By Rachel Laue and James Cusick –
For Veterans Day 2021 we highlight those who served in the 868th Engineer Aviation Battalion of the U.S. Air Force during World War II. This African-American unit supported the 5th Air Force in the Pacific Theater between 1940 and 1945.
The men of the 868th trained at MacDill Field in Florida in 1943 and then deployed to New Guinea where, along with other engineering battalions, they were responsible for expanding runways at the Nadzab air field, one of the major bases supporting the Pacific war effort.
Nadzab was seized by American paratroopers on September 5, 1943, spearheading an overland attack by Allied forces that took control of the air field. The base became the center of operations for the Allied Air Force in New Guinea and a major conduit for bringing in reinforcements and supplies. Aviation engineers were desperately needed to help fortify the road leading to the base and to build, as quickly as possible, four all-weather airfields to combat New Guinea’s unseasonably heavy rainfall and substantial military traffic. Control over Nadzab was an important early victory for Allied forces, so much so that Japanese military leaders took it as a sign that their troops were over-extended and began to switch to a more defensive strategy.
Though the primary function of the Engineer Aviation Battalions was to construct, maintain, and defend air bases, African-American battalions were often given supplementary duties; the 868th for example was also expected to help in guarding Japanese prisoners of war near Nadzab. Since the armed forces were segregated during World War II, the 868th operated as a unit with white senior officers and Black non-commissioned officers. Despite having to deal with segregation and other discriminatory practices, African-American aviation units like the 868th served with great distinction and had a lasting impact in creating the United States’ worldwide system of military bases in the twentieth century.
The photos seen here come from from an album compiled by the 868th’s chief officer Robert A. Hamilton and held in the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History. About half the photographs in the album were taken at MacDill. They show members of the 868th in good spirits and give some idea of the comradeship of the unit. Later photos show the encampment in New Guinea, with a few glimpses of work at the air field.
Names mentioned in the album include: Cpl. Percy Williams, Cpl. Roscoe Flippen, Cpl. Hilliard Daniels, Cpl. Guy T. Ragsdale, Pvt. Oscar St. Julien, 1st Sgt. Mose P. Wilson, Cpl. Charles V. Moultrie, Sgt. Prince Claborne, Sgt. Wilbur Redd, and Pvt. James H. Ware. Portions of the barracks at MacDill can be seen in backgrounds.