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
|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
|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"
|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
|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
|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
|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
|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
|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
|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
|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