COAST GUARD CONSTRUCTION DETACHMENTS

by Van R Field

 

A first person account about building the loran stations in the Pacific during WWII using ......

During World War Two, the Navy formed battalions of volunteers who came from the construction trades. Around the same time the Coast Guard had the task of establishing the outgrowth of the 30 mcs British Gee system, which was used to precision bomb Germany. Designed by MIT, the system became a reality and quick construction of suitable bases was needed in the Atlantic and Pacific. These projects were classified as secret.

The Coast Guard started to recruit the type of people the Navy used in the Construction Battalions (CB’s). The Navy then added technicians, cooks, and seamen and formed SeaBee units. These units consisted of about 25 people headed up by a construction boss who was a warrant officer, along with another 25 people who were destined to become permanent station personnel. These small groups were shipped out as a pre-packaged loran station with everything, including food, for eighteen months.

This is my personal experience, and what I remember most is that it was awful boring. It seems like I spent most of my time waiting in line or waiting to be assigned somewhere else.

After attending Radio & Engineering Maintenance School at Groton, I was sent to MIT "navigation" school in Boston, on the second floor of a storefront, across the river from MIT. Secret clearances were obtained for us. The door was guarded by, I believe, civilian guards. We were issued notebooks with numbered pages. They never left the school and were supposed to follow us into the field. Mine showed up at the house after the war with SECRET crossed out and DECLASSIFIED stamped all over it. We were taught about the transmitters and weren’t allowed into the area where they taught receivers, to preserve secrecy. It was difficult learning half a system, and a pulse system at that. Pulse transmission such as radar and loran were new to the world in the 1940s.

At this time there were two operating stations in a couple of abandoned Coast Guard stations: Montauk Point, Long Island, and Fenwick Island, Delaware. The frequency was 1950 kcs in the recently abandoned amateur 160 meter band. Loran stations work with two pairs of stations, usually two slaves and a double pulsed master station, acting like two stations. The above chain was later completed with a northern slave in Battle Harbor, Labrador. Still later the Montauk Station was moved to Siasconset on Nantucket Island. The original equipment was built at MIT using military rejects for tubes and parts. Supplies like this were released for public use to keep radios in repair.

Because of the secret nature of the work, military procurement didn’t take place until later. Our eight-week course was shortened to six weeks. It was rumored that we were to be replacements for the Labrador Station. Instead, we were transferred to something called Project Baker in New York.

This was a USCG Construction Detachment. All our equipment was warehoused awaiting loading for overseas shipment. We hung around the New York area, being shifted from one place to another. We didn’t belong anywhere, and I guess we were in the way. Finally, my buddy, John Jarnefeld, who was a regular in the USCG, and I, were transferred to Project A at Alameda, Calif. This outfit became known as Coast Guard Unit 26 — the Construction Detachment that had just come back from installing a loran chain in the Aleutian Islands.

When we went to the Pacific, our cargo (the makings of a loran station) went by one ship and we went on the Yarmouth, a wooden Army ship with a Navy gun crew, which came from the Fall River Line running from Boston to Nova Scotia. Needless to say, she wasn’t equipped to be in the tropics. Every time they practiced shooting the big gun on the stern, I thought the timbers would shake loose and sink us.

The cabins were so hot I slept on two kapok PFD's under the commander’s cabin window and under a lifeboat to escape the nightly showers. We were on that thing for 30 days. When we finally got off at Kwajalein, we spent several weeks in a Navy "receiving ship," which was a batch of tents. When our gear arrived, we were dumped onto the atoll with the electronics gear, Quonset hut kits and a 2-year supply of canned food. This island was part of the Kwajalein atoll and was about a half mile in diameter and about 6-feet above sea level in the center.

Our crew split four ways to build the chain. One station was a monitoring station to make sure the system was functioning correctly. We were slated to build the Marshall Island chain. I drew the northern slave located in Kwadak, part of Kwajalein Atoll. We stayed with the Navy in tents until our supply ship arrived. The equipment was off-loaded onto Navy LCM’s along with us. We made a landing on the small unoccupied island, set up our tents and proceeded to build the station. There was a wild pig on the island who loved to sleep in the C.O.’s tent, which did not sit very well with him. Fortunately our crew contained several farm boys who under "orders" captured and hog-tied the animal and took it to the owner on a nearby island.

Each loran chain was initially set up with two slaves and a master plus a monitor station to see that they didn’t go wild. The Construction Detachment had 100 men. When we went on a job, the crew split four ways, so we had about 25 crew and 25 permanent station personnel. They came along as bull labor for us to use. The construction crew was for the most part civilian construction people who were given ratings (as I was) for civilian experience. Most of these guys were in their 30’s, and I was just 20. There were two CO’s, one for the permanent station, who was an ex-RM with 90 days OCS training, and a warrant, who was a construction boss in civilian life and probably had been in the Coast Guard for less than a year.

