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Building the ‘airdromes’

Of the 157 aviation engineer battalions raised within US forces during the Second World War, 48 were made up of Black personnel. These segregated 800-man units constructed airfields overseas, and once completed, were tasked with defending them.

The majority of the 48 units served in the Pacific and China-Burma-India theatres of war, but some served in Europe too. African-American troops worked on the construction and maintenance of several airbases in Suffolk, shown on this map:

Airfields in Suffolk where Black aviation engineers are known to have worked

RAF Eye (USAAF Station 134) was the first airfield in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) to be constructed entirely by African-American engineers. It was built by battalions from the 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment (the 829th, 827th, and 859th). Work began in September 1942; expected to take 90 weeks, it was complete in 56. RAF Eye was operational from December 1943, and fully completed by April 1944, and was used by the Eighth Air Force 490th Bombardment Group (Heavy). In a somewhat unusual arrangement, some of the hardstandings at Eye were over a public road that bisected the airfield, and local traffic had to be stopped when aircraft were moved to and from those hardstandings.

On 8th December 1943 the East Anglian Daily Times reported on the handover of six newly completed airfields to the US Air Force. The handover included a parade of the engineering troops who had built the airfields, followed by the heavy equipment they had used. The article does not give the location of the parade but as Eye was the only airfield wholly constructed by Black Aviation Engineers, we can assume that they are referring to Eye airfield.

One airfield was entirely constructed by the coloured American troops... General Moore and Col. Kesler took the salute at an impressive march past of the coloured engineering units, marching nine abreast with their regimental colours and stars and stripes and headed by the drum and bugle corps. Behind followed their heavy mobile equipment used in the construction of the drome and also their guns and armoured vehicles, one mission of these engineers being to defend the dromes as well as build them.

The parade shown in this film from British Pathe is at an unknown location dated 1944, but is an example of the parade described above in the East Anglian Daily Times:

The 829th Aviation Engineers Battalion (AEB) also worked on the construction of RAF Debach, along with the 847th AEB, another segregated unit of Black personnel. The 493rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) flew their first mission from Debach on D-Day, 6th June 1944.

Following the Allied invasion of Europe, the 923rd Aviation Engineer Regiment was transferred to France in September 1944 Their mission was to build and repair forward operating airfields in mainland Europe as the Allied armies advanced across France and into Germany.

This film from the American Air Museum give some idea as to what went into the construction of the airfields:

The work carried out by the engineer aviation units was not without risk. Direct enemy action against the units was minimal, although the airfields were targets for enemy bombers. The men were operating heavy specialised equipment in difficult terrain whilst combat operations were ongoing. They were clearing mines and damaged aircraft. At times they were responsible for moving bombs for airfield shipment. 36 men of the 923rd sadly lost their lives in the course of their duties.

From the archives of the 490th Bombardment Group

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