Life of the 380th Bomb Group at Fenton Field

A B-24D comes into land at Fenton Field in June 1943, some two months after the group formally arrived at the Field. The photo was taken at the center of the runway from the control tower.
(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

Life of the 380th Bomb Group USAAF at Fenton Field

 The following page aims to paint a picture of the experiences of the 380th Bomb Group “Flying Circus” USAAF at Fenton Field from the 28th of April 1943 to the 9th of August 1944 (USAAF Combat Chronology Documents). It is not intended as a military history or chronology of combat missions flown by the squadron as this topic has received considerable attention in other works such as in Glenn R. Horton’s authoritative account of the 380th Bomb Group entitled “The Best in the Southwest (1995)” Rather this page aims to focus on the social aspects of the 380th Bomb Groups occupation of Fenton Field and document the personal experiences of officers and enlisted personnel at the remote and “desolate” airbase some 110 miles south of Darwin. As such, accommodation, food, personal recollections and other activities will be examined throughout this page.

This page is dedicated to preserving the memory of those US Airmen who flew in defence of Australia 1942-1945

Please contact me if you can contribute information to this page. Thanks.

Clip_4j0(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

This photo really exemplifies the nature of life at Fenton Field in mid 1943. Note the home made bathroom cupboard, mirror and wash basin that has been constructed around an iron wood tree.

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to acknowledge the following people and organisations to make this page possible.

1. The 380th Bomb Group Association who have provided me with contacts and help with my research

2. Mr. Theodore J. Williams (1923-2013) Formally of the 529th Squadron, who provided me with photos, and camp and aircraft information between 1999-2000. The author was saddened to learn of his passing in 2013. “Lest We Forget” di68KRei9

3. T/Sgt Mr . Jack W. Rivers (1923-2003) Formally of the 528th Squadron who provided me with photos and personal accounts of his life at Fenton in 1999-2000.  The author was saddened to learn of his passing in 2003. “Lest We Forget”di68KRei9

4. Mr. William Shek Jr who’s father, Capt. William Shek, served as Operations Officer in 528th Squadron and who has provided me with a wealth of photos and information about Fenton Field and the 528th.

5. Mr. Doug Tilley for use of his photos of Fenton Field and Base Camp.

Accommodation at Fenton Field / April 1943 to August 1944

Tents

Accommodations appeared to have improved somewhat with the departure of 319th Squadron, 90th BG who had occupied the field since February 1943, and the arrival the 530th and 528th squadrons, 380th BG in May of 1943. Areas that were improved early in mid 1943 were that of sleeping quarters and the construction of more permanent buildings required for both recreation and operations management and administration.

Tent floors which had been left unsealed or that had been temporarily sealed with demolished termite mounds were at some point sealed with concrete to prevent dust from rising during the ‘dry’ season and to prevent floors from turning to mud during the ‘wet’ season (monsoon season). Some tent sites also appear to have been sealed with crushed white quartz and asphalt. The crushed white quartz tent sites appear to have been been constructed by the 8th M.W.S. RAAF, probably in 1944 with the southern end of Fenton Field is sealed with the same crushed quartz material.

tent concrete(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

A large ‘Wall Tent’ with a newly constructed concrete floor during the ‘dry’ season of 1943 being used for accommodation. Tent pole inserts were left in the concrete at each corner to provide more stability to each pole and prevent them from blowing over in the event of strong winds. Note the ‘cots’ (US term) or ‘camp stretchers’ (Australian term) and what appears to be a chess set on the small table in the center. Each tent could accommodated six airmen or officers. 

2fbbaseAuthors collection 1999.

A concrete tent floor at Fenton in 1999. Note the post holes at the corner of the floor.

cotsfent(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

An officer taking a nap in his cot. Note the US Army issue Sun and M1 Helmets. At right hanging up side down to prevent insects crawling into it hangs a B-4 Clothing Bag.

What follows is an account of the sleeping accommodations at Fenton by Jack Rivers.