One day I joined a group for an outing on another island that had been set up for use by the Pacific Fleet. It was 70 miles across the lagoon and a great natural harbor. This island had large Quonset warehouses with openings along the sides where bars were simulated. They had a shipload of beer cooled down. After the war I saw a news story along with photos showing it being bulldozed into the lagoon. The fleet never did call at this port—the war moved them on before getting a chance to use it. You would see every brand of beer, but in small print it always said Rainer Brewing Co. on the can. Evidently they subcontracted from the major beer companies because of wartime transportation difficulties and the fact the brewery was already on the West Coast. Incidentally, urinals consisted of funnels on pipes driven into the ground on the outskirts of this lovely palm-studded isle.

The construction crew was supposed to move on and the regular station people were to stay behind and run things; however, they didn’t have a place for us, so we stayed almost a year there sweating it out.

We normally received a daily ration, when available, of beer and coke; usually two or three cans and a couple of bottles. I drank very little beer, so I just threw them in my locker, and when there was a birthday, someone would bargain coke for my beer.

My mother used to bake an occasional pint of booze into a load of bread and mail it to me. It usually took a couple of months for it to make the trip. The bread wasn’t much good, but it made great packing for the pint and it was always just fine. Seeing as the amount was small, it was only shared with one other ET drinking companion. An empty bottle was once found, which caused considerable speculation in our small island community of 50 souls.

Most of the crew came from the West Coast, where bootleg booze was readily available. Remember that it wasn’t too much earlier that we had prohibition. At any rate, they were highly skilled in the construction and operation of a still, and that was duly constructed in the woods. One essential ingredient they weren’t able to scrounge was a thermometer. There was one on the island hanging on a palm tree in the compound. It would disappear at night, but was always back in the morning. The coils were cooled by having a bucket on a long line, which was thrown off a little bluff into the lagoon, dragged over and gently poured over the coils. This worked until the sampling of the still’s output overcame the crew’s ability to get water out of the lagoon.

When we first arrived, we lived in the typical 16-man tents. Our water came from a water desalinization plant that was made for 6 people and had been rejected by the Army. Our pharmacist mate over-chlorinated the water and then threw in some artificial lemon drink powder from the stores. The result was so bad that we threw him in to the Lister bag, our one source of water. Our doctor came aboard and ordered that the canned fruit juices in our stores be handed out.

After we finished the Kwajalein job, we sat on the station for about three months, waiting. The food was so bad I didn’t eat much, and when I slipped on a wet log, the injury to my hip became progressively worse. But one U.S. Public Health Service doctor kept me with the crew so I would be evacuated to Hawaii to a good hospital instead of getting stuck in a dinky base hospital on Kwajalein. We finally ended up on Sand Island in Honolulu. We even got passes so we could stay in town after the fleet’s 4 PM curfew.

The MPs and SPs patrols traveled in squads—it seemed like they were every four blocks. All the bars had bouncers who checked Ids. Two drinks and you were asked to leave and go to the next bar. We could go to restaurants and get real food for a change. The Army-Navy YMCA had great steaks. I think the military furnished some of the impossible-to-get items. The place was still operating when I revisited Hawaii in the 70s. I didn’t recognize much else though.

When I left our little island (Kwadak), one of the guys picked my sea bag up, slung it on one shoulder and me the other, and waded out to the LCM. By this time I was unable to do anything but hobble. I weighed 86 pounds when I checked into the Aiea Heights Naval Hospital (9000 patients). Good food eventually cured me. I was still limping and on light duty for my trip in the Phoenix Islands to swap the power in that chain.

I ended up on Baker Island, seven miles north of the equator, right next to Howland Island, where Amelia Earhart was headed for. Baker was as round as a silver dollar and had about as much growth on it. The seas hitting the island were rough and the continuous trade winds caused salt spray to be deposited on everything. Everything was rusty.

The loran antenna was a 110-foot triangular guyed tower, shunt fed at the base. The frequency was 1850 kcs (160 meters). Baker’s antenna guy wires looked as if they would fall away into a pile of rust at the slightest touch.

There was an Army metal landing strip there from when the war was further south. The Army had a few people stationed there to man a weather station—a supply plane came in twice a week with fresh food. On those two days, the cooks went wild. Feasts were prepared so that the pilots would be encouraged to keep coming. I guess they only had to make the run occasionally, but the food brought them back. There was only a few weeks a year when it was calm enough to send a boat.

