanes and seaplanes, and temporary facilities for blimps
homemade switch panels, constructed by Seabees from material salvaged under War Shipping Administration authority, from Liberty ships at Gibraltar. Three 100-kva transformers were obtained from the Army to complete the station. Sixty-cycle three-phase power was distributed at 5,500 volts to most points on the station. Transformers allowed distribution of 220-volt or 110-volt current. The output of the station varied from 300 to 650 kilowatts, depending upon the needs.
An agreement between the city of Port Lyautey and the Navy provided that the base be furnished the required quantity of water. Dry periods during the summer months made water available for only 12 hours per day, with shut-off periods usually occurring at times when most needed. Moreover, the quality of this water was not satisfactory to the Medical Department, and a project was started to develop sufficient water from wells, dug within the confines of the base.
The French had attempted to develop water on the base, but the first well sunk produced only 45 gallons per minute. Seabee construction of wells in the immediate vicinity of the one dug by the French produced 250 gpm, and later, in 1945, a well was dug in the same general location, producing 750 gpm. A reservoir, in addition to the 55,000-gallon concrete tank installed by the French,
Hospital Area, Port Lyautey
Personnel barracks and messhall area in upper right
was provided by erection of 100 standard pontoon sections connected together.
Dredging had to be carried on twice a year to insure adequate deep water at the seaplane ramp and pier. The dredging was accomplished with the only dredge available in French Morocco. Approximately 65,000 cubic yards of dredging was accomplished yearly.
A 100-bed dispensary, including housing and diet-kitchen facilities, was completed on the station in April 1945. Units of five standard quonset huts were joined together in an H-shaped structure, with hollow-tile buildings providing connections under cover between quonsets. Hollow-tile buildings also housed the heating, plumbing, and reception services. The dispensary could be converted into a 166-bed hospital without too much crowding.
Warehouse facilities until early 1945 were located in the port area, 2 miles from the base. To provide adequate security against pilferage, new storehouses were built on the base itself. These were constructed of hollow tile or concrete-block sides, timber trusses, and red tile roofs. A large quonset hut was erected in the warehouse area to provide for paint storage. The new warehouse site was connected to the harbor area by rail.
Buildings constructed by the Seabees at Port Lyautey were sufficient to supply the housing and operational needs of an air station with an overall complement of 4,000 men. Some Arab labor was employed from the immediate vicinity. As many as 1,200 Italians were also used at one time on the base. Payment of Arab and Italian personnel was handled by the Army, but all administration and work assignment was under the control of Seabee officers.
Following the end of hostilities in Europe in May 1945, the Army Transport Command was ordered to set up a staging area at Port Lyautey for processing troops returning to the United States by air. Troops were to be flown from Europe by B-17, and processed at Port Lyautey for further transfer by C-47 to the United States.
This was known as the "Green Project," and called for a tremendous increase in facilities at the air station. In less than one month, the Seabees had completed the construction of new buildings for traffic, billeting, finance, personnel, weather communications, navigation, mess halls, and warehouses. The "Green Project" was characterized in Washington as "the most rapid route-capacity build-up in ATC history." Ten standard-size quonset huts were built for administration buildings; six over-size quonsets were constructed for post-exchange, mess hall, galley, Red Cross office, and warehouse; 4,900 lineal feet of 18-inch pipe were laid for sewerage; and 2,800 lineal feet of 4-inch pipe were laid in the construction of a water system. Pontoons were used to construct a 100,000-gallon water-storage reservoir.
Pontoon Crane in Action at Port Lyautey
Seabees helped raise the SS Belgien, scuttled in the Sebou River
The transfer of Agadir to the Army in July 1945, and the decommissioning of Casablanca in August 1945, left Port Lyautey as the only U.S. Naval activity in French Morocco. CBMU 566, which had relieved the 120th Battalion in the French Morocco area in February 1944, was decommissioned on November 15, 1945, and maintenance of Port Lyautey was then left to general service, with a CEC officer as Public Works Officer.
Agadir was established as an advanced aircraft base of Fleet Air Wing Fifteen in early April 1943, its mission being to establish an advance base for submarine patrol in the vicinity of lower French Morocco and the Canary Islands.
United States naval forces maintained operational control of the field.
