A Seabee’s Story (Tinian Island)
December 23, 2010 -
George W. Larson, CM3
135th United States Naval Construction Battalion
By George A. Larson, Lieutenant Colonel, USAF (Ret.)
George W. Larson, Altoona, Iowa, was assigned to the 135th United States Naval Construction Battalion (USNCB) or Seabees during World War II (WWII). The Seabees became famous during the war, building military facilities around the world, earning a nickname for their ability to complete any job, “Can Do.” The 135th arrived off the southern end of Tinian Island on the morning of October 24, 1944. Larson was in the second group of Seabees to go over the ship’s side, climbing down cargo nets into bobbing Higgins Landing Craft, waiting alongside the ship to take them to the beach. He was completely equipped as a Marine who had previously landed to take the island from the Japanese, carrying a loaded carbine rife. Seabees were taught to fight and then build.
As soon as his unit hit the island, they began unloading heavy equipment to turn the island into a huge airfield complex. It was one week before Larson got a few hours’ break, hitching a ride in a jeep for the short, rough ride into the main town, called “Tinian Town,” which had almost been destroyed by the pre-invasion bombardment. He witnessed the destructiveness of the Navy’s battleships 16-inch gun bombardment, which left only roofless buildings, piles of rubble, partially cleared streets by Seabees to move equipment and supplies through the town. On the way back to camp, Larson pasted the steel beams of the destroyed sugar mill plant north of town. He was assigned to the island to turn this destruction into an Army Air Forces airfield complex (North Field), support by a Navy port supply depot and long-range bomber patrol airfield (West Field). North Field would accommodate the long-range Boeing four-engine B-29 Superfortresses, whose mission it was to conduct strategic bombing of the Japanese home islands. This included the dropping of the two atomic bombs by the 509th Composite Group to force an end to the war in the Pacific.
Larson worked on North Field in many different capacities as directed by the Battalion Commander. After assisting in unloading the unit’s heavy equipment and supplies, he was assigned to direct the constant stream of dump trucks moving from huge coral pits around the island to North Field, which carried fill material to level runways and taxiways. He wore goggled to keep dust out of the eyes with a wet cloth over the mouth to keep out the choking dust. It was hard and dirty work, dangerous among the moving trucks and low visibility from the constant dust cloud. He constantly dodged trucks to keep from being run over and killed. On 1 May 2009, at the age of 94, he died from the effects of coral dust in his lungs and Alzheimer’s brought on by the long-term effects of a severe concussion after knocked off a road grader by a large detonation to knock down a high spot on one of North Field’s runways.
Larson also worked on one of the runway finishing crews, driving a slow-moving road grader, without a cab, down the 8,500-foot long runway, scrapping the dumped coral smooth, almost to grade level. It was common for pieces of uncrushed coral to appear in the runway’s surface. As a grader operator, he had to stop, take out a pick and dig out the coral. A separate crew came out to the spot, loaded the coral into a wheel barrel after filling the hole with crushed coral so work could continue. Behind Larson’s and other road graders came salt water trucks spraying water over the coral’s surface, followed by rollers and spiked compactors so it could be graded again. The process was continually repeated until the runways were smooth, hard packed to support heavy loaded B-29s.
Larson watched many B-29s returning to North Field once the runways became operational, one at a time, from bombing missions to Japan. Before Iwo Jima was invaded damaged B-29s, many with wounded, had to fly the 1,500 miles back to the Marianas Islands. Some did not make it. It was heart breaking for Larson to watch these badly damaged B-29s trying to make it back to one of the runways. One night he watched searchlights come one, adding to the runway lights to give B-29s a visual reference in the dark. One B-29 was burning on the right wing as it tried to land. It landed hard, landing gear collapsed, sliding before bursting into a large fireball. He watched heavy loaded B-29s on take-off, slowly lift off the runway only to slam back down if an engine failed, bursting into flames. Other B-29s did not return from a combat mission, listed as missing in action. The strain on Seabees watching these B-29 crashes was an unforgettable view of the air war against Japan, up close and personal, something Larson did not talk about until almost 40 years after the end of the war.
My first book, Road to Tinian, told some of my father’s story. I have now written a much longer book about his wartime experiences, to include the history of Tinian and Okinawa, the islands capture from the Japanese, aircrew stories of their combat missions to Japan and more. I have dedicated A Seabee’s Story, Tinian and Okinawa, The Air War against Japan, to those of the “Greatest Generation” which fought and won the war in the Pacific. They fought to preserve a way of life because Freedom is not Free!