Owi.........An "Island of Death"

It was May of 1944 and the War against Japan was really beginning to turn around. New Guinea mainland was in Allied hands once more except for a few isolated pockets of slight concern. Rabaul at the Eastern end of New Britain was still a Japanese stronghold despite extensive bombing by Allied forces from Cape Gloucester at the Western end of the island. General McArthur decided to bypass Rabaul and press onward toward the Philippine Islands.
The island of New Guinea is said to resemble the profile of a turkey and the reason I mention it is to help you to locate the Dutch owned Schouten Islands which are located just North of the neck of the turkey. The largest of the Schouten's is Biak and was thought to be occupied by an estimated 2500 to 5000 Japanese troops..There were three air strips on Biak which could be utilized for air strikes further North approaching the Philippines. The Allied command really knew little about the actual troop concentration on Biak resulting in very high losses. It was later found that 11,000 Japanese under the command of Colonel Kuzume Naoyuki were on Biak.
On May 27th, a Task Force composed of the 41st Division and attached units landed near Bosnek on Biak initially meeting little resistance. The first objective was Mokmer airstrip but they very quickly realized that making use of that airstrip was not going to be accomplished soon enough to meet the time schedule set up by General. McArthur An almost vertical cliff 200 feet high 1000 feet inland overlooked Mokmer airstrip and that cliff was honeycombed with caves and tunnels housing machine guns, mortars, and a few artillery pieces which were mounted on tracks so they could be rolled forward to fire, then rolled back into the caves making them undetectable and well protected. Despite Allied heavy bombing and shelling prior to landing, those guns were still intact and ready for use. This made taking this stronghold nearly impossible without costly fighting and more time than considered practical.
On May 30th, the 864th Engineer Aviation Battalion under Lt. Colonel Marvin O. Kruse landed near Bosnek expecting to go to work on Mokmer airstrip making it ready for Allied planes. Not being able to start on the airstrip; they were providing combat support by carrying water and supplies to the front lines and repairing roads. Three days passed and Mokmer airstrip was far from safe for construction work.
In order to maintain the established time schedule, another air strip site must be found and found quickly. After considering all available options, General Fuller sent a patrol from Company A 163rd Infantry to Owi Island just three miles South of Biak. They returned reporting no signs of Japanese on the island so on June 1st, a survey party of eight men from S-3 of the 864th Aviation Engineers led by Capt. Per R. Rosen immediately began traversing Owi Island to confirm the proposal of an airstrip there walking the perimeter of the island to get an outline of this island one and one quarter miles wide by three miles long. This was believed to be this first map ever drawn of this island. The only inhabitants were two families of natives living not actually on the island but in huts six feet above the water on the beach. One family was on the North shore, and one on the South shore. They were apparently, not too friendly with one another or anyone else.
The first day, as the surveyors worked, the natives watched. The next day, they had disappeared in their dugout canoes, we never saw them again.
Aerial photos had been taken of Owi but when the plane delivering the photos attempted to drop them to the waiting engineers, friendly antiaircraft opened fire as they had been instructed that all aircraft in the area was to be considered hostile. After two attempts to fly over and drawing fire both times, the pilot lost all interest in delivering photos and returned to his base with the pictures. The pictures were delivered two weeks later by ship. Too late, of course to be of much use since by then surveyors had determined all they needed to know..
As the survey party finished their preliminary work and were ready to return to Biak; they had no means of transportation. Not wanting to draw Japanese attention to the fact that there was Allied interest in Owi Island, the LCI who had brought them to Owi had returned to Biak not wishing to leave any sign to Japanese aircraft likely to appear at any time as Biak was being strafed and bombed regularly. Biak was within flying range of twenty one Japanese airfields, nine of them within fifteen minutes flying time resulting in a continuous "red alert."
Back on Biak; word had been received at 11:30 hours June 4th that the Japanese fleet was headed for Biak intending to shell the coast and land reinforcements. In the excitement of burying records and preparing to move to a safer place inland; the 864th Engineers had forgotten all about their survey team on Owi who by this time were without food. Fortunately, someone did finally remember the survey party on Owi and a LCI was sent to get them. The surveyors were able to join there unit inland to sweat out the wait for the Japanese offensive. The 864th members had no idea how far inland was safe from Japanese already on Biak. The 864th were "front line" troops.
At this same time; the Allied offensive against the Japanese held Mariannas was beginning and the Japanese fleet intent on Biak suddenly turned around and headed North to take on the Allied fleet in the Mariannas. Forces on Biak breathed a sigh of relief and the 864th returned to their camp site to make ready their move to Owi.
On June 6th, 864th Engrs. S-3 personnel and a detail of 50 men from B Company with one bulldozer were sent to Owi to build jetties for the landing of equipment and personnel.
On June 8th; the 863rd Aviation Engineers under Lt. Col. Raymond J. Harvey and the 860th Aviation Engineers under Lt. Col. Benjamin E. Meadows arrived by LST's. The 860th and the 864th were to construct airstrips on Owi Island and the 863rd to work repairing Mokmer airstrip on Biak.