Development of the Agadir base, performed by both Seabees and the French Public Works Department, involved an expenditure of $600,000 which was processed through reciprocal aid. The first improvement to the field was a 5,200-foot all-weather runway. Operations and billeting facilities were in tents until June 1943, when it became apparent that the Navy would remain in Agadir indefinitely, and permanent structures were built. These included storerooms, administration offices, class rooms, a control tower, and quarters and messing facilities for officers and enlisted men. All construction was of masonry and timber from local sources.
VP73 and Hedron 15 Personnel at Quarters, Agadir, Awaiting Distinguished Flying Cross Awards
Aircraft Maintenance Group Huts at Agadir
Note plane on ramp
Naval facilities at Agadir were turned over to Army Transport Command in June 1945.
When the Allied Forces invaded North Africa in November 1942, landings were made at Casablanca and a complete naval operating base was set up there. Construction of Casablanca shore facilities included establishment of barracks, galley and mess hall and a warehouse; building of additional barracks in a theatre; remodeling of a hospital; setting up of an ammunition depot; installment of radio facilities; maintenance of buildings taken over for officers' quarters; development of storage facilities; conversion of a fishing ramp into a small marine railway; construction fo a large ship-repair shop and assembly point for pontoon barges and cranes; construction of harbor entrance control posts and signal towers; development of water supply; oil line and tank construction; and maintenance of facilities.
This base, which served also as headquarters for the Morocco Sea Coast Frontier Forces, was maintained by Seabee crews until the order for decommissioning on August 1, 1945. Disposition of all equipment, facilities, and materials at Casablanca was simple; it was turned over to the Army, which assumed full responsibility for all future disposition of material or facilities. Seabee personnel engaged in maintenance of shore facilities at Casablanca were returned to Port Lyautey.
In the early stages of the invasion of North Africa, bases at Fedala and Safi were set up with comparable facilities on one-third of the scale of Casablanca. They served as section bases and were operated for only a short period of time.
Fedala and Safi
The general plans of the Allies called for the use of Sicily as a stepping stone to the European mainland. There was only one barrier to be hurdled first: the little island of Pantelleria stood midway between Tunisia and Sicily. General Carl Spaatz, Commander of the Northwest African Air Forces, attacked Pantelleria from the air. Less than a month after Tunisia fell, Pantelleria surrendered.
On July 10, 1943, our forces moved up from the African bases. With an invasion force of some 3200 landing-craft and ships, the Allies landed men and equipment on the southern side of Sicily. It was a perilous undertaking, with inclement weather adding to the difficulties. The landings were
Casablanca Dock Area and Harbor Entrance
Seabees rehabilitated the dockside are which had been damaged in the shelling of the Jean Bart,
berthed at the Mol du Commerce (left center background)
made between the cities of Licata and Syracuse, but after bitter resistance, our troops fanned out and within ten days held nearly half of the island; within 38 days the conquest of Sicily was complete.
Seabees played a vital role in the initial landings on Sicily as well as in subsequent consolidation and development of the island.
The amphibious invasion of Sicily presented a different problem from that of North Africa where the invaders had a choice of many landing beaches widely scattered between Algiers and Casablanca. Sicily had a few suitable beaches on the northern shore, which, to the enemy, was a logical place for the Allies to make an invasion attempt.
First Allied plans called for an assault on the northern shores of the island, east and west of Palermo. However, reconnaissance pictures showed that this was just what the enemy was expecting, and that formidable defenses were being built. Accordingly, the landings were made on the southern coast, where the wide shallow-water shelf had given the enemy a false sense of security. The 175-foot pontoon causeways perfected at Arzeu and Bizerte were the prime factor in permitting our forces to make the sally against the southern shores. The causeways were manned by three platoons from the 54th Construction Battalion, one platoon from the 1005th Construction Battalion Detachment, and twelve platoons from the 1006th Construction Battalion Detachment.
The causeway pontoons worked under tremendous difficulties caused by both the flat beach condition and the high winds. When the invasion fleet arrived off the Sicilian coast at 0200 on July 10, 1943, a five-foot surf was running around both Gela and Licata. The Germans were confident that
we would not attempt to land, and, indeed, the decisions as to whether or not to land hung in the balance for several hours.
