The airborne engineers of the 900th Airborne Engineer Aviation Company built and repaired essential airstrips during World War II.
Editor’s note: The 900th Airborne Engineer Aviation Company made more landings than any other glider-borne unit in World War II. The following excerpt describes work made possible by a glider operation in Burma on the night of March 5, 1944, when more than 30 gliders carrying troops, pack animals, equipment and construction equipment landed in a jungle clearing. The amount of work done in a very short time in a hostile environment is almost incomprehensible: Within 24 hours, airborne engineers prepared a landing strip measuring 300 by 5,000 feet, custom-designed for use by gliders and C-47 troop carriers. The report is authored by Maj. Mark P. Zaitsoff, U.S. Army Reserve.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 900th Airborne Engineer Aviation Company, attached to a U.S. Army Aircorps Air Commando Group, was formed to provide a force that could be delivered by glider or transport plane and was capable of building or repairing airstrips.
From an account by 2nd Lt. Robert C. Brackett: “At 0600 hours (on March 6, after landings late on March 5) while Col. Allison and I were on reconnaissance, grading was begun in the general direction of the flight strip. When the direction had been determined, we ran a base line with the jeep and grader the length of the field, missing as many buffalo-wallows as possible. At this time there was one grader, one jeep, two bulldozers and a carry-all in operation. The glider carrying the third dozer was damaged, but parts salvaged from the fourth dozer (which had gone through the trees and turned over on its back) were utilized. At 1000 hours Col. Allison informed us that light planes would arrive in one hour – redoubling our efforts, the light planes were able to land on a runway 2,000 feet by 300 feet at 1100 hours! During this period British troops helped to level the grass and ground with bayonets and kukri knives, and the (Royal Engineers) blew up a tree standing in the middle of the field.
“We continued on the other 2,400 feet of runway, making it 150 feet wide to ensure sufficient area for landings that night. The main job consisted of filling in the log ruts caused by elephants hauling logs to the river in the wet season. Now hard as stone, some 16 inches deep and 2 to 4 feet wide, they accounted for much of the damage to the gliders on the previous night. Grading was kept to a minimum, to keep as much grass as possible on the runway, taking off only those dikes over 3 inches high. At 1910 hours the first transport landed. The next morning we continued work on the strip and unloading area. By that evening we had a 2,400-foot by 300-foot runway and unloading areas for eight planes on both sides of the runway.”
At first light Cpl. Walter J. Hybarger was up on a dozer pulling logs and wrecked gliders off the landing zone and starting on the airstrip. Sgt. William W. Geider and Pfc. Paul F. Johnson worked to repair the third dozer. Brackett didn’t want to disturb the clay soil of the landing zone so he cleared a minimum of the elephant grass, made a few cuts and filled the ruts to level the airstrip. He soon had an airstrip 5,000 feet long and 300 feet wide.
“On the night of March 6, 63 C-47s landed on an airstrip with a fully lit runway and tower radio. The fly-in of the 77th and half of the 111th Brigades continued until March 11. The Chindits immediately moved out on missions to attack the Japanese. The 77th Brigade moved southwest toward Mawlu and established the White City roadblock. The 111th Brigade marched farther west to Pinlebu and eventually north to establish the Blackpool roadblock.” –From Glider-borne Engineers during Operation Thursday by Maj. Mark P. Zaitsoff, online at Gilderborne Engineers during Operation Thursday. FC