The power changeover was supposed to be done when all stations in the chain would go down for a couple of minutes a day to switch generators. I told the powers that be that I couldn’t do it in less than 10 or 15 minutes. We had to disconnect a large isolation transformer by pulling the conduit off and swing it 180 degrees and rewiring it as a step down transformer. I had three people and all the tools ready, but we didn’t make it. Got a nasty dispatch from Washington.

To go to Baker Island, we had to wait on Canton Island, where the loran monitor station was. I found a native British operator in his station. There was also a Civil Aviation Agency* station located there with one operator. The Panama Clippers used to stop there for refueling on their way to Australia. They had floating lights in the lagoon for a runway. I never saw one land, however.

The British owned half of the island. Actually, I believe the New Zealanders handled the administration of it. What they did with these small Pacific islands was to set up schools in Suva, in the Fijis I think. They would pick from each island persons to train as a Radioman, a policeman, and a nurse. They gave each island a rickety cast-off British radio (2-6 mcs. range), a small gasoline generator and a few drums of gas. Every day they would fire up the generator, contact a net control station, and the nurse would report births, deaths, and sickness; the policeman would report on any disciplinary problems, and so forth. I got friendly with the Radioman; it was a sight to see him wind up his old Big Ben alarm clock to be sure to keep his schedule. His key was mounted on the edge of his desk in the British way; he sat in a chair with his lava-lava on, and when he sent, his feet, body, and his hands all went at about 20wpm. I wasn’t able to copy his "South Pacific Native Swing."

The New Zealanders ran schools to train these people. I saw the notebook of the Radioman, which was done in beautiful block print. I’m quite sure he didn’t understand it. It was basic radio theory. They had a knack for CW, it seemed. Evidently, they trained the others in different schools. It made the islands self-governing and, if anything happened, they could dispatch a boat over to take care of the problem. There was no native population on Canton Island, so these guys were rotated occasionally. A supply ship brought him some female company about once a month.

After this job I ended up going to French Frigate Shoals, the northern slave of the Hawaiian chain. I flew there and the navigator showed me his loran equipment in action. He told me to look down at a given time, and sure enough, right on time a rock appeared in the middle of the ocean. He was demonstrating its accuracy. In all the time I worked with it, I had never seen the receiving end. In loran school we were restricted from seeing or discussing the receiving end. We didn’t even get to talk to the Navy students studying the receivers.

French Frigate Shoals had a Navy airstrip—when landing, it looked just like a carrier with a few buildings on one side. The island had been on a reef in the shape of an airstrip. When the C47 landed, the pilot had to put on the brakes and execute a tight turn to stay out of the ocean. We were transported about a mile or so to the loran station. That place was even smaller. The ground system, which was 300 feet in diameter, went into the ocean on both sides. When we left, the "boat" was a wooden barge with a large pump on deck that kept it afloat. The stern had a metal engine house and wheel attached by cables. These normally fitted on the rectangular tanks that bolted together to form docks, boats or whatever was needed. They had triangular ones to make the bow and the engine compartment with wheelhouse to bolt to the stern end. They also used these kind of tanks for gas and water.

The Marianas chain was used by B-29s to bomb Japan. The accuracy of the system allowed them to cut down on their fuel reserve and carry a great bomb load. The B-29 pilots who dropped the atomic bombs also used loran to guide them. I was in Honolulu on VJ Day and everyone went wild. The shore patrols disappeared and there were impromptu parades. I remember a big Army truck with a canvas top that was covered with the deep rich red dust of Hawaii, and a sailor in his whites was doing somersaults on it and was covered with the red dust.

Coming Home After The War in the Pacific

After VJ Day there was the wait for a ride home. We were moved from our fairly comfortable USCG quarters to a Navy receiving barracks with plenty of Hawaiian red mud.

With a few thousand others, I left on the USS Saratoga for San Francisco. Outhouses were slung over the fantail to handle the extra passenger load. We were only two days making it to California. Those carriers were fast. We came into ‘Frisco in a fog. The first thing we saw was the Golden Gate Bridge . . . straight up. It was too foggy to see anything else. That was enough.

We went to the Coast Guard training station at Alameda for our next wait. It took two weeks to get on a train headed east. I had 30 days leave plus travel time on a Seattle transfer.

The railroads had pressed into service anything that had ever been a passenger car. My car had a pot-bellied stove heat. The train stopped for 30 minutes in Omaha and I made a dash for the phone booth. I found an eastbound flight was leaving in about 45 minutes, dashed back and had a time finding where they had moved the train, but I recovered my seabag, found a taxi and told him when I had to be at the airport. That was quite a ride. You couldn’t get a flight out of the West Coast with the large number of GI’s trying to get home quickly. Needless to say, it was great getting home. I was discharged in March, 1946.

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