Upon orders to go in, LST-389, carrying a causeway and a platoon of Seabees, opened her bow doors and lowered her ramp to let the DUKW's out. The high waves broke the ramp chains so that the bow doors could not be closed. The run to the beach had to be made under these conditions, the tank deck being two feet under water. All the lead LST's experienced similar difficulties, and Seabees left ashore were soaking wet and without food. During 23 days of round-the-clock work, the Seabees unloading more than 10,000 vehicles over the causeways.
One difficult operation prior to the actual landing was that of charting the channels, shoals, and bars at the landing points. Amphibious DUKW's and some depth-sounding devices were first employed for this work at Gela, Sicily. In a short time after leaving the LST's, the channels were charted and marked. One instance of the value of such a precaution occurred where a sand bar was located 150 yards from shore, at a depth of only 2 feet. However, just past the bar, the water deepened to 8 or 10 feet. Had landing boats started to unload on that bar, undoubtedly many lives would have been lost.
After the charting, the DUKW's were efficiently used for handling causeways, transporting supplies from ship-to-shore-to-firing-line, and evacuating wounded.
At Sicily, the Seabees not only performed their assigned tasks of getting motorized equipment and supplies ashore, but also aided in other ways. Following closely behind the first wave of invaders, the Seabees saved the lives of troops aboard a bombed and blazing LST by throwing a pontoon bridge between their vessel and the stricken ship. Over this makeshift causeway, between 150 and 200 Allied soldiers raced to the Seabee craft and safety.
When one of the causeway pontoon bridges had been blown up, the Seabees went to work as a salvage unit, and, in the first day, salvaged approximately 100 small boats which had broached on the beach.
With the capitulation of Sicily, elements of the 120th Battalion, some of whom were participants in the original assault, were sent into the city of Palermo, where it was decided to establish the third U.S. Naval Operating Base in the western Mediterranean area, the others being at Casablanca and Oran. The three bases would provide complete naval coverage of the western Mediterranean Sea, with Casablanca and Palermo equidistant from Oran but in opposite directions.
Palermo Operating Base
Located on the north shore of the island and commanding a fine harbor which was capable of handling almost any ship afloat, Palermo had long been the major port of Sicily. The waterfront, developed by local enterprise, contained, among other fine facilities, a major ship-repair yard, complete with graving dock and twelve 65,000-barrel underground fuel-oil storage tanks. Moreover, although the city had been severely bombed, there were sufficient buildings of the proper type remaining to preclude excessive new construction on the part of the United States forces. The buildings were badly shattered, however, and it was the task of the Seabees to clear up the debris and do what construction work was necessary.
All utilities had been wiped out, necessitating the rewiring and installation of generators and communication equipment. Several large buildings had to be completely renovated -- all had to be rewindowed and plastered. The ingenuity of Seabee personnel was demonstrated in the results obtained, for the base was developed as a remarkably modern and complete establishment. Additional activities were completed as required.
An ammunition depot was set up at Mondello Beach, 5 miles west of palermo. Later, recreation facilities were constructed there.
With the base fully operative, the function of the Seabees became a purely maintenance proposition, so that in February 1944, the 567th CBMU arrived from the United States and replaced the 120th Battalion's Palermo detachment.
The naval operating base at Palermo remained one of the major United States supply and repair bases throughout the war, rendering aid to Navy and Merchant Marine alike. In August 1945, the 567th CBMU departed for the United States, and on December 15, 1945, after proper settlements had been made, the ship-repair yard was returned to the Sicilian owners. Staff headquarters and operations moved to Naples, and on December 31, 1945, Naval Operating Base, Palermo, was officially decommissioned, the balance of materials being turned over to the Office of Foreign Liquidations
Commission with a naval detachment resident until final disposition could be ascertained.
During the period that CBMU 567 was based at Palermo, detachments were being continually sent out to other localities, for brief intervals, for the purpose of rehabilitating or creating facilities at those places. Working parties were sent to Salerno, Leghorn, and Naples in Italy and to Cagliari in Sardinia. In Marseilles, France, a group from this CBMU handled the movement of British Embassy property from Toulon to Paris.
