Seabees First Ashore on Samar

From SEABEE, date unknown, by Al Teitelman, Y3c, SEABEE Staff Correspondent


PHILIPPINES (Delayed)—Now that the Philippine island of Samar is secured, the story of how three Seabees and an American geologist made the initial landing at Guiuan Harbor can be taken out of the “secret" and "confidential” files and the inside story told to the world.

After having suffered under the boots of Japanese cruelty for three dark years, the natives alternately wept and cheered as the first "Americanos" came ashore. They were the first Americans these Filipinos had seen since the Japanese had invaded their homeland.

In their excitement over the Americans' arrival the natives got out their "Welcome General MacArthur" signs and it wasn't until they got a-close-up of the foursome that the Filipinos discovered their error. Finding it was not actually MacArthur, their hero, the natives picked out the tallest man of the Americans and asked him with what branch of service he  was affiliated.

"Seabees," answered the newcomer. He was tall, lanky Cmdr. Bradford M. Bowker, of Concord, N.H., skipper of  a veteran Battalion.

The Filipinos scratched their heads. It is worthy of comment that these people, apparently, were the only ones in the world who had never heard of the world famed Construction Battalions. But they know about them today.

Here's the “behind-the-scenes” story that can now be told about Cmdr. Bower’s mission.

Airfield Needed

Soon after the invasion of Leyte, military big-wigs decreed that a large airfield was a military necessity.  An attempt was made by a Battalion and the 1112th U. S. Army Engineers to build an Army bomber-base airstrip at San Pablo, Leyte, but this project proved unsuccessful.  The tropical downpours, together with the rugged terrain, combined to make it a physical impossibility to build a strip there at that time of year.

Cmdr E. M. Kelly, OinC of a U.S. Naval Construction Regiment, after thoroughly studying U. S. geological surveys of Samar, believed that a site located at the southeastern-most tip of the island would accommodate both the vitally needed airstrip and a large contingent of Navy personnel.

The area chosen by Cmdr Kelly had not yet been occupied by the Americans. Nevertheless, so vital was the necessity for a strip that it was decided to send three Seabees together with an American geologist to make a reconnaissance survey and see if the area would meet the urgent needs of the military.

The Seabee trio chosen for the expedition were: Cmdr Bowker; Lt Cmdr Harold Koopman, of Grand Rapids, Mich., and Charles T. MacDouglass, CCM of New Orleans, La., who was a veteran scout and woodsman.  The fourth member of the party was Dr. J. Gilluly, an eminent civilian geologist, who was attached to the Office of Chief Engineers of Gen. MacArthur’s staff.

The quartet was put on an LCM and was assigned a subchaser as an escort. Carefully the two ships plodded toward their destination. Under cover of night they flunk into Guiuan Harbor the night of November 23rd.

Next morning the quartet was put ashore at Guiuan. While latest reports from Army Intelligence indicated that the Japanese at Guiuan had been driven into the hills by Filipino guerrillas, there was still a possibility that suicide-minded Japanese would attempt to exterminate their hated American enemies - especially since the “invading” party consisted only of four men.

But all fears were dispelled when the quartet came on to the little dock at Guiuan. There were no Japanese there to "welcome" them. Instead they were met by a gala reception committee composed of some 5,000 Filipinos.        

Filipinos Stage Welcome

Long-hidden American and Philippine flags came out of hiding. "Welcome General 'MacArthur" signs were everywhere, while the natives, bedecked in their holiday best, came forward to greet their American deliverers. The guerrillas shot off their rifles and threw their hats into the air shouting the Filipino equivalent of “Welcome, Americans.”

Leading the welcoming committee were two guerrilla chieftains - the Valley brothers. Maj. Manuel Valley had been in charge of the guerrilla forces on the entire island of Samar while Lt. Vincente Valley had been in charge of the guerrillas located around the village of Guiuan.                         .          

Not only were Guiuan townspeople there to welcome the visitors but natives from 40 to 60 kilometers away had, through the native "telegraph system," been notified of the impending arrival of the Americans and had hastened to be on hand for the eventful occasion.

That night was an occasion of great rejoicing and celebrating in the town of Guiuan. A dance in the local schoolhouse, under the aegis of 200 Filipino damsels dressed in their gayest native finery, was the high spot of the festivities.  A veritable feast prepared by the local Filipino domestic science teachers, was also on the agenda at the schoolhouse.

In addition to Cmdr Bowker’s party, also invited, to the dance were officers and crew of the two ships which had brought the Seabees and the geologist to the town    The guests were treated to a royal party.  Musical instruments which had been hidden away during the entire time the Japanese had occupied the island, were brought out for the first time for the dance. Since the generators of the local power station had been stripped by the Japanese, leaving the town without electricity, lights in the dance hall were provided by cocoanut oil lamps and lanterns brought from the ships.

Play Pre=War Tunes

While the orchestra's repertoire consisted mainly of native Philippine tunes, they did know some popular numbers and during the course of the evening blared out with “'Oh, Johnny,” “Alexander's Ragtime Band,” "Beer Barrel Polka” and several American college tunes.

With a comely partner,  Maj. Valley, guerrilla leader, danced the churacha, a lively Spanish dance popular in that area. In the churacha the dancers start out slowly, but gradually the tempo is increased and when the dizzy climax is reached, even the townsfolk outside the dance hall join in the festivities by shouting and shooting volleys into the air.                       .

Cmdr. Bowker was given a partner and he, too, was invited to take a crack at the churacha which he did with many American terpsichorean interpolations.

The next morning was Sunday and everyone went to Mass held in the old Spanish church which had been built more than 300 years ago. Father Guimbaolebot, 79-year-old  patriarch, celebrated the Mass.

Getting back to the primary purpose of the trip, a command car was landed from the LSM and the quartet explored the entire area. A flat area large enough for the site of a strip, together with the greatly desired coral, were found adjacent to Guiuan. Thus their findings verified the theory of Cmdr. Kelly who, with Dr. Gilluly, had been of the belief all along that an airstrip at that particular spot in Samar was both practical and feasible.           

Report Findings

Several more days were spent in reconnaissance and then the quartet returned to the Naval Station at Leyte where they reported their findings to the following three officers: Comm. W. M. Angas, (CEC), USN; Capt R. M. Fortson, commander of the Leyte Naval Base; and Cmdr E. M. Kelly, Oinc of a Naval Construction Regiment.

Two days later these three officers personally came to Guiuan and verified the findings of the initial survey party. The “go ahead” signal was given to start immediate work on the critically needed strip.

Airfield Constructed

Two crack Seabee Battalions were rushed to Guiuan and the project was attacked in typical "Can Do" fashion. Despite heavy rains, in two weeks small planes were landing on the strip and on December 28th—less than a month after the work started—the first group of C-47's landed on the field.

Today, some seven months after the initial Seabee "landing" on this Philippine town, there stands an airfield which, with the exception of Clark Field in Manila, is dubbed the finest and largest air strip in the entire Philippines.

The natives may not have heard of the Seabees when Cmdr. Bowker and his party came ashore last November, but today the Filipinos know all about the ConBats' reputation as they've seen a demonstration of it at first   hand. As for cordial relations, the branch of service first in the hearts of the Filipinos around Guiuan today is the Seabees - the first Americans to come ashore there since the Japanese invasion.