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The Snake River bivouac - Building an airstrip in the desert

American Theater ribbon

The next major project - and final test - for the 801st Engineers was the construction of a landing strip about 40 miles southeast of Boise near the Melba Bombing Range, a practice bombing area used by the Gowen Field squadrons. Two runways were to be constructed, along with taxiways and access roads. The terrain was flat, silty, sandy desert land with sparse grass and dense sagebrush.

Before construction of the landing strips could begin the 801st had to provide for itself. A camp site was located about four miles away from the proposed landing strips, adjacent to the Snake River for drinking, bathing and laundry. The men would be housed under canvas in large pyramidal tents, often experiencing temperatures from 40 to 105 degrees in the course of a day. And in the desert climate, they would come to understand the meaning of a "dry heat."

Snake River Bivouac
The Snake River bivouac, July 1943
photo from the Hawks collection
click photo for larger image

On 22 July, 1943, the battalion was moved to its new home. Construction immediately began on a new one-mile access road and on upgrading and maintaining five miles of existing country roads. Battalion S-3 began surveying the site for Runway C, establishing grades, plans and profiles. This paved runway would be 2,000 feet long and 250 feet wide between drainage ditches, with 200 foot long paved end zones. Over 11,000 cubic yards of soil would need to be excavated.

Building the airfield
A catepiller tractor and a scraper level the ground at the Melba Bombing Range
photo from the battalion official history

It was at this time that a tragedy occurred. The cold Snake River must have seemed irresistible during the hundred degree summer days, but swimming was prohibited due to the strong and dangerous currents. Nevertheless, on 24 July two men from B Company, T/5 Maurice Halbruner and Pvt. Andrew Micelli, drowned in the powerful Snake. In a career which would carry the battalion into two battle zones, they were the only fatalities to be suffered by the 801st.

On 5 August the battalion was joined by the man who was destined to command it for most of the remainder of its career, Lt. Col. Phillip J. Galanti, C.E.

Runway C was completed on 30 August and was dedicated in a small ceremony on 3 September. An aircraft bearing Lt. Col. Galanti as well as the commanding officers of the 934th Engineering Regiment and of Gowen Field landed on the new runway. They joined a group of civilian dignitaries as the 801st passed in review to music provided by the Gowen Field band.

But the battalion's work was only half done. Runway D, along with an accompanying taxiway and access road, was completed on 15 October. Runway D was 400 feet longer but otherwise similar to its older twin.

As the 801st finished its work on the landing strips, training intensified in military drill, night problems, and extended order drill with live ammunition. At the same time the weather turned unfriendly, with rain alternating with dust storms. Temperatures at night would often plunge below freezing, making life unpleasant in the unheated, floorless tents.

Parade through Nampa

But the men had plenty to keep their spirits up. Three-day passes were awarded during two weekends in October. On 10 October a battalion field day was held in Nampa, with intercompany sports and a picnic dinner. Another weekend saw a number of men attend the Lettuce Bowl football game in Nampa, where the men paraded into and around the field for a pregame show. The highlight of the game was a halftime performance by a picked 801st drill team, which solicited a warm letter of thanks and commendation from the Nampa Chamber of Commerce.

With the two landing strips successfully completed and operational the work of the 801st at the Snake River Bivouac was done. It was time to briefly return to Gowen Field for the final polish before the battalion would head out to bigger jobs.


the 801st parades through Nampa
led by the Gowen Field band

photo from the battalion official history
click photo to see larger image

Next: Gowen Field again >

Food fight

Dad in town

One of the pleasures of a trip into town was a big hamburger with real beef, and the men would buy up as many as they could carry to take back to camp. more >