Pontoons in the Sicilian Invasion, July 10, 1943
Pontoons of Platoon J of the 1006 Seabees, secured alongside LST-388 on the run into BLUE Beach, Licata
Salerno is situated on the west coast of Italy, about 25 miles south of Naples, on the Gulf of Salerno. Around this gulf, a fair beach forms a 12-mile arc, with the town of Salerno on the north side. Behind Salerno the hills gradually rise to the Apennines, but on the southern half of the arc the country is gently rolling.
For the landing at Salerno, the 12-mile beach was divided into two parts -- the north section to be invaded by the 46th British Division, landed from LST's with the aid of the 1006th Seabee Causeway Detachment; the south section to be invaded by the American forces, also to be landed on causeways run by Seabee pontoon crews.
Before dawn on September 9, 1943, initial landings by assault Rangers and Commandos took place. The first LST (Number 386) headed into the north beach, carrying platoon C, of the 1006th Detachment and a portion of the 46th British Division aboard. The convoy was under attack by German 88's during the landing, and LST-386 was struck by a mine, wrecking the causeways. The ship, however, remained afloat, and all cargo was transferred to LCT's. Other causeways ordered to the north beach reached there as planned. Only one was used, however, for the beach was found to be of such nature that it was possible to beach LST's directly and to unload them after the Seabees had placed sandbags under the ramps and spread mats.
One LST was hit eleven times on the run-in; its elevators were disabled, so that only the tank deck could be unloaded before retracting. Another LST was hit eight times on the run-in. Enemy fire was so severe that one LST actually took three runs to make the beach.
The Seabees bivouacked on the north beach for ten days, clearing traffic and building unloading slips and roadways, under constant fire.
On the south beach operation, units of the 36th American Division landed at the same time as the British landed on the north beach.
The LST for the south beach landing grounded 300 feet offshore, but the causeways ran clear to dry land. Unloading operations were underway across the causeway ten minutes after the LST grounded.
Before Naples harbor was opened, 190 LST's were unloaded by Seabees over causeways on the south beach.
During the first ten days of the landing, ships were unloaded under constant fire and bombing.
Included in the Seabee personnel were one officer and 15 men from Company D of the 70th Battalion, but the largest part of the Seabee share in the operation was borne by the officers and men of the 100th Pontoon Detachment. This outfit suffered 28-percent casualties, with one officer and seven men killed.
From actual records, it is estimated that about 11,500 vehicles went ashore over the 100th Detachment's pontoon causeways during the Italian invasion.
When the Salerno area was consolidated and the port of Naples liberated, the 100th left in
December 1943, for duty in England, and subsequently participated in the invasion of Normandy.
A detachment, consisting of one officer and 40 enlisted men, of the 567th CBMU from Palermo was sent to Salerno on March 3, 1944. There they worked with the 120th unit until May 9, 1944, when the 120th detachment was withdrawn, leaving the 567th to carry on all maintenance work. Work at Salerno was completed on October 16, 1944.
1006th Seabees in the Salerno Invasion Unloading an LST Over a Pontoon Causeway at Safta Beach
Naples was captured October 1, 1943. Upon evacuation, the Germans performed a fairly complete job of demolition, adding to the destruction caused by Allied shells. Main railway lines throughout the city were systematically destroyed, although streets and roads had been only slightly damaged. All railway bridges were destroyed, and aqueducts were breached in several places. Generating stations and power houses, as much as 50 miles from the city, were damaged or destroyed, and some of the major sewer mains were blown up by placing dynamite charges in the manholes.
Major industrial buildings and manufacturing plants were also wrecked, and delayed-action charges were left behind in many buildings. The port itself was choked with sunken vessels and debris from buildings which had been toppled into the harbor at berthing spaces.
1006th Seabees Using a Three-Section Pontoon Causeway at Safta Beach
The Navy set up a post office, a salvage unit, and an ammunition dump. Later, a naval radio station was established. Fleet facilities continued to be furnished at Palermo. At first the Navy had little need of the Seabees in Naples, for harbor clearing was being done by the Army and no Navy installations were required. However, as the port facilities increased, the Navy's role in Naples became more and more prominent. In August 1944, a detachment from the 1005th CBD, which was then at Bizerte, was ordered to Naples, and later augmented by a similar detachment from the 567th CBMU at Palermo. Their function was to provide the Navy buildings with long-awaited and much-needed rehabilitation. The detail from the 1005th soon returned to its mother organization and departed for the United States in December 1944, but the group from Palermo remained to finish the job, rejoining the main body of the 567th CBMU in January 1945.