“The sleeping conditions consisted of the six enlisted men on each crew sharing a tent. The tents were a fair size and you could get six cots in them if the cots were arranged so that every other one was at right angles to each other. We had to go out into the woods and cut a few tree limbs with our machete to use as poles to hold the mosquito net over the bed. After we crawled into bed (cots) we would tuck the bottom of the mosquito net under the mattress. Oh yes… some of us were lucky enough to have an air mattress which we inflated with our mouths”.  Jack W. Rivers 1999.

Fenton_camplife(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

An M-1934 tent with the sides rolled up an a newly constructed concrete floor at Fenton base camp in 1943. A rigid frame has been constructed around the base of the roof to provide for additional strength.

nofloortent(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

The tent (M-1943) of the Commanding Officer of 528th Squadron, Captain Zed S. Smith. Note how bamboo has been used to construct the supporting frame and what looks to be bracing for the apex of the roof. The tent does not look to have a concrete floor meaning that this photo would have been taken shortly after the squadrons arrival at Fenton in May of 1943.

As time progressed and the wet season began to make its presence felt in October, tents began to be further improved and airmen and officers began to customize their living quarters with the addition of skirting boards which ran around the tents periphery in order to provide better protection from dust, monsoonal storms and insects, such as scorpions and centipedes which made their way into clothing and bedding. 

twtentTheodore J. Williams Collection (1999)

Although taken at Long Airfield in the 529th Squadron Camp area, this photo illustrates the improvements made to tents towards the end of 1943. While the roof and tent flaps at the front of the tent remain part of the type M-1934, skirting boards, constructed from corrugated iron, have been placed around the sides of the tent.

twtentsketchTheodore J. Williams Collection (1999)

The layout of a standard officers M-1934 tent as draw by Ted Williams in 1999 showing sleeping and living areas within.

Skirting around the tents was also constructed from Bamboo as corrugated iron was in high demand at all military camp sites across the top end in 1942-45. Although not common place in the NT, Bamboo is sometimes found growing near creeks and streams in the Fenton/Long area and proved an invaluable building material to supplement other materials when they were lacking during the war years.

jrtentJack W. Rivers Collection (1999)

Jack Rivers in his tent in the ‘Airmen’s’ lines at Fenton Field base camp in 1943. Note the bamboo skirting wall constructed from local bamboo.

Buildings

The permanent buildings at Fenton were constructed from a combination of local material and items brought in from further afield. Most appear to have conformed to a standard design consisting of a concrete floor, corrugated iron, bamboo or timber skirting and a roof, the form of which was constructed from local or imported timber with corrugated iron or canvas forming the roof proper. All permanent buildings appear to have fulfilled operational, recreational and maintenance requirements of the 380th Bomb Group with tents used exclusively for quartering purpose.

528BS_construction_3(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

The 528th Squadron building under constructions by the officers of the unit. Note the corrugated iron skirting.

528BS_construction_6(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

Inside a partially completed 528th Squadron building. Note the local timber (most likely from Woollybutt or Ironbark trees) supports for the roof  and the imported timber beams for the roof.

opsb(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

The 528th Squadron’s Operations building, 1943.

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Photo lab of the 380th Bomb Group either taken at Fenton or Long in 1943/44. It appears to resemble a Sidney Williams hut, although it is evidently of a different design. It offers us a very good insight into camouflage of buildings at the camp site and appears to consist of three different tones/shades although it has not yet been established which colours were used. What is evident is that it was applied to the sides as well as to the roof of the building. (Copy write Authors Collection, 2015)

William A. Miller(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

The first CO of the 380th Bomb Group Lt. Col. William A. Miller at his desk. Note the desk plaque.

Fentondeskp

A desk plaque thought to have been used at Fenton Field. (Authors Collection 2012)

chapel528th(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

The 528th’s Chapel, constructed to much the same design as the Operations building. 

2014-11-27 19-12-39_0087Authors collection, 2000.

An example of a concrete foundation from a permanent building at Fenton Base Camp in the year 2000. The USO shows took place directly behind this building.

hh(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

Another example of the permanent buildings at Fenton Field was the 528th Squadron’s Bar known as “Herky’s Hangout”. Note the use of timber from the Iron Bark tree (Eucalyptus jensenii) as cladding for the base and roof of the bar.

