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The Azores - Coming ashore

European/African/Middle Eastern Campaign Ribbon

Though the sight of any land would have been welcome to the 801st Engineers after its two week voyage, the view of the Azores' principal city of Angra on 17 Jan. 1944, raising from the sea into green plots, stout fences of lava rock, and colorful dwellings of Mediterranean design, was "especially pleasant." The city consisted of low, white houses with colorful doorways, trims and roofs of Spanish tile. For most of the 801st in this age before television, world travel or even color magazines, it was a unique and unforgettable sight.

Landing at Angra Harbor on Terceira
Equipment comes ashore at Angra Harbor on Terceira from an LST, probably LST 44
Photo from battalion official history

The first task was to get the battalion and its equipment ashore. This was less of an issue for the two LSTs, as their design allowed them to come into very shallow water and land their cargo on a ramp through large bow doors (see photo above). But the John Clark stood half a mile out to sea. Troops went over the side and climbed down nets to landing craft and barges built on fifty gallon drums. This was a very unpleasant climb as the men, heavily laden with packs and equipment, struggled down the rope nets and tried to time their landing in the bobbing landing craft without being crushed between them and the ship or dropped like a stone into the ocean.

Landing nets   An example of climbing down landing nets from a transprt ship to a landing craft. These are not men of the 801st, but their experience was similar.

A docking crew of British Royal Engineers helped ashore, but most of the landing was done by Navy crews under the supervision of the Army Transportation Corps.

Late that afternoon a detachment of the 801st drove up to Lagens Airdrome to survey the area and prepare the way. The rest of the battalion (minus the men on the Gideon Wells, which did not arrive until 1 February) landed and came up the next morning, the short ride across the island being the last glimpse of the interesting new outside world they would see for a few weeks. Their British hosts would provide temporary rations and quarters, although the tents were U.S. Army pyramid tents, which the men finished setting up by 20 January.

On the evening of the 19th a severe storm struck the island, and LST 228 broke her anchor chain and was driven hard onto a rock ledge some 100 yards from shore. Small powerboats were used to land the men, but the valuable heavy equipment aboard could not be rescued.

An access road was constructed out to the reef, but another storm two days later caused a fire to break out in the engine room and spread through much of the ship. It was finally extinguished by waves crashing over the side. Only a small part of the valuable cargo of trucks, caterpiller tractors and mobile machine shops was salvageable. It was a tremendous blow to the 801st and the success of their mission. (see photos of the wreck of LST 228)

Wreck of LST 228

The short drive to the airdrome had shown the men a glimpse of a very different culture and, as many men commented, a different era. The natives of the island at the time were largely barefoot, their clothing patched and worn, their protection against rain and cold often a flour sack worn as hood and poncho. Except for British military traffic, any commerce on the island's roads was by wooden-wheeled oxcart, a concept that would astonish today's Angra residents with their traffic jams and parking problems. And although a diesel generator provided electricity to a fortunate few in the cities and towns, the majority of the island endured the night with candles or darkness as their ancestors had done since the beginning of time.

It was a struggle at first to adapt to the men's new situation. A two-week quarantine was in force for the bubonic plague and other shots that the men would receive. British mess was served at odd times and consisted of food very different than the standard American fare. There was no heat and no lights in the camp and the tents remained damp in the cold sea air in spite of numerous airings. To add insult to injury, the slit trench latrines were a steep climb uphill from camp.

But it was not all bad news for the battalion. About 120 bags of mail had beat the men to the island, many including Christmas packages that they had missed in their long train trip across the country. News and food from home were equally welcome and kept the 801st going during these troubling weeks.

Enough equipment and supplies had been moved to Lagens by 22 January to establish the H&S Company mess and begin feeding the entire battalion American rations. The two week quarantine at the end of January had been spent framing tents, building latrines and hauling and unpacking equipment. When the balance of the battalion arrived on the Gideon Wells on 3 February they found waiting for them tents with cots set up and warmed by diesel-powered tent heaters. The end of the quarantine on 8 February also saw the first passes for a small group issued to the neighboring town of Praia, the men enjoying the horse-drawn cart used as a taxi. As the final touch, on 9 February a 5 KVA generator was powered up, providing electric light to the camp.

Next: The Azores - Building an air base >

The importance of tools

The landing of the 801st on Terceira was difficult. There were no port facilities yet on the island that could handle the large ships and their heavy cargos of turcks and bulldozers. The weather was rainy, the temperature in the low forties, an the sea was rough and cold. Since the treaty only allowed them ashore as noncombatant technician guests of the British, the 801st had to hide their weapons as they smuggled them ashore.

Pierced plank Marston matting was laid out to the LSTs on the bottom of the harbor in six to eight feet of water so that their cargo could be towed ashore. The Liberty ship had to transfer its heavy cargo to barges hurriedly constructed using empty 50 gallon drums.

Everything the battalion owned was scattered over their assigned area and boxed in heavy crates. This included the box containing the tools they would need to get into the other boxes. Fotrunately, someone in S-4 (Supply) remembered that dad always carried a pair of pliers and a screwdriver with him at all times. These were borrowed, and the all-important box of tools was opened. So you could say that the construction at Lagens Field began with dad's screwdriver and pliers.