On November 20, 1943, the 579th CBMU was organized at the Advance Amphibious Training Base, Bizerte. With a complement of seven officers and 316 enlisted men, drawn from the personnel
of the 54th Battalion and the 1005th Detachment, the new CBMU was destined to be a pontoon unit in addition to its prime organizational function.
During the early part of January 1944, various officers and men of this group were temporarily assigned to the staff of Commander, Eighth Amphibious Force, and to numerous LST's within that force. On January 22, 1944, members of the 579th operated the causeways in the assault at Anzio-Nettuno.
Anzio is a small coastal Italian city, 30 miles south of Rome; practically adjacent, but slightly east of it, is the town of Nettuno. The beach here contained a sand bar and shallows which extended several hundred feet from the shore. This underwater condition prevented the operation of the causeways in the usual manner, as the LST's grounded so far offshore that the pontoon strings could not reach the beach. Seabee officers and men accordingly improvised a pontoon ferrying system and for two days succeeded in transporting much equipment ashore over the sand bar. To add to the difficulty, the men were subjected to almost constant bombing and strafing attacks; several were killed, many wounded, and much gear was damaged. Stormy weather began the day after the initial attack, and by the next day, all causeways were washed ashore by the surf. One platoon was returned to Bizerte; the others remained until March 1944, salvaging causeways and landing craft. They then returned to Bizerte.
The islands of Corsica and Sardinia fell into our hands with the capitulation of Italy, and because of their convenient location were used as sites for PT-boat bases. These small craft were required to wage constant warfare against German E-boats and other enemy vessels operating out of southern French and northern Italian ports. As the range of PT's is limited, many bases were established, the principal one being on Maddelena, a small island north of Sardinia.
Corsica and Sardinia
A detail of one officer and 27 men from the 1005th Detachment, at Bizerte, reached Maddelena on April 13, 1944. Here they erected pontoon drydocks, finger piers, and quonset huts. The work was completed by July 3, 1944, and the detail returned to Bizerte.
In southern Sardinia, one officer and twelve men of the 567th CBMU spent nearly a month (June 1944) at the city of Cagliari, establishing a small base for use of PT squadrons and minesweeping details. When this work was completed, the detachment returned to its unit at Palermo.
The 1045th CBD was assigned to the island of Corsica. This unit of 300 men was actually a petroleum specialist detachment, formed for the purpose of establishing fueling facilities. This group arrived at Ajaccio in western Corsica on April 8, 1944. There they erected seventeen 10,000-barrel oil tanks, numerous water tanks, together with the necessary pumping stations, distillation units, and accessories. The installations at Ajaccio were operated until they were of no further value to the war effort, and were then dismantled by the unit.
D-Day for the invasion of southern France was set for August 14, 1944. On that day, as the troops under General Devers poured into the Marseilles and Toulon areas, the causeways were operated by men of the 1040th Seabee Detachment. This invasion was made without any serious casualties. Ironically, though, during the dress-rehearsal stages, a causeway struck a mine near Pazzoulia, Italy, seriously injuring several members of the crew.
After the initial assault, one group helped clear the harbor of Toulon, where the French had previously scuttled their fleet. On August 26, four platoons were ordered to Marseilles for salvage work, removing demolished bridges from the canal, setting up causeways, and making other installations.
On D-Day plus eight, CBMU 611 reported at Toulon. Here, they unloaded gear and installed communication equipment, using captured apparatus and property. At both Toulon and Marseilles, the Seabees rehabilitated the property held by the Navy and operated and maintained transportation facilities. From time to time, detachments were sent out to erect or remove other installations as required. Principal among these was the small PT base at Golfe Juan.
Detachment 1040 returned to Bizerte in echelons as their work was completed. Toward the end of 1944, the larger part of CBMU 611 returned to the United States, one officer and sixty men remaining at Marseilles for maintenance work. By October 1945, the Navy had left all areas in southern France, with the exception of Marseilles, where only a liaison officer remained.
