In 1942, Phillip Schuster, now of Paso Robles, used his helmet to shovel dirt into bomb craters in an airfield on the island of Guadalcanal. He was a Seabee in the 6th Naval Construction Battalion.
In those days, the American military used a two-piece helmet with an outside steel shell and a removable plastic inner liner. The helmet liner contained adjustable cloth webbing that could fit any head. The steel shell could hold a shovelful of dirt.
The Seabees arrived at Guadalcanal on Sept. 2, 1942. The Marines had invaded it Aug. 7, eight months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The Marines occupied a beachhead containing a partially completed former Japanese airfield. The Japanese held the rest of the island.
The Seabees worked steadily at resurfacing and lengthening the airfield’s runway, despite continual bombing and shelling from Japanese planes, artillery and ships. The Seabees also had to avoid the American planes that constantly used the field.
The Seabees also worked without most of their equipment. It had accidently been sent to another island. They borrowed equipment from the Marines, and scavenged former Japanese trucks and equipment. But shovels were in short supply, so Seaman 2nd Class Schuster and some of his mates scooped dirt with their helmets.
Seaman Schuster noticed the Japanese followed a set routine. Before breakfast, they fired artillery from nearby hills. At sunrise, Japanese fighter planes flew out of the sun spraying machine gun bullets.
He said, “At sunrise, it was a good idea to find a big tree and stand in back of it.”
The rest of the day included high-altitude bombing, dive bombing and the aforementioned strafing at sunset.
The Seabees bulldozed large dugouts near the airstrip and covered them with coconut logs to shelter work crews when bombs or shells fell nearby.
Schuster found them to be “sad places” with men “hollering, crying, praying.” He always sought a smaller foxhole.
On Jan. 5, 1943, his battalion went to Auckland, New Zealand, for a rest. They’d worked long, hard hours on meager rations under enemy fire. They completed one airfield, built three more airstrips, bridged rivers, built dry docks and did much more.
Nineteen died. At least 31 were evacuated because of wounds or nervous breakdowns. At Auckland, 200 more were found to be at least temporarily unfit for duty, mainly because of malaria and jungle rot. Seaman Schuster’s malaria was mild, and the jungle rot on his legs was cured.
On Memorial Day, please remember war is a nightmare.
Reach Phil Dirkx at firstname.lastname@example.org or 238-2372.