By June 11th; under the direction of Sector Engineer Colonel M. S. Webb, work was started on the first Owi airstrip on an around the clock basis despite many days of heavy rainfall. They found that although the tree, bushes, and 6 foot high kunai grass were exceedingly dense, the soil was only a maximum of one foot deep so everything was shallow rooted. Bulldozers could clear a path the width of a dozer blade for about 200 feet without stopping, so working laterally each way from a proposed centerline, all vegetation was pushed to the sides of a 300 foot wide strip. The surface of the coral was somewhat undulating, but for the most part, had only about a foot difference in elevation between high and low. That there existed a place so made to order for our requirements seemed nothing short of a miracle and that we should discover it under all that vegetation was a fantastic stroke of good fortune. The coral was dead having about the hardness of rotten concrete and could be crushed to a fine aggregate with sheepsfoot rollers. The end result was a surface suitable for the heaviest of planes even in the wettest weather.
Although rain fell much of the time work was in progress, it did not stop the work as the coral provided solid footing for the equipment. The only time they stopped was in the event of Japanese aircraft overhead. During the night, someone had to signal drivers to stop and turn off all lights since the drivers couldn't hear anything but their own motor noise.
On June 17th; word was received to remove all machinery from the cleared area which would become the airstrip to allow a plane to crash land. Sure enough, in a few minutes, a B25 with one motor dead appeared. The pilots orders were to crash land after saving the crew, however the pilot saw enough smooth surface to make a normal landing so he let down his wheels and made a good landing. The men of the 864th Engineers were elated with their share of success in having saved a valuable plane. Within half an hour, another message was received. A squadron of P-38's which was on its return from a mission to Halmahera and didn't have enough fuel to get back to Hollandia. Equipment was again to be removed from the 'runway' so the fighters could crash land. Within a few minutes, the sky was buzzing with P-38's. The P-38 Commander, seeing what appeared to be an acceptable runway and also seeing a B-25 on its wheels parked beside the runway, told his pilots to let down their wheels and make normal landings rather than crash land. All planes made safe landings.
The morale of the 860th and 864th Aviation Engineers was never higher than on that day when they saw that their work had literally saved 14 aircraft and their crews from severe losses. Just 6 days before, that runway had been a dense tropical jungle.
 That same evening, the 864th received a message from Major General H. H. Fuller, Commander of the 41st Infantry division on Biak, commending the 864th for its accomplishment and reporting that it had cheered the men on Biak to see that friendly planes could land on Owi just 3 miles away.
Beginning on the 20th of June; the first fighter squadron was assigned to Owi and fighter aircraft and C-47 transports began arriving daily. By June 22nd, there were four P-38 squadrons, one P-39 squadron and six P-61 night fighters. By June 28th, a squadron of reconnaissance Air Cobras had been added.
By July 12th, the 860th and the 864th Aviation Engineers had extended the one airstrip to 7000 feet and added 7500 feet of taxiways.
The next target would be the Halmaheras; a distance of 1300 miles round trip
This was considered maximum range for a P-38 and Charles A. Lindbergh flew in to show the pilots a strategy of conserving fuel by cruising at more fuel efficient speeds making the trip much more practical. The first mission flown on July 27th, having been delayed three days by bad weather, was successful.
On August 10th, the Fifth Air Force under General Whitehead, transferred its command post to Owi Island.
On August 12th; the shortest bombing mission of the SWP Theater was flown when 12 B-24's flew to Biak to bomb caves beside the Bosnek-Mokmer road.
By August 20th; the Engineers had completed the second 7000 foot airstrip and 20,000 feet of taxiways plus 139 hardstands and revetments. In addition were the gas and bomb disposal areas. There were many miles of access roads as well. The 60th Naval Construction Battalion helped complete the second runway since the Navy needed to use Owi on occasion
 Air attacks, fortunately were few on Owi Island which by this time was so loaded with men and equipment that some were afraid it might "sink." Any bomb dropped on that island would have to hit someone or something and was a near miss for everyone.
By mid July, many of the first arrivals were getting sick with fevers of an unknown cause. Many had been bitten by ticks which carried a disease known as scrub typhus. The 864th Engineers had 15% of its men sick, most of them in hospitals. Three of their men died of the fever. Temperatures of as high as 107 degrees were not uncommon. The medial staff knew little about the disease or how to treat it. Treatment consisted of codine, aspirin, and one-a-day vitamins several times a day. Once the cause was determined; as a precaution, all clothing and blankets were treated with a solution of dimethyl phthalate soap which practically eliminated the problem. This seems to explain the natives opinion that to go to Owi was to die! In the native tongue, Owi means "Island of Death."
Despite all the health problems caused by those mean little bugs, the Island of Owi served the Allied offensive very well at a time when it was most needed and the benefits far outweighed the problems.
Biak is currently used as an international stop over and refueling station between the United States and the Orient. Travelers can take a tour through those caves and see what remains of that Japanese stronghold.
Biaks Japanese garrison of 11,000, taking advantage of coral caves that honeycombed the terrain, held out until August 20th. The bloody battle for Biak produced some of the worst fighting of the entire campaign and cost 10,100 U.S. casualties on land and sea. There were 471 KIA, 2,433 WIA and 7,200 lost to illness and accidents. About 4,700 Japanese were killed, 220 captured and the rest were pinned down in the islands interior.
This is written by former S/Sgt. Bob George, the topographic draftsman of the 864th Engineers. I was also a member of the survey team who made the initial inspection and map of Owi Island. Anyone with additional information and stories of Owi Island are asked to contact the writer.

Bob George
632 Candlewood Dr.
Marion, IN 46952-1962
765 664 1086
Ginny_bob@sbcglobal.net