Another Seabee unit actively concerned with operations in southern France was the 1045th (Petroleum) Detachment. Four reconnaissance parties from this unit accompanied the invasion forces into southern France on D-Day. Four days later, two construction parties, totalling 42 officers and men, landed, followed in four days by two more parties. These several groups were divided, 2 officers and 29 men going to Toulon and 6 officers and 99 men to Marseilles.
At Toulon, the objective of the 1045th was to repair existing French petroleum storage and fueling facilities which were badly damaged during the battle. They also erected two additional 5,000-barrel gasoline tanks and installed pumps and accessories.
The group at Marseilles had less damage to repair, and although they did renovate a 55,000-barrel fuel-oil tank and clean ten other tanks, the main task was to install 6 miles of 8-inch pipeline. Included in this figure were two submarine pipelines, extending from the beach to a fueling-barge anchored offshore.
These groups remained in France only until early November; nevertheless, they erected a 2,000-barrel water tank for the Army and set up a small fuel-oil distribution plant.
In October 1943, the British Prime Minister announced that Portugal had granted bases in the Azores to aid the Allies in their fight against submarines in the Atlantic. British forces immediately moved into the Azores and began construction of an air base on the island of Terceira.
The Azores lie about 800 miles west of Lisbon. The most important of the nine islands in Fayal, whose chief city, Horta, is a Pan American clipper stop and has a harbor suitable for medium and small warships. Terceira, a volcanic island, 20 miles long by 18 miles wide, has two unprotected harbors, Angra and Praia. Praia, used by U.S. supply vessels, is only 3 miles from Lagens Field, established by the British.
Since British facilities were to be used to protect American shipping, both Army Engineers and Seabees were sent to the Azores to aid in construction. The airfield was used by Army Transport Command and Naval Air Transport Service, and the dominant part of the expansion work was accomplished by the Army Engineer Corps.
The first echelon of the 96th Construction Battalion was charged initially with the construction of a quonset-hut camp for naval activities at the Lagens airfield and of minor docking facilities at Praia Harbor. When the Seabees arrived, on January 9, 1944, the British had completed a pierced-plank runway, 6,000 feet by 150 feet, and were engaged in erecting hangars, shops, and camps.
By February 16, the Seabees had erected Santa Ritta Camp for 600 officers and men. The camp consisted of 85 quonset huts for quarters, mess halls, sick bay, dispensaries, shops, offices, and recreation facilities. Concrete floors were laid in all buildings, as a precaution against plague-bearing rats. Frequent rains and strong winds greatly hampered construction, particularly that of the roads, walks, and earthwork incident to the erection of the huts.
On February 21, 1944, the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Azores, requested that the necessary dredging and construction be done to convert Praia Bay into a usable harbor. This included construction of a mole pier and widening of an existing pier to form a boat basin for the anchorage of four LCM's and a pontoon barge. A cargo staging area was constructed in the immediate vicinity. The basin was dredged to a 4-foot depth at low water. Facilities were also provided to make minor repairs on damaged ships.
From the time of landing, the Seabees were used in unloading cargo vessels in conjunction with the Army Air Forces. The Army did the stevedore work aboard ship; the Seabees manned pontoon barges and trucks. At one time, in early march 1944, it was necessary to discontinue construction activities for a short time to concentrate on unloading activities.
In late March 1944, the Seabees began construction of 3,800 feet of 8-inch submarine pipeline for tanker unloading. The installation, completed on May 21, served the Army gasoline tank farms on Terceira and Santa Maria.
In addition to the construction of housing and harbor facilities, the Seabees constructed facilities for the Navy, Army, and British forces at Lagens Field. Pierced-plank taxiways were laid, and parking areas were graded and cinder-surfaced. Nine steel arch-rib buildings and two blimp-mooring masts were also erected.
By the first of May 1944, virtually all authorized construction had been completed; the battalion
Praia Dock Area, Azores
handled minor construction and maintenance until its departure for the United States on July 27. Before the 96th Battalion departed, four officers and 101 enlisted men were transferred to form CBMU 613.
In addition to maintenance activities and stevedoring, the maintenance unit was responsible for some major construction. At Santa Ritta Camp, an enlisted men's galley and mess hall was erected, using eight quonset huts grouped around a central frame structure. A similar structure, utilizing four quonset huts, was erected for use as a recreation building.