Officers Club and Bar siteThe main Officers Club foundation located on Headquarters Hill. (Doug Tilley Collection, 2008

Jack Rivers remembers frequenting the enlisted men’s bar at Fenton and adds the following…”Sometimes we would go to the EM club for a drink. Most of us really liked the aussie beer, but we didn’t care so much for it being hot. During the hot dry season you could cool it a bit by wrapping a cloth around the bottle and wetting the cloth and let the evaporation cool it. Needless to say this did not work so good during the monsoon season. We did get a fair ration of scotch and bourbon whiskey. I wasn’t in to that much“. Jack W. Rivers 1999.

A8Jack W. Rivers Collection (1999)

Jack Rivers (far right) enjoying a bottle of “aussie beer” at Fenton Field in 1943.

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An interior view of the Kitchen in the 531st Bomb Squadron camp area at Long Field in 1944. The structure appears to be have been constructed with imported pine. The bins at right are marked flour and sugar. Note the refrigerator at far left. (Copy write Authors Collection, 2015)

Activities

 What follows is an interesting account of some of the activities around Fenton Field by Jack W. Rivers. In the account he gives his recollections on food, recreation and other activities.

“Life at Fenton: For my self personally it was quite simple. If we were not scheduled for a combat mission, the day started by getting out of bed around 7:00 AM and wash up for breakfast. Man you sure didn’t want to miss that. There was the powdered eggs, powdered milk and fried spam if you were lucky! We mostly looked forward to the coffee which was usually OK. Sometimes we would take the coffee and go back to the tent and open up a K-ration meal if we had them, left over from the combat missions. The K- rations usually consisted of a small can of spam or potted meat (I hesitate to guess what the potted meat was made of) and a few stale crackers plus a candy bar which tasted like it was treated with funalgahide (Sp)”. 

“During the morning after breakfast we sometimes went to the flight line to help the ground crew. The help mostly consisted of being a gopher for the maintenance men. We would go-for this or go-for that. Some times we would get a nice job of scraping the paint off of the B-24’s. If the maintenance men did not need or want our help we did our best to find a way to entertain ourselves. As I’ve said before some of the guys passed the time playing poker, but that wasn’t for me. I usually read a bit and played chess if I could find an opponent. I finally got to be a pretty fair chess player. About the only card game I liked was gin rummy. For lunch we could look forward to some more powdered milk and this time powdered potatoes and more spam. I do want to add that on occasion the group headquarters would send a B-24 to Adelaide and bring back some fresh beef, pork or lamb. (These flights were called Fat Cat missions). Man that was really a treat as it didn’t happen very often. Some of the evenings were spent at the open air theater when we could get a movie that we had not seen over and over”. Jack W. Rivers 1999.

Another more personal account of activities at Fenton comes to use from a Sergeant (Gunner) in the 530th Squadron in a letter home to his family. Written on the December 4th, 1943, the letter details the types of food eaten, the supply situation, sporting events and other activities in camp. Names have been blanked out to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned in the letter.

cover530thAuthors Collection, 2014

Cover of the letter showing the APO (Army Post Office) number, “921”, which was based at Mt Bundy, Adelaide River. Click on each page to enlarge.

letter1Page 1

Letter2Page 2

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The following poem entitled “UBIQUE” (Everywhere) was composed by William A. Buchanan, a member of the 528th Squadron who gives us another invaluable insight into the social history of the 380th BG in Australia. He provides us with commentary on the setting up of camps, the conditions and the constant activity experienced by the squadron.

528thPoem1 528thPoem2 528thPoem3(Authors collection, 2015)

Other events not yet mentioned were the extremely popular USO (United Service Organizations) Show’s that were held at Fenton Base camp to provide morale  boosting services to the troops and included some big name performers like John Wayne and Gary Cooper

jwfenton(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

The “Duke” performs for the Officers and Airmen at Fenton in 1943. Note the RAAF band members accompanying his performance.

Cooper(Copy write) William Shek Jr. Collection

Gary Cooper and his female co-star on stage at Fenton. The popularity of these ‘USO Shows’ can be gauged by the looks on the faces in the audience.