At Lagens Field, the Seabees erected three portable nose hangars, 78 by 30 feet, and laid 35,000 square yards of asphalt-surfaced hardstands for Navy planes. Steel towers and quonset huts were erected for the Villa nova radio teletype receiving site and the Cinco Picos radio teletype sending site.
The maintenance unit remained at Terceira until after V-E Day. Naval facilities received full use, a great amount of operational flying and air-sea rescue work being performed by the PB4Y-1 Squadron, based at Terceira.
As the European theaters of operation shifted and ultimately hostilities ceased, what were once vital bases were no longer needed. Fortunately, a goodly portion of the Navy's shore establishments in the Mediterranean area were housed in permanent structures, either seized from the enemy or contracted for from our Allies, under the Lend-Lease terms. The liquidation of these facilities involved merely the estimating of the amount of improvements made or the damage incurred and the billing thereof to the responsible party, upon settlement of the contract or the vacating of the premises.
Disposition of Property
In many instances, such as was the case in some of our Oran holdings, damages and improvements practically balanced each other; so "quit claims" were signed, and both parties concerned were satisfied. In cases where new construction had been performed by our forces and where such installations were not subsequently removed, a new value for these establishments was declared to the Office of the Foreign Liquidations Committee. These cost declarations (made by officers of the Civil Engineer Corps) were all comprehensive, including road repair or construction, buildings, sewerage, all utilities, equipment, land improvements, and anything else that entailed the expenditure of United States funds for construction purposes, for or by the Navy.
The larger portion of the personnel of these stations (including Seabee maintenance crews) were removed to other more active theaters or returned to the United States, leaving small detachments as caretakers until such time as final and satisfactory disposition could be made.
To establish a garrison against a possible German drive toward South Africa, to set up a port through which supplies could be brought from America to the troops in North Africa, and to establish a base for ships in the South Atlantic, the British Government began, early in 1942, to develop its harbor facilities at Freetown, in Sierra Leone, British West Africa. The plan was to set up a base to take care of vessels up to the size of cruisers by installing one large floating drydock, one small floating drydock, hospital facilities, and ammunition storage space. Accordingly, the British laid out the following program: construction of a 1000-foot deep-water quay with a 30-foot depth alongside, extension of a jetty, erection of repair workshops on shore, storage space ashore for naval and refrigerated stores, shore accommodations for personnel, and an oil and fuel depot with an oiling jetty.
Freetown, Sierra Leone
In February 1942, the british asked the United States to assist in the Freetown project by sending supplies. In the spring of 1942, the United States let a lump-sum contract for the towing of the timber floating drydock, Triumph, from New York to Freetown by two commercial tugs, one American and the other British.
It was thought at that time that no labor problem would be involved, but by June 1942 it was evident that additional skilled labor and supervision were necessary. There was an abundant supply of unskilled native labor, but without skilled supervision, little work could be accomplished.
On June 8, 1942, two CEC officers, one doctor, a dentist, and 40 enlisted men were ordered to Freetown from Quonset, R.I. In July 1942, an additional ten officers and 250 men were sent to Freetown. These men were organized into an advance base unit and quartered in British-constructed barracks.
In December 1942, Construction Battalion Detachments 1001 and 1002, each consisting of 250 officers and men, were sent to Freetown via Guirock, Scotland, arriving early in January 1943. On March 31, 1943, CBD 1001, CBD 1002 and the advance base unit were combined to form the 65th Construction Battalion.
As the tide of battle in North Africa began to turn in the spring of 1943 -- Axis forces capitulated on May 12 -- the need for Freetown as an advance base cased to exist, and United States force withdrew in June 1943.
As the result of an agreement reached on December 31, 1943, between the governments of the United States and Liberia, the United States agreed to aid Liberia in the construction of a commercial port, the work to be done under the supervision of the United States.
On April 27, 1944, the Bureau of Yards and Docks let a cost-plus-a-fixed-fee contract for the construction of a commercial port, port works, and access roads in Liberia, at an estimated cost of $20,000,000. In this contract, the Navy acted as the agent for the Department of State. Officers of the Civil Engineer Corps supervised the construction.
South Breakwater, Monrovia
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